Thursday, May 12, 2016

An Uncanny Readthrough: #26-50

A single comics panel. A white-haired white man, Quicksilver, grabs the shoulder of Magneto, a white man wearing a red and blue superhero outfit with a helmet. Quicksilver says, 'Wait! Surely the master of all mutants would not stoop to so low an act as cold-blooded murder!' Magneto replies, 'What? You dare to disput the decision of Magneto?'
Never dispute the decision of Magneto! From UNCANNY X-MEN #44

Welcome to Part II of my slow-ass quest to read UNCANNY X-MEN in its entirety, twenty-five issues at at time. You can find Part I here, if you missed it, but rest assured this blog series, like the X-Men, works in any order you choose to read it. I do talk about some X-tropes and recurring characters, though, so a prior familiarity with the X-Men will stand you in good stead.

Be aware, too, that there are tons of inconsequential spoilers below.

By this point, X-MEN (as it’s still officially titled) is well and truly a monthly book. Roy Thomas scripts the main story through to #43. Gary Friedrich takes over from #44-46, while Arnold Drake takes up the task from #47 on. Werner Roth draws and co-plots the book through to #35, with Don Heck succeeding him from #38 to #44, when he begins laying out Roth’s pencils. Backup stories and occasional single issues are drawn and co-plotted by Jack Sparling, John Tarataglione, Ross Andru, and George Tuska. Artist Jim Steranko comes on board with #50 and introduces a whole new visual syntax for the X-Men, as discussed below.

So far as the stories themselves go, this is a relatively uneventful period. Yes, things happen. Yes, the X-Men go on scads of adventures. Thing is, few of them are enduring adventures; things that’re destined to crop up time and again over the next fifty years and become absolute staples of the team’s mythos.

Magneto poses the occasional threat during this chunk of the series (still with his helmet firmly in place, and still with wildly improbable magnetic powers), but most of the villains the team faces off against are fairly forgettable. If any of them have had a presence in the recent(ish) series, it’s been so minimal that I’ve blocked it right out.

I’m also a bit bummed to report that the rivalry between Cyclops and Angel fades away instead of flaring up, as it threatened to do circa #26. Cyclops wounds Angel in a move not even ol' laser-eyes him can definitely say was an accident, and instead of carrying a grudge for the rest of his life Angel decides it’s no biggie. Everything’s cool, and he doesn’t really like Jean more than any other girl who ever lived, and that’s that. It’s mature, yeah, but it quashes my hope that we’d see the team’s first full-on internal battle play out during this period.

Oh well. A few key things do happen amidst all this nonessential claptrap, so let’s get right down to ‘em.

Most importantly, we see the first instances of former villains fighting alongside, and sometimes even joining up with, the X-Men; a now-common twist not just in the various X-Men titles but also in comics as a medium. Hello, unlikely team-ups.

In #19, the X-Men fought the Mimic, a young man possessed of the scientifically-granted ability to absorb any or all of their powers while he stays in close proximity to them. By #27, Professor X has invited the Mimic to join the team not just as a member but as deputy leader, because for reasons not evident on the page he figures the Mimic is actually a pretty useful guy with a decent moral compass under all his bluster. (Or does he? Number one rule of X-Men: Professor X is the worst.) It backfires, then it works out for a little while, then the Mimic loses his powers and wanders off into the sunset. Maybe we’ll see him again; maybe we won’t. I can’t find it in me to care either way.

In a similar but more enduring vein, the X-Men meet the Banshee in a villainous guise but soon learn he’s been blackmailed into attacking them. Once they divest him of the headband designed to make his head explode if he steps out of line, he becomes an occasional ally; their first proper mutant friend outside their core group.

Two panels. In the first, a blue-masked blonde white man, Angel, hovers over the still form of a bald white man. Someone off panel says, 'Suddenly, he's so still... so unmoving...!' Another person off panel says, 'Warren... is he...?!' In the second panel, a sea of blue-tinted faces frame Angel as he says, 'He's... gone!''
Don't worry, he's faking. From UNCANNY X-MEN #42

Another important development: Professor X dies (ie, fakes his own death) for the first time in #42, after unlocking Jean’s telepathy so the team will still have someone to mentally coordinate their efforts. (Isn’t Professor X just the nicest guy, giving Jean access to the very abilities he deprived her of in the first place? Number one rule, y'all.) His sudden departure effectively takes the school out of the equation for the foreseeable future and scatters the X-Men to the wind as the government handlers they never knew they had and will never mention again order them to disband.

They don’t, of course; or not for long. They work in pairs for a few issues so the reader will fear everything’s over and done with, then reunite in San Francisco, their early-20th-century home (and maybe their early-1970s-home, too?), by #49.

So these issues aren’t the most groundbreaking work in the history of comics. They flirt with a few now-standard tropes, but they don’t set themselves apart on the story level.

Artistically, however, we see exciting changes during this period. The early X-Men artists--indeed, the early Marvel artists as a group--are big into grids. Two-by-three grids. Two-by-four grids. Two-by-six grids, even.

Grids are god. And the writers pack an enormous amount of text into each individual panel, ensuring everything’s cluttered as well as busy.

This probably seemed like heaven to early comics readers who wanted the biggest possible bang for their $0.12, but it annoys the hell out of my modern sensibilities because it takes for frickin’ ever to read.

There’s still a lot of text here. Captions! Dialogue! Captions that describe the dialogue that’s about to come out! The panel layouts, though, become a hell of a lot more dynamic. We’re talking rectangles of different sizes, folks, arranged to draw the reader’s eye through the action. It’s a small yet crucial change, and it makes the comics a hell of a lot more readable.

As we slink towards #50, a few more daring shapes emerge--and when artist John Sterenko comes on board, things explode. A single frame may occupy a full third of the page, either horizontally or vertically. Characters burst from one panel into the one adjacent to it. Circular or rectangular inserts allow characters on the outside to comment on the fight raging in the third-page panel they abut.

Five panels: one along the full length of the spread, one large one below it, two narrow panels to the right of that, and one small rectangle to bridge the two portions of the page. The panels feature Mesmero, a green-skinned man wearing purple tights and a purple headdress. The captions in the upper panel read, 'An automatic ramp whirs into position, and the missile-powered car RUSHES to meet it! Mesmero is quick to DISCARD the cursed disguise and don his ROBE AND HELMET of office!

Three panels: one large rectangle, one small offset rectangle, and one unbordered space. In the first, two men in blue superhero costumes fight back to back. The first, Cyclops, thinks, 'Jean wants us to THROW the fight. Something to do with SAVING Bobby.' The other, Beast, thinks, 'It's EASY to lose! But the finesse lies--' In the offset panel, a closeup of his face, Beast continues, 'in losing without LOOKING bad! Otherwise the very act becomes suspect!' In the open panel a winged man, Angel, struggles to break free of weighted ropes. His exertions bring him to overlap with the panels to the side of and below him. He thinks, 'AAARRHH! Electric BOLOS! If they've got more gimics like these, losin' will be a CINCH! Stayin' ALIVE might be tough!'

It’s wildly different from anything we’ve seen before in this title, and I find it a hell of a lot easier to read at a decent clip.

Which I hope will be par for the course as I head into #s 51-75. I put it off for ages because this block of issues was so inconsequential, but a bit more variety on the artistic front could be just what I need to pull me back into the game.

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