Thursday, June 2, 2016

An Uncanny Readthrough: #94-125

A page-width panel. Cyclops leans against a door frame as he addresses Storm, Cyclops, Thunderbird, and Wolverine. Cyclops says, ‘All right, people! The show’s over and it’s time Professor Xavier’s School For Gifted Youngsters was a going concern again… time you learned what being an X-Man is all about.’

As always, this post contains spoilers that should be of no consequence to anyone who's read a few contemporary X-Men storylines.

UNCANNY X-MEN #67-93 consisted entirely of reprints, so my epic readthrough picks up again in 1975 with GIANT SIZE X-MEN #1 and its direct sequel, UNCANNY X-MEN #94, carrying through to #125. (You don’t need to read my previous posts to understand this one, but if you’re curious I’ll direct you to #1-25, #26-50, and #51-66.) After writer Len Wein and artist Dave Cockrum take a turn with GIANT SIZE, these issues mark the start of what you’ll often see called “writer Chris Claremont’s epic run,” with art and coplotting by Cockrum until John Byrne takes over as penciller and co-plotter with #112.

The book officially adds UNCANNY to the title as of #114, too.

Plenty happens before this momentous taxonomical shift, though. When the original team is kidnapped by a sentient island (as as happened to all of us, yeah?) in GIANT SIZE #1, Professor X scours the world for new recruits and discovers or reconnects with Nightcrawler (German), Wolverine (Canadian), Banshee (Irish), Storm (Kenyan), Sunfire (Japanese), Colossus (Russian), and Thunderbird (Apache). When all the original X-Men except Cyclops decide they’d rather pursue other careers, these newcomers take up the mantle.

It’s a massive change-up, given the previous team’s preponderance of white Americans, but unfortunately the racial diversity doesn’t stick for long. Sunfire promptly returns to Japan and Thunderbird dies after refusing to be a team player.

Yep. The first official X-Man death belongs to an Aboriginal guy--and with a shocking disregard for the number one rule of comics, he's never been properly resurrected in the main universe/timeline. Blah.

Claremont, Cockrum, and Byrne do introduce other POC throughout these thirty-two issues, but the panels are still overwhelmingly white even where the background characters are concerned. Storm remains an important character, but on a wider scale the team’s sojourn in Japan alongside Misty Knight (Jean’s roomie as well as an ally), Colleen Wing, and Sunfire provides our only real break from the predominant whiteness.

You’ll notice Storm is also the only woman officially on the team, preserving the mostly male model we saw with the first crop of X-Men. Thankfully, Moira MacTaggert quickly becomes a constant presence at the school, and just as quickly transitions from housekeeper to genius genetic researcher with a secret island at her disposal. (Number Two Rule of X-Men: You’ve Gotta Have a Secret Island.) Jean, too, still hangs out with everyone on a fairly regular basis, and the creators make some attempt to establish that she, Storm, and Misty are all close friends who do many non-superheroic things together. They pass the Bechdel-Wallace test, even, though its by no means an every-issue occurrence. Jean eventually rejoins as an official member, too, when she realizes the superheroic life isn’t quite done with her yet, or she with it.

This happens in large part because in #101 she dies while piloting a spaceship through a solar flare (another one of those things we can all relate to) and promptly resurrects herself as Phoenix, a supercharged version of her Marvel Girl persona. Her attempts to define and master her new power set remains an occasional focus through to #125, hinting at moar drama to come.

Jean Grey bursts out of the ocean. She wears a skintight green superhero outfit with shining gold gloves, thigh high boots, and sash. Her dialogue says, ‘Hear me, X-Men! No longer am I the woman you knew! I am fire and life incarnate! Now and forever--I am PHOENIX!’

Phoenix’s ascension is perhaps the most important and enduring thing that happens during these issues, but it’s far from the only draw. Claremont’s run isn’t legendary solely because it’s long. It’s also good. These issues are both action-packed standalones and important pieces in a larger, ongoing saga that clearly isn’t limited to the X-Men as it was in the old days. They’ve still got the whole “sworn to protect a world that fears and hates them” thing going on, but they’re also fully integrated into the Marvel Universe. Footnotes stating that some fact or other was established in NON X-MEN COMIC #46 abound, as do plot-important appearances from characters who play roles large and small in other ongoing series.

The X-Men aren’t alone anymore; something that says as much about the wider Marvel brand as it does about the mutants’ quest for acceptance.

Some of their allies and antagonists throughout these issues include the aforementioned Misty Knight and Colleen Wing, Luke Cage, the members of Alpha Flight, and Beast (now firmly a blue and hairy Avenger, and I’m still bummed I missed the transition). I was delighted to encounter the Shi’ar Empire here, too, big Marvel Cosmic fan that I am.

Claremont, Cockrum, and Byrne also introduce and/or flesh out many now-iconic characters, all of whom have plenty to do throughout this ensemble book. Wolverine, now widely recognized as Marvel’s premiere cash cow, bursts onto the scene in all his surly glory and proceeds to slash his way through enemies and allies alike. (I found it interesting that they clearly haven’t decided how powerful his healing factor is, or how many decades he’s been bumming around with holes in his memory. Number Three Rule of X-Men: Retcon Is King.) Colossus’s angst over his Russian heritage vs his American home base surely hit home with a Cold War audience, just as his commitment to his loved ones still resonates with the contemporary reader. Nightcrawler is a blue delight of a guy with his cheerful disposition, his conflicted feelings on the image generator that allows him to look like a “normal” human, and his love for all things STAR WARS. Banshee feels a little apart because he’s so much older than all the others, but instantly connects with Moira. Jean struggles with her powers and works to establish herself as both a mutant and her own person.

They’re all interesting, but Storm is by far my favourite--and perhaps because I love her so much, and am hypersensitized to her appearances, I feel like the creators are especially fond her too. Orphaned on the streets of Cairo, she transforms herself into the city’s most accomplished pickpocket. Returned to her mother’s native Kenya as a young adult, she establishes herself as a goddess because hey, she’s got awesome powers that give her a great way to help others. Presented with the opportunity to join the X-Men and help even more people, she embraces both her new teammates and all the oddities of American life.

I love Storm because she’s so very willing to love things, and because she never dismisses someone’s perspective simply because it differs from her own. She always tries to understand, no matter how difficult it is. The creators do have a tendency to make her the One Who Feels Everything (ie, the Girl and/or the Noble Savage), but her storylines also give her the space to be strong, accomplished, and determined to rise above every limit anyone tries to set for her. She's someone who leads through compassion and sheer force of will as well as raw power.

Three panels. The first is a close-in illustration of Storm’s face. Her thought bubbles read, ‘Odd. I’ve NEVER seen Wolverine act so… GENTLE. It’s a NICE change. So MUCH has changed between we six since we became X-Men. We began as loners…’ The second panel shows her approaching Nightcrawler. Her thought bubble reads, ‘…and have grown into a FAMILY.’ Aloud, she says, ‘Kurt?’ Nightcrawler replies, ‘Hmm?’ In the final panel, she kisses his cheek as she says, ‘I just wanted to tell you… that I love you very much.’

Art-wise, I was initially disappointed to see we’re back to rectangles. The layouts aren’t strictly grids anymore, but there’s still little of the panache I was so excited to see the title’s various artists, especially Neal Adams, play around with throughout the end of the last era. Cockrum employs a standard opening of splash page followed by double page spread, with rectangular layouts thereafter. Byrne is far less free with the double page spreads, preferring to stick to rectangles, rectangles, and more rectangles.

Somewhat to my surprise, this didn’t harm my enjoyment. While I can’t thrill to these layouts the way I did to the ones near the end of the earlier run, I’m by no means constrained by them because neither of the artists is. The script and the art meld into an intensely readable product that inevitably sucked me in but good.

In fact, I read these thirty-two issues in a fraction of the time it took me to get through anything that’s come before. There are still silly bits, of course, and things I hope to see improved upon as the series rolls along, but on the whole this is engaging, moreish comics. I’m excited to keep reading.

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