Wednesday, 29 February 2012

X-Men #4: "they hate us -- fear us"

The fourth issue of X-Men bursts with ideas new and old.  It features the first return of a villain - Magneto, who has assembled a "brotherhood of evil mutants" around him (a descriptive term which does not appear to be used by Magneto himself), going up another floor on the threat escalator. Although his identity is given away in the cover, the interior pages introduce his minions first, who refer merely to their "leader", and so avoids mentioning Magneto by name until his appearance on panel in page 6. We meet uncouth Toad, impulsive Pietro, proud, compassionate, Wanda and the aggressive Mastermind.

More importantly for the saga, Magneto is given a philosophical justification of sorts. He claims his coup d'├ętat in Santo Marco is necessary as homo sapiens hate and fear mutants, and they would "would kill [mutants] if only they could! We only fight in self defense!" Coupled with this, we see the first example of actual anti-mutant prejudice, in the flashback to Pietro and Wanda's origin story. An odd result of this is that Wanda's codename, "Scarlet Witch" was given to her by a villager from the lynch mob in the "heart of Europe". Her use of it is a reclamation of the term, and at this stage her powers are no more inherently magical than any those of any other mutant.

Then the X-Men arrive and ruin everything, defeating the Brotherhood after a series of thrilling fights. Pietro, moved by Wanda, disables the scorched earth bomb that Magneto has left behind, saving the innocent civilian population of Santo Marco. And, as a last gasp, Professor X incurs an enormous strain, resulting in his depowerment!

Continuity notes

First appearances of Toad, Quicksilver (Pietro), Scarlet Witch (Wanda), Mastermind, along with the return of Magneto. Pietro and Wanda are given an origin story, implied to have happened some time between issue #1 and #4. Xavier is depowered!

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

X-Men #3: "It is he! The one called the Blob!"

The first two issues of X-Men provide the template for one type of X-Men story - the X-Men are alerted to some evil mutant seeking to take his rightful place as Homo Superior - who they must defeat. X-Men #3 adds a new type of story, one essential to the mix, and yet of a kind that X-Men comics abandoned telling for several years recently (until the emergence of Generation Hope). The X-Men become aware of a new mutant - the Blob (who the cover correctly describes as "one of the strangest super-foes of all") - and seek to recruit him.

The Blob, who they find working as an attraction in a carnival, is brought to the mansion under protest, and declines to join the X-Men. One might wonder whether Cyclops picking a fight within him is something to do with this. Xavier's reaction is the remarkable

This is unheard of! No one has ever refused us before! You cannot be permitted to leave now that you know our identities -- it is out of the question!
Stop him, my X-Men!  I must drive this memory from his mind!  Take him to my lab!

At least Xavier realises he's made a "really serious mistake" a few pages later.   The Blob runs off, gets his colleagues at the roadshow to join him, and then makes a pre-emptive attack on the X-Men.  Having driven Magneto and the Vanisher away in the first two issues, it is a little undignified that the attractions nearly defeat the X-Men, being saved only at the last possible moment by Xavier directing a subdued Jean.  This time, Xavier only removes the memory of the X-Men from the antagonists' minds, rather than the full mindwipe we saw in #2 - a rather more proportionate response. By the logic of the "sliding scale of villain threat" we take away that the Vanisher is a more powerful threat than Magneto, and that the Blob (with allies) outweighs both of them.

Away from the plot, we see characterisation developed here.  Beast is now Beast, complete with long words and an avowed aversion to violence.  The first issue saw general leching over Jean from a mass of undifferentiated boys.  It now becomes a bit better drawn, with Hank, Bobby and Warren all competing for her affections, but Jean picking Scott instead.  Poor repressed Scott, who we learn here dares not open up while he "possess[es his] dread power".  The most disturbing aspect of this is that every named character appears to be carrying the torch for Jean.  Xavier has the thought bubble
"Don't worry"!  As though I could help worrying about the one I love!  But I can never tell her!  I have no right!  Not while I'm the leader of the X-Men, and confined to this wheelchair!

I'm not even going to try to unpack all the fail in that sentence.  Thankfully the matter is never referred to again.

And so we have a X-Men story that resembles the X-Men a little more.  Characters for Beast and Cyclops, and a bit of interpersonal dynamics, a new mutant emerging and our merry mutants needlessly antagonising them.

Continuity notes

First appearance of The Blob [no name given]; Cyclops named as "Scott Summers"; first appearance of Bobby Drake in de-iced form.

Monday, 27 February 2012

X-Men #2: Wherein Professor Xavier is a jerk

The first issue of X-Men introduced seven main characters who appear in X-Men comics to this day, some of which have become icons of pop culture. The second issue introduces The Vanisher.

The comic opens with the X-Men in costume in Westchester. They seem neither hated nor feared - Angel is mobbed by local fangirls and Cyclops is celebrated for saving some people from a falling wall (by disintegrating it into smaller chunks and dust). But another evil mutant has arisen! This one, with the ability to teleport and calling himself the Vanisher, has outwitted security staff to rob a bank, and then demanded a figure of TEN MILLION DOLLARS! from the government lest he steal some secret files. This is still early for superhuman activity in the 616 - although he shows up as a costumed villain, they don't seem to realise he probably has powers. The X-Men are locally well-regarded in Westchester, and their fame has apparently spread nationally since the first issue - Xavier borrows an aircraft from the government's "Department of Special Affairs" and has a contact in the White House.

Xavier has been monitoring the situation, and sends in the X-Men, who are soundly defeated by the malicious mutant. Professor X joins them in person for a second attempt, and ultimately uses his mind-control powers to gain the upper hand - specifically by mindwiping the Vanisher. This is troubling, even within context, as is the implication that Xavier sent the X-Men against the Vanisher to fail. The Danger Room scenes - and even the name - imply that Xavier's attitude to training is that there should be real jeopardy. It's easy to see where the later retcons will fit.

Continuity notes

First appearance of the Vanisher; first use of term 'danger room'.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

X-Men #1: "X-Men, for Ex-tra power"

X-Men #1 proclaims itself on its cover to be a "fabulous first issue", in the "sensational Fantastic Four style". It is rather. It is half an origin story, by which I mean it tells half an origin story, as there's already a school with X-Men in training. It is tight - within the first few pages it has introduced the original four and shown them in practice combat. It then brings on the new telekinetic student, Jean Grey, has Xavier explain the concept of mutants (he attributes his own mutation to his parents working on "the first A-Bomb project", providing a hint at his ambiguous Britishness). They fight the first evil mutant, Magneto, who has taken over a missile base, and defeat him.

So, that's the X-Men, then! But it is easy to read too much into this. Although the trappings have arrived fully-formed, the personalities are not yet distinct - Beast's first sentence is "Leggo my arm, you blasted walking icicle! You want me to freeze to death?" More importantly, and it took me a while to notice this (simply because I was bringing too much in with me), although the X-Men's essential irony can be certainly read into this comic, the reality of anti-mutant prejudice is absent from the text. Xavier's motivation in forming the X-Men could be simple altruism, and by the end the Cape Citadel commander is grateful and unsuspicious. X-Men becomes a metaphor for civil rights due to an affinity for that sort of story. It does not start as one.

Continuity notes

First appearance of Professor Xavier ("Professor X"), Slim "Cyclops" Summers, Bobby "Iceman" Drake [age given as 16], Warren ("The Angel") Worthington III, Hank "The Beast" McCoy, Jean "Marvel Girl" Grey, and Magneto.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

The Project

I started reading X-Men at the age of twenty-seven, in 2006.  For some reason, my latent tendencies towards fandom sprung into growth that year, as I got massively in to both Marvel comics and Doctor Who, more or less at the same time.  At the start of the year I probably couldn't name all the Doctors, or tell you what a Sentinel was - but by 2007 I had strong feelings about Paul McGann being excellent in the audios, and was dressing up in costume as Nocturne. Who knew what is supposedly mainstream culture could provide such outlets for obscurantism?

Doctor Who and the X-Men have obvious differences of form, but share certain commonalities.  At the trivial level, they are both enormous narratives, created by multiple hands, and well beyond normal human comprehension, that debuted within a few months of each other in 1963.  They occupy similar headspace, too - they share a certain progressive mindset, and have had profound influences on people growing up.  But not me.  I was 10 when Doctor Who was cancelled - which I was disappointed at but could hardly pretend was a trauma.  And I never read comics when I was little - my only exposure to the X-Men was from their guest appearances in cartoons.  So I come to both of these things as an adult, and perhaps one with too great a sense of irony.  The operatic conventions of genre - the revolving door to the afterlife, the midunderstanding fights preceding a team-up, the retcons within retcons opening up nuance within stories - all these I enjoy as a spectacle.  And what a magnificent ride that Marvel universe has provided over the last 8 years.

Lots of people seem to have blogged about watching all of Doctor Who. Few seem to have attempted this with X-Men. I vaguely started in 2008, but gave up. A blog will help me with discipline. I also hope to track the development of the ideology of the X-Men, and of details of characterisation and setting that you can't just look up on the Marvel Wikia, which tends to fold retcon on retcon.

But that's yet to come, if we ever make it.  For now, we start in September 1963, and proceed at a post per comic per day.  Decisions about the scope of this project (as if the mere reading of all of Uncanny were not insane enough) will be made when we come to them - we have Cape Citadel to get to.