Tuesday, 31 July 2012

First Class and Sentry

[This should have been posted on Monday and that entry posted Tuesday. Oops.]

I promised a post on X-Men: First Class (the Parker comic, that is, not the film) at some point, and I never really got round to it. This is the last chance to look at it in the context that it is set, as Xavier just died (in a story that we are assured is "not a hoax"), and by the time it is revealed to be a hoax, Polaris and Havok have joined the team. So, our time with Xavier and the Original Five is about to end.

But, I'm getting ahead of myself.

X-Men: First Class was published from 2006 to 2010. Despite some claims otherwise, I don't see it as a serious attempt at a continuity implant within the original run. It is functionally the Marvel Adventures X-Men title (an imprint many of whose titles were written by Parker). Mostly single-issue stories, reasonably child-friendly, and heavy on the humour.

In my review for X-Men Season One (which occupies a similar narrative space of telling modernised stories set in the O5 era), I said First Class was a false nostalgia. I shall clarify what I mean. I don't mean that it doesn't fit in with continuity - I mean that the feeling of the stories is far more what we would like the 1960s X-Men to be like than it actually was. There is a preference for multi-issue stories at this point in the run, and they are tending to get longer. The school elements which get stressed in First Class are now almost entirely absent.

That this is consciously a false nostalgia can be seen from Parker's other series, Age of the Sentry. The Sentry is a mad weird idea, and I love him mostly for the sheer cheek involved. The Sentry was originally published in 2000, and presented as a forgotten superhero created by Stan Lee. This was eventually revealed as a hoax, but the joke was that the character had been forgotten, and the Marvel universe we knew should have had the Sentry (a sort of twisted Superman analogue) in it all along, and he fits nicely into the gaps (who was Reed Richards' best man, anyway?). This has become highly self-referential and metafictional, and subsequent appearances have, for example, featured a man named Paul Jenkins, who believes he created the character of the Sentry. This, and the relationship between the Sentry and the Void (his arch-enemy) has perhaps got a bit laboured in the comics, but that's beside the point.

One of the things that the original Sentry miniseries did was have tie-in Sentry Team-Up issues, depicting the Sentry's "original" interaction with Marvel heroes (one of them was with the X-Men, or rather with Angel, which I will do in due course). We then later got Parker's "Age of the Sentry", which is a Marvel Adventures-style superhero comic, based around a hero who never actually existed. So Parker knows exactly what he's doing. Nobody could write Age of the Sentry and not be intentionally recreating an imagined silver age. In fact, Age goes one step further by introducing a golden age Sentry, popped over from another dimension in a manner similar to DC's Earth-Two...

And so we get X-Men: First Class (and then later Wolverine: First Class. Perfectly formed, but twee.

Monday, 30 July 2012

X-Men #41-#42: The Death of Professor X

X-Men #41 and #42 feature the new villain "Grotesk", the last survivor of a vast underground civilisation, who seeks revenge upon the surface world, in the form of earthquakes so severe they they'll take the world apart, or at least cause major property damage on the Eastern seaboard (more or less the same thing if you're on Madison Avenue, I suppose).

This plot with Grotesk is largely an excuse for something far more interesting to happen. Professor Xavier has become increasingly odd. He's being very harsh on the X-Men in training and is conspiring with Jean about something. Scott even has started to wonder whether Xavier, like him, is in love with Jean, but let's not think about that. His telepathy is possibly wonky (he's able to abstract out information about Hank and Bobby's initial encounter with Grotesk, but has ceased to mass broadcast commands like he used to).

In the end, he goes alone to stop Grotesk, gets quite badly injured, and reveals his secret. He was dying, of some incurable illness. And then he dies.

It's easy to see why they've killed him. Xavier is rather overpowered compared to the rest of the team. All too often he has acted as a 'Professor X Machina' (sorry), coming in at the end of a story and fixing everything. His recent kidnap allowed several stories that would have been impossible otherwise, and after one story with him back, they've swiftly made the decision to get rid of him for good.

But somehow, I don't think this is going to stick.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

X-Men #40: Frankenstein's monster

X-Men #40 stars Frankenstein's monster. Sort of. It was dated January 1968, which was in the heyday of the Comics Code Authority. The CCA was a form of industry self-censorship (not dissimilar to the MPAA's rating system), which effectively banned horror comics. We'll see how they get around this in a moment...

At the end of Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, the creature flees to the Arctic and perishes. In X-Men #40, it is supposed that this has really happened, and an expedition sent by New York's City Museum has found him frozen in ice, and transported him back. Freezing, as we know, is not fatal in Marvel.

Xavier has found out about this and wants to go investigate. He says he has always been sure that Shelley's novel was based on an actual occurrence (?), and further suspects that the 8-foot tall humanoid described therein is an android. This provides the workaround for the CCA. He also reckons that the android was made by a mutant in the 19th century (by someone like Forge, I suppose), which superficially provides the reason why this is even an X-Men story in the first place.

But "X-Men Meet Frankenstein" shouldn't need that justification. There is a story to be told here, comparing the tragedy of Frankenstein's monster with the that of the X-Men. Noble souls driven to the edge by society's inability to accept their physical differences. This book sadly ignores all that, and treats it not as Shelley's wretch, but as a cross between Karloff's monster and a Hulk angry at the puny humans. It perhaps has suffered from the truncated length (15 pages) in the new format with the "Origins of the X-Men" backup strip...

The X-Men and the monster fight. Rather appropriately, Iceman is able to freeze the monster again. We get a small wrap-up, with Professor Xavier explaining what he saw when he eventually penetrated the android's (for it was indeed an android) brain. It was not built by a mutant at all, but was an ambassador built by an alien race, strongly resembling the 1930s movie version of the monster. It went wrong, attacking humans, then, as now. The X-Men's costumes resembled its brightly-coloured creators who tried to shut it down. Shelley somehow found out about this. None of this makes any sense at all, but is enough to place it into science fiction rather than horror. Still, they're skirting around the edges of acceptability. The prohibition on horror comics won't last long now.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

post schedule and frequency

So, I started this daily in February (having been inspired by a fun experience at the London Super Comic Con), got a bit ill, couldn't face reading any more Roy Thomas issues, and stopped writing posts. I resumed in July, decided to make them weekly instead, and have now accumulated a several month backlog. This was clearly a bit silly. I'm now setting them to post daily until the end of August, then we'll see what happens. If I don't change it again, then this should means I hit Giant-Size #1 on August 25th.

(Currently just written up #97 and going to start reading #98. Not long now before I pass Alexa Reads X-Men, but I doubt I'll ever catch up with SpaceSquid's Year X. Which is totally worth a read if you enjoy people being affectionately critical about old X-Men comics, which apparently you do if you're reading this.)

Thursday, 26 July 2012

X-Men Origins: X and Cyclops

From X-Men #38 there's a five-page backup strip, called "Origins of the X-Men". It starts off with Xavier reading in the newpaper public revelations about the existence of mutants and the consequent FBI investigation. He's been a recluse, he says, since his step-brother's death (although clearly since he's in the wheelchair the stuff with Lucifer has happened in between), but decides to go to Washington to do something about mutant rights. Uncannily, he finds it quite easy to get past security and into the FBI building.

There we, and Xavier, see some footage of a stray air-conditioning unit being destroyed by an optic blast from a young teen. He suggests to the Feds that he be allowed to act as an agent of the government in contacting the mutants they have leads on. One of the Feds here is Fred Duncan, as seen in issue #2. It's interesting to see here the series making such tight continuity links in an era when comics were still mostly ephemera - it had been four whole years since then.

From issue #39 to #42, we focus on Scott's story. He's not the first X-Men to be given an origin story (Hank and Warren had brief treatments earlier on), but nothing this extended has been attempted so far. The action picks up as young Summers destroys the aircon, outing himself to a hostile crowd. He quickly runs away, and decides not to go back to the Sunset Orphanage, instead going freighthopping. Xavier and Duncan discover Scott has gone missing, and interview his optometrist who had filed a report to the FBI on him.

Apparently, Scott had mildly glowing eyes, and recurring headaches, for which he was prescribed coloured lenses (which is in fact a perfectly good thing to give migraine sufferers). It was either good fortune that he was wearing the ruby lenses when his powers manifested today, or perhaps an indication of something more sinister. We finish as Scott flees from some hobos who tried to rob from him.

He enters a nearby cabin, and finds another mutant, Jack Winters/Jack O'Diamonds/Living Diamond. Winters has a very confused set of powers (we see him teleporting, have diamond hands, and using telepathy), which seems to be science-accident in origin rather than a traditional mutant emergence. Anyhow, Xavier rescues Scott from him, and takes him off to be the first student in the school, where he gives him his early costume, a visor, and his mutant name: Cyclops.

Later, much later, we'll learn more about the orphanage that Scott was in, and how he came to be there, but for now it's just a cigar.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

X-Men #37-#39: "you shall receive a fair trial and then be destroyed"

X-Men #37 starts off with Factor Three wondering how the X-Men have "managed to defeat [the Juggernaut] - not merely once, but twice!" Well, mate, I do believe the second time was because you called him off conveniently at the last moment.

They are monitoring the X-Men, whose flight is over the Alps now, and send a kind of UFO to attack the commercial plane! The X-Men jump out of the plane, destroy the UFO and end up going the direct route to the ground.

They are captured, and tried by the Changeling (with evidence from Vanisher, Unus, Blob and Mastermind, who have joined up), and sentenced to death. Meanwhile, we discover Factor Three's plan is to provoke a nuclear war between the East and the West, leaving mutantkind to pick up the pieces (because obviously a radioactive wasteland would be a paradise for mutants?). While Summers will 45 years later be quite keen on the idea of mutant overlords, right now he's not buying it, so the X-Men escape and prepare to stop the Mutant-Master's scheme.

This perhaps marks the formal end of the X-Men's relationship with the military (touched on in earlier issues), as Scott and Bobby go on to a military base, try to explain what's going on, and then after being told to leave, they just start destroying missiles. They never satisfactorily prove that there was a threat. Meanwhile, the others are at a corresponding base in eastern Europe, in a similar runaround. The most interesting part about this is the discovery that Hank speaks Russian.

Turns out that the Mutant-Master isn't really a mutant, but a Sirian. With that revealed, his allies turn against him, and he's defeated, and the Professor and Banshee are freed. That the plan made no sense, rather than being a thing we are just supposed to accept, is a key point of the plot and the thing that changes the mind of Changeling and the others.

Presumably, though, in this time, the suicide (or at least disappearance) of five teenagers from Westchester County, New York was reported by the airliner to the U.S. government. Parents would perhaps have been notified. Not quite as realist as all that, then...

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

X-Men #36: should have tried a bake sale

X-Men #36 is insane in all the right ways. It starts with the team tracking down Xavier's exact location, in the Alps, but being interrupted by some burglars, who have had the misfortune to target the mutant's mansion, quite unaware. They mindwipe them with Cerebro before sending them on their way.

The X-Men then get back to business, trying to figure out how to get to Europe. The Blackbird has run out of fuel, and Warren's parents have just departed on a cruise, so are uncontactable (apparently Warren doesn't have access to cash himself, despite being 18 - which is vaguely plausible in 1967). They get the Rolls-Royce out of the garage and then... drive it to New York City to try and fund-raise for plane tickets.

First up, they try getting an emergency loan from a welfare centre, but are told no. They split into two groups: Hank and Bobby busk outside the new Memorial Library, while Jean, Scott and Warren try to get a job at a building site, in costume as the X-Men. They pass their audition, but are defeated by the menace of the closed shop (slightly puzzlingly, that Wikipedia link claims the closed shop was banned in the U.S. in 1946, but I suppose it might not have been enforced everywhere). Rather than try to join the union, they give up. Back to the Rolls, they find that it has been towed away by the city trucks, for parking alongside a fire hydrant.

Lamenting their fate, they are given a lift to the library by a passing stranger, Tom Regal, who, awkwardly, turns out to the supervillain Mekano, planning on attacking the same library. This sort of superhero/supervillain carpooling makes strong environmental sense given a city as congested as New York, and I think it's a shame that more metahumans do not do this.

There's a well-thought out superhero fight, and after defeating Mekano, the X-Men are offered a reward, and decline it, but instead ask for a $1,500 loan. They are happily able to buy the tickets, and have enough change left over to bail out the car. As we finish, they board the plane... I wonder if they ever did return that loan.

This issue is a real stand-out in Thomas's run so far. It mercilessly milks the innate humour of the X-Men's living situation, while furthering the ongoing plot.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

X-Men #35: Along Came a Sales Gimmick

X-Men #35 is a wholly gratutious Spider-Man appearance - the first, no doubt, of many. It ostensibly advances the Professor X plot, as Banshee reports in with the X-Men to notify them that he has found Factor Three's base, and that they should beware of a "Spider".

Without even the thinnest rationale, Peter Parker just happens to be visiting Westchester County, and encounters the real "Spider" - a metallic roboty thing. Due to a hilarious misunderstanding the X-Men believe that Spider-Man is the "Spider" they should be wary of, so they come to blows (well, blows and optic blasts and ice bolts and big hairy kicks and webshooters...). Parker mostly holds his own, but it's not exactly a gloves off fight. It's a bit sad when you think about what amazing friends they should be instead.

Eventually, the error is revealed and they make their peace. Unusually for this type of story, they do not then immediately team up and take down the thing that has set them against each other. Instead, Parker goes home to New York - and the X-Men are left with a lead that Factor Three are at a central European mountain range...

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

X-Men #34: Journey to the Centre of the Earth

X-Men #34 opens with the X-Men somehow having discerned that Factor Three were responsible for the Juggernaut's escape, and Xavier's capture. There's no hot pursuit though, as Cerebro is bust, so they need to fix that. Jean briefly pops back to Metro College, where Ted Roberts pops up again. His brother, Ralph Roberts (who you may remember a couple of issues ago with his unusual interest in cobalt, his putting on a suit of cobalt, calling himself Cobalt Man and then going all supervillain) has been kidnapped!

Ted quickly gives us some backstory and we soon learn that Ralph has been kidnapped by Tyrannus, a Hulk villain who lives at the center of the Earth, and who has a grudge against the Mole Man.

They are provided with access to Ralph's experimental tunnelling machine, which, rather than being a clone of the Thunderbirds' Mole, instead vaporises a hole through the rock with a giant laser. They arrive soon enough in a giant underground cavern, described by Iceman self-consciously as "straight ouf of a Jules Verne yarn". He's right - it is as incongrous in the science-based world of the X-Men as magic gems that make you an unstoppable avatar of a demon - or a pre-Ice Age redoubt in the Antarctic.

And it's also pretty weird, on the face of it, to brainwash your enemies by finding the river Lethe (which, in Greek legend, induced forgetfulness in all who drank from it), vaporising it into mists, while making sure you aren't affected yourself by using an oxygen mask. Which the Mole Man does to the X-Men. But no, that's not even the half of it. The Mole Man and Tyrannus are having a stand-off with giant androids. Moley has built himself a 30-foot tall one made of solid diamond, so Tyrannus is focing Ralph Roberts to make him one out of, well, cobalt.

The X-Men win in the end, natch, but they've spent nearly 2 whole days, got very confused about what genre of story they are in, and still haven't made any progress in finding the Professor.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

X-Men #32-#33: "what ever happened to weak villains, like Magneto and the Sentinels"

Firstly, I'd like to apologise for the long gap in posts. As I stated earlier, this has been due to poor health. I'm building up a small backlog now, and will be posting at the more sustainable rate of weekly.

X-Men #32 spends a long time at Bobby's 18th birthday party at the Coffee A-Go-Go, intercut with Professor X trying to revive the Juggernaut, who he has been keeping in a coma for several issues, while having told his students that the government had him. Naughty Xavier! In a well-designed set piece, the coffee shop is attacked by a completely non-mutant related threat (a biker gang led by Rocky Rhodes, who, as far as I can make out, has never made an appearance in a comic ever again), and the X-Men have to secretly use their mutant powers to defend themselves and their friends.

Meanwhile, back at the mansion, you'll be shocked to learn that things don't quite work out as Xavier plans. Instead, Marko manages to mentally overpower him due to a third mind in there. He prepares for the arrival of the X-Men, and then when they arrive incompletely defeats them, being summoned away by the mysterious "Factor Three" organisation.

In #33, the X-Men are forced to act independently from Xavier in confronting the Juggernaut. Upon the advice of Stephen Strange, Scott and Jean go to the "communist zone set up by the truce" to the Temple of Cyttorak, where Marko's transformation took place, while Bobby, Hank and Warren try and slow him (as, you see, nothing can stop the Juggernaut).

The Juggernaut is a magical problem, and while science kicked off the problem (of Marko not being in a coma), magic provides the solution. Scott and Jean defeat the Outsider, who has turned up at the temple, by forcing him to experience the passage of time through Jean's watch (amusingly, Jean wearing a watch had been well set up by the rest of the story); they then use a second, prototype, Crimson Gem to defeat the Juggernaut, again by exposure. Marko is banished to the "Crimson Cosmos", which we are told is a sort of pocket dimension within the gem.

But what of Factor Three? Turns out they staged this entire thing as a diversion, and have kidnapped Xavier. We therefore get a decent resolution to this story, but a lead in to the next issue...