Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Birth of Phoenix, Part 2: X-Men 98

X-Men #98 (April 1976)
"Merry Christmas, X-Men..."
Chris Claremont-Dave Cockrum/Sam Grainger

Doug: You may have noticed that last time we included the original cover to X-Men #97, as well as the mid-80's Classic X-Men that reprinted that tale. For this series, I've been reading from the Classic X-Men issues. I had very fond memories of those stories, and I recall at the time that I enjoyed the extra backstories done by Claremont and artist John Bolton. However, upon revisiting these books some 25 years later, I am a bit taken aback at a major element I'd forgotten, and that is the inclusion of additional story pages in the original tale. This is akin to the many "adjustments" made by George Lucas to the original Star Wars trilogy and I'll be honest -- looking at it now with a more mature lens, I'm not a fan. I still like the backstories, but the stuff they squeezed inside (obviously with art not by Dave Cockrum) is rather wasteful and detracts from the original work.

Karen: This might be side-tra
cking a bit, but Doug, did you ever read John Byrne's X-Men: The Hidden Years? I know I bought the series for awhile but I honestly have no memory of it now! But it featured "untold" stories of the X-Men. Just curious what you might have thought of that.

Doug: I bought most of it, but it wasn't memorable creatively -- as you stated. I got irritated that he began to introduce major characters, like Storm, before they were introduced! How can you steal the thunder from one of the greatest runs of all time -- as you mentioned earlier, X-Men 94-140-something??

Doug: X-Men #98 separates itself from the previous issue. We begin this story at Rockefeller Center for a Christmastime night on the town. All of the team is assembled, sans the Professor who is on recuperative leave dealing with his nightmares. Shortly, everyone goes their own separate ways, Scott and Jean to dinner, Banshee and Moira for a walk, and Nightcrawler and Colossus chasing skirts. We're left to wonder exactly where Wolverine and Storm go...

Karen: It's kind of funny, Cyclops makes a comment about how the new X-Men have been together almost a year - well, sure, in real-time, but in Marvel time, that means there's a lot of time in between adventures! I mean, we're only talking about GS X-Men 1, and issues 94-97. That's not a lot of adventures for a year.

Doug: One of the highlights of this issue is a 2-panel cameo by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Cockrum gets their likenesses down, but one certainly has to wonder if the pleasant tone with which they address each other was realistic for this time. Having read much about their actual relationship, I liked it better when I was young and dumb. Tarnished heroes aren't much fun.
Karen: Besides the Lee/Kirby cameo, we also see Nick Fury and the Contessa on the splash page, and if you look hard, you might notice a certain Latverian monarch ice skating at Rockefeller Center! I'm not certain, but I think Cockrum also drew himself and his wife (girlfriend?), Paty, on the lower right hand corner of the splash as well. Is it just me, or does Stan Lee's face in the second panel look like it might have been retouched or completely re-drawn by Marie Severin?

Doug: Now that you mention it, Stan's face looks very similar to the portrait that appeared in the house ads for Marvel's Pizzazz magazine -- right around this era
. Marie Severin probably did most of that sort of artwork.

Karen: It was good to see Scott and Jean have some romantic time together. This was a couple that really hadn't been much of a couple before, with all of Scott's agonizing over his dangerous eye-beams. Claremont just sort of moved it right along.

Doug: As Scott and Jean settle down to their table, what should appear but two very large blue-and-purple fellows -- Sentinels! In a great entry panel, Cockrum unleashes the terror they bring over the next two pages. However, as was often the case, the giant robots always seem to underestimate the power of a cornered X-Man.

Karen: I really liked the way Cockrum illustrated Jean using her powers. No more little dashed lines shooting out of her head! She actually looked formidable.

Doug: Which brings me to a question I kept asking myself over the course of these issues we are discussing (you'll excuse me if I make a few general comments that get ahead of ourselves). It's stated later that the Sentinels that appear in issues 98-99 are not the original and were duplicated with faulty matierals. That would explain how different members of the team just annihilate these robots. But I thought there were several occasions where our energy-wielding friends, from Cyke to Jean to Ororo seemed vastly powered up. Did you get that sense, Karen?

Karen: Well, Jean flat-out says she's more powerful than she was before, and I always thought Cyke was very powerful. Storm was the newcomer, but she was consistently portrayed as being perhaps the most powerful X-Man at that time. So it all worked for me.I enjoyed seeing Storm create a gigantic tornado with lightning bolts in the sky!

Doug: Jean is taken by one of the Sentinels, who speeds off into the night, leaving Storm and Cyclops to sort things out. Scott senses that this may be an assault on the entire team, and fears for the professor. We then shift to the Bahamas where Xavier is vacationing with an old pal, Dr. Peter Corbeau. I didn't know that Dr. Corbeau had been around the Marvel Universe for a short time -- I always assumed he was created to fit into the X-Universe. You can check out his appearances at the Comic Book Database. In another grand entry panel, Cockrum draws a Sentinel emerging straight out of the ocean to confront Corbeau's boat.

Karen: OK, I looked up that entry on Corbeau, and I have to admit, I had no idea he started out in The Incredible Hulk!I had always assumed his first appearance was in Avengers 103. Another little detail: his boat is named Dejah Thoris, the princess of Mars from Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars series.

Doug: After being captured, Banshee, Jean, Wolverine, and the Professor soon meet their captor -- Dr. Steven Lang. Lang had debuted in X-Men #96. Lang taunts the team, and Jean baits him into physically attacking her. This is not to "the Wolverine"'s liking (did you think it was weird that he kept referring to himself as "the"?), and Logan bursts his shackles, claws ready for action. A Sentinel pays the price, and Lang and his henchmen scatter. What is really interesting about this scene is that Logan is barechested; Banshee remarks shortly thereafter that he had no idea that the claws were a part of the body. The assumption was apparently made, as John Romita had originally intended, that the claws were affixed to Wolverine's gauntlets.

Karen: I recall when I first read this I was puzzled and intrigued by the technician's statement that he wasn't sure Wolverine was a mutant - "His readings are nothing like the others". In retrospect, I wonder if this comment was put in there because they were still planning to go with the idea that Wolverine was actually a real wolverine that the High Evolutionary had transformed into a man? It seems like an odd statement.

Karen: Of course, the real shock here was the claws coming out of his hands! Wow! That was definitely a curve ball.

Doug: So speaking of Wolverine's characterization, we are really getting a slow reveal from Claremont. We've seen the berserker rage, the gruff personality, and now we've seen that the claws come out of his arms. But the funniest thing is the panels where Jean is trying to tear her gown (remember, she and Scott had been out to dinner when all of this came down) and Wolverine just walks over and rips it up to her buttocks! Now we start to see Wolverine's brash sense of humor...

Karen: I think it may have been a matter of writer and artist warming up to the character. I know I've read that Cockrum really didn't care for Wolverine, his favorite was Nightcrawler. Of course, when Byrne came on to the title, his favorite was Wolverine, and we all know where that went.

Karen: The artwork for Banshee, Wolverine, and Jean's escape attempt was very dynamic. Although I've always wondered how someone Banshee was carrying wouldn't be knocked silly by all that damned screaming!

Doug: As Cyke and the rest of the team try to find those captured, they are visited by Dr. Corbeau who has trekked all the way from the Bahamas to fill them in on Xavier's capture. After some conversation the assemblage determines that all efforts by Cerebro to locate the missing X-Men failed because... the team is not on earth but out in space! Stay tuned!


Edo Bosnar said...

I was going to wait until you finished this series to post, but since you mentioned "Hidden Years" I thought I'd comment while it's still relevant: I read about the first dozen issues, and while the whole underlying idea was great, I found it surprisingly flat, with meandering sub-plots and really stupid aspects like, yes, introducing Storm before she actually "appeared," or having Cyclops passed out for like 2 whole issues while being carried around by the other members.
I think the problem was that Byrne wanted to stretch the series out for something like 70 issues (think I read that somewhere), whereas what he should have done was limit the series to the 26 or so 'missing' issues - it probably would have enabled to to tell much tighter, more coherent stories.

Doug said...

Edo --

One of the criticisms of John Byrne that Karen and I have made before is the "scratchiness" of his art after, say, the mid-1990's. I recall from Hidden Years that although more detailed, the art was overall not so good.

And yes, I recall all of the subplots -- a staple of Byrne's writing, but overkill here.


cerebus660 said...

No. 98 was the first issue of X-Men I ever bought and has remained a favourite ever since. It's just a classy comic, from that fantastic cover right through to the "How the hell do they get out of that?" cliffhanger.
Thanks for posting, guys. Looking forward to the rest of the series.

Edo Bosnar said...

Hi Doug,
Actually, I am quite fond of Byrne's art in all of its permutations, scratchy or not, so for me, enjoying the art would be the only valid reason for actually bothering to read "Hidden Years"...
Anyway, I'm really enjoying your take on these issues - I started reading X-men somewhere around issue 119, and have never really managed to systematically read the material that came before (except for GS and issues 94-96 and a few other misc. issues in between which I borrowed from an older fan).

Andrew Wahl said...

Doug and Karen:

As I said last time, I'm lovin' this run of reviews. Thanks for doing them.

Two thoughts:

1. I totally agree with Doug;s comments on the Classic X-Men reprints. The interstitial pages were a HUGE letdown, especially since there was talk early on of trying to have the original teams do the new pages. New Claremont/Byrne/Austin X-Men? Needless to say, that would have been very cool. The backup stories by Claremont and Bolton were very cool, but even those started to run out of steam as those two drifted from the book. (FYI, the backups have been collected in two TPBs called X-Men Vignettes. They hold together nicely as a collection of character studies.)

2. I enjoyed Byrne’s X-Men: The Hidden Years, but more for what it could have been than what it was. I thought his art on that series looked more inspired than it had for a while, but Tom Palmer’s inks have a tendency to smother Byrne. As for the writing, the biggest problem for me was that these weren’t my X-Men. Byrne has said many times he wasn’t all that fond of the new X-Men and preferred the original Lee/Kirby team (no real surprise there, I guess!) So while he was obviously having a blast writing these issues, the characterization didn’t feel right to me.


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