Monday, February 20, 2012

Take Off, Ya Hosers: X-Men 121

X-Men #121 (May 1979)
"Shoot-out At the Stampede!"
Chris Claremont/John Byrne-Terry Austin

Doug: Shoot-out is right, kiddies! Today's fare is one big brouhaha, pitting our not-so-merry mutants against those novice heroes from the Great White North, Alpha Flight! So why waste any time?

Doug: As we open, Cyclops, Colossus, and Storm are now in full costume and breaking into the Calgary Stampede -- a large fairgrounds-type area. The blizzard we saw in last week's book appears to be over, and the X-Men have been scattered -- Wolverine and Nightcrawler were captured last issue by various members of Alpha Flight, and Banshee (now powerless due to events in X-Men #119) is hanging with Colleen Wing and Misty Knight. Cyke blasts some doors open, and is admonished by Colossus for the property destruction. See, that's just a nice bit of characterization, a theme we've continually come back to in this 3-issue look at the foundations of Alpha Flight. Once inside, Cyclops' thoughts wander to the events of the past day, serving as the obligatory recap of the last issue's events.

Karen: Cyclops does have a sound reason for it: if Ororo carried him and Colossus in, she'd make an easy target. But realistically, could she lift Colossus over the wall? I guess the winds would do most of the work, but still...

Doug: Ororo has flown ahead on reconnaissance, looking for Kurt and Logan. Returning, she calls to Cyke and Peter that she's found them, albeit apparently unconscious and bound in a large open area (the rodeo arena, I'm guessing). As our heroes arrive, they are met by an imposing team of super-beings -- this is our introduction to Canada's finest. Isn't Sasquatch imposing?? Cyclops confronts James Hudson, now known as Vindicator, and they argue over Wolverine. But as they bicker, Colossus is suspicious of the movements of Alpha Flight's speedster, Northstar. For whatever reason (and we are led to believe it's unfounded), Peter thinks Northstar is maneuvering behind Cyke's back. Taking a page from the Hulk, Colossus stomps the ground and creates a shockwave. Well, now everyone's edginess comes to the fore and it's game on!

Karen: It's a fantastic group shot, and yes, Sasquatch, who looks like he may be punching his fist in preparation, does look very intimidating. I think it's interesting that just before our X-trio encounters Alpha Flight, Peter questions the rightness of what they are doing. If Wolverine is wanted by his government, is it right for them to go after him? That is the kind of thought I might expect from someone who has lived under totalitarian rule. Cyclops dismisses it, saying that Professor X would never have admitted Wolverine if he was a criminal. No, but he would admit a homicidal maniac! But I digress.

Doug: The X-Men are engaged and seem at a disadvantage. It's obvious from the beginning that Alpha Flight has some intelligence on the X-Men -- certainly Hudson had briefed everyone and they'd practiced since his scrape over a year earlier. As is typical in super-hero tussles, the main guys are by necessity depowered, disorganized, and on the verge of demoralized. But the wild card is evident right at the beginning, as Wolverine and Nightcrawler were not out, but merely "playing possum". Down only Banshee, the X-Men are still picked apart by Alpha Flight. When will they learn? What do you think of this as a plot device? I can't give you a specific list off the top of my head, but it just seems like every time we do a team book the good guys come out playing like amateurs and just get pasted.

Karen: We've seen this lack of team-work with these X-Men over and over again and honestly, I can't tell if it was really intentional on the part of Claremont/Byrne or not. It does seem pretty pathetic, especially considering that we see Cyclops trying to be a good leader, stressing the importance of training, but these guys are a bunch of loose cannons. There are some nice match-ups, and the playfulness between Nightcrawler and Aurora is fun. I believe Byrne slipped himself into a cameo on page 16, when the ever-growing storm blows out a window in the Calgary Tower. During the Sasquatch - Colossus throw down, Claremont has Sasquatch say he's "taken worse from the Steelers' front four." A fan would point out on the letters page of issue 126 that Sasquatch's civilian ID, Walter Langkowski, was a linebacker, so how could he face another teams' defense? This brings to mind the baseball game from X-Men 110 and how it was obvious Claremont knew nothing about the sport. Why include it if you don't know what you're talking about?

Doug: The rest of the book is basically one big brawl. Opponents are chosen with no surprises -- Storm and Snowbird take to the air, Colossus and Sasquatch lock horns, Cyclops and Nightcrawler try to hold down Northstar and Aurora, and Wolverine tangles with some constructs of Shaman. Vindicator runs loose throughout all of this, which seems to tip the scales in Alpha Flight's favor. But as the teams duke it out, the blizzard that was a central part of last issue's plot begins to intensify, to the point that it is becoming dangerous. Storm is finally able to snare Snowbird in her cape, and then she flies off into the eye of the storm to attempt to squelch it. She is successful, which further reveals the extent of her powers. But as she lands, exhausted, Northstar cheap-shots her with a blow to the back of the head, knocking her out. Cyke retaliates with a knock-out beam of his own.

Karen: I liked Snowbird's look but her powers never impressed me. She could transform into arctic animals. Ho hum. Storm should defeat her easily. Once again, we have an impressive, heroic moment from Storm as she dissipates the tempest. Northstar's dirty punch pretty much summed up his character for a long time: he always seemed like a punk. Scott's protectiveness of his team-mates, and pure anger, was nice to see.

Doug: With the fight elevated to a less-than-honorable pitch, Cyclops picks up Northstar by his shirt and is about to pummel him when Wolverine, of all people, stops him. It's a great scene, just further adding layers to not only Logan's character but to the relationship between he and Cyclops. Wolverine tells that the fight needs to end, that it should never have gotten out-of-hand -- but that he was just enjoying the scrap too doggone much! Wolverine then surrenders to Hudson and is loaded into a specially-made van for transport. Of course the guards utter the obligatory tough-talk, and Logan gives it right back to them.

Karen: It's a nice turnabout, with Wolverine as the voice of reason. This was a character that was still mysterious and appealing. I loved the development of the relationship between him and Cyclops. It was very reminiscent of what happened with Captain America and Hawkeye back in the early days of The Avengers.

Doug: In the last scene, the X-Men are on a plane being escorted to U.S. airspace by the Canadian Air Force. Cyke is raising the troops to return on a rescue mission. Everyone's all in, when suddenly a dissenting voice comes from the co-pilot's chair -- it's Wolverine! You know, the cage hasn't been built that can hold him!

Karen: That was a beautiful ending. No need for any explanation - all you need to know is Wolverine is a bad mother!

Doug: This was a fun 2-parter, I guess 3-parter if we count the first appearance of Vindicator. Claremont and Byrne/Austin remain on top of their collective game, and many enthusiasts would say that the best was still yet to come. That's a tough act, as what's already in the rearview mirror is pretty awesome! Perhaps the best thing about this little series was the extension of the Scott/Logan relationship.

Karen: We got character growth and a tantalizing taste of a new team. What more could you ask for?


Inkstained Wretch said...

The Steelers line makes me wonder: How much of the backstory of these characters had Byrne and Claremont already worked out back then? Was Sasquatch just meant to be big and strong or was he always unknowingly a extra-dimensional monster? Was Nortstar always gay? Was Aurora always schizophrenic? Was James Hudson always the guy who implanted Wolverine's admantium?

These are the things I wonder on my day off ...

Anonymous said...

And with this concluding story, I was hooked: I followed X-men religiously after this. The action, art, dialogue, plus all of those little character bits you guys mention made for an irresistible combination.
By the way Karen, I vaguely recall a fan catching the whole linebacker/Steelers' Front Four flap in the letters' page a few issues later, as well as another fan catching the Byrne cameo on p. 16 as well (which at the time always made me wonder how some of these fans knew what the various members of the creative teams looked like; the only one I would have been able to recognize in a cameo is Stan Lee, and that's because his image appeared so often in Marvel's various books).

Edo Bosnar said...

Oops, sorry anonymous above is me. The word verification distracted me...

david_b said...

Actually love the Cyclops and Logan depictions here, both art and banter.

Looks like a super story. Might pick this one up.

Anthony said...

@ Inkstained Wretch

Byrne talked about the creation of Alpha Flight in Comic Interview 71.

" You look through Marvel Universe and there are hundreds and hundreds of characters, and so many of them do the same thing that somebody else does. I think what happened was we went through a period of just creative laziness where it was easier to come up with a new character than to try and figure out if there was already somebody who did it. If you look at Alpha Flight, I mean certainly I was told to create a bunch of these guys, but I didn't fall all over myself trying to come up with original powers. Snowbird was probably the closest to being powers that nobody else had simply because she was a mystical shapechanger and we didn't have any mystical shapechangers, we only had ordinary everyday shapechangers. "

" What I created was the original five or six guys who were Alpha Flight, never intending for them to have their own book, finding myself really pushed against the wall when they did get their own book. I'm looking at these guys and going, God they have no personalities, who are they ? You know, this guy's the Hulk, this guy's Quicksilver, this woman's the Scarlet Witch. I had to shoehorn personalities into them. I
was never happy on Alpha Flight. "

@ Edo My theory on why people recognized creators is because they spent a lot of time looking at the birthday photos on the Mighty Marvel Calendars. Just a theory. I was too busy looking at the artwork and never caught any of the creator cameos.

Dougie said...

You put Geddy Lee's voice in my head, you bad people.

Doug said...

Dougie --

Bob and Doug McKenzie, eh?



Anonymous said...

I thought it was very well established that where the old Xmen fought as a team, the new lot never meshed together, which is why they were forever getting battered by other teams, not least the (ostensible) originals on 2 occasions.

One thing that always annoys me on the cover of Xmen issues is Cyclops zapping people with giant blasts of his optic beams. This is one, the first Avengers cross over is another, where Hank simply raises his arm to defend himself. We’re forever being told that if Cyke opens his eyes even accidently, he could demolish half a city block, but on the covers people are shrugging his eye beams off like disco lighting.


Fred W. Hill said...

Good point, Richard. I wonder if Scott learned to at least control the intensity of his eye-blasts when he consciously let them loose in short bursts. That also brings up the question of whether there are circumstances under which his body would lose the energy to generate the blasts. As in, say, if his eyes were forced open would the eye-blasts sputter out after an hour or so?
And Byrne's comments in the interview are very interesting to consider. So often new times in comics' history, new teams are created with entirely or mostly new characters without much thought given to their personalities and oftimes no matter how "cool" they initially seem, they ultimately prove rather boring and new series' featuring them don't last all that long.

William said...

Great piece. This was the story that really really hooked me on me on the X-Men back in the day. I always love a good super hero team throw down.

It bummed me out a little when I learned that Byrne didn't actually like working on the Alpha Flight comic series. I had always figured that he was the one that pushed to have them get their own book, (because of the Canada connection and all). I must say, for not liking the characters, or enjoying the work, I always thought he did a really nice job on AF. I will admit I didn't like the book as much after he offed Guardian, but I still kept reading, right up until he left for the Hulk. I sold my original issues years ago, but I have both of the trades that are available. I'm always a little sad when reading them however, because now I have it in the back of my head that JB was just phoning it in on the series.

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