Monday, April 15, 2013

Journey to the Center of Your Mind: X-Men 126

X-Men #126 (October 1979)
"How Sharper Than A Serpent's Tooth...!"
Chris Claremont/John Byrne-Byrne/Terry Austin (cover by Dave Cockrum/Austin)

Doug: Neither one of us mentioned it last week, but Dave Cockrum did the covers for Uncanny X-Men #'s 125 and 126 -- and what an effort today.  Talk about poster-worthy, and I'm not making any comparison to those pin-up covers of today.  This one has action and characterization.  It's a great image, and you can feel Terry Austin's presence in the art, can't you?  If you wait two more weeks, you'll get to see George Perez do an X-Men cover.  What a great era...  How 'bout we get ourselves over to Muir Island?

Doug:  And getting over to Muir Island apparently only takes an hour when Cyke's at the controls of the Blackbird (and despite Karen's concern, they don't crash it this time!).  Last week in the comments section our readers discussed some of Chris Claremont's plot holes and oddities, such as the Scott Summers-Colleen Wing relationship and her lack of mentioning that, oh yeah - Jean's alive.  While that may be true, I'm going to offer the man a tip of the hat for characterization over the first four pages.  It's just wonderful writing -- we know these characters!  Here's the deal:  the X-Men left upstate New York after Scott heard Lorna Dane scream on the phone call from Moira MacTaggert's Mutant Research facility.  Knowing that Jean was in Scotland, the team hightailed it onto the Blackbird and made record time.  Approaching the island, Scott ordered Colossus to do his landing thing, Storm to inspect the isle from above, and once on the ground Nightcrawler to teleport inside the living quarters.  Banshee gave a slight admonishment to Cyclops for driving everyone so hard; Cyke countered that Sean had not heard Lorna's scream.  Knowing her abilities as Polaris, it must have been something horrible to have spooked her so.

Karen: I love that cover! One has to wonder what a Claremont/Cockrum/Austin run might have been like? On to our story though - I agree, we get a great sense of each character in a short time span. You can really feel Cyclops' urgency here. I love how each member has their own way of making an entrance. And hey, how strong must Storm be to go hauling Wolverine around, with all that adamantium he's got inside of him?

Doug:  I actually had the same thought as she's toting Scott just a bit later on -- it had been some time since any artist had drawn him as "Slim" Summers!

Doug:  Nightcrawler was the first to find any clues.  He actually found Lorna, and her assailant, collapsed on top of our heroine.  Radioing Scott and Banshee, Kurt urged them to come to him as quickly as they could.  Once in the house, they rolled the man off of Lorna -- only to reveal a horribly decomposed husk, almost like a mummy.  Banshee inspected Lorna's vital signs and determined that she would be fine.  Scott tells Kurt to 'port over to the lab, where hopefully he'll find Havok, Madrox, and Jean.  As Scott heads outside to flag down Ororo, he worries about Banshee's inability to bounce back from the injuries to his voice he'd suffered in Japan (X-Men #'s 118-119, which we will review at some future date).  At the lab, Kurt takes to the shadows, but not enough that he's not seen by Havok.  Alex fires a bolt Nightcrawler's way and orders him -- whoever he is -- to come out of the shadows.  As Havok begins to power up again, he's suddenly grabbed and bear-hugged... by Colossus!  Piotr had landed in the lab and was doing his own scouting when he heard the ruckus.  Alex is amazed to see his believed-dead comrade.  Elsewhere, Scott and Ororo are also in the lab building and encounter Moira -- through a slight machination from Storm.  There is the now-familiar surprise at the reunion, and then Moira tells Scott what they're up against -- Mutant X.  Concerned, Scott nevertheless goes off on his own to find Jean.

Karen: Banshee tells Scott that he'll stay with Lorna since, without his sonic powers, he's not of much use (also notice, he's carrying a side arm). It's interesting that Banshee hung around in the book, powerless, for 10 issues -he lost his powers in #119 and finally stepped out in #129. I think he was a nice counter-balance to Scott at first, but eventually he became unnecessary, especially with Professor X around. They really didn't need two authority figures in the book. 

Doug:  It doesn't take long for Cyke to find Jean, collapsed in a corner.  He approaches her, but when he gets her upright and says her name, she answers by calling him "Jason".  I thought the long reveal of Jason Wyngarde's plotline was really done well.  Month to month, the suspense just kept building.  I never felt it was too long, and it really kept me on the edge of my seat... until I started high school just as X-Men #131 was being released and missed the whole pay-off.  What a dummy.  Anyway, Scott (certainly taken aback) assembles all of the X-Men back at Moira's house where they debrief on what exactly has gone on.  Jamie Madrox tells of his encounter with Mutant X, and how he was psychically assaulted through one of his clones.  Jamie tells that there's no way he could have stopped the enemy.  Moira comforts him, while Wolverine begins to itch for the scrap.  Of course he and Scott exchange words, but Wolverine surprisingly backs down and defers to Scott's plan.  Aside with Moira, Scott tells her that he's checked all the files and there is nothing on any Mutant X.  Moira coyly tells him "it's a private matter".  Scott pushes her, and she admits -- Mutant X is her son.

Karen: Oh Doug -how could you stop reading this book before the whole "Dark Phoenix" saga ended? Dude.... anyway, I agree, I can readily recall the sense of anticipation I had each month waiting for the next issue. Scott and Jean's relationship certainly had its complexities. At the time, and even today, I feel Claremont may have made a mis-step by having Scott react so strangely to Jean's supposed death. It never made any sense to me that he at first felt nothing, as he told Storm in the Savage Land, and later began to see Colleen Wing. But here, he seems anxious to find Jean, and to find her by himself -not knowing how he'll react. Well, I'm sure he wasn't expecting 'Jason'! I like the way the debriefing scene is drawn too, where there's some distance between he and Jean, and the look on her face is somewhat troubled.

Doug:  We scene shift to the village of Stornoway, where we find a quite-possessed Jamie Madrox-clone prowling the shadows.  This creature thinks to itself that it is consuming its new shell too quickly.  It's a nice tip, as we can assume that part of Mutant X's skill set is some sort of vampiric leeching.  Well, what would you know -- just as Mutant X is feeling a little low, who should walk out of the pub but our boy Jason Wyngarde?  Mutant X stays in the shadows, but is able to do some sort of probe before assaulting his victim -- but is immediately repelled by psychic shields.  Hmmm... the plot does thicken with this Wyngarde fellow.  And in regard to my comment above, about leaving comics in the fall of 1980, it would be many a'moon before I knew of Wyngarde's true identity.  So, with no opportunity to take over Wyngarde, Mutant X found a young guy in another part of town and commandeered his body.

Karen: Yes, Wyngarde's identity was quite a mystery for some time. I really had no clue! I thought this sequence, and many of the other sequences featuring the possessed victims of Mutant X, were very creepy -a credit to the art team. I also liked the brief scene where Wolverine barks at Cyke, accusing him of being scared for not going right after Mutant X. This would set things up nicely later on.

Doug:  Back at the research complex, the X-Men break into teams to cover as much of the island as possible and as quickly as possible.  Scott rides in a jeep with Moira, and gets a little more insight on Mutant X.  We learn that he has two fundamental weaknesses:  metal, and a constant need for new host bodies.  Sounds like Wolverine's our guy.  Jean is on airborne reconnaissance when she is seen by Wyngarde.  Instantly Jean's mind is not her own, and she's riding in an 18th century hunting party with Wyngarde by her side.  The dogs corner and take down a stag, and it's Lady Grey's right to deliver the final blow to the animal.  But as Jason hands her the hilt of a knife, it's no animal she looks down on -- Master Jason lauds her for the wonderful idea of hunting a man, dressed as a stag!  As Jean comes to her senses, she stands over the husk of the young man Mutant X had last possessed -- and wonders what is wrong with her mind.

Karen: Isn't it lucky for the X-Men that two of their team members have metal bodies or body parts? OK, this might have been a bit convenient, but honestly, I didn't think about it at all when I first read the story! Even now, I'm enjoying it enough that I can let it slide. Wyngarde's manipulation of Jean's mind, of her morals even, is downright disturbing.

Doug:  On another part of the isle, Wolverine is tracking through the mists while Nightcrawler follows in a jeep.  Kurt tells that Cyclops has just contacted him via radio to report that Jean had found a body -- and a fresh one.  Wolverine tells him to pipe down, that he's ruining the trail.  Kurt says they have to go -- that the body is only 10 miles away, but that's far enough that Mutant X couldn't be close to them.  Wolverine isn't buying it, because... what if Mutant X took a car?  Sure enough, they come upon a policeman standing outside his squad car.  But what's interesting is that Wolverine is spoken to in a "normal" voice.  In a scene very reminiscent of Wolverine's attack on the Marvel Girl Sentinel in X-Men #100, the senses don't lie -- Wolverine barks, "'Crawler!  Trouble!"  Mutant X reveals himself immediately and attacks Wolverine psychically -- he screams.  As Nightcrawler drives up, Logan tells him to stay back.  As Logan moves in, Mutant X withdraws slightly -- he's sensed the metal throughout Wolverine's body!  But as he regroups, he tells the X-Men that while they call him Mutant X, his real name is Proteus, and he is the mutant who masters reality!

Karen: Ah, back in the days when Wolverine was still a lot of fun, not infallible or unstoppable but  very intriguing. His connection to nature was still a strong aspect of his character.  His heightened senses made him very grounded in the here and now, and Proteus would really put him to the test.

Doug:  To say that the next two pages would look like how I feel when getting off a rollercoaster (I hate those) would be an understatement.  Reality warps, it spins, it's topsy turvy and inside-out.  Kurt and Logan struggle to decide if it's an illusion or if they really are out of the normal plane of existence.  I have to wonder (I'm half serious) if Byrne held drawings up in front of a hall-of-mirrors type of display and then redrew them all crazy -- it's really that sort of an effect in this scene.  Suddenly Storm arrives, and she ain't happy!  Knowing she cannot bring herself to kill her enemy, she instead launches the mother of all lightning strikes at the police car, destroying it and injuring Proteus in the process.  He in turn lashes out at her, knocking her from the sky and making her land hard on her right shoulder.  Now afraid to attempt to fly, her only option is to conjure hurricane-force winds -- Wolverine grabs Nightcrawler and crawls on top of him, extending his claws into the earth as an anchor to hold the two of them down.  As the gale rages... Proteus advances.

Karen: The art is just fantastic -even the panel layouts are unconventional. It really feels as if one is being shot through some twisted version of reality. Storm's code against killing struck me - this was the standard for super-heroes back in that time, but today...well, I suppose this would seem unrealistic to readers? I did like this about her, her respect for life, and it was one of the reasons 'mohawk Storm' never worked for me. The visual of Wolverine and Nightcrawler hunkering down, with Wolvie digging his claws into the ground, is just a great one. The wind blasting all around truly conveys Storm's sheer power.

Doug:  Talk about a downhill ride, constantly picking up momentum!  This was a great issue, paying off on the suspense that had ended the previous issue.  The pacing is quick, but not hurried.  The subplot involving Jean and Wyngarde shows up three times, but it never seems forced -- it's a quickening storyline, and we know that a resolution must come.  The question for the reader is, will Jean be worth anything to the team before it all plays out?  And the art.  The art.  What's left to say?  This is the midst of the creative team's pinnacle, and as we pointed out last week, that compliment includes Glynis Wein and even letterer Tom Orzechowski.


Edo Bosnar said...

Another great review, and another great issue. I specifically remember how cool this one was to me when I read it the first time, because except for those brief scenes in the preceding issue, this was the first time I'd seen Havok, Polaris and Madrox in action. Otherwise, I really have nothing to add to your own comments about this issue specifically.

Karen's speculation about a Claremont/Cockrum/Austin run reminds me that even back then, when Byrne left the title, I wondered why Austin didn't stay on. Judging by the covers I've seen them do together, I think this would have been ideal - and really helped smooth over some of the rough edges during Cockrum's second tenure on the title (as I understand it, he had a hard time keeping up with the monthly pace).

Another thing that comes to mind is that scene in which Proteus attempts to possess Jason Wyngarde. When I re-read this a while back in my Essentials volume, I remember wondering why a What If? story was never done. You know, "What if Proteus had succeeded in possessing Mastermind?" That certainly would have changed the Dark Phoenix saga - perhaps it wouldn't have even come to that.

Bruce said...

Yes, a great review, guys! The sense of drama and rising tension in this story makes it a personal favorite (if I can pick a favorite in this era of X-Men stories.) The Proteus storyline sometimes gets overlooked in favor of the subsequent Dark Phoenix and Days of Future Past sagas, but it is every bit as good.

Inkstained Wretch said...

Hmm, even now these issues really stand out. When you're on a roll, you're really on a roll.

This issue is, if nothing else, a good reminder that Wolverine works best as a scene-stealing supporting character. Making him the main character robs him of his mystery IMHO.

Anonymous said...

OK, I did my homework.

And agree with Edo - great review, great issue. I can relate to Doug as it was around this time that I also stopped buying most comics. I had just graduated from high school when these issues came out. I no longer found comics interesting enough to keep buying them just because. The exception was X-Men. For me, this run was far superior to anything else Marvel was doing at the time. So X-Men was the only comic I continued to buy into the '80s during my college years. Even so, as much as I enjoyed these issues back in the day, I didn't remember a lot of the details. Heck, that was over 30 years ago (gawd, I feel old).

So, thank you Karen and Doug for this blog and for allowing me to revive some great memories. Looking forward to re-reading the next issue and, of course, the review.


Doc Savage said...

I agree Wolverine works best as part of an ensemble, and not as 200 years old and infallible...all the X-Men strike me as characters created and suited for a team setting. It's a shame they did away with Banshee, I liked having an older hero on the squad. Still not getting why everyone thinks these comics are so outtasite, though! not sayin' they're bad by any means, I just can't get into it.

david_b said...

I've never been into X-Men at all, but I will agree Byrne knows how to draw here..! Very nice art, definitely in his stride; and I always like how he depicts Cyclops and his layouts are pretty cool, although occasionally it's a bit too clean and 'by-the-numbers', but that's just his style.

Most of his female faces look alike (Jean looks like Janet Dyne, who looks like Sue Richards, etc...), again just a style issue.

Looks like a super arc.

Edo Bosnar said...

Oh, yeah: since Wolverine's characterization came up, the way he was portrayed in the Claremont/Byrne period, i.e., surly, unstable and mysterious, is how it should be. Also, by extension, this is the 'real' Cyclops: the consummate leader and, quite often, the only adult in the room (like in the scene shown here, i.e., the way he faces down Wolverine and refuses to get ruffled by the basically childish taunt about being scared).

Doc Savage said...

I haven't read any X-comics more recent than around '86 or whenever Nightcrawler and Kitty were injured and off the team...have they changed the personalities of Cyclops, Wolverine, Storm, et al. so drastically? I know about Storm getting a mohawk and suddenly that made her streetwise and a master of martial arts overnight...

Anonymous said...

Great review Doug & Karen!

Ah yes I remember this issue very well; great cover by Cockrum, if he had stayed on as the regular artist we would have seen a lot more of Nightcrawler, by all accounts his favourite X-man.

Karen, I've always wondered about Storm being able to haul Wolvie around like that too - if he's got an adamantium skeleton, he should weigh well over 300 pounds, given that it's the densest metal known in the Marvel Universe! Of course, Claremont would counter by saying, 'well, Storm generated updrafts to support him' or some other explanation only a comics writer could dream up.

Claremont introduces us to the Proteus saga here, and it is well plotted, giving us teasers about 'Jason Wyngarde' and his gradual control over the pysche of Jean Grey. It's amazing how the most powerful X-man at that point was so vulnerable to mental manipulation. Byrne and Austin were at the height of their artistic work here. Yes, it does seem that Byrne probably looked into those warped mirrors you see at the carnival to get those surreal panels!

Personally, I would have liked to see Banshee stay on; I always felt the X-men needed another older authority figure besides Professor X or Cyclops to guide them.

Great art and great characterization all around here. You get the feeling that this was the pinnacle of the Claremont/Byrne/Austin collaboration.

- Mike 'wish someone would warp my reality around here' from Trinidad & Tobago.

Doug said...

Thanks for the kind words, Mike -- and everyone else. We really appreciate the support.

Given the events in Boston this afternoon, we've switched around some of the posts we had planned. Tomorrow's fare should be light -- in the midst of all of the crud that life throws at us, come back in the morning for some breezy ruminating on famous (or not-so-famous) songs. You'll see.

Tonight, just say a prayer for all involved in today's horrific events.



WardHill Terry said...

I want to comment just to get my mind on something else. I love this story. I had only started reading X-Men with #120. These characters were still new to me. I had never seen Lorna or Alex and the others on Muir Island. This particular arc slowly revealed each of the X-Men as individuals and their relationships with each other. In this issue we see Cyclops standing up to Wolverine. In the next issue we'll see Wolverine accept Cyclops as a leader. A real leader. WIthin 20 issues, this was lost. The line about Nightcrawler's words being perceived as drops of orange rain has always stayed in my mind. The panels chosen today show so well how Byrne could draw the X-Men in character. Their body languages are individual and interpersonal relationships are clear. Austin's backgrounds are precise, but in the background. They are drawn with a thinner line than the main figures. Something I did not see on Byrne's F.F. Just great stuff.

Fred W. Hill said...

Great story & art -- the tension just keeps on building with the main & sub plots. Reading it as these issues came out, of course, none of us could guess the ultimately tragic turn Jason's mindgames would take, but they were already very creepy enough. But there was so much else going on that it was hard to remain focused on that. Proteus was a genuinely frightening threat -- villains who were shown actually murdering people were still a relative rarity in mainstream superhero comics of this era and as far as I recall Proteus was the first in the X-Men. The stakes were getting even higher than when they last faced Magneto.
BTW, it occurred to me that it seems Claremont's point in that infamous scene where Scott finds himself unable to mourn what he believed was Jean's death was to indicate that Jean had changed so much that perhaps subconsciously Scott no longer recognized her as the same woman he had previously fallen in love with. As Claremont wrote the scene, the Phoenix was still Jean Grey, only with far more power than she'd ever displayed as Marvel Girl. Of course, much later it was retconned that Jean had never really been the Phoenix, so we might figure that although Claremont hadn't intended it as he wrote it, Scott was right -- it wasn't Jean who had seemed to die in Magneto's volcanic lair.

Fred W. Hill said...

Strange coincidence: this evening, after leaving work and walking to the lot where I park my car, I ran into a friend who was going to a downtown festival promoting business creativity. So we, and another friend wound checking out the various start-ups, etc., and one of them was a sort of geek version of e-Bay, focused on comics, cards, games, and the like. At the entrance to their venue was a huge -- about the size of a double-door, as in maybe 4X8 foot -- replica of the cover of X-Men 126. Later on, in a museum where a dance was being held, I saw a guy with that cover image on the back of his jacket! Now I don't recall ever seeing that particular cover duplicated anywhere else, but the same week Doug & Karen review this comic from over 30 years ago I happen to see it twice in very different forms. It's a great image of the 2nd classic line-up of X-Men and apparently still popular decades later.

Doug said...

Fred --

And all the better (and more memorable) due to the aforementioned Cockrum/Austin collaboration. Great story, and yes -- quite a coincidence.


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