Monday, October 28, 2013

Heroes and Horrors: X-Men 40


X-Men #40 (Jan. 1968)
"The Mark of the Monster!"
Writer: Roy Thomas
Penciller: Don Heck
Inker: George Tuska

Karen: Welcome to our final "Heroes and Horrors" review. I hope you've enjoyed this look at super-heroes
and monsters. As our last hurrah, we're digging back a little deeper -technically, into the Silver Age vault, but it's all good. It's a little tale that brings us the original X-Men and the Frankenstein Monster, before Marvel began their horror line. So here we go!

Doug:  I just want to say up front that I used this cover in a tongue-in-cheek post a few years ago concerning what the House of Ideas would have been like had Scooby-Doo worked there!

Karen: Our tale starts with our mutant team having some fun in the Danger Room after a hard-won victory over Factor Three in the previous issue. The team has just received their new uniforms recently as well, so they're also pleased with them too. As they horse around, Beast and Iceman start to come to blows when a sudden mental message from Professor X puts everything on hold. The students run down the hall to the professor's room, where their teacher begins to tell them a strange story. The Professor was carrying out some mental experiments when he intercepted some radio messages from a ship in New York harbor. The vessel was claiming to be returning from an arctic expedition carrying the frozen form of -Frankenstein's Monster!  The X-Men are incredulous but Professor X explains that he has always believed the Mary Shelley story to contain some truth, believing the Monster to be some sort of android created by a super-intelligent mutant of a bygone era. He's already checked things out with his astral form and he's able to make a mental projection of what he's seen - sure enough, the creature looks an awful lot like the Universal Studios version of the Monster, right down to the neck bolts! Boy, nowadays Universal's lawyers would be all over that. Anyway, the students are excited, and the Professor says they must get to the museum where the creature, in its block of ice, is being held. He is positive that it is still alive and could be a danger to the museum personnel.

Doug:  Which new costume did you think was the best?  While I always think the Angel (shoot, most winged characters) provided the best visuals, his costume upgrade was my least favorite -- until he switched late to the blue and white bodysuit.  I think I liked the Beast's the best, followed by Marvel Girl.  As to the early action, the All-New, All-Different team certainly had a cooler Danger Room than these guys back in the day.  Scott was his typically uptight self, and the Beast's telling him to back off seemed in character.  I thought Roy did a nice job for a new reader in framing the team's personalities early here.  I did think it was interesting (not wholly bad) that penciler Don Heck chose to use two half-faces in panels showcasing Iceman and Cyclops on page 2 of this book.  Seemed like he ran out of space!  And as long as I brought up the art, I'll say that I really cannot find much influence by George Tuska on the inks.

Karen: I would agree, I liked the Beast's the most, but none of them were particularly exciting.

Doug:  Questions:  1) What the heck are "mental experiments"? and 2) If the professor is a telepath, how could he intercept a radio message?  I thought Professor X was really powerful in this episode, more than I remembered him being from this time period.  He seemed like he was channeling a little Dr. Strange, too.

Karen: I know, when reading early Marvels, it seems like the astral projection thing crossed back and forth between being a mystical attribute and a purely mental one.

Doug:  Roy's love of literature and background as an English teacher often shines through in his writing,
doesn't it?  This issue ends up being somewhat of a promotion for the novel written by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, of course until we reach Thomas's conclusion.  The introduction of the Monster was very reminiscent of Marvel's first issue of Monster of Frankenstein.

Karen: The X-Men (in their civvies), including the Professor, head down to the museum. They begin to ask the guard if they can gain entry. Now here something odd occurs. Rather than have Professor X use his mental powers to just control the guard and gain access, Professor X has Jean (Marvel Girl) use her telekinetics to push the man, causing him to fall and strike his head, knocking him out! That seems unnecessarily rough to me. In any case, it's a good thing they get inside, because one of the researchers in the museum has thawed out the Monster, and as the Professor suspected, the Monster lashes out. It should be noted however that this Monster has quite a vocabulary. After declaring that he will crush everyone like fleas, the Monster starts to make his way out of the museum backroom, when the Angel comes rushing towards him. But the Monster bats him away effortlessly. The Beast tries to take him on but can't budge the huge creature. The Monster refers to "the costumed ones" with extreme dislike, almost as if he recognizes them. Cyclops fires off his optic beams, but has little more effect than his team-mates did.  It looks like Cyke is about to get stomped when he is yanked out of the way by Jean's telekinetic grasp. This confuses the Monster for a moment, but just a moment. He then responds by firing off his own eye beams! These put down the X-Men for the count, and the Monster wanders off to carry out his uh, well, whatever it is he's planning to do.

Doug:  I had to re-read those panels where Jean knocks out the security guard.  I guess folks back in 1968 weren't as concerned about concussions as we are today.  Why didn't the Professor just pull a Jedi mind trick?  I liked Heck's Monster -- he was able to take what he must have known from the Karloff films and apply a bit of a different personality, which to me is what allowed him to very slightly separate this version from what had gone before.  But this story for me just begins to head south, and never really recovers.  It seemed like the X-Men were intentionally depowered, and of course they never would have dreamed of cooperating as a unit should -- Danger Room?  We don't need no stinkin' Danger Room!  And what of Cyke's eyebeams?  Aren't they considered assault by a deadly weapon?  The guy blasts through Sentinels with them, for Pete's sake!  Ahhh.....

Karen: The X-Men begin to recover and are confronted by the museum director, who screams at them for vandalizing his building. Not having time to deal with this, Iceman freezes the man (I hope he left him an air hole!) and they all take off, with Angel scouting ahead, looking for signs of which way the Monster went. The high-flying hero soon spots the path of the creature, with wrecked cars left in its wake. It has made its way to the docks, where it has jumped aboard a south-bound freighter. The team grabs a helicopter and lands it on the deck of the ship, upsetting the crew. They soon get things settled, mainly by beating the crew into submission, and then begin searching the ship. The Beast runs into the Monster in the cargo hold, and it chases him towards the deck, where the Angel manages to throw a lasso over him. Unfortunately for the X-Men's resident bird-man, it seems the Monster can somehow magnetize his feet to the deck! The Angel can't pull him off the deck. The Monster grabs a bunch of barrels and begins hurling them at Iceman, who freezes them in mid-air. The Monster seems especially threatened by Iceman and does his best to get him. Marvel Girl jumps in with her telekinetic power to give Bobby a break but she has little effect against the towering brute. The Professor tries to reach his android brain but with little success. Finally Iceman pops back up and begins spraying a sheath of ice over the creature, even as it struggles to be free. Suddenly the Professor tells him to cast a shield over the X-Men. He does, just as the Monster explodes! 

Doug:  Weren't the X-Men supposed to be unknown to the general public?  I've never read the complete Silver Age run, so I am showing my ignorance here.  But I thought there were very  secretive about their very existence -- it seems like in this issue they're definitely "out".  You know, you remarked above how callous it was of Jean to slam the security guard's head against the wall -- and here it sounds like the Professor just mentally coerces the pilots to give up the helicopter.  Very strange doings in this one!  And by the way, it's an ugly helicopter...  Anyway, the Monster has: super-strength, eyebeams, magnetized feet, and at least average intelligence.  Formidable, indeed.  And I guess that's why I kept asking myself, as I read this back on October 12th, if Roy shouldn't have just created a new super-baddie for this issue.  Of course, it's been documented that due to the fact that creators received no royalties in these days, Roy wasn't always forthcoming with new characters.

Karen: In the last couple of panels, the Professor explains he'd looked into the Monster's android mind and seen that he had been the creation of an alien race from a tropical word, sent to Earth to be an ambassador 150 years before, but had malfunctioned terribly. The aliens had chased him to the arctic regions, and somehow Mary Shelley must have learned of all this and written her story. What??? 

Doug:  At this point I couldn't take it any more!  I remarked to Karen in an email shortly after I finished reading this that I thought Roy might have been auditioning for a job with Silver Age DC.  This would have fit in just great in the pre-"New Look" Batman.  Is it any wonder that the X-Men teetered on the brink of cancellation in the late 1960s?  "...and somehow Mary Shelley must have learned all this and written her story."  Oh my...

Doug:  A few days after I typed my comments to Karen's framework, her post on Bigfoot, et al. ran.  And that got me to thinking -- was Roy Thomas's conclusion that the Monster should be a construct of aliens all that different from that same revelation concerning Andre the Giant's Bigfoot in the $6 Million Man?   I'm trying to remember if I found that to be a cop-out when I was 10-years old...  I know back then I really believed (well, at least was quite wary of the possibility) that Bigfoot was real.  That television show sort of ruined it for me.  I guess in the Frankenstein Monster's case, we should be glad that Marvel got it right just a few years past this story.

Karen: When Doug brought that idea up it was a real 'slap your head' moment. He was right, the two stories were incredibly similar, although of course the X-Men tale came first. I just felt like Thomas had forced two different ideas on each other. He could have had a fun Frankenstein story, or a fun alien robot story, but together, they just didn't make a whole lot of sense.  I sort of like the visuals, but there's no there there, as Gertrude Stein once said. The whole thing is goofy. I think for Heroes and Horrors month, we went 3 for 4, buddy! Not too bad. 


20 comments:

Humanbelly said...

I picked this issue up in its re-print form in X-Men #88, and had trouble resolving how bad it was with the much more compelling stories and events that I knew would begin in issue #42-- with the Death of Professor X. It's interesting-- I think that may have been really the first "Death" of a major character in the M.U.-- far pre-dating Gwen Stacy's-- and for the folks following the book, it was profoundly devastating (just read the letters pages in, say, issue #46). But I think the readership must have been so small that it went largely unnoticed by fandom on the whole. This book, though, does seem to be Roy at his literary-est being compelled to channel Stan at, really, his worst. Or perhaps there's even a disconnect between Don Heck (old pro, drawing/plotting what he thinks is best) and Roy (smart-alec young college kid who thinks he's the next Shakespeare or something), and the story caught between the two just doesn't have a chance.

But boy-- all kinds of not-good! When the last page has to be so overwhelmingly text-heavy to make it all wrap up w/ some semblance of plausibility, you know your story (and perhaps your book-?) is in trouble. . .

HB

david_b said...

I actually like the 'text-heavy' Marvel Silver Age books, they seemed more geeky and fits the X-Men style pretty good. I first saw Don Heck as artist this morning and groaned, but the art's pretty good, much in line with his Avengers panel work and layouts. I liked how he drew the monster. I kept thinking it would have been cooler to have Barry Smith draw this one, but IMHO his X-Men stint didn't fare as well as his brief Avengers or DD work. I picked up the X-Men/Blastaar ish on his name-recognition, plus hey, 'who doesn't love Blasty'..?

As for outfits, I like 'em all 'cept for Angel, with Marvel Girl and Cyck coming up the best.

All in all, it looks like a kooky-cool story.

Steve Does Comics said...

It's a genuinely dreadful story that I first read in Marvel UK's 1977 Titans annual and convinced me I was right to not like the original X-Men.

With its monster that's really an alien robot, it reminded me of Iron Man's early encounter with the Robo-Hypno Neanderthal, a tale I've always had a lot more affection for.

Garett said...

The Scooby Doo comment made me think that Don Heck would have been a good match with funny stories. He had a lighter touch than usual for superhero artists, and quirky faces/expressions...for superheroes I never believed in his art, despite his obvious drawing ability, but in comedy his style would work great. More like the Archie superheroes.

jim kosmicki said...

Angel's suspenders costume just never, ever looked good to me.

I think that the reprint of this later on was one of the earliest X-men books that I ever read, and it convinced me to keep reading them, so while yes, it's a crazy, not-good story, there was something there that kept young me reading the book.

Doug said...

I think I came aboard the X-Men just after this would have been reprinted, around #90. My first All-New issues was #95, but I did have a pal who had GS #1 and X-Men #94, so I'd seen them.

Has there ever been a bigger shock to the system than the move from the Silver Age reprints to Dave Cockrum?? OK, maybe from whatever was going on in the Avengers to Bendis...

Doug

themiddlespaces said...

So can anyone expound on Marvel vs. DC's use of Frankenstein as an in-continuity character?

I am more familiar with DC's (though only barely so), and didn't know that the Monster had ever appeared in any form in Marvel's pages (though I should've known - public domain and all of that). . .

I have very few memories of good original X-Men stories (all of which I read in reprint) - by the time I started reading X-Men, Jean Grey was dead, Kitty was arriving and the Beast had been blue so long I thought of him as an Avenger and Wonderman's drinking buddy.

I do have found memories of that Unus the Untouchable story where they mess with his power and cause his inevitable death years later (if I remember correctly how that panned out)

Doug said...

Osvaldo, my favorite in-continuity Monster story is during the "Celestial Madonna" arc in the Avengers where Earth's Mightiest Heroes encounter him as one of the Legion of the Unliving in the labyrinth of limbo. He and the Vision have an interesting encounter.

Doug

david_b said...

Some other ideas that come to mind, based on Doug's comment on pre-'New Look' Batman and further re-reading of the review.

1) Oh, yes so many liberties were taken with this monster, totally agreeing it should have just been a new villain. And agreeing with the mention, Cyck's beams should have burned right through the monster ~ Not even a burn mark on the shabby clothes...? Nada.

2) Looking at this cover, I'm likin' the concept to DC's Teen Titans/Mr. Jupiter-era covers like TT ish 33, 35 or 36.

Just seems like, as alluded to in the review, that Thomas was trying to come up with ideas which stuck. As Karen mentioned, a better idea would have been to have gone one way or the other, or you kinda fail at both.

themiddlespaces said...

David_B:

Cyke's blast is force not heat. It can't burn anything.

Or is that a ret-conned thing?

dbutler16 said...

This issue brings back memories, as one of the first back issues I bought, at a dear price, considering my $5 a week allowance.
So, even if it wasn't Roy's best work, I still remember it (the cover, anyway) fondly. And to answer Doug's question, I too, like the Beast's costume the best. Iceman is always going to come in last in this contest; Cyclops' costume, while cool, isn't much different than his previous costume; Angel's costume just has too much going on - the suspenders in particular both me; that leaves Marvel Girl and the Beast. Both have nice color combinations, but I don't care for the cliched mask. So, the Beast wins!

Humanbelly said...

Frankenstein's Monster saw lots of in-continuity action in the MU over the years-- of which jibes w/ this story, I'm afraid. He even had his own solo title for awhile during the Monster Craze which really had some darned good art (John Busc?). And he was an inredibly sympathetic figure in a strange MTU trilogy shortly after. I seem to recall that his incongruous Limbo appearance on the Avengers was somehow later explained and justified.

HB

david_b said...

Middlespaces, thanks for the mention of Cyke's 'optic blasts', but if you pick up CA&F 173, Cyke's 'optic blast' starts a huge fire to hold back Nick Fury's forces.

So there has to be some heat involved..

Doug said...

Now that we've opened this conversation about Cyclops' eyebeams, I am trying to think of how I've seen it used. I do recall that he could keep the visor as narrow as possible and use a fine beam. My guess is that wouldn't burn anything. But I do recall it being used as David recalls. I'm also thinking of the scene during Dark Phoenix when Jean uses her telekinesis to "hold back" Scott's eyebeams. I don't, however, recall that he said they'd burn her.

Sounds like we have a case similar to the ever-morphing powers of the Scarlet Witch.

Doug

Fred W. Hill said...

I got the reprint of this in '73 or 74 and while I liked the Universal Frankenstein flicks, and the use of the monster as a member of the Legion of the Unliving in the Avengers, but this just struck me as lame. Roy's first run on the the X-Men veered from average to horrid; IMO he never did anything really great on the title until his 2nd run, significantly abetted by Neil Adams' art. Seems Thomas needed a boost from the more dynamic artists like Adams, John Buscema, or Gene Colan, to rise to the challenge of writing better stories. What's terrible to contemplate is that during Thomas' sabbatical from the title, the stories got even worse!

Anonymous said...

My first issue of X-Men. Thanks for reviving some fond memories.

Anonymous said...

I think that Cyke's optic beam has differing effects according to how focussed it is - I have an annual where he blasts some baddies, noting that he didn't kill them because he used a wide angle beam. In a very early issue guided by Professor X he uses a very narrow laser like beam to disarm a bomb.

At this time Roy Thomas was just following convention by having the monster be an alien robot; many pre-Bronze Age stories were filled with alien robots!

Gotta go with the majority here - Beast's uniform is tops here, Angel's is the worst.

- Mike 'don't tell me Igor the hunchback was an android too' from Trinidad & Tobago.

Karen said...

The Frankenstein Monster was a relatively infrequent player in the Marvel U compared to the Werewolf or Dracula. His own title was short-lived (maybe moving him to modern times was a mistake?) and his appearances in other comics were limited, as noted by others. Kind of odd, when you consider how popular the Frankenstein Monster is as a general pop culture figure.

As for Cyclops' eye beams, I recall reading in the Handbook of the Marvel Universe that they emit force, not heat, but I think that there was a lot of flip-flopping on this in the early days of Marvel, with writers/artists not really sure what his crazy peepers could do.

William Preston said...

The Monster shows up in an Iron Man two-parter (102-103, I think), which was shortly after I started seriously collecting that comic. Strange stuff. I don't think it connects with other FM continuity.

Dear God, that X-Men cover is bad. The interior work is much better, though somewhat unattractive.

Edo Bosnar said...

Re: Cyke's eye blasts. Yes, they were supposed to emit force only, not heat. As Karen noted, this was stated in the Marvel Universe Handbook, and also, as I recall, in a little back-up feature from X-men #43 explaining Cyke's powers, which was reprinted in Amazing Adventures #6 (in 1980).
By the way, those back-ups on the origin of each X-man before they joined Xavier's school (first Cyke, then Iceman, Beast...) as reprinted in Amazing Adventures, where pretty good. In fact, they were sometimes probably better than the main story with which they appeared in the original series (I'm looking at you, alien robot Frankenstein story...)

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