Friday, May 30, 2014

The Mutants and the Magnum Force: X-Men 119

X-Men #119 (March 1979)
"'Twas the Night Before Christmas!"
Chris Claremont-John Byrne/Terry Austin

Karen: Ready for the wrap-up on this little two-parter? OK, let's get to it then! Nightcrawler takes  center stage as the X-Men look to assault Moses Magnum's dormant volcano base. Yup, it's right out of You Only Live Twice. Kurt bamfs inside, and thinks back about how they got there. The X-Men had listened to a briefing by Mr. Osama, Colleen Wing's grand-uncle. He described to the team how Magnum had threatened to destroy Japan, and had the power to carry out that threat, by triggering earthquakes along fault lines under the islands. The government refuses to give in to his demands, so the mutants are their only hope. Nightcrawler works his way further into the base, looking for a way in for Cyclops and his team. 

Doug: The splash page is magnificent! I know we gush over and over, but this era was the pinnacle of the Byrne/Austin team. Every panel could seem a masterpiece. I really like it when Nightcrawler and Colossus get major facetime in these stories. Maybe I'm just overly sullen when Wolverine's name comes up, but it's just refreshing to see that every member of the All-New team grabbed the spotlight on occasion. And speaking of the art team, all current readers should focus on that team shot in the first panel of Kurt's reflection. Scott may be drawn just a bit shy of his normal 6'3", but everyone else seems to be properly proportioned, including Wolverine!

Karen: Considering Byrne wasn't that fond of Nightcrawler, we were lucky whenever he was featured!

Doug: Question -- is it me, or are we working under the assumption that islands float? Because they don't. But, Mr. Osama makes the comment that "the home islands will shatter". Can something solid and anchored shatter? Would that be the appropriate term for a tree, or a mountain? Maybe I'm just missing a little geology and/or physics along the way here.

Karen: Don't look at me. I studied biology!

Doug: Prior to this storyline, I had not heard of Moses Magnum. That the dude had any sort of backstory at all was news to me.

Karen: He definitely wasn't a major player, but like the Mandroids, Claremont seemed intent on using him. Outside the base, Storm and Banshee provide a distraction. Ororo whips up an ice storm within the crater, while Banshee uses his sonic scream to put Magnum's defenses out of order. Storm wonders if things are going too smoothly -and you know she has a point! Things never seem to work out easily for this team. Far below the base, Cyclops and Sunfire have been using their powers to carve out a tunnel to sneak inside; Wolverine and Colossus round out their unit. Nightcrawler finally finds a good spot and signals them. As he does, though, he is startled by something. Cyclops' red force beam bursts through the floor of the room, and Colossus pokes his head up through the hole, relieved to be breathing fresh air again. His happiness quickly ends when he is suddenly grabbed by the neck and lifted up violently out of the hole. It's Moses Magnum! He punches Peter and sends him flying -literally. Colossus nearly shoots off the island until he manages to slow himself by dragging his fingers in the ground. After he comes to a halt, the Russian teen is disgusted with himself. He feels like he hasn't been carrying his weight lately, but vows that is about to change, and heads back into the base looking for Magnum!

Doug: I know time was of the essence in this story, but it does seem odd that the Japanese government wouldn't have contacted the Fantastic Four or the Avengers. Granted, the X-Men dropped right into their laps. I suppose their association with Sunfire made them an acceptable alternative to other American heroes.

Doug: I think making Nightcrawler invisible in shadows was a really cool innovation that came with development of the character over time. And as I said above, I love the fact that in this issue it seems like each individual X-Man is going to get that moment in the sun. Banshee seems really dangerous here, hmm? I wasn't buying Cyke's line about arriving undetected through their burrowing -- but, Banshee did screw up a lot of the instruments...
It just seemed like part of the gear one would want to have if holed up in a volcano would be some seismographic equipment.

Karen: Check again pal, Magnum says he sensed their presence -"I am Master of the Earth, armored one! No one moves through it without my being aware of them!"

Doug: True. But I was thinking more along the lines of the lackeys in the fortress. Moses indeed had his ear to the ground, so to speak! Colossus was my favorite X-Man when I was a kid. Fastball special, landings out of aircraft, his devotion to his friends and teammates -- swell guy!

Karen: Cyclops, Sunfire, and Wolverine are shocked by Magnum's unexpected powers -super-strength, durability, and power blasts. He's changed! Wolverine goes in to attack and gets knocked out with one punch. That's right, one punch. This was Wolverine B. G. (before godhood). Cyclops is stunned to see the feisty runt taken down so easily. He tells Sunfire to go get Storm and Banshee -they're going to need them. However, that leaves him alone with Magnum, maybe not the best move. But Magnum surprisingly decides not to "waste his power" on Cyclops -instead, he calls in a couple of Mark II Mandroids to battle the X-Men's leader. Mandroids again? We'll never know how Cyke would have fared, because Colossus leaps into the fray, fighting almost like Wolverine -like he's gone berserk. He's taking all his frustrations out on these two! Magnum decides discretion is the better part of valor and hightails it out of there, sealing the door behind him, just as Banshee and Storm show up.
Banshee has some sort of epiphany and figures out what Magnum is up to -and that he's the only one who can stop him. Uh oh -can you see the sacrifice play coming up? He tells Cyclops to get everyone out of the volcano fast and then flies outside.

Doug: One of the "funner" elements of comic book storytelling is the choreography of a battle scene. Byrne and Austin get it right here, with varied camera angles, close-ups that show Magnum's furious expressions, and then John Costanza finishes each panel off with the appropriate sound effect. Really, when Colossus was trying to dig his fingers into the rock to halt his projection toward the sea, I imagined *fingers on a chalkboard* and that's basically what Costanza gave us. Nice piece of cinema overall!

Karen: Wouldn't you like to see them try that in an X-Men movie? And hey, Colossus sure doesn't get much screen time in those, does he?

Doug: I wasn't quite sure why Magnum suddenly decided to bolt, other than the fact that he'd lost the element of surprise. Now a known commodity, maybe he wasn't as powerful as we initially believed? Banshee complained to himself that maybe he was getting old -- I always liked that he was older than the other new X-Men and often had that "older brother" feel, maybe even like an uncle at times.

Karen: I think that age differential was a problem in some ways. Having both Banshee and Cyclops together sort of undermines Cyke's authority, at least I felt that way. Not that Banshee was anything but a team player, but he could have been seen as an authority figure, given his age and experience. Magnum enters into his power chamber, deciding to make his threat good. A couple of captions explain that he didn't die in Power Man Annual #1, but was instead somehow imbued with "the power primal" - the ability to manifest an infinite amount of energy anywhere on Earth. Say what? OK, as I've said before, let's just go with it. Magnum starts to build up his energy, ready to project it out of the volcano. Banshee, flying outside, begins to project a "wall of sound" (where's Phil Spector?) around the volcano to counter Magnum's energy. Magnum, not knowing what's going on, boosts his power, and so does Banshee. Eventually, the whole island explodes.

Doug: That Power Primal is some nasty stuff, hey? It would seem that Barry Allen got shortchanged when the lightning hit his chemicals and all he got was super speed... I thought the crescendo of this tale was a bit too far-fetched. In other words, my disbelief didn't quite get suspended. First off, sound dissipates in intensity, so that Banshee could be that far away from the top of the volcano and emit that sort of energy seems off -- unless he was way more powerful than we were ever led to believe. Secondly, if he could determine the "energy frequency" that Magnum was using on the inside of the volcano, well that just opens up a whole new set of uses for his power: intercepting secret codes, extraterrestrial contact, etc. So while this scene looks really cool, and there was a build up of tension within the reader, I'm not buying it all (some of it, not all of it). Awesome page, though!

Karen: The next day, Misty Knight is out in a search plane, looking for the X-Men. Sunfire signals her and the team is rescued -but Banshee is in bad shape. Storm fears he has lost his power. We skip ahead ten days. Banshee is getting out of a car at Sunfire's palatial home. He thinks to himself that he's disappointed none of his team-mates were at the hospital when he was released -it's obvious he's hurt by their absence. But when he enters the home, the whole team is gathered under a big banner that reads, "Welcome Back Sean -Merry Christmas!" That's right, it's Christmas. The team is celebrating -although Nightcrawler and Wolverine are still in costume (I'm waiting to hear about this, Doug). Banshee can barely get out a hoarse whisper of appreciation -he really may have lost his sonic powers. Wolverine heads off to see Mariko, and Storm thinks about how close she's become with her friends. She gives Kurt a little kiss on the cheek and he looks like he's in Heaven. Peter stands out on the balcony alone though, until Storm asks if he's OK. He's melancholy -he misses his family.

Doug: This epilogue is what makes Bronze Age Marvel so great. We see the culmination (to this point) of relationships forged through accountability in battle. There is no action in the last 23 panels of the story (OK, well maybe the last two), yet I found this part of the book as gratifying a read as the "real" story. Early on I always felt that Kurt and Peter were vying for Ororo's affection; now we see how they've become their own little corner of the team, as brothers and a sister. And Wolverine -- I wish this direction (with Mariko) was where they'd taken his love interests all along.
I never did buy, nor care for, the subplot with Jean. It may have created some tension, but I just couldn't see it heading toward any resolution that would be satisfying (to Logan or to me!).

Doug: I think some day in the future, when you and I are ready to ride off into the sunset, our last post should be a montage of our favorite panels -- a collage of heroes in civvies while doing normal things, and rubber masks!

Karen: How about some Buscema blasts too? Our tale ends in Scotland, where Jean Grey, who still believes the X-Men to be dead, has come to spend the holidays with Moira McTaggert, Alex Summers, Lorna Dane, and Jaime Maddrox. As the foursome prepare to celebrate, back on Muir Island (Moira's home) Angus MacWhirter, who rented the X-Men a hover craft that promptly got blown up back in issue #104, decides to get his revenge. He plans to plant some bombs in Moira's lab -but is suddenly stopped by something - something inhuman.

Doug: So I'm dense. Been a looooonnnnnggg time since I've read these X-Men stories in a run. Is Jean not the world's strongest telepath?
Wasn't she stronger than Xavier when under the Phoenix Force? This whole subplot of Jean's dead/the X-Men are dead was kind of dumb to me then and now.

Karen: I thought the whole "X-Men are dead/Jean and Hank are dead" sub-plot was stretched to ridiculous lengths. And yes, you'd think Jean and Scott shared a psychic bond that she would have felt. Oh well...

Karen: Although this is not one of my favorite stories in the Claremont/Byrne/Austin era, it still had some nice character moments, and as always, it felt like the team was moving forward. They were really starting to feel like a team, and like friends. Each adventure seemed to bring them closer together -and pulled those of us reading these tales when they first appeared into that circle, making us feel like we knew these characters. I think that was the key to the title at this time. The reader felt a part of something.

Doug: I want to say this 2-parter was like a get-me-over fastball -- don't want to walk the batter, but you also can't afford to miss with your best stuff. I agree with you -- it's pretty darn good, but not the very best. Think about it -- other than a couple of one-off misses (Warhawk?), this train had been picking up steam since X-Men #94. No breaks. And look where it's headed! From here to the first Alpha Flight story, then to the Arcade tale (which I think I like better than do you), then Proteus, then on to the "Dark Phoenix Saga" and finishing with "Days of Future Past". Wow!! Counting Giant-Size X-Men #1 and a couple of Annuals, that's over 50 issues of generally can't-miss entertainment. I'm not sure at the height of the Lee/Kirby/Sinnott Fantastic Four they rattled off a run of 50+ like this. Close -- no argument. But this All-New, All-Different business was just solid.


Fred W. Hill said...

Making an early entry before going to work, but nice review of this dandy little two-parter, Doug & Karen. I'd previously caught Moses Magnum's initial appearance, in the one & only (as far as I know) Luke Cage, Power Man Annual, from 1976 I believe. This issue essentially writes out Banshee as a regular member of the cast and I'm a bit curious as to why Claremont/Byrne decided to oust him. Maybe just to shake things up a bit. Also noting that scene where most of the cast is in civvies -- even with so many members, they were all diverse enough in looks that they didn't really need costumes to be distinguished, certainly not either Kurt or Logan. Whereas with some groupings of Avengers, it would have been a bit difficult to tell Don from Steve from Hank Pym from Clint (depending on the artist, of course). And of this group of X-Men, only Cyclops & Wolverine have identity hiding masks as part of their costume.

Edo Bosnar said...

Yep, Doug, this was one fine run of comics, one of the best. To answer my own question from yesterday's post: this was my favorites series back in the day, and I reread the whole thing a few years ago (in the first 2 volumes of Essential X-men), and I think it still holds up quite well.
As for this issue specifically, I mentioned before that I had only read it the first time not long ago in the Essentials book. I missed its reprinting in Classic X-men, because that was during one those periods when I was not reading comics. Anyway, it's a really good, exciting issue - a very good conclusion to the story.

And not that I'm a geologist or anything, but as I understand plate tectonics, if the continental plates shift and move apart at just the right angle and speed, the land masses above them can simply collapse - and sink into the ocean if there's one nearby. That's basically what everybody in California means when they fret about the San Andreas Fault and "the Big One."

Humanbelly said...

As edo & Doug point out, Chris Claremont does indeed seem to have a very Stan Lee-esque grasp of science, doesn't he? Gloss it over w/ a thin veneer of fabricated plausibility. . . and deliver it w/ a tone of authority--- heh, we'll buy it every time!

But it certainly didn't effect my enjoyment of this story. It's one I distinctly remember reading for the first time when it came out, and at the end I set it down and said "I can't believe how good this comic is" to myself, aloud. LOVE Banshee's heroism and willing self-sacrifice when it comes to saving the world-- that page is the one that comes to mind whenever the character pops into my head. And that epilogue with the Christmas party captures a feeling of unforced sincerity that is often hard to convey in comics. Man, what a great run. . .


(PS-- Post Office called at 7 a.m.. . . baby ducks turned up- untracked- at our local branch,and are now safe & sound in their new home. *whew*)

Edo Bosnar said...

Hey, HB, thanks for the update on the ducks - and glad to hear they're safe. I actually found myself a bit concerned about that when you mentioned it yesterday.

Anonymous said...

That's nice to hear about the ducks ! The splash page is indeed very good - it's a great pity that the opening splash page is gone from modern comics, now they just use a boring page of text to re-cap the story so far. Jean Grey would surely have sensed that Scott was still alive - this is off the subject but I always felt that in Star Wars Darth Vader would have "felt it" in The Force if Luke and Leia had been his kids but in A New Hope he's standing right next to Leia and doesn't sense anything. The Force couldn't have been all that amazing. I thought that the worst that shifts in the tectonic plates could do to Japan was cause severe earthquakes and tidal waves - I didn't know Californians thought they could plunge into the sea at any moment ! Marvel in those days definitely had poor scientific knowledge - the Stone Men From Saturn is my favourite lol.

Mur said...

I always took Banshee's counter frequency defence like this: Banshee is the master of sound. Rocks and earthquakes would generate infra-subsonic sound. Like a concert maestro, Banshee would listen and say "Ah, Low D Flat. I'll generate High C Sharp" (or something like that) to match and dampen the power buildup. Generating a specific white noise.

And that is as far as I'm prepared to go with trying to wallpaper over comicbook science!

It was a fun little story.

(three cheers for the plucky little duckies!)

Doug said...

I'll be interested to hear the ducks points of view on their adventure!


Humanbelly said...

Mur, that is a solid, solid job of wall-papering-- there's just enough fuzzy science to support it, I think. Banshee would almost certainly be gifted w/ perfect pitch (isn't he supposed to be this superb singer, as well?). And like most old-school piano tuners, he would surely be able to hear the wavering caused by out-of-synch soundwaves (wavelengths)- so the pitch-matching (or countering) would very much be a tricky exercise in split-second interval-adjustment by ear. As you suggest, what he's hearing is the sympathetic pitch created by Moses' power resonating through the rock, and countering it (with. . . overtonal pitches. . .? Musician-guys, you have a take on that?). That. . .wow. . . that kind of works better than MOST super-science explanations do-! Suddenly, I understand Banshee so much better. . .

Thanks to all for your concern about our ducklings-! Man, and my apologies for the inadvertent hijack-- you are all both kind and indulgent. Their little box disappeared for over 50 hours from the USPS's tracking system, and then they just popped back up this morning at the sorting facility at 5:30. It's either a Twilight Zone scenario or a Bermuda Triangle one. . . but it is indeed an unsolved mystery. . . ! (Alien-abducted ducklings? Hmm-- they've already grown three-fold since arriving, and have eaten the dog. . . )


Dr. Oyola said...

I knew that Banshee lost his powers, but I never knew (until now) how.

I like this story - at least based on this overview. As I said before I may look to pick it up someday.

The fight choreography (something most of today's artists/writers don't seem to care about) looks great and like you I like the that the denouement is the characters in civvies (mostly) being human and allowing the narrative to take stock of their relationships - something X-Men always did well and that comics don't do enough of anymore, either.

Great work. Thanks!

P.S. Glad to hear about those ducks, you want them fresh for the roast! ;)

Anonymous said...

Ah, reading this review brings back fond memories of when I first read this many issue years ago. This is another fine example of what made the Claremont/Byrne/Austin run so legendary - the nice buildup of plotlines, intriguing character development and the great art.

Yeah, what struck me the most was Banshee's sacrifice in this issue. Not only was he willing to sacrifice his powers but his very life to combat the menace of Moses Magnum. Great stuff.

I think it was actually a not unheard of practice for Marvel to resurrect obscure characters and use them in new storylines, e.g. the Headmen in the Defenders. I for one did not know Moses Magnum had appeared in a Power Man annual before he appeared in the X-men. I think Claremont and other writers used this because it expanded on the tie ins between the characters in the Marvel Universe, it saved them from having to invent a new character, and they probably felt it would pull in new readers who would look up the old history if they realized these characters had been around for some time.

I think Banshee's powers have been under appreciated for most of this run. I was glad to see him display the range and scope of his sonic powers in this issue. When he debuted way back in the old X-men comic #28 in 1967, he was more than a match for the whole team.

The foreshadowing of the Proteus saga was a nice touch in the final panel of this issue.

- Mike 'Klaw ain't got nuthin' on Banshee' from Trinidad & Tobago.

Doug said...

Whoa, Mike -- you slacking today?


Anonymous said...

Thanks for a great review, Karen and Doug! I think your comments about the train picking up steam and the reader feeling like a part of something explains why I stuck with X-Men into the early '80s when I had lost interest in most other comics.


Anonymous said...

No Doug - it's another holiday in T & T today (Indian Arrival) so yers truly is kickin' it back home! Gotta love T & T - only 1.5 M people but more holidays than many bigger countries!

Seriously though, when I post early it means either one of two possibilities - 1) it's a holiday or 2) I'm on vacation.

- Mike 'slack? No, I'm tighter than Baron Zemo's mask!' from Trinidad & Tobago.

J.A. Morris said...

FWIW,Moses Magnum first appeared in Giant-Size Spider-Man #4, here's a page that features some nice scans & a summary of that story:

Anonymous said...

Could it possibly be that Claremont felt there were too many members to develop within the context of the story? Banshee, being an older established character, had had his moment. The old Banshee, when letting loose with his Banshee scream, would sonically assault on a physical level. People were always covering their ears in pain. There were several times when he would use his power and people wouldn't bat an eyelash let allow crumple into a mewing ball of quivering flesh. It could also be Claremont just didn't like the character so he worked him out without killing him.

The Prowler (found his Power Packs).

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