Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Birth of Phoenix, part 1: X-Men 97

X-Men 97 (February 1976)
“My Brother, My Enemy!”
Chris Claremont/Dave Cockrum-Sam Grainger

Doug:      Mutant Mayhem-time, True Believers! Let’s hearken back to the days before the X-Universe exploded to the point of convolution that drove me away from a long-time favorite title. This multi-parter will take a look at the All-New, All-Different X-Men’s first battle against the Sentinels, in only the team’s fifth appearance.

Doug: I came to this version of the X-Men with issue 95. I had a friend who had GS X-Men #1 and X-Men #94, so I was quickly up to speed on what was happening. I also had a coverless copy of X-Men #58, so Havok was no surprise to me, either. So it was with much anticipation that I entered the fray that would become a very fun little arc.

Karen: I was lucky enough to have gotten Giant Size X-Men #1 when it came out, and every issue other than #95 (which I acquired many years later). Although I consider the Avengers my
all-time favorite super-team, I don’t think I ever followed them as intensely as I did these all-new, all-different X-Men! From GS X-Men #1 til about the time Byrne left, X-Men was my favorite book.
Doug: You know, when I think of multiple plotlines, foreshadowing, etc. I think of John Byrne. It’s difficult to pick up a Byrne-scribed book from the 1980’s that didn’t have stories flying all over.
But Chris Claremont certainly gives the Canadian a run for his money! We begin with Professor X in the midst of a nightmare, seeing battling starships in a galaxy far, far away. The mystery deepens as the last image Xavier glimpses before awaking is of a figure extending a hand toward him – and then gone. Hmmm… Xavier is comforted at the breakfast table by Moira MacTaggert, who we later find out is being escorted by Banshee. More plot-thickening.
Karen: You ever notice how all of Claremont’s characters have extremely convoluted back stories? Here’s Moira MacTaggert, housekeeper and general nursemaid. Oh, and she happens to know how to handle a machine gun (issue 96), and she’s actually a world class geneticist! This is something I know Byrne complained about, particularly when Claremont gave peasant Peter Rasputin a cosmonaut brother, Cyclops a space-pirate dad, and Kitty Pryde went from Byrne’s idea of a nice normal kid to being a super-genius. Nobody can have a simple backstory!
Doug: Karen, then we bounce out to your stomping grounds in the American southwest to drop in on Alex Summers and Lorna Dane. These two have apparently fallen in love – a storyline that was hinted at first by Roy Thomas and Neal Adams a few years earlier. As Alex goes off to do some geological surveying, Lorna is zapped by a super-baddie; her cry alerts Alex who sprints back to their cabin. He spies Lorna with a new costume (ah, that Dave Cockrum – always revamping), and asks what the deal is. Her reply? She blasts him and he passes out.
Karen: The Alex/Lorna romance was also touched upon in The Incredible Hulk #150. Although it’s a full-fledged relationship here in X-Men 97. I’m not sure what to think of Cockrum’s new costume for Lorna – it’s obviously a Shi’ar design. That reminds me, if the Shi’ar are an avian race, why do all their ships and costumes have insect motifs? I mean, it looks cool and all, but does that make any sense?
Doug: I thought the new Polaris suit was slightly reminiscent of Princess Projectra over in the Legion.
Doug: Back in New York, the new team is seeing Prof. X off on a vacation at JFK. As they exchange pleasantries and good-byes (the prize here is the introduction of Nightcrawler’s image inducer, designed by Tony Stark), who should show up but Havok and Lorna, dressed to fight. A battle of course ensues, some 747s are destroyed and general airport-destruction goes down.
Karen: “General airport destruction” indeed! Cockrum gives us some very dynamic artwork here.
Doug: Do you suppose Cockrum was influenced by the various Airport disaster movies of this era?
Karen: I think his artwork here was probably more spectacular than any effects they could have done back then!
Doug: The mastermind behind Havok’s and Lorna’s mind-control is revealed, in quite possibly the king of our “Dressed for Success or Fashion Disaster” feature – Eric the Red! Eric the Red? Are you kidding me? Not who I would have pulled out from the annals of X-dom to be one of the first big bad guys.
Karen: An odd choice to be sure. I would agree,Eric could easily get a spot as a fashion disaster sometime! You were thinking disaster, right, Doug?
Doug: Without a doubt, sister!
Doug: The ultimate knockdown-dragout occurs over the next eight pages, and is a showcase of two things: the X-Men are individually able to showcase their powers and abilities, a must since the book was only in its fifth issue, and we also become painfully aware that due to their lack of experience and chemistry they are outmatched. The highlights for me in this melee are the total lack of power displayed by Jean Grey (she will become Phoenix in our concluding tale -- #100) and the art of Cockrum. He is excellent on Havok – I have always loved the simplicity of the costume and the way it works with light and the motif of the concentric circles. Just really well-paced, exciting storytelling here with great Bronze Age art.
Karen: Jean is taken out quickly – I wonder, was this done to emphasize how powerful she became later on as Phoenix? As for the rest of the battle, I thought this was just fantastic work by Cockrum. He seemed to excel at showing energy blasts and explosions. The scenes of an enraged Storm blasting Polaris are thrilling.
Doug: Banshee and Wolverine arrive as the cavalry, but too late, as Eric the Red escapes with Havok and Lorna in his clutches. Wolverine screams at Cyclops to take a shot at them, but Scott freezes up. This brings up yet another occasion for Wolverine to question Cyke’s leadership and of course sets up future tensions. Another little bit of Claremont’s foreshadowing.
Karen: Ah yes, this was before Wolverine became a super-star, so he could still be slapped around by Cyclops and backed down by Storm. I found that refreshing! Speaking of foreshadowing, how about the groovy last panel with the “monitor within a monitor etc” motif? Long-time X-fans would surely notice that large purple leg – although even if you missed it, the blurb below would tell you that, “The Sentinels Return!”


Andrew Wahl said...

Enjoyed your first installment of Birth of the Phoenix. While I didn't come on board until later during the Byrne run (#129 to be exact), the Claremont/Byrne/Cockrum X-Men are easily the favorite comics of my childhood. In fact, I tend to stay away from reviewing them over on my site because I sound all drooly when I talk about them. No other comics make me feel 10 again quite like that run does.


Karen said...

The Claremont/Cockrum and Claremont/Byrne/Austin runs are two great runs. In fact, I'd put the C/B/A run not too far below Lee and Kirby's run on FF from about issue 41-77. It was similar to that famous run in the creativity, originality, and sense of excitement generated. As you can probably tell, Andrew, I'm a huge fan of this period as well!

Nathan Adler said...

But who do you think that is watching Steven Lang on the monitor?

Doug said...

Hi, Nathan --

If I had to guess, I'd say it's Lilandra's evil brother, who we'll meet in issue #107.


Nathan Adler said...

Hi Doug,

I'm not sure it can be D'Ken since he wears different colour robing than red.

In addition, X-Men #107 has Davan Shakari in a flashback with the side profile of a human. What do you make of that?

I've tried nutting it out on my blog which you should drop by and comment on:)

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