Monday, April 29, 2013

Reality Bites: X-Men 128

X-Men #128 (December 1979)
"The Action of the Tiger!"
Chris Claremont/John Byrne-Byrne/Terry Austin (cover by George Perez/Austin)

Doug:  Epic conclusion time, kids!  I had not read this story since I bought it off the spinner racks almost 35 years ago, and this has been a fun refresher.  I think many of us who gather around here daily want to remember our favorite characters as they were when they brought us the height of our comics-reading joy.  For the X-Men, as far as I'm concerned, this is wrapping up that period for me.  As I said a couple of weeks ago, I unfortunately bowed out for a few years after issue #130.  My memories are just about finished as far as this wonderful run by Claremont, Byrne, and Austin played out for me.  And what a long strange trip it's been!

Karen: Although I hung around longer than you did, I would say this particular time period of the book stands out to me as the high point and my mental images of the characters are pretty much locked in to this era.

Doug:  We open, fittingly enough, right where we left off in issue #127.  Proteus had assumed the body of his father, John MacTaggert, and had captured his mother, the X-Men's ally Moira MacTaggert.  He now held the X-Men at bay in the capital city of Scotland, Edinburgh, and began to warp reality for all in his wake.  This scene answered a question I raised two weeks ago, and that was whether or not the reality-warping powers of Mutant X were played out in the minds of his opponents, or if he actually did bend time and space to his whims.  The creative team makes it clear here that this is a very real terror Proteus is bringing to Edinburgh.  As Moira pleads with her son to stop, Proteus rains all kinds of hell on the city.  Buildings bend and explode, gravity goes absent, people's lives are threatened, and the X-Men scramble to keep the populace safe.

Karen: It's all very well done, with the pavement going all liquid and gooey and flying up in the air, buildings twisting as if they were made of wax and melting in the sun - just weird and disturbing. I liked seeing the team putting the safety of the civilians first -hey, these are actual bona fide heroes!

Doug:  A few pages into the story we get an "untold tale" of Proteus' origin.  We learn how he had been imprisoned on Muir Isle during the first Magneto battle, and that during that battle his cell's security had been compromised.  So Mutant X had actually been on the loose for quite some time prior to his 1st appearance in this storyline.  We see how cranky old Angus MacWhirter was possessed, but I have to take issue with Claremont on a line he writes in this section.  He states that MacWhirter had "minor electronic skills", and that was enough "to re-program the lab's main computer to show his cell as sealed tight..."  Really?  So being able to wire a lamp or lay out the circuits for a house is akin to programming a computer sophisticated enough to keep dangerous mutants at bay?  Duh...  Moira had discovered that the cell had indeed been breached, and as Mutant X moved throughout the compound he tried to possess Phoenix and Polaris -- to no avail -- before he jumped into one of Jamie Madrox's clones.

Karen: Agreed, the idea that the sea captain could reprogram the lab computer made no sense whatsoever, but I'm willing to overlook it. The recap was a bit tedious but I suppose necessary for anyone just jumping on. I'm also still not sure how Proteus got away from Phoenix, but again...let's just go with it.

Doug:  Proteus distracted himself by focusing all of his attention to his wife/mother; this was a generally creepy part of the story as the mutant while being the son inhabited the body of his father.  The X-Men get a chance to collect themselves, and Cyclops formulates a plan.  Psychically linked to his teammates, he tells each what they must do.  This was another example of the exponential increase in Jean Grey's powers.  Besides the great characterization of Scott throughout this story, Banshee gets some nice screen time as well.  I thought that was really important, as his depowering did not keep him from being a vital part of this arc.  We also get some great "Wolverine moments", as he rescues Storm from being encased in amber.  I thought that the desperation of the battle against Proteus really shone through the use of guns in the story, something we're not used to seeing.  Although Moira had fired shots to distract her son back in #126, she commented at the time that she had intended to kill him if necessary.  Here, Banshee fires a pistol, hitting Proteus in the shoulder; the villain rebukes him for not firing a kill shot.  So there was an envelope-pushing in this plot.

Karen: Yes, despite having the Punisher running around in the Marvel Universe, guns in the hands of heroes was still a rarity. I liked the exchange between Cyke and Banshee regarding Moira, with Banshee recognizing, grudgingly, that Cyke is right, and that of course he cares about Moira too. Man, I miss the days when I could think about Cyclops as a great team leader and not the sleazy weirdo bedding the White Queen. Anyway, Wolverine's self-sacrificing play to free Storm from the amber was another sign of growth for him as well.

Doug:  As retaliation for shooting him, Proteus opens a seemingly-bottomless pit and drops Banshee into it.  As he falls, the hole closes above him, but transparently.  Cyke blasts through that and orders Nightcrawler to get down it and rescue Sean.  He does, and is forced to teleport the two of them out from below the rim.  The strain almost kills them, as they re-materialize several stories above the earth.  Polaris is able to set them down.  I really, really enjoyed the inclusion of Havok and Lorna Dane in this story!  Alex is such a great visual anyway.  Proteus uses the confusion as an opportunity to flee, and spirits Moira away to Castle Rock.  Phoenix follows, and is quite angry.  This again is somewhat uncharted territory, as I really felt like she could kill Mutant X.  He's able to withstand her initial, brutal onslaught and fight back... hard.  He drops her to her knees, and it's at that point that Wolverine leaps from a nearby tree and takes an enormous hack through Proteus's mid-section.  Disemboweled.  Had to be.  As Logan tends to Moira, Cyke and his brother appear on either side of Proteus and unleash their energy powers.  Again, great visual.  However, Proteus seems to give up his host body for a moment, dropping almost out of sight -- the brothers' blasts strike each other.  If you'll recall, though, each is immune to the others' energies.

Karen: I too felt like Phoenix should be able to deal with Proteus handily but it does seem like her power levels fluctuated somewhat at this time, and his attack was on a mental level, and we've seen what Wyngarde  was capable of doing to her. I'm more  interested in what happened with short-stuff. Was this the first time we had Wolverine declare that he "loved" Jean? He moped over her picture in issue #114. But I'm not sure the "L" word had been uttered before. In any case, I'm surprised he would have stopped once he attacked, but he strikes Proteus viciously as you say, then goes to tend Moira. Seems a bit out of character. But I always enjoy seeing the two Summers brothers using their powers together.

Doug:  Proteus is on the move again, this time to the ramparts of the castle.  Wolverine, Moira in tow, climbed the side of the mount in an effort to remove her from the battle; Proteus wanted her back.  What a great spot for the climax of the story.  Proteus grabbed Moira away from Wolverine, knocking him off his grip.  Cyclops was able to use his eyebeams to soften Logan's fall until he was low enough that Colossus could catch him.  Then it was Peter's turn.  We really hadn't seen much of "the big Russkie" in this one.  I have to say it was worth the wait!  Peter bravely climbs to the top of the keep and confronts the fading body of Joe MacTaggert, though still strong with the spirit of Proteus.  As the villain reaches toward Moira, Peter casts him aside, the last vestige of MacTaggert's body exploding as it hits a wall.  Now unrestrained, the energy form of Mutant X stands to face Piotr Rasputin.  A psychic assault ensues, bringing Peter's worst fears and nightmares to physical manifestation.  But even as Peter falls to his knees, he looks up and rises as Colossus, and plunges his metallic hands into the center of Proteus.  The being in effect short circuits and dissipates.  Seeing a tremendous flash, the rest of the X-Men head to the castle.  They find Moira in the arms of Peter; she is now a widow and without child.  But it's Sean Cassidy who goes to her, and all suddenly seems right with the world.

Karen: This was a truly cinematic ending. Loved the bit with Wolvie being slowed by Cyke's beams. "Ow! OW!!" But this was Piotr's chance to shine and the creative team did a nice job with him. He was the purest of the group, the one who really represented the ideal of "hero" in every sense -- brave, idealistic, selfless, and all that came out in this sequence. A real Man of Steel, so to speak. I also liked that in later issues, Piotr would feel some regret and doubt over killing Proteus -- every hero has a conscience, after all.

Doug:  What a storyline.  This was everything that was right about comics in the late Bronze Age.  This is a microcosm of the gold that the Claremont/Byrne/Austin team continued to mine.  Of course, their magnum opus was mere months away, so perhaps we should consider this the most filling of appetizers?  Hard to believe they topped it, and knocked it out of the park as far as they did.


Edo Bosnar said...

Yep, comics were my drug back then, and X-men in the 120s and 130s were the equivalent of mainlining the purest product. Kept reading X-men for years afterward, trying in vain to get that same high...

Matt Celis said...

Yes, the awful super hero cliche where killing a murderer no one else could stop somehow weighs heavily on the conscience...did Marv Wolfman write those issues?

Karen said...

Shouldn't killing someone always weigh on one's conscience? I would hope so.

J.A. Morris said...

Thanks for another great write-up.

Because the Dark Phoenix saga has been overexposed and rendered (somewhat) moot by the "Jeans not dead" business that followed, I find stories like this one more interesting to revisit.

I've said before, I don't lose much sleep over stories published in the last 20 years, but I think bringing Proteus back was a dumb idea. He's been revived more than once since this story,but I guess creators have been trying to "out do" Claremont\Byrne\Austin ever since 1980.

Bruce said...

I don't have much to add to this excellent review. Doug sums up my feelings perfectly in his last paragraph. To me, this story is as good as a comic book can get. Issues like Uncanny X-Men #128 are what have made me a comics fan for 35 years.

X-Men remained a must-read title for a number of years after John Byrne left the book. But I never felt it quite reached the same heights as it did during the Claremont/Byrne era. Proteus, Hellfire Club, Dark Phoenix, Days of Future Past - these guys were producing classics on a monthly basis.

And, yes, killing should always be the last resort for a super hero and if a hero must kill, it should weigh on his or her conscience. Respect for life is a core heroic principle.

Doug said...

J.A. and Bruce --

Thanks very much for the kind words. This was a fun 4-parter to read and review.

You know that sooner or later we're going to tackle that behemoth that was "The Dark Phoenix Saga". We'll probably go back and get the here-and-there's that we've missed first, though. At any rate, we're not done with these X-Men tales.


Matt Celis said...


Karen said...

Well then Matt, you'd probably feel right at home in the new Marvel and DC universes.

Anonymous said...

Another great review! I can't add much. The art, the story, the characters...this was a great time to be an X-fan. Thanks Karen and Doug!


Fred W. Hill said...

The issue of a hero's conscience on having to kill a genuine threat who has previously murdered and would kill again given the opportunity was also brought up during Miller's run on Daredevil in his conflict with Bullseye, as well as a point of debate in Batman vs. the Joker. From a legal standpoint, if anyone kills someone in order to prevent that person from murdering another, as with the Barry Allen Flash killing Professor Zoom just as the evil speedster was about to murder Barry's prospective bride, that's entirely justified and no fair court would find guilty of a crime. Of course, any hero who finds killing under any circumstances abhorrent would have a troubled conscience even if they intellectually realized there were no good options. At least up to the closing years of the Bronze Age, there were relatively few recurring villains who were depicted as murderers of innocent people, who would kill again and again -- the Joker and Red Skull were holdovers from the Golden Age and Bullseye was the most prominent to show up in the Bronze Age (if you don't count Dracula!). Paradoxically, regardless of how disturbing it might be to some of us, fictional murderers such as these can never be permanently put away or die precisely because fans love to read stories featuring these fiends and comics creators are all to happy to provide them. I'm sure Claremont and Byrne intended for Proteus to never appear again, but it appears someone much later on brought him back anyhow. If Charles Manson or Osama bin Laden were comicbook supervillains, the heroes would be battling them periodically for decades and not even a nuclear explosion could kill them off.
Meanwhile, this is some maginificent storytelling by Claremont & Byrne -- genuine danger and pyschological tension and incredible art. And that they would continue this for at least another year and not only maintain the high quality but do better is nearly mindboggling considering how relatively few lengthy great collaborations (say, at least 30 issues) there were in the Bronze Age.

William Preston said...

This sequence of issues (and many of those that had come before and some still to come) delivered beyond what was promised. You felt you got your money's worth and that your expectations were piqued and met. How often does that happen with something you buy? X-Men was the comic that, for me, coming more seriously to comics at that time, made it seem possible that other products from Marvel would do the same. Sometimes it happened. Mostly not. The expectation that it could happen kept me buying--till the time when nothing achieved that goal, and I stopped buying.

Anonymous said...

Now this is what made the Claremont/Byrne/Austin X-men a classic series!

Great plotting and characterization by Claremont, and the usual magnificent art by Byrne and the vastly underrated Terry Austin.

JA Morris, did they really bring back Proteus? Hmmph, seems like a weak attempt to capitalize on the groundwork laid by Claremont & co. Some villains should just stay dead.

- Mike 'X-men forever' from Trinidad & Tobago.

Edo Bosnar said...

I guess I'm not surprised that Proteus was brought back for some reason, given all the other stuff that's been done, but it still makes me utter an almost audible groan.
By the way, Mike from T&T, is Austin really underrated, much less vastly? Ever since I started following the comics-related press and blogs, etc. online, I've seen nothing but high praise for him from both fans and industry pros alike (which is only proper, I think). I never got the impression he's been overlooked, or underrated, or anything like that - quite the opposite in fact.

Anonymous said...

William Preston, I can relate to your sentiments. In the late 70s, I kept buying most Marvels hoping at least some of them would measure up to X-Men. By the early 80s, if I bought a comic at all, it would ONLY be X-Men.


William Preston said...

The Morlocks stopped me on X-Men. Iron Man and Daredevil also set the bar quite high at times and gave one hope. And I loved MTIO, with Ron Wilson's art. All of Spidey's best was, sadly, a long way behind him, but I'd bought a lot of the Romita run off a guy who was unloading old comics--and that run, too, had the effect of making later Spidey stuff better merely by association.

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