Thursday, April 11, 2013

Hey, Guys! Can I Play, Too! (X-Men #117)

In the past couple of weeks, two blogs that I follow on a regular basis, Bronze Age Babies and Comics Bronze Age, have run reviews of X-Men #117, so I'd thought I'd join in the fun and take a crack at it myself. I've got two copies of this story on my bookshelves.  One is in the first volume of Essential X-Men and the other is in a pocket sized mass market paperback in the "Marvel Illustrated Books" line that reprints this issue and Giant Size X-Men #1.  For this review, I chose to read the story from the Essential volume, as that was closest to the experience of reading the original comic.
I love those old mass market paperback reprint comics, and have a small but growing collection of them.  My one regret from my excursion to Gem City Comic Con is that I had to leave a few of these that I needed for my collection lying on the dealer's table because it was late on Sunday afternoon and I only had so much money left and I wanted to pick up those Bloom County collections that  were on sale for half price at another dealer's  table.  Still, as much as I love the mass market paperback comics, they really aren't the ideal way to read a comic.  Due to the smaller page size, and to keep the panels readable, one page of a comic is spread out over two or three pages of the book.  Panels are rearranged, shrunk, sometimes cut in half, and often omitted altogether to make the story fit.  I originally read Fantastic Four #31 in this format and, until I reread in Essential Fantastic Four Volume 2, I had no idea the Avengers appeared in the story because their cameo was omitted completely.  I have seen some that just shrink the whole page down and run it otherwise unaltered, but that makes those comics much harder to  read, especially for my aging eyeballs.
So, I was meant to be talking about X-Men #117, wasn't I?
Since I had the Essential reprint, I decided to start reading with #111 in order to place #117 in context.  The story is, after all, more or less an epilogue to the series of stories that began with #111.  It begins with Hank McCoy, a.k.a. the Beast of the original X-Men, on leave from the Avengers and searching for the missing new X-Men.  He finds them working in a circus, having been hypnotized by their old foe Mesmero into forgetting who they are.  No sooner do they escape from Mesmero's influence than they are captured by none other  than Magneto who has defeated Mesmero.  Magneto holds the team prisoner in his base beneath a volcano in Antarctica.  Yes, some villains have hide outs in the Antarctic, and some have secret lairs in volcanoes, but Magneto is so bad-ass that he had both at once.
Our heroes escape from Magneto, but during the climactic battle Magneto's Antarctic volcano HQ is destroyed.  Hank and Jean Grey are separated from the rest of the team.  Hank and Jean make their way back to the Xavier  Institute, while Cyclops, Nightcrawler, Wolverine, Storm, Colossus and Banshee end up in the Savage Land.  Each group assumes that the other died in the explosion of Magneto's lair.  
In the Savage Land, the X-Men battle their old foe Sauron, then team with Sauron's human self, Karl Lykos, and Ka-Zar to battle Garokk the Petrified Man and his high priestess Zaladane.  
Leaving the Savage Land by boat, the X-Men encounter a storm, and that's where "Psi War" in #117 picks up.
Believe it or not, all that took place in only six issues.  (Of course, Bob Haney could have squeezed all that into just one issue.)
As "Psi War" begins, the tempest tossed mutants are rescued by the crew of a Japanese ship.  The ship's on a secret mission, so the X-Men are forbidden from attempting to contact Professor X.  Thus, back in the states, the Professor, Jean, and the Shi'ar majestrix Lilandra still believe the team to be dead.  Jean decides to leave the school and get on her life, and Lilandra is trying to convince Charles to fly off to deep space with her.  Charles, meanwhile, is quite understandably feeling a bit melancholy as he reflects back on events in his past that eventually led him to form the X-Men.  
After getting out of the Army and being dumped by Moira MacTaggart, Charles had found himself wandering around Europe and eventually ending up in Cairo.  Its there, after having his pocket picked by the young Ororo, a.k.a. Storm, that he encounters his very first honest to goodness evil mutant. Amahl Farouk hits Xavier with a brain blast to get his attention, leading Charles to a seedy saloon where the two meet face to face.
After rejecting Farouk's offer to join him, Charles battles the evil telepath on the psychic plane.  Things look bad for Charles for awhile, but eventually he reaches a new mastery of his own psychic powers that allows him to defeat Farouk.
Back in the present, after telling his tale to Lilandra, Charles decides to take her up on her offer and accompany her back to the Shi'ar homeworld.
After the breakneck pace of the previous six issues, this flashback tale provides a bit of a breather before things get hectic again when the X-Men arrive in Japan next issue and face off against Moses Magnum.  "Psi War" is an excellent single issue tale that really marks the beginning, in a way, of Chris Claremont's decade and a half of fleshing out the characters of the X-Men and  turning them into believable, real seeming people.  One way he did that throughout his tenure on the title was, as with this issue, by fleshing their pasts.  He shows the characteristic Marvel respect for Continuity (that capital "C" was originally a typo, but I realized that its kind of appropriate for the Marvel Universe's approach to the subject) by acknowleding an earlier tale of Professor X's past from X-Men #20, Roy Thomas' first issue as writer, and building on that without in any way contradicting it.
The entire run of issues I mentioned above, from #111 onward, are the work of two creators, Claremont and penciler and co-plotter John Byrne, at the height of their talents working together to produce some of the finest comics of the Bronze Age.  Byrne had begun drawing the book with #108 and #111 was the first where he is credited as co-plotter.  However, I'm guessing he was perhaps co-plotting from the get-go, as #109 features the first appearance of Byrne created character James Hudson, called Weapon Alpha in that issue, though he would later be known as Vindicator and eventually Guardian.  Byrne certainly hit the ground running on X-Men, and the quality of the stories improves one hundred percent as soon as he's on the book.  In fact, when I pick up Essential X-Men Volume I, I usually skip right to #108, despite the fact that its the conclusion of a two-parter.  
The late Dave Cockrum gets my respect for reviving X-Men from five years of reprint limbo (despite what is generally reported, the title was never actually "cancelled",until just last year that is.  Marvel just stopped producing new material for it for half a decade yet continued to publish it  containing reprints of the older stories.)  with writers Len Wein and Claremont, and co-creating and designing the new characters introduced in Giant Size X-Men #1.  However, to be frank, I've never been a really big fan of his work.  There's nothing really wrong with it.  He's a competent and professional artist.  It's merely a matter of personal preference.  His art just doesn't appeal to me for some reason. 
Claremont, meanwhile,  spurred on to new heights by his collaboration with Byrne, really hit his stride as a writer with this story arc.  The conventional wisdom is that X-Men has never been as good as during the Claremont/Byrne era, and I tend to agree with the CW in this case.
So, now that I've done my take on X-Men #117, I'm throwing down the gauntlet to any other comics blogger who wants to take up the challenge.  Who's going to be next?

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