Sep 17, 2012

Back Issue Ben: X-Men: The Proteus Saga

Back Issue Ben is a column written by Ben Smith for the Comics Cube! See his archives here.

Uncanny X-Men: The Proteus Saga
The Dark Phoenix Saga's Younger, Less-Loved Brother

by Ben Smith

I think it's safe to say that Chris Claremont and John Byrne's run on the X-Men is one of the most beloved runs in Marvel comics history. You probably already know about, or have read, The Dark Phoenix Saga, the crown jewel of that run. You might not have read the story that went down right before that one, and for that you should feel great shame. More shame than you already feel reading my writing (I know you must be in a low place, reading my stuff, but I'm here for you, and I care about you). The Proteus Saga (is it called saga? I don't care, I'm going with it) was the story I remembered more as a kid (probably due to these issues being more affordable, if I were to take a guess). It was more sinister, edgier, and more grounded than Dark Phoenix (the Shi'ar kidnapping the X-Men at the end of that story is really jarring). On the negative side, there is zero Emma Frost in fetish wear in this one (I changed my mind, Dark Phoenix is better).

Claremont and Byrne were arguably the top writer and artist in the industry at that point, and it shows. They were cranking out the classics, and this story is no exception (Roger Stern probably doesn't get enough credit for being the editor during this run. I feel like he had to have contributed significantly). After much personal reflection as of late, I have concluded that Byrne is one of my all-time favorite artists (it's hard to admit with his famously abrasive personality). He was just better than most of his peers (I'm talking pre-DC Byrne here, not BLOOD OF THE DEMON Byrne) and that was on display here. Just look at those pages where reality is being warped (Terry Austin is the other unsung hero. It's no coincidence Byrne's art was so great here). Claremont isn't as bad as he would eventually get with the words (oh, so many words).

Anyway, enough of my rambling, let's ride this dinosaur (I don't know what it means either).

#104. Author: Chris Claremont; Artist: Dave Cockrum; Inker: Sam Grainger; Editor: Archie Goodwin

Our saga begins ever so briefly here, as the all-new, all-exciting X-Men face off against the menace of Magneto on Muir Island. An ominously marked door is seen, with an unknown menace being freed.

My brain thoughts: People sure aren't kidding when they say Chris Claremont would establish a thread and then leave it dangling forever. Twenty-one issues! I don't even think that's close to his longest dangling plot point either.

#125. Author: Chris Claremont; Penciller: John Byrne; Inker: Terry Austin; Editor: Roger Stern

For the purposes of this exploration, I am going to skip past all the weepy Jean Grey stuff. Short of it is, Jean Grey and the Muir Isle crew still think Cyclops and the X-Men are dead, the X-Men still think Jean Grey and Beast are dead. Jason Wyngarde is using his mental powers on Jean, which we'll see explode in the Dark Phoenix Saga. Everybody's miserable. Rinse, repeat, for the next thirty years. (It's not tired here yet though. Don't stop reading…)

Moira MacTaggert is running tests on Jean to determine the extent of her powers as Phoenix. At which point they are spied on by a mysterious figure by the name of Angus MacWhirter.

Later, Moira steps on something hard in the hallway by the ominously marked door of "Mutant X," where, to her horror, she discovers Mutant X is missing.

Back in New York, after discovering that the Beast is still alive, Cyclops calls Muir Island to share the good news. His intentions are interrupted by a scream from Lorna Dane, and the adventure begins.

My brain thoughts: It's not surprising how the X-Men became so popular, they're so melodramatic. Claremont also knew how to keep you hooked, as this whole mistaken deaths thing ran for over a year in publishing time, and took the X-Men all away around the world. They finally come back together here though, which relieved young me. I assume, for all I know this was the first X-Men comic I ever read. (Fun fact: I remember a time when I wished they would bring back the yellow with black stripes Wolverine costume. Okay, maybe it wasn't a "fun" fact.)

#126. Author: Chris Claremont; Penciller: John Byrne; Inker: Terry Austin; Editor: Roger Stern

This issue opens with the Blackbird speeding its way toward Scotland, almost knocking over a fishing boat in its way (Cyclops is inconsiderate like that. For evidence, see any other X-Men comic ever). The X-Men all exit in the most visually interesting ways possible. Cyclops lands the plane while the rest of the team patrols for threats.He then meets up with Nightcrawler, who has found a grisly body laid out across an unconscious Lorna.

One by one they find Moira, Havok, Madrox, and Phoenix. They gather up to discuss what happened. In short, one of Madrox's dupes was possessed by an unknown entity named Mutant X, a powerful mutant with mental powers, who also happens to be Moira's son.

Mutant X continues to make his way toward his ultimate destination, unfortunately for Ferdie Duncan.

The X-Men split up to search. Moira breaks down her hatred of her son's father (no mincing words), and his weaknesses. (If you forget them, don't worry, Claremont will remind you repeatedly).

Wolverine is able to track Mutant X with his heightened senses, who has taken over the body of a policeman.

His adamantium skeleton saves him from being possessed.

Mutant X gives himself a better name, Proteus, and then unleashes his abilities to warp reality upon Wolverine and Nightcrawler.

Storm intervenes, drawing Proteus' attention upon herself. Using her powers to generate high winds to try and keep him away, Proteus closes in on her.

My brain thoughts: The thought of a villain that possessed people, killing them in the process, was pretty heavy for a kid. As much as I can't stand the overuse of overwhelming violence and darkness in the grim and gritty era and beyond, there was a reason it got so prevalent. We loved the violence. Daredevil, Dark Knight Returns, Rom and Shang-Chi decapitating little girls, we ate it up. Of course, back then we also got Spider-Ham, so there's the difference.

#127. Writer-Plotters-Penciler: Chris Claremont and John Byrne; Inker: Terry Austin; Editor: Roger Stern

Proteus closes in on Storm, and just as he's about to take her over, gun shots from above come raining down.

Moira has him in her sights, but Cyclops jerks the gun away as she fires, refusing to go for the kill. She puts Cyclops down and out, and heads off after her son, determined to stop him, whatever the cost.

Cyclops and the team regroup, and pause for a hot cocoa break (wha?!). Cyclops notices that Wolverine is noticeably shaken, and makes a tactical decision to fight it out with him.

Wolverine gets some hot cocoa in his face, which, I don't know about you, would piss me off on so many levels. (First, it's hot. Second, he threw it in my face. Wait, the throwing should probably be first. Too late, I'm not fixing it. Third, hot cocoa is kind of a pansy drink to get thrown on you. Coffee, beer, I can handle those, but cocoa? Might as well slap me with a balloon, or push me into a pile of marshmallows.)

Cyclops is working Wolverine over…

…and having so much fun doing it, he adds Nightcrawler and Storm to the mix.

Finally he surrenders, explaining that he was testing everyone to make sure they were ready to go. (You know, after their cocoa break.)

Poor Orphan Annie…I mean, Jennie Banks.

See, possessing teenage girls and dumping bodies in creeks.
This was hardcore stuff in the 80s.

Moira meets up with Proteus' father, Joe MacTaggert. They argue about divorce. She lets him know he has a son he never knew about that is coming to kill him. The usual stuff. Too little, too late, as Proteus meets his father for the first time.

Joe's psychic death scream alerts Phoenix, and the X-Men head toward Edinburgh to stop him. Proteus has merged with his father, and is now after Moira.

"and now, Moira, what you!" Gross.
The X-Men try to stop Proteus, but his powers to warp reality are getting stronger.

Proteus takes Moira hostage, leaving the X-Men to contemplate using deadly force.

My brain thoughts: Fighting murderous mutants sure gives one a hankering for some hot cocoa. Innocent people were dropping like flies, Moira has gone rogue, but if you can't take a break for cocoa, life ain't worth living. Cyclops testing Wolverine was a memorable scene, and one that was a little hard to swallow for a young Wolvie fan like myself. I chalked it up to Wolverine being off his game, and you should too. Even though it kind of makes the X-Men all look incompetent, it's still a good bit of character work (I prefer when Storm beats Cyclops when she didn't have her powers in #201). It even leads to Wolverine giving Cyclops a compliment (Awww).

#128. Writer-Plotters-Penciler: Chris Claremont and John Byrne; Inker: Terry Austin; Editor: Roger Stern

Edinburgh is going crazy at the hands of Proteus' reality warping powers.

The X-Men work to save innocent bystanders. (And bees, apparently. I think you have greater concerns than the safety of the bees, Storm.)

Wolverine saves an elderly woman. ("Watch it, Granny!" is now my favorite Wolverine line. Also, him getting dragged away by his belt has always stuck with me. My brain is a weird and unexplainable place.)

Proteus tortures Moira for a bit.

With the people off to safety, the X-Men take another crack at Proteus. He turns Storms' cloak into hard amber, leaving Wolverine to get her out. Banshee (powerless at that time) shoots him in the shoulder.

Proteus drops Banshee down a hole, and the X-Men spend their time trying to free him. Proteus, having escaped with Moira, is tracked down and attacked by Phoenix. He attacks back, giving Wolverine the opportunity to get a shot in (and profess his love for Jean. I wonder if this was the first time that comes up?)

Cyclops and Havok double-team Proteus while Wolverine tries to get Moira to safety.

Marvel, please bring back Havok's original black costume. It is so great.
Is there a better costume sitting there unused in comics right now?

Proteus breaks free and snatches Moira from Wolverine, leading to another panel that I would remember forever, of Cyclops "saving" Wolverine. (Still no mention of his healing power, with his adamantium skeleton given as the reason for him surviving Cyclops' blasts.)

Proteus is about to take over Moira, when Colossus intervenes, destroying what's left of Joe MacTaggert's body.

Proteus, in his pure form, advances upon Colossus, who armors up and lashes out.

Colossus' metal form has deadly results for Proteus.

The threat ended, all that's left is the crying, and the...celebrating, apparently.

My brain thoughts: After arguing about it for two issues, everyone seems pretty okay with Colossus effectively killing Proteus here. I mean, greater evil and all, I'm not complaining. But a stick-in-the-mud like Cyclops should be lecturing them all right about now. I'm fairly certain Colossus is later shown to be much more disturbed by it, but on this last page, they all look happy enough to break out some hot cocoa. I mean, Storm was worried about the lives of the bees in this same issue. The X-Men are weird man.

My final brain thoughts: Please, won't you think of the bees!? Watch it granny! Hot cocoa! So, if Cyclops works the entire X-Men, and Moira works Cyclops, does that make Moira top dog? I think it does. Think about how much better X-Men 3 would have been with Proteus instead of Phoenix (couldn't have been worse!). Wolverine was slowly working his way up to star status in these issues, with his big moment coming up in The Dark Phoenix Saga.

Reading old X-Men comics always makes me sad about what would eventually happen to the franchise. I'm sure I'm influenced by nostalgia, but I think these comics were just objectively better. Wolverine wasn't invincible yet (much like Batman, his invincibility would grow along with his popularity). Cyclops was stern but not a full-on jerk yet. Storm, Colossus, and Nightcrawler were fun to read about. This stuff was just better (and get off my damn lawn!).

If all you've ever read is The Dark Phoenix Saga, then you should give the rest of the run a try (heck, I think you should read #94-200, but, again, I'm under thrall to nostalgia). If you don't, well, I'll send bees after you. And I won't share any of my hot cocoa.


JV said...

As much as I love the Claremont/Byrne era, Marvel should reprint the Claremont/Romita Jr stuff. Those were the X-Men of my generation!

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with you man. The Claremon/Byrne era, was probably the best run the X-Men ever had (and yeah, those kids better get of the lawn! XD). Sadly, as a kid I only read this run against Proteus and the Dark Phoenix saga (still my favorite Marvel tale, after 30 years of reading comics). Maybe I should hit stores and try to find those old issues

sid said...

Jean says proteus is invisible to her telekinetic links....but later at Holyrood park ..just before the final fight.....she is shown trying to track proteus using her telekinetic

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