Nov 25, 2013

Early Claremont X-Men: More Terrible Than You Remember

Early Claremont X-Men – More Terrible Than You Remember
X-amining the X-Men Part 2: We Know Drama
Ben Smith

Last time out, we covered how awful you all are for not supporting minority superheroes. This week, you can rectify that as we’ll take a look at the early beginnings of the Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum era of the all-new X-Men (yes, we will all get retroactive credit). These comics may have been a big hit at the time, and certainly revolutionary, but they were excessively melodramatic, even by Claremont-ian standards.

There’s a lot of ridiculousness to cover this week, so let’s get started.

Uncanny X-Men #94. Writer: Chris Claremont; Artist: Dave Cockrum; Inker: Bob McLeod; Plotter-Editor: Len Wein

(I know that technically the title of the comic was not Uncanny X-Men yet, but that’s what it’s commonly known and referred as, so calm your stirring heart.)

Professor X begins to praise X-Men new and old, for their triumph over Krakoa, the living island. Sunfire interrupts him to inform everyone that he is not joining the team and returning to Japan (and that they can all suck it). Professor X asks the rest of the new X-Men if they feel the same way. Colossus, Storm, Wolverine, and Nightcrawler all agree to stick it out a while longer.

Banshee wavers a bit, before being convinced to stay (while referring to himself as a barely-literate ex-cop).

Before congratulations and good tidings can be spread all around, Angel lets loose with the bombshell. He is leaving the team, along with original members Jean Grey and Iceman, as well as Havok and Polaris. No longer children, they want to attempt a life outside of the school. Wolverine insults them all for making a big deal about it, and Cyclops steps in-between him and Iceman before they can fight about it, which then leads to the first back-and-forth threat between Cyclops and Wolverine.

First: Wolverine threatens Cyclops

Angel asks Cyclops if he is going to join them or stay with the team. After a long night of melodramatic pondering, Cyclops decides to stay.

Random cursing of your eyes in the middle of the night is always normal.

Cyclops and Jean Grey tenderly say goodbye.

Cyclops immediately gets the new team to work in the Danger Room, and they spend the next several indeterminate weeks training hard.

Thunderbird is minorly injured during a training session, leading to a heated exchange between him and Cyclops (both Thunderbird and Wolverine were being established as hotheads).

Meanwhile, at NORAD headquarters hidden deep within Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado, the facility comes under attack from a group of Ani-Men.

The Ani-Men quickly gain control of the base, and welcome their master, Count Nefaria.

Back at the mansion, Nightcrawler tries to talk it out with Cyclops, following the altercation with Thunderbird. They are interrupted by an urgent telepathic summons from Professor X.

Count Nefaria addresses the world, revealing he has activated the Doomsmith Command System, and if each nation of the world doesn’t pay his ransom, he will launch America’s entire reserve of nuclear missiles.

The Beast, a member of the Avengers at that time, contacts the X-Men to see if they can handle it, as the Avengers are occupied. The X-Men speed off to take on Count Nefaria.

Inside the Blackbird on their way to Colorado, Wolverine threatens to kill anyone that has harmed the soldiers inside, much to the surprise of Banshee.

Count Nefaria detects their incoming craft, and fires missiles at them, which the Blackbird skillfully dodges, but an enraged Count Nefaria lets loose with the base’s sonic distruptors, disintegrating the X-Men’s aircraft, and sending them falling thousands of feet to the ground below.

In the future letters page with reactions to this issue, we see that not everyone was a big fan of Wolverine right off the bat.

My brain thoughts: It’s pretty clear that both Thunderbird and Wolverine were being set up as the resident hotheads, which makes what happens next not that surprising. I wonder if Claremont was being hamstrung by the plotting of Wein in these early issues, because they aren’t that great. The choice of villains, in particular, is not that strong in the early going for this new team of X-Men.

Uncanny X-Men #95. Writer: Chris Claremont; Artist: Dave Cockrum; Inker: Sam Grainger; Plotter: Len Wein; Editor: Marv Wolfman

The X-Men plummet from the sky after the Blackbird was destroyed by Count Nefaria’s sonic disruptors.

Cyclops quickly organizes the team, and Storm grabs Wolverine and Nightcrawler to fly them to safety, while Banshee grabs Thunderbird, and Colossus takes a dive to the ground in his metal form. Banshee narrowly returns to save Cyclops before he becomes a spot on the ground below.

Regrouped on the ground, Cyclops has Nightcrawler teleport inside the base (contradicting later depictions of him not being to teleport in anywhere he can’t see, at risk of teleporting inside a solid object).

Nightcrawler fights and defeats an unfortunate soul by the name of Croaker, who unfortunately looks like Mer-Man from He-Man. He then opens an entrance so that the rest of the team can join him. Nefaria tries to gas them, but they easily tear through a nearby wall, and defeat a legion of hypnotized military troops using Storm’s weather manipulation powers.

The Ani-Men attack, and the two teams are locked in furious combat. Wolverine is temporarily defeated by a giant cat-man with a full-on Alan Moore beard, before Colossus saves his bacon.

The X-Men prevail, which should not be surprising due to the title of the comic. Count Nefaria makes a hasty retreat, having set the Doomsmith Command System to self-destruct. While Cyclops freaks out about this, Banshee and Thunderbird try to prevent Nefaria from escaping by jet. Thunderbird foolishly leaps on the jet, preventing Banshee from easily destroying the jet with his sonic powers.

Professor X telepathically informs Cyclops to stop worrying about the self-destruct, since the system was destroyed during their battle with the Ani-Men, and to see to their teammate endangering himself outside. Professor X and Banshee both plead with Thunderbird to cease, but he continues to pound away at the aircraft, seeking to prove himself a mighty warrior. Cyclops and the rest of the team arrive at the launch ramp just in time to see the airplane explode, killing Thunderbird. Professor X screams out in horror. Banshee is traumatized for his inability to convince Thunderbird to stop.

Cyclops chalks it up to the game and the team departs (apparently for a long walk back to New York).

The letters page for this issue provides a look inside the thought process of killing off Thunderbird.

My brain thoughts: Like the creative team explained in the mailbag, Thunderbird’s attitude and powers were being duplicated elsewhere, and they decided Wolverine showed more promise, I guess (luckily for them, considering how popular Wolverine would become). It was pretty unfortunate that it happened to be the Native American character that had to go, but any choice they would have made would have wound up with someone mad. Well, maybe not the Canadians, they never get too mad. I guess nobody would have cared about angering the Russians at the time either. Okay, so they pretty much picked the worst character they could have in terms of fan ownership, I imagine. I blame Marv Wolfman.

Uncanny X-Men #96. Author: Chris Claremont; Artist: Dave Cockrum; Inker: Sam Grainger; Editor: Marv Wolfman

Cyclops wanders the forest, still distraught over his perceived failures because of the death of a teammate, Thunderbird. Using his mutant powers of melodrama, he screams out and anger, leveling a patch of trees with his eye-beams.

Then he waxes poetic to himself, like a bespectacled Hamlet.

During a Danger Room session, Nightcrawler laughs a little too much when Colossus swats Wolverine to the side. Wolverine jumps at Nightcrawler with his claws extended, with Nightcrawler teleporting away just in time to save his life.

First: Wolverine berserker rage

Wolverine gets a light scolding from Banshee, before Banshee is pulled to the side by the Professor. The Professor shares his concern about Cyclops mental state following the death of Thunderbird. (It seemed like Banshee was being set up as the second-in-command of this group.) They are interrupted by the doorbell, and Xavier remembers that the new housekeeper he hired was due to arrive.

Banshee runs off to greet the new housekeeper, expecting an old biddy of a woman, and instead is greeted by the young and attractive Moira MacTaggert.

First: Moira MacTaggert!

Cut away to a mysterious facility in the Adirondack mountains, where an Air Force Colonel informs a Dr. Lang (not Scott, apparently) that his Project Armageddon is no longer going to receive its secret funding from the government. References to Bolivar Trask, the mutant menace, and shots of a very Sentinel looking leg, suggest the Sentinels will be reappearing soon. Dr. Lang vows not to let Colonel Rossi reach Washington D.C. alive.

Back at the mansion, the rest of the team is getting acquainted with Moira, and Banshee continues to swoon over her. Suddenly, the team is interrupted by the body of Cyclops violently crashing in through the wall.  His attacker is none other than Kierrok, the shatterer of souls, the slayer of men, Kierrok the damned.

The team takes turns trading attacks with the mighty one-eyed dragon beast-thing. Wolverine lets loose a devastating attack with his claws, apparently savagely killing the monster.

First: Wolverine kill?

The victory is short lived, as Kierrok rises again, reforming, leeching off the energy of the X-Men. Professor X tries to read the beast’s mind, and is overwhelmed by horrible alien images.

Moira comes running in firing shots from a sonic rifle (like a boss), momentarily defeating the beast yet again.

Professor X recovers enough to tell the team about a mysterious tower that he gleaned from the mind of Kierrok, which seems to be the source of the beast’s power, and sends Storm off to destroy it. A swarm of beasties come flying out of the tower, and attack Storm, affecting her mind. She tries to focus and concentrate, with images from her past flashing in her mind.

First: Storm in Cairo, and hints of Storm as claustrophobic

Storm is able to shake them off long enough to send devastating thunder bolts down from the heavens, destroying the tower. With the tower gone, Kierrok melts away, and the danger is over.

The last panel shows the crashed plane of Colonel Rossi, engulfed in flames.

My brain thoughts: Free from the plotting of Len Wein, Claremont lets loose with the menace of Kierrok. Also known as, the worst X-Men villain ever. Boy, they were having a rough go with the villains in these early issues, but I think we’ll see that start trending upward with the very next issue.

My final brain thoughts: One-eyed dragon beasts, gun-toting housekeepers, dead teammates, the incompetency of the U.S. Air Force, and Wolverine is not the weakest link.

From what I understand, the soap opera elements of this new X-Men team were the initial draw and appeal of the book, along with the interesting new characters. (Not to mention that they were all visually appealing, thanks to the design work of the brilliant Cockrum.) But Claremont was outdoing himself at even his eventual peak with all the agonizing Cyclops was doing over the span of three issues. We start getting more glimpses into the personalities of the team here at the beginning. Nightcrawler is a caring soul, despite his devilish outside appearance. Storm has some kind of traumatic accident in her past. Wolverine is a dangerous loose cannon trying to control the animal inside. Banshee is barely literate, and attracted to housekeepers. Colossus is…strong.

I can’t quite pinpoint what’s off for me about these early issues, except that perhaps the villains are absolutely terrible. Even beyond that, the interactions of the X-Men aren’t quite there yet. They’re new, and raw, and undefined. Evolving before our very eyes. I blame Marv Wolfman.

Things promise to get better next time out, with better villains and further establishing of the new characters. Join us, won’t you?

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Rick Diehl said...

Really nice piece on some of the weak points of those early X-Men comics from the 1970's, but still, looking back as someone who was actually buying these books off the shelf new, I've got to say that at the time, these books were among the best written comics out there.

See, you have the advantage of being able to look back 40 years and critically judge the X-Men by everything that came afterwards. But back in 1977, when X-Men was the first book I had ever subscribed to, it was about as exciting and good as a comic could get.

My comic collecting friends and I would sit there and talk about the book for hours on end, and being that we were still kids we'd run around playing X-Men taking turns being everybody's favorite Nightcrawler.

I am not arguing the the writing and stories might not have been perfect, but they were perfect enough, And when X-Men 98 came out, trust me on this, fandom went insane.

Duy Tano said...

Of everything Ben outlined here, what I find most fascinating is that letters page. Complaints and feedback in general seem to have followed the same template for decades.

Unknown said...

Indeed. The coolest thing about this for me is seeing Jo Duffy in the letters pages, since she herself went on to be an editor for Marvel.

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