As last week’s introductory column wound to a close, I pondered two thoughts: Could John Byrne’s art be any more fantastic? Would Chris Claremont be able to refine his writing as time went on? Though we’re still fairly early on in their run, I’ve now been presented with two satisfactory answers, one of which was surprising, the other not so much.
I’ll start with the surprising one, the first thing that leapt out at me as I plowed through these issues: yes, John Byrne’s art is capable of being even more incredible than it already was! Seriously, he was doing a bang-up job on the seven issues we talked about last week, especially as he started discovering the physical and emotional cores of each character during the Magneto storyline. Even by those high standards, his work over these issues is nothing short of phenomenal. There’s the spread of Wolverine lashing out at Sauron as the rest of the team looks on in shock; the full page of Xavier’s memories taking place within his head; the group tackling Canadian superteam Alpha Flight; the list goes on. Just classic stuff on almost every page.
As for Claremont, his progression is what I had been hoping for and expecting, but it’s still good to see that his writing is getting better. Not that it was bad before, but there’s only so much corny dialogue and regional dialectics one can stomach. There’s still plenty of corny dialogue, but for the most part, it’s the good corny, the kind of corny one expects when one picks up a superhero comic from the late 70’s. Thankfully, Claremont has also dialed back the characters’ dialects. Nightcrawler stills busts out German phrases and Banshee’s dialogue is still littered with “ye”s and “aye”s, but more sparingly and at more appropriate times. There are instances when Sean’s actually able to say something that would sound intelligible coming from another character’s mouth!
It’s also striking how much better Claremont has become at letting his stories unfold. That’s been his strong suit from day one, especially concerning the epic space saga that culminated in his first issue with Byrne, as well as the hints at Wolverine’s past. But now that he’s juggling two sets of characters (both of whom think the other is dead) and starting to pay off some of the groundwork he’s laid, the stories are flowing even better and are more fun to read as a result.
#115, “Visions of Death!,” picks up right where the previous issue left off, with the group stuck in the Savage Land while Hank, Jean, and Professor X think them dead back in New York. Storm has just had her life-energy drained by the mysterious Sauron, who turns out to be a were-pteranadon. I was, to put it lightly, skeptical about the mere existence of a freaking were-pteranadon, especially since I wasn’t familiar with his other appearances in the Marvel Universe. But when it’s revealed that Sauron is just the Mr. Hyde to Karl Lykos’ Dr. Jekyll, he becomes a sympathetic figure akin to Dr. Curt Connors, better known as one of Spider-Man’s villains, the Lizard. Before that, though, we get a nice scene of Wolverine launching into one of his notorious berserker rages to attack Sauron, who promptly warps Wolvie’s mind so that he sees the other X-Men as hideous monsters harming Jean Grey. That’s when he realizes that Jean is dead–or so he thinks–and that Sauron must have done something to him. Just as Wolverine is about to tear Lykos into ribbons, Savage Land hero Ka-Zar shows up to put a stop to the commotion and ask for the team’s help.
It seems that Garokk, the living embodiment of the Sun-God, has been resurrected in the Savage Land and is looking to claim it as his own. In something of a dick move, Cyclops tells Ka-Zar that the X-Men can’t help save his entire civilization because they have to get home as soon as possible, but the universe slaps ol’ Slim Summers right back down with a freak snowstorm. Apparently Garokk’s presence has upset the Savage Land’s ecological balance, turning the jungle into ice. As Ka-Zar says, “This is no mere snowstorm. For the Savage Land…it is death!” Not even Cyclops is a big enough douche to not try and save the environment, so Ka-Zar and the X-Men travel to the metropolitan complex that Garokk has built on the backs of slaves. Just as he lovingly rendered Magneto’s Arctic lair, so too does Byrne illustrate the City of the Sun-God. There’s just something entrancing about his hyper-detailed structures accentuated by Terry Austin’s inks. Each time you stare at it, you come away with new details.
The group’s ill-fated encounter with Sauron’s men provides another of my favorite Byrne moments, Kurt teleporting from the ground right onto the pterasaur that one of the thugs is riding. It’s such a simple bit of business, but that’s why it’s effective. The cloud of brimstone with the requisite “BAMF!” sound effect is in the background of the panel, with Kurt, brimstone swirling around him as he prepares to clobber the baddie, in the foreground. It is the most elegant way of depicting Kurt’s powers that we’ve seen in the series so far. Instead of seeing one lone “bamf,” we see both, and the immediate effect of Whoa, he was down there and now he’s up here! the visual creates adds greatly to the excitement of the scene. Unfortunately, things don’t go so well, with the henchmen capturing Cyclops, Colossus, and Banshee. That’s half the team swooped up. Oh, and Ka-Zar, too.
With the team’s actual leader held captive, Wolverine surprisingly becomes the de facto man-in-charge, and that’s when he starts becoming a truly fascinating character. As a representative for that person in every group who has absolutely no qualms about saying whatever he’s thinking at any given moment, he was already entertaining, and arguably the breakout star of the book. But here is where Claremont begins turning him into an icon. Wolverine approaches Zabu, Ka-Zar’s ferocious “pussy-cat,” and talks to it. He doesn’t just speak words at it, he actually talks to it in a way the big cat understands. Storm: “Wolverine, truly there is more to you than meets the eye.” Wolverine: “At my size, babe, that ain’t hard.”
Wolverine leads Kurt and Ororo deep within Garokk’s complex, getting another stand-out moment when a dinosaur chomps on his hand and he kills it by popping his claws right in its mouth. Hardcore. Garokk has the other X-Men, and Ka-Zar, tied to stakes in a giant arena; in fact, he’s actually burning Colossus, leading the metallic mutant to wonder, “Will I melt?” Nightcrawler turns Cyclops’ visor back on, allowing him to “ZZRAK!” the others to freedom before chasing Garokk to a grid that feeds the Sun-God raw energy. The two engage in an optic blast duel that shakes the foundation of the complex, causing the ground beneath their feet to crumble. Banshee rescues Cyclops, and Storm attempts to go after Garokk, but her crippling fear of claustrophobia–one that’s been called upon at least three times in recent storylines–causes her to freeze up in the thermal shaft, Garokk falling to his death. Wolverine gets another strong moment as he tells Banshee, who doesn’t understand why the group isn’t rushing to see if Storm’s all right, “Think about it. She went down that hole to save a life. She came up empty-handed. Whatever happened down there, I figure it’s somethin’ she’d rather work out on her own.”
The X-Men set sail in an ominous storm to get home, while the series takes a refreshing break from their frantic adventures so that Claremont and Byrne can tell an origin story of sorts for Charles Xavier. Nothing is yet told of his friendship with Erik Lensherr, who would become Magneto, but the story (#117, “Psi War!”) reveals what motivated him to open his School for Gifted Youngsters. As a grievous Jean leaves the mansion, Lilandra finds Charles lost in thought in his study. He tells her of his past, when he and Moira MacTaggert were engaged to be married. But then he was drafted into the Korean War, and while holed up in a military hospital, he received a letter from Moira telling him that she was breaking off their engagement for reasons unknown. Once the war was over, Charles became a nomad, cleansing his psyche along the way. At one point, Charles’ travels brought him to Cairo, where a young Storm picked his pocket. While retrieving his wallet from lil’ Ororo, Charles was stunned by a psychic bolt coming from a nearby saloon.
Taking a table in the saloon, Charles was contacted telepathically by a large man across the room, Amahl Farouk. When Farouk suggested that he and Charles unite their powers for villainous means, Charles tried to tell him about the responsibilities such individuals as they had, foreshadowing Xavier’s eventual conflict with Magneto. Byrne takes great pleasure in drawing the folds of fat that roll down and across Farouk’s figure, and puts his imagination to use when bringing to life Xavier and Farouk’s psychic battle, in which Farouk expended so much mental strength on “special effects” that he neglected to realize the calm Xavier had the upper hand. There’s a great block of panels that show the two men seated on opposite sides of the room. In the first, they’re both seated; in the second, Farouk falls face down on the table; in the third, Charles gets up to leave, his mission in life decided for him. Having recounted this painful story, Charles agrees to leave Earth to help Lilandra rule her empire. It’s an outstanding issue, one of the best of the Claremont/Byrne run thus far, and almost certainly the best Charles Xavier story I’ve ever read.
The next issue gets back to the action-packed lives of the X-Men, and also becomes fairly eerie, though that’s through no fault of its own. You see, at the start of “Psi War!,” we saw a brief glimpse of the team hitching a ride aboard a Japanese vessel, a vessel which arrives home in a story entitled “The Submergence of Japan!” If you’ve paid attention to any kind of news this year–and even if you haven’t–you probably know why that rings a little creepy these days, especially when you consider that the disastrous state of the country is blamed on a freak earthquake. If you can detach yourself from the parallels to recent events, it’s a good story, and one that adds some more interesting wrinkles to Wolverine’s character. Cyclops is surprised to learn that Wolverine is fluent in Japanese (“You never asked”), and in his interactions with a young woman named Mariko, we see a tender side of the character that not even Jean brought out. He tells her that his real name is Logan, and then…well, then he smiles.
The rest of the story, split over two issues, sees the team reunited with Sunfire (Mariko’s cousin, as it happens), who quit in Claremont’s first issue, #94. In his brief tenure as an X-Man, Sunfire wasn’t exactly thrilled to be there, and here he almost attacks the X-Men before Jean’s one-time roommate and Iron Fist’s girlfriend Misty Knight stops him on orders from the Prime Minister. It turns out that Moses Magnum, “master of the Magnum Force,” is behind the attack on Japan, and has sent his Mandroids to destroy the X-Men. The only problem is, they were originally built to take down the Avengers, not X-Men, and aren’t exactly on the level of the Sentinels. Magnum is a mostly forgettable villain, at least as portrayed here, but his battle with the X-Men has two notable results. The first is that he effortlessly smacks Colossus across the room, which causes Peter to get all introspective and exclaim that he will no longer be a useless punching bag, and that “from now on–Colossus earns his keep!” It feels like Claremont either directly addressing reader complaints or suddenly realizing that he hasn’t really done much of interest with the Soviet muscle man. The second is that, in order to prevent Magnum from causing another massive ‘quake, Banshee lets out one hell of a sonic scream, toppling the pillar on which Magnum is standing–and also ravishing Banshee’s throat, all but eliminating the one thing that makes him an X-Man.
The last two issues we’ll be discussing this week further serve to transform Wolverine into the beloved bub we know him as today. The first part, in #120, is entitled, “Wanted: Wolverine! Dead or Alive!,” so that can’t come as much surprise. We see Wolverine’s former colleague in the Canadian government, Weapon Alpha, for the first time since he tried to abduct Wolvie back in #109. His boss orders him and Canada’s very own superteam, Alpha Flight, to bring Wolverine back to the homeland no matter the cost. Before embarking on their flight home from Japan, the X-Men get a well-deserved apology from Sunfire, and Wolverine brings a white chrysanthemum to Mariko. On the way home, the team’s plane is grounded by Alpha Flight. Throughout issue #120, Claremont and Byrne are very careful not to reveal too much of what the other team looks like, so that when we see them in the following issue, it’s a dramatic full-page reveal. The team, featuring twins, an Indian (Native Canadian?), a Sasquatch, and a chick who can turn into a bird, looks ragtag, but appealingly so. As noted earlier, the X-Men’s battle with Alpha Flight is a splendid piece of work from Byrne, but also Claremont, who clearly delights in pitting his superteam against another.
The X-Men are surprised to find them getting their asses handed to them by Alpha Flight, but Shaman, the Indian of the group (No-Prize if you get that reference), posits this explanation to Wolverine: “The key is teamwork, Wolverine. We have it. You don’t.” The man’s got a point; though we’ve seen our merry mutants band together in a crisis like no other, we often see them squabbling or attacking enemies solo. Which is key to their appeal from an audience’s point of view, but not helpful in actual battle. In any case, despite his words of wisdom, Shaman turns out to be Alpha Flight’s undoing. The storm he whips up to distract the X-Men gets out of control, and Storm ends up exhausting herself to contain it. Wolverine then makes a noble sacrifice, saying that he’ll go back to Canada with Alpha Flight if it means that the other X-Men will be left alone. Wolverine is treated like an animal by the Canadian officials who throw him in a cage specially built to house him. But as Cyclops learns when he boards the group’s (second) flight home, determined on coming back for Wolverine before being shocked to see him on the plane, “Trouble is, the cage ain’t been built that can hold [Wolverine].”
I am very pleased with how this book is coming along, and I can’t wait to get to the real meat of Claremont and Byrne’s run, which should hopefully be coming up fairly soon.
- Paul tells me that the out-of-left-field remarks between Colossus and a random Savage Land girl, which make it seem like the two are lovers, pay off “years later” in the book. Not sure if that means we’ll get to see the pay-off in this column, but it’s nice to see just how far in advance Claremont plans things.
- As he did in #114, “Desolation,” Byrne wonderfully integrates the title of #116, “To Save the Savage Land,” into his artwork, here having the title compose the side of the mountain which the group is climbing.
- “Mortal, in attacking me you have sown the wind. Now shall you reap the whirlwind!” That’s a classic supervillain threat; so classic, in fact, that this is the second time Claremont’s used it in his stint on the book (the first was in an issue with Dave Cockrum).
- Just so the parallels to recent events are extra creepy, the Japanese Prime Minister is referred to as “Osama-san.”
- Claremont really romanticizes Wolverine’s bad boy ways in these issues. Logan reflects on his “young punk” days in Japan, and gets lines like, “I got no use for civilization,” and, “Love. Who needs it? Me.” Rebel with claws.
- Speaking of Logan, when he initially tells Mariko that his name is Wolverine, her response is, “That is a name?” He answers, “No, not really. Not between friends.” The fact that he hasn’t told any of the X-Men his real name, but he told Mariko…does that mean they’re his friends? Clearly, he fights alongside them and considers them brothers-in-arms, but is he capable of viewing them as friends?
- At one point, Banshee says, “If I run me sonic scream up-an’-down the harmonic scale as fast as I can, that should play merry hob with Magnum’s scanners.” “Play merry hob” might be an old Irish phrase (Google is disappointingly vague on the subject), but I wouldn’t be surprised if Joss Whedon, who had Mr. Universe deploy that exact phrase in Serenity, picked it up here, considering his love of Claremont-era X-Men.
- “They’re dangerous in a fight, they’re based near New York City, and there are hints of a possible connection to the U.S. government.” “I don’t care if they have definite connections to the Boy Scouts. They have Weapon X — I want him back.”
- Shaman’s real name is Dr. Michael Twoyoungmen. “Twoyoungmen”? Really? At best, that sounds like a gay electro duo from Finland, and at worst, it sounds like the Internet handle of a really obvious pedophile.
- Claremont is trying to push Colleen Wing as Cyclops’ replacement for Jean, whom he finds it impossible to mourn for considering the radical changes she underwent prior to her supposed death. Unfortunately, we see Colleen Wing in maybe half-a-dozen panels, and she doesn’t really do anything in them.
- Weapon Alpha appears again, is again called “Major Maple Leaf.” I am happy. (Apparently his real codename is Vindicator. Weapon Alpha and Major Maple Leaf are both way cooler.)
- The Canadian bar that Wolverine remembers frequenting in his younger days is called Cracklin’ Rosa. I take it Chris Claremont is a Neil Diamond fan?
- Now that his sonic scream is out of commission, Sean wonders to himself if he might just be better off quitting the team and spending the rest of his life with Moira MacTaggert. As much as it would be disappointing to lose Banshee so early in the book’s run, it would make sense.
- Claremont has had Wolverine use the weird slang term “skrag” in past issues, but now it seems like everyone’s using it. It doesn’t work.
- “That stinks, mister!” Ooh, you’re so tough, Cyclops.
Will we learn more of Wolverine’s past? Will Jean and the Professor (and also Hank) discover that the X-Men are alive? Will Cyclops ever not be a total cock? Tune in next week for issues #122-128!