Wednesday, December 10, 2008

X-MEN #53 – June 1996

False Fronts
Credits: Mark Waid (writer), Andy Kubert (penciler), Cam Smith w/John Dell (inks), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (lettering), Joe Rosas & Malibu (colors)

Summary: Jean Grey goes shopping in Salem Center. When she enters the store’s changing room, she’s physically taken to the Astral Plane and greeted by Onslaught. He takes her on a journey to expose human hypocrisy. They travel to Graydon Creed’s campaign headquarters, which amuses Jean since she feels that these humans are very open about their beliefs. Onslaught exposes the thoughts of Creed’s campaign manager, who is only interested in gaining political power and doesn’t care about Creed’s anti-mutant crusade. Jean responds that she knows about hypocrisy and surrounds herself with people she can trust. Onslaught takes her to the X-Men’s mansion, where he plans on exposing Professor Xavier. Jean, confident in her relationship with Xavier, leads Onslaught into his mind to prove his innocence. Onslaught unlocks a hidden memory of Xavier’s, which has him declaring his love for a teenage Jean Grey. Onslaught reveals to a shocked Jean that this is one of many emotions Xavier has locked away over the years. They return to the Astral Plane, where Onslaught offers Jean the power she once felt with the Phoenix Force. Jean rejects him, and demands to know who he is and why he’s playing games with her. He tells Jean that she already knows, and then sends her back to reality. She reemerges inside the changing room. When she passes by the nearby mirror, she sees the name “Onslaught” telepathically burned into her forehead. Meanwhile, Joseph makes his way to South Carolina, Beast discovers draining water flowing into a trap door in his cell, and Juggernaut emerges from the shadows at Archangel and Psylocke’s cabin. A mental block prevents him from revealing a secret in his mind, so he heads to the X-Men’s mansion for help.

Continuity Notes: This is the first actual appearance of Onslaught. The continuity is already a little fuzzy, as Jean doesn’t recognize him at all, even though she recognized his mental projection in Uncanny X-Men #333 as the same one she saw in X-Men #50.

The flashback scene that has Xavier declaring his love for Jean comes from Uncanny X-Men #3. Andy Kubert even faithfully recreates the odd clothing Jack Kirby thought teenagers wore in the ‘60s.

Juggernaut’s emergence from the shadows is vaguely tied in to Psylocke’s new powers (which haven’t been revealed yet). Psylocke claims that “something drew him here” and that there’s a connection between the two. I don’t think this was ever resolved. Really, Psylocke’s “shadow teleportation” power is just being used to justify Juggernaut’s return from the Malibu Universe.

Review: This is one of those issues that gave me false hope that Onslaught might turn out as a decent crossover. It certainly shows that Mark Waid was bringing a different approach to the series, as he tries to realistically convey what life would be like for a telepath. The drama in most of the titles at this point involves mysterious threats growing in the background, potential traitors on the team, deadly viruses, or some soap opera-style relationship entanglements. Focusing on what a telepath feels just walking down the street wasn’t exactly the type of story the X-office was putting out during this time. Waid opens the issue by showing what Jean Grey senses if she lets her guard down around people. Predictably, a polite man is having dirty thoughts about her, an overweight woman is jealous, and a teenager is curious about the weirdos at the Xavier school. It’s only a one-page scene, but it’s very memorable and it helps to set up the point Onslaught is trying to convey to Jean. Onslaught himself receives a vague portrayal, as he’s given no motivation outside of exposing hypocrisy because there’s “no room” for it in his new world order. There is an implication that Onslaught is more than just a physical opponent, but one who can tempt the X-Men with their darkest desires, which sounds a lot more interesting than what he turned out to be.

Aside from revealing Onslaught for the first time, the most significant aspect of this issue is the acknowledgment that Xavier was once in love with Jean. Claremont briefly referenced this early on in his run, but it remained forgotten until this issue. It’s important to note how carefully Waid treats the subject. Onslaught is quick to say that “it’s not a torch he’s been carrying…he locked it away long ago...forgot about it”. Even though Marvel is a month or so away from(sort of) making Xavier the villain in the summer’s big crossover, there’s still an effort being made to protect his character. In fact, Onslaught says that Xavier has spent his entire life “repressing every fear, every rage…every black thought he’s ever experienced”. In contrast to his recent portrayal, Xavier is still presented here as an upright moralist, who won’t even allow himself to entertain dark thoughts. Now, we’re supposed to believe that he’s been enslaving a sentient being and covering up the deaths of his students for years. To put it mildly, it’s hard to reconcile the two characterizations. I’m not trying to defend the Onslaught storyline, which was certainly gimmicky and poorly conceived, but at least there was enough foresight to know that Xavier should still maintain a level of integrity throughout the story.

I have mixed feelings about bringing up the “Xavier secretly loved Jean” issue. I can see why Waid used it, since it’s an established part of continuity that shows that Xavier has human desires like everyone else. However, that scene was written very early on in the series’ history, before it was firmly established that Xavier was a middle-aged man who had known Jean since her childhood. As some readers have pointed out, the implication in the early issues of the series was that Xavier wasn’t much older than his students. He claimed that his parents worked on the first A-bomb project in UXM #1, which could’ve made Xavier as young as twenty-something in 1963. I believe it was Kurt Busiek who also defended the scene by saying that a girl in her late teens marrying a thirty-something wasn’t uncommon in the early ‘60s, either. So, something that originally seemed innocuous is now made tawdry thanks to the passing of time (and added continuity). Even ignoring the age issue, I suppose you could argue that as a teacher Xavier had no business looking at Jean in that way, but I still think it’s safe to assume that Stan Lee wasn’t trying to make Xavier a pervert in the original issue. He also dropped the subplot after that brief panel, which means that it was never something used to define Xavier’s character anyway. Reading the dialogue, which has Xavier declaring that he can’t help but to worry about Jean but can never tell her his feelings, I’m reminded that these are the exact thoughts Cyclops often had about Jean in the early issues. I wonder if it’s even possible that Stan mixed up which character was supposed to be secretly in love with Jean for a panel.

Looking at the overall context of the scene, I wonder if it’s something worth ever mentioning again, even if it does work with the story Waid’s telling. Just for shock value’s sake, though, I know the scene works because my friends and I were floored when we read this. One of my friends even dug up a reprint Marvel did a few years earlier of UXM #3 to confirm that the scene was real. This is one of the few comics from this era that had any real impact on me, not just for the “shocking” revelation, but for Waid’s clever interpretation of Jean and the potential Onslaught displayed. It’s too bad things start to go downhill so quickly.

8 comments:

Jeff said...

This is the best of Waid's issues and BY FAR the best thing that involves Onslaught. This issue sets up a potentially interesting story and appears to be setting up a motivation for Onslaught, but of course the main story doesn't follow up on any of this. Kubert's art here is spectacular. Jean has rarely looked better and the trippy psychic effects are cool. I think if the Onslaught storyline had been a 6-part, self-contained story by Waid and Kubert it probably would have turned out excellent.

wwk5d said...

You know, there was a one-shot supposedly released called "The Road to Onslaught" which detailed the original plan for Onslaught...I haven't read it, but by most accounts, it was much better than the final story that was published.

This issue was def better than all the other Onslaught issues, and better than the ones that came after...too bad the X-offices couldn't keep the momentum going. Onslaught was actually interesting for one issue.

kerry said...

I seem to remember that, a few issues down the line, there was an almost throwaway sequence where Xavier explains that he initially mistook his parental feelings for Jean as romantic ones, which I believe is as far they went on following up the "Xavier Loves Jean" non-subplot.

Seangreyson said...

The Onslaught idea never bugged me that much. Clairmont had also done a story back during the early All-New, All-Different years where Xavier's suppressed darker emotions emerged and tried to kill the team.

Of course that was only one issue, but I liked the idea of Xavier's internal weaknesses emerging through his telepathy.

I think the problem with Onslaught (after they decided to make him Xavier) really came back to the fact that they decided to use it as the instigation for Heroes Reborn. Since that required it to be expanded into some gigantic, bloated crossover the concept fell apart.

rob said...

I couldn't have been more excited for the Onslaught crossover after this issue came out. There's a lot of great material here, Jean is strongly cast, and Onslaught shows a lot of potential. Unfortunately, besides some genuinely suspenseful (for a ten year old) scenes in #54, the rest of the crossover is a bust. I even loved the over the top ending where's "Onslaught" is burnt into Jean's forehead and must have read it a dozen times.

There's so much going on, being dropped and forgotten about at this time, that I'm ok with Xavier's feelings for Jean never coming up again. But that part stunned me when I read it too.

Teebore said...

Yeah, reading this the first time, I was stunned too, at the Xavier/Jean revelation/reminder.

I remember being terribly excited for Onslaught, too, especially after the Onslaught: X-Men oneshot when the traitor was revealed (I still remember how excited I was when I first read that issue).

"I wonder if it’s even possible that Stan mixed up which character was supposed to be secretly in love with Jean for a panel."

From what I've read of Stan's workload and memory back in the day, I think that's entirely possible.

Oh, and I have read that Road To Onslaught one-shot wwk5d mentioned. It was much better than what was published, and actually gave context to some of Onslaught's actions.

I remember reading it and wondering why a lot of the stuff it talked about was never referenced in any of the comics.

Matt said...

Yay, Onslaught!

I never realized I was in such a minority in liking this crossover. I was psyched to see all the big Marvel Super Heroes gathering together to fight an enemy bigger than all of them. It reminded of Secret Wars, which was my favorite comic book series of all-time growing up (and still holds enough of a place in my heart that I'm getting the ridiculously overpriced omnibus hardcover of it that Marvel is publishing later this month).

In the 90s, Marvel's heroes didn't band together on this scale all that often. All the "Infinity" stories teamed them up, but they were always sidekicks to Adam Warlock and the Infinity Watch. Of course nowadays, there's a gigantic crossover every summer that reunites all of them, so I'm getting kind of tired of it. But 10 or 12 years ago, I was all over this!

Pat! said...

this was, also, one of my favorite issues of the crossover (along with the next issue of x-men where we discover just who onslaught is. the way waid and kubert paced the reveal was spooky and just excellent)