Friday, November 28, 2008

THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF CYCLOPS AND PHOENIX #2 – July 1996

Unnatural Selection
Credits: Peter Milligan (writer), John Paul Leon (penciler), Shawn Martinbrough & Klaus Janson (inkers), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (lettering), Kevin Somers (colors)

Summary: Cyclops, who arrived in the past nude without his ruby quartz visor, is mistaken for a Marauder by the freaks living under the city. When he is forced to unleash his optic blasts, the sewer-dwellers understand that he is like them. He mentally gets into contact with Phoenix and leads the freaks past the wooden bars in the sewers. The Marauders witness the escape and shoot Cyclops in the arm. The freaks fight back, chasing the Marauders away. A Marauder named Oscar Stamp trips, and is rescued from the angry freaks by Cyclops. Oscar agrees to serve as Cyclops’ eyes. Meanwhile, Phoenix is visited by Sanctity, the last of the Askani sisterhood, who is charged with guarding this timeline. She tells Phoenix that she has forty-eight hours to find Essex at the Milbury House and stop Apocalypse’s rise. At the Milbury House, Rebecca Essex confronts her husband over his experiments on their dead son. She asks Essex to stop his experiments for the sake of their unborn baby, and when he doesn’t give her an immediate answer, she leaves. En Sabah Nur convinces Essex not to follow his wife, but to show him his work instead. They tour his lab and then leave for a meeting with the Hellfire Club, the group Essex hopes will now fund his research. Soon, Phoenix arrives at Milbury House and comes across Rebecca burying her son. She goes into Essex’s laboratory and finds the mutants he has been studying. She mentally talks to a mute child, Daniel, who tells Phoenix where Essex has traveled. At the Hellfire Club, En Sabah Nur morphs into his true form as Apocalypse after the members mock his theories. He threatens to kill them if they do not serve him. He leaves with Essex, as Phoenix and Cyclops are reunited nearby. They recognize Essex as Sinister, and Cyclops contemplates killing him before he can cause so much pain in their time. Suddenly, Cyclops and Phoenix are attacked by Apocalypse’s physically enhanced Marauders. Apocalypse sees the fight and proudly joins in. A Marauder knocks Phoenix into the nearby river, as Apocalypse defeats Cyclops. He offers Cyclops to Essex as a test subject. When Essex hesitates, Apocalypse gives him a day to decide. Essex walks away, contemplating his next move, when he discovers a woman in the river. He pulls her out and discovers she’s Phoenix.

Continuity Notes: When Apocalypse tours Essex’s lab and hears the new theory of evolution, he realizes what he is for the first time. He declares that he is “an anomaly – the first born of this great mutation!” Ozymandias is indirectly referenced, as Apocalypse brags that a man with royal blood has served him for over a thousand years.

Sanctity sends Cyclops and Phoenix into the past in their own bodies, which makes wonder why the Askani didn’t do that in their first miniseries, other than the fact that Cable couldn’t have recognized Cyclops and Phoenix for continuity reasons. Since it was Rachel Summers doing the summoning in the first mini, after the Askani had been decimated by Apocalypse, I guess it is reasonable that Rachel had to rely on her own powers to drag them into the future. Sanctity's plan to have them change the past and stop Apocalypse seems to contradict the Marvel rules of time travel that Mark Gruenwald imposed for years.

Review: Did I mention this series is dense? The amount of plot in this issue alone is almost as much story as the entire first miniseries. Even though Milligan goes through a lot of twists to get there, this issue mainly accomplishes only three points. Essex begins to grow closer to Apocalypse and question traditional morality, Cyclops and Phoenix are reunited, and a fight with Apocalypse leaves the pair defeated. None of the material with the Marauders, the Hellfire Club, or the freaks under London has much to do with any of this. I wouldn’t say that they’re totally superfluous since the miniseries isn’t over with yet, but it does seem like there are too many characters at this point.

The true star of the series so far is Mr. Sinister, and Milligan is successful in creating a sympathetic portrayal of his former self. The idea that a man would abandon all morality in the name of science after his son’s death isn’t easy to pull off convincingly, but Milligan is able to create a conflicted portrayal of Essex that makes it work. Throughout the story, Essex is tempted by the progress that could be made if science wasn’t constrained by society, but also wonders what place his deceased son would've had in that world. When Apocalypse offers Cyclops to Essex as a test subject, he’s tempted by the opportunity to pursue his life’s work, but he also recognizes that Cyclops and Phoenix share what he once had with Rebecca. Milligan cleverly ties the moral conflicts to the early controversy surrounding the theory of evolution. Just as embracing evolution placed people at odds with the era’s theological and moral beliefs, Essex begins to wonder if all morality should be abandoned in the name of science. If life really has no meaning outside of survival of the fittest, how could a pursuit of knowledge at all costs truly be wrong? As interesting as the conflict is, the details of the story unfortunately trip over it. Just a few pages before Apocalypse offers Cyclops to Essex, Phoenix has already discovered the “evil, pure and simple” work he is doing on mutants in his lab. It’s already been inferred that Essex is experimenting on the mutants from the Marauders’ freak show, so his conflict over using Cyclops as a test subject seems odd. I guess Phoenix could’ve been reacting to the fact that mutants were being kept in cages (the art is so dark and murky it’s hard to tell what condition they’re in), but I think her response implies that he’s doing more than just studying his captives. The storytelling at the end of the issue is also unclear, as Apocalypse teleports away with the Marauders while giving Essex a day to make his decision about Cyclops. Essex is then seen walking away alone, so I guess the implication is that Apocalypse took Cyclops with him, but it’s not clear at all. At any rate, even if some of the details don’t add up, this is still a strong chapter of a series that’s engaging in its own right and more than just gratuitous brand exploitation.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF CYCLOPS AND PHOENIX #1 – June 1996

Digging up the Past
Credits: Peter Milligan (writer), John Paul Leon (penciler), Klaus Janson (inker), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (lettering), Kevin Somers & Malibu’s Hues (colors)

Summary: In 1859 London, a woman named Rebecca mourns the loss of her son, Adam. She worries that her husband, scientist Nathanial Essex, is growing more distant. Essex appears in front of the Royal Society and discusses his views on evolution, and his belief that mankind will someday mutate into superior beings. He unveils a composite of human and animal corpses to illustrate his point, which scandalizes the society. Later, a man named Cootie Tremble at a pub offers to take him to a freak show. At the show, he sees humans who appear to be the mutants he predicted. When Essex asks to leave, he’s attacked by Cootie’s men, who call themselves the Marauders. Essex gives them money and dares them to join his cause of science. Weeks later, in the sewers underneath London, workers accidentally awaken Apocalypse inside his regeneration chamber. Apocalypse surveys London and declares that he will fulfill his destiny here. He flashes back to his youth as a slave in ancient Egypt. He has a vision of the god Set as his mutant powers emerge for the first time. Back in London, Apocalypse is attacked by the Marauders, who see him as another freak for their show. After he kills Cootie and one of his men, the Marauders pledge to serve him. Meanwhile, Phoenix suddenly emerges nude inside a church, while Cyclops appears in the sewers below. Inside Essex’s home, Rebecca is haunted by gruesome visions. She walks into Essex’s laboratory and discovers the body of their son inside a chamber. Distressed, she runs to his grave and digs it up, hoping that it isn’t true. Essex finds her, telling her that he’s experimenting on their son’s body to prevent other children from dying. Suddenly, Apocalypse, in his human guise of En Sabah Nur, appears. He tells Essex that he’s interested in his work and proposes a partnership.

Continuity Notes: Nathaniel Essex, as it’s already been established at this point, is Mr. Sinister. This is the first issue to place Sinister back in the 1800s, which doesn't exactly fit with previous issues that inferred that he was around for "centuries". Another one of Sinister’s aliases, Milbury, is referenced here as his estate is named “Milbury House”. His future group of mercenaries are also named the Marauders.

Review: This is the first part of the second Cyclops and Phoenix miniseries, which for some reason was deemed an appropriate place for Sinister’s origin story. Actually, since most of Sinister’s motivation is supposed to revolve around the pair, I can see the reasoning behind the decision, although it seems as if they’re being tacked on to the story. In the first issue, Milligan is clearly more interested in Sinister’s story, as Cyclops and Phoenix only receive a two-page unexplained cameo. I didn’t buy this series when it was first released because none of the newsstand dealers in my town sold it. This is the first time I can remember an X-related miniseries not being bought by any of my local retailers, which sadly foreshadows the disappearance of comics from newsstands. I decided to do full reviews of each issue since the story is fairly intricate and a decent amount of continuity is established.

This doesn’t read like any of the other X-titles from this era, as it’s a dense plot with an average of around six panels per page. It takes literally twice as long to read this as a Scott Lobdell comic from the same period. The dialogue is appropriately stuffy, which is certainly a change from the other X-books, which alternate between sarcastic, glib one-liners and highly emotional monologues. John Paul Leon’s art also bears no resemblance to the cartoony, exaggerated style that was common at the time. It’s heavy on the shadows and is occasionally stiff, but he does a great job of recreating nineteenth century England. Overall, the issue is a little hard to get into, but the story moves at a steady pace and Milligan is able to make Sinister engaging enough to follow throughout the story. It’s probably trying too hard to appear important and serious (it seems as if Marvel really wanted a Vertigo flavor to the mini), but it’s still an entertaining setup issue.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

WOLVERINE #101 - May 1996

The Helix of an Age Foretold
Credits: Larry Hama (writer), Val Semeiks (penciler), Chad Hunt (inker), Joe Rosas & Malibu Hues (colors), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (lettering)

Summary: Wolverine breaks free of Ozymandias’ grip and jumps down the chasm to save Cyclops. While falling down the chasm, Cyclops hits his head against a rock and falls unconscious. Wolverine manages to grab Cyclops and uses his claws to grab hold of the nearby spiral. He drags Cyclops to the top of the spiral, as the remaining X-Men continue their fight against Ozymandias’ stone replicas. Unbeknownst to the team, Elektra is secretly aiding them in their battle. Cyclops comes to and sees Phoenix buried under debris. He angrily blasts Ozymandias and breaks his body apart. Ozymandias responds by destroying the spiral with his engraved drawings. Realizing that he's defeated, he then forces his own body to fall apart. Iceman saves Cyclops and Wolverine from the collapsing spiral. As the team leaves, Cyclops wonders what Ozymandias’ engravings mean for the X-Men, and Wolverine senses Elektra’s nearby presence.

Continuity Notes: In the previous chapter of this mini-crossover, Phoenix was having the life choked out of her by the stone replica of Magneto (which was her excuse for not rescuing Cyclops). This issue opens with Phoenix standing a good ten feet away from the stone Magneto. Her excuse for not helping Cyclops in this chapter is that keeping the stone doppelgangers away is taking all of her telekinetic powers, and if she diverted any energy away to help Cyclops, Cannonball and Iceman might be killed.

When Cyclops hits his head against a rock, the narrative caption claims that it “wrecks a subtle change upon a section of cerebral cortex that was damaged once before.” This is a reference to the fact that Cyclops’ inability to control his optic blasts is due to the brain damage he suffered after his childhood plane crash. I have no idea why the story makes a big deal out of his head being hit in the same place again. I certainly don’t recall this going anywhere.

Phoenix sees Elektra’s silhouette in the shadows and comments that it’s “someone who is capable of shielding their thoughts from a psi-probe”. I have no idea if this has been kept consistent over the years, or if this Elektra was supposed to be a Skrull or not.

While climbing up Ozymandias’ spiral, Cyclops sees an engraved image of Xavier. Cyclops wonders why “the scribe of Apocalypse” would have rendered Xavier with such reverence. I’m not sure what exactly this is supposed to mean, unless it just signifies that Apocalypse respects his opponents. I suppose it could be more Onslaught foreshadowing, too.

According to the letter column, when Magneto removed Wolverine’s adamantium, it was broken down into its “component elements”. The editor claims that because of this, his original adamantium skeleton no longer exists. Of course, the editor also claims that Rose Wu is “convalescing in the Madripoor hospital”, which contradicts her on-panel death in issue #98.

Production Note: This is yet another issue with only nineteen pages.

Creative Differences: This issue is filled with third-person narrative captions, which Hama never used in his previous issues, and has claimed in interviews that he never wrote into his scripts.

Review: It’s an issue long fight scene, which really just covers the same ground as the last chapter in the story. Because Ozymandias first appeared in Uncanny X-Men’s installment of the storyline, I guess someone felt the need to firmly establish who he was in this issue, too. It makes this chapter seem extremely repetitive, especially if you happened to read both installments within a day of each other. The only aspects of the story that break up the monotony of the fight scenes are the cryptic hints of future storylines that I don’t think were ever resolved. Cyclops seems horrified that a servant of Apocalypse knows so much about the X-Men, but nothing comes of it. Cyclops getting hit on the head again is treated as an important event, and is then forgotten. Ozymandias’ reverent etching of Charles Xavier is portrayed as significant, but I’m pretty sure that goes nowhere, either. Aside from the rather uninteresting action sequences, there’s also the fact that the title character is literally acting like a dog (he even licks Cyclops’ face in one scene). In the previous issue, he was at least capable of speech, but here he’s limited to just grunts and growls. It’s a weak issue all around.

Monday, November 24, 2008

UNCANNY X-MEN #332 – May 1996

The Road to Casablanca
Credits: Scott Lobdell (writer), Joe Madureira (penciler), Tim Townsend (inker), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (lettering), Team Bucce (colors)

Summary: Professor Xavier meets with Zoe Culloden in her Moroccan office. He wants to know about Wolverine’s altered condition, but she refuses to speak to him because of Landau, Luckman, & Lake’s privacy policy. He allows her to mentally carry out a scenario where she kills him in order to protect L,L,&L’s secrets. She’s shocked to learn that the events were in her head, and that Xavier is using his power to prevent her from moving. He demands that she tell him what happened to Wolverine. Outside the office, Phoenix telepathically locates Wolverine. She leaves with Cyclops, Iceman, and Cannonball to find him. In the desert, Wolverine finds a castle. He steps on a trap door and falls a mile underground. There, he’s greeted by Ozymandias. Ozymandias has spent centuries alone, creating stone representations of his visions. He’s shocked to see Wolverine’s appearance, and wonders what mankind has evolved into. The X-Men arrive and attack Ozymandias when they overhear him threatening to “tear the answers” from Wolverine’s skull. Ozymandias creates animated stone statues and sends them after the team. While riding on the back of Iceman’s ice-slide, Cyclops is knocked off and falls down a deep chasm. Ozymandias grabs Wolverine, as a stone recreation of Magneto chokes Phoenix.

Continuity Notes: This is the first appearance of Ozymandias, who is yet another mysterious character with ties to Apocalypse. He’s named after the poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, which contains the famous line comic writers love, “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair”. Ozymandias makes a number of cryptic statements in this issue alone. He claims that he was a king before Apocalypse imprisoned him. He now “sets his blind eyes…his stone hands” to fending off madness by creating statues. Phoenix wonders if he’s an early mutant and Apocalypse didn’t want the competition, or if he’s a re-engineered human like Mr. Sinister (the Further Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix miniseries that gave him an origin was about to be released). In this issue, he’s presented as a victim of Apocalypse who fears his eventual resurrection, but I think he’s later portrayed as Apocalypse’s faithful biographer.

All of the statues created by Ozymandias resemble established X-characters, although Phoenix claims that she doesn’t recognize one of them. The statue is a male with an average build and medium-length hair parted in the middle. The art isn’t very clear, but it eventually occurred to me that this is supposed to be X-Man.

Xavier reveals to Zoe that he's aware of Landau, Luckman, and Lake's operations, which shocks her. According to him, L,L,&L have twenty-six offices.

Production Note: More nineteen page fun.

“Huh?” Moment: Ozymandias refers to etchings he’s made to represent recent events, like Avalon falling to Earth and Xavier’s fight with X-Man, but the drawings he’s referring to look like random lines that barely form any type of coherent image. I wonder if there was supposed to be some sort of computer effect in their place that wasn’t properly pulled off. The idea that X-Man pulled Xavier from the Astral Plane into reality is now presented as something of a big deal, but it certainly didn’t come across that way in the actual story.

Review: Well, the X-Men track down Roverine while another new mysterious villain is introduced. This isn’t exactly a highpoint of the era. Rereading it, this isn’t as bad as I remembered, since it actually tells a decent amount of story in nineteen pages, works in some action, and has Madureira’s typically strong artwork. It’s the connection to the inane “Wolverine as a dog” storyline, and the knowledge that Ozymandias turns out to be a dud, that makes the issue initially seem to be worse than it really is. Ozymandias’ design and powers actually don’t bother me; it’s the unimaginative origin and lack of personality that kills him. As the months go on, he just becomes that stone guy who hangs around Apocalypse occasionally. Apocalypse is already surrounded by dozens of characters with no personality, so I’m not sure what the point of Ozymandias was supposed to be.

The Xavier scenes seem to be setting up the upcoming Onslaught reveal, as Lobdell shows him willing to cross the ethical lines he’s made for himself in order to help Wolverine. The justification given is that after losing Sabretooth, he refuses to lose Wolverine. This, charitably, could come across as coherent long-term plotting, as one storyline leads to another, and Xavier’s character arc continues to take a darker turn with each event. However, reading all of these issues in a short amount of time just emphasizes the aspects that don’t work. Not only was Sabretooth’s reversion totally out of left field, but Onslaught was already making behind-the-scenes appearances before that even happened. Lobdell is trying to make something work and the pieces just don’t fit. On top of that, Xavier’s actions don’t make a lot of sense anyway. With his mental powers (and Phoenix’s), they could easily locate Wolverine, so he doesn’t need Zoe for that. As for his physical condition, the advanced Shi’ar technology the X-Men have at their mansion would likely tell him more than what Zoe can (granted, this is assuming that Xavier thinks the X-Men can bring him home). I understand that he would want information from someone involved in the case, but the idea that she’s his last resort and he has to cross these boundaries seems forced.

Friday, November 21, 2008

WOLVERINE #100 – April 1996




Furnace of His Brain, Anvil of His Heart
Credits: Larry Hama (writer), Adam Kubert (penciler), Dan Green (inker), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (lettering), Joe Rosas & Electric Crayon (colors)

Summary: Genesis and the Dark Riders prepare Wolverine for the adamantium bonding process, as Cannonball and Zoe Culloden watch from the ducts above. Nearby, Genesis has placed his prisoners inside sarcophagi. Zoe explains to Cannonball his plan to use their life energy to revive Apocalypse. As Wolverine’s body begins to reject the adamantium, Genesis increases the power. Cannonball demands that Zoe use her teleportation device to save Wolverine. She tells him that Wolverine must fulfill his own destiny. After he defeats the bonding process, Zoe tells Cannonball to strike then. She disappears and Cannonball promptly attacks the Dark Riders, as the increased power seems to stabilize the bonding process. During the fight with Cannonball, parts of the bonding apparatus are destroyed. Soon Wolverine begins to reject the adamantium and Genesis’ brain implants. Wolverine’s tank explodes, shooting sharp blades of adamantium across the room. Hurricane and Lifeforce are immediately killed. Wolverine begins to kill the rest of the Dark Riders in the shadows, as Genesis drags Cannonball to Apocalypse’s revival crèche. Wolverine, now de-evolved and resembling an animal, is standing on top of Apocalypse’s tomb. As he fights Genesis, Cannonball opens the tomb and discovers that Apocalypse’s body is gone. Wolverine drops Genesis’ body at Cannonball’s feet and asks him to apologize to Cable for him. He then disappears. Meanwhile, Stick sends Elektra to find the warrior who has fallen from “the path”.

Continuity Notes: The de-evolved, animalistic Wolverine debuts in this issue. Even though it’s a horrible idea, this becomes his look for over a year.

Aside from Genesis, most of the Dark Riders are explicitly killed. Hurricane, Lifeforce, Spyne, and Deadbolt all die on-panel. Gauntlet’s death is implied, as Genesis hears him screaming off-panel.

Apocalypse’s body isn’t inside his tomb, leading Cannonball to speculate that Genesis was either lying or crazy, or that Apocalypse already left by himself. Apocalypse isn’t actually revived until the summer 1999 crossover, I believe.

Genesis tells Wolverine, “without the adamantium, you were doomed to degenerate into a howling beast”. This is an idea that also appeared in the early issues after Wolverine lost the adamantium. I’ve never quite understood the claim that adamantium prevented Wolverine from de-evolving into some sort of animal. Marvel, even at this point, had done dozens of pre-adamantium stories about Wolverine, and he seemed fine back then. Unless they’re saying that recovering from the loss of his adamantium led him to become bestial, the idea doesn’t really work.

Miscellaneous Note: The title of this issue is a reference to William Blake’s poem, “The Tyger”.

Production Note: Starting with this issue, Wolverine’s word balloon lettering appears in a “savage” font (the same font began to be used a few issues earlier in his narrative captions). This sticks around for years even after this storyline is over.

Gimmicks: This issue has a cardstock hologram cover for $3.95. I have the non-enhanced newsstand version, which just has Adam Kubert's drawing of Wolverine and costs a dollar less.

Commercial Break: There’s an ad for the FOX made-for-TV Generation X movie. I’m still not quite sure how the twenty-eighth X-Men spinoff ended up with its own movie adaptation before the original series did (can you imagine an X-Men film on a TV-movie budget?). I barely remember anything about the movie, except that Jubilee was played by a white actress and some of the characters weren’t even in the comic.

Creative Differences: A Larry Hama quote regarding this storyline from Usenet:

"Never wanted to take away the Adamantium and never wanted to regress
him to the bestial state. I did the best I could under the
circumstances, but I really don't like the little guy without his nose
and looking stooped over and stupid. I didn't think there was
anything to gain by quitting the book in a huff and walking away from
a committment is not something I do anyway. The people who made the
decision to change the character in that way have made other decisions
about stories and characters that were right on and brilliant. People
make mistakes. We deal with it. I do not hate anybody for decisions
they make about a fictional character no matter how deeply I am
involved with it. I reserve hatred for the guy who kicks down my door
and shoots my dog. Let's get real, folks. I have been lobbying for a
return to normal and the return of the Adamantium for over a year. I
have been assured that I can go about it in a logical and satisfying
way."

There's also an interesting thread from earlier in this year, which has Larry Hama and Scott Lobdell (posting as "Kid York") defending Bob Harras. According to Lobdell, the higher-ups at Marvel actually wanted to re-number the entire X-line when the format changed in 1994.

Review: This is the beginning of an era with a very obvious editorial influence. Not only is Wolverine’s physical appearance drastically altered for no discernable reason, but he’s also going to be hanging out with Elektra for the next few months because she has a new series to promote. Hama tries to make the best of things, but there’s no way to disguise how flagrantly ill-conceived all of this is. This specific issue is actually fairly entertaining, if you get past the nonsensical de-evolution of Wolverine. Hama’s at least able to add some tension to the story, and throwing Cannonball into the mix as a spoiler works well. The one-by-one deaths of the new Dark Riders are fun (most of them are such poorly designed, poorly defined characters it doesn’t feel like a waste), and Kubert’s art is as dynamic and energetic as ever. The issue was hyped for months in advance as the issue that would definitively answer the question, “Will Wolverine get his adamantium back?” Marvel did everything short of outright telling you that was exactly what was going to happen in this issue, which clearly didn’t happen. Depending on your point of view, that’s either flagrant false advertising or an admirable fake-out on the readers. I didn’t particularly care if Wolverine got his metal back or not, so the bait and switch didn’t bother me too much at the time. It was the decision to turn Wolverine into a dog that left me scratching my head.

The de-evolution plotline is what really tarnishes the post-AoA era of Wolverine. This storyline received months and months of buildup, as each chapter hinted that Wolverine was in the midst of an event of cosmic importance. When issue #100 eventually arrives, we finally get the payoff…and it’s a bizarrely redesigned Wolverine who acts like Scooby Doo. I get that Wolverine’s core conflict is his struggle to prove his humanity and fight against his animal instincts, but over-literalizing it and turning him into a canine is just absurd. How exactly this transformation happened isn’t even dealt with. Why would fighting off the bonding process cause his physical appearance to change? Is this supposed to be because Cannonball interfered before Zoe told him to? Even so, how exactly would this cause Wolverine’s nose to disappear and fur to grow on his arms? It’s outright ridiculous. Larry Hama never hid the fact that he wasn’t a fan of this idea. My memory is that he plays with it for a few issues, and then writes Wolverine with his established personality again. His physical appearance is portrayed inconsistently throughout the books as the months go on. In his own title, he regains his normal appearance almost a year before the two main X-books catch up. How exactly he regained his normal appearance is never explained either. I seem to remember that once the “Zero Tolerance” crossover was over, he was back to his normal look in every title. This “eh, whatever” type of storytelling unfortunately shows up in quite a few Marvel titles during this era.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

CABLE #31 – May 1996

…There is a Reaction!
Credits: Jeph Loeb (writer), Ian Churchill (penciler), Scott Hanna (inker), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (lettering), Mike Thomas & Graphic Color Works (colors)

Summary: Blaquesmith charges up his walking stick and prepares to kill X-Man. X-Man responds to the blast with a force of psionic energy, which weakens him and causes Blaquesmith to disappear. During the fight, psi-sensitives around the world, such as Holocaust, Psylocke, Phoenix, and Xavier have violent reactions to X-Man’s release of energy. Cable tries to reason with X-Man, but he refuses to give up. When Cable pushes X-Man’s powers to their limit, he falls unconscious. Blaquesmith reappears from his time-shift and tries again to convince Cable to kill him. Cable refuses and draws upon his last reserves of power to talk to X-Man telepathically. X-Man finally trusts him and allows Cable to repair the mental damage he sustained in the battle. Blaquesmith takes Cable away, as his techno-organic virus begins to grow again. Cable, who deduced that Blaquesmith’s method to kill X-Man was also his failsafe to kill him if he ever grew too powerful, tells him that too many dark secrets have emerged. Meanwhile, Post receives telepathic orders from Onslaught to kill Cable.

Review: Well, it’s another issue that relies on X-Man behaving irrationally to work, but it does at least have some redeeming elements. Revealing that Blaquesmith was more than a mentor to Cable, he was also supposed to be his assassin if things went wrong, is interesting. Realistically, if these characters were as powerful as the stories claim, there likely would be a terminal failsafe in place. The conflict between Cable and Blaquesmith works pretty well, as Cable sees himself in X-Man and Blaquesmith just sees a dangerous time anomaly that must be stopped. This is actually a case where X-Man’s psychotic behavior can work in the story’s favor, as Blaquesmith does have a legitimate argument to make. X-Man is apparently unable to respond to reason, and he presents a threat to the entire planet, so killing him could be just as a defensible as killing a rabid dog. Unfortunately, Blaquesmith disappears for most of the issue, leaving us with more scenes of X-Man’s powers exploding while he pointlessly fights Cable, so the argument doesn’t get enough play. So if you didn’t get enough large panels and splash pages of Cable and X-Man fighting in the last two chapters, I guess you’re in luck.

Mapping the Mission
Credits: Jeph Loeb (writer), Eric Battle (penciler), Art Thibert (inker), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (lettering)

Summary: Blaquesmith continues to recap Cable’s history, explaining his conflicts with Stryfe and Tyler. He concludes by detailing his fight with X-Man, which might’ve placed Cable’s life in jeopardy.

Continuity Notes: Blaquesmith now says that he knows who stole his data on Cable in issue #21. He also says that he has a “disturbing conclusion as to his machinations, which we have all fallen prey to”. It seems like the thief is being retconned into being Onslaught, even though issue #21 heavily implied it was the X-Cutioner. This raises the same question X-Men #50 did…why would Onslaught go through all of this trouble to get information he already has access to?

Review: This is the second part of the back-up origin story. Oddly enough, it spends as much time recapping the main story in this issue as it does anything else. It also segues into more vague hints about an upcoming menace, which means it’s easily dismissed as more Onslaught nonsense.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

EXCALIBUR #98 – June 1996

Fireflies
Credits: Warren Ellis (writer), Carlos Pacheco (penciler), Bob Wiacek (inker), Ariane Lenshoek & Malibu (colors), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (lettering)

Summary: Excalibur watches footage of Douglock’s abduction and plots their attack against Black Air. Peter Wisdom speculates that Douglock has been taken to their acquisition station in North Yorkshire. Soon, Meggan uses her elemental powers to disrupt the forcefield covering Black Air’s base and the team infiltrates. After easily taking over the base and causing massive property damage, Shadowcat hacks into their computer system and learns that Douglock isn’t there; he’s been assigned as agent Scratch’s responsibility. Nightcrawler gives the Black Air personnel five minutes to evacuate before Meggan forces the earth to swallow their base whole. Meanwhile, Brian Braddock receives word from the Hellfire Club’s Scribe that the Red King has led the club in a new direction. Their plans now revolve around the new Red Queen, who is a magician. Suddenly, sections of London explode. Elsewhere, scientists dismantling Douglock learn that he has information on the Legacy Virus.

Continuity Notes: The Black Queen identifies herself as “Ms. Steed” (a reference to the old Avengers TV show, I guess), making her the first member of the London branch to have more than a code name.

Review: This is an action-heavy issue that mainly serves as a showcase for Pacheco’s art. The action scenes are a little odd, as Black Air offers literally no opposition to Excalibur. There are a lot of explosions and bodies flying, but no real fighting. The story tries to justify this by saying that the Black Air agents are so powerful, they’ve just become used to getting away with whatever they want to do. You’d think that Ellis would’ve had the villains offer at least some resistance, though, rather than using the scene just to have Excalibur show off their powers. At the very least, Pacheco does an impressive job conveying the action. The end of the issue has some brief scenes touching base on the other plotlines. The Hellfire Club storyline advances slowly, as some hint of their plan is given (and a subplot about Brian possibly giving into his darker urges is introduced). The “Douglock has the key to the Legacy Virus” subplot, which was dropped as soon as it began, makes a surprising comeback on the final page. I don’t recall it going anywhere, but at least there was some effort to keep the idea from falling into total obscurity. Overall, it’s another issue that’s mainly setup, but some of the action is fun and the art isn’t bad at all.

X-MAN #14 – April 1996

Fallen From Grace
Credits: John Ostrander (plot), Terry Kavanagh (scripter), Steve Skroce (penciler), Bud LaRosa (inker), Mike Thomas & Graphic Color Works (colors), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (lettering)

Summary: Cable awakens to see Exodus fighting X-Man. After X-Man is able to break free of Exodus’ energy-draining powers, Threnody encourages him to run. Blaquesmith finds Cable and tells him to ignore Exodus and focus on the “atrocity”, X-Man. Cable refuses. Exodus finds X-Man and Threnody and continues the fight. Cable takes one of the guns Threnody found in the snow and opens fire on Exodus. X-Man overhears Blaquesmith refer to Exodus as an agent of Apocalypse, and reads Exodus’ mind to confirm. Angered, X-Man overfeeds Exodus his power, knocking him unconscious. He then opens the earth and throws Exodus into a canyon, which he closes on top of him. X-Man then turns to Blaquesmith, Cable, and Threnody and accuses them of distrusting him. Meanwhile in Paris, Madelyne Pryor is fixing dinner when she accidentally cuts herself. She wonders why she didn’t feel pain, or why her hand didn’t start to bleed until she actually noticed the cut.

Continuity Notes: Blaquesmith claims that Exodus wears “the marks” of Apocalypse on his brow. This is the first time Exodus has been connected to Apocalypse. I think we’ve entered a period in the books where several characters end up with retconned connections to Apocalypse, which turned out to be a way to build up Apocalypse as a villain without actually using him that often.

Creative Differences: A very obviously re-lettered balloon given to Threnody emphasizes that the gun they’ve found came from Cable’s safehouse.

Production Note: Another nineteen-page comic.

Review: This is at least more enjoyable than the first chapter of the crossover, if only because X-Man actually has a reason to be fighting his opponent in this issue. It’s an all-fight issue, which is well suited for Skroce’s energetic, exaggerated style. Pitting Exodus against X-Man works, if only because they’re both defined by having indescribable psionic powers, so at least they’re a match for one another. Blaquesmith’s prodding of Cable to just kill X-Man adds a somewhat interesting conflict to the story. We all know Cable won’t go through with it, but Blaquesmith is a new and vague enough character to get away with that motivation. The end of the fight, which has X-Man creating a canyon and then trapping Exodus in-between it is at least a creative use of his powers. It’s certainly a welcome break from his powers just erupting and creating large explosions, which seems to happen in almost all of his other appearances. The ending, unfortunately, is just more of X-Man acting irrationally and lashing out at people who don’t mean him harm (well, Blaquesmith does). Actually, Cable trying to stop his mentor Blaquesmith from killing X-Man has potential as a story, but I can’t remember if that’s the direction the last chapter goes in.

Monday, November 17, 2008

CABLE #30 – April 1996

For Every Action…
Credits: Jeph Loeb (writer), Ian Churchill (penciler), Scott Hanna (inker), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (lettering), Mike Thomas & Malibu’s Hues (colors)

Summary: Eight hundred years in the past, a time-displaced Dane Whitman (the Avengers’ Black Knight), takes a group of crusaders to a “wicked” tomb in the Swiss Alps. In the present, Exodus returns to the tomb to recuperate. Nearby, Cable flies overhead, searching for X-Man. He’s suddenly assaulted with X-Man’s memories. Below, X-Man and Threnody travel through the snowstorm. X-Man is suddenly overcome with memories of Cable’s childhood. Cable follows their trail, and discovers that Blaquesmith has been secretly following him. X-Man leads Threnody inside Cable’s Swiss cabin, claiming that he feels psychically drawn to it. Cable enters, and tries to explain to X-Man that coexisting so close together is hurting both of them. Suspicious, X-Man lashes out against him. He sees Cable’s face and realizes that they are the same person, but he refuses to stop his attack. Blaquesmith enters, and the presence of another telepath makes X-Man even angrier. When Cable tries to calm him down, X-Man’s powers explode, destroying the cabin. Later, as X-Man awakens in the snow, he’s greeted by Exodus.

Continuity Notes: Exodus is presumably recovering from his fight with Holocaust, from X-Men #42 and #43. According to the narration, the tomb is where “a portion of the power that created him remains.” I’ve heard some people claim before that placing the Black Knight eight hundred years ago is a continuity error, but I’m not familiar enough with his character to really know. Uncanny X-Men #307 revealed that Black Knight recognized Exodus from somewhere, so at least some of this story must’ve been worked out in advance.

Review: If X-Man hadn’t already reached the point of self-parody as a character, surely this issue would’ve put him over the top. Like every other X-Man story, we see him reacting irrationally and lashing out in anger at people who aren’t threatening him, as the story climaxes with his powers exploding. Didn’t anyone at Marvel notice that the same thing happens in every X-Man story? I guess this one is supposed to be a bigger deal since he’s meeting his counterpart from this reality, but that certainly doesn’t make the story less predictable. It’s almost as if Jeph Loeb had an X-Man drinking game worked out in his head, and he felt an obligation to make sure all of the standard X-Man plot elements made it into each story. Adding Exodus and Black Knight does at least create the potential for something interesting to happen later, but so far it’s all setup. The rest of the story consists of a lot of large images of Cable and X-Man wandering in the snow, which strangely enough limits the amount of space that’s used for the later fight scene between the pair. X-Man’s powers exploding just get a large panel, instead of the standard full splash page, which is surely a shame. This isn't very engaging on its own merits, but the knowledge that X-Man is behaving in exactly the same irrational manner he always does almost makes it comically bad.


Mapping the Mission

Credits: Jeph Loeb (writer), Eric Battle (penciler), Art Thibert (inker), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (lettering)

Summary: Blaquesmith recaps Cable’s life, from the time of his birth to his childhood in the future, to his return to this timeline as a mercenary.

Review: This is just a partial recap of Cable’s origin (at three pages, it actually pushes this issue’s page count to twenty-three pages). The art’s atrocious, but I did appreciate this backup at the time since I had lost track of the various aspects of Cable’s heavily retconned past when this issue was released. It’s interesting that even a backup story that tries to piece together Cable’s past has no explanation for why exactly he was working as a mercenary before he mentored the New Mutants. The idea that Cable came to this time to train the new External, Cannonball, is also skipped over, which amuses me.

X-FORCE #54 – May 1996

Q&A
Credits: Jeph Loeb (writer), Adam Pollina (penciler), Bud LaRosa (inker), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (lettering), Javins/Bellman & Malibu (colors)

Summary: Following their battle in the city, X-Force is arrested and interrogated by the police. Through a series of interviews, they reveal that the Externals’ mystery killer was Selene. After confronting Warpath inside Gideon’s skyscraper, she flew down to the street and killed Absalom. Crule attempted to fight back, but Selene drained his life energy also. Siryn searched the skyscraper to find Warpath, but he was gone. Meanwhile, Selene was suddenly attacked by a blast of telekinetic energy from the newly arrived Cable. The team united their powers against Selene, but the resulting energy explosion left most of them unconscious. As Selene left, Blaquesmith arrived and took Cable away, erasing X-Force’s memory of his presence. The police arrived, and Domino decided to surrender, hoping that Caliban could receive medical care. Soon, X-Force is released from prison with the help of Archangel’s ex-girlfriend, Detective Charlotte Jones. As Detective Jones leaves for the night, a shadowy figure warns her that there will soon be “zero tolerance” for mutants.

Continuity Notes: Why exactly X-Force is being released is vague. When Domino thanks Detective Jones, she replies, “Let’s leave that aside for now. I can only tell you that you have a friend…”. I’m not sure if she’s referring to herself or not.

The police have a file on Shatterstar, which lists his name as “Benjamin”. The file has photos of Shatterstar, with shorter hair, posing for a mugshot. This is more foreshadowing for the upcoming origin storyline for Shatterstar.

The shadowy figure who confronts Detective Jones is supposed to be Bastion, making his second cameo appearance this month. “Zero Tolerance” is the name of his Sentinel program, and next year’s crossover.

Selene gives no motivation for the murder of the Externals. Her only comments are, “There is a war coming over the horizon, where only the strong will survive. These Externals have outlived their purpose. Now there is only myself and one other” (Selene was listed as an External in issue #37. Presumably, she doesn’t think that she’s outlived her own usefulness). She laughs at the idea that the remaining External is Cannonball (which I guess leaves Candra), telling Meltdown, “You don’t honestly believe that the stripling Guthrie is actually an External?”. When Meltdown mentions that she saw his resurrection from the dead, Selene replies, “Did you now? Ask your mentor about that…”. As far as I know, Cannonball’s return from the dead remains unexplained, and the implication that Cable knows something about it hasn’t been followed up on.

Production Note: Nineteen pages again.

I Love the ‘90s: The cover of this issue is a reference to The Usual Suspects movie. The director, Bryan Singer, will go on to direct the first two X-Men movies and revive interest in the superhero film genre.

Review: This is the horrendous conclusion to the years-old Externals storyline, which went from being so important it was a part of Cable’s origin story (he came back to this time to train Cannonball during his ascension as an External), to being totally ignored for years, to being swept under the carpet as an afterthought. This is an entire issue of “What Were They Thinking?”, as the previous issues of the storyline are retconned without explanation, and the new questions raised are never answered. It’s sloppy from start to finish, as Selene is given no motivation for her actions, and the events from the earlier chapters of this storyline are dismissed with no rationalization. It’s sure to disappoint anyone who followed the Externals plotline, and just confuse anyone who was just walking in. Even Pollina’s artwork, which is usually dynamic enough to make up for most of the story’s deficiencies, just looks awkward and unpleasant for most of the issue. Loeb’s police interrogation gimmick does allow for a little characterization, but it’s mostly a pointless distraction from a story that has far too many dangling threads. I remember hating this issue when it was released, and feeling cheated that storylines that were created under the same editor a few years earlier could receive such abysmal conclusions. As if this wasn’t bad enough, within a few months I had to endure the “Onslaught” and “Origin of Shatterstar” storylines. I have no idea what was going on in the X-office during this era, but the quality control is getting shoddy.

Friday, November 14, 2008

X-MEN #52 – May 1996

Collector’s Item
Credits: Mark Waid (writer), Andy Kubert (penciler), Cam Smith (inker), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (lettering), Marie Javins & Malibu (colors)

Summary: Gambit orders Bishop to grab the front of the runaway train. As Gambit loads the train with energy, Bishop absorbs it until he can’t contain any more. The energy Bishop finally unleashes cancels the train’s momentum with a kinetic backlash. Gambit congratulates the weakened Bishop, and the two are soon ambushed by Mr. Sinister. Gambit, Bishop, and Beast (who is still Dark Beast in disguise) wake up restrained inside one of Sinister’s labs. He explains that he created the mutating virus to infect humans because he was running out of mutant subjects. He thinks that he’s now able to make the mutating effects permanent, but he’s more interested in Bishop, the only X-Man he knows nothing about. He performs a psi-probe and learns that Bishop is actually from the future. Dark Beast grows worried, as he knows Bishop has memories of the Age of Apocalypse, which he’s trying to hide from Sinister. Gambit cries out in pain, leading Sinister to believe that he might’ve been infected with the mutating virus. When Sinister unlocks his restraints, Gambit reveals that he was faking and escapes. He charges a playing card and destroys Sinister’s sample of the virus. A revived Bishop attacks Sinister with the electricity he’s absorbed from the lab, forcing Sinister to teleport away. Meanwhile, Rogue rents a room in South Carolina, and the mysterious Bastion confiscates video of the train’s damage at Penn Station.

Continuity Notes: Bastion makes his first cameo appearance, wearing a trenchcoat with his face covered in total darkness. He’ll go on to be the major villain in next year’s big crossover, which means the 1997 crossover is being set up before the 1996 crossover has even begun.

Sinister is extremely curious about who Bishop is in this issue, even though they met before in the “X-Cutioner’s Song” crossover and he didn’t seem that interested in him. Uncanny X-Men #325 established that Threnody was monitoring the X-Men inside their mansion for Sinister, so if he had that kind of access, you’d think he would’ve known about Bishop’s past by now (it’s virtually all Bishop talks about anyway). Now that I mention it, the idea that Sinister was spying on the X-Men inside their home should’ve been treated as a bigger deal than it was.

While reading Bishop’s mind, Sinister claims that he came to this era to stop the X-Men’s traitor. That’s actually not true; he came to this time to abduct Fitzroy and his band of escaped convicts. He had no intentions of meeting the X-Men, and even thought they were imposters when he first encountered them. I think this mistake has been made a couple of times over the years, almost making it a quiet retcon of Bishop’s backstory.

After overhearing Sinister tell Gambit that he wouldn’t expect an attack from him, and Gambit’s revelation that he knows that Sinister’s lab is in St. Louis, Dark Beast suspects a connection between the two. He claims that he’ll use this to his advantage, but I’m sure nothing comes of this.

Production Note: You guessed it…nineteen pages.

We Get Letters: A letter writer points out how absurd the revelation that Dark Beast had never heard of this world’s Beast was. The editorial response is that Dark Beast is so arrogant, “it never for a moment dawned on him that there could be another person out there like him”. They also claim that his work underground with the Morlocks prevented him from monitoring our newscasts. Good lord.

Review: Andy Kubert returns with this issue, which at least brings some kinetic artwork to a fairly thin story. Not an awful lot happens in this issue, as the previous installment’s cliffhanger is resolved (with some questionable pseudo-science), the team is captured, and then escapes relatively easily. I guess Sinister catching a fleeting glimpse of the Age of Apocalypse, and Dark Beast learning of a connection between Gambit and Sinister could’ve provided fodder for future stories, but since I'm fairly certain neither of those ideas went anywhere, it makes this issue seem even more inconsequential.

The idea that Sinister could’ve been fooled by Gambit playing sick, which is such an old trick it even felt like a cheat when it was used on the old G. I. Joe cartoon, is hard to swallow. There’s also some confusion over what exactly Gambit’s done to his research. When I first read this issue, I assumed that Gambit had destroyed all of Sinister’s mutant DNA database, and suspected that it might lead to another arc involving Sinister recollecting his research. I thought this because Sinister showed off his collection of DNA records earlier in the story, calling it his life’s work. After Gambit causes an explosion, Sinister accuses of him depriving him of his…life’s work. Then, at the end of the story, Sinister brags, “You may have destroyed my virus…but I have many other plans in motion”. So I guess it was just the virus? Looking back, the DNA files are colored oddly, with any outline lines knocked out. I think this is supposed to indicate that he was actually showing off a hologram and not the real database. Plus, it was inferred after Threnody trashed one of his labs that he had backups of his research, so Gambit’s actions wouldn’t have ruined his life’s work anyway (although this wouldn’t explain why he doesn’t have a backup of his virus info). This is really too much confusion for such a simple plot. The issue still looks nice and has some decent character interaction, but it doesn’t feel like much of a resolution to the storyline.

WOLVERINE #99 – March 1996

Of Mythic Metal Forged
Credits: Larry Hama (writer), Val Semeiks (penciler), Dan Green, Dan Panosian, & Chad Hunt (inkers), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (lettering), Joe Rosas & Malibu’s Hues (colors)

Summary: Zoe Culloden takes Wolverine to Akkaba, the Egyptian village annihilated by Genesis. She tells him that he must face this threat against him, and then leaves to track Chimera. Genesis’ acolyte Jamil appears, offering to show Wolverine the way to the nearby citadel. Wolverine follows him, but refuses to enter the citadel through the door Jamil shows him. He overhears the Dark Riders torturing innocent people inside, and sneaks in through a side entrance. Soon, he’s confronted by Dirt Nap and Genesis, who blasts him with a giant weapon. The Dark Riders take him into custody, as Genesis brags that Wolverine will be brainwashed into becoming their new captain. He unveils a new adamantium skeleton for Wolverine, made out of the metal stolen from Cyber. Meanwhile, Cannonball travels to Madripoor to check on Wolverine. Tyger Tiger meets him and takes him to the Warp Chamber at Landau, Luckman, and Lake’s old office. He walks through it and arrives in Akkaba.

Continuity Note: Zoe Culloden says that the office boy Emmet from issue #97 is “more than he seems”. Don’t think this was ever resolved.

Production Note: Another nineteen-page issue.

Review: It’s the five hundredth issue leading up to #100, but this one does at least advance the plot a decent amount and places the characters where they need to be. Zoe Culloden abandons Wolverine pretty quickly, making me wonder why exactly L,L,&L has been so involved in this storyline in the first place. The scenes of Wolverine wandering through the desert are broken up by Cannonball’s adventures in Madripoor with Tyger Tiger. Their brief scenes, but they’re fun to read, as Tyger is revealed as a cougar with a thing for blonds. The rest of the issue mainly consists of Wolverine tracking down the generically evil Dark Riders, and a few pages of the dull Genesis ranting. Genesis, as far as I can remember, was never featured in a particularly good story, outside of his small role in the X-Men ’95 annual. He’s so dull, I always had a hard time remembering who he was even supposed to be when I was reading these issues as they were released. The big appeal of these issues is supposed to be the buildup to Wolverine regaining his adamantium, and knowing that this was just empty hype today makes this storyline much, much less interesting.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

X-FACTOR #122 – May 1996

The Faces of Truth
Credits: Howard Mackie (writer), Jeff Matsuda (penciler), Al Milgrom (inker), Glynis Oliver (colors), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (lettering)

Summary: Mystique, disguised as Forge, receives a call from Val Cooper that the government has a lead on the man who attacked her at the Belle Fourche Dam months earlier. She gives Val Cooper a new landing site and prepares to ambush her there. Later, after a training session, Polaris and Wild Child discover Val Cooper and a team of government agents gagged and tied up. Forge says goodbye to Naze and then travels with X-Factor to find Mystique. They track her to a government installation near Canada, where the bodies of dead scientists cover the floor. Mystique stalks the grounds and is ambushed by Sabretooth. She knows that he’s not the person who attacked her earlier, but the two still fight. X-Factor stops the fight, as Val Cooper tries to determine what’s going on. Sabretooth claims that X-Factor was never supposed to find the facility, and that he now has to kill them too.

Production Note: Rather than nineteen pages, this issue has a whopping twenty.

Continuity Note: Mystique was attacked by a shadowy figure in X-Men Prime. He was originally supposed to be Onslaught, but Marvel changed his identity after they finally decided who Onslaught should be. Sabretooth and Wild Child already know each other, which may or may not be a reference to back issues of Alpha Flight.

Creative Differences: The opening scene has some awkwardly added word balloons that describe Mystique’s power and the five-second inhibitor that prevents her from imitating a teammate for long. Naze has a few re-lettered balloons during the scene that has him explaining to Forge why he didn’t tell him he was alive. The explanation doesn’t go deeper than “the time wasn’t right”.

Review: This is Jeff Matsuda’s debut as monthly artist, a move that drives the quality of this title down even further. I remember intensely disliking his work on this series as a teen, but looking back on his first issue now, it looks more inconsistent than truly terrible. The opening few pages have some nice manga-style cartooning and a Mystique splash page that’s pretty cool. As the issue progress, however, the art looks sloppier and more rushed on each page. By the end of the issue, the anatomy and faces are just ugly to look at. Why exactly Marvel hired an extremely cartoony artist to take over a book that was supposed to become darker and nastier with each issue is beyond me. The story is virtually nonexistent, as it mainly consists of vague clues and a gratuitous fight scene between Mystique and Sabretooth. I seem to recall this era of the book being filled with shadowy conspiracies and mysteries that never seemed to pay off. This might be the start of it, as we’re given no motive for any of Sabretooth’s actions, just the hint that the government has put him up to some nasty work. What this has to do with Mystique’s assailant is also unclear. The dialogue is dull as usual, and the narrative captions that try to sound dark and gritty are also a chore to read. This is a run I’m really not looking forward to reviewing.

X-MEN #51 – April 1996

Deathbound Train
Credits: Mark Waid (writer), Pascual Ferry (penciler), John Dell, Mark Morales, & Vince Russell (inkers), Marie Javins & Malibu Hues (colors), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (lettering)

Summary: Cerebro detects a spike of mutant activity in a commuter train, and Bishop, Gambit, and Beast leave to investigate. Inside the train, they discover that the civilians have been infected with a contagious virus that mutates them into monsters. Gambit and Bishop head to the engine to stop the train before it arrives in New York City, while Beast is left to subdue the passengers. Elsewhere, while Cyclops and Phoenix visit the Grey family, Graydon Creed announces his candidacy for President on television. Inside the train, the Beast creates an anesthetic out of brake fluid and knocks most of the passengers unconscious. Mr. Sinister suddenly appears, upset that his experiment has been compromised. Gambit and Bishop realize that the train’s controls have been destroyed, which leads Gambit to charge the entire train with kinetic energy. A confused Bishop asks him why he’s turned the train into a bomb.

Continuity Notes: Professor Xavier is still repairing Cerebro on the first page, referencing its destruction in the Phalanx storyline, even though it’s been used since that story (to search for Cyclops after Avalon’s destruction, and presumably to locate the new mutant in X-Men Unlimited #8).

Professor Xavier calls Louis St. Croix, a member of his Mutant Underground, to discuss ways to stop Graydon Creed’s Presidential campaign. I’m pretty sure nothing comes of this.

Production Note: Nineteen pages. Again.

Creative Differences: Phoenix makes a reference to Cyclops being born forty years old, which leads to Cyclops to respond, “Jean, I’m twenty-fi--!” Mark Waid posted on Usenet at the time that this line was added by editorial, apparently because they were afraid that someone would interpret Phoenix’s joke literally. It’s interesting that editorial deemed Cyclops twenty-five, when X-Men #19 inferred that Beast was about to turn thirty, and Beast’s high school girlfriend was labeled thirty in X-Men Unlimited #10.

Review: This is the start of Mark Waid’s brief run, which lasted roughly until the end of the Onslaught crossover. Unlike most of the stories of this era, which tend to have the X-Men hanging around the mansion while a threat grows in the background, Waid writes a more straightforward, action-oriented story. There’s still characterization, but it comes in the context of the characters interacting with one another during the action. Pairing the Dark Beast with Sinister is a nice way to connect a mostly stand-alone story to an ongoing plotline, also. It’s interesting that Waid uses Cerebro as the catalyst for the story in his first issue when you consider how often it was just ignored during the Lobdell/Nicieza runs. This is a more traditional superhero approach to the X-Men, and while it feels a little trivial, it’s entertaining enough. Pascual Ferry does a fine job as fill-in artist, turning in a much more attractive job than most of the fill-ins from this era. He’s still drawing with a slight Madureria influence at this time, but he exhibits enough of his own style so that he doesn’t come across as a bland clone.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

WOLVERINE #98 – February 1996

Fade to Black
Credits: Larry Hama (writer), Ramon Bernado (penciler), Napolitano/Milgrom/Morales (inkers), Joe Rosas & Malibu (colors), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (lettering)

Summary: Wolverine wakes up in a haze inside the Princess Bar in Madripoor. He’s surrounded by dead bodies with claw marks, including his friends Archie Corrigan and O’Donnell. He flashes back to his last meeting with Zoe Culloden. He opened the package she gave him and discovered a key and an address written on a sheet of paper. In the present, he discovers his friend Rose is also dying. Walking outside of the bar, he’s arrested by police chief Tai, who also confiscates the key and sheet of paper. He places Wolverine in jail, where Wolverine uses his enhanced hearing to learn that Tai has been bought off. The plan is to leave Wolverine alone long enough for him to be taken care of. Tyger Tiger throws a hacksaw and an old costume for Wolverine to wear through his cell window. A group of thugs enter with General Coy and the Prince. Two of the men with strapped-on claws admit to killing Wolverine’s friends. Wolverine fights off the men and confronts Coy and the Prince. Coy shoots the Prince in the back of his head, hoping that Wolverine will back off. Suddenly, Coy is shot in the back by Tyger Tiger. She gives Wolverine the key and paper that Tai took from him. They head to the address, which is the Madripoor office of Landau, Luckman, and Lake. Wolverine uses the key to open the Warp Chamber room, and enters a void where Zoe Culloden is waiting on him.

Continuity Notes: Virtually every Madripoor supporting cast member is killed in this issue. Archie Corrigan, O’Donnell, Prince Baran, and Rose Wu all die on-panel. General Coy is shot in the back, which presumably kills him, and Tiger Tyger infers that she killed police chief Tai by running him over. Wolverine comments that Prince Baran and General Coy were never this “bloodthirsty”, which acknowledges that some of the characters are behaving strangely (police chief Tai is also portrayed as corrupt, which I believe contradicts his original appearances). There’s no explanation given, outside of Wolverine saying, “It’s almost like someone was makin’ ‘em hurt people I know”.

Production Note: It’s another issue with only nineteen pages.

Miscellaneous Note: According to the Statement of Ownership, average sales for the year were 334,592 copies with the most recent issue selling 329,768.

Review: This is one of those “kill off those characters we never use anymore” bloodbath issues. There’s a lot of carnage and running around, but the story doesn’t really advance the ongoing plotline at all. In fact, this issue ends in almost the same place as last issue, with Wolverine meeting up with Zoe Culloden. They were already face-to-face at the end of the last issue, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense for her to give him a key and an address to travel to so that they could immediately meet again. Killing off the entire Madripoor supporting cast always seemed wasteful to me, since most of these characters at least have some potential, and the same point could’ve been conveyed by just killing one or two characters. As usual, Hama’s able to handle the characterization and action well, but Adam Kubert isn’t around to sell the story. The guest art by Ramon Bernado is capable enough (except for his bizarre rendition of Wolverine’s cowl), but it looks rushed and comes across as pretty bland for much of the issue. The feral regression storyline is starting to wear on this book, and it’s too bad it’s going to lead to the misguided “de-evolution” of Wolverine in issue #100.

AMAZON #1 – April 1996

Family History

Credits: John Byrne (writer/artist), Terry Austin (inker), Patricia Mulvihill (colorist), John Costanza (letterer)

Summary: Princess Ororo, Wonder Woman, is suddenly attacked by the sea god Poseidon. He washes her away to his throne room, where she discovers his massive treasure. Meanwhile, in Baton Rouge, two of Ororo’s friends discover a battered Diana of Themyscira inside her apartment. Inside Poseidon’s throne room, Ororo picks up a small statue. Poseidon condemns her as a thief, claiming that his actions years ago were justified. Ororo flashes back to the day on Themyscira when she learned she was not an Amazon, but instead an orphan rescued from a shipwreck. Poseidon tells Ororo of the story behind the shipwreck. A professor named Malcolm discovered the statue’s mate while diving. Angered that he stole one of his treasures, Poseidon used his godly powers to ruin Malcolm’s life. Dejected, Malcolm traveled back to the Mediterranean to throw the statue back into the ocean. On the same boat were Ororo’s parents. Poseidon appears, telling Malcolm that now that he is in his domain, he can do more than merely “vex” him. He destroys the boat, killing everyone onboard, except for infant Ororo, who is rescued by the Amazons. Ororo chastises Poseidon, telling him that the world has moved on to other gods. Malcolm only sought to teach others about the legends of the gods, and Poseidon was so petty he only saw him as a thief. Poseidon realizes how foolish he has been and lets Ororo go.

Review: When Wizard did a rundown of the Amalgam event, I remember this is one of the issues they deemed lame. It has its faults, but I wouldn’t totally dismiss it. Most likely, I bought this issue to see John Byrne draw one of the X-Men again. Re-teaming with Terry Austin doesn’t recreate the look of their original Uncanny X-Men run, but the art is competent enough. It certainly looks better than how I remember Wonder Woman looking at this time. Byrne seems to be having fun with the Amalgam event, even throwing in a totally unrelated subplot scene with the real Wonder Woman that looks like something that might be in these pages if an Amazon series really did exist. The structure of the story is a little odd, as Byrne goes from present narrative, to flashback, to flashback within a flashback (which I thought was supposed to be a cardinal writing sin), briefly back to the present, to another flashback, then back to the present. The actual story he’s telling isn’t bad, and Byrne conveys the agony of a rational man tormented by a god pretty well, but the narrative structure is needlessly convoluted. The dialogue can also be a chore to get through, since large sections of it consist of godly characters speaking in stilted prose. Despite the flaws, though, I like the main idea of the story, and Ororo’s speech that humbles Poseidon is nicely written.

Monday, November 10, 2008

LEGENDS OF THE DARK CLAW #1 – April 1996

Through A Glass Darkly
Credits: Larry Hama (writer), Jim Balent (penciler), Ray McCarthy (inker), Pat Garrahy (colorist), Bill Oakley (letterer)

Summary: Dark Claw confronts the Hyena at the offices of the Gotham Gazette. When Hyena’s armed reinforcements appear, Dark Claw’s sidekick Sparrow has to rescue him. Meanwhile, the Huntress breaks into the penthouse apartment of Logan Wayne and discovers his closet is filled with Dark Claw costumes. Dark Claw enters and questions Huntress. She’s a former government operative who used her connections to research the Hyena. Realizing that his past always connects to Logan, she began investigating him. Dark Claw reveals that both he and the Hyena were part of a secret project designed to create the ultimate killing machine. Hyena was a success, but Dark Claw was deemed a failure because he retained his conscious. Dark Claw takes Huntress down to the Barrow, his secret cave, where Sparrow is hacking into the Gotham Gazette’s computers. The trio learns that the Hyena set the next headline to announce his plans to kill the President on Air Force One. Soon, Dark Claw invades Air Force One and faces the Hyena. The Hyena sets off a poison gas, which forces Dark Claw to rip open the doors and free the gas. Dark Claw and Hyena fall out of the plane, but Hyena brags that he has a parachute. Sparrow rescues Dark Claw in their helicopter, as Dark Claws orders her to circle back and give him another shot at the Hyena.

Continuity Notes: Dark Claw is supposed to be combination of Wolverine and Batman. The Huntress is an amalgam of Carol Danvers and DC’s Huntress character. Sparrow is a combination of Jubilee and Robin. The Hyena is an amalgam of Sabretooth and the Joker. All of these characters are really the Marvel versions with altered names and backstories, rather than two characters truly merged into one.

Miscellaneous Note: The title of this issue is a reference to the New Testament that’s been used in several novels and movies. Hama’s penchant for literary references is parodied in the fabricated letters page.

Review: This was Wolverine’s replacement title during the Amalgam event. Amalgam was the stunt that had Marvel and DC working together to produce a line of comics that featured fusions of their existing properties. The actual production of the books was split between the two companies, and even though I was a diehard X-completist at this time, somehow the only two Amalgam comics I ended up with were produced by DC. Part of the gimmick was to pretend as if these properties had existed for years, so even the letters pages are filled with fabricated letters discussing earlier issues and imaginary titles the creators previously worked on (in the Amalgam world, Larry Hama had an extensive run on Sgt. Fury and the Combat-Happy Joes of Easy Company instead of G. I. Joe.)

Fan response to the Amalgam announcement was mixed, mainly due to the increasingly poor quality of most mainstream comics at the time. There wasn’t a lot of faith in Marvel and DC’s ability to pull this off, frankly (even Wizard magazine was cynical about the stunt). I only read a few of the comics, but most fans seemed to be pleasantly surprised by the time the event ended. The goal was really just to have fun, and that spirit is conveyed pretty effectively in this issue. I seemed to recall this comic as an issue-long fight scene, but rereading it, I can see that it has more going for it, as new backstories and personalities for most of the cast are introduced in just twenty-two pages. Combining Jubilee and Robin is an obvious choice, especially if you know that Jim Lee gave Jubilee her color scheme specifically to imitate Robin’s, but it still works. Sparrow has some funny lines and plays off the other characters well. Merging Joker and Sabretooth seems odd at first (and the Hyena’s design is pretty ugly), but the story emphasizes the sheer joy both of them experience from murder, so I can see the logic there. I’m not quite sure why Carol Danvers shows up, and it’s interesting that Hama chose to use her in two alternate reality stories in a row. Amalgam-ing Wolverine and Batman doesn’t seem to have any justification outside of commercial reasons (or maybe someone just realized that both their color schemes involved black and yellow at the time). Hama essentially writes Dark Claw as a more sophisticated Wolverine, throwing in a few knowing references to Batman’s origin. It’s pretty silly, but that’s a part of the charm of the entire event, and Hama is able to make Dark Claw appealing in his own right. Jim Balent’s art looks a little awkward on some of the pages, but for the most part he gets the job done. One of the fabricated letters in the letters page is a parody of a stereotypical comic fan’s boob-obsession, which is amusing considering Balent’s future work (and his then-current run on Catwoman¸ I suppose). The letters page seems to be Hama’s work also, as it’s filled with parodies of the type of letters he says he received while writing Wolverine. One fan complains that there aren’t any pretentious narrative captions, that the stories shouldn’t have clear endings, and that Hama shouldn’t be writing flagship superhero titles because his only experience is writing military comics. The fake letters page and hype page add to the sense of fun, and they’re actually more amusing than most of the one-liners in the story.

Friday, November 7, 2008

X-FORCE #53 – April 1996

Even An X-Ternal Can Die!
Credits: Jeph Loeb (writer), Adam Pollina (penciler), Mark Morales (inker), Marie Javins & Malibu Hues (colors), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (lettering)

Summary: Sunspot watches in shock as Gideon’s body withers away. Caliban senses the arrival of two more Externals, Absalom and Crule, who mistakenly believe that Sunspot and Caliban are the ones hunting the Externals. The remaining members of X-Force respond to Sunspot’s call for help and join the fight. While Domino attends to Caliban’s wounds, Warpath climbs up Gideon’s skyscraper. Domino realizes that the Externals are being defeated too easily, and orders X-Force to back off. Inside Gideon’s penthouse, Warpath discovers the body of another External, Saul. He senses the presence of someone else, and is ambushed by a mystery woman.

Production Note: This issue, shockingly enough, only has nineteen pages of story. There’s a two-page letter column and two-page X-Facts hype section to make up for the missing pages.

Review: This is essentially an issue-long fight scene that also tries to advance the “Who’s Killing the Externals?” mystery. Absalom and Crule have no reason to fight the team, which makes the entire issue feel padded. Pollina’s art is dynamic enough to sell the action, so it’s never truly boring, but there’s no getting around the fact that the lengthy fight scene isn’t advancing the actual storyline. I appreciate the fact that Loeb is at least trying to resolve some of the dangling plotlines from the earlier issues, but the Externals storyline never really worked in the first place, and it seems like he’s reviving the idea just to bury it. I remember reading this issue when it was first released and trying to remember who Absalom and Crule even were. Reading it today, having read their previous appearances less than a year ago, I still had a hard time remembering who they were supposed to be. Apparently, Cruel has evil ponytails that come out of the skull emblem on his forehead. You’d think I would’ve remembered that.

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