Wednesday, December 31, 2008

THE INCREDIBLE HULK #444 – August 1996

Cablevision
Credits: Peter David (writer), Angel Medina (penciler), Robin Riggs (inker), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (lettering), Glynis Oliver & Malibu (colors)

Summary: Storm chases the savage Hulk, who leapt away with Cable. They land inside a warehouse, where Hulk prepares to finish him. Before he delivers the final blow, he sees a Bettie Paige poster on the wall. The name reminds the Hulk of his wife, momentarily distracting him and giving Cable a chance to enter his mind. On the Astral Plane, Cable faces a giant boulder with the Hulk’s face. He’s knocked down by the boulder and forced to return to the real world. A weakened Cable asks the warehouse employees for help, but they run away. Cable flashes back to his childhood and remembers a wounded enemy soldier who asked him for help. Cable ran to get help, but was too late to save him. He wonders if some part of him wanted his enemy to die, so he didn’t make a real effort to help him. Back in the present, Storm and Cable devise a plan to jolt the Hulk’s brain with electricity as Cable enters his mind. The end result apparently kills the Hulk. Storm encourages Cable to leave him behind, but Cable refuses. He once again enters the Hulk’s mind and faces the giant boulder. He breaks it apart and frees Bruce Banner, who was hidden inside. Storm uses lightning to restart the Hulk’s heart, which revives his true personality. The Hulk leaves with Storm and Cable on their jet, swearing revenge on Onslaught.

Continuity Note: Storm is wearing the wrong costume on cover, but the interior art uses the right reference. For some reason, I seemed to recall she wore the wrong costume for the entire issue, but I must’ve confused this issue with another comic.

Review: This is another all-fight issue with Cable and the Hulk, but David attempts to turn it into more than just an extended fight scene. One of the methods he uses is to have Cable narrate the story. David has solid grasp of the character, pulling off the “jaded soldier who wants to move beyond violence” angle that became Cable’s focus after Liefeld left. He also uses a flashback to give the issue some sense of depth, making it a story about finding the courage to preserve an enemy’s life. The flashback does feel a little tacked on (this supposedly pivotal moment in Cable’s life is just given a few panels in the middle of a page), but the ending calls back to it in a nice way. While the previous installment of this crossover was content to let large images and relentless action sell the story, David is more ambitious and the story is better off for it.

Medina’s art can’t handle the action as dramatically as Churchill did in the previous chapter, so David’s decision to give Cable an internal conflict is just as well. The storytelling remains clear throughout the issue, but Medina’s attempts at adding cartooning to more traditional superhero art look bland and fairly unattractive for the most part. The art style also seems to change within the issue itself, as Cable is initially drawn with somewhat realistic proportions and lots of detail lines, but ends up with a giant block chin and a more angular design towards the end. The Hulk himself is ridiculously oversized throughout the issue, but I think this was the standard method for portraying him by the mid-90s. Speaking of the Hulk, I imagine fans of his series were likely disappointed in this issue, since only one subplot receives brief attention and the star himself remains a mindless pawn for the entire issue. As a continuation of a Cable storyline, this isn’t bad at all, but I’m sure this was a needless distraction for Incredible Hulk readers.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

CABLE #34 – August 1996

Loose Cannons
Credits: Jeph Loeb (writer), Ian Churchill (penciler), Scott Hanna (inker), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (lettering), Mike Thomas & Malibu (colors)

Summary: Cable regains consciousness and senses the approach of another enemy. Soon, he’s confronted by the Hulk, who is under Onslaught’s mental command. The two battle, as Cable tries to psionically undo Onslaught’s brainwashing. Probing the Hulk’s mind causes his body to revert to its grey form, but Onslaught’s influence remains. The Hulk drops a building on Cable, but Storm arrives and stops him from finishing Cable off. Storm attempts CPR on Cable, and eventually revives him with a small bolt of lightning. Cable attempts one last telepathic assault on the Hulk, which only manages to revert him to his mindless, savage form. As Ozymandias records the events, Apocalypse declares that Cable’s death will lead to the dawn of his era.

Review: This is an all-action issue that doesn’t really impact the Onslaught crossover or any of Cable’s ongoing storylines. It’s not explicitly stated in the issue, but I assume the idea is that Cable’s telepathic powers are one of the few threats to Onslaught, so he’s responded by sending the Hulk after him. That’s a reasonable setup, but it makes me wonder why Onslaught doesn’t just brainwash all of the Marvel superheroes and just get them out of his way. This is Churchill’s strongest issue so far, as the giant images and big fights suit his exaggerated style. Some of his human faces still need work (his likeness of what I assume is actor Andre Braugher is rather distracting), but he handles the action very well and I like his interpretation of the various Hulk incarnations. Not surprisingly, there are a lot of large panels and splash pages throughout the issue, which just emphasize how thin the plot is. One ongoing subplot is incrementally advanced, as Loeb uses the old “one potential love interest has to perform mouth-to-mouth on another” cliché with Storm and Cable. The narrative captions ask if Storm feels “something more” than respect for Cable during the scene, while Loeb implies that Storm reminds Cable of his late wife. I’m not sure why Marvel went in this direction, outside of the fact that Storm was rarely given anything to do during this period, and perhaps Loeb wanted a spoiler in the Cable/Domino relationship. It never went anywhere, so reading this in retrospect is just a reminder of another dropped storyline. Overall, this is a big dumb action issue, but it’s okay as far as those things go.

LINK: Mike Sterling recently pulled this issue out, perhaps at random, and gave it a review.

Monday, December 29, 2008

X-FACTOR #125 – August 1996

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

Summary: The Dark Beast unveils a brainwashed Havok to Onslaught, hoping to impress him with a powerful follower. Meanwhile, X-Factor is attacked by their training Sentinel, which has suddenly gone back online. Forge sends Mystique to retrieve Sabretooth, and the duo are soon greeted by the teleporting Fatale. Fatale teleports the Sentinel away, forcing X-Factor to leave the missing Sabretooth and Mystique behind as they track the Sentinel. The team soon arrives at the former headquarters of the Brand Corporation. They’re attacked by Havok, who follows orders and tries to kill X-Factor. During the fight, Fatale exposes Random to the team as the Dark Beast’s plant. Random remains loyal to Polaris and tries to save her from Havok. He takes a direct blast from Havok, forcing his body to revert to its true teenage form. Nearby, Forge discovers an army of Sentinels underground and is attacked by Post. Post soon declares that the fight is boring him, and orders the Sentinels to attack New York City.

Continuity Note: This is the first appearance of the brainwashed Havok. As the months progress, Marvel will try to sell him as an actual villain and not just a programmed one, but it doesn’t catch on.

Review: The Onslaught crossover reaches X-Factor, and doesn’t manage to impact the title’s quality either way. Since most of the storylines seem to have been going around in circles for a year at this point, dragging the book into the latest crossover isn’t much of a distraction. The Dark Beast had been a behind-the-scenes villain in the title for a few months, so using him as the connection to Onslaught makes sense. There are a few ongoing threads that are resolved here, as Havok returns and Random is exposed as the Dark Beast’s pawn, but the delivery is so bland it’s hard to care. As usual, the dialogue is dull and the characters don’t exhibit much personality. Making the team’s former leader a brainwashed villain and actually sticking with the idea had potential, but I don’t recall it ever working out. This issue’s introduction of brainwashed Havok is just as flat and boring as the rest of the story. Polaris gets dialogue like, “I don’t want to live in a world in which there is no hope that I can have you back”, and Havok gets gems like, “Then…I shall kill you!” The actual pacing of the story is fine, as it moves quickly without feeling too rushed, but the scripting makes it a chore to read. Matsuda’s art, as usual, is all over the place. His redesign of Havok isn’t perfect (what are those things on his shoulders supposed to be?), but it’s a tolerable combination of his previous looks and it suits Matsuda’s style. The rest of the artwork looks rushed, as figures twist and deform without reason, making it even harder to care about what’s going on.

Free Fall
Credits: Howard Mackie (writer), Stefano Raffaele (penciler), Al Milgrom (inker), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (lettering), Glynis Oliver & Kevin Somers and Malibu (colors)

Summary: Fatale teleports Mystique and Sabretooth into the sewers, where they meet the Dark Beast. He neutralizes their inhibitor collars and offers them an opportunity to work for Onslaught. Forge arrives through a teleportation portal, and Dark Beast asks them to kill him. Instead, the pair turns against Dark Beast and attacks him. Mystique morphs a suit of spiky armor to defend herself, but is quickly knocked unconscious by the Dark Beast. Sabretooth fights him to the ground, but Dark Beast teleports away before he can be harmed. Forge, Mystique, and Sabretooth look at the Dark Beast’s monitors and learn the X-Man Beast is being held captive.

Continuity Note: Mystique’s shapeshifting powers begin to change with this issue. Previously, she was only able to change her physical appearance, and not adopt new powers or go beyond a humanoid form. Now, she can create claws, change her eyes to adopt feline vision, and turn her bones into a spiky armor. There’s no explanation for the change outside of “I’m full of surprises”.

Approved By The Comics Code Authority: To disguise the fact that Raffaele has drawn Mystique wearing a thong, her entire buttocks are colored white to match her costume.

Review: This is really a continuation of the main story, but I guess Matsuda’s inability to draw the entire issue forced it into becoming a backup. That is a preferable alternative to having the two artists interrupt one another, even though Raffaele’s art is even worse than Matsuda’s. Matsuda’s art during this period at least has a cartoonish charm that occasionally works. Raffaele’s work just looks like an awkward Jim Lee knockoff. The story’s main purpose is to have some other characters discover that the Beast is being held captive, which seems like something that should’ve happened in one of the X-Men’s titles since it really has nothing to do with X-Factor. Mystique and Sabretooth also lose their inhibitor restraints, which is presumably a big deal, but I don’t recall if this went anywhere. Suddenly giving Mystique new powers with no explanation is just annoying, and I think they were just dropped after X-Factor’s cancellation anyway. Just like the main story, it’s pretty dreary.

Friday, December 26, 2008

WOLVERINE #104 – August 1996

The Emperor of the Realm of Grief
Credits: Larry Hama (writer), Val Semeiks (penciler), Chad Hunt (inker), Joe Rosas & Malibu (colors), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (lettering)

Summary: Wolverine travels to Xavier’s school in Massachusetts to see if Gateway has information on how to stop Onslaught. Gateway uses his mystic teleportation powers to take Wolverine back to the day his fiancée Mariko died. Elektra arrives and tries to speak to the mute Gateway, and he responds by sending her back to the day the Hand resurrected her dead body. Elektra speculates that Gateway is showing them their worst pains in order to prepare them for the answer. Gateway then sends them back to the day Magneto ripped the adamantium from Wolverine’s body and Xavier responded by mind-wiping him. They witness the events on the Astral Plane, and discover that Magneto’s dark ego reached out and entered Xavier during the incident. Wolverine claims that he’s partly responsible, since he lost control first, which lead to Xavier’s response to Magneto’s attack on him. He wonders if Xavier could ever be the same again, and if he can regain his own humanity.

Continuity Notes: The opening narrative captions have Wolverine complaining about being sent on this mission, even though Uncanny X-Men #335 said that this was “a hunch” he’s playing out.

Gateway recognizes the name of Elektra’s mentor, Stick. She wonders if they know each other.

Miscellaneous Note: The title of this issue is a reference to The Divine Comedy.

Commercial Break: An ad for the Onslaught crossover boasts about the website www.onslaught.com, which was created to promote the event. It seems like Marvel registered this site before putting up their official marvel.com. In case you're wondering, they don't maintain it.

Review: I assume this is the “origin of Onslaught” issue Larry Hama was assigned to write before anyone knew who Onslaught was supposed to be. Even though this issue doesn’t introduce the idea that Magneto had a part in Onslaught’s creation, since that had been implied since the Onslaught one-shot, it is the story that explicitly shows how it happened. Revealing that a dark part of Magneto entered Xavier’s consciousness and lead to the creation of Onslaught was presumably an attempt to alleviate Xavier of guilt for Onslaught’s actions. This seems unnecessary to me, since Mark Waid had already firmly established that Onslaught was being fed by Xavier’s repressed, darker emotions. It’s not as if Xavier could truly be blamed for the dark thoughts he repressed, and there had already been two stories years earlier that followed the same theme (the X-Men and the Micronauts mini, and an inventory story that ran in Uncanny X-Men #106, which was even adapted in the cartoon). Doing a story about Xavier's repressed desires at least relates to the human condition; revealing that Magneto was involved just turns it into a sequel to a previous storyline.

Hama tries to fulfill the editorial edict while also making the story about Wolverine and Elektra, but it’s a rough fit. Why exactly Wolverine would go to a mute man with no connection to Xavier to learn about Onslaught is never explained, and the opening narration even dismisses the premise. The dialogue is often stiff and awkward (Elektra: “What earthly purpose is there in searing my soul with images best left forgotten forever?”), which makes it hard to buy into the emotional anguish the characters are supposed to be experiencing. And if the purpose of connecting Magneto to Onslaught was to help preserve Xavier’s character, Wolverine’s final conversation with Elektra undermines it. Wolverine claims that it was the “dark inside” of Xavier that gave into anger and attacked Magneto, which opened him up to Magneto’s influence. How exactly is this better than Xavier’s repressed urges subconsciously manifesting as Onslaught?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

UNCANNY X-MEN #335 – August 1996

Apocalypse Lives!
Credits: Scott Lobdell (writer), Joe Madureira (penciler), Tim Townsend (inker), Steve Buccellato & Team Bucce! (colors), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (lettering)

Summary: Apocalypse rises from his regeneration chamber and learns that Xavier and Magneto have merged into Onslaught. He predicts that the “age of wonders” which gave birth to the current generation of superheroes is ending. The Watcher stands silently nearby. Elsewhere, the Avengers arrive with X-Man at the X-Men’s decimated mansion. They’re attacked by a suspicious Gambit and Bishop, but the altercation is brief. X-Man senses a disturbance in the Astral Plane and creates a mental image of Onslaught. Magneto’s children, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, are upset when they learn that their father had a role in Onslaught’s creation. X-Force arrives at the mansion as the X-Men and Avengers formulate a plan. The united teams split up to warn the Fantastic Four that Xavier had viewed Franklin Richards’ file recently, and to find Magneto. X-Force is left at the mansion to guard the powerful telepath X-Man, and Storm volunteers to find the missing Cable. Cyclops and Phoenix make plans to meet Archangel and Psylocke on Muir Island, while Wolverine goes off on his own. In the sewers beneath Manhattan, the Dark Beast promises to create new attendants for Onslaught.

Continuity Notes: Nate Grey refers to himself as “X-Man”, the name I’m pretty sure he never used in his own series. His appearance in this title just emphasizes how absurd his name is, since he’s supposed to be highly suspicious of the X-Men. When he sees Phoenix, he mistakes her for Madelyne Pryor, which makes the incest aspect of their relationship even more explicit.

The ending of the “age of wonders” is foreshadowing for the ending of this storyline, which has the world believing that the Avengers and Fantastic Four sacrificed their lives to stop Onslaught. The Watcher is standing around because that’s what he does when writers need something to make an event seem important.

Onslaught is referred to as “pure psionic energy” which is the feeble justification for having him do whatever he wants, even things that are beyond Xavier’s power range.

Psylocke wonders if her exposure to the Crimson Dawn has made her heartless. Archangel doesn't exactly comfort her, saying that both of them have changed.

Apocalypse apparently has a telepathic link to Ozymandias, since he tells him that he’s scanned his mind and learned what he needs to know. The logistics of this don’t really make sense, unless Apocalypse has mental powers I’ve totally forgotten about.

The Dark Beast explicitly says that he did not create the Morlocks, in a line so obviously shoehorned in I can’t help but to wonder if it was added to appease some angry fans. It reminds me of Marvel’s recent backtracking on the various “It’s Magic!” explanations for the new Amazing Spider-Man continuity.

Commercial Break: The extra pages in this issue serve as ads for the upcoming “Heroes Reborn” event. Jim Lee quotes the now-standard lines about respecting the original material but updating it for modern audiences that always come with reboots. Rob Liefeld’s section brings us the infamous “Giant Boob Cap” and “Shrunken Head Red Skull” images.

Review: I guess the revival of Apocalypse was considered a big enough deal to take over the title of this issue, even though he’s only in the first few pages and has nothing to do with the actual story. A more accurate title might’ve been “Recap the Storyline and Assign Roles for the Tie-In Comics!” since that’s all that really happens here. I remember thinking that this issue was pretty dull at the time, but I was glad to see the X-Men finally interacting with the rest of the Marvel Universe again. Creating a more coherent, integrated Marvel Universe was a goal of Bob Harras, who was the new editor-in-chief of the entire line by this point, so that is one objective “Onslaught” successfully accomplished. (Although it’s ironic that Bob Harras was the one to bring this about, since other Marvel employees have accused him of hogging the X-characters when he was exclusively in charge of the X-line).

This is a snapshot of mid-90s Marvel, where the original Fantastic Four had to be reunited by editorial fiat, Iron Man was a “relatable” teenager, and the Avengers weren’t even trying to hide the fact that they really wanted to look like the X-Men. There’s not a lot of room for any of the characters to display much of a personality, but Lobdell does a capable enough job of preventing them from seeming too generic. The plot itself reminds me of the solicitations for almost anything Marvel and DC release these days…the heroes receive their orders and divide up to their own titles where they will deal with one aspect of the current crisis. It’s not particularly interesting, but it is fun to see Madureria’s take on the various Marvel characters.

Monday, December 22, 2008

ONSLAUGHT: X-MEN – August 1996

Traitor to the Cause
Credits: Scott Lobdell & Mark Waid (writers), Adam Kubert with Pascual Ferry (pencilers), Dan Green with Art Thibert (inkers), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (lettering), Steve Buccellato & Team Bucce! (colors)

Summary: Xavier summons the X-Men to his office, where he begins to discuss the team’s failure to make the world a better place. Phoenix, who knows his secret, tries to enter his mind but can’t. She notices a shrunken Juggernaut inside the Crimson Gem of Cytorrak, sitting on Xavier’s desk. When Phoenix tries to warn the rest of the team, Xavier disappears and is replaced by Onslaught. Onslaught explains to the X-Men that Xavier created him by suppressing all of his darkest desires. When Cyclops tells him that he sounds more like Magneto than Xavier, Onslaught gets angry and attacks. He telepathically forces the team to stand still and flies away, saying he has other matters to attend to. Gambit uses his kinetic energy powers to disrupt Onslaught’s psionic grip and frees the team. Phoenix theorizes that Gambit was allowed to do this because Onslaught isn’t totally in control of Xavier. The team splits up to download Cerebro’s files and destroy any information Onslaught can use. Meanwhile, inside the headquarters of the Fantastic Four, Franklin Richards plays with his new friend, Charlie. Everyone else thinks Charlie’s imaginary, but he’s able to throw a glass of milk against the wall. Elsewhere, X-Man warns the Avengers about the threat he believes Xavier poses. Soon, Onslaught returns to the X-Men’s mansion and attacks the team. The Dark Beast, who is still disguised as the Beast, pledges his loyalty to Onslaught. When Onslaught momentarily collapses from weakness, he decides that he needs a servant. While Onslaught is distracted, Phoenix runs to the psi-shielded chamber and calls the other mutant teams for help. Onslaught interrupts her message and prepares to kill her, as the rest of the X-Men attack him from behind. Onslaught aims a blast of psionic energy at the team, which Bishop miraculously manages to absorb. A weakened Onslaught leaves with the Dark Beast. The X-Men recover and plan their next move. Inside a Sentinel manufacturing plant, a Sentinel awakens and says Onslaught’s name.

Gimmicks: I guess this issue is notable for not having a gimmick cover. Marvel started releasing non-enhanced versions of the gimmick covers a year before this, but this is the first event comic since 1993 not to have a gimmick cover in the first place. At this point, the tide had turned against the novelty covers, and the exorbitant cover prices that went along with them. It seems like Marvel was trying to make a conscious effort to make the readers feel as if they were getting a better value for their dollar. The cover price is $3.95, which is reasonable given that it’s a forty-eight page story with no ads and slick paper.

Creative Differences: Mark Waid confirmed in a recent CBR article that the addition of Magneto to Onslaught’s origin was a last minute idea. This would also mean that Onslaught’s visual was designed at the last minute, since his resemblance to Magneto’s armor is an actual plot point.

Continuity Notes: Jean’s message to the other X-teams is a direct reference to the scene from Bishop’s future in Uncanny X-Men #287. When Bishop first saw her message, large parts of the audio cut out, leaving the identity of the X-traitor unrevealed. The missing dialogue is filled in here, revealing that Xavier-as-Onslaught is actually the X-traitor. Bishop stops Onslaught from killing all of the X-Men, which presumably creates a large diversion from his own timeline. (The narrative captions go back to the idea that he’s from a hundred years in the future, even though seventy-five years had become the standard date given by this point).

The weak spells Onslaught experiences are due to Xavier fighting back within him.

Onslaught tells Bishop that his knowledge of the Age of Apocalypse will help him to map his conquest for this world. I don’t think anything comes from this, and it really seems like a forced attempt at creating the illusion that all of these storylines were planned out in advance.

Onslaught tells the Dark Beast that he was the one shielding his thoughts from the telepathic X-Men. Why exactly he did this is unrevealed, although I suppose it fits into the idea that Onslaught was curious about the Age of Apocalypse.

X-Man met the Avengers in Avengers #400, which I’m sure was one of their proudest moments. I assume that he’s warning them about Xavier because he’s still suspicious of him after their encounter in X-Man #10, and not because he knows anything about Onslaught.

Production Note: There are numerous lettering mistakes in this issue, mostly notable is the one that has all of the issue numbers in the footnotes printed in unreadable dark colors. The font also changes size for no reason during the Avengers scene, and Cyclops’ font style changes for no reason in another scene.

“Huh”? Moment: Franklin Richard’s milk is incorrectly colored as if it was orange juice, even though the script refers to it as milk four different times.

Review: I remember enjoying the two big bookshelf Onslaught comics at the time, while I found the various tie-in comics to be fairly weak. I can see why I liked this specific issue at age sixteen, but it doesn’t hold up that well. I think most completists feel that the more storylines referenced in an issue, the better that issue must be. This issue concludes the Onslaught mystery, references Bishop’s knowledge of the AoA, reveals the identity of the X-traitor, connects the Fantastic Four’s mutant son to the X-Men for the first time in years, and advances the “imposter Beast” storyline for the first time in months. This all felt like a big deal at the time, as if these disparate threads were all supposed to come together all along. The fact that the revelation of Onslaught’s identity didn’t make sense in light of the character’s previous actions didn’t really matter to me at the time. I rarely reread my back issues, so it wasn’t as if I had memorized every action that had been attributed to Onslaught or one of his followers. And if a detail didn’t exactly match up to what I remembered, I was still willing at this point to give the creators the benefit of the doubt until the story was totally over (and by the time this crossover limped to its conclusion, I had probably forgotten most of the lingering questions anyway).

Trying to view the issue as objectively as possible today, it seems like the majority of its appeal just comes from the “fan service” elements. The plot itself consists of Onslaught attacking the team in fairly predictable ways, disappearing for a few pages, then coming back for another fight, and then disappearing again. There really aren’t any character moments, although I suppose the interactions amongst the team during the fights aren’t bad. A lot of the dialogue just consists of explanations of who or what Onslaught is supposed to be, which was interesting at the time in a “are they really doing this?” kind of way, but now that the shock has long worn off, it feels tedious. The art still holds up, however, as we get to see Adam Kubert’s imaginative take on the various X-Men. He begins to develop a more angular and simplified style here, which was probably due to the increased number of figures he had to draw, but it’s still an interesting look. The panel that has Onslaught turning Cyclops’ powers against his own face always stuck with me over the years. Cyclops’ exaggerated facial expression foreshadows the cartoonier look Kubert’s developed in the subsequent years. Since the story itself isn’t particularly interesting, the art picks up a lot of the slack.

Friday, December 19, 2008

X-MEN #54 – July 1996

Inquiring Minds
Credits: Mark Waid (writer), Andy Kubert (penciler), Dan Panosian (inker), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (lettering), Joe Rosas & Malibu (colors)

Summary: The X-Men search the grounds for Juggernaut, while he secretly meets with Phoenix in a psi-shielded chamber underneath the mansion. When Phoenix closes the door, Cyclops’ mental connection to her is gone. He visits the Professor and asks him to search for her. He also informs him that Phoenix didn’t tell him about her encounter with Onslaught because of his recent erratic behavior. Cyclops leaves, as Xavier broods. When he watches television footage of one of Dennis Hogan’s killers bragging that there are a million more like him, he erupts in anger. Meanwhile, Phoenix unlocks the secret of Onslaught’s identity inside Juggernaut’s mind. She tells Juggernaut to run away, and once he senses Onslaught inside his mind, he runs to Xavier’s office. Inside, he finds Onslaught, who rips the Crimson Gem of Cyttorak out of his chest. Xavier, whose mental image is entwined with Onslaught, calls the X-Men to his side. Elsewhere, the Beast escapes from his prison, but is confronted by three mysterious figures.

Continuity Notes: This story continues directly from Uncanny X-Men #334, but the continuity doesn’t exactly work. Cyclops’ meeting with Xavier’s mental projection is totally ignored, so he now has two contradictory meetings with Xavier that foreshadow the Onslaught revelation. In the last chapter, Cannonball was disturbed by Xavier’s outburst against him because he knew it was a sign that something was wrong with him. Here, Cannonball is taking the insult personally and seeking advice from Cyclops (in the last chapter, he told Storm directly that something was wrong with Xavier). Phoenix is also wearing the same outfit she wore in the previous issue, even though she changed clothes twice in Uncanny X-Men #334. The editor’s footnote acknowledges this and makes a joke about it.

Dennis Hogan was the young mutant killed by a mob in X-Men Prime while searching for the X-Men.

The psi-shielded chamber Phoenix takes Juggernaut to is the one Xavier used to hide in while preparing a defense against the Z’nox way back in Uncanny X-Men #65. Phoenix claims that she’s still the only X-Man who knows about it. Juggernaut implies that Xavier might've had ulterior motives in only telling her that he was faking his death, which bothers her.

Looking at old Usenet discussions, I notice some fans pointing out that Juggernaut actually threw the Crimson Gem of Cyttorak into space in the final issue of Marvel Team-Up. The idea that the gem somehow lives inside of him seems to be Waid's invention in this issue.

I Love the ‘90s: The narration jokingly says that Cannonball will have the nerve to confront Professor Xavier on Thanksgiving 2005.

Review: Well, it’s another issue set at the mansion that’s building up to the Onslaught revelation. Xavier is finally revealed to be Onslaught, even if the official revelation was a little vague for me at the time (I wondered if perhaps Onslaught was some outside entity that had possessed Xavier). Since this month’s issue of UXM already covers most of the same ground, it’s hard not to view this one as pretty redundant. The continuity screw-ups are also annoying, since both UXM and this title have the same editor and are supposed to be sister titles. Scott Lobdell briefly addressed some of these complaints on Usenet at the time; essentially chalking them up to the increased workload of Marvel’s remaining staff after the layoffs, and Marvel’s desire to keep the X-titles on schedule. This script could’ve definitely benefiting from a rewrite or two, even if you’re willing to forgive the continuity mistakes. Why exactly Phoenix tells Juggernaut to physically run away while they’re protected inside a psi-shielded vault makes no sense. The fact that she doesn’t even tell him who Onslaught is, which just leads to the Juggernaut running straight to him anyway, is outright silly (I realize that Onslaught’s identity was being withheld for the end for dramatic reasons, but logically there’s no reason for Phoenix to keep the info from Juggernaut). And why on earth didn’t the Juggernaut put his helmet (which protects him from telepathic attacks) back on while he was running away?

It’s also amusing to me that during a montage of all of the traumas that Xavier has undergone in recent months, the death of his son is ignored. Actually, I can’t think of single reference to Legion’s death after X-Men Omega, which is strange. If all of Xavier’s pain and frustrations were supposed to lead to Onslaught’s creation, certainly Legion’s death would’ve been a legitimate area to explore. I wonder if the nonsensical nature of Legion’s death scene lead to Marvel’s decision to just ignore it. There are still a few nice moments, such as Phoenix’s interaction with Juggernaut, and Kubert’s dramatic interpretation of Onslaught emasculating Juggernaut. It really is a happy accident that Juggernaut was chosen to be Onslaught’s first victim before anyone at Marvel had decided that he would turn out to be his stepbrother. The idea that Xavier subconsciously waited his entire life to become stronger than Juggernaut and get payback for his childhood bullying is a clever angle for Waid to take.

After several strong issues in a row, the art is a little disappointing. I’m assuming that this can be chalked up to Dan Panosian’s inks, which lack the earlier energy of Matt Ryan’s and the polished look of Cam Smith’s. Many of the lines now look sketchy and half-finished, which doesn’t suit Kubert’s style. It’s still a nice-looking comic, overall, it just lacks the visual impact of the preceding issues. The cheaper paper stock doesn’t do the title’s look any favors, either, as we’re back to the days when black shadows aren’t very dark, and none of the colors are particularly vibrant, even with computer enhancement.

X-FACTOR #124 – July 1996

Future Memories
Credits: Howard Mackie (writer), Jeff Matsuda (penciler), Al Milgrom (inker), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (lettering), Glynis Oliver & Malibu (colors)

Summary: The members of X-Factor place themselves inside a holographic environment to train with Sabretooth. Forge hopes Sabretooth will show his true colors and that Washington will change their minds about adding him to the team. During the course of the training session, Shard suddenly appears. Wild Child disrupts the simulation and stops Sabretooth from attacking her. Polaris, uncomfortable with the team’s new direction, flies away to collect her thoughts. Meanwhile, Random is sent by Fatale to continue spying on X-Factor. He morphs from his true teenage form into his muscular bounty hunter persona. He speaks to Polaris, who tells him that she’s going to stay with X-Factor and try to change things from the inside. Later, Forge tries to convince Val Cooper to keep Shard’s existence a secret from the government, but she refuses. When she speaks to her superior, however, she changes her mind.

Production Note: All of the scenes with Random are clearly drawn by a different artist, but no one else is credited.

Continuity Notes: According to Forge, Shard’s existence is causing his holographic system to disrupt. He wants to keep her a secret from the government after she tells him about last issue’s break-in. He thinks that her knowledge of the future could be an asset. The government superior Val Cooper speaks to is intentionally obscured in shadow.

Review: It’s not uncommon for the various X-books to kill a few pages with a training sequence, but it seems like Mackie is using it to kill virtually the entire issue. Only one plotline is actually advanced, and it’s only incrementally, as Forge learns about the government agents who broke into their headquarters last issue. His plans for doing something about it, and how he even feels about the break-in, are just glossed over. The idea that Random had been spying on X-Factor had already been established, so almost a third of the issue is just spent reminding us of it. And I’ll again point out that the scrawny, teenage Random just looks incredibly dumb. Polaris’ doubts about the new direction, which I imagine are supposed to reflect the reader’s, are a nice touch. Unfortunately, her bland dialogue doesn’t really sell her dilemma, and she doesn’t come to much of a decision outside of, “well, I guess I’ll stick around for awhile.” The shadowy government agent Val Cooper speaks to is the definition of an old cliché, which wouldn’t even be so bad if the story was successful in making me care about any of this conspiracy stuff. Just as X-Man behaves irrationally and his powers explode in every issue of his series, I wonder if every issue of X-Factor is going to have faceless, shadowy government agents with secret agendas from now on.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

UNCANNY X-MEN #334 – July 1996

Dark Horizon
Credits: Scott Lobdell (writer), Joe Madureira (penciler), Tim Townsend (inker), Steve Buccellato & Team Bucce! (colors), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (lettering)

Summary: Juggernaut arrives at the X-Men’s mansion, hoping that Phoenix will unlock the secret of Onslaught inside his head. Inside, Phoenix tells Cyclops about her encounter with Onslaught. Cyclops says that she needs to speak to Professor Xavier, but she refuses, even though she’s not sure why. Meanwhile, as Archangel and Psylocke try desperately to contact the X-Men in Colorado, Cannonball tries to talk to Professor Xavier about his feelings of inadequacy, but is coldly rebuffed. Later, Cyclops tries to speak to Xavier inside the War Room, but is instead greeted by a telepathic projection that shifts between insulting him and asking for help. Bishop and Gambit encounter the Juggernaut outside and are knocked unconscious. Juggernaut finally reaches Phoenix and asks for help. She takes him to a psi-shielded chamber in the underground tunnels beneath the mansion. She says that they will learn Onslaught’s identity here. Elsewhere, Bastion chastises Graydon Creed for his conspicuous attempt at killing Senator Kelly.

Continuity Notes: When Bishop is working on Cerebro, he wonders why technology has barely advanced in his time. I have no idea what the significance of this is supposed to be. I know that it will soon be revealed that Onslaught killed the X-Men in his timeline, but were they implying that Onslaught’s victory also lead to technology being stunted for decades?

The telepathic projection of Xavier watches footage of X-Man and comments on the time he pulled his body from the Astral Plane. He says that “what I’m about to do…I couldn’t have done without you.” Allegedly, this allowed Onslaught to be born, even though he had been operating in the background for months before that issue.

Production Note: As I mentioned earlier, this is the month Marvel dropped the slick paper in the X-titles. I remember Marvel first announced that they would make up for the lessened paper quality by adding extra pages. Then, it became apparent that these extra pages would be hype pages for other Marvel books. It seemed like these would at least be fanzine-type articles and interviews, which I wouldn’t have minded. Instead, it became obvious that most of these pages were poorly put together ads, and the same extra pages ran in all of the titles each month. The added pages in this month’s titles are clips of previous Onslaught clues, which really just emphasize how haphazard this entire storyline has been. I remember feeling incredibly cheated by this at the time.

Review: This is a nice example of an issue that touches base on various subplots while building up a main story. Unfortunately, most of the subplots end up fizzling out over the next few months, but there was still some promise at this stage. The dark tone in the issue is successful in setting the stage for the Onslaught revelation, and I seem to recall being fairly excited when I read this for the first time. The clues regarding Onslaught’s identity aren’t even getting close to subtle now, as Xavier suddenly has a drastic change in personality. The previous issue had him acting a little snarky with his students, but now he’s behaving like a totally different character. Lobdell gets some humor out of the “evil” Xavier’s conversation with Cannonball, which basically has him calling Cannonball out as a total incompetent (which is unfortunately what the character had turned into at this point). The brief scene that has the Dark Beast offering a meta-commentary on all of the various fields of knowledge the Beast is supposed to be an expert on is also amusing. Madureira’s art remains a highlight, as he turns in one of the strongest renditions of the Juggernaut ever. He’s also able to keep the rest of the issue, which mainly consists of conversation scenes, visually interesting.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

X-MEN UNLIMITED #11 – June 1996

Adrift
Credits: Scott Lobdell (plot), Terry Kavanah (script), Steve Epting & Mike Miller (pencilers), Sellers/Milgrom/Koblish/Candelario (inkers), Matt Webb & Malibu (colors), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (lettering)

Summary: Rogue’s landlord reluctantly reports her as a suspicious mutant to Humanity’s Last Stand. A week later, a group of men in armored suits attack her home and try to abduct her. Bastion arrives and knocks her unconscious. Rogue awakens inside Humanity’s Last Stand’s headquarters, where Bastion is detailing his plan to destroy the building and frame her for the deaths of the HLS members. One of the guards objects and is killed by Bastion. Another guard watches the murder through a videoscreen and refuses to stand by. The guard is secretly Joseph, who infiltrated the group weeks ago in the hopes that he could find information on the X-Men. Joseph uses his magnetic powers to rescue Rogue, who is initially suspicious that this is one of Magneto’s schemes. After they fight off the armored guards, Rogue begins to trust Joseph. When the mysterious Trask confronts the duo in an armed helicopter, Rogue convinces Joseph not to use the chopper’s missiles against Trask. Joseph instead slams the missiles together to cover their escape. Rogue returns to her rented home to retrieve her car. Her landlord apologizes to Rogue and says goodbye with her son. Rogue leaves the city with Joseph as her passenger.

Continuity Notes: Humanity’s Last Stand first appeared in Uncanny X-Men ’95. This is the first time Bastion has been connected to the group. They no longer have Nimrod robots, but men in armored suits named “Maulers” instead. The shadowy Trask without a first name from Uncanny X-Men ’95 shows up again. Why exactly his face and full name are still being concealed is beyond me.

I Love the ‘90s: In response to a reader’s query, the editor says that Marvel is working on developing a website.

We Get Letters: This is the issue where the editors request that the fans refer to the imposter Beast as “McCoy” instead of “Dark Beast” or “Evil Beast”. They’ve even taken the liberty of correcting all of the letters that didn’t list the villain under the name they retroactively decided he should have.

Review: I guess this is the second issue in a row that actually ties into the ongoing storylines, so maybe someone at Marvel realized how aimless this series was becoming. I distinctly remember dropping this title after reading one too many inventory stories in a row, so I think the new focus couldn’t have lasted for long. This issue is mostly forgettable, but some of the Rogue/Joseph interaction isn’t bad, and the landlord’s reluctance to report Rogue is actually handled well. Bringing back Rogue and teaming her up with Joseph did feel somewhat important at the time, since she had been out of the books for almost a year and Joseph’s thread had been largely ignored for a few months (the fact that Joseph was still supposed to be Magneto at this point didn’t hurt, either). Pairing them up is supposed to evoke memories of their time together in the Savage Land during the Claremont/Lee run, a story arc that was also the inspiration behind marrying the characters in the Age of Apocalypse. It’s odd that the two issues of the characters traveling the Savage Land, which only had a very brief hint of a possible attraction between the pair, would’ve had such an influence years later, but apparently someone in the X-office really liked that story.

I don’t necessarily mind the coincidence that has Rogue and Joseph meeting one another inside the HSL headquarters, but the idea that Joseph was successfully working undercover is a bit of a stretch. Wouldn’t these people have the technology to detect mutants? At the very least, Bastion does, since he easily identified Phoenix and Gambit as mutants in his first appearance. Ignoring that plot hole, the pairing between Joseph and Rogue doesn’t exactly work here. There’s a nice scene where Joseph chastises Rogue for enjoying the fight with HSL too much, saying that he’s only fighting out of necessity, but just a few pages later Rogue is the one convincing Joseph not to kill Trask. If he was as much of a pacifist as the previous few pages portrayed him as, he wouldn’t have needed Rogue’s coaching. You can see that the Joseph concept has some potential, especially in the scene that has him asking Rogue why she hates Magneto so much, but most of the dialogue is pretty flat and fails to make Joseph that interesting (and the less said about Rogue’s accent, the better). The art is a mixed bag, as Epting delivers his normal dependable work, but the middle section is interrupted by Miller’s cartoonier style. It’s not as bad as most of the faux-manga stuff going around during this time, but it doesn’t mesh with Epting’s work at all and gives the impression that the entire issue was a rush job.

WOLVERINE #103 – July 1996

Top of the World, Ma
Credits: Larry Hama (writer), Val Semeiks (penciler), Chad Hunt (inker), Joe Rosas & Malibu (colors), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (lettering)

Summary: Wolverine climbs to the top of a skyscraper to meet Elektra. Elektra believes that if Wolverine is retrained in the martial arts, then he can begin to regain his humanity. She locks him inside a refrigeration chamber and challenges him to think. He breaks free, and remembers the missing ideogram from Elektra’s wall scroll. He finds her underneath a water tower with the missing “mountain” symbol painted on its side. She gives him a sword to duel with, which he quickly loses in the fight. He manipulates Elektra into kicking him back to where he lost the sword, enabling him to ambush her. Elektra is content that Wolverine is regaining his humanity, because she knows that it’s harder to sheathe a sword than draw it.

I Love the ‘90s: The skyscraper Wolverine climbs to the top of is one of the World Trade Center towers.

Review: Since it was decreed that Wolverine would essentially become an animal, and that Elektra would guest star for several months to promote her upcoming series, it’s not surprising that we ended up with a martial arts-themed issue that deals with the nature of man. There’s some decent character work here, but for the most part it reads like a time-killer until next month’s crossover. The martial arts philosophy doesn’t get particularly deep, but I like the fact that Hama emphasizes the idea that avoiding violence is often the greatest challenge for a man. He also uses the training sequences to reaffirm the idea that Wolverine is supposed to be as sneaky and crafty as he is vicious. There’s some attempt at treating Elektra as more than just a generic sensei character, as Hama recounts her origin and gives her a few first-person narrative captions. He handles her character competently, but it’s still pretty obvious that she’s being thrown into the title for commercial reasons. Val Semeiks’s fill-in art is capable enough, but his interpretation of the bestial Wolverine just emphasizes how incredibly ugly the design was in the first place. Rather than looking wild and feral, he often just looks like a Muppet with sharp teeth.

Monday, December 15, 2008

CABLE #33 – July 1996

Never Is a Very Short Time
Credits: Jeph Loeb (writer), Ian Churchill (penciler), Scott Hanna (inker), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (lettering), Mike Thomas & Malibu (colors)

Summary: Cable visits Beast regarding his inability to control his techno-organic virus, but he can’t give him any immediate answers. He talks to Storm, who wants him to telepathically search her mind for any information regarding her encounter with Onslaught’s herald, Post. Cable can’t pick up any specific memories, but feels a familiar “telepathic echo” in her memories. Domino interrupts, telling Cable about the explosion of Blaquesmith’s frigate. Cable travels to Maryland to investigate. While searching the ship, he feels the same presence from Storm’s memory is nearby. He flashes back to his past as a mercenary, when he teamed up with G. W. Bridge to rescue his friend, Tremain, from one of the Mandarin’s experiments. With Tremain near death, Cable was forced to give him a blood transfusion, not knowing how his techno-organic virus would affect him. In the present, Cable is suddenly attacked by Post, who he now knows is Tremain. During the course of the fight, Cable begins to deduce Onslaught’s identity. Post can’t bring himself to finish Cable, but he leaves him to die.

Production Notes: Rick Leonardi is also credited as an artist, but all of the pages look like Ian Churchill to me (the GCD lists this as a mistake). This is also the month that the paper quality is reduced across the X-line (even though most of the X-titles’ newsstand editions dropped the slick paper a year earlier) and the Bullpen Bulletins returns to replace the mutant-specific X-Facts page.

Continuity Notes: Mandarin, or at least a hologram of him, is experimenting on Tremain so that he can learn the secrets behind the mutant X-gene. As far as I can tell, this is Tremain’s first appearance. For some reason, I seemed to recall that this issue established that Post was actually one of Cable’s fellow future soldiers, Tetherblood, and not an entirely new character, but I was wrong.

This story takes place explicitly after the Storm miniseries, yet she still has her old hairstyle and uniform. This isn’t the only time that happens during this era.

Cable deduces Onslaught's identity by thinking of who would put him in a weakened condition, remove Blaquesmith from the picture, and know about Tremain. Cable never outright says who Onslaught is, though, as that revelation is being saved for this month's X-Men.

The Dark Beast, who is still impersonating the Beast, is thrilled to have a copy of Cable’s DNA and a techno-organic virus sample. I don’t think this went anywhere.

During the flashback, Cable uses his telepathic powers to talk to Tremain. Since this takes place years before X-Force was formed, this seems to contradict the ending of the “Child’s Play” crossover (New Warriors #46), which had Cable shocked to learn that he could use telepathy. I assume that by this point Marvel had decided that Cable always had his telepathy. One No-Prize solution to the New Warriors issue could be that Cable was just shocked to learn that he could still use telepathy, considering that most of his telekinesis had to be used to keep his techno-organic virus in check. However, that doesn’t exactly work, since Cable would’ve still had the virus in the flashback, and his telepathic skills clearly aren’t being inhibited.

Review: This is another issue dedicated to building up Onslaught, so there’s not an awful lot I can say that the previous reviews haven’t covered. Like many of the other stories leading in to the crossover, it’s not particularly enjoyable in its own right, and without a big payoff during the Onslaught event, it seems even weaker upon reflection. The big revelation in this issue is that the mysterious Post is actually Tremain, who is yet another undefined character from Cable’s past. Loeb effectively gets the idea across that we’re supposed to care because Cable does, but revealing that one mystery character is actually a new mystery character we knew nothing about just feels cheap. The flashback’s characterization of Cable as an idealist who thinks one man can make a difference seems at odds with the cold-blooded Cable from the earlier issues of X-Force and the other flashbacks to his mercenary days. Instead of making a statement about Cable’s character, it feels like something out of an ‘80s action movie. Churchill’s art manages to handle the big fight scenes pretty well, so at least there’s some energy brought into the rather bland issue. The final splash page of a broken Cable, who’s realized Onslaught’s identity but is unable to warn the X-Men, does help to build up tension for the upcoming storyline, even if the rest of the issue is a weak promo for the crossover.

Friday, December 12, 2008

X-FACTOR #123 – June 1996

It Begins…Again!
Credits: Howard Mackie (writer), Jeff Matsuda (penciler), Al Milgrom (inker), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (lettering), Glynis Oliver & Malibu (colors)

Summary: X-Factor watches as Sabretooth fights the Hound, a genetically enhanced mutant hunter. The team joins the fight, but learns that the Hound can counteract their mutant powers. Polaris focuses her powers and manages to knock the Hound unconscious. Forge taps into the facility’s database as a team of masked government agents appears. One of Val Cooper’s friends, Gladstone, is with them. He tells her that he’s been sent to ask for her cooperation. He doesn’t know what’s going on in the facility, telling her that they should both forget about the place. Meanwhile, shadowy government agents invade X-Factor’s headquarters and attempt to steal data from Forge’s databanks. Shard appears and chases them away. At Graydon Creed’s campaign headquarters, a man named Mr. Harper brings a large cash donation from a mysterious donor. Two days later, Val Cooper takes Senator Kelly to the facility where the team faced the Hound, only to discover that it’s now a farm being used for agricultural research.

Continuity Notes: Sabretooth tells X-Factor that he was sent alone to kill the Hound because the government didn’t want to risk X-Factor on the mission. The Hound describes himself as a mutant who has been turned into a weapon by the government. His first target was Mystique (as seen in X-Men Prime), but he failed.

Senator Kelly seems to be fine after Graydon Creed's attack in UXM #333.

Mr. Harper’s employer isn’t named, but it’s intimated to be Bastion. It’s implied from Creed’s conversation with Harper that the Hound was sent after Mystique as a favor to him. Creed claims that Mystique possesses info that could “prove damaging to us all”. It’s established that Mystique is Creed’s mother and that he hates her, but this is the first time it’s been implied that she knows something about Bastion (if in fact Harper’s employer is Bastion). It's possible that simply the revelation that she's Creed's mother is enough to disturb Bastion, who wants Creed in office. Harper tells Creed that he’s suggested to his mysterious employer that they keep Mystique around just to “keep you in check”. There’s certainly a lot of implying and inferring in this two-page scene.

When Forge taps into the facility’s database, he sees Rory Campbell’s name as a part of the coded information. I assume that this is supposed to tie in to the idea that Rory will one day become the mutant-killer Ahab, but if the story’s implying that Campbell is actively working to target mutants now, that contradicts his current character arc in Excalibur. Also, Forge can apparently shoot energy blasts out of an attachment to his metal hand now.

Review: I never watched The X-Files, but I’ve always assumed that the show was influencing Howard Mackie as he wrote this series. Didn’t X-Files have the agents constantly coming up against mysterious government entities that hindered their investigations? I seem to recall Mackie using that bit more than once during this era, as the team was placed in-between rival government agencies with conflicting motives. In this issue, the mysterious government officials in charge of Sabretooth want the mutant-killer Hound dead, although I assume the government agency that created him (presumably lead by Bastion), wants to keep him alive. Or perhaps the agency that created the Hound deemed him a mistake and wanted him dead? Or does someone in the government want Sabretooth dead? And if the Hound was created by Bastion, why is he genetically altered and not a cyborg like the rest of Bastion’s soldiers? None of these questions are actually intriguing within the story, they just make the plot seem needlessly confusing. There’s no clear motive for anyone’s actions, and “mystery” is being used as an excuse for some of the nonsensical plot elements. I suppose you could use the government itself as a legitimate adversary for the team, but the execution is here is boring and cliché.

Aside from the nonsensical plot, there are also the continually flat characterizations. All of the characters have bland dialogue, and the only thing approaching an internal conflict is when Polaris has to concentrate really hard to undo the Hound’s neutralizing effect on her powers. This scene is extremely bland also, since it relies on the clichéd “hero strains themselves really hard to do something they couldn’t do a few pages earlier” trick. Matsuda’s art remains inconsistent, as a few decent cartoony images emerge on the occasional page, but the majority of the issue is marred by ugly faces, odd poses, and bizarre anatomy (Sabretooth’s legs are attached to his chest on the first panel of the first page). This is pretty dire stuff.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

EXCALIBUR #99 – July 1996

Fire with Fire
Credits: Warren Ellis (writer), Casey Jones (penciler), Tom Simmons (inker), Ariane Lenshoeck & Malibu (colors), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (lettering)

Summary: Peter Wisdom explains to Excalibur that Douglock is probably already dead if Scratch has him. Meggan looks through the files Shadowcat stole from Black Air and notices payments to members of Parliament. Wisdom contacts his friends in the spy community and sends them proof of the bribe money Black Air used to gain power. In London, the column of fire begins to fade. Scribe explains to Brian Braddock that this is the testing stage of their plan, which involves the Red Queen magically accessing an ancient power source. The Black and Red Kings and Queens of the Hellfire Club travel to Black Air’s London headquarters to view the latest development of their project. The Red King unveils Douglock, who is being used to as a pure electronic link to their power source. As Excalibur flies into London to attack Black Air’s headquarters and find Douglock, Brian Braddock unpacks his Captain Britain helmet and prepares to face the Hellfire Club. Meanwhile, Onslaught asks the Black Queen if she’s ready for the upcoming gathering. Hours later, the Red Queen reveals herself as Margali Szardos and tries to use Douglock to access the demonic power underneath London. The power overtakes her body, and creates columns of fire throughout the city. The citizens of London go mad, as a giant devil emerges over the city.

Continuity Note: The mysterious package Sebastian Shaw gave Black Air in a previous issue is revealed. It’s described as “chips from a trident that…belonged to the devil’s son”. The Hellfire Club is using it as an interface connecting Douglock to the ancient crypt under the city. I suspect the trident referenced belongs to Damian Hellstrom, a character who is supposed to be the son of Satan (and one of the first Marvel characters Ellis handled).

Review: The pace picks up considerably in this issue, as the Black Air and Hellfire Club plotlines begin to converge, and the almost forgotten Margali Szardos thread is revived. Onslaught also gets thrown in, since this is an X-book and it’s summertime in the mid-90s, but it’s just a one-page cameo. I seem to remember the next issue tying in more closely with the crossover, but for now it’s not a distraction from Ellis’ story. Despite the fact that Ellis is still setting up the big anniversary issue fight, there’s also some attention paid toward the ongoing character arcs. Wisdom differentiates himself from his Black Air co-workers by claiming that he only killed people “in the life”, while others, like Scratch, were willing to kill innocents. He then tells an anecdote about beating Scratch’s face off when he learned that he had killed everyone inside a school to cover his tracks. It comes across as a pretty flagrant attempt at making Wisdom seem intimidating and vicious, but Ellis also uses it as an opportunity to emphasize the doubts that Kitty would realistically have about getting involved with him. Ellis continues his rehabilitation of Brian Braddock by teasing the return of his Captain Britain persona. It’s important to remember that Braddock was an Olde English speaking buffoon named Britanic when Ellis took over, so the return of his true persona has to be one of the highlights of Ellis’ run on the title. I wish he could’ve done more with Braddock, because Ellis seemed to have some affection for the character, and no one seemed to know what to do with him after Alan Davis left. Casey Jones returns again as the fill-in artist (even though the letters page assures us that Excalibur is still Carlos Pacheco’s “real home”). I like his sparse, stylized character designs, and he’s able to pull off some of the satanic images in Ellis’ script. The image of Margali Szardos’ eyes being replaced with the demon’s teeth is appropriately disturbing.

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.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

WOLVERINE #102 – June 1996

Unspoken Promises
Credits: Larry Hama (writer), Adam Kubert (penciler), Dan Green (inker), Joe Rosas & Malibu (colors), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (lettering)

Summary: Wolverine leaves the mansion and heads into the city. Meanwhile, a mother puts her child to bed. The child grabs a gun underneath his mattress and sneaks out. He meets up with a drug dealer who is mentoring him. The dealer gets into a firefight with a rival dealer, which kills a bystander. Believing that his rival is dead, the dealer runs away and kills the two nearby witnesses. Wolverine appears from the darkness and kills the drug dealer. His young protégé shoots Wolverine in the back. Wolverine chases him to a train station, which leads to him landing on the tracks as a train approaches. Wolverine saves the boy, protecting him as they drop down several yards. He directs the boy to go home, and then collapses from his wounds. The boy turns back and helps Wolverine, when the rival drug dealer reemerges. He cocks his gun to shoot the boy, but Elektra appears from behind and saves him. The boy reunites with his mother, as Elektra greets Wolverine. Watching Wolverine’s adventure, Elektra remembers her father’s gardener, Starvos. As a child, she was shocked to learn that the Starvos who regretted killing weeds had been a relentless Nazi killer in the war. When two Nazi loyalists returned to her father’s home years later to kill him, she was held hostage. One of the Nazis tried to convince the other not to kill her. After Starvos killed the bloodthirsty one, Elektra pleaded with him to spare the other’s life. He hid out amongst her family and eventually became a foster child to Starvos. Before she left for college, Starvos thanked her for teaching him about redemption.

Review: The story I’ve always heard about this issue was that Larry Hama submitted this as a totally silent issue with no dialogue (like the occasional G. I. Joe issue), and that Bob Harras asked him to include some words. The story still has no dialogue, but instead has Elektra telling a story through the narrative captions. It’s probably Hama’s best issue of the series, and it’s the final Adam Kubert issue, so it’s too bad that it has to star bestial Wolverine. Hama does tie his new animal mindset into the story, treating this as if it’s the first time Wolverine has contemplated the concept of redemption, but I think the story could’ve worked just as well without the bestial angle. At the very least, Hama does use the story to establish that Wolverine is still human enough to act like a hero and save the boy who was trying to kill him a few seconds earlier.

The inclusion of Elektra’s narration adds another layer to the comic, enabling it to be read three different ways. You can ignore the narrative captions and follow the art to see the story of Wolverine in the city, you can ignore the art and read Elektra’s story, or you can read the narration and pay attention to how it connects thematically to the story told through the artwork. Just following the art gives you an Eisner-esque story about a kid rejecting his mother’s values, but realizing the error of his ways when one of his potential victims risks his life to save him. Elektra’s narrative is another story of redemption, focusing on a man who lost everything to the Nazis but was willing to allow one to redeem himself. It’s a superbly written scene, reminding me of how underrated Hama often is. It’s impressive that an issue with an editorially mandated guest star, featuring an editorially mandated new status quo, with (allegedly) an editorially mandated narrative device can turn out as such an enjoyable issue. Adam Kubert’s strengths are also highlighted, as he’s able to tell a story that doesn’t require words without losing the reader. Every character is clearly defined and moves smoothly from panel to panel. Aside from the clear storytelling, he’s also able to create attractive figures that balance cartooniness with realism. He also creates a striking interpretation on New York City, which acts as a character in its own right in the story. Kubert draws the covers for the series for the next few months, but it always disappointed me that he never returned to the book.

Monday, December 8, 2008

CABLE #32 – June 1996

Venting
Credits: Jeph Loeb (writer), Ian Churchill (breakdowns), Scott Hanna (finishes), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (lettering), Mike Thomas & Graphic Color Works (colors)

Summary: After leaving Tyler’s funeral in Kentucky, Cable and Domino return to Camp Hayden to investigate the Sentinel research facility that was penetrated by Onslaught. They encounter hundreds of Nimrod prototypes while Domino tries to talk to Cable about his son’s death. She wonders if Wolverine had no choice but to kill Tyler (a.k.a. Genesis), just as she was forced to kill Grizzly. Cable, who has resorted to using armory after his battle with X-Man drained his powers, refuses to discuss his feelings. They find a computer chip from the surveillance videos that they hope will reveal when Onslaught infiltrated the base, but it’s been magnetized. Cable finally gives in to his anger and begins shooting up the base, declaring that he’ll stop Onslaught before he can harm any innocents like Tyler. They leave the base, as Post watches. Elsewhere, a voice tells Blaquesmith that he can’t allow him to help Cable in the coming days. Blaquesmith’s ship suddenly explodes.

Continuity Notes: According to the narrative captions, Cannonball offered Cable a burial place for Tyler near his home in Kentucky (Wolverine killed him in issue #100 of his series). Cable refers to Tyler as an “innocent” because he was brainwashed by Stryfe and never recovered. Whether or not Tyler is Cable’s biological son is still vague. Domino questions why Cable won’t talk about his death, “even though you promised his mother -- Jenskot -- you’d look after the boy?” I don't think this is the first time it’s been hinted that Tyler was his stepson, or adopted son.

It’s inferred again that Onslaught was the one who broke into Blaquesmith’s home and stole his files on Cable. And I’ll again point out that this makes no sense given the later revelation of Onslaught’s identity, and that the culprit was heavily implied to be the X-Cutioner at the time.

Review: I guess if Cable’s son was going to be killed off in Wolverine, it should’ve been brought up in Cable, too. Instead of devoting a quiet issue to mourning Tyler’s loss, Loeb creates an issue-long fight scene that basically gives Cable and Domino something to do as Cable acts gruff and distant. That’s probably a more appropriate route to take, as Tyler has always been nothing more than a ranting lunatic, so giving him a memorial issue would’ve been a hard sell. Loeb does a capable job with Cable and Domino’s characterizations, even if he’s already done this type of story with the characters before. Connecting Wolverine’s slaying of Tyler to Domino’s forced execution of Grizzly isn’t a bad idea, and it makes the inclusion of a Wolverine storyline feel more organic. Cable’s catharsis at the end of the issue is very predictable and doesn’t exactly convey the emotions it’s supposed to (partly because the art doesn’t even show what he’s supposed to be shooting at). The weak ending emphasizes how much of a time-killer the issue really is. I like the fact that there’s an attempt to show the impact of Tyler’s death on Cable, but there’s really nothing else going on in the issue. It’s another case of the Onslaught storyline becoming an excuse for vaguely defined missions that end quickly and don’t actually answer any questions. The art is presumably a rush job, as Scott Hanna moves from inker to finisher. Rather than going for a sketchy, unfinished look, he buries the entire issue in black. Since Cable and Domino are supposed to be breaking into a secret government facility at night, it’s at least appropriate for the story, and it seems to mesh pretty well with Churchill’s artwork.

Friday, December 5, 2008

X-FORCE #55 – June 1996

Without A Net
Credits: Jeph Loeb (writer), Adam Pollina (penciler), Mark Morales (inker), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (lettering), Marie Javins & Malibu (colors)

Summary: Outside of the SHIELD helicarrier, Meltdown launches a series of timebombs. X-Force splits up and enters through the openings. They search the base for Cyclops, who has been detained by Bastion for an alleged assassination attempt on Senator Kelly. After defeating a series of Life Model Decoy soldiers and automated defenses, the team finally breaks into Cyclops’ cell. They’re suddenly flanked by dozens of SHIELD agents, led by Cable’s former ally, G. W. Bridge. Cable telekinetically removes Cyclops’ visor and guides his optic blasts to take out the agents. He then punches Bridge in the face and leaves with Cyclops. Phoenix rescues the team in the Blackbird and flies away. Meanwhile in Florida, Warpath wonders if he should’ve abandoned the team to spend time with Risque. When he stands to kiss her, he reveals a giant tattoo of a bird on his back.

Continuity Notes: This issue continues directly from Uncanny X-Men #333, which had Cyclops meeting Senator Kelly in a home that was bombed by Graydon Creed. What exactly happened to Senator Kelly isn’t revealed.

When Meltdown searches for information on SHIELD’s computers, she’s shocked to learn that Sabretooth isn’t dead. He was believed dead at the end of the Sabretooth Special.

Review: For some reason, we have an entire issue of X-Force dedicated to resolving a plotline from this month’s Uncanny. One of the characters even questions why X-Force, and not the X-Men, are on this mission, but no answer is given (in fact, Domino essentially tells Siryn to shut up when she asks the question). I remember being deeply confused by this issue when I first read it, since I didn’t even remember Cyclops getting captured in the first place. Looking back, I guess it could be inferred from Uncanny X-Men #333 that Creed’s men abducted him, but all we really see is Cyclops leaping from an explosion. He wasn’t shown to be injured, and there was no on-panel abduction, so it still feels like jumpy storytelling. The plot just seems like an excuse to kill an issue, even though Loeb still tries to work in some brief character moments as the team infiltrates the helicarrier. None of the ongoing arcs are advanced, though, so the characters just end up reiterating what their current predicament is supposed to be (a trick Loeb’s done in previous issues). None of this is poorly done, as Pollina’s art sells the action and Loeb gives the cast just enough characterization to have them stand out from one another, but it still feels like filler.