Wednesday, March 25, 2009

UNCANNY X-MEN #-1 – July 1997

The Boy Who Saw Tomorrow!
Credits: Scott Lobdell (writer), Bryan Hitch (penciler), Paul Neary (inker), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (lettering), Steve Buccellato (colors)

Summary: A young Jean Grey watches a falling star from her window. The “star” flies towards South Dakota, where it reveals itself as the time travelling Rachel Summers. She’s following Sanctity, a mutant she found while lost in the timestream. Rachel discovers Master Mold, in the early stages of construction, near the home of Dr. Bolivar Trask. Rachel deduces that Sanctity has traveled back to this time to prevent the creation of the Sentinels. She talks to Sanctity and tries to convince her not to interfere with the timestream. When Sanctity fades away, Rachel realizes that she’s been speaking to a mental projection. Inside, Sanctity reveals to Trask that she is his missing daughter, Tanya. Before she can convince Trask to abandon his anti-mutant crusade, she realizes that Rachel has frozen his mental capacity so that he can’t hear her. Sanctity finally listens to Rachel and agrees to go home. Shortly after they leave, Trask’s son, Lawrence, finds his father recovering in his lab. Unbeknownst to everyone, Sanctity inserted a program into Master Mold, named “XII”.

Continuity Notes: This serves as an origin story for future Askani member Sanctity. It’s revealed that she is Tanya Trask, the daughter of Bolivar Trask, who has the power to “phase out of synch with time”. Because she had no control over her powers, she’s been missing for years. She met Rachel Summers while she was lost in the timestream (following Excalibur #75), in an “untold tale” according to an editor’s note. A narrative caption towards the end of the issue says that Rachel will “ultimately be betrayed” by Sanctity. I have no idea if this was ever resolved (it might just be a reference to the fact that Sanctity disobeyed Rachel and inserted info into Master Mold without her knowledge).

The “XII” program Sanctity inserted into Master Mold is a listing of “The Twelve”. I’ll be honest and admit that even discussing the Twelve bores me to death. Essentially, Master Mold once claimed in an old issue of X-Factor (while he was malfunctioning) that twelve mutants will shape the future. This wasn’t elaborated on, but it lead to years of fan speculation. Marvel apparently decided that this should be resolved, over ten years later, and this was the first step in reintroducing the concept. So if you wanted to know how Master Mold learned of the Twelve, this issue tells you. Sanctity, while making a list of horrible events she can prevent, says, “humanity waited so long for the Twelve…they so sorely disappointed us”. If you disliked the 1999 crossover “The Twelve”, you can insert your own joke here.

Young Jean Grey is described as eleven years old, while a few pages later a narrative caption says that the Sentinels will debut in “approximately three years”. This would make Jean fourteen or younger when she joined the X-Men, which doesn’t seem right. While I’m nitpicking, I’ll also point out that Marvel has apparently abandoned Mark Gruenwald’s rule that time travel can’t affect the main reality by this point.

“Huh?” Moment: Why is Master Mold wearing a domino mask on the cover? Is he afraid the other robots will recognize him?

Review: This is the start of “Flashback Month”, a gimmick that had every Marvel title doing a story that predated not only the first issue of its individual series, but the 1961 first issue of The Fantastic Four. It’s probably best known now for a behind-the-scenes fact; many fans viewed the “-#1” issues as an excuse to skip an issue of a series but maintain a full run, which makes it one of the few “event month” gimmicks to ever cause sales to decrease. (I remember the first issue of X-Force I chose not to buy was the #-1 issue. I was already getting burned out on the X-titles, and didn’t feel the need to buy a comic about Warpath’s childhood). Stan Lee appeared in all Flashback titles as the narrator (I believe he wrote his own dialogue, but can’t find any confirmation in this issue), mirroring his role in an earlier issue of Generation X. The art style on the covers was changed to reflect a ‘60s look (which might’ve added to the dent in sales), and artists were encouraged to go back to a simpler grid-style panel arrangement. Comicraft also altered the lettering fonts, presumably to make the word balloons look hand-lettered. Plus, the letters pages and Bullpen Bulletins switched back to simplistic layouts with plain white backgrounds (which thankfully made them easier to read). A lot of effort clearly went into this, and I can’t help but feel like the Marvel staff was a lot more excited about this than the actual readers were.

Strictly in terms of content this seems like a bad idea, since most of these characters weren’t involved in any type of superhero adventures before FF #1 (hence FF #1’s role as the start of the Marvel Universe). This automatically harmed a lot of titles, especially the Spider-Man books, which were left with issue after issue to fill with stories set during Peter Parker’s childhood (I’ve only read the Untold Tales of Spider-Man issue, which had to go all the way back to his parents’ days as government agents). Aesthetically, the event forced the entire line to devolve back to a 1960s look that the majority of Marvel’s audience probably dismissed as boring. I don’t want to pile on Bob Harras, but I wonder if this event is another example of him putting his nostalgia over the current audience’s expectations (he is the one who wanted the X-Men, Spider-Man, and the Hulk to revert to their “classic” status quos, after all).

The actual story in this issue is rather mediocre, although the art features Bryan Hitch’s strongest work yet. If I cared more about the various continuity elements, I imagine I would’ve gotten more out of this. Sanctity was one of those characters that I could never remember from appearance to appearance when these issues were first released, so learning that she has a connection to a group of Silver Age characters I knew nothing about didn’t make her more endearing. Lobdell’s description of her powers does actually sound interesting, but I have a hard time getting over her connection to the Askani, a concept that I’ve grown to intensely dislike over the years. The story doesn’t directly tie in to the Zero Tolerance crossover, but since it does feature a prequel story with the Sentinels, there is at least a small connection (which I’m sure didn’t escape Lobdell). Even if this one isn’t great, it’s still passable, which puts ahead of many of the other Flashback issues.

9 comments:

Jeff said...

X-Men -1 blows this out of the water.

Seangreyson said...

I believe Sanctity's betrayal actually ties into Askani-son (the follow-up to Cyclops and Phoenix). Apparently she betrayed the Askani, leading to Apocalypse's attack, in order to take over the Askani that remained.

Or something like that. I've never really found a good "history" of that timeline. Very little seems to tie together between the different books set in it.

wwk5d said...

I'm not sure if this was a true reflection of what the audience did or didn't want. Didn't a silver-age-feel make a comeback eventually, with some of the new titles introduced once "Heroes Reborn" started, and especially once "Heroes Return" began? I think it's lack of success was due to the fact it was an "event month" where the actual event had nothing to do with what was going on in each individual title...

Matt said...

Strangely, I actually enjoyed Flashback Month. I recall especially liking the Generation X (all about Banshee), Untold Tales of Spider-Man (all about Richard and Mary Parker as super-spies, and written by Roger Stern!), and Thunderbolts (all about young Baron Zemo and his father) issues.

In fact, I didn't even read Untold Tales of Spider-Man regularly -- I only picked it up because I had become a fan of the Richard and Mary Parker androids from David Michelinie's Amazing Spider-Man run, and because Roger Stern was, after Stan Lee, my favorite Spider-Man writer ever.

I love nostalgia issues, even though I'm not old enough to actually be nostalgic for the eras they usually cover...

Thanks to your comments, something has suddenly occurred to me -- I've defended Bob Harras many times here, saying that he gets a worse rap than he deserved, and although I never realized it, I think this is why -- he was slowly trying to re-set the Marvel Universe to the mid-late-70s/early-80s status quo/atmosphere, which was, in my mind, the best point in the company's history, creatively.

Teebore said...

Count me amongst those who hated the Twelve crossover. The minor subplot about the Twelve was one of the first I ever encountered when I started reading comics, so I was ridiculously excited to see that long forgotten tease picked up and made into a story.

But then they completely botched the story, mainly by forgetting the details of the tease from years before: Franklin Richards was one of the few identified Twelve (and he was nowhere to be found) and Apocalypse was the villain of the story (despite also being listed as one of the Twelve in that X-Factor issue).

So basically, I was just pissed that Marvel bothered resurrecting the story, only to resurrect it in such a way that it ignored what little had been established. Why even bother then?

The Estate of Tim O'Neil said...

I also quite liked Flashback month, even if, in hindsight, I can see why it can be considered a failure. Many of the books were obvious labors of love on the parts of the creators involved, and even if readers didn't respond it seemed as if the creators really had a hoot and a half.

G. Kendall said...

wwk5d, I think the Heroes Return books tried to return to the roots of the titles without screaming "retro!", which is what Flashback month was all about. And, honestly, I think Flashback had potential, but Marvel made a mistake in forcing its entire line to go along with the gimmick (maybe it should've been a week instead of a month?). Also, setting everything before FF #1 created quite a few awkward situations.

Matt,
It seems to me that Bob Harras wanted to go even further than late 70s/early 80s. I suspect he would've been happy going back to the '60s. That's only speculation on my part, though. Did Harras do any post-Marvel interviews? I'd be curious to know if he's ever even publicly spoken about his philosophy as ed-in-chief.

Matt said...

"Did Harras do any post-Marvel interviews? I'd be curious to know if he's ever even publicly spoken about his philosophy as ed-in-chief."

Unfortunately, not that I'm aware of. I'd also like to read about his time at the head of Marvel. Jim Shooter and Tom DeFalco have both given some fascinating interviews on what they were thinking when they made certain choices. But from that Jason Liebig interview you posted a link to a few weeks ago, I gather that Harras has never been too interested in giving interviews, even when he was still at Marvel!

Come to think of it, he rarely communicated with the fans, in any way. Shooter and DeFalco both wrote regular columns in the Stan Lee tradition, hyping things up and talking about upcoming projects, or just telling us what was going on in "the Bullpen." Bob Harras seemed to keep to himself, letting the comics speak for him (as I believe Liebig said in the interview). Whether that was a good idea or not is of course a matter of debate).

Mike Loughlin said...

In addition to the comics Matt mentioned, Hulk -1 was excellent. Peter David & Adam Kubert did a great job fleshing out Bruce Banner's back story while deepening his character.

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