Monday, June 2, 2014

X-MEN: TRUE FRIENDS #1 - September 1999

True Friends
Credits:  Chris Claremont (writer), Rick Leonardi (penciler), Al Williamson & Co. (inks), Shannon Blanchard (colors), Tom Orzechowski & Bullpen/DS (letters)

Summary:  Shadowcat and Phoenix get into an argument while visiting the Scottish Highlands.  When Phoenix becomes angry, her power causes nearby standing stones to activate with energy, creating an image of occultists sacrificing a girl.  Shadowcat flees, and is rescued by Alasdhair Kinross and his young cousin, Lilibet.  Shadowcat soon realizes she’s in the year 1936.  While looking for Phoenix, they search a nearby castle owned by Lady Windermere.  They soon discover that Windermere is in league with the Nazis.  After Lilibet is kidnapped by the Nazis, Shadowcat and Alasdhair travel to Edinburgh to rescue her in a plane owned by Alasdhair’s friend.  They’re soon attacked by a brainwashed Phoenix.

Continuity Notes:  
  • This story is set during the early days of the Excalibur series.  The “Phoenix” mentioned here is of course Rachel Summers, Phoenix II.
  • Baron von Strucker and Geist make cameos as Nazis visiting Lady Windermere.  There are also references to Hitler taking advice from “The Egyptian,” who we later learn is Amahl Farouk, the Shadow King.

Production Notes:  This miniseries is printed on glossy paper and has no interior ads.  The price is $2.99, as opposed to Marvel’s standard $2.25 at the time for comics with ads and newsprint paper.

Review:  True Friends began life as an Excalibur graphic novel in the late ‘80s, one Rick Leonardi began but famously never finished, I believe because Marvel discontinued its graphic novel line.  Chris Claremont mentioned this project a few times in interviews after leaving Marvel in the early ‘90s, citing it as one of the books he’d love to finish if he hypothetically returned to Marvel one day.  So, the announcement of this miniseries in 1999 was greeted with a decent amount of enthusiasm by a certain segment of fandom.  I’m not sure if too many readers viewed it as a lost classic after it was done, however…

This is not a quick book to read.  That’s not to say the first issue’s poorly written or drawn, but it is a large investment of your time; a much larger investment than readers have come to expect from a standard “floppy” comic.  Claremont sets the story in 1936 and seems to assume the audience a) knows and b) cares about European politics of the day.  Yes, Nazis are the perfect bad guys, but focusing on their political maneuvering pre-WW II is a risky starting place for a story, especially one where the audience has a reasonable expectation of a superhero adventure.  Large sections of the comic consist of massive word balloons dropping references to the constitutional crisis involving Edward VIII’s engagement to Wallis Simpson, how this impacts the Ramsey MacDonald government and Winston Churchill’s credibility, and the chances of Oswald Mosely and the British Union of Fascists taking power.  Not standard X-Men material.  Assuming you didn’t recall 11th grade World History that well, this was pretty frustrating reading in the pre-Wikipedia days.  And it’s even more of a chore to read when the Tom Orzechowski pages disappear and Marvel’s in-house lettering begins.  I believe this is the lettering style usually credited as “Sharpefont”, an early computer font that’s always looked too wide and poorly spaced to my eyes.  Giant info dumps aren’t fun in the first place, but at least Orzechowski can add some style to them.  Giant Sharpefont balloons just make me want to turn the page.

To Rick Leonardi’s credit, there doesn’t seem to be a noticeable difference in the art drawn after the ten year gap in the book’s production.  (I’m assuming he initially stopped at around page 20, because that’s where Orzechowski’s lettering ends.)  It appears that the early pages in the book were intended to be printed on larger paper, the old format for graphic novels, but the actual quality of the drawings is consistent.  Leonardi spends most of the issue drawing “real life” elements such as cottages, castles, landscapes, pubs, and horses and doing a capable job of it.  I’ve always been a fan of his Kitty Pryde, so it’s also nice to see him return to the character.  And when Chris Claremont is writing Kitty and Rachel as stars in a teen drama, the story’s pretty entertaining.  The human element is still there, but it’s buried under so much plot it’s often hard to care about the characters.  And, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, the story’s turned into another brainwashing scheme by the issue’s end, so already we’re moving into some well-worn territory.  How self-indulgent will this series become by the final issue?


wwk5d said...

Well, let's wait and see if there are any scenes to teammates fighting each other or hentai tentacles ;)

DB said...

Overall, I enjoyed this mini. As a big fan of early Claremont I can't believe I only just read it. I think it was the sappy title and the thought of late 90s Kitty and Phoenix that put me off. But it's really an early Excalibur story, which is great. I'm glad to know the production history, I'll have to look at those pages again. I completely agree about the font!

And, yes, how annoying that once again the Uber powerful Phoenix is mind controlled into being a henchman. Errrrr.

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