Comic book reviews: X-Men Gold

I’ve very much been looking forward to X-Men Gold, celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the series, since it was first announced.  The major attraction for me was the main story, a brand new collaboration between writer Chris Claremont and artist Bob McLeod.  It certainly helped that over the last couple of months McLeod has been posting work-in-progress pieces on Facebook, and they looked absolutely gorgeous.

As I’ve written before, Claremont is one of the key figures involved in revitalizing X-Men in the late 1970s, turning it into a major bestseller.  After several years of X-Men being in reprint limbo, Len Wein and Dave Cockrum introduced a brand new team in the pages of Giant-Size X-Men #1 in 1975.  Wein plotted the next two issues, X-Men #s 94 & 95, then passed the torch to Claremont, who scripted those stories before going on to become the full writer with #96.  Over the next 17 years, working with Cockrum, John Byrne, Paul Smith, John Romita Jr, Rick Leonardi, Alan Davis, Mark Silvestri, Jim Lee, and other talented artists, Claremont crafted numerous amazing stories.  More importantly, he did a superb job writing the X-Men and their supporting cast as very real, three-dimensional individuals, developing their various arcs over an extended period of time.

As for Bob McLeod, he is a fantastic artist, a gifted storyteller with a very polished style to his inking.  He only worked on a handful of X-Men stories (the few times that he inked Cockrum were beautiful) but he co-created the spin-off series New Mutants with Claremont, drawing the team’s first appearance in Marvel Graphic Novel #4, and then working on several issues of their ongoing book.  So it was great to see him reunited with Claremont for X-Men Gold.

XMen Gold pg 16

Claremont & McLeod’s story is set between the events of Uncanny X-Men #s 173 and 174.  Still in Japan, recuperating from their conflict with Viper & Silver Samurai, as well as the emotional wounds of Mariko abruptly calling off her marriage to Wolverine (long story, go out and buy Essential X-Men Vol. 4 for all the details) the team discovers there is a mysterious crisis taking place in nearby China.  They head over to investigate, with Xavier, Lilandra, the Starjammers, and Maddie Pryor holding back in reserve in Corsair’s orbiting spaceship.  The X-Men arrive to find that a horde of self-replicating Sentinels have taken over an industrial complex, and are on the verge of spreading out across the globe.

What follows is, of course, a spectacular battle between the X-Men and the mutant-hunting robots.  But, as he has so often done in the past, Claremont skillfully weaves wonderful moments of character interaction and heartfelt dialogue into the action.  Former enemy Rogue, only recently admitted into the team, still feels like an outsider, with the rest of the X-Men understandably cautious around her.  Yet we see first Kitty Pryde and then Nightcrawler offer her the hand of friendship, letting her know that she is welcome.  The father-daughter relationship that has developed between Wolverine and Kitty is explored, and Claremont (as always) gives the two of them wonderful chemistry.  Off in space, Maddie is still trying to wrap her head around all the craziness she has suddenly been plunged into, but she is determined to find a way to deal with it because she loves Cyclops.  Claremont really makes you care for these characters.

As for the art, McLeod does superb work.  He choreographs the battle perfectly.  Drawing a team superhero book is much different than a solo title, because the penciler really needs to give serious consideration to the placement of the numerous characters on each page, and how they interact with one another.  McLeod succeeds at this admirably, very effectively “directing” both the dramatic action sequences and the more quite character moments.

I’m unfamiliar with the colorist on this story, Israel Silva, but he does an excellent job.  His coloring really complements McLeod’s artwork.  And it was so great that letterer Tom Orzechowski was on this book.  He is one of the best letterers in the biz (it is such an underrated talent) and he has a long-time association with Uncanny X-Men, having lettered nearly every issue of the series published between 1979 and 1992.

XMen Gold pg 23

There are several back-up stories in X-Men Gold.  “The Sorrow Beneath The Sport” is plotted by Louise Simonson, penciled by Walter Simonson, and inked by Bob Wiacek, the creative team that so successfully chronicled the reunited original five X-Men’s adventures in the mid-1980s in the pages of X-Factor.  Supplying the script is none other than Stan Lee, who co-created the original incarnation of the team with Jack Kirby half a century ago.  It’s a nice little five page piece which both captures the playful wackiness of those early Silver Age stories, as well as observing that there was also a somber undercurrent, the notion that possessing super powers could be more of a curse than a gift.  By today’s standards, Lee’s scripting may not be particularly subtle.  But it definitely was significant in paving the way for the later, more nuanced work that other writers did in exploring the fallibilities & doubts of superheroes.  In any case, the artwork by Simonson & Wiacek is top-notch.

Roy Thomas, the second writer to helm X-Men in the 1960s (among his numerous other credits) teams up with penciler Pat Olliffe of Spider-Girl fame to chronicle the very first meeting between Banshee and Sunfire, set shortly before Giant-Size X-Men #1.  Turns out these two very different mutants happen to share a love of Elvis Presley.  It was cool to see Banshee’s fondness for folk, country, and bluegrass referenced for probably the first time since the 1970s.  I thought it was an interesting tale with some nice character moments.  It was my favorite of the back-up stories in X-Men Gold.

XMen Gold pg 30

Len Wein writes “Options,” which is set during the events of Giant-Size X-Men.  It delves into Wolverine’s thoughts, examining his reactions to his new teammates.  At first I was pretty taken aback by Wein’s story, but then I quickly recalled that early on Logan was written as a psycho with a hair trigger, and that it took quite a while for him to mellow out and not want to gut people at literally the drop of a hat.  Jorge Molina does a good, if gruesome, job drawing this one.

The last story is “Dreams Brighten,” written by Fabian Nicieza and drawn by Salvador Larroca.  It’s an examination of what was taking place in Magneto’s consciousness when Xavier was forced to telepathically shut down his adversary’s mind in X-Men volume 2 #25.  This one didn’t quite work for me.  I see what Nicieza was trying to do, but I think he needed more than five pages to achieve it.  Plus, if you are not familiar with the “Fatal Attractions” crossover and the events that occurred a few years later as an inadvertent result of Xavier’s actions, this probably will not make much sense to you.

Despite a certain variable quality to some of the back-up material, X-Men Gold is definitely worth picking up for the fantastic lead story by Claremont & McLeod.  They are both extremely talented creators, and I wish we could see more of their work nowadays.  Marvel really should give them an ongoing title, or at least a miniseries.  I really miss stories like this!

X-Men Gold page 9 pencils and inks by Bob McLeod (click to enlarge)
X-Men Gold page 9 pencils and inks by Bob McLeod (click to enlarge)

By the way, if you are interested in the creative process, please check out Bob McLeod’s Facebook page.  For several weeks, he has been posting preliminary art, uninked pencils, and finished inked artwork for X-Men Gold.  (A big “thank you” to McLeod for giving me permission to use the above image.)  It’s fascinating to see the stages he went through in illustrating this story.  And, once again, it definitely demonstrates just how much of the final look of the published artwork can be determined by the inker.

Remembering Dave Cockrum

I wanted to take a moment to remember one of my all time favorite comic book artists, Dave Cockrum, who was born on November 11, 1943 and passed away on November 26, 2006 at the too young age of 63.  Today would have been his 70th birthday.

A few days ago I wrote about how I became a huge fan of Legion of Super-Heroes, and how Dave Cockrum’s significant contributions to that series played a major role in that.  In addition to successfully redesigning the majority of the team’s costumes, Dave created new team member Wildfire, villain Tyr, and occasional allies Infectious Lass and Devil-Fish.  Dave had ideas for quite a number of other new Legion members, including a certain blue-skinned, pointy-tailed fellow named Nightcrawler, but his editor Murray Boltinoff feared that the character was too strange-looking.

A beautiful 1976 painting of Nightcrawler by his creator, Dave Cockrum.
A beautiful 1976 painting of Nightcrawler by his creator, Dave Cockrum

After Dave left Legion over a dispute concerning the return of his original artwork, he took the unused Nightcrawler with him to Marvel in 1975.  There, the character became one of the members of the mega-successful revamp of X-Men by himself and writer Len Wein.  Dave co-created Storm, Colossus, and Thunderbird with Wein.  Although he was not involved in the initial development of Wolverine, Dave was the first artist to draw him unmasked, giving Logan his now-iconic hair & facial features.

The overworked Wein departed from X-Men after only three issues, and Chris Claremont became the series’ new writer.  Chris and Dave collaborated very well together, and they were responsible for revamping Jean Grey into Phoenix, as well as introducing Black Tom Cassidy, Lilandra, the Shi’ar Empire, the Imperial Guard (who were sort of a parody of the Legion), and the Starjammers.  Dave also helped Chris out on his other ongoing assignment, Ms. Marvel, penciling two issues wherein he designed a fantastic new costume for Carol Danvers.  Although he did not draw their first appearances in the pages of Ms. Marvel, Dave was the designer of both Deathbird and Mystique.  In the case of the later, Dave explained in 2003:

“This drawing was done for fun and hung in my office until my partner Chris Claremont wandered in one day, saw her, and started to drool. ‘I want her!’ he said. He named her Mystique, gave her powers and added her to the Uncanny X-Men rogues gallery.”

Dave Cockrum's stunning drawing of the character who would become Mystique.
Dave Cockrum’s stunning drawing of the character who would become Mystique

Due to X-Men going to a monthly status, Dave left the series in 1977, and John Byrne became the new penciler & co-plotter.  Byrne & Claremont had a great, memorable run, producing many classic stories, but the two eventually parted ways in 1981.  Dave came back for a second run penciling Uncanny X-Men, paired with inkers Josef Rubinstein and Bob Wiacek.  During this time, Chris and Dave collaborated on several great stories, including “I, Magneto” in Uncanny X-Men #150, which first revealed Magneto’s history as a survivor of the Holocaust, “Kitty’s Fairy Tale” in #153, and a flashback to Xavier and Magneto’s first encounter in #161.  Chris and Dave also introduced the insidiously evil alien monstrosities known as the Brood.

Dave once again departed Uncanny X-Men in 1983 to create his Futurians graphic novel.  He also wrote & drew an enjoyable four issue Nightcrawler miniseries that saw the swashbuckling Kurt Wagner bouncing from one strange dimension to another.  On more than one occasion, Dave had said that Nightcrawler was a sort of romanticized version of himself, so he must have enjoyed working on these issues.

Futurians #0
Futurians #0

Around this time, Dave took the creator-owned Futurians over to a small company called Lodestone Comics.  Unfortunately, they folded after publishing only three issues, leaving Dave’s fourth issue unreleased.  However, on a couple of subsequent occasions it was finally published, first in a trade paperback by Eternity in 1987 and then as a black & white issue by Clifford Meth’s Aardwolf Publishing in 1995.  That later edition also included a brand new five page story by written by Meth & drawn by Dave.

Dave remained a fan of Legion of Super-Heroes, and over the years he would return to the series to draw the occasional cover or short sequence, plus some profile images for Who’s Who in the Legion.  It was always a delight to see his work on the characters.

In the 1990s, Dave unfortunately had some trouble finding regular work.  He did get the occasional job from Marvel, DC, Valiant and Defiant.  One of my favorite stories that he drew was “Depth Charges” in Green Lantern Corps Quarterly #3, written by Michael Jan Friedman, which features an aquatic alien member of the GL Corps.  Dave did fantastic work on that.  He was briefly reunited with Chris Claremont when he penciled a series of back-up stories for Sovereign Seven.  Dave also became the penciler of the really fun supernatural comedy Soulsearchers and Company which was co-written by Peter David & Richard Howell, and published by Claypool Comics.  Again, he did really great work on those issues.

Dave Cockrum's super-sexy splash page of Bridget and Baraka in a bubble bath, from Soulsearchers and Company #37
Dave Cockrum’s super-sexy splash page of Bridget and Baraka in a bubble bath,
from Soulsearchers and Company #37

For a number of years Dave and his wife, artist & colorist Paty, lived in upstate New York.  I would often see them at local comic book conventions & store signings.  They were both really nice, fun, intelligent people, and I’m glad I had so many opportunities to meet them.  During this time, I was fortunate enough to acquire a few pages of artwork that Dave had worked on, as well as a few sketches.  I’ve posted scans of those on the Comic Art Fans website.  Here’s a link:

http://www.comicartfans.com/galleryroom.asp?gsub=2441

During the last few years of his life, Dave was sadly plagued by ill health.  Clifford Meth helped raise money to assist in paying his medical bills, publishing The Uncanny Dave Cockrum…A Tribute through Aardwolf.  Numerous artists contributed drawings of Dave’s numerous creations, with the originals subsequently being auctioned off to raise further funds.

Recently on his Facebook page, Meth announced the following: “In 2014, Aardwolf Publishing will release the final, never-before-published Dave Cockrum FUTURIANS comic, pencilled and written by Dave himself. We have a terrific assembly of comics’ stars participating, but we want EVERYONE to help us make this a HUGE success. Want to help? Artists are invited to contribute pin-ups of Dave’s Futurians’ characters, which we’ll include in the printed and/or digital book, and also use as Kickstarter perks. You’ll be in star-studded company–we promise. Please join us!”  I’m definitely looking forward to this, and I wish Meth great success in bringing this to print.  I’ll keep everyone updated once I learn more information about the upcoming Kickstarter campaign.

Dave Cockrum was undoubtedly a superbly talented artist, as well as an incredible designer, who left an indelible mark on the comic book biz.  He left behind a rich legacy of wonderful artwork and colorful creations for us to enjoy.

Tomorrow is today: X-Men “Days of Future Past”

It’s 2013.  Do you know where your X-Men are?

Sure, here in the real world, if you want to locate the X-Men, just head on over to the local comic book shop, where you’ll find your favorite mutants in numerous ongoing series published by Marvel Comics.  But back in the early 1980s, within the fictional world they inhabited, the X-Men had every reason to be fearful of the 21st Century.  In the now-classic two part story “Days of Future Past,” readers were given a glimpse of a horrifying dystopian future where humanity no longer ruled, and mutant-kind were hunted like animals by soulless mechanical tyrants.

Originally appearing in Uncanny X-Men #141-142, published in late 1980, “Days of Future Past” was co-plotted by John Byrne & Chris Claremont, penciled by Byrne, scripted by Claremont, inked by Terry Austin, lettered by Tom Orzechowski, colored by Glynis Wein and edited by Louise Simonson.

This two issue tale showed us the remnants of the X-Men in the year 2013 attempting to alter history.  With the aid of the telepath Rachel, the now-adult Kate Pryde’s consciousness is projected back in time into her teenage body.  She tells the skeptical present-day X-Men of 1980 of the dire future waiting on the horizon.

Kate informs the X-Men that the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants is planning to murder U.S. Senator Robert Kelly, who is advocating for the regulation of mutants.  Kate states that the Brotherhood’s actions backfire horribly; rather than serving as a warning for humanity to stay out of mutant affairs, the assassination causes a virulent wave of anti-mutant hysteria to sweep across the nation.  The “Mutant Control Act” is passed in 1984, but is struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.  This merely further emboldens the paranoid elements of the federal government, and they reactivate the giant anti-mutant Sentinel robots.  The Sentinels are given “fatally broad parameters” to deal with mutants and, to humanity’s horror, decide the most logical manner in which to do so is to seize total control of the United States.

Over the next quarter century, nearly all superhumans in North America are exterminated by the Sentinels, with the survivors imprisoned in “internment centers.”  In 2013, the Sentinels are now preparing to spread out across the globe to fulfill their mandate to eliminate mutants.  The rest of the world, much more fearful of being conquered by the Sentinels than they are of the dangers posed by mutants, is prepared to retaliate with a full-scale nuclear strike against the former United States.

The present-day X-Men race to Washington DC, hoping to thwart the assassination attempt on Senator Kelly by the shape-shifting Mystique and her new Mutant Brotherhood.  Meanwhile, in 2013, the remnants of the future X-Men escape from the South Bronx Mutant Internment Center.  This ragtag band heads into Manhattan and the Baxter Building, which is now the headquarters of the Sentinels, in a desperate attempt to destroy it and avert nuclear holocaust.

The X-Men of 1980 narrowly succeed in saving Kelly, and Kate’s consciousness departs back for her own time.  Unfortunately in 2013 events take a much worse turn, with the future X-Men being brutally slaughtered by the Sentinels, leaving only Rachel and Kate alive.

Back in the present, the X-Men ponder whether or not they have averted the dark future of mutant genocide.  Professor Xavier observes “Only time will tell.”  And in an ominous epilogue, Kelly, more convinced than ever that mutants are a danger, is introduced by the President to Henry Peter Gyrich.  To safeguard humanity from mutant-kind, Kelly & Gyrich are to put into place the top-secret “Project Wideawake,” and a key aspect of this program will be the reactivation of the Sentinels.

As I did not get into comic books on a semi-regular basis until the mid-1980s, I obviously did not have the opportunity to read “Days of Future Past” when it was first published.  I think the first time I ever found out about the events of the story was one summer, when I was at day camp, and a fellow comic book fan had brought along several issues of The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe.  One of these contained the entry for Rachel Summers aka Phoenix II, the telepath from “Days of Future Past.”  Her biography in that issue was, in part, a summation of Claremont & Byrne’s story arc, a description of the nightmarish Sentinel-controlled future.

Rachel’s Handbook bio in seriously unnerved me.  As a Jew, it really struck a chord.  Having grown up learning all about the Holocaust, to then read about a fictional scenario where a minority group right here in the United States was rounded up and imprisoned in concentration camps, marked for extermination, was VERY disturbing.

I finally had the opportunity to read “Days of Future Past” itself in the early 1990s, when Marvel reprinted the story in a one-shot, and then several years later when it was included in Essential X-Men Vol. 2.  I found it a very powerful story.  Claremont & Byrne definitely crafted an unsettling vision of the future.  The artwork by Byrne & Austin was stunning, really driving home the impact of this dark tomorrow.  (And I am a huge fan of Austin’s inking on pretty much anything.  He’s an amazing artist.)

The covers for these two issues have become extremely iconic.  That image of Wolverine & Kate backed against the wall of wanted posters, drawn by Byrne & Austin, has been the subject of numerous homages over the decades, and #142, which was both penciled & inked by Austin, showcases the gruesome death of Wolverine at the hands of the Sentinels.

It is interesting that “Days of Future Past” was only a two part story.  Nowadays, if anything like it was attempted by Marvel (or DC, for that matter) it would probably be a huge event, at least ten chapters long, and cross over with numerous other titles.  I really do not think what Claremont & Byrne achieved in those two issues, not to mention within the rest of their groundbreaking run on Uncanny X-Men, could be replicated today.  Well, not at the Big Two, at any rate.  Perhaps it could be in the arena of independent and creator-owned books?

That “Days of Future Past” reprint special ended with a brief afterword by Simonson, who noted that Claremont & Byrne’s “dual vision, their future history remains. Its seeds are in the past. Its reality flavors the present. And its future is almost upon us.”

It has often been observed that the X-Men can serve as metaphors for nearly any minority or group that has faced discrimination: African-Americans, Jews, homosexuals, etc.  I think that is true.  I also think that the themes of “Days of Future Past” are more relevant than ever.  Despite the important strides many minorities have made in gaining recognition under the law, there is still a tremendous amount of bigotry & intolerance in this country.

Politics have become increasingly polarized, allowing the most extreme elements of society a greater voice & influence.  In the post September 11th era, there are some who advocate surveillance upon the entire Muslim community as a necessity to insure national security.  There are calls to “secure the borders” in order to prevent illegal immigrants from Latin America entering the country to steal jobs from “real Americans.”  Many still regard homosexuality as an “abomination” against God, with some even wanting to imprison gays to prevent the further spread of AIDS.  To secure votes, unscrupulous politicians pander to the racist elements of their constituents, cementing the belief that President Obama is some sort of foreign-born Muslim Socialist with a sinister agenda.

Even in a supposedly progressive city like NYC, we have seen a resurgence of gay-bashing, and many people genuinely believe that if the police do not stop & frisk every single dark-skinned teenage male in sight that crime will skyrocket.

My point is that we must remain ever vigilant in safeguarding our liberties & freedoms.  When one group is oppressed, it creates a slippery slope that could lead to others also being denied their rights, until eventually we are all under the heel of oppression.  The Sentinels are a potent symbol for intolerance.  Via their actions in “Days of Future Past,” we can see that hatred is blind, and embracing it can lead to the destruction of all that we were claiming to be protecting in the first place.

UPDATE: Uncanny X-Men #141 went on sale 40 years ago this month, on October 21, 1980. The contents of “Days of Future Past” feel even more relevant than ever in the year 2020:

Donald Trump, running a vitriolic campaign of racism & xenophobia, became President of the United States four years ago. His running mate Mike Pence, a fanatical religious fundamentalist, has in his role of Vice President aggressively worked to advanced a repressive agenda of homophobia and misogyny. Mitch McConnell and the Republican Party have rubber-stamped the appointment of hundreds of far-right judges to the federal courts. Neo-Nazis and white supremacists, emboldened by this administration, are openly marching in the streets of America. In the last four years hate crimes have skyrocketed.

In sort, we have seen the the dangerous actions of an angry, fearful group who, terrified of change, of the loss of political, religious and social influence, are desperately lashing out against anyone different from them, and who by their actions threaten to destroy the very country they claim to love.

Now, more than ever, we must fight against ignorance and intolerance, because if we do not the consequences will be catastrophic.

Happy birthday to Louise Simonson

I wanted to wish a very happy birthday to one of my favorite comic book writers, Louise Simonson, who was born on September 26, 1946.  When I was a young reader who was just getting into comic books in the mid-1980s, Simonson’s writing played a key role in capturing my interest.  With super-talented penciler June Brigman, she created Power Pack, a series about four young siblings who gained superpowers from a dying alien.  Alex, Julie, Jack and Katie Power used their fantastic new abilities to defend Earth against the belligerent alien Snarks, as well as a succession of other strange menaces.

I had a lot of identification with the four main characters in Power Pack.  They were all around my age.  In addition to fighting aliens & supervillains, they faced much more mundane problems such as disagreements among themselves, arguments with parents who they felt just did not understand them, making friends with other kids their age, and having trouble with homework.  Simonson did an amazing job scripting stories that young readers could relate to without ever talking down to them.

Power Pack 2 cover

Simonson had previously edited writer Chris Claremont on both Uncanny X-Men and New Mutants.  The two of them seem to possess a really good rapport and (in my humble opinion) under Simonson’s editorship Claremont wrote some of his best stories.  Later on, when Simonson was writing Power Pack, her close creative relationship with Claremont resulted in her series occasionally featuring guest appearances by the X-Men, and the Power kids showing up now & again in the X-titles.  Those crossovers were a major part of my introduction to the wider X-Men universe and Claremont’s work.  For instance, Uncanny X-Men #205, written by Claremont with superb artwork by Barry Windsor-Smith, is an amazing story where we see Wolverine through young Katie Power’s eyes.  It was a really great introduction to the character of Logan.

(This is the point where I risk embarrassing myself.  When I was a kid, I used to make up stories where I gained superpowers and had adventures alongside Power Pack.  Years later at a convention I admitted this to Louise Simonson.  She smiled and told me that a lot of other readers had told her they did the exact same thing growing up.)

In 1986, Simonson took over as writer of X-Factor with issue #6.  With penciler Jackson “Butch” Guice, she quickly introduced a mysterious, powerful new villain named Apocalypse.  Her husband Walter Simonson came on-board as regular penciler four issues later, and together the two of them majorly revamped the original five members of the X-Men, as well as building up Apocalypse into a significant figure in the Marvel universe.  Louise Simonson stayed on X-Factor until issue #64, in her later stories working with such artists as Art Adams, Paul Smith, and Terry Shoemaker.  She also had a lengthy run on New Mutants that lasted from issue #55 to #97.

Superman Man of Steel 26 cover

After departing from X-Factor and New Mutants in 1991, Simonson moved over to DC Comics.  There she paired up with Jon Bogdanove, who she had previously worked with on her later Power Pack issues, and the two of them launched Superman: The Man of Steel.  Both Simonson and Bogdanove would stay on the title for a lengthy eight year run.  During that time, amidst the “Death of Superman” story arc, they co-created John Henry Irons, aka Steel, who first took up his armored identity in memory of the (temporarily) deceased Kal-El.  Throughout her issues, while juggling the requirements of tying in with the storylines of the other three monthly books, Simonson managed to give Superman: The Man of Steel its own individual feel, introducing an interesting supporting cast and ongoing subplots.

When her run on Man of Steel ended, Simonson returned to Marvel for several projects.  Among these was Warlock, a really fun but all too short-lived series drawn by Pascual Ferry featuring the wacky techno-organic alien member of the New Mutants, and Chaos War: X-Men, a miniseries co-written with Chris Claremont.  She also penned the excellent X-Factor Forever, which was set in a timeline that picked up right after her point of departure from X-Factor in 1991.  On that five issue miniseries, she worked with Dan Panosian, who showed off his amazingly improved artwork.  He had really grown by leaps & bounds since his debut in the early 1990s.

Warlock 7 cover

There is a major theme running through much of Simonson’s writing.  She often takes a look at the importance of family, of establishing emotional ties to other people.  Power Pack was very much the story of the four Power children, their relationships with one another and their parents.  In her X-Factor issues, Simonson tackled the complicated state of Cyclops’ personal life, at how he had basically wrecked his marriage to Madelyne Prior, and now had to deal with the consequences of that, his confused feelings for the newly resurrected Jean Grey, and having to raise his infant son Nathan who he’d previously had with Madelyne.  (I think Simonson did an excellent job handling the extremely awkward editorial directive handed down to her and Claremont that had forced Scott Summers to leave Madelyne for Jean.)  In Man of Steel, Simonson introduced a young African American boy named Keith.  After his mother died, the orphaned Keith was adopted by Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White and his wife Alice, who had lost their own son some years before.  In Warlock, Simonson had her oddball alien hero forming a sort of family unit with Hope, Psimon, and Chi-Chee the monkey, each of whom had also become outcasts.

XFactor Forever 3 cover

The entire X-Factor Forever miniseries was all about family and relationships.  Cyclops and Marvel Girl are still attempting to reconcile their feelings for one another, and to take care of baby Nathan.  Bobby Drake, a.k.a. Iceman, is continuing his romance with Opal Tanaka, with the pair visiting her parents and discussing the possibility of marriage.  Warren Worthington is in a growing friendship with policewoman Charlotte Jones and her son Timmy, all the while struggling to come to terms with his transformation from Angel to the dark Archangel by Apocalypse.  And Hank McCoy, the bouncing blue Beast, is working on his on-again, off-again relationship with reporter Trish Tilby, who is thinking of adopting an orphan child.

Even Apocalypse is, in his own way, searching for a family.  Born 20,000 years ago to a tribe of primitive humans, the man who would become Apocalypse was a freak anomaly, the world’s first mutant, gifted with shape-shifting abilities.  As the X-Men would discover in the present day, so too did Apocalypse learn in prehistoric times: his powers were a double-edged sword.  When he used them to serve as his tribe’s protector, they reacted with fear & hatred, driving him out.  We can interpret Apocalypse’s subsequent millennia-long mission to insure the future supremacy of mutant-kind as motivated by a wish to no longer be alone, to one day have another family.  In the 19th Century, he thought he had found a kindred spirit in young Nathaniel Essex, and transformed him into his apprentice Mr. Sinister.  One could say that Apocalypse regarded Sinister almost like a son.  And when Sinister rebelled, conducting his own dangerous experiments which threatened to destabilize all of his former mentor’s carefully-laid plans, on some level it must have hurt Apocalypse.  It really shows Simonson’s talent & skill as a writer, that she brought a degree of empathy and pathos to a ruthless schemer such as Apocalypse.

I definitely think Louise Simonson is an amazing writer.  I really enjoy her work, and I hope that we see more from her pen again in the near future.  It would be especially great if she had the opportunity to work with her husband Walter again, or with June Brigman.

New York Comic Book Marketplace 2013: a convention report

I made a last-minute decision to attend this year’s New York Comic Book Marketplace show organized by Mike Carbonaro & Allen Rosenberg.  I wish I had decided a few days earlier when I could have bought an advance ticket cheaper, but what are you going to do?  I also wish I’d been able to take photos while I was there, but my camera went kaput a few months ago.

In any case, my main reason for going was that George Perez was the guest of honor.  I have an Avengers theme sketchbook that I’ve had going since 2007, and I’ve always hoped I’d be able to get a piece by Perez in it.  Well, I got to the show at a little after 10:00 AM, and already the line was really long.  It was also moving very slowly, because everyone else was also getting sketches from Perez.  I decided I’d try and get something from him some other time, because I really did not want to spend a couple of hours waiting.

Uncanny X-Men 204 signed

The other guest I really wanted to see was Chris Claremont, one of my all time favorite writers.  I’ve met Claremont a few times before, but it’s always nice to see him again, because he has written so many great stories over the years.  In addition to having him autograph a few X-Men trade paperbacks, I asked him to sign a pair of issues of Uncanny X-Men, specifically #s 204 & 205, which are favorites of mine.  They came out in early 1986, when I was nine years old, and were some of the first issues of that series I ever read.  Uncanny X-Men #204 features Nightcrawler, one of my favorite X-Men, and it was penciled by Power Pack co-creator June Brigman, whose artwork I love.  Issue #205 is a spotlight on Wolverine in a dark story illustrated by Barry Windsor-Smith.  What I really like about this one is that Claremont tells this very gritty, violent story from the point of view of five year old Katie Power, aka Energizer from Power Pack (yep, them again) and he really makes it work.  It enables Claremont to so effectively explore the very disparate aspects of Wolverine, how he is this extremely nasty berserker warrior, yet also have the capacity to be a kind, paternal figure to Katie.

It is a real shame that Marvel does not want to give Claremont any work nowadays.  I mean, he wrote Uncanny X-Men and most of its spin-off titles for a period of 17 years, playing a significant role in building a gigantic franchise (and I certainly don’t mean to overlook the parts that Len Wein, Dave Cockrum or John Byrne also played).  When Claremont returned to Marvel a decade ago, he did very solid, entertaining work on X-Treme X-Men and X-Men Forever (the later was my favorite Marvel title during the time it was being published).  Marvel is very happy to endlessly reprint Claremont’s old stories and to have their newer writers base their stories on the classic arcs he co-created.  But the company seems uninterested in giving him any new writing gigs.

Anyway, Claremont is currently working on prose fiction, and I definitely wish him the very best of luck with his new efforts.  I’m looking forward to picking up his novels.

Spider-Man Death of Jean DeWolff

Getting back to the show, I did not buy too many comic books, because I already have so much stuff.  In fact, I’m looking to get rid of a lot of comic books in the near future.  One of the few books I did pick up was the hardcover collection of Spider-Man: The Death of Jean DeWolff.  That’s one of Peter David’s early works.  I’ve wanted to read that one for a while now.  Also, Rich Buckler, who penciled that storyline, was a guest at the show.  I went over to his table, and he remembered me from our e-mail correspondence.  When I gave Buckler the book to autograph, he was genuinely surprised to see it, because he had no idea it had been published.  Which means that, yep, Marvel did not bother to send him a copy.  Again with the lack of respect by Marvel!  In any case, it was a good read, with nice artwork by both Bucker and another favorite of mine, Sal Buscema.

One artist I was very surprised to see at the show was Paris Cullins.  I’ve wanted to meet him for years.  I like his work a lot.  Back in 1988, Cullins penciled a six issue Forever People miniseries written by J.M. DeMatteis and inked by Karl Kesel.  He did really nice art for it, and so for some time I had been hoping to get a drawing by him in my Beautiful Dreamer theme sketchbook.  I even corresponded with him about it on Facebook in the recent past.  So there he was, and this was his first appearance at a NYC show in quite a number of years.  Only one problem: his coming was a last minute decision, so I had no idea he was going to be there, and I hadn’t brought along the Beautiful Dreamer book.  I was mentally kicking myself.  Cullins really wanted to do a piece for me, and suggested that he could draw it on a loose piece of paper to paste into my book.  But I felt it just would not have been the same.  So I left the show feeling pretty disappointed.  No Avengers sketch by Perez, and no Beautiful Dreamer drawing by Cullins.

Forever People by Paris Cullins

About an hour later I got back it Queens, and I told Michele what happened.  Her suggestion was that I should take my sketchbook and go back to the convention.  At first I thought that was a crazy idea, but then I realized I had nothing to do all day, so I shrugged and rushed back into Manhattan.  As soon as I got there, I went directly to Cullins’ table and half out of breath said something like “Good, you’re still here. If you had left, I’d be feeling very silly right about now.”  Cullins ended up working on my sketch right away, which was good for me but probably didn’t especially thrill everyone else waiting for a sketch!  I think he could tell from my Beautiful Dreamer tattoo that I was a huge fan of the character, and that I’d really appreciate what he was drawing.

In addition to the piece by Paris Cullins, I also got some very nice sketches from Dave Fox, Jim Salicrup, and Billy Tucci in my Avengers book.  I’ve posted scans on Comic Art Fans:

http://www.comicartfans.com/GalleryDetail.asp?GCat=60

It was a pretty good show but, between this and Mocca Fest, I’m pretty worn out when it comes to comic book conventions.  Think I’ll wait until the New York Comic Con rolls around in October before I go to another one.

Strange Comic Books: Magik

Chris Claremont is the writer who guided the X-Men for nearly twenty years.  With artists Dave Cockrum and John Byrne, he crafted what are now regarded as classic storylines, material that decades later continues to influence current writers on the now-sprawling franchise.  After the departure of Cockrum and Byrne, Claremont continued on for over a decade on Uncanny X-Men and its spin-off titles, collaborating with a succession of talented artists, among them Brent Anderson, Bill Sienkiewicz, John Romita Jr, Alan Davis, Mark Silvestri, and Jim Lee.  During this time, Claremont penned a number of memorable, intelligent, witty stories.  Oh, yes, and strange, definitely strange.  Claremont certainly knew how to plot & script material that was undoubtedly unusual.  One of these would be the four issue miniseries Magik: Storm & Illyana, originally published in 1983.  It was reprinted in a hardcover collection in 2008, which is when I finally had the opportunity to read it.

Magik cover

The Magik miniseries has its roots in Uncanny X-Men #160, which was by Claremont & Brent Anderson.  In that issue, the demon sorcerer Belasco kidnapped Illyana Rasputin, the young sister of Colossus, and took her to his strange other-dimensional realm of Limbo.  The X-Men followed, and were shocked to encounter a middle aged version of Storm.  In an alternate timeline, another group of X-Men had journeyed to rescue Illyana.  They were able to send her back to Earth, but had themselves been trapped in Limbo, where over the years Belasco killed or corrupted the entire team.  This elder Storm now helped the current X-Men to find their Illyana, and opened a portal back to Earth.  At the last moment, Belasco snatched back the young Russian girl.  On the other side of the portal, returned to Earth, Kitty Pryde reached back in to try and grab Illyana.  She succeeded, but the X-Men were in for a massive shock.  In the few seconds that had passed on Earth, years had flown by in Limbo, and the formerly six year old Illyana was now a teenager.

With the Magik series, Claremont had the opportunity to examine exactly what happened to Illyana between pages 20 and 21 of Uncanny X-Men #160, during those missing seven years of her life.  As the first issue opens, Belasco, having successfully snatched Illyana from the X-Men, attempts to corrupt her soul.  His end goal is to eventually make her a living portal through which his masters, the elder gods known as the Dark Ones, may return to Earth.  Belasco begins his corruption of Illyana’s essence, declaring in a standard Claremont monologue, “She is bound to me, body and soul, and through me, to my dread lords. Forever.”

Illyana is rescued by the middle aged Storm and her former teammate, Cat, an adult incarnation of Kitty Pryde who has been transformed into a half-feline creature by Belasco.  Storm attempts to teach Illyana to learn how to use sorcery, hopeful that the young girl can overcome the darkness that has begun to grow within her.  Cat is extremely skeptical, and prefers to instruct Illyana in physical combat.  At the same time, Cat believes that Illyana may already be beyond help.  The only two alternatives to Illyana’s salvation that Cat can see are to either find a way to return Illyana to Earth, or to kill her before she becomes irredeemably evil.

One of the favorite themes that Claremont often examines in his work is the nature of identity.  Another is the corrupting temptations of power.  Both of these are central to the story in the Magik miniseries.  Illyana frequently finds herself questioning her very existence.  Who is she, the innocent young Russian child, the pawn of Belasco, the student of Storm, or the warrior forged by Cat?  Pulling her back and forth between each of these aspects of her self is the allure of the mystical abilities that Belasco has awoken in her.  Illyana is simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by the lord of Limbo.  On the one hand, she wishes to return home to her family & friends; on the other, she seeks to explore the powers that Belasco promises to enable her to utilize.  She tries to remember Storm’s warnings about using her magic in harmony with nature, but is tempted to shape reality to her whims like a toy, much as Belasco has done to Limbo and its ghoulish inhabitants.  The stakes are nothing less than her immortal soul.  Claremont does excellent work examining how this character, so far from home, attempts to discover who she really is while struggling with dark temptations.

Magik 3 pg 22

The artwork on Magik: Storm & Illyana is by a trio of talented pencilers.  John Buscema does pencils / layouts for the first two issues, Ron Frenz pencils the third issue, and Sal Buscema draws the final installment.  Tying everything together, giving all four issues a uniform look is Tom Palmer on inks / finishes.

Palmer is one of those artists who possess a strong, easily identifiable inking style, and it especially comes across here.  He probably deserves the most credit for establishing the eerie, unearthly, disconcerting atmosphere of Limbo.  I was very disappointed that Palmer did not receive credit on the cover of the collected edition.  Unfortunately at Marvel Comics it seems to be the standard practice to omit inking credits from TPB covers.  That is especially a shame here, given how key Palmer’s work is to the final look of the entire miniseries.

Bret Blevins also contributed, penciling a stunning, creepy cover of issue #4.  (I checked with Blevins on Facebook, and he confirmed he drew it. So the credit for Bill Sienkiewicz in the collected edition is incorrect. Just setting the record straight.)  It is a striking, twisted image of a satanic Illyana, soulsword in hand, levitating above a fiery inverted pentagram.  Palmer inks that piece, as well, which results in a really unusual but effective collaboration.

Magik 2 pg 5

Oh, yes… out of all the strangeness in the Magik miniseries, the figure who especially stands out is Belasco’s minion S’ym.  For years, whenever that odd baddie would pop up in the various X-Men books, I was really puzzled.  I could never figure out why there was this gruff-talking, cigar-smoking purple demon who wore a vest striding around.  Then someone finally pointed out to me that S’ym was Claremont’s tongue-in-cheek homage to Cerebus the Aardvark, who was created by Dave Sim.  Yeah, okay, it all makes sense now.

When it comes to examining Claremont’s numerous X-Men stories, a few leap out of the crowd: “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” “God Loves, Man Kills,” “Days of Future Past” (and for that last one I plan to do a separate blog post).  Those are understandably among the highlights.  But obviously Claremont wrote a lot of other entertaining, thought-provoking, and, yes, strange issues, both throughout his original 17 year run and during his subsequent turns with the characters (I absolutely loved his X-Men Forever series).  Among the numerous gems, Magik: Storm & Illyana is certainly up there.  Undoubtedly an odd series, it is nevertheless a magnificent piece of character building on Claremont’s part.  And some three decades later, other writers continue to find it influential when penning the character of Illyana Rasputin.

Comic book reviews: Captain America & Hawkeye #629-632

I never thought I’d see the day when I would decide to drop Captain America from my monthly comic book reading list.  As I’ve said before, I am a huge fan of the character, and I have not missed an issue of the series since 1989.  But I have just gotten weary of Ed Brubaker’s decompressed writing on the main series.

The second Captain America ongoing book has the original numbering but now features a rotating co-star each story arc.  I believe that, to tie in with the Avengers movie, Marvel is going through the team membership.  Hawkeye was featured in issue #s 629-632, and Iron Man comes on-board next month.  Unfortunately, I’ve likewise been underwhelmed by the last few issues of this title.

There are also financial considerations at play here.  Right now I can’t really afford to purchase too many comic books.  I would much rather save my funds for Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon and Supreme, and a few other independent titles that I’m enjoying more than the majority of the material from Marvel or DC.

Anyway, what exactly did I think of Captain America & Hawkeye #s 629-632?  Well, to be fair, this four issue arc written by Cullen Bunn did have a lot of potential.  Cap and Hawkeye are in the San Andreas Mountains, searching for a missing group of environmental activists.  The two Avengers come across a government research facility named Damocles which is acting in an extremely secretive manner.  Despite a hostile reception from Damocles, Cap and Hawkeye continue their search in the caves underneath the base.  There they encounter an army of reanimated dinosaur skeletons, brought back to life by an insidious parasitic life form, one that is seeking to expand its control to living human beings.

Captain America & Hawkeye #632
Captain America & Hawkeye #632

Bunn is drawing on some near-forgotten subplots here, specifically material written by Chris Claremont and Bill Mantlo in the early 1980s.  Bunn does put it to good use, though, giving those decades-old storylines from Ms. Marvel and ROM Spaceknight an interesting twist.  As a fan of the books those plot strands were originally featured in, I enjoyed seeing something unique being done with them.  If you’re going to recycle the past, you ought to put a unique spin on things.

The problem with Captain America & Hawkeye is in the execution.  We basically get four issues of Cap and Hawkeye fighting Dire Wraith-dinosaur hybrids.  The story feels extremely decompressed.  It could easily have been told in the space of three issues, rather than four.  Conversely, at the exact same time, the readers are given no answers as to the mysteries of what Damocles is really up to, and the identity of their mysterious benefactor.  Some of the space that Bunn devoted to the Avengers / dinosaurs slugfests could instead have been utilized to explain what was going on behind the scenes.

Perhaps Bunn is intending to develop this further in upcoming issues of this title.  I would not have minded that as much if, again, this opening arc of his had been more tightly plotted.  This is the major problem a lot of writers have when it comes to writing for the trade paperback, in that they just do not have enough material to their stories to fill up the space.

I don’t mean to say that this story arc was bad.  There was a lot to it that was fun & entertaining.  It just needed some serious tightening up in the plotting department.

I did enjoy the artwork by Alessandro Vitti.  Admittedly it was at times somewhat unclear as to what was taking place in some of the action sequences.  But Vitti’s style was extremely well suited to the horror content of the story.  In an arc like this, it makes sense to not have Cap or Hawkeye look too clean-cut, to make them slightly more shadowy & gritty.  And I was especially struck by Vitti’s renditions of the dinosaur parasites spawned from the shape-shifting Dire Wraiths.  It really captured the gruesome, alien quality of the original Wraiths seen in the pages of ROM Spaceknight.

Captain America & Hawkeye #629 features a beautifully painted cover by Gabriele Del’Otto, while for the next three issues the cover art is from the talented, underrated Patrick Zircher.  I’ve enjoyed his work since his days penciling New Warriors.

Right now, I still haven’t decided if I am going to pick up Captain America & Iron Man.  It really depends on what else happens to be on sale a month from now and, more importantly, how much money I have in my wallet at that time.

It’s strange, because for a long time I thought Captain America would be the very last comic book series I would ever stop reading.  But times change, and so do people, and I guess I’m just more interested in other material right now at this point in my life.