Super Blog Team Up: The Death of Galactus

Welcome to the latest (and last?) edition of Super Blog Team Up.  My fellow contributors and I will be looking at various death-themed comic book topics, both literal or figurative.

In late 1999, Marvel Comics published the six issue miniseries Galactus the Devourer, written by Louise Simonson, penciled by Jon J. Muth & John Buscema, and inked by Bill Sienkiewicz.  The miniseries culminated with the stunning demise of Galactus.

Death of Galactus logo

Galactus and his herald the Silver Surfer were introduced in 1966 in Fantastic Four #48-50 by the superstar team of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Joe Sinnott.  Galactus was akin to a sentient force of nature, a god-like being who consumed the molten cores of planets for sustenance.  Finding these worlds for Galactus was the sleek Silver Surfer.  Whenever he could the Surfer would lead Galactus to lifeless or primitive planets, but from time to time Galactus would end up feeding upon a world occupied by sentient beings, resulting in their deaths.

Eventually the Surfer led Galactus to Earth. The blind sculptress Alicia Masters encountered the Surfer, and sensed nobility within him.  Stirring the Surfer’s long-suppressed emotions, Alicia inspired the Surfer to rebel against his master.  Eventually, with the help of both the Surfer and the cosmic observer known as the Watcher, the Fantastic Four were able to drive off Galactus.  Before departing, though, Galactus imprisoned the Surfer on Earth

After several years the Silver Surfer finally escaped his exile, and was once again free to roam the stars.  Eventually he returned to Earth, where he found Alicia mourning the apparent deaths of the Fantastic Four.  The Surfer and Alicia fell in love.

As the first issue of Galactus the Devourer opens, the Surfer and Alicia are still together.  The Fantastic Four have recently returned.  Ben Grimm, the Thing, is perturbed to see Alicia, his longtime girlfriend, in the Surfer’s arms, but is doing his best to respect her decision.  And then Galactus comes a-calling.

Galactus the Devourer 1 pg 3

The devourer of worlds has gone mad.  No longer desiring the energies of planets, he is deliberately seeking out worlds occupied by sentient beings, consuming their very life forces.  In a short time billions have already died, and Galactus’ now-insatiable hunger leaves many fearing that all life in the universe will soon be extinct.

Galactus is a character who was undoubtedly impressive and awe-inspiring when first introduced in 1966.  However, over the next three and a half decades he was brought back repeatedly, and much of his mystique diminished. In her miniseries Simonson restores much of the grandeur and menace to Galactus, once again showing him as an unstoppable, unrelenting force.

Simonson also uses this miniseries to examine the consequences of an earlier storyline from Fantastic Four by John Byrne, where a dying Galactus was saved by Reed Richards.  Subsequently the restored devourer consumed the Skrull home world.  Richards was placed on trial for genocide by a galactic tribunal headed up by Lilandra, former ruler of the Shi’ar Empire.  Reed was eventually found not guilty after Eternity, the personification of the universe himself, demonstrated that Galactus had a vital role to play in the existence of reality itself.

Now in the present, with Galactus out of control, destroying planets by the score, thoughts inevitably turn back to those earlier events, with several people wondering if Reed Richards should have let Galactus die after all.  Richards himself, although seemingly not regretting his earlier actions, nevertheless devotes himself fully to finding a way to stopping Galactus, even if it means the devourer’s demise.

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Unfortunately the Fantastic Four and the Avengers are unable to even hold back the maddened Galactus.  The Silver Surfer is forced to make a truly Faustian bargain: he must once again serve as Galactus’ herald, leading him to other inhabited worlds in order to guarantee Earth’s safety.

Searching for an alternative source of sustenance, the Surfer encounters his one-time love Mantis, who he has not seen in several years.  The pair tries to divert Galactus to a planet rich in primitive animal life, but Galactus angrily rejects this option, instead consuming a world the Surfer attempted to hide, one inhabited by gentle telepathic plant beings.  Mantis sadly announces that as long as the Surfer serves Galactus she must consider him an enemy, and departs to warn the rest of the universe.

The Surfer himself is forced to admit that he has absolutely no hope of reasoning with the insane Galactus, or even of directing him towards less-developed worlds.  Desperate, the Surfer leads his master towards the home world of the Shi’ar, hoping that the most powerful, advanced space civilization in the known universe will find a way to destroy the devourer.  He finds the Shi’ar expecting him, having been forewarned by Mantis, and is forced to fight his way to the capital.  At last he is able to convince Lilandra, who has once again been restored to the Shi’ar throne, to accept his help.

Alicia, who previously acquired a suit of alien armor, has been trailing the Surfer.  Witnessing all of these events, Alicia returns to Earth, informing the FF and Avengers of what has taken place.  The two teams rocket off to the Shi’ar Empire, with Reed Richards continuing work on a plan he has formulated to stop Galactus.  Lilandra is skeptical that Richards, the man who once saved Galactus, will now help to stop him.  Desperation, however, wins out, and Lilandra places her forces at the Earth scientist’s disposal.

Richards directs both the FF and Avengers, not to mention the entirety of the Shi’ar military, to attack the approaching Galactus.  Not even this is enough to defeat the immensely powerful Galactus, with the alliance barely managing to hold him at bay.

In fact, Reed knew that there was little hope of defeating Galactus by force.  The attack is a distraction that enables the Surfer to penetrate Galactus’ immense World-Ship with a device constructed by Richards.  The device reprograms the World-Ship’s systems.  Whereas once the World-Ship systems converted the molten cores of planets into energy that Galactus could feed on, now the Surfer is able to turn those systems onto Galactus himself.

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The dying Galactus is momentarily restored to sanity and sadly addresses his former herald.  Galactus admits that he foresaw that one day he would go mad and lose all control of his hunger. One of the reasons why Galactus created the Silver Surfer was because he recognized that when the time came the Surfer would possess the nobility, the power and the knowledge to find a way to stop the devourer of worlds.  Galactus now warns that something else is coming, “a greater horror” that threatens the universe.  With that last pronouncement Galactus is transformed into pure energy, forming into a new star.

Later, on the Shi’ar home world, amidst the celebrations, both the Silver Surfer and Reed Richards cannot hide their concerns.  If Galactus did indeed have a purpose integral to existence, then what will the universe become without him?

In an interview given at the time the Galactus the Devourer miniseries was released, Louise Simonson revealed that she had definite plans for a follow-up story, one which would explore what exactly was Galactus’ crucial role in the cosmic scheme of things.  It would also reveal the menace that had driven Galactus mad. Regrettably she did not have the opportunity to write this follow-up miniseries.

Eventually, two years later in the pages of the regular Fantastic Four series, another writer explored these questions, and Galactus was restored to life to defeat the “greater horror” that he prophesized.

Even though Galactus’ demise was temporary (and, really, no one ever stays dead forever in the Marvel universe) the miniseries by Simonson remains powerful.  It is a wonderfully epic cosmic saga that also contains many intimate moments of characterization, especially in the exploration of the relationship between the Surfer and Alicia.

Galactus the Devourer is also effective in its compactness.  Simonson’s story is ambitious and sweeping, but it is told in full within the six issue miniseries.  No tie-in books or decompression; just a self-contained, complete story.  Marvel really could use a lot more “events” like this, rather than the bloated company-wide crossovers that have predominated in the two decades.

Galactus the Devourer promotional art

The artwork on the miniseries is outstanding.  The majority of Jon J. Muth’s work in the comic book biz has been on fantasy and horror titles; this is one of his rare forays into superheroes.  His work on the first chapter looks much different from “mainstream” Marvel comics, giving the opening of the storyline a haunting, eerie tone.

The remainder of the miniseries was laid out / penciled by longtime Marvel artist John Buscema, who was a superb storyteller.  Buscema commented on more than one occasion that he disliked drawing superheroes, but he undoubtedly was great at it.  In the late 1960s he did awe-inspiring pencils on the first ongoing Silver Surfer title, rendering wondrous space opera and horror material.  Over the next three decades Buscema would return to character from time to time, always doing great work.

I believe Galactus the Devourer was Buscema’s last time drawing the Silver Surfer before the legendary artist passed away in January 2002.  His work here is wonderful and breathtaking.  The final issue is stunning, with the Fantastic Four, Avengers, Silver Surfer, Mantis, Lilandra, Gladiator, the Starjammers, and the entire Shi’ar Starfleet in desperate battle against Galactus.

(At first I was surprised that the Shi’ar Imperial Guard didn’t participate in the battle, but it then occurred to me that Buscema probably, and quite understandably, balked at drawing another two dozen costumed aliens in addition to the army of characters he had already been given!)

Of course I also enjoyed Buscema’s depiction of Mantis, one of my all time favorite characters.  He drew her on a couple of occasions in the past, and always rendered her as an alluring figure.

Galactus the Devourer 4 pg 7

The talented Bill Sienkiewicz provides inks / finishes for the entire miniseries.  His work is wonderfully atmospheric and expressionistic.  I love the collaboration between Buscema and Sienkiewicz.  Buscema embodied the traditional house style of Marvel in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, whereas Sienkiewicz was responsible for some of the most experimental, groundbreaking artwork published by Marvel in the 1980s.  The blending of these two distinct talents resulted in incredibly striking, effective art.

Nearly two decades after its original publication, Galactus the Devourer remains an effective, enjoyable story with stunning artwork.


Death of SBTU

I hope everyone will take the time to read the other contributors to The Death of Super Blog Team Up.  Here is the full roster.  Enjoy!

Star Wars reviews: River of Chaos

As the release of The Force Awakens approaches, I’ve been reviewing a few of my favorite entries in the Star Wars expanded universe.  Today I’m looking at River of Chaos, a four issue miniseries published by Dark Horse in 1995.  It was written by Louise Simonson and illustrated by June Brigman & Roy Richardson.

SW River of Chaos 1 cover signed

Six months after the destruction of the first Death Star, ace Imperial pilot Ranulf Trommer is summoned before the high-ranking Grand Moff Lynch.  There are rumors that Grigor, the Imperial governor of M’Haeli, is engaged in illegal activity.  Lynch assigns Ranulf to be the Governor’s new aide, with orders to report anything suspicious.  Before Ranulf can arrive on M’Haeli, one of Grigor’s informants alerts him to the pilot’s secret mission.  Seeking to dispose of him, Grigor sends Ranulf to infiltrate the Rebel cell on M’Haeli.  The Governor subsequently dispatches Stormtroopers to attack the Rebels, intending for Ranulf to be killed in the crossfire.

Posing as a merchant, Ranulf brings a damaged protocol droid to Mora, an 18 year old human mechanic suspected of Rebel activity.  When she was only an infant, Mora was orphaned, and she was adopted by Ch’no, one of the H’Drachi, the native inhabitants of M’Haeli.  Ch’no has subsequently been ostracized by the rest of his people.  Likewise, because she was raised by a H’Drachi, Mora does not feel any real kinship with the human settlers.  She is not comfortable in either society.

Soon after Ranulf arrives at Mora’s shop, the two are attacked by the Governor’s troops.  Ranulf is wounded, and Mora helps him to escape.  She brings him to several of her Rebel friends, including the visiting Princess Leia, although they are immediately suspicious of Ranulf.  The Rebels discover that Governor Grigor is working with space pirates to run an illegal mining operation on M’Haeli.  Ranulf is convinced that once the Governor is arrested, he will be replaced by someone fair & honest, and that the planet will no longer want to join the Rebellion.

When it becomes apparent that Ranulf is working for the Empire, the Rebel cell understandably panics, fearing that an attack is imminent.  Mora once again feels like an outsider and an outcast as the other Rebels look upon her as a gullible fool who brought a spy into their midst.  She also wonders how she could have so misread Ranulf, who she sensed to be a good person. Ranulf, in turn, also begins to experience doubts.

SW River of Chaos 1 pg 9

Louise Simonson does good work developing the characters in River of Chaos.  I really like how she wrote Ranulf and Mora, as well as the supporting cast.

One of the things she touches upon is something you occasionally see pondered in fandom, namely just what sort of person would actually work for an organization like the Empire?  Obviously, as in real-world totalitarian regimes, you have those with a superiority complex who enjoy wielding authority and who wish to exercise power over others.  You also have those who see the excesses of the Empire as an unfortunate  necessity in maintaining an ordered society.  You then have those who see in a cold, impersonal bureaucracy the opportunity to exploit the system and become wealthy.  Finally, there are those who are unable or unwilling to think outside the box, content to blindly follow orders and unquestioningly listen to Imperial propaganda.

After he is assigned to his mission of espionage, Ranulf expresses uncertainty to his father, an Imperial Admiral…

Ranulf: We used to serve the Old Republic. And now we serve Grand Moff Lynch’s New Order. Doesn’t it matter who we serve and why?

Admiral Trommer: You were too young to realize the sewer the Old Republic had become. Grand Moff Lynch took control and changed all that.  He is strong, and we will help him keep the peace in any way possible.

Later on M’Haeli, away from his fellow Imperial troops and officers, among Mora and the Rebels, Ranulf gradually begins to see the universe through their eyes.  He starts to perceive that they have legitimate grievances.  Ranulf’s slowly begins to understand that there is little difference between Governor Grigor and Grand Moff Lynch.  He start to realize that Grigor subjugated M’Haeli in order to line his own pockets, but that Lynch is also willing to do exactly the same in order to further the cause of the Empire.

SW River of Chaos 2 pg 20

One of the themes that run through Simonson’s work is family.  She explores that here through Mora and Ch’no.  In many ways this human teenager and H’Drachi elder are much closer than most daughters and fathers who are united by blood.  At the same time, Mora realizes that she needs to have more than just Ch’no.  The Rebels become the friends and family Mora never had.  You also get the impression that Ranulf is the first person for whom she has ever developed romantic feelings.

I like that Simonson has Princess Leia appear as a supporting character.  One of my favorite aspects of the EU is that it has enable writers to develop various minor characters from the movies, as well as brand new ones.  By having Leia appear in a minor capacity, it connects River of Chaos to the larger narrative of the movies without overshadowing Mora, Ranulf, Ch’no and the rest of Simonson’s characters.

The artwork by June Brigman & Roy Richardson is really lovely.  I have been a fan of both Simonson and Brigman since the early days of their careers when they co-created Power Pack.  It is always nice to when they have the opportunity to reunite on projects such as this one.

Brigman and Richardson’s work is very clean, with a cute and charming quality to it.  There is a genuine tone of fantasy and wonder to their style and the designs of their characters.  At the same time, they do a very good job rendering the established Star Wars elements such as Speeder Bikes and Stormtroopers.  Brigman & Richardson are definitely underrated, and I wish that we had the opportunity to see their work in comic books much more often.

I think River of Chaos fell somewhat under the radar amidst the rest of the Star Wars releases from Dark Horse, which often featured hyper-detailed and embellished artwork.  That’s a shame, because this was a nicely written miniseries with wonderful artwork.  The creators did a fine job of exploring and developing the Star Wars universe.  It’s well worth searching out.

Star Wars reviews: Marvel Comics Star Wars #89

As we await the arrival of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in December, I’m examining some of the Star Wars comic books and novels of the past.  Today I’m looking at issue #89 of the original comic book series published by Marvel.

From 1977 to 1986 Marvel Comics published an ongoing Star Wars title.  Marvel’s writers & editors were basically working in a vacuum.  They had no idea what was coming in subsequent movies, they weren’t able to explore the era before the first film, and they had various restrictions placed on them as to what the characters could do.  The result was some comic books that, by today’s standards, are quite odd.

Despite all of that, there are some very good stories that appeared during the first Marvel run.  One of these is “I’ll See You In The Throne Room” from issue #89, published in November 1984.  It is written by Ann Nocenti, illustrated by Bret Blevins and edited by Louise Simonson.

Star Wars 89 cover signed

It is shortly after the Battle of Endor.  The Rebel Alliance is working to topple the now-reeling Galactic Empire.  Luke Skywalker is on the planet Solay, assisting the local cell of the Rebellion to overthrow the Imperial-allied government headed by the monstrous King Blackart.

The revolution is successful, but its leader Raggold is mortally wounded.  Raggold tells Luke and the beautiful Mary that this is the work of a traitor, but he dies before he can name the culprit.  Luke is ready to seek out the murderer, but Mary restrains him, perceiving that his motivation is vengeance rather than justice.  Luke, realizing revenge is a path to the Dark Side, reluctantly backs down.

A week later Solay is still celebrating victory.  Luke is concerned that the rebels haven’t begun to organize a new government, but Mary urges him to relax.  Luke is about ready to do so, when suddenly the skies above Solay darken, filled with a massive fleet of Imperial spaceships.  Mary is brutally cut down by a volley of blaster fire that accompanies their arrival.

Luke realizes that the Empire used the Rebels to dispose of Blackart so that they could then take direct control of Solay.  Over the next few days the planet descends into chaos as individuals attempt to grab up wealth and escape before the Empire solidifies its rule.  The brooding Luke is obsessed with finding the traitor who sold them out, and with avenging Mary and Raggold.

Luke finds himself teamed with Scamp, an urchin who tries to steal the Jedi’s lightsaber.  Luke takes advantage of the pickpocket’s knowledge of the Solay underworld to search for clues to the traitor’s identity.  Unfortunately no one knows anything.  Scamp finally leads Luke to Braxas, an information broker who had a secret surveillance network installed in Blackart’s castle.  Braxas agrees to reveal the traitor’s identity in exchange for the Jedi helping him escape from Solay.

After Luke passes a harrowing test of nerves & skill involving a scorpion and a pair of chopsticks, Braxas gives him the surveillance tape with Raggold’s murder.  Luke wonders if he truly wants to view it, fearful that once he knows who the traitor is he will not be able to resist killing him.

Reluctantly playing the tape, Luke is shocked to see Raggold standing alone in the castle.  The old Rebel reflects on how he has played the part of revolutionary perfectly, manipulating his comrades on behalf of the Empire.  But now, having fought alongside the rebels for so long, Raggold realizes that he has come to admire his comrades and their cause.  Consumed by guilt over his treachery, Raggold shoots himself in the chest.

Now knowing the truth, Luke recognizes the futility of seeking revenge.  Fulfilling his end of the bargain, the Jedi helps Braxas escape Solay.  Departing the planet, Luke promises to one day return and continue the quest to liberate it from the Empire.

Star Wars 89 pg 9

I actually bought Star Wars #89 when it first came out in 1984.  I was eight years old and it amazed me.  It was an interesting examination of what could occur after Return of the Jedi, of how both the Rebellion and Luke would proceed following their biggest victory.  This must have been the very first story I ever read by Nocenti.  It was one of those comics that I read so often it fell apart.  About 15 years ago I bought a replacement copy.  Re-reading it as an adult, I found Nocenti’s story definitely held up.

Nocenti effectively examines the aftermath of revolution.  As difficult as it can be to defeat an oppressive regime, it is often even more of a challenge to replace it with a stable government that is better than what preceded it.

Following the overthrow of Blackart, Mary is celebrating Solay’s freedom, but Luke is more sober in his assessment:

Mary: This is just the beginning! Imagine, to be free to do and think whatever we wish! We’ll revive the arts!

Luke: But the people will need help. They don’t know what freedom is!

Mary: True, to ones enslaved so long, will they know what to do with freedom? I guess it isn’t so easy to be free.

Luke: We toppled another figurehead. So what? It’s not enough to be against something. One must be for something!

One of the themes running through the Star Wars movies is the cost of power, the weight of using it responsibly.  Luke is in danger of being overwhelmed by the awesome abilities that he possesses, of repeating the terrible mistakes made by his father Anakin.

Nocenti actually predicts a plot point that would appear two decades later in the prequels.  As was seen in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, Anakin became obsessed with preventing the loss of those he loved.  His mother was killed, and he was terrified of his wife Padme also dying.  Anakan wanted to be able to conquer death itself.  His fear and his desire for greater powers enabled Emperor Palpatine to turn him to the Dark Side.

In the pages of Star Wars #89 we see Luke expressing these exact same thoughts.  Anguished over Mary’s death, Luke cries out:

“I want her alive! I want to heal! What good is the Force now? It’s not good enough! I wish I were a god.”

Still mourning Mary’s loss, Luke has Scamp lead him to a member of the Rebellion who was in it solely for the money.  Luke is certain that this man must either be the traitor or know who is, and the Jedi uses his powers to brutally interrogate him.  It is apparent that the man known nothing, but Luke still contemplates killing him.  He is acting exactly like his father, Darth Vader, would have in this situation.  It is only when Luke remembers that Mary would have wanted him to be merciful that he reluctantly lets the man go.

As his quest continues, Luke eventually becomes aware that his actions are motivated not by loyalty to the Rebellion, but by anger and vengeance.  He realizes that he is in danger of turning to the Dark Side.

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The character of Scamp is interesting.  The young pickpocket is like something out of a Charles Dickens novel.  Despite Luke’s dismissal of the young boy as “a shallow petty thief,” Scamp ends up serving as the Jedi’s conscience in this story.  Luke is genuinely surprised when he learns that Scamp’s larcenous activities are actually in service of supporting his impoverished family.

Perhaps a weak point in Nocenti’s story is Mary, who is rather one-dimensional.  It seems she is there to act saintly & innocent and then be killed off.  Admittedly it is very difficult to develop a character who dies a third of the way through a 22 page story.  I imagine that if Nocenti was writing this story today her editors would instruct her to spread it out over four or five issues.  While that would have given her room to develop the characters, there’d nevertheless have been less dramatic punch if this story was padded out.

The artwork by Blevins is fantastic.  He utilizes dramatic, inventive layouts to tell the story.  His inking is very detailed and rich.  The pulp sci-fi / space opera designs for many of the characters, especially the hulking, brutal Blackart, are striking and effective.  The sequence where Luke uses the Force to lift up the body of the dying Mary is genuinely powerful.

Blevins brings out both the drama and the comedy of Nocenti’s story.  Scamp is, naturally, a constant source of humor.  Blevins’ depiction of Blackart is simultaneously terrifying and comical.

The art Blevins did for this issue is especially impressive when you consider that he had only been working professionally for about three years when he drew it.

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Simonson (under the name Louise Jones) was the editor of the Star Wars comic from 1981 to 1984.  Many of the best stories to appear in the series were from that four year period.  As with her editing on other Marvel titles, she got really great material out of the creators working on Star Wars.  Simonson has always impressed me as the type of editor who identified the strengths of her creators and guided them in a direction that utilized those abilities, and who then stepped back and allowed them to tell stories without undue interference.

Looking at Star Wars #89, it’s not surprising that Nocenti, Blevins and Simonson all went on to very successful careers in the comic book industry.  They did excellent work on this story, both in examining the character of Luke Skywalker and his struggles with power & responsibility, and in delving into the complicated issues surrounding rebellion and freedom.

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.

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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.

Happy birthday to June Brigman

Here’s wishing a happy (belated) birthday to the super-talented artist June Brigman, who was born on October 25, 1960 in Atlanta, GA.  Early in her career, Brigman worked as a portrait artist at Six Flags Over Georgia.  Her talent at illustrating children would prove to be a valuable asset when in 1984, with husband Roy Richardson, she relocated to NYC and came to the offices of Marvel Comics seeking out work.  There she met editor Louise Simonson, who was in the process of pitching her first series, which was about a group of pre-teen superheroes.  Simonson was introduced to Brigman and, learning that she could draw children, the two soon began working together, developing Power Pack.

Last month, when I blogged about Louise Simonson’s work, I talked about how much I enjoyed Power Pack when I was young.  I really believe that June Brigman, working with veteran inker Bob Wiacek, was crucial to the appeal of the series.  Brigman designed the four Power siblings, the visual manifestations of their abilities, as well as the looks of the kindly alien Kymellians, the Smartship Friday, and the malevolent invading Snarks.  What she came up with was such a departure from the traditional Marvel sensibilities that it really stood out.  Paired with Simonson’s imaginative plots and wonderful talent for scripting young characters, this ensured that Power Pack was a unique title.

Power Pack Classic vol 1

Brigman worked on Power Pack for a year and a half, departing the series with #17.  Subsequently, her art appeared in a number of series at Marvel such as Alpha Flight, Barbie, She-Hulk, New Mutants, and Strange Tales.  In that last title, she penciled an unusual two-part team-up between Cloak & Dagger, the Punisher, and the Power Pack kids!

Power Pack was cancelled in late 1990.  The last several issues had, unfortunately, seen the title go in an unpleasant, dysfunctional direction.  As a reader, I wasn’t too happy with that.  “Dark Power Pack” just seemed wrong.  Now obviously, as I’ve written before, I am a huge fan of graphic novels such as Watchmen and Faust.  But I also enjoy “lighter” fare, to be sure.  Diversity is great; not everything needs to be grim & gritty.  And, honestly, Power Pack had been a rather serious title under both Simonson’s helm.  I mean, at one point it even crossed over with the “Mutant Massacre” storyline, which was a bloodbath!  But throughout her run, despite the upheavals in Alex, Julie, Jack, and Katie’s lives, Simonson had always maintained a real sense of fun and wonder.

Fortunately, Simonson and Brigman were able to reunite for the Power Pack Holiday Special, released in December 1991.  They more or less hit the big old reset button, and restored the Power family to (relative) normality, in the process telling a really awesome adventure.  Brigman, paired with her husband Roy Richardson on inks, turned in superb artwork.

In the 1990s June and Roy lived in White Plains NY, pretty close to where I grew up.  So I used to see the two of them regularly at local comic conventions.  They were always both very friendly.  When I began collecting original comic book artwork in high school, one of first pieces I ever bought was one of their pages from the Holiday Special.  Two decades later I still have it, framed.  I really ought to take a photo and post it on Comic Art Fans.

Supergilr 4 pg 13

In 1993 Brigman did some work for DC Comics, penciling the Supergirl/Team Luthor special, which was followed shortly thereafter by a four issue Supergirl miniseries.  I really enjoyed these stories by Roger Stern, which spun out of his ongoing plotlines from Action Comics involving the Supergirl (aka Matrix) from the Pocket Universe and her relationship with Lex Luthor who, at the time, was masquerading as his own son via a brain transplant into a cloned body… long story!!!  Brigman was inked on these issues by Jackson “Butch” Guice.  It was an interesting collaboration, since the two artists have very different styles.  But I felt that it worked well and suited the mood of the stories.

Shortly thereafter, Brigman re-teamed with Simonson and Richardson over at Dark Horse for the Star Wars: River of Chaos miniseries.  Other than Princess Leia, all of the characters featured were brand new, which allowed Simonson & Brigman the opportunity to design & develop some interesting additions to the Star Wars mythos.  I think this is one of the few Star Wars titles that Dark Horse did not subsequently collect into a trade paperback, or if they did it’s now out of print.  Whatever the case, River of Chaos was a great read with wonderful art, and I recommend searching out the back issues.

SW River of Chaos 1 cover signed

Brigman took over the Brenda Starr newspaper strip in 1995, and stayed on it until its cancellation in 2011.  During this time, she also penciled several issues of Meridian and Sojourn for CrossGen.  These comic featured some really beautiful artwork.  Brigman’s style is very well suited to the fantasy genre, and I wish she had the opportunity to work in it more often.

More recently, Brigman has been working with Teshkeel, a comic book company based in Kuwait that publishes The 99.  In addition to her work on the comics, Brigman’s art has appeared prominently in a theme park based on the series.  Some of her art from The 99 can be viewed on Teshkeel’s website.

Brigman once again briefly returned to Power Pack in 2010, penciling a seven page story in Girl Comics #3 written by Simonson, with inking by Rebecca Buchman.  In 2011, Brigman and Richardson drew two issues of Herc that tied in with Marvel’s big “Spider-Island” crossover, and also contributed the variant cover for FF #15.  I was happy to see her work in these books, and I really hope that at some point she has the opportunity to illustrate some other projects.  As I’ve said before, it would be great if she and Simonson could do a new Power Pack miniseries or special.  Even better, I would love to see them collaborate on a creator-owned project.  They are each immensely talented, and I imagine they would conceive something really spectacular.

Girl Comics 3 pg 14

June and Roy moved back to Atlanta a number of years ago.  Fortunately there is the Internet, and I get to chat with them regularly on Facebook.  As I said, in addition to being accomplished artists, they are both really nice people.

I hope you had a very happy birthday, June.  Thanks for all they wonderful artwork over the years.

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.

Uncanny XMen 141 cover

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, and inked by Terry Austin, under the editorship of 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 control of the country.

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.

Uncanny XMen 141 pg 14

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.  It seriously unnerved me.  As a Jew, it really struck a chord.  Having grown up learning all about the Holocaust, to 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.

Uncanny XMen 142 cover

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.

Uncanny XMen 141 pg 1

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 & intolerance is blind, and embracing it can lead to the destruction of all that we were claiming to be protecting in the first place.

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.