Thursday, June 19, 2014

Strange, Unusual, Fighting Teens

I think one of the first stories where I became familiar with the art of Neal Adams (if not the first story) was X-Men #63, which had made its way to a back issue stack in an old bookstore. I picked it up on a whim, but when I got it home it turned out to be quite a find. The issue was of course part of Adams's celebrated run on the title, though I didn't realize at the time that the cancellation of X-Men was just around the corner from this story.

I hadn't been a reader of X-Men during its original run, and I can't say that "War In The World Below!" made me regret that to any degree. Writer Roy Thomas would find his niche on other titles, but the original X-Men team would prove daunting to not only Thomas but to many other creative talents at Marvel as far as having the team strike a chord with readers. With Adams's pencils, you always had the feeling you were looking at a splendid story--but try as the writing might, the X-Men themselves would fall short of hooking you and reeling you in. There were other books I recall (e.g., Ms. Marvel, Nova, even Sub-Mariner) where I would find that to be true--but with X-Men, it was always a head-scratcher why this team just didn't click.  It just seemed they should.

By this point, the title was well past the death of Charles Xavier, and the team for all intents and purposes was operating on its own. It wasn't a bad experiment to try--removing them from the direction and safety net of Xavier and making the the X-Men stand on their own, in a kind of "sink or swim" gambit. Now with just three issues to go before the title's cancellation, this story will give you an idea of how incoherent the team still comes across, even after twenty issues of its members operating on their own. All of the individual members of the X-Men are certainly characters within their own right--but there is no direction here, no thought as to where they might head as a team, or why they are a team.

So, where do we find the X-Men in this story? In the Savage Land, where the Angel has accidentally ended up and where the other X-Men have come in search of him. (An improbable set of circumstances which gives you a good idea how, with no real self-direction on the part of the X-Men, the burden must fall on the story to choose one for them.) With injuries sustained from an attack of pteranodons, the near-death Angel is found by a man known as "the Creator," and taken to his lab to receive treatment. There he learns that the Creator is something of a Savage Land Xavier--locating mutants in this environment and teaching them how to use their powers. But his operation has put him at odds with Ka-Zar, who ostensibly rules the Savage Land, and whom the Angel learns the other X-Men have allied themselves with.

In return for the Creator having saved his life, the Angel offers to stop Ka-Zar and the other X-Men and mediate the dispute. But when the Angel departs, we discover a tiny detail about the Creator's true identity:

(An eye-catching difference between the two taglines attached to the cover and splash page mastheads.  I don't think either works particularly well to sell the book--but I'm more partial to "The Most Unusual Fighting Team of All Time!", which at least tells us something more about this group than simply the fact that they're teenagers.)

But let's catch up with the other X-Men, where Angel has reached them and explained things (or at least his understanding of them). Ka-Zar, having monitored this situation well before the arrival of the X-Men, isn't having any of Angel's assurances, and heads off to confront the Creator on his own. But Magneto has organized a preemptive strike, while also attempting to discredit the Angel and sow dissent.

It looks like Magneto has not only the "strange ones" in his camp (the mutants that Ka-Zar has spotted), but he's also conscripted the swamp men whom Ka-Zar has come into conflict with before. And so, while the Angel heads back to confront "the Creator" on being used against his friends, the other X-Men join Ka-Zar to rout their attackers. And few artists get into routing like Adams:

Interesting differences between Adams's take on the X-Men and the style of the book's other artists. The Angel's wing span is noticeably much greater; Cyclops tends to hang back, with his optic blasts making calculated strikes when necessary rather than being used as the team's main strength; while the Beast is drawn more upright and less crouched than previously depicted and gets considerably more panel time.

Meanwhile, back at Magneto's complex, the Angel returns to learn shocking information about Magneto's true goals in his operations, as well as how he escaped his apparent death when dealing with both the X-Men and the Avengers.

Angel can't be happy with Magneto right now, and understandably so--but before he can act, he meets one of Magneto's new mutants who effectively takes him out of the fight. Elsewhere, another fight has ended, though with considerably more effort:

You may have noticed the absence of any contribution from Marvel Girl in many of these scenes (as well as the bulk of the story if you've read it in its entirety). More on that in a minute.

When Ka-Zar and the X-Men arrive at the Creator's base, they get a not-so-warm reception from some of his mutant creations, before the man himself appears to confront them. Again, we see the Beast take the lead as well as the initiative when decisions are needed.

Before anyone can make a move against Magneto, he makes use of the same mutant who disabled the Angel:

Ka-Zar and the X-Men subsequently fall under Lorelei's thrall. But it turns out that not all the X-Men are susceptible to this songstress--which almost makes it seem that Marvel Girl is getting panel time by default. Given how she's been M.I.A. in this story, at this point we'll take what we can get.

So, if I'm understanding this correctly:  Marvel Girl is nearly out of power after telekinetically hurling two objects and a couple of mental pot shots. I haven't followed Thomas's handling of Marvel Girl closely in X-Men, but he seems to have reined in both her power and her exposure in team battles, as he did with another once-vibrant female character, the Scarlet Witch, as well as Lorna Dane. But, to what end? If we're to become vested in this team as readers, shouldn't we be seeing all their active members being developed at a time? And why handicap one or two members, if you're seeking to raise this team's profile? And why specifically make those members Jean and Lorna?

At any rate, it's Jean who saves the day--though, it must be pointed out, by using another X-Man's powers.

Magneto would survive this disaster to menace the world anew, this time with the Sub-Mariner at his side. As for the X-Men, the story's closing ends up being the one thing I liked most about the issue. With their sentiments not only voiced by Cyclops but written all over their faces, it provides some small bit of insight into their character as a group.

I dunno, team--Jean doesn't seem very happy at her power dwindling away.

X-Men #63

Script: Roy Thomas
Pencils: Neal Adams
Inks: Tom Palmer
Letterer: Sam Rosen


Anonymous said...

Great post, C.F.! An old classic comic I hadn't seen before.
Always a treat to see Neal Adam's work.

Murray said...

I'm sorry, but I must dispute your interpretation of Marvel Girl. She wasn't losing her power in some fundamental way. As Magneto observes, she's just getting tired. After all, she just stopped an avalanching castle wall.

No, I'm afraid the only character in this issue losing power is Magneto.

Otherwise, I have to nod in agreement. The Adams art is a delight, but the story and characters...not so much. Not hard to understand the cancellation axe coming...

Comicsfan said...

Murray, just to clarify: Jean wasn't losing power in a fundamental way, she was losing power in a Roy Thomas way. ;) As for Magneto, from what I understand from the story, he was forced to limit his power due to the nature of the sensitive equipment he was working with.

M.P., thanks very much. And you described Adams's work very well--it's "always a treat" to see it. :)

dbutler16 said...

I just love looking at the Neal Adams art in these panels! Speaking of which, nice observations on his depictions compared to other X-Men artists.
By the way, it’s been a while since I’ve read this story, but what’s up with Magneto’s jet pack? I thought he could fly at this point, but apparently not.

Comicsfan said...

dbutler, I suspect that Magneto resorted to using a jet pack for the same reason I mentioned to Murray, above--the need to limit his power while in the vicinity of his equipment.