Tuesday, September 16, 2014

My Father, The Space Outlaw

After artist John Byrne left Uncanny X-Men, the title found its legs again when Dave Cockrum, the original artist to the "new" X-Men, returned and proved he'd lost none of his dynamic style with the team, nor his obvious flair for their character. Cockrum and Byrne were a little like apples and oranges where the X-Men were concerned--both highly skilled artists, but with very distinct styles that each brought something to the X-Men table.

There's no question that Byrne made his stamp on the book; but when Cockrum returned, I found myself a little more pumped to read the stories. It seemed even writer Chris Claremont was invigorated. Claremont has a very introspective style, which meshed quite well with Byrne's panels and their emphasis on faces and posture as well as his slow-paced action scenes; but with Cockrum, Claremont was obliged to step up his game and keep up with the more quickly changing scenes which Cockrum offered. After the tragedy of Phoenix, the shift was a welcome change.

To put it simply: I was liking the new X-Men all over again.

Cockrum and Claremont had already come on like gangbusters with Dr. Doom, Magneto, and the return of Cyclops--but with issue #154, they begin a four-part story featuring none other than the Shi'ar, the Starjammers, and the first appearance of the deadly race known as the Brood. It's the tail end of Winter, 1982--but it feels like Christmas has been extended for X-Men readers.

We're already seeing signs of the book pivoting in the direction of the anti-mutant sentiment which will take over the title like a cancer and throw the X-Men into divisions that the series will never truly recover from. In addition, this particular story will take the first step toward throwing the team into disarray, effectively severing their link to a location based deeply in X-Men tradition and thereby thrusting them into a more mobile method of operation. But, at least for now, we can enjoy the other elements this story has to offer--starting with an improvised game featuring Storm (the X-Men's current leader) and Cyclops, characters who both play to win.

It's becoming a pleasure seeing these two in scenes together. They exhibit an unexpected chemistry that works very well, perhaps due to Storm's growing skill and aptitude as a leader. But, more than that, she and Cyclops enjoy each other's company here, and Scott can't help but admire Ororo--not simply for her ability to push him in a training exercise, but for the X-Man she's excelled at growing into.

You'll also notice in these scenes how Cockrum prefers to portray Storm--less regal, more "girlish" and accessible. Cockrum's female characters would blend so easily, were it not for their distinguishing costumes or features. Ororo's expressions could be those of Polaris, or Jean Grey, or even Kitty Pryde, thereby handing off to Claremont the task of making her continue to stand out as Storm beyond her obvious ability to manipulate the weather. And there's a great deal of Storm in those Byrne issues that's too valuable to lose.

While we're on the subject of female characters, this issue also features the former Ms. Marvel, Carol Danvers--but Carol at the point in time when she was recovering from the brutal attack on her by Rogue, who absorbed her memories and powers but left Carol with barely any identity of her own. Carol is with the rest of the X-Men on Magneto's raised island in the Bermuda Triangle, and Claremont takes the opportunity to further establish her ties not only with the military but with a former military operative we're still in the process of learning about:

It's the period in X-Men history when Wolverine is still so fresh and intriguing with readers, the X-Man who's become solid with the team but still remains the "loose cannon" of the group and generally follows his own code. The magic of Wolverine's scenes was, in part, learning about the character bit by bit--a person less forthcoming than the others regarding his past, and dropping tidbits like these when we least expect them. Wolverine, during this time, was a major reason why it was a great time to be an X-Men reader.

But it's time for this story to kick into action--and for that, there's no better character than the notorious Corsair, leader of the Starjammers, to enter right on cue, with a Shi'ar dreadnought on his tail. Naturally, Corsair's brand of chaos has a habit of landing in the X-Men's back yard, often literally:

As Ororo implies, Corsair still harbors the secret of being Scott's biological father. But now, the decision to disclose that fact is taken out of Ororo's hands:

As we see, Corsair's revelation has little time to sink in, as the group is set upon by Sidri bounty hunters, who clearly have no interest in taking Corsair alive. It's to Corsair's credit as a character that his threat quotient merits such a response to take him out, though he's canny enough to realize that the X-Men could help tip the odds for him.

Again, it's gratifying to see Storm and Cyclops working so fluidly together. As Scott noted earlier, their abilities and sense of strategy balance each other well--and without the other X-Men as backup, they need to rely on that teamwork more tightly than ever.

The Sidri, while admittedly alien, aren't the most visually impressive of foes that Cockrum has presented here, and their threat mostly seems to lie in their ability to relentlessly swarm upon their target as well as their ability to adapt to resistance. It's up to Claremont, then, to heighten our interest in both the foe and the battle itself--and with the interplay between Cyclops and Storm, and now including Corsair, he matches Cockrum's pacing in a fast-paced running firefight that, unfortunately, must lead to retreat. Cyclops and Storm are on the same page in that respect, as well. But their training as X-Men is at odds with Corsair's from-the-hip style of combat and the informal bond of honor between comrades:

The gambit works. The group successfully escapes the Sidri (at least for now), but the damage has been done as far as Xavier's "School for Gifted Youngsters," which for the first time in the title suffers near-total destruction.

I would have expected Cockrum's airborne shot to have pulled back a bit in order to have a more dramatic display of the mansion being levelled. But Cyclops' description will have to suffice, because the Sidri have transportation of their own:

In this form, the Sidri matrix becomes a bond almost impossible to break, though that doesn't stop the X-Men from trying. Cyclops uses the special polarizing elements of their Blackbird jet to enhance his optic beams enough to allow them to engage the Sidri--but it will be imperative to break the aliens' bond in order to weaken the matrix sufficiently to escape them. To that end, Storm joins the effort:

With the advantage now theirs, Storm's earlier concerns about Corsair's ruthlessness become apparent with the course of action he chooses almost on instinct. We see a Cyclops here a long way yet from the man who would one day sanction X-Force to conduct its covert operations with extreme prejudice--and so he strongly takes issue with what Corsair is about to do, though for Corsair his decision has already been made.

Remember when the X-Men balked at killing? That was a great time to be an X-Men reader, too.

Corsair has the luxury of being able to justify his actions from a "big picture" standpoint--but his rationale is questionable if we take into account his outrage at Cyclops for being willing to sacrifice Storm to the Sidri back at the mansion. Apparently, the lives lost below are of little consequence to Corsair if he hasn't fought side-by-side with any of them.

Finally, with a little breathing room, Corsair is able to explain how the Sidri were likely working for a terrorist group that, over a week ago, raided a council meeting on the Shi'ar homeworld and took their Empress, Lilandra, captive. And Cyclops realizes that the stakes for Earth are indeed as high as Corsair fears:

What a ride this has been, and it's just the opening play. When we hit Part Two, the rest of the X-Men are brought on board to form a temporary alliance with the Shi'ar in order to track down and rescue Lilandra. But we'll also learn the identity of the opposition, as well as bear sad witness to the death of an X-Man. I hope you weren't expecting things to slow down, because this story's just getting cranked up!

Uncanny X-Men #154

Script: Chris Claremont
Pencils: Dave Cockrum
Inks: Bob Wiacek and Josef Rubinstein
Letterer: Joe Rosen


George Chambers said...

I find it frankly hilarious that Wolverine can sneak up on Carol while upwind of her with a cigar going. Did Rogue steal her sense of smell along with her powers?

Comicsfan said...

Well, George, as well as Carol being lost in thought, it could be that Logan didn't actually light up until she turned around. Who says this isn't the Marvel age of exemplary explanations? :D

Murray said...

I'm afraid, Comicsfan, we have to disagree on this. Initially, the return of Cockrum jolted me as it did you. My interest in the X-Men had been wavering and I perked up at this development. For me, however, it turned out to be too little, too late. I dropped the comic and never saw anything in all these subsequent years to interest me again. I'm making no claim at prescience at the time, but reading these snippets of pages you supply today, the story reeks of Claremont's descent into a bog of soap opera angst.

Anonymous said...

"a bog of soap opera angst", now you're talking my language! I not only was buying and reading this run, but I was scanning my X-Men collection when my scanner what KERANG KURFLUNK BAHTUWEEEE!!!! As I look at my scans, I did not have 150 or 155 (the next issue) but I did have all the others.

I do think that Cockrum's women had too much hair. His renderings of Jean, from back in the day, could be Carol or Ororo in this issue. Which was Fan's point! Is that a new couch?

Anyhoo, that's not why I called. I have a few more issues of Marvel Age to get through and then I start on Avengers West Coast. Don't tell me how it ends!!!!

The Prowler (remember when you would smell your test paper before you took the test).

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but after Byrne left, it went completely downhill: the Brood Alien ripoff, and then the intolerable descent into magic and Limbo. What crap. Cockrum's pencils were waaaay too fat and scratchy(certainly in comparison to Byrne/Austin) and I couldn't have been a more disappointed 14 year old when I saw that terribly drawn cover with Dr. Doom. I left comics for about 30 years after that.

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