Thursday, May 12, 2016

We Have To Fight The X-Men!

We've previously seen the X-Men in their early days in battle with the Avengers--a match-up which probably had a few of us wondering if "The Most Unusual Fighting Team of All Time!" was much of a fighting team at all. If by "unusual" we were meant to wonder why this fighting team, with its own (if bi-monthly) Marvel series, seemed reticent and even worried about how they'd take on the likes of the Avengers, it indeed seemed an odd way to go about making readers interested in the X-Men. Nor did it help matters when the Avengers so outclassed the X-Men that the guest appearance by these mainstream heroes probably had a few readers abandoning The X-Men in favor of The Avengers.

Strangely enough, six months earlier, the X-Men gave a far better showing of themselves when they faced off against the Fantastic Four, in a similar high-profile appearance that seemed designed to increase the exposure of the newer heroes. Yet while their appearance in the FF book has the X-Men being handled far more adeptly than they were on the "home ground" of their own title, the nature of the team is such that interested readers may have ended up curious about the X-Men, but not necessarily converted. We'll explore the meaning of that assertion in a minute.

For now, Fantastic Four does what it's come to do best in its now nearly three years of publication--use its cover and splash page to build anticipation toward what will prove to be a fun and entertaining story.

The promotional aspect vis-à-vis the X-Men should be obvious--but in these relaxed scenes before the action begins, it makes sense for writer Stan Lee to use the opportunity to make use of the "product placement" of the X-Men in the morning paper. And for a comics reader, you can't ask for better pitchmen than the FF to sing the praises of a team trying to drum up a following of its own.

With the pleasantries out of the way, we're soon introduced to the story's villain--the mad Thinker, who this time joins forces with the Puppet Master in a scheme which will put the mysterious leader of the X-Men in their power.

The story makes a considerable stretch here, even considering the Thinker's gift for prediction and accuracy. Given how careful Charles Xavier has been to cover his tracks in terms of his association with the X-Men, it's almost *ahem* unthinkable for the Thinker to be able to deduce the physical details necessary for the Puppet Master to mold an exact likeness of the man. The scene would have been more effective if the Thinker had, say, spied on the X-Men's activities, which would also have explained why he suddenly developed such an interest in using both Xavier and the X-Men as his pawns. (And how exactly did he learn that Xavier had mental powers?)

Regardless, the combined talents of the Thinker and the Puppet Master working together to conscript Xavier, and the subsequent incursion into Xavier's mind, actually make for the most gripping battle scene of the entire issue, even at this early stage of the story.

Naturally, since the villains' common goal is to take revenge on the Fantastic Four, we don't even need the services of the Thinker to predict their next step in regard to their control of Xavier:

You may have felt a twinge here as to one reason why a reader new to the X-Men might have been reluctant to continue reading the adventures of the team in their own book--and, again, we'll have time to kick that around further. For now, the X-Men are headed to the Baxter Building, and a battle that will pit their abilities against the world's greatest fighting team!

Per Xavier's instructions, the X-Men have arrived under the pretense of their visit being a social call, in order to put the FF at ease and off their guard. (Which, seeing as how they were fawning over the X-Men's headlines in the paper, they probably were anyway.) Yet the X-Men also have instructions to bring the FF to another place, a plan which also depends on deception--only they didn't count on the FF being unable to drop everything just to accompany the X-Men on a mission.

(Did anyone catch the slip-up that Lee made in that scene?)

In adjacent rooms, the other X-Men are also attempting to coerce both the Thing and the Invisible Girl to accompany them--but as for Cyclops, coercion has failed, leaving him no choice but to take the FF by force. A force beam, that is.

While Marvel Girl unfortunately makes an enemy of the FF's strongest member. Ordinarily--that is to say, with any other writer--Marvel Girl's telekinetic ability is well suited to handle a foe who relies on brute strength; but at the mercy of Lee's typewriter, her power is hampered by uncertainty and limited stamina, as Sue's often is.

And speaking of which, Sue's contribution to this fight is to become a hostage, as she often has.

It's disturbing to hear Sue speak of the X-Men coming to regret their actions here as if only the rest of the FF are capable of bringing the hurt to them, and not herself. Are you a fighting member of this team or not, Sue?

Back in the room where Cyclops is still attempting to subdue Reed and the Torch, the Beast joins the fray, an X-Man who is a reasonably good match for a shape-shifter like Reed. (Though, frankly, I'd have to put my money on Reed, if he fought less defensively.)

Eventually, Reed decides to end the fight by submitting to the X-Men, the better to learn their motives for acting as they have. An unusual approach for the FF to take, since it puts them at the X-Men's mercy, in addition to the FF having no idea what's planned for them. There's also the fact that the X-Men have taken Sue hostage, something that Reed would normally never have stood for. As well as the X-Men have fought here, the wiser course of action might have been to bear down and attempt to take the X-Men by force, and ask questions about their motives after they were in custody. With the FF having relatively greater mileage under their belt, and assuming Sue is up to fighting with her team, it seems unlikely that such an inexperienced team as the X-Men would prevail in the end.

With Sue in tow, the X-Men head to an isolated plateau some miles from the city, allowing the rest of the FF to track them. Before Round Two begins, Xavier telepathically gives another set of cryptic instructions which has the two teams going at it again.

(No, I don't see the Beast pictured in this tableau shot, either. His absence is conspicuous, considering that, if present, he'd be free to sneak up on almost any of the FF and turn the tide of this fight in an instant.)

Angel's response to Sue in this scene perhaps best illustrates the problem with enticing readers to give the X-Men book a try. "The one we take orders from... our job is merely to obey him." It's the X-Men team that Marvel shops around for exposure--the same team that, in their own book, operates in the field, taking the risks and accepting the danger--yet these people make no decisions of their own, and are under the strict supervision of a man who often tersely gives them orders which are to be obeyed without question, even in a book that bears their name. Their compliance is mandatory, and not to be debated; even their thoughts are fair game to be picked up on, when necessary. What exactly would a reader find interesting about these unwavering foot soldiers who jump when summoned? What teenage comics reader is going to want to plunk down money to read about other teens--"heroes"--falling in line and accepting such harsh treatment by an adult, constantly being told what to do and how to do it? More than a few of those readers could stay home and get that sort of treatment from their parents--why read a comic book that presents such treatment as the norm?

Unknown to the X-Men, the plateau has been fitted with elaborate traps designed to ensnare the members of the FF in accordance with their powers and abilities--traps which activate while the FF are pursuing the X-Men. It's only then that the X-Men become aware of the masterminds of this operation, who emerge to take their victory lap and declare the X-Men to be in their power, as well. But the attempt to take the X-Men captive by using Xavier to telepathically will them unconscious fails, when the Beast makes a desperate leap toward the Puppet Master and subsequently destroys his hold on the team's teacher.

With their plan derailed, the Thinker must make use of his monstrous android--the one built by Reed and later stolen--to regain control of his captives as well as the situation. And it very well could have succeeded, as powerful and adaptive as the android is--but Xavier, from afar, virtually lobotomizes it with his mental power, and it falls, inert. At that point, the Thinker and the Puppet Master have no choice but to make a break for it--and with the aid of a hidden rocket, they succeed in escaping.

When the dust settles, hands are shaken, apologies are made, and compliments are mutually paid by both teams, before the X-Men depart--teenagers who apparently can't even return to their school on their own and must instead respond to Xavier's summons to do so. For what it's worth, later stories of X-Men would have Xavier acting more cordially with his students--still firmly embedded in his leadership role, but less of a taskmaster and acting as more of an authority figure who is more mindful of his students' feelings. Not many readers ended up sticking around for the change--but it did at least make room for more character development among the members of the X-Men, who up to this point were firmly on their headmaster's leash.

One last note of appreciation for artist Jack Kirby's work here, who laid out and rendered this story nicely and, in particular, the powerful catalyst scene of Xavier's will being usurped by the Puppet Master. Kirby's magic on Fantastic Four would only grow with time; unfortunately, his work on X-Men would taper off, eventually leading to his departure from the series. Word has it that Xavier chastised him with two demerits for his refusal to tow the line and stay.

Fantastic Four #28

Script: Stan Lee
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Chic Stone
Letterer: Art Simek


B Smith said...

The slip-up Stan made? Presumably Cyclops's line about "His answer is just what the Thinker predicted it would be"....since the X-Men weren't to know who was really pulling the strings, and were simply following Prof X's orders.

Although you could almost put a case for Stan slipping up earlier in the piece when he has a caption describing Professor X as one of the world's most famous mutants. How could that be when only the X-Men (an perhaps one or two others) knew that he's a mutant?

Anonymous said...

What was up with Ben Grimm and spanking people? I know for a fact he spanked Sue Storm, the Trapster, and Moondragon.
Maybe his battle-cry should have been, "It's spankerin' time!"

Comicsfan said...

B, yes, you nailed it--although I guess when you think about it, maybe Cyclops' nickname for the Prof is "the Thinker." It's certainly appropriate, eh?

M.P., that is a great observation--it sounds like a post waiting to happen! ;)

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