Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Strangest Teens Of All!

X-Men #66, the last issue of the team's original series before the book would be placed on indefinite hiatus, had a couple of interesting distinctions, artistically speaking. For one, Neal Adams, who had made such an impact on the book for its previous nine issues (with the exception of issue #64, drawn by Don Heck), declined for whatever reason to see the title just one more issue through to its end. But, in his absence, Sal Buscema would step aboard to do his first work on not only the X-Men title, but also (if I'm not mistaken) the X-Men themselves. And, since the story involved the team's battle with the incredible Hulk, we'd also see Buscema's first work with that character. (If you were a subscriber to Foom magazine, you might remember coming across what was technically Buscema's earliest Hulk art--some panels featuring the Hulk which were part of his initial "audition" art submitted for a position at Marvel.) Buscema would of course go on to become the regular artist on the Hulk's own title.

I can only imagine how an Adams-pencilled Hulk/X-Men battle would have looked--but, then as always, Buscema stepped in and delivered more than acceptable work. The ship by this point had already sailed, as far as repeated attempts to present the original X-Men as a viable sales concept--but, looking at this last issue (as well as Adams' prior work), you'd almost believe the book had turned the corner and bounced back, and the X-Men were finally on their way. In this case, though, with no real improvement in making the X-Men compelling in and of themselves, it's more accurate to say that they were finally on their way out. The lives of "The Strangest Teens Of All!" continued to be too strange and uninteresting even for their own readers.

This issue finds Charles Xavier having returned from the grave he was never really in, now "again" at death's door after marshalling his mental powers to save all of humanity from the alien Z'Nox race.

Using a memory probe device based on an earlier model by Henry Pym, the X-Men are hoping that Xavier himself can begin a new life as Ultron give them some clue as to how to help him. And the answer is enough to have every jaw in the room virtually drop in astonishment:

Marvel Girl's limited mental powers confirm the information that Pym's machine has retrieved from the Professor's thoughts. But Cyclops draws a conclusion which is a bit more believable:

And so the team (minus Havok, Lorna Dane, and Iceman) is off to Las Vegas, in the hope of finding the Hulk and learning why Xavier considers Bruce Banner his only hope. And in the initial confrontation, we already see indications of Buscema's potential at Marvel.

Thanks to Marvel Girl, the Hulk is rendered sufficiently unconscious to revert back to Bruce Banner--only to have the military, headed by Major Glenn Talbot, intervene. In the meantime, Banner has struggled to remember his connection with Xavier:

Yes, I know what you're thinking--why the heck does Cyclops feel it necessary that Talbot be made aware of Xavier's name? I have no idea, I assure you. I'm sure we all want to slap Cyclops for just blurting it out like that. Granted, Talbot is no rocket scientist, but I'm sure he's good enough at following leads to eventually show up at Xavier's school with a squad of men and a nice little search warrant.

At any rate, Talbot turns Cyclops' request down flat, and insists on taking Banner into custody immediately. And I think we know how Banner is going to take news like that:

We should move on with the X-Men story right now, but let's pause for a moment and see a preview of how "Our Pal" Sal will handle military skirmishes with the Hulk when he signs on as that book's artist in a few years:

The military gets the message loud and clear, and the Hulk takes off. But the X-Men have a lot at stake with him, and so when they catch up with him they battle anew:

The X-Men fear they might have killed Banner, should the Hulk have reverted to him under the rubble. But in finding out that the Hulk is still kicking, they get an unexpected surprise when they discover that they're at the location of the hidden lab which Banner described:

And so Cyclops sends the Angel to scout the lab for the device which might help Xavier, while he and Marvel Girl keep the Hulk distracted. Fortunately, the Angel's search is brief (no, I have no idea how Warren Worthington became proficient at identifying a prototype device that uses gamma rays to treat mental exhaustion)--and the X-Men escape with their lives, while the Hulk says good riddance to these pests and hunts again for solitude.

After the group returns to the school, let's hold on for a sec and look at the following panel carefully. There are two things in this panel that probably should have been scribbled out by the editor and rewritten--but since all parties perhaps wanted to be done with the X-Men book at this point, and the finish line was in sight, the panel was left as is. Can you spot what the editor (Stan Lee) simply blew past?

Yes, of course:

  • Lorna, Cyclops has absolutely no "look in [his] eyes" whatsoever, given that what you're looking at is a visor--and one that's pulsating with crimson-colored energy. In fact, if you could actually see the look in his eyes, you'd be dead before you'd finished your sentence.
  • Cyclops and his group have no idea whether or not this is the device Banner spoke of, but they're willing to use it anyway, and on a person who's critically ill. For all they know, it's an experimental portable gamma bomb. How about swinging by the Baxter Building on the way back and confirming the nature of the device with Reed Richards? Or Tony Stark? For that matter, what does Hank McCoy say about it?
But we're closing out this first X-Men series, and we've already played the "Xavier dies" card, so it's a good guess that they've nabbed the right equipment and that Banner's "theoretical" device is going to be successful with its very first use in the field.

We know that these original X-Men were later taken out of mothballs only so that they could pave the way for the "new X-Men" and then (with the exception of Cyclops) be swiftly sent packing. We also know that they would be revived as X-Factor, with only limited success. So why would John Byrne, in 1999, take yet another crack at launching these five people into a series, when it seemed clear that the original X-Men were a failed concept at the sales rack? When we take a look at the first issue of X-Men: The Hidden Years, we'll see if there was any merit to Byrne bringing these teens out of retirement.
X-Men #66

Script: Roy Thomas
Pencils: Sal Buscema
Inks: Sam Grainger
Letterer: Artie Simek

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