Monday, August 10, 2015

Life After Death

You don't see a lot of so-called "album" issues on the comics racks, or even in collectors' boxes, perhaps because of the general format they all must adhere to. You may not even be familiar with the term "album issue," a label that popped up in the late '60s at Marvel but never really caught on as a buzzword to describe an issue that served as a recap of a character's (or group's) history to date. We're all probably more used to "origin issues," stories which also are limited to rare appearances but are different in that they aren't as comprehensive in the historic ground they cover. (A good example would be Fantastic Four #126, which retells the FF's origin in detail but limits its scope vis-à-vis Ben Grimm's concerns for Alicia Masters.)

An album issue, in contrast, will widely span a character's past up to and including their present, usually from the perspective of one of the book's main characters or someone else who figures into the story. The nature of this kind of story helps to explain why we only see one on a rare day, since it's basically the accumulation of all we've seen before--and sufficient time must pass before another can be prepared, assuming it's even warranted. Presumably such a story can only be done sparingly; perhaps even just once, since a second story would likely have to include much if not all of the material of the first, and would therefore result in a story too bloated or crammed with history to be of use in the context of the theme the writer is trying to circle back to. And it's really a character's reason for such reflection that makes such a story work.

We'll be profiling a few of these album issues here at the PPC, but perhaps it's best to start with the one which excels at illustrating the concept:

X-Men #138 follows the dramatic death of Jean Grey, beloved by all her friends but especially by Scott Summers, whose loss is evident on the day of her funeral. Appropriately, it's Scott who stands poised to take us back through what will be the most detailed look at the X-Men's history to the present time (in this case, October of 1980)--and if anyone is qualified to reflect on the how and why of the X-Men in light of Jean's death, it's the X-Man who was there at the beginning and the one who would grow closest to Jean. Both he and Jean were charter students of Charles Xavier's "School for Gifted Youngsters," as well as charter members of the X-Men; and besides Xavier, who certainly must be having similar brooding reflections concerning the death of one of his first class (and the second X-Man to die on his watch), Scott has cause to turn his thoughts back to how he and Jean began their time with the X-Men, and what led them to this point.

Along with writer Chris Claremont, artist John Byrne, who's proven himself to be an attentive and well-versed student of Marvel's characters and history, lays out this look back at the X-Men superbly, given that he has only eighteen pages to work with and a considerable amount of ground to cover. Characters both memorable and forgettable are present and accounted for; like other titles, X-Men has had its share of both, though perhaps leaning more towards the forgettable when you glimpse such characters as the Locust, Mekano, and Grotesk in this roll call. But words like "unusual" and "strangest" were often used in tandem with the X-Men in those days, and their encounters with bizarre characters no doubt set them apart.

Since it's Scott's thoughts of Jean that have spurred and now determine his train of thought in regard to the evolution of the X-Men, it's only natural that his memories center on her at certain points. For instance, the fact that he kept his feelings for her in check for so long can't help but occupy his thoughts in the wake of her death--but it's curious how the attempt is made in this story to reconcile their later devotion to each other (while they were part of the "new X-Men") with their awkward relationship during practically the entire run of the original team's stories. Scott's reticence was always due to either his worries over the power of his optic blasts, or the simple, good old-fashioned fear an introvert might have of making his feelings known; and the extent to which Scott and Jean expressed their feelings for each other, for much of the time until X-Men went on hiatus and shifted to reprints, amounted to plaintive thought balloons and nothing more (though Warren could read the signals between them well enough).

But it's at the point in these flashbacks when Iceman celebrates his 18th birthday that Claremont and Byrne take liberties with Scott and Jean insofar as kickstarting their relationship, granting them a mutual revelation of their feelings where one never existed.

In the original story, their heart-to-heart ended up on a different note entirely.

It's clear here that, while the tone is still one of Scott sharing confidences with Jean, he's only taken baby steps toward opening himself up to her, and certainly still has a ways to go in terms of declaring his love. Nor is it likely that Scott, off-panel, suddenly swept Jean into his arms, when he's obviously so unsure of himself--and Jean would certainly be too alarmed at such a shift in attitude to reciprocate. As the scene is written, there's little to no doubt that the moment simply passes--as it often has, for many other couples.

We could assume that Claremont, in feeling the need to make this retroactive change, may have thought the foundation of their relationship needed to be stronger than it was at this point; after all, as readers, we never saw their feelings for each other out in the open until, somewhere along the way, they made it known to readers that they were now "an item":

But as to anything deeper than a casual dating status, that didn't really become apparent until Jean (along with the other original members of the team) departed Xavier's school when the new X-Men took up residence, leaving only Cyclops behind.

With Jean already having one foot out the door here, there isn't much that comes across these pages as far as the more deeply resonating love between the two that Claremont (who also scripted this departure story) intends to be clear. On the other hand, it comes at a point when readers are picking up the X-Men book again after a long dormancy, and so Claremont has a free hand as far as making it clear that Scott and Jean are now committed to one another, and apparently have been for some time. It would probably have made sense for Jean and Scott to have had their definitive moment when the original team was still together; but since the book was in freefall at the time, with writers and artists likely focused on turning things around for the book, the situation with the two might have been put on the back burner except for the lip service that we saw given to it during Roy Thomas's tenure.

There is more history to be covered in Scott's thoughts, of course--including more conflicts with villains, a long-overdue costume change, as well as an incident which led to Xavier's apparent death:

It seemed afterward that the X-Men were left without purpose or direction, though you wouldn't know it from Byrne's busy panels of these five people being thrust from one conflict into another. Encountering Lorna Dane... meeting Scott's younger brother, Alex... engagements with the Living Pharaoh/Monolith... the return of the Sentinels, this time at the direction of Larry Trask, son of their creator... the murderous, evil Sauron... another confrontation with Magneto. I would have expected there to be some discussion among the X-Men on future plans, either for themselves or the school; after all, this is a two-year period of time (by the reader's reckoning) with the X-Men essentially flying a holding pattern with no real thought as to where they go from here. Yet the point becomes moot when they return from their activities across the globe to find one heck of a surprise.

From there, more segues from Byrne to greet the eye, as the new X-Men take hold for readers. And as the scenes which come to mind for Scott become intermixed with more conflicts with characters such as Moses Magnum, Alpha Flight, Arcade, and Proteus, Scott finds his thoughts more troubled, as they move closer to present-day.

And so the circle of this issue closes--with Jean's life with the X-Men and at Scott's side, as well as her death, serving as the threads that bind Scott's efforts to put this dark day in perspective. Given the impact of the evolving story of Phoenix, the milestone of the death of one of the original X-Men, and the grief shared by all, it was entirely appropriate for the issue that attempts to bring closure to it all to have a theme of mourning in order to leave the memory of Phoenix behind and not have it lingering in subsequent issues as an ever-present pall over the characters; and combining that theme with an album issue gives the reader the sense that the book, and the X-Men, are pivoting toward a new chapter. That made for an excellent issue, which perhaps brought newer readers up to speed on not just the history of the X-Men before the new team made the scene, but also provided more insight into the character of Scott Summers, the first X-Man, whose long road with the X-Men now reaches a turning point.

Scott's announcement also contributes to leaving the events of Phoenix behind, as the change in the dynamic of the X-Men without the staunch presence of Cyclops is another element this issue provides to build anticipation toward the X-Men's future. Time would tell if readers would be more receptive than they were when Xavier was given the heave-ho, with equally high hopes for future readership.

A star-spangled album issue, as Iron Man grieves over the lost life of--Captain America!

X-Men #138

Script: Chris Claremont
Pencils: John Byrne
Inks: Terry Austin
Letterer: Tom Orzechowski


Anonymous said...

X-Men #138 looks sort of embarrassing now as we know Jean wasn't really dead. I was recently reading Nightcrawler #7 which was also an "album issue" (and no, I'd never heard the phrase before) in which Kurt reflects on the death of Wolverine and looks back on his years in the X-Men - it was supposed to be poignant but I thought it was rather insulting to the readers' intelligence as we all know Wolvie will soon be back from the dead.

Erik J Kreffel said...

My first issue of The Uncanny X-Men, bought for me when I was nearly six years old! This was gold when I didn't have enough money to buy back issues in my early teens after collecting the series starting in '85.

Great recap and review. Love now knowing the "album" term.

Comicsfan said...

Colin, I'll be interested to look over that Nightcrawler issue. It's intriguing to me that both Kurt and Scott are taking such looks back while they're each in mourning--I'll be curious to see how Kurt regards his time spent with the X-Men, particularly since he won't be including any recollections of the original team. (Though with all the turnovers the X-Men have had since he joined, the first new X-Men lineup probably is what he regards as the "original" team.)

Erik, you certainly lucked into the right issue to begin your X-Men reading! You were brought up to date on the team with one issue. I think Claremont and Byrne did a fine job with it.