Thursday, August 4, 2016

...And One Must Die!

After so much time having passed (over 40 years!), and so much water having gone under the bridge with the X-Men, it was an interesting experience to unbag and take another look at one of the earliest issues of the "all-new, all-different" X-Men, at the point where the new characters brought into the book had their baptism of fire in their first solo mission as a team. The original X-Men had been swept out the door in the prior issue (with the hot-headed Sunfire, who had declined membership, right behind them), with only Cyclops remaining to mold Storm, Colossus, Nightcrawler, Wolverine, Banshee, and Thunderbird into a fighting unit. You couldn't help wondering if these characters, aside from Banshee and Wolverine, knew what they were getting into--suited up and sent to fight a living island first thing, and now expected to be some sort of costumed strike team when just days ago they were living their lives and minding their own business in separate parts of the world. All they knew at the time was that Xavier had offered them a chance to serve the whole of humanity, a goal that appealed to each of them--but did Xavier fully inform them of the caveats? Did any of them read the fine print that was attached to their new lives as X-Men?

Once the Krakoa emergency is dealt with, they find that life in their new home consists of being drilled and tested in daily sessions in the Danger Room--not "workout room" or "practice room," but a name probably designed to instill in them the idea that this is Serious Business, and we're not kidding around here with you. Nor does it help when Cyclops, who was "Deputy Leader" of the original team which snapped-to at Xavier's instructions, expects these grown adults to tow the line and mesh into a fighting unit as if the original team never left. In the prior issue, we saw tempers fray, mistakes made, and even a serious injury involving Thunderbird, who's his own man and resents the harsh treatment by Cyclops. It's a wonder the others don't follow suit. Why are we doing this? they must have wondered. Are we some sort of soldiers now? The newcomers realize, thanks to Xavier, that they are mutants, with Nightcrawler in particular understanding that such a species is regarded differently by humanity--but those who came with Xavier to America with the understanding that they would be taught in the use of their mutant power probably didn't have life-or-death missions in mind.

It's one such mission which this issue deals with, set in motion by an old foe of the original X-Men (as well as the Avengers et al.)--Count Nefaria, who has invaded NORAD H.Q. in Valhalla Mountain. (Valhalla was presumably the comic book equivalent of the Cheyenne Mountain Complex in Colorado Springs, where NORAD was based until 2008; the real Valhalla Mountain is part of the Rapid River basin in Washington State.) Nefaria, with his super-powered squad of Ani-Men, has taken control of the complex and made what is possibly the most ambitious ransom demand on record:

But how do the X-Men figure into this? A government military installation isn't likely to seek out a mutant group for assistance, much less give it access to the country's top strategic command base. Of course, with Nefaria now in control of the base, you could say that whatever worries the government might have about the X-Men have been rendered moot; regardless, it's the Avengers they contact for assistance first, which makes sense given that the Avengers have formal government ties. Unfortunately, the Avengers currently are tied up with their own concerns (their issue that month has them helping the disabled Yellowjacket, whose life is in danger due to a seizure caused by his growth rate--which, compared to the threat of a nuclear holocaust, certainly lends new meaning to the phrase "Avengers Priority")--and so the Avengers punt to the X-Men, who are granted approach to the mountain and briefed by the commanding general on the stakes involved.

Nefaria, however, has detected the X-Men's approach, and used the base's weaponry to disable their jet--leaving the team no choice but to jettison in the aircraft's "lifting body," which an enraged Nefaria disintegrates with a sonic disruptor beam. No, I don't know how a weapon which disintegrates a metal pod can leave the human flesh that's within perfectly intact and unharmed--but at least this issue has a nice splash page to show for it.

The scene which follows is a mixed bag of nostalgia and perhaps a certain level of frustration, given what we know about the X-Men's abilities from subsequent issues and what options they have when faced with a plummet from the sky. It's perhaps important to keep in mind that in this story, we're still learning about these X-Men; more importantly, Cyclops is still learning about these X-Men, and how best to deploy them in battle as well as in emergencies--and it takes him a few moments to wrack his brain and come up with a makeshift plan to get his team out of this situation. In addition, writer Chris Claremont is also still getting his feet wet with scripting the book, and perhaps feels it's important to explore their sense of teamwork and ways of handling such situations gradually in these formative issues. Even so, we learn in the prior issue that Cyclops has already spent weeks in grueling training sessions with these people in the Danger Room for "six hours a day, five days a week." Shouldn't that training be kicking in automatically by now, with Cyclops well aware of how best to use his team members in a crisis? Yet look at how a solution is cobbled together here, bolstered by the ludicrous notion that people in 120-mph freefall can hear each other, much less carry on a conversation.

With Banshee limited to carrying only one person, that leaves Cyclops on his own until Banshee can return for him. In the meantime, we learn a few interesting things for the first time--for instance, the ability of Colossus to survive the impact from such a plunge without a scratch, an advantage that Cyclops would take advantage of in future issues. Also, there's Nightcrawler's revelation about velocity in relation to his teleporting ability, which makes sense, but someone will have to brush me up on my physics--isn't he talking about the law of conservation of momentum, rather than of energy?

Another nice touch is Claremont and letterer Karen Mantlo having Colossus' speech in Russian displayed in Cyrillic, which is really cool on the printed page--I'm not sure why they ever discontinued that. (Perhaps when Xavier got around to mentally teaching everyone Russian.)  But then we're left with the basics of the scene itself, which, with Storm present, boil down to: there is no emergency here. Take Nightcrawler's problem, for instance: Storm could simply create an updraft to slow his velocity, and he teleports just as he reaches the point where he would begin to fall again. For that matter, since Storm uses winds to support her in flight, why bother "carrying" anyone? Why not just use her power over wind to lower everyone safely?

When the team is on the ground safely, Nightcrawler is able to teleport into Valhalla, but is attacked by one of the Ani-Men. Nightcrawler is represented in this scene as being able to withstand a super-powered punch that can "flatten a dozen men," which frankly I wasn't aware of; I don't think I can name five instances where Nightcrawler's strength or stamina has been a factor in his fights, apart from these early issues. His agility makes him a good match for the likes of Frog-Man, of course--but a single punch to end a fight with a super-villain was a little more power from Kurt Wagner than I was expecting.

(There's no need to interrogate Frog-Man about Nefaria's plans, is there? The X-Men have already been thoroughly briefed about what Nefaria has done and why he's done it. They're in Valhalla to deal with him and to stop the Doomsmith countdown.)

After escaping a gas attack launched against them by Nefaria, the X-Men find themselves cut off by a squad of armed soldiers stationed at Valhalla who have been hypnotized by the Ani-(wo)Man known as Dragonfly. Since they can't retreat because of the deadly gas, they're faced with the decision of how to deal with the soldiers without hurting them. Again, Storm could have dispersed the gas without a second thought; and while Banshee's scream could be used to render the soldiers unconscious, Cyclops--this man who has been involved in every training session these new X-Men have logged--has difficulty deciding how to handle the situation or who to use. Fortunately, at least Storm has her head in the game.

(Good grief--Cyclops actually seems stunned by what he's seen. Why would he be?)

Finally, the Ani-Men arrive in force, setting off a battle which is actually one of the more workable parts of the story, thanks to artist Dave Cockrum. It's a little dismaying to see both Thunderbird and Banshee taken out of the fight first thing; on the other hand, a surprise attack should have results that put the ones being attacked at a disadvantage. (Though we'll see in a moment that there was a reason behind this development.)

Despite the Ani-Men's opening salvo, nice headway is made by the X-Men in response, with both Colossus and Storm demonstrating that they weren't nodding off on the days when the X-Men were being taught the value of teamwork. Once their enemies are finally dealt with, the X-Men are forced to leave their injured behind in order to reach the Doomsmith controls in time--but it seems Nefaria has planned for the worst.

It's unclear how the information that Gen. Fredericks briefed Cyclops on fits in here, if it does at all. Fredericks states that at "a certain point," the Doomsmith will trigger the firing of the country's nuclear missiles automatically, and that the process can't be cancelled or shut down when that point is reached. Despite the countdown displaying throughout the story, we're never told when that cut-off point is; Fredericks only tells Cyclops that the X-Men have 52 minutes to accomplish their mission and cancel the Doomsmith, so we're left to assume that the countdown is linked to that time limit. Now, let's attempt to connect the dots: At the time the X-Men defeated the Ani-Men, we learn that the Doomsmith countdown is at -18 minutes. Now that the X-Men have reached their goal, they learn that Nefaria has hot-wired the Doomsmith into Valhalla's self-destruct mechanism, and self-destruct will occur in -9 minutes. The question to ask here is: Does any of that make sense? If there are 9 minutes left, why does Cyclops think he's run out of time? Why would Nefaria cross-circuit the Doomsmith with the base's self-destruct system, just to guarantee the activation of the Doomsmith? Why would Nefaria think that the nuclear holocaust he's arranged for is a notch in the "triumph" column for him? Assuming he survives in the end, (a) there will be no countries left to pay him his ransom, and (b) he won't exactly be vacationing in the Riviera, or anywhere else, unless he's a fan of lounging in radioactive wastelands.

But speculation aside, a more immediate drama is playing out with the X-Men, as one of their own is determined to stop Nefaria's escape, no matter what the cost.

More confusing scenes. While the Doomsmith can now no longer trigger missile launches throughout the country (so much for a process that can't be stopped), damage to the command relays is unrelated to the complex's self-destruct countdown, especially in light of that countdown still, well, counting down.  Why is Valhalla out of danger? (And, by the way, Banshee--if you're so frantic to get Thunderbird off of that plane, why don't you just swoop in and take him off?)

By now we can sense what's coming--and with that sense of inevitability, these final few panels are handled very nicely by both Claremont and Cockrum. The impact they deliver to the X-Men reader is likely sobering, since it marks the first time in their history (if you don't count the mistaken death of Xavier) that the X-Men have suffered the fatal loss of a teammate.

Yet what sours an otherwise excellent and moving scene is the attempt to bring closure to the story with an equally sobering but borderline inappropriate remark by Cyclops that the life an X-Man leads is a hard one, and it often comes at a cost. It serves not only to bring Thunderbird's death down to the level of a statistic, but to give the impression to these new X-Men that what they've seen here is a harbinger of their own future, and they're better off knowing it now rather than later.

We can hopefully chalk up Cyclops' remark to shock, or anger, or a mixture of both--an attempt to shut off his own feelings on the death of someone on his team, something he's never had to face in all this time as an X-Man. Otherwise, it comes off as a very poor attempt by Claremont to toughen the skin of these X-Men to the possibility of death while doing their job--a lesson perhaps more tastefully suited to another time and place, instead of using a comrade's death site as an object lesson.

An interesting footnote to this story appears in the form of a letters page response to a reader (of native American descent) who had been pleased to see Thunderbird become an X-Man and wondered why he was the one chosen to be killed. I find myself agreeing with the points raised in the response, for the most part--though I'd only add that Warpath, whose abilities mimicked his brother's, managed to work in the X-Men fairly well, absent the concerns raised here.

"Why Thunderbird? Because he was the weakest potential character in the X-Men. He had no powers which weren't duplicated by other members of the team--Colossus, or Nightcrawler, or Wolverine--and, harsh as it sounds, duplicated better. But worst of all, his character--as a character--had nowhere to go. All he was, all he really ever could be, was a wise-cracking, insolent, younger, not-as-interesting copy of Hawkeye the Marksman in the Avengers--and if you have any questions as to the problems Hawkeye's been having as a character, just look at all the roles he's taken in the past ten years. Proudstar deserved a better deal than that, and he could never get it, which is why he had to die. Because, when you think about it, it was better that he die with honor rather than spend the rest of his comic-book life trying to force himself into a persona he wasn't."

X-Men #95

Script: Chris Claremont
Pencils: Dave Cockrum
Inks: Sam Grainger
Letterer: Karen Mantlo


Anonymous said...

The only reference to Thunderbird I recall reading is when Nefaria, armed with Superman-type powers, attacked the Avengers mansion.
Hank McCoy, the Beast, went straight for him, in anger, over what had happened to Thunderbird. It didn't work out well, but it was interesting to see the Beast drop his comic act and get really angry.

George Chambers said...

I'm going to try for a No-Prize here...

I believe the reason Cyclops was surprised by Storm's tour de force was because, while she did train with the rest of the team in the Danger Room, she always held back while doing so. Why? Because when she cuts loose, she affects weather patterns for miles around, not just in the localised area - a point I believe is brought up in later X-MEN issues. At this time, the Xavier School is believed by the world at large to be just that, and not a super-team HQ; frequent typhoons and ice storms in Westchester would blow the school's cover.

Now then, can anyone adequately explain to me how Xavier can "mentally scan" the Doomsmith System, something which while certainly complex, almost certainly does not have a mind to read...

Comicsfan said...

I dunno, George--the weather around Valhalla looked pretty crystal clear to me after Storm had finished with those soldiers. As for Xavier, the answer's easy--the Doomsmith had an A.I. that just hadn't been brought online yet! Okay, okay, there probably weren't any A.I.s around in 1975, even in the military. How about... he read how to do it in Popular Mechanics. That mag had so many specs, it probably had NORAD's, too.

M.P., Nefaria is certainly due for a profile at the PPoC, as often as he keeps popping up here causing trouble. The sleeves will have to be rolled up on that one, though, since he's definitely made the rounds.

Anonymous said...

It is interesting that Thunderbird, the first Marvel Comic Native American superhero was killed off only 4 months after the Leonard Peltier of the American Indian Movement and FBI incident in Oglala, South Dakota 1975. It may or may not be a coincidence but at the time there was a serious negative media back lash towards the American Indian Movement (AIM). Marvel Comics always tended to be somewhat observant of social topics of the day but conservative towards serious social situations.

This may be reading into the the death of Thunderbird but it also seems interesting that he is the only superhero in the Marvel
Universe to ever be killed off after 2 1/2 issues. His death was not based on negative fan feedback but something more
serious. Something Marvel should really talk about today.

-william c