Monday, June 26, 2017

This Ancient Evil!

By the time writer Chris Claremont had introduced the dreaded N'Garai in the pages of X-Men, we'd already become familiar with these "elder gods" in a previous story in Giant-Size Dracula, which had the building blocks of that race of demons but instead referred to them as the Triad--where one of their number, Y'Garon, separated from his "brothers," sought to bring them into our world. In these early stages of the concept, Claremont appeared to be undecided as to not only their name, but how these gods would cross over, initially making use of a "Sa'arpool" that required a sacrifice of human blood in order to fully open the gateway between worlds. The problem with that approach, however, is that it would be established there were only three such pools in existence; ergo, if you keep destroying them in your stories, then very soon your elder gods' menacing days will be over.

One Sa'arpool was destroyed in the Dracula story; another, opened by Kulan Gath, was sealed in a 1979 tale in Marvel Team-Up that featured Spider-Man, Red Sonja, and, this time by name, the N'Garai. But it was four years earlier when Claremont would "introduce" and formalize the existence of the N'Garai, when one of their number comes very close to wiping out the X-Men.

It's a great time for X-Men readers in 1975, as the new X-Men team is just starting to catch fire and the Claremont/Dave Cockrum team has things well in hand. Upcoming developments would include the return of the Sentinels, the introduction of the Shi'ar, and of course the first appearance of Phoenix, while Claremont was just starting to explore the X-Men individually and we began to see them more as characters in their own right instead of costumed replacements. In this issue alone, we see the first appearance of Moira MacTaggert... the roots of Storm's claustrophobia are alluded to... and Wolverine's own mysterious past begins to surface as he cuts loose (and then some) for the first time in front of his teammates as well as Xavier.

At this moment in time, the team--and its leader, Scott Summers, in particular--is reeling from the death of one of their own, the man known as Thunderbird, killed while on a mission to stop nuclear armageddon. And as Scott continues to beat himself up over it and finally erupts in a mixture of rage and anguish, he inadvertently provides the means for the N'Garai to walk the Earth once more.

A part of this issue's story is spent putting in motion the build-up of Project Armageddon (not to be confused with the incident that led to Thunderbird's death), spearheaded by Steven Lang who plans to take a "it's them or us" approach to put an end to mutants once and for all, a story that would culminate in X-Men #100. But at Xavier's school, while the X-Men are exchanging pleasantries with Mrs. MacTaggert (their new "housekeeper"), Cyclops is retreating to the mansion while fighting for his life against a member of a supremely evil race that once ruled the Earth; and as this story cuts to the chase, it becomes all too clear that this nascent X-Men team has been thrust into its most desperate and perhaps final battle.

With the element of surprise on Kierrok's side and no small amount of momentum, what happens next amounts to a near-slaughter, with the X-Men waging an uphill battle against a creature who holds them in complete contempt, no doubt regarding them in the same light as those humans who were once slaves to the N'Garai. One by one, the scattered X-Men go down, unable to mobilize as a team--and as this battle devolves to power vs. power, the edge at this point must belong to Kierrok.

(No, I don't know why Xavier is confident that his mental power is more than sufficient to protect him from Kierrok. He neither knows this demon, nor has any clue to its origins. Was he speaking out of sheer ego? The only thing Xavier does know is that this foe is mowing through his elite team of mutants like ten Juggernauts--so perhaps it's time for him to reassess his chances should Kierrok reach him.)

Finally, though, the one X-Man who might be capable of taking on Kierrok one-on-one--the one who can battle him on his own bloodthirsty terms--enters the fray.

Score one for the Canadian of the team. But the N'Garai are no doubt experienced in dealing with uprisings, using methods which go beyond physical force--and it turns out Kierrok has been using such a method against the X-Men all along.

It's safe to say that Xavier has gained painful new insight into his limitations regarding other-dimensional servants of elder gods. Yet it turns out he's also gained valuable information that gives the X-Men a desperate chance to end Kierrok's threat at the source. To that end, Storm is directed to the cairn that was damaged by Cyclops and which led to Kierrok's incursion.

Unfortunately, the N'garai have already begun to swarm in the area, and Storm is met with a reception committee that she cannot combat with the means at her disposal--leaving her fate resting in her will to survive.

And so the X-Men narrowly escape death, and the human race unknowingly escape a monstrous fate that its ancestors had once fallen prey to.  But as we've seen since, the N'Garai are intent to resume their status as humanity's subjugators--a dire threat that the X-Men have no illusions about.

X-Men #96

Script: Chris Claremont
Pencils: Dave Cockrum
Inks: Sam Grainger
Letterer: Dave Hunt

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