Tuesday, December 19, 2017

I, Magneto!

It wasn't long after artist Dave Cockrum returned for a second run on Uncanny X-Men that the title's 150th issue hit the racks--and forty pages of Claremont/Cockrum, combined with a battle royale between the X-Men and their deadliest foe, translated to an early Christmas for X-Men readers in 1981.

At this point in time, Magneto hasn't been seen nor heard from since he faced the X-Men in the heart of a volcano in the Antarctic. The X-Men's mentor, Charles Xavier, fears that Magneto is active and planning; but it's the X-Men, along with the leaders of the world's governments, who learn the extent of those plans, when Magneto makes his move--and his demands.

Show of hands: Does anyone think Magneto's audience is just going to fold?

While it's likely that Magneto will face resistance, and almost certainly preemptive attack, the posture and demeanor of the man himself have all the bearing of one who's made an opening chess move and now waits for the game to play out. For someone who now faces the backlash of the world's powers, Magneto's confidence is astonishing, considering the number of times he's been defeated over the years. Yet in this instance, even the concept of defeat seems the furthest thing from his mind.

We would eventually learn that Magneto has developed technology that allows him to manipulate the Earth's crust, which gives him the edge in this conflict. Using it to raise an island of ancient origin in the Bermuda triangle and establish it as his base of operations, he later discovered two individuals who washed up on his shore following a storm at sea--Scott Summers, who took a leave of absence from the X-Men following the death of Jean Grey, and Aleytys Forrester, the captain of a trawler that Scott had signed aboard. An inhibitor field on the island prevents Cyclops from using his power, leaving him little choice but to helplessly watch as Magneto carries out his power play.

It's odd how smoothly Chris Claremont's story manages to refocus this crisis, shifting it instead to Scott's assertion which assumes the worst: that under Magneto's guidance, mutants would assume control of the Earth as a result of his plans reaching fruition, and Magneto's "rule" of mutants would effectively cede that control to him. Yet Magneto's terms--nuclear and conventional disarmament, as well as forbidding the hunting and execution of mutants--indicate no such ulterior motive on his part. If left to Magneto's "golden age" scenario, there would appear to be little cause for alarm in this story; it's only Claremont's quick insertion of Scott, who broaches the subject of what we're now being told is Magneto's true goal, that makes Magneto someone to be opposed at all costs, a goal that Magneto can now affirm thanks to Cyclops opening the door.

Yet this new tack barely holds up to scrutiny, since there's no reason to presume that Earth's mutants would move to suppress the human race, much less set out to rule the world. In a Golden Age, they would more likely just get on with their lives, free from the fear of being hunted or worse. What had been a relatively simple (and, on its face, admirable) approach by Magneto now becomes more complicated, particularly if the superpowers discover that Magneto is conscripting and egging on mutants to become virtual dictators who follow his marching orders. The permutations of Magneto's hidden agenda throw the balance of the story off a bit--but Claremont is quick to get things back on track with a preemptive strike by a Russian submarine which has launched a nuclear assault on Magneto's island.

With all hands of the Leningrad presumably lost, the Russians mobilize for war. But Magneto is one step ahead of them--and his new technology makes it clear that he can retaliate against any aggressor, anywhere in the world.

Later that night, the X-Men close in on the island in their modified SR-71 Blackbird, but are forced to crash-land in the ocean when the jet's entire electrical system short-circuits and explodes due to the area being saturated with magnetic force. (Since Magneto hasn't monitored their approach, we're left to assume that he set up such a field as a precaution against further attacks on the island--and even Magneto has to sleep sometime.) The X-Men are also affected by Magneto's localized inhibitor field, which nullifies their abilities and almost costs Colossus his life when he involuntarily transforms back to his human self while beneath the ocean's surface.

But when they unexpectedly meet up with Cyclops, notes are compared, and a plan is formed and set in motion.

With the men heading toward Magneto's earth-shifting equipment chamber, Storm and the others make their way to the computer center to locate the machinery's control codes. But Storm's separate search yields a potentially more valuable prize.

It's a strange and seemingly unwarranted conclusion that Storm draws about Magneto. At present, with only two encounters with Magneto under her belt--each of them hostile, with no interaction between the two to speak of--she really has no basis to form the belief that Magneto is not evil. Before being regressed to childhood by the the mutant known as Alpha, Magneto's past actions painted a picture of a man steeped in evil and malice, a fact that the files of the X-Men, the Avengers, and the Fantastic Four would bear out--nor does it add up that Magneto would name his criminal group the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants if his heart wasn't in it. If the original X-Men remain convinced of Magneto's sadistic nature, where is Storm's evidence to the contrary? We'll learn later that it's likely part of an effort by Claremont to lay some groundwork for the story's final pages--but more on that when the time comes.

Elsewhere, thanks to Wolverine, the other X-Men are making steady progress in destroying Magneto's massive equipment core.

As for Storm, her moment of truth is reached--but suddenly awakening, Magneto is forced to draw his own conclusions regarding her intent.

Magneto, having disposed of the powerless Storm, realizes the other X-Men must be on the island. With his inhibitor field in operation, he no doubt feels that the danger they present is minimal; but he's reckoned without Xavier, who was in the area searching for the missing Cyclops and now strikes from afar. Their confrontation holds the promise of a comeuppance for Magneto, given that he has no psionic defenses and he faces the most formidable telepathic power on the planet, while lacking any means to strike back at Xavier directly--yet for the sake of the story, Claremont cobbles together narrative that makes much more of Magneto's chances than he would otherwise possess, long enough to turn the tide of battle back in Magneto's favor.

It looks like game and set to Magneto--the X-Men are completely helpless, and powerless, while the only means available to them to stop his plans have proven fruitless.

Unknown to Magneto, however, he's underestimated Storm, who managed to twist enough in mid-fall to snag her cloak on a projection and stop her plunge. Climbing back inside to Magneto's computer center, she takes a chair to the console in the hope that she can do some damage--but she does far more, by inadvertently giving the X-Men the fighting chance they've been waiting for.

(No, I don't know why Magneto isn't knocked out cold by the impact of Cyclops' deadly optic blast, as any normal-strength man would have been who was off-guard and had no reason to shield himself against captives he believed were powerless. Come on.)

What follows is a tour de force by Cockrum and fellow artists Joe Rubinstein and Bob Wiacek, detailing an extended X-Men/Magneto battle the likes of which we've seldom seen, if ever. On top of it all is Claremont, who keeps track of a great deal and maintains the tension--particularly in the case of Magneto, whose resolve is as impressive as his grasp of tactics, a man who stays on his feet and refuses to give in or yield the advantage. In spite of Storm's opinion of him, there seems to be no doubt that Magneto remains the type of man who will ruthlessly do what is necessary to prevail (as Storm can attest to, having barely escaped death at his hands). But to their credit, the X-Men are just as resolved to stop him.

While the battle rages, Cyclops sends the team's youngest member, Kitty Pryde, on a mission to sabotage Magneto's computer system, on which his energy projector is dependent for its operation. It's the key to victory, whether or not the X-Men actually succeed in taking down Magneto; but when Magneto learns of the ploy, his rage and retaliation against the teenager responsible would have even Storm considering the use of deadly force against this man.*

*Adjusted to correct a misspelling. With two letterers on this job, combined with the frenzy of meeting a deadline with such a large issue, it's no wonder a few things slipped through the cracks.

The scene serves to shift Magneto's posture from this point forward, with the story building from as early as page four to remake Magneto into a more sympathetic figure instead of the two-dimensional villain of old. Yet Storm's anger seems dialed down too quickly in order to accommodate the change. We only learn afterward that Kitty has survived the fatal charge (due to her phasing at the time); as far as Storm knows, this man is holding the lifeless body of a child very dear to her, a child that he murdered without a moment's hesitation. Yet she now consoles the murderer. Perhaps it's understandable to see her reconsider taking Magneto's life--but to see her anger toward him evaporate, just like that?

Once the X-Men have regrouped, they find that Magneto has disappeared and realize that he's made good his escape. And as Xavier reflects on the incident, he reaffirms the status of the journey that Claremont means to take Magneto on for the foreseeable future.

But whether this leopard could truly change his spots remained to be seen.

Uncanny X-Men #150

Script: Chris Claremont
Art: Dave Cockrum (with Josef Rubinstein and Bob Wiacek)
Letterers: Tom Orzechowski and Jean Simek


Anonymous said...

I had this issue - I remember the panel where Magneto appears in 10, Downing Street because I thought it was strange that Margaret Thatcher was portrayed with grey hair rather than her normal (dyed) blonde. And who's the guy with purple hair and glasses ? I suspect the colorist didn't know much about British politics :D

Tiboldt said...

I was amused by the continuity gag in this (presumably from Dave Cockrum).

Way back in X-Men #98, Peter Corbeau had a yacht called the Dejah Thoris, which was completely destroyed by a sentinel. He returns in this with another yacht, this time called the Dejah Thoris II. This one survives intact, albeit with all its electrical systems fried and missing a fighting chair, courtesy of Magneto.

Both times saw Xavier kidnapped, of course. I presume Charles declined any future invitations to go fishing with Corbeau.

Comicsfan said...

Well, Colin, maybe the explanation is simpler than that--after all, in the early '80s, lots of people were dyeing their hair in unorthodox colors. Maybe Mrs. Thatcher and her aide were more hip than their constituents gave them credit for!

Tiboldt, that's an excellent observation. Perhaps the question we should be asking is: What insurance company is going to want to stick with Corbeau, when he keeps calling in claims for the same loss??

Jared said...

Great issue. The best group of X-Men in the best fight with Magneto. Probably the best issue drawn by Cockrum. One of my favorite Marvel Comics ever.

The one issue story has become a lost art form. Other than some Magneto cameos in the couple of issues before this, the story is all contained in this issue. There is no way this would be less than a six issue arc today.

Comicsfan said...

Jared, I seem to remember a decision by Marvel (perhaps the result of reader response on the matter?) to shift to single-issue stories across the board--though the change was eventually reneged, probably for a number of reasons. For one thing, it took away the sales advantage provided by the cliffhanger--a guaranteed method of bringing the reader back to pick up the next copy. It probably also proved too taxing to scripters, who now had to come up with a brand new story every single month--and for writers like Stan Lee and Roy Thomas who were juggling more than one title, the strain was bound to take its toll. From a reader standpoint, single-issue stories also limited the writer as far as any additional material they might have wanted to provide either the story or its characters.

It just so happened that this X-Men issue coincided with the title's 150th milestone, which was no doubt plotted for several months before it saw print, a very nice buffer that allowed Claremont to craft a great story within a "single" issue; even so, there are segments in the story where it's apparent that script revisions were made at the last minute.