Thursday, April 29, 2021

The Raging Return of... Blastaar!


While there arguably may not be much to recommend 1969's X-Men #53, it was really the issue's more notable distinctions which drew me to pull it aside and explore it. It's fair to say that the title was in free fall at this point in time, and it seemed all the stops were being pulled out in an effort to resuscitate it (though the Hail Mary move of killing off the book's core character, Charles Xavier, appeared to only send it into more of a tailspin). In a way, you could say that Issue #53 could be regarded as the poster child for where things stood with the X-Men book. Had its villain, Blastaar, somehow prevailed in his efforts to destroy them, it wouldn't have been surprising if readers came away feeling that the book and its characters had been put out of their misery.

That said, it's interesting to take a look at this issue in a different light, as it seemed to trigger a number of changes in the book's development. Currently scripting X-Men was Arnold Drake, a writer with a number of feathers in his cap* including being the creator of DC's Deadman (with Carmine Infantino) and Doom Patrol (with Bob Haney co-scripting), while at Marvel he and artist Gene Colan created the Guardians of the Galaxy. In addition, Roy Thomas would come aboard two issues later, to be eventually joined by artist Neal Adams and provide the book with some of its most acclaimed issues, giving new meaning to the phrase "there's nowhere to go but up."

*Having strong overtones of Jack Kirby's writing style, this issue of X-Men may not give you the best impression of Drake's work, a resume which includes a distinguished history in comics as well as what he brought to the table in terms of character development.

As for the issue's artist, Barry Smith, he produces his first work under the Marvel banner here, himself imitating Kirby (which reportedly secured him the job as well as further work for the company)--a style he would continue soon after in a three-part Avengers tale scripted by Thomas (with Sal Buscema taking over in Part 3).

One more piece of trivia is added nearly twenty years later, when this issue would be recycled as part of a grab bag of comics intended to be distributed as Halloween treats:

(With a nod to @Benkeisermusic for showing us the size of this "mini-comic"--6.25" x 4.25")

The mini-version also featured a Thing-themed maze, as well as a team pin-up by Jim Steranko from issue #49.

As the cover of the story makes obvious, the team is fated to go up against Blastaar, the Living Bomb-Burst, who has found himself unceremoniously returned to the Negative Zone after a failed attempt to enforce his will on our world. As you might imagine, Blastaar is not at all happy to have been deprived of a target like Earth.

Meanwhile, the X-Men's remaining member with mental powers, Marvel Girl, is about to conduct an experiment designed by Professor X to transmute matter into radio waves which could be sent into space. Good grief, Xavier, so this is what you did in your spare time?

So what have we got: A power-mad alien bent on finding a way to transmute his matter in order to safely return himself to Earth... and an untried experiment where nobody in the X-Men can predict what will happen when Jean Grey flips the "on" switch. What could go wrong??


The last time I remember Xavier tinkering in his lab, he was trying to cure his step-brother, Cain Marko, of being the Juggernaut, and look how that turned out (thanks to Factor Three). Now the man isn't even here to supervise when one of his students decides the trial-and-error method of experimenting with one of his machines is the best way to test its functionality, with no indication that she's even found any notes to go by. Let's just break out the champagne now, because this is bound to end well... for Blastaar, at any rate.

As we've seen in the past, Blastaar is an enemy who attacks on sight, and he treats the X-Men no differently. But while the Angel talks a good game in practically every conflict he takes a hand in, here he ends up being little more than target practice for a foe whose might isn't limited to his deadly blasts.

"How do we get up there in time," Iceman? Are your ice slides on the fritz?

Fortunately for the Angel, Cyclops takes a leaf from Blastaar's book and uses the power of his force beam to propel him upward--and with Blastaar finally put on the defensive by his attack, the rest of this team cooks up an odd plan that will essentially give them strength in numbers. You'd think that five against one would already be pretty good odds for the X-Men against a foe; in this case, however, the Angel has been quietly retired from the story by Smith, so what Jean and Iceman have in mind may at least buy them some time.

With this story sharing the book with another tale which is exploring the origin of the Beast, this fight is now down to its last two pages--which is not good news for the X-Men, given how Blastaar is now more emboldened than ever to not only renew his attack but to engage in his plan of conquest once these mutants are destroyed. But the X-Men, and the world, get cut a break, as the power which brought Blastaar to our universe becomes the very thing that finishes him.

Not exactly a model ending for any trick-or-treaters who happened to score this issue in their grab-bag of Marvel goodies. Of course, they've been out celebrating an event themed around fear and death, and are probably coming back to watch terrifying movies like Halloween and The Shining, so a comic book character dying before their eyes probably won't alarm their parents to any degree. Blastaar, of course, would return in due time, none the worse for wear, as would Charles Xavier. But let's leave the tinkering to Tony Stark, eh, Prof?


Rick said...

Upon first viewing, I thought this book was pretty wonky. But I soon came to love Smith and marvelled at his growth. An inspiring talent.

Anonymous said...

This is a pretty horrible issue....Blataar's blather makes me blue!

Comicsfan said...

Well put, Rick!

Anon, admittedly Drake's dialog for Blastaar is mostly by-the-book here--but to this alien's credit, he's justifying that bark with a good deal of bite. Good thing the X-Men aren't the cringing type.

Anonymous said...

It's weird to compare Barry's early stuff to his later work, but it did have a goofy charm all it's own!
His "Kirbyesque period" style kinda suited the subject matter here.
Cheesy, but enjoyable.
I liked his stuff on the Avengers. the Iceman creating ice-zombies here?! (I mean, ice-zuvembies)
Since when could he do that?!
And they're kinda green, for some reason. Due to what I assume is a coloring error, in one panel it looks like the Hulk's arm is throttling Blastarr.
Hey, that would make for a good show-down. Who's more bestial?
I could see the Hulk choking him out.


Big Murr said...

I read an interview with Barry Smith several years ago. He tells how during this time he was an eager young Brit newly arrived in New York. All but homeless, arriving with an artist gig and a backpack and little else. He went on to say the art in this "X-Men" was mostly drawn while sitting on a park bench.

Colin Jones said...

I just don't understand the appeal of these obvious Kirby pastiches - Barry Smith here and Rich Buckler later with the FF. There was only one Kirby so what was the point of copying his style? I'm glad Barry Smith didn't draw a Kirbyesque Conan!

Anonymous said...

Yeah, apparently Bashful Barry was sleeping in Central Park while he drew X-Men #53, so you can understand why there were some rough edges to the work.

Not that his next few comics looked that great either...
But I have to agree with Rick up top, a big part of Smith's appeal was - is - the development of his work. Its not at all unusual for an artists' early stuff to look a bit iffy, but to go from X-Men #53 and those Daredevil issues to "Song of the Red Sonja" inside five years is astounding by any standard.


Anonymous said...

Colin, I would suggest "pastiche" is a rather polite term for what Buckler did.
Smith was different in that he was strongly influenced by Kirby, but used that as a springboard to find his own distinctive style.


Comicsfan said...

Yes, M.P.--the ice-"Frigidaires," created by Iceman and animated by Marvel Girl. May we never see their like again.

Big Murr said...

The "Frigidaires" sort of made a reappearance a few issues later in #58. The replicas of Ice Man were totally inanimate sculptures, though still astoundingly able to confuse a sentinel's sensors.