GRAPHIC NOVEL AND TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

X-Men Reviews - Page 3

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X-Men/Alpha Flight Classic

is reviewed in the Alpha Flight section.


X-Men /Alpha Flight: The Gift 1998 (SC TPB), 96 pages.

cover Written by Chris Claremont. Illustrated by Paul Smith. Inks: Bob Wiacek (and friends).
Original Colours by Glynis Wein, Bob Sharen. Letters: Tom Orzechowski. Editors: Ann Nocenti, Denny O'Neil.
From a premise by Jim Shooter, Ann Nocenti, Denny O'Neil.

Reprints: X-Men/Alpha Flight #1 & 2 (1986 mini-series)

Rating:  * * * *  (out of five)

Number of readings: 3

I'm not really sure what the decisions were behind this, the first X-Men/Alpha Flight mini-series (there was a second done 12 years later in 1998). After all, the Alphans had guest-starred in the X-Men's own comic before, and there was no reason they couldn't do so again. As well, each of the original issues were double-size, 48 pagers -- with no ads! It was almost as if Chris Claremont and company wanted us to believe that they had set out to write a story so significant, so epic, that it would've trivialized it to have published it in a more conventional format. The funny thing is, they come darn close to succeeding.

The story has the X-Men (comprised of Storm, Wolverine, Nightcrawler, Colossus, Kitty Pryde, Rogue and Prof. X) and Alphans (comprised of Heather Hudson, Shaman, Puck, Northstar, Aurora, Tailsman, and Sasquatch) going to the Canadian Arctic to investigate a mysterious passenger plane crash involving former X-Man Cyclops and his then-wife Madelyne. What they find is Cyclops and the rest of the dozen passengers & crew living idyllically, the formerly normal humans endowed with miraculous powers, while Cyclops has achieved his long-cherished dream of actually controlling his deadly optic blasts. The teams can spread this gift throughout the world, granting every human super-human abilities (thus ending the never-ending bigotry the X-Men face), ending hunger, poverty -- creating a true Utopia. All thanks to the norse God Loki...

Uh, Loki? Isn't he normally a bad guy?

Sure enough, there's a catch, a downside, and that's where the trouble starts. (Though I don't want to give too much away).

It's pretty heady stuff. Not your usual super-bank robber fisticuffs, or heroes vs. The Evil Armada from Planet 5, but a conflict that is between more or less decent people, all believing that what they do is for the betterment of humanity. Chris Claremont's leisurely-paced script (he has 96 pages to work with, of course) and Paul Smith's crisp, simple art, give the thing a real elegance and lyricism.

There are some weaknesses. Despite the 96 pages, some of the characters are short-changed (Nightcrawler, in particular, only has a few lines). And when the characters are forced to choose sides, sometimes Chris Claremont doesn't really allow the characters to write themselves -- Rogue can at last touch people (her liffe long dream), but has nary a qualm about rejecting the gift. Surely she should, at the very least, agonize over it, if not actually side with those who want to spread the gift. As well, when the characters face off against each other, most of the X-Men choose the "right" side, while most of the Alphans choose the "wrong", showing, I think, Chris Claremont's proprietary bias (he wrote the X-Men's own book, not Alpha Flight's).

Lapses like that, and, of course, the technical problem that the conclusion is kind pre-ordained, keep this from being truly great. But it's big, atmospheric, with some twists...and all around something definitely worth keeping an eye out for.

Unfortunately, the later 1998 mini-series, though O.K., was considerably less ambitious.

These issues are also included as part of the TPB X-Men: The Asgardian Wars.

This review refers to the story originally serialized in the first, 1986 X-Men/Alpha Flight mini-series.

Cover price:


X-Men: The Asgardian Wars 199_ (SC TPB) 240 pages

Written by Chris Claremont. Pencils by Paul Smith, Arthur Adams. Inks by Bob Wiacek, Terry Austin, others.
Colours: Glynis Oliver Wein, Christie Scheele, Petra Scotese. Letters: Tom Orzechowski, others. Editor: Ann Nocenti.

Reprinting: X-Men/Alpha Flight (1st mini-series) #1-2, The New Mutants Special #1, The Uncanny X-Men Annual #9 (1985)

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1 (some more)

The Asgard Wars reprints two substantial story lines involving the X-Men and some related spin-off teams getting drawn into the machinations of Loki, Norse God of Mischief (a frequent Thor nemesis). The first half, a story called "The Gift", involves the X-Men, the Canadian super team, Alpha Flight, and a party of geologists becoming stranded in the far north, and finding a deserted city which bestows magical gifts -- gifts that aren't without a price. It's a strong, memorable read from Chris Claremont and Paul Smith, and one I review in greater detail here in a subsequent collection that just reprinted it by itself.

So I'll focus this review more on the second story. Reprinting a story originally serialized in the 64 page New Mutants Special #1 and the 48 page X-Men Annual #9, the plot has Loki, still smarting over the thwarting of his will in "The Gift", arranging the kidnapping of Storm and the X-Men to the mythical realm of Asgard, land of the Norse gods -- but at that point in X- history, Storm had been deprived of her powers and was tutoring the junior team of the New Mutants. Loki's ally, the Enchantress, not knowing one mutant from another, kidnaps Storm and the New Mutants by accident. They New Mutants escape from the Enchantress, but end up scattered throughout Asgard, getting caught up with trolls, dwarves, Valkyrie, and more -- sometimes with dire results, sometimes winning friends and allies. Eventually, the X-Men come to rescue them (though even when the X-Men show up in the second half, it remains an equal team up between the two groups, so that, overall, it's more of a New Mutants saga, with the X-Men just guest stars).

Set within the realm of Asgard, the environment is a little different from the average X-tale, which more often involves the modern world, or sci-fi environs. Peer below the surface and they're are certain similarities between the X-Men/Alpha Flight tale and the New Mutants/X-Men tale, in that both revolve around the characters struggling with whether they want to give up the things they've aquired. Although Asgard is filled with dangers, many of the New Mutants aquire extra abilities there, and feel more at home than they do on earth where they are constantly confronted by anti-mutant prejudice. The various characters differing reactions, and degrees of ambivalence, to their situation forms much of the emotional core of the story.

Arthur Adams' art is nicely detailed and effective, artfully rendering this Viking-styled environment, and handling the unenviable task of depicting close to a score of X-Men and New Mutants. Admittedly, Adams perhaps leans a little too heavily on "Good Girl" art at times, tending to depict the women with looong legs, and with clothes that tend to be cut rather low -- and high -- or in string bikinis. All of which might not be a problem...except the whole point of the New Mutants was they were the younger, teenaged version of the X-Men, making the salaciousness a tad inappropriate. Adams also indulges in a little visual humour. One of the New Mutants, Warlock, is a shape shifting cybernetic extra-terrestrial, and his bodily alterations are often amusing background gags. While in another scene, Adams (for no particular reason) peoples a tavern with characters evocative of Popeye, Bluto, and Olive Oil from the Popeye comic strip.

Claremont sends the characters off on individual sequences, allowing for plenty of room for him to indulge in his love of brooding introspection. And with his wordy captions and thought balloons, and Adams' tiny panels, they probably cram a lot into their pages. Although the plot itself isn't especially complex, nor is it necessarily crammed with unexpected twists or turns.

But it's an enjoyable enough tale, even if Claremont's character stuff can be a bit heavy handed at times. It doesn't achieve the same grandeur as the X-Men/Alpha Flight story, but it doesn't really need to since it's paired with it. Ultimately this collection is most recommended for the X-Men/Alpha Flight team-up, the New Mutants/X-Men team up is certainly an agreeable read.

Cover price: ___


X-Men: Children of the Atom 2001 (SC TPB) 160 pages

cover Written by Joe Casey. Illustrated by Steve Rude, Essad Ribic.
Colours/letters: various.

Reprinting: the six issue mini-series (1999)

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Review posted: July 2016

Children of the Atom belongs to that comics' sub-genre: the reboot/reimagining/reinterpretation -- whatever you want to label it. It's a six issue mini-series meant to re-tell the origin of the original X-Men. Specifically it's a prequel leading up to the first issue, showing Professor Charles Xavier first embarking on his plan to recruit mutant teens, and seeing the early X-Men (Cyclops, Beast, etc.) before they came to Xavier's school.

Technically some of this has been told before. In the 1960s there was a back up series in the X-Men comics telling the solo, pre-team origins of these characters.

How much this is supposed to be seen as simply an apocryphal self-contained saga and how much a new origin is unclear. Writer Joe Casey explicitly up-dates the story to contemporary times (as did John Byrne in his X-Men: The Hidden Years series) rather than recreate the 1960s milieu. It both acknowledges and yet alters established lore (in Cyclops' original origin story, he was a runaway who came under the sway of a sinister thug named Jack Diamond who turned out to be a mutant himself -- in Casey's retelling, Diamond never demonstrates any mutant ability). In other ways, Casey tries to match this up with the original comics by having the final scene be a recreation of the first scene from the first X-Men comic back in 1963.

Casey would go this route again with Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes -- but I think he pulled it off much more successfully in that later effort. Though in that case Casey was deliberately writing his scenes around established early Avengers' issues, just shifting the focus much more to the human/character aspect.

One of the problems with Children of the Atom is, strangely enough, you don't really get much sense Casey has much interest in the X-Men themselves (unlike how he seemed really keen to explore the Avengers in Earth's Mightiest Heroes). It's presented so much in a cinematic way (images and dialogue -- no thought balloons or text captions) that we don't really get much sense for Scott Summers, Hank McCoy, and the others as people. They can come across more like plot points, often with little dialogue. While his depiction of Xavier seems uncharacteristically brusque and nasty (calling people "scum") -- though Casey might have intended that as a character arc, with Xavier growing into the more restrained professor we later know him to be.

Equally, he seems to spend a lot of time -- a lot of pages, a lot of dialogue -- with the bad guys, chronicling a rising racist, anti-mutant group. He spends so much time with the villains you can almost wonder if he had recently seen the movie "American History X" (told from inside of a White Supremacist group) and wanted to emulate that -- the X-Men just an add-on to the story. There's also a whole urban decay theme throughout, depicting an ugly, violent world even besides the mutant angle. Almost as if Casey had also seen a post-Apocalyptic drama (or a pre-post-Apocalyptic drama like the first Mad Max or something). The result, though, is six issues that could benefit from a little joy or light from time to time -- if only to contrast with the dark n' gritty aspect.

It might have been more interesting to treat the story as the early days of the anti-mutant hysteria, depicting a subtler, more low-key version of mutant prejudice that the reader knows will blossom into the full on hysteria of later generations of X-Men stories. By depicting it so extreme right at the beginning -- with hate groups and media frenzy -- the franchise has nowhere to go (like an actor who starts screaming in his opening scene and so has nowhere to take his performance as the play unfolds). It also means there's little to distinguish -- and so justify -- this mini-series among contemporaneous X-Men series.

I wonder if Casey really wanted to depict the whole prejudice angle (with an especial nod toward homophobia by explicitly having characters talk about "outting" mutant celebrities, or criticizing closested mutants who can hide by passing for normal) and using the X-Men was just his vector into the scenario. But since that's the bedrock of the entire X-Men franchise -- it's not like he's really saying anything new or fresh with it, or that exposes an unexplored side to the issue.

The result, for me, is a series that just seems to recycle the oft-used mutant prejudice/hysteria theme without offering any fresh twists or insights, yet lacking clear protagonists who can hold our attention and invite our emotional investment. And equally without a well structured "plot" that develops and unfolds (and justifies) six chapters. Because even the story seems subordinate to the themes.

The first few issues are drawn by Steve Rude, an artist with an attractive, clean, if deceptively simple style (kind of evocative of legends like Russ Manning). Rude tells the scenes well enough, and is an artist who indulges in little visual details and in-jokes (The X-Files' Mulder & Scully seen in the background at an FBI office). But I guess I might say that his work works best with a stronger narrative and characters more firmly defined by the dialogue. Rude bows out part way through, the rest of the series mostly handled by Essad Ribic who has a decent enough style. He maybe brings more rounding and definition to shapes, but is maybe not as strong as Rude in the fundamentals.

A side point I could quibble about: there's a long tradition in sci-fi/fantasy allegories which explore prejudice by trying to turn the idea on its head by creating a fictional minority (aliens, robots)...and then having non-white characters be bigots. As a parable it makes sense, making us view prejudice divorced from established demographics. But it's done so often it can start to feel like stories supposedly about prejudice...that end up depicting white heroes being persecuted by non-white bigots! In this case there's a black FBI director who is part of the anti-mutant crowd, and another scene where a black commentator on a talk show is also anti-mutant -- which wouldn't be notable except there aren't a lot of other non-white characters in the comic! (It's also ironic that the comic depicts TV talk show host Bill Maher -- or at least a caricatured facsimile of him -- as speaking out against prejudice when, in recent years, some have accused Maher of being a bit of a public Islamophobe). I know some readers of my reviews object when I get too political in my analysis -- but, in this case, the whole series is supposed to be political and dealing, metaphorically, with real issues.

Anyway, I finished the saga largely unenthused -- despite really enjoying Casey's Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes, and always happy to come upon a relatively self-contained X-Men saga (given the comic is often so convoluted and caught up in never ending story threads). And I enjoyed another -- albeit decidedly lighter -- retro X-Men series, The First Class stories.

Cover price: ___


X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga 1986 / 2003 (SC TPB) 185 pgs.

original X-Men: the Dark Phoenix Saga cover

Written by Chris Claremont. Drawn by John Byrne. Inked by Terry Austin.
Original colours: Glynis Wein, Bob Sharen. Letters: Tom Orzechowski. Editor: Jim Salicrup.

Reprinting: Uncanny X-Men #129-137 (1980)

Rating: * * * * *  out of five

Number of readings: a few times over the years

When I think of the Dark Phoenix storyline, I think of one of the truly seminal epics in comic books. I read it in comic book form when it first came out and it certainly had a lasting impression on me, and years later was still talked about by fans in letters pages and the like.

The story had slowly been building (as a subplot) for a number of years; this TPB only collects the final 9 issues, but it still works well for the uninitiated. The story chronicles the X-Men's (made up of Cyclops, Jean Grey, Storm, Nightcrawler, Wolverine, Angel, Colossus and Prof. X with the Beast, Kitty Pryde and Dazzler along for a few issues here and there) battle with the sinister Hellfire Club, a seemingly respectable gentlemen's club, but with a nefarious inner circle intent on world domination. One of the inner circle, Jason Wyngarde, has been psychically seducing Jean Grey, the one time Marvel Girl whose expanded psychic powers as Phoenix has placed her on the threshold of Godhood. The club's plan is to unleash the dark side of Jean's id and have her join their club as their Black Queen.

The story is basically broken up into three trilogies. The first three issues chronicle the X-Men's initial skirmish with agents of the Hellfire Club (as well as introducing both Kitty Pryde and Dazzler to the Marvel Universe); the next as the X-Men take on the inner circle itself (in a particularly atmospheric storyline, with the X-Men and the inner circle battling it out while a perfectly innocent party of club regulars goes on above their heads); and finally, the X-Men must confront the unleashed Dark Phoenix, a turn that takes the team into space and involves the inter-galactic Shi'ar empire.

2003 re-issue cover by ByrneRe-reading these issues recently, I'll admit that I'm struck by a bit of a weakness. The theme, about "power corrupting" and Jean Grey losing herself in her awesome abilities is common enough (the old Star Trek series did it a few times) but here it's not altogether convincing. It's not even clear whether Dark Phoenix is an expression of Jean's subconscious or a separate entity possessing her. A few years later, Marvel released a one-shot "Phoenix, the Untold Story" printing the originally intended ending of the saga, as well as a round table interview with the creators. In that interview, it's clear even Claremont and Byrne couldn't agree on the specifics.

But beyond that, this is one of the great comic book epics. These stories are moody, action-packed, and ripe with characterization, travelling from dingy New York discos, to the New Mexico desert, to outer space, with some eerie time "jumps" (Jean thinks she's flashing back to the life of an 18th Century ancestor) and plenty of memorable scenes. And, ultimately, poignant ones -- achingly so. Subsequent events in the X-Men may have nullified some of the story elements, but not if you remember that, at the time, the things that transpire in this epic were intended to be irrevocable.

There is darkness, too, but less so than in later storylines, where Claremont, and the X-Men, would descend too far into a lot of nihilistic brutality and story elements that seemed more Clive Barker than superhero. As well, this would be one of the last things comics legend Byrne would do before becoming a writer-artist (and inker), at which point his art would start to suffer from his overworked schedule; so this is Byrne at his peak (with Austin's smooth, shadow-strewn inking, before his style changed to a hen-scratching technique, largely devoid of atmosphere). In that sense, "The Dark Phoenix Saga" is not just a great read, but almost an end to an era. The Claremont-Byrne-Austin team helped catapult the X-Men to superstar status (leading to successful imitations like DC's The New Teen Titans) but would go their separate ways shortly after this was first published.

A final bit of trivia: The '60s British TV spy series, "The Avengers", featured an episode where Steed and Peel encounter a revived Hellfire Club which was a front for a sinister inner circle: an inner circle including a man with an artificial limb. At one point Peel dresses up in a suit reminiscent of Jean Grey's Black Queen regalia. As well, the actor who guest starred was named...Wyngarde! Apparently I'm not the only one who spotted the similarity and, according to one e-mailer, Claremont once, more or less, acknowledged the influence.

(This is a review of the version originally serialized in Uncanny X-Men comics)

Original cover price: $12.95 CDN./$9.95 USA...reissue?: $15.95 USA 


X-Men: Days of Future Past 1989 (SC TPB) 44 pages.

X-Men: Days of Future PastWritten by Chris Claremont. Drawn by John Byrne. Inks by Terry Austin.
Original Colours: Glynis Wein. Letters: Tom Orzechowski. Editor: Louise Jones.

Reprinting: Uncanny X-Men #141 & 142

Rating: * * * *  out of five

Number of readings: 4

This semi-classic story begins in the early 21st Century. North America is enslaved by the robotic Sentinels who have captured or killed all super-powered beings. The remnants of the X-Men hatch a plan to send the mind of Kate Pryde back to modern times, to occupy her younger self's body. Her task: to warn the X-Men of this nightmare future, and get them to prevent the assassination of mutant-hating senator, Robert Kelly, by the new Brotherhood of Evil Mutants...an act which precipitates the re-activation of the Sentinels and brings about the future. While the modern day X-Men (comprised of Storm, Wolverine, Nightcrawler, Kitty Pryde, Colossus, Angel, and Prof. X) attempt to halt the killing, the future version of the team continue their sabotage against the Sentinels.

This particularly strong, if grim, X-tale nicely interweaves the two stories/timelines for an effective adventure-drama, with a good blend of character drama, mood, and action. The future scenes are especially atmospheric and memorable. Mythos-wise, it's notable as the first appearance of the New Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, the introduction of this grim, possible future that would play a part in later issues, and the first appearance of the future-born Rachel Summers who, likewise, would, much later, actually become a part of the modern team for a while.

This was also the John Byrne/Terry Austin teams penultimate X-Men story.

(This is a review of the version originally serialized in Uncanny X-Men comics)

Original cover price: __/$5.95 USA


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