GRAPHIC NOVEL AND TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

X-Men - Page 7

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X-Men & The New Teen Titans: Apokolips...Now! 1982, 64 pages.
(Technically, its official title is: Marvel and DC presents, featuring The Uncanny X-Men and The New Teen Titans...but that's pretty wordy)

X-Men & New Teen Titans - cover by Walter Simonson / Terry AustinWritten by ChrisClaremont. Illustrated by Walt Simonson. Inks by Terry Austin.
Colours: Glynis Wein. Letters: Tom Orzechowski. Edited by Louise Jones (and Len Wein)

Rating: * * * (out of five)

Number of readings: 3

This is also included in Crossover Classics, vol. 1 -- just so's ya know.

This probably doesn't count as a graphic novel. Graphic novels are supposed to have stiff spines (as opposed to the folded/stapled format of a periodical) and, like books, generally they aren't supposed to appreciate much -- that is, if you come across a graphic novel that was originally published ten years ago, it still probably won't cost you any more than the cover price.

However, this was published on expensive paper, and I have come across it in the graphic novel section of comic stores, and it's been re-issued at least once. And at this point, I'm looking to include things, just to create the sense of a big, comprehensive site. And, last but not least, it's my site, and I can review what I want!

This company crossover is an entertaining, fast paced little romp, as the different teams -- Marvel's X-Men and DC's New Teen Titans -- find their separate investigations dove tail, taking them from New York to New Mexico to the end of the Universe and back again, to battle the evil cosmic baddie, Darkseid, lord of the planet Apokolips. Darkseid has nasty plans for earth, and with the help of Titans' foe, the Terminator, has conjured up a kind of doppleganger of the then-still-deceased Dark Phoenix to help him put them into effect.

The characters are reasonably in character (Chris Claremont was the regular writer on the X-Men, but had never written the New Teen Titans before) and the action and adventure clips along breathlessly. I suppose the main weakness is that, despite the resurrection of Phoenix, and the potential emotional repercussions for the X-Men, this is basically a breezy, superficial read. More pulp than profound; fairly fun while you read, but not much lingers afterward.

Interestingly, I enjoyed the Titans part of the story more than the X-Men, even though I was more of a fan of the merry mutants than the "New" Titans. Perhaps that's because company crossovers tend to be, in a way, ads for the various characters. You know, a Teen Titans fan buys it, and maybe gets turned on to the X-Men, or vice versa, resulting in a certain generic familiarity to some of the scenes and lines. The very fact that I was less into the Teen Titans meant their scenes seemed a little fresher.

This isn't the best company crossover I've ever read (that distinction belongs to 1981's treasury-sized Batman vs. The Incredible Hulk by Len Wein and J.L. Garcia Lopez -- not that I've read that many), and it's not necessarily a must-have, but it's certainly a good read. There was talk of a second X-Titans project, but I don't think it ever materialized.


cover by BoltonX-Men: Vignettes (vol. 1) 2001 (SC TPB) 176 pages

Written by Chris Claremont. Illustrated by John Bolton.
Colours: Glynis Oliver. Letters: Tom Orzechowski. Editor: Ann Nocenti.

Reprinting: the back up stories from Classic X-Men #1-13 (1986-1987)

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Additional notes: intro by Claremont.

In the mid-1980s, Marvel published Classic X-Men (later X-Men Classics) -- a reprint comic representing the early issues of the "new" Uncanny X-Men. Marvel had done this before with other titles, but by this point the X-Men had long become one of the companies biggest titles. So they decided to do something a little more "special" -- particularly as this was before TPBs were so ubiquitous. Most of those issues hadn't been seen since they were originally published, a decade before.

So along with reprinting the issues, original writer Chris Claremont inserted "lost" scenes, supposedly making the issues like "director's cuts" of movies. Even at the time I had some qualms about this, feeling it was more an alteration than a restoration (like the debate that has raged around George Lucas' tinkering with the Star Wars movies). Even though Claremont (like Lucas) claimed these were scenes he had intended, but had to be cut for space -- I'm not sure I fully believe it. Some came across as scenes Claremont looked back and wished he had thought of, rather than scenes he originally had. Of course, now that the unadulterated issues are so readily available in the Essential collections, maybe the "director's cut" isn't so problematic.

All of which, to be honest, is irrelevant to this review -- except to set up the context. Because in addition to the reprinted old issues (with added scenes), Claremont also provided brand new back up stories -- usually 12 pages -- that were set in the same era, some directly supplementing or tying into the main reprinted issue, others more isolated. And though there was occasional action and super-heroing, they were more meant to be character pieces, human dramas -- vignettes.

The first thirteen have been collected here (a second TPB collected the next dozen stories).

Paired with Claremont was British artist John Bolton marking possibly his first (and maybe only) monthly American comics gig. Earlier I had seen Bolton's breathtaking art on a King Kull story in Marvel's black & white magazine, Bizarre Adventures. The art in these X-Men stories wasn't on the same level -- less detailed and meticulous. Whether an artistic choice, or simply so he could meet the deadlines, I dunno. It's still attractive, but a little stiff, a little less than that Kull story had promised.

And the resulting stories are a little hit and miss -- sometimes in the same story. Obviously, the de-emphasis on action might be problematic, particularly collected here without benefit of the more action-oriented Uncanny X-Men reprints as a lead in. At the same time, the thinking was that the X-Men -- as much as any comics characters -- had built up a following as interested in the personalities as the pyrotechnics. And on that level many of the stories do work, in little tales such as Wolverine daring Nightcrawler to walk around Salem Centre without benefit of a human guise and others. The characters focused on can be curious -- Cyclops, for instance, is never more than a peripheral character in any of the tales, while Jean Grey, Storm, Nightcrawler and Wolverine all are prominent in at least two each. Colossus gets one solo tale. Branching out from the to-be-expected, the tales also include unlikely focuses. Sebastian Shaw and the sinister Hellfire Club get a look-in in a tale set long before they were officially introduced into the comic. Another story focuses on arch foe Magneto. While another focuses on Jean and her housemate, Misty Knight -- despite the fact that Misty (a Power Man & Iron Fist supporting character) never really became part of the X-family.

Stories like that reflect Claremont's desire to rectify missed opportunities. After all, in those long ago Uncanny X-Men issues, he did make Jean and Misty housemates -- but never really did anything with it (I'd have to flip through my Essential volumes, but I doubt Misty ended up appearing in more than a handful of panels).

Some stories are both surprising in their focus -- and their effectiveness. A tale focusing on the aftermath of the death of Thunderbird is astonishingly good, giving dimension and background to a character who never seemed like more than a cliche (the ethnic with a chip on his shoulder) and was killed off a couple of issues after being introduced (in part, probably, because he wasn't more than a Wolverine echo).

The low-key, character-oriented tone of the stories gives them a gentle, atmospheric flavour. A flavour that even serves well in one of the more "super hero" stories, where Wolverine is hunted by a mysterious nemesis, the story playing up suspense and building tension rather than action.

Where the stories falter a bit is with Claremont's writing. A verbose writer who tends to hammer away at points with the subtlety of a sledge hammer, even when writing action stories, here, allowing his pretensions free rein, the stories can be a bit pompous and obvious. Characters launch into stiffly phrased self-knowing monologues, pondering their doubts and fears, Claremont sometimes losing the individual "voice" of the character in favour of the "meaning" he wants to impart. As well, the stories can tend to be a bit simple, and obvious, "twists" not as unexpected as he might have intended.

There's also the "continuity" question, which is: some of these stories were meant to sit next to specific issues of the Uncanny X-Men, or derive meaning from retroactively foreshadowing much later stories. As such, despite the attempts at sophistication, at character over mindless action that might make it seem like the ideal collection to impress non-comics snobs, some of the tales will have little meaning if you don't know your X-Men lore. At the same time, though I have read the issues these stories were paired with, I haven't read them too recently -- yet I still recognized most of the necessary references and allusions.

So for X-Men fans, it's a nice little collection of atypical and introspective tales, but even at 12 pages some seem a bit stretched, and they can run to pretentious more than profound. But a decent enough book to keep with your collection.

Cover price: $__ CDN./$17.95 USA


X-Men Visionaries 2: The Neal Adams Collection 1996 (SC TPB) 190 pgs.

cover by Neal AdamsWritten by Roy Thomas (and Denny O'Neil, with a one-issue co-story credit for Chris Claremont). Pencils by Neal Adams. Inks by Tom Palmer.
Colours/Letters: Various. Editor: Stan Lee.

Reprinting: X-Men (1st series) #56-63, 65 (1969-1970) (with covers) minus the back-up stories that appeared in #56 and 57.

Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 3

Additional notes: intro by Tom Palmer

Collecting the complete run comics art legend Neal Adams had on the original X-Men (the team then comprised of Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Beast, Angel, Iceman, and hangers on Havok and Lorna Dane) where his organic style, kinetic figures, and experimental panel composition helped shake-up the industry, X-Men Visionaries: The Neal Adams Collection turns out also to be a surprisingly nice encapsulation of X-mythos, as well.

Over these nine issues our merry mutants have an epic battle with the robotic Sentinels (highlighting the whole mutants-as-persecuted-minority thing), tussle with arch-villain Magneto, team-up (sort of) with jungle hero Ka-Zar (who was re-introduced into Marvel continuity a few years previous in the X-Men) and do the whole globe-hopping thing I associate with the team...among other, less archetypal tales. If Roy Thomas had set out to concoct a mini-series of stories epitomizing the X-Men, I'm not sure what he would've done different. Heck, the Sentinels story even involves a zillion cameos of X-friends and foes.

Although this re-hashing of themes and villains is kind of the problem with too many comics, at the time these hadn't been overused quite as much. I believe this was only the second use of the Sentinels (after their introduction almost 40 issues before) and only the X-Men's second visit with Ka-Zar and the Savage Land (first seen in issue #10)! The suspenseful Sentinels story is probably as good as -- or better -- than any other Sentinels story published before or since.

This collection is even disillusioning for later-day fans, demonstrating just how little the series has evolved over the years. Many of the elements that I assumed came much later are present here. There are scenes and images that anticipate later X-stories (and non-X-Men tales like Justice League of America: The Nail). In fact, there's actual dialogue that, whether conscious or not, Chris Claremont "borrowed" verbatim for his X-Men scripts years later. Heck, there's even the ol' "ret-conning" cliche thing where a believed dead character turns up alive and explains that "everything you thought you knew, you didn't!"

One of the most memorable pieces in the collection is an atypical two-part Jekyll and Hyde-type tale introducing the villain Sauron. Perhaps it's memorable precisely because, by using a foe not seen before or necessarily intended to recur, it has some freshness, some -- gasp! -- originality. It also plays around with pathos. (Though recur he did, and later appearances were poorer for the repetition). Likewise, the Sentinels story is as much memorable for some twists and turns revolving around the characters created solely for this story, as for the presence of the big tin guys themselves.

In a way, that's what makes some of the stories different from later X-Men comics I've read (and a lot of superhero comics in general): the creation of characters, and the exploration of same, who are not on the regular roster of X-Men or their recurring foes. In other words, there's a refreshing element of human drama squeezed into the action-adventure shenanigans. There's also a lack of the brutality and nihilism that came to mar some later X-Men stories (no one dies or is mutilated!)

Compared to later scribes (most notably, Claremont) Thomas isn't as character-heavy, or sub-plot oriented. But that's not always a bad thing. Sure, these stories are mainly fast-paced adventures, but instead of bombarding the reader with reams of self-analytical monologues as the characters analyse every little nuance of their psyche (as Claremont was wont to do), Thomas is content to let the characterization play itself out naturally as the moments arise. There are memorable emotional bits and character interaction -- Thomas' stuff is just subtler. His porttrayal of the camaraderie among the group is appealing, as well.

Earlier issues of the X-Men had been Thomas' first regular writing gig on an official super-hero title, and you could tell he was learning his craft, the pacing awkward, the writing excessively verbose. He returned with Adams for this batch of issues, but now fully in command of pacing and dialogue. Indeed, the return of Thomas, and his pairing with Adams, may have been seen as an attempt to give a boost to a languishing series (the writer Thomas replaced, Arnold Drake, had created a quirky, cult classic in DC's own answer to The X-Men, The Doom Patrol, but the general feeling was his X-Men work was weak) -- which might also explain Thomas' recycling of Sentinels, Ka-Zar, Magneto, etc. as an attempt to rekindle reader interest.

It didn't work, the series only lasting one issue beyond this collection (not drawn by Adams) before being turned over to reprinting old issues.

The final story collected here, written by guest writer Denny O'Neil, is the weakest. His ear for dialogue is occasionally more naturalistic than Thomas was using at the time, and the story has a potentially interesting way the heroes beat the bad guys...but his portrayal of the characters is grating, going for the pointless-bickering-as-a-substitute-for-characterization route. Thomas' X-Men were family, not so O'Neil's. As well, the plot, an alien invasion story, is just kind of lame. It also ends awkwardly. The X-Men beat the bad guys, but Prof. X faints, leading into the next issue -- which wasn't included since it wasn't drawn by Adams. Sure, it's not a big cliff-hanger, but still...

Another weakness is that Adams began drawing the X-Men at the end of a storyline, meaning the first issue in this collection plops us down in the middle of a story. At the very least, a little recap "for those who came in late" would've been nice. Likewise, like a lot of TPBs, the original footnotes have been removed. There's nothing more aggravating than having a character refer to previous events...but having no idea when or where they took place.

The greatest source of ambivalence, though, stems from the decision to re-colour the stories using modern, multi-tone colouring -- in fact, more elaborate colouring than the average comic on the stands used at the time this was collected! On one hand, the colours can be truly breathtaking...on the other hand, surely the reader wants to get a sense of what the stories were really like 30 years ago? The book is hyped as a chance to see how revolutionary Adams' work was, but then the editors seem to lack faith in the material themselves by trying to update the process. In addition to new colour, and the use of coloured ink on the Iceman and energy beams, they've added a kind of "focus" effect in spots, blurring backgrounds to give a 3-D effect. Again, something Adams hadn't done. The new colours are also a bit dark in spots, actually obscuring Adams and Palmer's work.

But ignoring the historical misrepresentation, I'll admit the new colours do give the stories a rich grandeur.

Since the X-Men went into reprinting older stories just one issue later, the question arises, if these are such classic stories, how come they didn't sell better at the time? Like a lot of trade paperbacks, X-Men Visionaries: The Neal Adams Collection allows the work to be seen in a different environment. Maybe on a monthly schedule, Thomas and Adams just weren't delivering enough meat-per-issue to bring the readers back, who knows? But read together, when the next issue is just a page turn away, this run of stories is thoroughly enjoyable. Adams' art, is, of course, stunning (well served by Tom Palmer's firm inks -- better than I thought it would be) and Thomas' scripts are well-paced and interesting. The way some of the stories overlap, though probably annoying when originally serialized (the reader thinking the story's coming to an end...only to have a new plot rise up and continue into the next comic) is actually kind of fun here, since the whole saga is at your finger tips.

In fact, I'll go on to say this is a great collection. I recently re-read this in the context of re-reading most of my "classic" X-Men comics, from the original Lee/Kirby tales to later revivals such as the witty X-Men: First Class and John Byrne's uneven X-Men: The Hidden Years. Obviously, I don't have a complete collection, but if I were to prune my collection down to just one sample of the original team -- this Thomas/Adams/Palmer run would probably be it. It's a nice run of diverse stories, hitting all the key themes of the series, mixing old foes and new, and beautifully illustrated.

Back in 1983, Marvel published a three issue mini-series reprinting at least some of these issues called X-Men Classics (not to be confused with the later on-going series reprinting the New X-Men stories).

Original cover price: $34.95 CDN./$24.95 USA


coverAmazing X-Men: World War Wendigo 2015 (SC TPB) 136 pages

Written by Christopher Yost, Craig Kyle, with Kathryn Immonen. Pencils by Carlo Barberi, Pablo Medina, Ed McGuinness, Iban Coello. Inks by various. Reprinting: Amazing X-Men #7-12 (2014)

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Review posted: July 2016

World War Wendigo is a fast-paced, sometimes amusing, occasionally exciting, adventure teaming up The X-Men (or at least one iteration of the franchise) with the Canadian super team, Alpha Flight (which -- ditto).

And yet it left me going "meh."

This collection kicks off with a light-hearted one-shot story (courtesy guest contributors Kathryn Immonen and Pablo Medina) where Ice Man and Firestar get caught up in a misadventure with an alien mutant baby, teaming them with Spider-Man. Since there was a 1980s Saturday Morning cartoon "Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends" which featured Spidey, Ice Man, and Firestar (the character was introduced in the cartoon long before migrating to the comics) you can see it intended as an affectionate in-joke. It's amusing and clips along, though I'm not sure it really makes much sense (I never quite figured out what the plot/motivation was that triggered the exercise). But it's enjoyable in a breezy way.

Then comes the 5-part World War Wendigo in which Wolverine heads to his native Canada to look up his old Alpha Flight pals, but learns James Hudson (a.k.a. Guardian) has disappeared on an assignment. Wolverine, with Heather Hudson (Vindicator), heads off to find out what happened -- only to discover an entire community has been transformed into the monstrous Wendigo creatures -- a curse brought about by consuming flesh. Battling one Wendigo in the past has been enough of an ordeal -- and now there are hundreds.

After Wolverine and Vindicator disappear, the rest of the X-Men (Storm, Nightcrawler, Ice Man, Colossus, Firestar, Rachel, Rockslide, and ex-Alphan Northstar) come looking, soon augmented by Alphans Snowbird, Puck, Talisman, Sasquatch and Guardian (who apparently escaped his earlier tussle with the Wendigos) while the Wendigo epidemic becomes so bad, American heroes like Captain America and Thor are forced to set up a perimeter guard at the Canada/U.S. border (apparently the Wendigo curse can be transferred by scratches and bites, like werewolfism -- though I'm not sure that was originally part of the mythos in Marvel Comics lore).

Though Alpha Flight guest stars and it takes place in Canada, this remains primarily an X-Men adventure, with the Alphans not equal co-stars. (It threw me a couple of times when erstwhile Alpha and current X-Men Northstar refers to his "team" and I had to remind myself he meant the X-Men, not Alpha Flight).

And reading this I was reminded of many of the things that I don't really like about modern comics (and, indeed, aspects that date back even to the comics I read as a kid) -- even as, because of that, I'm sure it will be great fun for other readers.

Now as I say: good points include a brisk pace, some amusing quips, and lots of action.

The art is robust and attractive enough throughout. But especially when drawn by Barberi (who illustrates the majority) it has a slight Manga influence which is an example of what I mean about things I don't like, but others do. Magna is very popular, but I tend to find it a bit too cartoony (not that this is an extreme version of that style, but there is a definite Elven aspect to the characters). I tend to prefer a more realist style -- not the least being because a comic about super beings fighting mythical creatures is already pretty removed from reality, so it's nice to have some grounding.

As for the writing, the problem I have with that "amusing quips" thing is that, well, that's basically every line. And the humour tends to be deliberately self-reflective, from Colossus and Nightcrawler bantering about how many times they have died and come back again to the tendency for the characters to treat almost every crisis as an excuse for some wry aside. It saps much of the tension out of it when even the characters don't really take it that seriously -- not to mention sapping any "realism" from it for the same reason. When Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four's The Thing used to make wisecracks, the humour was used to add a sense of realism, making the characters and the fantasy seem grounded (and often the jokes were supposed to be the characters' coping mechanism) as well as acting as a counter-point to the more earnest drama. But here it's not a counter-point -- it's the baseline. ALL the characters are doing it ALL the time. It makes the story easy to breeze through -- but a bit emotionally tepid.

At times it can feel like the class clown who thinks he's funnier than he is and doesn't know when to shut up.

It's a bit as if the writers are huge fans of Joss Whedon -- but haven't quite figured out Whedon's ability to layer real emotion and gravitas under the flippant quips and asides. Or maybe with real actors spouting the lines, it's easier to maintain a sense of human emotion -- whereas drawings on a page have to work harder.

There are moments of tension, of creepy suspense, but that just draws attention to how rare they are, despite a story that's supposed to seem apocalyptic, involving man-eating monsters, with some of the heroes getting seriously injured.

But maybe that's what the audience wants -- nothing too deep or heavy to flip through on the bus ride home.

Which then brings us to the plot aspect. And another pet peeve. In a never ending comic book universe, inevitably plots get recycled.

Wendigo monsters have cropped up before -- and it's not like there's a lot of plot twists or turns associated with them (given they are just rampaging monsters). The neat idea here was the army of Wendigos -- but doing a quick google search, I guess even that idea has been used before. While a previous X-Men/Alpha Flight/Wendigo story (Uncanny X-Men #139-140 -- reprinted in more than one TPB collection) also began with Wolverine dropping in on Heather and told that Guardian has gone off into the woods on a mission!

The other problem I have is just the way comics tend to trot out all the same villains, as if comics are less "stories" and more WWF grudge matches between popular wrestlers. Recurring villains are great -- but I have begun to find it a bit tiresome how many stories simply involve the heroes "discovering" it's some old foe (a tendency that, yes, dates back even to my childhood). It can make for rather weak narratives (since there's no need to come up with motives, surprise agendas, or mysteries). After battling Wendigos for a few issues (a recurring menace itself) they then discover another recurring malevolence is behind it all (familiar from previous Alpha Flight comics) -- except there's no foreshadowing or anything in this story. So midway through the story, there's a shift in focus and a casual reader is left to go: "Uh, what now? -- Who? Why?"

Not that logic overall is paramount. The heroes defeat the menace by suddenly acquiring God-like powers -- but, again, with no real foreshadowing earlier to suggest that was a possibility. (Another problem I find with stories involving the supernatural -- it allows the writers to just wave their hands and say "Presto!")

The weird thing about comics (and especially modern comics) is as I say: storytelling seems secondary (despite the TPBs labelled as "graphic novels"). The point more just seems to be, well, playing with the old toys. Dragging out familiar heroes to fight familiar foes in familiar scenarios -- again and again. Everything rooted in and based upon the established lore. And everything is recycled (dead characters are back on the team, while Storm is once more sporting the Mohawk hairdo she wore in the 1980s!)

Yet, paradoxically, there is a blithe disregard for continuity -- or at least a selective enforcement of it. Many of these characters have been around for decades -- yet don't necessarily sound or act like they used to (such as Storm) or act too much like they used to (why is Ice Man still treated as the irresponsible juvenile when he was part of the founding team?) At one point, Alphan Aurora expresses contempt for the romantic relationship between Talisman and the diminutive Puck while Northstar criticizes her prejudice -- but wasn't she the one who, in comics back in the 1980s, dated the fat, double amputee Jason Bochs and it was Northstar who was contemptuous?

And, yeah, I'm not sure a Talisman/Puck pairing was ever a part of Alpha Flight before -- which is the problem with Alpha Flight. Moreso than probably any other comic book characters, writers are constantly altering the team's mythos to the point where I'm not sure there's any point in even asking what is and isn't official continuity.

And just since this does take place in Canada, I guess it warrants minor comments. I tend not to worry about it overmuch, accepting Marvel's vision of Canada as an American fantasy of Canada. There is a cute quip when, on hearing the Wendigo curse is brought about by cannibalism, an appalled Firestar says: "Canadians eat people?" There is something a quaint about labelling the countryside "The Canadian forest" (as if that narrows it down). But there's something bizarre about Wolverine showing up at Heather's house in Ottawa (y'know, the capital of Canada) and the artist draws it as a cabin surrounded by more of that dang forest. (For that matter, what's up with a town actually named "Forrest?"). Kathryn Immonen, who writes the opening, non-Canadian story, is actually Canadian -- and she even works in a joke about American/Canadian colloquialisms (pop vs. soda). Main writers Yost and Kyle seem to have less comprehension about their northern neighbour.

Anyway, this is one of those TPBs where I can't really diss it strenuously. With its quips and its non-stop action I enjoyed it at first, but found my interest waning after a while. It kind of reminds me of just why a lot of people dismiss, or otherwise feel a need to out grow, comics. The dialogue is written more like a sitcom than a drama where people occasionally say witty things, and the plot is basically just a lot of hitting and fighting for five issues. I think the highpoint was Immonen's opening story, because even though it was similar, she managed a better job of making the dialogue funny-funny, while also keeping it rooted in the characters (but it was still predominantly a comedy).

Cover price: $__ USA

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