Dearly Belated

Dearly Belated
X-Men #20 & #21
(for a more straightforward account of what’s going on in these issues–check out Paul O’Brien’s excellent X-Axis synopses, here and here)

So all of the major Marvel titles were in place. The Origins had been told. Even Galactus, THE single greatest marker of unrepeatable presence, in a world of serialized existential conflict, had come and gone (the May 1966 publication of X-Men #20 coincided with FF #51).The diastoles and systoles of the Merry Marvel Myth were known quantities–and readers could be forgiven for switching into pulse-checking mode…

Enter Roy Thomas! (Actually, he had entered quite a bit earlier–through his letters to the FF, from 1962 on–and also through an opportutunity to write Sgt Fury–which reminds me–I’m not going to be discussing Roy’s non-superhero work in this series–limits must be drawn somewhere!) As a trained historian, literary dilettante, AND fan-without-peer of SEVERAL American pop-cultural genres, Thomas was uniquely positioned to guide Marvel through its “years of consolidation”.

“Stern Stan” had been playing the mock-scholar and schoolmaster in the footnotes for a couple of years at that point, and now he loosed the real thing upon the Marvelites and their jointly-held metatext. Correction. The metatext, in fact, sprang, fully-formed, from Roy’s head (that’s Plok’s contention here–and he’s absolutely right).

 Roy stole the fire of narrative creation from the TCJ-Gods Kirby and Ditko, and gave it to the fans, who spread the blaze to the far corners of the earth, and the lettercols. (And–incidentally–“demythicized” the whole process–the whole idea of the “Marvel Canon”, contra Richard Reynolds, becomes ridiculous, once Roy reconverts Jack, Steve and Stan’s atom age sociodicy back into text–a field of pure cultural production–“apres Roy, le deluge”! )

And the process is evident from the Boy’s first issue. Break new ground? Hell no! Roy’s revolution is invisible at the surface level. It’s all a question of burrowing tunnels through the ruins of the Heroic Age. First order(s) of business–dramatize Prof X’s paralyzing accident, try to do SOMETHING with Lucifer (who had been given an inexplicably big build-up in X-Men #9), and drive home some facts about the internal dynamics of the strangest super-teen team of all.

Let’s begin with the last item:
These X-Men are the closest things to fascist stormtroopers you’ll find in supercomics before Alan Moore hits the scene.

How are they fascists? Let me count the ways.
1. They wear identical, masked outfits–the sinister aspect of which is emphasized by issue #20, which begins with Unus and the Blob (both old-time foes of the team) electing  to rob banks in x-garb… the idea, apparently, comes to them as a mental suggestion from Lucifer, who needs them in order to draw the X-Men’s attention to his activities, for reasons that never do become clear… (a side-note: Jason Powell and Geoff Klock’s discussion of Chris Claremont’s–and, now, Joss Whedon’s–penchant for stringing issues of cat’s paw-foes together on a submerged thread of behind-the-scenes malevolence really has to be back-dated to Roy’s tenure on the X-Men… that’s practically ALL Roy did on the book! First we get Lucifer manipulating Blob and Unus–then, as you’ll see in future posts, we have Count Nefaria’s little marionette show in issues #22 and #23, and then we have the “Factor Three” storyline, which took about a year and a half to resolve, and was almost entirely composed of waves of duped mutants and Spider-people bedeviling the X-Men at the behest of the “Mutant Master”)  Anyway, the ploy works like a charm, and definitely should have helped to drive home the point that the X-Men are, at the very least, a public-relations disaster for mutantdom.

2. Basic psychology–they’re a group of alienated, emotionally-unstable (especially “team-leader” Scott) teens, led by a domineering father-figure with mind-control powers.

3. Which leads to situations like this:
Try to follow along here kids–

Lucifer has unleashed “Dominus” upon an unsuspecting world!

(Dominus, by the way, gets my vote for most outrageously phallic doomsday device in the history of impotent earth-threatening:


)

The X-Men zero in on the danger! (in issue #21–after being trickily-alerted to the threat by Lucifer, who just can’t seem to bear the thought of conquering the earth without parading his triumph in front of Charlie Xavier, the man whom he had lovingly crippled some time in the dim X-past–no wonder he gets fired by the high command after this issue–he’s nowhere near single-minded enough in his pursuits) The paralyzed Prof X discerns that assaulting Dominus itself would be pointless, and could trigger the destruction of the earth even before Lucifer is ready to make it happen–and beams a very scattered version of this thought into the minds of his pupils, some of whom–notably the Angel–aren’t so sure that it isn’t a Luciferian trick. And the reader isn’t given any clues here either. To tell you the truth, I was leaning toward the Angel’s interpretation of things, until THIS happens:

Wow! There’s a lesson in “team spirit” kids! Blast your friend in the back with your deadly eye-beams (and this won’t be the last time that Scott treats Warren this way! Oh yes–and don’t forget that they’re also rivals for “Jean’s love” during this time! I think this goes a little beyond the intramural “bickering” that Stan Lee had made a Marvel trademark…) It turns out that this was exactly the “right” (i.e. textually-approved) move on Cyclops’ part… That crazy Angel, going off half-cocked, ignoring the voices in his head–he’s lucky they didn’t execute him on the spot! It’s a chastening moment–and nicely establishes Prof X’s arbitrary cult leadership once and for all. (this is a pattern that will persist for the entire duration of Roy’s run on the book–every decision X makes seems designed to keep the teens not only on their toes, but unable to tell up from down in the “mutant struggle”–makes you wonder how much Morrison’s Chief–in the Doom Patrol– was relying on Thomas’ Xavier, doesn’t it?)

This group-dynamic was always implicit in the Stan-and-Jack issues–but Roy (with that sucker-blast) gives it a solidity it had never had before–and, hence, bequeaths opportunities for “character development” to himself and his descendants… As Plok would say, Roy is MAKING the status quo here… In related news, he elects to give us an extended flashback into Prof X’s past, which follows up on issue #9’s declaration that Lucifer broke Charlie’s legs (turns out Chuck got off on liberating subjugated Asian peoples in the fifties)–again, this serves the purpose of shining a light into a dark corner of the emergent Marvel Universe, making a “usable past” for every writer to come… although, in this case, the effort was somewhat less than successful. I quite agree with Paul O’Brien’s assessment of Lucifer’s lack of potential as a character–all of which makes Prof X’s statement that he formed the X-Men in order to train a group which could oppose the alien conqueror seem faintly ludicrous. (best interpretation of that, again, is that X is playing more mind-games here–every issue, it seems, the team is confronting THE threat which called them into being… let’s just say their status is becoming mildly overdetermined at this point)

hmmm…well, I guess that’s all I’ve got to say about X-Men #20 and #21… but gangway for issues #22 and #23 very soon!

good afternoon friends!
Dave

14 comments

  1. For several reasons I think it’s great that Dave has started this series. I’m tempted to say one of them is that I’m glad he reads these X-Men issues so I don’t have to. (No offense to Roy!) My suspicion is that Dave tries to make the task of hacking his way through Roy’s not always terribly inspiring word thicket a bit easier by inserting a kind of Longboxian irony into the proceedings. Anyway, “Lucifer, who just can’t seem to bear the thought of conquering the earth without parading his triumph in front of Charlie Xavier, the man whom he had lovingly crippled some time in the dim X-past…” is a laughing-out-loud moment, especially that “lovingly”.

    FrF

  2. thanks Franz–there are indeed many silly things going on in these comics–but part of the fun I get out of them is that I always (or, almost always!) feel like I’m laughing with them, rather than at them!

  3. Three things I liked about issue 20:

    – Jay Gavin’s art (p.1 is nicely constructed)

    – The Beast’s eloquence.

    Hank: I’ll get that ray gun gun! It may still prove efficacious!

    Bobby: Yeah — maybe it will even work!

    – “Magnificent destiny” (p. 18) of course let’s one think about something else.

    But, oh Roy, that flashback narration in “Tibet” is too much even for indulgent readers!

    FrF

  4. oh yes indeed! that “manifest destiny” panel (with the blazing red energy star spreading across the globe from its epicenter IN the US–I did a double-take on that one!) is completely insane…

    also–and I should have mentioned this!–I LOVE Werner Roth’s art (he was going by the pseudonym “Jay Gavin”–reminiscent of Jay Gatsby?)… as has often been noted of these issues, Roy COULD NOT have (successfully, I mean) amped up the romantic aspects of the series without Roth’s help…

    Dave

  5. Since I’m here responding to another post, why not defend the X-men against your accusations of fascism? It seems to me that your criteria would also indict private school children, the boy and girl scouts, airline stewardesses, softball teams, all the spikey haired sleeveless gay men at my gym, and elderly bowling teams. Alright, so they don’t wear masks, but neither did the Italians. And maybe they’re not being controlled by a central intelligence, but I’m not an elitist about these things and don’t condescend to the working class, fascism only works when enough people choose to act accordingly. Following Xavier’s principles of living alongside those who are different isn’t exactly an immoral doctrine of control. Contrast that to Magneto’s philosophy. As for Cyclops clipping Angel’s wings: sometimes you have to take a ball to the side just to get on base. Fighting for liberty isn’t the same as acting within an already established liberty. That’s the Liberal’s dilemma, but I doubt any fascist is particularly troubled by it.

    Charles

  6. you’re right, of course, Charles–reading these X-Men wouldn’t be very interesting if the youngsters really WERE out-and-out fascists… on the other hand, Thomas does seem bent on eliciting a certain amount of queasiness from the reader–there is such a thing as a team functioning TOO well (or, being too completely the instrument of its leader)… anyway, that’s how I read Thomas’ tenure on the book–the development AWAY from Xavier’s original blueprint…but perhaps that’s best left to entries on future issues!

    Dave

  7. Oh yes, but that’s part of the fun of these trashy things, isn’t it? The Superman, protector of the downtrodden (uh, what? For God’s sake, where are those air-sickness pills…), the X-Men as a little mind-controlled army of alienated superpowered teens…yikes, it’s like a big symbolic rollercoaster.

    LOVE “apres Roy, le deluge”, Dave! Funny stuff. Or “L’etat, c’est Roy”?

    On to the next one! Very fun so far.

  8. So was Roy’s wordiness a good or bad thing for the storytelling and reader excitement?

    I’m firmly in the good thing camp. When it got too expository it could get awkward, but I loved the dynamics of the group and the constant chattiness which demanded second and third readings to give the reader room to interpret how things were between the players in ways Roy probably never intended.

  9. Dave–I quite agree!

    (also–my next post–which I hope to write tomorrow–why must life interfere with my blogging?–will definitely begin with a discussion of the cover of issue #22, so you may have found a very time-efficient way of following along with these posts!)

    H–

    for me, the verbosity is definitely a plus! I’m not ashamed to admit that I love Roy’s talk fests–I think they do a better job of conveying the absolutely crushing pressure of superpowerdom (and, particularly, of superTEAMdom) than any number of Kirby fights can (because those fights too often relieve the pressure, rather than keeping it on)… By encroaching so memorably upon the artist’s playground, Roy’s insane word and thought bubbles produce an even more palpable tension with the dynamic (and, from my perspective, potentially TOO-liberating) silver age art than Stan’s ironic captions had… so! yes! big thumbs up on the cracked-out word counts!

    Plok–thanks! (“L’etat c’est Roy” definitely works with the Thomas-as-Pauline-maker-of-Marvel-as-we-know it theory)

    onward!

    Dave

  10. Initially I thought that the eagerness with which the Tibetan villagers lay their fate into Charles’ hands — who strolled along days or hours ago — was hardly, let’s say, “believable”.

    But then it occured to me that Charles could be using his powers to influence them, although Roy, against his habits, leaves this part to the imagination. Charles’ adventures could then, with lots of good will, be read as an allusion to proxy wars with the villagers as pawns.

    (BTW does this even look like Tibet? Seems Marvel didn’t stretch itself by doing too much research!)

    FrF

  11. yes, I think it’s always a safe bet to assume that Xavier is mucking around with peoples’ heads in these stories… sometimes, I’m convinced he does it for kicks…

    an interesting side-benefit of the ersatzness of this issue’s “Tibet” is that, as Paul O’Brien mentions in his report on X-Men #20, the site of Xavier’s accident was later relocated to Afghanistan (in X-Treme X-Men #46, whatever that is) with no loss of integrity (since there was none to begin with!)

    Dave

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