Saturday, September 11, 2010

Best Comic Book Stories: X-Men Captured.

It's only a three issue arc, but it's one of my favorite X-men stories ever. For those looking to avoid spoilage, consult Uncanny X-men 111-113 right now.

This story was early on in Chris Clairemont and John Byrne's classic run on Uncanny. The cast going into the issue is vintage awesome: Cyclops, Phoenix, Storm, Wolverine, Nightcrawler, Colossus and Banshee.

The opening is one of the subtle I've ever read in comics. Former X-man Hank McCoy (Beast!) is off on leave from the Avengers and is alerted that XXXX, rocking the Ben Grimm trenchcoat and hat ensemble to hide his blue fur from the locals. It doesn't take him long to realize something is wrong: doesn't that carnival barker look an awful lot like Sean Cassidy, Banshee of the X-Men? Isn't that Man-Beast of the Yukon the spitting image of Wolverine?

Eventually he gets one of the performers alone, but none of these X-Men doppelgangers seem to recognize Beast or act as they should. Now that the hat's gone, he's clearly a blue-furred monster! But who could so thoroughly brainwash a team that has been trained by Xavier himself?

Our favorite green-and-purple costumed fella this side of the Impossible Man, Mesmero! An old nemesis of the original X-men team, Mesmero only needs a moment of eye contact to enthrall someone completely. And with Xavier taking a vacation in the Shiar galaxy with his plumed empress girlfriend, it's just not clear how the X-Men can possibly get out of this one.

Luckily, Mesmero wasn't able to fully subvert Wolverine's animalistic mind, so he escapes and starts threatening to kill people as always. I've read a lot of Wolverine comics, but I just never get tired of the claws under the chin. It's just got a nice homey feel, you know? Reminds me that everything is okay with the X-Men.

Then he starts hitting women until something good happens. That's a 70's era antihero for you. He pops Jean out of it; now that the resident psychic is free, it looks like the tide has turned for the X-Men.

However, we find out that silly Mesmero is the least of our problems. Man, I love these "but who could it be?" panels. Our mystery villain fries the Beast just as he gets the drop on Mesmero. The X-Men assemble in the little cart that Mesmero is leading from, and see the scariest thing in the world: a man covered in shadows in a chair!

Oh snap! It's Magneto!

A little background here. Magneto, the oldest and most deadly of the X-Men's villains, had not really faced the New X-Men yet. He had been regressed to infancy awhile back, and was only recently restored to his full power and age. And although the new team was clearly stronger than the old in terms of raw power, they hadn't been together long enough to develop the teamwork that is crucial for defeating an enemy as powerful and intelligent as Magneto.

And because I can't help myself, this post will be full of gratuitous John Byrne spreads, like so.

I'm just noticing this now, but why do so few of the X-Men have normal eyes when they're in combat mode? Wacky.

Nightcrawler teleports outside to scout around, but ach nein! It turns out the room they are in is miles above the Earth, propelled by Magneto's powers. The X-Men don't have enough fliers to actually get everyone down alive, so they're forced to let Magneto drag them off to their doom. It's rare that there's a logical time for a villain to give backstory, but this is one of those times.

Because Magneto is a great villain, he's got a specially designed base in the heart of a volcano in Antarctica. I love how much the deck is stacked against the team: even if you beat Magneto, then what? You're still in a volcano in Antarctica! Maggie always has the best bases. How do you really deal with Asteroid M? It took the X-Men forever to deal with Avalon. Too much work involved to assault an orbiting hunk of rock. You've probably got to use a rocket to get the whole team there, and Magneto can just take the thing apart if he feels like it. Still, for sheer intimidation, my favorite is the base inside a volcano in Antarctica.

As Cyclops feared, the X-Men lack a team approach, assaulting him individually in the most useless way. Most characters in the group simply don't have the power to even hold Magneto's attention; probably only Phoenix and Storm have a chance head to head. I'll just let the panels explain here.

Magneto is really at the top of his game. Rather than just displaying raw power, he exploits the X-Men's weaknesses. For examples, he two-fers Colossus and Nightcrawler in a classic way. Colossus versus Magneto is a brutal mismatch, and the villain recognizes that and uses it to his advantage. Whammo!

Fans of X-Men will recognize that Phoenix is a cut above Magneto, actually; why doesn't she just wipe the floor with him with her cosmic power? Well, she has her moment, but the power is new to her, and she still can't call on that energy consistently at will. So Mags gets the drop on her when her power ebbs.

Magneto's confrontation with Wolverine is an oft-repeated classic:

All the X-Men are down and out at this point. I just love how Magneto's victory over the X-Men is plotted. He's facing most of these characters for the first time, so he defeats them all in unique ways: Banshee by reflecting his sonics back at him by manipulating the metal walls, Colossus by forcing him to change forms, Wolverine by controlling his metal, Cyclops by shielding himself at the same time as clocking him with a hunk of metal. Instead of killing the X-Men, Magneto has a fate worse than death set up for them, and it's actually appropos.

You see, years ago the threat of Magneto was presumably ended for decades when he was reduced to infancy, thus losing access to his powers. More than that, he kept his adult mind in the helpless body of a baby. Now, he inflicts that same psychological torture on the X-Men, by trapping them in chairs that regress them to infancy as well. And it gets worse. There's Nanny.

For once, I'm not upset by the "villain refuses to kill enemies" cliche. First, Magneto has always been a bit gunshy about hurting mutants, especially the X-Men. He could trivially kill Xavier, but he ultimately thinks of the mutants as misguided future allies. Having survived the Holocaust himself, he is reluctant to slaughter mutants wholesale.

Second, this really is a terrible and potent revenge. Magneto had been essentially tortured in his own skin for years, and he planned out the same punishment for the X-Men. Attacking Magneto's dignity, we find, is more dangerous than simply attacking his person.

It's a terrible trap, and it may seem impossible for the X-Men to escape. But Magneto doesn't know these X-Men as well as he knew the previous group, so he makes a mistake. He doesn't know that Storm was the best lockpicker in Cairo at a very young age. Also, she has lockpicks hidden in her headdress. Sneaky! This is why you don't have everyone in your group be Cyclops.

Unfortunately, Storm messes up and loses control of the lockpick. I really like this scene. It's a difficult task, and Ororo fails. It allows two very nice things to happen: first, the emotional and physical strain of such a difficult task under terrible conditions manifests itself. The cloying sweetness of Nanny would make the experience even more trying.

It's nice to see an emotional break for a character at a frustrating moment.

Morever, it shows a clever escape technique without having to show tedious "everyone escapes" panels. Ororo eventually succeeds at picking the lock off-screen, which leads to a fantastic sequence where the readers follow Magneto:

The last panel of the joint X-Men attack on Magneto is one of my favorite ever in comics. It accurately foreshadows the second battle: this time, the X-Men are following Cyclops' direction, telepathically indicated through Jean. Colossus is a bit of a hero and busts the plan a bit, but pound Magneto enough to keep him distracted. As a nice touch, Storm stays back and subtlely alters the atmosphere around Magneto, keeping him huffing.

Oh, that's right! We're still in a volcano! The fight damaged the equipment that kept the lava out, so the base begins to collapse. The fight stops, as everyone realizes just how dangerous the situation is. Magneto's taunt of Cyclops here is excellent; he's still got his bravado, even if the X-Men basically had him. The villain escapes, and the X-Men end up being split up by the lava.

Cyclops and the crew end up digging through the mountain with his optic blast to the Savage Land, while Beast and Phoenix escape via Jean's cosmic awesome, but then have to survive in Antarctica with little juice left. That's a different story, though.

Why is this story a classic? It's just executed so well: the return of a powerful villain, his control over the situation, and the X-Men's inability to beat him without working together. Magneto enacts a classic revenge that is dramatically appropriate. The characters aren't saved by some sort of deus ex machine, but by the mundane skills of a character. Byrne's art is just fantastic; Magneto has never looked more intimidating. The story opens in media res, like so few comic book stories. One has no idea of why the X-Men are in the carnival or why they seem to have lost their memories.

It was just a great concept executed masterfully, with a fantastic cast of characters to boot. And it's not even the best thing that Clairemont and Byrne did with Uncanny X-Men! There's a reason that this writer-artist duo is renowned, and we see a glimpse of that here with Magneto's return.


  1. How this paint Storm as a awesome character?

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