Friday, June 8, 2012

Giant-Size X-Men #1: A retrospective look back in anger at a remembrance of things past!

Gil Kane and Dave Cockrum create
a classic image!

Giant-Size X-Men #1 (May 1975)
Publisher:  Marvel
Story/Script:  Len Wein
Art: Dave Cockrum

This is where it all began.  The X-Men legend.  This is where the title began its rise from obscure Fantastic Four knock-off to Marvel’s flagship franchise.  Hugely influential and source material for a lucrative film series that helped jump-start the idea of “superhero movies” as we now know the genre--  yet its characters remain fairly obscure outside the comic book world.  We insiders—damned as we are-- may know how Banshee lost his sonic scream and chuckle knowingly at the strange concept of Nightcrawler’s being able to turn invisible in shadow yet have a face that’s always shadowed, but our moms and dads probably couldn’t tell Wolverine from tangerine if you spotted them a tree, a juice squeezer and six Hand ninja.

But hoooo baby, they love that singin’, dancin’ man Hugh Jackman!

Anyway, here we are at the beginning at last.  Giant-Size X-Men #1.  Years ago I bought a run of early X-Men from a friend for the grand total of 20 dollars and the use of my left-handed outfielder’s glove one day in P.E.  In return I had X-Men numbers 94, 95, 96, 97, 98, 101, 107 and 112.  And I read them.  I took them to school, passed them around to my friends and we read them until they were wrinkled and puckered at the staples.  Take that, graded mint collectors!  But I didn’t have Giant-Size X-Men #1 and by the time I realized what I had that foolish friend of mine was on drugs and would rather trade his back issues for white powder and green leaf, neither of which I could easily obtain and transport back into the States despite possessing diplomatic clearance through customs thanks to a childhood spent overthrowing Communist-friendly regimes in Central and South America.  I was a precocious child and I will soon publish my memoirs detailing my cover story as a violin prodigy on a perpetual world tour that just happened to intersect certain geopolitical hotspots.  That is, if I’m not assassinated first!

I digress.  Eventually Marvel reprinted this story and I’ve since read it too many times.  And last night, I read it again.  The cover—by Gil Kane and Dave Cockrum—is a classic image, one copied and homage many times.  Led by—of all things—a filthy, atheistic Red made entirely of metal, including his filthy, atheistic genitalia, the new internationally stereotyped X-Men burst through the old homogenously white American X-Men.  The cover copy promises something it calls “Deadly Genesis!” but the title page introduces a story calling itself, “Second Genesis!”  What the hell?  Can’t you people get it together?  Plus, that title sounds a little like a new herbal shampoo, superior to the previous formulation.

Herbal shampoos—I mean, getting it together is what this story is all about.  I’m speaking of the super-team.  With the original X-Men missing after an ill-advised trip to a tropical island in search of an all-powerful mutant, Professor X travels the globe and recruits his new students.  There’s Nightcrawler, who finds himself pursued by angry Germans—the inverse of what my great-uncle did to the lousy Hun with one of Patton’s tanks during the Big One.  There’s Storm, who flies around topless with her startling white hair conveniently covering her breasts no matter how many howling thunderstorms of wind and rain she calls up with her magical mutant abilities.  There’s the aforementioned Red, a beefy simpleton from a collective farm.  He’s later called Colossus and wonders aloud if his powers are everything Professor X claims, shouldn’t they belong to the State?  Not on my watch, Pinko!  Professor X also recruits a trio of ringers, three characters who had already appeared in Marvel continuity.  I’m referring to the Impossible Man, Flash Thompson and Irving Forbush.

Okay, okay.  He signs Sunfire, Banshee and Wolverine.  We all know Banshee thanks to the many movies made about him in the last few years, but Wolverine remains an obscure piece of comic book trivia.  Sunfire is one of those arrogant, angry, ultra-traditional “I hate the West” Japanese guys beloved by American comic book writers.  Because you can never have too much racial animosity in your superhero group where teamwork is at a premium and cooperation can mean the difference between life or death in heavy combat, Professor X also brings in Thunderbird, an Apache who beats up buffalo with his bare hands, feels “ashamed of his people” and has to be persuaded with the old reverse psychology trick.

This is probably my favorite storytelling moment in the entire book, because artist Dave Cockrum has Thunderbird walking away in a huff, only to stop and rub the back of his neck with his hand.  It’s reminiscent of my beloved Billy Jack movies, one of those moments I used to anticipate with my little heart all a-flutter where Billy Jack finally has had enough redneck bullshit and prepares to lay aside his pacifism in favor of kung fu mayhem.  Wein’s dialogue—Thunderbird says, “Ho-kay… that does it!” and you can almost hear his slow, husky, exasperated voice—only makes the moment more Billy Jack-ish.  Billy Jack-ish? 

Anyway, the Professor’s mind game works on the proud, angry Thunderbird and soon the petty squabblers find themselves at the X-Mansion where Cyclops shows up and starts barking at them like an army officer and addressing them as “people” in a clipped voice. People, the X-Men are missing!  Only you can save them!  Cyclops is curt and snappish because he’s a professional and time is of the essence.  But despite sharing a flashback with the newcomers, he fails to explain why they should care about his problems, much less participate in them. 

Take Colossus, for example.  Two days ago, Colossus had never heard of X-Men or capitalism or honkytonk music or Peyton Place.  Suddenly, he’s expected to go off on some dangerous, possibly lethal mission with a group of strangers, all of whom appear to despise each other and aren’t exactly shy about expressing it, to risk his metal neck for another group of strangers who, to hear Cyclops explain it, are just as hateful as the ones he’s with.  If I were him, I’d be heading back to the land of vodka and women with five o’clock shadows.  If I were Storm, I’d take off my shirt and go flying back to Africa where people worship me as a goddess.  Sunfire has that sweet castle and kimono-clad wife to go home to, Banshee can score sweet seats to the Tom T. Hall concert at the Grand Ol’ Opry.  If I had their lives, I wouldn’t be mucking around with this junk, either.  As for Nightcrawler and Thunderbird…

Well, if I were either of those guys, I guess I’d be stuck because their lives seem to have the least purpose, unless being chased by angry mobs or manhandling buffalo while seething with contempt for your own tribe count as purposes.

Len Wein was and continues to be a fine writer and editor—I point you to his run on the original Swamp Thing, various stories in DC’s horror titles and hundreds of fantastic stories over the years plus his editorship of Watchmen, but reading Giant-Size X-Men #1, I’m struck by how shrill and unpleasant he makes his cast.  Character conflict is one thing—the Fantastic Four used to bicker a lot-- but having Professor X deliberately court this particular group of truly unpleasant people is quite another.  There’s no reason for their snappish behavior other than the transparent mandate they flaunt “individuality,” and because conflict adds interest.  With almost 40 years of comic book reading hindsight, I can’t think of a reason why Wein couldn’t have used a little subtlety or at least balanced out the nastiness with a little sympathy. 

In the classic days of Marvel, Human Torch would needle the Thing until they came to blows or at least fireballs and angry threats, but there was always sense of brotherly love beneath it all.  And they were likable.  You could go to the movies with them, if you could ever get them to agree on what picture to see.  Human Torch has always favored those Judd Apatow comedies, while the Thing prefers anything with Steve McQueen in it.  At this point in the X-Men narrative we barely know any of these jokers, but I can’t imagine spending more than a minute listening to their lame cracks and randomly vicious insults, if even that long.  It’d be like hanging out with the Let It Be Beatles without ever having experienced A Hard Day’s Night.

Because she only throws one fit—and off-panel at that-- Storm retains the most dignity, despite wearing a cape, a monokini and thigh-high go-go boots.  By the time they’re all fighting for their lives against the menace of a living island that calls itself Krakoa— Shocking twist!  The ISLAND is the mutant, thanks to that catch-all explanation for anything that doesn’t other make any sense, magi—er—radiation— I was just sick of them as individuals and collectively.  By the end, I was rooting for the island.

Dave Cockrum’s art on this job isn’t as slick as the guy he’s imitating, Neal Adams.  Cockrum’s characters pose dramatically but stiffly, lacking the Adams fluidity.  Adams’s superpeople might run around with every muscle in their bodies tensed, but they’re flexible and sinuous.  Cockrum’s figures here are dynamic but awkwardly constructed.  They also seem to be shouting a lot, even when they’re alone—as Cyclops does when he finds himself on the X-Jet minus his teammates and his powers, or Sunfire when he’s flying along outside the very same jet well beyond earshot of whoever it is he’s supposedly addressing.  That’s probably due to their being a bunch of jerks.  Cockrum confines himself to traditional panel shapes for the most part, and the result is a bit cramped.  He didn’t really hit his artistic stride until the regular series, especially #94 where he and Bob McLeod teamed up to produce one of the sweetest superhero art jobs I’ve ever seen, the one that made me want to draw superhero funny books for a living way back when before life sent me off on a more punk rock filled course that led me to Japan for some reason.

On the other hand, Cockrum shows the one thing that really matters—artistic charisma.  Appeal.  You want to look at these pages.  And you have to admire the man’s effort.  He even manages to draw the impossible.  There’s a very strange moment where Cockrum has to depict magnetic waves descending to the ocean floor as the team finally comes together with a typically silly comic book solution to the the Krakoa situation.  Who knew islands actually float, kind of like icebergs?  In Cockrum’s defense, it’s easy for a writer like Wein to describe this kind of thing.  I just did it, and I’m a complete idiot. 

But as an artist, I can’t think of another way to depict visually one of the prime forces of the universe which is difficult enough to account for in physics theories, much less as the work of a team of superpowered human beings.  It’s best to think of this panel as symbolic, like an editorial cartoon where the inner workings of various congressional committees are turned into a visual metaphor so the kind of idiots who still read newspapers, much less their editorial pages, can understand how they’re getting shafted this week.  Unless you disagree with the artist’s politics, of course, in which case you need to know enough to write an angry blog entry about it or at least comment on a political message board thread about it.

No one can see magnetic force itself, only its effects, and no one really knows what goes on in committee.  It’s all guesswork on the artist’s part.  I don’t know what Cockrum’s politics were at this time.  Perhaps a kind of pro-mutant, anti-sentient island stance that manifested itself in that remarkable panel. 

He certainly made the ridiculous look ridiculously cool.  I miss him.

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