Friday, July 12, 2013

Uncanny X-Periment Special: Top 50 Stories - Part Two!

49) The Bird, The Beast and The Lizard (X-Men: First Class # 2)

Speaking of retcons . . .

Professor X has promised his students a vacation, so down to Warren’s parents Florida home they go!   They make a stop at Curt Conners house, only to discover he has become the Lizard again.  Professor X charges Angel and Beast to subdue the Lizard and insists on Scott, Jean, and Bobby continue on with the vacation.   Things don’t go so well for Angel and Beast, so Iceman is called in and helps put an end to Lizard’s rampage.   Meanwhile, Scott relaxes with Jean.

Why It’s # 49:
I fully admit that this comic series in particular is a little iffy on continuity and canon.  I remember being at HeroesCon back in 2007 and hearing (I think) Christos Gage say that the book was “canon, but not in continuity.”  Whatever that means.

Anyways, this issue delivers on what this whole series is about – the original X-Men just being super-hero teens.  It’s a fun, laid back story that gives everyone something to do.   The chase throughout the Everglades is fun.  Professor X’s side-comments to the X-Men are cute.  The dialogue is funny.   But the best is the way they’re written.  Stan Lee wrote the original X-Men decently, don’t get me wrong, but they were hardly more than sketches of themselves for the first 19 issues.  Roy Thomas was the one that drew the characters out and developed them.

Honestly, this is what I would of rather have had.  Jeff Parker presents us with a fun, enjoyable tale.   My favorite scene is the one with Scott and Jean on the beach, when she actually encourages him to open up.

It’s a small moment, but it speaks volumes of their relationship, even at that point.  

Bottom Line: 
This is a bit of an off-beat, fun little story.   It’s nothing ground breaking.  Roger Cruz makes the X-Men appear as actual teenagers.  Val Staples colors add a lot of vibrant (and sometimes quiet) energy to the linework.  Jeff Parker, ultimately gives us a fun story that reminds us that the X-Men were once teenagers and that, yes, even in a world that fears and hates you, there’s time for a vacation.

48) The Trial of Gambit (Uncanny X-Men # 341 – 350)

On Christmas Eve, Gladiator arrives on Earth and proceeds to have a fight with Cannonball.  After being beaten by Cannonball, Gladiator sends Rogue, Bishop, Gambit, Beast, Trish Tibly, and the kinda-sorta Magneto Joseph to the Shi’ar galaxy.  They find Deathbird and discover that the Empire is being eaten by the Phalanx.  The X-Men intervene and defeat them.  The X-Men and Deathbird head back to Earth, but get knocked off course by a big ol’ spaceship.  Luckily, all but Bishop and Deathbird make it back.  Once back, the X-Men are captured by the demented robot Nanny, who was created by Magneto a long time ago.  During this time, their powers are negated and Rogue and Gambit make love.  Gambit, who upon his arrival was being hunted by Spat and Grovel, is weighed down tremendous guilt.  The X-Men overpower Nanny, but Gambit surrenders himself to the bounty hunters.  Meanwhile, the mysterious Maggot is tracking down Joseph, and bumps into Psylocke and Archangel.  Eventually, everyone comes together at a Citadel in Antarctica, where Gambit is put by Eric the Red.  It comes to light that Gambit formed the Marauders in a deal with Mister Sinister and led them to the Morlock tunnels to wipe them out.  The X-Men free themselves, but they abandon Gambit in Antarctica.  Then, after all is said and done, Eric the Red is revealed to be Magneto!

Why It’s # 48:
This is one of those cases where I’ve included more than just the necessary issues for the story.   The trial of Gambit really only takes place in Uncanny 350, but the build-up from 341 is what makes it such a good story.   See, the Phalanx/Shi’ar stuff is fairly fluffy.  Nanny is more annoying than threatening.  There’s also a big subplot regarding Operation Zero Tolerance that takes over 346 (making it not a very good fit for this run).  But through it all, we see Gambit continue on with this burden of guilt that slowly but surely screws into his mind.   By the time we reach 349, Gambit has given up on his freedom and is willing to stand trial for what he’s done.  That’s the selling point – even with all the Shi’ar and Magneto stuff, Gambit is the one who shines through the most.   In addition to all this, we get some nice character moments with the others. We get introduced to Maggot.   Plus, Joe Mad’s art is amazing and it hits a high with the Shi’ar material.

Bottom Line:
A fun romp in Shi’ar featuring some amazing art from Joe Mad, plus angsty journey into Gambit’s soul, with a big ol’ last page Magneto reveal.  It’s a classic, even it’s a weighed down by its weaker, more disjointed issues.

47) Demon (Uncanny X-Men # 143)

Again, on Christmas Eve, the X-Men hit the town for some R&R.  They leave Kitty home . . . who is then attacked by a N’Gari demon, who was left behind after the X-Men’s previous battle with them.  Kitty leads it on a path of destruction through the mansion.  It follows her to the hanger, where Kitty uses the Blackbird to fry it.  The X-Men then return home, proud of Kitty.

Why It’s # 47:
This is the perfect coming-of-age story for Kitty.  During the Dark Phoenix Saga, a lot of what she did was supported by the X-Men.  During the Days of Future Past, she was possessed by Kate Pryde.  So this is the first time we see Kitty bust loose.  We see her use her education from earlier in the issue.  We see her thoughts about being introduced to the super-hero world.  We see her struggle and then rise up.

Bottom Line:
There’s some just great subtly in this story.  Claremont gets us into the head of Kitty Pryde as she goes through this trial by fire.  Byrne’s artwork fleshes it out just beautifully, instilling it with the kind of perfect synergy that makes this comic so good.

46) Unstoppable (Astonishing X-Men # 19 – 24, Giant-Sized Astonishing X-Men # 1)

This is a fairly complicated story, so the reader’s digest version is this – the X-Men and SWORD head off to Breakworld to stop them from shooting a giant bullet at the Earth.  They are separated, come together, join with Danger, Cyclops comes up with a brilliant plan, and then Kitty phases the bullet through the Earth, implying her dead.

Why It’s # 46:
If there’s ever a book that lives up to its title, it’s this one.   It kicks off by ripping us out of the momentum of the previous storyline and immediately propels us towards Breakworld.  And it doesn’t stop.  It’s not perfect – there are some plot holes and it’s a little over complicated.  But the sheer emotion of this story and the amazing art by John Cassady just sells it.  What makes the threat work so well is the fact that you know that something bad is going to happen . . . you actually get a sense of danger from the giant bullet!  Cyclops’ plan is brilliant, Emma’s angst and attempts at reaching Kitty in the bullet are well done, and Beast and Wolverine are a ton of fun.   Plus call backs from earlier in Whedon run brings it run full circle.  And, on top of everything, Kitty’s fate is such an emotional gut punch.

It’s not without its flaws.  But those can be overlooked because of just how well done the characterization is handled.

Bottom Line:
Despite its flaws, this story hits the ground running.   Great characterization, a well-done threat, and fulfilling the mission of the book of the X-Men as super-heroes makes it an amazing story.

45) AvsX (Marvel .1, AvsX # 0 – 12, AvsX: Versus # 1 – 6)

The Phoenix is coming back to Earth and is going to use Hope as its host.  Cyclops and his X-Men see this as the rebirth of the Mutant people.  Captain America sees this as a threat.  The Avengers and the X-Men go to war with each other when the Avengers try and take Hope into custody. Hope escapes, heads to the Moon with Logan, and the X-Men and the Avengers catch up with them and fight it out more.  Phoenix comes, but Iron Man blows it up and five pieces of the Phoenix possess Cyclops, Namor, Emma Frost, Magik, and Colossus.  They try and build Earth into a Utopia, but their war with the Avengers continues and eventually, one by one, they fall until Cyclops claims the power of the Phoenix himself and becomes the new Dark Phoenix.  He kills Professor X, but is then defeated by Scarlet Witch and Hope.  Hope then becomes Phoenix, saves the Earth, and then releases the Phoenix into the world, restarting Mutantkind.

Why It’s 45:
It’s a bit of a 15 year olds’ nerd dream to see these two big franchises go at each other.   Seriously, after all these of years reading these comics and always wanting a slugfest, I finally got one.   The action is spectacular and fun.  The story, while suffering from pacing and some wayward subplots, is fairly decent.   There are some interesting questions raised about destiny, faith, and a super-heroes role in a world gone wild like this.  Overall, it’s not perfect, but it’s a blast.

Bottom Line:
It’s not a perfect story, but it’s fun.  Lots of neat moments and plenty of action and it makes the little teenaged fanboy in me excited.

44) The Origin of Professor X/Where Walks the Juggernaut!  (Uncanny X-Men # 12 – 13)

Reeling from the latest battle with Magneto and the Brotherhood, Cerebro goes nuts with an alert!  Professor X realizes that his step-brother, Cain Marko, now the Juggernaut, is on his way to the mansion.  After the X-Men set up several defenses to stop the Juggernaut, Professor reveals to them his origin and his past relationship with Cain.  Meanwhile, Juggernaut plows through every defense and trap and arrives on site to wipe out the team.   The X-Men try their best to hold him off, including tossing the Juggernaut into the Danger Room.   Professor X grabs the Human Torch and forces him into battle with the Juggernaut.  Together with the Angel, they are able to remove Juggernaut’s helmet and Professor X attacks him telepathically.  After that, the Human Torch returns home after Professor X wipes his memory of the event.

Why It’s # 44:
This is some of the original X-Men at their best.   The threat of the Juggernaut is huge and immense and it’s really something to see him just smash through the defenses that the X-Men set-up.  Lots of neat, classic X-Men action and the origins of Professor X are an added touch.   It’s one of the best and consistently good Juggernaut stories we’ve seen.  The use of Human Torch and the way Professor X just kinda uses him is a little odd and off-putting, and it does leave a bad taste in my mouth.  It just felt unnecessary.  In spite of that, the action  leading up to his involvement is worth it.

Bottom Line:
A great build-up to a major threat plus the origins of Professor X makes this s a classic.   Even with the pointless involvement and treatment of the Human Torch, it’s a solid and fun read.  It solidifies the Juggernaut as a classic villain and gives the X-Men their greatest challenge up to that point. 

43) Operation: Zero Tolerance

After months of build-up, anti-Mutant government program Operation: Zero Tolerance comes alive and launches its assault on the X-Men and their allies.  Jubilee is captured early on.   Wolverine, Cannonball, Storm, Cyclops, and Phoenix are defeated and imprisoned.  X-Force and MLF are hunted down.  Generation X is on the run.  Cable fights Bastian and his minions at the mansion.   Ultimately, Senator Kelly shuts down the program, but Cyclops ends up with a bomb in his belly and the mansion is stripped down to nothing.

Why It’s # 44:
To me, this is the X-Men’s ultimate challenge.  A huge threat that’s analyzed and targeted them.  It’s not just Apocalypse or Sinister or Magneto – it’s a humanity at its worse, unleashing a threat that they themselves can barely contain.  The Prime Sentinels are such a scary concept – that anyone around you could transform into a new breed of Sentinel and counteract your powers.  I’m stunned we haven’t seen more of these guys out there.   And, honestly, Operation: Zero Tolerance feels like the first X-Men story in which the X-Men cannot dig themselves out.  There’s no “banding together” for one final battle.  The ending, while a deus ex machine, does not necessarily feature a win for our heroes. 

Now, the battle themselves are pretty slick.   There are some great action scenes.  Spider-Man shows up for some fun.   Cable invasion of the mansion is pretty epic.  Plus, the inclusion and excellent use of Calisto, Marrow, and Doctor Reyes makes it even better.   And putting Iceman front and center is a great move.

Bottom Line:
There is some potential lost and the defeat of Bastian is a little too convenient.  But as a whole, it’s a great threat and puts the X-Men up against a foe they can’t contend with as easily as, say, Magneto.  It’s grim, but energetic.  There are some great character moments and action scenes.   Good artwork, decent storytelling.  All around, pretty good.

42) Here Comes Tomorrow

There’s no short supply of dark alternate reailties and/or dystopian futures for the X-Men.  And here’s another one!  Set 150 years after the second death of Jean Grey and the whole Xorn madness, the X-Men now consist of Wolverine, Beak’s grandson Tito, EVA, Martha, Cassandra Nova, Three-In-One, Tom Skylar and his Sentinel friend Rover.  After the Phoenix Egg is taken by a John Sublime-possessed Beast, the X-Men launch an attack.   The Phoenix Egg hatches and Jean/Phoenix does Sublime’s bidding.   Eventually, the X-Men win out, Jean realizes that everything went wrong after she died.  Scott rejected Emma Frost and the X-Men.  Beast took over the school, but failed and turned to Kick and became possessed by Sublime.  The world then fell apart.   After Logan and Hank are killed, Jean removes Sublime and then prepares to enter the White Hot Room with the rest of the Phoenixes.  However, to save the future, she gives Scott a mental push into his relationship with Emma, thus saving the world.

Why It’s # 42:
The story itself is pretty interesting, but what I really liked about this one is everything that occurs beneath the surface.  It shows just how important both Scott and Hank are to the X-Men and how they both need the X-Men and how the X-Men need them.   Without Scott, Hank can’t run the school and save humanity.  With Hank gone bad, the world falls apart.   But with Scott, the X-Men are able to hold together (well, kinda).   But Scott won’t return to the X-Men unless he gives into his feelings with Emma.  Ultimately, it’s left up to Logan to carry on with the dream, but he’s no Professor X.

So it takes one mental push from Jean to make sure the X-Men (and the world) survive and continue on.  It’s such a simple moment and all it takes is one woman’s love and forgiveness to her husband to win the day.   It’s a nice concept and is really what the X-Men are about.

The art is great and is some of my favorite from Marc Silvestri.  Beast looks freaky, Jean looks great, the X-Men look badass.  There are some amazing action scenes, like this one:

And, I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, no one draws Sentinels like Silvestri.

Bottom Line:
The art is fantastic.   The story is excellent, with lots of fun Morrison-isms and references to his arc as a whole.  It’s a nice wrap-up of Morrison’s far-too-short run.  It’s message of peace, forgiveness, and just plain love bleed through subtly and, dare I say it, sublimely.

41) He’ll Never Make Me Cry (Uncanny X-Men # 183)

Basically, after dumping Kitty, Peter is dragged out to bar scene by Logan and Kurt.  Logan gives Peter a “if you’re going to act like a man, you better be a man” speech and then  makes him fight the Juggernaut.  It ends in pretty much a draw, though Peter gets a beating.

Why It’s # 41:
There’s not a whole lot to say about this one.  It’s a nice coming-of-age story for Peter, with him pitted against Marko.  It’s a small story that really makes two of our favorite lovebirds suffer.   Peter and Kitty both do some serious growing after their break up.  It’s a lot of fun and a lot of angst.  Can’t go wrong!

Bottom Line:
Strong art by JrJr and a nice blend of angst and fun.  It’s good stuff.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Uncanny X-Periment Special: 50 Best X-Men - Part One!

Welcome the Uncanny X-Periment 50 best X-Men stories!

A few notes about how I picked these.   These were chosen based on the following criteria: the quality of the comic overall (writing and art), characterization, how well it keeps to the titles core ideas, and how important the story is.   Furthermore, this list only includes stories from Uncanny X-Men, X-Men Legacy (X-Men/New X-Men), X-Men Unlimited, X-Treme X-Men, Astonishing X-Men, X-Men, All-New X-Men and X-Men: First Class.   There are two exceptions to this list, but they are limited series and, damn it, I say they count!  Now, I will count spin-off titles only during crossovers.  Sorry.  I'm mean.

Okay, so here we go!

50) Giant-Sized X-Men # 1

Professor X gathers Nightcrawler, Sunfire, Banshee, Storm, Colossus, Wolverine, and Thunderbird from the four corners of the globe.  Their mission: rescue the missing original X-Men after a strange disappearance on the mysterious island of Krakoa.  The new X-Men, led by Cyclops, overcome several obstacles to reach a temple, where the original X-Men (except Beast) are being held.  The X-Men are freed, but they reveal that Krakoa – an actual living, Mutant island – let Cyclops go to bring back new Mutants.  Professor X helps the X-Men concoct a plan to unite their powers and send Krakoa into space.  The X-Men – all thirteen of them – then back on home.

Why’s It’s # 50:
In terms of being iconic, this comic has got it.   From the exciting, bursting cover to Angel’s quip about 13 X-Men, this is a classic story.  Len Wien and Dave Cockrum knock this out of the park.   There’s so much story in this comic and it fits so well into this big, giant-sized format.  We get nice, long introductions to our new characters and full and concise reintroductions to our old schoolers.  There’s tons of little nods to everything that’s come before – Weapon X/Wolverine’s fight with the Hulk, the Iceman/Havok rivalry over Lorna, Scott and Jean’s relationship, etc etc.  it’s all good.

Let’s not forget Dave Cockrum’s amazing art.   Lots of fluid action, lots of amazing character designs.   Dave Cockrum has delivered his best in this book.

The negative side is mainly in the villain.  Krakoa is a big living island.  Not a bad idea, but it’s just kinda silly.  I know this is the Marvel Universe and we are asked to accept a lot, but this . . . eh . . . this pushes the envelope.  Also, I found some of the characterizations to be a little racist – especially Thunderbird and Sunfire.   And I also doubt that even a small village in Germany would resort to using torches and a hammer and stake to deal with a monster. Guns and flashlights are the way to go.

Bottom line:
It’s iconic status and it’s full, action packed storytelling coupled with great artwork makes it a classic.  It’s silly, English speaking living island villain and vaguely stereotypical clich├ęd characterizations drag it down.  But hey, this is just the beginning of the list!  And hey, out of all of the ka-billion X-Men stories, this is 50th best!  Yay!

Side-Note: I’m not a fan of how this comic has kinda been retconned over the years into a much darker, grimmer story.  I like what Classic X-Men # 1 and Giant-Sized X-Men # 3 have done for it, in elaborating the character moments that grow out of the plot.  It’s stories like Deadly Genesis and Original Sin that add a dark, more sinister tone that kinda hurts what is such a celebratory and proud moment in the X-Men’s history.  Bah!  Retcons!