X-Men Gold #1 review

It's the X-Men's 50th anniversary year and Marvel have been celebrating by releasing umpteen new series ... oh, hang on, that's any old year for the X-Men.

Ah well, here's the most obvious marker I've come across, a double-sized comic featuring a gaggle of creators who made the X-Men great. Sadly, there's no Dave Cockrum, as he's no longer with us, and no John Byrne, as he's John Byrne.

There is, though, Chris Claremont, the team's longest-serving writer and the characters' most influential voice. And he knocks it out of the park, fastball special style, with a hugely satisfying 20-page tale which fits neatly between Uncanny X-Men #173 and #174.

Not that you need to have been reading back then, as Claremont does a terrific job of introducing characters and recapping situations as needed. The plotline is nothing earth-shattering, which is fair enough, given that X-Men #174 never referred to a sentinel factory in China. It is a splendid primer, though, on just why Marvel's not-always merry mutants were so big in the Eighties - the irresistible mix of characters. First and foremost here is Kitty Pryde, who narrates the tale, giving us insights into her friends and colleagues along the way. Kitty herself is right on model so far as the period is concerned, using her computer skills in a bid to learn why Mariko dumped Wolverine at the altar a few days previously. Logan is understandably annoyed at the invasion of privacy, but their spat is interrupted by an alert from China comprising panicked calls and explosions from a mysterious industrial unit.

Kitty, Wolverine, Cyclops, Colossus, Nightcrawler, Storm, Lockheed the dragon and new member Rogue take the fast plane to China, pausing only to drop off 'civilians' Professor X and Madelyne Pryor with Shi'ar Empress Lilandra and the Starjammers - the alien pirate crew headed by Cyclops' father, Corsair. Then it's full-on battles with a super-giant Sentinel pumping out regular giant-Sentinels. Saving the day involves a plan from Kitty which provides more sharp teamwork than we normally see in a month of Marvel or DC books. It's fun, it's dramatic, it's the X-Men as I remember them and as I'd love them to be again (click on images to enlarge).
We see the beginning of the Kitty Pryde and Wolverine pairing; Scott Summers when he loved Madelyne Pryor and was a master strategist; Kitty's feelings towards former villain Rogue; Rogue dealing with physical and mental injuries; Kitty in an appalling outfit ... there's an awful lot in here, even without the action scenes, but the story doesn't feel crowded. Claremont's script is a deft delight, as if he's decided to show the middle-aged whippersnappers of today just how an X-Men comic should be written. And it ends on a bittersweet note.

And backing Claremont all the way is his New Mutants partner, Bob McLeod, an artist whose talent is far bigger than his reputation. His work isn't flashy, drawing attention to itself - it's strong, solid and services the story all the way. McLeod draws a mean fight scene, but it's the facial expressions that really sing. And the artist's thoughtfulness shows through in the pitch-perfect nightwear he chooses for the X-Men (the ever-so regal, entirely humourless Lilandra in a nightie gave me a fit of giggles).
And while McLeod doesn't get fan acclaim, look at his Rogue and tell me he hasn't influenced the likes of Alan Davis and, especially, Steve Dillon.
Claremont and McLeod's untitled story is a tight, great-looking treat; the issue's other offerings, not so much.

Louise Simonson plots, Stan Lee scripts, Walt Simonson draws and we get The Sorrow Beneath the Sport, a story set in the original X-Men's first months together. Marvel Girl offers a date to whichever classmate - Cyclops, Beast, Iceman or Angel - can get to the Danger Room first. And don't think of Jean as a teen temptress, these were innocent times in comics - she likely meant a trip to Coffee A-Go-Go. There's some good-natured tomfoolery between three of the boys, but Scott's a miserable git, and more than happy to ruin the fun when Professor X gets cranky (almost certainly not a subtle nod to his single-panel, bad taste crush on Jean Grey).
Lee's script is old school amusing, and Walt Simonson brings real exuberance to the page, alongside his usual draftsmanship. And how sweet it is to see the Danger Room when it was not holograms and horrors, but weights and wires.
Roy Thomas gives us the first meeting of All-New X-Men Banshee and Sunfire when they turn up in Memphis at the same time, on complementary pilgrimages to Sun Records. And of course, they fight for no reason. It's awfully disposable, and Thomas's dialogue is authentically Silver Age laughable, but it made me smile. Chris Sotomayor's digital inks and colours don't bring out the best in Pat Olliffe's usually decent linework, making the supposedly middle-aged Banshee look like a Partridge Family-era David Cassidy. With Botox. And since when did Sunfire have the ability to instantly grow sideburns? I do wish comic companies would remember there's more to inking than adding the odd bit of shade.
Options is by Len Wein, a writer whose work I've always enjoyed. Once a tyro, recently he's seemed charmingly old school. Here, though, he seems to be trying for an edgy vibe, in an ugly script that totally dumps on his classic Giant-Size X-Men #1. Set during that story, as the New X-Men gather at the X-Mansion for the first time, it sees Wolverine imagine the bloody ways in which he could kill these strangers if necessary. One of the members, he's not sure he could take, which makes for an interesting story beat - the only one - but it doesn't ring true. He just has to jump up and gut 'em, same as he does with everyone else. Jorge Molina draws and colours, and while the opening Cockrum homage is neat, the rest of the artwork is marred by an over-fondness for hazy rendering.
Finally we have - I have little idea. Charles Xavier gives Magneto a lovely vision of a shiny future ... as he kills him. I don't know if the story refers to some mutant saga I missed or forgot - a placard mid-vision, and the final panel, hint at Onslaught - and writer Fabian Nicieza doesn't make me care. Salvador Larocca's artwork is excellent, though, taking the mood from bright to sinister with aplomb.

I'm delighted to see longtime X-Men letterer Tom Orzechowski handling the whole book, in a variety of styles. The Sixties mode he adopts for the Lee/Simonsons strip is especially splendid.

Olivier Coipel's cover meshes X-Men from various incarnations of the team in a good-looking piece that could do with some colour 'pop' to match the elegance. And the rubbish, apologetic logo doesn't help matters.

I'm glad I bought this book, for Claremont, McLeod and Walt Simonson. A 50th anniversary bash, though, should be a lot better than this - I'm imagining an anniversary issue of the type DC did so well in the early Eighties, an 80-page extravaganza saluting the comic's history in one long 'novel'. As is, we get some curiosities, a fine 'lost issue' of Uncanny and a monstrosity that has no place at a party. 

Comments

  1. As I mentioned in my review on my blog, I absolutely loved the main story by Chris Claremont & Bob McLeod. As you say, McLeod is super-talented & underrated. And I really miss Claremont on an ongoing series. I thought his X-Men Forever book was fantastic, the best writing he had done in years. I was really disappointed when it was cancelled before he could wrap up the second year arc.

    Glad you pointed out the contributions of Tom Orzechowski. Letterers are even more under-appreciated than inkers among comic book fandom.

    "Sadly, there's no Dave Cockrum, as he's no longer with us, and no John Byrne, as he's John Byrne."

    *SIGH!* Yeah, I know what you mean. I think Byrne is an amazing creator but, wow, he really seems like a difficult guy to get along with at times. Who knows if Marvel even tried to get him to contribute? Seems like a loss, since he penciled & co-plotted so many classic X-Men stories, but what are you going to do?

    As for Dave Cockrum, last week would have been his 70th birthday. He was such a brilliant artist. I'm a huge fan of his work. It's a real shame that he not only died relatively young, but suffered from ill health for the last several years of his life.

    If you are looking for a kind-of sort-of anniversary story that Cockrum was involved in, I recommend searching out a copy of the X-Men: Odd Men Out special that Marvel published back in 2008. There was this inventory story where Professor Xavier and Fred Duncan (remember him?) sit around reminiscing about the early days and history of the X-Men. It was written by Roger Stern, penciled by Dave Cockrum, and inked by Josef Rubinstein. I think it was done in the mid-1990s, but it took Marvel more than a decade to finally print it. Rounding out the issue is another unused inventory story by Cockrum & Rubinstein, this one probably from the late 1980s and likely intended for New Mutants. The story by Michael Higgins is about average, and it was no doubt included to fill out the book. But, whatever, it was still nice to have some more previously-unseen Cockrum art.

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  2. Thank you! I've never heard of Odd Men Out, it sounds totally up my street. I always liked Fred, I do miss seeing civvies support characters such as Stevie Hunter and the police pair.

    I did enjoy your review, you reminded me of things I'd forgotten. Time to comment over there ...

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  3. For the record, Nicieza's story is supposed to be taking place inside Magneto's head while his mind was being erased by Xavier at the end of the "Fatal Attractions" storyline. I think its actually probably the best story in the issue from an "anniversary" perspective, since its just dripping with continuity references:

    -Xavier's wiping of Magneto's mind is one of the factors that lead to the creation of Onslaught which is why that is brought up.
    -The Shiar armor that they wear to teleport that has Magneto confused is actually the battlesuit Xavier wore when he went to confront Magneto on Avalon.
    - "Fatal Attractions" climaxed with Magneto ripping the adamantium out of Wolverine, which is why there are little globs of metal leaking out of Wolvie's skin at the end of of this short.
    -The man holding up the "onslaught is coming" sign is Bastion, the villain behind the Operation Zero Tolerance storyline.
    -Hammer Bay was the capital city of Genosha which was destroyed by Cassandra Nova.
    -Magneto not recognizing "Lensherr" as his real name is probably a reference to a dropped plotline that started to reveal that "Erik Lensherr" was just an alias.

    And there are even a couple more that I think I need to research to try to get (I can't remember who Sam the gardner is, and that explicit reference to "Calla Lilies" is probably pointing to something. I believe the statue of fallen X-men is a reference to the Bloodties storyline, but I'm not entirely sure).

    I guess you could say Nicieza's story is a loveletter to the 90s/early 00s era of the X-men; A continuity-heavy era of dark surprise twists. I realize a lot of people don't have fond memories of that time, so I guess an inherent flaw of this story is that its a pitch-perfect tribute to an era a lot of people have tried to forget (as evidenced by the fact that you don't even remember "Fatal Attractions", despite it being the rare story from this period that actually changed the status quo for years afterward).
    But, as someone who still has a fondness for that time, this was exactly what I want out of a short anniversary story: something new with plenty of easter eggs for the hardcore nerds to pick out. When I was reading it and slowly figured out what was really going on, my jaw dropped as I experienced the kind of pure fanboy joy that I find harder and harder to experience.

    (Just to be clear, I thought Claremont's story was good too but I guess, to me, it had more of a "throwback" feel than an "anniversary" feel, if you get what I mean. It felt like something out of a time capsule, rather than something written while looking back in fondness.)

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  4. Ah, I thought it was probably the Onslaught stuff, Lawrence - I did read most of those issues and yes indeed, don't remember much at all. To be honest, I'm pretty good up to around Uncanny #200, and the trial of Magneto, but ceased to love the series after that, as Claremont fell too much in love with Magneto (the rot had already set in around the time of Australia, and body-changing Betsy, and stabby-stabby Storm, and ...). And then the team expanded, and the books spread, and we got the the likes of Maggot and Marrow

    As you say, it's a treat for the hardcore fans. I love your theory on Magneto not recognising 'Lemsherr' - I was assuming it was him going a bit senile, but that makes great sense.

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  5. I love McLeod's work, as well, but I find it extremely difficult to believe that he was ever actually an influence on either Dillon or Davis.

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    Replies
    1. Aha, I suspect inside information...

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