Last week I blogged about Avengers #53, a classic comic book featuring the titular super-team in battle with a second band of costumed heroes whom I hadn’t previously encountered as of April, 1968 — namely, the X-Men. That issue was actually the concluding chapter of a story that was continued from X-Men #45, making it the first comics crossover I ever experienced*. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that the Avengers book was the second part of the crossover until after I’d already bought it and brought it home. That didn’t stop me from going ahead and reading the book — but as soon as I got the chance, I headed back to the convenience store to see if I could score a copy of the first part. Even though I already knew how the story ended, obviously, I still wanted to know how the heroes of both groups got themselves into the situation in which they found themselves at the beginning of Avengers #53 in the first place.
Thankfully, I was successful. Although, of course, as soon as I read the opening splash page of “When Mutants Clash!”, I knew that even if though it might technically be the first half of the official two-issue crossover, by no stretch could it be considered the beginning of the story:
Truth to tell, however, I don’t believe that this in medias res opening fazed my ten-year-old self all that much. I’d read enough Marvel comics by this time to know that, not only were continued storylines the norm for the publisher, but even issues which were (at least in theory) meant to launch brand-new story arcs tended to drop the reader into the middle of the action (Amazing Spider-Man #59 being a particularly good example). The awareness of vast amounts of backstory lying behind virtually every single new issue of a Marvel series was, in fact, part of what made the publisher’s output so intriguing to me as a still-relatively-new Marvel fan.
Not that I wasn’t eager to acquire earlier chapters of the storyline if I could (especially the issue immediately preceding this one, featuring the Angel’s escape, as referenced by editor Stan Lee’s footnote) — though that wasn’t going to be an easy accomplishment in 1968 for a ten-year-old who hadn’t yet dipped his toe in the mail-order back-issue dealers’ pool. Though, as it happens, I did have some luck on that score, regardless — but more about that a bit later on.
However, before I obey the directive of the opening splash’s final caption to “turn the page, mutant-watcher” and head on into the story, let’s take a quick look at the creator credits box. Among several names that my ten-year-old self was already familiar with in April, 1968 — including those of editor Lee, layout artist Don Heck, inker John Tartaglione, and letterer Sam Rosen — there were a couple that were heretofore unknown to me.
The first of these was Gary Friedrich. Every Marvel story I had read to date had been scripted either by Stan Lee or Roy Thomas, but I was still too green a Marvel fan to have any idea that Friedrich had come onto the X-Men title only with the previous issue, or that it represented his first regular assignment on one of Marvel’s superhero titles (albeit perhaps the worst selling one) after spending about a year and a half writing mostly Western and war books for the publisher. Thomas himself had been writing X-Men for the last couple of years prior to Friedrich’s taking over, and had begun the current Magneto storyline, so it really wasn’t that odd to have the two halves of the crossover scripted by different writers.
The second name that was new to me was that of Werner Roth. Like a number of other artists, Roth had worked for Marvel Comics (then called Atlas) in the 1950s, but had been forced to look for other work when the company was severely downsized around 1957. He’d come back to the company in 1965, where he was given the unenviable assignment of following Jack Kirby on X-Men, and had been penciling the book off an on ever since.
And now that we’ve covered the credits, let’s move on to page two, “where the action is — !”
My ten-year-old self already had a pretty good idea about how Cyclops’ eyebeams worked, courtesy of Avengers #53 — I even knew that he had control studs in the palms of his gloves, as well as in his mask, to control the operations of his visor — but I was unquestionably still an X-newbie. If I had been reading this book for a while, I like to think that I might have been at least a little skeptical of Cyke’s being able to force his visor open simply by virtue of the “angle and sheer force of the rays”.
Oh, who am I kidding. I probably would have bought it, anyway.
Once he’s free, Cyke (aka Scott Summers) goes hunting for his teammates. He finds Marvel Girl (Jean Grey) locked in a cell — but she’s also unconscious, so not much help at the moment. He heads onwards, hoping to find the Beast (Hank McCoy) and/or Iceman (Bobby Drake) in better shape — but then is himself spotted by Magneto’s lackey, the Toad, who of course hurries off to inform his master. Scott reluctantly breaks off looking for the other X-Men to pursue Toad.
At this point, we have a scene change, so that we can check in with the Angel (Warren Worthington III):
This is probably as good a place as any to mention something that I neglected to include in my Avengers #53 post — namely, that this two-issue crossover represents the second time that the two teams had encountered one another.
The first had occurred way back in X-Men #9 (Jan., 1965) — and, as you can see from the cover image to the right, involved a rather different set of Avengers, with the Wasp and Goliath (then calling himself Giant-Man) being the only two members participating in both meetings.
The X-Men, for their part, consisted of precisely the same membership, though they looked a little different in issue #9, at which time they were still wearing their original, Kirby-designed “school uniforms”. The shift to new, individualized costumes — a change conceived by Roy Thomas, though the new duds themselves were actually designed by artist Ross Andru — had come about relatively recently, in issue #39, and had the effect of making the team look less like the Fantastic Four, and more like the Avengers — or, to put it another way, less like a family unit, and more like a group of independent folks who hung out together sometimes.
But, I digress. Our present story now leaves Angel and returns to Cyclops, as he continues to prowl through Magneto’s island fortress, searching for the Toad:
Poor ol’ Toad gets no credit for faithfully reporting Cyclops’ escape to Magneto, of course — just blame, accompanied by physical abuse. All of which makes his later rebellion (in Avengers #53) all the more understandable.
Meanwhile, Pietro Maximoff (that’s Quicksilver, to you) manages to get Scott Summers to cool down long enough to hear him out. “Since the very first mutant appeared on earth, normal men have persecuted us… hunted and hounded us!” the renegade Avenger declares. “Now, at last, Magneto has given us a chance to leave all that turmoil behind!”
Awright! Hawkeye’s surveillance arrow from page 8 of Avengers #53 finally makes its appearance! Of course, since my ten-year-old self was reading the two halves of the crossover out of order, I already understood the arrow’s significance — but it was still cool to see the same scene from a different point of view.
Re-reading this story today, the dialogue between Cyclops and Quicksilver that takes up most of pages 9 and 10 — representing The Not-Quite-the-Last Temptation of Scott Summers, if you will — strikes me as being the central scene of the issue, even more so than the inevitable fight scene which follows it. That may be mostly due to how important these kinds of discussions have proven to be in the later decades of Marvel’s X-franchise, in virtually every medium it’s gone on to conquer. But I suspect that the scene felt like a fairly big deal even to my ten-year-old self in 1968, despite my whole experience with “the Mutant Problem” being thus far limited to this very comic book, plus two issues of Avengers. It was, after all, probably the very first time I’d ever seen two superhero characters engage in a serious moral argument (and I still had to think of Quicksilver as a hero, since that’s what he’d been when I’d first met him in Avengers #45)
It’s worth noting, however, that the moral argument presented here isn’t quite as sophisticated or nuanced as many of the ones that would follow in later years. For one thing, there’s no real discussion of whether or not Magneto’s supposed plan — to create a separate country for mutants, where they can live in peace and freedom but will be segregated from the mass of ordinary humanity — is actually a good idea. The only question for Scott is whether or not Magneto is on the level — whether he can be trusted to fulfill his promises. And, as he makes clear in the following panels, the basis for his decision ultimately comes down to his implicit trust of his own mentor, Professor Charles Xavier (presumed dead at this time, by the way). Cyclops’ reasoning goes like this: “Professor X was a good man; and he told me that Magneto is a bad man; so that’s what I believe.” It almost goes without saying that that rationale is rather less convincing to me as a sixty-year-old reader than it was to me at age ten.
Oof. No disrespect intended to the memory of layout artist Don Heck, or to his fans, but that last panel is about the most egregious example I can think of where a comics artist has reached for the impact and dynamism of Jack Kirby’s work, and has just not gotten there, at all.
The rest of the fight sequence isn’t nearly that bad, artistically speaking, but it still doesn’t measure up very well against John Buscema’s work in the Avengers half of the crossover — so let’s just skip over it, and check in instead with Magneto and the Toad, who are both watching the battle on a monitor when Pietro’s sister Wanda, the Scarlet Witch, wanders up.
As the story informs us via a later footnote (and as we covered in greater dept in our last post), Wanda is currently suffering from a brain injury caused when a bullet grazed her temple in Avengers #49. Unfortunately, her situation won’t see any measurable improvement before the present storyline wraps up in Avengers #53.
Back at our fight scene, Quicksilver gains the upper hand when he temporarily blinds Cyclops with some “graphite padding” he yanks out of a computer (wait, what?) — but it’s only a momentary advantage, since Cyke, firing blind, still manages to hit Pietro with a ricocheting eye-blast which knocks the speedster unconscious:
And that, of course, is where we came in. We’ve now made a full circle, and come all the way back around to the opening splash page of Avengers #53 — which I seem to remember my ten-year-old self spending an inordinate amount of time comparing to the final panel of “When Mutants Clash!”, apparently bedazzled by the whole idea of showing the same scene from two different angles. Good times!
As it happens, “When Mutants Clash!” only took up the first fifteen of X-Men #45’s twenty story pages. The remaining five pages were given over to the latest installment of “The Origins of the Uncanny X-Men!”, a continuing feature that had been running in the back of the book since issue #38. Earlier chapters had chronicled Professor X’s decision to form the team and his recruitment of Cyclops. This issue’s episode dropped my younger self into the middle of the origin narrative of Bobby Drake, soon to be known as Iceman:
The story puts Cyclops, a Marvel superhero, in the interesting position of encouraging someone to defy lawful authority by breaking out of jail — though, as soon becomes evident, Cyke knows what he’s on about:
When Bobby adamantly refuses to cooperate with Scott, the latter takes matters into his own hands, er, eyes, and blasts a whole in the jail’s wall. This leads to a super-powered brawl through the town’s streets, with Cyclops attempting to force his fellow young mutant to accompany him, and Iceman resisting for all he’s worth:
All Bobby wants is to elude Scott long enough to turn himself over to the authorities — unfortunately, the “authorities” — namely, the town sheriff and the self-appointed posse of citizens who were hanging out at the jail when Scott blew out the wall — assume that Bobby is a willing accomplice to the jailbreak, and are in armed pursuit:
Uh – oh! Looks like Bobby and Scott have got themselves into a tight spot! I wish I could tell you how they get out of it — unfortunately, I didn’t buy issue #46, and to this day I don’t know the details of what happens next — though I think it’s safe to assume that both young mutants escape being blasted to Kingdom Come.
Even if I didn’t follow this story through to the end, however, this chapter still gave my ten-year-old self a more thorough grounding in X-Men‘s “mutant persecution” theme, through its depiction of the bigotry and fear exhibited by the ordinary people of Bobby Drake’s home town. Plus, it gave me a look at both the original X-Man uniform, and Bobby’s original “snowman” look as Iceman. Not bad for five pages.
While I didn’t pick up the next issue of X-Men, #46, I did end up buying a copy of the previous issue new off the stands, as odd as that sounds.
As I’ve explained in earlier posts, fifty years ago I got most of my comics from our local convenience stores, which generally only had the most recent issues available for sale. But I had one other outlet from which I bought comics on at least a semi-regular basis, the Ben Franklin Five and Dime store. For whatever reason, the Ben Franklin was somewhat more casual than the Tote-Sum or Short Stop about how and when they restocked their spinner rack — which meant that, on several occasions, I was able to score an earlier issue of a title at the B.F. even after the following issue had gone on sale elsewhere. This was especially useful when I wanted to catch up on preceding chapters of a continued storyline, as was the case here.
As it turns out — and as my ten-year-old self was already essentially aware, having read the Angel’s brief reminiscence of his meeting with Red Raven in his single, one-page scene in issue #45 — the lead story had very little to do with the “captured by Magneto” plotline. In the course of the issue, Angel manages to escape the electrified cage Magneto’s imprisoned him in, and then, or orders from Cyclops, heads straight for New York to ask the Avengers for help. But, when driven to seek refuge by a sudden storm, he discovers a mysterious island — the previously airborne home of the “Bird-People”, winged humanoids who’ve been placed in suspended animation, and then had their “sky island” submerged in the sea, by Red Raven. Red Raven is himself a normal human being who was adopted by the Bird-People as a child, and then given artificial wings and anti-gravity technology to simulate their natural powers of flight. After reaching maturity, Red Raven learned that his adoptive people were planning to attack the human race; unable to dissuade them, he put them into stasis for twenty years, and sank their island to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Two decades later, the island has risen, just in time for the Angel to stumble upon it (of course). After first fighting, and then talking with the Angel, Red Raven decides that the world still isn’t quite ready for the Bird-People, and sinks the island once more — though he helpfully sets Angel afloat on a raft before doing so, thus allowing the winged mutant to resume his mission to find the Avengers as the story ends.
This tale was scripted by Gary Friedrich, but it was plotted by Roy Thomas, who didn’t actually create the Red Raven so much as resurrect him. Thomas drew the character from a comic book that Marvel (then Timely Comics) had published a single issue of back in before abruptly jettisoning the lead character and continuing the series as The Human Torch. It was perhaps the first time — though by no means the last — that Thomas, an avid fan of the Golden Age of Comics, would lift an almost-forgotten character out of back-issue obscurity and restore him to service, if not prominence. Once revived, Red Raven would continue to flit around on the fringes of the Marvel Universe, eventually — by means of the implanted continuity that would become another hallmark of Thomas’ comics-writing career — becoming a member of the same writer’s Forties-based team of second-string Timely heroes, the Liberty Legion.
X-Men #44 also included another installment of the “Origins of the X-Men” back-up feature — of course, since it was an earlier episode than the one I’d already read in issue #45, it couldn’t tell me anything new about how Cyclops and Iceman would ultimately escape becoming victims of vigilante justice. It did, however, fill me in on how Bobby Drake ended up in jail in the first place — he’d defended his girlfriend Judy from some thuggish youths by temporarily icing one up — an act for which Judy had expressed her gratitude by immediately dumping our boy Bobby. That incident might not quite match the poignancy of the analogous scene in the second X-Men movie where Bobby “comes out” to his family, but it made for an affecting scene for my ten-year-old self, nevertheless — and underscored the metaphorically rich theme of anti-mutant bigotry that made X-Men unquestionably different from any other comic book series I’d ever read.
Still — despite enjoying these stories, and regardless of how “different” I must have I found the book to be — I didn’t jump on board Marvel’s Merry Mutant Bandwagon after buying and reading these two issues. In fact, I wouldn’t buy another issue of X-Men until a whole other year had gone by.
Why not? Perhaps it had something to do with the particular point in their history that I came to make the X-Men’s acquaintance. In retrospect, neither #44 nor #45 were ideal jumping-on points for a new reader, as the book was in something of a transition phase. As noted earlier, they’d gotten new costumes a few issues earlier, in #39. That milestone was followed soon afterwards by another one, the “death” of Professor X — which, granted, turned out to be bogus, but neither the X-Men nor their readers (nor, possibly, even their creative team) knew that at the time. From there, they went right into the Magneto storyline that I only picked up on in the middle — and right after that, the team broke up.
Throughout all of this, the book sported a new trade dress that downplayed the book’s title logo in favor of spotlighting one or more individual characters. According to Roy Thomas, in his introduction to Marvel Masterworks — The X-Men, Vol. 4, this was done in an effort to shore up the series’ lagging sales; but if that was the intention, it didn’t work — at least, it didn’t for my ten-year-old self. Rather, it had the effect of making the book seem more like an anthology title than a team book, with stories that focused on the young heroes working alone or in pairs — and, with the exception of Cyclops, Angel, and (perhaps) Iceman, these were heroes that I still felt I barely knew, even after two full issues of their title and an Avengers guest appearance.
Another factor, I expect, was the art, by Roth, Heck, Tuska, and others — illustrators whom, I believe it’s fair to say, few comic book fans/critics/historians would consider to be in Marvel’s top tier of talent circa 1968. I’ve read remarks from partisans of a couple of the above-named artists that claim that these gentlemen’s talents were better suited to genres other than superheroes, such as Westerns and romance comics, and that may well be true. But X-Men was a superhero book, and their efforts in this field tended to produce results such as, well, the “giant fist of Quicksilver” panel reproduced above.
So I drifted away from X-Men, at least for a time. Of course, that meant that I wasn’t paying much attention when more interesting work (artistically speaking) began to turn up — such as a couple of issues by the newly-minted superstar illustrator Jim Steranko — or, a little later, by a promising young artist from across the pond, who was then going by the name Barry Smith.
No, it would take until April, 1969, for me to find my way back — and that would only happen when I apparently realized, a month after his actual debut, that one of my favorite artists had begun illustrating the mutant team’s adventures — one Neal Adams, to be precise.
*I’m using the relatively narrow definition of the term crossover here, where it refers to a storyline that not only includes characters from different comic book titles, but actually continues from one title to another (or to several others). For the record — my younger self had in fact encountered the concept a year or so earlier with DC Comics’ Justice League of America #51 (Feb., 1967), which featured the final chapter in the story of the magician Zatanna’s search for her missing father — a tale that had begun in an issue of Hawkman and then progressed through a handful of other titles over several years before concluding in the JLA issue. But since I hadn’t read any of the earlier chapters before reading the finale, I didn’t actually experience the storyline as a crossover — so it doesn’t count as my “first”, as far as I’m concerned. That’s my story, anyway, and I’m stickin’ to it.