Sunday, January 23, 2011

X-Men #5 Revisited: Merry Marvel Madness of the Worst Sort

If your only knowledge of the X-Men comes from the three movies and the current run of comics, you may not realize that the title, which started in the 1960s is far different from what you read today.  The core team of Marvel Girl, Angel, Beast, Cyclops and Iceman didn't really come to their own until issue five, when they graduated Professor Xavier's final exam of sorts.

X-Men, as the series started off before becoming Uncanny X-Men, was not always popular, and it wasn't always good, either.  Issue five, which was written by Stan Lee and illustrated by Jack Kirby, found the heroes battling Magneto, Mastermind, Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, and Toad on Asteroid M in order to get back a kidnapped Angel.  At this point in the history of the title, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch were not known to be Magneto's children.  Professor Xavier, who was injured last issue, did not join his students on their mission because he was said to have lost his mental powers from that injury.  Of course, typical to Professor Xavier, that was all a lie.

Professor Xavier, as has been said in the past, was a jerk.  At that time he was a pompous, stern taskmaster who hid a secret love of Marvel Girl (very disturbing), and commanded his students to be at his side within a set number of seconds lest they get demerits.  Lying about losing his mental powers was not out of character.  Using that lie to cause the team to go into space and almost losing teammate Cyclops all under the guise of a final exam doesn't seem that out of place, either.  And in hindsight, looking at what the X-Men were to face throughout the decades, it is a thoroughly acceptable final exam of sorts, but taking this into story at its face value at the time, it seemed a bit harsh even for the professor.

By the time this issue hit the spinner racks, the X-Men title was far from the two-dimensional work coming out of DC.  Marvel was known for characters with problems, and these first five issues proved no exception.  What stands out the most, and is moved forward here, is the plight of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch.  They have joined sides with the evil Magneto, not because they share his views, but because Magneto saved Scarlet Witch's life.  The loyalty the two siblings (Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch are established as brother and sister) have toward the master of magnetism is tested throughout issues four and five, and when Cyclops makes a plea to Quicksilver in this issue to switch sides, you can understand Quicksilver's conflicting feeling (as well as buy his explanation why he won't turn traitor to Magneto).  Such character development, however rudimentary it was, happened to be standard in Marvel's output at the time.  DC eventually played catch-up, and now it is status quo for most of the comics industry.

Reading this when it came out in the Sixties must have been a heck of an experience.  The plot twists we take as mandatory today weren't not the norm.  Villains were not typically so conflicted.  (And like most things, the villains are far more interesting than the heroes in this issue.)  It was probably senses-shattering to a young reader, and felt edgy to an older reader.  Unfortunately, it still has its flaws.

The contrived way in which Magneto uses Toad to help capture/trick the X-Men is flawed thinking at its best.  Toad, in disguise, somehow enters a live, televised track meet (this plan was apparently put together at the spur of the moment, so I'm not sure how this would be possible) that just happens to be watched by the X-Men on television at their academy.  I don't know how Magneto would know the heroes would be watching, but his logic was apparently spotless, as the X-Men crashed the track meet after the crowd became unruly.  As far as grievances go, this is a fairly major one as the entire plot hinges on it.  Magneto apparently just wanted to find the X-Men's "secret" location, and once Toad's identity was made, he and his evil henchmen stepped in to save him, capturing Angel in the process.  The capture of Angel was not the crux of the plan, but it became an added bonus that inadvertently led the X-Men to Magneto's secret base of operations.  In other words, a plan that should have never worked in the first place because it was built too much about random happenstance, actually ended up working the exact opposite of how the criminal mastermind envisioned it.  This is poor storytelling, though it does make for a grand adventure.

Having what is otherwise a solid story rest upon such a flimsy foundation denigrates the entire work.  It is fine for moving the action along, but as soon as you start to think about it, it falls apart.  So does the X-Men graduating.

Did Professor Xavier somehow know this was going to happen?  He had taken himself out of the mix the previous issue.  How long would he have kept his "lost" powers a secret?  Would they have returned had the threat been minor?  Or did he suspect Magneto would attempt something fairly quickly?  We don't know because the readers were kept in the dark to the professor's plans the entire time.  We know now they came back, but the readers who delved into this issue when it first came out had no idea that was going to occur.  For all they knew, he would remain powerless forever.  Again, a major plot point (the X-Men graduating) hinged upon uncontrollable circumstances ... or at least that is how it seems.

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby are considered masters.  Their influence upon comic books is not even a subject of debate.  Lee is not, despite the accolades, a master writer.  He is the George Lucas of comic books -- a man with great ideas that are often poorly executed.  Kirby, however, is deserving of all the praise.  If this issue were to be presented as something new in 2011, however, it would not pass muster.  Even Kirby's art is subdued for this issue.  Considering the time period when it came out, it is a thoroughly enjoyable read ... as long as you don't think about the plot too much.

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