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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

X-amining X-Men #111

"Mindgames!"
June 1978

In a Nutshell
The X-Men are turned into circus performers by Mesmero

Writer: Chris Claremont
Artist: John Byrne
Inker: Terry Austin
Letterer: Tom Orzechowski
Colorist: Mary Titus
Editor: Archie Goodwin

Plot
A stunned Beast stands outside a carnival in Texas as a carnival barker who looks a lot like Banshee sells the crowd on performers that resemble the other X-Men. Going inside, Beast, who is unfamiliar with the new X-Men, isn't sure if the performers are really the X-Men or doppelgangers until he sees performer Miz Destiny use telekinesis during her trapeze act. Certain now that she is really Jean Grey, Beast confronts her, but she has no memory of him and a fight breaks out between Beast and the other carnies, led by a brainwashed Cyclops. Beast is eventually caught in front of an enthralled Wolverine and brought before the ringmaster of the carnival: Mesmero, who has hypnotized the X-Men into becoming carnival performers to extract revenge on them for his previous defeat.


As Mesmero attempts to similarly ensnare Beast, Wolverine, jarred to his senses by the violence of Beast's capture, breaks free and confronts Phoenix. After he snaps her out of Mesmero's control as well, they free the other X-Men and the team battles Mesmero's goons. Inside Mesmero's trailer, Beast gains the upper hand just as he is knocked out from behind. The X-Men storm the trailer to confront Mesmero, but discover him already unconscious and at the mercy of Magneto, who has arrived to take his own revenge against the team.

Firsts and Other Notables
Beast, now a member of the Avengers, guest stars, making his first full appearance (after appearing via video screen in issue #94) in X-Men since turning blue and furry.

Mesmero, the mutant hypnotist, makes his second appearance, following the events of issues #49-51. In a nice touch, he refers to Phoenix as Marvel Girl, the codename Jean was using the last time Mesmero faced the X-Men.

A Work in Progress
Beast's involvement in this story is setup by events in Marvel Team-Up 69 and 70, also by Claremont and Byrne, in which Havok is kidnapped by agents of the Living Pharoah, prompting Polaris to call the X-Men for help. When they don't answer, she calls Beast, who leaves for the X-Mansion (and the events of this issue) leaving Thor and Spider-Man to team-up with Havok to defeat the Living Pharoah, who has once again transformed into the Living Monolith.


For most of his stint on the X-Men, Wolverine has been the character who rushes headlong into battle against the villain du jour only to be quickly taken out of the fight in order to establish the villain's power level. For the first time, in this issue Wolverine is the key to defeating the villain, as he is the first member of the team to snap out of Mesmero's illusion (and the only one to do it unaided), enabling him to in turn "wake-up" Phoenix and, subsequently, the rest of the team.


Storm explicitly declares that the X-Men don't kill (a declaration that will come to define the team), the first time such a declaration is made on panel (I think).


Nightcrawler uses his "teleport quickly to multiple places to punch out a crowd" tactic for the first time. Also, his line, after snapping out of Mesmero's illusion, that he "used to love the circus" is the first hint towards his past as a (willing) circus performer.


The backup story in the Classic X-Men reprint of this issue depicts Mesmero's capture of the X-Men in more detail (showing the events described by Mesmero in this issue). Notably, Mesmero initially attacks Jean just to use her as a sex slave, but when the Phoenix part of her won't allow him to touch her, he decides to go after the X-Men. He makes them fight one another, but grows bored of that, and then has no idea what to do with the X-Men (he believes killing them outright wouldn't be super-villainy enough) until he sees a picture of Nightcrawler in the circus. So he decides to humiliate the X-Men and make a profit at the same time, and turns them into carnival performers. 

That 70s Comic
Beast has forgone the laughable "rubber mask and gloves" disguise we last saw him using, opting now for the classic (and only slightly less laughable) "trench coat and fedora" disguise.  


Beast sees the carnival's teleporter and assumes it's Nightcrawler but wishes he "could only be certain". Really Beast? I know you haven't palled around with him much, but how many blue-furred, demonic-looking teleporting mutants do you think there are?


When attacked by Beast, Hypnotized Cyclops sends out the Carnie call for help:


And the carnies respond:


Later, Wolverine basically bitch-slaps Jean out of her trance.


After hypnotizing the X-Men and turning them into carnival performers, Mesmero apparently let them take their X-Men costumes with them, as once the team is snapped out of his illusion, they confront Mesmero in full superhero regalia.


Artistic Achievements
The cover of this issue (by Dave Cockrum) is fantastic. One of those classic images that I can see grabbing readers from newsstand spinner racks back in the day.

The issue ends with a great Magneto splash page. According to Jason Powell, superstar artist Jim Lee collects Magneto splash pages, and has the original art for the ones that ended issues #17, #104 and this one.


Young Love
There's a definite undertone of creep to the X-Men's time as carnival performers (even before the backup story made it explicit), especially the fact that, before Wolverine snapped her out of it, Jean (who is generally pretty sleazy in her Miz Destiny identity) was preparing for a date with Mesmero (the carnival's boss). It's a Comics Code-approved comic from the 70s, but it's not too hard to connect those dots...

For Sale
The word approximations of Artoo's beeps and whirls are hilarious.


Our first (but certainly not last) skateboard ad:


Finally, 
A. They're advertising Wonder Bread in a comic book. That cracks me up.
B. Wonder Bread is using Close Encounters of the Third Kind trading cards as a selling point. Did kids really want cards featuring Richard Dreyfus sculpting mashed potatoes? Was that a thing?


Stan's Soapbox
In a great example of Stan Lee's hucksterism, he spends an entire column answering the question of why Marvel is constantly debuting new titles and trying new things. While the real answer can be given in one word (money), Stan spends several paragraphs trying to convince us Marvel is really doing it all for us, the readers. And I'll be damned if he doesn't sell the hell out of the idea (click to embiggen). 


Teebore's Take
This issue kicks off Claremont and Byrne's first extended story arc on the title and, following their use of the Living Pharaoh in the preceding Marvel Team-Up story (as well as Claremont's use of the Sentinels back in issues 98-100), continues their extended riff on the Neal Adam/Roy Thomas run (which was, in turn, a riff on the original Lee/Kirby run). Claremont starts the story abruptly, with the X-Men already thralls of Mesmero with no explanation of how they got there, making the reader initially as confused as Beast (and even moreso; at least Beast knows the X-Men disappeared between issues). Plenty of comics have begun with a shocking opening page, only to flashback and fill in the details leading up to it. But Claremont is doing something different here, and it's a device he'll use again, to the point that it becomes common place in comics: skip past the setup entirely, dive right into the meat of the story, and trust that the reader will catch up soon enough.

10 comments:

Matt said...

It's weird, but this is where I actually consider the Claremont/Byrne run to actually begin. I feel like Byrne's first issue was really just him filling in for the end of Cockrum's run, and his second issue -- as much as I like it -- was sort of a stand-alone fill-in (though I might not feel that way about it if 110 hadn't also been a stand-alone story drawn by a different artist).

But issue 111 is where it really begins! It's amazing how well regarded this run of stories is, even today. In my experience, it's looked upon with about as much reverence as the Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four or the Lee/Ditko Spider-Man. You don't see that for a lot of material after the '60's. For me personally, as with many others, this is pretty much the high point of the X-Men. I like the Cockrum stuff that came before, I like the Neal Adams stuff before that, and I enjoy a great deal of the material that comes after Byrne leaves -- especially the 30 or so issues immediately following his departure -- but when you come down to it, issues 111 through 143 are what it's really all about. I greatly look forward to reading your reviews in the coming months!

As for this issue -- I think it gets things off to a good start. I love that Claremont and Byrne used Beast quite a bit during their run even though he was "owned" by the Avengers office. It's clear from their later works that both men have a strong affiinity for the character, and that really comes through here, where he's basically the story's sole protagonist for about half the issue (if not more).

Until you mentioned it, it never occurred to me how odd it is that the X-Men have their costumes readily available here at the circus. Weird. And that kind of makes it even weirder -- to me at least -- that Wolverine has the torn picture of Jean on him in the Savage Land, as I mentioned previously.

Regarding the cover, I agree with you -- it's a good one. And is it just me, or does Wolverine's "logo" look a whole lot like the official logo he would receive when his own title launched years later? I believe Orzechowski designed the official one, but that doesn't look like his work on the cover of this issue -- if the cover letterer even did those posters. I suppose it could've been Byrne and/or Austin.

And speaking of Austin, it never ceases to amaze me what a difference an inker can make. Looking at the panels you posted from the Marvel Team-Up issue, I can barely tell that's Byrne's work. Whoever inked that MTU took a lot of liberty with Byrne's usually distinctive style. And maybe it's just my imagination, but that shot of Lorna looks a lot like something Marc Silverstri and Dan Green would've drawn years later. Just something about her face... and Beast, oddly enough, looks kind of like Austin's more recent inking style, but not the style he used at this time.

To Be Continued...

Matt said...

This has never happened before, but I got a note telling me my comment was too long. Apparently the max number of characters is 4,096 (which seems like a really random number to me), so here’s the rest:

Also, it seems weird to me that "X-Men don't kill" is something that needs to be pointed out, since, at least at this point, I don't think any superhero teams killed (at least not intentionally). But Claremont certainly played around with that later on -- especially after the departure of Cyclops, who was the biggest hardliner on the "no killing" policy. Which isn't to say the X-Men don't kill anyone during Cyclops's era -- there are a couple coming up here in the Byrne run. But I get the impression later on, that in his quest to make Storm more "hardcore", Claremont really went overboard with her stance on this policy, especially around the time of the Mutant Massacre and then the fights with the Marauders. That's actually one of the reasons I'm less a fan of the second half of Claremont's run than the first. But that's a discussion for future issues!

One last point: I like your observance that the issue begins pretty deep into the story. I know Byrne has stated elsewhere that his philosophy as a writer is to begin any issue as deep into the plot as possible. I wonder if he learned that trick from Claremont, or if Claremont picked it up from Byrne, or if they both developed it together at this time? As you noted, Claremont certainly continues to do it over the years, and Byrne does also.

Okay, I think that's it. If my comments are way too long sometimes, it's only because I love these issues so much and I really like talking about them! But if you'd prefer me to keep them more succinct, please let me know and I'll try.

Anne said...

ha! first, congrats, Matt, on your record breaking comment

second- i bet Wolverine had to slap Jean like 5 times and they just didn't show it. Like Slap. Slap. Slap slap slap. Like that

third- spot on with the Close Encounter Trading cards- how random

4th- i'm glad you talked about the backup in the reprint- otherwise i was thinking 'making them into Carnies sounds super lame'. The sex slave piece seems pretty dark. But the 'Hey Rube' call is hysterical

Sarah Ahiers (Falen) said...

Hey True Believers! Didn't you know the way to cure a hysterical woman is with a slap to the face?
And i know we've discussed the "Hey Rube" line in person before, but seeing it here is so so so much cooler and funny.
That and snoopuhs = win.

Teebore said...

@Matt: It's weird, but this is where I actually consider the Claremont/Byrne run to actually begin.

Yeah, me too. #108 was wrapping a story, #109 was a standalone followed by a fill-in...this is where the run really starts in earnest.

but when you come down to it, issues 111 through 143 are what it's really all about.

Agreed on all your points about the regard for this run related to other notable comic book runs. There are definitely later runs I personally enjoy more (I'm a big fan of the Paul Smith and JRjr runs) but I can't argue that Claremont/Byrne is the X-Men's creative high water mark.

I love that Claremont and Byrne used Beast quite a bit during their run even though he was "owned" by the Avengers office.

I've always appreciated that they managed to work Angel in as well as Beast, bringing four of the five original X-Men into the book at different times (I've always wondered why Iceman got left out...). Having Beast and Angel around really helped sell the idea of the X-Men as a family and a franchise, where the demarcation line between "old" and "new" X-Men blurred. It really helped make the book feel bigger and the universe the characters inhabit more genuine, I think.

Until you mentioned it, it never occurred to me how odd it is that the X-Men have their costumes readily available here at the circus.

Heck, I've read this issue probably a dozen times through the years, and it wasn't until this last reading that I went, "wait, where did their costumes come from?"

And is it just me, or does Wolverine's "logo" look a whole lot like the official logo he would receive when his own title launched years later?

I never noticed it before, but it does! Cockrum did the cover, but I don't know if that included those posters. Maybe Orz was inspired by it when he later designed the logo?

And speaking of Austin, it never ceases to amaze me what a difference an inker can make.

Indeed. I've always loved Byrne's Colossus, but I think I've really been loving Austin's Colossus.

Also, it seems weird to me that "X-Men don't kill" is something that needs to be pointed out, since, at least at this point, I don't think any superhero teams killed

Yeah, I debated even mentioning it in the post, since, like you say, nobody killed back then. But I decided to point it out since Claremont does makes a deal of it down the road, especially with Storm (I'm thinking of the Brood story where she angsts about killing homicidal, insectoid aliens trying to kill her and everyone she loves).

I wonder if he learned that trick from Claremont, or if Claremont picked it up from Byrne, or if they both developed it together at this time?

I wonder that too. I've always chalked it up to Claremont's lengthy plots and having more story than he can fit into a given issue, so he decided to just jump right into the important stuff.

But if you'd prefer me to keep them more succinct, please let me know and I'll try.

Blogger may have a random 4,096 character limit, but I certainly don't. I have no problem with you (or anyone) writing lengthy comments, even across several separate comment posts. The longer the better I say! (Heck, this comment is too long, per Blogger...)

Teebore said...

@Anne: i bet Wolverine had to slap Jean like 5 times and they just didn't show it. Like Slap. Slap. Slap slap slap. Like that

Haha! I love it! 'Slap slap slap'...

The sex slave piece seems pretty dark. But the 'Hey Rube' call is hysterical

Yeah, there's definitely a neat juxtaposition in this issue between "sleaze" and "whimsy". Mesmero's revenge is fairly dark (especially when you throw in the sex slave stuff) but then there's all this hilarious Carnie stuff going on too. It makes for an interesting tone.

@Sarah: Hey True Believers! Didn't you know the way to cure a hysterical woman is with a slap to the face?

Hey, it's always worked for me. ;)

That and snoopuhs = win.

'Snoopuhs' is awesome! Honestly, I think that panel of the carnies launching into action in response to "hey rube!" is one of my favorite panels ever

Matt said...

"...congrats, Matt, on your record breaking comment..."

Thanks, I assume my trophy or plaque is in the mail as we speak.

I just noticed I used the word "actually" two times in the same sentence in my first post. Given that, it's probably not a surprise that I'm so easily able to violate the maximum characters rule.


Teebore, I also love Paul Smith's run and I enjoy Romita Jr.'s to a lesser extent (except for Rachel) until the point where Magneto joins, Xavier leaves, and Cyclops loses that fight to Storm. That's where I think the wheels really start to fall off for a while. But again, those are comments for future reviews!

"I've always appreciated that they managed to work Angel in as well as Beast, bringing four of the five original X-Men into the book at different times (I've always wondered why Iceman got left out...)."

I think it's in the FAQ section on John Byrne's website, where he says that, especially near the end of his time on the book, he was trying to get as many of the original X-Men involved as possible. Obviously Beast was harder to wrangle with his Avengers membership (yet somehow he was in more issues than the others), but that's why we have four of the five (including Jean back in Marvel Girl garb) involved in the final part of the Dark Phoenix Saga.

I believe Byrne also said that he wanted to bring Iceman in, but the character was "reserved" by some writer for a mini-series that never happened. As always, it's best take Byrne's stories with a grain of salt, but this seems likely to me, because why else wouldn't Iceman have been there?

Furthermore, if I'm not mistaken, Byrne has said that he intended Angel to remain on the team (as he did for a few issues following Dark Phoenix), and that he hoped to eventually get Iceman back as well, and possibly even Beast, leaving us with ten X-Men -- Cyclops, Angel, Iceman, Beast, Storm, Wolverine, Colossus, Nightcrawler, and Kitty.

He's also said that when he finally quit the X-Men, there was brief talk around the Marvel office of launching a second X-Men title for him to write and draw, while Claremont continued to write Uncanny with another artist. Most likely Claremont's book would feature the "new" X-Men while Byrne's would have the originals. That's a "What If" scenario I would've loved to have seen.

Byrne's forum is a wealth of behind-the-scenes information if you can manage to navigate around the massive ego and past the sycophantic yes-men, and of course remember that there's always a chance that any given story is untrue (or at least liberally embellished).

Thanks for the opportunity to post without watching my characters!

Teebore said...

@Matt: That's where I think the wheels really start to fall off for a while.

While I have no great love for Rachel Summers, for me the wheels start to come off post-Mutant Massacre (though Jason Powell has given me a greater appreciation of "The Outback Year", at least pre-Dissolution, so I'm eager to revisit those).

that's why we have four of the five (including Jean back in Marvel Girl garb) involved in the final part of the Dark Phoenix Saga.

I've always loved that they were able to get almost the entire original cast back for that finale.

I believe Byrne also said that he wanted to bring Iceman in, but the character was "reserved" by some writer for a mini-series that never happened.

Makes sense. He certainly wasn't being used anywhere, so its as good an explanation as any.

Byrne's forum is a wealth of behind-the-scenes information if you can manage to navigate around the massive ego and past the sycophantic yes-men, and of course remember that there's always a chance that any given story is untrue (or at least liberally embellished).

Yeah, some day soon, when I have the time (ha!), I really need to skim through it and look for tidbits for the blog.

Harry Sewalski said...

Something I loved about this issue (which I only noticed on subsequent read-throughs, natch,) was the fact that at one point, you can actually see Magneto's shadow, hinting at the last-page reveal. I'm fairly sure that it's when Mesmero is trying to hypnotise Beast, or thereabouts. A nice bit of foreshadowing there.

Teebore said...

@Harry: Something I loved about this issue (which I only noticed on subsequent read-throughs, natch,) was the fact that at one point, you can actually see Magneto's shadow

That is a nice little touch on Byrne or Austin's part (I'm not sure who would have put it in there).