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Thursday, April 25, 2013

X-amining X-Men and Alpha Flight #1-2

"The Gift
Dec. 1985 - Jan. 1986

In a Nutshell
The X-Men and Alpha Flight investigate a fountain of mystical energy that could transform the world into a paradise. 

Writer: Chris Claremont
Artists: Paul Smith & Bob Wiacek, & friends (issue #2)  
Letterer: Tom OrzechowskiColorist: Glynis Wein, Bob Sharen (issue #2)
Editors: Ann Nocenti & Denny O'Neil
Editor-in-Chief: Jim Shooter
Based On a Premise By: Jim Shooter, Ann Nocenti, Denny O'Neil

Plot
Issue #1: Scott and Madelyne are flying a group of scientists to the Arctic Circle when their plane is struck down near Ungava Bay by a mysterious force. In New York, Rachel experiences a psi-flash of their crash. Using the Danger Room, the X-Men are able to recreate the moments leading up to their crash, and are led to believe Shama of Alpha Flight may be behind the crash. Later, in Calgary, Shaman and several of his teammates are suddenly attacked by an enraged Rachel. A fight breaks out, which Xavier quickly quells, admonishing Rachel for her rash action. Learning that Snowbird was struck down at the same time as Cyclops, the two teams decide to investigate the incident together. Meanwhile, Asgardian god Loki convenes with We Who Sit Above in Shadow, urging them to pass judgment on his attempt to curry their favor through a selfless act. As the X-Men and Alpha Flight near Ungava Bay, they discover a massive citadel in the midst of an oasis, from which Cyclops emerges.


He introduces the superheroes to the rest of the science team, all of whom have been physically transformed and received powers of their own, including Madelyne, who has gained healing abilities. She has enabled Cyclops to control his optic blast, then proceeds to cure Puck, Aurora, Sasquatch and Rogue of their various problems. Hoping she can also help the dying Snowbird, the group realizes she has disappeared. Wolverine, along with two of the scientists, leave to track her down. Everyone else settles in for a banquet as they discuss the situation, and realize with their newly acquired powers, the scientists could solve all the world's problems. Madelyne also reveals that she is pregnant with Cyclops' son, upsetting Rachel, who runs off. After dinner, the X-Men and Alpha Flight are shown the source of these abilities: a fountain of fiery magical energy that reaches down into the heart of the world. As Shaman draws near it, he is attacked by the creatures which reside in his medicine bag. Northstar and Aurora are able to fly off with the bag, drawing the creatures away, but the attack has left Shaman near the brink of death, and Madelyne is unable to heal him.


Issue #2: Talisman and Kitty explore the caverns beneath the citadel, searching for the distraught Rachel. They discover her within a large cavern, but before they can leave, a sudden avalanche causes the cavern to collapse. Working together, the three young women are able to escape. Kitty, suspicious of the cave in and wondering if someone triggered it to prevent them from discovering something, decides to investigate. She comes across Wolverine, who has returned from his hunt for Snowbird with no memory of how it ended. Realizing one of the scientists who had accompanied Wolverine had the ability to control animals, they speculate he may have taken control of the animal side of Wolverine and wiped his memory. Wolverine returns to his search, and discovers a dying, emaciated Snowbird in a cavern. He's suddenly confronted by the two scientists, who insist that Snowbird's death is for the best, but Wolverine refuses to give her up.


Watching from afar, Loki is enraged that the mortals haven't fully accepted his gift, the act of humility he performed to gain favor with Those Who Live Above In Shadow. Back at the citadel, Wolverine returns with Snowbird, having killed one scientist and badly wounded the other. He reveals that the fire fountain is powered by the magic in the world. As a result, anyone with magical abilities or background will eventually die, the cost of the potential paradise made possible by the fountain. This revelation splits the group, with a small faction unwilling to pay this price. A fight breaks out, but when Talisman realizes the fountain also robs humanity of each individuals' personal magic, their ability to create, dream and imagine, the fight stalls. Just then Loki appears, confirming the price of the gift he's bestowed on them. As a group, the X-Men, Alphans and scientists reject his offer, so he besets snow giants upon them, determined to force them to accept it. When one of Madelyne's friends is injured in the ensuing battle, Loki offers to restore her healing ability to save him. She agrees, then urges her companions to accept Loki's gift despite the cost. But Those Who Live Above In Shadow intervene, declaring that Loki has violated their agreement by forcing humanity to accept his gift. Afraid of facing their wraith, Loki swears not to exact vengeance on the heroes, despite what they've cost him. He does, however, reclaim his gift, restoring the scientists and all who were changed to normal, leaving them to grapple with their own demons as well as the lost paradise that might have been. As the heroes fly away from the crumbling citadel, a single rose blooms in the debris, a symbol of humanity's potential to create paradise on Earth on its own terms.  

Firsts and Other Notables
This two issue miniseries (comprised of double sized issues, hence the gargantuan plot summaries) was the brainchild of Jim Shooter, Ann Nocenti (X-Men editor at the time) and Denny O'Neil (the Alpha Flight editor) as a means to reunite Chris Claremont and John Byrne on a book featuring their respective characters. However, according to Claremont in the introduction to a trade paperback collection of this series, Byrne ultimately bowed out of the project, so Paul Smith was brought on as artist. 

Though Loki here swears not to enact vengeance on the X-Men and Alpha Flight, he will ultimately find away around his vow and attempt to get revenge on the X-Men in New Mutants Special Edition #1 and X-Men Annual #9, which thus serve as a sequel of sorts to this story (and are included in the aforementioned trade paperback collection). 

It's revealed that Madelyne is pregnant with a son in issue #1, making this, thanks to the magic of retcons, the first on panel mention of the character who will one day be Cable.


Cyclops and Rachel meet for the first time in this issue, though Rachel begs the X-Men to keep her identity a secret, so he doesn't yet know she is his daughter from an alternate timeline. Rachel spends most of the series avoiding him, though at the end, they share a moment, as Rachel comes to terms with her place in this timeline and decides not to tell Cyclops who she really is.


Those Who Live in Shadow are essentially the gods of the Asgardian gods, beings on a plane of existence higher even than the Asgardians. 

There's a couple of discrepancies in issue #1 between when this series was published and when it's meant to occur, story-wise: Rachel is referred to as being an X-Man, even though she doesn't officially join the team until issue #193, and she also attacks via a telekinetic bird claw, despite her eventual association with the Phoenix Force having not yet been established.


At this point in time, Northstar, who will eventually become Marvel's first openly gay character, hasn't been established as such, though there's some belief that various Alpha Flight writers wrote him with that in mind prior to his coming out. They are certainly hints of it throughout this series, particular in his interactions with Rogue (who absorbed his thoughts and memories when she touched him in the first issue), though nothing that would stand out if you didn't know about the future of the character. 


Early in issue #1, Sam Ross, who works for Scott and Madelyne, discusses a book with Cyclops that is thematically similar to the ensuing story.


The Chronology Corner
Though published in September and October of 1985 (the first issue was on sale at the same time as New Mutants Special Edition #1, the beginning of the ostensible sequel to this series), this story is considered to occur just prior to Uncanny X-Men #193.

For Alpha Flight fans, it occurs between issues #22 and #23 of their series. 

A Work in Progress
In issue #1, Illyana reads a letter from a Storm, from Africa.

It's back! Wolverine and Colossus perform a fastball special in the Danger Room.


Kitty references "sort of" being in college, a reference to the college-level courses she takes at Xavier's. 

There's a neat bit in issue #2 in which Kitty is shown phasing with Rachel through a cave-in.


More hints at Storm's magical nature: she's included in the list of magical characters as someone who could potentially be affected by the fire fountain's destruction of magic. 


After it's revealed that the fire fountain poses a threat to magic and magical beings on Earth, the group of heroes splits, one side (including Professor X, Cyclops and Wolverine) arguing the gifts of the fountain aren't worth the price, with the other side (including Colossus and Rachel) arguing that they are. 


I Love the 80s
Rachel's look in this story is very much of its time (as is Rogue's, though it at least fits the theme of most of her costumes).


Yes, thank you, Nightcrawler, for telling Cyclops about his power.  


Claremontisms
After showing Banshee to be a fan of James Joyce earlier in his run, Claremont once again has a character express his appreciation for author.


"Yahs" are all over these pages.

The Awesome and Terrible Power of Cyclops
It's revealed that Cyclops is physically incapable of crying, though I'm not sure if that's remained consistent.


The Best There is at What He Does 
Using her new-found powers, Maddy heals Wolverine of his berserker rages. 


Rachel Summers, Crybaby
Rachel bursts into tears at the news that Maddy is having a boy, meaning Rachel won't be born in this timeline. Even though Maddy wasn't her mother in her timeline anyway (in fact, Rachel is largely insufferable throughout this series, running off on her own on two separate occasions and whining about how she's in an alternate timeline from her own).


Human/Mutant Relations
One of the scientists in the group Scott and Maddy are escorting is a "get them before they get us" style anti-mutant bigot.


Nightcrawler notes that if everyone received superpowers, it could lead to an end to anti-mutant prejudice.


After it's revealed that the fire fountain robs anyone who receives powers from it of their creativity, Cyclops argues that the people who already have powers (ie mutants) and would thus retain their creativity, would still find themselves discriminated against, simply for different reasons, meaning the fire fountain really wouldn't eliminate anti-mutant prejudice.  


Teebore's Take
Thanks to a trade paperback collection of this story I acquired shortly after I started reading X-Men comics in earnest, I've read it countless times, and have a great deal of affection for it. In the introduction to that collection, Claremont speaks on the importance of injecting comics with a sense of fun, and this story is a great example of that. Like the Kulan Gath two-parter (which I also favor), it weds the more traditionally sci-fi X-Men to a fantasy concept, yet doesn't indulge in the "everyone dies!" shocks of that story. It also eschews that story's "forgotten identities" trope, instead presenting the various X-Men and Alpha Flight characters as they were at this time, doing a masterful job along the way of giving each character a distinct personality, while cramming in a ton of neat little moments for each (as a result, combined with my frequent readings of this story, a lot of my core beliefs about how the X-Men of this era are best presented stem from their depiction in this story)

The art, featuring the return of Paul Smith and Bob Wiacek, is, of course, fantastic, perfectly suited to the tale Claremont is telling (though the extra inkers and Bob Sharen's colors in the second issue make parts of it a step down in quality). Best of all, Claremont uses the fantasy setting as a vehicle for a simple and universal (though morally complex) story that almost reads like a fairy tale, asking the question "what price is too high for paradise?" Though the ending strips some of the complexity out of the dilemma (by presenting a cost that is high enough it becomes difficult to argue for), Claremont nevertheless presents each character as having a distinct and understandable position on the matter. At the end of the day, this story is, as Claremont hoped, ridiculously fun, featuring dozens of colorful characters, distinctly written and drawn, in a fantasy setting that allows those characters to shine through while grappling with a universal theme. It remains a favorite, no matter how often I revisit it.

Next Issue
We celebrate the anniversary of the "All New, All Different" X-Men in Uncanny X-Men #193, then wrap up the "Legion" story in New Mutants #28.

9 comments:

  1. In addition to his revenge schemes against the X-Men and New Mutants, Loki takes revenge of a sort against Alpha Flight in the form of running a mind game on Northstar. In the run-up to Alpha Flight 50 Jean-Paul started exhibiting symptoms that were oddly similar to AIDS. Conventional wisdom is that he was going to die of the disease in issue 50 but as part of Jim Shooters "there are no gays in the Marvel Universe (unless I write them trying to rape the Hulk)" dictate the story was changed so that Loki told him that he and his sister were Asgardian half-elves and Northstar had developed an allergy to Earth. Northstar pissed off to live in Asgard for the next 20-odd issues, where we eventually checked in on him sulking in a magical wood, being made fun of by real elves, with a thought bubble reading something like "I can't believe that I bought into that idiotic half-elf story! I'm so stupid!" And then in AF 107 he came out.

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  2. @Anonymous: Loki takes revenge of a sort against Alpha Flight in the form of running a mind game on Northstar. In the run-up to Alpha Flight 50

    Thanks for the info. I'd always wondered if Loki went after Alpha Flight again like he did the X-Men (having never read much Alpha Flight beyond the first dozen or so issues). Good to know someone eventually followed up on this story from their perspective as well.

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  3. Those Who Sit Above: I wonder who Claremont intended them to be originally? Any ideas anyone?

    Ungava Bay: We did never get an origin for that Viking settlement in the series either did we! I wonder if Claremont intended to tie it in with his later introduction of Roughhouse and Bloodsport!?

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  4. For some reason I feel like this came out even after that X-Men annual and New Mutants Special Editon #1, but Mike's Amazing World does have its two issues on sale the same the same consecutive months as those.

    Byrne ultimately bowed out of the project, so Paul Smith was brought on as artist.

    I had no idea that Byrne was originally supposed to draw this, however tentatively, although it makes sense.

    Rachel comes to terms with her place in this timeline and decides not to tell Cyclops who she really is.

    There probably isn't an easy time to spill news like that, period, but it's almost certainly not when your ass is hanging out of a leotard.

    Early in issue #1, Sam Ross, who works for Scott and Madelyne, discusses a book with Cyclops that is thematically similar to the ensuing story.

    Fantastic Foreshadowing! Also, I guess it's only fair to mention something that you're stealing from / riffing on to get that out of the way, especially if your readers might notice it. Hasn't Claremont done that before, in fact (not just with Magik's stepping discs)?

    [Storm's] included in the list of magical characters as someone who could potentially be affected by the fire fountain's destruction of magic. 

    Kitty's dialogue in the third panel of the tier you show below this is total Claremont dialogue, way more stilted than Kitty should sound.

    Nightcrawler notes that if everyone received superpowers, it could lead to an end to anti-mutant prejudice.

    How about an end to prejudice against furry blue people with pointy ears, three fingers per hand, and forked tails?

    Maybe it's the gang inks on the second issue — although the GCD lists among the "friends" Mike Mignola and Barry Windsor-Smith, which ain't too shabby — but I remember feeling a bit let down by Paul Smith's art when this came out. The panels you used definitely vary in quality.

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  5. PART ONE IN A 2-PART COMMENT

    I really like this mini-series. Above all else, it's nice to see Cyclops back with the X-Men for a bit, though I wish he'd spent more time in costume since Smith draws him so well. At least he "suits up" in the final couple of pages.

    Anyway, I actually like this story better than the "Asgardian Wars" two-parter, even though that seems to get more acclaim.

    "...according to Claremont in the introduction to a trade paperback collection of this series, Byrne ultimately bowed out of the project, so Paul Smith was brought on as artist."

    Here's Byrne's side of the story:

    "On the heels of the huge success of ALPHA FLIGHT, Shooter began bugging me about doing an X-MEN crossover. I said repeatedly that I didn't wish to return to the X-Men at that time and that I didn't wish to work with Chris. But Shooter was unrelenting. So, finally, I presented this proposal: somebody other than either Chris or me would plot the story, I would draw it, and Chris would script it. This way I would not have to read a Chris plot (which tended to run many, many pages full of superfluous stuff), and, indeed, I would not even have to look at the finished book.

    "Shooter agreed to this, and I asked for one more minor favor: Kitty would not appear in the story. 'Have a taxi driving away on the splash,' I said, "with everybody waving and saying "Have a nice vacation, Kitty!" '

    "Shooter agreed to this, too. He told me that he, Ann Nocenti (X-MEN editor) and Denny O'Neil (ALPHA editor) would plot the story.

    "A few weeks went by, and eventually a plot arrived. It was a ponderous tome, and my spider-sense tingled immediately. I read the first few paragraphs (which featured a specific kind of aircraft for which no reference was provided, plus a character reading a book I had never heard of) and knew immediately that Chris had written it. I flipped thru the rest of the pages, and found that Kitty was not only IN the book, she was VITAL to the story.

    "So -- I had laid out my terms, and they had been agreed to. Then they were promptly ignored.

    "And I did not do the book.
    "

    Byrne can be an unreasonable guy, but in this case his terms seem reasonable enough (assuming he's not embellishing too much -- which is of course a pretty tall order). The story is credited to Shooter, O'Neil, and Nocenti, though I guess it's possible that Claremont wrote out the full plot and Shooter hoped to slip that past Byrne. But even if that had worked, the Kitty condition was also not satisfied, leading on to wonder why Shooter even bothered to try and get Byrne to draw the thing.

    I love Paul Smith, but a Byrne/Claremont reunion -- at this point, when they were both still good -- would have been a nice thing to see. Especially if they'd gotten Austin on board to ink it, too.

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  6. PART TWO IN A 2-PART COMMENT

    "...Rachel comes to terms with her place in this timeline and decides not to tell Cyclops who she really is."

    I've always read the final few panels as Cyclops basically telling Rachel that he knows without making her come out and say it. I'm pretty sure that was Claremont's original intention, but I think that later on, around #200, Cyclops is genuinely ignorant of Rachel's parentage.

    "There's a couple of discrepancies in issue #1 between when this series was published and when it's meant to occur..."

    "For Alpha Flight fans, it occurs between issues #22 and #23 of their series."

    Having recently read Byrne's Alpha Flight, there are some even bigger discrepancies there. This story really doesn't fit concretely anywhere in their continuity, due to the series being an ongoing soap opera under Byrne with cliffhangers ending practically every issue.

    "...there's some belief that various Alpha Flight writers wrote him with that in mind prior to his coming out."

    Byrne has confirmed that Northstar was intended to be gay as of Alpha Flight #1.

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  7. @Nathan: Those Who Sit Above: I wonder who Claremont intended them to be originally?

    Are you saying that he was forced to use them, and would have gone with some other higher power if left to his own devices? Or that he had some kind of plan for them that was superseded by Simonson (or some other writer) on Thor?

    We did never get an origin for that Viking settlement in the series either did we!

    I always took it just to be a narrative device meant to make the heroes aware of the involvement of Loki (and explain why he placed the fire fountain in that specific location - it was once home to a village that worshiped him).

    @Blam: Hasn't Claremont done that before, in fact

    Yeah, he's usually pretty good about fessing up, one way or the other, to what he's cribbing from, at least when it comes to specific items/ideas.

    Kitty's dialogue in the third panel of the tier you show below this is total Claremont dialogue, way more stilted than Kitty should sound.

    Definitely. Good catch.

    The panels you used definitely vary in quality.

    Definitely (again). I was actually taken aback re-reading the second issue for this post, as I didn't remember it being that jarring in the past. As I've usually read this series via the trade paperback collection of it, that either means they touched up the inks for that collection, or I've just gotten better at noticing that stuff as I've gotten older.

    @Matt: Anyway, I actually like this story better than the "Asgardian Wars" two-parter, even though that seems to get more acclaim.

    If you twisted my arm and made me choose, I'd probably say I prefer this story as well, simply because it's a little more self-contained and thematically-sound (as much as I love the "Asgardian Wars" two parter, it's really just an excuse to do fantastically-drawn high concept fantasy with the characters, which, while ridiculously fun, isn't as thematically interesting), though I tend to think of them both as one long story, just from reading it in the trade so often.

    But even if that had worked, the Kitty condition was also not satisfied, leading on to wonder why Shooter even bothered to try and get Byrne to draw the thing.

    I do wonder both why Byrne didn't want Kitty involved (if there was more to it than just not liking the character she'd become since he'd left the book) and why Shooter thought he could somehow sneak it past Byrne.

    Thanks for posting the info from Byrne as well!

    I'm pretty sure that was Claremont's original intention, but I think that later on, around #200, Cyclops is genuinely ignorant of Rachel's parentage.

    It definitely can be read that way, which then makes me wonder when Claremont wrote this (since it was published pretty much at the same time as #200) and thus whether #200 is contradicting this or if this is contradicting #200.

    This story really doesn't fit concretely anywhere in their continuity, due to the series being an ongoing soap opera under Byrne with cliffhangers ending practically every issue.

    Good to know. Having not read much of Alpha Flight, I was just going off the Marvel Index for that one.

    Byrne has confirmed that Northstar was intended to be gay as of Alpha Flight #1.

    Good to know; I'd always heard that was his intent, but never knew exactly when he'd started writing the character as such.

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  8. On Those Who Sit Above In Shadow: I'm fairly sure I read in one of the Marvel Handbooks that they returned in a Thor arc around the time of Avengers Disassembled and were revealed to be responsible for the Ragnarok cycle. I haven't read the arc myself, but I believe that Michael Avon Oeming was the writer if memory serves. Nice to see that they returned, if only for one story.

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  9. "It's revealed that Cyclops is physically incapable of crying, though I'm not sure if that's remained consistent."

    Scott cried (crocodile tears) when Madelyne died in Inferno.

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