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Friday, October 3, 2014

X-amining Havok & Wolverine: Meltdown #1-4

"Mexican Standoff" / "Tender Loving Lies!" / "Duel" / "Endgame"
Nov 1988 - Feb 1989

In a Nutshell 
Havok and Wolverine are targeted by the villainous Meltdown.

Writer: Louise Simonson & Walt Simonson
Artists: Jon J. Muth & Kent Williams
Letterer: Bill Oakley
Designer: R S Bozeman
Editors: Margaret Clark & Steve Buccellato
Editor-in-Chief: Archie Goodwin

Plot
Issue #1: Two Russian men, Meltdown and Doc Neutron, play chess, as the nuclear facility in Chernobyl begins to melt down, an event they orchestrated. They realize they will need help for the next part of their plan. Meanwhile, Havok and Wolverine are on vacation in Mexico, unaware they are being watched. After picking a fight with the locals, they escape via a confiscated car, bringing along the female owner. However, she shoots them at close range, and when Wolverine awakens inside a hospital, he is told the bullets were laced with Bubonic plague, and that Havok is dead. An enraged Wolverine leaves the hospital and goes to Havok's grave, but when he digs up the coffin, he only finds a pinata filled with rocks.

Issue #2: Wolverine interrogates the local thugs, learning Russians are involved with kidnapping Havok. Meanwhile, Havok awakens in a seeming hospital, recovering from the Bubonic plague, and meets an attractive nurse named Scarlett. However, Scarlett is actually Quark, an agent of Meltdown, and she enables Meltdown to keep watch over him. When Scarlett tells Havok that Wolverine is dead, he refuses to believe it. This unsettles Scarlett, as it means the brainwashing drugs she's giving Havok aren't fully working. Meanwhile, Wolverine sets a trap for the Russians. Back at the hospital, Scarlett changes tactics, telling Havok someone has been asking about Wolverine, and setting up a meeting with this apparent "spy". Elsewhere, Wolverine's hotel is bombed by a Russian agent, but he gets the drop on the agent, learning where Havok is being kept. Havok meets the fake spy and is told Wolverine has been brainwashed by Soviets in Poland. He and Scarlett escape from the hospital and end up flying away in a plane arranged by Scarlett just as Wolverine arrives, too late.


Issue #3: Havok and Scarlett fly into a thunderstorm as Wolverine tracks them. Coming across one of Meltdown's operatives, Wolverine kills him, then tells Meltdown and Dr. Neutron he's coming for them. Worried their plot is unraveling, Meltdown absorbs some radiation, testing his capabilities. He knows he could be more powerful, but to do so, he needs the tool Scarlett is bringing him: Havok. He and Scarlett land at the town of Merida. Leaving him to arrange transportation to Poland, she contacts Doc Neutron, saying she has an idea for dealing with Wolverine and expressing doubt over their plans. En route to Poland, the pair grow closer. Meanwhile, Wolverine arrives in Merida, but is attacked and subdued by Meltdown's men, at which point Dr. Neutron orders a total mindwipe. Arriving in Poland, Havok and Scarlett reach a KGB facility where Havok believes Wolverine is being held. Inside, he's attacked by his brainwashed teammate, and in self-defense, he uses a full power blast, killing Wolverine, just as Scarlett planned.

Issue #4: Scarlett finds Havok, devastated he had to kill Wolverine. As he prepares to bury him, Scarlett seemingly discovers a map of a nuclear reactor in India. Havok reasons whomever is behind this wanted him out of the way so he couldn't prevent the explosion of that reactor. Putting the map in his coat and wrapping Wolverine's body in it, he buries his friend. Elsewhere, Neutron and Meltdown receive word that Havok has killed Wolverine. In Poland, Wolverine awakens, his healing factor having saved him. Finding the power plant plans in Havok's jacket, he departs for India, determined to save Havok from Scarlett. In India, Havok and Scarlett find the plant already on fire. With Scarlett in a radiation suit, they enter the reactor, and Havok begins to put the control rods back in place so he can absorb the energy. Just then, he's attacked by Meltdown, who wants Havok to absorb all the plant's energy then blast him with it. Even though Havok blames Meltdown for Wolverine's death, he holds back, until Meltdown attacks Scarlett, killing her. Enraged, Havok unleashes his power, but the villain only grows stronger. Just then, Wolverine arrives, telling Havok to handle the explosion while he takes care of Meltdown. As Havok absorbs the energy, Wolverine kills Meltdown by pummeling the villain with the control rods, blocking his access to Havok's energy. Havok blasts his stored energy safely into space, and the heroes escape as the authorities arrive. Elsewhere, Doc Neutron laments the failure of his plan, yet is confident there are other games that can be played. 

Firsts and Other Notables
This is a prestige format limited series, with each issue square bound and printed on high quality glossy paper, running 48 pages, and released through Marvel's Epic imprint, created chiefly as a spot for creator-owned material, but which also eventually showcased unique or more adult takes on established Marvel characters.

It is written by Louise and Walter Simonson, with full painted art by Jon J. Muth (handling the Havok scenes) and Kent Williams (handling the Wolverine scenes). 

Issue #1 marks the first appearance of the series chief villains: Meltdown, Doc Neutron and Scarlett/Quark. The first two will pop up once more in a future issue of Wolverine, while a seeming double of Scarlett will appear in X-Factor #112-114.

A Work in Progress
Havok appears only as a "ghostly haze" on Scarlett's medical equipment, though it's never established how Meltdown and Neutron know Wolverine and Havok are still alive.  


Her brainwashing techniques are also less effective on him, as he's been trained to resist mind control.


I Love the 80s
The first issue opens with a dramatization of the Chernobyl disaster. 

Meltdown rails against Mikhail Gorbachev and the policy of Glasnost, having apparently been ousted from the Soviet government at some point.


The Best There is at What He Does
It's noted that Wolverine doesn't know who his mother is.
Wolverine is able to detect from Havok's scent that his heart was racing. Not sure how much sense that makes.


Something you won't see in the average issue of X-Men (or even Wolverine): at one point, Wolverine visibly thrusts his claws through a guy's chest. Later, he does the same thing with another guy's face.


Havok believes that he can kill Wolverine with a full power blast, but he's ultimately proved wrong.


Young Love
Havok string of bad luck with women, in which the women he loves invariably turn evil, is both commented on in the story and continued by the story.


Meltdown plans to use Havok's "distrust of affection and fear of betrayal" against him.


In the end, Wolverine keeps to himself the knowledge that Scarlett was working for Meltdown, deciding Havok has been through enough. 


Teebore's Take
Reading this in close proximity to "Pharaoh's Legacy" doesn't do that story any favors, as Meltdown is pretty much the same story only, you know, better. It ditches the whole Living Pharaoh thing (though, amusingly, both villains' ultimate goal is still to have Havok shoot them with his plasma), but keeps the sadsack Havok love life angle, pairing him with another femme fatale that plays him like a chump (to his credit, this story makes it clear she's also subtly brainwashing him throughout).

Coming from the Epic imprint, it's also allowed to be darker and edgier, something which Wolverine takes full advantage of. It also has more thematic meat, even while most of it is wedded fairly firmly to Reagan-era nuclear anxiety, and it does a much better job of selling us on the Havok/Wolverine friendship, showing us a pair of buddies just looking to drink themselves into oblivion while on vacation, rather than just telling us they're besties.

Of course, Meltdown also features absolutely gorgeous, fully painted art. Often times, painted art in comics comes too close to being abstract and hard to follow, sacrificing the storytelling elements in favor of a wow-factor, but Muth and Williams thread that needle carefully. Wolverine is perhaps, at times, a bit off model (particularly his hair wings), and the series features its fair share of attractive pages more concerned with mood or abstraction than characterization or storytelling, but for the most part, the art manages to tell the story while still being artistic.

In the grand scheme of things, this lands somewhere just off to the side of the larger X-Men narrative: it fits relatively seamlessly into the happenings of Uncanny X-Men at the time (particularly in terms of Havok's relationship woes, in which it follows on almost directly from "Pharaoh's Legacy" even while it's one upping it), but it doesn't add a whole lot to them either. Nevertheless, Meltdown is well worth a read for its darker take on the characters, its "of the moment" thematic elements, and some pretty fantastic art.

Next Issue
Next week, Uncanny X-Men #246 features the return of Master Mold, New Mutants #77 features Doctor Strange, and X-Factor #42 features...more trolls.

19 comments:

  1. Definitely worth checking out. The story moves along nicely, the art as you say is gorgeous, and the Simonsons do a good keeping the characters "on model" as far as they are written.

    And the darker tone fits the story well. I think this is also one of the first times we see Marvel characters using words like bitch and bastard, no?

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  2. One thing though...if it's a painted project, how is there an inker listed in the credits?

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  3. @wwk5d: I think this is also one of the first times we see Marvel characters using words like bitch and bastard, no?

    One of the first times, I'd think. Though I can't say for certain.

    One thing though...if it's a painted project, how is there an inker listed in the credits?

    ...cuz I forgot to remove the inker from my template...

    It's been corrected.

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  4. "Havok appears only as a "ghostly haze" on Scarlett's medical equipment, though it's never established how Meltdown and Neutron know Wolverine and Havok are still alive."
    Forget them knowing Havok was still alive for a second- the real question is how did they FIND Havok? The dialogue suggests that Alex has never been to that part of Mexico, so how did they know he'd be there?
    "Havok believes that he can kill Wolverine with a full power blast, but he's ultimately proved wrong."
    Note that Havok didn't bury Logan too deep, and wasn't surprised when Logan showed up alive, so he probably held back deliberately to trick anyone that was watching.

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  5. I think this is also one of the first times we see Marvel characters using words like bitch and bastard, no?

    ELEKTRA: ASSASSIN predated this by a couple of years. That had some colorful language in it as I recall.

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  6. In a way, this series illustrates what I find to be the problem with modern comics. MELTDOWN was published under Epic for "mature audiences". In the late nineties, it might've been published under Marvel Knights for "mature audiences".

    Nowadays, it would just be a regular mainstream comic, Wolverine snikt-ing through that guy's eyes and all.

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  7. // Steve Bioccelate //

    Buccellato. I presume autocorrect has spilled the beans on a new genetics firm you're starting up. 8^)

    // Meltdown is pretty much the same story only, you know, better //

    No kidding.

    // Of course, Meltdown also features absolutely gorgeous, fully painted art. //

    Absolutely. I respect what Williams is doing with his slightly more abstract sequences, Logan's slicked back locks and Popeye-style physique included, although I think I prefer Muth's material. Really lovely stuff.

    So yet another redhead seduces a Summers brother, complete with black dress as plot point. While I confess that I don't see any reason for the hair color, and naming her Scarlett feels a little on-the-nose, it's easy enough to chalk that all up to cosmic irony, fate, or what-have-you.

    My one quibble with the story would be how tremendously well Havok seems to be able to control his power — Quark/Scarlett is able to light a cigarette against his charged-up hand, and he touches the ground to send out "plasma tendrils" — which I wouldn't have any problem with if it weren't belied by concurrent issues of X-Men.

    My two quibble with the story would be how Alex has a wad of cash and, later, his Havok costume on him when he's on the lam with what sure looks like only the clothes on his back, particularly given his kidnapping and faux hospital stay at the Russians' hands in Mexico.

    My three quibble would be that Alex's hair is brown for about the first half of the series.

    Not sure if this qualifies as a notable reference, but "Enter freely and of your own will," first used by Neutron in #2 and repeated by him at the end of #4, is a quote from Bram Stoker's Dracula; meanwhile, the KGB facility in Poland is likened to Dracula's castle in #3.

    Meltdown, Dr. Neutron, and Quark are codenames at odds with the dark, comparatively real-world texture of the piece, yet somehow they work for me. I find myself curious about the way Neutron describes Quark as losing herself to the Scarlett persona she's using, and taking that with how Meltdown's thought balloons compliment her on the way he feels she's inciting Alex to unleash a full blast on him by forcing him to seemingly atomize her right before Alex's eyes, well, I have to wonder if maybe Meltdown didn't actually kill her. We can read the scene as Scarlett committing totally to the plan as Meltdown believes or, as I think her dialogue suggests, her reneging on the plan and sacrificing herself to buy Alex time to escape, but Meltdown praising her without a hint of eulogy colors how I took the final page. Neutron welcomes a new female superintendent to the asylum, one whose face is conspicuously unrevealed, and my mind immediately went to suspecting it was another incarnation of Quark, one whom Meltdown knew could/would be activated after he fried her predecessor. I have no idea if that plays into her later appearance or not. Just throwin' it out there.

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  8. Haven't read it so I imagine Doc Neutron to be something between Dr Manhattan, the more renown nuclear physicist of the late 80's, and Mr. Neutron, the superheroesque alien from a fourth season episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus, but from the KGB.

    Regarding Matt's "mature audiences" pointer, if this sort of "mature" approach goes for the mainstream comics nowadays it has a hint of them considering the supposed "big tits & bigger guns" fanboys of the early nineties who have now grown up, to an extent, to be the main target audience nowadays. No wonder then if amidst female Thor, Muslim girl Ms. Marvel and all the other audience gaug... I mean diversification they may feel the need to throw in a Manara-drawn Spider-Woman's ass every now and then just to keep the core audience in.

    It's chuckleworthy because I'm told one of the definite moments causing Liefeld to ditch the company was him not being allowed to have Shatterstar graphically stab Juggernaut into the eye on-panel.

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  9. Actually, that story regarding Shatterstar was about MacFarlane...

    http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2014/08/01/comic-book-legends-revealed-482/

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  10. Oh, darn. So it was. Thanks, wwk5d.

    It should be obvious but I say it anyway: it was the darned Shatterstar that got me confused. The one with a blade on his blade, who doesn't like gladiator films if Liefeld ever again gets to have any say on the matter.

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  11. Teemu -- "I mean diversification they may feel the need to throw in a Manara-drawn Spider-Woman's ass every now and then just to keep the core audience in."

    That was was the dumbest controversy I've ever seen. There's nothing wrong with some comic book cheesecake now and then, and I can't believe they canceled future Manara covers over it. Funnily, given your comment, my exact response when I learned people were up in arms over the thing was that the picture was no worse than the comics I grew up with in the nineties, and it was better drawn and more tasteful than a lot of them, to boot.

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  12. Oh, yes... I've learned that Angela, of 90's Spawn fame, has recently been brought over to Marvel to a comics title of which a very popular movie has just been made. I'll bet some creators are just looking for to be sued over her ass.

    I loved how one vocal point of criticism was brought by the usage of a 3-D model over the unnatural and impossible pose of Jessie... I guess someone skipped reading her powers description.

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  13. @Anonymous: Forget them knowing Havok was still alive for a second- the real question is how did they FIND Havok? The dialogue suggests that Alex has never been to that part of Mexico, so how did they know he'd be there?

    Yeah, there's definitely a bit of "because plot" at work here, both in terms of the villains knowing Havok is alive and in knowing where he is, specifically, when the story starts.

    @Matt: Nowadays, it would just be a regular mainstream comic, Wolverine snikt-ing through that guy's eyes and all.

    Yeah, I get that Marvel (and DC, especially) have more or less accepted that the majority of their regular customers are adults, but that doesn't mean they should give up. There's definitely a place for a story like this (and those specific actions), but there's also nothing wrong with having a place for stories that avoid that kind of thing too.

    @Blam: Buccellato. I presume autocorrect has spilled the beans on a new genetics firm you're starting up.

    Heh, thanks. I've updated it. That was either autocorrect, or me copying/pasting poorly.

    My one quibble with the story would be how tremendously well Havok seems to be able to control his power

    That's a good point.

    Not sure if this qualifies as a notable reference, but "Enter freely and of your own will," first used by Neutron in #2 and repeated by him at the end of #4, is a quote from Bram Stoker's Dracula.

    I *think* it gets called out as such in the story (that is, someone points out that Neutron is quoting Stoker), which is why I didn't mention it. Then again, I may just be imagining that, in which case I should have called out the reference.

    I have no idea if that plays into her later appearance or not.

    Nor do I, frankly. It's been a long time since I read the issues she returns in, and having not read Meltdown at the time, her significance was largely lost on me. But I definitely agree with your interpretation that there's more to the character, and that the (non)reveal of the new superintendent seemed to be setting *something* up.

    @Matt: That was was the dumbest controversy I've ever seen. There's nothing wrong with some comic book cheesecake now and then, and I can't believe they canceled future Manara covers over it.

    I agree there's nothing wrong with the occasional cheesecake art (though I question if that really counts as traditional cheesecake, unless we just assume cheesecake=titillating/porn-tastic, and I'd feel a lot better about it if comic art in general was more equal opportunity when it came to cheesecake) and that it's dumb to cancel all future art from the artist as well (because there's definitely a place for his work).

    But I will say the thing that bugged me about this particular "controversy", and the thing that I think got lost as the argument quickly devolved into a "there's nothing wrong with sexy lady art! How dare you criticize my sexy lady art!" kind of thing, is that Marvel was specifically making a big deal out of the new Spider-Woman series being female friendly, marketing it as a series geared towards women, that female fans specifically could pick up and enjoy. And then they slapped a cover on it that was clearly designed to appeal, first and foremost, to straight men. It's that disconnect, trying to bring in women with one hand without realizing (or caring) they were driving them away with the other, that bugged me and, I think, at least some of the people that started the whole hubbub, which, as is usual with the internet, quickly became a much bigger deal than it needed to be.

    Or, to put it more succinctly: yes, there is definitely a place for female cheesecake art in comics. I just question whether that place includes a comic that is being specifically targeted towards women.

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  14. Teebore: Marvel was specifically making a big deal out of the new Spider-Woman series being female friendly, marketing it as a series geared towards women, that female fans specifically could pick up and enjoy.

    Hmmh, I tried looking up for press releases on the launch of the title, but can only find the Marvel.com SDCC2014 interview of the creators, where no specific female-friendliness angle is brought up in any way. Judging by the comments the choice of Greg "traces porn" Land for the artist seems to be derided from the get-go. So, just to be fair, is that something Marvel actually did or is it rather something the critics came up with later on?

    Of course, a female-led title should be female-friendly by definition and certainly not female-unfriendly, and I'm told the previous Spider-Woman titles have been female-friendly so it is a fair expectation anyway.

    As a comic book geek I am somewhat offended myself for the implication that one alternative cover, no matter how unfortunate, could in any way take anything away from a character who is a) awesome, b) even more awesome for the fact that she only came to existence because of trademark reasons practically overnight, and c) blatantly refused to go away despite the constant writer turnover in her original title and perhaps the most definitely throughout death among all the comic book deaths.

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  15. "Wolverine is able to detect from Havok's scent that his heart was racing. Not sure how much sense that makes."

    This was my big beef with the story. Wolverine's practically telepathic in this comic, just pinpointing Havok's exact mental state during every moment of the story despite not being anywhere near him.

    Apart from that, though, I dig it a lot. Good artwork, and I enjoy the dialogue throughout, even though I usually am not a fan of Weezie's word-balloons. (Maybe this is Walt's influence.)

    Painted-Havok looks a bit like that actor who played Hollis Mason in the Watchmen film. Or is that just me?

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  16. @Anonymous: // Note that Havok didn't bury Logan too deep, and wasn't surprised when Logan showed up alive, so he probably held back deliberately to trick anyone that was watching. //

    Scarlett tells Havok, "The grave seems awfully shallow," which is almost surely the Simonsons telegraphing Havok's intentions, and Wolverine's thought balloons when he awakes reveal that Havok nearly burned the flesh off Logan's bones "but he held back just enough".

    @Teebore: // I *think* ... someone points out that Neutron is quoting Stoker //

    You're right. And I feel like I've been going overboard in pointing out what are pretty obvious references lately. Maybe we can chalk it up to my thinking ahead towards a collected edition for posterity as I slowly move forward with similar-ish projects of my own, almost certainly making waaaaay more notes than I need to in my typical fashion as I figure out the shape of it all.

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  17. Blam: " And I feel like I've been going overboard in pointing out what are pretty obvious references lately."

    My personal golden standard in this regard is the Finnish early 20th c. translation for John Milton's Paradise Lost. There's a scene where a demon, Azazel is memory serves correct, taunts his fellow demons and our good translator had seen it fit to add a footnote into one of his sentences there: "This here might be humor." I think you're doing fine, Blam.

    (Captcha for this post of mine about some upside down behavior of Satan's pal on a Marvel-related blog: "916". Well.)

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  18. @Teemu: Hmmh, I tried looking up for press releases on the launch of the title, but can only find the Marvel.com SDCC2014 interview of the creators, where no specific female-friendliness angle is brought up in any way.

    Yeah, I tried to find a source to cite as well, but everything I found is just about the "controversy" now.

    I could be wrong about the stated intent, but, as you did, I'd still argue that a female-led series isn't maybe the best place to deploy cheesecake art; even if the overt intention to appeal to woman isn't there, one would assume a title starring a female character would intuitively do so, at least to some degree.

    As a comic book geek I am somewhat offended myself for the implication that one alternative cover, no matter how unfortunate, could in any way take anything away from a character who is a) awesome, b) even more awesome for the fact that she only came to existence because of trademark reasons practically overnight, and c) blatantly refused to go away despite the constant writer turnover in her original title and perhaps the most definitely throughout death among all the comic book deaths.

    I certainly don't think one such cover, this or any other, does any damage to the character. I think it just damages the likelihood that a female reader will pick up the book.

    "Oh, maybe I'll try this new Spider-Woman series" [pick ups book, sees cover] "Ugh, nevermind, this is the same hyper-sexualized boys fantasy as everything else. Nevermind." That sort of thing.

    @Jason: Painted-Havok looks a bit like that actor who played Hollis Mason in the Watchmen film. Or is that just me?

    I didn't think of that, but now that you mention it, I can see it.

    Occasionally, he struck me as looking a little James Dean-esque.

    @Blam: And I feel like I've been going overboard in pointing out what are pretty obvious references lately.

    It's certainly appreciated, as occasionally I *do* miss them, or fail calling them out. Sometimes I intentionally leave out what I feel are the more obvious ones (or the ones, like here, that the story itself seems to call out) which, granted, is a dangerous line to walk.

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