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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

X-amining X-Men Spotlight on Starjammers #1-2

"The Phalkon Quest Part 1" / "Phalkon Quest Part 2"
May-June 1990

In a Nutshell 
The Starjammers race Deathbird to the power known as the Phalkon. 

Writer: Terry Kavanagh
Penciler: Dave Cockrum
Inker:Jeff Albrecht
Letterer: Augustin Mas
Colorist: John Wilcox
Assistant Editor: Kelly Corvese
Editor: Mark Gruenwald
Editor-in-Chief: Tom DeFalco

Plot
Issue #1: While raiding a Shi'ar ship, the Starjammers discover the captain has a map to the Phalkon, a mythical power source Deathbird hopes to use to crush the rebellion the Starjammers are leading against her. However, the captain manages to break the map into four pieces and send them off into the galaxy, while also alerting Deathbird. The Starjammers set out to retrieve the map pieces before Deathbird. With the help of Professor X, who has merged his mind with the consciousness of the Starjammer's computer, endangering his body but increasing his power, the Starjammers retrieve the map, but are betrayed by their medic, Sikorsky, who allows Deathbird and a force of Imperial troops to board the ship. As the Starjammers fight the troops, Deathbird captures Lilandra then teleports away, leaving the Starjammers to decide whether to save Lilandra or continue their pursuit of the Phalkon.


Issue #2: Lilandra fights her way free as the Starjammers attack Deathbird's ship, using the smaller Starskimmer as a distraction to teleport Lilandra to safety. However, Deathbird and a contingent of the Imperial guard teleport to the Starjammer, and while the Guard battles the Starjammers, Deathbird retrieves the map to the Phalkon. Tracking her via the traps left for them in her wake, the Starjammers soon discover the Phalkon is on Earth. They arrive just after Deathbird has claimed the Phalkon, which turns out to be the portion of the Phoenix Force residing in Rachel Summers. The Starjammers and Excalibur team up to battle the Imperial Guard as Deathbird attempts to siphon the Phoenix Force for herself, while the Starjammer recruits Ship to help defeat the Shi'ar armada in Earth orbit. Lilandra manages to stop Deathbird before she absorbs all of Phoenix's power, and when the Empress falls, the rest of the Shi'ar forces retreat. Months later, the Starjammers meet with rebel leaders, having used the portion of the Phoenix Force stolen by Deathbird to revive Professor X. Garbed like Phoenix, he leads an attack on Imperial forces, becoming an inspiration to the rebellion against Deathbird.

Firsts and Other Notables
This limited series is comprised of two square-bound issues, 48 pages each (I believe it was also printed on the higher quality Baxter paper, like Wolverine and Excalibur, but I don't have my hard copy issues handy to double check) that cost $4.50 a piece (as opposed to the usual $1.00 for a standard comic at the time). It was originally intended to run in Marvel Comics Presents (it was teased as such in letter columns leading up to its release, and each issue is divided into six 8 page chapters, which presumably represent the intended MCP issue breaks). For whatever reason, the story was repackaged into this prestige format limited series.

Art comes from Starjammers co-creator Dave Cockrum, and given his affinity for the characters, I assume this is a project he pitched to Marvel (he doesn't get a plot credit on the series, but I also assume he contributed to that as well). Excalibur editor Terry Kavanagh is the credited writer, one of his earlier writing gigs (he will eventually go freelance, and contribute some of the worst comics of the 90s to the line via X-Man). 

Though he effectively joined the team circa Uncanny X-Men #200, this is one of the rare stories to feature Professor X as a member of the Starjammers. That said, he does spend most of the story either physically in a coma or dead, his mind merged with the Starjammer, so he's still not exactly contributing to the group in a traditional sense (and once again, and his power level seemingly requires a writer to sideline him).

Deathbird, who at this time is still the ruling monarch of the Shi'ar Empire (the Starjammers are leading a rebellion against her), serves as the villain of the story. She is backed up by the Imperial Guard, which debuts several new members in this story. First is Zenith, who is revealed, with much angst, to be the brother of  Starjammer member Raza.


Then there's White Noise and Black Light. I don't believe any of these new Guardsmen ever appear again.


Both Excalibur and X-Factor (along with Ship) appear in the second issue. Phoenix ends up getting captured by Deathbird and a portion of her power stolen, while Ship helps defend against the Shi'ar armada encircling Earth.


The story ends with Deathbird deciding to conquer Earth, a decision manipulated by one of her aids who is shown to be a member of a cult who worships Thanos. I don't believe anything ever comes of this tease.

Both issues include a Marvel Handbook-style schematic of the Starjammer.


The Chronology Corner
The Marvel Chronology Project lists X-Factor's appearance in issue #2 as occurring after issue #58 of their series, though that doesn't quite work, as Ship is initially seen floating above the Atlantic Ocean and not hanging out as a skyscraper in Manhattan. More likely, their appearance here is between X-Factor #42 and #43, after they return from London but before Ship gets yanked into space by the Celestials.

Similarly, the MCP lists Excalibur's appearance as occurring after issue #34 of their series, but Meggan is wearing her original yellow costume and not the green one she acquired during the "Cross-Time Caper". However, Widget is shown to be a part of the team, so this is another Excalibur appearance that doesn't quite fit (as it must take place before "Cross-Time" yet Widget is fully functional). 

A Work in Progress
Cr'eee, the little weasel-like creature that sits on Ch'od's shoulder, finds himself a family in this series, though I don't believe they ever pop up again.


The Reference Section
Binary tries to come up with a battle cry for herself, starting with "flame on", which Corsair cautions may be copyrighted.


Later, Corsair tells Waldo to "beam up" the Starjammers. 


Like a Phoenix, From the Ashes
Deathbird, stealing a portion of Rachel Summer's Phoenix power for herself, declares herself Death Phoenix briefly. 


Then, Professor X gets a hold of the power, enabling him to operate, somewhat jokingly (I hope) as "Bald Phoenix" for a time. Though like much from this story, his time in the red-and-golds of Dark Phoenix goes mostly unmentioned in the future. 


Teebore's Take
This is an odd little story. Like the Nightcrawler miniseries, I suspect it was something of a passion project for Cockrum. Not quite as whimsical as that series, it nonetheless seems like he's having fun with it, tossing in all kinds of space opera action beats. Yet given the somewhat prestige presentation of the story, readers could be forgiven for expecting something a bit more for their money, something a little more tightly-written, a little less meandering, something which has a greater impact on the X-Men narrative rather than, seemingly, being mostly forgotten or ignored.

Knowing it's a repurposed Marvel Comics Presents story helps clarify things a bit. It explains the episodic and repetitive nature of the plot (the Starjammer's shields, for example, go up, down and on the offensive about a half dozen times in the course of the story, to the point where a drinking game involving the word "shields" would likely kill someone), and the somewhat jumbled narrative (the flow of dialogue is, at times, harder to follow than it should be, and things like Raza's angst over his brother and a power struggle of sorts betwen Corsair and Binary go mostly unresolved). As a prestige limited series, we expect more; as a Marvel Comics Presents inventory story, this is all par for the course.

But that's not to say this is entirely without its charms. Tying in the Phoenix Force is a pretty clear case of borrowing from another, better, story to lend this one some narrative heft (though at least we're still in the outer space/Shi'ar milieu so it's not too much of a stretch), and "Bald Phoenix" is an idea best left ignored, but there is a really strong sense of the Starjammers as a band of rebellious pirates throughout the story, and the episodic chapter breaks provide an opportunity for more characterization than the Starjammers (aside from Corsair) usually get as perennial guest stars. And Cockrum is having fun with all this, the swashbuckling action, dueling starships, and the loopy chapter involving Cr'eee running from his world's version of the Keystone Cops. This is ultimately a slight, somewhat muddied story that runs on too long and never really goes anywhere, but it's also a fun piece of Cockrum's ouvre featuring characters who rarely get much time in the spotlight, and there's some value in that. 

Next Issue
Tomorrow, Alan Davis returns in Excalibur #23, and Friday, more fill-in action in Wolverine #24. Next week, Rob Liefeld's Wolverine in Marvel Comics Presents #51-53.

17 comments:

  1. Interesting Cockrum factoid for you all. In Comics Journal #50, Chris Claremont revealed Dave Cockrum and he intended Raza to be D'Ken's brother who had been almost assassinated, and resurrected as a cyborg.

    Given Kavanagh is scripter, I expect the character he introduced in his Moon Knight run, Seth Phalkon, was connected to the Phalkon here. He was founder of the Templars, who in conspiracy history were claimed to be guarding some secret treasure. Did Kavanagh intend that treasure to be the Phalkon energy?

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  2. About the chronology- the problem is X-Factor 50. Xavier is dying in that issue and that was obviously supposed to be a reference to these issues. The problem is that if you place these issues after X-Factor 50, Ship shouldn't be flying around.
    This story has a really annoying ending involving Thanos-worshippers manipulating Deathbird into attacking Earth. At the time I remember being confused as to whether this takes place before or after Thanos's resurrection. (In other words, did Thanos himself order this or are they following contingency plans set in motion before his death?) It's moot, as this is never followed up on.

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  3. Oh Nathan, you can't possibly be suggesting that the early Chistian symbol Chi-Rho, where a P and an X are superimposed with each other, would rather be alluding to that other force of resurrection, Phoenix, and that the emblem the Roman Emperor Constantine saw on the sky before adopting the Chi-Rho symbol for his troops was in fact a fiery bird, and that his family Flavia, "golden-brown", allegedly so named after the hair-color of an ancestor, would have carried to modern day, under the auspices of a less flashy color family name, and that he was in fact in partial possessor/possessee of the Phoenix Force when taking over the Roman Empire, where just by coincidence certain ancient energy vampire later known to hunt Rachel Summers was at the same time hanging out with one Eli Bard, drawing tip-standing pentagrams of 'Sigil of Baphomet' sort on walls (X-Force #11, 2009), the same Baphomet that the Templars were alleged to worship? The treasure most connected to them was no other than Grai... l, I wonder if the Greys happen to draw their line from the Merovingian kings?

    Well anyway. "Phalkon" reads like a bad pun on the Phoenix eagle, and with "Bald Phoenix" it gets taken totally over the top. And for a non-American like me, a Yankee taking the bald eagle to outer space for a symbol of a rebellion is of course a straight-face challenge, but that may just be me belonging to the Lion gang, heraldrically, speaking.

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  4. I like the Thanos tease (also, done before they were mainstream!). The Infinity stories soon to come are a massive 90's thing, and will make Thanos a huge deal, so it's not bad if a particular tease don't go anywhere, because in retrospect there could have been a lot of that sort of thing happening around this time.

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  5. I've never read this story before, but I quite like Cockrum's artwork here judging from the scans posted. It reminds me more of his original 70s X-Men run than his more forgetable early 80s run.

    I've seen these issues in the dollar bins at my lcs many times. Might pick them up next sale.

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  6. @Teemu: Ho ho you cracked me up:)

    On the subject of Raza, it would seem to make sense for the assassination attempt to be the same one that took out Lilandra's mother and older (unnamed) sister! Interesting that Raza goes over the edge toward D'Ken, picking him up and throwing him at the face of the M'Kraan Crystal in Uncanny X-Men #108, whereas he doesn't show anywhere near as much ferocity toward Deathbird, the supposed assassin!?

    Deathbird had her true name stripped from her after it was prophesied that she was destined to commit great evil, and was later exiled from the Shi'ar Empire after brutally murdering her mother and an unnamed sister. But what if D'Ken exploited the prophecy and set Deathbird up to ensure he would be next in line for the throne?

    Then there's the why of during her exile did Deathbird end up on Earth of all places, a planet her brother had previously visited? How long had Deathbird been on Earth? How long ago had her mother and unnamed sister been murdered? And how long ago had she been exiled? Did she take the opportunity to visit Earth during her exile in an effort to discover just what her brother had been up to there, and find any possible clues that might implicate him in her mother and sister's deaths? She couldn't come out and accuse the Emperor, her brother, so it seems likely she would need to gather hard evidence first.

    Or were her mother and sister really killed? Had D'Ken perhaps imprisoned them on Earth? Or if they were genuinely dead, what specific proof was she expecting to find on Earth to prove her innocence?

    If D'Ken was behind the murder of his mother and unnamed sister, it brings into question his motivations for sending one of his starships to Earth on an exploratory mission to collect zoological specimens.

    So what was he really up to on Earth too and how might the truth be connected to the royal murder?

    Or how about the following:
    Being Claremont it's very doubtful he intended D'Ken faked their deaths and had them imprisoned on Earth since why would someone with no qualms of killing family leave such loose ends? But if they were alive, what if Deathbird became aware of her brother's plot to kill them and set her up, interfered by stopping their deaths but made it look like they had been carried out and let herself get blamed and exiled so she could hide them on Earth? This could explain why she has never denied the "matricide" accusation – protecting her mother and sister. And was Heather Cameron perhaps not her child, but that of her supposedly dead sister?

    IIRC White Noise and Black Light are hinted to be the children of Deathbird in this series!?

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  7. @Nathan: Did Kavanagh intend that treasure to be the Phalkon energy?

    Isn't the Phalkon just the Phoenix Force?

    IIRC White Noise and Black Light are hinted to be the children of Deathbird in this series!?

    They call her "mother" towards the end of issue 2, when the Guard is spiriting Deathbird to safety. Given that they're never really referenced or seen again, I assumed it to be a reference to the fact that she's the Empress at the time, an attempt to give two otherwise un-notable characters a bit of quickie characterization.

    @Anonymous: About the chronology- the problem is X-Factor 50. Xavier is dying in that issue and that was obviously supposed to be a reference to these issues.

    That makes as much sense as anything (Xavier dying in that issue doesn't fit anywhere else any better), though there's definitely a difference between how it's presented there and how its presented here.

    Bottom line, there's really no good place to put these issues.

    @Teemu: The Infinity stories soon to come are a massive 90's thing, and will make Thanos a huge deal, so it's not bad if a particular tease don't go anywhere, because in retrospect there could have been a lot of that sort of thing happening around this time.

    That's a good point. Even if the specific "Deathbird conquers Earth" tease goes nowhere, there is plenty of Thanos stuff on the horizon.

    @Leo: It reminds me more of his original 70s X-Men run than his more forgetable early 80s run.

    It's definitely more in the vein of the former rather than the latter, thankfully.

    I've seen these issues in the dollar bins at my lcs many times. Might pick them up next sale.

    Definitely worth checking out, especially at those prices.

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  8. This is Terry Kavanagh, he isn't exactly know for his long term planning. More likely, it was just a really bad pun/spelling which he liked reusing. We could have just as easily gotten Eegull or Kondoor.

    I love how the Starjammer's reactions are "Excail-who?" when their reactions should have been "Kurt! Kitty! What are you doing here?"

    Teebore, you posted the Starjammer schematics twice...the second time should have been about Cr'eee's one time family.

    I guess I'm in the minority when liking Cockrum's second stint as much as the first, artistically, on Uncanny.

    This is a weird series. Very random, hard to place continuity wise, and pretty much forgotten about as soon as it is over. In some ways, it symbolizes where the X-line is at this point in time, and where it will be going. It's a big enough franchise that a story like this can be released as a limited series (and I wouldn't be shocked if it sold well enough for Marvel to make a profit) but rough quality control means it isn't essential and something of a mess in the wider picture.

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  9. I remember picking this up as a youngster because I liked the Starjammers. I was not impressed, for the reasons you mention in the review, Teebore. I expected more from a couple of prestige format books. The idea that Professor X returned to Earth prior to "Muir Island Saga" rubbed me the wrong way (still does), and Cockrum's art had lost a step or so since his UNCANNY days.

    All that said, I've never understood how there wasn't, at some point, a STARJAMMERS ongoing series by Dave Cockrum. Feels like a no-brainer to me.

    wwk5d -- I also like Cockrum's second run on UNCANNY. It's not as raw, I guess, than his first batch of issues, but I enjoy it just as much, in different ways. I think the problem people probably have with it is just that it suffers a bit coming after the stellar Byrne/Austin team.

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  10. The short but celebrated Paul Smith run right afterwards may also have done no good for the popular perception of Cockrum II. A reason to be happy, really, if Dave Cockrum serves as your lower point. UNCANNY truly was treated with decent arts for the longest time, and, a point of order, that does include JRjr. And Alan Davis, Barry Windsor-Smith for fill-ins. I'm personally partial towards Leonardi, also.

    And then they let Jaaska & gang do a couple of issues and things go tailspin so that the editor slaps the plotting rights right away for the next decent guy.

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  11. I don't really have the ability to put into words why art does or doesn't work for me, but there's just something about Cockrum's second run that seems less dynamic than his first.

    It also doesn't help that I think that X-Men circa 1981 is second only to X-Men circa 1990 as the low points of Claremont's run. X-Men vs Dr. Doom should have been a huge deal at the time, but I find the story to be completely underwhelming. And why would Doom hang out with a loser like Arcade? The return of the Hellfire Club was also similarly disappointing. They were the central villains in the biggest story in the series' history. They were responsible for turning Jean into Dark Phoenix. Yet when they return, they just attack the mansion Masters of Evil style, and are defeated in an unmemorable two-parter. And what was the purpose of the mind switch device used with Storm/White Queen? That was very silver age, and I don't mean that in a good way. The Brood isses were okay, but I enjoyed the second half (from the 160s) more than the first, especially after Paul Smith comes aboard.

    Sorry for the rant. I guess it's possible my relative distaste for that period of X-Men may be coloring my perception of Cockrum's work.

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  12. I don't remember exactly when I bought these issues -- I feel like it was maybe right after Claremont's departure in 1991.

    I had only recently read reprints of the classic Cockrum run that introduced the Starjammers, so I was really excited by this. Also I thought it would function as a prequel to the story in Uncanny 273-277, what with the Deathbird and the Xavier and the what-not.

    Instead, I found it to be a big-time dud, and it really bugged me that the ending was an "almost-kind-of-could-have-been" prequel to the Warskrull infestation of the Shi'ar, but instead it was about Thanos. I mean, he does have a similarly crinkly chin, but still ...

    ... Maybe I'd like it more now. *shrug* I do like the Starjammers. Didn't Warren Ellis do a miniseries about them in the 1990s, with some really good British artists? I always wondered if that was worth picking up.

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  14. Sorry... Wrong comments...

    $4.50 per issue is crazy.

    I read the first chapter or so and then barely skimmed the rest. The art isn’t exactly bad, although whether due to Cockrum penciling lightly or Albrecht being a heavy-handed inker there were some distractingly non-Cockrum-like features in the faces. I just didn’t really care about the plot, and dialogue of Xavier’s on Pg. 1 — where he says of Corsair’s plan, “It stinks!” — let me know going in that Kavanagh had zero handle on how the character talked. Mas’ sloppy lettering is a perennial turn-off, too. I noticed periodic oddball balloons during the early pages lettered in an entirely different and way more appealing hand.

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  15. Jason -- The Ellis STARJAMMERS series was drawn by Carlos Pacheco. It ties in, extremely loosely, with the "Phalanx Covenant" crossover and a bit of Ellis's EXCALIBUR run. Marvel reprinted it a few years ago in EXCALIBUR VISIONARIES: WARREN ELLIS volume 2.

    I recall being a bit disappointed with it when I was younger. The story was fine and I loved, loved, loved Pacheco's artwork -- but he ditched Corsair's Cockrum outfit and Ellis had the character go through this arc where he didn't want to be called "Corsair" anymore, which seemed silly to me.

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  16. Pacheco! Yes! Thank you, Matt. And inked by Cam Smith, who also inked the Starjammers appearance in HULK 415-416.

    I feel foolish for not noticing it when I skimmed those Ellis Visionaries Volumes in the store. Dang it!

    I have no strong feelings about the "Corsair" code name either way, but what's this about not using the Cockrum costume? Shenanigans.

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  17. Truly, a Cockrum-costume: just look at that blue silky belt, just look at it, and try tell me he's not essentially wearing the classic Carol Danvers costume with the colors just mixed up a bit, with black thrown in where he would otherwise be showing skin, so that Zardoz wouldn't feel infringed.

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