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Wednesday, August 5, 2015

X-amining Uncanny X-Men #268

"Madripoor Knights"
Late September 1990

In a Nutshell
Wolverine battles the Hand in the past & the present, alongside Captain America & Black Widow. 

Writer: Chris Claremont
Penciler: Jim Lee
Inker: Scott Williams
Letterer: Tom Orzechowski
Colorist: Glynis Oliver
Editor: Bob Harras
Editor-in-Chief: Tom DeFalco

Plot
In 1941 Madripoor, Captain America rescues a Russian man from a group of Hand ninjas, but needs help in turn from Logan, who is hunting the Hand himself. In the present, Black Widow is attacked by the Hand, but is rescued by Wolverine, Psylocke and Jubilee. In 1941, Logan has a drink with Captain America and Ivan, the Russian, at Seraph's Place, briefly running afoul of Baron Von Strucker, who is also in the city. Logan tells them that any enemy of the Hand is a friend of his, while Ivan explains that Strucker and the Hand seem to be in league together, and have kidnapped a young girl in Ivan's charge: Natasha Romanoff. In the present, the adult Natasha tells Wolverine that she is in Madripoor due to rumors of an alliance between Strucker's children, Fenris, and Matsu'o Tsurayaba, leader of the Hand. In 1941, Logan attacks the car carrying Natasha, seemingly dying in the process, but leaving Natasha to be rescued by Captain America and Ivan.



They head to the American Consulate, but are betrayed by the consul, who is in league with the Nazis. In the present, Black Widow and Wolverine learn the location of the Strucker/Matsu'o meet. In 1941, the Hand begin a ceremony to transform young Natasha into their Master Assassin. In the present, Psylocke, Black Widow and Jubilee infiltrate the yacht where the meet is being held. As Jubilee disables the engines, Wolverine comes aboard and helps take out the guards. In 1941, a still-alive Logan interrupts the ceremony, freeing Captain America & Ivan. Together, the three attack the Hand ninjas and Nazi troops. Later, Logan helps Captain America, Ivan & Natasha board a plane bound for Russia, with Cap and Logan parting as friends. In the present, Black Widow is furious to learn the Fenris and Matsu'o they captured are ringers, the real deal having expected their attack. Watching from afar, the villains toast their victory, the first of many. 

Firsts and Other Notables
This story depicts the first chronological meeting between Captain America and Wolverine, a bit of history that I believe has mostly held up, though it's unclear if/when Captain America learned that the Logan with whom he teamed up in this story is also the X-Men's Wolverine and his future Avengers' teammate.


With last issue credited generically to Homage Studios and Whilce Portacio clearly penciling some pages (or inking over Lee very heavily), this issue marks a more traditional debut for Lee & Williams as the book's new regular artistic team.

In addition to Captain America in the past, this issue also guest stars Black Widow, as both a child in 1941 and in her costumed identity in the present. A former Russian spy turned SHIELD agent, Avenger and occasional partner of Daredevil, she is in Madripoor at the request of Nick Fury, checking on reports that Fenris is meeting with Matsu'o Tsurayaba and the Hand. Her retarded aging in a result of enhancements she received from the Soviet Union as part of her post-war training in the Black Widow program.


Her guardian in this issue, Ivan Petrovich, who teams up with Wolverine and Captain America to rescue young Natasha in 1941, first appeared in Black Widow's solo Amazing Adventures stories in the 70s. He was introduced as her middle-aged chauffeur and confidant, but was eventually revealed to have raised her after being entrusted with her care by Natasha's mother shortly before her death during the Battle of Stalingrad, though later stories have established that Ivan was working with the Black Widow program and that Natasha had already begun their training/receiving their enhancements at the time of this story.

To wit, this issue also establishes that an alliance has been formed between Matsu'o and the Strucker twins, the beginnings of what will become the Upstarts plotline, involving a group of new and second generation villains competing with each other to kill mutants in pursuit of a vague goal (it will lead to, amongst other things, the deaths of the Hellions and the first appearance of Omega Red). Somewhat infamously, the plotline, which is generally considered a brainchild of Lee, gets mostly mangled in the wake of the Image Exodus and wrapped up by later writers fairly perfunctorily and in a manner completely different, presumably, from whatever Lee had in mind.

Nazi leader and future head of Hydra, Baron Von Strucker (whom a young Magneto and Professor X will battle post-World War II, as seen in issue #161) pops up in the 1941-set story. 

This issue is the first appearance of Seraph, a diminutive women who's revealed to have been the owner of the Princess Bar in 1941 (co-owned by Wolverine in the present day, as seen in his solo series), which was then called Seraph's Place. She'll pop up again much later in Wolverine as well as Wolverine: Origins, where she gets tied in with all that Romulus nonsense.


Like the first appearance of Gambit, this is another issue from this era that commanded high prices on the back issue market during the early 90s speculator boom (and, relatively speaking, still does today), presumably due it being a more proper start to Jim Lee's run as well as the bit of Wolverine/Captain America history it establishes.

It was also selected by Claremont to appear in his Marvel Visionaries hardcover collection.

A Work in Progress
Jubilee notes that all of Wolverine's old friends seem to be gorgeous babes, a comment which hangs a lampshade on the propensity of attractive women populating comics, as well as continuing the minor character subplot involving Jubilee dealing with the fact that she's not (yet) drawn like one of those women.


The Best There is at What He Does
This issue is a significant entry in the field of "heretofore unknown old friends of Wolverine's turn up", though Captain America and Black Widow are far more notable characters than the usual likes that populate that field. 

1941 Wolverine doesn't use his claws, of course (later stories will reveal he did have bone claws at the time, but wasn't aware of them himself).


Claremontisms
When told the Hand won't give up without a fight, Wolverine responds, their choice, their funeral.


Artistic Achievements
The Captain America image on the opening page of this issue (which is not unlike the Wolverine figure on the cover of Wolverine #27) is another iconic Lee image that will get used in licensing and whatnot.


As with Silvestri, Lee brings some cheesecake/gratuitous T&A back to the book, first in his depiction of what Black Widow wears underneath her uniform (and how she sits in bed while talking to Wolverine).


Later, Psylocke and Black Widow appear in disguise in cocktail dresses.


Teebore's Take
In a run of issues filled with notable first appearances, artistic debuts, and significant storylines, this issue is perhaps the most celebrated, commanding back issue prices for a long time almost on par with Gambit's first appearance. Yet oddly enough, in terms of the things that usually drive those prices, this issue isn't all that significant. In practice, it's essentially the debut of the Jim Lee/Scott Williams art team, as they provide the art unencumbered by any studio help, but technically, the previous issue marks Lee's debut as regular penciler. This issue does brings back the Wolverine/Psylocke/Jubilee trio for the first time since issue #261, but this isn't the first time Lee's drawn any of those characters (in fact, this issue reads like it could pick up immediately after the Lee-drawn story in issue #258, making the events of #261 more superfluous than ever). And while its depiction of the first meeting between Wolverine and Captain America is a neat bit of history, it's not something that likely drove speculators wild (especially in the 90s, when Cap was considered anything but kewl).

Ultimately, and this is a rare thing for the speculator boom of the early 90s, this issue might just be celebrated because, on top of all those things, it's also just really good. Though it builds on what's come before and leads into some future developments, it's essentially a done-in-one, one of the series' best such examples, which manages to tell not one but two stories, each set in a different time period, effortlessly handing the narrative back and forth between the two eras. The presence of Psylocke and Jubilee in the present aside, it's definitely more of a Wolverine story than an X-Men story, but as such, it would work as a great introduction to the character for a first time reader, and it's impressive how Claremont manages to tell two complete, mostly satisfying, tales in the space of one regular-sized issue.

Lee, meanwhile, dives right into things, showing off his skills at depicting intense action and iconic figures (such as the opening splash of Captain America). There's a bit of the shameless T&A that will come to characterize a lot of the early Image material, but nothing more egregious than when Silvestri was the regular artist, and Lee also shows an ability to utilize body language for characterization (with Jubilee basically providing a silent running commentary throughout the present day-set story), a skill that requires a level of subtlety lost on someone like Liefeld.

Whether last issue or this one is considered the start of Lee's regular run on the series, this regardless represents a bold artistic statement on the part of both creators, a declaration of the kind of neo-classical, high-adventure material Lee, thanks to his tremendous popularity, will force Claremont to bring back to the book during their brief tenure together. It's a push-and-pull that, like all great collaborations, will bring out the best in each contributor. This issue succeeds then, as both a well-crafted standalone pulpy adventure story, and as the start of the last great collaboration between a notable artist and Chris Claremont on the series. No wonder it remains such a popular and well-regarded issue.

Next Issue
Tomorrow, the Nth Man guest stars in Excalibur #27. Friday, "The Lazarus Project" mercifully comes to an end in Wolverine #30. Next week, Excalibur #28.

Collected Editions

17 comments:

  1. Yep, this was a good one. Even at the time, when my interest and loyalty in X-Men was on the wane, when I saw this on the shelves, it simply demanded I pick it up. That loyalty would go on to last until shortly after Lee's departure to Image, during the X-Cutioner's Song.

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  2. From a nostalgia standpoint, this is probably my favorite X-Men run because I started reading comics in the middle of it. I know there's a lot of discussion online about Lee coming in and derailing a lot of Claremont's plans, but I don't really have any complaints about the stories we got out of it (until they both leave, of course). This is a lot more focused and fun than the previous issues before it and whatever Lee was doing behind the scenes seems like it was good for the book.

    I also think it was perfect timing for the book to start doing some retro, "classic" X-Men stories because it had been years since we had any in the book. You'd have to go back to basically the Paul Smith era if you wanted that type of story. Although I can also understand Claremont being over those.

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  3. At this point in time, Black Widow had not yet been revealed to have retarded aging. She had been stated to have been a little child at the battle of Stalingrad, but that was in a 1972 story- the intention was that she was in her early 30s. In fact, a Graphic Novel published a couple months before this did away with the Stalingrad references and suggested that Natasha was less than 35.

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  4. Great prose there Teebore. Such an awesome comic from this fleeting moment of two collaborators at the top of their games.

    Although I really like X-Tintction Agenda and the Shi'ar space adventure is pretty exciting, it would have been so cool to get to see a couple more individual stories or smaller team-ups like this one.

    Lee drawing a Claremont written team-up with Nightcrawler and Wolverine (and Gambit?) slamming beers after taking out the Juggernaut in New York would have been epic.

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  6. I hate what the X-Men becomes in the 90s. I'm a Claremont purist, and I stopped reading the books regularly pretty shortly after he left-- it was just never the same.

    However!

    I think Jim Lee's art is gorgeous. I know a lot of people have problems with it and I just don't get that. To me, he's the most iconic X-Men artist since Byrne-- and that includes a lot of artists I also love, like Art Adams, Alan Davis, Paul Smith, and even Bill Sienkiewicz. On top of Lee's talent (and his rightness for the book) Claremont had a lot of really interesting ideas during this period. think it's really a shame that X-Men didn't have a stronger editor at this point: someone who could have encouraged them to work together in a productive way and feed off of each other's talents rather than pitting them against each other. I really believe that, given more time, the Claremont and Lee collaboration could have been the high point of the series.

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  7. Loved the bit in the end where Logan tells Cap that he doesn't feel like having a sidekick.

    "Late summer 1941"... our good Captain is running a bit early as the official involvement of the armed forces go. But, totally in line with the original publication appearance.

    It was only on this very blog not so long ago when I first truly registered that there are two generations of von Struckers on different time levels involved here. Silly of me when it's kind of a plot point to have them deal with the Hand on both occasions.

    And only now I register that Natasha seem to have been chronologically the first in line of many female assassin-trainees of the Hand, publicationally following the steps of Elektra. The plethora of shoddy-drawn stories in between seem to have to some extent protected Claremont/Lee pairing of accusations of being a one trick pony doing Frank Miller pastiches. I don't know though if it was noted and to what extent at the time.

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  8. Ben: think it's really a shame that X-Men didn't have a stronger editor at this point: someone who could have encouraged them to work together in a productive way and feed off of each other's talents rather than pitting them against each other.

    I've let myself understand a part of the problem was that he wasn't content with the editing but wanted to some extent participate in the plotting too. And we know of the throw-it-in mystery-implants re: Cable. As a writer, who do you go to complain to when your editor does that? And, possibly, teams up with the artist. "Chris, Jim wants to do this:"

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  9. That cocktail dress Psylocke is wearing is so, so very 1990. I don't know whether I hate it or love it.

    Somewhat infamously, the plotline [the Upstarts], which is generally considered a brainchild of Lee, gets mostly mangled in the wake of the Image Exodus and wrapped up by later writers fairly perfunctorily and in a manner completely different, presumably, from whatever Lee had in mind.

    Has Jim Lee ever said what the initial plans for the Upstarts plot were? Usually there's something out there about aborted plans for comic stories (famous or... this), but this is one where there really hasn't been anything. And since this era is kind of formative for my reading (I came back to the good Claremont stuff later), I've always wondered what the deal with the Upstarts was supposed to be.

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  10. You guys mean their plan all along wasn't to establish themselves as the biggest bads in Marvel Universe by killing the Hellions and then ascent to higher levels in a fashion that feebler minds confuse to disappearing into obscurity?

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  11. I recall this issue being unique as it created the idea that Wolverine ages slowly. Until this issue I had figured Wolverine and Cyclops were born about the same time, but this issue suddenly created all kinds of possibilities with Wolverine being active in WWII.

    Wolverine got a new anti-aging power that became canon in this issue. His mysterious past grew by decades thanks to this issue.

    -Gino

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  12. But that had already been implied- he mentioned having spent the winter near Monte Cassino in X-Men Annual 4 (Monte Cassino was a World War II battle that took place during the winter.)

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  13. // a bit of history that I believe has mostly held up, though it's unclear if/when Captain America learned that the Logan with whom he teamed up in this story is also the X-Men's Wolverine //

    I’m glad to hear the first part, just ‘cause, but I was hoping you had something to share about the second.

    This was, I’m pretty sure, the only issue of X-Men that I bought between briefly dipping back in during “Inferno” and picking up the first several Adjectiveless X-Mens, largely because I’m a sucker for retcons and flashbacks with Golden Age characters. And I have a strong memory of holding it my hands in the hallway just outside the kitchen of the apartment where we lived for ten years through… um, October 1988. I can’t believe how the mind plays tricks like that sometimes.

    Maybe I was part of the Weapon X program too?

    // Jubilee notes that all of Wolverine's old friends seem to be gorgeous babes //

    Nor did I remember Jubilee and Psylocke being in the story, although I probably haven’t read it since it came out save maybe for a quick flip-through for the heck of it when going through my boxes. The fact that it was self-contained enough to read on its own was appreciated. The fact that it was actually good was just a bonus. The fact that it made Wolverine’s “He’s the least of us!” line from Secret Wars even more nonsensical…

    Anyway, I just wanted to redirect attention to the panel you excerpted after the line above and how expertly Orz fit all that dialogue. I think it’s more dialogue than we get on a whole page of DC or Marvel comics today, although whether all of it was strictly necessary is another subject.

    // his depiction of what Black Widow wears underneath her uniform //

    Given that she’s patched up under that negligee, I think it’s fair to assume that she wasn’t wearing it under her costume but rather was given it by… someone. Despite, if not because of, him being her “Little Uncle” I was hoping to see Wolverine tell her that Psylocke and Jubilee had dressed her wounds and found her nightclothes.

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  14. I'm pretty sure this was the first issue of X-MEN I ever bought/owned. As I've noted before, I had a friend who was really into the X-Men at this time (we would have been in the fifth grade), though they weren't my cup of tea. But when Jim Lee did a signing at our local comic shop, my friend asked me to come along. This was the issue on sale that month, so I bought it and Lee signed it for me. And it's a good thing Cap guest-starred, or I might not have bothered picking up an issue at all! (Though this was also the final X-MEN I picked up for a few more years, until I became a regular reader beginning with "X-Cutioner's Song".)

    Also, it's interesting to note that during their run on CAPTAIN AMERICA, John Byrne and Roger Stern wanted to guest-star Wolverine and reveal there that Cap and Logan had met during World War II! But they left the book after only a few issues and never got to do it. I wonder if Claremont's revelation here was inspired by their intention?

    Also speaking of Byrne, he's said that when he drew Black Widow in CHAMPIONS, he took her past as a child in the 40s at face value and assumed she was in her late thirties, older than most of the superheroes of the time -- the rare mature-but-still-hot female character.

    "...it's unclear if/when Captain America learned that the Logan with whom he teamed up in this story is also the X-Men's Wolverine and his future Avengers' teammate."

    You must be mistaken. In CAPTAIN AMERICA ANNUAL #8, Cap told Wolverine that he was not Avengers material. To my knowledge they've never served on the Avengers together, as putting Wolverine on the team would be a complete creative betrayal of both the Avengers' values and Wolverine's character, and would be immediately recognized by readers as nothing more than an offensively transparent cash grab.

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  15. Here here, Matt. Same thing with Spidey, it was fun when they teased it back in the day as a sort of in-joke, but of course his wife Mary Jane would have words with him if he actually tried to join for real.

    Someone of the current creators must've been impressed of the issue too, because Dormammu-enhanced Geoffrey Sydenham returned out of nowhere as the main villain for the fairly recent 5-part limited series AVENGERS 1959, where Nick Fury teams up with an assortment of characters to stop a Nazi plot.

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  16. "I think it’s more dialogue than we get on a whole page of DC or Marvel comics today, although whether all of it was strictly necessary is another subject."

    IT IS ALL STRICTLY NECESSARY

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  17. @Jeff: I also think it was perfect timing for the book to start doing some retro, "classic" X-Men stories because it had been years since we had any in the book.

    Yeah. While I can't deny Claremont didn't get a bum deal and Harras could have handled the situation better at the time (and I'm bummed we missed out on some of what Claremont had planned in the run-up to #300), I also can't deny that a return, however subtle or gradual, to more traditional stories wasn't in order. Even putting aside the non-team stuff, it'd been ages, as you say, since anything approximately the "classic" feel of the book had been seen.

    @Anonymous: At this point in time, Black Widow had not yet been revealed to have retarded aging. She had been stated to have been a little child at the battle of Stalingrad, but that was in a 1972 story- the intention was that she was in her early 30s.

    Huh. I had no idea that wasn't an established part of her character until this issue. Interesting, that the X-Men writer, of all people, brought that about.

    @Zephyr: Great prose there Teebore. Such an awesome comic from this fleeting moment of two collaborators at the top of their games.

    Thanks!

    @Ben: I really believe that, given more time, the Claremont and Lee collaboration could have been the high point of the series.

    Definitely. I really think the push-and-pull between Lee wanting to do classic stuff and Claremont wanting to push forward would have resulted in some great stuff, if Harras had managed them better and not just (understandably) seen the dollar signs around Lee.

    @Teemu: "Late summer 1941"... our good Captain is running a bit early as the official involvement of the armed forces go. But, totally in line with the original publication appearance.

    Indeed. And, presumably, Madripoor isn't at war with anyone at this point, so he's not violating any neutrality agreements or anything by being there.

    @Mela: Has Jim Lee ever said what the initial plans for the Upstarts plot were?

    I've never encountered anything from him directly, but I believe it's generally accepted that the original prize for which the Upstarts were vying was immortality, an idea first put forth via text on the back of a card in the Jim Lee X-Men trading card set (that Lee wrote the cardbacks is doubtful, but he presumably had some input, and may have provided that note at that point). Of course, post-Lee writers tossed out a ton of different prizes and motivations along the way.

    @Blam: And I have a strong memory of holding it my hands in the hallway just outside the kitchen of the apartment where we lived for ten years through… um, October 1988. I can’t believe how the mind plays tricks like that sometimes."

    Indeed. There's toys I received for Christmas that I swear I got at a certain age, but when I look at the dates involved, I realize there's now way that was possible.

    Given that she’s patched up under that negligee, I think it’s fair to assume that she wasn’t wearing it under her costume but rather was given it by… someone.

    Fair point. Though yeah, hopefully Jubilee or Psylocke did the undressing/dressing of her unconscious form.

    @Matt: To my knowledge they've never served on the Avengers together, as putting Wolverine on the team would be a complete creative betrayal of both the Avengers' values and Wolverine's character, and would be immediately recognized by readers as nothing more than an offensively transparent cash grab.

    Heh. You know, that really *should* bother me more than it does, for all the reasons you mention, but... *shrug*. I just can't get myself too riled up about it. Ditto Spider-Man being an Avenger. Maybe it's just old age, but any arguments I have about them being on the team are more intellectual than passionate.

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