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Wednesday, August 9, 2017

X-amining X-Men Unlimited #1

"Follow the Leader"
June 1993

In a Nutshell
Sienna Blaze attacks Storm, Cyclops & Professor X. 

Writer: Scott Lobdell
Penciler: Scott Bachalo
Inker: Dan Panosian 
Letterer: Chris Eliopoulos
Colorist: Glynis Oliver
Assistant: Jaye Gardner
Editor: Kelly Corvese
Nudge: Bob Harras
Evil Mutant: Tom DeFalco

Plot
In Antarctica, a visor-less Cyclops searches the wreckage of the crashed Blackbird for Xavier, who then helps Cyclops find Storm. Elsewhere, new Upstart Sienna Blaze is angry to learn her attack on the three X-Men hasn't killed them yet. Back at the mansion, Psylocke & Bishop set out to rescue their comrades. In Antarctica, Xavier, Storm & Cyclops recall events leading up to the crash for any information about their attacker, remembering being hit by a massive energy blast on their way home from the Savage Land and how Cyclops lost his visor trying to bring the craft down safely. With the blizzard outside the remnants of the plane raging, Storm attempts to tame it, but its size overwhelms her, triggering a massive fever. The next morning, Cyclops & Storm awake to find Xavier gone, having set out in the night in search of a psionic imprint he detected, a search which ultimately leaves him stranded in the blizzard. Storm & Cyclops set out after him, encountering Blaze, who once again tries to kill them. But working with a returned Xavier, they manage to defeat her, though she uses her power to escape, triggering an electro-magnetic vacuum that nearly destroys the X-Men. But Storm is able to protect the trio until Xavier senses the arrival of Bishop & Psylocke, who retrieve them. Later, Xavier recalls his rescue by an unseen friend, as a shadowy figure watches the Blackbird depart.

Firsts and Other Notables
X-Men Unlimited is the X-office's contribution to Marvel's early 90s series of Unlimited titles (which also included Spider-Man and Fantastic Four variations), part of their lets-keep-glutting-the-marketing-with-more-books-this-bubble-can't-possibly-burst-right? publishing strategy. The Unlimited books were a sub-line of titles published quarterly, intended to fill the "fifth week" gap in publishing among Marvels two big title families (and Fantastic Four). Traditionally, new comics come out on Wednesdays; because our calendar is weird, every few months, a month contains five Wednesdays. Since Marvel published four Spider-Man books at this point in time, and four "main" X-books (Uncanny, X-Men, X-Force and X-Factor), this meant that readers could expect a new Spider-Man or X-Men issue to be on the shelves every Wednesday, except for that quarterly fifth Wednesday. Thus, the Unlimited series were born, to give Spider-Man and X-fans (and Fantastic Four fans) a new issue featuring their favorite characters every Fifth Wednesday. 

Initially, each issue was 64 pages long (bigger than an annual), with non-regular creative teams and featuring high-quality, glossy paper that showcased improved coloring techniques (eventually, all books across the line would switch over to the glossier paper, which is still (in some form) in use today, and which I absolutely hate; yes, it allows for better coloring, but it makes comics more like magazines than their own thing, and caused prices to skyrocket (among other factors, of course); to this day, when I open a new comic, I'm taken aback and saddened when I'm reminded that comics have a different texture and smell than they used).

The original intent was also to use this series (and it's increased page size) to tell bigger, more notable stories than a regular issue, and that holds true, more or less, for the series' first dozen or so issues. Unfortunately, after that, the series just churns out superfluous stories on the level of an unremarkable-to-bad annual four times a year (it also lasts way longer than it had any business doing, into 2003). 

Chris Bachalo draws this issue; an up-and-coming artist from DC's Vertigo imprint, this marks Bachalo's first contribution to the X-office, the beginning of a lengthy association with the characters. He will soon after this help launch Generation X (designing most of the original characters therein), then later work on Uncanny with Steven Seagle, then return to the series alongside Chris Claremont (during Claremont's second return to the book), then segue over to the post-Grant Morrison X-Men for Mike Carey's run from 2006-2008, then even later return to launch Wolverine and the X-Men and, after that, most of the third volume of Uncanny, from 2013-2015. I tend to overlook Bachalo when considering the definitive X-artists, in part because his work is scattered across so many different titles and eras (rather than coming in one long chunk on one specific title) and in part because pretty much all his runs on all titles are marked by frequent fill-ins from other artists (and also in part because, while I like his work on a page-to-page basis, it becomes increasingly difficult to follow as he becomes more established, the end result being comics that look good but are harder to read) but in terms of sheer number of issues drawn and years involved in the franchise on one title or another, along with the characters created for Generation X, he's definitely worthy of being included in any conversation about all-time significant X-Men artists, and all of that starts with this issue. 

Sienna Blaze, probably the character with the most appearances before her actual official first appearance, makes her first official appearance in this issue! She introduces herself (to the X-Men, at least) by attempting to kill Professor X, Cyclops and Storm as part of the Upstarts competition, making her the latest (and final) person to join that group.


Though somewhat vague here, her power is the ability to essentially create an electro-magnetic pulse, the act of which has a devastating affecting on the planet (as it rips the planet's EM shield), making her run the risk of destroying the world every time she uses her power (she says her attack on the X-Men leaders in this issue marks only the third time she's used her power). This is one of those Morrisonian powers that sounds cool when you first hear it, but becomes ridiculous and/or unworkable the more you think about it (I mean, once it's established that she could destroy the world any time she uses her power, it becomes unworkable - she *can't* actually destroy the world, but then every time she doesn't, it takes way from the threat and unique hook of the character. Plus, world-destroying nihilism isn't the most engaging personality trait).


This issue continues to tease the return of Magneto. First, the Gamesmaster, in discussing her attack with Sienna, casually mentions there are four of the most powerful mutants in the world in the vicinity (a fourth in addition to Xavier, Cyclops and Storm).

Later, Professor X senses someone in the blizzard and goes in search of whomever it is. He is ultimately rescued by an unseen figure and taken to a massive citadel. This will later turn out to be Magneto (recall that Magneto has a history of Antarctic bases).


Rounding out the main story, this issue contains six pinups, each helpfully titled and credited on a title page. 



The Chronology Corner
This issue takes place between Uncanny X-Men #300 & #301, before the Psylocke/Revanche story in X-Men and Uncanny X-Men Annual #17. 

A Work in Progress
Xavier is able to reduce Storm's fever by telepathically controlling her bio-rhythms.


Cyclops notes that his life truly began with the X-Men. 


There's a great bit where Xavier tries to get Cyclops to call him "Charles" rather than Professor, something all the original X-Men are comfortable doing except for Cyclops. It's...difficult for Cyclops. 


In another Morrisonian bit, Sienna is able to use her power to teleport because something-something electro-magnetism, but this causes problems for the X-Men because she takes part of the EM field with her (or something), not unlike how Nightcrawler's "bamf" is the sound produced by air rushing in to fill the vacuum left by the air surrounding him which leaves with him, only here the "bamf" is massively destructive, because magnets.


The Grim 'n' Gritty 90s
Cyclops uses the shoulder strap of his uniform as a blindfold, suggesting those pouches are more flexible than one would expect.


Young Love
While wracked with fever, Storm calls out to Forge.


The Awesome and Terrible Power of Cyclops
Throughout the first part of the issue, Cyclops uses the old "tightly wound blindfold" trick to keep his eyes closed (like when he was trapped on Magneto's island with Lee Forester circa Uncanny #150). Later, he fashions a ruby-quartz eye-patch, essentially, out of a piece of his visor that is found in the wreckage. 

Austin's Analysis
Considering it is being told in in service to the launch of a new, oversized quarterly series featuring fancy paper and cutting edge coloring, this story is surprisingly limited in scope: for the most part, it features only three protagonits (and one villain), one (claustrophobic) setting (an Antarctic blizzard), with most of the action set in and around the damaged cockpit of a Blackbird. And while it introduces (formally) a new Upstart and contributes to the ongoing "return of Magneto" teases, it is mostly a combination character piece and survival tale. For the most part, that limited focus works to its advantage.

The survival elements are, granted, deeply sci-fi/comic book-y in nature (stemming mostly from the way Sienna Blaze's power affects Storm's), but there's something entertainly-raw in having a blind Cyclops trying to find a hoverchair-less Professor X in the middle of a blizzard, while Storm burns with fever because her body is trying to compensate for the extreme cold/exposure. The scene in which Xavier tries to get Cyclops to call him "Charles" is a great bit of characterization, and Storm & Cyclops play well off each other throughout. The extra pages give the moments beyond the immediate urgency of surviving and fighting Sienna Blaze room to breathe, while the art and coloring lend an appropriate grandiosity to the occasions in which Blaze uses her (absolutely ludicrous) power. Ironically, the elements that made this a big deal in 1993 - the introduction of Blaze (who, pun intended, blazes out pretty quickly), the Magneto teases, the launch of a new series - have aged more or less into irrelevancy, but the core story, of the three X-Men leaders braving the elements and deepening their connections to one other, still holds up, and manages to make the most of the new format. 

Next Issue
Tomorrow, the Chalkers return and Charon debuts in X-Factor Annual #8. Friday, Cable returns (from the future) in Cable #2. Next week, Uncanny X-Men #302. 

Collected Editions

  

31 comments:

  1. Honestly, what's the point of this story? It isn't mentioned anywhere else, it has no impact in the main books. You can read those and ignore this one and you'd never think it ever existed. An attack on the three X-Men leaders in which they almost died should have had repercussions.

    Having said that, few people remember that Cyclops and Storm were close friends during the Byrne/Cockrum/Claremont era and their relationship gradually worsened until their ridiculous combat for leadership and the Inferno meetup. By the time they started working together, after X-Tinction Agenda, there was some uneasiness there. This was simply forgotten after the 1991 relaunch. It would have been wonderful if writers had mined Cyclops/Storm relationship now that they were back in the mansion and as leaders of their own X-Men teams.

    Instead, we have Colossus meltdown, second death of Morlocks, Psylocke/Cyclops ridiculous almost affair, the appearance and sudden disappearance of Mikhail, Omega Red (twice!), Magneto (twice!) and Opal's stupid cyborg ninjas in less than two years.

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    1. Storm's characterization was arguably the biggest casualty of the '91 relaunch. After that bizarre proposal and break-up with Forge, she just gets nothing. She exists to be The Leader; powerful, authoritarian, and vaguely majestic, but never adding up to anything in the way of a distinct personality. I mean, Scott and Jean are similarly bland during this time period, but they at least have enough going on plot-wise that they feel vital. Storm is just there. You really can't trace any arc for her character until... shit, X-Treme X-Men? *shudder* Her relationships with her teammates are likewise de-emphasized. Reading during this stretch in isolation, you'd never know she has a rich history with the likes of Rogue, Gambit, Psylocke, and indeed, Cyclops. (There's a glimmer in this issues, at least, and nice to see Scott and Ororo working together on non-contentious terms again.) Storm occupies a weird space in the canon for a long time: too iconic and important to dispense with, but too crowded out by other characters to have the spotlight.

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    2. I remember reading these comics and the cartoons at the time, and I just thought Storm was some holier-than-thou bore. Over the years I retraced my steps through Claremont's run, and she's legit my all-time favorite X-Men character. And you'd never get any of that post Claremont, none of her richly textured internal strife or motivations, the team dynamics and character relationships, the evolution from her Goddess "All Lives Matter, even this alien inside me!" phase to the the hardcore "we did what we had to, Gateway get us out of her" Outback era.

      Of all the great X-Men characters, nobody gets so little to do in the 90s as Ororo Monroe.

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    3. @cyke68 - I completely agree with you. I grew up around this era and my favorite iteration of Storm was from the cartoon show. But that's because they utilized a lot of Claremont-era storylines to keep her interesting.

      I then went back and read a lot of the Claremont stuff from before my time, and Storm was easily the most interesting character of the All-New team (Aside from Wolverine, that is). Even when she didn't have powers she was still a character I cared about and could get into. But yeah, Jean definitely bumped Storm out of the "Main woman" role when she re-joined the team, and Storm had to play second fiddle after that.

      And after X-Treme X-Men her characterization got worse. I didn't read many X-books after 2004, but she wasn't in any of the main books, and in group shots she was always in the back looking lost. Such a downfall for someone who was one of the best characters in the X-books. And don't get me started on Emma, I could never get into her as a hero....

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    4. Agreed all around that 90s Storm (and beyond) is a regrettable combination of boring and under utilized. Really, since the end of the Outback Era, she's done very little of interest or note, aside from splashy stuff like marrying Black Panther, joining the FF, etc. that still did very little with her character.

      Her recent turn at the end of the team during Lemire's EXTRAORDINARY X-MEN had some potential, but it was surrounded by some distracting circumstances (the whole "Terrigen Mists killing mutants" thing) and, like, most Marvel stories these days, was cut short by another revamp/relaunch before it really had time to breathe.

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    5. I always felt that during Schism, SHE should have been the X-leader positioned against Cyclops. It would have made more sense, and given her some really good potential story arcs and character work.

      Of course, Storm and the X-men would not have sold as much as Wolverine and the X-men...

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  2. I dig Bachalo here. He’s not quite there yet, but he’s miles ahead of most of the not-ready-for-prime-time artists Marvel was using at the time. I also liked the Hulk Annual he did from this timeframe.

    Sienna Blaze is garbage but I always thought Gamesmaster was massively underutilized. I really liked that one Annual that featured him after the Upstarts stuff.

    - Chief

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    1. Yeah, Bachalo really does bring something new to the table. And call it watered down (no artist could veer too far outside of that Jim Lee-ish house style in 1993), but I VASTLY prefer this and his early GenX work to the more... esoteric style he'd drift towards in later years.

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    2. @Cyke68: but I VASTLY prefer this and his early GenX work to the more... esoteric style he'd drift towards in later years.

      Ditto.

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    3. I'm with you guys; early Bachalo is much more appealing to me than his later stuff. Right around the midpoint of his GENERATION X run is where he starts to lose me. And don't get me started on the period, circa "Operation: Zero Tolerance" where he drew his teenage characters as prepubescents and his adult characters as twelve year-olds.

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  3. Holy cow, I'd forgotten about this. I'd already given up buying the various series on a regular basis, so this must have been one of the last 1 or 2 X-related issues I bought for a good long while. Funny, because I remember liking it: I liked the art, I liked the limited story, and I liked that it wasn't yet another story based on "Wolverine's mysterious past". The format and colors looked great, too.

    I agree with the post about how comics don't feel like comics anymore, though.

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  4. I rather shamelessly enjoy this issue. Or rather, I definitely like it more than I feel I should. There's too much action for it to qualify as a true Lobdell Quiet Issue, but is a decent exhibition of his strength for self-contained character studies. At this point, the market isn't too saturated for just a solid, one-and-done X-Men comic by one of their principal writers and a promising new artist. That still holds some appeal, even if the content isn't nearly as important as it makes itself out to be.

    I was weirdly drawn to Sienna Blaze as a kid, and that was almost certainly due to her "Morrisonian" nature. I couldn't articulate that her very hook as a character also breaks the story, so I was generally fascinated with trying to figure her out. Wonky powers aside, there isn't much to go on here. As best I can tell, she's Jubilee done as a hardened, cynical, sociopath.

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    1. I never really considered this in that context, but you're right that is probably closer to being a Lobdell quiet issue than not. Certainly, the elements that hold up better nowadays are closer to that aesthetic than the more bombastic stuff.

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  5. Going back to an earlier comment I've made...we've finally found the artist that Dan Panosian couldn't turn to crap! I'm not sure how this worked, given Bachalo's general style, but somehow it did.

    Siena Blaze is perhaps the perfect summary of characters from the early 1990s: seems amazing, but when you dig beneath the surface there's nothing there. The 90s just had too many characters with amazingly vague powersets and similar looks that the creators forgot to create a CHARACTER for. Siena Blaze is their matron.

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    1. I'd agree, but I think calling Sienna Blaze the matron of vaguely-powered, similar-looking 90s characters is still giving her too much credit. :)

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  6. Man oh man does this review bring back memories. I'm pretty sure this was one of the first issues of an X-book I owned, and I distinctly remember seeing it on the shelf of my local shop shop when I was 7 or 8. I also remember laughing at the scene where Cyclops couldn't call Charles by his first name.

    Even as a kid I understood that value of a standalone story that focused on character development over fighting. And that's what I dug about the Unlimited series, you could pick up any issue and read it and be done, they weren't steeped in too much continuity.

    And like you, I was surprised that the Unlimited series went on as long as it did. I had this one and a few other early issues, then I alternated between phases of reading comics and not reading comics. So it surprised me when I was 16 in 2002 and getting back into comics that this series was still around as a character-focused anthology series. I picked them up and seem to remember the later issues coming out more than quarterly, and they were alright. The early 2000s was a weird era for comics, and a lot of the "experimentation" they did for creative teams wasn't really my thing.

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  7. "...but in terms of sheer number of issues drawn and years involved in the franchise on one title or another, along with the characters created for Generation X, he's definitely worthy of being included in any conversation about all-time significant X-Men artists, and all of that starts with this issue."

    When it comes to X-Men artists everyone always mentions Kirby, Byrne, Cockrum, Romita Jr., Jim Lee, and even sometimes the lesser known guys like Paul Smith and Silvestri. But in terms of sheer number of X-books drawn, I'm pretty sure Bachalo is second only to Salvador Larroca.

    I never got the appeal of Larroca, but he must've done something right because this dude was all over the X-books in the 2000s. Anyone remember when Uncanny and New X-Men went bi-weekly around 2004 and he drew all 4 issues per month? Dude was a workhorse, I'll give him that.

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    1. I ran hot or cold on Larocca during his 00s runs, but I've come to enjoy his later, more even-more-photorealistic work. It's still a little too stiff/static, but I really dug his work on the recent DARTH VADER series (which, IMS, he drew every issue of its 25 issue run uninterrupted, which in this day and age, is amazing).

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    2. I haven't read any current Larroca in years, but I really liked him in the nineties. Having looked back on some of that stuff recently, however, I find that it hasn't aged all that well.

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  8. >> X-Men Unlimited is the X-office's contribution to Marvel's early 90s series of Unlimited titles (which also included Spider-Man and Fantastic Four variations)

    Actually, there were five Unlimited books, not three. MIDNIGHT SONS UNLIMITED and 2099 UNLIMITED were, also, part of the mix for a while. I'm kind of surprised that the Avengers family of books didn't have an Unlimited series.

    Eventually, DC joined the party and launched their own "fifth week" books for Batman and Superman.

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    1. Funnily enough, both Midnight Sons and 2099 lines had 5+ titles, so there would have been a book for the 5th week too. But if you had all books set for weeks 1-4 and stick to that, then the 5th would be open anyway.

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    2. Ah yeah, I'd forgotten about those. I knew MIDNIGHT SONS had one; I didn't realize there was a 2099 series too.

      And yeah, it's odd that the Avengers didn't get one, but then, this was a time when that little corner of the universe was mostly ignored in favor of kewler stuff. But I still would have expected Avengers to get an Unlimited series before FF.

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    3. Also there was Cosmic Powers unlimited that lasted 5 issues.

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    4. Ha, the disowned fourth part of INFINITY TRILOGY featuring Morg, the 90's Herald of Galactus.

      ... and they seem to have recently added it to Marvel Unlimited. Oh yeah! I've been wanting to re-read for a while now.

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    5. I think COSMIC POWERS is "disowned" from the Infinity franchise most likely because Jim Starlin didn't write any of it. I seem to recall it was Ron Marz? At any rate, I know I skipped it back then because Starlin's name wasn't attached -- and this was in a period when I barely paid attention to creators!

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    6. I read it now. It's horrible.

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  9. Honest question, what's the most important thing to ever happen in X-Men Unlimited? I'm struggling to think of something...

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    1. The biggest thing was in issue #4 where it was revealed that Mystique was Nightcrawler's mother.

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    2. You're right, I forgot about that. The first thing I thought of was when Dark Beast replaced Beast. That's probably a distant second. Other than that, I'm drawing a blank...

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    3. The Nightcrawler/Mystique thing is easily the biggest thing to come out of the series, at least in terms of affecting long-standing characters and paying off decades-old teases (even if very little has since been done with that information).

      But that aside, quite a few of the first dozen or so issues did manage to at least tie-in with then-current storylines and contribute to them in some significant way. Issue #2 provides some Magneto backstory (some of which gets wiped out later), issue #3 brings Sabretooth into the mansion (which was a BIG DEAL for a couple years there, and without reading this series, you'd just open an issue and suddenly find him hanging out in the mansion without explanation.

      Issue #5 gives the X-Men (or Xavier, at least) a chance to react the Shi'ar's conquering of the Kree Empire in "Operation: Galactic Storm"), and #8 and #9, I think, do a Legacy Virus story (which introduces a character who is later a regular in Maverick's solo series, for what that's worth) and a JRjr-drawn issue dealing with some of Gambit's guild nonsense.

      Then there's the Dark Beast/Beast switheroo issue, which ties in with Onslaught, and shortly thereafter the issue that follows up on Juggernaut's second encounter with Onslaught (when Onslaught traps him in the Cytorrak gem).

      Obviously, not all of those stories have aged terribly well, but they were at least relevant at the time. After that, the series mostly settles in for a string of standalone stories existing in a vacuum, of varying quality (but rarely if ever being "good"), such that I remember pretty much nothing about the series post issue #12, aside from its brief attempt at being relevant again by tying in to the late 90s "The Twelve" and "Ages of Apocalypse" stories.

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  10. I know I read some of these off the racks while working at a comics shop in the mid ’90s but the only one I remember is a 2001 issue from the series' mixed-bag anthology days that I picked up for the Andi Watson & Jim Mahfood story.

    // Scott Bachalo //

    You mean Chris Bachelo. Or Scott Bakula… Maybe you saw a commercial for Scott paper towels during The Bachelor?

    // a visor-less Cyclops //

    The smoldering red eyes is a neat visual, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't make sense. (Pretty sure as well that nobody cares as long as it looks cool.)

    // Xavier, Storm & Cyclops recall events leading up to the crash //

    Like his calming of Storm’s fever by attenuating her biorhythms and letting Cyclops see through his eyes by mental projection, I appreciated this use of Xavier’s power, although I couldn't help visualizing how it would work more impressively in a live-action scene using today's effects technology. Film and comics each have certain strengths over the other and this might be a case where the former could exploit the idea at hand more than the latter. On another note, I want to reiterate that showcasing three members of the team is an ironic way to start a series called X-Men Unlimited.

    // a great bit where Xavier tries to get Cyclops to call him "Charles" //

    I really liked that for a hot minute, until it got too ridiculous for me with Cyclops sounding like the Fonz attempting to apologize or admit he was wrong. Also, I certainly won’t bet cash money that the other original students never called the Professor “Charles” and would hope Lobdell did at least a modicum of research on that point rather than just assume it or make it up whole-cloth for the purposes of this story, but I don’t feel like any of them have been doing it regularly; outside a particular moment of affection, it would sound wrong to me, coming from Iceman especially.

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