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Wednesday, June 10, 2020

X-amining X-Men (vol. 2) #48

"Five Card Studs"
January 1996

In a Nutshell
Dark Beast & Sugar Man plot to capture Bishop while the X-Men play poker

Writer: Scott Lobdell
Guest Pencils: Luke Ross
Guest Inker: Andy Lanning
Letterer: Richard Starkings & Comicraft
Colorist: Steve Buccellato & Electric Crayon
Pit Boss: Bob Harras

As a group of X-Men play poker along with the Thing, Cyclops & Phoenix meet with Bishop at Harry's Hideaway to discuss the strange memories of living another life with which he's been grappling. They are unknowingly being monitored by Dark Beast, who is visited by Sugar Man, upset that Beast hasn't told him that Bishop knows of their home reality. Meanwhile, Professor X tends to the gravely wounded Psylocke in the wake of Sabretooth's attack. Back at the poker game, Cannonball turns out to be a surprisingly adept player while, during a break in the game, Iceman asks Storm for help with his powers, and Beast is hit with a sudden revelation about the Legacy Virus. Back at Dark Beast's lair, Sugar Man & Dark Beast realize that Bishop's knowledge of their world threatens their plans, and they need to kill him before Mr. Sinister realizes Bishop holds all the answers to the questions that have plagued him for the last twenty years. At the poker game, Gambit & Cannonball are the two players left standing, but after Cannonball shows his final hand, Gambit blows up the table rather than show his, despite having held the winning hand.

Firsts and Other Notables
This issue kicks off a plotline in which Dark Beast & Sugar Man target Bishop out of fear that his knowledge of the "Age of Apocalypse" will lead Mr. Sinister to discover that Beast & Sugar Man are the sources of mysteries that have been plaguing Sinister for decades (thereby making them targets of Sinister), all of which is setup for the reveal that Sinister ordered the Mutant Massacre because Dark Beast experimented on the Morlocks using techniques he learned from the Sinister of his reality (that's the mystery that has been bugging Sinister referenced here). This whole business will unfold over the next issue and #51-52 (sort of), after which it gives way to & gets lost in the shuffle of "Onslaught". It also effectively marks the zenith of the "Bishop has memories of the Age of Apocalypse" plotline.

Dark Beast & Sugar Man meet for the first time this issue since coming over from the Age of Apocalypse. It turns out they have a pact to share info with each other (which Sugar Man accuses Dark Beast of violating by not telling him about Bishop's memories) and it’s also suggested that their minds were messed up by the reality jump, which may be an in-universe explanation for why it took them twenty years to do anything direct.

Pam, the Harry's Hideaway waitress who seemed familiar to Bishop in Uncanny X-Men #298, returns in this issue, setting up next issue's reveal that she's Fatale in disguise (which, of course, isn't what Lobdell had in mind when teased that familiarity, because Fatale didn't exist as a character yet, and Lobdell never has anything in mind when he throws these cryptic teases out).

Though he has yet to wear it in a story, this issue's cover features Bishop in his new costume.

Watching over the injured Psylocke, Xavier finds himself increasingly angry about the prices people are paying in support of his dream, which is another "increasing Onslaught's power" moment.

Between the previous story's setting inside a strip club casino and this issue's poker game, it seems like Scotty Lobs must have had a gambling itch that needed scratching around this time.

Creator Central
Luke Ross provides guest pencils on this issue, doing his best impression of Roger Cruz's Jim Lee impression.

A Work in Progress
Making a rare guest appearance during the "editorial silo" era (in which Marvel's titles were split into five "families", each overseen by a different editor-in-chief and keeping largely to themselves), the Thing appears briefly as part of the X-Men's poker game.

Lobdell, at least, is under the impression that Sabretooth was genuinely docile for a while, but was faking it by the time of his confrontation with Gambit in Uncanny #326.

Following up on their realization of a having a shared experience with Bishop in Uncanny #328, Cyclops and Phoenix try to help Bishop deal with his Age of Apocalypse memories here.

This issue tries to sell "McCoy" as the official designation of Dark Beast, but it doesn't really stick.

Xavier notes that Sabretooth seems to have wounded Psylocke critically but in a way that would keep her alive (whether that's meant to tease something or just serve as a in-universe explanation for her survival, the notion doesn't go any further than this).

Iceman asks Storm for help with his powers given their shared elemental nature, but I don’t recall that this goes anywhere.

Something Cannonball says during the poker game sparks an idea in Beast regarding his approach to the Legacy Virus; this also never goes anywhere (and can be added to the pile of "random tossed off teases about the Legacy Virus").

Similarly, whatever mysterious reasons Gambit had for blowing up the poker game despite having the winning hand remains a mystery.

Austin's Analysis
With Fabian Nicieza gone and Mark Waid still on his way, it's time for another fill-in issue (even moreso than the previous two which, while narratively slight and largely irrelevant, were still at least drawn by Andy Kubert), albeit one that kicks off a plotline (such as it is) that will largely carry the series through to "Onslaught" as Dark Beast, Sugar Man & Mr. Sinister all vie over Bishop and his "Age of Apocalype" memories. Beyond that, the main set piece of this issue is the poker game, one of those light, mostly comedic running bits that allows for various plot & character advancements to happen around it (Beast has a Legacy Virus revelation, Iceman reaches out to Storm for help with his power, etc.).

This particular one, though, features one of the better uses of "Graduated Cannonball", as he essentially uses his "aw, shucks" demeanor to shark the other players. It's so effective even I bought into it: I initially made a note after the first page expressing frustration at how the one-time "Cyclops of X-Force" didn't know better than to not look over a player's shoulder and call out the player's hand, before it was revealed that he was playing up his ignorance to his benefit (in my defense, it's been a long time since I last read this issue). In the grand scheme of things, it's not that big a victory for "Competent Cannonball" and by no means does it mark the end of his "in over his head" phase, but it does at least show that Cannonball as the starstruck rookie who keeps screwing up isn't an ironclad depiction, and that variations are possible within that characterization.

Next Issue
Tomorrow, X-Force battles Cable in X-Force #50. Friday, Wolverine battles Chimera in Wolverine #97. Next week, Generation X #11!

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  1. I like Cannonball in this issue. I had a similar reaction to you, though: when I read the first couple pages, I thought, "Ugh, I forgot how dumb he is in this one," followed not long after by, "wait -- doesn't he fake it and hustle them all later? I hope so!" I was glad to see I remembered correctly.

    But besides that, I don't like this one much at all. I mentioned in the comments of last week's UNCANNY issue that my recollection of this portion of the "Road to Onslaught" period was that UNCANNY was consistently good all the way through, while X-MEN was very hit-or-miss. Reading these Lobdell fill-ins, it really feels like he only had one X-Men story a month in him, and so he was spinning his wheels on X-MEN, killing time until Mark Waid's arrival, while focusing his real energy on UNCANNY.

    On top of all that, like you said above, basically none of the little clues and sub-plots referenced here go anywhere at all. Heck, this issue could basically be excised from the X-Men canon and nothing would be missed, except perhaps Dark Beast and Sugar Man setting up their hit on Bishop.

    (By the way, thank you for drawing the line from their conversation here regarding Bishop to UNCANNY 350's revelations about Gambit! I somehow never made that connection in all these years, and thought this was another case of cryptic characters saying cryptic things which never amounted to anything. I wonder if this was a case of Lobdell actually plotting something out in advance.)

    A few small notes I had while reading this:

    1. I assume Beast invited the Thing to this little gathering? I don't remember any of these characters being particularly close with him, or even having ever met him anywhere other than in various huge companywide crossovers. Beast, with his Avengers background, seems the only likely candidate. I also wonder why Ben is in the issue. He serves no narrative purpose. It seems Lobdell just wanted to write him for a couple pages.

    2. I do not like Luke Ross's artwork here. Within a few years, he'd become a decent artist on SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN -- in fact, by the time that series was cancelled, I actually really liked his work -- but I just don't like this (as you hilariously put it) "impression of Roger Cruz'z Jim Lee impression" at all. In particular, I can't stand his grungy Cannonball. It fits Gambit, but not Sam as he's drawn by other artists at this time. And in general, the issue just looks sloppy to me.

    (That said, I do love the visual gag of Dark Beast and Sugar Man pulling guns on each other from out of nowhere. It looks like something from an old Looney Tunes short and it's legitimately funny. In fact, all of Ross's drawings of Sugar Man are pretty good now that I think about it.)

    "This issue tries to sell 'McCoy' as the official designation of Dark Beast, but it doesn't really stick."

    Marvel was still going with that in the 00s. I seem to recall Chris Claremont mentioned, when he used the character in EXCALIBUR vol. 2 (the series about Xavier and Magento rebuilding Genosha) that he was told that was the character's official name. Yet every single human being outside of Marvel just calls him Dark Beast (probably most human beings inside Marvel call him that too, privately).

    1. The poker game is a callback to the number of late 70's(/early 80's) issues where folks like Wolverine and Carol Danvers and Nick Fury etc. would gather for a poker night, and Ben Grimm would always be a participant. Some of them were in his own Marvel Two-In-One title I think.

      Would need to do research, but I'm pretty sure Beast was in some of those along some other fellow Avenger.

    2. Beast was actually in the very first one at Avengers Mansion in Thing's own team-up book Marvel Two-In-One issue #51.

      Beast and the Thing were also in the one in WOLVERINE #53 X-amined by Austin some four years back:

      A checklist of occasions can be found in:

    3. That Marvel Two in One issue with the poker game was one of my favorite comics growing up, and if memory serves, it was drawn by Frank Miller, so it looked bloody amazing to boot. Nice callback by Lobdell there.

    4. +1 re the love for the poker game in Marvel Two-in-One #51. It has a Wonder Man bit that’s always stuck with me — if you’re curious you can see the panels about halfway through SuperMegaMonkey’s post on the issue, although in my memory at least it’s more haunting in context.

  2. “ Luke Ross provides guest pencils on this issue, doing his best impression of Roger Cruz's Jim Lee impression.”

    You killed it.

    “ This particular one, though, features one of the better uses of "Graduated Cannonball", as he essentially uses his "aw, shucks" demeanor to shark the other players.”

    I can’t repeat enough times how I hated the way Cannonball was portrayed in the X-Men. Not only he behaved as a complete inexperienced hillbilly, the X-Men saw him as such as well. It made no sense. To make it even worse, his “generic 90s handsome guy look” (I.e. Leon Kennedy from Resident Evil, Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic etc) looked nothing to the tall, skinny and average type he has back in the New Mutants era (see how Arthur Adams penciled him to have an idea).

  3. Competent Cannonball is my new band name.


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