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Wednesday, March 2, 2022

X-amining Uncanny X-Men #341

"When Strikes a Gladiator"
February 1997

In a Nutshell
Cannonball fights Gladiator!

Writer: Scott Lobdell
Penciler: Joe Madureira
Inkers: Tim Townsend
Letters: Richard Starkings & Comicraft
Colors: Steve Buccellato & Team Bucce
Editor-in-Chief: Bob Harras

The X-Men are in New York during the holidays. As Beast and Trish Tilby depart for dinner, Joseph tells Rogue he has a surprise for her, prompting Gambit to sulk away alone. Bishop wants some time to himself as well, leaving Cannonball to head to a toy store to finish his Christmas shopping alone. At the toy store, a portal suddenly emerges and Gladiator, leader of the Shi'ar Imperial Guard, steps out, looking for the X-Men. Meanwhile, Joseph takes Rogue on a horse drawn carriage ride, using his magnetic powers to lift the animal and vehicle into the air. Back at the toy store, Cannonball assumes Gladiator is there to attack the X-Men, and attacks him first in an effort to get him away from bystanders. Elsewhere, Joseph brings Rogue to the top of the World Trade Center, where he's placed the modified Z'Nox chamber on which he's been working. Turning it on, he explains it will create a field which nullifies her powers, then proceeds to kiss her on the forehead before wishing her a merry Christmas. Below, Cannonball holds his own against Gladiator, managing to shake Gladiator's confidence, which weakens him, enabling Cannonball to knock him out at a construction site just as the rest of the X-Men arrive. Gladiator emerges from the rubble and explains that the Shi'ar Empire is in danger, but he's been forbidden to help, so he's come to the X-Men instead. Just then, he summons a teleportation field which sends all the X-Men except Cannonball away. When he asks Gladiator where they've gone, Gladiator explains they've been sent to Sh'iar space. 

Firsts and Other Notables
This is the semi-famous "Cannonball fights Gladiator" issue, one of those classic "underpowered character somehow holds his own against a supremely powerful foe" stories. Here, you've got Cannonball, who basically has the power to fly into things, facing off against someone who is basically Superman and, in the end, he wins (basically by playing defense and letting his ability to take a hit thanks to his protective blast field shake Gladiator's confidence in himself, which weakens him due to the way his powers work).  

Gladiator has come to Earth in order to recruit the X-Men to help save the Shi'ar Empire (the fight with Cannonball having been a standard superhero Misunderstanding Fight), and the issue concludes with him teleporting the present X-Men, minus Cannonball, to somewhere in Shi'ar space, kicking off a multi-issue "X-Men in space!" story in which this group will battle the Phalanx. 

Cannonball is left behind because Gladiator believes him to be too young to face the horrors awaiting the rest of the X-Men (basically); he will after this transfer over to Adjectiveless and join the remaining X-Men there for their Hong Kong adventures with Shang-Chi beginning next month in X-Men (vol. 2) #62.

Beast's on-again, off-again romantic partner, newsperson Trish Tilby, has joined the X-Men for the holiday festivities at the start of the issue, and gets sent into space with the team by Gladiator, thereby making her a fixture in the series for the next several months. 

Gladiator's explanation for why the Shi'ar Imperial Guard can't fight the threat he's sending the X-Men to face comes in the form of a plug for the Imperial Guard miniseries (I believe the idea is that Lilandra has sent the guard to Earth to help cover for the absence of the "Heroes Reborn" heroes, so Gladiator decides to send the X-Men to fight the Phalanx in their stead, which seems like some circular logic on the part of several characters). 

The opening page of this issue is an homage to X-Men #98, with its opening page constructed the same as that issue's.

Furthering the homage, this issue features cameos from other Marvel characters and real world creators. In X-Men #98, it was Nick Fury and the Contessa; here, Cannonball walks past the Punisher at one point.  

And while Stan Lee and Jack Kirby appeared in X-Men #98, in this issue, Joseph and Rogue fly past an overworked Bob Harras at the Marvel offices. 

This issue also has a three page preview of the Thunderbolts, the new team which most explicitly took advantage of the "Heroes Reborn" character vacuum and went on to become a mainstay concept for Marvel.

A Work in Progress
Beast is using an image inducer to disguise himself (despite being a publicly known hero/mutant). 

Gambit continues his "everyone just gets a new name, huh?" gag from Uncanny X-Men #337, telling Cannonball to call him Joseph. 

The Grim 'n' Gritty 90s
Cannonball goes Christmas shopping at the FAO Schwartz on Fifth Avenue (FAO Schwartz is a chain of toy stores which used to exist; toy stores are stores dedicated exclusively to the sale of toys, which used to exist as well).

Joseph takes Rogue to the top of the Twin Towers.

Human/Mutant Relations
The carriage driver whose carriage Joseph accosts to fly magnetically through the air is surprisingly chill about the whole thing, saying he doesn't have a problem with mutants since they seem to do a lot to help people (but forget mutants, seems like he'd be justified in being irritated that this random dude suddenly sent him flying through the air...). 

Young Love
Joseph reveals to Rogue that he's modified the Z'Nox chamber used to telepathically shield Professor X to, basically, shield her from her powers, allowing him to kiss her on the forehead without issue. Gambit continues to seethe with jealousy throughout the issue. 

For Sale
The original Scream is advertised in this issue, and it's fun to remember how the early ads featured neither Drew Barrymore nor Ghostface. 

Austin's Analysis
Everyone remembers this issue for the big Cannonball/Gladiator fight, and rightly so. It's a classic David vs. Goliath plot with the low-powered hero winning thanks to determination and quick thinking. It's also more or less the high-water mark of Sam's initial tenure with the X-Men. Isolating him from the rest of the X-Men allows him to move past the "aw, shucks!" starstruck rookie he's been portrayed as since he "graduated" to the team, while the ensuing flight with Gladiator showcases both his power and his smarts. Basically, the Cannonball of this issue is more or less the pre-graduation Cannonball of X-Force, but to anyone who's only ever encountered him as one of the X-Men, it would seem like a huge leap forward in competency. 

What is less memorable about this issue - or, at least, what I always forget about it - is how Gladiator's appearance is a lead-in to the subsequent "X-Men in space!" story, with the characters leaving here for that story. As a result, this marks the departure of that group of X-Men - Rogue, Gambit, Joseph, Bishop, and Beast (and Trish Tilby) - from the rest of the team for a good chunk of time: they journey off Earth for the subsequent Phalanx story, thereby missing out on "Operation: Zero Tolerance", and then land in Antarctica when they return for the events of "The Trial of Gambit", after which, only a portion of the group comes back to the (drastically changed) X-Mansion. 

As a result, this issue marks the beginning of the end for the current tenures of Bishop (who ends up staying in space), Gambit (who gets left behind in Antarctica) and Scott Lobdell (who leaves the series during "Trial of Gambit"). Thus, it also marks an end of sorts for the post-"Fatal Attractions" "blended" team of X-Men, in which either title could be expected to feature any combination of characters, the old Blue/Gold distinctions having fully fallen away. For the next nine months or so, the two books will feature distinctive casts, and when everyone comes back together again, the new collective X-Men will look very different from the one that came out of "Onslaught". The road to that upheaval begins with the story that kicks off here, something which, in the grand scheme of things, is just as worthy of note as the entertaining Cannonball/Gladiator dustup. 

Next Issue
Tomorrow Nate teams up with Spider-Man in X-Man #24. Next week, Storm learns the truth about Jamil in X-Men (vol. 2) #61!

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  1. One of my first X-Men issues and my introduction to Cannonball!

    Hate to correct you, especially if you're just making a joke... BUT FAO Schwarz does still exist in NYC. Not in the same location as when this issue was published but still a popular tourist destination located right in Rockefeller Center. And they are still committed to selling good old fashion toys! Also, not sure if the issue implies otherwise but it was never located in Times Square.

    1. Yeah, the Times Square was a flub on my part; the story specifically sets it at Fifth Avenue; I updated that.

      The rest is, indeed, (mostly) a joke. :)

      I know there's still some FAO Schwartz's (and other dedicated toy stores generally) around, but their ubiquity is far diminished from what it once was. If anything, I think kids these days (esp. outside New York) are probably more familiar with FAO Schwartz as a toy BRAND than a toy store; I know my local Targets carry plushes and more old fashioned toys with the FAO Schwartz label.

      But really, it was a comment inspired by my seven year old asking recently if we could go to a toy store someday and me having to explain that there really aren't any real, dedicated toy stores around (us, at least, in suburban Minneapolis) anymore, just stores that have toy departments and whatnot. And feeling sad about that.

  2. "[I]n the end, he wins (basically by playing defense and letting his ability to take a hit thanks to his protective blast field shake Gladiator's confidence in himself, which weakens him due to the way his powers work)."

    I'm confused, are you suggesting that Cannonball is invulnerable when he's blasting?!?!

  3. That Thunderbolts preview looks dire. Why did Marvel think that people could get excited about new books based on random collages of black & white art that say next to nothing about what the title is about? And charge a higher cover price for it? (Although IIRC that's about to change - I think the next month saw a line alignment to 32 pages for $1.95.)

    1. Good point, Tim -- I was actually going to pass on THUNDERBOLTS because the ads did nothing for me. It was only when I read a spoiler of issue #1's ending on an AOL message board, the day it came out, that I hurried over to the local comic shop and grabbed a copy!

    2. Agreed - I would have come across that ad reading this issue, and it likely contributed to my giving THUNDERBOLTS an initial pass until, like Matt, I'd caught wind of the hook (which, unlike Matt, wasn't for a few months yet; I think issue #4 was the first I bought have stands, but was still able to find the previous issues without too much fuss).

  4. Yeah, I remember this issue being one of those that WIZARD was in love with. For me, it was -- all right, I guess. Honestly, I think I'm more of a fan of Gladiator than of Cannonball, so I was a little disappointed to see him beaten by the "rookie" X-Man. But I do agree with you that it's a nice change to see that when Cannonball isn't surrounded by the X-Men he idolizes, he can revert to the guy we previously knew as the more-than-capable leader of X-Force.

    (Kurt Busiek did much the same thing with Justice in AVENGERS just a couple years later. He was always second-guessing himself and screwing up around the Avengers, but when he went to hang out with his former New Warriors teammates, he became his old confident self.)

    Good assessment of this as sort of the "beginning of the end" of the "Mutant Genesis" era X-Men. I recall writing a fairly long comment about this during "Onslaught", so I'll try not to repeat myself -- but that event was sort of a last big hurrah for the group we'd been following since X-MEN #1. Blue and Gold division or not, the overall X-Men lineup was relatively static for around five years, 1991 - 1996. Post-"Onslaught", they start splintering with the departures of Xavier and Iceman (and of course there had been some lesser comings and goings before then, with Jubilee departing for Generation X, Wolverine's extended leave of absence, and Archangel and Psylocke leaving -- but coming back for "Onslaught" -- following the Crimson Dawn business), and especially as of this issue, that larger group is basically done. It's kind of sad; I've always considered this group to be "my" X-Men. It's a bummer to reach the end of their era.

    Of course, I didn't stop reading at this point -- I stuck with the X-books through to around 2001 or so, though they started to lose me earlier than that with Chris Claremont's return engagement in 2000.

    Lastly, I strongly doubt Bob Harras actually wore a hat around the city like he was a 1950s businessman or something, but I would really like to believe it's true.

    1. I strongly doubt Bob Harras actually wore a hat around the city like he was a 1950s businessman or something, but I would really like to believe it's true.

      If it were true, it would easily become my favorite thing about Bob Harras.

  5. This was an interesting issue for me upon my first reading. I hadn't read anything before Inferno at this point so my only memory of Gladiator was when Gambit gave him the "full deck." As a result, I wasn't as overly impressed with this issue as others might have been. I enjoyed it, I just didn't get the "wow!" factor.

    This is definitely an interesting time in the line. Onslaught felt like the climax of the Mutant Genesis era and this marks a sort of bumper leading into the next era that Zero Tolerance was supposed to set up.

    I have fond memories of the X-Men in Space arc and it will be interesting to see if it still holds up.

  6. That is Drew Barrymore in the Scream ad lol

    1. Ha! Yeah, I could have sworn there was a later poster in which the subject was more obviously Barrymore - with the full blond bob cut on display and whatnot. But poking around now, it really is just this one (aside from the posters with the full cast, including Barrymore, ringed beneath this image, which isn't quite what I was imagining). Apparently I mandela-ed up a different poster.

  7. Was this story the first mention of Gladiator’s power being related to his confidence, or had that vulnerability been established? I have to assume it’s there just so he’s not always unbeatable, because it doesn’t strike me as a riff on Superman’s abilities in any way.

    1. I think it was John Byrne when he had Gladiator guess star during Byrne's Fantastic Four run.

    2. Huh. I didn’t remember that but sounds right. Thanks.

  8. Are you going to cover the "Tales from the Age of Apocalypse" issues anytime soon? I never read them, but apparently the two-issue series was released in December 1996, one year after the AoA event ended. Might be worth a look.

    1. I think Tales From the Age of Apocalypse were actually 2 different one-shots published almost a year apart.

    2. Mike's Amazing World of Comics has Tales from the Age of Apocalypse published in Dec. 1996 and Tales from the Age of Apocalypse: Sinister Bloodlines published in Jan. 1998.


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