X-Men, Volume 1 # 97 - 101 (Nov '75 - July '76) and Classic X-Men # 5 (Jan '97).
X-Men, Volume 1 # 97 tells the story of Erik the Red hatching an evil plan against the team.
# 98 - 100 tells the timeless tale of Sentinels kidnapping Jean Grey and the other members of the team, bringing them into space, battling a robot version of the team, and ultimately ending with the apparent death of Jean Grey and re-birth as the Phoenix.
#101 show's the aftermath of Jean's encounter and lays the foundation for the next Cassidy Keep storyline.
Classic X-Men # 5 has a Colossus focused backup story, highlighting another chapter in the tragedy of Piotr Rasputin.
#97: Erik the Red
Issue 97 is when Claremont starts laying the first breadcrumbs that will inevitably lead us to the Dark Phoenix Saga. Xavier starts to have nightmares about a galactic battle and some beautiful alien who is calling out for him.
Also, we check in on Alex Summers (Havok) and Lorna Dane (Polaris) as they are spending time away from the Super hero life, madly in love with each other.
But nothing lasts forever as they are attacked and mind controlled by a mysterious villain named Erik the Red. This is actually a confusing moment for Cyclops because there was an arc with the original X-Men (that I glossed over because it was mostly terrible) where Cyclops became Erik the Red. I’m honestly still pretty confused about it and other than Scott also making an offhand remark about it, they never really explain what that was about.
The mind controlled Havok and Polaris attack the X-men for several panels which culminates in a brother vs. brother battle of Cyclops vs. Havok. This was the first time I learned they mostly absorb each other’s attacks due to their solar powered attacks being so similar.
CXM # 5: Collosus and Tragedy
This Synopsis is pretty straight forward. Colossus saves a girl while in human form and she falls for him. They go on a date and he falls hard for her, but when there is a second attack things go bad. He changes into his metal form to protect her and she freaks out, calls him a monster, and runs off.
I included this for two reasons. First, I’ve been talking about how fascinating it is to me that the mutant hating wasn’t as strong early on. Classic X-Men was a way for Marvel to pull some revisionist history and remind us that people feared mutants during this early run too, even though it wasn’t featured as much. It also gives us a little characterization (although bland) of Colossus and provides us with a little extra justification (outside of being a farm boy at heart) as to why he might be so timid.
# 98 - 100: Sentinels and a Phoenix Sighting
Issue # 98 starts with a pretty Xmas theme where the team is out enjoying themselves. This is where you start to notice that while Jean Grey claimed she was leaving, she still ends up being around all the time. In continuity, that’s due to Jean and Scott dating but as the comics continue I think it’s because the writers were obsessed with Jean and couldn’t get enough of her.
Speaking of Jean and Scott, they were out enjoying themselves a romantic dinner that clearly wouldn’t be interrupted until…
Sentinels! I didn’t realize how much I liked the Sentinels until I see how excited I get every time they show up. Perhaps it’s because the 90’s TV show started with a Sentinel’s arc so it makes me sentimental. After a brief battle, many of the X-Men are captured.
There is a pretty cool scene where Banshee frees Wolverine and Jean and they escape only to realize they aren’t getting away that easily…
Turns out they are in space.
But don’t worry, they are rescued by the Sentinels who in classic villain form aren't ready to kill them just yet.
The entire next issue consists of the rest of the X-Men getting on a rocket ship (because they are friends with an astronaut of course), and getting in some cool Sentinel battles on the space station.
After fighting Sentinel’s, they have to face off with the next version of robot killers...Robot X-Men. The original team of X-Men has been created in robot form! Maybe some people think this was cool but by this point I was getting battle fatigue and I just thought this was dumb!
The end of Issue # 100 into Issue # 101 has what I consider to be the best emotionally driven storyline that I’ve read since I started this journey. The X-Men scamper on board the space shuttle that they flew to the Sentinel space station (and crashed into), but they realize that there is a hull breach and no one can fly it without getting exposed to radiation. In an emotional moment, Jean agrees to fly everyone safely home. She would use her telepathy to learn how to fly from their friend the astronaut, and then her telekinesis would seal the hatch with the rest of the team and provide her with some limited protection.
Scott, not unexpectedly, gets very emotional and tries to stop Jean. Jean feels that she has no choice so she uses her powers to knock him unconscious.
She flies all of them home, but pays the ultimate price as her powers can only do so much against the radiation and atmosphere. I realize now that the move X-Men 2 tried to re-create this. It’s too bad they fell on their face twice trying to adapt this story.
While she’s dying, she captures the attention of the mysterious Phoenix Force (which we’ll learn much more about later) and emerges from the ocean (the crash site) not as Marvel Girl or Jean Grey, but THE PHOENIX!
Alright, alright, alright here we go. We have our first Phoenix sighting! Before I started my X-men reading journey, I thought that Jean turned into the Phoenix and immediately turned into the Dark Phoenix. Obviously, that was wrong!
There are a number of thematic elements and characters introduced in these issues that will remain through present day. Xavier begins to dream of Lilandra, who will become a recurring character throughout all of the 80's and much of the 90's. Living legend Moira McTaggert makes her first appearance and you can argue that no one has made more of an impact on X-Men stories than her lately (thinking of Hickman's HoxPox re-launch in 2019). We also start to see the seeds of racial prejudice pop up towards mutantkind, a thematic element that will become the backbone of what the X-Men comics stand for. And of course, Jean turning into Phoenix is something that will NEVER stop influencing not only X-men comics, but all Marvel comics. The Phoenix Force is the gift that keeps on giving.
I love hanging out with a ride range of characters, so it was great to get some time with Havok and Polaris in these issues. Also thrilled to see some more Sentinel action as they are one of the most recognizable villains of the X-Men franchise.
Dave Cockrum continues working with Claremont and you can tell that there is magic in the air between this creative team. I had no idea that the Phoenix hung out for a couple years (in publishing) before we entered the Dark Phoenix era. According to Claremont, they
"wanted to take a normal person and kick him or her up to the level of a Thor or Silver Surfer without going through the stations of the cross you need to evolve to the point where you could handle the power. With great power comes great responsibility, but absolute power corrupts absolutely."
In Comic Creators on X-Men, Claremont sheds more light on his general take on the X-Men:
"Hated and feared by a world that they're sworn to protect.
Basically, it was everything that Stan set up right off the get-go. What with me being an immigrant-when you're a kid walking around Elmhurst in British schoolboy shorts, knee socks, a Peter Parker sleeveless sweater, a tie, a school blazer, T-strapped sandals and an English accent, you often got your head handed to you-and always moving around-my dad was in the Army at that point-I always felt like the proverbial fish out of water.
Being an outsider sort of came naturally to me so I understood where the X-Men were coming from."
Every adaptation of the X-Men that I’ve experienced has both Jean and Wolverine.
All variations show that Wolverine is in love with her so it was great to see that start to manifest in the comics.
It’s very subtle right now, but one of those things I’m keeping my eye on!
To contextualize these panels, Wolverine buys flowers for Jean as he enters the hospital. But when we arrives, he sees that all the other X-Men are already there and Cyclops is next to her, holding her hand. This leads Logan to nonchalantly throw the flowers in the garbage.
This is the first time Wolverine's claws are revealed to be part of his body, as opposed to part of his costume.
You can argue that the feud between Wolverine and Cyclops starts here. Wolverine is getting on Scott's case for refusing to fire his optic blast at Erik the Red, out of fear that he might hit his brother. A case can be made that their opposing demeanors actually serve to strengthen them both as character. Wolverine's recklessness makes Scott's steadfastness that much more needed, while at the same time Wolverine's ability to let loose and be himself makes Scott that much more rigid and unapproachable.
I discussed in the Thunderbird blog that Nightcrawler, Dave Cockrum's favorite character to draw, revels in his different appearance instead of being ashamed. He likens himself to Errol Flynn, which is an archetype I'll be tracking as we continue on. When many other X-Men are waiting for the shuttle to take off and becoming scared or nervous, he's purely excited.
X-Men is a comic embraced by the forgotten and the neglected of society. There is no more obvious outcast than Nightcrawler, so to see how comfortable he is in his own (blue) skin helps to negate the insecurities of ostracized readers and encourages them that it's ok to be themselves.
He begins using an Image Inducer to take on human form while in public, but it's clear that he doesn't do that because of his own insecurities, but rather to make his teammates feel more comfortable and avoiding creating a scene that distracts from the mission.
He begins to date Amanda Sefton, a stewardess who is sitting on many more secrets we'll eventually uncover.
It's revealed in this arc that Storm pledged to her parents never to take a life. It's this purity which makes her stand out as the ideal hero, and her later unraveling of this purity is what makes her by far the most interesting X-Man.
As discussed previously, Claremont is known for creating powerful female heroes with their own agency. This is on full display as Nightcrawler and Colossus argue over who will take her to dinner before she declares that they can both take her, as equals. This flies in the face of typical female superheroes who typically tied to a specific man (like Sue Storm) or are fighting the evil within them as they attempt to reform (Scarlet Witch, Black Widow).
There's no bigger allegory for female power than the Phoenix. While Storm is breaking the mold by refusing to be tied to any one man, Jean becomes the Phoenix and is instantly the most powerful mutant on the team (and possibly the most powerful character in all of Marvel). Jean quite literally breaks free of her prior characterization where she was simple eye candy and stuck with housewife duties for the team. She sheds any prior attachment to the prototypical 60's or 70's subservient female and is literally re-born into a being of power where she won't be dependent on anyone, especially that of a man.
Colossus juxtoposes his giant manly frame with the gentle heart of an artist. While he's not making paintings yet, we see him getting scared on the shuttle. By seeing a big man show fear, we are not only creating a more nuanced hero but also showing that extreme masculinity does not always comes with physical prowess.
Humans Hate Muties
I’ve spoken before about how the element of humankind fearing and/or hating mutants hasn’t been as strong in the early years. I can see that this storyline is really starting to take shape in these issues and it’s another thing I’ll be keeping my eye on!
Claremont expands on his thinking in the documentary "Claremont's X-Men:"
"No one really knew from one issue to the next... were they respectable, were they hated, were they loved, were they, what? They saved the world and no one said thank you.”
My Rating and Review - 8/10
How can I not highly rate some of the most iconic scenes in X-Men History??? Lilandra, the Phoenix, Sentinels, and brewing Wolverine/Jean passion...yes please!
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