Monday, October 26, 2009

1982 – Alpha Flight

Alpha Flight #1-5
John Byrne, writer and artist

John Byrne's Alpha Flight was a comic book about characters that was disguised as a team book. Unlike other team books where heroes would gather each issue and battle the latest world-threatening menace, an issue of Alpha Flight focused on one team member while it kept the team story alive as a subplot.

After the debut of Canada's super-hero team in The Uncanny X-Men #120-121, overwhelming positive fan response prompted several guest appearances of Alpha Flight across the Marvel Universe and eventually spawned their ongoing title. John Byrne, the co-creator of Alpha Flight with Chris Claremont and former Canadian resident, was given the creative reigns of this new team book. Alpha Flight was originally designed as a super-hero team that was meant to match up against the X-Men. Byrne challenged himself to bring the characters to life beyond a supporting role and shake the title's billing as an X-Men spin-off.

Interestingly, the first story arc read much like an X-Men adventure. These heroes were still confined by their X-Men stereotypes: Guardian's insecurity seemed much like the X-Men's leader, Cyclops; the playful relationship between Sasquatch and Puck was similar to Wolverine and Nightcrawler; Snowbird was as quiet and powerful as Storm. However, the comparison ended with this initial story arc.

Byrne successfully brought the team together in a great story, but then boldly had them go their own way once the threat had been dealt with. It was bold in that Byrne set up an interesting team dynamic, but then decided to move away from the familiar device. The team concept seemed to be a means for Byrne to branch out into each character' story. Each character resumed their life and had adventures independent of each other, which was a revolutionary idea seeing that the more successful team books, Avengers and Fantastic Four, spend most of their time in the comic together.

Byrne's early notable contributions to the team were the agile and mysterious Puck and the innocent amphibian Marrina. Puck was another uniquely Canadian character complete with his "eh" accent and was a solid addition to the team despite his unspectacular appearance. Marrina was a bit more of a reluctant hero and carried with her an ominous past that would prompt the events in issue #2-4. Marrina would leave the team until she returned the following year in issue #14.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Marvel Solicitations for January 2010 - 1980s goodness

A rather light month for 1980s-related content.

Written by Alan Davis and Scott Lobdell, penciled by Alan Davis, Dougie Braithwaite, Will Simpson, James Fry, Joe Madureira, Sam Kieth, Steve Lightle, Ron Lim, Brian Stelfreeze, Dwayne Turner, Jae Lee, Malcolm Jones and Rick Leonardi, cover by Alan Davis.

Secrets of the Phoenix Force! Dinosaur subplots resolved! Captain Britain and Spider-Man vs. a pack of human dogs! These and other astonishments await as co-creator Alan Davis takes Excalibur into space and down the rabbit hole! Plus: a battle with the X-Men across time and a team-up with the X-Men against Trolls! Collecting Excalibur (1988) #51-58 and Excalibur: XX Crossing One-Shot.


Written by Frank Miller, penciled and cover by David Mazzucchelli.

"And I have shown him ... that a man without hope is a man without fear." The definitive Daredevil tale, by industry legends Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli! Karen Page, Matt Murdock's former lover, has traded away the Man Without Fear's secret identity for a drug fix. Now, Daredevil must find strength as the Kingpin of Crime wastes no time taking him down as low as a human can get. Collecting Daredevil #226-233.

248 pages, $19.99.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Growing up with Pryde - Part Four

“One of the things you do as a teenager, one of the jobs you have, is that you have to work out your own relationship with the world,” said Louise Simonson, editor of the Kitty Pryde and Wolverine miniseries, from her interview in Marvel Age #11 (Feb. 1984). “This involves a moral relationship as well as a physical one. This series is going to help Kitty define what hers is going to be. It’s really Kitty’s series. Wolverine is just there because he likes Japan a lot, he likes Kitty a lot, and really doesn’t want to see her get killed.”

After Kitty had her heart broken by Peter, she took a leave of absence from the X-Men and went home for a change of location. Unfortunately, she didn’t get much of an opportunity to relax as her father’s ill-advised financial dealings with the Japanese mob end up stranding her on her own in Japan. The use of Kitty’s first person point of view in Kitty Pryde and Wolverine #1 (Nov. 1984) really grounded the reader and allowed them to develop an instant connection with her.

Events escalated as a Yakuza bodyguard named Ogun captured Kitty and put her through a drastic re-conditioning that reshaped her as a ninja assassin. You couldn’t help but feel for Kitty as she was helpless to prevent what was happening to her.

Fortunately, Wolverine made his way to Japan to check up on Kitty and after a near-deadly confrontation with her, they began the arduous task of de-programming her. Wolverine played it tough as her teacher, forcing her to choose to live and fight and struggle. In the end, Kitty’s strength and stubbornness served her well.

In this miniseries, Claremont had more time to focus on what he excelled at: developing character. Unlike a lot of comic book stories, the characters in this series actually changed.

“At the time, she [Kitty Pryde] seemed like an unusual choice; she was a younger, less significant character,” remembers Al Milgrom, miniseries penciler. “But, Chris Claremont really liked writing female characters and invested a lot of himself to make them interesting, diverse, and very strong characters. Teaming her up with Wolverine, a down and dirty character, was an interesting contrast. The tone of the miniseries was a lot darker than you might have anticipated with Kitty Pryde in it, but it turned out to be an interesting story.

“Claremont really liked what he did with the character and liked the way the storyline went. Originally, the miniseries was supposed to be four issues, and as Chris started writing, I guess he got carried away and liked the direction it was going in and begged for another couple of issues to make sure he didn’t short change the process. There was a lot of surprising depth to the story.”

For Kitty, this series was a coming of age story and she symbolized it by taking a new codename, Shadowcat. It also served to solidify the relationship between Kitty and Wolverine and their teacher/student roles revisited the original theme of the Xavier’s school. In the series climax, Wolverine defeated Ogun, and offered Kitty Ogun’s life. Although tempted, Kitty turned down the offer, ultimately proving to Ogun and to herself, that her spirit couldn't be broken.

The explosion of X-titles in the late 1980s and early 1990s saw the disassembling of what a lot fans consider to have been the X-Men dream team. Kitty and Nightcrawler moved overseas to join the ranks of Excalibur, Cyclops rejoined the original X-Men as X-Factor, and what was left of the X-Men relocated to the Australian outback.

After a lengthy run in Excalibur throughout the 1990s, Kitty faded into the background making a few appearances here and there. In 2004, Joss Whedon returned Kitty to the fold in Astonishing X-Men. Whedon also restored Colossus to life and rekindled their romance. The resumption of their relationship in a more adult fashion was interesting since that level of feeling and intimacy couldn’t really be addressed twenty years ago when Kitty was being portrayed as a 14 year-old girl. Interesting as well was the open hostility between Kitty and her nemesis, Emma Frost, who was now a member of the X-Men.

Around the same time, a modern take on a teenage Kitty Pryde in the Ultimate universe was being undertaken by Brian Michael Bendis in the pages of Ultimate Spider-Man. The formula for her character was strikingly familiar and I can’t help but smile wondering how many readers developed a crush for Peter Parker’s cute and spunky mutant girlfriend.

What stands out years later is how Kitty’s character changed as she grew up, unlike a lot of other comic book characters whose development stalled, especially in terms of their age. That change also made a lot of us realize that we were also growing up. However, all I have to do is pick up my well-worn copy of Uncanny X-Men #168 and I’m a teenager again along with Kitty, flooded with emotions and memories as I flip through each page of that wonderfully, unforgettable issue.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Growing up with Pryde - Part Three

The Brood Saga, which ran through Uncanny X-Men #161-167 (Sept. 1982 - Feb. 1983), provided Kitty with her first off-world adventure and her first real confrontation with death. Wolverine described Kitty in Uncanny X-Men #162 (Oct. 1982): “Kid she may be, but she’s proved - time an’ again - that she’s got more guts an’ smarts than most adults. Than most heroes.”

Kitty faced the possibility of dying as her body hosted a Brood embryo. Haunted by the prospects of a horrible death, Kitty tried to be tough, but like any other teenager faced with a similar situation, she was terrified. Fortunately, Colossus was there to comfort her as many fans wished they might have been.

As their fates came to a climax in Uncanny X-Men #166 (Feb. 1983), Wolverine entertained the possibility of killing his teammates to spare them a horrible death. Kitty stepped up and boldly showed her resolve: “I know what’s happening inside me. I’ve never been so scared, but I’m not gonna give up, maybe this is a hopeless fight, but I won’t quit. And part of not quitting means standing beside my fellow X-Men, all of us, together to the end - as a team, Logan! A family.”

Lockheed also made his first appearance in the pages of Uncanny X-Men #166. Although not really a dragon, but rather an alien species that looks like one, Lockheed would be forever associated with Kitty as her pet “dragon”.

In the aftermath of the Brood Saga, Professor Xavier announced Kitty’s demotion to the ranks of the New Mutants. The look on Kitty’s face and the look on her teammates’ faces on the last panel of Uncanny X-Men #167 (Mar. 1983) said it all. Despite having proven herself capable, she was still considered a child and unable to make her own decisions.

How could any teenager not empathize with Kitty over Professor Xavier’s stinging words? You didn’t have to go far into a teenager’s life to find a similar situation in which a parent has made a decision that they vehemently disagreed with. It was a wonderful plot device to pull in readers who had followed Kitty’s exploits and develop a loyalty to her. This issue’s ending set up a wonderful spotlight issue on Kitty in Uncanny X-Men #168 (Apr. 1983).

Who could forget that memorable splash page drawn by Paul Smith with Kitty spinning about, finger pointed, yelling out “Professor X is a Jerk!”? This issue focused on Kitty Pryde’s attempts to convince Professor Xavier that she belonged with the X-Men rather than the New Mutants, who she labeled as the “X-Babies”. With her pride wounded, Kitty struggled to impress Professor Xavier on multiple fronts and was forced to change. Rather than continue to complain about her situation, she does the adult thing and takes action. She eventually won over the Professor and forced him to reverse his decision.

The next milestone in Kitty Pryde’s life occurred in Uncanny X-Men #179 (Mar. 1984) when she presented her devotion to her teammates in a speech that brought an end to the conflict between the X-Men and the Morlocks, an underground colony of misshapen mutants. “This mess is my fault -- My responsibility and it’s up to me alone to resolve it. I’ve brought enough people pain, I won’t be party to causing any more. Colossus is what’s important -- With the Morlocks’ help, we might have a way to save him!” The key to Kitty’s speech was the use of the word “responsibility” and the personal acceptance of everything that it entailed, something very adult, something a certain web-swinging character might say.

Storm’s new rebellious and death-defying attitude proved troublesome and it came to a head in Uncanny X-Men #180 (Apr. 1984) when Kitty confronted her. “Life involves growth, and growth continual change,” Storm told Kitty. “You may not like those changes, but you cannot run from them, you must face them, child.” Kitty responded with “Some things shouldn’t change! They should be constant! It was bad enough my parents couldn’t keep the promises they made to each other -- but I thought I could count on you! (…) I’m scared, Ororo. Will it happen to me, too, like this? If I fall in love, will it only be for a while? Or worse, will the person I love stop loving me --?”

Kitty expressed insecurities and doubts that fell within the realm of real, believable teenagers. Her relationship with Storm evolved, moving from that of a mother and child, to friends: “Stand by me -- I need the strength of a true friend, even if, in days to come, that strength may be the ability and willingness to let me go.”

This heart-to-heart with Kitty foreshadowed the drastic changes to come in Kitty’s life. Their discussion also evokes John Byrne’s comments earlier in this article on how things had changed beyond his original vision of this character.

In Marvel Age #16 (Jul. 1984), Chris Claremont explained that “Kitty’s growing up faster than she’d like. The kind of life she leads as a super-powered mutant who confronts danger from day to day is pretty hard for a girl her age to handle. Add to this the fact that her best friend is a demon sorceress and her other best friend is a dragon!”

When her teammates returned from the Secret Wars event, Kitty learned that Peter (Colossus) Rasputin had fallen in love with an alien woman who had died saving their lives. Reading Uncanny X-Men #183 (Jul. 1984), who couldn’t feel Kitty’s heart break: “Tell me it’s a joke. Tell me anything but the truth. (…) Hey, God, why me huh?! What’d I do to deserve this?! It isn’t fair. It isn’t right?” This turn in events shocked a lot of X-Men readers who had expected their relationship to blossom.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Growing up with Pryde - Part Two

We didn’t see Kitty again until the last page of Uncanny X-Men #138 (Oct. 1980) when she’s dropped off at the steps to Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. After the death of Jean (Phoenix) Grey and the departure of Scott (Cyclops) Summers, Kitty’s arrival signaled a change and provided hope for a new beginning. Her arrival mirrored the arrival of Jean Grey way back in X-Men #1 (Sep. 1963), as she too was dropped off by a taxi at the steps to the school. Kitty was the first mutant to join the school since the X-Men were re-envisioned in Giant-Sized X-Men #1 (May 1975) and was the youngest student ever accepted.

In issue #139 (Nov. 1980), Kitty put on her X-Men uniform for the first time and turned down Professor Xavier’s codename, Ariel, to chose Storm’s suggestion, Sprite. This issue showed the growing mother-daughter bond between Storm and Kitty as Storm remarked: “Incredible. Kitty reasons as calmly, as sensibly, as Professor X -- yet, for all of that, she is still a child, struggling to hold onto her childhood.”

With Uncanny X-Men #141 (Jan. 1981), the first part of the famous “Days of Future Past” storyline, an alternate future version of Kitty, Kate Pryde took center stage, suggesting that Kitty’s tenure as an X-Man would be something significant. This issue also demonstrated the quick attachment that the X-Men had formed with their newest member. After inadvertently putting their lives at risk as she walked into the Danger Room and disrupted their session, Kitty was given the opportunity to test her phasing powers. The young girl closed her eyes and walked through the Danger Room, phasing through all of its deadly perils. Her escapade resulted in a round of cheerful and welcome laughter from her teammates.

Another noteworthy moment in this issue highlighted the awkward relationship between Kitty and Nightcrawler. Ever since their first meeting, Kitty had been put off by Nightcrawler’s demon-like appearance. However, we got a glimpse into the future as Kitty, with Kate’s mind in control, embraced Nightcrawler, letting us know that Kitty will eventually mature beyond her fears and prejudices.

Uncanny X-Men #143 (Nov. 1981) spotlighted Kitty Pryde as she was left on her own in the mansion over Christmas since she was Jewish and didn’t celebrate the holiday. While the story paralleled the movie Alien (1979) with its similar monster and premise, it successfully employed some of its cinematic devices, like the heart-pounding climax and the shock ending. The story showcased Kitty's resolve and resourcefulness and showed us that she had the wherewithal to be an X-Man.

John Byrne left Uncanny X-Men after this issue and Chris Claremont took creative control of Kitty Pryde. Like a loving father, Byrne was clearly disappointed in how Kitty would evolve over the next decade: “Kitty Pryde was created by me and only ME. Chris Claremont got a lot of "credit" for developing her into something she was not supposed to be. Kitty went from a sweet regular girl named after a young lady I knew in school (who spurned my advances more than once I must say!) to a psycho ninja magician.

“What bothers me most is that now that is the version that counts. And Chris gets all the glory and all the royalties while I struggle to clean my pool and feed my cats. I’m not angry - I understand that when you play in someone else's House of Ideas you cannot control what happens to the character after you let her go. That’s just the way it works. But when it comes to Kitty I’m a little sensitive and I find it hard to forget the treatment she has received after she left the safety of my loving arms.”

Claremont continued to put Kitty through tough times to build the reader’s investment in her. In Uncanny X-Men Annual #6 (1982), Kitty learned of her parents’ plan to divorce after failing to reconcile their marriage. Storm stepped in, again in her role as substitute mother, and tried to soothe the inconsolable Kitty. This world-altering problem wasn’t something that could be dealt with using superpowers and readers really sympathized with Kitty as she felt betrayed by her parents.

Kitty Pryde’s life took a sudden and unexpected turn in Uncanny X-Men #151 (Nov. 1981), as her parents withdrew her from Professor Xavier’s school and enrolled her in the Massachusetts Academy (run by the X-Men nemesis Emma Frost, the White Queen) where she’d be with students her own age. Teenage readers recognized Kitty’s frustration with her parents who thought they knew what was best for her.

The storyline that ran through Uncanny X-Men #151-152 (Nov.-Dec. 1981), established Emma Frost as a significant arch-enemy for Kitty. Frost served as a great foil for Kitty as she represented the establishment and conformity with her mind control powers and authoritative position as headmistress.

Uncanny X-Men #160 (Aug. 1982) had a significant effect on Kitty’s development as Colossus’ young sister Illyana, after an encounter with the demon Belasco, lost seven years in Limbo and emerged as a teenager. Over the years to come, Kitty and Illyana would become best friends and be there for each other through the highs and lows of their respective X-Man and New Mutant careers.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Growing up with Pryde - Part One

(This article was originally written for BACK ISSUE #32, January 2009)

Kitty Pryde ranked #13 in Wizard's Top 200 Characters list of 2008 and, what surprised many, was that she was not only the first woman, but also ranked ahead of the iconic Wonder Woman. How could a plucky, resourceful teenager rank ahead of a battle-hardened warrior-princess? Approachability.

Kitty has been around for 30 years with roughly a few hundred appearances while Wonder Woman has been around for 65+ years with a few thousand appearances. Kitty is your girl-next-door with a mutant power, while Wonder Woman is an Amazon princess with the backing of the gods of Olympus. Would you rather spend an evening in casual conversation with Kitty or be intimidated by Wonder Woman?

Kitty’s notable ranking in the Wizard poll is a direct result of her loyal fans which in turn is a direct result of a cleverly designed teenage archetype. If you were a teenager in the 1980s and read Uncanny X-Men, you were probably like me and had a crush on Kitty Pryde.

Kitty was molded to be a love interest for their target audience of teenage boys. She was a geek’s dream: she was smart, loved sci-fi movies, excelled at video games, belonged to a superhero team, and kept a pet dragon. Kitty was never drawn as the typical comic book “babe”, instead, she was drawn as a perky teenaged girl with a glint of fun and mischief in her eyes.

Kitty Pryde was created by John Byrne in 1978. From Byrne’s first sketch of Kitty, he outlined: "My concept here is that Ariel should be not so much a new member of the X-Men per se, but rather the first member of a second team, a kind of "X-Men-in-Training" team.” Byrne’s “X-Men-in-Training” would come to fruition years later in the form of the New Mutants.

On the creation of Kitty Pryde, former Uncanny X-Men editor Roger Stern recalls that “Jim Shooter expressed an interest in seeing the X-Men get back to the original concept of being a school for mutants. Not a bad idea, but it wasn't easily going to work with Storm, Wolverine, Colossus, Nightcrawler, and Cyclops. None of those X-Men were really kids. And could you see Wolverine turning in a homework assignment? [Laughs] Yeah, me neither.”

Younger readers in the early 1980s might have had difficulty relating to the adult cast of the X-Men, but Kitty was the ideal character through which to view them and their world. She embodied everything the readers wished they could be and they lived the X-Men’s life vicariously through her.

“Kitty works because she’s cute and funny,” Louise Simonson, former X-Men editor, said in Marvel Age #11 (Feb. 1984). “She’s a youngster in a group of older people and therefore gives a fresh vision to a lot of the stuff the others take for granted. A lot of questions she has and the turmoil she goes through is something that they are beyond, so she gives a younger dimension and insight into the book, characters, and stories. She provides freshness.”

Katherine “Kitty” Pryde made her first appearance in Uncanny X-Men #129 (Jan. 1980) as her developing mutant power triggered Professor Xavier’s mutant-detecting device Cerebro. Her life suddenly got much more complicated.

“I liked her as John [Byrne] had presented her,” explains Roger Stern. “She was supposed to be the "normal" one -- the average middle-class kid from the suburbs of the Midwest -- I think her house even had a white picket fence. And then, out of the blue, she has a weird mutant power click on. Kitty was scared by what was happening to her, and seriously weirded out by all of the bizarre mutants and the strange world she suddenly found herself in. But, at the same time, she was a little jazzed by the thrill of it all, just like most of us would have been at that age. There was going to be something new and fantastic around every corner for her, and we were all going to go along for the ride. What a great, fun character Kitty was! Of course, once John and I were both off the book, she became a girl genius and a ninja and a spy, and lord knows what else by this point.”

Dazzler also made her debut in Uncanny X-Men #129 and served as an interesting contrast to Kitty as both of these characters couldn’t be more different. Dazzler was older, on her own, flashy, and loved to be the center of attention. Whereas Kitty was younger, still living at home with her parents, quiet, and used to being overlooked or ignored. Which one of these characters was more likely to create a bond with teenage readers?

Kitty was popular from the moment she first appeared. In the letter page of Uncanny X-Men #135 (Jul. 1980), Chris Claremont answered a reader’s letter: “You were one of the many - heck, why be modest? - the multitude of fans who applauded the debut of Ms. Katherine “Kitty” Pryde of Deerfield, Illinois. John [Byrne] and I figured we were creating a pretty nifty character, but we never counted on the incredible - completely favorable - response she generated. Whew!!”

Monday, October 5, 2009

1989 - Acts of Vengeance

Just a heads up to save your pennies. In March next year, the Acts of Vengeance Omnibus will hit the stands. Over 700 pages of Marvel 1980s goodness. It was a company-wide crossover that brought the 1980s to an end and ushered forth the 1990s.

More details ...
Two dozen of Marvel's top talents set more than 40 super heroes against at least as many super villains in the premier crossover event of the 1990s! Plus: the debut of the New Warriors! The destruction of Avengers Island! Spider-Man's cosmic power and the madness of the Scarlet Witch! A three-headed monster, a three-faced robot, a trip through the worlds of What If? and more! Special guest-appearance by Abraham Lincoln!

Collects Avengers (1963) #311-313, Annual #19, Avengers Spotlight #26-29, Avengers West Coast #53-55, Captain America (1968) #365-367, Iron Man (1968) #251-252, Quasar #5-7, Thor (1966) #411-413, Cloak & Dagger (1988) #9, Amazing Spider-Man (1962) #326-329, Spectacular Spider-Man (1976) #158-160, and Web of Spider-Man #59-61.

Hardcover: 744 pages

1987 - Mephisto Vs …

Mephisto Vs #1-4
April-July 1987
Writer: Al Milgrom
Artists: John Buscema/Bob Wiacek

#1 vs the Fantastic Four
#2 vs X-Factor
#3 vs the X-Men
#4 vs the Avengers

Mephisto’s initial motives was revenge, as he was humiliated by Franklin Richards in Fantastic Four #277. He exploited each member’s fears in an attempt to win Franklin’s soul. However, by the end of the issue, he has tricked Susan Richard into giving up her soul.

Early in issue #2, Mephisto’s “true” motive arose; he sought the soul one truly noble spirit, like the Silver Surfer. He manipulated Susan Richards and the rest of the Fantastic Four into drawing X-Factor into mix and tricked Jean Grey into giving herself up.

In issue #3, Mephisto moves on to the X-Men where he tricked Rogue into becoming another pawn in his great game.

And finally in issue #4, Mephisto’s “real” motivation was made clear. Hela, the Norse goddess of Death, has been moving in on his territory and he has been unable to push back her advances. Only the soul of a god can turn the tide in his favor. Mephisto tried to get his hands on Thor’s soul.

Every time I read this series, I can’t help but chuckle at Mephisto using “mystic mylar” to capture souls. It just seemed silly to have Mephisto put these giant mylar bag around the souls when he can easily use his powers to contain them.

Milgrom shouldn’t have waited until the final issue to unveil Mephisto’s true motivation. I can understand hiding it from the heroes, but since this story is taken from his point of view, it seems rather confusing to keep switching his motives. And while I’m on the Mephisto point of view thing, usually the protagonist of the story has to undergo some kind of change. Unfortunately, Mephisto doesn’t learn anything from these events and doesn’t change in any fashion. I’m not expecting to have a radical character change, but there just seemed to be little reason for this series other than to create a crossover.

Buscema’s pencils are classic Buscema. Bob Wiacek’s inks on John Buscema’s pencils are strong and sometimes seem a bit overpowering. Milgrom’s inks in issue #3 seemed rushed, but Wiacek’s return for issue #4 is welcome. The coloring is terrible in this series; check out Rogue’s hair throughout issue #3. This series was printed on a higher quality paper and unfortunately did nothing but make the colouring stand out that much more.


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