Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Post-Graduate Studies #16







The MU campus is mostly unused right now but
from time to time, our Professors will drop in for Summer courses.
This Week:
THE BIZARRE X-MEN



by Professor Tom Flynn





Debuting in February 1975 — and admirably covered by the esteemed Professor Joe Tura — Marvel Preview magazine was the oversized, black-and-white brother of such color “try out” comics as Marvel Spotlight.  Originally priced at $1.00 and packed with a big 84 pages, each issue offered a main story on a character not quite popular enough for their own series: the Punisher, Blade, Satana and others, though mainstream regulars Thor and Robert E. Howard’s King Kull were also featured. For some reason, Star-Lord was a big favorite with the editorial staff and he was given five separate appearances, including the very first collaboration of Chris Claremont, John Byrne and Terry Austin in #11. 



The final issue covered by Professor Joe in the magazine wing of Marvel University was #19 (November 1979) starring the aforementioned Kull. Well, that’s not exactly true. As chair of the Hyborian Department, I stole that one off his already full plate. When MU switched to Post Graduate mode after wrapping up Marvel’s output for December 1979, Marvel Preview ran for five more issues, finally giving up the ghost with #24 in February 1981. I actually covered one of these extracurricular magazines in the very first Post Graduate, a mediocre piece on Moon Knight’s last two black-and-white adventures, which included issue #21 (May 1990). But Marvel Preview wasn’t exactly dead yet.  A year later, in May of 1981, the series was rebranded as Bizarre Adventures, continuing Preview’s numbering with #25. Why Marvel didn’t just start with #1 is beyond me. The publisher did this on quite a few occasions, opting to miss the golden opportunity to have a blaring “Fantastic 1st Issue” burst on the cover of a premiere issue. Wouldn’t that attract collectors and the curious? It’s not like they weren’t justified to start the revamped publication from the beginning. Unlike Marvel Preview, Bizarre Adventures — a pretty creaky title by the way, recalling such Silver Agers as Journey Into Mystery and Tales to Astonish — featured three or four shorter stories starring much more established characters such as the Black Widow, Howard the Duck, Elektra and, the subjects of this Post Graduate, the X-Men. 

Now, my original plan was to cover every issue of Bizarre Adventures. There were only ten, as the magazine was once again cancelled with #34 (February 1983) — this time for good. But when the honorable Dean Pete supplied me with the run, that goal was quickly scuttled. It’s not that Bizarre Adventures was a complete dud. But taken as a whole, the series was fairly uninspiring. However, there are plenty of noteworthy parts to cherry pick for a limited number of Post Graduates. Throughout the 10-issue run, some of the top artists of the day are on display, from Frank Miller and Marshall Rogers to Michael Golden, Bill Sienkiewicz, John Byrne and Paul Smith. Plus, since I’m a Robert E. Howard completist, I am compelled to cover #26, another magazine featuring his thick-headed Atlantean monarch, Kull. That one was a rare Marvel job by the great John Bolton: he also illustrated the Thor tale in #32, so I’ll also tackle that one down the line. But let’s start with #27, featuring current and former members from the most popular Marvel comic of the day, The Uncanny X-Men.



Bizarre Adventures #27: Secret Lives of the X-Men
July 1981
Cover Art by Paul Gulacy

“Phoenix”
Story by Chris Claremont
Art by John Buscema and Klaus Janson

“Winter Carnival”
Story by Mary Jo Duffy
Art by George Perez and Alfredo Alcala

“Show Me the Way to Go Home”
Story by Mary Jo Duffy
Art by Dave Cockrum and Ricardo Villamonte

We kick off with the 18-page “Phoenix,” as Sara Grey stands over the tombstone of her younger sister Jean, aka Phoenix, in a Dutchess County, New York, cemetery. Now Jean’s body is not actually contained in the grave: it’s mostly symbolic since she was obliterated on the moon. Tearfully, Sara begins to remember an incident from two years earlier …

Planning on meeting their significant others afterwards — boyfriend Scott Summers for Jean and husband Paul Bailey for Sara — the two sisters head off for a day of sailing the Long Island Sound. As they enjoy a picnic lunch on board, Sara, a normal human, confesses that she is worried that her children might share Jean’s mutant genes, cursing them as misfits and outcasts. Soon, the siblings sail into a thick fog bank: both are surprised since the forecast called for crystal clear weather. Sara is overwhelmed and falls unconscious. Jean soon succumbs as well as and slides over the side. As she sinks through the chilly waters and darkness begins to overcome her, Jean recalls how her telekinesis was triggered by the tragic death of a childhood friend and how her sympathetic parents sent her away to Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters when she struggled to control her new powers — and how, years later, she was reborn as the all-powerful Phoenix. 

Jean bolts awake in a well-appointed bedchamber underwater, shocked to find that her skin has turned blue and that she can still breathe. Alerted by a scream, she swims off to find a panicked Sara in the same strange condition. Armed guards soon appear — their skin blue as well — and take the shaken sisters to their lord, Attuma, scourge of the seven seas. The damp despot boasts that he has developed a genetic virus that can transform surface-dwelling female mutants into water-breathers: they will then be used as breeding stock to create a race of super-beings he will use to finally conquer Namor the Sub-Mariner along with the entire planet. Attuma also informs Jean that a score of psychic dampers are focused on her — if she tries to resist their effect, she will become a mindless vegetable.

Jean, realizing that the dampers were merely designed to contain Marvel Girl, transforms into the far more threatening Phoenix. She blasts Attuma and his heavily armed guards with tremendous telekinetic force bolts and rushes off with her sister in tow. But Attuma recovers and corners the women, huge sword in hand. However, once again, he proves no match for the mighty mutant. The Greys finally make their escape and swim to freedom. When Sara breaks the surface, she is unable to breathe air — clutching her throat, she slips below the waves. Using all of her immense power, Phoenix corrects every single one of the trillion cells in her sister’s body, removing Attuma’s genetic virus and transforming her body back to normal. Exhausted, Jean blacks out. But Sara, with the help of a school of dolphins, is able to drag her to the shore above. When Jean recovers, she removes the memory of the entire stressful event from her sister’s memory.

Back in present time at the cemetery, Sara reveals that she regained the memory of the encounter with Attuma after her sister’s death. 

First of all, this story is referenced as “The Brides of Attuma” by various sources, but the Table of Contents and the splash page clearly indicate that it’s simply called “Phoenix.” Regardless of the name, there is something not quite right with the proceedings — which is odd considering the talent involved. While Chris Claremont did not create Jean Grey/Marvel Girl, he was perhaps the most talented writer to handle the character and fleshed her out more than any other before him. And obviously, he did give life to Phoenix. So while he is true to Grey’s personality, the whole situation he places her in is a headscratcher. Phoenix, an immensely powerful and often cosmic being, becomes the kidnapping victim of Attuma and finds herself swimming to and fro? Not a plot that leaps to mind. Perhaps Claremont thought he needed to “ground” the story since her nervous sister Sara was involved. But still, couldn’t Chris have had Galactus kidnap the pair, wanting Phoenix for his next herald or something else a bit more grandiose? Phoenix seems shoehorned into a plot meant for a much more minor hero. And did we really need a school of friendly dolphins to help save the day at the end? Plus, is Claremont’s take on how Marvel Girl’s mutant abilities were triggered a new wrinkle? Can’t remember if the topic was breeched before.

Attuma’s whole plan is a bit of a stretch as well and he clearly thinks that Sara is a mutant. Not that Jean or Sara argues the point. Though, after a bit of poking around the interwebs, it is claimed that she does possess some sort of latent mental power. If true, it’s not referenced in any way at all here. And let’s remember that the story is a flashback by Sara so it’s supposed to be told through her eyes. Yet Jean has a flashback of her own and is given plenty of thought balloons throughout, inner dialogues her sister would obviously not have access to. So not sure why Chris decided to give the story that format at all. Perhaps he thought that the framing pages in the cemetery would add gravitas? I hate to lay any negatives at the feet of my main man John Buscema, but the art is rather weak and sloppy. It’s obvious that Big John only provided rough layouts. As much as I admire his work in other instances, Klaus Janson is not the man to tighten or focus loose illustrations. He’s all mood and shadows.


In the 16-page “Winter Carnival,” visiting sophomore Bobby Drake is at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, to attend the title event. When he notices that the carnival’s theme is superheroes and that the university’s grounds are littered with ice sculptures of Angel, Captain America and other heroes, he forms one of his alter ego, Iceman. When some of Bobby’s friends appear, a snowball fight breaks out, Drake surreptitiously forming a steady stream of ammunition behind his back. Suddenly, the festivities are interrupted by an alarm: three ski-masked men have been caught trying to steal components of Dartmouth’s new computer system, blasting anyone in their way with high-tech stun guns while trying to escape. Ducking behind a tree, Drake transforms into Iceman and easily puts them in deep freeze. After the police drag the would-be thieves away, the icy X-Man entertains the students with a display of his frosty powers.
Later, Iceman and his new pals are doffing a few beers in the campus rathskeller when they are approached by Lieutenant Jimmy D’Angelo, the officer investigating the thwarted robbery. He informs the students that the thieves were attempting to steal large crates containing a new computer system donated by Dr. Henry Pym, aka Yellowjacket. When D’Angelo asks who sounded the alarm, Drake’s boozy friend Bubba states that it was a new math professor — yet no one knows his name or has attended any of his courses. Back at the computer lab, the thieves have returned, led by the mysterious academic, a man named Thatcher. It seems that the earlier robbery was a ruse: when the computer crates were returned, an extra one was mixed in containing one of the robbers. When everything quieted down, he simply slipped out of the box and unlocked the door to the lab. But Iceman, suspicious of the phantom mathematician, returns to the lab during the shenanigans. After a brief firefight, the X-Man ices the gang until Thatcher is the only one left standing. But the elderly mastermind has a trick up his sleeve, a more lethal version of the stun guns concealed in his cane — Iceman is brought to his knees by a direct hit as Thatcher flees with the blueprint to Pym’s invention.


The mutant manages to shake off the blast and gives chase, ultimately cornering the faux professor using ice skis and poles. But Bubba and the rest of the rowdy students stumble on to the scene. Thatcher sets off a chain reaction in his cane, claiming it will cause a massive explosion that will kill them all. But Iceman surrounds the weapon in a ball of snow and forces it skyward with thin columns of ice from his fingertips — it detonates harmlessly in the atmosphere. Thatcher is carted off by Lieutenant D’Angelo and the X-Man strides away proudly, relishing the opportunity to win the day without the help of teammates. 

Let’s start off with the art. My second main man Alfredo Alcala is on hand and the inks provide the lush textures and masterfully gradated shades we have come to expect from his gorgeous black-and-white work. But if you are looking for the unmistakable style of the non-accented George Perez in the layouts and figures, you’ll have to look somewhere else. Not sure if Perez merely provided roughs — like John Buscema in the Phoenix story — but you can only spot him in a series of thin, vertical panels that spread across the top of pages 34 and 35: Thatcher and his goons are walking past the ice sculptures of the heroes until, of course, they pass the real Iceman who leaps into action. Seriously, without the Table of Contents page, George’s mamacita would be hard pressed to tell if he was involved. Which is a shame, even with Alfredo’s outstanding inks.

While I mainly recall Mary Jo Duffy as an editor, she did script single issues of both Daredevil and The Defenders in 1979 and began a pretty lengthy run on Power Man & Iron Fist the same year. However, this is the first time I’ve reviewed anything written by her for MU — and she’s pretty unimpressive. I would imagine that Duffy thought the whole “fake robbery to mask a real one” was a clever idea, but she glosses over so many details that “Winter Carnival” comes across as a surprisingly violent issue of Archie. She states that Bobby is a “visiting sophomore” but doesn’t bother to mention from where. How do the thieves manage to slip in a dummy crate after the first brouhaha with the campus crawling with police? No explanation. And head honcho Thatcher is given nothing but a last name and a professorial goatee. We are supposed to believe that he simply showed up on campus and hung around for a few days pretending to be part of the faculty? No one would ask him who the heck he was? And where did he get the stun guns and cane? Thatcher does mention that it would be quite difficult to steal Pym’s computer in New York City, so he waited until it was transferred to Dartmouth — which is reasonable, but just about the only thing remotely intelligent about the story. And speaking of the computer, there is no information whatsoever about what it does or what makes it so special. “Winter Carnival” left me completely cold. Sorry about that.

Nightcrawler takes center stage in the 18-page “Show Me the Way to Go Home.” As the X-Men are gathered around the TV watching Kurt’s favorite movie, 1940’s The Mark of Zorro, Cerebro sounds an alarm: it has sensed half a mutant in Poughkeepsie, New York. The team boards the Blackbird and jet upstate, spotting the Vanisher trapped in mid-teleportation, half of his body still in Darkstar’s darkforce after the villain’s encounter with the Champions. When Nightcrawler reaches out and touches the bald baddie, a tremendous “Bamf!” transports them both through a mind-bending dimension — they end up in different locations on a planet inhabited entirely by beautiful, scantily clad woman warriors. The lovelies tell the confused visitors that men are rare on their world and whenever one shows up, he is treated like a god. While Nightcrawler is more concerned with getting home, the Vanisher begins to relish the promise of a pampered life and other, more naughty, perks.


When Kurt asks about the prospects of returning home, he is guided to the Oracle, an old woman named Sehu who is displayed on a vintage television. The sarcastic soothsayer informs the mutant that there is a Well at the Center of Time nearby: all he needs to do is jump in with whatever he brought to this dimension. Realizing that he needs to bring the Vanisher along, Nightcrawler begins to search for his fellow teleporter. He quickly finds his prey hording a fortune of gems and other priceless treasures — not surprisingly, the Vanisher refuses to accompany Kurt to the Well. A running skirmish breaks out, with the Vanisher trying to fend off the lithe youngster with a rapier, a boiling cauldron and various darkforce generated weapons, including a giant black fist. But Nightcrawler overcomes all obstacles and his opponent eventually succumbs. On the way to the Well, a giant creature — a monstrous mixture of a chameleon, alligator and cat — gives chase. But the two mutants manage to hurl themselves into the time portal and are transported back to Poughkeepsie. The Vanisher, stripped of the darkforce, arrives naked and embarrassingly blinks away.

“Show Me the Way to Go Home” is played as a lark, but Duffy doesn't have the talent to deliver giggles, only groans. Before we get to some examples of her side-splitting zingers, let’s pause on the splash page as the X-Men are watching TV. Wolverine is of course complaining — “the hero acts like a wimp” — as a line of dialogue floats from the speakers: “His bath was tepid! Poor Lolita, I fear her wedded life will be the same!” Since Mary Jo doesn’t bother informing us what the mutants are watching, I lazily guessed Stanley Kubrick’s “Lolita,” a film I haven’t seen in my defense. But on the next page, Colossus starts talking about “this Zorro,” so a quick search revealed that the film was actually The Mark of Zorro. Why couldn’t Duffy just let us know in one of the many captions on the page? It’s not like zombies had computers those days. Plus, what is the motivation behind the women warriors treating the men like gods — and why have the few they’ve encountered disappeared? No clue since Mary Jo doesn’t provide any. They look like Amazons and are armed with swords, so you’d figure they’d have some man-hating tricks up their sleeves. But they are consistently helpful and subservient. And now for some “zany” bits. When the women take Nightcrawler to see the Oracle, there’s a glowing sign spelling out “Oracle” over the entrance to her odd cave. One of the women says, “It’s in there!” as Kurt replies, “I’d never have guessed.” Is the Oracle’s name, Sehu, supposed to be funny as well? See Who? See You? See me sigh. When the sword fight breaks out, the Vanisher shouts “En garde” as ’Crawler replies “CafĂ© au Lait!” Speaking of the Vanisher, I’m not familiar with him at all, but he comes across like a spineless dunce, hampered with such fey dialogue as “Hee hee, he’ll never catch me,” “Girls help, save me” and “I’m philosophically opposed to dying.” And the giant creature at the end bellows “Ooga! Ooga!” Bleech.

Now I am much more of an admirer of John Buscema and George Perez, but Dave Cockrum is easily the artistic star of Bizarre Adventures #27. Dave was back as penciller of The Uncanny X-Men at the time, so he obviously has a firm grasp of the characters. Not only that, his artwork — nicely embellished by the scattershot Ricardo Villamonte — is the cleanest and most energetic of the entire magazine. Too bad it was illustrating such a “comedic” waste of time. The two-page spread of Nightcrawler and the Vanisher plummeting through the dark dimension is very well done, as strange, altered images of the two are floating besides them. If you’ve ever wondered what Kurt would look like as a woman, here you go. 

Unlike most of the black-and-white magazines I’ve covered for MU, the issue doesn’t have any text pieces but there are a few bonuses. A frontispiece includes a nice illustrations of Phoenix by Frank Miller with what looks like inks from Janson, there’s a brief and breezy editorial by editor Dennis O’Neil and Cockrum provided an “X-Men Data Log” of each character to kick off their individual stories — check ’em out below. Paul Gulacy delivers an outstanding cover, but what’s with his take on Nightcrawler’s hair? Is that a perm? 

While I imagine that the fanatic legion of X-Men fans would have snatched this magazine up in July of 1981, it’s rather flat and could have easily been skipped. Which is a shame considering the creative teams involved. Bizarre Adventures #27 should have remained a secret — X-Men or not.







In Two Weeks...
Professor Tom Stays Bizarre!

Featuring the Art of John Bolton!





























7 comments:

  1. Prof. Tom is right. Back then this was a must-buy for an X-Men reader. As this was before the flood of X-products, it was very welcome.

    But on the whole it was a disappointment. Three tales which could have been filler in any annual. After the wonderful Kull issue which I still re-read from time to time regardless of it's faults I expected an X-Men tale which went beyond the boundaries of the monthly book. Sadly it didn't deliver. That Iceman left me cold - sorry - and I thought Nightcrawler and his forced Zorro infatuation overrated, didn't help either.

    I skipped the next issues, only bought 31 and 33. With hindsight I think Marvel tried too hard. The magazines were meant to be edgy and a bit adult, which didn't translate to the stories.

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  2. Yeah AD, this one was a real letdown. I'm covering the Kull issue in the next post -- an excellent magazine with absolutely amazing art by John Bolton. Have to call bs though since it's presented as an original story by Doug Moench when it's obviously a Robert E. Howard adaptation. Bolton also draws the Thor story in issue #32 so I threw that in as well.

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  3. Always found that Bizarre Adventures cover kinda confusing...Iceman is transparent when he's iced up?

    And that Phoenix story read like everyone wanted a day off and knocked out something quickly and carelessly just so they could go home early.

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    1. And I never really understood Iceman. Does Drake's face change completely when he transforms? If not, how could his dopey college friends not know it was him when they were slugging down beers with Iceman?

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  4. I recently sold my Marvel Preview #1 for $134, I think. It's was about two month's ago, and I liquidating most of my collection. Might have been $154. Certainly a better investment than my Howard the Duck #1s. But I still like Howard a lot better...

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  5. Belated kudos (straight from, and thanks to, Relocation Hell) on another great post in general and another superb overview in particular. I never saw an issue of this mag in either incarnation, be it Preview or Bizarre, so it’s nice to fill in some blanks in my education, and by cherry-picking, you’ve spared us the most disposable entries. Granted, it’s been a long time, but I recall neither Jean’s telekinesis-triggering trauma nor, to be frank, even her sister, which admittedly may say more about me than about Claremont, yet I agree that a Phoenix/Attuma match-up seems, well, bizarre. Sounds as though Duffy lived down to her rep, at least in my book, although as a completist, I’m sort of sad to have missed a follow-up to a Champions story. A shame about the disappointing layouts from Big John and Gorgeous George.

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  6. I am a big fan of thor, watched the last movie thor ragnarok out of the box. It's very exciting to see the new movie of Thor Series. I love the Marvel comics that makes my childhood amazing.
    here is my best Marvel Art

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