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Gary Friedrich, Don Heck and Werner Roth’s X-Men – X-Men Omnibus, Vol. 2 (Review/Retrospective)

This May, to celebrate the release of X-Men: Days of Future Past, we’re taking a look at some classic and modern X-Men (and X-Men-related) comics. Check back daily for the latest review.

By the time that Gary Friedrich had taken over writing duties on X-Men, it was clear that the title was in trouble. To be fair, this has nothing to do with the rapid turnover of writing talent on the book. At this point in the history of Marvel, it often seemed like writers were wandering around the office waiting to fill any gap that happened to develop. Friedrich wasn’t a replacement for Roy Thomas as an attempt to herald a bold new direction for the book. Indeed, his first issue was a story pitched by Thomas.

However, at the same time, it’s quite clear that X-Men was struggling to stay afloat. The comic was seemingly re-tooling itself month-in and month-out. Professor Xavier had been killed off towards the end of Roy Thomas’ last run. The cover now trumpeted individual members of the cast and back-up stories opted to focus on characters within the team, hoping they might find an audience as solo super heroes.

The first death of the dream...

The first death of the dream…

This trend continued into Gary Friedrich’s short tenure as X-Men writer. The first issue of Gary Friedrich’s run focuses on a guest star from the golden age, while his last solo script dissolves the X-Men as a team. In the middle, there’s a crossover with The Avengers. This was a very troubled book entering its fourth year, and the fact that it could not seem to settle on a single creative team or direction contributed to that sense of listlessness.

X-Men was a book that simply wasn’t working.

These men... these X-Men!

These men… these X-Men!

To be fair, it’s worth noting that virtually all of the items on the laundry list of “things to try when the X-Men aren’t working” were established before Chris Claremont and Len Wein took over the book with Giant-Sized X-Men #1 and the “All-New” era. In this period of the comic’s history, the editors and writers pretty much established a set routine for future writers and editors that would struggle to make the X-Men work.

Killing off Professor Xavier, or otherwise removing him from the equation, has become a stock way to reinvigorate the X-Men line over the years. Chris Claremont had Xavier depart for extended periods of time in order to keep things fresh. Ed Brubaker’s Deadly Genesis had the X-Men break away from him. Avengers vs. X-Men even killed the character off once again. It’s fun to note that this happened for the first time less than fifty issues into the run.

Cyclops breaks loose...

Cyclops breaks loose…

Similarly, Gary Friedrich’s last solo issue of X-Men ends with the X-Men scattering themselves to the four winds, disbanding the team. Dissolving the team or abandoning Westchester would become a favourite storytelling tool for the book when it needed some more energy. Chris Claremont would do something similar in the late eighties and early nineties, with the X-Men splitting up and various plots proceeding to tie them all back together. Ed Brubaker’s Divided We Stand had the team moving West, while Jason Aaron split the X-Men into rival camps in Schism.

Indeed, pretty much the only stock way of “fixing” the troubled X-Men franchise not established during this early run is the old “throw out most of the team and start again” technique that Len Wein and Chris Claremont would embrace with Giant-Sized X-Men #1. It is remarkably how firmly these issues of X-Men stick to the core cast as established by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, even when it’s clear that the characters aren’t really working individually or as a team.

Keeping in step...

Keeping in step…

The brief crossover with The Avengers illustrates that Marvel was a company willing to diversify its teams and characters if that would tell a better story. The core cast of the X-Men is essentially the same as it was when the team was founded – Cyclops, Ice Man, Jean Grey, Beast and Angel. In contrast, Giant Man appears to be the only founding member of The Avengers still serving on that team during the crossover.

Indeed, The Avengers even features a black character in the form of Black Panther. It feels a little strange that The Avengers has been able to incorporate a black super hero into its cast while the ensemble from X-Men remains completely white and middle-class. Given that X-Men is supposed to be a book about prejudice and racism, it really would make sense to diversify the team slightly. It’s very weird that X-Men held on to its core cast for so long, especially when they weren’t working.

A captive audience...

A captive audience…

However, the problems with X-Men as a book extends beyond the five core characters. Reading Gary Friedrich’s run, short though it may be, there’s no sense of common purpose or drive. There’s no sense of the kind of book that X-Men wants to be and how it wants to evolve into that book. Instead, it seems to wander almost aimlessly from one story into another, occasionally interrupting itself and doubling back.

Gary Friedrich opens in the aftermath of the death of Professor Xavier. This should be a massive moment for the team. Their mentor is dead. What do they do? Who runs the school? Is there a point keeping the X-Men together? However, the book gets waylaid so frequently that Friedrich is only able to deal with these questions at the very end of his run, creating a sense that the book has spend months essentially treading water.

Mutant eyes are smiling...

Mutant eyes are smiling…

To be fair, part of the blame does rest with Roy Thomas. Magneto decides to strike at the mutants after the passing of Professor Xavier. Our heroes get drawn into a confrontation with Magneto that seems very familiar at this point in time. Eventually, the team are captured and subdued. In Friedrich’s first issue writing X-Men, Angel manages to escape captivity and flies away to get help. However, he doesn’t make it.

Instead, in a story titled Red Raven, Red Raven, Angel lands on a rock. That rock turns out to be an island. That island turns out to be a secret base. That secret base turns out to belong to a secret race of hawk-people in suspended isolation that are about to wake up. So Angel bumps into a character named Red Raven who is responsible for putting this enemy army back into stasis. Angle fights with Red Raven, then listens to him, and then lets Red Raven put these hawk people back to sleep before continuing on his way home. Comic book storytelling is seldom organic, but this is just absurdly convoluted.

Burning desires...

Burning desires…

In essence, it’s a wasted issue. It reads like an awkward attempt to show in a guest character hoping to spin-off his own book at some point. Red Raven goes on for pages about his secret origin and his mission objects, while Angel stands by and listens. The plot around them drags to a halt. It is a very cynical move – it feels like an obvious attempt to hook readers on a character who might hopefully launch his own book. However, using a troubled book like X-Men for this purpose doesn’t do anybody any favours. It’s no wonder Red Raven didn’t appear in a Marvel comic for another two years, when he fought Namor.

“For the moment, I have a mission to complete for the X-Men,” Angel observes at one point, even if he doesn’t seem too bothered by the fact Magneto has his friends held captive while Red Raven harks on and on and on. “If only I hadn’t been waylaid by the Red Raven!” he laments later on, and the audience is likely to agree with him. The issue does nobody any favours. It would have made more sense for X-Men to figure out what it wanted to be before trying to re-launch other golden age superheroes out of it.

Grave thoughts...

Grave thoughts…

The crossover with The Avengers makes a bit more sense as an attempt to help solidify X-Men. After all, tying into a more popular book has always been a reliable way to ensure the stability of a mainstream comic. It’s a way of reminding readers that the book exists, even if the plot does feel incredibly generic. Magneto’s plan is to essentially force the Avengers and the X-Men to fight one another, as is obligatory in this sort of crossover. “Now, they and the X-Men — who might otherwise be allies — will be at each other’s throats!” he boasts, foreshadowing Avengers vs. X-Men decades ahead of time.

Still, these elements do sap the momentum of the book. It means that it is several issues before X-Men deals with the fact that Professor Xavier is dead and the team has to serious examine its position in the world. By the time the comic circles back around to this point, a lot of the energy created by Xavier’s death has been lost. The team defeated Magneto handily enough. There’s no need to worry too much about whether they can work together without their mentor.

Just the ticket...

Just the ticket…

Friedrich is not a writer who works hard to justify stock comic book tropes. Roy Thomas at least puts a great deal of thought into the narrative conventions that he uses. In contrast, Friedrich has things happen because they are expected, or convenient, with no justification provided for these events. Things just happen. Angel just happens to land on an island that is a beachhead for an alien invasion at precisely the time that the aliens are going to wake up.

Xavier’s device randomly brings the Juggernaut back to Earth at the same time as his funeral. However, the device also conveniently sends him home after the issue’s obligatory fight scene. Without even needing to examine the machinery involved, Cyclops efficiently deduces, “Knowing his brother’s evil power, he arranged for the effects of his device to wear off shortly… if he wasn’t otherwise treated!”

He would've gotten away with it too, if it weren't for those meddling super-powered teens...

He would’ve gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for those meddling super-powered teens…

In Friedrich’s last solo issue, FBI Agent Duncan announces that he plans to break up the team. However, this seems to happen because editorial decided that this was a good idea, not because it makes sense from a story perspective. Duncan is worried about the Xavier school serving as a target to villains who may want revenge. “This, coupled with the fact that you can be much more effective if you spread yourselves out across the country… forces me to order you to disband… and leave this school forever!”

These remarks raise all sorts of questions. Since when does splitting up a bunch of teenagers make them harder to kill? How are a team of kids who have trained together for years going to be more effective as individuals. How does an FBI agent have unilateral authority to kick the kids out of a building that has been left in trust to them. More than that, why is an FBI agent giving orders to a bunch of mutant super heroes. The comic is quite explicit about this. Cyclops and the team aren’t find their own way.

What's behind doors number one through three?

What’s behind doors number one through three?

Duncan informs them, “You’ll each receive a letter from me in a few days… instructions as to where you should go!” It seems like an attempt to evoke the draft for Vietnam – kids being told by their government to do particular things and serve their countries in particular ways. However, X-Men doesn’t seem too cynical about this. Beast is the only character to object, correctly observing, “But orders such as his are unquestionably unconstitutional, Scott!” However, the other characters all play along unquestioningly.

Once again, this feels like X-Men is missing the boat somewhat. For a comic about an oppressed minority, X-Men feels decidedly reactionary. The comic practically celebrates the authority of a government agent to order members of a minority to stop associating with one another, and to insist that they serve at the whims of the state’s authority. X-Men is a book primed to explore counter-culture and disaffection, but it is instead towing the line, a comic about how the government really does know best.

The X-Men are a little tied up...

The X-Men are a little tied up…

Friedrich’s run isn’t too memorable otherwise. His version of Magneto is a generic and raving super villain. His abuse of Toad is so deliciously over-the-top that it is practically camp. “If I am forced to waste even a second,” he warns, “all the suffering endured by mankind in the past will be but a truffle in comparison with that which you will experience!” Not one for under-reacting, our Magneto.

That said, there is the very faintest hint that Magneto might be something of a social darwinist. As Quicksilver faces down Cyclops, the villain observes that it is a test for his young henchman. “Besides, if the former Avenger cannot defeat Cyclops… he is certainly of no use to me! There will be no place for weaklings in the kingdom of Magneto!” It isn’t really developed, but it’s a nice way of hinting at the evolutionary subtext of the X-Men. Apocalypse, eat your heart out.

Who says there are no new ideas?

Who says there are no new ideas?

At this stage in its life, X-Men was struggling. It’s hard to look at these issues and see any hope of recovery.

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