Holy cow! We’re into double digits of my reread of the X-Men story that began in 1963. I include a full set of links to the post series at the bottom of this post. As we saw last time, some later creators have had some fun in writing stories that fit into those empty years between 1970 and 1975 when X-Men was just a reprint title. One of the most famous is John Byrne’s 1999-2001 series X-Men: The Hidden Years.
Welcome to the 9th episode of my reread of the vast X-Men story that began in 1963. The X-Men series stopped putting out original stories in early 1970, due primarily to low sales; it was a reprint magazine from issues #67–93, cover dated December 1970 to April 1975, until the beginning of the Claremont and Cockrum run in issue #94.
I’m going to go through their early Bronze Age appearances in coming blog posts, but for story continuity purposes, I’m also reading issues created in contemporary times but fitting into that 5-year dead period, like I covered for the original X-Men in X-Men: First Class.
So this time I read the 2014 series Savage Hulk, by writer/penciller Alan Davis, inker Mark Farmer and colorist Matt Hollingsworth.
This is a gigantic milestone! This is the 8th episode in my reread of the X-Men run. It covers from #59, the height of the Roy Thomas-Neal Adams run, to #66, the end of original X-Men stories, which hit the stands on March 10th, 1970. The end of the X-Men’s ongoing stories coincides with the end of the Silver Age and the beginning of the Bronze.
The Silver Age X-Men, as a distinctly 1960s phenomenon reached their peak with some of the Arnold Drake stories with some interesting experimentation under Steranko’s art. The arrival of Neal Adams feels much more like it belongs in the Bronze Age. Both the art and the story complexity (under Roy Thomas) feels like it’s breaking creative ground that the best of the 1970s will follow.
The merry mutants’ uneven momentum had carried them for 7 years, but even a spectacular finish couldn’t save the series from its failure to come into focus. We’re going to talk today about that end.
I was super-tempted to pause my blogging about my X-Men reread to complain about my reread of another classic, but I opted for the high road and am glad I did, because this was a fun post to think through. And, for those of you still with me, we’re almost at the end of the original X-Men! So pull up a chair for the 7th installment of my reread of the X-Men.
In this post, I want to look at issues #54-58 (March, 1969 – July, 1969), a run that contains two major Silver Age milestones. The first is the introduction of Alex Summer, the mutant brother of Scott Summers. Alex will eventually join the X-Men as their 7th member. The second is equally exciting – the beginning of Neal Adams’ brief but spectacular run. The team-up of Roy Thomas and Neal Adams marks the beginning of the zenith of the original team, outshining the Kirby-Lee issues and sitting comfortably at the same table as many of the great Claremont-Byrne stories.
While travelling in November, I loaded a bunch of X-Men comics onto my phone for the airports. I haven’t stopped reading and I started blogging about my reread. I’ve made the reread slightly more complete by adding in stories that were written later but fit into the canon.
In this post, I’m covering my thoughts on X-Men #24-39, with cover dates 1966-1967 which cover, most significantly, the introduction of Banshee and the multi-part Factor Three story. I mention the dates though because for the older issues I often spool up music from the corresponding year to play in the background for flavour. If you’re reading along at home via Marvel Unlimited or trades or Masterworks, give it a try. It’s weird way to situate yourself in the historical era.
It’s also important to situate ourselves in the comics era. During this period, Roy Thomas was getting his feet under him, with maybe as many hits as misses? Elsewhere in the Marvel Universe, Kirby and Lee were introducing the Silver Surfer, Galactus, and the Black Panther. On TV, the Adam West Batman series was premiering, as was the animated Spider-Man series, the first Fantastic Four animated series, as well as Marvel’s old Thor, Captain America and Iron Man cartoons which were half animated, half motion comic. It was a heady time to love superheroes, although I missed it by 15 years.
Sometimes when life is too busy, I don’t have the bandwidth for entertainment that engages too deeply with me emotionally or intellectually. It seems like all of 2019 has been like that. Earlier in the year, I talked about rereading the first hundred and twenty issues of Marvel’s The Defenders. Last month my brain needed another break, so I started rereading the original X-Men. It was fun and full of nostalgic feelings.
The problem is, I can’t just do 500 words on the X-Men. They were certainly a second-string title in the 1960s that, publication and profit-wise, was on a slow train to moth-balling by 1970, despite a brief renewal under Roy Thomas and Neal Adams. But five years later, the Claremont-Cockrum-Byrne team modernized the X-Men mythos for the Bronze and modern age and by the late 1980s, the soap operatic X-Men had become an economic juggernaut (sorry).
I lost touch with the X-Men in the 1990s when I left comics, and found the mythos so ornate as to be impenetrable once I came back to comics in 2007. It was too vast.
Master of Kung Fu Annual #1 was a reworking of what would have been Giant-Size Master of Kung Fu #5 had Marvel’s short-lived line of quarterly publications not been prematurely discontinued. As it stands it was the only King-Size Annual Marvel published for the series. Marvel Annuals were generally a mixed bag and this is no exception. A few select ones offered truly special longer stories which were a delight for loyal readers, but most were either hurriedly produced or generally disappointing tryouts for aspiring Marvel writers and artists to demonstrate their handling of established properties. Master of Kung Fu Annual fell in the former category with Doug Moench and Keith Pollard tossing off Shang-Chi’s first encounter with Iron Fist.
The story itself isn’t terrible, but Shang-Chi is almost a guest star in what is essentially an Iron Fist story that is centered on the character’s origins. The visit to the otherworldly dimension that Iron Fist calls home to take on an invasion force led by a sorcerer really seems to be more of a martial arts spin on Doctor Strange. The artwork utilizes some of Steve Ditko’s interdimensional concepts, but without any of his sense of abstract wonder. I was not acquainted with Iron Fist having a mystical background and the story did nothing to make me care much either way as it was clearly knocked off quickly by the overworked Doug Moench. Like the companion magazine, Deadly Hands of Kung Fu, this seemed largely a wasted opportunity. Fans of the character may be interested that there is a brief continuity reference to an ongoing storyline involving Daughters of the Dragon in the companion magazine which one suspects might have made for a more engaging crossover for Shang-Chi, although based on their crossovers in the magazine, perhaps it would have fared no better.
Deadly Hands of Kung Fu #9 featured a Doug Moench-Mike Vosburg story whose sole purpose was to reinforce (in the fashion of the hit television series, Kung Fu) that martial arts is about discipline and control and not violence. Of course, making this point provides ample opportunity to portray martial arts violence since conflict is inevitable within the confines of action-adventure storytelling.
The story gets underway when Shang-Chi stops a mugger in the park and finds himself challenged by Johnny Chen, the local martial arts champion whose arrogance and insecurities demand he publicly demonstrate his superiority to Shang-Chi. The fact that Mike Vosburg draws Chen to strongly resemble Bruce Lee (who could exhibit an arrogant side both and on and off screen) only adds another level to the story.
The real key here is the young Asian-American boy who also witnessed Shang-Chi’s heroism and whose hero worship of him leads to unhealthy projection and deception. The dangers of idolizing those we admire is the second plot strand that points back to Bruce Lee in this story. Given that this was another of Doug Moench’s scripts concerned with the non-violent philosophy of martial arts being ignored amidst the martial arts craze sweeping the West, his decision to paint the most recognizable face of martial arts as flawed and highlight the shortcomings of fandom was particularly daring.
The continuing success of Warren Publishing’s Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella led Marvel to relaunch its black & white magazine division in 1973. While the best of these Marvel Magazine titles supplemented the color comic line with material that could not easily be published in a monthly Code-approved title (Dracula Lives and Savage Sword of Conan, for instance) or offered unique material not spun-off as a companion title to a monthly (Planet of the Apes and Tales of the Zombie, among others), The Deadly Hands of Kung Fu sought a middle ground as a response to the martial arts craze that had taken America by storm on the silver screen, the small screen, comic books, and even the radio (Enter the Dragon, TV’s Kung Fu, Marvel’s Master of Kung Fu, and Carl Douglas’ novelty hit single “Kung Fu Fighting”).
Master of Kung Fu may have been the lead feature at the start of the magazine’s run, but the title was never built solely around the continuing adventures of Shang-Chi alone. Articles, interviews, reviews, back-up strips, and reprints were just as important for a magazine that wanted not only to exploit the martial arts fad but also be taken seriously by martial arts students. For the purpose of our continuing series on Shang-Chi, we shall only be considering the black & white Master of Kung Fu strip that featured in most issues with passing reference to other material only where appropriate.
Deadly Hands of Kung Fu #1 launched in April 1974 with Master of Kung Fu as the lead feature written and illustrated by Shang-Chi’s creators Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin. Following just a few months after the character’s color comics debut in Special Marvel Edition #15, the story returned us to Shang-Chi’s early years in Honan, China when he trained as an assassin in service of his father. We see that as early as age fourteen, the seeds of doubt were sown in Shang-Chi as he questions the deadly violence of his martial arts training after learning from his mentor, Cho Lin that the assassins he dispatched who infiltrated the temple for the sole purpose of murdering the son of Fu Manchu were actually hired by his father as a lethal training exercise. The largest flaw here is that Starlin clearly drew Shang-Chi without knowledge that Englehart wanted him depicted as a fourteen year old. It is a nice touch to see that the deliberate manipulation of Shang-Chi by Cho Lin is intended as a slow fuse rebellion on his part. The monk recognizes that Shang-Chi will eventually reject his father’s doctrine and the deadly force that is Shang-Chi will be turned upon his maker.
After having reread Marvel’s The Defenders from issue #1 to about issue #125, my interest started to flag. The glory of The Defenders was in the rearview mirror and it didn’t feel like the weird series I’d fallen in love with before and was reintroduced to by Brian Keene and Christopher Golden’s podcast Defenders Dialog (blogged about here).
I’m enjoying the Waid and Saiz 2018 run (Doctor Strange in Space), I liked the movie (The Doctor is In), obviously loved the Ditko-Lee run (Dr. Strange Part I) and the Marvel Presents series (Dr. Strange Part II), but I was hankering to continue my progress back through the Bronze Age. Other than the first five issues of Doctor Strange, which I have as a collected edition, I hadn’t read my old Doctor Strange series in probably 20 years. It was time to go back