2.19.2014

X-Men: Mutant Massacre

1986 was a watershed year in comics history. Out with the old (R.I.P. Gardner Fox, pre-Crisis  Superman / Batman) and in with the new (John Byrne's Man of Steel, Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns.) And let's not forget the publication of Watchmen and Maus, still among the industry's most critically acclaimed achievements.

Meanwhile over at Marvel:

"The biggest news for Marvel in 1986 was that the company was sold from Cadence Industries to New World Pictures (...) for $45.5 million in cash. Cadence's shareholders received $17 per share, less than half of the stock's actual value at the time. The sale netted large profits for Cadence's executives, but the sale cost many of the rank-and-file employees at Marvel significant amounts of money. The executives cleaned out the pension fund, diminished health coverage, and even threatened to reduce the company's generous and revolutionary royalties plan - all in an attempt to decrease the company's costs and increase their personal wealth.

Marvel was extremely profitable in the mid-1980s, dramatically increasing their already huge market share and expanding the merchandising of its characters. However, the conditions around the sale to New World contributed to a general sense of malaise for employees at the company. There was a sense that upper management didn't care about the company's ordinary staffers."

That's from Keith Dallas's American Comic Book Chronicles - the 1980s. For more on the Cadence Caper, check out Jim Shooter's blog entry on the subject.

I'm sure that the parallels between this description of what Marvel's executives were doing and the plot of the company's big cross-over event of the year (i.e. the Mutant Massacre, where for three months ruthless assassins hired by a shadowy unknown ("Mister Sinister") went on a rampage through the sewers to indiscriminately slash and slaughter the community of mostly defenseless Morlocks (outcast mutants) who lived there, while the company's biggest moneymakers (the X-Men) were forced into desperate reaction mode) are a complete coincidence. Nevertheless, it's interesting from an "As Above, So Below" sort of way.

Original ad for the event. Either I'm flow-chart-illiterate, or this is design confusion incarnate.
The official big event of Marvel's publishing calendar in '86 was the launch of the New Universe. But sales and fan reactions were both disappointing; it would limp along until finally put out of its misery a few years later. The actual big event, though, was the return of Jean Grey, aka the original Marvel Girl, who was - I'm sure I don't have to tell you - killed at the end of the Dark Phoenix saga six years before.

It was not the first (nor would it be the last) time Jean Grey died or came back to life.

From The Comic Book Heroes, an oft-inaccurate but compulsively readable history of comics by Will Jacobs and Gerard Ryan:

"Chris Claremont (writer) and Dave Cockrum (artist) needed a big event for issue 100. (Aug 1976) They decided it would be the death of Jean Grey, the former Marvel Girl. Two months later, in the next issue - for X-Men was still a low-selling title, published only bi-monthly - she turned out not to have been permanently killed by the solar storm that she flew her spacecraft through but to have been filled with a power that enabled her to resurrect herself. "Hear me, X-Men!" she declaims. "No longer am I the woman you knew! I am fire! I am life incarnate! Now and forever... I AM PHOENIX!"

Readers of any of the X-titles of the 80s would have plenty of opportunity to see that speech again, as practically every female character Claremont wrote uttered some variation of those words, at some point.

Jean Grey's return was a three-book event, the third of which was the launch of a new series reuniting the original X-Men for the first time since the 60s.


The conceit of X-Factor was that the original X-Men, alarmed at the growing state of anti-mutant hysteria, posed as mutant hunters in order to safeguard the innocent from the witch-hunt. Within a few issues, they'd acquired their own team of super-villain nemeses (The Alliance of Evil) and, beginning in the Mutant Massacre, someone who'd prove to be one of mutantdom's biggest bads, Apocalypse.

Although the X-editors would abandon the mutant-hunter cover story in the 2nd year of the book's existence, both the return of Jean Grey and the true identity of the X-Factor team were still a secret at the time of the Mutant Massacre, as evidenced in these dialogue and thought balloons from Wolverine:


The story flowed through four issues of X-Men, three issues of X-Factor, two issues of Thor, and one issue apiece of New Mutants and Power Pack. The thing these titles had in common was Louise Simonson either as a writer or an editor. Outside of Chris Claremont himself, no other writer is more responsible for mutant affairs in the 80s than Mrs. Simonson.

I wasn't a particular fan of New Mutants or Power Pack at the time, but I was familiar enough with them. (From the late 70s to about 1990 I was pretty much the definition of the Marvel Zombie, so it was standard practice to familiarize myself even with titles I didn't read regularly.) And while the New Mutants story is probably the weakest of the bunch,

- despite this appearance from Magus. (Unrelated to the events of the MM. I just like the character/ set-up.)
the Power Pack story is surprisingly effective. Juxtaposing actual infants against the killing machines of the Marauders generates some very effective drama

Not bad art, either. Jon Bogdanove is underrated.
and in the case of Cyclops - who spends a lot of time elsewhere thought-ballooning on his own baby and baby-mama drama and jealousy re: Jean's affections - character growth.

Awww. Poor Leech.
The two Thor issues are great. Louise was married to Walt, who was nearing the end of his stellar run on the title, and Thor ended up drawn into the killing sewers via this callback to one of the many memorable story arcs Simonson brought to the table:

i.e. Thor, the Frog of Thunder
A side note: I will forever be grateful for coming of age in an era that had Claremont on X-Men, Simonson on Thor, Miller on Daredevil and Batman, and Byrne on Fantastic Four.


As the name might suggest, the Mutant Massacre served up generous helpings of angst and utlraviolence, twin trends that summarized what fans wanted from their superhero comics in the 80s.

Art by Alan Davis. (Spoiler alert: Rogue's not actually dead.)
Art (on X-Men) by the incomparable John Romita, Jr.
Art on X-Factor by Walt Simonson
 

The violence of the Marauders was not as shocking as the violence from the superheroes themselves, though, starting with Colossus at the end of the first issue (X-Men 210).


This definitely shocked me at the time. Like I say, violence was a growing part of the comics landscape over the 80s, but from Colossus? Peter Rasputin, the gentle armored giant? This imbued what the Marauders were up to a sense of urgency and fear that other big events (such as Secret Wars) or even big deaths (such as in Crisis) failed to generate in me. (Those last 3 panels could be a Roy Lichtenstein triptych.)

But it wasn't just Colossus.

Cyclops dispatches of Berzerker, who wasn't a Marauder but a Morlock lashing out violently.
Jean kills Prism. (And doing doesn't have much effect on her, either. Perhaps all those deaths and resurrections left Jean with a blasé attitude with regard to both The Great Beyond and dispatching people to it.)
And Thor straight up kills Blockbuster's; death by Mjolnir-to-face. Then again, Thor probably mistook Blockbuster for some kind of Frost Giant, and as we all know, to the son of Odin, every Frost Giant is guilty until proven dead.
All of this, as shocking as it was to a 12-year-old me, was very much of its time. Again, from the Jacobs/ Jones book:

"Although Claremont kept X-Men within a context of familial devotion and community, it was surely as clear to him as to anyone at Marvel that the moments of sheer violence were selling well. Wolverine releasing his claws with a "snikt!" and a nasty grin, the slimeball muggers about to jump Storm without knowing her power to rage - they were becoming every Marvel Zombie's favorite moments, because they promised releases of pure mayhem."


"Marvel's official position was that no hero ever kills, but it was a position kept in the drawer until parents complained. Wolverine's claws slashed deeper and more often, the black-ink blood splashed more freely, and readers were free to conjecture whether he was wounding or killing his foes. Most readers preferred the latter." 


"Despite some comic relief and some tough-guy talk, the overpowering seriousness of every character and every scene made X-Men the purest drug on the comics market, uncut by Stan Lee self-parody or Frank Miller sophistication. Even the other soap opera masters, like Marv Wolfman, stopped at the brink of total excess, but total excess was what hundreds of thousands of fans wanted in the 80s."


The Mutant Massacre was a potent harbinger of things to come, both at Marvel and elsewhere, as huge multiple-title cross-overs became first a yearly event, then a semiannual one, and finally an endless thing, steamrolling over all storylines and continuity in a furious race to one-up the previous one. A tradition that unfortunately continues down to the present day. Event fatigue (and variant cover fatigue) combined to strip-mine the superhero audience altogether in the 90s.

But that was all still to come in 1986. When the Massacre ended in X-Men 213, readers were left a little perplexed (who the hell was Mister Sinister? Did all the Marauders escape?) shocked (so much death! Shadowcat in permanent (well comics-permanent, i.e. not very) phase! Nightcrawler mortally wounded! Colossus unable to revert from his armored state!) and absolutely riveted. And the groundwork was laid for the next big-X-event, Fall of the Mutants.

Angel would become Archangel, aka "Death," one of Apocalypse's Four Horseman.
Apocalypse can be seen throughout the Massacre on his recruitment drive.

Other changes: Sabretooth was repositioned from the Iron Fist villain he'd been originally into more or less a villainous version of Wolverine.

There had never been any previous mention of Sabretooth having a healing factor, for example.
He probably would have appreciated knowing he had it in this fight with Luke Cage.
I'm unsure if the backstory presented in Origin is still canon or not, but that series did a great job of tying up the Wolverine/ Sabretooth backstory. It came out 11 or 12 years after I stopped reading Marvel regularly, but a friend recommended it to me so I picked it up. And was really impressed. I don't have much nice to say about Marvel after 1990 or so, but here and there (usually with "elseworlds" type stories that rely on the 1960-1990 continuity for foundation like Earth X or 1602) they remind me why I loved this stuff so much as a kid and teenager.

Another sign of things to come - Psylocke (i.e. Betsy Braddock, brother to Captain Britain, who would soon join Rachel Summers, Kitty Pride, and Nightcrawler in Excalibur, another by-product of the Massacre) was introduced immediately prior to this storyline, but she came into her own (and joined the X-Men, proper) by its end. Like a lot of Marvel's heroines, though certainly not all, she was introduced as a competent, three-dimensional character with realistic proportions:


and quickly morped into the vampy, cartoonish slut look that came to define the Scarlet Witch, Spider-Woman, Tigra, She-Hulk et al. within only a few years. Unsurprisingly, this masturbational-fantasy version of Psylocke is the one you see at cosplay conventions these days.


Somewhere around the advent of the guys who would eventually form Image, the character models that had been painstakingly developed by John Romita, Sr., Gil Kane, Jack Kirby and other legends, where tossed aside in favor of swiped poses from the Victoria's Secret catalog, girls with slits for eyes and basketballs for chests, and endlessly 'roided-up guys in mid-roar slugging each other in a cacophony of splash pages and "decompression." And the tight and compelling action of the Mutant Massacre was tossed aside for repetitive and transparent gimmicks masquerading as "event storytelling." Bah humbug.

Again, these things existed in the comicsverse before the Image guys became convenient shorthand for this trend Idiocracizing the industry - and of course there have been loads of compelling comics to come out in the years between then and now, but nothing like the tight and wondrous continuity of 1960 to 1990 - but it's both nostalgic and kind of sad to revisit this storyline in 2014. In much the same way the sexual boldness and meta-narrative of something like Watchmen was copied so widely but oh-so-poorly - often ending up emphasizing the very traits something like Watchmen so brilliantly deconstructed- the best aspects of Claremont's unprecedented years on the X-books somehow became the diluted, inferior template for all subsequent versions.

Covers Gallery

13 comments:

  1. Sonofabitchin Blogger...I typed in a bunch of comments, pressed publish, and they just friggin' vanished. Arghh!!!!!

    The upshot of them was:

    (1) This was an awesome post.
    (2) I never read X-Men comics in the '80s as a kid, but always wanted to -- and STILL have not fulfilled that desire.
    (3) Seeing the heroes just straight up murder their opponents is still shocking.

    Grumblegrumblegrumble...

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    1. I hate when that happens. Sorry to hear it! Glad you enjoyed, though.

      What X-books / eras have you read?

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    2. For all intents and purposes, none of them. I read the Phoenix saga around the time the first movie came out, and enjoyed it, but I remember very little about it. So really, I can't claim to have read much X-Men at all.

      I am ashame.

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    3. Bryant, I highly recommend Uncanny X-Men from 111-166. There are no truly bad issues in that run and, in fact, quite a few awesome issues. Magneto, the Savage land, Alpha Flight, Proteus, the Hellfire Club, Dark Phoenix, Days of Future Past, the Shi'ar Empire, the Brood. All good stuff.

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  2. Agreed on that Marvel Mutant Massacre Map. That is incredibly confusing.

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  3. This was another crossover/event I disliked, but since I think Uncanny X-Men started to suck about 3 years before this, I guess it's no surprise I found this tough to get through.

    I have 2 really big problems with this. 1) The X-Men (aside from Wolverine) don't kill. I get why Colossus smoked Riptide but it still sat wrong with me. 2) It tossed Colossus, Nightcrawler and Kitty out of the group and sent them to Excalibur, a terrible series despite the gorgeous Alan Davis art. I never liked that title and I didn't like those characters being out of the X-Men.

    Oh, and there is a 3). I can't stand Psylocke. What a shitty character.

    I admit I enjoyed the Wolvie/Sabretooth battle in 213 (I think). I especially enjoyed how Sabretooth jumped off a cliff to escape and Wolverine jumped off after him. That was a seriously badass move.

    The Thor crossover was just odd. At the time Thor was under the curse of Hela so he wasn't quite himself but he still kicked ass. It also had the novelty of seeing Thor and the original X-Men sharing some screentime, which hadn't happened too often to that point. Not terrible but still weird.

    I dispised what happened to Angel. It's probably personal. I liked the character and was kinda tired of defending him to other comics fans. He was the Aquaman of Marvel. And then this happened and threw all my efforts out the window. Ugh.

    As bad as I think this crossover was, it was still miles better than the crap that came after. Inferno, X-Tinction Agenda, Age of Apocalypse, etc. Unreadable garbage. So it has that going for it, at least. But, man, I still think this is pretty bad.

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    1. I don't think I've ever seen the Angel referred to as the Aquaman of Marvel before, but that's actually so spot-on that I'm kind of surprised. Well-played!

      You know, it struck me as really shocking at the time to see Colossus kill, but shorty after I wrote this I was re-reading early Claremont X-Mens and wham, Colossus kills Proteus. I guess I forgot about that!

      I've tried many times with Excalibur, as recently as 2 or 3 weeks ago. I was always intrigued by those "Cross-Time Capers" on the covers and wanted to read them all. Well, decades later, I finally did - but I can't make any sense of any of it. I was flirting with the idea of covering it here, but I probably won't.

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  4. Colossus did indeed kill Proteus but I was willing to give him a pass. Proteus killed a lot of people, was very powerful and completely irredeemable. He fought Phoenix to a standstill. Not easy to do. I've always maintained Proteus as the most powerful enemy the X-Men ever had. That story (125-128 I think) is such a classic!

    Aquaman is probably my favorite DC character. Him or Dr. Fate. I always get annoyed when I hear people dissing Aquaman. I felt the same way about Angel. That's why I was so irritated when he got his wings impaled. That was a pretty brutal thing to do to a character who had been around since 1963.

    The only thing Excalibur had going for it was Alan Davis. Man, that guy can draw! But the stories sucked balls. It might be fun to do a blog about that ridiculous "Cross-Time Caper" if it were done in the tradition of MST3K or at least Statler and Waldorf. That's I'd be willing to read.

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    1. Alan Davis was (is? I assume he's still active? I haven't googled) indeed great. Agreed on Proteus, too - those issues really hold up.

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  5. Great posts! It was like I was back in junior high or so again! Flashback city!
    I have been searching the internet and my parents's attic for days now looking for an image from The Mutant Massacre with Angel and Thor and am starting to believe I made it up. Granted it has been 30 years give or take...
    Angel is pinned up on the wall with the 'spears' and the guys are about to 'take care of him' but in the lower right or left (my memory changes this periodically) is an ENORMOUS forearm holding Mjolnir. The baddies and Angel can't see it. I even remember (or pseudo remember) something to the effect of "Not if Thor has anything to say about it..." in big letters.
    If anyone can either confirm or deny or clarify this I will gladly name my firstborn son or daughter after you... Thank you for your time and energy!
    And thank you ever so much for these posts and comments. XD

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    1. Glad to hear you enjoyed. I checked my Mutant Massacre copies and can only find the end of Thor v1 #373. No enormous forearm that I can see (beyond the usuals) but I don't have the X-Factor issue handy and maybe it's in there?

      Or, perhaps it was a Marvel Age advert? Those I don't have, handy or otherwise, alas.

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    2. That is great and thank you for the reply. I am beginning to think it was an advert. Or a dream. The odds are about 50-50 for both.

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