Sunday, January 15, 2017

X-MEN: THE TRIAL OF GAMBIT

Paperback, 2016. Collects 1997's UNCANNY X-MEN #341 - 350, UNCANNY X-MEN #-1, X-MEN #62 - 64, and X-MEN #-1.

Before we dive into our latest X-MEN collected edition (released just a scant few months ago, in fact), let's address the sizable elephant in the room: the ONSLAUGHT OMNIBUS ended on UNCANNY X-MEN #337 and X-MEN #57, while this book picks up with issues 341 and 62, respectively. So we're missing three issues of UNCANNY and four issues of X-MEN as of this writing. Personally, if you toss whatever annuals and X-MEN UNLIMITED issues came out around that time, I think those contents would make for a fine ONSLAUGHT AFTERMATH trade or something along similar lines, so I hope to see the errant issues collected soon.

As for THE TRIAL OF GAMBIT: the book opens with UNCANNY X-MEN #341 by Scott Lobdell and Joe Madureira, an issue I seem to recall was heralded, at least by WIZARD magazine, as a modern-day classic in which Cannonball battles Gladiator of the Shi'ar Imperial Guard. This leads directly into UNCANNY 342 through 345, in which Lobdell, aided by Madureira and guest artist Mel Rubi, sends the X-Men off into one of their classic tropes which he had, up to this point, not yet done during his run on the title -- a spacefaring saga in which the group battles the Phalanx for the fate of the Shi'ar.

Then we jump over to the sister title, X-MEN, for issues 62 through 64, plotted by Lobdell, scripted by late nineties X-office go-to guy Ben Raab, and drawn by the newly arrived Carlos Pacheco and Art Thibert. The story follows the remaining Earthbound X-Men on a trip to Hong Kong for team-up with Shang-Chi and a battle with Sebastian Shaw and the Kingpin of Crime.


The X-Men's contributions to Marvel's "Flashback Month" gimmick come next, with UNCANNY X-MEN -1 and X-MEN -1 detailing tales from the mutants' distant past by Lobdell, Bryan Hitch, and Pacheco.

At this point we return to UNCANNY for the remainder of the book, beginning with the series' sole part of the "Operation: Zero Tolerance" crossover, another tale I recall WIZARD loved which essentially serves a "back door pilot" for a Lobdell/Madureira Spider-Man comic (whether this actually was intended as such by the creators I don't know, but in any case I would agree with the assessment that both creators do an excellent job of portraying the web-slinger here).


UNCANNY 347 through 350 round things out; a quartet of issues which see the spaceborne X-Men crash in the Savage Land, where they encounter superstars-in-the-making Spat and Grovel (I don't know how, but these two received action figures from Toy Biz circa 1998 as part of a sub-line called "Marvel's Most Wanted" which was ostensibly dedicated to providing plastic incarnations of long-time fan-demanded characters) and participate in the eponymous "Trial of Gambit", presided over by the mysterious Erik the Red -- who is later revealed to be none other than Magneto.


Nineteen pages of bonus features come next, including: WIZARD and MARVEL VISION covers by Carlos Pacheco, a MARVEL VISION interview with Pacheco and Art Thibert promoting their arrival on X-MEN, a MARVEL VISION article on UNCANNY X-MEN #350, a multi-page hype piece on Flashback Month which appeared in several Marvel comics of the day, a cover to something called MEGA MARVEL: SEPTEMBER 1997 by Madureira, a Bullpen Bulletins profile on recently installed editor-in-chief Bob Harras, a "Daily Bugle Editorial" by Jonah Jameson from a MARVEL VISION issue, and three pages of original artwork by Madureira and Pacheco reproduced, as usual, at quarter-size. We also have, tossed in throughout the book, quarter-size reproductions of all the covers sans logos and trade dress, thanks to these collected editions having apparently finally reached the point where Marvel started archiving everything digitally.


There are also several house ads in the back matter, dedicated to the outer space arc, the Hong Kong arc, and UNCANNY 350. Indeed, I recall that Marvel really upped their house ad output around this time; the AVENGERS BY BUSIEK & PÉREZ OMNIBUS volume 1, collecting material from this era as well, contains a large number of them too, and I'm pretty sure Spider-Man had a number of them circa the mid to late nineties also. Personally I love house ads, and I remember being very happy to see so many of them appearing back in 1997-98.

The stories in this book, however, are another matter. I don't necessarily dislike all of them, but they're a real mixed bag. On the "good" end of the spectrum, I recall that I enjoyed the short X-MEN arc presented here. As noted above, Bob Harras had recently taken up the editorial reins of Marvel as a whole at this time, and one of his mandates seemed to be to revisit the Bronze Age as early and as often as possible.* Thus we had George Pérez drawing the Avengers, a return of corner boxes with little heads in them, Spider-Man back in college, a new HEROES FOR HIRE series starring Power Man and Iron Fist alongside several other B- and C-list Marvel characters, and yes, a three-part guest-spot by the Master of Kung Fu in X-MEN.


Well, I happen to love the Bronze Age, so nearly all of this stuff was A-okay with me back then. For whatever reason I have a great deal of nostalgia for the seventies even though I only existed in the decade for one year. Thus, when Marvel made this big Bronze Age push, I was fully on board with almost all of it.

The UNCANNY material in this volume, on the other hand, didn't float my boat nearly as much as those three X-MEN issues. I like an occasional "X-Men in space" story, but I've never really enjoyed the Phalanx as enemies. (It's kind of a wonder I like the "Phalanx Covenant" crossover as much as I do, and my enjoyment of that story is strictly in spite of the villains, rather than because of them.) Lobdell's space adventure was forgettable at best, not nearly on the same level as the likes of the Claremont/Cockrum or Claremont/Lee sci-fi epics of the prior two decades.

(I should note that the fill-in art on the outer space story offers a minor revelation for me today. Coming from a young Mel Rubi, while it's perhaps a bit too "early Image" for my tastes with scratchy shading and hatchmarks everywhere, I have to admit that I find it far more energetic and exciting than the RED SONJA or SPIDER-MAN/RED SONJA stuff he produced a decade later, which I covered here some months back.)


The Spider-Man issue was a lot of fun -- perhaps even more fun than the regular ongoing Spider-books at the time -- and it did make me wonder about a Lobdell/Madureira series starring the web-slinger, but that issue brings with it its own curious problem: how on Earth does the flagship X-title contribute only one chapter to the year's giant crossover story?? It's something that really confused me at the time, and we'll chat a bit more about it next month when we delve into the OPERATION: ZERO TOLERANCE hardcover collection.

The four remaining issues attempt to revisit and resolve the long-standing mystery of Gambit and his connection with Mister Sinister, but they suffer from some behind-the-scenes drama which result in confusion on the printed page as well, as, from issue to issue, it seems unclear exactly where the X-Men are and the newly introduced supporting characters change personalities and, occasionally, appearances from chapter to chapter. That said, issue 350 does include an appearance by Eric/k the Red, another Bronze Age throwback element which automatically bumps it up a few notches in my estimation (even if we aren't dealing with Davan Shakari behind the armor).


350 also concludes on a genuinely confusing cliffhanger, introducing Magneto even as his supposed de-aged self, Joseph, serves alongside the X-Men -- and I kind of like that Lobdell's run ended as it had lived: presenting a mystery for which the writer had no resolution, and sticking it to the next creative team to come up with an answer. (Seriously, I'm not joking. I think it's really cool when one creative team departs a title and sets something up -- a mystery, a status quo, whatever -- for the next guys to figure out and run with whether they like it or not.)

Then there are the Flashback issues. I won't delve too much into them other than to say that Flashback Month was mostly a bust for me. There were certainly a small handful of stories I enjoyed in the event, but overall it felt like a waste of a month's worth of issues to me.


So, while I like some of the stories in this book, and while the book itself is a nice thick trade with the usual stellar reproduction (and a great wraparound cover to boot), and while the artwork from Madureira and Pacheco, both at the peak of their powers, is stunningly gorgeous, it's hard for one three-part arc and two single installments to salvage more than a dozen overall issues. Whether due to editorial interference (Mark Powers had taken over day-to-day responsibilities from Bob Harras at this point and from most reports he was much harder for writers to work with than Harras) or due to burnout (Lobdell had been on UNCANNY for over five years at this point and had been writing and/or plotting both UNCANNY and X-MEN -- plus GENERATION X -- for the previous several months), Scott Lobdell was really running on fumes for his final dozen or so issues.

I've waxed nostalgic about nearly every nineties-era X-collection I've looked at so far, but this may be the first one where I can genuinely declare that the bloom was coming off the rose for me as the original issues were being released. Between the lackluster build-up to UNCANNY 350 and the disappointing "Operation: Zero Tolerance" (which, again, we'll look at next month), my enthusiasm for the X-Men was waning after years of the mutants being my top most anticipated titles every month.

That said, there were still some good -- though perhaps uneven -- days ahead for the franchise following Lobdell's departure and, while Bob Harras stepping away from editorship of the X-books may have resulted in a drop in quality (based on my perception of what made for quality X-Men comics), his assumption of the editor-in-chief position resulted in some changes to Marvel's philosophy which would, within a year, have me enjoying the company's output on a linewide basis more than I ever had up to that point.

Available on Amazon.


* John Byrne has noted that when he first met Bob Harras, they discussed when they'd really gotten into Marvel as fans, and for Harras it was, in fact, the seventies -- so it's not really a surprise that he would push for a linewide Bronze Age revival once he had the power to do so.

2 comments:


  1. Mega Marvel was, I believe, the name (or at least one of the names) by which Marvel’s retailer catalog went after its acquisition of Heroes World Distribution. What… interesting times those were, to quote the purported curse. Oy.

    Unless there’s a lot you left uncovered in this review, by the way, I’m pretty sure you have “450” typo’d up there for “350”.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks -- for both the lowdown on MEGA MARVEL and for the typo. A hundred-plus issues in one book would really be something.

      Delete