CAPES, COWLS & COSTUMES >> Rated X

Sometime in the late-1970s, a once-third-rate Marvel Comics title that had been revived in 1975 was suddenly the hottest comic book in town. THE UNCANNY X-MEN had limped along throughout the 1960s, starting nicely enough under the creative direction of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, but spiraled down to Werner Roth and mediocrity, to the point that even the last-ditch effort of putting Neal Adams — still riding the wave of his groundbreaking arrival in the field — failed to save the title from going all-reprint and then just going.

Marvel brought the team back in 1975’s GIANT-SIZED X-MEN #1 by Len Wein and Dave Cockrum, introducing the world to the likes of Storm, Colossus, Nightcrawler and, of course, turning Wolverine from a supporting character into one that rates Hugh Jackman and his own movie. The new X-MEN took off to become the first breakout superstar title of that new era, rocketing John Byrne, who took over from Cockrum with #108 (the book picked up the numbering from the original series, re-launching with #94) to his own superstardomosity … which meant that, sooner or later, there were going to be books written about these guys.

The first X-Men novel — X-MEN: MUTANT EMPIRE: BOOK 1 — SIEGE by Christopher Golden — came out in 1996 and, including team-ups and Wolverine spin-offs, there have been more than three dozen novels and anthologies since, including 1998’s STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION AND THE X-MEN: PLANET X by Michael Jan Friedman.

Yes, I said STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION AND THE X-MEN, together again for the first time (there are references to a prior crosstime adventure between the two, but I can’t recall if it took place in a comic book — when Marvel had the STAR TREK license — or an earlier novel), which ranks as probably the most unusual team-ups I can recall. The connective tissue between Marvel’s X-Men and Paramount’s TNG was Pocket Books, publishers of both franchises at the time (and still), and Friedman, who has penned numerous TREK novels and countless issues of the TREK comics.

Surprisingly, Friedman not only makes this wack pairing work, he makes it fun, even for a non-Trekkie like me. The story opens on Starbase 88 with a routine security patrol that uncovers some unauthorized visitors who, it should surprise no one reading this to learn, turn out to be the X-Men, asking after an old friend, one Jean-Luc Picard. Meanwhile, aboard Capt. Picard’s Enterprise, the crew has learned of the goings-on of the planet Xhaldia, where people are suddenly and mysteriously mutating into bizarre creatures gifted with strange superpowers.

Sent to investigate, the Enterprise makes a brief stop at Starbase 88 to pick up the strange visitors from another reality, before continuing on to Xhaldia. But the trouble with the mutie Xhaldians is only beginning as the Draa’kons, a hostile alien race with big ideas of conquest, show up and try to kidnap the mutated aliens to use as a super-army against the Federation. And don’t you just hate when that happens!

In 2000, the X-Men were back on more familiar territory in the pages of X-MEN: SHADOWS OF THE PAST, another fine effort by Friedman and featuring a cover by the legendary Jim Steranko. This story has its roots in the X-Men comic books of old, as opposed to a marketing gimmick, harkening back to the 1965 story which revealed how a young Charles Xavier (aka X-Men leader Professor X) lost the use of his legs while stopping an alien invasion of Earth by defeating the force’s advance agent, Lucifer.

Lucifer’s price for failure was to be cast into the Nameless Dimension, where he languished for a mind-numbingly long time. Which brings us up to SHADOWS OF THE PAST, which opens with Professor X at the funeral of an old friend … which is approximately where X is replaced by an energy duplicate while he himself is whisked away to the aforementioned Nameless Dimension, all courtesy of Lucifer.

The fake Professor X sends the X-Men on what seems to them like wild goose chases to three abandoned alien bases around the world. There, they are tasked with acquiring three alien components which — when assembled, of course — will release him from the Nameless Dimension. Professor X’s telepathic powers are of no use to him in reaching the minds of his superpowered X-Men from these realm that has no name … but he is able to establish contact with Jeffrey Saunders, the special-needs son of the old friend at whose funeral he had been switched. But while you may fool some of the mutants some of the time, you can’t fool all of the mutants all of the time, and Lucifer is left to contemplating a name for the dimension in which he was still imprisoned.

Marvel’s Mighty Mutants have also been the subjects of a few anthologies over the years — a natural idea for a series with so large a cast of heroes, villains and supporting characters. The subject of FIVE DECADES OF THE X-MEN is …well, exactly what the title says: five decades of the X-Men, with one story representing the team as it stood in each of the decades, beginning with the 1960s. Stan Lee, who is billed as the book’s editor, provides an introduction, while hands-on editor Dwight Jon Zimmerman handled the quintet of tales by John J. Ordover and Susan Wright, Sholly Fisch, Tom Deja, Glenn Greenberg and Madeleine Robins.

Robins’ contribution to the 2002 collection is “Gifts,” representing the X-Men of the 2000s, featuring Nightcrawler, Rogue and Psylock. A seemingly business-as-usual attack at New York’s LaGuardia Airport turns into something much more as the very airplanes, runways and buildings around them are torn apart by a mysterious force. A high school drama club, returning home from an out-of-state festival, is trapped in one of the airport terminals, with one of its members’ newly activated mutant powers the likely cause of the chaos. It’s a story of teen trauma done well, but with a little bit of a clever twist that gives it an edge.

The breakout star of the X-Men franchise is, without doubt, Wolverine. That hairy little mutant sells comic books, movie tickets and books alike. He has been the star, it should come as no surprise, of more solo X-Men novels than any other team member. It’s only natural: He’s got big claws and is the best at what he does, which is chop people up with his big claws. One such solo effort is WOLVERINE: ROAD OF BONES by David Alan Mack (no, not the artist David W. Mack … but just to mess with your heads — and with author Mack’s too, no doubt — the 2006 novel’s cover is painted by artist David W. Mack.

Mack — author David Alan, that is — is an old pro at creating fast-paced, action-packed adventure tales, and he brings all his skills to bear on this story that sends Logan (which is Wolverine’s real name, in case any Philistines are reading this) off on a quest to recover a stolen experimental drug. What the experimental drug can do is up for debate: It can either cure all known human disease … or be used to enslave the world. Mighty different prescriptions, but the clock is ticking with this stuff on the loose, and Wolverine has to not only identify the thieves, but track them down as well — a race starting in Tokyo and taking him across several continents before he’s through.

Next: some of my favorites (of the books I edited)! —Paul Kupperberg

Buy them at Amazon.

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2 Comments »

Comment by Steve Wilber
2009-05-08 09:55:33

I loved Friedman’s work as a comic author, so I’ll definitely give his novels (‘specially those starring the X-Men) a look-see. I’m glad I read your review, Paul, I need reading for my trip to Miami at the end of the month. Next stop, Amazon.com – thanks!

S

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Comment by rob!
2009-05-19 14:44:47

I still can’t quite believe Star Trek crossed over with the X-Men.

Gee, they could’ve combined X Men Origins: Wolverine and Star Trek and made one big movie!

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