Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Marvels: X-Men #4

"The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants!" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Paul Reinman
(March 1964)

We've been hearing for some time now how there are evil mutants out there, but we haven't really seen them in any number. Magneto was evil, and a mutant. Vanisher was evil, and a mutant. The Blob was... disgruntled, really, but also a mutant. But here, in the fourth issue, we finally get a glimpse of what the evil mutants are like, with Magneto acting as the Professor X of a group of anti-X-Men, the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.

Magneto's warriors, from left to right: Toad, an Ygor-type whose agility and acrobatic powers are similar to the Beast's; Quicksilver, named Pietro, who is capable of super speed; the Scarlet Witch, Wanda, whose powers right now are sort of a vaguely-defined telekinesis that others describe as witchcraft; and Mastermind, who looks like a homeless version of the Wizard, and who seems to be styling himself as a magician, although his "magic" is really hypnotic illusions.

Wanda choosing to call herself the Scarlet Witch is interesting; we see, in flashback, that Magneto rescued her from her Central European village, where the superstitious locals were attempting to burn her alive because they thought she was a witch. (She seems to have trouble controlling her powers.) It's like she's calling herself the Scarlet Witch as a way to both own that perception and combat it, stoking her anger against humans. I'm immediately intrigued by this character. I've not actually read many comics with the Scarlet Witch, so I'm curious to see what develops. She really only seems to be with Magneto to repay her life debt; Quicksilver, her brother, is only with Magneto to protect Wanda. (Where was he when those villagers were attacking her, though?)

As we usually see in these groups of villains, none of these four get along with each other, and therefore don't make an effective team.

Magneto steals an old Navy freighter with cannons on it and begins shelling "the tiny republic of Santo Marco," one of those island nations you'd probably see in a Marx Brothers movie. It's 1964, so assume it's a stand-in for Cuba. (I know Cuba's been explicitly mentioned, and hell, as I'm fond of reminding everyone, Thor nuked China, but hey, let's not go too far, right?) Magneto and the Brotherhood then conquer Santo Marco with an army that is one of Mastermind's illusions. The soldiers he creates are downright chilling; they're just straight-up Nazi soldiers with an encircled letter M on their armbands where the swastikas would normally be.

The X-Men show up, and I'll spare you the play-by-play, but it's pretty dynamic fighting. The X-Men are pretty evenly matched and really have to push themselves; Cyclops and Angel exert themselves so much that they're too weary to go on fighting. Mastermind's illusions are so powerful that it takes Professor X himself to break their hold on the X-Men.

Magneto and the Brotherhood retreat, but Magneto leaves behind two bombs. The first is a booby trap for the X-Men, which Professor X detects at the last minute and throws himself in front of to protect his students. The second is a nuclear explosive which will lay waste to Santo Marco. Quicksilver, in a moment of conscience, makes a snap decision to defuse the bomb. Though he has no love for humans--and says so, repeatedly--he can't bear the thought of innocent casualties. He retreats with the Brotherhood, uncertain of his future.

Also uncertain is the future of Professor X, who, having borne the brunt of an explosion, seems to have lost his mutant powers. Will he regain them, and once again be the world's most powerful telepath?

I guess five decades on the suspense has dulled, but hey, see ya next issue.

Stray observations:

:: He doesn't use it much, but this is the first time we see Iceman using his signature ice slide.

Wheee!

:: It's the one-year anniversary of the X-Men being a team, and there's a cake to celebrate. Down in the Danger Room, Iceman and Beast are throwing weights at each other and dodging morning stars (sensational art in that sequence, by the way), and Marvel Girl's test is... use telekinesis to gently take the top off of a box. What's inside? It's a cake. Happy anniversary, everyone. Tonight maybe Jean can see how well she can clear the table and wash dishes using only her mind powers while you boys take out laser cannons and outrun missiles.

:: I don't dig the name Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. I mean, Magneto may have an anti-human agenda, but remember, the zealot always sees himself as the hero in his own story. Magneto more or less seems to think he's liberating mutantkind from the shackles of a humanity which fears it and wants it eradicated. So he obviously doesn't think of himself as evil, but as a revolutionary. The Brotherhood of the Mutant Revolution seems like a better name. I know this is comics in 1964, though, so I'm just thinking out loud. Well, on paper. Well, on... you get the idea.

:: Digging the cosmic vibe as Magneto and Professor X confront one another on the mental plane.

This is the first time these two have faced one another, and it's only briefly, but it really lays down their conflict: that Professor X thinks mutants and humans living side-by-side will lead to a golden age for all, and Magneto thinks humans should be the slaves of mutantkind and wants to strike first before humanity kills all the mutants. This is somewhat the conflict between Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, but obviously exaggerated. (Say what you will about some of Malcolm's rhetoric, I don't remember him advocating for the slaughter and subjugation of white people.)

I've always felt that the comparison of Xavier and Magneto to Dr. King and Malcolm X was overblown. Frankly, I'm not fond of the comparison. On the one hand, it's a science fiction allegory for tolerance; on the other hand, it's two white characters co-opting an important real life struggle for dramatic fiction. It's hard not to notice, especially 50 years later, that there is still only one black character in the Marvel Universe, and canonically his adventures are happening in the 1940s. And to be fair, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby have taken on the ideas of hate and bigotry and told thoughtful stories about them. And even to give them the benefit of the doubt, it might be more palatable to the audience to see the struggle for freedom played out in allegorical terms, among science fiction characters in a world not too dissimilar to their own. But I'm just not a hundred percent comfortable with it.

Something to think about. And so far, the series hasn't really given me this much to think about, which is one of the reasons why this has easily been the best issue of X-Men so far. It's nice to have some villains I want to see more of. And speaking of villains I want to see more of...

Next Marvels: the return of Doctor Octopus!

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