Friday, November 14, 2008

The Thomas-Adams X-Men: X-Men #56

X-Men #56

X-Men #56 (May 1969)
“What is…The Power?”
Script: Roy Thomas
Pencils: Neal Adams
Inks: Tom Palmer

Karen: This issue of X-Men kicks off the Neal Adams – Roy Thomas run of the book, which, to my mind at least, is the most memorable run prior to the birth of the New X-Men years later. Most fans have probably heard how Adams came to the title, but for those who haven’t, the story goes something like this: Adams, who had been working at DC on titles like Deadman, came in to see Stan Lee. Stan was very appreciative of Neal’s art, and wanted to put him on one of Marvel’s best books. But Adams asked, “What is your worst selling title?” Lee told him it was X-Men; in fact, sales were so bad, they were planning on canceling the book. Adams told him that that was the book he wanted to work on. “Why?” Lee asked. Adams responded that since the title was going nowhere, he figured it would provide him with the greatest artistic freedom.

Sharon: We have Jim Steranko to thank for bringing Adams to Marvel; Steranko told his buddy Neal about the relative freedom at Marvel (i.e., Marvel artists were not tethered to working from “full scripts”, as was the case at DC). After spending years trying to break into comic books (and after achieving success on the Ben Casey syndicated comic strip), he finally got a break at Archie and then picked up work at Warren and DC. Neal had carved himself out a nice niche at DC (on war comics, Deadman, Brave and the Bold; World’s Finest, assorted covers, etc.) but was naturally intrigued by the prospect of greater artistic leeway, so he approached Stan.

Doug: I agree with your opening posit, Karen – even the seminal issues of the title when Stan and Jack introduced Magneto and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants don’t seem to hold a candle to this series of stories that unfortunately closed the door on the original X-Men. And for me it’s all Adams’ pencils and the capable embellishing of Tom Palmer, who was also giving a consistent look to our favorite series, The Avengers.

Sharon, Adams’ Batman and Deadman are true high points in the latter DC Silver Age.

Sharon: First let me say Adams’ well-known, unstinting devotion to bettering creators’ rights is laudable, to say the least. And I yield to no one in my admiration of Neal’s superb talent as a draftsman- - but I must confess it’s an admiration achieved in hindsight. As someone who read these X-Men issues when they first came out, back then I found his work awful—too mannered and confusing. His “storytelling” was not clear and his zigzagging panels were ostentatious. (Plus, Gene Colan had been working that way for a while so it was not exactly unique.)

Karen: So Adams took over the art chores on the book with this issue, #56. Or as they described it in the credits: “And introducing the penciling wizardry of: Neal Adams”. Marvel seemed pretty excited to get him; that same month, the bullpens page had a blurb about Adams coming over to the House of Ideas: “We did it again! Yep, we’ve added another new liltin’ luminary to our rollickin’ roster of stars! Say hello to Nefarious Neal Adams, who has one foot tentatively planted in our Marvel doorway. We’re guessing that your ecstatic comments, when you see the way he illustrated our latest X-Men bombshell, will transform him into a Marvel madman from head to toe. It isn’t only his fantastic artwork that impresses us – but the way he makes it look so easy!”

Doug: I am really looking forward to the soon-to-be-released collection of all of Stan’s Soapbox columns – he was nothing if not bombastic!

Sharon: Back then artists took assignments where they could get them, meaning there were several who worked at both DC and Marvel at the same time. Even though these guys were mostly freelancers, working for the “competition” was frowned upon, so many artists who were working for DC used pen names when taking on Marvel assignments: Gil Kane was “Scott Edwards,” Gene Colan was “Adam Austin”, etc. Stan assumed Adams would follow suit and asked Adams how he wanted to be credited (since Marvel ran credits). Adams refused to use a pseudonym while working for both companies and said he wouldn’t work for Marvel unless he could use his real name. Stan capitulated. After this, for the most part, other artists started using their own names while working for both companies. Also, Adams hated the appellation “Nefarious” and thought it was childish. It didn’t last long, at least not in print.

Karen: From the first page, Adams artwork is a revelation. He is often cited for bringing a “photo-realism” to comics, and that is to my mind an understatement. At this time, his work was nothing less than revolutionary, and even today one can see its impact on the medium (Ivan Reis, anyone?). There’s a backup story in this issue about the Angel’s origin, drawn by Werner Roth, and frankly, after looking at the incredible work by Adams, to see Roth’s work is jarring. It is so simplistic compared to Adams.

Sharon: Maybe, but if Marvel had just let Roth work on the X-Men book—instead of constantly changing artists—Steranko, Barry Smith, etc.—perhaps some consistency could have been achieved. (It didn’t help that the X-Men also played musical chairs with the writers.) Certainly Roth (with or without Heck layouts) could tell a story clearly and had a way with attractive faces (probably due to his romance comics background). I felt that John Verpooten was a good inker for Roth (as on X-Men #52) and they could have stayed on the book. Artists like Steranko and Adams imparted a whole new feel, perhaps one too dark, mature and strange for characters who were supposed to be teenagers.

Sharon: The problem with some comic book audiences is that they can’t accept the co-existence of differing styles; there’s always a “hot” style that dominates (and spawns imitators/followers). Adams’ style ushered in a new wave of talented, more realistic pencilers, certainly…but his emergence also signaled the beginning of the end for those who drew more abstractly, like Kirby- -the King would become “irrelevant” within a year or two. (Luckily history has room for many styles and not just the style du jour.)

Doug: There certainly was a progression at Marvel and DC away from the sometimes-cartoony looks of Ditko and Kirby and from Moldoff and Boring (to name a few Distinguished Competitors). While men like John Buscema, Carmine Infantino, Gene Colan, and Curt Swan injected a more precise presentation of anatomy and a somewhat darker tonal quality to our four-color fun, it was Adams that truly raised the bar. As good as John Buscema was, he’s just a notch below Neal Adams – influentially speaking – in my book. While Adams didn’t produce the sheer volume of work that Big John did (or Curt Swan for that matter), his style typified what the late 1960’s “looked like” in real life.

Sharon: Well, Adams came from advertising and back then, magazines relied heavily on ads that were drawings that mimicked photography. So he essentially introduced that style to comic books.

Doug: Sharon, while I agree with your point that audiences (especially today’s) seem to desire a certain look – some years ago it was the “Image look” – I would certainly oppose your posit (if I hear you correctly) that a steady dose of Werner Roth would have kept the X-Men from dropping in sales. In a market that had welcomed Buscema (both by this time), Colan, Adams at DC, Ross Andru, of course John Romita, et al. I can’t see Roth’s somewhat-archaic style fitting in with the youth of the late ‘60’s. Infantino’s more realistic Batman, Swan’s Superman (and Legion), and many other examples had laid the foundation for the “next wave” of comic book art. Gone (or soon to be) was the blocky Kirby art, to be replaced by figures that were more lithe, long… X-Men was meandering about in part due to a lack of focus in scripts, but just as likely due to an eye-catching graphic presentation.

Karen: Now I know that Adams sometimes swiped photographs for backgrounds – I believe he even did it in this issue, for the Egyptian tombs the X-Men visit – but that doesn’t make me think any less of him.

Sharon: Adams has used photographs on a consistent basis and has always been an advocate for doing so (based on the many interviews I’ve read). He firmly believed that the way to draw well was not only from life drawing (observing), but also tracing over photos, which he did on a regular basis.

Doug: As an aside, I don’t mind artists who do this (I say “this” in the present tense, since I know my buddy Don Kramer (currently penciling Nightwing for DC) uses photos both for reference as well as lighting for particular camera angles, times of day, etc.), as I do believe it brings a sense of “real world” to the printed page. Saying that, I would add however that my admiration for John Buscema, who said he never drew from photos – that everything that found its way from his brain to his hand to the page was his alone – is simply immense. But Adams or even Alex Ross is no less talented because they “swipe” from photographs.

Karen: Adams’ faces are expressive, his figures always dynamic, and his panel layouts are incredible. There’s hardly a panel that fits the old square or rectangular pattern; instead he gives us panels with lines at 45 degree angles, panels that overlap or figures that run over three panels at a time! This gives the art a real energy, almost like a film.

Sharon: His art was certainly dynamic and a real shot in the arm for the book. I will say though that I'm not crazy about his figure work; in some panels here and there the proportions seemed off to me. His figures are too elongated for my taste, with disproportionately long torsos and/or ultra long legs. Yeah, I know Adams is taking a more realistic approach so he eschewed the "perfect" balanced body; but his physiques looked too unbalanced to me. And it's not just here in the X-Men stories, but I also felt this way when Adams later did the Green Lantern book; the stretched-out body proportions are especially noticeable when he depicted a guy like GL, who wears a unitard.  

Doug: What, you got a problem with big butts? Seriously though, as I stated above, I think this presentation of the human form is part of Adams’ style. I would take these distortions over those emanating from Gil Kane’s pencil anytime!

Karen: One of his best panels is a depiction of Marvel Girl telepathically contacting Angel. In this rectangular panel, in the background is the outline of a brain. Over this, at the top of the panel is Jean’s head, and descending below this are her face, her eyes with mask, and then just her eyes alone. Radiating out from the eyes are waves of psychic energy. At the very bottom is a small full figure drawing of Jean. Wow! You really need to see it to get the full impact of the art.

Sharon: Given the story, for me that sequence was overkill…style over substance. Where would an approach like this work? Well, I would have like to have seen Adams tackle Dr. Strange.

Doug: Not to get ahead of the game, but in regard to Adams and panel lay-outs, one of my all-time favorite action scenes is awaiting us in X-Men #57 and involves the bouncing Beast!

Karen: I haven’t said much about the story because frankly, it’s just OK. The X-Men have captured the Living Pharaoh, who had captured Alex Summers, Scott’s heretofore unknown brother. The Pharaoh escapes, takes Alex, and imprisons him in a special chamber. Turns out they both are mutants who utilize cosmic rays. With Alex in the chamber, the Pharaoh won’t have to “share” the rays any more (huh?). He absorbs so much power he becomes the very funky Living Monolith, a gigantic man-monster. As the X-Men battle him, Alex manages to break free, and the power of the rays goes back to him – and it causes an ancient temple to collapse. The ish ends with a super-charged Alex out of control.

Doug: What do you think of “Scott’s heretofore unknown brother”? Does that bother you? Sometimes I like retcons/revelations, sometimes I don’t. I guess because I like the Havok character I don’t mind this one. I wonder, too, if since Alex channels cosmic rays if Reed Richards ever thought along the way of concentrating Alex’s power in an attempt to permanently change Ben Grimm back to full-time human form… Seems like at some point Reed would have been involved in a scheme such as that (particularly if we’re to believe all of this “Illuminati” crap and his close relationship with Xavier all of these years). Anyway, the Pharaoh is a fair enough plot vehicle, but the Living Monolith sure is cool!

Sharon: Alex showing up suddenly is in the tradition of a soap opera…a sibling never mentioned, never referred to. Ludicrous! I mean, Alex wasn’t even mentioned in the Cyclops origin stories that had recently run in the X-Men, which had purported to fill in some of the background for Scott! Even so…I must admit I did like that Roy was expanding the X-Men canvas so, believability aside, adding Alex was a step in the right direction (and next issue, Roy would bring back Lorna, too; she was an Arnold Drake creation). The additional characters promised to invigorate what had become a stale, cloistered book.

Karen: This was just the beginning to a transformative run of comics, not only for the X-Men but for the industry as a whole.

Doug: Neal Adams deserves the Marvel Visionaries treatment. DC has done the collecting/comics history world a great service in reprinting not only Adams’ Batman and Deadman material, but his other-DC work as well.

Sharon: You’re in luck: there’s an X-Men Visionaries: Neal Adams volume available that collects Adams’ X-Men work.

Doug: Yes, I’m familiar with that book, although I don’t own it – for that matter, I suppose I should say that I have used the 1983 Baxter paper mini-series X-Men Classics that reprints most of the Thomas/Adams collaboration. But what I would really like to see between two covers is a wide range of Adams’ Marvel work – from X-Men to Avengers to Inhumans to Thor to whatever-else-he-did for the company. Again, while not turning out the number of pages or covers that other Marvel stalwarts have to their credit, Adams’ all-too-brief tenure at Marvel should be memorialized in a high-end manner such as DC has chosen to do.

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