Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Underrated/Overlooked: Fatal Attractions

The thing most people remember about the 1993 X-Men semi-crossover Fatal Attractions is, frankly, the holograms.

Fatal Attractions spread the long-awaited return of X-Men uber villain Magneto (he’d only been “dead” for a couple years, but there were so many X-Books with so much happening every week at the time that a couple years felt like decades) over six chapters. What made it somewhat unique on the heels of stuff like Inferno, X-Tinction Agenda and my beloved X-Cutioner’s Song and the reason I call it a “semi-crossover” was that unlike those events, where each chapter bled into the next and readers had to adjust to shifting creative teams trying their best to tell a seamless story, each installment of Fatal Attractions more or less stood alone as pieces of a larger puzzle that could still be savored individually and gave every writer and artist their own chance to shine without having to worry about any baton.

But back to the holograms for a moment.

Gimmick covers were of course all the rage in 1993. The gimmick du jour for Fatal Attractions was that the front of each cardstock cover had a hologram of one of the book’s stars as designed by the series artist in the upper right hand corner under the logo. I’ve heard from the walls that can talk at Marvel HQ that these babies were not exactly the easiest things to pull together—and to the best of my knowledge we haven’t seen them since—but they sure did look sweet, particularly as you could really see each guy’s design sense in the one he created (Joe Quesada did Havok for X-Factor, Greg Capullo did Cable for X-Force, John Romita Jr. did Magneto for Uncanny X-Men, Andy Kubert did Gambit for X-Men, Adam Kubert did Wolverine for…well…Wolverine and I’m not sure who did Nightcrawler for Excalibur, maybe Joe Madureira, but it looked nice—and I’m sorry if I just got any credits wrong).

However, this was one case where the 90’s sizzle on the outside has perhaps caused folks to forget that the work in between the covers brought the steak in spades. Like I said, each chapter really did work on its own, so let me touch quickly on what I dug about each.

The story kicks off in X-Factor #92 by Peter David and Joe Quesada, although more than any other part of Fatal Attractions, this one ties in more thematically than anything else and serves truly as the prologue. Magneto’s groupies, the Acolytes, led by the guy who “killed” him, Fabian Cortez—they don’t know that—attack a government Sentinel-building factory really as a way to draw Quicksilver, X-Factor member and son of Magneto, into the fray. The main event of the issue is Cortez attempting to sway Quicksilver to become his ally and take his place as Magneto’s heir, which does a nice job filling any new readers in on what Mags’ deal is and why he’s such a nasty piece of work. While this is going on though, you also get a pretty killer X-Factor vs Acolytes throwdown—with a literally killer Jamie Madrox moment—gorgeous formative Quesada art, the balance of wit and morality that PAD always brings to the table, and a pretty powerful ending where the team confronts their government liaison and supposed friend Val Cooper about the whole Sentinel thing. There’s also a cameo from Exodus, who becomes more important down the line.

X-Force #25 by Fabian Nicieza and Greg Capullo has its own big time non-Magneto comeback, as Cable, who had been “dead” for an even shorter amount of time, returns to the team he founded to discover maybe they don’t need him anymore. I’ve said before how much I absolutely loved this era of X-Force and the Cable-less issues in particular, but this remains a personal favorite because it highlights how much Cannonball and company had grown over such a short time and forces Cable to have to prove his worth to his old charges, a neat 180 from the first year or so of the series where he was the gruff and mysterious drill sergeant they were all eager to please; you also get the beginnings of Cable as far more of a fully realized character as opposed to a 90’s cliché, with him relaxing a bit and demonstrating that he cares about and appreciates this kids just as much as his pouches and guns. But if that wasn’t enough to entice you, Exodus makes his first extended appearance to beat the crap out of X-Force and attempt to invite Cannonball and Sunspot to join his “master,” a cloaked guy in a space station who they tip toe around naming until the very end where he dons the full Magneto regalia as awesomely depicted by Capullo. It’s definitely the “warm-up” issue for the main event X-Men one-two, but it’s again a great story on its own that once more effectively shows a side of Magneto—in this case the teacher who wants his students back—as well as bringing Cable back in style and elevating X-Force since each guy wants to guide them (and Cable’s awesome “I don’t want them to follow my path—I want to follow theirs!” speech coupled with Magneto’s brutal disassembling of his machine side makes for a fantastic close).

So then we come to Uncanny X-Men #304, the first round of the true prize fight by Scott Lobdell and John Romita Jr., and you’ve got a lot going on. First off, Colossus’ kid sister Illyana, at one time Magik of the New Mutants, had died of the Legacy Virus, and it is in many ways the death of innocence in the X-Men’s world. Lobdell does some really nuanced character work covering the reactions, from Colossus’ refusal to show his feelings (or his non-metal form), to Professor X’s guilt, to Kitty Pryde’s gamut of emotions (she’s us, remember); there’s also a great bit where Bishop tries to pull his whole cryptic warnings of a doomed future routine with Banshee and Banshee deadpans “And what if I just go toss myself in front a bus? What happens then?” Interwoven with the grieving and the X-Teams coming together, there are pages written by Lobdell with powerful art by Jae Lee revealing pieces of Magneto’s earliest days in a Nazi concentration camp, some of which had been covered, but never with such raw detail (I believe this is the first time he’s called Erik and it’s not a stretch to say the great opening to the first X-Men movie borrowed heavily from here, intentionally or not). The two worlds come crashing together as Magneto, flanked by his Acolytes—Exodus revealed Cortez’ treachery to them and crushed him earlier in the issue—has the audacity to make his showy official return in the midst of the funeral and earmark this failure on the X-Men’s part to protect the most innocent among them as proof positive that Xavier’s dream has failed. Over the course of several Romita Jr. pages packed with characters and details, the more-powerful-than-ever Magneto dominates his heroic adversaries while also engaging with the usual philosophical battle of wills with his old friend Xavier, maybe making better points for why he’s right than ever before. It all builds to the heartbreaking moment where X-Men stalwart Colossus can stand no more tragedy and does the unthinkable, choosing to side with Magneto and become an Acolyte, breaking Professor X’s heart in the process and perhaps shattering his dream as well. The final page, where Xavier is dropped from the sky by Magneto, caught gently by Archangel and then assures his X-Men he knows he can count on all of them is extremely poignant; it’s an impressive pairing of action and pathos in that unique way only super hero comics can do it.

There’s less talk and more action in X-Men #25, as Nicieza comes back for his second go around, this time with Andy Kubert on art. Magneto fries most of the world’s electrical grid with an electromagnetic pulse mostly to show he can, so Professor X decides enough is enough and he’s taking a small strike force of X-Men—Jean Grey, Wolverine, Rogue, Gambit and Quicksilver, on loan from X-Factor—to finish this once and for all; he also dons a sweet Shi’Ar exoskeleton that allows him to walk so he can be front and center, despite the protests of many of his students. When Xavier essentially tells Cyclops he needs him to stay behind to carry on in case they don’t come back, you believe it. The strike force storms Avalon and teleports the Acolytes off the base so it’s straight up X-Men vs Magneto with the good guys being more ruthless than ever at Xavier’s insistence. Quicksilver and Rogue both play up their personal connections to Mags while assaulting him simultaneously; Professor X and a reluctant Jean barrage him with a psychic slew of bad memories, including Cypher’s death while he was in charge of the New Mutants; Wolverine goes full berserker; I’m not quite sure why Gambit was there other than to justify being in the cover hologram, but maybe he picked some locks or something. Despite it all, Magneto just keeps coming and neither side looks to give an inch. Then, out of nowhere, Wolverine makes a vicious swipe at his opponent’s guts—and Magneto responds by tearing the adamantium clear off Wolvie’s bones and out of his pores!

This is of course nearly 20 years in the rearview at this point, but you have to understand, as a fan reading at the time, the splash page image of the most popular and untouchable X-Man screaming in agony and quite possibly meeting his end in visually grisly fashion was beyond shocking. An enraged Xavier responds to that knockout with a ruthless uppercut of his own, full-on mind blasting Magneto like he never has before and wiping the dude’s brain clean, leaving him catatonic (we wouldn’t see him operational again for another six years, so really Fatal Attractions was more a blip on the radar than a full return, but what a blip). The postscript has Wolverine and an exhausted Xavier both in critical condition as Colossus shows up to help his former teammates get out before the other Acolytes return and then silently cradle Magneto’s limp body in a powerful closing panel.

To demonstrate just how standalone these books were, I have never actually read Wolverine #75! I know it’s by Larry Hama and Adam Kubert and that it deals with Wolverine ultimately recovering then electing to leave the X-Men, but I’ve never cracked the cover; it’s one of my white whales.

Everything wraps up in Excalibur #71, written by Lobdell with an assortment of artists helping him out, but this is really an “It’s all over but the crying” situation, as the big action was out of the way and now it was just a matter of dealing with the fallout; it’s a nice bookend to X-Factor in that it’s a true epilogue you don’t always get to see when you’re running from one big story to the next. Professor X, Cyclops and Jean Grey come to Muir Island, where the remaining members of Excalibur—Nightcrawler, Shadowcat and Phoenix—have stopped in to help Moira MacTaggert with some business. After some serious persuasion—and some nice “Professor Xavier is a jerk” thematic callback—the X-Men persuade Kitty to lure Colossus to the island, as apparently he has an outstanding head injury and they fear it may have influenced his recent decisions. Colossus shows up, feels the sting of his one-time love’s betrayal, but gets the help he needs while Cyclops and Nightcrawler beat up the Acolytes cannon fodder—including CKT favorite Katu!—and Rachel Summers has a somewhat random but sweet meeting with her alternate reality half-brother (neither knows yet, but the readers kinda did) Cable. In the end, Colossus forgives Kitty and offers thanks to the X-Men, but still chooses to remain an Acolyte, putting a bow on Fatal Attractions and what it was really trying to say as a whole: There are no absolutes in the X-Men Universe and neither Professor X nor his dream may be quite as infallible as we thought. Also, Excalibur decides to stay on Muir Island with Moira, but that’s another story.

It’s come to be a mantra from me here and elsewhere, but the 90’s get a bad rap. The X-Men in the 90’s get a particularly bad rap. A story like Fatal Attractions, remembered more for its posters, gimmicks and splashy returns was actually a deft ballet of awesome action and harrowing emotional betrayal, with healthy doses of humor and character growth mixed in plus pretty consistently great art throughout. It’s a true example not to judge a book by its cover.

Regardless of if the cover has a sweet hologram.


TJ Dietsch said...

I'm holding off on reading this for now, but Fatal Attractions was the first trade I ever bought. I've been thinking about reading it again lately, just to see how it is.

Brian W said...

I think post-"Fatal Attractions' the X-verse lost a lot of steam in the '90s real fast, but yeah. This was one of those rare cases where the uber-marketing w' the holograms packed stories to match. All of these are among my favorites in their individual series.

It holds up, too.

Ben Morse said...

Going back over them in my head to write this I'm pretty astounded at how well they each hold up on their own as high points of their respective books, like you said, Brian. I'd call X-Cutioner's Song, this and Age of Apocalypse the coup de grace of the Lobdell/Nicieza era.

Jason Kerouac said...

I can't believe you haven't checked out Wolverine #75. It was truly fantastic and a GREAT way to pick up the pieces of X-Men #25. Reading it now wouldn't work the same way, but... keep in mind that in issue #25, the adamantium was ripped out of Logan. After recovering a bit, we see him here fighting in the danger room when the GNARLIEST of snikts happens, courtesy of some FANTASTIC lettering... and for the first time, we see that Logan has bone claws.

At that point? We thought he'd been declawed. Seeing this, and the blood running down as his healing factor was still on the fritz, was INSANE.

Seriously, a great issue to round out what I agree was a truly great semi-crossover.

Ben Morse said...

Curiously I don't know why I don't have Wolverine #75, as I was certainly collecting the series at that point and have all the weird Mark Texeira issues and then the Savage Land stuff preceding it.

Rosemary said...

This won't succeed in actual fact, that is what I believe.