For some reason, my family wound up going to the South Shore Mall, which was a bit of a distance from where we lived. I don’t quite know what store they had in that Mall that drove my parents to need to go there, but we would do so semi-regularly for the next couple of years. Which was fine with me, because it turned out that in a side strip mall to the main complex was a shop then called The Batcave. The store was forced to change its name to Long Island Comics in 1989 as promotion for the first BATMAN film ramped up–but either way, the place is still in business today, albeit in a different location. It was the first genuine comic book shop I found near me–the Batcave carried new releases as well as a huge inventory of back issues. So I went nuts on that first trip, scooping up as much stuff as I could. But I didn’t neglect the new books, given that the Batcave was ordering through Direct Market channels and so had issues in stock that wouldn’t reach my neck of the woods for another week or two. And so that’s where I picked up this issue of X-MEN.
This is really the first issue of their X-MEN run in which writer Chris Claremont and artist (and often co-plotter) John Byrne were moving forward with new plotlines–everything they’d done before this had largely been about typing up loose ends from Byrne’s predecessor Dave Cockrum’s era (as well as a fill-in issue largely by Tony DeZuniga to help the book get ahead now that it was becoming a monthly.) I was a bit oblivious to just how good this team and this era was, since it corresponds almost exactly to where I had come in, and so from my vantage point, this is simply what X-MEN was like. These books have been reprinted a myriad of times since their original publication and remain of interest and import even today–this was a run for the ages, one that propelled X-MEN to the top of fans’ buy lists. It also drove interest in back issues, to the point where even recent issues started to fetch prices that were unheard of for a comic book only a year or two old. But as more and more people caught on to the appeal of X-MEN and worked to get caught up, demand outstripped supply, and so those books started fetching a few bucks each almost the month that they went off sale.
The story is a pretty amazing case of starting things off en media res. Byrne was a big fan of the original incarnation of the team, and so it seems likely that it was his influence that led to the Beast, who had moved on to become a fixture in AVENGERS, being the point of view character. The issue opens with Hank McCoy locating the missing X-Men in a strange circus in Texas, where they’re being paraded out as freaks and performers. This issue also intersects with a pair of MARVEL TEAM-UP stories that Claremont and Byrne worked on, during the course of which the Beast discovered that the X-Men had vanished. After wrapping up that adventure with Havok, Spider-Man and Thor, the Beast used Cerebro to determine his friends’ location, and he headed down to Texas to figure out what was going on. But he’s astonished to see his school partners (and the new team members whom he hasn’t truly met yet) in such dire condition.
This is the version of the Beast that I grew up with and still the one that I like the best–the character design, the personality, the whole package. The character has moved away from this interpretation over the past 30 years to the point where this depiction might be virtually unrecognizable to a reader of today who’d only been following the character for ten years or so. But I dug him this way. Anyway, the Beast prowls around the circus incognito, taking in a performance by “Ms Destiny” who is clearly Jean Grey. But when Hank goes to confront her about this, she has no memory of him and seems to have a completely different personality–and she calls for one of the roustabouts, “Slim”, to have him ejected. Slim is of course Cyclops, but he has no more recollection of the Beast that Jean does, and while the agile mutant is able to knock him on his backside and get away, this leads to a protracted chase through the fairgrounds.
Finally, though, the Beast is cornered by a mob of guys in the tent that contains Wolverine’s cage–where he’s beaten down with clubs right before Wolvie’s eyes. Witnessing this begins to stir something within Wolverine’s savage psyche. Meanwhile, the Beast is dragged to the main wagon, where the architect of the X-Men’s plight waits to greet him. It’s Mesmero, a decidedly third-rate villain from the X-Men’s past who has little more going for him than an interesting costume design. But Claremont and Byrne make him instantly a world-beater, as he reveals how he took the X-Men out one by one with his hypnotic power–a power that he now turns on the Beast as well to make him into another of the carnival’s attractions.
But all hope is not yet lost. Spurred on by having seen Beast’s capture, Wolverine manages to break his chains and regain his sense of self. He locates his costume somewhere (he’s just suddenly in it at a certain point, which is a bit weird) and then sets out to free the rest of the X-Men. Figuring that Phoenix and her telepathic powers will be the key to doing so, he heads to Ms Destiny’s dressing room, cold-cocking Cyclops when the opportunity presents itself and then slapping Jean around in an attempt to get her to wake up much as he has. And it works–almost too well, as Phoenix blasts him across the room. Meanwhile, the Beast is proving resistant to Mesmero’s mental attack, and he’s able to liberate himself momentarily and attack the green-skinned mutant–only for him to be zapped from behind by a mysterious new assailant.
The rest of the issue is comprised of quick action as the restored X-Men kick their way through the assorted carnival roustabouts and make their way to Mesmero’s wagon. There, they confront him–but before they can take any action, he falls forward on his face, unconscious. Seems that he’s been taken out as well by the same mysterious figure that blasted the Beast earlier–a mysterious figure who now reveals himself to the X-Men as their arch-enemy Magneto! To Be Continued! This last page is maybe the most dramatic image of Magneto ever put to paper, as Byrne and inker/embellisher Terry Austin surpass the splash page that Cockrum gave Magneto in the earlier issue in which the Master of Magnetism first returned. As was typical of this run, Claremont and Byrne packed a lot of incident and a lot of characterization into 17 short pages. There’s not really much question that, for all that the Fantastic Four were my new favorites among the Marvel books, X-MEN was the best series then being published.