[Guest-blogger Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont's X-Men run. For more in this series, see the toolbar on the right.]
“A Fire in the Sky”
Except for the ones he did with Art Adams, Chris Claremont doesn’t seem to have taken the X-Men Annuals all that seriously, and he often crafted scripts that were pretty much disposable. Adams drew the X annuals for 1985 (#9), 1986 (#10), 1988 (#12) and 1990 (#14), and those are each significant entries in the Claremont canon. The other annuals, however, are standalone stories with virtually no impact on the series as a whole.
In the case of his very first one, the 1979 annual, there is only one scene that stands out as particularly Claremontian. It is even described in detail by Bob Harras (Claremont’s editor on the series from 1988-1991), as his favorite scene. “Scott is changing out of his visor into his glasses, and he has to keep his eyes shut really tight while he’s doing that,” describes Harras in the “Comics Creators on X-Men” book. “Storm just says to him, ‘Scott, is this the life you imagined when you were a kid?’ ... I remember that was such a great little moment, because it explains that they do this because they have to – because it’s what life has forced them to do – but they once had dreams of doing other, ‘normal’ things. ... For some reason that scene, more so than the death of Jean or some other major event, sticks out to me as the kind of thing that makes those characters great.”
That lovely bit has a payoff in the climactic sequence of the issue, wherein Scott’s power is augmented by Storm striking him with lightning. Scott’s body metabolizes the energy (even though his mutant power is charged by sunlight, not electricity), and converts it into a pure white optic blast, which is a fantastic visual. It’s also a treat for Cyclops fans, demonstrating how cool he is. His ability to metabolize any form of energy, no matter how painful, could also be seen (charitably, perhaps) as a metaphor for Scott’s character: he can absorb any amount of pain or tragedy, and he’ll keep on powering through.
For all of the above, though, most of this issue is depressingly generic: It seems a bit like an Avengers plot that went south. “A Fire in the Sky” is a sequel, according to the footnotes, to an Avengers story; it features an Avengers villain (“Arkon the Magnificent”); and there is even a painfully contrived bit where Cyclops only knows how to proceed because he saw the Avengers fight Arkon on a “TV newstape” [sic]. (If Cyclops follows the Avengers’ adventures on TV, it’s strange then that he still doesn’t know Hank McCoy is alive. The Beast IS still an Avenger at this time, after all. I apologize for once again harping on this, but John Byrne irritated me when he told me I was simply thinking too much.)
For all its below-par plotting, the artwork in X-Men Annual #3 is jaw-dropping. It’s penciled by George Perez and inked by Terry Austin, arguably the two most detail-minded artists at Marvel in 1979 (or possibly ever). The result is that virtually every panel has dizzying amounts of detailed linework. Every piece of furniture in the X-Men’s mansion (including each book on the bookshelf), the leaf of every plant in Storm’s attic, every individual piece of rubble after an explosion is painstakingly rendered. In a more deliberately paced story, such busy artwork might be somewhat distracting. (Byrne, with his more thoughtful and expansive sense of layout and design, is a much better artistic foil for the render-happy Austin.) But here, the delirious detail of Perez/Austin is the best thing about the comic book. The story might be banal, but it’s incredibly fun just to look at each individual panel and marvel at the sheer number of lines it contains. Honestly, how long did it take them to draw this thing?