Monday, July 28, 2008

Vincent Bartilucci - 1977

Vincent Bartilucci - Last year Brian Cronin over at Comics Should Be Good conducted a poll of the 50 greatest (read: most popular) comic book characters published by DC and Marvel or one of their imprints.

Readers were asked to send in two lists, one featuring their ten favorite DC characters, the other listing their ten favorite Marvel folks. Brian compiled the submissions and slowly counted down the results at CSBG. I'm a sucker for this sort of audience participation stuff and I quickly sent in my own carefully crafted lists.

The countdown was a lot of fun. So much fun, in fact, that Brian expanded the lists to include the top 100 characters from each company. Brian contacted several respondents and asked each to write a mini-essay about their favorite character. I was allowed to share a few words about the hero who topped my Marvel list, the Black Panther. Three guesses who my favorite DC hero was...

Reading the mini-essays was illuminating, if that's not too lofty a word. For example, while the essay on Mr. Fantastic mirrored my own feelings on the FF's brainy leader, the one about the original Captain Marvel pointed out facets to the character I hadn't considered before. And the essay on Wolverine allowed me to better understand the attraction Logan has for so many people. I'm still not partial to Wolvie, mind you, but I have to admit that his appeal was explained quite well.

The whole process got me thinking about my own favorite characters. Thoughts like, why did a relatively minor character like Thundra make my Marvel list instead of Nick Fury or Namor or the Vision? Or, why was Sunboy the only member of my beloved Legion of Super-Heroes to break my DC top ten? In short, why are my favorites my favorites--what originally drew me to them?

In at least one case, I can trace my fascination for a character back to a specific comic book. Heck, I can pinpoint the exact panel!

In 1977, I knew next to nothing about the All New, All Different X-Men. Truth be told, I didn't know all that much more about the All Old, All Similar X-Men, either. I had at the time exactly two issues of the X-Men in my ever-growing comic book collection. Those issues were #'s 83 and 90, both of which were reprints of earlier issues (#'s 35 and 42, respectively).

In addition to these comics, I may have read a reprint somewhere of the team's origin from X-Men #1. And I had a few issues of The Defenders where Professor X showed up and Magneto was one of the baddies. Last, but certainly not least, there was that absolutely awesome issue of Marvel Team-Up featuring Iceman first battling against and then alongside the Human Torch. That ish of MTU was really cool. The other stuff, not so much.

I mean, I thought Iceman was neat, primarily because of that MTU appearance, and Angel seemed cool, I suppose. And I liked the idea that the team wasn't a crew of world beaters with a Thor or a Superman or even a Thing, in their midst. But beyond that, the charm of Marvel's merry mutants was completely lost on me. The two issues of the X-Men's own title I had read made virtually no impression on me at all.

It makes me wonder now why I picked up X-Men #104. All I can come up with is that the cover looked really cool. Dave Cockrum drew the new line-up (most of them, at least) in combat with Magneto in a wonderful update of Jack Kirby's cover for X-Men #1.

I recall that I bought X-Men #104 at a stationary store next to the King Kullen supermarket that was a few blocks from my house. Generally, this stationary (if I ever knew its name I've since forgotten it) wasn't quite as well stocked as Clearview, where I normally got my comics fix. But every once in a while I stumbled onto a title there, like X-Men or Master of Kung Fu, that I didn't normally see at Clearview. I remember it was drizzling and I held the brown paper bag bearing my new acquisition close to my chest to prevent the rain from marring that beautiful cover as I ran to my dad's car.

Anyway, the cover to X-Men #104 looked really cool so I gave it a shot. Boy, am I glad I did. I wasn't exactly sure what was going on or who these new X-people were but that didn't bother me much. I had experienced the same confusion three years earlier when I read my first issue of Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes. I was used to picking up the story as I went along. We all were. In the 1970's, there was no such thing as a "jumping on point." Kids today!

What did cause me some consternation was the dialogue. Everyone talked funny, even the innocent bystanders! The dialogue was wordy. Weird, phonetic wordy. Sprinkled with foreign words and phrases wordy. Darn hard for a 10 year-old to follow wordy. But once the action started, I got over it.

What sort of action? Well, due to the evil machinations of the enigmatic baddie, Eric the Red, Magneto, who had been de-aged to infancy in The Defenders #16, is back in his adult prime. Baby Magneto was being held at the Mutant Research Facility on Muir Island which is where the X-Men find themselves en route to at the beginning of the issue.

The once more adult Maggie puts the long-distance magnetic whammy on the hovercraft that the team is traveling in and, after a brief swim in the North Sea the X-Men, reach the island. Magneto attacks the team almost as soon as they make shore and tears through them like the world class super-villain he is. Colossus, he of the organic steel body, and the adamantium-clawed Wolverine pose no threat whatsoever to the mutant master of magnetism.

Storm and Night-crawler don't fare any better. Four X-Men incapacitated and Magneto hasn't even worked up a sweat. But the new team isn't down yet. In a confrontation that lasts a little over a page, Banshee launches an attack on Magneto that earns the villain's respect.

And there it is. That panel at the bottom of page 13, where Magneto says, "Excellent, Banshee! Of all the new X-Men you are the only one worth fighting."

He then encases poor Sean in a form-fitting coffin of ferrous particles. Cyclops, who had arrived at Muir Island by X-jet, bursts onto the scene, drives off Magneto, and saves Banshee from suffocation. He then hustles his battered team out of harm's way pronto.

In my opinion, this is writer Chris Claremont at his best--you can almost "hear" the fear in Scott's voice as he commands his new recruits. He knows that they are too green, too untested to stand against Magneto. I reread this issue recently and this scene--the X-Men running from Magneto--is just as tension-filled as it was when I first read it 30 plus years ago. That thar is good writin'!

Yep, Magneto is truly to be feared. And Banshee is the only member of the new X-Men who he thinks is worthy of fighting. That panel at the bottom of page 13 made a huge impression on me as a kid. I guess I figured that if Magneto thought so highly of Sean Cassidy, so should I. I was eager for more X-Men and more Banshee.

So, of course, I missed the next two issues. Now, these were the days when the X-Men was being published bi-monthly so two missed issues equaled four X-less months. I'm sure I wondered if I'd ever even see another issue of the X-Men.

While I waited and wondered, I dug out my two back issues featuring the old team and gave them another look. To my surprise, I discovered that Banshee appeared in one of them. I guess those issues really hadn't made an impression on me the first go 'round! Anyway, Banshee looked a little weird in X-Men #83, with pointy ears and a strange headband that shaded his eyes and gave him a rather sinister look. But it was him. I thought it was cool that he had a history with the team beyond the recent reorganization. It was another leg-up he had over the newer X-folks.

I bought X-Men #107 at Clearview Stationary, my regular comics haunt. I was lost again--a lot must have happened in issues 105 and 106--but I didn't care. Issue #107 features the X-Men's battle with the oddly familiar Imperial Guard. It was great.

Issue #108, the debut of the Byrne and Austin art team on the title, was even greater. In it, Banshee single-handedly destroyed Jahf, the first guardian of the M'Krann Crystal. Jahf was an incredibly powerful little robot that tore thru the X-Men even more effectively than Magneto did in issue #104. But Banshee clobbered him.

Around the same time, I found X-Men #103 in a drug store that my family didn't often frequent. It was sitting there in a wire basket amongst a whole bunch of other Marvel comics that I guess were all about six months to a year old. The basket was down at the bottom of an end-cap of one of the aisles and I have a very distinct memory of crouching down in the store and franticly rooting thru the basket looking for more issues of X-Men before my mom said it was time to go. I didn't find any other X-titles but I did pick up a couple of neat Power Man comics.

X-Men #103 was the second half of a two-parter that brought the team to Ireland and Cassidy Keep, Sean's ancestral home, so Banshee received a fair amount of air time. The villains of the story were Juggernaut and Black Tom Cassidy, Sean's cousin. Tom's seeming demise at the end of the tale was straight out of a swashbuckler movie.

By this point I was completely hooked. I'd only read four comic books starring the new team and already the world had a new X-fanatic. The characters were so cool--especially Banshee--and the artwork was just about the best around.

Banshee had another great moment in issue #109 when Vindicator showed up in an attempt to reclaim Wolverine for the Canadian government. Moira MacTaggart (X-associate and Banshee's girlfriend) was injured during the fight and Sean unleashed a rage-filled attack on "Major Maple Leaf" that was something to behold.

Back in Banshee's earliest appearances in the original run of the X-Men he was often depicted in an eerie, wraith-like form when he flew. That was the Banshee that Byrne drew in this sequence. A scary, otherworldly Banshee who was not to be messed with. When next the X-Men encountered Magneto, however, there was no mention of Sean's status as the only opponent worthy of Maggie. Y'see, the other X-Men were coming into their own. And, although I didn't know it at the time, Banshee's time was almost up.

The Savage Land adventure followed. Then the team wound up in Japan. While there, the X-Men and Sunfire took on Moses Magnum. And, in issue #119, Banshee burned his powers out preventing Magnum from making good on his threat to sink Japan. The panels showing Sean straining his mutant vocal chords beyond their limits are beautifully rendered by John Byrne and Terry Austin. The image of Sean's face, equal parts searing pain and sheer determination, is one of my most vivid comic book memories.

And that was pretty much it for my favorite X-Man.

Oh, Sean Cassidy continued as a supporting character for awhile. But without his powers he couldn't really participate in their adventures. When the Dark Phoenix saga culminated with that incredible battle on the moon, part of me was deeply disappointed that Banshee wasn't a part of such a seminal X-moment.

With each issue it became less and less likely that Sean was going to be back in costume, screaming his lungs out at some mutant menace. I still loved the X-Men. The book still had great stories to tell. But Banshee had been my focus. Whenever I picked up a new issue of the X-Men, or found a back issue, I'd always flip thru it looking for scenes featuring Sean. It wasn't the same without him.

I liked Nightcrawler and Colossus. And Cyclops had really grown on me. But they weren't Banshee. The de-powered Sean was seen less and less frequently. He had a final hurrah when he joined a team of former X-Men in a mission to rescue the current team from Arcade's Murderworld. And then he was gone.

A few years back, I read somewhere that Banshee was written out of the book at John Byrne's request. Apparently, Byrne felt that Sean's powers weren't visual enough, which is damn hard to argue with, I suppose. Eventually, his vocal chords healed, Banshee returned to the team. But I wasn't there to welcome him back to the fold. I had become increasingly dismayed with the direction that the X-Men were heading and I stopped reading the book altogether shortly after the Mutant Massacre crossover in 1986.

I did pick up the first couple of issues of Generation X because they featured Banshee as mentor to a new group of young mutants. But I'd been out of the X-loop for too long and I discovered that I really didn't want to get back in. Nope, you can't go home again, boyo.

I hear that Banshee was killed off recently in an heroic but ultimately doomed attempt to save lives. If so, I'm sad that Marvel felt the need to make his sacrifice so pointless. I'm not sure if Banshee will ever fly again or, if he does, whether or not I'll even bother to take a look.

Too much has changed in the world of the X-Men. I'm not particularly fond of any of those characters anymore. I'm annoyed that I have to put up with Storm in the pages of Black Panther. And a Wolverine guest shot is enough to make me drop a title altogether. I'm a big, crabby X-hating baby, I admit it. But, for awhile there, I loved the X-Men. And the X-Man I loved most was Banshee.

Looking back on those stories I think I can identify a number of reasons why I was drawn to Banshee. I liked the idea that he was older and more experienced than the rest of the new X-Men and yet was still new to actual team membership, the whole "cake and eat it too" factor. I liked that he had a history that existed, at least partially, in back issues and not just flashbacks, if you know what I mean. I liked that he could be serious without being grim. I liked the cool ways he could use his powers.

But most of all, I liked that he made Magneto sit up and take notice when the rest of the team hit the floor.

"Excellent, Banshee! Of all the new X-Men you are the only one worth fighting."

Saints, Laddy! If that isn't the God's honest truth.


Anonymous said...

Awesome! I too was/am a huge Banshee fan. I thought he was the best part of the new X-Men and like you I quit the title shortly after his departure.

It's great to know that I'm not alone.

OBTW - I love the site.

Anonymous said...

I was a huge Banshee fan, too! I distinctly remember thinking, WHY is he being faded out?! I quit the X-Men after Dave Cockrum left the second time, and except for trying and wanting to like the recent XMEN by Whedon and Cassidy, I haven't looked back.

Swinebread said...

I came to the X-men so late compared to you, Banshee? I'd never heard of or seen him until I picked up the OHTMU. I I did get X-men Classic for a while which reprinted the early stories so I did get caught up.

I bet I would have liked Banshee better if he'd had a better costume which he deserved.

I was a huge fan of X-men way back when but now they're overdone...