Saturday, October 15, 2016

Signed and delivered

Today's randomly-chosen comic from my collection is number 1010 - Hellions #3, from 2005! Let's see what the next next next generation of mutant superheroes was up to, at that moment!

 A brief history of the X-Men comics is necessary at this point. The X-Men first appeared in 1963 - a comic about a team of teenage mutants at Professor X's school. It was a little bit lost among the many other superhero comics Marvel launched at that time, revolutionising the whole concept of superhero comics and remaining popular to this day, fifty-plus years later. The comic was cancelled in 1970.

It was relaunched in 1975, with a mostly all-new team, adults now (the originals had grown up in a slightly ambiguous way, but weren't teenagers any more at any rate), and became very, very, very popular. The coolest comic in the world, in fact, and so ripe for spin-offs, although at first Marvel were concerned about diluting the concept, and so kept these to a minimum.

The one they did allow, in fact, was New Mutants - a 1982 comic about a small number of teenage heroes who became the adult X-Men's students, and had adventures befitting the next generation of superheroes. There was a rival school of teenage mutants, more evil, called the Hellions and run by Emma Frost, the White Queen. The New Mutants carried on for a while, eventually embracing the gritty, tough, cool trends of the early nineties, changing their name to X-Force, carrying great big guns around and so forth.

In 1993, Marvel launched a new series with a whole new bunch of teenage mutants. This one was called Generation X, and they were, I suppose, the next next generation of mutant superheroes. They had a school too, separate but allied to the X-Men, and one of their teachers was Emma Frost, now on the X-Men's side but still basically the same evil person she's always been. They were cool, for a little while. The 'Generation X' thing got old quite fast, though...

In 2000 came the X-Men movie, which decided to go with the Hogwarts approach and depict the X-Men as having a school catering to hundreds of teenage mutants with cool superpowers (if anyone's wondering who copied whom, the movie came before the Harry Potter movies, but after the first few Harry Potter books), and before long the comics followed the movie's lead, and the X-Men now had a school full of the next next next generation of mutants!

After just being in the background of the grown-up X-Men's comics for a while, the students got their own comic, confusingly called New Mutants (although nobody referred to the characters by that name) in 2003. It focused on a small group of friends at the school, and was very slice-of-life rather than superhero-action - they went to classes, had dates, had arguments, had love triangles, and so forth. Then in 2004 the whole thing was shaken up a bit, the comic was renamed New X-Men: Academy X (in the hope that having "X-Men" on the cover would sell more copies), and the stories got a lot more superheroey - the students were split into squads of six, each under the supervision of one of the older X-Men, and they used their powers a lot more, in cool tests and training challenges. The comic focused on the six heroes, a squad called the New Mutants (that's right, as soon as the title stops being "New Mutants", the characters in it start being called "New Mutants") supervised by one of the original New Mutants, Moonstar; with their antagonists being the Hellions, supervised by Emma Frost.

That brings us up to 2005, when the Hellions were given their own four-issue limited series, and it just shows the problem with 'next generation of superheroes' comics - the previous generations aren't going anywhere! The original X-Men are still around, as young and active as they've always been! The New Mutants are still there, in a sort of uncomfortable no-man's-land of not being quite as grown-up as the X-Men but still being sort of more grown up than they used to be. Generation X are shunted off into limbo, because nobody knows what to do with them. How can we thrill to the adventures of this latest generation, knowing that we can't really see them grow and develop into adult superheroes in their own right, because of the classic superhero-aging problem? (And guess what, it's now 2016, and of course there's a next next next next generation of mutant superheroes out there now...)

So let's turn our attention to the Hellions. This comic has a helpful first page, telling us who the characters are and summarising the story so far - the kind of thing that was badly needed but missing from a lot of comics in this era of paperback-size stories chopped into six issues, but isn't at all necessary for this one, which follows the traditional superhero comic style; the characters mention in dialogue who they are and what's happened until now, they have a self-contained adventure in each issue, building up on sub-plots along the way, and ending with a nice cliffhanger leading into the next. Still, for the purposes of this review, the first page is very helpful:
 (It does seem to promise us Doctor Octopus, who doesn't appear in this comic at all, though...)

The first page doesn't have the creator credits, which come a bit later on - it's written by Nunzio DeFilippis and Christina Weir (a husband-and-wife partnership), pencilled by Clayton Henry and inked by Mark Morales with (in smaller font) Jay Leisten and Rick Ketcham. When you see a penciller and three inkers, it usually means the artwork is a panic-to-hit-the-deadline kind of job, but this one actually looks very nice, all the way through! A lot of panels don't have backgrounds, but the characters all look good, detailed and consistently the same, the poses are a little bit stagey but quite acceptable, and the whole story flows very nicely. I like it a lot.

Colours are (particularly well done) by Wil Quintana, letters by Dave Sharpe, and the editorial board consists of assistant editor Sean Ryan, associate editor Nick Lowe, editor Mike Marts, editor in chief Joe Quesada and publisher Dan Buckley.

The Hellions, it turns out, work perfectly well as protagonists of their own series! They're not just a stereotypical group of bullies at all, even in the parent comic - Brian is a nice guy who just happens to be Julian's best friend; Sooraya is perfectly okay, just a bit unsociable and stand-offish; Kevin is the tortured loner who longs to touch other human beings but never can. This series lets us get to know them a little better, and it's very very well done, too.

We open in the research facilities of Genetassist, in the California Desert. Paladin and Diamondback, two long-established minor Marvel characters who work as mercenaries, generally on the side of good, are at work here, stealing "the sample" and deleting all the data on it from the computer files, while fighting off other people who are after it too. All the major players will be out to get it, Diamondback observes, so they'd better hurry.

Suddenly, the case is snatched - Cessily has slithered her way through the laser beams, as shown on the cover, and nabbed it! The mercenaries are confronted by the full lineup of Hellions - "Didn't anyone teach you that stealing is wrong?" Julian quips.

Then we flash back to two hours previously, with the team discussing the cool things the Kingmaker has done. Cessily is selfishly upset that Kevin can touch anyone now - she fancies him, so it was really quite good when she was the only one he could touch. She and Julian (the most self-centred and unpleasant pair on the team) have a really nice brief heart-to-heart about it, before the Kingmaker calls them in to the meeting room and tells them it's time to sign their contracts. They've had their wishes, now he takes Kevin's cure back, won't bring Sooraya's mother to America and so forth, until they agree to do a favour for him. Reasonably, he even agrees to tell them what this favour will be.

The relationship with the Kingmaker is nicely done, too - even Julian, who's always so cocky and confident around his fellow schoolchildren, looks a lot more nervous and teenagery in the company of a big, assured adult. He shows them Genetassist, explains that they've just completed a major project, and that the Hellions' job is to "stop it being stolen, and bring it to me." He explains that Paladin and Diamondback, among others, are after it. Most of the squad are happy to sign contracts straight away, Cessily needs a little more persuading, but eventually signs.

Back to the present moment, it's time for the big fight. And it's a good one, too - Paladin and Diamondback are outnumbered and don't have any particularly cool powers (they're normal humans with fancy but low-level technology), but they have the advantage of long experience in the superhero game. They both take the attitude that the kids are the ones who are outclassed, and it shows in the first part of the fight.

Brian takes the simple approach and "tags" the briefcase, making the mercenaries run away, but as soon as Diamondback gets out of range, she spins and throws one of her diamonds at his head, knocking him out and cancelling his powers. While Kevin laments that he's useless in this situation (his powers are still turned off by his last dose of the cure, even if he could find a way to use them in the fight), Santo and Cessily go on the attack but are taken down by the pros. Sooraya follows, but not before the mercs have pointed out that the Hellions are stealing a weapon, not doing whatever they think they're doing. Julian's more of a problem - his telekinesis stops him being harmed, and he can just smash Paladin and Diamondback into the walls by exerting his will (he'd probably have done that right at the start, but he was busy getting the unconscious Brian out of the way in case he got hurt). Unimpressed with Diamondback's insistence that she's one of the good guys,  he shuts her up.

The squad fly away with the case (Julian can fly, and he telekinetically carries the others behind him). The others are uncertain whether they're doing the right thing, and Julian rattles off a succession of valid explanations in a single speech bubble (I love this speech - he's uncertain too, so he's babbling, but the things he says do all make some kind of sense) "Even if they were with SHIELD, where were the agents? Why mercs? They were stealing it, too! You really trust the government any more than the Kingmaker? We made a deal, guys. Signed and delivered."

Back at the Kingmaker's base, Kevin's still not happy and doesn't want to hand over the case. Julian does, Brian agrees with him, but Santo steps in and insists he wants to know what's inside too. So does Cessily, and she can easily use her powers to pick the lock. Sooraya, characteristically, stands back and doesn't get involved. But the case turns out to contain some kind of canister, and the Hellions are none the wiser, until the Kingmaker comes along and tells them it's a biological weapon that could kill millions of people. And yes, it doesn't belong to him, his client "didn't want to have to pay them for the weapon, and he didn't want the government to get it." He insists that the team hand it over, and Julian snatches the case back from Kevin, and does so. A deal's a deal. Cliffhanger ending!

It's a really fun story, I'm glad I got the nudge to go back and read it again. Marvel never did enough with these characters - poor Brian and Kevin have been killed off since this series (though that's not such a permanent problem with Marvel characters as it is with most people), the other four are sort of hanging around in the background among all the millions of other X-Men and not doing much. But they all really shone for a little while in 2005...

If you'd like to see another random comic, give me a number between 2 and 3333! Thanks!


Anonymous said...


Zoomy said...

Aha a high number! That takes us into the dark recesses of the collection, and brings us Viz #122, from 2003! Something different!

Anonymous said...

It's weird how long ago the year 2003 feels to me.