In which Cyclops and Beast have to contend with the continuing rampage of a “sub-human” known as Grotesk, whilst Professor X stops the other X-Men from helping out. Even once you’ve read the end of the issue, it still doesn’t make any sense. Oh, and then Xavier dies, for the first time.
Even amongst the ranks of the X-Men’s bizarre enemies, Grotesk makes an impressive lack of an impression. A sub-human whose race were poisoned, his goal is to get revenge on earth by killing all the humans (and himself in the process) using some kind of magical drilling machine which’ll earthquake the world to death… or something. It’s a pretty lacking story for what is overall a pretty lacking issue – albeit one which, in present-day context, does show some interesting character for the main five students under Xavier’s care.
Straight away I might as well say that the Xavier seen in this issue turns out to be a completely different character. This is Changeling, impersonating Xavier, in a twist devised by Roy Thomas and what I believe may well be the first time that a comic ever tried to trick readers into thinking Professor Xavier had died. As current readers will know: that never sticks. It’s so tempting to use the issue as an excuse to say “this demonstrates how Xavier always lied and manipulated his students”, but the later twist makes that impossible and unfair.
We can still turn to the five students, though. Xavier may not be real, but their reactions to his decision-making is real, and it speaks to how all five of them are starting to separate apart. It’s no secret that Stan Lee doesn’t really write anybody with any voice aside from his own, and the X-Men were no exception – the four men in the team all sounded essentially the same in their earliest appearances, with a few long words thrown into Beast’s dialogue for variety. Jean, meanwhile, acted primarily as a cipher, in line with how female characters were often treated around the time.
Roy Thomas, although similarly samey, at least started to branch the characters apart a little. In this issue you can feel the cracks start to form between the X-Men, as they react in different ways to Xavier and start to demonstrate different natures from one another. Jean is the most obvious, in that she’s forged the closest and creepiest connection with her guardian/mentor. Jean is absolutely on Xavier’s side throughout, here, never really questioning his orders. It’s to be expected that she’d listen to what he says, but she instinctively agrees to everything he says even when it causes problems for the rest of the team.
Jean is one of the few X-Men where I can’t remember a falling out with Xavier. Cyclops clearly has issues with him, as does Beast, and there are small moments of rebellion for both Angel and Iceman over the years. Jean never seems to ever get into a true war with her mentor, though, despite being the most interesting character for that potential storyline. Jean is clearly the ‘next’ Charles Xavier, inheriting his powers and calm approach to leadership which steadily draws her to be the heart of the X-Men – a role Xavier wishes he could fit into, but is too manipulative to ever achieve. However, repeated firey bird possessions eventually take Jean’s future away from her, which is a shame really.
Angel is the most overtly angry with Xavier in this issue, with the first page having him yell straight through the page at the reader. He’s angry with Jean for defending Xavier, but that anger is initially sent straight to the person opening up the first page of the comic: the creative team want us to really feel how upset Angel is here. In time, lack of interest in the character leads to him becoming a little stale and underused – Louise Simonson turning him into Apocalypse gave him something to do for decades afterwards, but crucially barely any of it was ever for Angel to experience. His storyline was all from Archangel’s perspective, and Angel himself got lost.
In the final few panels, as “Xavier” dies, Angel is the one to hold the man in his arms. The final page has Angel in the centre, carrying his dead mentor. It’s strange to remember a time when anybody other than Cyclops was positioned as the leading member of the team, and in honesty Angel does make a more interesting lead – and Cyclops certainly makes for a more interesting rogue element than he does the straight-laced team leader. It’s all about roads left untraveled with me today, isn’t it?
The baby, Iceman, acts as peacemaker, which is again not the role you’d expect. If anything, you’d think he and Angel would be switched round here, as Iceman is usually used as an ironic hothead in situations like this. The bond that the students feel with the Professor, manipulated as it may have been by the telepath, remains strong enough to ensure that Iceman still double-guesses a situation even when Xavier is clearly giving bad advice. Beast is in a similar position, where he backs down immediately when either Jean or Xavier wave their hand and say they’ll explain things later.
The dynamic between each member of the team and Xavier is slightly tweaked, but what stands out best is their dynamic together. Split up, Cyclops and Beast are hopelessly beaten by Grotesk. When the whole team get together, though (even if Jean wanders off uselessly to sit by Xavier for most of the fight), we get to see how brilliantly they play off one another. When Angel is thrown to his death, Cyclops uses his beam to slow the speed he flies at, so Beast has time to run and catch his teammate.
Although the Xavier we see here isn’t the real Xavier, this issue is seeped in the impact that the actual Charles Xavier had on his students. We see them each react in different ways to their mentor based on his past actions: and most importantly, we see the instant brilliance of their militaristic fightin’ force. These kids have been moulded into a real team, for better or worse, and when they’re allowed to work together there’s nobody who can stop them.
Uncanny X-Men #42 “If I Should Die…!”
Written by Roy Thomas
Pencilled by Don Heck
Inked by George Tuska
Lettered by Sam Rosen