X-Men Vignettes, Chapter Three (1986)

X-Men Vignettes, Chapter 3 (1986)
“Mourning”
Writer – Chris Claremont
Art – John Bolton
Letters – Tom Orzechowski
Colors – Glynis Oliver
Edits – Kavanagh, Nocenti, Shooter
From: Classic X-Men #3 (November, 1986)

Today’s piece is a pretty special one — not for anything I have to say, of course — but, for the content of the story we’re about to check out. We’re going to get a “between the panels” look at the fallout of the death of that one character Marvel would never, ever be desperate nor creatively-bankrupt enough to bring ba– err, nevermind.

Yes, friends — today we’re looking at the “mourning after” of John “Thunderbird” Proudstar. That X-Man who died… and has served as the symbol of Xavier’s arrogance ever since. A man, whose legacy and memory might be even more valuable to X-Men lore than the character itself. We’ll talk more about that out the other side.

But first, if you’re following semi-recent episodes of X-Lapsed, you’ll know that I kinda took issue with the way X-Men: The Trial of Magneto wrapped up [spoiler warning]. I posited that the John Proudstar reveal was a halfhearted attempt to over-romanticize his tenure as an X-Man (both in overall import and impact he left on his teammates)… where he, lasted all of, ya know – a week or two. I was (rightly) taken to task for this statement, and was advised that Claremont did a good job of fleshing out Proudstar’s time with the crew in these Classic X-Men backups. As it had been literally ages since I’d last looked at them, I “mea culpa’ed” and conceded that I might just be talking out my ass (as per usual).

So, let’s take a peek at this chapter of Vignettes, and see if I can see the error in my ways. Oh, by the way — the “main story” of this issue of Classic X-Men is X-Men #95… in which, ya know, somebody dies.

Our story picks up shortly after the passing of John Proudstar. Professor X silently sits somewhere in New Mexico… though, I thought the Proudstars were from Camp Verde, Arizona? I dunno, maybe that change would come later. Anyway, he’s deep in thought… and regret, when he’s joined by Jean Grey — who’s been away from the X-Men for a whole eighteen minutes. It’s confirmed here, prior to Jean’s arrival, that Charles and John were in full mental-rapport at the time of the latter’s passing — something that Xavier suggests will stick with him for the rest of his life. Jean understands and appreciates what her Mentor is dealing with, having gone through something very similar when her friend Annie was hit by that car. Of course, this is something we’ll eventually go into, as it fundamentally changes Jean’s origin — and her original take as only a telekinetic — who was then “given” the powers of telepathy by the Professor.

Speaking of telepathy, our mind-readers are then alerted to a bit of panic coming from the Proudstar homestead. It’s one of the new X-Men, the youngest of the group – Piotr Rasputin. Ya see, he’s freaking out because he’s just discovered that Thunderbird’s corpse had been stolen! The X-Men assemble to try and get to the bottom of this, however, before they can do all that much — Mr. and Mrs. Proudstar ask them to kindly get the eff off their land. There’s definitely a feeling of “you took our son” at play — hell, they pretty much say just that.

Upon hearing this request, Wolverine does what he always does… which is, whatever the hell he wants. He’s going to find Johnny’s body. Cyclops suggests that they respect the Proudstar family’s wishes — but, Wolvie ain’t havin’ none of it. They’re a team… and teams look out for one another, even after death. Storm and the rest of the newbies agree… and Scott does ultimately come around to the idea as well. They leave Charles and Jean behind to start combing the plains. Our two telepaths already have a sneaking suspicion who is behind this: John’s younger brother, James “eventually-Warpath” Proudstar.

What follows is a brief and seemingly innocuous little scene. The X-Men are trying the body… and, well, they’re not exactly working all that well together. I love this, as it puts a much-needed focus on the fact that — these characters, despite all being mutants, shouldn’t automatically be “chums”. Not only are they the “international team”, meaning they all come from different cultures and ways of life — but, they’re also of varying ages. This isn’t five teen-agers sequestered at the Special School – these are disparate personalities… who have all, largely, lived lives before the X-Men. We get a shot of Wolverine silently tracking… only to have Banshee screaming overhead — ya know, spoiling any element of surprise.

We see Nightcrawler and Colossus chatting a bit about how the hot arid weather of the American Southwest isn’t quite to their liking. Which, is overheard by Cyclops — who basically tells them to nut up or go home. To which, the newbies both seem kinda shaken — Kurt even goes as far as to assure Scott that he WILL do his fair share going forward.

This bit shifts us into Flashback Land, wherein we see a shared memory Kurt and Piotr have about their brief time with John Proudstar. We’re in… I wanna say the Danger Room… but, it’s mostly lookin’ like an empty gym with nothing more than a heavy bag in it. John is wailing away at the thing… and, has apparently been at it for hours. Kurt and Pete ask him why… and, he really doesn’t have an answer. They then ask him why he’s chosen to remain with the X-Men — to which, he does have an answer… he doesn’t have anywhere else to go. Back in the present, Kurt suggests that while John’s words may’ve been in jest, there was a lot of truth behind them. He wishes he had more time to talk… and especially listen to John.

Just then, overhead — Storm provides some much needed coolness to the plains with a brief and sudden… uh, ya know, storm. She reports in to Cyclops that Wolverine’s already reached the mountain — which comes as a surprise to Scott. But, I mean, it’s Wolverine… and it’s Claremont — so, we’d best get used to blowing sunshine up his skirt. Ororo tells Scott that the newbies are all full of surprises, which takes us back into Flashback Land.

Storm thinks about a recent visit she’s had with Proudstar… up in her attic garden. She mentions that he snuck up on her… which, in what might be a bit of meta-commentary from Claremont, he compares himself to Wolverine. Well, sorta — he says he’s nowhere near as sneaky as Wolvie… but, he’s no slouch. Now, if that statement feels kinda outta nowhere, allow me to share a Dave Cockrum quote from Comics Creators on X-Men (2006, Titan Books). When asked about Thunderbird by Tom DeFalco, Dave would say:

Comics Creators on X-Men (2006, Titan Books) p. 86

Maybe I’m just reading into a simple throwaway line… maybe I just wanna look like I know more about how the sausage is made than most. I dunno — it’s a fun comment all the same. Anyway, Ororo and John start speaking in Claremontian while discussing their homes… and their wishes for the future. It’s a pretty downbeat chat.

Back to the present, and we join Wolverine who has tracked down young James Proudstar. He watches from afar as James sets up a funeral pyre for his fallen brother. Logan does not intervene nor interfere. He does, however, spy a bunch of John’s belongings scattered around nearby. It’s here he learns that John was a highly decorated military man, with medals and an honorable discharge from the service… also that he lied about his age so he could go to war early. He wonders why John never discussed any of this with the X-Men, before concluding that Proudstar likely wanted to prove his courage to them all firsthand… and not live off past glory.

Wolverine watches James’ ritual for a few moments before leaving him to it. He reconnoiters with the rest of the X-Men to inform them that they’re going to leave the Proudstars in peace to mourn and celebrate John the way in which they choose. We close out with James picking up John’s Thunderbird costume… and vowing to avenge and take the name of his big brother!

This chapter put me through a bit of a wringer, emotionally and “reactionally” speaking.

Upon initially revisiting the story last night, I was left with a bit of an odd taste in my mouth. Not that it was bad or anything (it’s actually quite good!), but — I dunno, it felt like the sort of story that would have left a much greater impact on me, had I read it back in 1986. This was some pretty groundbreaking stuff for superhero comics. Ya know, I will probably say “quiet” and “downtime” a lot during our Vignette Visits, probably to the point of self-parody. But, that’s exactly what these stories are. I’m sure back in 1986, when such a tack was still something of a novelty, this would have been pretty mind-blowing stuff. Revisiting in “current year”, it’s lost a bit of its luster, but is still insanely well-done.

Did any of that make sense? Probably not — but, like I said — I’m in the “reactional wringer” ova’ hea’.

So yeah, upon first read — I was a bit non-plussed. I enjoyed my time with it, but… really, that’s all it was. A pleasant ten-minutes, spent with some old friends. However, when I started to actually write today’s piece… that changed. It became something more. That happens from time to time… and, it never fails to smack me across the face. I’ve gone from absolutely hating a story (which wasn’t the case here), to not only “getting it” but also adoring it during the course of my writing.

That was kind of the case here. In the writing, I began to appreciate the nuanced way in which Claremont was, not only telling the story of the aftermath of Thunderbird’s passing, but also using this “quiet” “downtime” beat as an opportunity to further flesh out this fledgling team. We see that they haven’t quite gelled yet — hell, they don’t even seem to like each other just yet., there are still “growing pains” at play here. These beats were given to us subtly… and felt organic. These were “value added” bits.

With that said, however — hindsight’s kind of a bitch. Here we are in current-year, post-HoXPoX/post-Resurrection Protocols/post-Wanda’s Waiting Room — and, Thunderbird is back. I don’t wanna hold “current-year” against a classic tale, but — well, I’m a screwed up individual, so it’s kinda what I do.

To address the Thunderbird “problem”, I wanna start by talking a little bit about two fellas: Barry Allen and Stan Lee. Bear with me. I promise this will make sen… err, well, I promise it makes sense to me – your mileage may vary.

First: Barry Allen. The Silver-Age Flash, we’ve talked about him a bunch here at the blog. Barry, to several generations of comic book enthusiasts was less a character, and more a “symbol”. He was symbolic of an entire Age of comics, his final (at the time) act of heroism facilitated there being a subsequent Age. For decades, we heard the tales of, not just “Barry” — but, Saint Barry. He’d become bigger than a character… he transcended superheroics — he was The Symbol.

Then, Johns and Didio decided they wanted him back… thus cheapening his “final” exit, his heroic act, and before long — turned this iconic figure into… just another dude. I guess when you’re on a keyboard like I am pining for things past, you’re an “entitled manbaby” — when you’re a professional getting paid to pine for things past, you’re a-okay. Gotta love the internet!

On to Stan Lee — who has had a quote attributed to him for ages now, though I don’t think I ever found its original citation… so, apologies if this isn’t 100% accurate. Stan’s noted as having said, “Never give the fans what they think they want.” Whether of not Stan actually said it, doesn’t make it any less true. Let’s apply that to Thunderbird — who, I mean, c’mon… I doubt there’s a single soul who was chomping at the bit to have him back on the table. But, he’s back — so, now what?

Well – first of all, he’s no longer the Symbol that he once was. For four-decades, John Proudstar could be viewed as Professor X’s “original sin” — his oversight, his arrogance in assuming that, as he mentioned in this very story: he could just keep sending his charges into battle over and over again, and expect them to all return safely… and, ya know, alive. Sure, we didn’t know much about John — but, we really didn’t need to. Ultimately, the loss of John is more of an indictment on Xavier and a change to how we view super-characters.

John became the symbol of loss. He was important because of his selflessness… his bullheaded final act of heroism. He was the first (and only, to this point) X-Man to… die an X-Man. Ya know? This act, not only showed his willingness to go down with the ship jet, but it also illustrated to Xavier and, perhaps more importantly, the readership that… the X-Men ain’t kids anymore.

Gone are the days of “demerits” and “drills”… this is a whole new ballgame. We’re dealing with adults… who, as we learned here, come with their own baggage and points of view. Xavier wasn’t just going to be able to tell a John Proudstar to back off. This was one hell of a wakeup call — and, the catalyst for him to change the way in which he viewed (and dealt with) his charges.

And today, since Marvel (and current-year comics, overall) is… in the words of a dear friend, “creatively bankrupt”, we’ve got Thunderbird back on board. The question is: What now? We take a character who has been immortalized as a “Symbol” — I mean, the X-Men have renamed their jet the “Proudstar” in honor of his sacrifice… so, we take this symbol — and, turn him into “just another dude”.

And so, those words of (maybe) Stan Lee ring out: “Never give the fans what they think they want…”, because really: what comes next? The return of Thunderbird, while never a hugely hot button issue… was always something of a “what if?” scenario. What if… the one guy who never came back — ya know, did? It’s the “Bucky”, “Gwen Stacy” and “Jason Todd” thing. Where, you have to step back and ask: are these characters more valuable to the lore dead or alive?

What does a dead character mean? Not just to their own legacy, but to those around/near-and-dear to them? Do they symbolize (and I apologize for the “symbol abuse” in this piece) failure? Do they symbolize sacrifice? Do they symbolize arrogance and oversight? Are they “lessons learned”? And, if so — what of those lessons when they arrive back on the scene?

It’s probably pretty clear by now where I stand on this issue. I don’t see any value in bringing John Proudstar back… in fact, bringing him back actually ruins some old stories (in my opinion). As a screwed up individual, I often attribute the “sins of the sons, unto the father” — which is to say, if I don’t like something that’s happening in “present day”, it hinders my ability to lose myself in the stories of yesteryear. It’s certainly not healthy… but, I’ve never claimed to be all that mentally stable in the first place.

That all having been said… it’s current events that stopped me from dropping my defenses and allowing myself to truly love this story. And, it’s a shame, because there is a lot to love and appreciate here. It’s honestly a beautiful story… that actually makes me second-guess my position that Thunderbird’s time on the team has been overromanticized!

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3 thoughts on “X-Men Vignettes, Chapter Three (1986)

  • March 19, 2022 at 6:44 am
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    Good post. I definitely need to read this story to fully grasp the entire scenario. s fir dead characters- to me they should stay dead except for the VERY rare occasion.

    Reply
  • March 20, 2022 at 4:36 pm
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    After being re-exposed to these stories decades after first reading them, I find them to be wonderful companion pieces to the original Uncanny X-Men stories. I kind of wish that other classic Marvel series got the same treatment and had their own backstories enriched.

    I really like that you are including the back cover illustrations from the Classic X-Men issues as the covers for these stories. Those covers make Classic X-Men feel more like a flip book than a reprint title with new back ups.

    Reply
  • April 1, 2022 at 8:19 am
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    I’m of a mind that some characters, whose passing meant more to the story than the character actually might have, should remained dead and gone. Thunderbird being one of the best examples of this. Like you already stated his actions, and death, meant more to the new X-men than the character did. That jet exploding with Thunderbird on board was THE signal that this X-men comic was going to be something very different.

    One thing I’ve come to realize about reading these stories now, that I might not have back then, is that Claremont was really able to nail the feeling and tone of the stories from 1976 as if he had just written them in 1986. They really do fit right in.

    Reply

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