Monday, November 26, 2018

Comic Chronicles: Marvel Girl



While writing my previous "Comic Chronicles" article on Cyclops, at that time I was forced to really think about a question I'm not sure I had given a ton of thought to beforehand: "Who is my favorite superhero?" Cyclops had already long since been my favorite X-Men character, though even that had not always been the case. My very first favorite X-Man, even though he barely appeared in the 90s animated series where I first became a fan, was actually Archangel. Over time, after having finally gotten the chance to read a lot of comics myself, Scott Summers eventually took my top X-spot, for reasons I detail in that article. And while writing that article, and pondering the question, I discovered that, while I love many heroes, like Batman, Spider-Man, Superman, and far more, Cyclops pretty much IS my top favorite comic book hero of all time.

So now, I'm going to talk about my top favorite comic book HEROINE of all time. Because yes, back then, I thought about that too. And that was honestly an easier question to answer, because the truth is, I fell in love with this character from that first 1992 season of X-Men as a kid. And there hasn't been a single female comic hero, amidst many great ones, that has ever topped her or replaced her for me. I'm here today to tell you why Jean Grey, aka Marvel Girl, sometimes called "Phoenix", is in this man's opinion, hands down, the best heroine comics have ever produced.





90s classic Blue and Gold.




Back in September of 1963, after having prior success at the newly minted Marvel Comics with such creations as the Fantastic Four, Ant-Man, Thor, The Hulk, Spider-Man, and Iron Man, the great Stan Lee, along with his frequent partner Jack Kirby, created a concept of misfit teens with strange powers. At the time, teams of super heroes were fairly unique, and not often seen in comics, as opposed to today. There had been golden age, WWII era teams like the Justice Society of America and the All-Winners Squad. But it wasn't until 1960 that DC Comics created their new, longer-lasting super-team, the Justice League of America, which itself was direct inspiration for Stan Lee to create a different sort of team in the Fantastic Four. In fact, September 1963 was a banner month in comics history, as it saw the birth of not only what would come to be known as the "X-Men", but also the far more prominent Avengers.

The Avengers were Marvel's more direct answer to their rival DC's Justice League. And having spent the past couple years building up their own new world of characters (the golden age Timely Comics heroes mostly abandoned, except for Prince Namor, and soon Captain America), they now had the kind of "superstar" roster DC had, to pull it off. The Avengers was a big deal that featured big personalities, the original lineup consisting of Iron Man, Thor, Ant-Man, The Wasp, and even the unpredictable Hulk. That lineup would shift and change as time went on, but the comic was very often headlined by some of Marvel's top superheroes (barring Spider-Man), just as DC's Justice League was. But what then, about the tiny upstart team that could, these so-called "X-Men"?





The original X-Men.




The "X-Men", were so named because Stan Lee decided that instead of coming up with some elaborate, convoluted way that these kids got their powers (as others had for most heroes up to that point), he just decided "You know what? They're mutants, they were BORN with these powers". Or as he would establish, for most "mutants", their powers tended to kick in around puberty, though not all. The "X" in the X-Men, Stan figured, stood for the special "X-Factor", that little something extra, that mutants had in their genes, that gave them powers. And besides, they were also thematically in line with their founder, Professor Charles Xavier, or "Professor X" for short.

One thing to note about Jean Grey, before moving on, is that she was/is one of the few comic hero characters, who didn't have some kind of super tragic back-story. She experienced trauma at a young age, yes, but in general, she grew up with loving parents, and a sister who was like her best friend, in a stable and safe home. With the exception of her one traumatic childhood event, by all other accounts, Jean had a very happy, "normal" childhood, and thus she grew up to be a very happy, emotionally stable, and well adjusted person. This is important to point out, because it would very much lend itself to who she was as a person, and served as the foundation for her strong points as a character.





60s....style?




The character of Jean Grey, herself, was an exception to the "puberty" rule, as her powers had started manifesting themselves when she was a little girl. Notably, telepathy, the power to read and connect to other people's minds. This most prominently occurred when Jean's childhood best friend was hit by a car, and as little Jean held her dying friend in her arms, she subconsciously connected to her mind, which risked following her into death as well. As it was, it left Jean in a coma for some time. It was then that her parents, John and Elaine Grey, got in contact with Professor Xavier, a little known expert on "strange" cases like Jean's. He used his own telepathic powers to wake her from her coma, and because her young mind couldn't deal with the trauma she had endured, and she was too young to deal with telepathy, he mentally shut off that part of her powers.

Meanwhile, her other gift, that of telekinesis, the power to move things with only your mind, grew instead. Xavier coached her in her powers, though the notion of his "School For Gifted Youngsters" wasn't a thing as of yet. And years later, when he had finally founded the "school" at his mansion home, his first official student also being his ward, young Scott Summers, he finally invited Jean to become a part of his new vision. She agreed, even though she would be leaving the comfort of home and family behind, and in doing so, she entered a whole new strange, and often dangerous world. She was also, subsequently, the only female member of the original team of X-Men, joined by her new friends Iceman, Beast, Angel, and Scott "Slim" Summers, aka Cyclops. Jean herself took on the name Marvel Girl, and the rest, as the saying goes, is history.





Mistress of the Mind




Of the original five X-Men, the distinction of who was the most powerful, at that time, was a tossup between Cyclops and Marvel Girl. Cyclops, on the one hand, had a power he couldn't control without the help of a special visor, but his eye beams, at full force, could level a building or punch a hole in the side of a mountain. Marvel Girl, on the other hand, was probably the most experienced at using her powers, outside of perhaps Beast, as Xavier had been psionically "teaching" her from afar, and she had years of practice. While her TK was not as strong as it would become later on, she still displayed many feats of raw power, such as levitating several people at once, or as seen above, more delicate touches, mentally taking apart a gun.




Going through changes.




Later into the 60s, once the X-Men had grown a bit, Professor X allowed them to "graduate" from being students in training, and as such they chose new costumes, which Jean helped design. Her own outfit, the now somewhat infamous "green dress" and gold mask look, wasn't very practical for superheroing, but it was visually striking, and VERY 60s. More important than mere aesthetics, however, Xavier also felt Jean was finally mature enough and experienced enough to handle her latent telepathic power, so he unlocked that part of her mind, and now possessing her full psychic faculties, you could definitely argue that she became the most powerful X-Man.





Animated Incarnations




The image above is how I first came to know the X-Men, as they looked in the 90s animated series. Their designs were heavily inspired by Jim Lee's 1991 designs for the comics, and that included Jean's "Blue and Tan" looking outfit (in the comics it looked more goldish). And while I instantly liked Jean, the one thing I can't figure, is why the hell they decided her hair should look like it does above! Seriously, the "short bangs, and lets have a pony-tail coming out of a hole in the back of her 'mask'" look is...puzzling. Especially because that's not how her hair was in the comics...like ever.

My initial impressions of Jean Grey, was that she was presented as a somewhat subdued character, but she was still awesome to me. For one thing, I've had a lifelong thing for redheads, I think natural red hair is almost magic. But beyond that, as a character, Jean was level-headed, thoughtful, compassionate, and from the get go I loved her TK powers. Something about moving things with your mind has always appealed to me, and while I would not personally want her telepathy, as who the hell actually wants to read people's icky thoughts, I did and DO think that having telekinesis would be bad ass! I'll fully admit to having an early crush of sorts on Rogue, but really, Jean was always my gal.





Proof that Jean didn't always like Logan.





Diving back into the comics, 1960s Jean, while written with some painful dialogue at times, as all the characters were because of the Comics Code era, was a strong character. She was intelligent, she had a strong will, a good sense of humor, and while Cyclops was always the leader of the team, she wasn't afraid to step up and take command of a situation if she needed to. She was also very brave, never shrinking from danger or fainting at the slightest sign of trouble, as was the stereotype of the day. While she was written, again partially because of stupid Code issues, to like "girly" things like shopping and "getting her hair done", she was also very witty, and very adept at dealing with not only the dangers her team faced, but of dealing with four hormonal teenage boys as well. After all, she WAS a gorgeous redhead, and the only girl they usually got to interact with (at first).

But while all of her teammates flirted with her or pined after her in their own way, initially, the one who didn't, the shy, serious Cyclops, was the only one who truly caught her eye. And mind you, they all, as boys, had something to offer. Iceman, while the youngest, was funny, and charming in his own goofy way. Beast was super strong, and incredibly intelligent, a potent combination. Angel was both very suave, but also very rich. But there was just something about ol' "Slim", even though he was usually too scared to talk to her outside of training or missions. Something about Scott Summers "spoke" to Jean Grey, and even in Stan Lee's earliest issues, the seeds were planted for their future relationship.

That relationship eventually bloomed, though a bit too late for readers, as the X-Men got cancelled by the end of the 60s. The comic stayed in print as re-prints of old issues, and when they were brought back with "Giant-Sized X-Men #1" in 1975, after that initial story, and the Chris Claremont arcs to follow, it got put on the back-burner a bit. As Claremont wrote it, which I do feel was mostly his choice, after a new second generation of X-Men saved the original group, the OG heroes, except for Cyke, called it a day. If you ask me, that move was incredibly out of character for them, as they had all chosen to be heroes, and had been fighting for Professor Xavier's dream at this point for at least a few years. For them to throw in the towel and suddenly be like "Nah, there's new X-Men to handle things now, we're good!", just seems like a lame cop-out excuse to make room for the new characters, while not having to manage a massive team.




Shazam!




Jean was one of those X-Men who walked out, in her case being written to stereotypically "go live in Manhattan and work as a model", because what else would gorgeous women do right? But Claremont did have some odd plans in store for her specifically, as not too long after the X-Men's rebirth, along came what you see above. A series of bizarre events, that involved fighting fake X-Men robots and killer Sentinels on a deep-space station observing the sun, ultimately led to the fateful situation of Jean in space. Volunteering because of her powers, to be the one to bring the X-Men safely back to Earth. Except even her powerful TK shield was not enough to protect her from the radiation around the planet, and she found herself dying. And close to death, she was approached by a brilliant ethereal spirit, calling itself "Phoenix", who offered to save her life.

Of course, there was a price, the full extent of which readers wouldn't learn about for years. But as it was originally presented in those 70s comics, as well as in the adaptation of this "Phoenix Saga" story in the 90s cartoon, it seemed very much that Jean had become possessed by this cosmic force. And in the comics, after beating the alien Emperor D'Ken and his mad schemes, Jean remained as "Phoenix" for a good stretch of time. By the time 1980 rolled around, Claremont wrote Jean/Phoenix to start becoming corrupted by her powers, by the human sensations that Phoenix wasn't used to, and she eventually became the now-infamous "Dark Phoenix". Simply put, one of the most powerful, and most dangerous villains in comic history. And the kicker, was that it was one of the most beloved, and most purely GOOD characters in all of comics, who became this fiend!





My pre-teen life.




Now, as a kid, first experiencing "The Phoenix Saga" and it's dark twin, by watching it all unfold in Saturday Morning Cartoon form, I was absolutely glued to the set. I would literally be excited and waiting for the following Saturday's episode the moment that the current episode was over, and I would often spend the week trying to imagine what would happen next. That X-Men cartoon was a huge part of my life at the time, one of the things I looked forward to most during its first three or four seasons. And at the time, I absolutely thought Phoenix was bad ass, and even imagined myself having the Phoenix powers and persona, in some form.

As an adult, having read the original comic saga, and having a lot of time and maturity to look back on it all, I have mixed feelings about the entire Phoenix thing. On the one hand, I do still think that especially Jean as "Good Phoenix", WAS bad ass. And her green and gold outfit was awesome looking, a really great design. On the other hand, I feel that the whole Phoenix thing overshadows Jean as a character. I think, because of the cartoon, because of stupid shit that's happened in more recent times in the comics I ignore, because of stupid shit that has happened/is happening in the awful X-Men films, etc., when people think of Jean, they think "Phoenix". And honestly, I think that sucks. Why? Because Jean Grey is a bad ass character on her own, without any cosmic super-force to make her something she's not.




Crush that bitch!




I have fond memories of watching that "Phoenix Saga" (both) unfold in 1994, at the age of 12. That year, Jean/Phoenix became my hero, and I came to like her and Cyclops even more because of those stories. I cried when Jean "died" as Phoenix, plunging into the sun. And I honestly hated when she came back and "turned evil", crying once more when the X-Men each gave a piece of their life-force to bring her back (something that only happened in the cartoon). I was happy that Scott got Jean back, and even then, at age 12, I loved their relationship, and wanted my own Jean, so to speak. But as stated, I also kinda hate that Jean is so closely associated with those stories, and is not respected and appreciated as her own self and own character, NEARLY enough.

Especially having read all the old comics (and I mean ALL of them), and having the insight, and my own personal suspicions, that Claremont and Marvel simply wanted to use Jean's "death" as a shocking thing to do, a cheap way to generate more interest and get people talking, and buying more comics. And it worked on that front, because the X-Men comic became one of the biggest sellers in the early 80s thanks in large part to that story. But it also seems like Claremont, as a writer, never really liked the original X-Men, and only kept Cyclops around to have that connection to the original group, because he was a good "serious leader" type. I also think it's obvious that he changed Jean into Phoenix, in his view, likely to "make her more interesting", and when she died in the "Dark Phoenix Saga", it was his full intent to leave her dead, forever. It was also his intent, I believe, to gradually emasculate Cyclops and phase him out as well. Because that's precisely what happened after Jean's "death".




Best. Retcon. Ever.




I am not, as a general rule, a fan of what is known as "retconning".  It stands for "Retroactive Continuity", and it means that an often new writer will come along, and change what a past writer has done, or they'll say "Well what actually happened was...", etc. There have been some notoriously bad "retcons" in comic history, and I'd say that most of them are typically for the worse, though not all. The BEST one that has ever occurred, however, is the one where Marvel editors decided to bring Jean Grey back to life in the mid-80s. In fact I feel so confident in saying that, that I'll put myself out there and state that there isn't a strong argument to be made for any OTHER retcon but this one, as being the best.

I say that, because while loving the Jean character I'm clearly biased, I also think she is one of the best comic characters of all time, and I think while "killing" her off was certainly a notable and tragic, poignant moment, it was also unnecessary, and shouldn't have happened. The compromise they came up with, was that Jean herself was NEVER the Phoenix in the first place. That the "price" Phoenix charged for saving her life, was to put her body in a protective cocoon, that would go on to rest at the bottom of the Hudson Bay for years, while the Phoenix itself took a piece of Jean's very soul, her essence, and used it to make itself a mortal shell, just like Jean's. It was such a convincing facsimile, that Phoenix actually started to believe it WAS Jean Grey, and thus took over her life, and eventually became corrupted. Is it a bit of a reach? Sure. But it's a damn good reach if you ask me, because it allowed Jean to come back, and with her, the original X-Men.




The Original X-Men, Gone Super Sayan.




Originally written for its first five issues by Bob Layton, before being taken over by one of my favorite comic writers of all time, Louise Simonson, the 80s comic "X-Factor" was, in my opinion, the best X-Men comic of that decade. To many fans, that statement would be sacrilegious, as many see Chris Claremont's work, especially in the 80s, as amazing. Many also really like his "New Mutants" teen spin-off. But for my money, the 80s run of X-Factor, especially as (mostly) written by Simonson, it just can't be beat. She really "got" those characters, and while the 80s X-Men were getting increasingly bizarre and warped, going off into space, and alternate realities, and fighting demons, and aliens, and whatever else, I feel like X-Factor deliberately brought the "old school" tone and feel of the original X-Men back.

Not only was X-Factor more grounded on Earth (with one exception, seen above), dealing in mutant issues and socio-political parallels, but it also gradually went about restoring those five great original characters. Beast had floated around, being an Avenger, a Defender, etc., while Iceman and Angel were scattered all over the place themselves. Second-fiddle characters, used in second-fiddle books. But X-Factor brought them back to the fore, and gave each of them quite a lot of needed character development and spotlight. And with Scott and Jean specifically, while there was a HUGE mess to wade through and clean up, having to do with Claremont writing Scott to meet a new wife who just so HAPPENED to look exactly like Jean, left the X-Men, had a kid with her, etc., Simonson did eventually "fix" them as best she could. Granted, it made Scott look like a grade A jerk at first, up and leaving his wife and kid the instant he hears about Jean being alive. But really...she was written to be a Jean clone controlled by Mr. Sinister anyway, and Scott belonged with Jean, period. So in my view, while it was messy, Simonson did her best to put right what Claremont had messed up in the first place.



80s Marvel Girl.
  



With X-Factor, Jean as a character had a lot to deal with, such as the fact that the world, including all of her family and friends, thought her dead for years. The world had moved on without her, and that was a major struggle. She also had to deal with still loving Scott, but having to deal with the fact that he had a wife and child, and his own conflicted feelings of guilt and remorse over all of that. Combine that with waking up to a world that was becoming increasingly more hostile towards mutants, a world where Charles Xavier was off in space somewhere, and the X-Men's worst enemy, Magneto, was allegedly "reformed" and living in the mansion, training the next generation. It was a lot to navigate, but all things considered, she handled it pretty well, and that just further displayed the innate strength and power of her character.

The best thing that the X-Factor comic did, besides putting Scott and Jean back together, was really re-establishing the X-Men as heroes, fighting for Xavier's dream. By the mid-to-late 80s, Claremont's X-Men barely resembled the heroes of old, as the comic was very dark and chaotic, and the X-Men went from being morally questionable outlaws, to the world thinking they were dead, and living "underground", hiding from the mutant Marauders that wanted them dead for real. X-Factor, on the other hand, started out trying to pull off a convoluted double-identity deal, where they acted both as normal human "mutant catchers" who dealt with problem mutants for the public, but also acted as costumed heroes, fighting for mutants rights. Simonson eventually dropped that plot point, and they actually came to be known as public heroes, adored by New York, much like the Fantastic Four or Avengers. It was a breath of fresh air in an 80s that was increasingly obsessed with everything being "dark and gritty" (something that would carry over to the 90s for a lot of comics).





Family.




The other top thing that X-Factor accomplished, as illustrated in Part 1 and Part 2 articles I wrote some time ago, was it introduced a brand new major villain, originally exclusive to X-Factor, but eventually a foe for the X-Men in general: the ancient mutant Apocalypse. Originally presented as just another mysterious baddie, pulling the strings for other villains (in this case the generically named "Alliance of Evil"), he eventually evolved into a deeper character, obsessed with the natural order, or more aptly, "survival of the fittest", and thus he would toy with X-Factor, testing them to see if they were strong enough for the dark times ahead.

Most specifically, in the key Apocalypse storyline, "Fall of the Mutants", he is responsible for transforming Warren Worthington, the beautiful and fun-loving Angel, into the dark, hurting, instrument of Death, Archangel. Later still, his machinations would center around trying to kill Cyclops' son Nathan, a baby that Jean had become quite attached to. While she didn't give birth to Nathan Christopher, the "person" who did, was her exact clone, so genetically, he WAS her child, and she felt a natural, maternal bond with him. There was a nice span of time, after the mess that Claremont's "Inferno" story arc was, where the baby came to live with X-Factor, and he even developed the instinctual ability to protect himself from harm with a TK "Bubble". The baby could also somewhat read people's minds and feelings, a power Jean herself would eventually regain after having lost it in her Phoenix ordeal, and even when Jean couldn't access her telepathy herself, she could still feel baby Nathan in her mind, when he needed her.

Of course, Scott and Jean eventually had to send Nathan into the future, after Apocalypse infected him with a deadly techno-virus. And it would turn out that the dangerous mercenary from the future, Cable, was that baby, back in the time he came from to stop the villain who tried to kill him.




The 90s X-Men.




As good as 80s X-Factor truly was, I think the best thing that happened to ALL of these X-characters, took place in the early 90s. Charles Xavier was back on earth now, his school rebuilt and upgraded, and the various scattered X-Men, were mostly brought back under one roof. Cyclops was once again an X-Men leader. Storm stopped being stupid, "edgy" 80s Storm, and got back to being her old, compassionate, regal self. Wolverine FINALLY grew up and stopped pining after other people's women, and acting like a psychotic jerk all the time. The stories mostly got back to X-Men basics, grounded on earth, dealing with the social trials of mutant issues, dealing with evil mutants, corrupt humans, etc. It was a grand time, and it gave birth to the 90s cartoon, besides!

Speaking of the cartoon, one major criticism I would levy at it, even though I adored it as a kid, and still mostly love it now, was their treatment of Jean. Granted, they didn't necessarily treat her BADLY. But they didn't treat her all that great at times, either. Looking at the show as a whole, every single X-Men character, including Jubilee, and even guest stars like Bishop, Cable, Archangel, and Iceman, got episodes that are focused around them, and gave them major character growth. Even Cyclops, the "boy scout" that so many fans of the show claim to hate (for universally immature, misguided reasons), got three separate episodes that really put the spotlight on him as a character, looking at his past, etc. But Jean Grey? No such luck. I'm sure some would argue "Well she got a lot of attention during the Phoenix Sagas". And that's true. But PHOENIX got the attention, not really Jean as a character. Jean herself didn't really get a whole lot of character growth, she didn't get a spotlight delving into her past, her personality, etc. And I think that was a poor choice, and to the detriment of the show.





The Gold Team.




In 1991, when the X-Men first underwent their major overhaul, because they introduced a new, second X-Men comic per month (because who doesn't love more money?), and also because they now had something like 12 team members, they split the team into two groups. The "Blue Team" was led by Cyclops, while the "Gold Team", seen above, was led by (a much calmer, much cooler) Storm. And for whatever reason, Jean was put on this team. In fact three-fifths of X-Factor was put in the gold group. On one level, it does make sense though, as a little known fact to more casual X-Men fans, is that before Jean "died", she and Storm were actually great friends. In fact Storm considers Jean to be her best friend. So one thing the "Gold Team" helped re-establish, was that relationship.

Another major criticism I have, this time with the comics, is the fact that Chris Claremont, Jim Lee, Fabian Nicieza, whoever, made the genius decision, to drop the Marvel Girl codename, and just call Jean Grey...Jean Grey. Everyone ELSE on the top-secret, clandestine, outlaw X-Men team, had a codename and a secret identity. You know, to keep their private life HIDDEN, and so as not to, well, get arrested and stuff for acting as outlaw vigilantes. But hey, no one's going to notice that Jean Grey, who isn't even wearing a mask anymore anyway, just goes by her own REAL name. And nothing ever really comes from it! I call that just plain lazy, or even dumb writing. She would eventually be given the "Phoenix" codename, for convoluted reasons. But they should have either just kept calling her Marvel Girl as she had been since 1963, or found a cool new name for her. Calling her "Jean Grey", in my opinion, was unforgivably stupid. In fact, I think her not having a codename contributed to her "not being as cool" to many fans of the cartoon.





The mighty redhead!




But utter lack of a codename aside, 90s Jean was genuinely bad ass. 80s Jean had already established her as a much more powerful telekinetic, and regaining her telepathy finally, 90s Jean was easily one of the most powerful characters on the team. Again, the cartoon didn't always do a great job of showing this, but in the comics, Jean Grey was a force unto herself. She stood up to the likes of Magneto, Sabertooth, Sentinels, Apocalypse, even Charles Xavier's powers gone mad!





Mind Over Matter.



The two main writers of that amazing 1991-1997 period of X-Men comics, in my view THE best period of the series ever, were Fabian Nicieza, and Scott Lobdell. They were the chief architects when it came to grounding the series again, and after all of the 1980s loopiness that Claremont had progressively delved into, they were the ones who set the tone for what the stories would be. They made 90s X-Men great.

But while I've sung his praises before, I can't impress enough just how important, in my view, Scott Lobdell was to the success of the 90s comics, and the 90s cartoon it influenced. He really, truly GOT these characters, and he especially got Scott and Jean. He grew their relationship even further from where Louise Simonson did in the 80s, and he finally had them get married, which along with the marriages of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson, and Clark Kent and Lois Lane, was one of the biggest events in comics.




Finally.



I think that Lobdell had a lot to do with really firmly establishing what I explained in my Cyclops article, that Scott and Jean were basically the Heart and Soul of the team. While Cyclops was the experienced, methodical, tactical leader, who tried to keep everyone safe and made sure they were doing the right thing, "Phoenix" was the conscience of the team, she was the compassion and empathy, the truly human element driving Xavier's dream. Scott and Jean getting married was a pretty big deal, for many reasons, but none moreso than they really were like the "Mom and Dad", in a way, of that dysfunctional X-Men family.





Mother and Daughter.


Slim and Redd, and son.




Of course, while they had JUST gotten married in 1994, technically speaking, Scott and Jean already had a couple of adult kids floating around. When Jean first came back "from the dead" in the 80s, one of the things she struggled coming to terms with, was learning that she had a nearly grown daughter, Rachel Summers, who had arrived from an alternate grim-dark future. At the time, Jean couldn't deal with that, and kinda freaked out, rejecting her. But as you can see in the top picture above, she eventually reconciled with Rachel, and they embraced one another. Which is honestly both heartwarming and tragic, as right after the wedding, which Rachel was super excited to attend, the writers of the Excalibur comic she starred in decided they should shunt her off, lost to the timestream. What they did, in all honesty, was rob readers of a chance for Rachel's relationship with her parents, even if they weren't the version of her parents who literally made her, to grow. As a result of Rachel's disappearance, Jean decided to take on her codename of "Phoenix", to honor her.

As you can see in the bottom pic above, however, the newly minted Summers couple DID get that chance with their son. After they had sent baby Nathan off into the far future in the latter days of the original X-Factor comic, because people in the future had some means of saving his life from the techno-virus, he grew up in a hostile world ruled by Apocalypse, and eventually returned to the time from which he was born, a grizzled and bitter old warrior, named Cable. When Cable returned, he knew who his parents were, but never said anything. And right after the wedding, as oddball comic Fate would have it, Scott and Jean were shunted themselves into Cable's future, where they were afforded the opportunity to raise little Nathan themselves. They eventually returned to their proper time, barely any time having gone by at all, even though they had spent years in the future. And eventually, Cable finally acknowledged the fact that he knew them, and that he knew they had raised him.




The Age of Apocalypse.




Of course I would be remiss, if I didn't mention the major "alternate universe" story arc that occurred the year after they got married. From the months of February through June 1995, all of the X-related titles at Marvel shifted over into a super dark alternate timeline, wherein Charles Xavier died when he was young, before he created the X-Men. In his absence, Apocalypse rose to power and conquered North America, setting off a war that devastated much of the planet, and in the rubble, Magneto of all people leads a rag-tag group of X-Men as freedom fighters, trying to take down Apocalypse's mad empire.

As you can see above, things were quite different in that other world, including Scott and Jean. While Scott and his brother Alex (Havok) were raised by Sinister, and had become higher-ups in Apocalyse's regime, Jean Grey, briefly one of Magneto's students, was abducted by Apocalypse's forces, and kept prisoner, experimented on, because of her power (and Sinister's obsession with the Grey and Summers' bloodlines, just like in the regular reality). Wolverine, also once one of Magneto's group, went and tried to rescue her, getting in a fight with Prelate Cyclops, who was actually trying to free Jean from the pens at that very moment. Of course ol' Logan didn't listen to reason, and the battle wound up costing Scott an eye, but not before it cost Logan a hand.





Nate Grey




Basically, in the four issues of the AoA "Weapon X" comic, a lot of fanboys got what they had long (in my view idiotically) clamored for, which was seeing Wolverine together with Jean. To me, that never sat right, but I also realized it was a temporary alternate story. Even in those stories though, Jean did not truly love Logan, but stayed with him more out of loyalty and gratitude. He came for her when the rest of the young X-Men did not. But as you can see in the picture above, even in the darkest reality, true soul mates will find each other, and if Logan hadn't come along, it's very possible that Scott would have left his life raised as one of Apocalypse's servants behind, and ran away with Jean. Because even then, even as the head Prelate, he was not truly evil, and had compassion for the prisoners in the pens and the people that Apocalypse had slaughtered.

He saw something in Jean when he met her, and it drove him to risk everything to try and free her. And after she left with Logan, he kept on secretly releasing prisoners, eventually including a boy named Nate, who he didn't realize was technically his own "son". The genetic product of experimentation with he and Jean's, well, genes. Nate Grey was the Age of Apocalypse version of Cable, essentially, a version not hindered by the techo-virus. And while Scott and Jean didn't really get to know their "son", they did ultimately find each other. Jean left Logan to try to go back and warn people that the European Human Council was going to drop bombs on Apocalypse's New York, and Cyclops ran into her and joined her cause, freeing the slaves from the pens and trying to lead them to freedom. Of course, their story, as with the entire AoA story proper, didn't have a happy ending. But even in that darkest of timelines, they found each other, and wound up together, because they belonged together.




Soul Mates.




Even in my animated introduction to the X-Men, I was drawn to Scott and Jean, and to their relationship. She was in many ways my "dream girl", and still is, and Cyke was someone that I really respected, and in some ways could relate to. He was the broken loner orphan, who grew up without friends or family, in loneliness and pain, and she was the well-adjusted girl from a stable background, the light in his darkness that showed up to save him. Without Jean around, Scott still would have been loyal to Xavier and the X-Men. He still would have had that inner drive to be a hero, to do the right thing in spite of everything he'd been through. But Jean gave him something far more important: she gave him a reason to want to truly live, and not merely survive.

When push came to shove, there was no question at all which was ultimately more important to Scott, the X-Men, or Jean. It was Jean. When he thought she "died", he at least briefly left the team behind, lost without her. And even when he returned, he was never quite the same. Even when Sinister's wicked machinations led him to meet "Maddie", Jean's clone, it was never quite "right" to Scott. Deep down inside he knew it was all wrong, and deep down inside he still missed Jean. Maddie wasn't Jean and never could be. Which is why when the real deal popped back up on the radar, when Scott knew she was alive, he ran to Jean as fast as he could. She was his reason for living, and they needed each other.




Onslaught.




In 1996, another of Jean's relationships was put to the ultimate test, that of her relationship with the man who saved her from herself as a child, the founder of the X-Men, Charles Xavier. After years of hardship and heartache, rising tensions and rising pressures, ol' Chuck finally snapped, in a major way, and his own subconscious power gave birth to a being who called itself Onslaught. The first of the X-Men that Onslaught secretly approached, was the first mutant child that Xavier had ever reached out to, Jean Grey. Onslaught tried to convince Jean to join his cause, but sensing malevolence within him, Jean refused, and even tried to fight him on the "Astral Plain", as you can see above. Naturally she lost, and she was left with a warning of things to come.

Jean didn't know, at the time, that it was actually Charles, though she definitely sensed something of him during that encounter. Over the coming weeks, she kept to herself what she privately suspected, that something was very wrong with Xavier, the man who had been like a father to them all. Jean's suspicions were confirmed, when she ran into a very frightened Juggernaut, Charles' villainous step-brother, who had himself been attacked by Onslaught. When he asked Jean to probe his mind for the truth of Onslaught that he couldn't remember, she learned too late just how wrong things with Charles were. The Onslaught being was fully born into this world, an amalgamation of Xavier's awesome mind powers and frustrations, and Magneto's magnetism and anger. Jean and the X-Men tried valiantly to stand against their founder, even eventually freeing Charles himself from the independent being that Onslaught had become. In they end, they defeated him/it, at a very high price, but things were more wrong with their world than ever, and Xavier gave himself over to government custody (or so he thought).




Dark Times.



In 1997, as his final big story arc, Scott Lobdell masterminded "Operation: Zero Tolerance", which literally saw the X-Men being kicked while they were down. With Xavier gone, in truth being taken into the custody of a mystery man Jean herself had previously encountered, a man known only as Bastion, the X-Men found themselves vulnerable. They tried to carry on without Chuck, and even managed somewhat, thanks in large part to Scott and Jean. But Bastion had bigger plans, and the X-Men were ripe for the picking. Bastion set into motion his "Operation: Zero Tolerance" initiative, the "Zero Tolerance" of course, being for mutants. Op. OT was an internationally funded "final solution", as it were, to the ongoing mutant problem. And the X-Men were at the top of that list.

With half the team off into space (which I wish Lobdell hadn't done, as the story would have been  stronger with all X-hands on deck), a handful of X-Men remained. Cyclops, Phoenix, Storm, Wolverine, and Cannonball to be precise. While returning from a mission in Hong Kong, they were attacked, and taken to the secret base of Zero Tolerance, unaware that Xavier was also being held there. They managed to escape, but didn't know two key facts: that in their absence their mansion had been totally picked clean, and that while prisoner, Cyclops had been implanted with nano-technology, that was going to coalesce in his chest as a bomb that would kill them all. With a combined effort, they managed to save Cyclops and get rid of the bomb, but the trauma left Cyclops severely injured, needing time to recuperate. So Scott and Jean decided to take temporary leave, going to live in Alaska, near Scott's grandparents.




Iconic.




Naturally, all of these ordeals had been very hard on Jean as well. The trauma with Xavier, then losing him, then almost losing Scott, and losing everything they had at the mansion, etc. In many ways, she needed the time away as much as Scott did. It was during this sabbatical that the writers decided to put her back in the classic green and gold "Phoenix" costume, which at the time I thought was cool, but Scott was understandably disturbed by. He came to accept it, but he was worried that perhaps some vestige of the Phoenix entity DID live in Jean, and that he might loser her to it again.

His fears were unfounded, as she was just Jean. And that is, I suppose, what I've really been writing this article for in the first place. To talk about "Just Jean". As I said earlier, most people tend to associate Jean with Phoenix, which is both understandable, but also unfortunate. Because Jean on her own is far more than enough. In much the same way as many fans and casual observers echo the stereotypical view that Cyclops is just a "boy scout" and a "boring" character, I also can't tell you how many times I've run into the misguided opinion that Jean is equally "boring", that she's a "goody two shoes". Once I even had someone tell me she didn't like Jean because Jean was "basically just a nurse". She said this, of course, because her only real experience with the X-Men, were the shitty live-action films. Even so, that kind of view really pisses me off, just as it does with Cyclops, because in both cases, most people who claim to dislike them, do so because they've never bothered to really delve deeper into the characters.

Popular opinion seems to be that characters like Wolverine (everyone's "favorite"), or Gambit, or Rogue, or Storm, are "the cool ones". With Logan and Remy it's somewhat understandable, albeit in a very shallow way, because those characters are "edgy" and don't always play by the rules. But even just looking at the cartoon, a lot of people look back on it and say "Yeah, Rogue and Storm are cool", because, well, I guess Rogue is also "Edgy" in her own way, a sassy smart alec who uses her stolen super strength to punch and smash things all the time. Storm is the more puzzling case, as especially in the comic, she too comes off like a so-called "goody two shoes", who always tries to keep herself in check, who always reminds others to act with honor, to be better than the bad guys, etc. Storm, when written properly, is in many ways a lot like Jean, a "conscience" sort of character, who abhors killing and prefers to not even hurt people if she doesn't have to. Yet to many, she is still somehow seen as "cool", whereas Jean is the "boring girl scout". And frankly, that just doesn't make sense, if you think beyond a junior high school level.





First meeting.




Ultimately, the reasons that I consider Jean Grey to be my favorite female superhero are simple. Yes, there's the fact that she is in a whole lot of ways the exact kind of girl, visually and personality-wise, that I have wanted to have for myself, in my own life, for a very long time. But deeper than that, looking at the character herself, I think it is fair to say, as is the case with Cyclops, that I am drawn to  heroes with innate "goodness". In this modern dark age we live in, most people seem to be drawn to "anti-heroes", basically good guys that act bad. And being a good guy that acts, well...GOOD, is largely seen as being "not cool". And I have to say...what does that actually say about us, as a culture, as a society, when we pretend to praise "genuine good guys" in real life, yet we shun them in our entertainment media? Frankly, the world NEEDS more "genuine good guys", badly.

The reasons I love Jean Grey, Marvel Girl, Phoenix, whatever you wish to call her, at the fundamental core, are pretty basic stuff. She is a good person, she doesn't just pay lip service to being good. She doesn't put on a "Good guy" facade, while acting contrarily. She will fight, viciously if necessary, but she isn't innately violent. She has the power to not only read people's thoughts, but control their minds if she wanted. She has the telekinetic strength to topple a building, let alone crush every bone in someone's body, with just a thought. But she doesn't do that, because that isn't who she is. She has certainly displayed a "firey temper" at times, and she hasn't been above lashing out in anger in the past. But she always knows it's wrong when she does, and she always makes amends. She isn't deceptive, or secretive, or manipulative, she doesn't make use of her "feminine wiles" to get what she wants. She's genuine, she's honest, she's loyal, she cares about others more than she does herself. She would give her life to save a stranger's, and above all else, she cares very much about doing what's right. Not what's easy, or most convenient.




Forever.




Jean Grey is, in all brutal honesty, what most people would wish their child to grow up to be. She is a person who was raised properly, with love and wisdom, by worthwhile parents. And she grew up to be the person they tried their best to teach her to be. A good person, who helps others, who tries to make the world around her better. In other words, she acts like a hero. In spite of all the ridiculous shit she's been through, from "dying", to coming back to find the world changed, to discovering Scott had a whole other life, to her sister Sarah being (unceremoniously) murdered off panel, to all of the harrowing misadventures the X-Men have been through over the years. Through it all, Jean has been a pillar. She is every bit that "strong, intelligent, confident" woman that people these days like to pay so much hollow lip-service towards.

She's hardly "perfect", but she makes up for her shortcomings by always trying to be the best person she can be. She falls, she fails sometimes, but she gets back up, and she doesn't let all the horrible things in the world around her, and all the horrible things that have happened TO her, and to people she loves, corrode her soul. Through all of the madness and the bullshit, she always remained steadfastly Jean. She didn't let it all change her, or ruin her, even though it easily could have. Those who keep up on the modern comics might note that I'm not getting into what lesser writers who would come along, eventually did to Scott and Jean, and to the X-Men in general. I won't be going deeply into it, because frankly, it isn't worth going into. What matters to me, is the Scott and Jean, the X-Men, from 1963 through the late 90s. The 90s especially, were the perfect distillation of what the X-Men, and what Cyclops and Phoenix, were all about. Everything that has come since, is just bad ideas and bad writing, as far as I'm concerned, and doesn't matter.

But what DOES matter, at least to me, is that Cyclops and Marvel Girl are my two favorite superheroes of all time. Both individually, and as a couple. They are, in point of fact, my favorite fictional couple of all time, in any medium. The truth is that Jean Grey is a fantastic character on her own, and stands on her own quite well, as an individual, as a hero. Just as Scott Summer does (when written correctly). But to risk sounding cheesy, Scott and Jean go together like peanut butter and jelly. They're great individually, but together, they make an amazing combo. Together, they find their full power, and are complete. Scott isn't the same without his Jean, and Jean isn't the same without Scott either. So there you have it.




                                                                     ******************




As a final aside, even though I'll never get to do so in person, as I certainly would have liked to, I want to thank Mr. Stan Lee, for his hand in creating all of the wonderful Marvel heroes and villains that he did. But most importantly, for creating Scott Summers and Jean Grey. For creating the original X-Men, and the X-Men as a concept, because as much as Cyclops and Marvel Girl are my top favorite heroes of all time, the X-Men is my top favorite comic of all time. And it all started with Stan Lee, and a kooky idea about hip teenagers with weird powers, all the way back in the early 60s. So for that, Mr. Lee, thank you, because you'll never know how much of an impact your creations would have on my life. Excelsior!






R.I.P. Stan Lee, 1922-2018

Friday, October 26, 2018

Dreams and Nightmares: The Worlds of Bruce Coville

It's all built up to this, so for this year's big feature Halloween article, I thought I'd delve into another big part of my childhood...




As much as I have talked about how much video games, cartoons, and movies (among other things) meant a lot to me in my childhood, as means of escapism from what was not a super-fun life, I can't impress enough how books also factored into that equation. As I've mentioned before, I was one of those "smart kids", the kind who had a high school reading level in grade school, etc. My reading was spurred on by my grandmother, one of the actual positive things she did for me growing up, as she herself was a huge reader. Her preferred poison was science fiction, as in practically any she could get her hands on. She even belonged to a sci-fi book club, and would regularly order books for herself (when we could afford it), out of mail-order catalogues.


For me personally, I of course started with children's books, some of which I think I'll probably dedicate an article of their own to someday. Some I only vaguely remember, and wish I could remember what they were called. But somewhere around age 8 or so, I finally entered into the world of Scholastic books. Scholastic are most known for making educational school books, but they also happen to publish fiction books for kids and teens as well. As such, around age 8, for whatever reason, we started getting Scholastic catalogues in the mail, and my grandmother, wanting to encourage my developing reading, started buying me things like Choose Your Own Adventure books and things like that. The one that stands out in my memory is a book I had called Empire of the Ants.





Classic Mystery Goodness.




The first book series, besides being read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings when I was little, was The Boxcar Children, by Gertrude Chandler Warner. These stories were a nice "wading in" point, both for reading more complex stories in general, but also for getting into stories with a bit of a spooky edge to them. Many of the adventures of the Alden siblings, while not really featuring real supernatural elements, still had spooky moments and plenty of tension, as they solved their mysteries. I'd like to say that I got maybe the first fifteen or so of these books, at least, and was a big fan of them for a time. But then in 1992, R.L. Stine's Goosebumps series happened, and my new obsession was set. I left the poor Boxcar kids in the dust, because Stine's works featured REAL supernatural happenings, and most importantly to young me: MONSTERS!

But as much as I adored the Goosebumps books, and couldn't wait for each new entry (I legit owned around the first thirty books in that original series), and as big an impact as Stine had on my pre-teen years, there is another author who I'd like to say had an equal impact. In fact, this was an author who was a contemporary of Stine's, and another whose works really exploded in the early 90s. He too, wrote stories that both fascinated, and sometimes terrified me. But as time has gone on, R.L. Stine is a name that people still remember (thanks in part to the Goosebumps movie, etc.), while this OTHER guy, is someone who I find when I bring up to many people, they have no idea who the hell I'm talking about. Even though he too is one of the most successful children's authors in history. So I figured, you know what? It's time to do my little part to help rectify that, because quite frankly, the works of Bruce Coville are every bit as brilliant, and memorable, as Stine's.





My First Exposure.



 The novel pictured above, My Teacher Is An Alien, is the first Bruce Coville book I ever read, or even knew about. I'm sure it was something, like the first Goosebumps book, where I just saw the cover/title in the Scholastic catalogue, and it drew my interest, so I asked to get it. The book first released in 1989, so it's actually entirely possible that I read it before I ever read my first R.L. Stine book. But as I seem to recall, these many years later, I remember reading Coville's books more or less alongside Stine's. Which would place it in 1992. Either way, while this novel is fairly simple and straightforward, compared to how the rest of its series plays out, I was still enthralled from the title onward, and it had my full attention.

The general plot plays out almost like a Twilight Zone episode. At a completely normal elementary school in the sleepy town of Kennituck Falls, a couple of kids, Susan Simmons and her shy, bookish friend Peter Thompson, come back from Spring Break to discover that their regular sixth grade teacher, has been replaced by a strange, blonde substitute. The thing is, something seems terribly odd about Mr. John Smith. And as the story progresses, they learn just exactly what IS so odd about him: he happens to be an alien from another world! The kids do more snooping, and get the notion that ol' Mr. Smith is some kind of advance agent for an invasion of Earth, and as such, they do their best to stop his nefarious plans. Of course, things aren't always quite what they seem, and while they DO thwart his plans (SPOILERS), it turns out that perhaps they misunderstood his motives after all.





The Second Book.




I was hooked after this first book, especially when it ended on a major cliffhanger, where Mr. Smith, actually named Broxholm, took Peter, who didn't have a very happy life on Earth, with him into space! Luckily for me, as it probably was around '92 when I read this, I didn't have to wait long to find out what happened next, because the other books in the series were already out. Next up was My Teacher Fried My Brains, a provocative title to say the least. And surprisingly, while the first book focused on Susan and Peter, from Susan's perspective, the second book actually focused on Duncan Dougal, the asshole kid who bullied Peter all the time! An a-typical choice, to be sure.

It was the beginning of seventh grade, junior high, and Peter had been missing for months. Duncan, unsurprisingly, also comes from a bit of a rough background, and it turns out, while he acts like a major douche-nozzle to kids weaker than him, always looking for fights and so on, maybe he's not such a horrible monster after all. Duncan had also been in on the discovery that Mr. Smith was an alien months prior, and he now came to suspect that his science teacher, Miss Karpou, is ALSO an alien agent. After he is subjected to a demonstration in class on what is supposed to be static electricity, Duncan finds himself feeling smarter. And so believing that static machine did it, he sneaks back into school after hours, and uses the machine again, this time too much so, which does in fact boost his intellect greatly, something he had always felt insecure about.

The trouble is, the boost not only seems like it will be temporary, but Miss Karpou does also in fact turn out to be an alien, named Kreeblim! Duncan gets taken to her house, where she intends to deal with him, but Susan, who becomes aware of what Duncan's been up to, tries to save him. Before all of that can go down, however, Peter suddenly returns, along with Broxholm, and it turns out things are a whole lot more complicated than the kids had believed.





Shazam!




It is from this point on, that the series experiences a serious divide. The first two books, as explained, are fairly simple stories. But after book two, the series takes quite a turn, and gets a WHOLE lot deeper, especially for "kid's" fare. As it turns out, the aliens are on Earth as agents for an interplanetary council, who are worried about the human race's violent history, and the growing possibility of them getting out into space, to spread that violence. In that way, it takes some serious inspiration from one of the greatest science fiction films ever made (and one of my personal favorites), 1951's The Day the Earth Stood Still. In a similar fashion to that classic, this space council, a body basically dedicated to peace, fear humans getting into space enough, that they are actually considering wiping the entire human race out. And the alien agents there, are trying to determine whether or not humanity can be saved, or are even worth saving! Like I said, quite the turn.

The third book in the series, My Teacher Glows in the Dark, is probably the weirdest, just by virtue of the fact that it follows Peter's adventures out in space, learning about other races and worlds, etc. It takes place basically in between and then alongside the second book. During Peter's space adventures, he is taken aboard the mother ship "New Jersey" (named because it is the same size as the American state), where he is introduced to a number of strange aliens, including Hoo-Lan, a kindly blue alien who will serve as his teacher while he's aboard. Peter learns many things from Hoo-Lan, but the biggest thing he learns, is also one of the most interesting ideas I've ever come across in literature. The idea is put forth, as I seem to remember it anyway, that human beings once long ago had the capacity for Empathy. Not just the concept of empathizing with someone else, but the literal ability to sense, to somewhat FEEL what other people around you are feeling. Hoo-Lan explains that this ability would have made humanity far less chaotic and crazy, a state that being "cut off from each other" has rendered them. He also reveals, to his own shame, that it was actually he, who introduced humans to television, as a ploy to delay their development, as he feared their technology, and thus capacity for greater violence, was advancing too quickly. The entire book is told from Peter's perspective, as he relates his experiences to Susan and Duncan.





Holy shit.




In the fourth and final book, My Teacher Flunked the Planet, which takes place right after the second book, it is now up to these three human kids and two kooky aliens (one of whom, Kreeblim, the female, excels at alien curse words), to try and provide the council with evidence that the human race can learn, and change. This fourth entry, by far, is the darkest and most serious, even though it still features moments of levity. I remember thinking, even at the time while first reading it, that this shit was DEEP! As the group fly around the world in their cloaked UFO, looking for cases of human goodness, the reader is shown such horrifying scenes as people who have been tortured in prison camps, and the horrors of war. Specifically, a scene where a man dies trying to shield a child from a falling bomb. The kind of stuff that I guarantee you don't find in much "children's lit", and the kind of stuff that, reading it then as a pre-teen myself, really disturbed me. Not in a "why am I reading this" way, but in a "goddamn, we really ARE messed up aren't we?" kind of way. It was an eye opener, which I think is a good thing for young people, when done right.

Without spoiling the ending, sufficed to say, Flunked was a crazy, and introspective ride for a young person to read. It made me think, but it also made me wish in some ways that what happens in the end, actually would happen. Even though I've spoiled many of the basic plot points for the series, I would say that, if you've never read it, even if you're an adult, these books are very enjoyable and entertaining. Plus you can consume them in a matter of hours, and I'd highly recommend them! I'd really like to see the series get made into movies, or at least a show, so long as they kept the stories and characters as they are.





Good Times.



Outside of the "My Teacher" series, starting in the Fall of 1993, I also got to experience his "Book of..." anthologies. These were a series of short story collections, usually featuring one or two by Coville himself, and the rest by guest authors, including the likes of even names like Ray Bradbury. The first that was actually released, was Book of Monsters, but the one with perhaps the stories that stand out to me the most in my memory, was Book of Aliens. The "feature" story, if you will, was "I, Earthling", a story about a boy whose father is a diplomat to an alien world, and the boy has serious trouble adjusting to his strange new life. The two things that struck me the most about this story as a kid, were: 1. The fact that the aliens fart as a sign of happiness or friendliness, which I found hilarious. And 2. The fact that the boy had a tiny kitten-sized panda bear as a pet, which I very badly wanted for myself!

The second story from Aliens that stands out, is "The Buddy System", by Nina Kiriki Hoffman. It's a really great story that I dearly loved at the time, and still do, because it focused on the kind of friendship/relationship, that I myself dearly wanted (and still do). The story is about a girl named Iris, who is adjusting to life after losing her father. She meets a boy named Kyle, who is something of a hellion, but who also takes an instant liking to Iris, and always behaves around her, almost like she makes him want to be a better person. They become best friends, and pretty much do everything together, including regular swims at Miller's Pond. But one day, while Iris is swimming, something grabs her leg, and pulls her under. She nearly drowns, buy Kyle saves her with CPR, nearly on the state of a nervous breakdown over the thought of losing her, and takes her home. But there was more to Iris' experience than it seemed, as there were flashes of something she couldn't understand. She finds herself drawn to go back to Miller's Pond and face whatever was down there, with a protesting Kyle going along to protect her. And as she braved the terror again, and this time didn't try to resist, she discovered that it was actually some kind of weird, wonderful alien, who hadn't meant to hurt her, and was only trying to communicate. Just a really beautiful, touching story, all around really.

The third, stuck out for a different reason. It was Ray Bradbury's "Zero Hour", which was originally featured in his collection The Illustrated Man in 1951.In that particular story, a bunch of suburban children are all excitedly playing a game they call "Invasion". The children bring all sorts of things from their respective houses, into some bushes where they're all playing, and none of the parents really investigate into what's going on, because after all, it's "just kids being kids", right? Except, too late, when a loud sound is heard, do some of the parents start realizing something is amiss. And then, all hell breaks loose, as an ACTUAL alien invasion begins! Turns out, the kids were being instructed by beings from another world, on how to build a devise that would open gateways to Earth. And just like that, the aliens start going around basically killing the parents, all while the kids laughed, thinking it was some fun game apparently. Me personally? I HATED this story as a kid. The very idea that a bunch of innocent kids would willingly not only turn on their parents and families, but even aid the aliens in destroying them? It was deeply disturbing to me, and made me kinda sick. I've never liked stories like that, to this day, and that includes the slew of modern horror films about innocent families being destroyed by various evil (I'm looking at you, Mike Flanagan).





The first of Coville's anthologies.


Another that I owned.


A later entry.




The ones that I know I owned as a kid, were Book of Monsters, Book of Aliens, and Book of Nightmares. I may or may not have owned Book of Ghosts, and for some reason I almost feel like I owned Book of Magic, but apparently that came out in 1996, so while it's possible, I wasn't really getting Scholastic books anymore by then. There was also one I had never heard of when it was new, Book of Spine-Tinglers. Even within the different volumes, there was a good deal of diversity between the stories. Some were science fiction based, some were more supernatural or even straight up horror, a few were even fantasy, and some were just plain silly. There were stories that were (surely to a 12 or 13 year old) hilarious, such as Will Shelterly's "Brian and the Aliens". While there were others that genuinely scared me, and even left me quite disturbed, such as John Barnes' "Timor and the Furnace Troll". That one, I'm just gonna say, has a pretty messed up ending, that I hated as a kid, and still dislike. But hey, they can't all be happy stories, right?





A wild ride.




Now what I definitely didn't know as a young teen in 1996 and 1997, because as explained I had stopped getting "kids books" through Scholastic or otherwise, was that Coville's anthology series kept going. In fact in those years, there was an entire "Volume II" series, meaning that there was a Book of Monsters II, a Book of Aliens II, and so on, for six more editions. The same deal as before, collections of short stories, some by Coville himself, the rest by other authors. But the one key difference, as I would discover MUCH later (in my 30s, in 2014 to be exact), is that in each one of these "Volume II" editions, there was a Bruce Coville story that was a smaller part of a larger adventure. The parts had their own separate names, such as "Little Monsters" and "Through the Starry Door", but the entire story is called "The Monsters of Morley Manor". The entire story was released as its own separate volume (seen above) in 2001.

In a nutshell, the story is something of a classic "haunted house" type of tale, with a couple of siblings, Anthony and Sarah Walker, attending an estate sale of the deceased Mr. Morley, who lives in a creepy old house down the road. Anthony winds up buying an odd little box for fairly cheap, and inside, he and his sister discover five tiny little figurines of what look like classic monster archetypes: a werewolf, a lizard man, a vampire, Medusa, etc. But when they accidentally get the figures wet, it turns out that water brings these figures out of some kind of suspended state, and back to life! At first the monsters stay tiny, but they eventually get the kids to take them back to the mansion, where they are able to revert themselves to full size. Now I say "in a nutshell", because that is the basic setup of the story. But because there was one part of the story in each of the six "Volume II" editions, there's a lot more to it than that. I suppose to fit each of the books' themes, be it Monsters, Aliens, Ghosts, etc., different parts of the story feature those themes. So for instance, "Little Monsters", as the title suggests, is about them literally finding little monsters. "Through the Starry Door", sees the kids and monsters, being taken to an alien world, being more a sci-fi story. "A Trip to the Land of the Dead", part of Book of Ghosts II, sees the story exploring more of the supernatural/spiritual side of things, and so on.

Now on its face, it might seem as if these disparate parts wouldn't fit together very well. And honestly I do wonder if it was a gimmick to help sell the books suggested by the publisher, or just a neat idea that Coville himself originated. Either way, I can tell you that, surprisingly, while it certainly creates one hell of a weird roller coaster ride, as a story, "The Monsters of Morley Manor" flows pretty well, and it all fits together pretty nicely. All things considered, I remember the "Book of..." series fondly, and still need to go back and read all the stories (as I took it upon myself to buy them all in 2014). I earnestly feel that a lot of Bruce Coville's work would make for good movie/television adaptations, and I feel that an anthology format show, featuring stories from these books, could be really awesome as well.




Another strange adventure.




One other Bruce Coville book I know that I owned before my grandmother passed away (I had stopped getting any Scholastic books later into 1995, once she got really sick), was Aliens Ate My Homework, seen above. It was the first in another series that he wrote in the 90s featuring aliens, but in quite a different, and wackier way. The young hero, Rob Allbright, is in his room, working on a papier-mache science project, when suddenly a small blue alien ship comes in his bedroom window, landing in the mache. Out come several tiny, toy-sized aliens, who proceed to induct him into their mission to capture a notorious alien criminal, who just so happens to be posing on Earth as Rob's most hated school bully. This was the only entry in the series I owned, I'm pretty sure, but the other book titles can clue you in to how bizarre and funny it probably is: I Lost My Sneakers in Dimension X, The Search for Snout, and Aliens Stole My Body.





Great cover art.


One of my childhood dreams, to have a dragon!


Never trust a demon.




He has, of course, written many more books than I myself have ever read, and in fact many of them I should read someday. From fantasy stories like The Unicorn Chronicles, to his Magic Shop anthology, or darker, scarier fare like his Chamber of Horrors and Camp Haunted Hills books. He's also dabbled in more "mature", young adult fare, with titles like Armageddon Summer and Space Station Ice-3. He's even done several kids' adaptations of classic William Shakespeare plays, such as The Tempest, Hamlet, and Twelfth Night.

To me, in my pre-teen years, those "My Teacher" and "Book of..." books, meant as much to me as Stine's Goosebumps series did. They taught me, made me think, scared me, and inspired me. They helped to further grow one gift that I have always had, thanks in part to an "only child" childhood: a powerful and vivid imagination. I honestly wish that I had been able to own and read more Coville books when I was in that 11 through 13 age range, but I was obsessed with those Goosebumps tales, and we only had so much money to spend on mail-order books. But if you've never read any of Bruce Coville's work, whether you're still somewhat a kid yourself, or merely a kid inside, I would highly suggest that you do. Even his "kids books" are usually much deeper and more entertaining than I'm sure many would assume such books could be, and in this man's humble opinion, he's one of the best storytellers I've ever encountered.





So to you, Mr. Coville, I just want to say, thanks for helping to make a shitty childhood better, and to all of you, have a very happy (and safe but spooky) Halloween!