The Thomas-Adams X-men origin of the Second Sentinels Saga

On another board, some fan pointed to or reprinted an interview with Neal Adams about how the Marvel Method worked.  This is interesting not only in connection with the Kirby estates case that Jack Kirby and written/plotted most of the stories he drew...but also in light of the forthcoming X-Men movie "Days of Future Past".

I have re-keyboarded about two pages of introductory text from the significant Marvel Masterworks volume where Roy Thomas tells his side/version of their collaboration. And it complements Neal's tale very well...they are in agreement on most points.  But I'll let you read and enjoy for yourself...

PS: I have corrected one or two typos in Roy's tale (which issues the Sentinels originally appeared), also switched an "in" for an "it", and skipped over his introductory comments about Arold Drake and Barry Winsor Smith, just for time and space reasons. Go read the entire commentary for yourself!


The Thomas-Adams X-men Team

By Roy Thomas from X-men Marvel Masterworks X-Men vol.6  (#63) Introduction

…The team of Thomas and Adams took a while to arrive…. Arnold Drake went out with a bang, as he and artist Don Heck introduced not only the Living Pharaoh but also Scott (Cyclops) Summers’ young brother Alex.  I can’t for the life of me recall if he checked with Stan and/or my associate-editor self before giving Scott a sibling. No matter—we’d have approved.  At this Point, The X-Men need all the help it could get, and maybe an infusion of new (but related) blood would help.

…Did Arnold already mean for Alex to be a mutant like his brother, or was that my addition?  I’ve no recollection…but at the very least I must’ve felt that was what Arnold had in mind when he introduced the character.  So I ended the tale with that revelation.

And that’s when things got really weird—and wonderful!

Neal Adams once said that fellow artist Jim Steranko suggested he come over to Marvel and try doing a script “Marvel style” (plot first, then art, then dialog). Earlier, I had met Neal at a social gathering and suggested the same thing. When Neal met with Stan, he’s said he told Our Leader he wanted to draw the company’s worst-selling title.  So he inherited the X-men—and me as writer.

Actually, knowing that Neal had scripted some stories he’d drawn at DC, I volunteered to step aside and let Neal write as well as illustrate the title. Neal, though, told me he’d read other things I’d written and would like me to stay on. Of course, when he got Roy the writer he also got Roy the de facto editor… what at least had the advantage that we didn’t have to check plotlines carefully with Stan, who gave me considerable freedom on the interiors of comics I wrote.

I had admired Neal’s art style—a combination of realism and visual dynamics—on his DC war stories and Spectre issues.  But the day I really became impressed by his work was when I saw him sitting one day in the Marvel bullpen, penciling the splash of X-men #56. He was drawing the Abu Simbel temple of Egypt in the background—doing it freehand, yet making it look like a photo. He did the same with the Angel’s gracefully –spread wings. At that point—and ever since—I’ve been happy he didn’t take me up on my offer to let him write the book!

For, working with Neal on X-men was one of the high points of my time at Marvel. He inspired me not only with his storytelling and heroics, but even with throwaway bits he tossed in—like the doleful  dromedary on p.8 of #56.  This was an artist who went the extra mile to make his pages interesting, and cut no corners. That, added to his commitments at DC and in commercial art, sometimes meant we got pressed a bit on deadlines, but it was all worth it.

The final piece fell into place when Tom Palmer was named inker.  I ‘don’t recall if that was my idea, Stan’s or Neal’s—but Tom proved to be such a perfect inker for Neal that over the years it’s a tossup as to whether it’s for that work or embellishing  Gene Colan’s Tomb of Dracula that he’s most revered by Marvel aficionados.

Actually, the only (but infamous) sour note in #56 was when Martin Goodman rejected the cover Neal impetuously drew for it—one that showed the X-men strapped to the mag’s logo. The publisher said he couldn’t read the logo, so he refused to use the cover.  I was appalled, and I suspect Stan was, too; but there was no court of appeal from such a dictate.  Neal did a second cover, which was still effective—but I wish just once, his original illustration could be printed as the cover to a comic book, to correct perhaps the worst comics-related decision of 1969.

This seemed to me the perfect time to bring back the Sentinels, those mutant-hunting robots from X-men #14-16, so that’s what we did in #57. But again, it’s the little touches as much as the giant androids that I love about that issue: the way Neal made a black&-white TV image actually look like a black-&-white TV image, and not just another drawing minus color…or the cover-held overlays minus black outline (as on p.14) that he pushed for, at a time when Marvel (like DC) was reluctant to do anything that added an extra step to the publishing process.

Perhaps Neal’s greatest visual for the series occurred in #58, when he designed the costume for Alex Summer, who I’d code-named Havok (from Shakespeare’s quote in Julius Caesar: “Cry ‘havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war!”)  He created a mostly black outfit that literally swallowed light, allowing no highlights—and which visibly registered the amount of power Alex was expending at any moment as a series of concentric circles.  Look at comic book costumes and chest insignia before this, and you’ll find nothing like it.  Just like you’ll find nothing quite like Neal Adams, period.

But, while I was no great fan ordinarily of panels with diagonal borders (agreeing with Stan that they got in the way of clear storytelling), I was almost equally thrilled by the layout of that two-page spread of the Beast and Iceman fighting a Sentinel while Larry Trask pontificates on TV. Despite the thick black lines Neal added between panels to set them off, it was tricky to write the word balloons so as to lead the reader’s eye from top left of page 2 to the bottom right of page 3—but it was worth it, and I think it worked.

And somehow, when Neal drew the Sentinels flying, they still looked massive and heavy—even more than Jack Kirby’s original versions had.  When someone outdoes Kirby at his own game, that’s going some!

In #59, Neal even came up with a title he hoped I’d use: “Do or Die, Baby!”  I told him Stan probably wouldn’t like it (he didn’t), but I went with it, and talked Stan into letting it stay. What was the difference, really? If Neal’s powerful cover and splash page art weren’t enough to make a casual reader buy the issues, the “best” title in the world wasn’t going to help much.

I should probably say a word here about coloring—except I’m honestly not quite sure who colored The X-Men issues Neal drew. Was it Neal himself? Or more likely Tom Palmer, who had colored many of the Colan Dr. Strange issues he’d inked?  Whoever it was, the colors matched the art—like that green lighting effect in the splash of #59. The only time the coloring really let us down was the cover of #58, where Neal intended the figure of Havok to be “color-held” in blue, to approximate his black costume—and somehow (not by me, babe!) it got decreed that it be orange.  Bad choice! That’s another drawing I’d love to see done “right” one of these days.  Probably Neal would, too.

Neal pulled out all the stops in #59 for the finale of the second Sentinels saga…with psychedelic effects, vertical panels to give the feeling of height, powerful close-ups of those impassive Sentinel faces, etc., etc.  Oddly, though, the most important thing about the issue—its climax and resolution—is a subject of minor dispute.  Neal feels it was his idea to defeat the Sentinels by having Cyclops talk them into flying into the sun to try to neutralize the source of ALL the mutation on Earth that they were created to oppose.  I sorta though that it was my idea…and future X-men scribe Chris Claremont, who was working at Marvel as a college student “intern” at the time, feels he contributed that notion.  Either way, it was a strong ending, especially as drawn by Neal, with a minimum of the blackness of space around the page-filling image of the sun, to give the feeling of its all-encompassing heat.

As for the two lone captions on that page—for some reason, I can vividly recall writing them out in longhand, playing around with them as I scribbled in the copy on the original art, while sitting in front of the TV, half-watching some program or other. That wasn’t my usual way of writing…I just wanted to give that page a bit of extra time and thought, besides, that spent at the typewriter.  The general inspiration for the prose approach was the scene in the 1955 Nicholas Ray/James Dean film Rebel without a Cause (one of my all-time favorites), in which a scientist at Griffith Observatory in L.A. gives a doomsday talk to a planetarium full of restless high school students, while images of an exploding star burst overhead. In my head, I heard those captions being delivered by that same actor, in those same stentorian tones.

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Interesting stuff. The sentinels have always been good villains because to me they were guns, not actually evil in themselves but evil in the way they were used.

The original Sentinels story by Lee & Kirby was one of the highlights of the mid-60's, ranking with the Galactus Trilogy and the Master Planner story in Spider-Man in my estimation.  Thomas & Adams' sequel was a masterpiece of the late Silver Age which clearly inspired Claremont and both Cockrum & Byrne in the revived X-Men of the Bronze Age.

I think Roy and especially Neal have spent more time talking about which of them did what on the X-MEN than they actually spent producing those stories.

There's a Comic Book Urban Legends item here (scroll down) about an article about mutants that Otto Binder wrote for Mechanix Illustrated. As I've written before, it looks to me like it was the model for the Trask article in the first Sentinels tale. Binder's story isn't exclusively anti-mutant, but the scenarios it discusses include the extermination or enslavement of contemporary humanity. In the X-Men story Trask's article is illustrated by images of big-headed mutants, who all look the same, engaging in acts of oppression. Compare the large splash image from the Binder article, by Kurt Schaffenberger.

What strikes me about the Thomas/Adams Sentinels story is it's not very different in its plot from a very average X-Men comic of the era. I think what makes the difference is it's just done so well.

It's interesting that no mutant like that ever turns up in the Marvel Universe.

Perhaps Jack Kirby wanted Professor X to be one of a number of characters he made over the years that had a huge head and tiny limbs, and thus the wheelchair. But in 1963 you couldn't do that with a good guy the Code would say it was disturbing, so he made him look normal (except bald) and didn't explain the reason for the wheelchair at the time, and eventually used the mutant head idea again with Modok.

But then in the New Gods Kirby created yet another version of a character that spent most of his time in a chair, Metron.   I haven't read enough New Gods stories to even know if Metron was regularly shown apart from his chair or if he tended to be as wedded to his chair as MODOK and Xavier were to their chairs.  And as Xavier and MODOK had extensive mental powers, Metron was devoted to seeking out knowledge.  Then there was poor old Chief over in the Doom Patrol who got up out of his chair but then was reduced to nothing but a head!  Does he still get invites to the Annual Super-Freak Love of Chairs Convention?

Ron M. said:

It's interesting that no mutant like that ever turns up in the Marvel Universe.

Perhaps Jack Kirby wanted Professor X to be one of a number of characters he made over the years that had a huge head and tiny limbs, and thus the wheelchair. But in 1963 you couldn't do that with a good guy the Code would say it was disturbing, so he made him look normal (except bald) and didn't explain the reason for the wheelchair at the time, and eventually used the mutant head idea again with Modok.

I remember seeing Metron walking in an origin of Lightray, but that was after Kirby had left, so no idea if that was accurate. I do know Metron said "I am not from New Genesis or Apokolips! I am a surprise!" so I doubt Jack intended him to be hanging out with Lightray and Orion when they were kids.
Doom Patrol gave me the creeps anyway so I never followed or wanted to follow it.
Jack also made a Modok like character that fought Captain America back in WWII. Then there was the Gargoyle in Hulk#1. Jack had that idea stuck in his head a long time and kept coming back to it.

Interesting.  Perhaps Jack, sitting in his basement every day in front of his drawing table to put a crust before his family identified with these chairbound characters?  :-)

In Captain America's Bicentennial Battles Cap briefly meets Jack as a newsboy during the Great Depression. When he asks him what day it is Jack says "Beat it! I gotta sell these papers or my family's eating soap today!"  Jack's life was probably really lousy before he made it, and even when he did Marvel and DC both kept giving him the business.

I think a life of Jack Kirby movie would be a fascinating film, if they could keep Hollywood from lousing it up by, say, having Johnny Depp play Jack as a weird eccentric.

The mental giants sitting in a chair are as much a stereotype as the big, brainless behemoths (Hulk, Thing, Rocky, etc.). The contrast emphasizes their powers and gives them something to fight against.

Plus, it's always men who are wheel-chair bound. Women with mental powers abound, because those are more "feminine" powers, like invisibility. You seldom see a man dashing around with force lines coming out of his head, like you'd see with Sue, Jean or Imra.

-- MSA

You'd think teams made up of mental giants and brainless behemoths would show up a lot, but they tend to appear more in other media, like the pair in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. I think Kirby did do such a pair, but they were actually parts of one being and when the giant died the dwarf realized he didn't have long to live and went on a suicide mission.

It depends on how liberal you want to be. Thor had Cobra and Mr. Hyde, the FF had the Mad Thinker and his Android plus the Red Ghost and his Apes,

Given how obvious of a combination it is, I agree there are fewer of them in SA comics than I'd expect. Even in those examples, it's a smart guy directingy brainLESS minions, rather than the Cobra/Hyde type, where the behemoth has some free will.

-- MSA 

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