It’s hard to believe for those of us who were raised on the comics boom period of the early 1990’s, but there was a time when Uncanny X-Men was the only X-Men book that Marvel published. But under the watchful eye of writer Chris Claremont and artists Dave Cockrum and John Byrne, the book became so popular that demand was strong enough to warrant a spin-off. The X-Men had long since abandoned its original premise of young mutants being students at a “school” for “gifted youngsters”, so the obvious goal was to introduce a young crop of new mutants quite unoriginally dubbed the “New Mutants”. And thus five new characters – Cannonball, Wolfsbane, Psyche (later Mirage), Sunspot and Karma – came together in the 1982 Marvel Graphic Novel #4, back when there was a difference between comic books and graphic novels.
New Mutants was the first of its kind for Marvel, though DC had long since featured the younger version of the team in Teen Titans, which had launched in 1964, just one year after the original team of X-Men. But unlike the Titans, the New Mutants weren’t simply the sidekicks of existing heroes (basically younger versions of the franchise characters), but heroes themselves. And by 1982, Marv Wolfman and George Perez had turned the Titans into their own genre of heroes (and the most popular franchise DC had at the time, hard as that is to believe), so New Mutants really was in a class of its own.
But the premise itself ran into a problem of its own as it searched for an identity of its own. In its founding, Professor X plainly stated that the New Mutants were not intended to be X-Men, and thus would not be doing the super-hero schtick which he had sent the original kids on immediately, though he still made them wear the skintight outfits. That raised the question of just what the title would be about. And the first couple of issues dealt with things like bullying and the dangers of the Danger Room, but those could only go on for so long.
Soon it came time to allow the kids to stumble into villains of their own to fight, which presented an entirely new problem. To milk off of their association with the bigger franchise (which is the entire point of a spin-off), in theory they would need to deal with some of the rogues gallery of the X-Men. But to keep the villains remaining a viable threat should they reappear in the main title, they couldn’t exactly lose to these rookie mutants. After all, the Hellfire Club were just a weak floor and a freak storm away from defeating the X-Men during the Dark Phoenix Saga. How could you have them lose to these kids? Would you need to have the kids either lose or be bailed out every storyline?
The answer would be to introduce new villains to be associated with the established ones in the same way the New Mutants were associated to the X-Men. And with issue #7, did writer Chris Claremont ever throw us a whopper.
Meet Axe, a henchman hired by Sebastian Shaw for a very simple reason: to prevent the wife of millionaire businessman Emmanuel DaCosta from exploring a rather remote area of the Amazon Rainforest. Personally, I had figured that a character so bluntly showing signs of racial exploitation had been removed from comics by that period, but then I realized that the early ’80s was a time when Marvel was still counting Power Man and Iron Fist amongst its noteworthy titles.
So a bit of setup: following a disastrous encounter with Silver Samurai and Viper, Professor X sends the four New Mutants (Karma was MIA) to Sunspot’s hometown of Rio de Janeiro to accompany his (very white) mother on an archaelogical dig in the Amazon. Unfortunately, this dig would put her right on top of the hidden city of Nova Roma, pet project of the Hellfire Club’s Black Queen Selene, so newly discovered member of the Club Emmanuel DaCosta (Sunspot’s father) reports to Sebastian Shaw, who in turn hires “top mercenary” Axe to kidnap the woman and prevent her dig. As luck would have it, the New Mutants just happen to be present when the merc makes his move.
Apologies for the craptastic quality of the image. The intro quotation is “I’m AXE! Mess with me, you be chopped down to size – you dig?” And in just two sentences, Chris Claremont revealed that he had never spoken to an actual black man before. But beyond the somewhat offensive dialogue, we meet Axe – who’s only ability seems to be that he carries an axe. Seriously – he’s a ridiculously tall and muscular guy, but who isn’t in comics?
Anyway, this is the guy sent by the guys who nearly defeated the X-Men twice (the second time was foiled by their failure to read up on Nightcrawler’s girlfriend) even though they knew that the mutant kids were there. And at first he does good work. He makes short work of Sunspot:
And then shows that he is man enough to hit a teenage girl when he drops Psyche, whose power doesn’t work on him ’cause he ain’t scared o’ nuthin!
You might notice, though, that despite his initial warning, Axe doesn’t actually use his axe when fighting. In fact, that’s a theme through the entire issue. He never uses the damn axe. But I guess it’s fine for an all-age book that the kids don’t actually get cut, even though just an issue before the Silver Samurai used his energy sword to slice Wolfsbane in the side. But she’s a heathen wolf-thing, so that makes it better.
Anyway, with the New Mutants down, Axe hops into the getaway car and takes off with Sunspot’s mama and hangs out in his hideout waiting for the heroes to come get him before the end of the issue. And he even makes it easy for them, as he is accompanied by Hellfire Club goons who are IN UNIFORM, making their affiliation obvious, especially to the New Mutants whose first appearance was based on a Hellfire Club attack.
Anyway, when the kids decide to use fear tactics for their attack, despite Axe’s fear o’ nuthin’, which he restates when them pussyfooted Hellfire Club goons start worrying.
His taunts of course leave him alone for the final confrontation, which Sunspot decides to do on his own, despite be so horridly beaten earlier in the day.
And that’s about as close to using his axe that Axe gets before Sunspot drops him in three punches. The kids save the mama, and Axe is carted off to jail with Sebastian Shaw shocked, SHOCKED that such a high-calibur mercenary lost so badly to a bunch of meddling kids. And to my knowledge, Axe has stayed in jail since. I googled the sentence term for kidnapping, and actually got a rather similar question through Yahoo! Answers that someone suggested the penalty was the death sentence. Either way, it’s obvious that the Hellfire Club decided not to bail him out and without his trusty and effective axe (I’m assuming) Axe has remained in Brazillian jail ever since.
This issue was a handy follow-up to the previous two-parter involving Team America, a travelling motorcycle stunt show made up of mutant racial stereotypes with a collective power and one of the more obvious examples of a MacGuffin I can recall, but that will have to wait for a future post.