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CSBG Archive

Frantic as a cardiograph scratching out the lines, Day 81: X-Men Unlimited #16

Every day this year, I will be examining the first pages of random comics. Today’s page is from X-Men Unlimited #16, which was published by Marvel and is cover dated September 1997. Enjoy!

It gets worse ... much worse!

Yes, I own the sixteenth issue of X-Men Unlimited, long after it had ceased being a comic that anyone would think is absolutely necessary to own. What can I say? It was the 1990s, I didn’t have children, and the X-Universe was still coherent enough that one felt that they actually might get a story in this book that would have consequences in others. Don’t judge me! I know you like to rub Ben Raab comics all over your naked body late at night when you don’t think anyone is watching!

So, yes, this is a Ben Raab comic, drawn by Melvin Rubi, inked by Rob Hunter, colored by Shannon Blanchard, and lettered by Richard Starkings. None of the people involved with this comic exactly cover themselves in glory, but the first page is a far less egregious example of Ninetiesitis than we see later in the book. Raab gives us the scene-setting prose that every X-comic before the arrival of Morrison had to have, it seems, letting us know that we’re in the Snow Valley school where Banshee and Emma Frost had set up shop in the 1990s, and we also find out that it’s a school for mutants. Sean (Banshee) and Emma are going over applicants for a “pet project” of Emma’s, and Sean thinks they’ve found a good one even though, for some reason, he doesn’t think the project is such a great idea. Emma, meanwhile, seems about to object to his selection with her “I’ll be the judge of that …”, which she does on the next page. So while we don’t know what the “pet project” is, at least Raab sets it up pretty well with this first page and lets us know that the two headmasters (we don’t know that, but at least we can infer it) aren’t on the same page, so to speak.

Rubi’s Nineties art is muted here because nobody’s doing anything too extreme, but we can see some hints of it. His page layout is perfectly fine – we get a long shot of the school, then we zoom into one of the rooms, which is scattered with folders of applicants. Panels 3 and 4 break down a little, unfortunately. The second panel is fine – it establishes where the two characters are in the room and in relation to each other. Sean doesn’t appear to move, however, except to turn around, and panel 3 shows him “flipping” a folder to Emma (according to the sound effect, this is what he does). Is it the one Emma is holding in panel 4? No, because she’s holding that in panel 2. Is the one that’s pretty much obscured by the word balloons and appears to be floating down toward her? Possibly. Emma, as far as I can tell, is not telekinetic, so she wouldn’t be able to stop the folder in mid-air and have it gently float toward her, so Sean’s throw reached her, which seems unlikely when he’s flipping a folder at her instead of throwing it Frisbee-style (which, of course, he probably would never do to Emma). So the final two panels are a bit odd, storytelling-wise. It’s not a big deal on this page, but it shows the problems in what’s to come with the issue. Sean’s hand in panel 3 is bizarre, too – it’s in the right position, but the elongated fingers and excessive lines (whether that’s Rubi or Hunter I don’t know) make it almost look alien. Emma’s face in panel 4, although far away so less descriptive by necessity, is still far too vapid. Presumably Blanchard put the different colors in Sean’s hair in panel 3, which has been something colorists have done for years, but it always looks strange. Blanchard does give Sean slightly red eyes, which is a nice touch, as they’ve been working for hours.

Story continues below

This comic also shows off the “blurriness” that artists began to use more and more in the ’90s, much to the detriment of comics in general. It’s supposed to look more cinematic, but why anyone would take one of the deficiencies of movies – the lack of deep focus – and actually incorporate it into their comics is beyond me. In panel 2, the foreground of various folders is blurry for no apparent reason except it’s what it would look like through a camera. The blurry aftereffects of the folder flipping in panel 3 do nothing for the art, either – the motion lines and the fact that the folder is hovering in mid-air imply movement, and the blurred folder is, in my humble opinion, lazy. More than the excess of some of the artwork, the 1990s were an era when computer effects, so fresh and new, went a bit nuts. Artists have pulled back from it somewhat, and that’s a good thing.

This might not be the worst first page around, but it does show some of the problems with comics of this time period, and it sets up some truly horrid pages later in this issue. While the prose itself isn’t terrible, the art is a fine example of what not to do when you’re drawing comics. Of course, Rubi actually drew this, so I guess that’s better than some people working today!

Next: More black and white comics? What are we, living in the Middle Ages? Check out some comics with actual color in them in the archives!


I love it when comics uses non-onomatopoetic words as sound effects.

I think I might have owned this one, too. I don’t anymore, though; I took all my crappy ’90s comics to a Half Price Books a couple years ago. Got some money for them, but not as much as I spent on them, and no store can give me back the time I wasted reading them when I could have been learning how to talk to girls.

Anyone else kind of like the heavily detailed background? (minus the lame blur-effect). Got to give Rubi this, it looks like he can do backgrounds, which is more than I can say for a lot of other artists.

90s comics are sort of my guilty pleasure (I hesitate to use guilty since all decades of comics have their flaws; 60s had atrocious over-done dialogue, the 70s had way to much of an obsession with topical social issues, and the 80s – well the 80s may not have any really bad trends. The 2000s though – decompression anybody? My point – your fav decade is not objectively better than mine since your idea of good isn’t objective), and to see someone actually trying to be objective instead of going the easy route and just making Liefeld jokes – I tip my hat to you sir.

I agree, the blurriness artists have been using is a really bad idea. It looks awful in comics, for sure, but not only is a variable depth of field is NOT a deficiency of cinema, its extremely important and quite useful in creating a real sense of depth. People work hours on end trying to get more depth into a shot, and creating a clear sense of background, middle ground and foreground with focus can really make a shot. Deep focus works great for some things, but its hardly the gold standard.

Anonymous: Hey, I bought it, so far be it from me to mock! I find it fascinating how good artists – I’m not saying Rubi is one, because I haven’t seen enough of his work – could get caught up in the zeitgeist and turn into clones of the Image guys. It’s weird in hindsight. Plus, as I mentioned, some of this work is perfectly fine.

BitBiteOuch: That’s a good point. But we agree that it still doesn’t work in comics!

Travis Pelkie:Man-Thing

March 22, 2012 at 1:47 am

All I know is I gotta find me some more Ben Raab comics.

And some lotion.

I think the depth of focus “trick” can work in comics when the shift in focus is actually part of the story-telling. The first example that came to mind for me is this page from Astonishing X-Men:


I feel like Cassaday & Martin might have done something similar in Planetary but I can’t remember for sure.

[…] Frantic as a cardiograph scratching out the lines, Day 81: X-Men Unlimited #16Comic Book Resourcesby Greg Burgas Every day this year, I will be examining the first pages of random comics. Today's page is from X-Men Unlimited #16, which was published by Marvel and is cover dated September 1997. Enjoy! Yes, I own the sixteenth issue of X-Men … […]

” why anyone would take one of the deficiencies of movies – the lack of deep focus”

It’s not a deficiency. People can choose to shoot movies with deep focus, and sometimes do. But viewers generally don’t like it because it’s not natural. Deep focus, paradoxical as it seems, actually emphasizes the fact that you’re looking at a flat movie screen, because it isn’t how the human eye sees.

sean: I still see it as a deficiency, and I love deep focus. The eye focuses so quickly that it still looks artificial to me in cinema, but, as I mentioned above, I do see your point. My point, which I didn’t make very well, is that comics don’t need to use blurry images to give the sense of three dimensions, yet they do. And it’s annoying.

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