Thunderbirds are Go!

I made a joke about Krautrock on Facebook last weekend on a friend’s page and instantly another poster accused me of utilising a “lazy racism filter”. Heaven knows how this post will be received…

Yesterday, I saw a video clip of Native Americans free- associating their reactions to the name “Columbus”. Responses included “genocide” and “evil”.  Then today, I saw a comic ad for a new Red Wolf series which reminded  me  of another mid-life milestone: my introduction to the All-New X-Men in the winter of 1975/76.

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Of the many new US comics I encountered forty or so years ago, this one, along with the Conan/Belit saga and Gerber’s Defenders, made a very big impression on me. My favourite new mutants were Nightcrawler and Storm. But one, referred to only in the letters page, intrigued me most of all.

John Proudstar aka Thunderbird, according to author Chris Claremont, was killed off primarily for drama and shock value because he duplicated too many other X-Men. So of course, I longed to see this character and his demise. I even dreamed about reading X-Men 95. Literally. But such were the vagaries of distribution in those days, as I regularly say,  it would be a fairly lengthy wait.

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My first glimpse of Thunderbird was a minuscule image on the tiny cover of Foom 10 in a Marvel ad, circa 1977. It wasn’t until the b/w reprint of G-S X-Men 1 in 1978’s Rampage magazine that I saw a  full-figure  illustration of the hero. His slightly fussy costume was clearly a meld of Cockrum’s Lightning Lad ( one of the simplest and most striking designs of the 70s) and team-mate Ultra Boy.  I had already learned about his generic power set from a text feature in RM 2.

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Then I was able to read about Thunderbird’s last stand in the summer of 1979- or I would have, had the Rampage issue with the climax of the story actually made it to my newsagent. (I wouldn’t see the whole story- with “extra footage”-until Classic X-Men 2 & 3, in the mid-80s)

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I next saw the character- in colour at last- in X-Men 138 in the late autumn of 1980.  My school friend Graham Sim loaned me his copy, which was like a hen’s tooth.

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A successor to the mantle- younger sibling James Proustar was introduced as a member of the Hellions: the Hellfire Club’s mirror image of the New Mutants. James adopted the costume in a mid-80s issue of X-Men 193.

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In the early 90s, James then took on the identity of Warpath as his family were massacred in one of those cliche, routine slaughters that bedevil the X-verse in order to provide “motivation”. He became a member of Liefeld’s militaristic Titans “homage” X-Force  for many years. As the team “brick”, the hero was bulkier and more threatening.

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Meanwhile  Claremont introduced a third Thunderbird, solar-powered Neal Sharra, in the early Noughties. As an actual Indian ( not an “American Indian”), the nomenclature made little sense and the hero is little seen now, if at all.

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Proudstar has hardly had a stellar career although he did appear in the Days of Future Past movie and, earlier, was the protagonist of a House of M miniseries. I think it’s safe to say that the character has had a very poor deal.

Was Claremont being disingenuous, all those years ago? Certainly, the death of the Swordsman propelled the Avengers from a plodding, rather poorly drawn series of rehashed Roy Thomas plots into tragedy and Kozmic action. Similarly, Thunderbird’s death raised the stakes for the New X-men. And his powers were redundant: his speed was nowhere near that of Quicksilver (married and semi-retired at the time) or Storm and Banshee. Had he had vibratory powers, ( a la Vibe) Banshee, Storm and Cyclops would have long-range attacks covered. Wolverine outdid him as a tracker and Colossus was much stronger.

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The only remaining route might have been as “medicine man”-the route taken later with Forge and Moonstar. But not only is it patronising, it’s also uncomfortably similar to Apache Chief from Super Friends.

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In lieu of original powers, James Proudstar is now furnished with Adamantium knives- it’s surprising they aren’t tomahawks, in keeping with the “savage” part of Noble Savage.

Like DC’s Sioux hero Man-of-Bats, both Thunderbirds came from a background of  prejudice, deprivation and despair. The seeming death wish of the senior Proudstar is a tragic trait for an indigenous champion.

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It could have been very different, however. If we follow the template of the original X-team, we had Cyclops; the bestial acrobatic guy; the kid who can alter the substance of his body; the girl and the bird-guy. From the All-New X-Men, we can therefore identify Cyke, Nightcrawler, Colossus, Storm and Thunderbird.  If he had walked out in X-Men 94, the modern-day Conan, the feral samurai Wolverine might never have become the megastar he is today. But would that have been a price worth paying , in order to improve the portrayal of Native Americans in comics?

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Coming soon, here or on SFP: Plas, Metal Men, Dr. Strange and Superman Confidential

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