Dramatic Reminders: "X-men #5"

There was once a time when Cyclops and Jean Grey were awkward teenagers. Now they have to deal with that awkwardness while on the run.

X-Men #5

Publisher: Marvel
Length: 22 pages
Writer: Brian Wood, David López
Price: $3.99
Publication Date: 2013-11

It’s easy to forget that everyone was an awkward teenager at some point in their lives. Being a teenager is akin to being a young bird that's still learning to fly. However, birds don’t have to deal with their raging hormones, reckless impulses, and bodily changes that would put most caterpillars to shame. They also don’t have to deal with an army of adults that can’t stand the notion of trusting teenagers to make responsible decisions. Whether it’s because of their own experience as or because they’ve forgotten what it was like to be young, adults often try to make big decisions for teenagers and teenagers usually don’t like that.

This is the situation that the time displaced Cyclops and Jean Grey have to confront in "Battle of the Atom". Now the adults are essentially taking their decision to stay in the present out of their hands and like Sir Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion, their actions have prompted an equally opposite reaction from the two young teenagers. In X-men #5, this reaction manifests in a way that would frustrate most responsible adults while reminding others that teenage melodrama is like a beehive. Disturbing it the wrong way and it'll only make things worse.

Each part of the "Battle of the Atom" event has focused on elements of the story, but the main plot has not changed. The X-men are trying to preserve their past and save their future by sending the Original Five X-men back to their own time. At first, the X-men from the present and the future are united in their efforts. They share resources and manpower to track down a teenage Cyclops and Jean Grey. After the shocking revelations in the first two issues, nobody seems to be thinking critically about what they’re doing. They’re basically trying to hoard a couple of deeply distressed teenagers into doing something they don’t want to do. Even with the aid of future knowledge, that’s every bit as daunting as an attack from an army of Sentinels.

But as X-men #5 unfolds, the mission becomes secondary to the drama it inspires. Throughout this issue, Cyclops and Jean Grey don’t act like the mature superheroes that inspired generations of X-men. They act like teenagers. They find themselves in some beautifully awkward moments that don’t involve killer robots or mutant powers. Everything from raging hormones to complicated emotions plague them at every turn. And they have to deal with this while trying to avoid detection from a team of adult X-men equipped with resources the NSA could only dream of. It’s like trying to impress a date while being chased by hungry wolves, but that doesn’t keep them from sharing a few dramatic moments.

These moments help add some emotional resonance to a story that has already had plenty of emotional moments. These moments feel somewhat overdue and Jean even admits this in the issue, admitting that she had been treating Cyclops as if he had the plague since they arrived in the future. Like many teenagers, she made some overly simplistic judgments about Cyclops based on what his future self did and had some overly emotional reactions. However, they still trust each other in the same way they have trusted each other since the earliest days of Uncanny X-men. For an entire generation of readers that only know Cyclops and Jean Grey as the overly responsible adults, it serves as a pleasant reminder that they weren’t always the uptight role models that have to come back from the dead every few years.

Since "Battle of the Atom" is meant to be the X-men’s 50th anniversary event, it’s fitting that it brings two of the most iconic X-men back to their roots. Like the cantankerous old men on Fox News who complain about today’s youth, many readers forget that Cyclops and Jean Grey were teenagers at some point. And in their youth, they embodied the spirit of Charles Xavier’s dream and a big part of that dream was self-determination. Now they are fighting to determine who will decide their fate, even if it means risking the integrity of the timeline. While most of the X-men aren’t content to leave this determination in the hands of a couple of teenagers, some understand their overly dramatic reaction more than others.

This leads to a pivotal turning point in this issue and in "Battle of the Atom" as a whole. Some of the present X-men start to question the intentions of the future X-men. They may not sympathize with two teenagers putting an entire timeline at risk, but they do have a problem with forcing them to accept their fate. This stirs up the first round of tension between the present and future X-men, which allow Cyclops and Jean to continue running. Because as most teenagers probably know, when adults start arguing, their capacity to harass them diminishes.

The growing tension and the unfolding drama help give X-men #5 a special kind emotional resonance. The action never goes beyond an extended chase that probably wouldn’t make the final cut in any of the Fast and the Furious movies, but impact is still on par with the rest of "Battle of the Atom". There are times, however, when plot flows inconsistently and a number of scenes are a bit underdeveloped. But it still moves the story forward in a compelling way.

Every great superhero was an awkward teenager at some point. But even for those who weren’t born with superpowers, these awkward years were very influential. The Original Five X-men began their path as teenagers. Between near-extinction and spats with other superheroes, it’s easy to forget that the X-men went through these formative phases. And after 50 years, they still make for a compelling narrative and despite their awkwardness throughout X-men #5, Cyclops and Jean Grey are still the best embodiments of that narrative.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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