To begin my first edition of Retro Comics, I decided to go back and look at the first comic book I ever read: X-Men Unlimited #3. First published as a double-sized quarterly between 1993 and 2003, X-Men Unlimited served as a short story anthology series in the X-Men universe. The series focused on small, self-contained one-shots between major monthly storylines and events, and provided a vehicle for lesser known writers and artists to work with these well-known franchise characters without impacting the rest of Marvel’s continuity. Issue #3, titled The Whispers Scream, was written by X-Force and Deadpool co-creator Fabien Nicieza and penciled by Mike McKone. It was released December 1993 with cover art by Bill Sienkiewicz.
This issue follows Maverick as he seeks the help of Wolverine in stopping Sabretooth. Following the death of his friend and partner Birdy at the hands of his son Graydon Creed, Sabretooth is on a vicious killing spree, murdering the members of an illicit trade operation that took place some years prior. When Wolverine proves too elusive to find, Maverick instead enlists the assistance of X-Men, to help him track Sabretooth to Japan for an encounter with the Silver Samurai. While this issue first presents itself as a straightforward chase story with Sabretooth as its antagonist, it quickly becomes an intriguing look into the mind of a murderer.
Sabretooth, who had previously relied on the telepathic influence of Birdy to quell his violent urges, is now at a total loss. Overcome by insanity, he begins searching for another telepath to pacify his broken mind. This opens the door to several fascinating questions of morality as Charles Xavier takes it upon himself to venture into the hellish landscape of Sabretooth’s memories. There he finds the source of Sabretooth’s cruelty: A childhood spent under the fist of his abusive father indoctrinated the young Victor Creed in an endless cycle of violence and pain. With Birdy’s help he was able to bury his guilt behind the trauma, and excuse his own savagery as a product of his father’s abuse. Determined to rehabilitate Sabretooth, Xavier agrees to house him at the school, entering into a tenuous pact to put an end to his violence and make him pay for his crimes.
Overall this is a solid and captivating story with some serious emotional punch. A lot of the strength lies in the writing, with some deft handling of the morally compromising situations presented here. At no point does Nicieza attempt to rationalize or excuse Sabretooth’s violence, and that works to his advantage. He appropriately paints the young Victor Creed as a victim of violence, who turned his cruelty outward rather than attempting to overcome his demons. Yes, Sabretooth is a product of brutality, but he chose to pursue this life, making him culpable for his actions. He is a wounded animal, but also an intelligent one as Xavier finds, and something about him is worth trying to redeem. This moral question of putting Sabretooth down like an animal or choosing to rehabilitate him is certainly interesting in the context of a superhero book, given the weight of his crimes and the full breadth of his violence.
No matter the strength of the script, however, it’s the artwork that really carries this book. McKone’s offers some strong art here, with several really engaging panels and dynamic page layouts peppered throughout. There’s a peculiar static quality to his lines that makes the book feel somehow quiet to me, perhaps even a little eerie. It reads like Xavier’s clinical detachment as he moves through Sabretooth’s memories, looking for answers, and perhaps it’s meant to. To put the reader in Xavier’s frame of mind as an unintended viewer looking in on Sabretooth’s madness. Whatever the reason, there’s just something about the ferociousness of McKone’s flat-nosed, dog-like Sabretooth that really sticks with me. It’s sinister and beastly without coming across as cheesy or overplayed, and helps to ground Sabretooth as a villain, albeit a much more complex one than we expected.
This issue is emblematic of 1990s comic books in a lot of ways. From the elaborate and often clunky costumes designs to the sometimes long-winded dialogue, complete with the almost perplexing accents from Rogue and Gambit, this book is quite the product of its time. Even for that, the story is striking with some truly memorable scenes. A nice balance of philosophical questioning and action-adventure storytelling, this is a favorite issue of mine with real staying power, even after twenty years.