Saturday, November 17, 2007

Jason Powell on Classic X-Men #5, part a (incorporating X-Men #97)

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men. For the rest of the posts in this series click his name in the toolbar on the right. Powell finds a great connection between Grant Morrison and Arnold Drake here].

My Brother, My Enemy

X-Men #97 is the first 100% Claremontian issue of the series, featuring an abundance of characters, an abundance of subplots, and an abundance of elements that won’t make a lot of sense until later issues clear it all up. In this case, X-Men fans wouldn’t get a full explanation for all the goings-on here until X-Men #107. X-Men was bi-monthly back then, so Claremont was keeping fans in the dark for 20 months ... over a year and half.

The premise of the storyline beginning in “My Brother, My Enemy” is that when Xavier used telepathy to repel an alien race in Neal Adams’ and Roy Thomas’ X-Men #65, there was an accidental side effect: His consciousness somehow interfaced with that of an alien princess called Lilandra, who is now on her way to Earth. None of the above is explained in the present issue, but the fact that Claremont’s story is tied into Neal Adams’ final X-Men comic from the ‘60s is significant. In an interview in “Comic Book Artist” #3 in 1998, Neal Adams said this about his own run on X-Men:

“What I did was make the world of the X-Men more complicated; build one thing on top of the other, integrate one thing into the other, so that after a while, you get a whole world populated by these characters, all integrated, so that you started to see a tapestry of characters, all having these different interrelationships. I don't think the X-Men ever should have been a story and then a story and then a story; it should be this tapestry that goes on.”

By tying in his first major X-Men arc to Neal Adams’ last, Claremont here both acknowledges his debt to Adams and makes it clear that the “tapestry” approach will continue. And then he goes even further.

The bulk of issue #97 is a battle between the X-Men and “Eric the Red,” which is another callback to an earlier X-Men story, and a significant one. The original “Eric the Red” was actually Cyclops, going undercover in X-Men #’s 49-52 to infiltrate a group of evil mutants led by Magneto and a mutant hypnotist called Mesmero. That storyline, written by “Doom Patrol” creator Arnold Drake, also involved Magneto falsely claiming to be the father of Lorna Dane, before Iceman exposed the truth at the climax of the story.

Neal Adams and Roy Thomas then went on to reveal (only about six issues later) that the Magneto who worked with Mesmero was a robot duplicate, rendering Drake’s story moot. This is eerily similar to what Marvel editorial recently did to Morrison’s “Xorn”-Magneto, ret-conning him into an imposter so that the “real” Magneto stayed more like the one Claremont used to write. So let this be a lesson to comicbook writers: Don’t fuck with Magneto and expect it to stick – especially if you used to write “Doom Patrol.”

The result of Roy Thomas and Neal Adams’ fiddling is a crazy-quilt cluster of retroactive continuity residing at this point in X-Men history – a daughter of Magneto who isn’t really his daughter, a Magneto who isn’t really Magneto, a villain (Erik the Red) who isn’t real at all, but just a false identity. This odd backwater of X-Men continuity could’ve been ignored, but Claremont instead embraces it, and adds another confusing layer: a “real” Erik the Red who – like Mesmero from the earlier story – has hypnotic powers. Claremont recognizes, perhaps only intuitively, that the weirdest parts of a superhero’s history are also its best, and so he attempts to make everything in X-Men history, even the craziest parts – especially the craziest parts – a significant part of the tapestry.

On the final page of this issue, Dave Cockrum zooms out from the aftermath of the Erik the Red battle to show the X-Men being watched on a monitor by a character who in turn is also being watched. Cockrum’s zoom-out may or may not be another deliberate call-back to the original X-Men run. In X-Men #36, the final shot is of the X-Men at the airport, getting on a plane to go battle with a villain team called Factor Three, unaware that their departure is being watched on a monitor ... by a member of Factor Three. So both X-Men #36 and #97 end with the X-Men at an airport, unknowingly being watched by a villain. If it’s a deliberate call-back by Cockrum, it’s a shrewd one, reminding longtime readers of the Factor Three storyline, another oddly constructed and contradiction-laden story in Silver Age X-Men continuity, that was as protracted and strange as Claremont’s Lilandra/Erik the Red storyline is going to turn out to be.

By adding a second mysterious watcher to the scenario, Cockrum and Claremont are either trying to one-up the previous version, or tacitly admitting that they are not so much building complexity from scratch as they are simply adding to an extant complexity with a new layer.

[GK: A couple of obvious observations: Cockrum is a great artist whose stuff aged really well I think -- his splash page in this issue is a good example of this. Claremont continues his "telling not showing" policy by having Cyclops inform us that Banshee and Wolverine were stolen. And starting off an issue with overused Shakespeare lines -- yikes. But still he continues to grow on me, as I learn to relax a little, appreciate how influential he was and cut him some slack for the era in which he wrote. It would be many years until Moore could do dense stuff with literary sources in League for example].

17 comments:

FrF said...

I hope that Jason won't tire of his X-Men marathon because I enjoy it very much!

Geoff Klock said...

I know I already pointed it out in the intro but this blows me away:

"The bulk of issue #97 is a battle between the X-Men and “Eric the Red,” which is another callback to an earlier X-Men story, and a significant one. The original “Eric the Red” was actually Cyclops, going undercover in X-Men #’s 49-52 to infiltrate a group of evil mutants led by Magneto and a mutant hypnotist called Mesmero. That storyline, written by “Doom Patrol” creator Arnold Drake, also involved Magneto falsely claiming to be the father of Lorna Dane, before Iceman exposed the truth at the climax of the story. Neal Adams and Roy Thomas then went on to reveal (only about six issues later) that the Magneto who worked with Mesmero was a robot duplicate, rendering Drake’s story moot. This is eerily similar to what Marvel editorial recently did to Morrison’s “Xorn”-Magneto, ret-conning him into an imposter so that the “real” Magneto stayed more like the one Claremont used to write. So let this be a lesson to comicbook writers: Don’t fuck with Magneto and expect it to stick – especially if you used to write “Doom Patrol.”"

What a great concluding sentence.

Patrick said...

I never realized the whole Lilandra plot was a consequence of what happened in X-Men #65, I thought it was just a random occurence. This actually makes things make a lot more sense. As for the issue, the series still isn't quite all there, but Claremont is laying in themes and characters that would become really important as time goes on, so it's worth checking out.

Side note, have you been reading any current X-Men stuff? After not reading anything since Morrison, I got the Carey and Brubaker hardcovers. Carey's work was pretty strong, exactly the sort of stuff that you'd want from X-Men. I didn't think much of Brubaker's though.

Christian said...

I haven't read anything of Bru's ongoing, but I think Deadly Genesis is potentially the only bad book he's ever written. And I really love his stuff having read everything from Catwoman to Deadenders (Oh when are we going to get the rest of it traded?!) to Point Blank.

Patrick said...

I haven't read Deadly Genesis yet, but his first twelve issues are a direct sequel to it, set in the Shiar Empire. Now, not reading DG could explain why I didn't like the arc that much, but if it's anything like DG, I'm guessing that both of them are pretty bad. This arc wasn't just flat or uninspired, it was actively bad.

Geoff Klock said...

I read the issues of Carey's X-Men that Bachalo drew because I love Bachalo. It was pretty good I thought. But that is it. I hated Deadly Genesis, and some other stuff Brubaker did, so I avoided it Uncanny.

neilshyminsky said...

I picked up one issue of the nightmare that was Deadly Genesis. In it, the Beast wonders where all the mutant energy went, since energy can't be destroyed but only transformed/transported. This is an idiotic line for at least 2 reasons:

1) Superhero science has never actually made sense, so it's stupid to pretend that it should make sense now. If mutant energy actually worked this way, Cyclops body should be at risk of exploding at any moment and his neck should snap from the counter-force of every optic blast.

2) It also fails to account for the last time that every mutant was transformed into a human, back in 2001 right before Morrison and Casey started writing. No giant energy entity in that story, and no wondering about where all that power went.

Not surprisingly, I also never bothered to buy a Brubaker issue of Uncanny X-Men.

Jason Powell said...

I page through the occasional X-Men comic these days -- usually a trade when I'm at Barnes and Noble -- but I almost always find something that turns me off almost immediately (e.g., "I had to pee.")

Paging through Deadly Genesis, I found that I liked the idea of ret-conning Giant Sized X-Men #1, and there's a bit in there where Xavier and Moira visit the White Queen at the Hellfire Club that I actually thought looked intriguing ...

.... but the actual overall story looked to be crappy, so I passed on it.

"X-Men: The End" by Claremont had maybe two scenes that I liked, the rest was stomach-turningly bad.

"X-Men: First Class" is kind of cute. But it makes too many hamfisted attempts to be "canonical" and it ruins the effect, which is supposed to be of a more innocent X-era. They should've just made the series free-standing, in its own continuity. But other than that, it's pretty good. I'd call it the only good X-title presently being published, based on what I've seen (which I admit is not everything).

Jason Powell said...

Geoff,

Your comment about Cyclops informing us that Banshee and Wolverine were taken -- that applies to X-Men #98, doesn't it? Not this present one, although both issues 97 and 98 are very light on Banshee and Wolverine.

I'd conjecture that this might be 'cause of Cockrum, not Claremont. Wolverine and Banshee are the only two of the "new" team that Cockrum didn't design/create. He may be showing a bias against them, with the way they don't turn up till the end of issue #97 and how we only hear about them being kidnapped rather than see it happen in #98.

(Also, Classic X-Men #6 redresses the problem, by adding a new page to the story in which we do see Wolverine and Banshee get taken.)

Patrick said...

I've been getting a bunch of X-Men trades from my library, and Carey's X-Men is the only one that's jumped out at me so far. House of M was ridiculously bad, and Milligan was not as good as I'd expect, though his X-Force/X-Statix is brilliant.

Carey's X-Men is really good, with strong character work and actual forward motion for the overall universe. Things have been disrupted a bit by Messiah Complex, but that crossover has been quite good so far, hitting all the right X-Men marks.

Geoff Klock said...

Neil -- good points.

Jason -- I may be thinking of X-Men 98. I was going from notes, not the issue, and I probably wrote it down wrong.

Patrick: Carey's at least felt like something different -- but without Bachalo, it is not good enough for me to pick up.

Jason Powell said...

"and Milligan was not as good as I'd expect, though his X-Force/X-Statix is brilliant."

I've many times been tempted to pick up all the X-Force/X-Statix trades in a single pop. But of course that would be a pricey poop. But they do sound pretty great.

"Carey's X-Men is really good, with strong character work and actual forward motion for the overall universe."

If I still cared about the overall mutant universe, it seems likely that Carey would be my favorite these days, too. Unfortunately they lost me back in 1993. I was already still smarting from Claremont's departure at the end of '91, but I held on until "X-Cutioner's Song," at which point I finally fully grasped how utterly inept the X-universe had become. I will still buy the occasional X project like "Children of the Atom" or "The End" or "First Class" if they seem suitably detached from the overall X-verse, but nothing will ever tempt me to dive back into that pool again.

Geoff Klock said...

"a pricey poop" is a hell of a Freudian slip.

Jason Powell said...

[cringe]

Matthew J. Brady said...

Re: superhero science - I don't know if it never makes sense, but I do sometimes enjoy when writers try to come up with actual scientific explanations for stuff, especially when it's really goofy. The funny thing about the House of M energy is that something like three different Marvel books tried to make use of that particular plot point, including the basis for the Jeph Loeb/Rob Liefeld Onslaught revival. That's funny.

Oh, and as for the Cyclops thing, I think I read a Marvel Handbook entry that tried to come up with an explanation for it by saying that his eyes are actually a portal to a separate universe full of energy or something, so any "equal and opposite reaction" would be on the other side of the portal. Sure, why not?

JMC said...

Great post. I have to agree if you read Uncanny 50-52 it is clear that the writers intended for that to be the real Magneto and they decided a year later to retcon it. Which set up for a muddled mess of a story like the whole Xorneto crap.

wwk5d said...

"Don’t fuck with Magneto and expect it to stick – especially if you used to write “Doom Patrol.”"

Awesome.