Saturday, December 08, 2007

Jason Powell on Classic X-Men #6, part b

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's Classic X-Men. For more in the series see the link in the right toolbar.]

Claremont Appreciation, Post Ten

A Love Story”

Claremont does a “silent” story, and it’s very self-aware. Ostensibly it is examining the innocence of Scott Summers’ and Jean Grey’s relationship, and mourning the fact that, as of X-Men #98, it will – to use a Claremont cliché – “never be the same.”

In the ‘60s, Scott and Jean were fairly bland as superhero couples go. Their early romantic tension had been defined by the angst of not knowing how the other felt, but once that was eliminated circa issue 32, the relationship had no defining dynamic that made it interesting. Claremont eventually made this narrative flaw into a salient character point: i.e., The reason the relationship seems boring is that it is; and the reason Scott and Jean don’t ever seem to be very romantic around each other is because Scott is so uptight. Hence, Jean’s attraction to the far more volatile personality of Wolverine. Considering how much it has been mined by subsequent writers of the comics, and how central it was to the first film, the Scott-Jean-Logan love triangle is surely one of Claremont’s most significant contributions to the X-Men franchise.

Wolverine is not part of the picture here, however. In “A Love Story,” Claremont takes advantage of John Bolton’s clean artistic style to paint a very pretty picture (literally) of the early Scott/Jean relationship. It is anything but staid in this story; instead, it glows with the effervescence of youthful optimism, as personified in the idealized drawings of Jean and Scott. Though no words are spoken, both characters are impossibly attractive; Jean is fresh, wide-eyed and glamorous, while Scott is the picture of debonair. And Claremont does sneak in some words, through means other than dialogue: Most significantly, Jean reads a note left by roommate Misty Knight informing her that she’ll be out of town for a while. “Go for broke!” is the concluding line of the letter, which is Claremont’s cheeky, silly way of suggesting that if Jean has her way, tonight’s date will end with Jean and Scott’s first sexual experience.

It’s all extremely sweet, but there is a twist. Jean and Scott are wearing the outfits that they wear in Uncanny X-Men #98 (or Classic X-Men #6a), which is when the Sentinels attack, touching off a story that will end in Jean becoming Phoenix. So, not only do we know that Scott and Jean won’t be consummating their relationship tonight, but we also know that Scott and Jean’s relationship is about to be destroyed. The visual cue for all of this within “Love Story” itself is its final panels: a zoom up on a poster on Jean’s wall, advertising Edith Nesbit’s play “The Phoenix and the Carpet.” The final page depicts a sonic boom as a Sentinel flies past the window of Jean’s apartment; the walls shake, and a framed portrait of Scott and Jean cracks, while the word “Phoenix” in the poster looms ominously.

So “A Love Story” has an air of tragedy about it, in that we are seeing Scott and Jean’s final moments of happiness before the Phoenix ruins their lives. But there’s another layer here. Even back in 1986, when Classic X-Men #6 was first published, X-Men fans knew that the Phoenix story had come, over time, to dominate the X-Men narrative perhaps too comprehensively. For various reasons, this odd plot device became an albatross around the neck of Claremont’s X-Men. (John Byrne, after leaving the comic with issue 143, despaired of Claremont never being able to “let [the Phoenix] go.”) Up until now, Classic X-Men readers have been enjoying the glorious pre-Phoenix days, but here in issue 6, Claremont very consciously signals to the audience that it’s time to wave that early innocence good-bye. The Phoenix is coming, and once it’s here, it’s not going away anytime soon.


CresceNet said...
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Patrick said...

I don't know if it's Claremont who couldn't let the Phoenix go, or Scott, hence his attraction a variety of Jean substitutes over the years. I love the Maddy Pryor story, and wish I knew where Claremont originally intended it to go. As it is, I love the way Claremont rehibilitates her once the metatextual is made textual, and her status as a replacement for Jean becomes part of the narrative.

Despite it's prominence in the X-Men mythology, I've always found the Phoenix, and the Shiar stuff that accompanies it, a bit incongruous. It has nothing to say about the supposedly central motif of the series, the human/mutant conflict. What I find interesting about people who say the series went down hill after Byrne left is that the human/mutant conflict barely factors in here, it's not until Mutant Massacre that that stuff really comes into play.

Jason Powell said...

Neil Shyminsky has convinced me that a sci-fi milieu (such as the Shi'Ar empire) is an appropriate setting for the X-Men thematically. He's got a great post about it on his blog, which I won't even try to paraphrase because I'll screw it up. But it's genius.

As for the Phoenix, someone I chatted with online had a good thought about this as well, about how it thematic sense. Certainly it made sense before the ret-conning of the Phoenix into a separate entity. Originally the Phoenix was a mutant power taken to its ultimate extent, turning a normal human into something beyond. With the typical line in X-Men being boiling down to "mutants are people too," here was a suggestion that this is maybe not so much true. The ending then, with the Watcher's proclamation that Jean Grey could have lived as a god but chose instead to die as a human was a fitting, redemptive ending to the original Phoenix saga.

Then John Byrne ret-conned it and shot the whole thing to f*ck. But Claremont incorporates the ret-con into his Classic X-Men backups, so I'll write more about it when I get to "Classic X-Men" #8, part b.

"I love the Maddy Pryor story, and wish I knew where Claremont originally intended it to go."
***I was really heartened to read your comments about this on your own blog, Patrick, because I like Maddy too -- but other places on the net seem to have a special hatred reserved for this character. Which is kind of a shame, says I.

From what I understand, though, Claremont's original plan was that Maddy WAS Jean Grey/Phoenix come back from the dead. But the idea was that this would never be said explicitly. Attentive readers would be able to figure it out, but it would be slipped past Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter (who had decreed Jean would not be allowed to come back). When Claremont wrote Cyclops and Maddy out of the comic in issue 176, this was -- from what I understand -- meant to be more or less permanent: a happy ending for Scott and (to readers who had gleaned it from the details) Jean.

Mitch said...

I have recently been definitively convinced that Jean Grey should have never been brought back. I've always loved her as a character, but really can anyone name one story that they've told since she returned that wouldn't have worked just as well (or better) with Madelyne or Rachel? The closest thing would be Morrison's run- but again who knows how cool a Goblin Queen/White Queen love triangle would might have been? Or Rachel turning into Phoenix throughout the run?


Troy Wilson said...

In a 1985 Amazing Heroes interview, Claremont noted with justifiable pride that he hadn't dug up Jean Grey. There had been several fake-outs by that point (Kitty disguised a Phoenix, the Phoenix energy in X-Men/Teen Titans, and Madelyne), but never the real deal.

It's particularly sad that Jean was brought back for the reunification of the orginal X-Men in X-Factor, a comic that was, at least initially, godawful.

Jason Powell said...

That's interesting! And in a much more recent interview (in that Tom DeFalco book of interviews with X-Men creators), he talks about how he reacted when he learned -- (probably only months after that Amazing Heroes interview!) -- that Marvel was resurrecting Jean in another comic. He was at a restaurant having dinner with his editor at the time, Ann Nocenti, and she told him. If I'm recalling the interview correctly, Claremont had to get up, walked outside, and punched a wall.

I think he also said that this happened on a Friday, and that if he hadn't had the weekend to calm down and find some perspective, he might've just quit writing X-Men, right then.

Troy Wilson said...

Thanks for the info, Jason. I don't blame him for being so pissed off.