Saturday, December 29, 2007

Jason Powell on Classic X-Men #7, part b

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men. For more in this series, click his name in the right tool-bar.]

“Out With the Old”

Almost all of the Claremont-Bolton backups are wonderfully done, but this one is especially fantastic. No X-Men are featured as characters, but we do meet a new mutant faction led by Sebastian Shaw. Claremont lays out the entire Hellfire Club premise here, ret-conning it into X-Men continuity years earlier than it was originally. It’s a club whose membership only extends to people with “wealth beyond measure.” Once inside its walls, all concessions to contemporary mores are stripped away. Theoretically, this means that a lot of crazy sh*t goes down in the Club, but as this is a Comics-Code-approved superhero comic, what it means in practice is that everyone dresses as if it was the 1700s, and a lot of the women walk around in corsets and knee-high high-heeled boots. This was all John Byrne’s idea originally, who was inspired by an episode of “The Avengers” (not the comic, but the show that later inspired a Ralph Fiennes/Uma Thurman movie) entitled “A Touch of Brimstone.”

What we see here is Claremont retrofitting the Hellfire Club into the Sentinels story by associating them with the mysterious “Council of the Chosen” (name-checked in Uncanny X-Men #100 but never really explained). Since the Hellfire Club are all mutants by the time they debut in Uncanny X-Men #129, some explanation is needed for why they would ally themselves with Stephen Lang and finance his mutant-hunting project. So the story in Classic X-Men #6b is what some would call a “continuity patch” – depicting a coup in which a group of mutants led by Sebastian Shaw overthrow the Council of the Chosen, the anti-mutant bigots that run the Hellfire Club and who backed Lang’s agenda. Shaw takes control of the Club and sets up his own Inner Circle, and all is in place for when the Hellfire Club show up again in the continuity.

Because they are club members already when this story begins, Shaw and his mutant allies (among them Emma Frost) are all decked out in 18th-century style outfits. This includes Shaw in all his purple-garbed glory, including a large bow in his hair, which Geoff has pointed out might look a little silly. Personally, I like it. The quaintness of his Hellfire Club clothing is a deliberate contrast to his character and personality, which is hardness on every level. He is described in “Out With the Old” as having worked his way up from poverty to a position of wealth. And his mutant power is all relentlessly physical, i.e., he hits harder, the harder he is hit. (Morrison missed this when he wrote him, apparently, giving him telepathic powers instead.)

Emma Frost (never drawn sexier than she is here, by John Bolton) is the female counterpart to Shaw, with a similar contradiction: corset-and-lace exterior, diamond-hard interior. (Sorry to belabor this, but I think Morrison screwed this up too, literalizing her personality by giving her the ability to turn into diamond. Seems too painfully literal to me – but that might just be my bias at work. It’s not as if a name like “Frost” isn’t obvious.)

The Claremont/Bolton backups are generally character-based, but this one includes a fantastic action sequence in which Shaw fights Lang’s Sentinels. Bolton rises to the challenge of dramatically depicting a man dressed in Regency-era British clothing (which is purple) fighting a giant robot (that is also purple – the exact same shade, in fact), and the whole thing is exciting and atmospheric. Claremont does as an excellent job of mixing in sci-fi terminology with high melodrama, with Shaw reciting a list of the Sentinel’s high-tech features (“...omnium steel frame, chobham armor, shock repressors, fast-acting damage control and repair systems ...”) even as he takes it down, then concluding with, “But good as you are ... you’re only a machine! And this man will always prove your better!” Great fun.

There’s a fantastic bit of dialogue toward the end of the Sentinel sequence, when Shaw’s lover, a mutant named Lourdes, dies from wounds received during the fight. It begins with a fairly standard cliché: As she starts to fade, she flashes back to a happy time in her life, and wishes she could be there again. She then looks at Shaw and says, “Oh, Sebastian ... why does Buckman hate us ...” Shaw’s reply: “Fear. Of what we are, and what we represent.” And then he adds, “Now, I’ll give him cause.”

From a sentimental flashback to a gently plaintive indictment of the villain’s racism, to Shaw’s surprisingly pragmatic response, to a chilling set-up for the story’s final act (“Buckman” is the head of the Council of the Chosen, the man who sicced the Sentinels on Shaw and the other mutant members). And it all happens in just a few lines. The flow is fantastic, and a great example of Claremont at his absolute best.


Anonymous said...

I loved this story - great to see CC build up his villains like this - he truly makes them 3 dimensional. I hope he gets to explore Shaw more in his his XMen Forever series.

wwk5d said...

"Since the Hellfire Club are all mutants by the time they debut in Uncanny X-Men #129, some explanation is needed for why they would ally themselves with Stephen Lang and finance his mutant-hunting project."

Well, technically, Donald Pierce wasn't a mutant. And he hated mutants. Which made his presence in the Inner Circle strange. Then again, maybe a hold-over from the days of the Council?