Saturday, December 15, 2007

Jason Powell on Classic X-Men 7a (UXM 99)

[Guest Blogger Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont's X-Men run. For more in this series go to the tool-bar on the right, under Guest Bloggers, and click Jason's name.]

“Deathstar Rising”

One of Chris Claremont’s hobbyhorses is pilots – whether of airplanes, helicopters, or space vehicles, Claremont loves them.

Claremont also seems to have a fascination with the machinery as well. Issue #99 is the first indication in an X-Men comic of Claremont’s airplane fixation, but it won’t be the last. There’s a long sequence (made longer in Classic X-Men #7 by some new pages) in which Peter Corbeau smuggles the X-Men into a rocket, and a lot of detail goes into the launch, as well as the countdown leading up to it. Dave Cockrum does some beautiful work during this sequence, the visual details adding a lot to the overall feeling of verisimilitude that Claremont seems to be aiming for.

We also get, during the countdown, another narrative device that will become a Claremont staple: A close-up of each X-Man in rapid succession, each with several attendant word balloons containing verbose inner monologue. This is one of those devices that contemporary readers seem to really despise – presumably because it’s very un-cinematic, and also (I suppose) a bit heavy-handed. Personally, however, I adore it. Claremont writes the best inner monologues in the business for my money, and I like the idea of allowing readers into the heads of every cast member simultaneously.

Characterization revealed during this particular inner-monologue sequence:

Colossus is deathly afraid, because his brother was one of Russia’s first cosmonauts, and he died during a failed launch.

Storm, as a claustrophobe, is freaking out both at being inside the rocket and at being stuck inside an enclosed space suit. She’s not telling her teammates, however. (Recall that at this point, readers know she’s a claustrophobe, but the only other X-Man who’s aware of it is Jean.)

Cyclops is worried about Jean. I know, what else is new, but recall that this point in the storyline, what we know about Cyclops is that when offered a choice between quitting the X-Men when Jean did or staying on to train the new team, he chose the latter. He’s starting to regret that decision now – we’ll see more of this over the next few issues.

Nightcrawler wishes his “friends in Dar Jarmarkt could see [him] now.” Once again, while all the other characters angst over their situation, Nightcrawler is the one who sees the positive side, the attractiveness of the adventure. (Nightcrawler was Cockrum’s favorite of his own X-Men creations, and given Kurt’s rather refreshing attitude in contrast to the other characters in the book at this point, it’s not hard to see why.)

Peter Corbeau even gets his own inner monologue. We learn that whenever he goes into space, he feels like he’s “going home.” Claremont loves to romanticize his astronauts ... even bit-players like Corbeau.

So, the X-Men take a space shuttle to the outer-space headquarters of Steven Lang and his Sentinels. During an outer-space battle, Storm gets sucked out into space. This leads to a strange scene in which Storm is able to generate wind even in outer space, by manipulating “the cosmic storm” as well as she does atmospheric weather. Classic X-Men #7 completely rewrites this scene, and attributes her maneuverability in space to her spacesuit’s jetpack. I’d call that an improvement.

Claremont hints at a romance between Colossus and Ororo in this issue. Claremont may have been too intoxicated by the idea of writing an interracial romance – he was writing one contemporaneously in the pages of “Iron Fist,” between the black Misty Knight and the white title character. For whatever reason, the hint of romantic tension between Colossus and Storm will be aborted in a couple of issues, and soon after Claremont will settle on the more familiar dynamic between the two characters – that of a surrogate-sibling relationship. These early hints tend to ring oddly in retrospect.

Also of note is a single-page montage in which we see news reports about how the Sentinel invasion has touched off a new wave of anti-mutant violence. The firebombing of Judge Chalmers’ house is interesting: First in that it’s a fairly violent image (even though the text makes it clear that no one was killed during the incident); second in that Chalmers (described here as being “pro-mutant”) is not a new character, but actually an anti-mutant judge from the Neal Adams Sentinel arc. Presumably this is another homage/acknowledgement of Claremont’s debt to Adams.

[A few minor things I thought worth mentioning: the phrase "Death Star" appears here less than a year before Star Wars: A New Hope; Claremont's neologism "atmos-spheres" (the personal bubbles that allow the X-Men to survive in the vacuum of space) is very Morrison-esque in retrospect (cf. Extrailia, Magamerica, Euthanasium); and Geraldo hilariously makes an appearance.]


Scott91777 said...

It is very hard to look back at that internal monologue without wincing, however, Claremont WAS the best at this and it was him, along with Marv Wolfman over at The New Teen Titans, the popularized this style and depth of characterization. By today's standards, it is a bit heavy handed but it was definitely an improvement over the lack of charaterization at DC in general and was probably more subtle than anything Stan Lee ever did as far as characterization (for better or worse, Stan Lee did pioneer superheroes with personality).

On a related note, did anyone else read that Claremont sci-fi series from the early 90s? (I was such a huge fan of his work on X-men at the time that I read them)... I think they are collectively known as the 'High Frontier' series but, individually, First Flight, Grounded, and Sundowner were the ones I read (he may have done more since then)... I remember enjoying them at the time, but thinking the prose was too dense... It'd be interesting to go back and re-read the series now.

He also wrote a book sequel to Willow that was co-authored by George Lucas.

Geoff Klock said...

I did not know that about Claremont.

Jason, you write this: "This is one of those devices that contemporary readers seem to really despise – presumably because it’s very un-cinematic, and also (I suppose) a bit heavy-handed. Personally, however, I adore it. Claremont writes the best inner monologues in the business for my money, and I like the idea of allowing readers into the heads of every cast member simultaneously."

The when you say it is un-cinematic, I think you are implying that is the imposition of a recent model on comics, but I think there are real limitations to showing inner states in comics and film for the same reason. I do not feel like we ARE "getting into the characters' heads." I mean, no one actually thinks like that, unless you are busy narrating your own life all the time. Comics really cannot be Ulysses, or whatever, here. I think I would like to do a post on this soon, but my hunch is that boxes rather than word bubbles give the impression more of someone looking back than being in the moment which is why they seem so much more natural. This is a good topic that deserves more thinking.

scott91777 said...

What about the boxes in The Dark Knight Returns? Those seem to be taking place in the moment, however, Miller seems to handle it much more sparsely. Maybe it's that he breaks the thoughts into smaller boxes over several panels... that way it seems as though the thoughts are taking place over the course of several moments rather than the way Claremot would do it which would be a ginourmous thought bubble in a single panel... which makes it seem like a character is spontaneously reciting a monologue. And, ultimately, Miller is much more economic in his word usage as well (I'm not sure I'm expressing it right but I think I'm on to something here).

I'd say Miller probably had a lot to do with the current standard for internal monologue mainstream superhero comics.

Rorschach from Watchmen as well...

Geoff Klock said...

I see where Jason is coming from. Everyone hates the internal monologues, and he wants to defend them. I am starting to see why they are not a reason to do something stupid like avoid Claremont for most of your comic book reading life and never even learn to spell his name -- COUGH!! COUGH!! -- but there is something to the argument that they do not work, and I really want to understand it better.

Jason Powell said...

"I think they are collectively known as the 'High Frontier' series but, individually, First Flight, Grounded, and Sundowner were the ones I read (he may have done more since then)..."

Scott, yes, I have read those. (There are just those three.) I love them. I foolishly lent them to someone long ago and then never got them back. I'd like to re-aquire them someday. Oddly enough, I just found "Grounded" at a used-book store, but since that was the second one I opted not to buy it at the time. I did re-read a few pages, though, and thought the prose held up rather well.

While in the store I also read a few pages of one of the books in the "Willow-sequel" trilogy. I didn't like it nearly enough, but that could be because I really don't like the sword/sorcery genre.

Geoff: I'll have to think more about why I like the thought-balloons. You're right, they are not very naturalistic. It might be that I find them very theatrical -- i.e., it's a bit like Shakespearean monologue: Not very realistic or naturalistic, but heightened and dramatic. (Note: Claremont was an aspiring actor when he was young -- but he ended up interning at Marvel Comics and his career took a different turn.)

As I think about it, I'm coming around to the notion that you're right, Geoff -- I was off when I said it gets us "into the characters' heads." I think I like the device because it takes us into a kind of heightened reality, the way a good play does. But I'd also argue that in order for this to occur, the person writing the thought-balloons has to have a good command of language and a flair for drama and/or melodrama. I think this is where Claremont excels.

Scott, your point about the effect of breaking up thought-balloons or narrative captions into smaller pieces is a good one. It should be noted that around 1983 or so, Claremont started doing this with his thought bubbles and dialogue balloons -- breaking them up into sections to simulate more of a "real-time" feel.

scott91777 said...

High Frontier: Jason, you'll be happy to know that all of those books can be acquired for the low price of 1 cent, used on amazon, of course you still have to pay 3 bucks shipping... so I'm not sure its that great of a deal.

You're right about Claremont breaking up the bubbles. The period I was really into him (late 80s/early 90s) The internal monologue didn't seem nearly as hokey. And while breaking it up did help, it did still commit one of the cardinal sins of writing: telling instead of showing. This is especially distracting in a literary medium whose greatest strength is its ability to literally show rather than tell.

What's odd is that, in the previous issue explored, the supplemental "Love Story" is a 'silent' story. Claremont wrote this as well and this wordless piece is far more effective than his usual over the top inner-monologue. This makes you wonder why Claremont didn't do this more often. Perhaps it was a concern for audience? Maybe the he felt the average comic fan (of that time) needed the explanation?

Jason Powell said...

Thanks for the tip on the books, Scott. (Digression: I've never heard them referred to as "High Frontier" before, though. Where'd you hear that name? I always just thought of them as the "Nicole Shea" books.)

At any rate, I might just order those this very day.

As for why Claremont didn't use words more sparingly more often in his comic-book work ... honestly, I think it's simply that he loves words. He strikes me as an author who enjoys writing as much from a love for creating sentences as for creating stories. (John Byrne has noted on his forum that even though Claremont wrote Marvel method -- i.e., just submitting plots rather than full scripts -- they would still be around 15 pages long per issue. That's 15-page PLOTS, mind.)

scott91777 said...


The first two were once collected into a hardcover I saw in one of those Sci-fi catalogue books and were titled 'High Frontier', that's where I heard it.

Patrick said...

The early Claremont is dense with pointless caption boxes, something that was common in the era. Reading the Jack Kirby Fourth World, there's always a rambling narrator introduction to the issue, much like in Claremont.

I actually like the use of internal monologue during those early issues. They can get a bit excessive, but they really define the team in the early going. Claremont's got a big cast, and using a crutch like the caption is necessary to convey characterization. In today's 'widescreen comics,' you're not going to get that level of insight. Comics are a hybrid of literary and cinematic technique, and the internal monologue is one thing that comics can do well. It's best when it supplements something visual, but it works ok most of the time Claremont uses it. Constantly describing the characters' powers, not so much, but the thoughts are good.

I think Claremont found a better balance in the middle of his run. The Paul Smith issues have a lot less captioning, but that's largely possible due to the fact that by that point we know the characters and don't need to be told exactly what they're thinking.

Geoff Klock said...

JP: that is very good: "a heightened reality." That seems useful.

Patrick: are you sure you want to say "In today's comics you are not going to get that level of insight"? I assume you mean a high level of insight into the workings of characters, yeah? I don't want to chase you around for no reason, but this seems off to me, and I would like to talk about it more. Let's start with this: you (and Jason) know the run better than me: give me an example of an internal monologue with, in your opinion, a high level of insight. The only stuff I can think of is things like Storm thinking she is claustrophobic for tenth time, and that is not what you are talking about, surely.

Jason Powell said...

Ah, excellent. Good challenge, Geoff. Although it is more addressed to Patrick than to me, I'm still gonna think about this.

Patrick said...

I don't know that it's so much specific narrative information or character insight that's conveyed, it's more about getting to know the character's voice through the monologue. The best writers today can convey this information without using the direct address style Claremont uses, but in a lot of team books today, it can take forever to become familiar with the characters simply because we don't have access to their inner workings in the way that we do with Claremont's stuff.

Even a book I love, like The Invisibles, takes longer than Claremont's X-Men to let you get to know all the characters. It's easy to mock the Claremont speech patterns, with their frequently over the top ethnic caricature, but each of his characters have a unique voice, and it's interesting to see what they say out loud juxtaposed with their inner thoughts.

I'll take a look through the books when I get home to find some specific insightful use of internal monologue, but throughout the early part of the run especially, I think just hearing the characters' thoughts lets you get to know the characters a lot quicker. It's a storytelling crutch, and the best writers probably wouldn't use it, but in this case, it helps a lot.

That said, there is a lot of repetitive stuff, which is largely due to the fact that these comics were written at a time when any one could be someone's first issue, and we needed to know about Wolverine's healing factor for the fiftieth time.