Saturday, January 05, 2008

Jason Powell on Classic X-Men #8, part b

[This post is part of a series looking at Claremont's X-Men issue by issue. For more in this series click Jason's name in the too-bar on the right. I make comments at the bottom in italics]

“Greater Love Hath No X-Man,” Act II

Eight issues in, and Claremont and Bolton are still on top of their game. This is a direct continuation from X-Men #100 (or Classic #8, part a), in which we see Jean physically die from radiation poisoning. It’s rendered with suitable grotesqueness by John Bolton. Jean’s mind somehow survives, however, and encounters an alien being (who first appears as solid white blankness) offering a way in which Jean can live. Jean is skeptical and frightened, but over the course of several pages (during which the blank whiteness gradually coalesces, first into a vaguely humanoid shape and finally into a duplicate of Jean Grey), the being expresses – in very lovely and poetic terms – why Jean should accept the offer.

So, Jean accepts, and Claremont leads us to understand that her love for Scott is her primary motivation. Although she also wants to save the X-Men and, of course, to live, it is out of love that she makes a pact with this being. This is a significant example of where Claremont’s priorities are. He’s got a sort of hippie outlook: Love is all you need. Greater love hath no X-Man. (That quote, by the way, is from John 15:13: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” In both parts a and b of the story, that allusion seems mainly to apply to Jean.) This unapologetic optimism is one of the things I admire about Claremont’s work, particularly over the course of his 17-year X-Men run.

Some people have accused these Claremont-Bolton backups of being too wordy, and too low on action. Certainly this issue might lend fuel to that argument: It is 12 pages of Jean and an alien talking to each other. But again, I’d urge readers to enjoy the flow of the dialogue, the way Claremont allows the two characters to wind quite naturally through every nuance and implication of the bond that the entity is proposing – up to and including a warning from the being that this grand experiment might end in disaster, and Jean’s use of the phrase “dance with the devil” to describe what she’s getting into. It’s a beautiful example of a slow burn.

The final page is a super-imposition. In a full-page splash, we see the shuttle careening through space, and on top of that a full shot of Jean in her new, Cockrum-designed costume. “Forgive me, X-Men,” she says. “I am no longer the woman you knew! I am fire, the soul and substance of life incarnate! Now and forever – I am PHOENIX!” Originally this speech first appeared – with slightly different wording -- in Uncanny X-Men #101, but Claremont is introducing it a bit early. He’s deliberately building in repetition between the original X-Men stories and these new “Classic” backups. The effect is to cement these moments in the readers’ minds, and it’s not out of caprice. Claremont is helping to solidify certain resonances, which will make themselves fully felt in the nine-part Dark Phoenix saga.

Notable bit: Phoenix/Jean recognizes that there’s a spark of life remaining in her corpse – some piece of her soul that doesn’t want to accept the entity’s offer, so it’s staying put. So Phoenix-Jean wraps corpse-Jean in a “cocoon,” noting that eventually this Jean will awaken. “What then?” she wonders? Going through the comics in chronological order as this series is doing, the answer to that question won’t come for quite a while. But most people know the answer by now: This is building in a precursor to the ret-con that would eventually let Marvel resurrect Jean Grey. So Claremont is playing nice here – weaving into his original run an editorial mandate that he was passionately opposed to. But he’s also doing it in his way; reworking the ret-con so that it fits his “love conquers all” outlook. It’s to his credit that he and Bolton manage, in this story, to spin some gold out of the terrible, leaden comics that made it necessary in the first place.

One last note: Phoenix’s costume is green and gold, but Dave Cockrum had originally conceived it as white and gold. The idea was nixed because the editors thought it wouldn’t work: Comic book paper being so thin back then, anything colored white would be marred by inky bleed-through from the other side of the page. Interesting then that, in this story, Claremont, Bolton and colorist Glynis Oliver give us a cosmic entity rendered as blank whiteness. And while it’s true that, yes, there is some bleed from the other side of the page in all of these renderings, the overall effect is still lovely. It’s particularly nice the way the spare whiteness shows off the elegant beauty of Bolton’s figure drawing. The full-page splash of the Phoenix force manifesting as the outline of Jean’s female figure is particularly gorgeous.

[I don't want to sound like a curmudgeon -- though I always do -- but I don't think it is fair to compliment a writer for a theme like "Love Conquers All" unless that theme is persuasively rendered; persuasively rendering a cliched theme like that is extraordinarily difficult, and Punch Drunk Love is one of the few things I can think of that made that theme work in a notable way. But again: I am the curmudgeon. And also I thought that might be an interesting thing to talk about, which is why I did not ask Jason to say, revise his post on this point.

That story about the "playing nice" ret-con does make Claremont sound like a nice guy, though.

Morrison has Jean return in the white when we see her in Here Comes Tomorrow, which is pretty cool. All part his whole "the future is the past" thing.

On a side note, I think it is interesting that Claremont turned Jean into a mythical being who is continually born again from its own ashes -- and then got upset that Jean was brought back. I suppose his point would be that the power comes back again and again, not the vessel. But still -- one of the reasons it is so easy to bring back Phoenix-Jean is that that is what the Phoenix is supposed to do.]


Marc Caputo said...

Man, I should have trademarked that phrase last year - "Geoff Klock is a curmudgeon and we're not." Oh well, maybe a T-shirt for the NYCC.

Jason - keep up the good work. You'll get me to buy these yet.

Jason Powell said...

Marc, thanks!

Geoff, if I didn't think Claremont did "Love Conquers All" persuasively, I wouldn't like it either. You're not the only curmudgeon round these parts.

But for the record, I do think Claremont pulls it off more often than not over the course of his 17 years on X-Men. (Not always, mind you. In fact the next review on the docket, Classic X-Men #9, part b, is a fantastic example of Claremont veering into embarrassing schmaltz.)

"Punch Drunk Love," by contrast, didn't convince me at all. Am I missing something with that movie? My friends all seem to like it.

As for Jean coming back in 1986 -- when she came back in that story, it was as Jean, specifically and deliberately (and EMPHATICALLY) *not the Phoenix*, which may have been part of Claremont's beef. The John Byrne story went to all lengths to make it clear that this Jean picked up where the Jean at the end of X-Men #100 left off, and the one in between, who called herself Phoenix, was an impostor. This, I think, was part of why Claremont was so upset, and I perhaps should have noted that the story discussed here, in Classic X-Men #8, attempts to equivocate a bit, so that *both* Jeans are real.

It's Schroedinger comics again. :)

wwk5d said...

"I suppose his point would be that the power comes back again and again, not the vessel."

Which is what he did with Rachel. But that's a story for a later time...