Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Jason Powell on Classic X-Men #13, part b

[This post is part of a series of posts looking at Claremont's X-Men issue by issue. For more in the series see Jason Powell's name on the toolbar on the right.]

“Lifesigns”

Presumably at the same time that the X-Men were vacationing in Europe (in between Uncanny X-Men #103 and #104), Jean is on vacation with her roommate Misty and Misty’s friends (who also happen to comprise the cast of “Iron Fist”).

“Lifesigns” is a breathtaking piece of work. Right from the opening page, in which a lovely image of Jean sitting on a beach, entranced by a campfire, is juxtaposed against an extended piece of lovely Claremont’s narration, we’re in powerful territory. I love the way Claremont’s narration is at once melodramatic and playful (the campfire “roasty-toasts” Jean). In a simple but canny layout, Tom Orzechowski places Claremont’s loquacious description of Jean’s perception of the fire straight against John Bolton’s drawing of the campfire itself. Geoff has discussed Grant Morrison’s and Matt Fraction’s ability at combining words in such a way that they hit you in a powerful burst (with Morrison’s aesthetic typically being sci-fi and Fraction’s – at least in “Casanova” – being noir). Claremont has a similar talent, I’d say, but his influence strikes me as more Baroque, more classical, which is an interesting contrast against the sci-fi nature of the X-Men. “Lifesigns” is full of nice examples. From his description of Jean’s perception of the fire:

“She stares into the heart of the blaze, where hard edges loose [sic] their definition ... wood cast in flicker-flashing strokes of molten gold. She watches electrons spin faster in orbital paths around their atomic nuclei, filling themselves with energy, casting off old structures, forming new, transitioning joyously, spontaneously from one state of matter to another.”

What’s nice about this story – and the quote above demonstrates this quality – is that it focuses not so much on Jean’s increased physical power (which will be demonstrated several times in the next few issues, in the front stories) but rather it couches her new powers in terms of increased levels of perception. So we get no psycho killers or supervillains – instead, Jean receives a telepathic cry for help from a “family” who is out at sea and being attacked by sharks. She telekinetically snags Misty (as backup) and the two of them take a motorboat to the rescue. In a scene poked fun of not long ago by Chris Sims on the Invincible Super-Blog, Misty ends up getting into a fight with a shark, which she wins by punching the creature in the nose with her “bionic arm.” That does seem odd, but Claremont makes it work in context. (Jean is a superhero, why can’t Misty be one too?)

After fighting off the shark, Misty learns that the family whom Jean risked both their lives to save are dolphins, not humans. “I almost got killed – for a family of fish?!!?” she demands. Jean’s reply is that they are “hardly fish,” but Misty isn’t mollified. So Jean telepathically deposits Misty’s consciousness into that of one of the dolphins, and lets her go for a swim with the rest of the school. There’s another wonderfully worded narrative passage here, another example of Claremont’s ability to convey ideas in a classically baroque style:

“The sea stretches far and away – click-whistle delphine sonar printing a picture of her surroundings so complete it takes her breath away.”

I adore the phrase “click-whistle delphine sonar.”

[Yeah that is pretty good.]

The narration continues along in this style, suggesting that dolphins, with their “light and wit and brilliance,” are said to represent the future, while the sharks are a dark anchor to a primordial, brutal past. It’s never stated explicitly, but Claremont’s poetic framing also works as a symbol for the X-Men. The X-Men are attempting to lead humanity into a better future, even as their enemies attempt to prevent it. I like that.

Some X-Men fans complain that the whole Jean-as-Phoenix storyline is entirely out of place in the X-Men, as it has nothing to do with the comics essential themes. And yet, here we see Phoenix using her own elevated perceptions to in turn open up the perceptions of someone else, Misty, a human. By story’s end, there is increased understanding on a personal level -- between Jean and Misty – and on an interspecies level: among humans, mutants, and animals.

“Lifesigns,” then, is a quintessential Claremont X-Men story, wherein the core concept of “mutation” connotes personal growth and increased understanding. It also contains a lovely expression of friendship between two women, another thing Claremont does well.

4 comments:

ShlomoR said...

Hi there, Ive been rereading some of these comics along with your reviews, and I thought Id comment over here, because Ive been thinking a lot about the issue you've brought up. I happen to be interested in the science of genetics, and Ive also been bugged by Claremont's pension for genre-hopping away from the core idea of mutants. Be it for Alien cultures (the Shiar), magical dimensions (Roma), demonic manipulation (goblin queen) or time -travleing to the future. It seems that the Ultimate Xmen attempted to mitigate the space opera of the dark-phoenix saga, by reinterpreting the shiar as cultists rather than aliens. This seems to me to be an idea that fits much better into the cannon of x-history, though I wasnt to impressed with the actual storyline , since it also reinterpreted the hellfire club as a mere opposition cult, as opposed to the playboy club which worked so well in claremonts run.

I agree with you that the extra perception available to the phoenix fits well, with many of the other existential mutant conditions that have been explored by claremont and others. Storms depiction as integrally in tune with nature, paralleled Peter David's depictions of Quicksilver unique experience of reality.

But at the same time, it seems that concepts that involve space aliens, will never be fixed in the x-men cannon. And the best example of this is the reinterpretation of the phoenix saga, minus the aliens, in the third x-men film. The film had its problems but i think the conceit of retelling phoenix as a mutant phenomenon was definitely interesting.

Jason Powell said...

Shlomor, you could be right. Certainly for all X3's myriad problems, the excising of the Shi'ar was not one of them.

I'm to the point now where I am writing issue analyses far, far in advance of when they're posted here -- at the moment I just recently started working on reviews of the second Cockrum run, which occasionally drowns the characters completely in space opera, much to the series' detriment.

On the other hand, I still wrestle with the whole "core idea" of X-Men. I think defining that is tricky, because the whole "mutant" thing started as no more than a gimmick through which Stan Lee would be able to stop contriving crazy origins involving radioactive spiders, gamma bombs and the like. From there, matters evolved (if you will) so that around the book's third year of existence we got the prejudice/paranoia themes of the first Sentinel arc, which even then was not really casting the X-Men in a racial minority schema. That story was not about the X-Men being victims of racism so much as it was about the villain being a paranoid fanatic like McCarthy or the members of HUAC. It was Lee/Kirby's stab at recreating Arthur Miller's "The Crucible." (Claremont alluded to this when he decided that the X-Men's mansion is located in "Salem Center.")

So when Claremont genre-hops, is he really getting away from the X-Men's core concept? The core concept was not really science-based. It is not really about racism either, I don't think. I don't know when Stan Lee first started blowing smoke about Xavier being King and Magneto being Malcolm X, but smoke-blowing is definitely what that is.

To be honest, the more I think about this stuff, the more I realize I'm not really sure WHAT the X-Men's "core" is. The stories that many people consider the best have not been about the science-side of mutation.

But by the same token, there are lots of X-Men stories out there that don't get due consideration but that I consider great. Uncanny #'s 235-238, the original Genosha storyline, is a hidden gem, I think. One of Claremont's best attempts to get at what I think you are saying the X-Men's core should be. (Have you read those?)

What would you argue are some great X-Men stories that stick to what you believe is the core concept?

ShlomoR said...

It's interesting how in interviews Morrison has talked about the "5 Its interesting how in interview(s) Morrison has talked about the "5 x-men recycled stories," and Geoff has carefully analyzed how these plots were actually initiated by Claremont. What they both seem to be implying is that these stories are what makes-up the core-concept. That certainly seems to be Morrison's take, and I would have no grounds to dismiss this position, although I definitely see room for multiple perspectives on what makes up the core-concept.

I started reading the x-men as a teenager during the Lobdell-Nicieza (sp?) years, when they were still coasting off Claremont. I was struck, specifically, as I recall, with some of the monologues in UXM #300, where the history of the x-men is laid out very neatly and dramatically. Yet, when I looked closer at this history by reading graphic novels, arbitrary back issues, and online summaries, I was eventually became somewhat jaded by the fact that Lobdell was actually digesting a frustratingly meandering series of plot lines.

Over the years Ive dipped in and out of xmen stories, all the while backseat-driving as I imagined what the "ideal" direction would be based on my beliefs about the "actual" core concept. On the one hand, I still believe it would be fascinating to read an x-men comic that explores how genetic gifts are the flip-side genetic diseases; how eugenics programs have influenced public policies; how people could be genetic carriers for amazing super-powers and not even know it. However, at the same time, I realize this would be pretty mundane for all-ages superhero stories.

I was hoping that the x-men movies would move in that direction--and i think it could have been melded this direction with sci-fi FX to make a cool movie. And I do think that stories about brotherhoods of Mutant chauvinists, the Genoshan “utopia”, x-corporations, morlocks and the hellfire club, etc. would fit into this direction. And i definitely could share certain issues that I personally still love.

At the same time, partly from reading your reviews and reading summaries on Uncannyxmen.net, I have also come to see that another valid, and much simpler, view on the core-concept would be the surrogate-family: a "club" for misfits and oddballs either rejected, stolen out of or alienated from their original nuclear family. And its funny how acknowledging that shed light on the weirdness of my enjoyment during the last act of the third x-men movie. After hearing all the anti-hype about its ultimate suckyness, I really enjoyed the scenes where the x-men finally seem to be functioning as a team, with all their idiosyncratic bonds and grudges, regardless of acting as role-models for all these mutant student extras. This was something that seemed to be lacking from their earlier wooden performance/characterization in the earlier movies. (Or maybe I’m just amused by the idea of Kelsey Grammar with blue fur beating people up.)

Anonymous said...

One of the things that seemed like a core concept throughout Claremont's run but seems like it almost been dropped completely was the idea of the X-Men being outlaw heroes. That sense of urgency that they were constantly being hunted and had to disappear quickly after any fight or good deed.

And am I the only one who liked some of the space opera stuff? I thought the brood arc where Wolverine realizes he's going to have to kill the entire team and the Jim Lee skrull story were both really good.

Derek E