Saturday, February 16, 2008

Jason Powell on Classic X-Men #14, part a (UXM #107)

[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.]

“Where No X-Man Has Gone Before”

For the final issue of his run on X-Men, Dave Cockrum goes all out, introducing a score of new characters (each with a distinctively cool costume, Cockrum’s specialty) and loading almost every page with the kind of superhero action that the artist – by all accounts – just loved. Claremont rises to the challenge of keeping up with his artist, producing text that – for all the author’s characteristic verbosity – moves along excitingly. That’s not to say there isn’t the occasional cognitive dissonance between art and word here. Cockrum’s pages are filled with an exuberant love of this genre, and his art, embellished here by the fantastic Dan Green and colored in bold primaries and secondaries by Evelyn Stein, reflects that. When Claremont’s narration attempts something a little darker as the battle starts – intoning gravely, “It begins. And, in moments, a once-tranquil plain ... is turned into a scene out of hell” — it doesn’t quite match up.

This issue’s villains are the Imperial Guard, who make a strong first impression here. In spite of there being a good dozen members, several of them seem imbued immediately by Claremont with interesting backstory and there are some hints at intra-team relationships potentially as interesting as those among the X-Men. I assume, however, that this might have been Claremont’s contribution to Cockrum’s little joke, which is that the Imperial Guard are avatars of DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes. The Legion were Cockrum’s first major comics assignment (X-Men his second), and each Imperial Guardsman has his counterpart in Cockrum’s Legion. For the trivia-minded, this is how it breaks down:

Gladiator – Superboy
Astra - Phantom Girl
Fang - Timberwolf
Hobgoblin – Chameleon
Impulse – Wildfire
Mentor - Brainiac 5
Oracle - Saturn Girl
Quasar - Cosmo Boy
Smasher - Ultra Boy
Starbolt - Sun Boy
Tempest - Lightning Lad
Titan - Colossal Boy

So, in Uncanny X-Men #107, when Starbolt refers to Oracle as the woman he loves, I’m guessing that it’s because in the Legion comic, Sun Boy was in love with Saturn Girl, et cetera. (When Grant Morrison introduced a new incarnation of the Shi’ar Imperial Guard in his X-Men run, he made them analogues of what was then the contemporary Legion; another example of his attempting to play that particular “riff” faithfully.)

Then Cockrum goes ahead and unleashes another pet love of his: swashbuckling space pirates. Toward the end of the story, the Starjammers show up like a deus ex buccana to save the day. It’s kind of an odd way to go with the story, really; there doesn’t seem to be any narrative justification for a third team to show up (especially when readers already had a dozen new characters to keep track of in the Imperial Guard). But I’ve got another theory ...

It’s quite possible that Claremont and Cockrum were perhaps trying to recreate Star Wars with this issue: Lilandra is a princess who led a rebellion against the emperor, she sought out Professor X, her “only hope,” and Xavier sent his proteges (a sort of seven-headed Luke Skywalker) to do just that. They have to prevent the nine “death stars” from aligning, and have to fight the Imperial soldiers to do it. In that schema, the Starjammers’ showing up to save the day toward the end might be a gesture toward the moment in Star Wars when Han Solo shows up at the end to bail Luke out.

I suggested this to Neil Shyminski once, and he pointed out that there’s no way the Lilandra/Eric the Red arc could have been conceived this way from the beginning: it began in Uncanny # 97, released over a year before “Star Wars.” This is true – but by the time we get to this concluding two-parter, which is when a lot of the details are filled in, Claremont and Cockrum would’ve already seen Star Wars, and might’ve been familiar with its plot details even earlier. (The first part of Marvel’s comic book adaptation of the film – written by Roy Thomas, the scripter of Neal Adams’ X-Men issues – was released three months before Uncanny X-Men #107.)

Shyminski has also suggested that Joss Whedon’s allusions in the pages of Astonishing X-Men, to films like Dune and – of course – Star Wars, are an attempt to resolve the question left by Morrison (what are the X-Men if they are not superheroe?s) by repositioning them into a different genre (answer: they are sci-fi characters). In one of my typical attempts to devalue any accomplishment by Morrison or Whedon in the context of Claremont, I immediately suggested that Claremont already did this, and the first example is right here: He’s plugging them into a sci-fi story that borrows heavily from Star Wars and whose title directly alludes to the opening narration of that other “Star” franchise.

And to cement the allusion, the Classic X-Men re-release of Uncanny #107, there is an interpolated scene wherein Claremont gives Nightcrawler this thought balloon: “Eat your heart out, George Lucas. This is a real ‘Star Wars!’” A few years later, Claremont and Lucas would collaborate on a series of fantasy novels. Then a few years after that, Lucas would re-release Star Wars with newly interpolated scenes. Coincidence?

[What is an earlier superhero comic book example of "analog" characters, as the Imperial Guard are to The Legion of Superheroes -- characters that are not copyright infringement, but are clear to anyone as properties of another company? ]


neilshyminsky said...

Jason: You've done your homework on this one. It causes me to wonder, though, where Claremont was originally going with Eric the Red.

Geoff: Do the Avengers count? They were originally conceived as Marvel's answer to the JLA, though it was more of a conceptual similarity than a character-to-character analog thing. If we're thinking of inter-company character analogs, the Fantastic Four and X-Men might fit. Stan Lee quite explicitly went for 'FF, but younger' when he conceived The Mutants.

James said...

Neil: Obviously the Avengers fit the JLA's "gathering of all-star heroes" brief, but I've always read that the Fantastic Four were Marvel's direct response to the JLA's success.

Hmmmm, I am currently stuck for analogues!

Christian said...

Well, Kirby has done it a lot in his work; see Challengers of the Unknown contra the FF for examples.

I don't know, if that's the oldest one though.

Geoff Klock said...

You see where I am going with this thought, yeah? Anaogues become so important to modern comic books -- does it start here? There must be an earlier example...

Marc said...

Roy Thomas pulled this trick in his Avengers run--the Squadron Sinister (later Supreme) are obvious JLA analogues. They inspired a rejoinder from Mike Friedrich when the Justice League met the Assemblers, an even more obvious bunch of Avengers analogues. About a year earlier, Denny O'Neil tried to do something similar in JLA--also as a rejoinder to Thomas's Squadron Sinister--but he backed away from the joke and just wrote them as evil versions of the JLA. I am a nerd.

There may be earlier analogues, but they couldn't be much earlier; I doubt they'd predate the arrival of fans-turned-writers, and Thomas was one of the first. (I can think of one flawed example--the Doom Patrol are an attempt at doing the Fantastic Four as a DC comic, but that's more of an attempt at copying the formula than actually alluding to the characters through obvious stand-ins.) The Squadron Sinister is probably the template for a lot of what followed.

James said...

marc: Aw man, I immediately thought of the Squadron Supreme, but thought there was no way they could predate this X-Men issue. I guess I was thinking of the Mark Gruenwald maxiseries. Pffft.

Jason Powell said...

Neil, I think Eric the Red was going to turn out to be Mesmero. He has the same powers and he was the villain back when Cyclops used the "Eric the Red" identity. And it would make sense then that his first "slave" was Lorna Dane, since she was the focus of his first plan back in the Silver Age.

There is no information to back up this idea, but I still think it's a good theory. (Doesn't answer the question of what the overall plot was going to be, but ...)

Matthew J. Brady said...

That's an interesting theory about Star Wars; I never thought of it that way. And I had heard here and there that the Guard were analogues to the LSH, but that never meant much to me, since I don't know anything about the Legion. There's some pretty sweet space action in this story though. And another example of Claremont's crazy narration. I'm starting to really love that stuff.

Also, "deus ex buccana" is a great phrase.

Jason Powell said...

Thanks, Matt! I was hoping someone would like that.

Also, I know nothing about the Legion either. But I would really like to get the Hardcover Showcase that contains Cockrum's run. Appropriately enough it is Volume 10 of the Legion Showcases (Roman numeral X).

Anonymous said...

can someone scan in the inside front cover of gladiator hovering from
please and thanks!

wwk5d said...

Yeah, the Squadron Supreme/Sinister was the first, and best example. It ended up including more analogues (well over a dozen). The Assemblers was just DC versions of Thor, The Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, and Yellowjacket. In the 80s, DC introduced a team of Villains in the Giffen JLA era (the Extremists?) who were analogues of various Marvel villains (the ones I remember the most were DC's versions of Dr. Doom and Sabertooth).

As for the Imperial Guard...don;t forget, we also saw Marvel versions of Shrinking Violet, Shadow Lass, and the White Witch. And Quasar was a little tough to find an analogue. I'd go with Blok more than Cosmic Boy. And, in the Legion, Lighting Lad was involved with Saturn Girl. Slight error on Claremont's part, but hey, I can live with it ;)

Btw, the Legion is probably my second favorite team title after the X-men, so sorry if it seems I am nitpicking.