Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Jason Powell on Classic X-Men #15, 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.]

“Starjammers Aloft”

This is sort of a companion piece to the previous issue’s b-side: Another story set in the past, this time about the Starjammers. As with Classic #14b, a lot of the fun here is seeing John Bolton’s more realistic artistic sensibility applied to Cockrum’s wildly imaginative character/costume designs. The Starjammers look fantastic here – Cockrum’s designs really hold up nicely. Note how intensely cool Raza looks on Page 8, panel one; how sexily cute Hepzibah is on Page 12, panel one; and how comically goofy Ch’od appears is on Page 12, panel four. I wish I had a scanner for this one. These images really do speak for themselves.

Appropriately, the story tying this all together – the tale of how Christopher Summers, Cyclops’ father, came to join the team – is told in a melodramatic, pulpy style. This isn’t the intense tragedy of “A Fire in the Night” (12b) or even the human drama of “Lifesigns” (13b). Claremont tells us right away what we’re in for this time, when the narration explicitly namedrops this story’s influences: “Christopher Summers spent many a joyous boyhood hour enthralled by the adventures of Flash Gordon, and John Carter, Warlord of Mars.” That’s the territory we’re in here. Adventure serials and pulp fiction.

Bolton’s own character designs, along with his affectionate handling of Cockrum’s, are what sell the entire thing. The main villain, for example – a slavedriver who threatens to eat Hepzibah in a formal feast (“meal and execution and work of art all in one”) while sporting a right arm that is just a shoulder and hand connected by a jointed mechanism – is fantastically over the top.

As for why Claremont even devotes an entire Classic X-Men backup to the Starjammers in the first place, it is presumably to help give readers a solid impression of these characters, since their original appearance in the a-sides is so abrupt and brief. They were very likely only there because Cockrum had an idea for some space-pirate characters, and he happened to be drawing X-Men at the time so that’s the book he threw them into.

And why did Claremont make Corsair into Scott’s father? Maybe he figured it would make X-Men readers care more about the Starjammers. Without that connection to one of the series’ lead characters, they are an arbitrary edition to the whole “M’Kraan crystal” arc. But the coincidence of Scott happening to meet his father in this story only strains credulity even further. Neither character knows of his connection to the other, so their two teams meeting up is pure happenstance.

Does “Starjammers Aloft” provide an explanation for this coincidence? No, it does not. However, it does begin a gesture toward placing the coincidence into different dramatic realm: A classically Greek notion of tragic fate.

Consider: In the a-story originally published back in 1977, a single-panel flashback shows Christopher Summers facing off against D’Ken, the Shi’ar Emperor, after D’Ken has just murdered Christopher’s wife (Cyclops’ mother), Kate. A flashback in “Starjammers Aloft” expands on that scene, telling a fuller story: A large part of the origin of Cyclops, in fact. While the Summers family was flying across the country in Christopher’s own private plane, they were attacked by a Shi’ar ship. Scott and Alex were shoved out the hatch with the only parachute, which proceeded to catch fire. Christopher and Kate were taken aboard the alien ship, assuming their kids didn’t make it, and eventually taken before D’Ken, who first took Kate as a concubine and eventually murdered her. Based on that one panel published in 1977, this was probably always Claremont’s plan, even as far back as that. It’s not a particularly inspired bit of plotting, though its recounting in “Starjammers Aloft” certainly suits that story’s pulpy trappings.

But, now ... here is why I love comic books. Flash-forward to 1980, the climax of the Dark Phoenix Saga. Lilandra, now the empress of the Shi’ar Empire (having displaced D’Ken with Christopher Summers’ help) has decided that the Phoenix – Jean Grey – is too dangerous to be allowed to live. Lilandra sentences Jean to death, but Jean’s lover – Christopher’s son, Scott – and the rest of his team fight to prevent that. They fail. Claremont and Byrne end the story with Jean being psychically neutered, but Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter decides this is a bad ending. The last few pages of the story are scrapped, rewritten, redrawn at the 11th hour, and the story now ends with Jean’s death.

Corsair’s son’s lover dies. Because of the empress of the Shi’ar.

Two generations of Summers men have now both watched their lovers die in front of them, thanks to the two consecutive rulers of the same empire. That’s beyond coincidence. That’s Greek drama; the will of the gods; tragic fate. An almost literary level of dramatic irony. And it happened COMPLETELY BY ACCIDENT.

Only in comics.


neilshyminsky said...

This is really neither here not there, but the way you write these really suggests a podcast or something - something that should be spoken with a slightly ironic gravity. The pacing of those last few paragraphs, especially.

Jason Powell said...

Possibly true of the last couple, but I don't know that I've developed a consistent tone for these at this point. I've already written about 50 more, and I think the style has changed -- it's gotten more writerly, I hope, and less speakerly.

neilshyminsky said...

Writerly? Speakerly? My favorite kind of writing is that which reads as if it should be spoken.

Jason Powell said...

I've started trying to write more in the tone and style that Ian MacDonald used in Revolution in the Head. It occurred to recently that his song-by-song look at the Beatles was a serendipitously appropriate model: The Beatles wrote and recorded 186 original songs (counting only official releases from 1962-70) and Claremont wrote 186 issues of Uncanny X-Men (from 1975-1991, not counting annuals and spinoffs). As I said to Geoff, I think that's a sign of ... something.

I enjoy MacDonald's really dense, economic but information-packed style. So even though I'm not in his league, that's become the style I'm trying to emulate.

Also, I wouldn't have the first clue how to do a podcast!

Matthew J. Brady said...

I'm digging these stories, even if I haven't read them. It's cool to see what Claremont did with the opportunity to go back to the beginning of his run. He didn't just fill in the cracks, he told a bunch of interesting tales with the characters in a variety of different styles. That's pretty cool. Of course, I'm just going by your descriptions of them, but I trust you. Oh, and the last few paragraphs of this entry are pure gold. Well done, sir.

Jason Powell said...

Thanks, Matt! Very nice of you to say. Obviously I really dig these "Classic" stories too. They're probably my favorite X-Men stories of any era.

(Side note: On the first TPB that collects these comics -- "X-Men: Vignettes" -- writer Jim Kreuger has a blurb on the back that says, "The stories by Chris Claremont and John Bolton that appeared as backups in Classic X-Men are my favorite X-Men stories of all time." When I read that I wanted to go out and buy a bunch of Jim Kreuger comics.)