Saturday, February 23, 2008

Jason Powell on Classic X-Men #15, part a (UXM #108)

[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.]

“Armageddon Now”

Penciller John Byrne and inker Terry Austin arrive with this issue, immediately giving the series a feel it has not yet experienced under Claremont. Byrne was hugely influenced by Neal Adams’ work, and that’s evident in his more realistic style, very evocative of Adams. Austin’s attention to detail completes the effect (note all the rendering on the giant robot), making for a more intense and realistic atmosphere. Indeed, the effect is very similar to the huge jump in tone between Werner Roth’s last issue of X-Men in the ‘60s and Neal Adams’ first. It won’t be the last time the Claremont/Byrne/Austin team evoke the Neal Adams run. Indeed, as time goes by and Byrne begins to take a more active hand in plotting, these evocations will become more and more deliberate.

As discussed in the review of the previous issue, Claremont is positioning the X-Men here as sci-fi characters. This is the conclusion to Claremont’s first major epic as writer of the title, and it ostensibly has nothing to do with the X-Men as mutants/outcasts. Unless we view their positioning here as sci-fi characters through the lens so cleverly conceived by Neil Shyminski. I’m hoping he won’t mind if I do an extended quote from a conversation with him:

“Science fiction is a genre, at its most base thematic levels, that is expressive of a fear of the Other - and a fear that its degeneracy will somehow rub off on you. Victor Frankenstein violates the laws of nature in creating his Monster and it leaves him alienated and drives him to his death; Rick Deckard, we're given reason to suspect, might actually be one of the replicants that he is chasing; Neo may actually be a failsafe function created by the machines to reboot humanity. 
... the X-Men can have superhero adventures, but they can't really be superhero characters. Their marks of difference, of the Other, has always made them a much more comfortable fit with a genre like science fiction.”

That assertion resonates powerfully when looking at this story. The resonance is stronger, I think, in Claremont’s rewriting of Uncanny #108 here, in Classic X-Men #15, than it was originally. But support for Shyminski’s thesis is all over this issue. Note, for example, the cut to the Avengers, and their assertion that the threat facing the universe in this story is “too big and too far away.” The superheroes can’t handle this one; the X-Men can.

The nature of the threat itself provides another clue to Claremont’s possible point here. He dresses it up in some technobabble, but the key is Jean’s comment that it is “anti-energy.” Later, when Jean as Phoenix is the one who faces the threat head-on, she wonders to herself, “Perhaps THIS is why I became Phoenix.” Thanks to the ret-con that Claremont reinforced in Classic X-Men #8, we know that Jean was deliberately bonded to the Phoenix, a being that was made of pure white light – energy. So indeed, the clues all add up: she was merged with the Phoenix force (which represents life) in order to counter the “anti-energy” (death) contained within the M’Krann crystal.

But here’s where it gets interesting: In Uncanny #108, Phoenix – with the help and spiritual nourishment of Xavier and his “dream” — finds the will to defeat and contain the anti-energy within the crystal, and the story ends. But Classic X-Men #15 adds a new page, in which – just after containing the destructive force but before leaving the inside of the crystal – Jean has a vision. “Heroism has its price,” goes the narration. “All things, you see, have their balance – the Yang to counter the Yin – and it is the brightest light ... which casts the darkest shadow.” And suddenly Jean comes face to face with an image of herself, almost identical, except her costume is red rather than green. Most X-Men readers, reading Classic X-Men in 1987, would’ve known immediately what this meant. It’s a vision of Dark Phoenix, which Jean is destined to become – the version of the character that murdered millions. The implication is that the use of her power here, to halt destruction and death, is the first step in her corruption by that power – into becoming a force of destruction and death herself. Jean reacts fearfully to the vision, crying, “No! Whatever you are, wherever you came from, you’re no part of me!”

As Shyminski said, “Science fiction is a genre, at its most base thematic levels, that is expressive of a fear of the Other - and a fear that its degeneracy will somehow rub off on you.” Claremont’s rewriting of the climactic scene of his first arc (Act One of his run) captures this beautifully, and also sends the series on a powerful trajectory toward the Dark Phoenix Saga (the climax of Act Two).

(The soap-opera twist in this issue – that Corsair, the buccaneering leader of the Starjammers, is the father of the orphaned Cyclops – is an audacious bit of melodrama that comes entirely out of left field. But it will weave into the Phoenix drama in surprising ways. More on that when we look at the b-side of this issue.)

[This issue reminded me of some of Promethea, with its big sci-fu universe life-death speeches, and its surprising use of the Kabbalah in which Xavier is the crown of the tree of life.

Also, stupid question -- the evil crystal causes the universe to stop existing for brief, terrifying moments. How are you supposed to notice when everything, including yourself, stops existing and comes back?]


Josh Hechinger said...

"How are you supposed to notice when everything, including yourself, stops existing and comes back?"

Well, it's the coming back that makes it terrifying. I imagine it's like knowing you've blacked out for a period of time, only much worse.

You can't remember nothingness, but you can still see the gap in your memory, so to speak.

Jason Powell said...

Claremont re-uses the "Tree of Life" Kaballah thing in "X-Men: The End" ... an attempt, I suppose, to bring things full circle to this, the conclusion of his first major X-Men story arc. Possibly inspired by Promethea, Claremont goes into a bit more detail there as I recall, assigning one X-Man to each of the ten spheres that Moore so meticulously delineated in the middle of the Promethea run.

Surprisingly, Morrison's Cassandra Nova was assigned to one of the spheres, suggesting that Claremont thinks she is, on some level, one of the ten most important characters in the X-universe, maybe ...? Surprising, since generally speaking Claremont was pretty cold toward's Morrison's run as it happened. The Nova thing was maybe a concession on Claremont's part that even if he didn't like it, Morrison's work on the title was some of the most significant to be done on the franchise apart from Claremont's own.

At any rate, thanks for mentioning the Kaballah thing, Geoff. Once again I find myself a little head-slappingly annoyed at myself for not having talked about that aspect of it. Ah well ...

Geoff Klock said...

Dude! That is what blogs are for. And also editors. TEAMWORK!

I am working on something for the blog and I am VERY excited about it. And it is not videoblogging. It might be better.

Anonymous said...

I still don't think that this story makes any sense, even with the reworking. The crystal is kind-of the Death Star but this issue is just a smorgasbord of Cockrum characters in a Trekkie/quasi-feminist magic fanfic. Claremont tries to ape Englehart's pot-kozmic but falls very short.


Streebo said...

In my youth, I found these early Claremont Shiar stories to be utterly fascinating. It had something to do with the sheer number of new fantastic characters introduced over the space of a few issues. It always made this story feel very epic. I'm not as enamored of these stories now, but at the age of thirteen, I almost saved my money up to buy a $24 copy of Uncanny X-Men #106.

Matthew J. Brady said...

Wow, I completely forgot about the Kabbalah stuff here. Of course, I had no idea what that was when I first read it, and I haven't reread these stories since I read Promethea. I think this might be the impetus for me to finally pull the volume off my shelf and look up something you talked about.

By the way, if this is Act One of Claremont's run, and Dark Phoenix is Act Two, how many acts are there? 25? I dunno, I found that amusing.

Also, you mention Claremont's "rewrite" of the issue in Classic #15; did he just add a word balloon here or there and insert the page you mentioned, or was there more to it than that? I just wondered, since you've talked about other changes as well, and I've become curious as to the extent of the changes in the Classic run.

Jason Powell said...

Geoff, good point. Fair enough. (By the way, I just finished another big batch o' reviews. Expect another mass e-mailing shortly ...) Also, mind if I steal your thing of responding to a bunch of people in one comment? 'Cause I'm about to ..

Dougie, I can't imagine anything of Claremont's falling short of something by Englehart, but that's my own biases. (My only experience with Englehart, I think, is some of his Fantastic Four issues from circa 1988, which were a couple of the most boring comics I've ever read.)

Matt -- yeah, that comment perhaps needs some revising. But from his first issue to Dark Phoenix Saga, Claremont has a very long arc going, and certainly issue 108 is the mid-arc climax and issue 137 is the finale. They're like Act One and Act Two of Claremont's First Season, though that's mixing the analogy a bit. I don't know, there's not a precise language for some of this stuff when it comes to comics.

On the macro-level, if you were to divide Claremont's entire run into only two acts, I'd say the break comes at issue 201.

But on the micro-level, yes, his run has about 25 acts total. :)

The Classic X-Men rewrites are mostly interpolated pages and some changed word balloons or narrative captions in the extant pages, but occasionally there are instances in which original pages from the comic are removed, so that Claremont can re-do a sequence. Issue 108 is one of those. The whole ending sequence with Phoenix inside the crystal is redrawn, and the text revised. The overall gist of it is the same, but Claremont adds some details and refines the sequence. Like Dougie said, in its original form it doesn't quite make sense. I agree with that, although I think the rewrite works very well.

This is another time I wish I had a scanner and/or could use my dad's. I could scan the original versions of some of these changed scenes and put them alongside the Classic X-Men re-do's. Typically the new pages are not as good art-wise, although what is kind of cool is that Claremont often got the original creators to contribute to the new pages. Not John Byrne -- he never would agree to something like that -- but Dave Cockrum drew several new pages, and several of the inkers and colorists from the original issues contributed as well.

Streebo, I was just at a store that was selling a lot of issues from the second Cockrum run for $7 a piece, and I was very tempted to just shell out the $200 or so it would've cost to buy all of them. But I didn't. I kept my cool.