Saturday, March 15, 2008

Jason Powell on Classic X-Men #17, part b

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

“A Taste for Vengeance”

A surprising first for the Claremont/Bolton backups: A story whose entire reason for being is to see the X-Men fight a super-villain. Up until now, the pieces have been so entirely character driven, that even when a supervillain did appear (such as Sabre-Tooth’s stalking of Wolverine in Classic #10), it was always incidental. The point of each piece was to reveal important things about character. The only other plot-driven backups did not involve the X-Men (like the Hellfire Club vs. the Sentinels in issue #7, or Corsair in #15).

In this case, since the a-side of the issue starts with the X-Men as prisoners of Mesmero but never shows how they wound up that way, Claremont devotes a backup to it. There is really nothing larger at work here, except to show how Mesmero catches the team. It is mainly noteworthy just for the image of Mesmero as drawn by Bolton. The character design is so ludicrous, and Bolton’s style so grounded and realistic, the effect is jarring. It’s actually laugh-inducing, which is deliberate. Claremont writes him as a menacing comic-book villain when he first captures Jean Grey, then takes us into comedic territory with the scene shift: Mesmero in a fancy living room, no longer in his silly-looking costume but in purple pajamas, and surrounded by women in lingerie. Mesmero did not capture Jean Grey because he’s out for revenge against the X-Men – he wants her as a sex toy.

Unfortunately, though she is in his hypnotic thrall, the Phoenix part of her won’t let her be touched, so Mesmero is stuck. He falls to the floor dejectedly, leading to one of the greatest single panels in the Claremont/Bolton canon: Page 5, panel three: Mesmero sitting on the floor, saying “Darn Darn Darn Darn Darn Darn DARN!” (Note letterer Tom Orzechowski’s brilliance in delineating the multiple iterations of that Comics Code-approved swear word.) The details by Bolton are great: Mesmero’s bare green feet, and Jean’s pink-panty-clad lower half in the immediate background (the cheeky precursor, perhaps, to Quitely’s “camel toe” X-Men cover?).

The running gag here is that each dramatic turn keys off of Mesmero’s lack of imagination. He hypnotizes Jean Grey to have sex with her. When he can’t do that, he combines his hypnotic power with her telepathy to infiltrate the mansion and capture the rest of the X-Men. All he can think of to do then is make them fight each other. When he gets bored with that, he is stuck again. He laments the fact that he’s not as creative as Magneto (a retroactive foreshadowing to Magneto’s revenge-scheme in Uncanny X-Men #112-113). Then he happens to see a photograph of Nightcrawler from his circus days. He decides that he’ll make the X-Men circus freaks, and congratulates himself on his own brilliance.

The whole story, then, is a joke, albeit a kind of creepy one. Mesmero is figured as a sleaze, first with his attempt to – essentially – rape Jean Grey, and then with his circus-themed torture. That alone is more characterization than he got in the Silver Age stories he appeared in. It works well, particularly as a precursor to Claremont/Byrne’s fantastic Magneto story. If there’s an implicit theme in this story beyond the surface superhero genre trappings, it’s the contrast between a B-list villain like Mesmero and a truly awe-inspiring antagonist like Magneto.

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