Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Jason Powell on Classic X-Men #18, part a (incorporating UXM #112)

[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.]

“Magneto Triumphant”

“Magneto Triumphant” is part one of a two-part story that is considered by a large number of X-Men fans to be the best straight-ahead “X-Men vs. Magneto” story. It is the last one Claremont will do – after this, Claremont begins the deepening of Magneto into a noble character, so the pure, “good vs. evil” intensity seen here will no longer be possible.

Magneto is still the Silver Age version: nasty through and through, with no redeeming qualities. As in the first Claremont Magneto appearance, he wins the fight here. This is another significant aspect of Claremont’s Magneto: The X-Men never definitively beat him in a fair fight. They will come close in next issue’s conclusion, but true to Claremont’s form, it will be a pyrrhic victory. Although the tragic nobility is Claremont’s finest and most important contribution to the character, Magneto’s potency simply as a comic-book super-villain is another significant quality, and it is this story more than any other that put Magneto on the map. (He’s a fun villain in the hands of Lee-Kirby and Adams-Thomas, but nowhere near as cool as he is here.)

The story here is pure, simple and subplot-free action: The heroes attack Magneto one-at-a-time, and Magneto beats each of them in turn. He puts them in a very Silver Age-styled villain trap (albeit one that makes sense with Magneto’s recent history), and the story is to be continued. Next issue, the X-Men will escape and – working as a team this time – do much better in the second round. The simplicity of the plot allow for Claremont, Byrne and Austin to simply cut loose with sheer, super-heroic exuberance. The action scenes are dynamic and well-drawn, the dialogue fun. And Magneto comes off as an unstoppable powerhouse, giving the cliffhanger the appropriately nail-biting quality.

Byrne/Austin Awesome Panel Watch: The two-page sequence in which the circus wagon travels to an Antarctic volcano, then plunges beneath and enters an underground fortress is incredible. Byrne’s eye for dramatic angles and perspective, combined with Austin’s penchant for working extra detail into every nook and cranny of every panel, result in a breathtaking series of images.

Only two other things worth noting:

With the Beast in this issue, we have eight X-Men in the issue, three of whom (Cyclops, Beast and Jean) were members of the original five. This is very possibly Byrne already exerting an influence on Claremont’s plotting. An X-Men fan from the very first Lee-Kirby issue in 1963, Byrne took over as artist with specific agenda to eventually work all five of the originals back into the comic. For various reasons, he never got all the way there, but with the Dark Phoenix Saga, he gets very close.

Also: At one point during the battle, Nightcrawler observes, “[Magneto]’s doing it to us again ... taking our best shots and then smashing us down.” It’s a small thing, but will ultimately reveal itself as a hallmark of Claremont’s style on the comic. Like Neal Adams, Claremont treats the X-Men comic as one single narrative tapestry: Everything happens in context. If the X-Men fight the same villain a second time, they will compare it to how things went the first time. At first, this leads to small, incidental observations like Nightcrawler’s here. Eventually, it is this acknowledgement of the past that will allow Claremont to start taking the X-Men into new directions. With the past informing the present increasingly strongly, there will be less and less motivation for Claremont to ever repeat himself, and thence will spring stranger ideas, higher stakes, and greater and greater changes to the comic’s status quo.

This rarely ever happens on short-term runs on mainstream comics by writers – part of why Claremont’s unbroken 16-year stretch on Uncanny is so groundbreaking.

[Note: The b-side of Classic X-Men #18 is written by Jo Duffy, not Claremont, so it won’t be covered in this series.]

8 comments:

Patrick said...

I feel like this is the point in the run when the series really starts to gel. The extended trip to various places that follows this issue has some bumps in the road, but it's where the weight of past events really starts to accumulate, and we're not so far away from the start of the Dark Phoenix stuff.

I prefer the reimagined Magneto Claremont presents later in his run, and I think it's a testament to the fundamental conservatism of Marvel that the character reverted to essentially what he is in this issue after Claremont left. Wasn't it the more complex Magneto present during the book's highest selling years? Isn't that who fans want to see? But, I guess it's harder to sell the concept to film studios when the ostensible arch nemesis is actually running the school.

Jason Powell said...

Patrick,

I agree with you -- but I will say, I find the saga of Magneto incredibly powerful as it occurred, in spite of the fact that Claremont wrote the issues where Magneto converted to the villain we see here. Even though it's not what Claremont would've done if left to his own devices (damn you, Bob Harras and Jim Lee!), the cumulative effect is of a great, tragic story: Magneto tried to change, to become the new Professor Xavier, succeeded to some degree at first, but then -- ultimately -- failed. I found the dramatic beats as they unfolded to be quite moving.

JimS said...

Jason, I read this blog every week and am enjoying revisiting the issues with your analytical perspective. I'd just like to ask you to reconsider the b-side of #18. I love Claremont, but Jo Duffy is a pretty good writer too and it'd be interesting to read your thoughts on her contribution to the mythos.

Jim

Jason Powell said...

Thanks, Jim! The thing is that there's already so much to cover just looking at all the Claremont stuff -- looking at contemporaneous work by other authors would make this series explode to gargantuan size.

For the record, I generally enjoy Jo Duffy's stuff but her contributions to the X-mythos have struck me as a little lacking in dimension. They have a certain "a-to-b" quality that makes them feel a little light-weight. They never surprise me. As far as Classic X-Men goes, I much prefer the Ann Nocenti b-sides to Duffy's. Nocenti is a *hugely* underrated superhero comic-book author, I think. She also deserves a lot of props for editing X-Men from 1984-1987, a hugely creative era for the series, which also includes all of the great Claremont/Bolton b-sides.

That's my take anyway. What are your thoughts on Duffy (and Nocenti, if you have any)?

x-height said...

While the merits of the later Magneto can be argued as a character what was lost to the genre is something as well.

"This is another significant aspect of Claremont’s Magneto: The X-Men never definitively beat him in a fair fight. They will come close in next issue’s conclusion..."

Reading it then and now I would be hard pressed to name a villan that the hero or heroes were in some measure fearful of. Magneto rocks in these issues because beating him isn't the genre given.

And when you think of how one can go about how to invest a reader with a sense of danger the means aren't as many as we would like to think.

wwk5d said...

Too bad you won't review the non-Claremont b-sides. Some of them are actually very good.

david said...

This was the first X-Men comic, and one of the first comics period, that I ever read as a little kid. I remember just having my mind blown at how badly the X-men get their asses beat in this fight. Pretty awesome stuff.

Anonymous said...

This and the world tour in the next couple issues are probably my favorite Claremont-Byrne issues. That might be because I'd already had the Dark Phoenix trade for a long time before I finally tracked these down so they seem fresher. It does seem like this is where both creators really figured the book out and hit their stride.

Damnit! I was trying to just read the articles but now that you're getting to the good stuff it's getting harder to resist rereading the issues as I go.

Derek E