Saturday, August 09, 2008

Jason Powell on Bizarre Adventures #27, first story

[Guest blogger Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men Run. For more in this series, see the toolbar on the right.]

Bizarre Adventures #27

“Phoenix”

Claremont loves building large supporting casts for the series he works on, and he loves to make as many of those supporting cast members women. Occasionally he seems to introduce female characters into his comics with no clear idea of how he’ll eventually use them. One example occurred in Uncanny X-Men #136, when Jean was revealed for the first time to have an older sister named Sara, already married with children. It’s possible that Sara would have become a significant part of the cast had Jean not been killed off. As it was, Claremont never thought of anything to do with her – except one time.

In mid-1981 – around the same time that Uncanny X-Men was seeing an expansion of the supporting cast in the form of such notable females as Stevie Hunter, Carol Danvers and Illyana Rasputin – Marvel’s black-and-white tabloid-size comic book Bizarre Adventures came out with an X-themed issue. Of the three X-Men stories contained therein, only one is by Claremont; entitled simply “Phoenix,” it focuses on Jean’s sister Sara as she remembers an “untold tale” of Jean Grey, presumably set circa Uncanny #110. Allowing Claremont to indulge his penchant for writing loving female relationships (this one recalls the Misty/Jean material from Classic X-Men #13, which it predates), it also features some of Claremont’s ideas for Jean’s “secret origin” -- an idea shot down at one point by Byrne on the grounds that her “origin” began when she arrived at the mansion by taxi in X-Men #1.

Claremont, however, exercising his characteristic favoritism for the female members of his cast, decides here that although Jean was the last to join the original Lee/Kirby X-Men, she was actually Xavier’s first student. In a flashback-within-a-flashback (a curiously sloppy technique on Claremont’s part) we learn that Xavier became Jean’s tutor almost immediately after the Lucifer adventure that crippled him. She had been traumatized after accidentally creating a telepathic rapport with her best friend Annie Richardson in the moments of Annie’s death, and only Xavier – another telepath – could help her deal with the after effects. This is ret-con smooths over a flaw in the Silver Age continuity, wherein Jean became a telepath because Xavier gave part of his powers to her (a premise hard to buy given the parameters of how mutant powers are supposed to work in the Marvel Universe). In Claremont’s flashback here, Xavier is depicted as putting blocks on Jean’s telepathy before she joined the X-Men, and helping her to develop her latent telekinetic talent instead. The implication thus being that all he did back in the 1960s to make Jean telepathic was to remove that imposed seal.

The effect of this added back-story for Jean and Charles is twofold: As discussed above, it irons out a wrinkle in the Silver Age X-Men continuity, and more significantly, it retroactively adds another resonance to the penultimate chapter of the Dark Phoenix Saga, which showed Xavier binding Jean’s powers with “psychic circuit breakers” in order to save her. Here, that part of the story takes on a layer of irony: Xavier saved Jean from herself twice, and both times utilized the same methods.

The rest of the Bizarre Adventures story is a weirdly conceived battle between Phoenix and an undersea villain called Attuma. As an adventure story it’s not at all noteworthy, although the artwork by John Buscema and Klaus Janson – which is excellent – flags up an interesting problem that dogs Claremont’s every attempt to be a feminist writer. His female heroines, while strong and capable – especially when compared to how women were written in other Marvel Comics of the time – always seem to end up in tight and/or revealing outfits.

True, Claremont’s comic-book-level feminism was ultimately a positive step, particularly for the X-franchise (actresses involved in the X-Men films occasionally commented on their pleasant surprise at how many strong female roles the franchise contained). But stories like this one, which feature Jean and her sister in swimsuits or slave outfits for large stretches of time, make one wonder if maybe there wasn’t a fetish at work there as well.

4 comments:

scott91777 said...

The fetish thing is bound to come up with any 'strong female' character in comics if nothing else because it all really goes back to Wonder Woman ... and while Marston could, arguably, be considered the comics first feminist writer, as we all know from his personal life (as well as some of his professional papers), there was some definite fetishism going on there.

Patrick said...

The accusations of fetishism are going to come up when any male writer writes really strong female characters. When the premise for Dollhouse was announced, I saw a bunch of comments about Whedon's love of his own female characters, and the dodginess of a plot that would present Eliza Dushku as a mindwiped fantasy sexbot. Hey, that sounds a lot like a latter day Claremont plot.

I haven't read the story in question, but it sounds a bit like my reaction to an anime like Evangelion or Cowboy Bebop, where the female characters are fully realized and as strong as the men, but still constantly wind up in skimpy outfits. So, there's a disconnect between the substance of the story and the visual presentation.

Still, I'm going to give Claremont the benefit of the doubt, with a few exceptions, his female characters aren't presented solely for the pleasure of the male gaze. Yes, they're good looking people in skin tight outfits, but so are the men.

j.liang said...

Oh! So is THIS is where Phoenix "put things right by rebuilding [Sara] from the genes on up [with] nothing to go on...but her instinct"? Rachel mentions this act (and "some Atlantean nutcase named Attuma") in X-Men Annual #14, but I never knew whether or where this actually appeared in print.

Jason said...

Scott & Patrick -- all right, if you guys are cutting Claremont slack, I will as well. Besides, I have a fetish for women in skin-tight suits too, so who am I to judge?

J.Liang -- yep! This is the one! Claremont's X-Men saga is often a puzzle, with pieces scattered in all sorts of places that are not actual issues of Uncanny X-Men. Geoff has expressed frustration at this in the past, and I don't blame him. Still, though, when you have all the pieces and can read them all in a row, it's a pretty beautiful experience to see it all come together. (The way Ping33 once described "52" (the DC series) in one of the comments sections of Geoff's blog actually reminds me a lot of how I feel when I read all of Claremont's stuff straight through, with all the pieces in place.)