Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Jason Powell on Classic X-Men #22, part a (UXM #116)

[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.]

“To Save the Savage Land”

John has discussed on his online forum that a mantra he’s heard leveled against him for most of his artistic career is that his “old stuff is better.” At one point not long after he left X-Men, a more specific variation on the complaint was that his work had become less detailed. Byrne’s response was that the people who liked all the detail in his X-Men artwork were actually not John Byrne fans; they were, without realizing it, Terry Austin fans.

A prime example of Byrne’s point is the amazing double-page splash on pages 2 and 3 of Uncanny #116, depicting the “City of the Sun God.” Byrne’s talent for design contributes hugely to the awe-inspiring visual, but Austin’s contribution – all that intricate linework, implying that the structure contains layers and layers of complexity beyond the surface – is just as significant. The Byrne/Austin remain one of the best examples ever seen of great penciller/inker chemistry on a mainstream superhero comic book.

It’s already been noted that the issues from this period are an extended Adams homage, but the specific plot to this one more precisely recalls the original Savage Land story by Lee/Kirby in Uncanny X-Men #10. In that issue, as in this one, the X-Men were split when half the team was captured natives for use in a ritual sacrifice. Claremont, by John Byrne’s accounting, hadn’t read the Lee/Kirby run at this point in his career, although Byrne had. The plot of this issue may be largely Byrne’s doing.

Byrne also continues his agenda to make Wolverine a fan favorite with the first half of “To Save the Savage Land,” as it depicts Wolverine displaying a new ability (to communicate with Ka-Zar’s pet sabretooth tiger), acting as a competent substitute leader when Cyclops is captured, and – most significant of all – deliberately taking an enemy’s life. Up to this point, readers had certainly seen Logan try, and there was lots of talk of Wolverine being a “psycho.” But here, Byrne has Wolverine walk the walk. It is something of a seminal moment in the series. (Byrne’s visual of Storm reacting to the moment gives it a particular gravitas.)

Having had his fun with his favorite of the “new” X-Men, Byrne then moves on to his favorite all-time team member, Cyclops, who in this issue proves that his optic blasts are equal in power to – per Claremont’s dialogue – “forces that were ancient before [the human] race was born!” That’s fairly impressive. As Byrne continues to exert more influence over the direction of the series, he will give Cyclops increasingly more impressive bits. By the time Byrne leaves in 1980, Cyclops will be one of the coolest superheroes in comics, but – as we’ll see – without Byrne to safeguard his favorite X-Man’s integrity, Scott Summers will undergo a very gradual diminishment over the first half of the 1980s, culminating in a devastating story turn (not written by Claremont) that ruins Cyclops for the next 20 years. (It will be up to Joss Whedon and John Cassady to resuscitate him.)

Once again ending an X-Men victory on a negative turn, Claremont closes with Storm attempting to save Garokk from a plunge to his death, but failing after an acute attack of claustrophobia. Her shame over the failure lasts only a page however, so Claremont and Bolton’s backup in this issue expands upon the bit.

(Meanwhile, we will eventually learn in Uncanny #149 that Garokk survived via the inverse of how the X-Men escaped Magneto’s volcano base. They escaped by tunneling down into the Savage Land; Garokk escaped to Magneto’s volcano.)

[I'm sorry -- what was "the devastating story turn (not written by Claremont) that ruins Cyclops for the next 20 years"?]


Geoff Klock said...

For ease of reading, this series is getting its own series of links on the right toolbar -- each link holds 20 posts maximum, so this post is near the end of part 2.

KamandiCurt said...

I would assume that "the devastating turn (not written by Claremont)" refers to Jean Grey's return, which led to Scott leaving his then wife (Madelyne Pryor) and small child to return to his teenage sweetheart.

Certainly, it took decades for Slim to recover from such an ill-conceived move.

Jason said...

Kamandicurt called it. That puts it as well as anyone.

I should balance my original statement and point out that while Claremont didn't write the actual issue in which Scott abandons his wife and infant son to join X-Factor, Claremont DID contribute some scenes around the same time that contributed substantially to the image of Scott at that time as just a huge asshole.

KamandiCurt said...

I agree with you, Jason, but I do think that Madelyn Pryor was initially Claremont's somewhat eloquent way of resurrecting Jean Grey without succumbing to the comic book cliche of characters returning from the dead.

Claremont's Madelyn was a woman who seemingly began life the minute that Jean ended hers. Her marriage to Scott gave Claremont the opportunity to give two original X-Men a "happy ending," without robbing the Dark Phoenix Saga of its long-term ramifications.

Maybe it's just my affinity for Paul Smith's run, but I've always loved those early Scott and Maddy issues. As far as I'm concerned, that's the pinnacle of the UXM.

neilshyminsky said...

Claremont also wanted to write Scott out of the X-Men entirely - if Cyclops is diminished in the late 80s (and I'd agree that he is) it is because editorial forces CC to bring the hero back, and CC seems entirely unsure of what to do with him after it seems that his character arc has run its course.

X-Factor #1, though, is unforgivable. Jason can probably also attest to the ridiculous lengths that some Cyclops fans will go to in order to 'save' Cyclops from the indignity of having abandoned his wife and child. You know those moments where other comic book fans are so embarrassingly caught up in the story and with the characters that you, as another fan, feel embarrassed by extension? It's one of those things.

Jason said...

Kamandicurt, I think you're right. In reviews that I've already written but aren't yet published here, I do talk about that very same thing. I think when they brought Jean back in 1986, Claremont was furious not because he didn't want her back, but because he'd already brought her back himself, in the form of Madelyne Pryor.

Neil, I'm always so glad when you chime in on those occasions that Scott's bastard-ness becomes a topic on the X-board. You're a rock of rationality among a raging tide of illogic.

j.liang said...

To be fair, Claremont had begun work on Cyclops' rehabilitation in the six months or so before he left Marvel in 1991. In Claremont's four-issue run on X-Factor (#65 - 68), Cyclops comes across as an effective leader, has a pretty bad-ass showdown with Apocalypse, and redeems himself as a father by choosing, at great cost to himself, what's best for his son. In the final chapter, Claremont returns to the Blue Area of the moon with the five original X-Men and, via Cyclops' first-person narration, says good-bye to whatever happy ending he'd originally planned for Scott, Madelyne, and baby Nathan. Very good stuff.

Jason said...

Agreed, that's a sweet one. I believe Claremont is only credited as doing the dialogue, with Jim Lee and Whilce Portacio the credited plotters (is that right?). But certainly Claremont's dialogue is a big part of what sells the whole thing.

j.liang said...

Jason: I had to go back and check, and you are correct -- Portacio and Lee are credited with the plot while Claremont is credited with the script (or "words" in one issue).

I'm curious as to how much collaboration (if any) went on between co-plotters and scripter. Is the plot credit just an acknowledgment that Lee & Portacio worked with Bob Harras on the whole Nathan-is-Cable idea? Or were they also responsible for establishing the various story beats and characterization?

For instance, X-Factor #67, p. 19: two moments in a fight scene are broken down into four panels, isolating one member of the team in each. Although everyone is depicted with their mouths wide open, we see/"hear" only their internal monologues written out entirely within thought-balloons. Is that plot, script or both?

neilshyminsky said...

j.liang: As i recall from what Claremont had to say of this period, he had absolutely no input beyond the words he would write. Lee on the new X-Men and Portacio on X-Factor would simply send him the pages when they were done and he'd add the words. (This does lead to some slightly humorous moments, since it doesn't appear that Lee or Portacio vetted the script afterward - recall in X-Men #1 when Psylocke has to explain to the reader why it is that she is able to disable a Danger Room robot by thrusting the base of her hand into it.)

In a forgettable kick at the can, John Byrne actually took over scripting for Claremont on X-Men and Uncanny X-Men - but he did it for only something like 3 issues on each. As I recall, he was furious that they wouldn't give him the plot and so he'd have only a day or two between the time that he'd get the pages and subsequently have to submit the script. And in the minds of Marvel, he was far more expendable, so...

j.liang said...

Neil: That does explain a lot of the confusion from that period. From the same issue (I think), there's that bizarre "Is this Delgado the SAME Delgado or some OTHER Delgado?" exchange.

So what I took to be Claremont's attempted rehabilitation of Cyclops may have been a fluke then -- a random point along his journey from "Tortured Soul Who Abandoned His Wife And Child For His Resurrected Girlfriend" to "Frat Boy Who Develops A Wandering Eye For The Purple-Haired British Chick Transplanted To An Asian Body."

Claremont's farewell to his original happy ending still stands, though.

Jason said...

Yeah, I think Byrne was only given a couple pages at a time or something crazy -- he'd have to script the first half of an issue without knowing what happened in the second half!

The thing about the era when Harras and Lee were doing the bulk of the plotting is that it's actually really similar to the "classic" era, when -- at least according to John Byrne -- it was Byrne and editor Roger Stern who did a lot of the plotting. In Byrne's words, he and Stern would "work" Claremont in such a way as to slowly con him into giving up more and more control of the plots. (Of course one has to remember that Byrne is a notorious liar, so this is all grain-of-salt stuff.)

In way, the Claremont/Lee era brought the comic full circle back to Claremont/Byrne. But the Claremont of 1980 was young, enthusiastic and thrilled to sacrifice a bit of plot control for the sake of synergy. By contrast, the Claremont of 1990 was too seasoned and confident -- having written more than 200 "X"-related comics in the intervening decade -- to be willing to give up so much creative control to a bunch of young upstarts, however talented and "hot" they might have been.

Anonymous said...

Byrne was a big promoter/fan of Cyclops but ironically when he helped bring back Jean Grey in FF years later - it was that incident and its consequences that helped portray Cyclops as a deadbeat dad/jerk.

Byrne also undermines his own classic story in UXM by brigning Jean back in such a contrived manner...but i think at this point he just wanted to take some jabs at Shooter and CC (Byrne can be a petulant little man child thats for sure).

John V

wwk5d said...

"without Byrne to safeguard his favorite X-Man’s integrity, Scott Summers will undergo a very gradual diminishment over the first half of the 1980s"

I'd have to disagree with that. And Cyclops was at his most awesome, if you ask me, in Uncanny # 175, which had nothing to do with Byrne.