Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Jason Powell on Classic X-Men #23, part a (UXM #117)

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

“Psi War”

After a two-ssue Savage Land arc focusing entirely on the core cast, Claremont and Byrne return to the peripheral characters: Jean, Charles and Lilandra. Jean, we learn, is moving out of the mansion. (The reason she gives is not very convincing, but some interpolated pages in Classic X-Men 21, part a, set this scene up quite effectively; another example of why I prefer the “Classic” versions of these comics to their original versions in Uncanny.)

With Xavier now alone in the mansion, and believing all the other X-Men to be dead, he is convinced by Lilandra to leave the planet entirely and become her royal consort when she is finally officially crowned as the Shi’ar Empress. Thus do Claremont and Byrne remove both characters from the cast for quite some time.

However, none of this happens before a flashback revealing more of Xavier’s backstory. Chronologically, Claremont places this in the gap between two other Professor X flashbacks that saw print in the Silver Age: Charles’ time in Korea, when his stepbrother, Cain, became the Juggernaut (Uncanny # 12); and his adventure in Tibet (Uncanny #20) when the supervillain Lucifer crushed his legs. This whole idea may have been mostly Claremont’s; Byrne was not a huge fan of complicating character histories this way.

At any rate, this story sees Xavier coming to Cairo. First, in a contrived coincidence, his pocket is picked by a young Ororo; then Xavier enters a saloon to do battle with telepathic mutant crime lord Amahl Farouk. Farouk is set up immediately as the archetypal “evil mirror image of the hero” for Xavier. As Geoff Klock has pointed out, Xavier’s true arch-enemy, Magneto, has a wonderfully asymmetrical relationship to Xavier. The one is a telepath; the other controls metal. In that asymmetry there is, oddly enough, a sort of realism. But it does leave a gap open in X-Men mythology for an Evil Telepath, so Claremont obligingly gives us one with Farouk.

All of the scenes set in the interior of the saloon are lovely, Byrne and Austin evoking a tangibly “Casablanca”-esque feel. Slightly less evocative but still fun are the pages set on a telepathic level of reality. There are retroactive echoes of “The Matrix” here; Farouk’s explanation that physical laws do not exist in a “domain of the mind” are not unlike Morpheus’ lectures to Neo.) Best of all, however, is the sequence on Page 15 of three almost identical horizontal panels, with Xavier sitting at his table on one end, Farouk at the other. Xavier stands up; Farouk falls on his face. Xavier casually puts his hat back on as he walks out the door.

Generally speaking, Claremont characters are not usually “cool.” They are many other things, of course – charismatic, dynamic, fascinating, sweet, adorable, intense, tragic – but the only consistently cool character in Claremont’s large menagerie of X-characters is Wolverine.

But, in those slick panels on Page 15, Professor Charles Xavier comes pretty damn close.

One other thing that has to be noted, because it is so fantastically subtle: In the last panel of Page 5, Xavier is looking at two framed photos, one of the original five X-Men in their blue-and-yellow Kirby costumes, the other of the “new” X-Men. The cool bit: the picture of the original team is a painstaking recreation of the splash page of Lee and Kirby’s X-Men #7, which actually began with the team having their photograph taken. It’s the kind of detail you can’t imagine anyone but John Byrne taking the time to add.


Josh Hechinger said...

Weird bit of trivia: this issue is said to have been a big influence on the Japanese comic Jojo's Bizarre Adventures.

Like the third arc, where the characters use invisible psychic avatars to fight each other. In Egypt.

Anyway, this issue's one of my favorite X-Men stories. I've always been surprised that "Chuck as a globe-trotting psychic adventurer" hasn't been mined for more material.

j.liang said...

I may have to spring for those Marvel Masterworks: X-Men collections. Having never read anything from the Lee/Kirby era, I didn't realize how much of Claremont's and Byrne's (and Cockrum's) work directly refer and respond to elements from that earlier period.

Also, I was trying to think of similarly bad-ass Professor X moments but, of the examples I can recall, the ones that come closest are from his appearances in The New Mutants.

Jason said...

Josh, that's cool. Had no idea.

J.Liang, yeah, I was very surprised to realize it. I read the Claremont/Cockrum/Byrne stuff first. When I went back to read the Lee/Kirby stuff and -- more importantly -- the Roy Thomas/Neal Adams stuff, I was amazed at some of the connections I hadn't been aware of.

The Thomas/Adams stuff in particular is just *hugely* influential. I'd recommend to any X-Men fan the "X-Men Visionaries: Neal Adams" TPB. It's just astounding: Nine issues that serve as a blueprint for so much that came afterward. John Byrne once said that everyone to work on X-Men post-1970 is just riding the wave that Neal Adams created.

James said...

Glad this issue is a favourite of yours as it is of mine - and yes, Charles Xavier as psychic Indiana Jones is awesome.