Thursday, May 15, 2008

Jason Powell on Classic X-Men #29, part b

[This one got lost in the shuffle, and should have come out days ago. Sorry. I really have no idea what happened with this one].

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men run, for more in this series, see the toolbar on the right.]


Throughout the issues of Uncanny X-Men published in 1979, there are several instances of Colossus having doubts about being an X-Man. He occasionally worries that he isn’t pulling his weight; he thinks of missing his family in Russia. In the Murderworld two-parter of Uncanny #’s 123-124, Arcade even uses brainwashing to exploit Peter’s fear that his membership on a U.S.-based team makes him a traitor to the Soviet Union.

For some reason, come 1980, this arc for Colossus seems to have quietly dissolved. By the time of Uncanny #140, Peter has decided he can never go back to his homeland because he’s simply seen “too much.”

What happened? Claremont’s backup to Classic #29 – illustrated in a very Bolton-esque style by penciller June Brigman and inker Roy Richardson – cannily and dramatically fills in the narrative gap.

In “Motherland,” Colossus returns home to his mother and father, and Illyana, his sister. The first half of the story is infused with a convincingly palpable atmosphere of familial warmth, which nonetheless is ever so slightly tainted. Even as Peter tells his mother how much he misses her meals, his father is becoming blatantly unsettled by the sketches Peter has brought with him, which depict his “travels and adventures” — in space, the Savage Land, et cetera. Peter attempts to resolve his parents’ discomfort, telling them that for all his time with the X-Men, his “thoughts were never far from you, or home ... or the Rodina,” and his father strikes a defensively condescending posture (“Glad of that, glad of that.”). Later, Peter encounters unsettling thoughts of his own, when his little sister sees him in his metal form and declares, “I love it, brother, when you’re shiny and strong like this! I can’t wait till I am, too!” Illyana’s “eager[ness] to manifest a mutant power” and the frightful thought that she indeed might, disconcerts Peter. The homecoming is turning out not to be the idealized experience he’d imagined. (The bit about Illyana wanting to become “shiny” foreshadows Claremont’s long-running New Mutants subplot involving Illyana becoming slowly coated in a magic suit of form-fitting silver armor. She has very similar dialogue in Uncanny #148.)

But Peter’s unexpected uncomfortability with his family is brutally pre-empted when he learns that many of his friends – including his best friend, Sasha – were killed in Afghanistan. Soon after, Colossus is arrested on charges of being a traitor, and taken before Colonel Vazhin, the same man who – in evil-robot-duplicate form – had denounced Peter in the Murderworld story. (A line in Uncanny X-Men #124 had established that Vazhin was a real person in the Marvel Universe; the Soviet equivalent of Nick Fury).

From Vazhin we learn that Colossus is now officially branded an enemy of the state, even though unofficially, he is not; the Soviet and American governments are both forbidden by treaty to draft super-humans, so Colossus could not have served in Afghanistan even if he’d wanted to. (In terms of story, that’s an intriguing idea, though on a thematic level it is apropos of nothing – and almost a cop-out, since it more or less lets Peter off the hook.)

The result for Colossus on a personal level are deeply tragic. He has to remain, officially, a traitor in the eyes of everyone, even his parents. He may return to the X-Men – Vazhin even encourages that choice, since the X-Men are international heroes – but once he does, he must stay out of Russia forever.

In his screenwriting tutorial, “Story,” Roger McKee discusses the positive or negative “values” that end stories, noting that an ironic ending is one that mixes both values, but never in equal amounts. The overall “charge” must be either positive or negative. In “Motherland,” Claremont creates a gently negative ending, exiling Colossus from the land that he loves. (The penultimate panel -- depicting Peter in profile, a tear in his eye, holding a bit of wheat to his nostrils as Vazhin’s hard words echo in his head – is heartbreaking.) Yet there are upsides: First, Peter’s memory of his family can now remain idyllic. He will never again have to feel ill at ease with them for having “seen too much.” Also, his conscience is cleared – his country has authorized him, unofficially, to be an X-Man and he can now serve his team, guiltlessly, for the first time. Claremont has elegantly stirred some positive values into the story’s overall negative charge.

1 comment:

Keith said...

It's great that Claremont took this story in a more adult and serious direction but the treatment Soviet Russia gets is silly at best and at worst shameful.

I don't know Claremont's politics but he sure does paint a pretty picture of Soviet Russia. I know it's not 1930 but come on!

I know Peter is naive but he just comes across as a damn fool here. He's been living in America for how long? He hasn't formed any negative opinions of the Soviet system versus the American?

Does he really feel guilt about not dying in, of all wars, Afghanistan?

I love the Soviet agent guy but the idea that a soviet agent would encourage Peter to go back to America and The X-Men is absurd.

His internal conflict and guilt makes for great X-Men angst but I would have much preferred him returning to Russia only to find disillusionment. The idyllic Russian utopia of his youth is a lie or something like that. Oh well.

Claremont's moral relativism in his treatment of America and Russia is a let down for me.

Peter's just a dumb sap.