Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #122

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

“Cry for the Children”

Early on in this issue, Cyclops alludes to “that crazy fight with the Living Monolith,” referencing the X-Men’s appearance in Power Man and Iron Fist #57. Published concurrently with Uncanny #122, the story – scripted by Jo Duffy – symbolically puts a cap on the extended Neal Adams homage begun by Claremont and Byrne in Marvel Team-Up #69, which also featured the Living Pharaoh/Monolith. The Pharaoh was the first Neal Adams X-Men villain, whose connection to the X-Men was an arbitrary parasitic relationship to Havok. In Power Man and Iron Fist #57, the X-Men learn that the Pharoah no longer requires Havok’s energy to become the Monolith, and his connection to the X-Men is just as arbitrarily written out of the series. The Pharaoh will never again appear in Claremont’s X-Men book, he and Byrne having – over the previous dozen issues – worked through their anxiety over Adams’ influence (thanks, Dr. Klock). That the symbolic send-off appears in an otherwise insignificant guest appearance – touched on only in one line of dialogue in Uncanny X-Men – is simply further proof that Claremont and Byrne are out of Adams’ shadow. They are free to chart their own course now.

In “Cry for the Children,” that course takes them into the deepest-yet exploration of the X-Men’s characterization, and the first time ever in the series’ history that none of the X-Men fight a super-powered antagonist (though several villains do appear in subplot pages). First, Colossus – referred to in the narration as “Piotr” rather than “Peter,” another first in the series – works through some of his angst in the Danger Room. Claremont had been exploring Colossus’ doubt as a character angle for the last 10 issues or so, as Wolverine acknowledges with his line, “He’s been frettin’ ever since we tussled with Magneto.” Here the issue is touched upon with a bit more depth, and it will be worked into the big superhero battle of the next few issues. (In the original run, this angle on Colossus more or less faded away, but Claremont finally brings this arc to a satisfying resolution in the b-story of Classic X-Men #29.)

Byrne is still making Wolverine into the man who can do just about anything, so it is Wolverine who talks Colossus out of his temporary funk in the opening sequence. One of Claremont’s wittiest dialogue exchanges occurs just before this. Cyclops: “If [Peter’s] got a problem, why doesn’t he talk about it?” Wolverine: “If openin’ yer head to the world was as easy as that, Cyke, you’d be in a lot better shape than you are.” It’s rare that Claremont’s characters mock each other quite so squarely, but his ability to find the humor in the X-Men’s high level of angst here is refreshing. It’s something I wish Claremont had done more often.

The centerpiece of the story is Storm, who – in the sequence which gives the issue its title – returns (for the first time since her repressed memories returned back in Uncanny X-Men #102) to Harlem, where she was born. In a surprisingly dark sequence, Ororo enters the apartment her father once lived in, and finds it populated with children described by the narration as “far gone into their private, heroin-created fantasylands.” Albeit melodramatic, the tone is surprising to see in a 1979 Marvel comic book. This may be, ironically, the influence of Neal Adams again, but instead of his X-Men run, the scene feels informed by the “socially aware” comics that Adams and Denny O’Neil did for DC Comics. In an infamous Adams/O’Neil moment from their DC work, a black man chastises Green Lantern for spending all his time fighting cosmic menaces but not fighting social injustice, and Power Man’s line in “Cry for the Children” seems almost a deliberate response to that: “We’re superheroes, Ororo, not God. We can save humanity from Doc Doom or Galactus -- but not from itself.”

The meta-textual meaning of the line is clear: These are superhero comics, and there is only so much thematic weight they can handle. The thesis is more Byrnean than Claremontian, and over the years Claremont’s opinion will evolve, as he attempts more and more to bring the metaphorical aspect of the X-Men (virtually absent in the John Byrne issues) to the fore.

In the meantime, it’s heartening to see a comic that ostensibly is supposed to be about minorities actually present a scene in which all three protagonists – Ororo, Misty Knight and Power Man – are black, and two of them are women.

Meanwhile, superhero subplots are simmering. A scene set in Scotland reminds us of the Angus MacWhirter/Mutant X subplot re-ignited in issue #119, and also begins the Jason Wyngarde/Phoenix thread that will culminate so brilliantly in the Dark Phoenix Saga. The story also continues to stretch to the breaking point readers’ suspension of disbelief regarding the X-Men and Jean each believing the other to be dead. But more on that in the next entry.

1 comment:

Ingonyama said...

Wow, one of my favorite stand-alone issues and no comments.

This is an extraordinarily self-aware issue, and turns many things on its head...between Wolverine playing camp counselor, Colossus nearly crippled by self-doubt, and the normally "above it all" Storm being brought harshly down to an unusually gritty reality, this set tones for these characters that resonate well into today.

I think this is the issue that really cemented my view on the role of superheroes in society. It's ironic that Luke Cage would later become an archetypal "street tough super," who pushed for social consciousness in the Marvel Universe's superhero community, when I found his line to Ororo here made a surprising amount of sense.

In a universe populated with threats like Doom, Galactus, Magneto (before his side-switch), etc, it seems hypocritical of people to call for superheroes to save them from cosmic menaces, and then deride them for not protecting them from everyday threats and dangers. Whatever its faults, the Marvel Universe has done an exemplary job of showing their superheroes as fundamentally human, and therefore limited. They cannot cure all the world's ills and evils, so they do what they can in the areas they're strongest in.