Thursday, May 08, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #123

[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.]

“Listen – Stop Me If You’ve Heard It – But This One Will Kill You”

Most of the more persuasive interpretations of the X-Men, by both creators and critics, cast them as sci-fi characters rather than superheroes. Grant Morrison was the first to be explicit about it in 2000, with the characters’ text deliberately suggesting that the superhero trappings were a lie from the very beginning. Morrison notes that it was Bryan Singer’s X-Men films that pushed the writer in that direction. (“[The film version] was a concise way to show me what to do with X-Men,” says Morrison. “To me, X-Men became a science fiction story.”)

Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum’s initial 1975-77 run was sci-fi oriented as well, although the message came across more through implication and allusion (both to Star Wars in the first case). Byrne is more the classic superhero enthusiast, as reflected by his run. Still, every so often, Claremont’s seeming natural inclination to allude to sci-fi would come through, as in the Arcade two-parter (here and in the next issue), which Byrne says was “about 99% Chris.” The artist adds that Claremont “... ‘cast’ [Arcade as] Malcolm McDowell, circa A Clockwork Orange.” The sci-fi allusions, however subtle at this point, continue. They will become more explicit as time goes on. (The level of intentionality on Claremont’s part is debatable at this point: His deliberately Malcolm McDowell-ish villain was conceived and executed in a Claremont/Byrne Spider-Man comic -- Marvel Team-Up #’s 65/66 -- before becoming a recurring X-Men villain.)

As noted, Claremont quickly paired up all his male characters with romantic foils, while Storm was kept single, perhaps in an oblique gesture toward feminism. The previous issue and this one see the continuation of Wolverine’s relationship with Mariko, while Colossus and Nightcrawler’s respective token paramours, Betsy and Amanda, turn up here as well. Claremont even flirts with giving Cyclops (who still believes Jean dead) a new love interest, the excruciatingly boring Colleen Wing (imported from the cast of Iron Fist). In spite of the heavy innuendo of the previous issue’s ending, the Scott/Colleen bit will – mercifully – go nowhere.

The first time “Stop Me If You’ve Heard It” cuts to the X-Men’s mansion, Claremont’s narration tells us exactly where it is located: “Graymalkin Lane – a winding country road leading out of the Westchester County township of Salem Center.” Westchester has been the general location since the Lee/Kirby era, but Claremont’s naming the town “Salem Center” and the road “Graymalkin Lane” is rather witty. “Salem” alludes to the Salem witch trials, previously used by Arthur Miller as a metaphor for the Communist witch-hunts of the 1950s in his play “The Crucible.” And Lee/Kirby’s first mutant-prejudice story, the Sentinels arc in X-Men issues 14-16, made both explicit and implicit reference to Communist paranoia as well. “Graymalkin” adds another link to the chain of literary allusions, being the name of one of the witches in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”

When Spider-Man calls the mansion to warn the X-Men that Arcade is after them, the suspension of disbelief in the “X-Men mistakenly believe Jean dead, and vice versa” (already stretched to the breaking point) snaps completely. At least while the X-Men were in remote locations like the Savage Land and Japan, there was still some level of credibility here. And last issue, Claremont made a point of noting that the phones had been disconnected by Xavier before he and Lilandra left the planet, effectively keeping the X-Men isolated in spite of being back on home ground.

Now, however, the X-Men have been home for “weeks,” and the phones work. Banshee is still in love with Moira MacTaggert (he even briefly considered calling her from Japan in Uncanny #119), but after weeks of being home he doesn’t phone her at Muir Island, because if he did, everyone would immediately realize that everyone else is alive.

Claremont’s solution is to simply ignore these problems, or utilize weak contrivances to justify them. Cyclops on page 2 of the present issue: “I’ve been trying to contact [Jean’s parents] since the X-Men returned to the States. But so far ... no luck.” Again, because if he did, they’d tell him that Jean is still alive. Meanwhile, Cyclops is steadily dating Colleen Wing and must have told her that Jean is dead – yet Colleen’s business partner, Misty Knight, saw Jean just before flying to Japan. Don’t Colleen and Misty ever compare notes? There are more flaws the deeper one examines this entire thread. Meanwhile, in later years, Claremont at least admitted that the storyline didn’t work. (Byrne is complicit in this arc as well, however, and maintains to this day that anyone who notices these flaws is simply thinking too much.)

Meanwhile, the superhero action of this issue – the X-Men trapped in Arcade’s Murderworld – is once again solid work from Byrne/Austin. A particularly neat and subtle art detail is the thick black border used around every panel set in Arcade’s control room. As for the story, Claremont essentially is just reprising his first Arcade plot in Marvel Team-Up, with the only significant variation occurring in the “brainwashed Colossus” cliffhanger. More on that next entry.

And for the record, the Morrison and Byrne quotes above are all from Tom DeFalco’s book “Comic Creators on X-Men.”

[Claremont gets to put one book in Banshee's hand; because it is Banshee he wants Irish literature -- I get a kick that out of all of the Irish literature he could have picked he goes with the almost totally impenetrable "scholars only" Finnegans Wake. ]


Jason said...

Isn't there a joke about that in the issue? Like, Banshee falls asleep reading it, and when he wakes up he thinks, "Sorry, Mr. Joyce..."

Or am I making that up?

Patrick said...

I'm always bothered by the total nonsensicalness of Arcade whenever he appears in a story. The only storyline with him that really works for me is later in the Claremont run, when Kitty shows him up. But, it's only a few more issues until the Proteus storyline starts up and a really good era begins.

Jason said...

Oh, Patrick ... you don't know how disheartened you've just made me. I've read all your Claremont posts in your "Thoughts on Stuff" blog (that's the name of it, right?). You mentioned there how you hate Arcade, and said something like "I'm embarrassed to even be critiquing a comic book with Arcade in it."

I made it my goal to try and use this and the next post to try and change your mind that Arcade is actually a great super-villain. Guess I didn't quite pull it off. :)

Ah well. Can't win 'em all!

Christian said...

Arcade is based on H.H. Holmes, the first official American serial killer. It's pretty fucked up to be honest. But weirdly enticing.

Jason said...

Christian -- THANK YOU! That's so cool. Not the thing about a horrible serial killer who murdered dozens of people, but ... you know. Your passing along the information is awesome. It's so great to learn about things like this.

Christian said...

I've never read it anywhere, but comsidering H.H. Holmes' MO (and the fact that he named his hotel The MURDER Castle compared to Arcade's Murderworld), it seems like a viable theory.

If I were a greater writer, I would do something with it, but alas, I can barely string two sentences, coherently, together.

Patrick said...

You'd have to pull off something pretty crazy to get me to re-evaluate Arcade. I've gotten more tolerant of nonsensical comics stuff as I've gotten older, but Arcade still seems like a bad villain. The main reason I don't like him that much is because every story's basically the same. It starts with an ordinary, then "Oh shit, I'm in Murderworld," Arcade and female associate talk about how fun it will be to watch these people die, then the story ends with everyone breaking out of Murderworld.

There was some good surreal imagery in the second half of this story, but I still don't think much of Arcade as a character.

Rob said...

The best Arcade story is in Excalibur #4-5 (by Claremont, of course), for the very reason that it subverts the normal formula of Arcade stories by having Kitty take control of Murderworld and dump Arcade himself in it.

BTW, Graymalkin isn't the name of the witch in Macbeth, it's the name of her cat.