Saturday, May 10, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #124 (by way of Classic X-Men #30, part a)

[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.]

“He Only Laughs When I Hurt”

As the story begins, Colossus is fighting on the villain’s side against Wolverine and Cyclops, having been brainwashed into thinking he is “the Proletarian,” a Soviet superhero whose emblem is a big picture of Lenin’s head. (Silly, yes, but to be fair, it is framed as a deliberately tasteless joke by Arcade, shown laughing hysterically in the opening splash.)

As noted a few entries ago, Claremont has been working a long-term character arc for Colossus, playing up two intertwined psychological weaknesses: 1.) He misses his family and home in Russia, and 2.) He doubts whether he’s an effective member of the team. The brainwashing thread in the Arcade two-parter hammers home both points while bringing up a third, which dovetails: It’s 1979; America and the Soviet Union are opposing forces in the Cold War. So why is Piotr working with a team based in the United States? To put it more simply, is Colossus a traitor?

Ableit politically naive, this is a perfectly solid characterization for Colossus, who is young and naive himself. Problematically however, Claremont’s solution at the end of the issue is facile. Storm and Cyclops simply remind Piotr that the X-Men are “like a family” and that they “love” him, and Colossus snaps out of it. This is the resolution of a character arc that had been running for over a year? (Recognizing his narrative cop-out a decade later, Claremont gives us a much more complex and satisfying resolution in Classic X-Men #29, part b. I’ll discuss that story in the next entry.)

I nonetheless love this issue. Classic X-Men #30 was my very first X-Men comic, bought with my own allowance right off the rack in November of 1988. I had just seen the “Pryde of the X-Men” half-hour animated feature on TV, and Steve Lightle’s cover (much stronger than Byrne’s original for Uncanny #124) sported five of the same X-Men featured in the cartoon.

The issue gave the 10-year-old me everything I could possibly have wanted from a superhero comic. Right from page 4, with Wolverine and Cyclops fighting Colossus, I was in Heaven. Wolverine even says, “I always wondered if my adamantium claws would cut your steel hide, Russkie.” I had wondered the SAME THING after watching the cartoon. (Wolverine and I would both continue wondering; his claws never actually connect with Colossus, in this or any other Claremont-penned issue.)

Meanwhile, the other X-Men’s various threats all seemed cool, with the stakes incredibly high by a 10-year-old’s standards. Storm stuck underwater had a doubly profound effect. First, there was the drama of Storm being trapped where her weather powers were less effective because “water’s a much heavier medium than air” (that seems incredibly intelligent to a kid, believe me). Then, John Byrne and Terry Austin show Storm taking off her boots and cape so she’s not so weighted down when she tries to swim to safety – effectively showing a hot woman stripping down to a bikini. This was really taking my brain to lots of surprising places.

And best of all was the Cyclops/Nightcrawler “buzz-saw car” sequence. I invite anyone who – like Geoff – “NEEDS” to see Cyclops kicking ass after Joss Whedon’s handling of the character in Astonishing X-Men, buy and read this issue. On Page 10, Cyclops destroys eight buzz-saw cars with ONE OPTIC BLAST. Claremont’s narration is a tad superfluous here, explaining the feat as a product of Scott’s “unique, inborn talent for spacial geometry.” Actually, the 30-year-old me kind of likes that, but as a kid I didn’t care. The panel was owned by Byrne, who loved Cyclops enough to give him the coolest moment in the story.

This is one issue I simply can’t look at objectively. If I did, I would probably recognize that the plot doesn’t really make a lot of sense. (Juggernaut of all people needs to hire someone to kill the X-Men? Arcade lets the X-Men go just because Colossus shook off the brainwashing? He doesn’t kill Nightcrawler even though he and his assistants beat him fairly on Arcade’s terms? Also, isn’t Arcade just kind of a poor man’s Joker?)

But the above nostalgia trip hopefully illustrates a point that is important and easily lost amidst all the analysis: Claremont and Byrne were creating a truly all-ages superhero comic here, one that hit all the right notes for an action-adventure-loving 10-year-old kid while still appealing to the literary sensibilities of readers who were quite a bit older. And they did it month after month for 3 years, better and more consistently than any of their contemporaries. Can any X-Men creator post-Claremont (even Whedon and Cassaday, who arguably have come the closest, and whose work on Astonishing X-Men owes a massive debt to Claremont and Byrne) make the same claim?

[I do not want to make too big a deal out of this, but in the last issue Claremont had Banshee reading Finnegans Wake, in which almost every word is a portmanteau word -- a conflation of two or sometimes three (or more) words. Jason has discussed Claremont's love of language, and that may be a reason he admires Joyce. My point here is that, however facile, Claremont comes up with a kind of playful portmanteau word in this issue -- a reference to what is apparently a Marvel Universe pop culture icon -- Battlestarwars1999. The combination of Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars, and Space 1999 is dumb, but I can think of dumber combinations in Joyce. ]


Jason said...

Geoff, I thought that, within the story, that particular portmanteau was an invention of Arcade. i.e., Arcade has -- possibly just off-the-cuff -- named his own sci-fi scenario after three different sci-fi shows as a joke on how derivative his environment is.

Which is to say, I don't think Claremont was suggesting that Battlestarwars 1999 is a "real" thing within the Marvel Universe.

But, I could be wrong.

Anyway, I love your connecting it to the James Joyce reference of the previous issue!

(By the way, early on in Claremont's "X-Men/Alpha Flight: The Gift" miniseries, a minor supporting character waxes about how much he loves James Joyce, saying that he "could read authors like him forever.")

wwk5d said...

"Wolverine and I would both continue wondering; his claws never actually connect with Colossus, in this or any other Claremont-penned issue."

Oh yes they...but I guess you got to that issue by now ;)

Gary said...

Juggernaut doesn't need to hire anyone to kill the X-Men. Black Tom Cassidy simply convinces him they've better, more profitable, things to do and subcontracts the X-Murders out to Arcade. It begins the delightful pragmatism of Juggernaut and Black Tom - later, Cain will destroy Edinburgh to distract from a bank robbery. He'll wreck small town America, and then calmly stop when he gets what he wants. 3 dimensions can mean a character can have things he'd rather be doing.