Saturday, May 17, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #125

[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.]

“There’s Something Awful on Muir Island”

With a couple of inconsequential issues involving the minor super-villain Arcade providing a buffer between the present issue and their extended Neal Adams homage, Claremont and Byrne now stride boldly forward into their own original epic. The Dark Phoenix Saga proper is a nine-part story beginning in Uncanny #129, but the four issues preceding it – the “Proteus” arc – contain some significant set-up material, while also presenting a neat thriller of their own.

An early narrative re-cap of the events that have brought Jean up to this point in the series, combined with a long inner monologue later in the issue by Jason Wyngarde, serve to focus and clarify certain aspects of past issues, and give a clear sense for the first time of where Claremont and Byrne have been heading. We see now the point of the contrivance of Jean believing the X-Men to be dead – it was necessary to isolate Jean from the rest of the book’s cast, as an explanation for how Wyngarde managed to get to her. As the villain explains here, he has been preying on her “ever since [she] left the safety of Xavier’s mansion.”

An explanation is even given for why Jean left the mansion in the first place since the expectation would be for her and Xavier to be united in their grief. That bit, though – it must be said – is less than satisfying. “Professor Xavier’s own grief built an unbreachable wall between them,” goes the narration. “[Jean] needed his help, support ... and love – but she gave her nothing. So, she left.” Claremont seems to have realized eventually how poorly that bit reflected on Xavier. New pages drawn by Kieron Dwyer for Classic X-Men #21 gave a better and more dramatic explanation for Jean’s departure.

Readers who have been following the series via the Classic X-Men reprints get to see other payoffs in “Something Awful”: e.g., a somewhat racy panel of Jean on a beach in Greece alludes (thanks to the power of retroactive continuity) to the Claremont/Bolton backup in Classic #24, and Wyngarde’s mention of “the Hellfire Club” – the very first when this issue originally saw print in 1979 – rings much more ominously thanks to Claremont and Bolton’s “Out With the Old” in Classic X-Men #7.

Claremont and Byrne are moving a lot of chess pieces into place with this issue, getting everything set for the dramatic endgame. A scene set on the Shi’ar homeworld, “Imperial Center,” depicts Xavier somewhat abruptly realizing that Jean needs him on Earth. He departs immediately. From a narrative standpoint, this seems a little facile on the surface: Xavier is shunted off of Earth to keep the whole “X-Men and Jean each think the other is dead” house of cards from tumbling down, and as soon as that’s done, he’s brought back to earth. But the plotting here is more nuanced than it seems, and Xavier’s seemingly superfluous stint on Imperial Center will pay off fantastically in the Dark Phoenix climax.

Meanwhile, scenes set on Muir Island establish that Moira, Jean, Havok, Polaris and Madrox have settled into a cozy little existence, and possibly for the first time it occurs to readers that all of these characters must believe that the X-Men are dead, thanks to Jean. And one can’t help but note that, for example, Havok never seems all that broken up over his brother being dead, and Moira hasn’t demonstrated any grief over Sean either. It certainly seems like more evidence that Byrne and Claremont really didn’t think all the implications through.

But that finally becomes moot, as this issue uses a visit to the mansion by the Beast to finally end all of the “believed dead” nonsense. The X-Men learn that Jean is alive and living on Muir Isle, and just pick up the phone to call Moira. (And they haven’t done this before now, why ...?)

It’s great to see Claremont and Byrne finally beginning to weave together these long-running threads, and the momentum will only increase over the next year’s worth of issues. There’s only one subplot page that will continue to dangle for quite some time: a surprisingly introspective image of Magneto on Asteroid M – still convalescent after the storyline in Uncanny #’s 112 and 113 — as he thinks about his “late wife,” Magda. Historically, this is the first mention of Magneto having been married in the past, and certainly the direction Claremont took the character’s backstory later rings oddly with the image of Magda seen here. Still, in terms of the original run of Uncanny, this is the very earliest inkling of Claremont giving added dimensionality to Magneto. It is a tiny seed to be sure, but significant when one considers just how expansively it would blossom.


Anonymous said...

I read this series when it came out. I was 14 years old... and I still remember being nonplussed by the whole "who knows who is dead, and how are they taking it" thing.

Note that this was the time when Claremont and Byrne started getting on each others' nerves; Claremont kept having Better Ideas after sending a script to Byrne. To make matters worse, usually these involved character motivations -- stuff just like the "Xavier's own grief wall" thing you mention here. So, Byrne would pick up the published comic and find stuff that hadn't been in the original script, assigning motives and adding backstory and such.

Finally, a fanboy nitpick: the "very earliest inkling of Claremont giving added dimensionality to Magneto"? No no no. That was the moment in 112 where he picks up his smashed robot's head and says, Hamlet-to-Yorick, "Ah, Nanny, I thought I made you better than this". Okay, it's a long way from the widowed Holocaust survivor he later became, but up until then Magneto had been so /utterly/ one-dimensional that this was a really startling departure.

Anyway. Keep this up -- it's interesting!

Doug M.

Jason said...

Heh, that's an interesting thought, Doug M. Never occurred to me. Good call!

(Funny, the "Hamlet-to-Yorick" thing was made much more explicit in Uncanny 149, which saw the X-Men revisiting the Antarctic base from Uncanny 112/113. Nightcrawler finds Nanny's head and calls her a "robot of infinite jest," or some such.)

NietzscheIsDead said...

Another interesting aspect of Magda's appearance here is that it revealed (albeit in a surprisingly backhanded manner) that Magneto was Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch's father. This issue came out in September 1979. One month earlier, over in Avengers #186, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch learned that Django and Marya Maximoff were not their parents and that their mother, Magda, had fled from her mysterious, frightening, and exceptionally powerful husband before bearing them and dying.

NietzscheIsDead said...

Of course, none of these characters would compare notes and put two and two together until issue 4 of the Vision and the Scarlet Witch miniseries, in February 1983. That's three and half years of dramatic irony, which I personally find fantastic.