Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #126

[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.]

“How Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth ...”

The cliffhanger of the previous issue hinged on a monstrously contrived coincidence: that the Beast would visit Xavier’s mansion at just the right time, prompting Scott to phone Muir Island at literally the same instant that Mutant X (having been stalking around Moira’s lab for weeks) decides to attack Phoenix. But, with that ropey bit of plotting out of the way, the Mutant X story now takes on some fantastic momentum, emerging as a solid and suspenseful thriller.

Claremont, Byrne and Austin are in solid form here, maintaining this issue’s taut pace with consummate skill. Overall, this four-part arc can be understood in terms of the screenplay foundation laid out by Roger McKee in his tutorial book “Story.” Issue 125 ended with Scott hearing Lorna’s scream over the phone: the story’s Inciting Incident, kicking off Act One, which we see here. The cliffhanger for “Serpent’s Tooth” propels us into Act Two (issue 127), and the concluding issue – a wall-to-wall action sequence – is a perfect, slam-bang concluding act.

Meanwhile, this issue itself is further divided into three tight sequence of its own.

sequence i: The X-Men, directed by an intense, driven Scott Summers, invade Muir Island with slickly military precision. (A brief skirmish between Havok and a couple of X-Men occurs, just to provide some action early on.) Every maneuver is executed perfectly, but it’s a wasted effort. Mutant X has already escaped.

sequence ii: The pace slackens a bit, as the X-Men hold a council of war, important exposition is revealed (Mutant X’s power is to possess people), the obligatory soap-opera twist occurs (he is Moira’s son), and the Jason Wyngarde subplot is advanced.

sequence iii: The story pulls taut again, as the X-Men split up into pairs to seek out Mutant X, with Wolverine and Nightcrawler being the team that finds him. This final third is by far the coolest, with Wolverine once again stealing the show when we learn he’s the only one who can track Mutant X. (Even Phoenix can’t, as established earlier.) Since an earlier scene established that Mutant X’s main weakness is metal, it seems as if Wolverine is about to wrap things up, but then the reader is hit with the Act 1 turning point: Mutant X (who calls himself “Proteus”) is more powerful than apparently even Moira realized, possessing the ability to warp reality. Wolverine and Nightcrawler – and Storm, who arrives in short order – all are taken down, and we’re set to move into Act Two.

There was originally going to be another interesting wrinkle to this arc: Not only was Moira the mother of Proteus, but the father was Charles. (So the “X” of “Mutant X” was originally to stand for “Xavier,” which would have been a fantastic twist.) This would have led to a climactic bit in which the X-Men, Charles’ figurative children, defeated his literal child, a creature of pure evil. The symmetry of it – right down to the palindromic chime of “X-Men vs. Mutant X” – would have been quite nice, as well as the redemptive qualities inherent in the idea. But the notion was squashed by Byrne, under the prosaic logic, “I don’t think superheroes have bastard children.” Given what the director of the X-Men films would eventually do with Superman, Byrne’s logic (quoted in “Comics Creators on X-Men”) is not without its irony.

Claremont would just go ahead and give Xavier a bastard son anyway, David, in the first issue of New Mutants. Eventually, in the pages of the revisionary series Ultimate X-Men, writer Mark Millar would bring the whole mess full circle, telescoping David and Proteus into a single character, unknowingly making the story more like what Claremont had intended from the start.


James said...

Are you sure Millar did it unknowingly? It's a fairly neat coincidence if that's the case.

scott91777 said...

Wow, I was just about to point out the Millar story before I got to the end of yours.

That's probably my favorite Arc from his run on Ultimate X-men.

Someone should do an analysis of that run... I know I've gotten more enjoyment from it than either Morrison or Whedon's X-men.

Jason said...

James -- yes, it was unknowingly! When Millar is interviewed in "Comic Creators on X-Men," the interviewer, Tom DeFalco, tells him about it, and Millar is surprised. Millar notes that he was just doing a basic screenwriter's trick, telescoping two similar characters into one for economy.

James said...

Jason: That's cool, it really does make the most sense if Xavier's the father. Good work all round then, except for that Byrne crank - Xavier's not even a superhero! He's a creepy mysterious mentor guy! Of course he has bastard children.

Jason said...

James, well said!

Scott, I've never read the Millar stuff. I've heard so many conflicting things about the guy's work, so was never sure about the Ultimate X-Men material. Certainly his interview in "Comics Creators on X-Men" gave me some very positive notions about the guy's ideas ... but, at the same time, I often find myself impatient with "reimaginings" or Elsewords/reboot-type stuff. You know what I mean?

scott91777 said...

Actually, his line about using 'an old screen writer's trick' is a really good indication of how his X-men work plays out. It's not an 'elseworlds' thing... it's more, as he intended in doing the Ultimates, kind of like doing 'a movie version'... and his movie version is better than the actual movie versions.

Millar's work is uneven... some stuff (Ultimates) is brilliant other stuff tends to be more mediocre... The Ultimate X-men run is somewhere in between.

Anonymous said...

Jason, I'm enjoying these reviews a lot. Thanks for doing them.

One thing to add: the Proteus arc -- especially the first two issues -- has Claremont trying to do horror. (SFnal horror, to be precise, with the monster escaping from the lab and all.)

As it turns out, horror was not really Claremont's thing, so he'd mostly leave it alone; though there are certainly horrific /elements/ later in his run, classic horror is largely absent. (We will pass over the dreadful Dracula storyline. Move along, nothing to see here.)

That said, the first two Proteus issues are actually kinda creepy. The casual way Proteus simply slaughters his victims; his sadistic joy in the use of his powers; the swift decay of his host bodies, so graphically depicted by Byrne and Austin... disturbing stuff. Either Claremont just decided this wasn't his sort of thing (certainly possible), or the unsettling elements of these issues were from the Byrne-Claremont combination and couldn't be recreated by another team. I'm inclined to the latter, but YMMV.

Anyway, the last page of this issue was a corker. I haven't looked at it in at least a decade, but I still remember it. Sure, we know Storm won't be killed or even seriously hurt, but still... the disappearance of Proteus into a blurry outline showed how ferocious her self-defensive assault was, and the fact that he was still "closing in for the kill" anyway firmly established him as a major threat in the reader's mind.

Your analysis of the "acts" and pacing in these issues is IMO spot on, but I'd add that we can see Claremont trying on some tropes that he'd return to again and again. The slow reveal of the bad guy and his powers is one; so is the bit where someone explains the bad guy to the heroes. (That latter one, okay, maybe not so good.)

You didn't mention Scott and Jean's reunion! "Jason..." "Jason?"

Finally, I note that Proteus was so wicked cool that after he died, it took nearly thirty years for someone to bring him back. That has to be close to a record.

Doug M.

Jason said...


I like the Dracula story! Well, the first part, in Uncanny 159. It's quite exciting, although I agree it's not really viscerally horrific like the Proteus arc. I do like its surrealistic tone, though -- which is as much down to Sienkiewicz as Claremont, of course. (The sequel in X-Annual 6, on the other hand, has got some major problems.)

I would also offer up Uncanny 160 -- the Belasco/S'ym/Illyana bit -- as an example of Claremont getting into something much more under-the-skin frightening, even if the overall genre trappings are more "fantasy" than "horror."

Also, as coincidence would have it, I just this week worked on the analysis/review of Uncanny issues 232-234, which I think owe a huge debt to B-movie-style horror. There's a very George Romero sort of vibe to the whole affair, with the whole idea of a city being slowly taken over by aliens, and the overt religious imagery. Those same issues have a subplot involving Maddie Pryor being seduced by a demon, which is genuinely unsettling as well.

I love your description of the cliffhanger in this issue. I always liked it too, and found myself incredibly irritated at a review I read a few years back that described the cliffhanger as "garish."

Thanks for pointing out some of those subtler watershed moments, like the first Claremont "slow reveal." Great stuff!

The Scott/Jean reunion ... Hey, *I* always enjoyed the bit where the hot redhead moans the name "Jason..." but I figured it was just me. :)

Anyway, I'm glad you're enjoying the reviews. I'm enjoying reading your takes as well, so I hope you'll continue to share 'em. As noted above, I've already written into the early 200s, so there'll be plenty more to comment on, both positively and negatively I'm sure. (Though I of course am hoping for more positive stuff ...)

Jason said...

Scott, does Millar's run on Ultimate X-Men end satisfyingly. I'm considering reading it, but I do hate reading runs that don't have a nice conclusion, and just end up petering out instead. (And I'm pretty sure I don't want to read any post-Millar issues of the series.)

Geoff Klock said...

I discussed Millar's X-Men in an essay -- the link is on the toolbar on the right. I LOVED it -- it is my favorite portrayal of my favorite "superhero", Professor X.

Jason said...

Geoff, what issue of Ultimate X-Men is Millar's last, do you know? And, does it make for a satisfying conclusion?

Geoff Klock said...

It's five graphic novels:

The Tomorrow People (UXM 1-6)
Return to Weapon X (7-12)
World Tour (15-20)
Hellfire and Brimstone (21-25)
Ultimate War (Ultimate War 1-4)
Return of the King (UXM 26-33)

[13 and 14 were full in issues, and sucked]

I thought it did have a satisfying conclusion and I loved it, but you have some different standards than I do.

Matthew J. Brady said...

The next issue is the one where Wolverine flips out about Proteus warping reality around him, right? And then Cyclops provokes him into a fight and kicks his ass? That's a cool scene.

Jason said...

Matt, yep, that's right.

Geoff, that is true, of course. In this case, though, I just meant, does Millar get to complete his story or did he jump ship (or get fired or what-have-you) right in the middle of things, as so often happens in serial comics.

I do plan to check this stuff out now, though. The first trade, at least.

Shlomo said...

speaking of the Ultimate xavier: are there any other examples of Pacifists in mainstream comics? Is xavier even a true pacifist, is he really interested in social change? I just think the constraints of the action genre hold him back from being a true pacifist. But I love the idea of it still.

scott91777 said...


I would say Millar's Ultimate X-men run has a satisfying end, he wraps up the story he was telling but, of course, leaves a few threads for the author's who follow him to pick up on.

And Geoff is right, best. Prof X. Ever.

Anonymous said...

As you say, he used horrific elements; Belasco, murderous Sentinels, the Marauders, the Brood with their unpleasant method of reproduction. But that's not exactly the same as /horror/, which IMO requires a plausible threat to the protagonists.

I think Claremont had trouble with really frightening stuff, and for a couple of reasons. One, it just didn't fit his basically sunny outlook (or so ISTM). And two, by issue 150 or so, it was clear at the meta level that the new X-Men were too valuable to Marvel to be killed or even put out of commission for very long. (Remember when the Brood "killed" Colossus? Did anyone take that seriously for a moment?) This goes to say that horror in superhero comics is really hard to do; when we think of examples, they tend to involve B-list characters and/or an environment where disturbing outcomes are possible -- either a comics universe more malleable and vulnerable than that of the Big Two, or a "fringe" of the Big Two where nobody's paying much attention. See, e.g., the canonical example of good horror in mainstream comics: Moore's Swamp Thing run, which involved a sub-B-list character and was set pretty far from the mainstream of the DC universe.

Slow reveal: IMS first of these was the reveal of Alpha Flight, where the first issue of the two-parter shows only glimpses of the antagonists. This has since become so common that we hardly notice it, but I think this might be its first appearance in mainstream superhero comics.

Oh, forgot to note: there's a pretty huge hole in the backstory here. It's stated that the body in the cell is Proteus' original. So how could Moira know (1) that he could possess people, and (2) that he'd burn them out? Also, it's kinda hard to see how she got him into that cell in the first place, given the scope of his powers. Oh, well, superhero comics get a certain number of handwaves.

Final thought: Proteus' powers obviously owe a huge debt to Byrne; all those blobs and curves fit his style pretty perfectly. (As does Proteus' lack of irises or pupils. Sure, the blank red eyes worked really well here, but what was it with Byrne and eyeballs?) It's almost impossible to imagine, say, Cockrum doing these issues -- just a totally different sensibility.


Doug M.

Anonymous said...

X-Men along with Ultimates 1 are the two best things Millar ever wrote in my opinion. There's an unbelievable amount of new ideas in every issue. I remember it coming out at the same time as Morrison's run and reading the two simultaneously really felt like a competition.

Derek E