Thursday, May 22, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #127

[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.]

“The Quality of Hatred”

When Joss Whedon and John Cassaday began their Astonishing X-Men run in 2003, X-Men fans had endured nearly 20 years of an absurdly uber-cool Wolverine and a pathetically emasculated Cyclops. So when the two creators went about making Cyclops the coolest superhero on the team – in the progress pulling the rug out from beneath Wolverine’s hyper-masculinity – it’s no surprise that they were applauded.

But for all that the above may have been well executed, it must be said that here – as with almost every cool thing ever depicted in an X-Men comic – Chris Claremont and John Byrne did it first.

The centerpiece of issue #127, the Mutant X arc’s middle act, is a sequence depicting the X-Men recovering from their failed first attempt to rein Proteus in. The premise here is that Wolverine, whose existence is grounded in physical reality, has finally met a villain who scared him, via the psychic manipulation of physical reality itself. The experience has reduced him to a stuttering weakling. (If that reaction seems extreme, I heartily recommend the John Bolton-illustrated b-story of Classic X-Men #32, whose script by Ann Nocenti expands deliciously on Proteus’ psychological torture of Wolverine.)

Worried that Wolverine needs to snap out of it or end up “permanently gun-shy,” Cyclops decides to pick a fight with him, in a scene that is simultaneously cool and, at times, humorous. (The panel with Cyclops emptying a mug of coffee into Wolverine’s face and Wolverine petulantly shouting “HEY!” is laugh-out-loud funny.)

A fight between Cyclops and Wolverine had to happen at some point in the series – there had been so many intimations of it over the last 30 or so issues, the idea had become an implicit promise to the readers. Cleverly, Claremont reverses expectations – we’d think Wolverine would start it, not Cyclops, and that it would be an explosion of anger, not a calculated psychological gambit. The result is a tour-de-force showcase of everything that makes Cyclops the greatest team leader in comics: tactical skill, psychological insight, raw power, etc. Meanwhile, Wolverine – after having been built up so long by Byrne as the coolest member of the team – by contrast plays the fool here. He plays right into Cyclops’ hands every step of the way, and never gets an advantage even when Cyclops is forced to fight other X-Men simultaneously. It’s a superbly constructed sequence, all the way down the line. And it even ends somewhat touchingly, with Wolverine – having realized what Cyclops was up to, and that it worked – tersely admitting, “I ain’t thought much o’ you in the past, Cyke – as team leader, or as a man. I was wrong.”

As Peter Sanderson pointed out in his “Wolverine Saga,” this entire sequence puts to rest the Wolverine/Cyclops rivalry that had been a key part of both characters’ characterization since Claremont first began writing. Even the love-triangle tension with Jean is gone now that Wolverine has become infatuated with Mariko Yashida. It’s a testament to Claremont’s fearlessness as a writer that he’s willing to remove one of the key conflicts of the series, confident that he’ll always be able to replace it with a new, equally compelling character bit.

The other major sequence in “The Quality of Hatred” is Moira’s confrontation with her husband -- Proteus’ father -- Joe MacTaggert. This is the first time we learn that “MacTaggert” is Moira’s married name, which of course couldn’t have been the intention from the beginning. The revelation throws a wrench into the chronology of Moira’s back story. I’ve never been able to puzzle out where her respective relationships with Joe and Charles occur in relation to each other. Anyone got any ideas?

Joe is a one-note character, an unrepentant bastard who serves no purpose but to merge with Proteus at the end of the issue, but one line in his scene with Moira is striking. “When we said our ‘fond farewells’ in New York all those years ago,” she says to him, “you didn’t just put me in hospital for a week, you left me pregnant.” The implication of rape is incredibly intense for a 1979 superhero comic, though I’m sure Claremont was counting on kids missing it (the 11-year-old me reading this in Classic X-Men certainly did). But apart simply from the brutality of this narrative turn, it’s notable for the potent literary effect. Proteus is now more than a nasty super-villain – he’s now a metaphor for violence begetting violence. It’s not a subtle metaphor, but it’s an effective one.


neilshyminsky said...

"Proteus is now more than a nasty super-villain – he’s now a metaphor for violence begetting violence. It’s not a subtle metaphor, but it’s an effective one."

Effective, maybe, but it's troubling too. The children of violence and rape are constantly fearful of what the conditions of their creation or childhood say about them - that these conditions are determinist in some way. It's dramatic, but it also plays into very damaging myths.

Jason said...

You're right. I hadn't considered how problematic that is on the more literal level.

scott91777 said...

Once again, I can't help but see the Guy/Batman as a failed version of the Cyke/Woverine relationship... maybe where it might have went had Byrne not insisted on building up the Wolverine character.

Also, your insight into Proteus as a metaphor made me think about what The Gray Man (the villain in the next post I'm doing on the JLI) might represent... and I think I might have come to an interesting conclusion. Thanks!

Jason said...

Scott, cool, look forward to reading your next post.

Anonymous said...

Hmm. I think I have to disagree here.

Yes, the Cyke-Wolverine thing was comng for a long time. And yes, it was a nice reversal to have Cyclops start it deliberately.

But I thought that it fit rather clumsily in this particular issue. The fight sequence itself was good, but it leaves the story quite broken-backed. In contrast to the note-perfect pacing of the previous issue, this one goes "resolve the cliffhanger -- X-Men fight each other -- Moira confronts her husband -- Proteus takes over his father -- cliffhanger for next issue". It's a grab bag of stuff that has to happen, along with a fight scene there just happens to be room for. This is a common problem in second issues of a trilogy, but it seems especially obvious here.

Also, Wolverine's final admission is really, really clunky.

Why? Well, it's not really consistent with the character we've been shown over the last 30 issues. Wolverine, c. 1979, was still an angry, sullen loner with issues. His (very slow and gradual!) domestication was a continuing subplot all through the Cockrum and Byrne runs, but at this point it was still far from complete. (Well, it never was allowed to be complete, but leave that bide.)

I could see Wolverine making this admission in a thought balloon, no problem. Or having him make some grudging, half-sullen concession out loud. But the full-on "I was wrong", accompanied by a visual of Wolverine putting his hand on Cyke's shoulder? No. Superman might do something like that, but not Mr. Short Guy With Anger Management Problems.

IMS Claremont handwaved this with some noise about how "Wolverine accepts Cyke as pack leader now". That never worked for me. It felt more like "the Cyclops-Wolverine tension subplot has been going on too long -- we're bored -- time to wrap it up and get rid of it. With a fight scene, of course!"


A couple of thoughts on the art: I have wondered if Joe McTaggert was based on anyone, either as a character or just visually. Byrne had a habit of putting cameos of friends and colleagues into his art, and also of using them as models for characters who wouldn't be seen again. So it wouldn't be unlike him to base McTaggert on some living model.

Also: this issue comes near the beginning of Byrne's personal Golden Age. Opinions vary widely on this point, and I don't want to turn this into another endless thread on how John Byrne Used To Be So Great And Totally Sucks Now. But I think there's a broad consensus that, whatever you think of Byrne's later work, his stuff from this period was really damn good. Layouts, faces, line work, composition: you can see him stretching, issue by issue.

Teebore said...

As an unrepentant Cyclops fan, his fight with Wolverine in this issue is one of my favorite moments, and is one of those moments (along with issue #175 in which takes on the entire team single-handedly and wins) that I point to when people ask me why I like Cyclops so much.

Aaron Forever said...

2 things:

First, about Neil's comment about the violence coming home to roost in victims/offspring. It might be troubling, but isn't it all the more impactful in that it is a real fear for children/victims of violence of offspring?

Second, to answer Jason's question about the chronology of Moira's relationships with Xavier and MacTaggert, she basically wrote Charles a "Dear John" letter saying she was getting married to MacTaggert (for political reasons, I belive) while Xavier was in Korea... or Viet Nam... or whatever nondescript middle eastern conflict his military service is now set in for sliding timeline purposes