Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #129

[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.]

“God Spare the Child”

The X-Men have defeated Proteus – “... and, for the moment, all is well in their madcap, helter-skelter world.” So goes Claremont’s narration on Page 3 of Chapter 1 of the Dark Phoenix Saga, just before adding ominously: “None are aware that it is merely the calm before the holocaust.”

The portentous tone of the narration promises darkness over the next few issues of the series. The promise will be kept -- but first, Claremont and Byrne take an almost sadistic delight in re-setting the comic virtually to the Silver Age status quo. Professor X returns, Scott and Jean go back to being full-time lovers (the “Scott dating Colleen Wing” subplot unceremoniously dropped, never to be heard from again), and the X-Men are back to doing what they did in the Lee/Kirby days: practicing in the Danger Room and seeking out new mutants to recruit. It’s all almost playful.

Claremont and Byrne even tease at retreating back into Neal Adams/Roy Thomas homage on Page 7: Jean’s dialogue in the third and fourth panels (“Scott – wait! Don’t you remember?! That extra thick-door leads to – the danger room!”) is a verbatim recreation from Adams/Thomas’ X-Men #60. But it is only a tease, and actually a funny joke for people who have read the Adams run. It was already fairly ridiculous then that Scott would forget which door led to the Danger Room. That he has to be reminded again (by the same person, in the exact same words) takes it into comical absurdity. The message is implicit: Too much cannibalization of the past will lead to absurd levels of stagnation. Claremont and Byrne are only setting the X-Men down a familiar road with this issue so that it will be that much more of a shock when they shoot the wheels off the car.

On the other hand, the feigned step backwards into the Silver Age might not have been Claremont and Byrne’s idea. Byrne complains in “Comics Creators on X-Men” that around the time that the Dark Phoenix Saga was just about to get underway, Marvel Editor in Chief Jim Shooter got a “bee in his bonnet,” suddenly deciding that what made the X-Men unique was their attending a school. Byrne quotes Shooter as commanding, “‘I want to see these people getting demerits. I want to see these people getting homework assignments.’” Byrne continues, “I didn’t think Wolverine was going [to] react real well to demerits. I mean, come on!”

Hence this dialogue:

Xavier: “Scott, notify Wolverine that his childish outburst will cost him ten demerits.”

Scott: “Ten – or ten thousand, Professor – I doubt they’ll matter much to him. Wolverine’s a grown man ...”

When one knows the backstage details, it’s clear there’s a message being sent to Shooter there ... while on a more subversive level, Byrne and Claremont turn what may have been a forced step backwards to a dramatic advantage, as we soon learn it is really just a feint.

In the meantime, Shooter’s edict does result in one far-reaching addition to the series, as in this issue Byrne and Claremont introduce their co-creation Kitty Pryde. She is mainly a plot device here: a new mutant for the X-Men to seek out. But she will soon make X-Men history as the first new mutant to join the X-Men since Giant Sized #1, and the first X-Man that Claremont co-created.

This issue also marks the first appearance of the Hellfire Club, though most of them are kept in shadow. Claremont and Byrne are very careful about how much information they reveal, as this issue is only the first chapter of what will turn out to be nine.

Still, to keep from being entirely withholding, Claremont lets one long-standing mystery be explained, off-handedly, in the Hellfire Club scene: Warhawk, who bugged the Danger Room back in issue #110, we find out here did so on behalf of the Club. (He was shown to be in someone’s telepathic thrall in that story, so presumably that was the White Queen.) Claremont had let that one dangle for nearly two years, but at least he does finally explain it. As we’ll see, as we get deeper into his run, his willingness to let mysteries like this dangle indefinitely will grow and grow, until it tries even the most patient X-Men fans (but also, perversely, keep those same fans coming back for more).

The only Hellfire Club member besides Jason Wyngarde not shrouded in the present issue is Emma Frost, the White Queen, another Byrne/Claremont co-creation who will become a mainstay of the series. She will always be a villain during the Claremont run, though post-Claremont creators will make her into a member of the team. Here, she is just a one-dimensional comic book villain, the only twist being the fairly racy (for the time) visual design. And mercifully, no camel toe. (Sorry, Geoff, I still find that a little much. Does that make me a prude?)

[Yes. :)]


Anonymous said...

Ah, Jim Shooter. It's twenty years since he left/was fired, and his legacy is still a source of endless controversy.

It's true that Shooter's direct interventions in the creative process -- like this one -- were often painfully clumsy and off-key. On the other hand... well, this is probably not the forum. Note that he was a damn fine administrator, and move on.

So. Agreed, that C&B here reboot the X-Men to "normalcy", briefly, if only so that they can have that much more fun blowing up their world. Thinking about it, the last time the X-Men were "normal" -- all together, and all at home --was issue 110. That makes me wonder if the Warhawk reference here was deliberate, linking these two issues together.

And when do they get back to normalcy again? I'd say issue 143, which has them once again all together and at home. In this sense, you could say that 110 and 143 are the bookend issues for the extended-play Phoenix storyline, while 129 marks the point where it moves from low to high gear.

Slow reveal of the villains: as noted, this was a Claremont specialty: Alpha Flight, Proteus, now this. I'm old enough to remember when these comics came out, and I can testify that it was effective. You pored over each old issue looking for clues, and then you greeted each new one with a little "aha!". This has since become part of the standard comics creator toolkit, but even today few do it as well as C&B did in the X-Men.

Kitty Pryde: Byrne drew her almost ridiculously coltish, with oversized eyes, long skinny legs, and a huge mass of hair. I'm not sure what he was after here -- trying to emphasize how much younger she was than the grown-up X-Men? -- but it never worked for me. Apparently I was in a minority, though, as Kitty immediately developed a large and devoted following among the fanboys.

Note also Kitty's Jewishness. This is partly Claremont's diversity thing -- if we're going to have a new mutant, let's have her be female, and something other than whitebread American. There's nothing wrong with this, though later in Claremont's career it would be carried to ridiculous extremes. (IMS the Marauders included a North Korean and an Eskimo.) And, in retrospect, one suspects that Claremont was setting up the (rather powerful) Magneto scene from issue 150 long in advance -- maybe so long that he wrote Kitty Jewish just for that purpose.

That raises a couple of other points. One, you'll notice that both the new mutants are female. Well, this was the middle of Claremont's "is there any reason this character couldn't be female" period, so it's hardly surprising.

Two, notice how diverse the Hellfire Club /isn't/. They're a bunch of rich, whitebread Anglo jerks -- very much a contrast to the X-Men. In this context, Emma Frost's wacky outfit makes perfect sense; as the only female in this rather louche and retro group (Tessa was just a handmaiden or something at this point), she pretty much has to dress down. Grant Morrison, that clever fellow, would spot exactly this point and mock it mercilessly in his "Doom Force Annual" some years later. (That's the one where the villain mocks the villainess for wearing too much clothing -- it shows she's not really evil, you see. She ends up in a thong and pasties.)

I'm doing these issues from memory, so I don't recall if Kitty's father was an asshole yet. I'm sure he did become one later. Someone said that in Claremont comics, fathers are always dead, conveniently absent, or assholes. Pryde _pere_ certainly fit the bill, but I don't recall just when.

Finally, a nice touch that we don't see any more: Wolverine checking out a porn magazine (with Peter staring appalled in the background), then picking a fight when the shopkeeper does the "this isn't a library" thing. This version of Wolverine is pretty far from the high-minded samurai warrior of later issues.


Doug M.

Stephen said...

At last! We get to the issues I've read!! (Not in real time -- I read back to #129 with an avant la lettre trade and some back issues -- but I did read them in the 80's, even the early 80's).

And while I don't think that this stands up as a Great Work of Art in any sense (well, except maybe for
this sense, plus some Bloomian points for influence), this was a terrific reading of the issue, lots of insightful points made, and the context from issue 60 & Schuter definitely adds a nice layer.

Now that I've caught up to it -- or vice-versa? -- I can tell I'm going to enjoy this series a lot.


Stephen said...

I don't recall if Kitty's father was an asshole yet. I'm sure he did become one later. Someone said that in Claremont comics, fathers are always dead, conveniently absent, or assholes. Pryde _pere_ certainly fit the bill, but I don't recall just when.

I don't recall for certain, but my memory is that he became an asshole later -- the Kitty/Wolverine limited series (which I may be the only person on the internet to have fond memories of, judging by what I've seen people say of it) was a particular point of reference here, although there were some earlier signs (i.e. the shipping Kitty off to Emma's school in issues #151-152). But I don't think it was this early.

Incidentally, that description of Clemmont's fathers pretty much fits most Joss Whedon characters (who's admitted CC as an influence) -- doesn't it?
Look at his fathers:
Buffy - first asshole, then absent
Willow - absent
Xander - shown to be an asshole in absentia
Coredlia - ditto
Oz - absent
Tara - asshole
Angel - asshole
Wesley - asshole

...and I can't recall any fathers from Firefly offhand for *any* of the characters...

Just a thought.


Stephen said...

...edit to say: for Angel, obviously, the father was dead as well as an asshole.


Marc Caputo said...

My friend has the original art to the splash page of # 129. He bought it 20, 20+ years ago for what amounts to a song. In 1991, we went to Forbidden Planet to see Claremont at a signing. The art had already been signed by Byrne; Mike wanted it signed by Claremont (shouldn't he try for Austin for the trifecta? How about Orzechowski (sp?), the letterer?)

Anyway, we're about 3 people back from the desk and Claremont happens to land his eyes on the art and is visibly surprised. As we're moving up, he's looking back to us several times. I was just marveling - since I'd just returned to comics after a 7-year absence - at how hot girls who read comics had gotten. OK, I was just marveling at the fact that GIRLS READ COMICS?

Anyway again, he gets to the desk and Claremont has this Obi-Wan-like moment of "I haven't seen this in a very long time."

Very cool.

Jason said...

I'm a little behind so I'm not sure anyone is looking at this one anymore. Just in case ...


Doug M.: Excellent points, as always. I have a different paradigm in my head for how the run from issues 110 to 143 break down, but yours is quite canny as well. I'll discuss mine in a later post, or in one of these Comments threads, for a little compare/contrast.