Friday, June 20, 2008

Jason Powell on Classic X-Men #41, part b and #42, part b

[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.]

“Little Boy, Lost” / “When Dreams Are Dust”

The b-sides of Classic X-Men issues 41 and 42 are two halves of a story set entirely in the past, when Cyclops was 12 years old and still living in the orphanage in Nebraska. Published in late 1989, it functions as both prequel and epilogue to the previous year’s “Inferno,” a much-maligned X-Men story that deserves re-evaluation (and will eventually receive it, in this very blog series, eventually).

“Inferno” was a massively ambitious housecleaning event that attempted to close off a variety of long-dangling X-Men subplots, as well as redress certain cracks that had developed in the franchise’s facade over the preceding decade. One of those cracks was in Cyclops, who – while in John Byrne’s custody – quite clearly and convincingly became one of the coolest superheroes of all time, but when in the hands of less loving and protective writers (among whom Claremont was not the most egregious offender, but wasn’t entirely blameless either), slowly began to erode into a flawed, pathetic, unpleasant man. (I’ll never forget when I was 13 years old, coming to school with my shirt that featured the Wolverine/Cyclops/Iceman segment of Jim Lee’s X-Men #1 cover, sitting down across from a guy twice my size, and being a little frightened for a moment when he looked at my shirt, pointed at Cyclops and scowled, “I HATE that guy!”)

In what is perhaps a bit of meta-commentary on the way Cyclops’ creative parents failed to protect him from the harsh ravages of editorial whim, “Inferno”’s solution was to suggest that Cyclops’ flaws were not his own fault, but instead the result of an almost systematic psychological torture inflicted upon him by a super-villain in the orphanage when he was parentless, in the days before Xavier “adopted” him.

Unfortunately, “Inferno” was so confusing as a story that the attempted fix of Cyclops got lost in the shuffle. Claremont’s work in the “Little Boy, Lost” two-parter is actually much stronger in terms of making Cyclops a great character again, but its publication in the low-selling Classic X-Men title meant that few fans actually got to see it. (More recently, Joss Whedon and John Cassaday have done a fix on Cyclops that is both very high-profile and clearly, crisply executed. Whether that will make it more effective remains to be seen.)

“Little Boy, Lost” is a rare attempt by Claremont to dip into the horror genre, and as such it’s fairly convincing. It depicts Mr. Sinister, a villain deliberately designed (both the outre visual and the sing-songy name) by Claremont and artist Marc Silvestri to resemble a boogeyman out of a child’s imagination. Here, Sinister stalks the halls of a boys’ orphanage, terrorizing both kids and staff, in pursuit of some oblique agenda. Illustrated by Mike Collins, the tale is effectively creepy and bizarre. Claremont’s intent was that Sinister was a superhuman psychic projection of Scott’s roommate, a boy named Nate, who was obsessively fixated on Scott. There is the vaguest of vague hints in “Little Boy, Lost” that Nate’s fixation might be sexual, but Claremont is very cagey about it.

As it happened, Claremont would leave X-Men before he could ever develop this idea, and later writers decided that Sinister was the character’s reality, and Nate was the disguise, which is far less interesting (though to be fair, a line in “When Dreams Are Dust” about “demons masquerading as children” supports this idea as well).

I would love to have seen Claremont develop the idea that all of Sinister’s dealings in “Inferno” -- including his creation of Madeline as a brood mare with the mission of marrying Scott and giving birth to his offspring – were the result of a sexual fixation on him, but it probably wouldn’t have happened even if he’d stayed on the title. Instead it remains a tantalizing could-have-been.

Among the other interesting retcons in this story (among them an intriguing notion that Scott’s ruby quartz glasses not only hold back his optic blasts but also alleviate headaches caused by his “far wider [than normal] field of perception”) is a bit at the end revealing that it was Jean – not Charles – who first found Scott years ago while she was exercising her mental powers with the Professor. The point is clear in context: Scott and Jean were always fated to find each other, even years before they met in X-Men #1. Here, that idea is played in a sentimentally sweet way, but the b-side of Classic X-Men #43 will, cleverly, examining that same “fate” idea from a different angle.


hcduvall said...

Huh...I would've thought they'd have gone more with the Ultimates take of Hulk, unrepressed id as opposed to just dumb and angry. If it's just stress and heartrate...I think Hulk as Zen master would be kinda funny.

Ang Lee's Hulk stumbled on overreach, which I appreciate. If anything, it was that he tried to cram all the history of character, which accrued over decades, instead of just starting with the core appeal. And I always liked those panel transitions.

kalinara said...

This comment is late but you DID link me!

I love your blog entry about this issue of course. Though I kind of think that the creepy eugenicist interpretation doesn't negate the scary sexual implications. (After all, Scott's the only one that he actually raised. And in the AUs like the End and AoA, he keeps making kids of him. I do NOT want to know how he got the genetic material.) They're not AS blatant, but they are still there. :-)

And I also think the story goes about as far beyond vague hints as you can get and still adhere to the comics code. :-)