Thursday, June 05, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #133

[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.]

“Wolverine: Alone”

The last issue’s final panel promised Wolverine solo, going no-holds-barred against the Hellfire Club. Claremont and Byrne aren’t guilty of bait-and-switch – or, for that matter, of delaying gratification. Right away, they let loose with an exciting sequence featuring Wolverine guiltlessly murdering three Hellfire mercenaries. Colorist Glynis Wein (Oliver) executes an appropriately unsubtle choice here, drenching with bright red only the three specific panels containing the kills. An already thrilling sequence is thus given the coloring equivalent of three bold exclamation marks.

(Claremont would later ret-con Byrne’s original intent for this scene, revealing that Wolverine’s three victims survived this skirmish and became cyborgs. But that doesn’t subtract in any way from these pages, which – in their four-color way – absolutely revel in violence.)

The follow-up bit – wherein a fourth, surviving mercenary is psyched out, “Dirty Harry”-style, by Wolverine – holds up not quite as well. Good as Claremont and Byrne are at this point, they can’t out-cool Clint Eastwood. The misstep is corrected later in the issue, with Wolverine’s casual and witty takedown of a soldier with a gun to his head.

Despite the title of this issue, though, Wolverine shares the spotlight with Cyclops, Byrne’s other favorite X-Man. Indeed, after the initial outburst of violence on the first few pages, “Wolverine: Alone” becomes a Cyclops story. Since this is the middle scene of the Dark Phoenix Saga’s middle-act, the issue can’t help but slacken the tension a little – especially as a follow up to the previous issue’s tour-de-force. So, Cyclops engages in a “psychic duel” with Mastermind (who incidentally is so disconnected from his Lee/Kirby incarnation that it’s almost a meaningless coincidence that he is the same character), and while it is engaging and well-drawn, it does not stand out. One of the most interesting things about it, really, is a correction in the dialogue by Claremont to a seeming mistake in Byrne’s art. (Cyclops’ sword suddenly switches from his right to his left hand in two sequential panels, so Mastermind comments on it as a deliberate tactic on Scott’s part.)

This is a fun issue on its own terms, but in the context of the continuing narrative it exists mainly as a placeholder, wherein Claremont and Byrne let readers catch their breath before taking it away again with next issue’s intensely powerful finale.


Anonymous said...

Agreed that it's definitely the middle issue of a trilogy, and suffers accordingly.

But I think there's a little more going on. If last issue was the Sex, this one is the Violence. Claremont and Byrne are slapping the reader upside the head, first one way and then the other. In both cases, they're stretching the envelope of what was permissible in contemporary comics back then.

Note that it's not just Wolverine; there's also the violent "death" of Cyclops on the penultimate page. The reader is pretty sure it won't take, but even so it's a violent panel, with Mastermind's sword going right through Cyke's body.

But anyhow. While this issue doesn't have the neat counterpointed structure of the previous one, it's not an unstructured mess either. Remember how the first issue started high in the sky, with the Angel above New Mexico, and then steadily descended -- to the mesa top, to street level, and finally to the sewers? Well, in this issue the movement goes the opposite way -- Wolverine ascending, first from the sewers, then to the basements, finally to the upper floors of the Hellfire Club. That ascending motion will be completed next issue, which will end where the trilogy began -- in the sky.

So that's one thing. Then there's the question of what Wolverine's upward movement means. (Besides giving the little crazy guy a chance to unleash a lot of violence, that is.) You could say it's the X-Men bouncing back from rock bottom, but I don't think that quite fits. Rather, I think Wolverine here represents Jean coming back to herself... albeit slowly, and in a very violent and unpleasant way.

Far-fetched? Maybe. I'm not sure of it myself. But these two characters have been in a complex dance since the first issues with Dave Cockrum. Recall that it's Wolverine who rips off Jean's dress way back in #100, with symbolism that hardly needs to be belabored. (That black dress gets a good semiotic workout.) He's always been associated with her id. So I don't think this is completely daft.

But anyhow, there's another character who gets a lot of panels here, and that's Cyclops. In fact, the whole issue is just Wolverine and Cyclops -- the rest of the X-Men are barely present, just standing around watching. But while Wolverine gets a workout this issue, Cyclops gets comprehensively humiliated: rejected by Jean, taunted, defeated, and finally "killed" by Mastermind. It's a brutal takedown for a character who's previously been so together and on top of things. (Compare this issue to the middle one of the Proteus trilogy, where Wolverine is near collapse and Scott steps in... and /totally dominates/ him.)

Why? Well, two things come to mind. One is, Wolverine is Jean's id, while Scott is her superego -- the voice of love and reason. And love and reason aren't enough; only primal brute violence, climbing up from the sewers of the reptile brain, can break Mastermind's control.

That works, I think, but there's also another way to look at it. Take a step back and look at this issue in the context of the greater story arc, the double trilogy that will end in #137, and suddenly something snaps into place: when it comes to Jean, Scott is completely fucking useless.

Think about it: he can't prevent her from being mindtapped or turned into the Black Queen. When he rushes to rescue her in the last issue, he gets zapped. When he tries reaching out to her psychically in this issue, he gets "killed". The next few issues will only continue this pattern, until #137, where he will utterly fail to save her.

What's interesting is that when it's not directly about Jean, he's fine. Fighting the Hellfire Club next issue, he'll briefly be the master tactician again. But he won't be able to do a thing to stop her final transformation.

Why is this? Well, two reasons, I think. One is meta: Jean is already doomed, for reasons discussed in the last thread, so Scott can't be allowed to derail the train of the plot.

But while that might answer the greater "why", it doesn't explain why Scott is so consistently depicted as a fumbling incompetent when it comes to helping Jean. In this issue, for instance, surely a student of Professor Xavier should be better at psychic combat than a C-list villain who's never before reached the big time.

I think the answer lies back in that scene on the mesa. Remember that Jean was the active and dominant one there, with Scott timid and passive? Well, that was a permanent change. For the rest of their relationship -- six issues -- that's going to be how things are. Scott's a bottom now, and will be for as long as Jean's in the picture.

(And, as is often the case with bottoms, he's going to be competent and even dominant in other areas of his life. Any dominatrix will tell you that much of her clientele consists of successful professional men -- often those who are control freaks in their public lives.)

Does that seem a bit much? Well, consider: at the end of this issue, Jean will be snapped out of Black-Queen-dom by seeing Cyclops "die". This will release her to the final transformation into the Dark Phoenix. Then in #137, the exact same thing will happen -- Cyclops will get knocked out by the Imperial Guard, and Jean will respond by turning into Dark Phoenix again. In both cases, Scott will be the loser / victim, and Jean will be the protector / avenger.

It's a very strong inversion of gender roles... and, one suspects, very deliberate. Cast your mind back to issue #98 again. (The Dark Phoenix storyline is rich in references to this earlier trilogy.) Remember when the crazy Sentinel-Master slaps Jean and knocks her down? /Wolverine/ responds by going berserk and bursting from his bonds. That's a classic gendered moment in comics: female vulnerability, male protectiveness, male rage harnessed to burst free and attack the bad guy. It's classic... and the Jean/Cyclops moments at the end of this issue and in #137 turn it inside out.

Note also that this gets us back to Wolverine as Jean's id. Even as far back as #98, it's not Cyclops who loses control and bursts out of his bonds. (Because losing control, of course, is exactly what Scott can never do.)

So here's another layer of sexual complexity: by making love to Scott, Jean has rendered him submissive and to some extent emasculated him. Though I suppose "emasculate" isn't exactly the right word for this. De-masculate? She's turned him into a character who assumes a female role, but only when she's around.

Final thought: I mentioned that the other X-Men didn't do much this issue. That's because they're in chains and powerless. They're enslaved -- Ororo is literally a slave, in Mastermind's fantasy world -- and dominated. Just by standing there, they're providing a commentary on a central them of this story arc.

So, what with one thing and another, there is some stuff going on here.

Doug M.

Jason said...

Love it. I like the idea that Wolverine/Cyclops get the focus because they're two sides of Jean's psyche. (Claremont will riff more on this idea years later, with his Rachel vs. Selene material.)

Interesting too, your bringing up the Lang-slaps-Jean bit, with Wolverine becoming enraged at the treatment. I'm slapping my head now, but this connects with issue 111, in which Wolverine slaps Jean to break her out of Mesmero's control. Logan thus causes the first glimpse of Dark Phoenix when his ploy works, and she slaps HIM down in retribution.

I realize now, that sequence is a fascinating transitional point between the two moments you describe, with the first bit (in #98) being gender-traditional, the other (in this issue and 137) being gender-reversed.

Very cool.

On the other hand, I don't see Cyclops as being "useless" in the duel with Mastermind. This seems more an example of what's been called the "noble failure," wherein a protagonist makes all the right moves but fails through no fault of his own. I'd argue that throughout DPS, Scott remains a formidable character in the sense of being unflappable in how he deals with Jean/Phoenix/Dark Phoenix. He is simply outmatched by Jean's power. Which still speaks to the reversal of expectation in a genre that usually sees powerless females and formidable males -- but I don't see Scott as having been emasculated, or even demasculated, in this arc.

By the way, having cogitated more on the long thread for issue 132's blog entry, I realize that while it was a bit naive of me to miss the implied causal connection between Jean's increased sexuality on the mesa with the transformation to Phoenix, I hate to let that reading completely obscure the more conventional -- but still, I think, very moving -- reading of the story, wherein a powerful love (Jean and Scott's) was cut short just after its consummation.

Not to say I don't enjoy all the gender-political, intellectual reading of this all; it's fantastic. But there is an emotional resonance here as well that ought not to be ignored. The reason I love Claremont's work as much as I do is -- more than anything -- his ability to inspire strong emotional reactions.

Okay, so that's said. Back ver to you, Neil, Patrick, Josh, J.Liang, etc. for the brainy stuff. :)

j.liang said...

Jason: "I realize that while it was a bit naive of me to miss the implied causal connection between Jean's increased sexuality on the mesa with the transformation to Phoenix..."

Say it ain't so, Jason! Stand your ground! Correlation, not causation! :)

Jason said...

J.Liang, my head is reeling right now. :) It'll be a while before I finally figure out where I stand on all of this stuff. I'm a novice at gender theory, but I do find it fascinating.

In the meantime, I am just trying not to crack under Doug's unrelenting, Wyngarde-esque assault upon my psyche. :)

Anonymous said...

Jason, great catch on the scene in #111. Yes, exactly -- it's a transition between Lang-slaps-Jean in #98 and Wyngarde-kills-Scott in this issue. And it also fits nicely with the Wolverine-as-Jean's-Id idea.

Thinking about that scene a bit more, notice how it starts with Jean passive and fearful, *but also sexualized* -- "I'll do anything you want, but please don't hurt me!" Then Wolverine slapping her, which gets a couple of panels, and is kinda disturbing. Then Jean comes to herself... and notice what she says before she strikes: "Don't you HIT me, LITTLE MAN!"

Sub to dom in one quick panel.

It's probably a coincidence, but I note in passing that all these incidents involve Silver Age bad guys -- Sentinels, Mesmero, Mastermind.

Gender theory vs. story: I don't see the two as in conflict. A story isn't a frog on a dissecting table: picking it apart doesn't hurt it. Quite the opposite.

But as to the story of a powerful love being cut short after its consummation -- well, that's a thing, too. Romeo and Juliet must have that one night in the cave together. Leonardo diCaprio and Kate Winslet must hook up in the car on the Titanic. Rick and Ilsa must have that one night in his room above Rick's Cafe.

Scott and Jean, the mesa. Act Four: the lovers have their hour. Then the ship hits the iceberg, the plane loads up for Lisbon, and everything goes to hell.

Anyway. My relentless assault on your psyche may have to pause for a few days -- I'll be travelling for work, and may be short on time. But this has been a great deal of fun, and I'll be back.


Doug M.

Jason said...

Doug, yes, I didn't mean to suggest the theory and the story could not co-exist ... only that I didn't want the one to overshadow the other.

Anyway, I'm glad you're enjoying the back and forth. I'm being continuously mind-blown by some of your analyses.

That said, if you do end up taking a break, my brain will probably be grateful for the respite. I'll have some time to process all this stuff.

This is great, though. Claremont's work totally deserves this level of thoughtfulness. It's so wonderful to see it happen, even if half the time I want to kick myself for not having made some of these mental leaps already. :)

scott91777 said...

Another reason I don't think the cyborg retcon takes away from the violence of the scene is the fact that that means that he didn't kill them... he MUTILATED them. For me, that's almost worse that death. Show me a guy get stabbed, I can handle it, show me a guy get dismembered and I get really creeped out (I think this has something to do with Luke losing his hand in Empre... major traumatic moment for me).

Jason said...

Scott, true enough. (I was similarly creeped out -- don't laugh -- by Woody Harrelson losing his hand in "Kingpin.")

Oh, Doug, by the way, re: your note about how this issue is the Violence to the previous chapter's Sex ... have you heard the John Byrne anecdote about when Shooter first floated the idea to Claremont and Byrne about doing a "Mature Readers" X-Men comic book? It never materialized of course (well, until "God Loves, Man Kills," long after Byrne had departed). But according to Byrne, his reaction was "Cool, we can realistically depict Wolverine dismembering someone," while -- more or less simultaneously -- Claremont's reaction was, "Cool, we can realistically depict Jean and Scott having sex."

Anonymous said...

I never had a problem with the cyborg retcon. I liked that Wolverine had those guys gunning for him, and it led to one of the stronger mid-period Claremont stories. (With a Power Pack crossover, of all things.)

Jason, I'd never heard that anecdote, but it made me laugh! And it certainly fits.

This is getting ahead of things a little, but it'd be interesting to talk some more about Jim Shooter's role in all this. He's been demonized by X-fans for many years, and his various negative and silly interventions are well known. But this was the period when the X-Men were becoming Marvel's flagship title. Shooter was editor-in-chief. His influence couldn't have been entirely negative!

Note too that Shooter and Byrne didn't hate each other yet -- IMS they were working together on the Avengers right around this time. (There's a fair amount of back-and-forthing between the two titles during this period, from the battle with Arkon to the introduction of Agent Gyrich.) And Claremont never did break with Shooter.

Getting ahead a bit: a few issues later, Shooter would make the right decision (if maybe not for the right reasons) on issue #137. It's worth noting that Byrne never agreed with this -- he wanted the "psychic lobotomy" -- while Claremont, upon consideration, came to agree that it was the correct way to resolve the storyline. We can discuss this more when we reach #137, but I'm nailing my colors to the mast in advance: by that time, killing Jean was by far the least bad way to end it.

One other thought (I'm bouncing around here a little): you've said you don't pay much attention to covers, but how about those splash panels? I still remember the one in this issue, with Wolverine braced against the ceiling as the guards walk under him.

And one last bounce: Claremont and Byrne found a creative synergy that neither man ever really matched again. We can get into the whys of that when we reach the end of their run... but the dip in quality after the breakup was IMO sharp; the book didn't recover for a long time, and it never did hit those heights again. I think part of it was that the two men were pulling at right angles to each other: Claremont wanted to do emo stories and play with various tropes of the genre, while Byrne wanted to do good old-fashioned Silver Age stuff with a modern sensibility. This led to a lot of friction, and the eventual breakup was long overdue... by the last six months or so, the two were hardly talking to each other. (Or so one hears.) But it's a peculiarity of mainstream comics as a medium that (1) they're created by a team, and (2) the members of that team can hate each others' guts and still produce good and memorable work. In fact, it can help.

So, it might be fun (in your copious spare time!) to take a post at the end of the run to look back at how these two worked together. Just a thought.


Doug M.

scott91777 said...

All dismemberment creeps me out... even in Kingpin... even the recent Remake of Texas Chainsaw massacre, I gleefully giggled througout a group viewing (much to the amusement of my friends I was less concerned with the fate of the teens than I was with the fact that Leatherface neglected to wear protective eye goggles "he's going to get a sliver!"... took me right out of the movie) but then I got really quiet during the scene where the dude is hanging from the hook missing one leg.

Sorry... bit off topic there.

Jason said...

I don't so much like that Power Pack crossover issue. Great artwork by Windsor-Smith, but I think Claremont's writing is off.

Shooter's decision to kill Jean in issue 137 was, I think, a good idea. It turns the entire Phoenix saga into a momentously tragic storyline, and I think gives added weight to all the issues leading up to it (which are full of dramatic pronouncements in Claremont's narration that "nothing will be the same" and that a "holocaust" is coming, etc.). I think a lot of that would have seemed a bit embarrassingly overwrought if it was leading instead to the "psychic lobotomy" ending.

Oddly, Byrne now claims the exact opposite of what you note: Byrne swears that HE is the one who realized that Shooter made the right decision, but Claremont was the one who didn't get over it. Yet it was Byrne who decided Jean needed to be brought back to life, thus invalidating the ending to Dark Phoenix. Byrne is full of contradictory/hypocritical sentiments like that these days.

I do love a good splash page. The Wolverine-on-the-ceiling for this one is fantastic indeed. Though my favorite Byrne/Austin splash is, I think, the City of the Sun God.

I'm always hesitant to concede the point that Claremont never had the same synergy with other artists that he had with Byrne. As good as the Byrne stuff was, Claremont did some *amazing* X-Men work with Paul Smith, Marc Silvestri and John Bolton as well. (I do of course concede that when Byrne departed, the decline in quality was precipitous. Claremont didn't find his footing again for quite a while, and didn't start reaching the same heights again until Smith arrived.)

I think your assessment of what created the Byrne/Claremont synergy is spot-on: if I were to sum it up in a few words, I'd say that Claremont's general tendency is to be messy, while Byrne's is to be immaculately clean. Claremont loves his loose ends, Byrne likes things tidy.

And at this time, Byrne was backed up by Roger Stern, who edited X-Men. Byrne likes to brag now about how he and Stern "worked" Claremont into agreeing to their ideas. Claremont is even said to have complained that he was "losing control" of the comic to the Stern/Byrne tag team. Obviously that trend reversed itself.

It's ironic in a way that at the end, Claremont found himself back in that role, this time being tag-teamed by Jim Lee (who could be described just as you described Byrne: an artist wanting to do classic Silver-Age type stories but with a contemporary sheen) and editor Bob Harras. It's interesting to me that the 30-year-old Claremont was happy to weather the storm, ultimately outlasting Byrne and Stern on the series. But the 40-year-old Claremont -- more seasoned, more used to having control, and also with far, far less to prove -- didn't take long to throw up his hands and walk away, leaving Lee and Harras to steer the franchise.

Anonymous said...

"Shooter's decision to kill Jean in issue 137 was, I think, a good idea."

I completely agree, but -- for different reasons!

Let's talk about that when we get there.

"Byrne now claims the exact opposite of what you note: Byrne swears that HE is the one who realized that Shooter made the right decision, but Claremont was the one who didn't get over it."

As I noted a couple of threads back, Byrne really cannot be trusted where Shooter is concerned. (Whether Byrne can ever be trusted at all is a separate question.)

Also, I don't think this fits the evidence we have. Putting aside Byrne's statements at the time, there's also the fact that Byrne drew a bunch of pages for the "psychic lobotomy" version. (IMS these were later published as "Phoenix: The Untold Story".) True, Claremont scripted them too... but scripting a comic book is easy-peasy compared to drawing it; a competent mainstream writer can kick out a good script in a day or two, whereas a typical comic artist only can pencil two or three pages per day.

Now, there's a lot of variation in those figures, especially the last one. Jack Kirby was famous for pencilling five, six, seven or even more pages per day without much drop in quality. At the opposite end, Frank Quitely produces one page per day /sometimes/. Late-1970s Byrne was on the high side in terms of output; IMS he was always doing two or even three books a month through this period. Still, the fact remains that Byrne put some serious effort into drawing half of an issue that had to be redone from scratch. That suggests to me that he was committed to the original version.

Synergy: early Claremont was very open to other influences. Not just Byrne, but Stern, Shooter, Wein, and other creative people around him. In your earlier reviews, you've noted how he's constantly referring to the Adams/Thomas issues. Literary theorists would say that his work is "in conversation with" them, and isn't that a lovely term? Anyway, early-period Claremont was in conversation -- sometimes in argument -- with everyone around him.

This allowed for some startling developments. I'll jump ahead and point out just one: the whole Love/Death storyline turns on a McGuffin borrowed from /Rom the freakin' Spaceknight/. But it worked!

As Claremont gained in age and in prestige, though, this tendency gradually ebbed. And this was a bad thing, because these conversations were a major engine of his creativity. Claremont inspired by Roy Thomas, Claremont responding to Jim Shooter, Claremont amused by Bill Mantlo, Claremont provoked by John Byrne... it turned out that these were more interesting than just plain Claremont.

This is one reason, I think, for the sharp dip in quality after Byrne's departure: Dave Cockrum just didn't provide the same sort of provocative pushback. Dave was several years older than either Claremont or Byrne, and he came out of the old Mort Weisinger DC tradition of comics writing: very detailed scripts, with the writer giving the artist careful directions to be meticulously followed. This method had its advantages, but it didn't give the artists much opportunity for feedback into the creative process beyond "how about this really cool costume design".

So, from issue #144 onwards, the X-Men go through their first period of being Too Claremont: wordy, rambling, overly emo, sloppy. This period would end when Claremont found some new creative people to provoke him, but it would foreshadow the long-term trend; over time, Claremont would grow harder to influence, and the X-Men would suffer accordingly.

But that's all down the line a bit.

Doug M.

Geoff Klock said...

There is a whole OTHER book to be written on the anxiety of influence and superhero comics -- not between the artists of the present and the artists of the past, but between collaborators. This is a great place to start thinking about that. I am sure hardining to influence has been the death of many writers. Worth thinking about.

Jason said...

Doug, I foresee lots of arguments in the months to come! I do agree that Claremont "in conversation" was what made him interesting. But his work on X-Men was open to influence at least up to 1988. (Nocenti became a major influence, with Claremont importing her Longshot character as well as her interpretation of Dazzler into the series.)

It was when Bob Harras and Jim Lee came along and wanted Claremont to converse with himself (but with the himself of ten years earlier) that you saw a regression. Suddenly a much higher incidence of Neal Adams and Roy Thomas villains and settings, and sequels to old Byrne/Claremont "classics" (part of this might also have been Claremont getting nostalgic because he was revisiting Byrne/Claremont via "Classic X-Men" around this same time).

Claremont wanted to keep on mutating the series; Harras and Lee wanted to see a return to the "classic" model. Finally, Claremont said screw this, and left.

Also, I gotta put in a good word for "just plain Claremont." His own single voice is compelling -- perhaps not as consistently so as when he's buoyed by a creative partner, but he still has brought forth some excellent material on his own or with an artistic partner who doesn't "pushback" (good way of putting it!). Uncanny 160-161 are a couple of examples that we'll hit, in a couple months' time.

Geoff, that'd be a sweet book. When will you write it? :)

Anonymous said...

Geoff, "anxiety of influence" has traditionally been applied vertically -- that is, to the issues that creators must grapple with when considering the work of precursors. IMS Harold Bloom first coined it in the 1960s to describe how poets had to work under (or out from under) the shadow of the great poets of the past.

It was a key insight, and one with relevance to a wide range of art forms. Including comics; when you look at, say, Grant Morrison's relationship with the work of Alan Moore, "anxiety of influence" fits perfectly.

But it's less useful when considering the /horizontal/ aspect of comics -- the creative give-and-take between artists and writers on one book, or fellow writers on different but related books, or even between writers and editors. Comics are a communal artform in a way that poetry or novels are not. The relationship between Claremont and Lee, Kirby, Thomas or Adams can be reasonably described as "anxiety of influence", but the creative tension between Byrne... no, not really. That's more like the relationship between Lennon and McCartney. (In fact, in terms of how they're created, and how the creators relate to the work, mainstream comics resemble rock tunes much more than they do novels, poetry, or movies. But that's a story for another post.)

And what would you call the playful give-and-take between early '80s Claremont and Bill Mantlo, with two guys cheerfully lending and borrowing characters, tropes and ideas against the background of a shared world?

We need some new terminology.

Doug M.

Stephen said...

Jason & Doug, you guys are really knocking these out of the park. Talk about a fruitful collaboration!

As in the previous thread, I have nothing to add but a small bit of Whedonnia:

how about those splash panels? I still remember the one in this issue, with Wolverine braced against the ceiling as the guards walk under him

...Perhaps an influence on not on but two amazing River moments in Firefly/Serenity: her standing on the rails and listening to the conversation about her fate in the final TV episode; and, even more, the moment she "hides" on the ceiling in Serenity.

(It's amazing how much Whedon took from Claremont. What's amazing for me, although obviously I think I'll get little agreement for this here, is how much better Whedon is than Claremont: he took the wonderful tropes of Claremont and actually made them into well-written stories.)


Stephen said...

Oh, and we can get into this when we get there, but since it was mentioned, I'll just note that having started reading X-Men w #129 (later but quickly catching up back to that point), the resurrection of Jean -- particularly how it was done -- was one of the things that ultimately turned me off of the book. Oh, I kept buying it for a long time. But it really cut the emotional investment I had in it.

(There were other things too... Secret Wars II comes to mind. But that was a big one.)


Jason said...

Byrne/Claremont does seem to have a lot of parallels with Lennon/McCartney, although Byrne recently compared him and Chris to "Gilbert and Sullivan" -- I do kind of like that better, somehow. :)

Stephen, that's just a knife through the heart. :) (Actually, I'm perfectly willing to concede that Whedon is fantastic with structure. His stories are very tight, while Claremont's are sprawling and frayed at the edges. It's just Whedon's glib dialogue and facile humor I can't stand.)

Stephen said...

I was going to leave a PS to the very long comment I just left, but it doesn't look like it's gone up... if it doesn't go up in a little while, I'll repost. And then leave a PS.

Stephen said...

Ok, it was because I had bad html. Take 2:


Well, I hate to follow through a knife to the heart with another, but here goes...

Responding to what you wrote in the previous thread (since they're the same topic, I thought I'd respond all together here): you're right, Morrison/Whedon get credit for what Claremont did first. Claremont has been extremely effective in creating narrative.... what to call them? Tropes, maybe.

The problem is that Claremont did so while still mired in a version of the comic-book superhero genre that is -- I'm sorry -- impossible for adults to take seriously.

Unless -- and this is the key point -- they grew up with it. For those of us (and I'm in the camp too) who did, it draws a nostalgic veil over our eyes, letting us ignore the bad and see only the good. When we reread these comics, we don't read them directly: we reread them through the fog of what we remember of them, weeding out what's simply terrible, seeing only the good.

This was driven home to me when I loaned my wife a copy of #141-142 -- "Days of Future Past". I think she got halfway into it. And then she said to me, basically, this is too ridiculous to read. I asked what she meant, and she quoted this dialogue balloon to me:

Storm: ...Take her to the infirmary for an in-depth examination. Perhaps this is a delayed reaction to something that happened during her test.
Storm [thinking]: And if it is? If my kitten is hurt, or crippled, or worse? No, I dare not think of that. She's all right. She has to be.

And, of course, she was right: it's an atrocious piece of writing, sentimentally sappy to the point of being laugh-out-loud bad. Whedon on his worst day wouldn't write anything a tenth that bad.

But here's the thing. I'd reread the issues an hour before I gave them to her. And I didn't notice that line. I just didn't see it. What I saw, I think, was a more sophisticated characterization of the Storm-Kitty relationship -- one that Claremont planted a seed for, certainly, but one that read a lot better in my memory of it than it did on the page.

I'm not denying that Claremont did a lot of stuff that was incredibly well done, incredibly ground-breaking. But he did it in such a way that it is -- without that childhood nostalgia -- simply unreadable.

I have the same reaction to Lee/Kirby/Ditko, by the way. I think that before, say, the 1986/7 Miller/Moore revolution, this was pretty much true of all mainstream American superhero comics (I grant there are probably exceptions.) But Miller/Moore are readable by adults -- and as some readers here might remember, I actually have a lot of problems with Miller and think he's really overrated; but still, he's never as bad as mainstream American superhero comics were before, say, 1986.

What Morrison/Whedon did for Claremont/Byrne -- which is what, say, a lot of the Ultimate Universe and/or movie versions do to the Lee/Kirby/Ditko stories -- is take what is good and write them in a way that isn't sophomorically silly.

Anyway, as I said, I don't expect you to agree. (I'm quite curious what Doug M thinks, once he gets back, if he reads this...) But do take a look and see if you're not editing out the stuff that, in retrospect, doesn't hold up to focus on the stuff that does.

One final time: what Claremont did -- like what Lee/Kirby/Ditko -- was something that had some genuinely great qualities. But they were mired in something bad. This is hardly a new phenomenon in literature -- I again commend to everyone's attention this quote from Umberto Eco talking about The Count of Monte Cristo. But this is something that's not quite the same as good writing. In particular, if you hand it to someone who's never read it before and tell them how great it is, they're liable to look at you like you're nuts.

What I like about the series is how smart you (and Doug) are in reading what is there, in getting at what's good. But it shouldn't blind us to the bad.


Stephen said...

PS: Another example, from the previous issue discussed: yes, the Butte scene was amazing. But look at it again. If you tear the veil of nostalgia from your eyes, you'll see that there was enough clumsy and overdone exposition there to make it unreadable. Only if you mentally weed that out -- or excuse it due to its time period, which a lot of people will be quite reasonably unable to do -- will you see it.

(Incidentally, that Storm quote I gave above? One of the reasons that Miller/Moore began the tradition of not using thought balloons was probably truly terrible ones like that...)


Anonymous said...

Stephen, I'm handicapped in this discussion by the fact that (1) I don't have the issues at hand, and (2) I haven't re-read them in years. I can talk about things like individual splash pages because, well, at the age of 15 I re-read those issues over and over until they fell apart. It's like knowing the lyrics to "My Sharona": if you a certain sort of teenager the summer it came out, you just do.

So, I can't do what you've just described -- go back and look at those issues for instances of head-clutch-awful dialogue, thought balloons, and whatnot. (Although if some kindly person knows where I could find those issues /totally legally/ online, my e-mail address is vormuir in the domain men call

But I don't doubt it's there, partly because it's Claremont, but mostly because that's how comics were back then. And to some extent still are. (I don't think Miller and Moore wreaked a revolution. Certainly they didn't get rid of the thought balloon.)

But the handing-to-someone-who's-never-read-it-before test is pretty slippery. If that person is conversant with mainstream American comics, I suspect they'll be able to make it through, and will appreciate at least some elements. (Certainly the Byrne/Austin artwork still holds up.) Giving it to someone who doesn't read comics, though... hum.

But let's look at the context again. Comics of the Silver Age are kid's comics. And kids are kids... I have the Ditko Essential Spider-Man, and my six-year-old likes it just fine. He also likes the Showcase with the early-60s Justice League stories. (I'm the one who finds those unreadable.) I suspect he'd like Little Nemo and Krazy Kat, if I could find them in affordable editions. Certainly he (and his four year old brother) love the Looney Tunes CDs I got them; Bugs Bunny cartoons from seventy years ago still work just fine. Kids are kids.

By the late 1970s, though, you have a lot of what can only be called adolescent comics. Adolescent both in the target audience, and in that the medium itself was starting to grow up very quickly.

This run fits that paradigm perfectly. I said a while back that the view of female sexuality here is, basically, adolescent. In fact, the view of almost everything is pretty adolescent. And so is the clumsiness, the sense of exaggerated drama, the taking itself too seriously, the fumbling explorations of sexuality and power, the weird combinations of innocence and worldliness... and, sometimes, the moments of startling beauty and grace.

But while kids are kids, and kid stuff appeals across decades, adolescent stuff... less so. I suspect this is true across a range of media. The kids section of the bookshelf hasn't changed that much since I was a kid. Or rather, it's changed, it has, but the old classics are still there. I could reconstruct my first-grade bookshelf (lots of Dr. Seuss, Curious George, Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little...) from the shelves of any Borders. But the hits of my teen years have mostly vanished.

Anyway. This thread is wandering, which isn't a bad thing, but maybe we should either drag it back to topic or start another thread for some of these side issues.

I'm on the plane tomorrow morning, BTW, so this might be my last for a little while.

Doug M.

Jason said...

Stephen, thanks so much for giving an example -- makes it much easier to focus on in my mind. And it is a great example, definitely.

And actually, I'll go ahead and admit that my dad once happened to leaf through an issue of Uncanny X-Men issue I had lying around. It was #133, the one we're currently commenting beneath. :) Doesn't contain the butte scene, but contains a flashback to it. My dad mocked the dialogue *mercilessly*.

Part of it, for me, is that it's genre writing. So the melodramatic aspect is an actual component of the appeal. What is indefensible about the thought-balloon you quote is its clunkiness and its use of cliche. ("I dare not think of that.") You're right, it is bad.

So, thank you. I do see your point now, Stephen. I appreciate your taking the time to expand on it. I am not always blinded to Claremont's awkward writing tics, but I am probably more apt to be blind to it in stuff like "Dark Phoenix" or "Days of Future Past," where there is lots of good to capture my attention.

But Claremont's dialogue did become more fluent as time went on. Or, I should say, he had a lot more moments of economy and wit -- he never totally purged his repertoire of the long-winded interior monologue. But here's a bit of dialogue from Uncanny #194, which I happen to have on hand 'cause I quoted it in my blog not long ago:

[Setup: Wolverine is trying to drag Nightcrawler out of bed so they can go fight the Juggernaut:]

Nightcrawler: “Anyone ever tell you, Logan, that you’re a sadistic brute?”
Wolverine: “You’re the first.”
Nightcrawler: “We’re in no shape for this.”
Wolverine: “We’re also all there is.”
Nightcrawler: “Do we have to?”
Wolverine: “Nope. We never have to.”
Nightcrawler: “Sigh – coffee?”
Wolverine: “Already brewed.”

Snappy, with a flowing rhythm, and mercifully free of self-consciousness.

'Cause see, the other side of this, is that I just don't think Whedon's dialogue is at all good. I concede your point that Storm's thought balloon suck. I disagree that Whedon has never done anything worse. I know it's a crappy defense to say, "Oh yeah? Claremont sucks? Well ... Whedon sucks too!"

But sophomoric crud like Emma saying "I had to pee" and "You will never see me naked again" ... if that's the stuff that adults CAN enjoy, then I'll continue to wallow in the childlike haze of my Claremont nostalgia, thank you. I didn't read the Morrison run of X-Men, but according to Geoff's review, one issue features Jean telekinetically making bad guys shit themselves. Whedon has an issue wherein Kitty comes so hard that she phases. This is not sophomoric and silly? I genuinely do not believe that the adults who would dismiss Claremont's X-Men out of hand as being childish would embrace Morrison and Whedon's X-Men work as mature.

If I am wrong, then I'll just excuse myself from the adult table. They can enjoy the poop and pee and sex jokes that are so preferable to the sin of overwrought exposition. I'll remain in my little-kid haze of Claremont nostalgia.

Ultimately, I think all of these writers have their faults. And also, they are all writing in a juvenile genre. What starts to burn me after a while -- and why I surely seem a little defensive at this point (with "a little defensive" defined as "almost psychotically overzealous"), and I apologize right now for that! -- is that I always see Morrison and Whedon praised to the skies for their work being somehow a cut above all their juvenile, sophomoric peers, while Claremont is ghettoized as a hack.

Then Whedon does a 25-issue vanity project that borrows blatantly from Chris Claremont and adds nothing new (correct me if I'm wrong, but his Kitty-in-the-sewer homage does contain Claremont's original dialogue, yes?) , and people STILL praise the former and disparage the latter.

Anyway, ALL of that said ... I'm definitely becoming a broken record on this point and probably need to cool it. Also, that Umberto Eco quote is fantastic.

Jason said...

(Oops, I repeated myself there. Sorry I was going back and editing certain paragraphs and didn't delete all the redundancies. Yikes, that's kind of a Claremontian thing to do, isn't it?)

Anonymous said...

Jason, might I ask what of Morrison's work you've read? Do you just not like his stuff, or is it more that you don't like what you've heard of his work on the X-Men?

Doug M.

Stephen said...

J & D,

Good replies, both. Some thoughts:

D: That's an interesting point about adolescent writing not holding up the way kids writing does. Have to think about that one.

(And rereading them is really the key point here. As I said, memory -- at least mine, and I think lots of others -- strips away the bad stuff.)

But I think it's important to say -- as I think you both said in there somewhere -- that it is a juvenille genre... at least it as it was done back then. I don't know if it has to be.

I get defense about this, because I read a lot of stuff -- Science Fiction, comics more broadly -- that has often been written off as "kids' stuff", but which isn't -- or, at least, which has lots and lots and lots of good material which isn't. (Sturgeon's law not only applies, but some hypothetical parallel about any genre being able to be used childishly does too). So since I do defend stuff which is unfairly written off as kids' stuff ("you think SF/comics are kids stuff? Then go read...") I'm a little more hesitant not to apply the proper qualifiers to stuff which actually is kids stuff.

All of which is to say that the "hand it to somebody new" test is important. I don't think it's definitive -- there are comics that you can't read unless you know enough about the field to appreciate them (say, Flex Mentallo) but this is a distinct (if possibly overlapping) category from stuff which you have to excuse the faults of.

There's a reason that everyone went totally ape over Watchmen: it was a comic you could hand to anybody and not apologize for. Now, granted, there are a whole lot of of others of those too. But how many of them are strictly speaking superhero comics, rather than say, fantasy/SF more broadly? Well, Geoff talks about some in his book -- not everything he talks about, but some. (Which book got be back into superhero comics, after I got back into comics via non-superhero comics.) But before the earliest ones he talks about... I dunno.

Jason, I actually agree with you that Claremont gets better. I'd need to think it through, but it seems that his dialogue/characterization gets better as his founding structures/ideas get worse. I think what you came up with in #194 -- and I remember that from the time, and liking the "do we have too?"/"we never have to" bit a lot -- is in fact characteristic of the way he got better. On the other hand, his later stuff wasn't as influential -- didn't make the iconic models for others to follow -- as did Dark Phoenix and Days of Future Past, which were path breaking but also, in some ways, unreadable.

But this is one of the reasons I think I've always been hesitant when people praise his Byrne years as the best ones: I think that along some dimensions at least he actually got a lot better fairly soon after that.

Incidentally, as far as Whedon goes: I actually wouldn't whole-heartedly defend his comics work, although I would maintain that the bits you quoted weren't as bad as what Claremont did. But when I praise Whedon to the skies, I mostly mean Buffy/Angel/Firefly on TV. His comics work, while lacking (for me) the basic unreadableness of some of Claremont, is decidedly not as good as his TV work.

As for Morrison, well, I know Geoff agrees with me (not as strongly as I do) that X-Men simply isn't his best work. The Filth, Doom Patrol, Flex Mentallo, We3, arguably the Invisibles... he's done a lot of stuff that's simply much better.

Anyway, based on what you both said, I actually suspect we're not as far apart as I thought we were when I wrote the above. Because Claremont was on to something. Dark Pheonix and Days of Future Past were iconic in incredible ways, and the latter in particular was clearly a strong influence on all sorts of amazing work to come after it -- not least Miller & Moore's 1987 works!

And, once again, for all that I have mixed thoughts on Claremont, I have no hesitations whatsoever on the great work both of you, Jason & Doug, are doing on this series. Keep it up, it's amazing reading.


Jason said...

Doug, I've read very little Morrison. None of the X work, except maybe a few pages of one or two. I read, I believe, his first seven or eight issues of Doom Patrol, and his first seven or eight issues of Justice League. Doom Patrol was hard for me to get through because the artist (Richard Case?) was not my cup o' tea. Kind of stiff and awkward (although I confess, "stiff and awkward" has become my go-to phrase when describing comics art I don't like -- I need to find some other descriptors).

Justice League was okay, but it kind of lost me. Partly that's 'cause the guy who lent them to me was missing issues that I suspect were kind of crucial to following it all. Geoff's book gave me a new appreciation of JLA and I was tempted to try it again, but ... I don't know. It seems like whenever I read a really glowing review of a Morrison comic talking about how great it was, I go back and read the issue and find I enjoyed the review more than the comic.

Stephen, yeah, we do all seem to be on the same page the more we talk about it (if different paragraphs, perhaps -- there's a metaphor for ya). That's so cool that you remember that dialogue from issue 194!

For my part, I have the same uncertainness about calling the Byrne years of X-Men the best. (As I recall, Patrick, in his Claremont analysis, also has suggested that the post-Byrne years aren't getting their due, and suggests the Mutant Massacre era as Claremont's best.)Personally I think Claremont's peak -- was circa 1987 or 1988. That was him at his most fluent, even if -- as you said -- structurally he got very very loose. (That's why I like his Classic X-Men backups, a format that forced him to be tight and controlled, and proved he could still bring both the tight plot AND the more fluent dialogue/characterization.)

Regarding Buffy and other Whe-TV -- I was going to quote a line from a Buffy episode as emblematic of what I dont' like about Whedon dialogue, but it occurred to me, he didn't write *every* episode of that show, so for all I knew it was an example of someone trying to emulate Whedon. He's probably funnier than I give him credit for -- I may just have seen the wrong episodes of Buffy and now I'm turned off. (First impressions 'n' all.)

Anyway, I'm glad you're enjoying the blogs and their attendant threads, and *very* glad that, like Doug, you're challenging me to think harder about this stuff than I would have if just left to my own devices. Once again, thanks to Geoff for letting me do this on this site. This has been fantastic. And we've still got a good 150 issues to go!!!

All right, I'm off.
Happy weekend, everybody!

Geoff Klock said...

Doug: I am not saying we import bloom uncritically. I just think it might be a good place to start thinking about the relationships between collaborators, who spur each other on and destroy each other in ways not dissimilar to the Bloomian model -- just not across time.

I have to say I am with SF here a bit. I al liking my reading of Claremont -- and I did NOT read it when it first came out, but I am not sure how much I would care if it were not the background for the X-Men who I grew up on. And, shallow as it may be, I WANT to be able to hand my comics to people and say, this, this is what I spend time on and clearly, if you read this, you will see this does not suck.

And Whedon is tricky. Like Morrison, his X-Men is not the best work. The thing about Whedon is he sells stupid concepts in a way that astounds me. I cannot believe I watched FIVE SEASONS of a brooding vampire cursed with a soul. That is ABSURD. I am not a 12 year old goth girl. But somehow he sells it. So that you can point to his jokes and say dumb content, and I am at a loss to tell you how it always gets through to me.

Anonymous said...

(In hotel, posting before bed)

Jason, Case's art is a bug, not a feature -- this becomes very clear in the last dozen issues or so.

But anyway, here's my suggested Morrison Starter Pack.

We3 -- probably the one Morrison that everyone agrees is simply awesome. It also falls firmly into the "comics you can hand to anyone" category -- although a long-time comics reader will read it in a different way, and likely get more out of it.

Justice League -- either of the first two trades, or the "Rock of Ages" storyline.

All-Star Superman -- First trade. (Well, there's only one so far.)

Doom Patrol -- first two trades, or last two trades -- Brotherhood of Dada and the Candlemaker story arcs. (Middle stuff got very surreal.)

First trade of his X-Men -- come on, it's just one trade. I suspect you'll like it, and even if you don't, you'll find it interesting.

Geoff, wasn't saying anything about importing Bloom. But we /do/ need new terminology for critically discussing comics, especially mainstream comics.

Doug M.

Geoff Klock said...

Doug -- I was implying the import of Bloom when I mentioned the anxiety of influence. Then you said how it did not fit at all. I responded by saying that I did not mean we import Bloom uncritically -- his poetics of influence could be adapted to handle different kinds of relationships. Lucy Newlyn, for example, adapted him to describe the relationship between Wordsworth and Coleridge. If she can adapt it for her thing, I see no reason why someone could not adapt it for this, was my point.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, but (1) at some point the phrase is getting overused to the point where it's less and less clear, and so less and less useful; and (2) the very wide range of interactions possible (and common!) among comics creators aren't well served by current critical vocabulary.

Doug M.

Geoff Klock said...

We totally agree. Comics are not always well served by current critical vocab. My belief -- and this may be where you and I part company -- is that the best way to get new vocab is by adapting and adapting old vocab. But now I think I am splitting hairs.

And doug, since I do not have your email -- any interest in doing some posts, or a regular series for the blog? Clearly you have the chops.

Stephen said...

I don't agree that Whedon sells stupid ideas; but he does take old ideas, even at times clichéd ones, and make them sing. It's sort of amazing.

at some point the phrase is getting overused to the point where it's less and less clear, and so less and less useful

Incidentally, I have to say, if you haven't read Geoff's book, that he makes very careful, subtle and accurate use of the concept -- it's not used carelessly. It's a terrific critical study, one which he currently undervalues. Do check it out.

doug, since I do not have your email -- any interest in doing some posts, or a regular series for the blog? Clearly you have the chops.

Word. I hope Doug says yes.


Anonymous said...

Geoff, thanks very much for asking. Let's discuss by e-mail. You can reach me at vormuir at yahoo dot com.

Doug M.

Christian said...

Re: Richard Case's art on Doom Patrol.

I totally agree that his art is stilted and awkward. But the thing is that this makes it an enourmously appropriate artform for a book about people who are deformed and awkward. I just feel it compliments the story so well, that the fact that it's very different from the mainstream stuff or the traditionally trained stuff; these flaws makes it all the much better.

It also meant he was able to pull off some truly absurd designs and still have them work in the setting.

wwk5d said...

Personally, I think Joss Whedon is very, very, overrated. I liked the first seasons of Buffy, but not much else. And his run on Astonishing...a decent first opening arc, but it goes to hell after that. 'Danger' is so bad, in a Chuck Austen kind of way.

Anyway, back to this issue...I do get what Doug says, with regards to Jean and Scott, but I don't agree with all of it, and what the first time they had sex means. For me, I see it more in an emotional kind of way, and very tragic. How after that first time, it all goes to Hell after that. Plus, it wasn't just the fact that this was the first time they had sex that makes it tragic, it's that they reached a point where they were so in love, they created a psychic rapport between themselves, something that went beyond sex in terms of intimacy.

Again, knowing that C&B had a different ending makes the punishing-a-powerful-women-for-losing-her-virginity-or-becoming-sexual idea less validto me...

Anonymous said...

Jason, I'm kind of blown away that you haven't read the Morrison issues. Whedon is definitely overrated. Not saying he's bad but his run is more of a tribute to Claremont (taking all the stuff he liked and streamlining it), while Morrisson's is a Moore or Miller level writer taking a hard look at the X-Men concept and trying to reinvent it using elements from the past along with new ones. The fact that so many of them come from his run is a tribute to Claremont, but there's is still a lot of innovation there.

By the way, I also love later Claremont. I think he really found his voice around the Second Brood arc which is coincidentally right around when Paul Smith came on board.

Derek E