Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Jason Powell on Avengers Annual #10

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men run. For more in this series see the toolbar on the right.]

Avengers Annual #10

“By Friends – Betrayed”

“Chris was one of the first comicbook writers to give us female characters who did not exist solely to be captured by the bad guys so the (male) heroes could rescue them. Altho it is unfortunately true he very quickly turned this into his own cliché – ‘the Claremont Woman’ -- he bought himself a place in comicbook history by being thus ahead of the curve.” – John Byrne

Claremont was superhero comics’ first feminist writer. He clearly had an affection for Storm -- the “new” X-Men’s only female member originally – right from the start. Indeed, it is Ororo who saves the day in Uncanny X-Men #96, the first X-Men issue that Claremont plotted. (Cockrum’s favorite of the “new” X-Men was Nightcrawler; Byrne’s was Wolverine; could Storm have been Claremont’s?)

Claremont’s feminist inclinations were even more obvious in his work on “Ms. Marvel,” which he wrote in the late 1970s. Ms. Marvel’s civilian identity, Carol Danvers, was a character whose expansive and versatile skill set must have seemed absurd at the time, given its context among the breezily sexist Marvel Universe she existed in. At the age of 29 (as given in Avengers Annual #10), she already had quite the resume: she was a former air force pilot, a former NASA security chief, and the former editor of magazine called (what else?) “Woman.” All this, and a superhero too (who, thanks to master costume-designer Dave Cockrum, sported one of the most elegantly gorgeous superhero suits of her day).

Not long after the series was cancelled – the title character thus falling out of Claremont’s affectionate custody – Ms. Marvel soon found herself the focus of an embarrassingly sexist story arc that saw print in Avengers #’s 197-200 (see this article for the details).

Claremont’s blood must have boiled when he saw what happened to her in this story – essentially the closest a mainstream superhero comic could come in 1980 to raping one of its characters. Worst of all, the people behind these sexist comics seemed not to realize what they had done, so Claremont took it upon himself to write an Avengers comic that would specifically address the damage.

The result is Avengers Annual #10, a passionately executed adventure story whose viscerally thrilling centerpiece – the battle between the Avengers and Mystique’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants – seems to be a Trojan Horse for its final scene, wherein Carol lectures the Avengers on how badly they screwed up in Avengers 197-200. (It’s really aimed at the creators of those Avengers issues for their insulting portrayal of a character that Claremont clearly felt deserved better.)

Claremont’s intentions are good, but in truth the banality of Carol’s lecture at the end is quite dramatically pre-empted by the sheer brilliance of the action that precedes it. Collaborating with Michael Golden, a thrillingly unique artist, Claremont delivers some of the most manic action sequences of his entire career, the pages loaded with unexpected turns and insanely choreographed twists.

Thanks to Claremont and Golden’s unbridled creativity, the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants emerge as a genuinely intimidating pack of villains here. They were engaging in their first appearance during “Days of Future Past,” but couldn’t help but be overshadowed then by the dystopian-future scenes. In “By Friends – Betrayed,” the Brotherhood are a force to be reckoned with. Supercharged by Michael Golden in an Avengers Annual (of all places), the Brotherhood will go on to enjoy a career as one of the more convincing supervillain teams to recur in Claremont’s X-Men stories over the next decade.

There are several other bits of this comic that make it a key part of Claremont’s X-Men canon (hence its inclusion in this blog series): Most importantly, it is the first appearance of Rogue, the Brotherhood’s newest member, with the ability to temporarily absorb people’s powers and memories through flesh-on-flesh contact. Right from page one of this issue, she has already done this to Carol Danvers – permanently, somehow – at the behest of Mystique, who hates Carol for undisclosed reasons. (Indeed, Mystique’s first appearance was in an altogether oblique two-panel teaser in the penultimate issue of Ms. Marvel, published almost two full years before the character’s full appearance in “Days of Future Past.”)

With Carol’s memories permanently stolen from her by Rogue, she ends up as a patient of Charles Xavier, whose mental powers manage to restore her to some semblance of mental health. Having engineered this turn of events, Claremont is thus able to make the powerless and partially amnesiac Carol a supporting character in Uncanny X-Men (she first shows up in issue #150). Her role in Uncanny never quite clicks, but of course Rogue will go on to become a mainstay.

Avengers Annual #10 also contains a throwaway panel in which Claremont decides, propos of nothing, to drop the name of the lead singer of Steeleye Span, one of his favorite bands. Thus is a cute little girl (who has been “sick” but is “better now”) dubbed Maddy Pryor -- to the eventual consternation of continuity-obsessed X-Men fans everywhere.

21 comments:

Anagramsci said...

I've still only re-read the one issue (#144), so I haven't had much to contribute to these discussions Jason--but I can remember enough about the issues in question here to concur with your assessment of this annual's relationship to the bollixed-up horror that is the Michelinie/Perez Carol Danvers storyline... thinking about those comics makes me cringe... luckily, Roger Stern took control of the Avengers in the early '80s and restored that title to its erstwhile Thomas/Englehartian greatness!

one question though (which I suppose your text has already answered)--is there really NO reason given for Rogue's permanent absorption of Carol's powers? I always figured there had to be a better explanation for this turn of events than "Rogue needed some super-strength to avoid getting splattered while waiting around to touch thugs with her bare hands"--but maybe that's the only reason Claremont needed?

Dave

Jason said...

Dave,

Sweet! Thank for commenting.

Re: the Rogue question, over the years when this plot was referenced in later issues of X-Men, the reason given was something to the effect that Carol "fought too hard," which in turn forced Rogue to "hang on too long." That's the best we got...

This is sort of obliquely referenced in the first X-Men movie, when Wolverine makes a comment that Rogue's power felt like it was "killing him," and Xavier replies that "If she'd held on any longer, she might have."

j.liang said...

Jason: Didn't the permanent transfer have something to do with Carol Danvers' genetic make-up, her being half-Kree or something? I think there's a reference to this when Rogue remembers/re-lives the incident around the time she and the X-Men confront the Beyonder in San Francisco -- somewhere around the 200's.

scott91777 said...

Funny you should put this up just a few days after I accused Claremont of mysogyny ;)
Just to emphasize... I think it was
unintentional and, as you point out here, Claremont did a lot to further female characters in Superhero comics.

Geoff Klock said...

Sorry about not putting in the link -- I read the request, but for some reason still forgot to actually make a hyperlink out of it. Sorry.

James said...

Still, "superhero comics’ first feminist writer" is a bit of a stretch, no? If we can forgive Claremont for the blundering misogyny of the Dark Phoenix Saga, surely we can forgive William Moulton Marston for being a bondage-obsessed nutjob?

Jason said...

J.Liang, I don't remember that. Can't believe I missed it!

Scott, there is a definite paradox at work there as far as Claremont's relationship to female characters is concerned. I think he did more good than bad, but I'm certainly not offended by people who take the opposite side of the debate. I'm happy to be confronted on any bold assertions I'm making in these posts. Speaking of ...

James, you might be right. I tossed that out there in the hopes of getting some counter-examples, and Marston is certainly a great one.

Shlomo said...

What makes it more confusing is that Danvers is physically raped by a man, and then "mentally raped" by rogue a woman.

This is all news to me, I wasnt aware of this fascinating meta-prologue to the danvers-rogue conflict. But perhaps claremont intended for the second rape to overshadow the first. He then went on to ivestigate the conflicted psyches of both danvers and Rogue, ignoring the earlier physical rape. The woman vs woman interaction being much more interesting to him.

To take it a step further, the conflicted relationship between these two women almost mirrors the loving relationship between Mystique and destiny. Everyone loves to talk about the possibility of Mystique being a man, but its much more interesting to think of her a woman, who takes on a stereotypically male role (similar to her adopted daughter rogue, performing the generally make role of "rapist".

And has anyone (claremont?) explored the connection between Mystique the comics-character to "the feminine mystique"?

Jason said...

Good points, Shlomo. There's also a fascinating turnaround in the Genosha four-parter that Claremont did in Uncanny 235-238 (which I think is criminally underrated). Rogue loses her powers in that arc, and -- finally able to be touched -- the first thing to happen to her is that she's physically molested. The experience is so traumatic that she becomes mentally withdrawn, until the "Carol" living inside her head comes to the forefront to snap her out of it.

Anonymous said...

Woo! Glad you're including this one, Jason -- it was an excellent issue. Claremont always seemed to enjoy writing the Avengers, and this issue is no exception.

Michael Golden is one of those artists that I like without being able to justify it. He gives people eyes bigger than their hands and puts muscles in places where muscles do not go, but somehow he makes it work. (Two second nostalgia pause for the first year of Micronauts. One... two.)

IMS the question of Rogue's power was addressed in one of the 1980s _Handbooks of the Marvel Universe_. Canon is, her touch steals powers temporarily, but if the contact is maintained too long (for firmly unclear values of "long") the theft becomes permanent.

Okay, that's something of an arbitrary hack, and in 25 years it's only happened once. But on the other hand, how many times has Superman been hit by Gold Kryptonite? And there's a certain sort of comic-book logic to it.

Yes, the Avengers 200 storyline was horrible beyond belief. It wasn't even a good superhero story! It was boring! I'm usually ready to jump to Jim Shooter's defense, but this was one of his worst moments, not just at Marvel, but in 40+ years in comics. My God, nearly 30 years later I'm still twitching at the memory. One of the worst round-number anniversary issues of any comic ever.

Claremont's Ms. Marvel: I suggested in the last post that we view the X-Men issues from 144 to the Brood storyline as a big sandbox for Claremont. This was /definitely/ the case for Ms. Marvel, which was one of the most uneven comics I'd ever read: awesome one issue, barely readable the next. But overall it was much more good than bad, and still worth a look. I can still remember some of the fight scenes (like the one where she traps the silly fire-power guy in the vacuum chamber.. cheesy, but Claremont made it work.) If you want to get a firm grip on Claremont, you probably want to look at his early stuff again... Ms. Marvel, Iron Fist, Marvel Team-Up, and most of all his inexplicably neglected run on John Carter of Mars. There's a lot of stuff that will pop up again in X-Men.

Mystique appeared for a lot more than two panels in that issue; she spent something like half of it impersonating Nick Fury. Which right away established her as pretty awesome! A fine example of showing, not telling -- a lesson that an older Claremont would somehow half forget. (If that issue had been written in 1990, you know it would have had several 200-word caption panels explaining just how competent and deadly this mysterious woman really was.)

Anyway, those last two issues of MM were among the good ones, and still digging for in the quarter bin. Although, hm, I suppose the first appearance of Mystique might go for a bit more...

Finally, cover love: this was a very un-Marvel cover! It was a deliberate shout-out to those DC double-size issues from a decade or so earlier. Not sure if that was a gag on Claremont's part or not.

This issue showed that Claremont hadn't forgotten how to write a way cool superhero team comic -- gripping, surprising, lots of nice character moments, several dangling mysteries, firmly grounded in the Marvel continuity. It's interesting that it comes during a period when he was continuing to flail a bit with the X-Men.


Doug M.

Anonymous said...

Also:

-- The Michelinie-Shooter Ms. Marvel wasn't awful. Yah, you're right about her being pushy and aggressive, and how this was a step backwards. But in one way it made sense: Carol Danvers had been an Air Force officer, and the whole "barking commands" aspect was consistent with that. The current version of the character owes a lot to this period, and not in a bad way. The problem was not how they depicted her, but what they did to her.

-- Maddy Pryor: you know, I should probably say right now that I always hated Maddy Pryor. The character, the concept, everything about her. And Claremont's "Hitchcockian" explanation always struck me as idiotic... a retcon made up well after the fact.

I think the brief appearance of child-Maddy here supports that; Claremont was, once again, introducing a character without having a clear idea of where to go. As I've said, this wasn't always a bad thing... but it was in this case.


Doug M.

Dougie said...

Off-topic, I know, but looking at that cover corner box- if you replace the redundant Wonder Man with the Wasp, you have the perfect Avengers line-up.

Jason said...

Good points as always, Doug.

And yeah, the Ms. Marvel issues are quite cheap -- they were when I bought them, at any rate. Even the Mystique one (and she does only appear in two panels in Ms. Marvel 22 -- did you mean Avengers Annual #10 when you said she spent half the issue impersonating Fury?).

I love Maddie Pryor, by the by -- one of my favorite characters, with one of the weirdest arcs in comics.

I don't credit anything said in an Official Handbook that isn't in an actual comic. :)

So Claremont's John Carter of Mars is worth reading, huh? Interesting ... I'll have to check those out. I've never read a single issue!

Shlomo said...

Hey Jason, is there any indication of the intent behind publishing "From the ashes"? Was it supposed to be a follow-up collection to "Phoenix", hence the reference to the ashes? Its interesting that they chose to skip over the entire (forgettable?) 10-issue outer-space story.

Jason said...

Shlomo, I've never read anything in terms of behind-the-scenes info, but certainly the effect is to suggest that very little of importance occurred in between issue 137 and issue 168.

I think the From the Ashes collection is fantastic, though. There's a really good analysis (although it contains some factual inaccuracies) of the From the Ashes trade paperback as if it's a single, unified work (as opposed to 9 individual issues of an ongoing serial). Written by a guy named Mitch Montgomery ...

Where's that link ... here we go ...
http://www.silverbulletcomics.com/news/story.php?a=2894

Anonymous said...

Maddy Pryor gaaaah. Well, we can start fighting this one out in another 20 issues.

I would argue that -- other than 141-2 and 150 -- very little of importance /did/ happen between 137 and 168. Not only are these issues generally lower in quality, but there's also a whole lot of wheel spinning. If you compare the two years after Byrne's departure to the two years before it -- or the two years before that -- it's really startling how little of interest *happens*.

Yes, check out John Carter! Like Ms. Marvel, it was Claremont doing a salvage attempt on a troubled property. Like Ms. Marvel, it was very uneven, with dull issues next to brilliant ones. And like Ms. Marvel, it was probably doomed -- Claremont only wrote a dozen or so issues before the plug got pulled.

But if MM highlights feminism and solo superhero action, JCWoM was wide-screen science-fantasy adventure -- a subgenre Claremont would return to again and again. And he tried out a lot of themes and tricks that he'd return to or develop further in X-Men.

Several issues were pencilled by Frank Miller, BTW -- IMS they were his first work for Marvel. Young Miller made a huge impression on young Claremont; he showed an impressive dedication, including things like working out a four-armed fighting style for the green Martians. The two men stayed friendly for a long time, even though they only worked together for a few times after that.

Remarkably, even the Miller issues are still pretty cheap: you could probably pick up the whole run for less than a modern TPB.


Doug M.

Jason said...

Thanks, Doug, I'll have to go digging for those. I've read most of the Claremont/Byrne Marvel Team-Ups and all of Claremont's Iron Fist, but the John Carter stuff is entirely alien to me (sorry if that's a lame pun). I had no idea Frank Miller drew for it -- that's pretty wild.

Shlomo said...

Jason, that was a surprisingly interesting article-- I never would have thought to compare the two, but it does make a lot of sense.

I was wondering why it didt include the next three issues that deal with the repercussion of Kitty promise and rogues switch of sides. But Now I get how "from the ashes" was not just a pun on the phoenix, but it actually dealt with different response to Jeans death.
I never actually did read those issues as a whole. It makes it seem even stranger, though, that there were around two years between the two trades.

The reviewer keeps referring to Jean's death as a suicide. Im not sure if I would categorize it that way. While its extremely difficult to appreciate madelyns presence, since her later story will devolve into such sordidness, within this trade itself It does seem kind of touching. I wish the strangeness of madelyn's connection to jean were left at just that--coincidences, which forced Cyclops to look past the obvious and see her for someone else.

Jason said...

Really, you don't consider the death of Phoenix a suicide?

One of the reasons I like Madelyne is that there's lots of different ways to look at how she fits into the X-canon. To use Doug M's phrase to describe Jean's black dress, Maddie gets a real "semiotic workout." (On a related note, in Chapter 1 of the Inferno crossover, the opening sequence sees Madelyne wearing a different black dress in every panel, a brilliant touch from Claremont and Silvestri. Semiotic workouts indeed!)

In any case, in From the Ashes, the coincidences can viewed as "just" coincidences, or it can be viewed through the lens of the Inferno ret-con (which creates some irony-rich moments), or there's another way, the way I think Claremont intended, which is that Madelyne was the "good Phoenix" reincarnated.

hasa said...

In David Michiline's defense, and in the spirit on rediculosly anal accurcacy, the original plan with 197-199 was that carol had been artificailly inseminated by the Kree Supreme Inteligence as a way to move the Kree species foward. Carol's powers originaly stemmed from her having a mix of Kree and Human DNA, remember?

But, for some reason, Jim Shooter througt that this was to simalr to a recent what if issue, so he demaned the the story be changed after 199 came out. So Micheline, Shooter, and George Perez hastily put together the horrendous, embarrassing, piece of shit that became Avengers 200, probably the worst thing those three ever had their names associated with. Yes, even worse then Secret Wars 2.

All this info comes from an article or two i read months ago on this disaster, the website i got it from escapes me.

wwk5d said...

Too bad about Avengers # 200. I really liked that era (starting with around # 150), and it was a nasty blight on a great run.

As for this Annual...has Mystique ever been this bad-ass as a leader? She's like the male Cyclops.