Saturday, July 05, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #142

[Guest blogger 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.]

“Mind Out of Time”

The most memorable aspect of the “Days of Future Past” two-parter is obviously the apocalyptic-future aspect, but Byrne and Claremont also display casual innovation in the present-day sequence, when they introduce the quietly radical idea that there can be a “Brotherhood of Evil Mutants” that is NOT led by Magneto. Instead, they’ve been gathered together by a new character, Mystique (who had appeared ever-so-briefly in Ms. Marvel, another Chris Claremont series). Putting a female in charge was surely Claremont’s idea – his philosophy when introducing new characters was, by all acounts, to ask rhetorically, “Is there any reason this character can’t be a woman?”

Claremont hints in this issue that she and Nightcrawler – both possessing blue skin and yellow eyes – might be related somehow. Unfortunately, just like the material about Nightcrawler’s origin in X-Men Annual #4, the Kurt-Mystique connection is something Claremont won’t explain, in the rare instances over the next 11 years that he chooses to bring it up at all.

As villain teams go, the new Brotherhood are a fairly strong and well-conceived group. Their powers are clear yet imaginative (Avalanche’s being particularly fun); the battle between them and the X-Men is once again beautifully choreographed by Byrne; and it’s cute that the lineup contains only one mutant from Magneto’s Brotherhood, specifically the Blob (whom Magneto recruited in 1964’s X-Men #7) – mirroring the fact that there is only one Silver Age X-Man, specifically Angel, currently among the good guys.

Byrne and Austin recycle an artistic trick they used in Uncanny #124’s Murderworld story, wherein all the panels set in Arcade’s control booth had a thick black border around them. In this issue, that same device is used much more dramatically, with the black borders applied to all the 2013 scenes. The effect is arresting, a subtle visual symbol that the future-versions of the X-Men are locked inside their world, unable to escape an awful fate. (The garish cover copy, “This Issue: Everybody Dies!” is significantly less subtle, and editor Louise Simonson admits to having slapped it on as a blatant attempt to increase sales.)

The on-panel deaths of the future versions of Storm and Wolverine, along with Colossus’ murder off panel, are not without a certain power, but it is the more quiet aspects of the story’s apocalyptic scenario that are the most striking. The image of Rachel and an unconscious Kate huddled and hidden in the street, the last survivors of the X-Men, creates a striking resonance. Uncanny X-Men #138 had already cast Kitty as the symbolic “daughter” of Jean Grey, reprising Jean’s arrival-by-taxi in X-Men #1 at the exact moment she was being laid to rest at the funeral. Kitty ending up the last X-Man, protected by Rachel – Jean’s actual daughter – is thus fitting and even redemptive, as is Kate’s successfully preventing Kelly’s assassination in the present. Kate, as the adult version of Kitty, is also a symbolic recreation of the adult Jean Grey, delivered unto the X-Men via the psychic powers of Jean’s daughter. The entire set-up, with Kate in Kitty’s body, is Claremont’s literalization of Kitty’s symbolic role. Kitty is a vessel through which Jean is still able to function as a member of the X-Men, and even to redeem herself, by stopping Kelly’s murder. The bit in which Kate kisses Kitty as they pass each other in the time stream can be looked on as Kate/Jean giving her blessing to Kitty – or perhaps as an expression of gratitude. (None of this would have been intended by John Byrne, who hated what he later called the “lesbian kiss” between Kate and Kitty – note that the kiss is only in the narration, not in the art.)

There is, by the way, symbolism of a more obvious sort being employed in the character of Destiny, the Brotherhood member who actually attempts to pull the trigger on Kelly. In a classically Greek way, she is physically blind yet able to psychically “see” the future. However, for all her literal foresight, Destiny and her group are all very much “blind” to the political repercussions of their planned assassination.

Rounding things out is an epilogue providing another strong example of the X-Men’s link with what Neil Shyminski terms “the Other.” In this case, it is the Sentinels who represent that Other, with the X-Men having attempted to prevent their rise by saving Robert Kelly’s. They succeeded, but their efforts have instead led to Kelly being the very man who recommends the creation of a new wave of anti-mutant Sentinels. Even more ironically, thanks to Kelly’s friendship with Sebastian Shaw, the leader of the Hellfire Club and a mutant himself, the contract to build them is given to Shaw Industries. In appropriate sci-fi style, the X-Men may have only brought closer the Armageddon they’d fought to prevent.

14 comments:

Stephen said...

Terrific analysis -- I'd say "as always", but is one of your best so far, I think (in the 129-142 set).

One thing I'd add is that this issue solved one technical problem: Kitty was, as a young new team member, inexperienced, innocent, unable to use her powers effectively, etc. So how to make her seem cool? The answer was the future Kate -- who we see with the strength that Kitty will posses, a fairly kick-ass use of her powers (partial phasing, making her arm solidify), etc, so that we get a preview of the way in which Kitty will be cool as she develops.

Various random comments/reactions:

Claremont hints in this issue that she and Nightcrawler – both possessing blue skin and yellow eyes – might be related somehow... the Kurt-Mystique connection is something Claremont won’t explain.

Since I first heard of it, I've always liked Claremont's original intension -- adhered to, at least in the sense of nothing inconsistent with it being published, through as much of the run as I read -- which was, apparently, nixed by the editorial higher-ups. This was to have Mystique be Nightcrawler's father -- due to her shape-changing powers, she can be male -- and Destiny, Mystique's lover, his mother. A cool idea, shot down for the usual prudish cowerdice. I wonder if it would even get through now?

As villain teams go, the new Brotherhood are a fairly strong and well-conceived group.

Yes... and then their name is one of those things that simply can't be looked at with a straight face by anyone who first encounters it post-age 10 or so. It's just self-evidently ridiculous.

It was precisely those elements that the first two films did such a good job of filleting out of the otherwise heavily-Claremont influenced stories... in this case by simply changing the name to "the Brotherhood", with an added (very good) ideological twist.

all the panels set in Arcade’s control booth had a thick black border around them

Damn, all those readings and I never noticed that. Great eye.

The garish cover copy, “This Issue: Everybody Dies!” is significantly less subtle

But, unlike usually with these things, accurate.

Re your paragraph about the Kate/Rachel scene, the inclusion of Jean, the meaning and symbolism of the story... wow. Great reading. I have nothing to add, but bravo!

The bit in which Kate kisses Kitty as they pass each other in the time stream can be looked on as Kate/Jean giving her blessing to Kitty – or perhaps as an expression of gratitude. (None of this would have been intended by John Byrne, who hated what he later called the “lesbian kiss” between Kate and Kitty – note that the kiss is only in the narration, not in the art.)

Or, more straightforwardly but less interestingly, it is the imagined maternal feeling one might have towards a younger, innocent self.

But lesbian kiss?! It's clearly maternal -- and not remotely sexual. I think Byrne's way off base here.

Rounding things out is an epilogue ... Kelly being the very man who recommends the creation of a new wave of anti-mutant Sentinels.

Okay, this is another thing I've never noticed in all my readings... in this case because the reprint I have doesn't contain it. Is this one of those one-page epilogue thingies that were so common before trades became the dominant publishing mode for the medium? Because I think what I have -- an two-issue reprint containing 141-142 from 1989 -- doesn't have it. For me, the last panel is Angel asking whether they prevented the horrible future, and Professor X saying "time will tell". -- And now that I look at it closely, the legend "the end" is quite clearly under the page. But I never saw that before.

Damn. That's irritating as hell. A curse on incomplete reprints!

-- Ok, great analysis, I can't wait to see what others have to say.

SF

Jason said...

Stephen, thank you so much for the compliments! You just made my week, I think.

I also LOVE the original idea of Mystique being Nightcrawler's father. I think I might talk about that in a later blog entry, but if not that's a gross oversight. Thanks for getting that in there. It's a cool idea. You know, someone more eagle-eyed than I has also pointed out the interesting coincidence that Destiny is named Irene Adler, which was also the name of a romantic foil for Sherlock Holmes in an old Conan Doyle story. And Mystque's secret identity is Raven DarkHOLME. What's that about? Are Mystique and Destiny really old, and did Mystique call herself "Sherlock Holmes" back when she was a man?

It's insane, but I kind of love the notion that Nightcrawler is the secret love-child of Irene Adler and a sex-changed Sherlock Holmes.

Re: the 1989 reprint. Yeah, I have that too. I was pretty flabbergasted the first time I saw that last page (which is contained in the new Days of Future Past trade, the one that collects Uncanny 138-143, and also in the black-and-white Essentials).

Yeah, Byrne is silly.

Re; The Brotherhood. Stan Lee actually only ever referred to them as "the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants" in narration, or when one of the X-Men spoke about them. When Magneto talked about them, he always just called them, "my band of mutants" or "my brotherhood." So the films were (possibly unknowingly) just going back to the comic's roots. It was Roy Thomas, I think, who first had Magneto refer to his own team as "The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants," and then Len Wein did it too, in a Defenders story. So Claremont was just following the tradition, by that point.

I agree, it's silly. Peter David later tried to explain the name away as being ironic, "parodying humans' perceptions," which is probably the best way to justify it. I'm used to it by now so I kind of ignore the silliness -- but you're right, in the context here, it is silly. Of course, Claremont will later have Mystique change the team's name to "Freedom Force," which is equally silly, but in a more Orwellian-newspeak kind of way.

Good point about the adult-Kitty, too. Yeah, it is neat that we get to see her using her powers in cool ways via the time-travel gimmick. Neat stuff!

Thanks again for being so complimentary, Stephen. Your kindness does my heart good!

Stephen said...

the interesting coincidence that Destiny is named Irene Adler, which was also the name of a romantic foil for Sherlock Holmes in an old Conan Doyle story.

Ok, that's cool -- even if it wasn't heading where you think, it's still cool.

Stan Lee actually only ever referred to them as "the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants" in narration, or when one of the X-Men spoke about them. When Magneto talked about them, he always just called them, "my band of mutants" or "my brotherhood.

Heh. Never noticed that. Well, good on Stan Lee!

Peter David's explanation is an excellent retcon in a give-him-a-no-prize sort of way, but it's hardly how it seems reading the comic.

But I don't mind "Freedom Force" as a name because, yeah, it's over-the-top, but it's the sort of over-the-top that people really do ("operation Iraqi freedom" anyone?). Orwellean in a real-life sense.

And I'm glad the complements pleased you, but you earned 'em. Great series.

SF

Jason said...

Yeah, I agree -- there is no irony in the way Claremont uses the phrase "Brotherhood of Evil Mutants," which is rather ridiculous given their expressed political agenda. They obviously believe they're on the right side.

Good call on "Freedom Force." It's funny how "freedom" has become a particularly ubiquitous buzzword in the 21st century.

On Peter David and real-life Orwellian-ness ... David did an issue of Hulk in which the gray, articulate version fought Freedom Force. When he encountered Pyro and saw the "FF" logo on his chest, he said, "What does that stand for -- french fried?"

A decade later, French fries were being rechristened "Freedom Fries"!

Anonymous said...

Coming to this late -- it's been a busy week.

Yeah, Byrne silly. I have the vague impression he's something of a homophobe, though in an understated sort of way.

What's not to like about "Everybody Dies!"? It certainly caught our attention, back in the day.

Was this really the first major "dystopic future" story in a mainstream comic? There wasn't, like, an old Superman story or something? (I swear, Silver Age Superman did everything.)

Well, whether it was or not, it ended up being hugely influential... the dystopic future has totally become part of the genre. Even Alan Moore found this fascinating; it inspired him to write his never-published DC universe future (you know, the one with Doll Man in a jar) which, in turn, inspired _Kingdom Come_. So, really, everybody drank from this well.

A minor throwaway: Byrne gives the adult Franklin Richards a very marked resemblance to both of his parents. Man, Byrne was great back when he was still trying.

Shout-out: the glimpse of Wolverine's adamantium skeleton.

Raspberry: Destiny's crossbow. What's wrong with a handgun? It's not like she needed to get past the metal detector.

Shout-out: the title is a Proust reference.

Raspberry: Destiny's costume. Can you think of a better costume for a blind precognitive? Yes, yes you can.

Shout-out: Nightcrawler and Mystique. "Ask your mother, Margali Szardos!" That was very cool.

Raspberry: Nightcrawler and Mystique. If you are a shapeshifter, you don't go one-on-one with the person you're copying. That /never/ works.

Shout-out: Bringing Shaw back, and in that way. Yeah, Shaw Industries is gonna build Sentinels for the feds! That made sense at multiple levels.

Shout-out: Agent Gyrich. Claremont criss-crossing with Jim Shooter's Avengers again... this happened a lot during this period. Around this time Claremont and Byrne were on better terms with Jim Shooter than they were with each other!

As to the Brotherhood, note that this is the first time they're referred to as terrorists. This, too, would be very influential down the line.


Doug M.

Jason said...

Doug, yeah, the dystopian future thing is also used by Alan Moore in his Captain Britain stories, which riff quite openly on "Days of Future Past.' (And Claremont would in turn riff on Moore's Captain Britain, both in "Excalibur" and in the X-Men portion of the "Fall of the Mutants" crossover.)

Anagramsci said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anagramsci said...

I'd say the world that Kang eventually rules (as opposed to the nice, pleasant Legion of Super-Heroes style world that he grows up in) is pretty dystopian--but I suppose that's getting a bit remote... it's not like saying: "hey--everyone and everything you love is gonna come to a grisly, early end, 30 years from now...)

I'm really enjoying this series Jason--although I haven't read these comics since the '80s--and I sure envy your blogging stamina! I can't even maintain an average of one post a month!

Dave Fiore

Jason said...

Which is a crime, Mr. Fiore. Will you ever go back to your issue-by-issue look at Roy Thomas' X-Men run?

I'm thrilled your reading this series, by the by. Please continue to comment if you're of a mind to!

Matthew J. Brady said...

I think I also read some commentary by Byrne in which he felt like this issue/storyline were the last straw, complaining particularly about the "Pyrrhic victory" aspect of the story. He hated that everything had to somehow end up negative for the X-Men; why couldn't they ever have a true victory? I don't know if that was the case back then, but I could see that argument being made after 15 years of that sort of story, and it definitely turned into the standard X-Men plot. Whatever; I almost automatically dismiss anything John Byrne says anyway.

Anagramsci said...

not an injudicious thing to do, Mr. Brady!

and Byrne, if you're reading this--isn't the entire Marvel House style built upon the theme of pyrrhic victory?

yes, of course it is!

Jason--I wish I could say that my Thomas series will be up and running soon, but I'm not sure if it's in the cards... the only way I could find the time to do it would be stop reading other blogs--and how am I supposed to do that, when you're powering through great swathes of history at a nigh-historic pace?

some day though--the Locust and I will return!

Dave

Jason said...

Matthew, you are correct, Byrne was pissed about the "pyrrhic victory" aspect, wanting this to be a straight-ahead win for the X-Men. (But then, why did he draw the last page, which is a big part of the Pyrrhic-ation?)

Dave, very well -- as long as you continue to read this blog, and comment when you have time, I guess I can't complain. Still, I do look forward to a full analysis of the Factor Three saga one day ...

Anagramsci said...

oh I'm definitely in for the long haul here--and I see there's another entry up!

as for Factor Three--they are never very far from my thoughts (how scary is that?) and I'm sure that something will come of that some day!

Dave

wwk5d said...

"Of course, Claremont will later have Mystique change the team's name to "Freedom Force," which is equally silly, but in a more Orwellian-newspeak kind of way."

FOX News would be proud.