Thursday, July 10, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #144

[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.]

“Even in Death ...”

In defiance of his reputation as an egotist, John Byrne often points out that even though sales on Uncanny X-Men increased steadily during his tenure on the series ... they continued to climb equally steadily, even after he left. The series didn’t achieve a meteoric rise in sales until around 1983, when Paul Smith became the penciller. Byrne tends to trot out this statistic as a counter against the myth, which nonetheless persists, that Byrne and Claremont made the X-Men into an overnight sensation.

Still, apart from the timeless quality of the Byrne/Claremont run itself, there is also anecdotal evidence that runs counter to what the numbers say. Many modern comics professionals – including Grant Morrison and Joss Whedon, arguably the two most important writers of X-Men in the post-Claremont era – testify to having been huge fans of the Claremont/Byrne run issues of X-Men, but then rapidly losing interest after Uncanny X-Men #143, Byrne’s last.

It’s not hard to see why. Claremont was already reeling from Shooter having pulled the rug out from under him with the mandated death of Phoenix (in spite of the fact that Shooter’s ending was far better than the original). But at least in the immediate wake of that conflict, Claremont was buoyed by Byrne’s rigorously rock-solid plotting. (These days, Byrne claims to have plotted virtually all of “Days of Future Past.”)

With Byrne’s departure, however, Claremont seems truly to lose focus. Unsure of what to do now that he’s piloting the ship solo, his first move is to write a story – appropriately enough – about a ship captain, Lee Forrester, who in the previous issue recruited Cyclops to her crew. Called home to her father’s home in the Everglades, she brings Scott – to whom she’s attracted – with her. They soon encounter a villain called D’Spayre and a “quag-beast” known as the “Man-Thing.” (Claremont was writing the Man-Thing comic at the same time he wrote this issue, hence the character’s apropos-of-nothing inclusion here.)

Cyclops is forced to relieve horrible moments from his past, including a recreation of the Neal Adams Sentinel story and, of course, the Dark Phoenix Saga. The last time we saw Cyclops was only six issues ago, and he recapped the entire history of the X-Men then, so seeing more flashbacks here feels horribly redundant.

Furthermore, D’Spayre is a weak sci-fi cliché, a parasite who feeds on a negative emotion (despair, to be precise), and the use of a demon with the arbitrary apostrophe in his name one issue after the N’Garai adds to the story’s lethargic sense of “been there, done that.” Claremont seems to be trying desperately to bide his time until a new idea presents itself.

In the meantime, the issue’s most lively moments occur in the margins. The bit in which Cyclops uses his optic blast to sink a table-full of billiard balls (with the 8-ball obligingly going in last) is cute, and well executed by guest-artist Brent Anderson. Meanwhile, there’s a good character moment for Nightcrawler: He inadvertently hurts Kitty’s feelings with some playful teasing, then wonders if the hurt was more deliberate than he realized. Did he subconsciously want revenge for her blatant fear of his physical appearance? It’s a nicely rendered character bit, and the best thing in the issue.


Anonymous said...

You haven't even exhausted the list of reasons this issue sucked. D'Spayre is a stupid villain: he plays with your head until you realize what's going on, then you snap out of it. That's all he does whenever he appears. He sucks. He's always sucked.

Giving Scott a new female companion and potential love interest so soon after Jean's death was a really dumb idea, too. Dumb compounded by the fact that "Aleytys" Forrester was one of Claremont's dullest characters ever, which is saying something. You know how Claremont is supposed to have said, "is there any reason this character can't be a woman?" Well, during this period you have the impression he kept forgetting to ask, "is there any reason for this character to exist at all?" Ms. Forrester is probably the type specimen for this group, but I'd put Stevie Hunter right next to her.

Also, this issue was wordy as hell, with lots of intrusive narration in caption boxes. Like the previous issue, but without the beautiful Byrne/Austin art.

Also, the scene where his optic blasts kill Jean? God, that was stupid. Not only was it tasteless as hell, but didn't make any sense in the context of what had gone before. Scott was never afraid /for/ Jean. Towards the end, he may have been a little afraid /of/ her, but that's something else altogether. And the way this scene refers back to their famous scene on the mesa... well, wince. It's just awful.

I think you're right, and Claremont was badly nonplussed by Byrne's departure. In this issue he seems to have forgotten basic writing and plotting skills. Hell, even the Man-Thing crossover is clunky. And by this time Claremont knew how to do crossovers -- he was deftly weaving plot threads between X-Men and Marvel Team-Up, for instance.

I could go on, but I've already written more than this crappy issue deserves. Even the cover sucked. "Cry D'Spayre"? Geez.

I'm no Grant Morrison or Joss Whedon, but the same thing happened to me -- this issue was a disappointment, subsequent issues were almost as bad, and I rapidly lost interest. I don't remember when I stopped buying the X-Men, but it was somewhere in the 150s. (Issue 150 kept me going a few months longer. That was a damn good issue... but then, Claremont had been plotting it for something like three years in advance.) I would be an intermittent reader for many years thereafter, sometimes buying the book for a year or more at a time, but never again looking forward to issues with that breathless anticipation. Part of this was the aging process -- most of us are harder to wow at 26 than at 16, and by 36 it's harder still -- but not all; there were other magazines that could have me haunting the spin racks. No, most of it was that Claremont had caught the lightning for a while, and then lost it... and if he ever got it back again (we may argue that point when we get there), it was too late, at least for me.

As to sales going up: while this issue is a complete clunker, most of the second Cockrum run was... okay. Workmanlike superhero comic book stories. They weren't as good as Cockrum's first run, never mind Byrne's, but they weren't horrible and a few were quite good. Meanwhile, the Byrne run had built up quite a head of fan interest, and Marvel started pushing the book much more strongly. So I could see sales being stable or even going up.

That said, this issue still sucks, and it marks the beginning of a long stretch of mediocrity that's even more painful when set beside the excellent work of the previous year and a half.

Okay, I'm going to get depressed if I keep this up. Look, I may go away for a little while, 'kay? I'll lurk, and I'll certainly pop up for issue 150. But I'm not sure I want to go through these issues again. The disillusionment was bad enough the first time.


Doug M.

Jason said...

I can't believe I didn't mention the mesa flashback ... I thought I did. In any case, that is indeed the most horrible and badly conceived bit. Just nasty.

I certainly don't want you to be depressed, Mr. M! It's all good, take a break. It'll give me time to fully process all the great stuff you've written up to now. :)

Hope to see you back here relatively soon! Godspeed, Doug!

Anagramsci said...

I'm coming at these issues from a very different perspective, I think--as a fan, primarily, of Thomas' silver age X-Men and Morrison's run a few years ago... I did wind up assembling a nice collection of poor condition Byrne/Claremonts though, and I read the whole thing through when I bought them with my paperboy money in the late '80s... I also bought the series regularly from, say 1986 to 1990 (the only years in which I bought comics off the rack--but I did it in a big, obsessive way, amassing a reserve of 70 titles per month!), but I never liked it (or Claremont) as much as Louise Simonson's X-Factor (which was what set me on the trail of the silver age issues); Morrison's Animal & Doom Patrol; Gruenwald's Cap, Quasar, and DP7; Peter David's Hulk and intermittent Spider-Man work; Roger Stern's Avengers and Power of the Atom; Englehart's West Coast Avengers; Cary Bates' Captain Atom; Thomas' Dr. Strange, Sorceror Supreme and Earth-Two stuff; Gerard Jones' Shadow Strikes; Messner-Loebs' Flash... those were the "mainstream" titles I enjoyed most in the late '80s, and Claremont's X-Men just couldn't hold a candle to any of them, in my opinion (back then, I mean--that was far too long ago for me to claim that it would still be my opinion if I re-read the comics)

when I got into the back issues, I liked the Dark Phoenix Saga a lot, but not nearly as much as stuff like Englehart's Dr. Strange or Conway's Gwen Stacy clone saga (which I am the world's greatest fan of, I am quite certain! does it have any other fans?)

anyway, that's where I'm comin' from...

still, I was always fascinated by the love other fans obviously bore for Claremont's work--and that still holds true (hence my avid interest in your series, Jason--apart from its intrinsic excellence, I mean!)

so when the Claremontians get DOWN on the man, I get even more interested!

how interested, you ask?

well, enough to re-read the issue--which I have just done...

...and I didn't mind it at all!

it's actually got a few nice things in it--especially D'Spayre's (or however it is spelled) ambush of the protagonists on page 11 ("Pop killed himself this morning... I helped him do it." Coupled with the visual, that's kind of chilling, actually... and it's nicely placed on the page for maximum effect, takes you by surprise...nowadays, each of those panels would splash pages, which would completely telegraph the punch)

I also liked, on panel 3 of page 9, the fact that the first thought bubble ("Sniff?!") seems like it's a sob, until you realize that Kitty is reacting to Nightcrawler's teleportation stench...

the After School Special lesson in triumph over despair (the "ultimate evil"? no is irritating... but some decent things happen in the book--and I LIKE Aleytys Forrester--what's not to like?

onward! (I may read the next issue too!)


Stephen said...

Sorry you won't be around, Doug. Always liked your comments. They've added a lot.

As you say, age has a lot to do with it -- and I hit this sequence in my prime, as it were: 10 years old. Perfect X-Men years. (I think the first I bought new rather than used was #146...) So I loved it. To me, we're just getting to the good stuff.

But then, I always liked Stevie Hunter, too.

(Although this issue was dull, no doubt about it -- I hardly remember it at all, not a good sign for me.)

Anyway, hope you'll pop up again from time to time.


Jason said...

David, thanks for pointing out the "Pop killed himself" line. You're right, that is nicely deployed.

It probably does hold up much better as an issue in isolation. But reading it on the tail of the Byrne/Claremont stuff makes it seem pretty rough. Note that issue 138 (only six months earlier) already did a lot of "looking at the past" stuff. To do it again so soon feels very cannibalistic, like Claremont just can't think of anything new. At this point, I'm betting he couldn't.

But things do improve, and I'd opine they improve more quickly and more impressively than Doug thinks.

In the meantime, I love your take on the issue! I hope you DO read the next one!

Anonymous said...

"Pop killed himself" is not a bad line, but it's not a good X-Men line.

Really, this feels like an issue of Man-Thing that Cyclops just happens to have stumbled into.

Doug M.

wwk5d said...

I liked it. Again, not the best issue, but not that bad. I didn't mind seeing Cyclops again, after 6 months, and it was interesting to see one of his happiest moments turn on him.

The best stuff is the scenes with Kurt and Kitty. A nice bit of depth for him.

And wasn't this the first time we saw a flashback about Cyclop's past, and something new he remembered? It was something new to see. I like Anderson's art here. Nowhere near as good as his later stuff, but his X-sentinels were kind of creepy...