Saturday, July 12, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #145

[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.]


Reunited with Dave Cockrum, Claremont seems to be experimenting with where to take the X-Men next. Unfortunately, with this issue, his sights seem to be aimed backward rather than forward, as he and Cockrum cannibalize bits from old stories to create something resembling a new one.

The basic premise of the issue is fairly droll – it’s an inverse of Giant-Sized X-Men #1, Cockrum’s first issue. There, the old X-Men needed help and Xavier went around the world recruiting the new team. Here, a problem crops up that the new team can’t handle by themselves, so Xavier goes around the world recruiting old members (including Iceman, the one original who’s never yet seen action in a Claremont-penned story). It’s a cute idea, and Claremont even finds ways to sneak in cameos by Jean (via the extravagantly named “holempathic matrix crystal” from Uncanny #138), Beast and Scott. With Angel already an active member, that means all five originals show up here, as well as Banshee, Havok and Polaris (the latter two suddenly no longer living on Muir Island, but back in Rio Diablo, where Cockrum had placed them during his first tenure). There’s even a cheekily offhand reference to the Toad, one of the Silver Age X-Men’s first villains, and a more menacing allusion to the impending return of Magneto, both references serving to complete the nostalgic effect.

Amusingly, while Cockrum clearly enjoys gathering all the old X-Men members into a single issue, he has absolutely no use for the newest one: Kitty Pryde. Cockrum’s explanation, as given in “Comics Creators on X-Men,” is quite funny. “At the time [I thought], ‘This little girl is in the X-Men? Boy, is that dumb!’ So she had the flu for the first few issues I did.” Given Cockrum’s whimsical sensibilities, the spunky Kitty was actually a perfect fit for him, and he admits that he warmed to the character soon after this arc.

Kitty aside, Claremont throws in everything but the kitchen sink for this issue. Arcade and his henchwoman Miss Locke are the familiar villains of the piece, but they play second fiddle to a new one (at least to the X-Men): Dr. Doom. The archenemy of the Fantastic Four, Doom is generally considered the Marvel Universe’s most perfect villain, though Claremont’s handling of him is not all that convincing. Indeed, John Byrne was so unimpressed by Claremont’s conception of Doom in this storyline that he would later use a scene in Fantastic Four to make painstakingly clear that Claremont’s Doom was a robot imposter.

(Jim Shooter has commented in interviews that Claremont and Byrne became aggressively competitive once Byrne moved from X-Men to Fantastic Four, and that Byrne’s unprofessional ret-conning of Claremont’s story was a manifestation of that rivalry. It’s possible that Claremont’s subsequent ennobling of Magneto was conceived partly as a return-fire in their competition. If so, game, set and match to Claremont: his Magneto is one of the most powerfully conceived characters in superhero fiction. Byrne’s Doom can’t hope to compare.)

With Doom, Arcade, and nine different X-Men crammed into this issue, Claremont and Cockrum still apparently weren’t satisfied. “Kidnapped” also alludes to no less than seven different characters that Miss Locke has taken hostage: Stevie Hunter (who appears on the first page with Storm – the first time an issue of Uncanny X-Men opens with two black characters); Illyana Rasputin; John and Elaine Grey; Amanda Sefton; Candy Southern; and Moira MacTaggert. It’s as if Claremont is a little nervous that longtime readers are going to start dropping the comic now that Byrne is gone, and he’s cramming in as many Easter Eggs for them as he possibly can. It’s not 100% convincing, but it’s diverting enough for the moment.


Stephen said...

I dunno. I kind of liked this trilogy. Now, nostalgia is in the highest gear here for me -- as I said in an earlier thread, #146 was the first I bought new. But still.

One thing I'll note is how the structure of the trilogy mirrors that of the first two thirds of the Dark Pheonix saga (separately) i.e. the two Hellfire trilogies. In each case, there's the capture, the middle, and the escape/rematch in the third issue. Of course, the middle thirds are different: in the first case, the teams split, one is attacked successfully, one not; in the second case, it's the Wolverine alone issue.

And in this case, the neophytes, we've never-fought-together-before team goes in and wipes out Murderworld in a single issue. Proving Wolverine right in this issue: they should've ignored Doom & Arcade and just gone for Murderworld. If the four newbies wiped them out that quickly, think what Team A would've done.


Jason said...

As I believe Patrick has pointed out, the problem with the Murderworld concept is that, for all its novelty, it loses something each time the X-Men defeat it. Much like the Juggernaut's catchphrase, "Nothing stops the Juggernaut" becoming laughable as more and more heroes prove able to stop him, Arcade's refrain -- "Welcome to Murderworld, where nobody ever survives!" -- becomes more ridiculous each time the X-Men survive it.

The trilogy does have its moments -- there's something sort of quaint about Dr. Doom not being able to think of anything better to do with his prisoners than put them in his own poor-man's Murderworld that he apparently keeps in his New York castle...

... I shouldn't be too hard on it, perhaps. Still, like Doug, I think a lot of these issues fail when coming on the heels of the pristine Byrne/Austin run.

(I do like that this first issue includes all five original X-Men AND Havok and Polaris as well.)

Dougie said...

I recall a vague sense of disappointment with every issue, post-Byrne,until the return of the Starjammers. I was interested to read about the "rivalry" and your point about Easter Eggs was a good one, given the upcoming appearances by Siryn and Spider-Woman. I look forward to the story behind Silkie, the X-man Who Never Was. Do you plan to review the New Mutants Graphic Novel here?

Jason said...

The New Mutants probably deserve a decent write-up (particularly the Sienkiewicz issues), but this series will pretty much stick to comics starring the X-Men. I tried to keep the digressions to a minimum.

I'm not sure I know the story behind "Silkie" -- what am I missing?

Anonymous said...

Possibly walking away isn't so easy? Anyway, a few thoughts.

-- "Unprofessional" is a good, precise word to describe Byrne's attitude towards Claremont in general, and that Doom bit in particular. (Yeah, I still remember it clearly 20+ years later. How geek is that.)

That said, Claremont's Doom is pretty lame. Doom wouldn't be involved with a third-stringer like Arcade on his worst day.

-- I'm pretty sure Redeemed Magneto was in the cards from very early on; in retrospect, you can see Claremont getting ready for it well before #150. But we'll get to that soon enough...

-- For a while, Claremont had a thing for giving his villains hott female sidekicks. Ms. Locke was one, Tessa over in the Hellfire Club was another, IMS there was at least one more. (And when the villainness herself was hott, he gave her a girlfriend. Oh, Chris.)

-- The one, single thing I remember from this issue? Iceman chilling a beer for himself to celebrate the end of finals. This was a lovely small touch: not only was it the sort of thing we'd all do if we had ice powers, it was also a symbolic "he's not a teenager, either, any more" kind of moment. Bobby Drake was supposed to be just 15 or 16 -- they never stopped pointing out he was the youngest X-Man -- but since the tombstone in #138 established that Jean Grey was 24 when she died (yeah, yeah, don't even go there) he'd be 20 or 21. So, having him popping a beer in college was kind of a nice shout-out to the three guys who were still keeping track of this stuff.

Otherwise, nothin'.

-- First appearance of Ilyana, right? Before Claremont realized he could -- no, should -- no, *must* involve every team member's family in superheroic hijinks (except the Greys, who were for some reason kept safely boring), Ilyana's role was "kid who gets kidnapped or threatened by the bad guys". You remember me saying this was the role Kitty was originally destined for.

-- Steve's point about trilogies is well taken. Unfortunately, comparing this to the earlier trilogies just shows how much this one kinda sucks in comparison.

-- Wait, why would anyone kidnap Stevie Hunter? She's Kitty's DANCE INSTRUCTOR. Really, one has the feeling Claremont was thinking "okay, I'll throw in an African-American dance instructor -- I have no idea why, but I'm sure I'll think of something interesting to do with her down the line." Sometimes this worked -- an astounding lot of X-Men canon was worked out by Claremont as a series of retcons, and he introduced dozens of characters who evolved wildly over time. (Including, in this very issue, Ilyana.) But in this case, it just didn't.

-- Also, someone remind me how Arcade knows who all the X-Men are? IMS this was one of Claremont's recurring weak points -- he couldn't keep straight whether the X-Men were supposed to be secret, and if so then by how much.

-- Okay, Jason -- huge point that I think you're overlooking here.

If you were an X-Men fan in 1980-81? Your first reaction was, oh crap, Byrne is leaving! But then it was, okay, Cockrum is coming back! That'll be good! Because those dozen issues before #108 were just swell! So we were all waiting for #145...

...and then Cockrum's art just lay there on the page. It wasn't bad. But it wasn't very good, either. It was just... blah.

Whatever had a hold of Cockrum back in 1976-77, by the time he returned to the title it had lost its grip. His second run eventually got somewhat better but it never matched the wild power of #s 94-107. And these early issues in the 140s are just weak.

What I've never been able to figure out is /why/. Was it something mechanical, like a different inker? Did the relationship with Claremont change? Did Claremont himself start doing different stuff, like layout instructions, that didn't fit Cockrum's style? Or was it the burden of doing a monthly title? On his first run, X-Men had been bimonthly, and even then he'd missed an issue or two. So maybe the pace was too fast for his pencilling style? On the other hand, IMS he'd done the Legion of Super Heroes monthly for a while, way back when.

Well, whatever the reason, the art in this trilogy is just uninspired. Pull out the Sentinels trilogy or issues 105/107 and put them next to these, and tell me if you don't see the difference.

I think that's part of what drove some readers away. You had the last year of Byrne, which barring that one weak two-parter was just a solid wall of awesome. Then you had a truly crappy issue, but it was with a guest penciller, so maybe we could all blame him. (Hey, some of us still remembered issue #106.) So in a way, this issue was a double whammy: Cockrum was back, but /things didn't get much better/. The story was a forgettable mess, and the art was disappointing too.

Anyway. I'll stop now.

Doug M.

Jason said...

Ah yeah, Iceman chilling a beer -- fun stuff, and a great way to introduce the Claremont version. (Technically Claremont had written Iceman before, in issue 94, and he turns up in #138 without dialogue, but ... yeah, that was a fun touch.)

Illyana's first appearance is actually Giant-Sized X-Men #1, when Colossus saves her from the runaway tractor. But yes, this is her first appearance since then, and her first Claremont-penned appearance.

I disagree with you that Claremont hadn't yet decided to involve Illyana in "superhero-hijinks" at this point. I'm firmly of the opinion that Illyana was made one of the hostages specifically so that Claremont could bring her in as a regular cast-member ... he even teases in issue 148 that she'll soon manifest a mutant power.

And Stevie Hunter was kidnapped because she happened to be with Storm when Miss Locke attacked. (Storm's interior monologue when she wakes up from Miss Locke's attack is something to the effect of, "No sign of Stevie. Miss Locke must have taken her as another hostage.")

Presumably Arcade knows who the X-Men are because he was originally hired to kill them by Cain Marko and Black Tom, who learned a lot about the X-Men's identities back in their Cockrum-illustrated appearance in issues 101-103.

How's that for a segue? (Issue 101 contains my favorite Cockrum X-Men art.) Yeah, Cockrum's second run is generally uninspiring. I have written about this, I believe, in some later blog entries. I just ran out of space in this particular one. But yeah, I can see your point -- Cockrum coming back should've been a HUGE deal, but the magic seems to be mostly gone.

It's the X-Men curse, perhaps. Consider the return of Claremont and Byrne to the franchise (albeit not as a team) in 1999. Talk about disappointments!

Dougie said...

With regard to Silkie,Jason, promotional material announcing the character's debut as a new member in X-Men 150 appeared in Cerebro,a UK fanzine in '81.Curiously, the character next appears two years later in The Futurians Graphic Novel. I always wondered what happened there. I had been expecting Lee Forrester to be mutated on Magneto's Lovecraftian island.

wwk5d said...

If you're going to compare and whine how it's not the level of C&B tenure, then yeah, that's true. But taken on it's own, it's a fun, silly story. I was entertained. Not everything has to be amazing on the level of Dark Phoenix or DOFP. Sit back and enjoy the ride.

And it's too bad Morrison and Whedon dropped out, they missed some good stuff later. Claremont must've done something right if sales kept increasing steadily, it can't all be attributed to Marvel's PR and Marketing departments.