Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #146

[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.]


The previous issue, with its exuberant “kitchen-sink” look at the X-Men mythos, was fun, and this one is fairly enjoyable as well, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that Claremont is spinning his wheels a bit. Having the current team take on Dr. Doom while a secondary team made up of old members invades Murderworld is certainly a neat idea – but the potential contrast is negated here when Dr. Doom can think of nothing better to do with his captured X-Men then put them in Murderworld-like traps. What’s the point of using Doom if he is going to do the exact same thing Arcade would have done anyway? And Doom turning Storm into a statue is too corny. It feels a bit like something that would have happened to Adam West in the ‘60s.

The Murderworld sequence starring the secondary team is much more fun. Because my first exposure to the X-Men comic was a Murderworld issue, I do have some biased affection for the concept – and there’s something inherently chilling about the idea of a fairground carnival atmosphere with a sinister agenda. But the concept is pretty much defanged in issue 146; the X-Men get through their traps so easily, and nothing ever seems like much of a threat. This could be justified on the grounds that Murderworld is less effective when Arcade isn’t driving it himself – but a premise like Murderworld should be used well, or not at all. As with the Juggernaut, whose boast of being “unstoppable” becomes less easy to take seriously each time he’s defeated, Murderworld’s tagline – “Where nobody ever survives” – loses more and more meaning each time we read a story wherein EVERY SINGLE PERSON survives.

Indeed, even Claremont and Cockrum themselves are mocking it the end of the issue. When Miss Locke says to herself that reaching the control center of Murderworld is not an easy task, it’s followed by a surprisingly foppish image of Havok, who’s just done exactly that. He grins and says, “Want to bet?”

It’s telling perhaps that after this point, Claremont will never again imbue Murderworld with much sense of menace. It always will just be used either as a generator of mindless background action in stories where characterization is foregrounded (e.g., issues 197 and 204) or in comedy stories (as in Excalibur issues 4 and 5).

A somewhat striking moment in this issue is Banshee’s thought-balloon that references “Factor 3.” The Factor Three storyline was a long-running arc during the original X-Men run, first introduced in issue 28 (the same issue that introduced Banshee) and not wrapped up until issue 39 (in which Banshee also appeared). The fact that Claremont never had Banshee discuss this at all while the character was part of the team is evidence that – just as Byrne has said – Claremont hadn’t read most of the original X-Men run when he first came to the series. Presumably, he now has, hence the reference here. In fact, Banshee’s off-handed memory that he was “assigned [to] infiltrate” Factor Three is the first explanation to appear in any X-Men comic as to why he was part of that story. (You’d think it would have been explained at the time, but no – like the sudden appearance of Scott’s brother Alex, many plot points from the Silver Age incarnation of X-Men were just skipped over.)

Meanwhile, Claremont inches along the Cyclops/Lee Forrester romantic relationship in this issue, as Lee learns for the first time about Scott’s optic blasts. Like the material with Colleen Wing, the relationship with Lee gets a big buildup, but – as with all potential girlfriends for Scott who don’t have red hair – Claremont (and Scott) will suddenly grow tired of her, at which point she promptly disappears (Lee’s last appearance as Scott’s girlfriend is also Madeline Pryor’s first). Whether this keeps happening because of Claremont’s tendency to grow tired of concepts and ideas before he’s seen them through, or because it’s a character-point he’s trying to make (i.e., Scott will never get over Jean), is hard to say. Maybe it’s a little of both.

[I have not been making a lot of comments on this series, so I will say something here: Murderworld and Arcade are super-dumb.]


Christian said...

Wow wow wow, Geoff. Cool it now. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Arcade or Murderworld.

While both have been misused extensively, the ideas themselves are rock solid.

Murderworld is, as I might have said previously, based off H. H. Holmes, the first official American Serial Killer who converted his hotel into what he called his Murder Castle. His official body count is 27 in the course of three years. He would then torture and kill them in various ways. Some rooms designed for drownings, others for asphixiations, acid pits and even a stretch rack.


This, of course, ties Arcade in with Jigsaw of the torture-porn film series, Saw.

Of course this is all deeply disturbing, but would make a good inspiration source, if utilized correctly. Sadly, most people get lost in the fact that, as far as I know, Arcade has never actually killed someone in his Murderworlds.

Then there's the whole World's Greatest Hitman turned Murder Enthusiast, a slight oedipal complex and a general unwillingness to play dirty and you have yourself a fairly compelling character.

The only real flaw is that A. he's not that intimidating. Years of misuse does that to a character. And B. He's never really been give a good chance at it; only fighting title characters, instead of newly created cannon-fodder in the horror vein or one-off superheroes.

Jason said...

Arcade is The Joker done right.

Nah, I'm just kidding. Still, I'm with Christian. I like the guy. But, as I noted in an earlier blog entry, my very first X-Men comic was X-Men vs. Murderworld. (Also, I believe the very first X-Men videogame -- certainly the first one I ever played, on the Commodore 64 -- was called "Escape From Murderworld." Great stuff!

Anonymous said...

We all remember Moore's Killing Joke, right?

So, amusement parks /can/ be scary and disturbing. They just almost never are. Like the Circus of Evil, this is an obvious idea that's almost never done well. Arcade may have great potential, but if he's consistently failed to realize it for almost thirty years now, I think we have to agree that there's something very flawed about the concept, the character, or both -- nostalgia notwithstanding.

Storm being turned into a statue: I'd forgotten about that. God, that was stupid. And it started a whole long period of Claremont doing horrible, traumatic things to characters' bodies, and having everything be hunky-dory in an issue or two. Like, Colossus getting impaled near the beginning of the Brood series, or Carol Danvers being tortured and morphed into various alien monstrosities -- only to emerge an issue later with a new costume cool new powers! Yeah!

Storm had a particularly idiotic run of such experiences; over the course of a dozen issues or so she was first turned into a statue, then had her mind swapped into the White Queen's body, then briefly became a vampire under the control of Dracula. God, it's almost painful to write this stuff down.


Doug M.

Christian said...

Just throwing it out into the cosmos:

Arcade is Keyser Söze post-Usual Suspects.

There are no bad characters, just bad or uninterested writers.

Jason said...

I don't know if I agree re: no after-effects to the various physical traumas. You may not recall, but Colossus did feel the effects of his wounds for several issues after his stabbing, and as for all of Storm's various traumas ... recall that issue 168 is when Ororo begins to feel out-of-sync with nature, her powers occasionally getting out of control.

I'd argue the opposite of what you say, in fact: That Claremont loves to explore the after-effects of various stories, sometimes for years ... rather than just sending it all into the ether.

But I agree, Storm turned into a statue is way lame.

Matthew J. Brady said...

I don't know if anybody will read this, because I'm ridiculously late reading and commmenting, but one of the best "evil circus" stories I've read is in Jack Kirby's Forever People, issue 5 or 6, I think. The villainous Desaad had captured the team and turned them into attractions in a freaky theme park called "Happyland". It was awesome.

wwk5d said...

Another fun issue.

But Lee Forrester never worked. And after Scott, she goes after an injured Magneto. She really does have a thing for birds with broken wings, or whatever she said in the D'spayre issue. I can see her trolling funeral homes and hospitals on date night...