Thursday, August 14, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #155

[Guest blogger Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men run. I ask a question at teh bottom. For more in this series, see the toolbar on the right.]

Uncanny X-Men, The #155

“First Blood”

Issue 155 maintains the momentum of the previous installment, skillfully increasing the scope of the plot and weaving in the rest of the X-Men. The villains of the arc are revealed: Death-Bird, a villain from Claremont’s Ms. Marvel series revealed here to be Lilandra’s sister; and the extra-terrestrial Brood, as blatant a crib from James Cameron’s “Aliens” as the N’garai of issue 143 was from Ridley Scott’s original film. Cockrum’s design for the Brood is lovely, cannily evoking the Giger design to which it alludes but adding a distinctly comic-book spin. And since Claremont wouldn’t know what to do with mute villains, the Brood are also – unlike their film counterparts – fully capable of speech.

Actually, the “Aliens” inspiration for the villains of “First Blood” is not entirely obvious here. Apart from a brief reference to the “Mother,” the extent to which the Claremont and Cockrum have borrowed from Scott and Cameron isn’t entirely explicit. Later will come the implantation of eggs in host bodies, the existence of a Queen figure, etc.

In the meantime, Claremont’s plotting is as lean as it gets for this issue, featuring some neat details. Xavier’s planting Kitty and Kurt on the flagship after telepathically “punching” all of his knowledge about the Shi’ar into her brain is a particularly cool maneuver. The X-Men also come off very well in their battle with Death-Bird and the Brood, executing quite a few well-conceived stunts. The superfluous guest appearance by Tigra doesn’t add much (though Claremont clearly has an affection for the character), but apart from that the action sequence is tight and creatively done. That the X-Men still lose the fight despite being in such peak form adds to the credibility of the villains as well.

“First Blood”’s cliffhanger isn’t all that convincing, granted. (A lead character dying just before the “To Be Continued” is pretty much always a feint, in any medium.) But it at least ends the comic at a high pitch, priming readers for an exciting Part Three in a month.

On the negative side, why is Kitty once again spending half the issue in a bikini? The repeated objectification of a 13-year-old girl is starting to become distinctly discomforting. (Kitty’s four-panel fashion show for Kurt is a joke for long-time readers, reprising Nightcrawler’s image-inducer bit for Storm in Uncanny X-Men #101.)

[Should we not be bothered by Claremont's obvious habit for going to the movies and then coming back and basically importing other people's concepts wholesale into his books: Star Trek / Star Wars becomes the Starjammers, Alien becomes the N'Garai, Aliens becomes the Brood, the Terminator becomes Nimrod. Of course this is all part of fiction writing and influence happens all the time; I have argued that Morrison's Cassandra Nova is very much a version of Onslaught, who could of course be traced back to a number of villains, and of course the the evil twin thing is as old as time. Planetary builds itself through analogues, where you are supposed to recognize the source. But with Claremont it takes this particularly shameless form: very little time passes before the idea is swiped, very little revision is done to the idea so that it is crystal clear where the thing comes from, he does not improve on any of the concepts, and you just get the feeling that he goes to the movies looking for X-Men villain ideas.]

16 comments:

Stephen said...

Replying to Geoff's addendum: I think you're overstating the case considerably. The Starjammers aren't particularly a Star Trek/Star Wars rip off (the fact that you have to cite both of those very different space operas makes the point), nor Nimrod a Terminator one: they're both generic SF concepts which the movies borrowed just as much as Claremont did. (Terminator even lost in a law suit brought by Harlan Ellison alleging they had ripped off an old short story of his; IMS one of their defenses was that the idea was old even when HE first did it.)

The alien/aliens rip off is blatant; the others, however, I think are just generic SF concepts. Criticize him for that, but not for ripping off movies.

Incidentally, on the Aliens front: I think that I forgive borrowings if they *improve* on their source material. (Hence: Planetary.) And personally (as I've mentioned before, and will again) I found the "implanting of eggs" bit in the soon-to-be-discussed issues to be far freakier than anything in the Alien movies. (Partly because no known, sympathetic character was actually *implanted* in Alien/s, except for the first one, when we didn't yet know what was going on. I omit discussion of Aliens3 on the grounds of general suckitude.)

SF

scott91777 said...

I totally have this issue lying in my office! I'll have to go grab it next time I'm there.

Geoff,

In Claremont's defense... while he has admitted that the Brood design/possession aspect was inspired by Alien... the whole 'hive/queen' invention of his predates Aliens by a few years (we're at what year now? 81 or 82? Aliens was 86 or so I think)

scott91777 said...

Jason,

I'm totally shocked YOU didn't know that :)

Patrick said...

Are a lot of these other Claremont comics from the period, which feed into X-Men, available in trade? I'd definitely at least give them a look, I really liked what he did with Carol Danvers during her time with the X-Men and wouldn't mind checking out more of his stories with her.

But, on the whole this first chunk of the brood arc doesn't do it for me. It's not until Paul Smith shows up that it really clicks and becomes more than an Alien rip-off/generic sci-fi story and turns into something strange and distinct. I particularly love the Morrison like Storm merging with whale section later on, which is wonderfully trippy and weird.

Jason said...

Wow, Scott, you're right -- that is pretty negligent of me. I just assumed The Brood was a exactly as Geoff described: Claremont went to the movies, saw "Aliens," and came back and wrote a new X-Men villain.

Crazy: so Claremont did a "multiple Aliens" story before James Cameron ...? I guess multiplicity was just a pretty obvious place to take the original concept ...

Anyway, Patrick and Stephen have provided very good defenses of Claremont. (Although Stephen, I disagree about Nimrod. That's one I *did* check the dates on, and it seems pretty clearly Terminator inspired. On the other hand, Nimrod comes from the "Days of Future Past" story, which DOES pre-date Terminator by a wide margin.)

Byrne tells a funny story -- which, since it's told by Byrne, it may or may not be true -- about how Claremont used to come to Byrne with a "new" plot for X-Men, but it would actually be from, say, a Shakespeare play that Claremont just saw. According to Byrne, Claremont's line was, "This plot is too good to waste!" Byrne's reasonable response was: Obviously it's not being "wasted," Chris, since you just saw it performed ...

I don't know what to say about it, ultimately. I like the way these things are woven into the tapestry of "X-Men." Claremont's X-Men evolved into something with the feel of a children's sandbox -- that playful realm where any amount of toys from any number of sources could come together. (A bit like the opening scene of "Toy Story," with the kid using Mr. Potato Head to be the villain that fights the sheriff.)

I enjoy the wildness of it all, and generally speaking Claremont does -- in my opinion -- a great job of weaving these notions into the X-Men tapestry without it seeming forced. Blatant, yes, but never unnatural. Others' mileages may vary ...

Jason said...

Man -- I'm just re-reading what I wrote and feeling both completely stupid (for not checking my facts) and completely confused. Is the idea of a "queen" alien in the first "Alien" film? When did these ideas first crop up? Can Claremont actually be said to have predicted -- with this Brood saga -- certain elements of the Cameron film? I know I'm the guy who says Claremont did everything first, but even I have a hard time reconciling this one. It's so crazy! (I am realizing now, though, that the "Aliens" film in 1986 must be what inspired Claremont to bring the Brood back in 1987...)

Anonymous said...

The idea of a Queen is not in the first Alien movie -- the monster there is a one-off. That said, it's a fairly obvious direction to go.

Meanwhile, I disagree pretty sharply with Geoff.

-- The Starjammers owe more to Flash Gordon and John Carter of Mars than they do to either Star Wars or Star Trek. (I say once again, go back and check out Claremont's dozen or so issues of "John Carter, Warlord of Mars". It's not that they're so good -- they're early works, and very uneven -- as that you can see him playing with all sorts of things that he'd later develop in much more detail.) "Swashbucklers... in Spaaaaaace" is a fairly obvious idea, no?

-- Yeah, the Demon is Ridley Scott's Alien, but that was because twentysomething Claremont fell violently in love with Sigourney Weaver. (He wanted future-Kitty to look just like her. Byrne, apparently, resisted.)

-- The Brood are, as noted, not inspired by Aliens. They're drawing some inspiration from the first movie but also from any number of other sources, including Claremont's own imagination. (I'm tolerably well read in fantasy and SF, and I can't think of a direct progenitor for their yucky flagship.)

-- Nimrod draws heavily from Terminator, sure, but he's actually much more like the liquid metal robot in T2 than the Arnold-borg in T1 -- right down to his making friends with a human family. Once again, Claremont is ahead of the curve!

So, that's like one and a half out of four.

This is not to say that Claremont didn't borrow, homage, hommage, and sometimes just plain rip off other creators. He did. But that's, you know, mainstream comics. Always has been. And Claremont did it better than most -- the Demon was the Alien, sure, but it was also a pretty good monster in its own right.

Meanwhile, I cannot frickin believe that Byrne -- who once cut-and-pasted an entire Doctor Who episode into his Fantastic Four run, changing the names and nothing else -- is trying to get on a high horse here. Byrne's work has been... let's think of a nice value-neutral word... derivative, that's good. Byrne's work has been derivative for a long, long time now, and sometimes very derivative indeed.


Doug M.

Anonymous said...

As to the issue itself -- by this time I was no longer buying the X-Men. Jason, I remember you complaining about back-to-back issues (143, 144) with magical monster-villains with apos'tro'phis'ed names. Well, this was back to back issues fighting alien bugs. Didn't do it for me.

Cover: did I thank you for starting to post these? Thank you. Of course, in this particular case the cover kinda sucks -- it's crowded without having any energy, and then of course it gives away a major plot point. Also, girders? It's like the anti-George Perez -- let's draw rubble, and make it as boring as possible.

Also, the "death" of Colossus made me roll my eyes. It was comic-book-y in a bad way, and the fact that Claremont had killed a couple of X-Men already actually made it worse -- it was like he was mocking himself, and the readers as well.

Also-also, I was disappointed by the use of DeathBird. As an old Ms. Marvel fan, I'd enjoyed her appearances back when -- and she'd also showed up in the Michelinie/Shooter Avengers, where she had a nice faceoff against Hawkeye. But making her the True Heir to the Shi'ar Throne... eh.

(Also-also-also, what's the problem the Shi'ar have with Lilandra? She's intelligent, honorable and painfully conscientious. Yet they keep tossing her over in favor of family members who are batshit insane. Do the Shi'ar like being ruled by paranoid megalomaniacs with anger management issues? Is it an alien thing?)

Finally, note that Claremont is recycling not only Carol Danvers but a couple of her villains as well. Pity he never brought back Steeplejack. (White hot rivets! Oh no!)


Doug M.

Anonymous said...

I want to chime in about the whole ripping off movies thing. Like it has been stated Aliens took a great deal from the Brood saga, but what about Cameron using a good bit of Days Of Future Past for the first Terminator?

Stephen said...

what's the problem the Shi'ar have with Lilandra? She's intelligent, honorable and painfully conscientious. Yet they keep tossing her over in favor of family members who are batshit insane. Do the Shi'ar like being ruled by paranoid megalomaniacs with anger management issues? Is it an alien thing?

Uh, Doug, if you think that passing over intelligent, honorable and painfully conscientious rulers in favor of paranoid megalomaniacs with anger management issues is an alien thing, you might want to read the newspaper more. I suggest looking into the (US's) 2000 election, the 2004 election, and the current US presidential election, which might still go I, h & PC, but is way too close to call...

SF

Jason said...

Good points as always, Doug -- although I still think the Brood clearly owe a lot to the first "Alien" movie; I mean, such a large aspect of the premise is to do with the planting-eggs-in-a-host bit!

And while the Starjammers specifically don't owe a huge debt to Star Wars, certainly that whole first arc of Claremont's-- with the princess leading a rebellion against the empire, and the nine "death stars" in alignment, and Xavier being the princess' "only hope" -- does owe a great debt to Star Wars. And the Starjammers have their place in that schema as well -- collectively, they act as a giant Han Solo for the X-Men (who are a giant Luke).

Still, I am amazed to realize that Claremont was, indeed, "ahead of the curve" in a lot of these arenas: His first Shi'ar arc had a surprise "these two are father and son!" moment years before Empire Strikes Back, the Brood predate the multiple aliens in Cameron's Aliens (and Claremont even gave them a Queen first?!?!?!?); Days of Future Past pre-dates the first Terminator, and Nimrod -- as you noted, Doug -- predates T2.

I'd like to think I'm the founder of the "Claremont Did Everything First" club, but I may have to relinquish that notion, because I suddenly feel like I underestimated the guy.

wwk5d said...

One other thing: didn't the N'gari-as-Alien design come from Byrne?

Anonymous said...

I'm late to this blog/thread but I bought all the Classic reprints and I'm catching up....

To address some points...

Claremont is not a bright burning sun of originality but I'm a little shocked Cameron is being given credit over him.

It's Cameron, in my opinion, who's doing the ripping off, if you want to call it that.

Days of Future Past could be described as a touchstone for Terminator with its time travel twists, sentinels, etc.

As mentioned before on this thread, this story pre-dates Aliens by years. Not a big leap to make the Aliens have a mother, etc. but I can't help feel like James Cameron was a big Uncanny fan back in the day.

As for Claremont and his propensity for strong females... Ok, sure. Give credit where credit is due BUT... let's remember the target audience here. Pre-teen and teenage boys. I think that might explain why Kitty is running around in a bathing suit so much. She's basically the peer of the average reader. Project away True Believer!

Anonymous said...

N'garai debuted in 1975. And neither did they then, nor did their 1981 incarnation look like the HR.Giger inspired Alien of 1979, except in relative size to it's victim.

Brood are more likely inspired by the Dire Wraith from the ROM Space Knight series. In fact, the X-men dealt with the Dire Wraiths about the same time as they did the Brood.

Days of Future Past precedes Terminator in publication by 3 or 4 years. I think Ellison's IP claim is for a story that doesn't precede DOFP. Either way, he didn't attack Marvel like he did Carolco, and winning a credit line nod in the first few minutes.

And, I was a preteen reading comics with teen girls in curve showing gear. I was a willing target audience, with approval by the Comics Code sticker. Nothing unwholesome there.

Ultimately, I give Claremont credit for his craft of stitching together a good yarn with characters, relationships, and dramas kids could invest in, rising above thinly played out super hero combat and resolutions legible to the average 5 year old. Chris put in words we had to look up that weren't just sci-fi schlock, he engaged the young reader, challenged him, and gave his a confortable layer of maturity, lack thereof, or precociousness we found relatable and familiar in our own lives. He wrote girls in ways girls found believable and still exciting, while stretching pathos of characters in grief, denial, confusion, or hopelessness that a generation of future writers would tap for inspiration as if these were their own experiences. Dialogue, narration, prodigious story telling across a good chunk of half a dozen titles for the majority of two decades during an American Cultural Revolution, and boy did he participate.

That's how I'll remember him. Tim C.

percy blakeney said...

As a kid I never found Kitty to be a sex object and I don't think that's what's intended. I should point out that Phoenix and Storm were sexy -so it's not like I was completely oblivious to these things as a nipper. Kitty wasn't really portrayed as a looker (if that's what they'd been after it'd have made more sense for Dazzler to join the X-Men).
My impression was that Kitty was actually intended to appeal to teenage girls and that she would be a way into the X-men for them. Performing a mini fashion show or being 'grown up'in a bikini are things that would be expected to appeal to that demographic. Wish fulfilment.

DB said...

Tim C, very well said.

I'm with you and Percy regarding Kitty. Sometimes a bathing suit is just a bathing suit.

I keep going back to these stories (and these and GoL's reviews). The current line of xbooks is dreadful crap. Also, I bought the Uncanny v3 omnibus. Lovely edition and a very rich reading experience. Oddly, I'm finding I'm liking Cockrum's 2nd run much better with the omnibus.