Thursday, August 21, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #158

[EDIT: Sorry if you saw that I had 159 up out of order for a few hours today.]

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

“The Life That Late I Led ...”

Having let the X-Men get away from him during the extended genre exercise of the previous two issues, Claremont nails them back down to the ground in this one. While a good portion of “The Life That Late I Led ...” is deliberately conceived as an epilogue to Claremont’s Ms. Marvel series (cancelled quite abruptly at the tail end of the ‘70s), the story is also dense with significant story points and character bits for the lead cast as well.

First, Kitty (back in a bikini – sigh) “wrestles with the realities of growing up,” in an extended internal monologue that stretches suspension of disbelief just a bit. Claremont wants Kitty both ways – young enough to be frightened of her burgeoning emotional maturity, but intelligent enough to step outside herself and analyze the situation as well. The combination leads to an unconvincing inner voice, albeit Claremont is eloquent enough to still elicit some amount of empathy.

An attempt by Imperial Guard member Oracle to break Charles out of the coma he’d lapsed into an issue ago makes for a dramatically orchestrated action scene as Xavier tries to use Oracle to commit suicide. Yet even at such a pathetic point, Professor X is again portrayed as a formidable character, most notably in Oracle’s demonstrative description: “I have never interfaced with a mind of such depth and complexity – such subtlety! His mental defenses are phenomenal. He has withdrawn deep within himself. Moira, he is at war with himself! I have done my best, but no outside force can aid him. His recovery is completely up to him.” If Xavier were not such a powerful mutant, he would not be so difficult to cure, which is a nice irony.

An appearance by Senator Kelly reminds readers of the “growing wave of anti-mutant sentiment” alluded to in issue 154. Up to now, Claremont has not really pushed the “outcast” aspect of the X-Men, but he seems keen to start exploring that angle now. He’s already banished them to the Bermuda Triangle, and here he introduces a fascinating MacGuffin: a computer virus to erase all files the government may possess on the X-Men. The idea is fantastic, although it ends up being a little glossed over. Here, it is mainly an excuse to get the X-Men and Carol Danvers into the Pentagon – established in “Days of Future Past” as a base of operations for Mystique – so that they can fight her and Rogue. But the implication is rather exciting: the X-Men are becoming more of a clandestine operation here, deliberately trying to hide their very existence from those in power.

For whatever reason – again, I’d guess at the behest of Marvel’s traditionalist Editor in Chief, Jim Shooter – Claremont will soon snap the X-Men back into their traditional status as part of a school in Westchester. Things like their “open-ended virus program” will be forgotten for years, and not until Claremont exiles the X-Men again in 1987 (to the Outback) will he finally follow through on some of these stranger ideas. (The computer virus is a minor plot point in 1988’s Genosha four-parter, one of Claremont’s greatest and most underrated X-Men stories.)

Of course, the most significant aspect of issue 158 in X-Men history is that it contains the first appearance in the series of Rogue. She will go on to become the second member of the X-Men actually created by Chris Claremont (the first being Kitty Pryde), and actually emerge as a fan favorite. Here, she’s a fairly unlikable one-note villain, though her super-power is creative and makes for some interesting fight scenes. Her battle with Wolverine, Storm and Nightcrawler in the Pentagon marks the first post-Byrne fight scene in X-Men that doesn’t seem to exist even a little bit in Byrne’s shadow.

Nor does this issue seem particularly influenced by any of Cockrum’s inclinations or pet-favorite genre conceits. Indeed, with its density and diversity of plot threads, its intensely dramatized character bits, and certainly its unique antagonist, Uncanny X-Men #158 is the first 100% Claremontian issue – the first time it feels as if the comic is now his alone.

As such, Claremont is perhaps symbolized in this story by Carol Danvers, who unburdens herself of her past at the end of the issue. Far enough removed now that he longer feels the pressure of attempting to duplicate his past triumphs with John Byrne, Claremont is similarly unburdened. Symbolically defeating Byrne via Carol’s defeat of Mystique (who was the lead villain in Claremont’s last major collaboration with Byrne), he is free to chart a path that is of his own singular invention. His artistic collaborators will still prove crucial in making the X-Men seen and heard, but from here on out they will speak entirely with Claremont’s voice.


neilshyminsky said...

"Claremont wants Kitty both ways – young enough to be frightened of her burgeoning emotional maturity, but intelligent enough to step outside herself and analyze the situation as well."

Actually, this strikes me as entirely right. Not that this exercise in rationality always succeeds in the face of adolescent emotion, but I think that a lot of kids (and i seem to remember myself this way) like to think that they are grown up enough to step outside themselves in this way.

Anonymous said...

I'm on a plane to Central Africa tomorrow, so don't have time for a long comment tonight. Briefly: this was indeed the best issue since #150. I remember reading it and being impressed -- not enough to start buying the X-Men regularly again, but IMS enough to buy this one.

Yah, Rogue is pretty flat. It's obvious that the later, "insecure Southern teenager" version was a later better idea. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

The X-Men in the mansion are good. The X-Men as outcasts on the run, raiding the Pentagon to wipe all their records, is good too. We've seen some good Jim Shooter decisions on this run (killing Jean instead of lobotomizing her); some so-so ones (Dazzler); and some that were flinchingly godawful (Avengers 200). This one is sort of... neutral. Could have been good either way.

Notice that Rogue stealing Storm's powers and then being unable to control them drives home the point that Storm's powers are hard to control. I think Claremont was going towards a "so she has to keep herself under control at all times scenario", but then wisely fudged it because it would have required a retcon so extreme as to vitiate the character's earlier history. (The Storm of the first few years is innocent, not hypercontrolled or repressed.)

"The Life That Late I Led" is Shakespeare -- Prince Hal in Henry IV Part 2, I'm pretty sure -- though it doesn't really refer to the play in any way. Claremont playing magpie again.

I'm debating whether it's worth $10 a month to read these issues online, just for these comment threads. Hm.

Doug M.

Stephen said...

No time for a proper comment -- maybe later, but:

"The Life That Late I Led" is Shakespeare -- Prince Hal in Henry IV Part 2, I'm pretty sure -- though it doesn't really refer to the play in any way. Claremont playing magpie again.

Oh Google, where art thou?

Shakespeare used the line twice: 2 Henry IV, Act 5, scene 3, spoken by Pistol ("Where is the life that late I led?' say they:/Why, here it is; welcome these pleasant days!"), and then again in The Taming of the Shrew, Act 4, Scene 1, where Petruchio sings it ("Where is the life that late I led--/Where are those--Sit down, Kate, and welcome.").

The latter was turned into a song in Kiss Me, Kate by Cole Porter, called "Where Is the Life That Late I Led?"; and if Google's any guide, the latter is far more famous, and thus probably where Claremont got it.

I'm debating whether it's worth $10 a month to read these issues online, just for these comment threads. Hm

It's definitely worth it to me for you to spend $10 a month... I enjoy your comments!


Jason said...

Neil, I'm sure you're right, though in this instance it doesn't play right to me.

Doug, I think the problem with the mansion is that it's a place of privilege. Obviously it worked for a long time, and still works occasionally (for people who don't dislike Whedon and Morrison, anyway ...). But the idea of having the X-Men in some exotic locale is a really great evolution of the concept, I think. It's tragic to me (relatively speaking, of course) that both times Claremont tried it, his exploration of the concept was truncated by Editorial.

Doug, true about Rogue's inability to control Storm's powers, although of course the point about Storm's powers was made fairly recently already, with the White Queen also having trouble in Storm's body. (Funny, the White Queen also quoted from one of those Henry plays just after the body-switch, as I recall ...)

Stephen -- thanks! I need to read more Shakespeare I guess.

Anonymous said...

Agh! Lear.

-- Stephen, I would have sworn it was Prince-Henry-just-turned-King-Henry, in the scene where he rejects Falstaff. So, right play, right act, but it was Pistol? Weird.

Jason, place of privilege... hum. That's an issue, but I don't think a huge one. And being based in the Bermuda Triangle (or wherever) carries issues of its own, like needing to have a full-time teleporter on call.

Doug M.

Anonymous said...

Baxter Building, Avengers Mansion, Fortress of Solitude, Batcave... crikey, the Justice League has either an orbiting satellite or a moonbase.

In a superhero comics context, the X-Mansion is one step above a trailer park.

Doug M.

Jason said...

Oh, it was Lear in issue 151, wasn't it. Sorry, my bad.

But hey, that's why the Outback was a good scenario -- they had Gateway to teleport them.

I realize you're being tongue-in-cheek with that last comment, but ... how is the X-Mansion worse than Avengers Mansion? Location?

(Avengers Mansion is right next door to the Hellfire Club, which would have been convenient for the X-Men at times, I suppose ...)

Cove West said...

"Uncanny X-Men #158 is the first 100% Claremontian issue" -- my feelings exactly. Cockrum and Byrne were so influential early on that Claremont at times seemed more like a scripter than the full writer. And for all that Byrne got the "co-plotter" credits, Cockrum is in my mind the bigger influence, to the point where it's almost oppressive. It was Cockrum who designed the ANAD team; it was his space-operatics that begat the Phoenix, Dark Phoenix, and Brood Sagas; and it was largely his lightheated storytelling that dictated the tone that Claremont was so fond of contrasting.

So #158 is like a splash of cold water following Kitty's Fairy Tale and Brood 1-A. There are moments when the X-Men appear outright villainous here -- certainly not the kind of mission that would have them drinking Jarvis's tea at Avengers Mansion beforehand -- and they only seem heroic because their ends are harmless and because the actual Evil Mutants show up. Carol's depressed/confused mindset helps darken the tone further. It's a return to the edginess that defined the late-Byrne era, and in many ways seems like a resumption of the X-Men "saga" that went on intermission after #143 for the Dave Cockrum Interlude Extravaganza while Claremont was backstage tinkering with the props and trying to come up with Act Two.

And IMO, Act Two is Rogue. Rogue is the locus of where Claremont will go in the next five or so years: Mystique's Brotherhood, Carol's transformation into Binary, "Scarlet In Glory." But more than plot, Rogue is a thematic marker: from her, Claremont will begin to explore the idea of self-isolation that will spill over to Storm, Wolverine, Kitty (for a while), Rachel, and the New Mutants (I'm tempted to include Illyana, but she's more from the Dark Phoenix mold) -- to the point where the characters who least exemplify the Roguish inner struggle will be mauled in the sewers at the thematic culmination of Act Two. And I guess you could say that Rogue is the first 100% Claremont character -- Wolverine was Wein's (and later, Byrne's), Storm/'Crawler/Colossus/Phoenix were Cockrum's, and Kitty was slightly Byrne's. And I'd even extend it to say that Rogue was Claremont's ONLY 100% X-Man, because a) she didn't have an artistic "benefactor" until JRJr (Smith did her awesome, but only for two issues), and b) every major character who followed her belonged in some degree to JRJr, Davis, Silvestri, McLeod, Sienkiewicz, Guice, or Lee. Even Psylocke was substantially redefined by Moore/Davis/Delano by the time Claremont got her again.

If we're considering Magneto as Claremont's greatest villain -- and if we aren't, are we considering him Claremont's greatest hero? :) -- then I'll nominate Mystique as #2. Bold terrorist, arch snake, dangerous killer, political manipulator, caring mother, loving lover, vengeful scornstress, passable hero, and tragic person... and none of them strike an odd note. One of these days I'm getting Essential Ms. Marvel to see where Claremont started with her (someone, if you're not going to do it, Jason, really should do an addendum with all the related non-X Claremonts like MS. MARVEL, IRON FIST, MARVEL TEAM-UP, etc.).

Cove West said...

Oh, and because I'm JUST. THIS. ANAL...

The Hellfire Club is four blocks from Avengers Mansion on 5th Avenue. Avengers Mansion is at 5th and 70th (also the location of its inspiration, the Frick Museum). The Handbooks list the Hellfire Club at 5th and 66th, but Byrne actually appears to have placed it uptown at 5th and 74th (the X-Men flee the Club, cross the street to Central Park, and retrieve the X-Jet from what must be the Conservatory Water, which is oppposite 74th, not 66th). But then, some of the Handbooks don't even put the Club on 5th Avenue at all, which DEFINITELY is wrong. For context, think of it this way: Avengers Mansion is in a residential zone of 5th Avenue, while the Club is nearer the commercial/hotel blocks (and really, where ELSE would the Hellfire Club be than a few blocks from Donald Trump?)

Jason said...

Claremont seems to cultivate fans obsessed with details ... In that spirit, that list of artists that Claremont shared most of his characters with, it includes Guice? Really? What major X-character does Claremont share with Guice??? :)

Those are all great points -- I don't know that I'd considered Rogue as the genesis of the broader self-isolation theme. I can see how it works, though. Certainly she does seem a way of redeeming what Neil Shyminski talks about in his essay, with the X-Men as assimilationists. It's significant, I think, that just after the misstep Neil discusses involving the Morlocks, the very next issue sees Rogue joining the X-Men, to the tune of Professor X chastising his team for "pick[ing] and choos[ing] who we help."

Magneto is, I think, just Claremont's greatest character period. He didn't create him, of course, but ... in a way, he sorta kinda did. I think he tends to transcend any kind of binary hero/villain distinction, which is part of what makes him so impressive a feat on Claremont's part.

I do have an inkling to, perhaps, eventually expand this blog series to taking a look at significant X-related issues of other titles by Claremont, as you noted: the Team-Ups, Iron Fists, etc. But I need to finish the Uncanny ones first, and that is still a heavy-duty undertaking. (I was going along at a cracking good rate for a while, then hit a wall. I've not written any new ones in months.) But eventually, I'll try to do *something* ...

I don't have the same affection for Mystique that you do. I have little to say about her at all, in fact ... but, I'll be interested to hear what you have to say about her, the next time she comes up! :)

wwk5d said...

Mystique was the male Cyclops. Maybe even more of a badass. Girlfriend did once beat a guy to death WITH HER BARE HANDS.

Interesting to see here that Claremont hasn't quite gotten Rogue's powers down quite yet...