Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #160

[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. This one is particularly good, I thought.]

Uncanny X-Men, The #160

“Chutes and Ladders”

While last issue’s horror pastiche managed an admirable simulation of classical Gothic creepiness, the tone was mainly a synthetic phenomenon – the result of competent-to-superb execution of the prototypical tropes and story beats. Issue 160 is another genre exercise (by another fill-in artist marking time until Dave Cockrum’s return next issue), this time in fantasy. But where the previous month’s story took its strength from the surface elements, “Chutes and Ladders” cuts much deeper. Here, the X-Men’s immersion in the milieu conceived by Chris Claremont and collaborator Brent Anderson is extreme to the point of brutality, and the result is a story whose impact will go on to be felt for years (as opposed to the Dracula story, which – apart from its notably less inspired sequel in X-Men Annual #6 – has no lasting effect upon the canon whatsoever).

Issue 160’s opening sequence, a generic “Danger Room” practice scene despite taking place at the new Bermuda Triangle location rather than in the literal Room, almost constitutes a feint, promising nothing we haven’t seen before. With Page 2 however, the issue is plunged into more chilling territory, with an enigmatically demonic villain’s invocation to Illyana to “come unto him.” As is explained toward the end of the issue and at much more tedious length in Claremont’s misconceived “Magik” miniseries, Illyana’s mutant power involves an affinity toward magic, and the villain here – Belasco – wants her for use in some oblique ritual. That all speaks to the trappings of the genre, but there is an uncomfortable metaphor at work here, as Claremont evokes child molestation.

If not immediately obvious from the opening seduction of Illyana, the theme is signaled in Claremont’s most shockingly explicit scene yet, when an alternate-reality version of Nightcrawler molests Kitty Pryde. Though the panels are conceived subtly enough to circumvent the Comics Code, the images and text (Kitty’s line “KURT--- !?! How d-dare you ... t-touch me like that!” followed by his hand phasing through her back at breast level) leave no room for misinterpretation. That Claremont conceived such a scene for an issue of Uncanny X-Men is as surprising now as it surely must have been for readers in 1982 to encounter it in a Code-approved superhero comic.

Brutally unpleasant on its own terms, the scene is the key to deciphering the metaphor at work. The thematic significance of the ending twist, wherein Illyana transforms in moments from child to teenager, is clear from Colossus’ interior monologue on the final page. “Childhood should be the happiest of times – and, in a stroke, Illyana has lost that forever. ... What has she seen – what horrors, endured?” In the context of a sexual assault, those words take on a harsh and tragic resonance.

Appropriate to the gravity of the implicit subject matter, Claremont’s writing is mature and intelligent throughout the issue, even in scenes that are entirely plot-oriented. His use of both dialogue and interior monologue is leaner and more economical than usual, with very few extemporaneous digressions, musings or flashbacks to distract from the story at hand. (Note the smaller than usual need for explanatory footnotes.)

This issue marks a massive step forward in Claremont’s scope and ambition for Uncanny X-Men, and its abrupt occurrence in the series’ chronology makes it all the more striking. (Nothing in the issue preceding “Chutes and Ladders” prepares us for it, and likewise it is nearly a year before any successive issues will start to follow upon the plot threads it introduces.)

Claremont’s allusion to Dave Sim’s Cerebus via the character of S’ym here – which on the surface seeming no more than an arbitrarily timed riposte to Sim’s “Charles X. Claremont” character – may have a more appropriate meaning in a broader context. The death of Charles X. Claremont occurs in Cerebus #25, and in the very next issue Sim expanded the entire scope and tone of his comic, which immediately became less episodic as it launched into a longitudinal arc whose individual issues were simply small chapters in a far more ambitious and sustained narrative. “Chutes and Ladders,” with its cold plunge into material much darker and mature in terms of both tone and theme, is perhaps intended by Claremont to be a watershed moment for X-Men -- similar to Cerebus #26, hence the parallel Dave Sim allusion. Certainly it marks a point at which Claremont’s plotting becomes almost equally long-term; the Illyana arc begun here, in 1982, will stretch out over years, not finding full resolution until 1988’s “Inferno” crossover.

With Claremont both dependent upon multiple collaborators and vulnerable to editorial whims and marketplace upheavals when it came to story – all limitations of which the independent Sim was happily free – the path of Uncanny X-Men ended up being far more unfocused than Cerebus. Still, fate will allow a surprising number of poetic serendipities over the course of Claremont’s sustained narrative – not the least of which is that the “Inferno” issues of Uncanny X-Men will be drawn by Marc Silvestri and inked by Dan Green, whose respective subtly distorted figures and dramatically scratchy style bear an incredibly close similarity to the gorgeous work of Brent Anderson and Bob Wiacek on “Chutes and Ladders.” Claremont couldn’t have planned it better.


Stephen said...

Great analysis.

I first read this issue when it came out, and I was 11. And I have to say that it *freaked me out*. You call it fantasy, but for me it was sheer horror -- oh, in a good way: I'm not saying I was traumatized by it or anything. But I found it creepy to the point of nightmares.

Now, I went back and reread it a year or two ago -- and found it quite ordinary, not scary at all. Oh, well done, no question -- and your discussion of the metaphor is on-target (and certainly went over my head at 11!). But not something that filled me with quite deep dread.

(I will say, incidentally, that so far as I can recall the Nightcrawler/Kitty moment you discuss -- which is, as you note, unmistakable and obvious in its meaning -- more or less went over my head at 11 too: I probably got a hint of what it was about, but not really. Which is to say, that if it was avoiding the comics code, it was pitching at a level to avoid the sensibilities of (at least) this child too. I found it creepy, sure, unsettling -- but in a vaugue way.)

What scared me so much? I can't, at this point, recapture it. The multiple-people, some evil; the time-shifting; the sheer sense of Belasco's *corruption*... I think those were important in it. The three bloodstones.... But whatever it was, for me, at the time, it *worked*.

(Actually, I didn't go into it then, but #159 scared me quite a bit too, if not as much as here: the notion of Dracula's *ongoing control* of Storm was quite effectively creepy for me.)

I've made my problems with Claremont plain, but I think he was, among other things, a very effective writer for comics' audience as it was conceived then: kids. And as a member of the audience at the time, he did well.

...Incidentally, I don't have time right now to cite chapter-and-verse, but I think you've in general been missing the power of his Kitty characterization for similar reasons. You see her now as an adult -- e.g., it's creepy to see her in a Bikini for pages on end. But from the point of view of a kid, she was a point of identification: trying to be bravely adult, often scared; smart and innocent at the same time. Thus, in #155 (156? Somewhere in there) when she was running about the spaceship, trying to be brave, thinking that her friends and family were counting on her... it was effective heroism, precisely because it both admitted the fear that I (we) would have felt, but overcame it anyway.

The same here: yeah, from an adult point of view, she's a kid being molested. But from a kid's point of view, she's the newest member, young -- but trying, valiantly, to be brave. (I always think, now, of Kitty-fan Joss Whedon's line from the Buffy musical: "I was always brave and kind of righteous". Like Kitty, Buffy is someone forced to deal with responsibility she's really too young for... and who rises to the occasion: an identification figure, a role model precisely due to the reluctance and of, and genuine fear in, their heroism.)

(And yeah, ok, she was also the ideal girlfriend-dream for an 11-year-old nerd: smart! cute! with superpowers! The combination of identification/dream girl was why she was so popular, I think.)

Sorry, wandered far afield here. But this was a signal issue for me (and I always dug the Kitty/Illana friendship too), and a great review of it.


Jason said...

Stephen, thanks. You're right, I do seem to have ignored the use of Kitty as point-of-identification for child readers. There was a speech given a few years ago by ... what's his name the Kavalier and Clay guy ... Michael Chabon! He was speaking at some comics-related event, talking about how to get more kids reading comics, and he said that creators might want to think about getting more child characters as leads in the books. It's an obvious feature of novels that are popular with kids (Harry Potter, the Lemony Snicket stuff), and other kids' fiction, so why not in comics?

So Kitty in X-Men may account much for why the series was #1 for so long.

And yeah, this issue definitely is creepier when you're a kid. I first read it as a teenager, so I was a bit older than you I guess, and it still gave me the chills. Still, even now, I think it's a dynamic read.

j.liang said...

Jason: I'm curious about your dislike for the Magik limited series. When you say "misconceived," do you mean that Claremont swerved too far away from the core concept of the X-Men, or that the story didn't deserve the full four-issue treatment, or something else entirely?

I was a big New Mutants fan and Illyana was one of my favorite characters, so I liked the Magik series immensely. Admittedly, this makes me more than a little blind to its flaws. :)

Jason said...

J.Liang ... I like Illyana and the New Mutants a lot as well, but I do have plenty of problems with the Magik miniseries. I don't necessarily think it strayed too far from the "core concept of the X-Men," but it certainly does lack a lot of what makes Uncanny 160 so good. Since issue 160 is the point of departure for the whole series, it seems strange that Claremont wasn't able to capitalize on what made this issue good.

The pacing of the series is lax where this issue is tight; the miniseries is repetitive (that acorn bit!) where this issue is economical; the tone of the mini is overly intellectual whereas this issue is scary; etc.

But even apart from the comparison, I don't think it's Claremont's finest hour. The elements of the story feel haphazard and don't cohere -- Storm as the magical elemental; the "blood-stone" thing; Kitty as a Cat-Person. There never seems to be much direction to any of it. It's all a bit flat.

I do enjoy what was eventually developed in New Mutants from the template set down in "Magik" -- the Sienkiewicz issues especially take the whole premise in a cool direction. But as a story in itself, I think it's sorely lacking.

j.liang said...

Funny. I read the mini-series years before I got ahold of a copy of Uncanny #160, so, to me, this issue felt rushed and disjointed when I first read it. Re-reading it again, what jumps out are the gaps in the narrative: Illyana's aging seven years in a few moments, obviously; then there's Wolverine's disappearance and reappearance during his and Colossus' battle with S'ym. Also, in the last panels of two separate pages, Claremont abruptly inserts a "Later..." caption to indicate a chronological leap forward. Maybe this is Claremont having fun with the notion of "lost time" (or, perhaps, bad storytelling on Anderson's part), but this technique feels pointlessly disruptive.

I agree that Claremont has a lot going on in the mini-series; I think he uses it as a sandbox where he's able to play with ideas he has for the characters without affecting the core title's continuity. He'll end up bringing back to Uncanny many of concepts he explores here: the darkness in Ororo's soul, the rift between Kitty and Ororo, Kitty as demon-ninja, Kitty's use of her power aggressively (something, I believe, she never actually does in the main series, only threatens to do around the 200's).

Still, Claremont is clearly focused on telling a hero's quest/coming-of-age story. Illyana has to deal with loss after loss until she is finally able to conquer both a demonic father-figure and her literal inner demon before returning home. Claremont structures the issues pretty tightly, each of the first three focusing on one aspect of Illyana's upbringing and tutelage (Storm, Cat, Belasco) and the final issue devoted to Illyana's coming into her own after wandering alone in the wilderness. Yeah, the acorn bit may seem overdone, but it leads to the creation of the Soulsword, so it's forgiveable. :)

Re: S'ym - I can't remember: did Cerebus also refer to himself in the third person?

Anonymous said...

Cerebrus did refer to himself in the third person.

Jason said...

J.Liang ... I'll re-evaluate the Magik miniseries with your words in mind. Maybe I'll pick up that hardcover -- I am a sucker for prestige-format bindings of Claremont works, even the ones I don't like as much ...

Stephen said...

My memory is that the Magik series wasn't nearly as cool as the vague hints from both #160 and the issues following -- what I (indistinctly) imagined was far scarier and cooler than what Claremont actually came up with.

(And yes, as I said, I liked Illana a lot in the various series; just wasn't crazy about the limited series.)


Cove West said...

If #158 was the resumption of the themes of DoFP, then #160 is the return of its tone. I don't think it's scary or gothic or anything, just very dank; I feel like I need to brush my teeth afterwards. Claremont would end up going to the perversion-well a few too many times for my tastes over the years, but he did so to great effect this time. It's almost a shame that it points to Belasco and S'ym, neither of whom carries the weight of menace that their icky results do.

But compared to the MAGIK mini, #160 is much better. MAGIK was one of those well-too-many times -- the novelty of the Bizarro-worldly Limbo wears off in three pages, and Claremont's plotting deficiencies become glaringly apparent when he's writing the character-driven saga of Throwaway Evil Alternaworld-People No One Cares About. It'd be interesting to know what Claremont originally intended for Illyana's Limbo backstory immediately after writing #160 -- I have an idea that Weezie wanted another X-mini after the success of WOLVERINE and Illyana's story was the only thing Claremont had in his head at the time that could fit into four self-contained issues, so he stuffed the bare-bones Illyana/Belasco/S'ym story with trial balloons for the edgy Storm and Kitty portrayals he was taking for a spin in UNCANNY.

Another thing I'd put forward for both #160 and MAGIK is the influence of Alans Moore/Davis's Captain Britain stories that were running in the Marvel UK titles in 1982-83 concurrently with this period of UNCANNY. Moore was doing his own version of DoFP, and it appears as though it was reinspiring Claremont who was reading it (and might've even spurred the DoFP-toned and -recalling #158). The dead Wolverine and Colossus not only fit in spirit with DoFP, but also specifically -- Logan and Piotr were the two X-Men killed on-panel in DoFP -- so it can't be coincidence that Claremont and Moore were both doing pastiches (well, I guess it CAN, as #160 and Moore's first Captain Britain issue in the UK MARVEL SUPER-HEROES were cover-dated Aug 82, but Claremont began following Moore's lead at some point between now and #200). The even-gloomier MAGIK mini a year later certainly was taking further cues from the Bearded One's dystopian vision.

But for whatever reason Claremont did it, and to whatever the quality of the result, it cannot be faulted for ultimately giving me my favorite X-character: Magik. Not everyone has AVENGERS ANNUAL #10 for their first appearance.

Cove West said...

Another thing that just occurred to me was how the PervertKurt and Kitty scene so starkly contrasted the Kurt and Kitty scenes in #155-157 where Kitty paraded in front of Kurt in a bathing suit and various revealing costumes. Kurt remained a perfect gentleman in our world -- Claremont even made a point of it, having Kurt comment on the inappropriateness of Kitty's costumes -- but in Limbo, PervertKurt copped a feel ASAP.

Then again, I wonder to what purpose was Claremont exploring this? Was he indicating hidden sexual undertones to the real Kurt and Kitty? Kurt, after all, is a "devilish" lothario, and she's an innocent repulsed by him but inclined to exploring her own naughtiness. Claremont's themes frequently give themselves to the kinky without actually being kinky, but I wonder if this time it wasn't intentional.

Jason said...

Re: Kurt and Kitty -- Yeah, not sure, CW, though obviously Nightcrawler and Kitty did become an often-grouped pair. They were together right to the end of Claremont's run, as the only two X-Men not to recover from the Massacre and thus shunted into Excalibur (a series that certainly had a lot of sexual energy, though more in that British-farce, Benny-Hill, "women running around in underwear" kind of way than in anything kinkier or edgier).

You've reminded me, CW, that there is some interesting chain of influence going on here. Consider that Byrne has admitted to copping the plot of "Days of Future Past" from a Dr. Who episode. Along comes Alan Moore -- who wrote Dr. Who comics back then -- and he does a pretty clearly DoFP-influenced story for Captain Britain. And while he's at it, he even brings in the "Special Executive" to be a part of that DoFP bit, characters he created originally for his Dr. Who stories. Possibly Moore had spotted the source of Byrne's original plot, and this was a way of pointing toward it -- i.e., signaling that, granted, Moore was copying someone else's plot, but hey, Claremont and Byrne were too.

Cove West said...

And now, HP Lovecraft and the N'Garai (this will probably be long, but hopefully, eventually relevant :P ). I'm going to split the post in half, to separate the backstory (this half) from the #160-specific discussion (the next half).

Jason, you asked way back in #150 about the gist of Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos. Essentially, it's that there were these "Great Old Ones" (GOO) who were the original inhabitants of Earth, became dormant during the Age of Man, and were always on the verge of reawakening and destroying us all. The GOO were pure evil, but in a mindless force-of-nature way (they didn't cackle or plot or anything); it was usually their TAINT of evil, not the Old Ones specifically, that appeared in the stories. The villainy often came from humans who either had GOO-tainted ancestry (and sometimes were physically mutated) or who came into contact with a relic of the Old Ones that drove them mad. For Marvel Universe analogues, the Celestials are the most prominent (though they were more sci-fi oriented and tended to be more amoral than evil), and demon gods like Shuma-Gorath are almost direct pastiches.

But the more specific Cthulhuan beings in the MU are the Elder Gods -- Chthon, Set, Gaea, Oshtur, and Atum the Demogorge. The Elder Gods are more humanized than Lovecraft's creations, and Gaea and Oshtur (and Atum, sometimes) are benevolent (the GOO were always malevolent). Still, Chthon and Set are pretty close to what Lovecraft was doing -- Set got the tentacled, aquatic-themed aspects; Chthon got the demonic, mythic-mystical aspects. When it comes to the X-Men, however, Chthon is the important one.

The development of the ideas behind the Elder Gods is extremely convoluted. It begins with Roy Thomas on DR. STRANGE, who created a bunch of Lovecraftian demons with vaguely GOO-ish origins. Then Thomas brought Conan into the MU and things got askew: Robert E. Howard, Conan's creator, was a colleague of Lovecraft's, and Conan's mythos includes some ACTUAL Old Ones, so Thomas began distingiushed his analogues from the real things with the term "Elder Gods." But around the same time, other Marvel writers started on a Marvel-unique eschatology, a mish-mash of Classical myth (Gaea, Atum) and the Cthulhuan-inspired (Chthon). However, Thomas's Conan mythos remained just as relevant -- it figures prominently into the creation of Atlantis and the Savage Land, and the Hyborean Era is a major part of both Earth's and Asgard's past. Over time, Conan's major foe, Set, was included in the modern Marvel tales, and eventually the hierarchy settled into the powerful Elder Gods -- Set, Chthon, Gaea, and later, Atum and Oshtur -- and the secondary Primal (or Hyborean Elder) Gods -- Crom, Mitra, Ymir (the Asgardian Frost Giant), Shuma-Gorath, and others (Set is also in this, uh, set). The GOO used by Thomas in CONAN probably should be included as Primal Gods in the MU, but by the time the rules were established, Marvel had stopped using them. And to further confuse things, there are also the Elder RACE -- long-lived humans of the Hyborean Era such as Thulsa Doom (the guy James Earl Jones played in the Conan movie) -- and ElderSPAWN (who are ALSO sometimes referred to as Elder Races), who are now established to be human-like species created by the Elder Gods -- Set's Serpent Men, Oshtur's Bird Men, and maybe even a few of the Savage Land creatures. Hell, there's even a HyPERborean Era, which borrows from the tales of Clark Ashton Smith (who was also a friend of Howard's and Lovecraft's) and includes both Cthulhuan and Hyborean stuff.

Confusing, isn't it? The online Marvel Appendix helps sort some of it out, but even then, it can make your head explode. So just think how Claremont felt when he was trying to navigate it in the anything-goes stage of 1982!

***So that's it for the "need to know" stuff. The next part should be more relevant to the X-Men and UNCANNY #160.***

Cove West said...


Claremont's part in this begins in GIANT-SIZE DRACULA #2 (Sept 74), where he introduces a demon, Y'Garon, who is trying to use a "Sa'arpool" to summon the "Elder Gods" and "the Triad" (I don't have this issue, so I'm going by the Handbooks for this). Fairly generic demon story, but the reference to "Elder Gods" is important; at the time, I'm pretty sure "Elder Gods" referred specifically to what Roy Thomas was doing in CONAN -- thus, they were actually the Primal Gods. The next event comes in UNCANNY #96 (Dec 75), where Claremont and Cockrum create Kierrok and the N'Garai, whom Kierrok says are the "Elder Gods" who used to rule the Earth, a pretty explicit Lovecraft reference. But the pivotal event comes in MARVEL TEAM-UP #79 (Mar 79), a Claremont/Byrne tale featuring Spidey and Red Sonja. Here, the Hyborean sorceror Kulan Gath makes his first modern-day appearance, declares himself a priest of the N'Garai and a Sorcerer Supreme, and attempts to summon the "Elder Gods" through another Sa'arpool.

The clues are scattered, but Claremont seems to be saying that the N'Garai are the same as the Primal Gods of the Hyborean Era, that Y'Garon was trying to summon Kierrok in G-S DRACULA #2, and that the N'Garai are equivalent to Dr. Strange's Vishanti. He's putting forth the N'Garai as the Marvel's GOO analogues.

However, Marv Wolfman, Mark Gruenwald, and others were concurrently building Chthon up as the Big Bad Evil, especially in AVENGERS #185-87 (July-Sept 79). At some point, they tied Chthon to Gaea -- who, as Thor's mother in Marvel canon, was firmly established as a supreme goddess -- and developed the actual Elder Gods concept. As Set had already been making modern-day appearances since 1969, it made sense to tie him to the Elder Gods as well, and in effect tying the entire Thomas-Conan mythos to them. But over in UNCANNY, Claremont was still calling the N'Garai "Elder Gods" and treating them as though they were the GOO-analogous Primal Gods of the Hyborean Era, neither of which was Marvel canon anymore.

And then things came to a head with Belasco. As created by Bruce Jones in KA-ZAR #11 (Feb 82), Belasco SHOULD have been a servant of the Primal Gods of Conan's time, that every reference to "Elder Gods" should be in the same vein as Roy Thomas's CONAN "Elder Gods" (ie, guys like Shuma-Gorath or Crom) -- especially considering that Jones was writing for CONAN and SAVAGE SWORD at the time. But Claremont either thought Jones was referring to his "Elder Gods" or decided it didn't matter, so when Belasco shows up in UNCANNY #160 (Aug 82), Claremont never makes a distinction. In any event, Claremont intends that Belasco's masters are the N'Garai, and that should Belasco succeed, the N'Garai's return would be tantamount to instant end-of-the-world-ness (per the Lovecraft homage).

***Grr! Think I should split posts again. Next part will be the conclusion, I promise!***

Jason said...

CW, I could've sworn I read somewhere that Kierrok appeared in different Claremont comic before Uncanny #96. I don't know which one -- the website where I read about this no longer exists. (It was a fantastic Chris Claremont resource, one I wish I had copied to a hard drive before it went belly up.) Probably doesn't change much in this (impressively exhaustive, exhaustively impressive) chronology you're supplying, but I thought I'd note it.

The Marvel Team-Up issue did strike me as curious -- it mentions something about there being three pits that the N'Garai could come through, and one of them being destroyed? (I could be misremembering.) I had assumed the destroyed gateway referred to Uncanny #96 ... then the second one was destroyed at the end of the Red Sonja Marvel-Up issue. Claremont never seemed to get around to exploring that third pit ...

Unless it's somewhere in amongst all the Magik stuff going down here and in the Storm/Illyana miniseries?

At any rate, by the time we get to the culmination of this stuff ("Inferno"), the Lovecraftian references seem to have fallen by the wayside. Plus, Claremont will already have written in an entire other arc that uses the "invading demons from another dimension" trope: Uncanny 184-188 and Fall of the Mutants, specifically.

Anyway, I'll wait now for your third post, and then, please, go comment on the Uncanny #161 blog. I am quite proud of that one, and no one's commented yet!!! :)

Cove West said...

Not sure about a previous Kierrok appearance, unless it was as a background character. The Marvel Appendix lists his first appearance as UNCANNY #96. But I do know about the first Sa'arpool: it was destroyed in GIANT-SIZE DRACULA #2 by Dracula (though AFAIK, he himself was regular-sized). The third Sa'arpool, however, I'll get to in the conclusion...

(I will get to #161, eventually!)

Cove West said...


Which brings me to the reason for this long-as-all-get-out post: to reconstruct exactly how monumental #160 was supposed to be, the purpose of Limbo, and how dangerous Magik was intended.

UNCANNY #150 had multiple references to the actual Great Old One Cthulhu, who in the MU was a Primal God but carries the more-powerful connotation of Lovecraft's version. #159 is Dracula, who as Lord of Vampires in the MU, is the ostensible "high priest" of Chthon. Belasco completes the triumvirate, but also acts as a kind of videogame "end boss" -- defeating Belasco is the ultimate triumph over evil. Or to use BUFFY parlance: Belasco's the Big Bad who makes Magneto (as the Cthulhu priest) and Dracula (as the Chthon priest) the Little Bads. It's more thematic than explicit (Magneto wasn't actually a priest of Cthulhu, of course), and Claremont never makes Belasco quite as Big Badly as he seems to think he is, but Claremont's clearly in the mindset of trying to put the X-Men in a Lovecraft story.

Looking at Belasco, it seems clear that Claremont intends him as the heir to Kulan Gath's mantle as N'Garai high priest. Making Magik the inheritor of Belasco's mantle, then, is a HUGE deal. UNCANNY #190-191 is a nice indicator of Illyana's potential in that regard, but remember that Kulan Gath was a Sorcerer Supreme (at least, in Claremont's stories; I think everyone else ignored that); Illyana taking down the Enchantress in Asgard is simply a mild display of the power of her inheritance.

But I think her magic was only a part of the danger. The other part (and thanks Jason for reminding me that I forgot to mention it before) is that it seems, from the general flow of the N'Garai stories from G-S DRACULA #2 and MTU #79, is that the final sa'arpool to free the N'Garai... is Illyana herself (if it'd been Kierrok's cairn, Gath surely would have known about it if he knew about Y'Garon's sa'arpool, which he mentions). Sorcerer Y'Garon uses Sa'arpool #1, is defeated by Dracula; sorcerer Kulan Gath uses Sa'arpool #2, is defeated by Spidey and Red Sonja; so what is it that sorcerer Belasco uses in #160? Illyana. It seems like Claremont is indicating that Illyana's mutant power to control the Stepping Discs is itself the sa'arpool, that she wasn't yet strong enough to fully use it, and that the Bloodstones would somehow allow Belasco to tap that power when she was. But in the MAGIK mini, the N'Garai decide to cut out middle-man Belasco and back Illyana, content that she will be their creature by the time she can fully use her inner sa'arpool. So the more Illyana uses her power, the more she'll corrupt, and the closer she'll get to opening the forbidden door and destroying all life (because if the N'Garai return, like Lovecraft's Great Old Ones, they can't be stopped).

Sound familiar? Claremont DID refer to both Magik and Phoenix as Darkchild.

I should mention Limbo, too. If the N'Garai's dimension represents the Hell of Claremont's theology, then Limbo isn't just a convenient name, it's what the place actually is: the place between Earth and Hell. And in that regard, I wonder what that means for S'ym and N'astirh and the rest -- were they actual N'Garai, somehow stuck in the limbo of Limbo? Anyway, Claremont was using it mainly metaphorically: when Illyana had lost two-fifths of her soul, she was able to use her sa'arpool power to go to the dimension two-fifths of the way between Earth and Hell; had she lost all her soul, she could go all the way. The difference between Jean and Illyana, I think he was going for, was that Illyana would actually have a choice -- power itself corrupted Jean, but it's the abuse of the power that corrupts Illyana.

So yeah, I think Claremont's progressive shift from the Lovecraftian to the Dantean really kneecapped a lot of the story he'd built. And I wonder why that happened. Did he flinch from rehashing Dark Phoenix? Did the overall decision to ignore his "Elder Gods" for Chthon and Set, thereby demoting the N'Garai to simple demons, deflate his interest in the story? Or did the Lovecraftian angle simply lose its appeal as he got older? SOMETHING happened to make him give up Illyana's fate to Weezie in "Inferno" and change the original intent of the N'Garai Saga that "Inferno" ostensibly completed. Maybe I'll spot something once we get to #190-91 -- because, yes, there's parts of this story still to come!

But for now, on to "Gold Rush!"

j.liang said...

Cove West: VERY interesting stuff! Considering all the magical enemies who appear in the X-titles between Uncanny #160 and the end of Inferno, I wonder how much Claremont was trying to create a coherent mythology among all these elements of the Marvel Universe vs. playing with as many toys as he could fit into his storylines.

Also, given what happens in the Inferno storyline, I think the return of Jean Grey is what causes Claremont to lose interest and give up Illyana's fate to Weezie in Inferno.

Jason said...

"Sa'arpool," yes ... thank you! Okay, so the first one was in Dracula, the second is in Marvel Team-Up.

Interesting thought, that the third one is Illyana herself. That does make more sense than Claremont just forgetting about it. (Even though he did more or less forget about, in the event, since as you say Louise Simonson became the caretaker of Illyana.)

Thanks for the detailed lesson in where Claremont was coming from with this stuff. Interestingly, Alan Moore has made Lovecraftian mythology a major cornerstone of the universe of "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen." Two of my favorite comic-book writers are clearly very into this stuff. Guess I need to read some Lovecraft.

The Illyana/Jean comparison is fascinating (was Claremont's entire career post-Byrne just one attempt after another to redeem Dark Phoenix?). It's interesting to me that where Dark Phoenix was about a good person (at heart) slowly going bad, Illyana was established as being evil at her core, but fighting against her nature. Given that, it's easy to see another reason why Claremont would have been incensed at Byrne's ret-con in F.F., namely that the Phoenix was a malignant entity who possessed Jean and -- in so doing -- became good. The idea (besides being artificial and contrary to the original story) also renders Illyana -- who exists in (deliberate?) counterpoint to Jean -- a redundant character.

Very interesting indeed ...

wwk5d said...

One of the darkest issues to date. Even as a kid, the Kitty/Alternate Kurt scene gave me the chills...I did get what she was talking about...

I wonder if the Magick series would have worked better if it was a 3 issue min instead of 4?