Thursday, August 28, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #161

[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.]

Uncanny X-Men, The #161

“Gold Rush”

Right from the opening splash of issue 161, the comparatively cartoonish style of Dave Cockrum is a culture shock after two months of darkly moody artwork from guest pencillers Bill Sienkiewicz and Brent Anderson. Once the eye reacclimatizes however, it finds an embarrassment of riches in “Gold Rush,” on the levels of both art and story. The issue is the last of the truly great Claremont/Cockrum X-Men collaborations, existing on a par with such triumphs as issue 150’s “I, Magneto” or the general creative hothouse atmosphere of their first run from X-Men 94-107. Indeed, in terms of directness, balance and unity of expression, “Gold Rush” surpasses those earlier triumphs.

Claremont gently segues readers into the meat of the issue – an extended flashback revealing how Xavier and Magneto first met. (When this issue was first published, that Xavier and Magneto had any history pre-Lee/Kirby’s X-Men #1 was a watershed revelation. But anyone reading this comic today is almost certainly going to come to it already aware of the Xavier and Magneto’s canonical pre-X-Men #1 friendship. It is, of course, even a key element of Singer’s and Ratner’s X-Men films.) Lest the suddenness of the story’s chronological scope and ret-conned revelations seem too abrupt, Claremont first opens with a surprisingly tender scene between Scott and Ororo, in which the former’s facade of officiousness (the quality for which he is still hated by many X-Men fans today) cracks in the face of Storm’s own forthrightness. Scott’s bold expression of love for Xavier is touching, as is Ororo’s compassion in the face of his unabashed emotional need. Again, as in issue 154, we see Claremont laying the foundations for a profound friendship between these two characters – potentially one of the most persuasive non-sexual relationships between a male and a female in a mainstream superhero comic. It’s a shame that this never quite stuck, as Claremont ended up sending each character into different directions, and the eventual, editorially mandated creation of “X-Factor” instead forced the two characters into adversarial relationships.

On the other hand, the eventual trajectory of Cyclops and Storm has a kind of poetic resonance in retrospect. That they will become enemies circa 1988 in spite of their forging a deep friendship in 1982 is a kind of microcosmic parallel (entirely unintentional, another example of comic-book serendipity) for the Xavier/Magneto relationship so beautifully explicated in “Gold Rush.”

As originally presented, issue 161 was only the second reference to Magneto’s new backstory as a concentration camp survivor, after the reveal at the end of issue 150. Here, Claremont and Cockrum’s recently devised Auschwitz origin becomes integral to the story. We even see Magneto’s tattooed arm, although as Rivka Jacobs points out, its depiction is somewhat historically inaccurate.

The plot here is perfunctory: Magneto (called “Magnus” here for the first time) and Charles become friends, then subsequently foil an audacious scheme by neo-Nazi terrorists. That simplicity gives Claremont ample room to insert a multitude of colorful character touches. Meanwhile, the rousing adventurousness of the story conveys the strength of the Xavier/Magneto friendship with more directness than any conventional drama could ever hope to. Superheroics as metaphor is on proud display here: the sheer exuberance of the adventure, so elegantly depicted by Cockrum’s bright, bold lines, and the relative ease with which Magnus and Xavier – the only superhumans in the story – foil the Nazis are in themselves symbolic of their optimistic friendship.

Claremont and Cockrum’s fluency reaches its apex on Page 15, which depicts Xavier and Magneto’s rescue of Gaby. Each line of dialogue says so much about the characters. When Gaby loudly panics, threatening to botch the rescue, Magneto whispers, “Charles, shut her up! Use your psi-powers, before she’s heard!” Like the villainous Magneto of the present who is not above killing mutants who oppose him for the greater good of mutantkind, even Magnus of the past sees a certain pragmatism in using harsh means to “shut up” the very person in need of rescue. Xavier, in his turn, is surprised that Magneto knows he’s a telepath, and two few panels later, when Magneto uses his own abilities to halt Nazi bullets, he says to Charles, “Surely by now you’ve realized that we are two of a kind.” In fact, Xavier hadn’t, though he’d expressed his suspicions. He thinks to himself, “He’s a mutant, like myself – with the ability to manipulate metal objects. This is fantastic!” Xavier’s naivety, contrasted against Magneto’s cool pragmatism, is charming. That Magneto is two steps ahead of Xavier already speaks volumes about both of them – ingenious characterization on Claremont’s part – but just as clever is the contrast in their differing reactions to meeting a fellow mutant. For Magneto, it is not necessary to be commented upon; to Xavier, it is “fantastic!” That single image and its accompanying text -- Page 15, panel three – is one of my personal favorites in the entire Claremont X-Men canon. That one panel alone tells you almost everything you need to know about those two characters and their relationship. Absolutely brilliant.

These days, whenever I re-read “Gold Rush” I’m also put in mind of Geoff’s observation about the asymmetry between Charles’ power (telepathy) and Magneto’s (the ability to control metal). The lack of parity between the two abilities (as opposed to the diametrically opposed genius-ness of Reed Richards and Dr. Doom, by contrast) is an interesting choice that in some odd way makes their relationship more realistic.

In a subtle way here, Claremont actually does draw a parallel between Xavier’s and Magnus’ abilities, and aligns the powers with their different temperaments: In an awesome scene midway through the issue, Magneto explodes a metal assault vehicle and deliberately kills each individual Nazi with its shrapnel. Xavier observes that the victims no doubt deserved being slaughtered, yet he “can still hear their death-screams” via his telepathy. He “feel[s] their shock and pain – and fear – as their lives were abruptly snuffed out.” In that bit of monologue, Claremont clues us in as to the origins of Charles and Magneto’s different philosophies. Xavier’s power gives him empathy with other humans beings, which can’t help but foster a more compassionate worldview. Magneto’s empathy is with metal – cold, hard, inorganic – and his comparative lack of insight into the people around him only helps foster the dimmer view of human nature first born in Auschwitz. So there is, in fact, a kind of parity between their powers, albeit a subtler one than is typical in the super-hero/arch-villain paradigm. Through Claremont’s shrewd writing here, Magneto and Professor X’s respective mutant powers can be viewed prosaically as the origins of their personalities, or – for those of a more literary bent – as outward metaphors for their intrinsic character traits. In the game of superhero comics, of course, trying to separate two such views can be a web of chicken/egg-style inextricability.


Cove West said...

I'll try to keep this shorter than my novelette on #160. ;)

I really don't buy the "oh no, Charles is dying!" melodrama. Claremont's decision to interlude the Brood Saga was probably more benificial to the series overall, producing three stellar issues, but to the Saga itself, the momentum that had already taken a hit in #156-157 had completely dissipated after Rogue/Dracula/Belasco. To restart the Saga and then interrupt it AGAIN with the Israel flashback is narrative suicide, made even worse because the flashback is so much more compelling. CC didn't always have the best instincts on arc pacing, and this is one of the most egregious examples. It's a testament to the energy that Dave Cockrum put into the Saga that it succeeds to the extent that it does, and #161 is an especially potent effort on his part.

But one place where CC home-runs in the Saga is the interplay between Ororo and Scott. #161 is in that regard a sequel to #155. In "Reunion," we see Scott and Ororo as equals, co-completing, wedded in their symbiotic leadership of the team -- harmonious. But since returning from space, Ororo has had to command an act of terrorism, been violated by the Lord of Vampires, and allowed the most innocent person she knows be corrupted beyond her understanding. Suddenly, Ororo's capacity for pragmatism and cynicism rears its head, and we begin to see the gulf that will develop between them. In contrast to #155, #161 shows Scott and Ororo as equalizers, co-competing, divided in their balancing guidance of the team -- contraposing.

I think it was Morrison who referred to Scott as the greatest superhero in the world, and I'm inclined to agree -- Scott, even more than Captain America and Spidey, has the traditional superheroic traits exemplified by Superman; it's Scott's personal adversities that darken him, not his "professional" judgements. Pragmatic or not, Scott would have been predisposed to seem the villain rather than BE the villain. But Ororo isn't an idealist, she's a protector. Before now, her roles as goddess and "big sister" only seemed pacifist because she had the power to impose her peaceful will; but threaten her worshippers -- her Little Brother or Kitten or Snowflake -- in a way that avoids or supercedes her power, and she'll just find some other way to impose her will. Ororo has no qualms about actually being a villain so long as peace is the goal.

Hmm... Reminds me of someone else in this issue...

That CC inserted the Scott/Ororo contrast in an otherwise Charles/Magnus issue seems to me that the comparisons are intentional. But unlike the younger generation, Xavier and Magneto have an additional layer to their characters that set them apart: their philosophical ideologies. And because of that layer, what appears to be a Scott/Charles vs. Ororo/Magnus dichotomy is the reverse: Scott/Magnus vs. Ororo/Charles. Heroic personalities vs. villainous personalities.

And on that tantalizing blasphemy, I'm going to have my own intermission. Part 2 (and as Belasco as my witness, let it only be one more part!) in a bit...

Jason said...

You're right, I shouldn't assume that the Scott/Ororo parallel with Xavier/Magneto is unintentional. Although deliberate or not, I think it's really brilliant in how it plays out.

Can't wait for your part two -- your cliffhanger does intrigue, indeed.

cease ill said...

THIS is why I keep clicking on the comments as well as the analysis.
Considering Geoff's (oddly-misspelled but utterly intriguing and rigorous)comparison of gnostic pessimism and this decade's X-Men brought me to this thread (which I glimpsed days earlier with great eagerness but lost), this expression of Charles and his empathy defines the difference in why I easily identified with the post-human heroes, and why Millar chose a more aloof Xavier. Just yesterday on IMWAN forum the question arose: "which character has been most changed beyond your recognition?" Dr. Klock's analysis of Ultimate Xavier via Millar would've made an excellent contrast to the Claremont Xavier, in whom I always invested idealism ---and who's to say, Claremont's X-Men didn't invest a great deal of idealism in me? I'm wrestling with post-human transformation in my own character and its implications for myself. Your discussions have unearthed serious consideration of stories that shaped me before I had developed an apparatus for such critique---yet didn't we all analyze the philosophies at work in such character-driven entertainment?

Teebore said...

Fascinating stuff as always. That Xavier's power grants him empathy with warm humanity while Magneto's power only connects him to cold metal is an observation fiendishly clever in its simplicity. It's the kind of thing I've never thought of before, but once it's pointed out, it seems like such a strong comparison I wonder how I ever missed it?

wwk5d said...

I loved the scene with Storm and Cyclops. And I too wish they had done more with it...

I know it's not hip or cool to admit this, but I like Storm as a leader as much as I do Cyclops, and consider her to be his equal.