Saturday, September 20, 2008

Jason Powell The Uncanny X-Men/The New Teen Titans Special Edition

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men. For more in this series see the toolbar on the right.]

“Apokolips ... Now”

Uncanny X-Men #167 is the transitional issue marking the paradigm shift in Claremont’s approach to writing the series. However, thanks to the vagaries of publishing schedules combined with the mysterious nature of comic-book chronologizing, a few blatantly superheroic epics fall into the narrative gap between issues 167 and 168. The first is the inter-company crossover of Marvel’s X-Men and DC’s Teen Titans. Existing outside of mainstream Marvel continuity in a world where Marvel and DC apparently exist on the same Earth, the story is not officially canonical, but it is a fantastic piece of work by Claremont and occupies an interesting place in the author’s own personal canon. The one-shot also contains 64 pages of Walt Simonson images whose dynamism and crackling energy are cinematic in both scope and sheer kineticism. Inked by the great X-Men inker Terry Austin, the pages virtually vibrate with energy. Not to be outpaced, Claremont crafts some of his most bombastic text ever. (Geoff noted the “Morrison-esque” wordplay of the coinage “atmos-spheres” in Claremont’s Uncanny #98. Here, Claremont gives us machines capable of draining off psychic energy, and dubs them “psiphons.”) The cumulative effect of images and text here is a comic that could be properly be looked on as the prototypical “widescreen” comic book.

For a Kirby-phile like Simonson, it must have been pure joy to draw some of the panels in “Apokolips ... Now” – for example the exhilarating image of the Phoenix-bird blasting right out of Cyclops’ eyes directly at Darkseid (Marvel’s Cyclops and DC’s Darkseid being two of Kirby’s strongest creations, never before sharing space in the same published comic book.) The effect of the art is so intense that the physical pages themselves seem incidental to some arcane process whereby Simonson is channeling his pure joy straight into the reader’s brain. (For an alternative take on all this Kirbyphilia, I must share a bit of apocrypha recently posted by Erik Larsen on John Byrne’s message boards. Larsen relates, “An inker pal of mine claimed to have overheard a conversation between Chris Claremont and Jack Kirby. The X-Men/Teen Titans crossover had just come out and Chris was showing it to Jack. Kirby's reaction was to ask, ‘Why don't you make up your OWN damn characters?’”)

The centerpiece of the X-Men/Titans crossover is the double-page spread of “The Wall,” described by Claremont thus:

“It stands beyond the Promethean galaxy at the end of all things – where the physical universe merges with the domains of imagination and the spirit. From the moment of creation it has stood inviolate. But now, the ultimate barrier has been breached. Streamers of raw energy – the lifeblood of the Source – rip through the ether, random, unfocused, awaiting only some entity to give them direction. To put them to use.”

The entity in question is Darkseid, of course, whose “use” for the Source’s “lifeblood” is to recreate Dark Phoenix. Claremont is getting metatextual here, as he uses the out-of-continuity status of this comic as a way to resurrect a character whose return in the mainstream Marvel Universe was restricted at the time by editorial edict. Within the story, Phoenix lives again via the energy created by breaching the barrier between two different universes. As within, so without. Simonson and Austin’s visual conception of the “Wall,” and the “streamers of energy” that “rip” through it, sell the concept instantly, as the construct seems to have so much dimensionality that it extends beyond the limits of the pages in every direction.

When Phoenix crashes into the wall at the story’s climax, Claremont’s narration reads, “She’s become too human to remain a goddess ... while remaining too much a goddess to live as a human being. That paradox is her downfall – and her glory!” Claremont resolves the first rhetorical contradiction, and then adds a second to confound the resolution – a verbal attempt to parallel the sheer schizophrenic wildness of Simonson.

In among the chaos of this self-contained piece, Claremont slips in a few hints of what he has planned for the actual Uncanny X-Men series. His use of the Teen Titans’ Changeling to recreate “Lockheed the Dragon” from Cockrum’s fairy-tale issue predicts Uncanny X-Men #168, wherein Kitty names a real dragon “Lockheed.” Meanwhile, Kitty’s attraction to Changeling, a geek teen who’s a lot like her -- and Peter’s jealousy, followed hard upon by his sharing a kiss with Starfire, an exotically beautiful alien female – predict the turns their relationship will take a year from now.

Most striking of all is Claremont’s tease at the end: He suggests that while Darkseid’s resurrected Dark Phoenix has returned to a state of non-being, there might be a version of Phoenix’s heroic incarnation (the one who wore green rather than red) still out there somewhere. Since this one-shot is not canonical, the tease is meaningless – and yet ... again, notably, the next Uncanny issue in proper chronological sequence is #168 -- the final page of which just happens to mark the first appearance of Madelyne Pryor.

If Claremont originally meant Madelyne to be the “good” Jean resurrected, then he may have been using the non-meainstream status of the Titans crossover to clue in attentive readers to that notion. (He wouldn’t be able to float such a clue any other way, Jim Shooter still adamant that Jean must remain dead.)

If this was indeed Claremont’s design, it would shed an interesting light on his anger over Jean’s eventual resurrection by John Byrne in the pages of Fantastic Four: Claremont wasn’t angry because someone brought Jean back – he was angry because, as far as he was concerned, he’d already done it.


The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Great piece. This was simply one of the best Crossovers of a generation. It was brilliant in writing and art. I love Walt Simonson. His stuff is amazing. Also, the New Teen Titans [you're reminding us] was a brilliant series especially when it first rebooted with George Perez at the helm penciling with Marv Wolfman. I have many of those originals. While certainly modeled upon the Uncanny X-Men, DC came up with one of its best superhero teams in ages. This was a great book to see both in action. Nice analysis Jason. Thanks.

Jason said...

Thanks for commenting! Glad you liked the entry. I agree, this is *such* a good comic.

plok said...

It's quibbling, I know, but I believe "psiphon" is actually Roy-Thomas-ese. The same may well be true of "atmo-spheres", for that matter. Sounds like something Roy would say.

Doesn't change the awesomeness of this comic, though!

Jason said...

When it comes to commenting on the Claremont blogs, it's all about the quibbling! Thanks for the correction, plok. I wouldn't doubt that you're right.

Anonymous said...

I won't quibble -- this was a great comic. Yes, there are a few soft spots, but there comes a point where even I step back and say, okay, this is just good stuff. Claremont tends to be heavily influenced by his artists, and Simonson's influence was pretty positive.

You note that this seems to have had a subtle influence on Marvel canon. It had even more on DC canon. This, and the roughly contemporary "Great Darkness" storyline over at LoSh, helped cement Darkseid's position as the biggest baddest bad guy in the DCU. Also, it added some lasting changes to the Fourth World mythos, most notably the Source Wall. Believe it or not, this did not exist in the original Kirby version; Simonson came up with it because it was such a cool visual, and then Claremont used it to begin and end the story. (And isn't that just a great final panel?)

This might go a bit to explain Kirby's grumpiness -- they weren't just using his stuff, they were adding to it and messing with it. Or it may just be that Kirby got a little ill-tempered in his old age. Goodness knows he had things to be cranky about.

Doug M.

Anonymous said...

"Why don't you make up your OWN damn characters?"

Yes, considering that of the 15 characters used in this story, good ol' King Kirby created only 3. Odd how people always paint him as the victim when they're recounting the Stan & Jack story. Judging by this watercooler gossip, I'd say Stan Lee was the real victim for having to put up with this beastly man for all those years.

Jason said...

Huh, no kidding, Claremont and Simonson invented "The Wall"? Cool.

Claremont did it all!!!

Anonymous said...

No, IIUC it was Simonson -- Claremont just ran with it.

N.B., this goes to a point that I don't think has come up: Chris Claremont could only have become Chris Claremont at Marvel. That's because Marvel and DC had drastically different attitudes towards the artist/writer relationship.

DC, from the days of Schwartz and Weisinger, saw the artist as taking direction from the writer. DC scripts were long and detailed, leaving little room for artists to jam or ad-lib. There were areas of artistic liberty, but they were rigidly defined -- "come up with a cool design for this character concept", type of thing.

Marvel, OTOH, gave its artists more freedom and much more creative equality. In the eyes of Marvel's editorial system, artist and writer were equal. (Though, of course, both subordinate to editors.) An artist could come up with a cool concept in midstream and -- if he could get the writer to agree -- have it incorporated into the script. That pretty much never happened at DC, or at least not until well after Claremont had gotten started.

So anyway: Simonson came up with a cool idea -- a cool /visual/ idea -- and then Claremont turned it into the frame for the story. I don't recall just when Simonson developed the Source Wall, but it could have been fairly late in the process; it's not central to the story (though it makes a very nice frame indeed).

Doug M.

plok said...

"Beastly man"?

What a disgraceful thing to say.

wwk5d said...

"He suggests that while Darkseid’s resurrected Dark Phoenix has returned to a state of non-being, there might be a version of Phoenix’s heroic incarnation (the one who wore green rather than red) still out there somewhere."

Hmm. Here I thought it was Metron, throwing a wrench into Darkseid's plan. I know, he has this thing where he's only cares about learning, he doesn't get involved in good vs. evil conflicts...but that's how I saw it.

I loved this crossover. 2 of my favorite teams meeting up? Awesome. And each character had a moment or two to shine.

I wish we had seen the follow-up, with art by Perez. The villains would have been Brother Blood and the Hellfire Club. It might not have reached the cosmic level of this story, but would have been cool nonetheless.