Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #176

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

“Decisions”

With another major storyline complete, Claremont (teamed with new regular artist John Romita Jr., who debuted on Page 30 of the previous issue) follows up with a slack-paced interim story, putting a cap on some dangling threads and setting up new ones. The main plot is a lightweight adventure starring Cyclops and Madelyne as they co-pilot a plane toward their honeymoon destination. Fraught with a lot of contrived peril that could charitably be interpreted as a superhero-styled metaphor for post-marital stress – but more likely to be viewed as mere filler – it comes off as a little sloppy. It’s notable chiefly for Madelyne’s dialogue at one point that she “know[s] more than [her] share about death and resurrection – and nightmare ... and miracles,” one last clue that she really is, secretly, Jean/Phoenix returned.

There’s also an interesting juxtaposition between the main thread, featuring Scott and Maddie, and a single scene involving Wolverine and Mariko. The relationship is effectively ended here in a scene with a “negative” (i.e., tragic) value, Claremont deliberately sandwiching the bit in between pages of Scott and Madelyne, whose relationship is, by the end of the issue, positively charged. It’s a screenwriter’s trick delineated in Roger McKee’s “Story”: tempering the energy of a story’s ending by closing out a subplot on the opposite value.

We also get two prologues in Uncanny #176, entirely unrelated to each other in terms of plot, but significant in that they both point toward the future of Claremont’s X-Men. First, we meet Valerie Cooper (who will become a staple of the X-franchise), a member of the national security advisor’s staff with a notion to form a team of mutants loyal specifically to the U.S. government. Later, Claremont cuts to the Morlocks, whose leader, Callisto, has an unspecified plan involving Kitty Pryde.

On the surface, neither plotline cries out as particularly significant – it’s simply more Claremont soap opera, always keeping new plot threads open even as other ones close. But we’re actually seeing the first steps towards the aligning of the X-Men with their putative politics. As Neil Shyminsky’s essay “Mutant Readers, Reading Mutants” points out, the X-Men are meant to be outcasts, yet occupy a place of privilege. Shyminsky also quotes Julian Darius’ observation that the very premise of the X-Men – protecting humans from other mutants – is “explicitly counter revolutionary.” “They were not created to fight for civil rights; rather they were created to fight against those who did so.”

Claremont’s two prologue scenes in “Decisions” each flag up dubious moments from Claremont’s own run: the Valerie Cooper scene gives a detailed recap of Uncanny #150, which featured Magneto attempting to force the countries of the world to disarm – a somewhat noble goal, albeit tyrannical in execution. The X-Men stopped him, effectively allowing the governments of the world to keep on building bombs and weapons. The Morlock scene reminds us of a much more recent adventure, wherein the X-Men encountered a group of underprivileged, disenfranchised, self-loathing mutants and reacted to their plight with no compassion.

Thus, Claremont is deliberately flagging up problematic moments in the story of the X-Men – moments that Claremont himself is responsible for – in order to plant the first seeds of a new kind of X-Men. In the coming years, Claremont will upset the status quo in significant ways. Valerie Cooper will eventually recruit Mystique’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants -- ironically rechristened “Freedom Force” -- and THEY, not the X-Men, will be the “counter-revolutionary” force of the series.

Meanwhile, the Morlocks will transform into a much more sympathetic group – often acting in the story as allies of the X-Men rather than enemies. Eventually, the X-Men are forced to seek shelter in the Morlocks’ underground catacombs after a particular catastrophe, and soon after, the X-Men fight to defend/avenge the Morlocks during the ambitious “Mutant Massacre” storyline.

Granted, it will turn out to be a slow transition (the X-Men will still live in a mansion for the next three years plus) but as early as this we see Claremont laying the groundwork for a significant reorientation of the overall premise’s skewed politics.

Not coincidentally, we are also now entering an era of X-Men that was long out of print – and even now has been reprinted only sporadically or in low-budget packages like the Essential volumes – until Jim Lee took over as artist and the book reverted to its Silver Age trappings. Claremont’s complication of the X-Men’s world from 1984-1989, though high-selling when it originally saw print as a monthly serial, turned out to be commercially unfriendly in the long-term.

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is the giant squid issue, right? Cover with Cyclops, grabbed by tentacles, blasting the logo (why)?

Yeah, pretty dire.

But better stuff is coming. As for these issues not being collected, I think that's backwards. From issue #137 until the rise of Jim Lee, only one set of issues got collected in TPB: the Smith-pencilled "From the Ashes" storyline, the arc you've just finished. That's one story arc of seven or eight issues in a run of, what, nine years and a hundred issues or so? And the Smith run only seems to have been collected because (1) it made a nice complete TPB-friendly storyline, and (2) Smith was (for whatever reason) a big nostalgic fan favorite. (It's a little odd, that... putting aside that Smith leaves me flat personally, I have the strange impression he was much more popular in retrospect than he was at the time.)

Anyway: I'm not sure the problem is that these issues were "commercially unfriendly in the long run". It seems like Marvel has just been slow to reprint older X-Men.

By the way, did you see the recent X-Men references by Ta-Nehisi Coates over at _The Atlantic_?

http://ta-nehisicoates.theatlantic.com/archives/2008/10/sarah_palin_is_rogue.php

http://ta-nehisicoates.theatlantic.com/archives/2008/10/barack_obamathe_magneto_initiative.php

What's interesting is the number of comments he got discussing X-history. That's supposed to be a high-end (if often tongue-in-cheek) political and literary blog.


Doug M.

Patrick said...

I really like the slight goofiness of #176, I remember it being a nice character issue, and one of the last times we'll see Maddie and Scott really happy together.

But, in the long run, it's those new plot threads that are more interesting. I love the Freedom Force thread, and the way it develops over the rest of the Claremont's run. I said in my blog posts on the run that "Fall of the Mutants" was essentially the finale for Claremont, the culmination of everything he'd wanted to say. And, in that respect, the reconciliation with Freedom Force is one of the central moments at the end. In that moment, the X-Men reject the mutant vs. mutant conflict that started with issue #1, and embrace a more reconciliatory path.

And, I definitely agree about the gradual reorientation as the title goes on. The politics get a lot more interesting in the early 200s, when Magneto joins up, and Storm and Wolverine start to lead the team with a more pragmatic approach. For the vast majority of the 100s, you never really feel the "hated and feared" thing, the X-Men fight enemies, but they're basically going along with the status quo. Coming to a head with Mutant Massacre, and carrying on in the era after that, you get the sense that they're constantly fighting for their lives, and there is no safe place to retreat to.

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Curt said...

Doug-If memory serves, Smith was actually quite popular at the time of his run. In fact, I believe it was his sudden fame within the industry that cut his run on UXM so short.

By his own admission, the popular acclaim went to Smith's head, and he left UXM believing that the comic industry was his proverbial oyster. While he has certainly put out quality material since those salad days, Smith never recaptured the lightening of his Uncanny run.

Incidentally, I think Jason has done an excellent job of explaining why so many of us recall Smith's run with such fondness. As the voice of dissent on that matter, do you care to explain why Smith leaves you so "cold?"

Jason said...

Doug, I said that as of this issue, we are *now entering* a period in X-Men history that was long out of print. Sorry if the meaning wasn't clear enough. I meant that for a long time, the material in between Smith's last issue and Jim Lee's first was out of print, except for ones involved in crossovers (Massacre, Fall of the Mutants and Inferno).

And as Curt noted, it was during the Smith run that sales on Uncanny saw a huge increase. Smith deserves at least partial credit for making Uncanny the number-one comic book.

So, just for the sake of clarity -- with the end of issue 176 (the last issue in "From the Ashes"), we enter an area of issues that even now are mostly out of print, except in the low-budget packages like "Essentials." The main exception being the crossover trades.

If you don't like the phrase "commercially unfriendly" to describe them, but do agree that part of the reason for the From the Ashes TPB was that it was a nice, self-contained arc, then hey, what can I say? I'm sticking to my thesis.

Patrick -- yes, I think you're right. I do really like the point you made on your blog and again here is a great one: For all the acclaim of Dark Phoenix (and From the Ashes), those comics are nothing to do with the "feared and hated by society" theme. When that IS finally pushed to the fore, it makes for some exciting comics. And, oddly enough, the fact that those comics are not available in any kind of high-end reprint sort of adds to their raw energy, at least for me as a reader. On some strange meta-level, it as if the comics that see the X-Men going (literally and figuratively) underground are themselves a little bit "underground" -- at least compared to the glossy, shiny graphic novels containing the more celebrated X-storylines.

Curt, that's interesting about Smith. I don't really know much about him, although from what I understand he is STILL riding the lightning of his X-run to some degree. He charges quite a bit for commissions of Kitty Pryde, Phoenix, etc., even now! (Also, thanks much for the compliment!)

Jason said...

Also, just as a general note, it's interesting to me that Smith made the comic the #1 best-seller, and Claremont was able to keep it at the top even after Smith's abrupt departure ... and yet, again, Marvel never saw fit to do a set of trades keeping the 1984-1989 material readily available. It seems to me the time is ripe for a Claremont X-Men Visionaries series beginning with issue 177 and taking us to 267 or so.

As it is, if one wants to read most of those issues (in color, at least), you have to hunt through the back-issue bins for them. Which, again, I'm kind of glad I did, because it adds to the excitement of the issues. But still, Claremont deserves better.

Jonathan Brown said...

I just want to say that I am enjoying your issue by issue commentary of Claremont's run on Uncanny. I must admit, Claremont is hands down my favorite comic author of all time, and I really enjoy learning all the behind the scenes info you keep posting.

Slightly off topic, but do you enjoy any of the modern Claremont x stories? Do you think he has a place in the x-men mythos now that so much time has passed?

Jason said...

Jonathan, thanks for saying so. Glad you're liking the blogs! Obviously there are plenty more still to come, so I hope you'll continue reading.

Modern Claremont X stories ... I wish I could say I enjoy them even a little, but -- no. Claremont's lack of ability to steer the franchise (his work now takes a back-seat to the more glamorous writers like Morrison and Whedon), combined with the fact that the mythos has accumulated so much stuff that Claremont did not control during the six or so years that he was absent from the franchise, combined with Claremont's own lack of discipline and a tendency to be a little cowed by trying to simultaneously bow down to and prop up his own legend .... it all leads to some awkward material, and it's always so far removed from all the things that made his original X-work so remarkable.

I'm saddened, too, that I occasionally chat with people on message boards who have nothing but disdain for Claremont's current work, and it extends into a complete devaluing of his entire output, all the way back to the 1970s. I occasionally try to point out to people that this guy is the godfather of the X-Men, that everything they like about the X-Men WOULD NOT EXIST if not for Claremont. Yet he continues to garner more and more retroactive disrespect, just because what he's doing now is so embarrassing. He's like the Paul McCartney of superhero comics.

I still believe Claremont is capable of solid work -- the first two issues of his new "Big Hero Six" miniseries are very promising -- but he needs to be separated from the albatross of the X-verse for it to happen.

That's my take, anyway.

Jonathan Brown said...

hey, thanks for the reply. Do you mind clarifying what you mean by Claremont's "lack of discipline and a tendency to be a little cowed"? In what way?

Are there ANY fans of Claremont's modern work? I haven't seem to met any. I wonder if Frank Miller gets the same criticism, as his recent work has likewise been a stepdown in quality. Miller's comics read like a Republican's wet dream: cowboy superheroes, glorification of violence, unapologetic sexism, and authoritarian personalities.

Anyway, I actually think that some of the modern Claremont stuff is excellent. Usually it is just one bit of business from a story (as opposed to the story as a whole) that is readable, but there have been some good moments. For example:

- X-treme X-men's original premise was excellent, although the idea of Destiny's dairy had much more potential.

- The Excalibur series is enjoyable, especially for its the excellent portrayal of the relationship between Charles and Magneto.

- The Mechanix storyline with Kitty Pryde.

- The introduction of Sage into the team, especially with all the unspoken sexual tension between the her and Bishop.

There were also some really well scripted scenes in the Uncanny run with Alan Davis penciling, such as the kiss scene between Rachel and Kurt. Again, not comparable to the golden days, but Claremont still manages to be vintage Claremont sometimes.

Jason said...

Jonathan, I haven't read the stuff you mention, so perhaps I'm just reading the wrong stuff.

Re: lack of discipline ... GeneXt contained a lot of examples of just plain sloppiness that probably should've been caught by the editor. Characters say the same thing in the exact same words twice on consecutive pages; story points are opaque, and not for any apparent dramatic purpose but just out of negligence; the focus of the whole miniseries seemed to change in issue 4 ... etc.

Re: "cowed" -- X-Men: The End could've been an opportunity to provide a capstone on his work, but instead Claremont tried to hard to acknowledge all sorts of bits and pieces from the run, seemingly unable to draw them together in any kind of meaningful way. Having Cassandra Nova re-quote for the billionth time Phoenix's opening line ("No longer am I the woman you knew!"), bringing Madelyne Pryor from out of nowhere, making the whole thing about Skrulls and Brood and such ... Claremont just seemed to be cluelessly scrambling around trying to touch on what made his run good, and missing the point at every turn. I mean, I've been trying hard to forget The End since I read it, so forgive me if my recollection is off, but I seem to recall Claremont even having Magneto killed off in some quick sidebar during one of his massively bloated battle sequences. How could he not make Magneto and Xavier the centerpiece of what's meant to be the "final" X-Men story?

Jason said...

Also, I'm only aware via second-hand knowledge of the whole Sage thing, but the whole ret-con that she was a spy/double-agent working for Xavier to find out info about the Hellfire Club is ridiculous to me. It feels to me like Claremont trying to do something that ties back to his "classic" stories in a meaningful way, but ends up instead just muddying the waters. (It's also occurred to me that it was probably another example of Claremont importing something he liked from a movie or TV show he enjoys, in this case "Alias." Tessa recast as Claremont's Sydney Bristow! But I have no real basis for that notion, it's just a hunch.)

Patrick said...

I think there's a big difference between modern Claremont stuff and modern Miller stuff. Admittedly, I haven't read much modern Claremont, beyond a smattering of the stuff from his late 90s X-Men relaunch and the first volume of X-Men: The End, but I feel like the market has kind of moved on from the style of stories that Claremont wants to tell. The great strength of his X-Men was how sprawling it was, how he was able to build a universe over many years of stories. Now, with the direction of the X-books constantly changing, he doesn't have the chance to do that. And, I also think he's hurt by the inherently static nature of the premise at this point. Grant Morrison can come in and shake things up, but Claremont just isn't a big enough name to do that anymore.

I think there's a major difference from contemporary Claremont and contemporary Miller. I love Miller's recent stuff, both the Goddamn Batman and Dark Knight Strikes Again, which I think is better than the also great Dark Knight Returns. Miller's gone so unhinged, so insane, you could argue he's 'coasting' on his reputation, but I think he's using that reputation as an excuse to tell the craziest stories he can think of and know that people will still read them. I don't think Claremont ever got the praise of an Alan Moore or Frank Miller, so he's not in the situation to dictate what he really wants to do, instead, he's still out there working for whoever will take him.

Jonathan Brown said...

Jason,

I agree with you about Genext. I read the 1st issue and thought it was unbearable. The whole thing felt forced. It was hard to read.

I've never read the end before, but it does seem very convuluted from your description. Perhaps he was unable to walk the line between tying up dangling plot threads and making nonsensical references to every minor detail in his run (like Madeline Pryor).

From interviews I've read with him in the early 90s, Claremont said that he intended Magneto to be redeemed and prof X to be killed off. That way the charcters would move on like real people and have to loose the influence of their "father" Xavier. But the editors apparently nixed that.

Jonahtan Brown said...

Pat,

I agree with you about Claremont's pacing. I think a big problem is that Claremont takes a long time to set things up in his stories, and he usually functions better in a self-contained universe where he doesn't have to deal with the influence of other writers trying to undermine his direction for the characters. In recent years he has been shifted around from so many books that it is impossible for him to develop stories the way he did in the past.

However, I can't say I'm a fan of Miller's work lately. Making Batman a psychotic fascist never appealed to me.

Jason said...

Jonathan, yes, I've read that too -- Xavier killed off, Magneto redeemed, and Gateway made the new mentor figure.

To my mind, Magneto in particular is Claremont's most brilliant creation during his original X-Men run. His "The End" should have had Magneto as a major figure, and instead he barely figures in at all.

Teebore said...

Valerie Cooper will eventually recruit Mystique’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants -- ironically rechristened “Freedom Force” -- and THEY, not the X-Men, will be the “counter-revolutionary” force of the series.

The thought never occurred to me until just now (because I only ever read these issues as back issues) but Cooper's desire to have a government-sponsored mutant team was probably meant to make readers think that the X-Men would become that team, making the ultimate reveal of the Brotherhood as instead all the more shocking.

Matt said...

If there had never been another X-Men comic published after this one, I think I would look back on the series as a near-perfect superhero "novel".

Unfortunately, it did continue, and the "changing politics" you describe turned me off almost completely. I still enjoyed the insightful character moments and interactions, but the shuffling of the status quo, the reformation of too many good villains, and most importantly, the lack of Cyclops turned this into a series I really had no attachment to. As someone noted in the comments to the previous issue's review, the X-Men is really Cyclops's story. You can give him a happy ending and write him out, but when you do, the story is over -- which as you point out, is basically the case. Claremont essentially started a new "novel" at this point, but it was one I had little interest in following. Cyclops was, in my opinion at least, the heart of the team. Without Scott Summers present to temper and guide them, the X-Men somehow turned into a bunch of strangers.

But then, I only started reading the X-Men in the Lobdell era. I read all this stuff as back issues, and found it nearly unrecognizable from the then-current series. My estimation of Lobdell has fallen somewhat over the years (though I still like him to a degree out of nostalgia), but my opinion of this material has not risen in its place. I'm not saying it's not well-written -- it's just not my cup of tea. It's too progressive and not "super hero-y" enough. To me, it's all about issues 94-176. And the ten or so Neal Adams issues before 94.

wwk5d said...

"Valerie Cooper will eventually recruit Mystique’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants -- ironically rechristened “Freedom Force” -- and THEY, not the X-Men, will be the “counter-revolutionary” force of the series.

The thought never occurred to me until just now (because I only ever read these issues as back issues) but Cooper's desire to have a government-sponsored mutant team was probably meant to make readers think that the X-Men would become that team, making the ultimate reveal of the Brotherhood as instead all the more shocking."

You're both wrong. Val didn't recruit them, Mystique offered the team's services to the government in the name of self-preservation. If anything, they were a pre-cursor to the Genoshan's Press Gang.

"Shyminsky also quotes Julian Darius’ observation that the very premise of the X-Men – protecting humans from other mutants – is “explicitly counter revolutionary.” “They were not created to fight for civil rights; rather they were created to fight against those who did so.”"

Again, that's not quite accurate, and one of the strangest points of view I've come across. Their original goal was to go against EVIL mutants. They never tried to take down the mutant version of MLK, they were going after the mutant version of Osama Bin Laden. How is that counter revolutionary?

Jonny K said...

I don't think it's fair to say the material has "proved to be commercially unfriendly": the lack of reprints surely means only that the material has become seen to be commercially unfriendly?

And wwk5d: Evil people can be revolutionary too. It's very, very easy to make a case that Osama was revolutionary. Qadfi's current title is "Leader and Guide of the Revolution": one could similiarly argue that Franco could call himself a revolutionary, if so he wished