Thursday, December 04, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #185

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

Uncanny X-Men, The #185
“Public Enemy”

This issue at least pulls together some of the many chaotic ongoing subplots Claremont has got simmering at one time. Raven and Valerie had been bouncing around the title for the last couple months doing nothing of seeming relevance, but Claremont weaves them in here, as we see their meeting with Forge and the material involving his “Neutralizer” (a weapon that steals superpowers) become tied in with the dangling thread of issue 182, wherein Rogue was framed for murdering a government agent. We see now where Claremont was going with all of this in the climactic bit, as a Neutralizer-blast meant for Rogue hits Storm, inaugurating a new status quo for the latter character: She is now powerless. This is actually a supremely logical step in Ororo’s evolution as a character, a perfect way to continue her ongoing progress from the original mother/goddess incarnation of the classic Cockrum/Byrne days to someone more down to earth (both literally and figuratively).

The centerpiece of “Public Enemy” is a lovely extended sequence between Storm and Rogue set on a Mississippi riverbank. Romita Jr. and Green shine in this section of the comic, both with the lushness of the environment and in their visualization of Rogue, suddenly -- and for the first time – a very sexy character. Matters become a little awkward when the scene switches from sentimental to action-packed. The art remains top notch (note the particularly arresting panel depicting Storm as she shoots lightning from every extremity), but Claremont’s writing instantly and inexplicably becomes awkward. There’s a particularly painful bit in which Rogue self-consciously analyzes her own thoughts during a firefight, realizing that she is more heroic than she thought; it’s really awful.

Also, while it’s true that certain threads are being pulled tighter, others continue to be awkwardly jumbled in. A scene with Rachel tells readers what they’d surely guessed – Rachel is not just some random mutant from an alternate future; she is the daughter of Cyclops and Jean Grey (though she mistakenly pegs Madelyne’s voice as that of her mother’s during a phone call). It’s not exactly a shocker, and the dramatic beat of Rachel reacting to some anachronism or present-day surprise by bursting into tears is already getting old, and this is only the second month Claremont’s used it.

Meanwhile, Destiny mentions that “the very fabric of time itself has been rent asunder.” This probably refers to the same menace that Naze was concerned with in the previous issue, but two months in a row of such vague threats is – again – getting old. Claremont also is making things a bit tough on readers: Is the rending of time’s fabric something to do with Rachel having just come from the future? (The answer will turn out to be no, but that’s certainly not clear here.) Is it anything to do with the “Demon Bear” in New Mutants? (There, the answer is probably yes, but even that’s debatable because Claremont is so vague.)

The reference toward the end to a Storm/Mystique story in “future issues of Marvel Fanfare” is frustrating as well. Key story beats are being omitted simply so they can appear in some other comic book – at some vague point in the future? (The actual story doesn’t appear until Marvel Fanfare #40, some three years hence. It’s not bad, but it isn’t worth the wait either.)

The last page marks the final insult, in which the Rom villains known as Dire Wraiths announce their attention to kill Forge. Villains we have never seen in action (unless we read Rom, of all things) threaten to kill a character we know virtually nothing about. This is a cliffhanger?

[This sounds like some of Morrison's crap cliffhanger beats from New X-Men. He really DID steal everything from Claremont. :)]


Anonymous said...

With so many threats going on at once, who knows what rent the fabric of time asunder. Rachel, Nimrod, Dire Wraiths, the Adversary, Magus, Demon Bear? Annoying. Storm certainly evolves in interesting ways during this period of time. It seemed at the time her powers were gone for a very long time, but in the grand scheme of things it was not really that long. I am not sure if current readers get a sense of how this impacted her character any longer. Nobody else could figure out how to make a power-zapping gun other than Forge? Given the hypertechnology in the Marvel Universe this seems unlikely.

Jason said...

Jeff, re: the last observation, while you have a point, I think that way lies madness. Power-removal technology is actually really prominent in the Marvel Universe. That being the case, Rogue as a character makes no sense, nor does Cyclops.
Anyone with an uncontrollable power could be cured by Forge or whoever else comes up with the technology.

You have to imagine they could even come up with something that turns on and off, so folks like Cyclops and Rogue could still have their powers in combat situations.

But, hey -- it's the X-Men. They are tortured by their "uncontrollable" powers, and only people who *like* having powers can get a power-zapping gun turned on them. It's the Law of Angst -- whatever tortures the characters more, THAT is truth in the X-universe. Common sense bends to the will of the Law of Angst.

Anonymous said...

I'd say it's a subset of the more general Law of Comic Book Melodrama. Powers that come with price tags can never be permanently "fixed": Matt Murdock will always go back to being blind, and Ben Grimm will be stuck as a pile of orange rocks.

Anyway -- while I disliked this storyline at the time, in retrospect it looks better. Claremont is going with a war metaphor, and Storm as a wounded/crippled soldier. (Hence the juxtaposition with wounded vet Forge.) I think it would have been more effective if he'd worked the metaphor from more angles, but it was an interesting idea -- and having her eventually work through it and emerge a stronger character takes some (not all) of the bad Woman In Refrigerator taste away.

I liked the idea of the neutralizer. Marvel editorial didn't, so it disappeared soon after this, never to return.

(BTW, Storm was not its first victim. That was a very minor Iron Man villain, a mutant called The Termite. IMS he made the mistake of getting in the way of Iron Man while something was wrong with Tony Stark -- either alcoholism, or his armor driving him mad, or some such. The unfortunate Termite got beaten up and then zapped with the neutralizer, and has not been heard from since.)

Dire Wraiths: I wouldn't call this a cliffhanger so much as a "here's what's coming next issue". Whatever you call that. A lot of these issues feel like chapters of a larger work -- writing for the trades before there were any.

Also, the Wraiths were decent enough villains -- evil shapeshifters with vaguely defined awful powers and a penchant for eating brains. IMS they were a branch of the Skrull race gone bad (and it's not like the Skrulls were a bunch of Quakers to begin with, right?). I think Claremont liked the whole "evil aliens that consume from within" thing; compare and contrast to the Brood. Both of them provide the opportunity to violently reify certain kinds of character conflict -- always a good thing, in a comic book context.

Also, he was good buddies with Bill Mantlo, and liked his stuff.

Doug M.

Shlomo said...

Jason, I havent posted in a while, But I just want to let you know that I am still following these blog entries, and especially appreciate the current batch of summaries since these were some of the first issues that I read in the 90's when they were being reprinted in x-men classics (classic x-men?). I was totally confused at the time about the sudden appearance of dire wraiths, the stories that were continued in issues of new mutants, and the annoyance of something called secret war. So its great to hear you critique and context for these issues.

Jason said...

Thanks, Shlomo -- yeah, the "X-Men Classic" reprints did indeed get frustrating around this time, because they only give you part of the story. (I would have assumed that they would be similarly frustrating for Geoff, who was reading these issues via CD-ROM, but maybe the fact that he could go right from one to the next mitigated the effect, and made it easier to just plow through?)

I will say that once one *does* have the context, these issues are a lot cooler. Reading New Mutants at the same time, and being more aware of the Wraith-war helps a lot ... bringing me to a point for:

Doug, I will say that once we get to issues 187 and 188, which wrap all these threads up, the whole thing reads a lot better.

But I stand by this being a bad ending, whether you call it a cliffhanger or a teaser or whatever. The Dire Wraiths might be great villains (and I do like them in the next few issues), but if this is our first exposure to them, we do not know that yet, so why should we be excited that they are going to be in the next few issues? It's very backward to me.

Geoff Klock said...

Jason -- the main difference between X-Men Classic and my Uncanny CD ROM is that I have access to the internet and can read online summaries of what I am missing.

plok said...

I wouldn't say the Dire Wraiths were obscure at this time -- ROM was a fairly heavily-promoted book, and it was part of the core concept. I didn't buy ROM, but I certainly knew who the Dire Wraiths were supposed to be.

Jason said...

Good point, Plok. You're right, at the time, that cliffhanger was a bit more palatable, because even readers who didn't read ROM would've known about the Wraiths via promotion.

I guess the Dire Wraiths thing was sort of the "Secret Invasion" of its day ....

plok said...

I mean, the Dire Wraiths were part of ROM's core concept, of course

wwk5d said...

On it's own this issue is a mess. Taken with the next few after it, it's not so bad. And the stuff with Storm and Rogue is gold.

The Demon Bear stuff WAS tied in to the Adversary...but it was never explained how or why exactly. The fact that the Adversary was the one who sent the Demon Bear is mentioned, sadly, off-panel in New Mutants. In the letter column. >:(

Isaac P. said...

I took Destiny's comment about time being rent asunder as a reference to Rachel's arrival in the present day, most likely due to the preceding scene being that of Rachel's phone call to Cyclops.

James said...

"The Demon Bear stuff WAS tied in to the Adversary...but it was never explained how or why exactly. The fact that the Adversary was the one who sent the Demon Bear is mentioned, sadly, off-panel in New Mutants. In the letter column."

All the sadder that this thread was not pursued in the NM tie-in with Fall of The Mutants... Instead, Louis Simonson had them face the Ani-Mator and sacrifice Doug Ramsey along the way... :(