Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #188

[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 #188

“Legacy of the Lost”

After several months of tossing out plot threads left and right, Claremont surprisingly ties several of them up – at least temporarily – all in one issue. The result is that “Legacy of the Lost” feels pretty packed; much denser with incident than previous episodes, even the double-sized Uncanny #186. With both a resolution of the Forge/Wraith plot in the comic’s first half and then, in the second half, the long-overdue explanation of how Rachel got from “Days of Future Past” to “The Past of Future Days,” Uncanny #188 feels almost like two different issues bolted together.

First, the X-Men’s battle with the mysterious new demons – evocatively dubbed the “Shadowmass” by Claremont – is notable for its powerfully brisk pace as it jumps from one intense sequence to another: a Wraith-possessed Naze is apparently repossessed by an even worse evil (the Adversary, as would be revealed three years later); cut to Nightcrawler’s recruitment/kidnapping of Amanda Sefton in the midst of a blizzard (which the footnotes tell us is something to do with Thor, but that really doesn’t matter); cut to Amanda’s appearance in the building in a well-designed sorceress costume, followed hard upon by the appearance of a second sorceress – Colossus’ sister. It builds and builds, Claremont now able to draw upon the massive universe of characters he’s built over the last eight years. (For the record, Illyana’s new status as an armored, sword-wielding sorceress was established in Claremont’s Magik miniseries and issues 14-21 of New Mutants). Even Forge – who suffered a dismal debut – at last comes alive in his climactic murder of a final Wraith.

Meanwhile, Romita Jr. once again proves himself one of superhero comics’ most dynamically visceral fight artists, such as in the wonderful two-panel sequence of Illyana leaping through the air to strike the Shadowmass with her sword only to be slammed back against a wall so hard that it cracks, spider-web style.

Ultimately, for all the labyrinthine turns Claremont forced readers through in the bizarrely structured Forge/Storm arc, he ends it with a satisfying climax. That he crams the final act into only half an issue turns out to be advantageous; the economy required by such a decision forces Claremont to avoid extemporaneous flourishes and cut right to the heart of the matter. Claremont is occasionally capable of more economy than he usually gets credit for, and the first half of issue 188 is a quintessential example.

What follows is an interlude that would have made little sense to anyone only reading Uncanny: The scene preceding it (Magneto’s Asteroid M being pulverized and Magneto himself falling to Earth) and several that follow it (Lee Forrester and Magneto returning to the latter’s Bermuda Triangle headquarters) all take place in Claremont and Sienkiewicz’s New Mutants. Why this one link in the narrative chain shows up in Uncanny is hard to intuit, although let it be said that Romita draws a particularly sexy Lee Forrester, which alone might be justification enough.

Finally, readers are forced to endure another example of Rachel getting upset over a new discovery in the alternate present (this time, she goes nuts when she learns that in this reality, Jean Grey died). For the record, Rachel never becomes tolerable; she is far and away Claremont’s single most irritating contribution to the X-franchise – a whiny, self-pitying plot device with not a single redeeming character trait.

Still, Rachel’s scene here is better than most, only because Claremont has fun with the other X-Men’s reaction to her description of the dystopia that is her origin. Colossus’ amazement that in Rachel’s future he is married to Kitty is quite a nice touch, as is Rogue’s shock that her foster mother, Mystique, touched off the “Days of Future Past” tragedy with her assassination of Robert Kelly.

Overall, however, the heart of this scene is Nightcrawler. At this point in the series, Kurt has been underused for quite some time. One gets the sense that Claremont couldn’t think of anything new to do with the character – if that’s true, his decision here is rather shrewd: He credits Nightcrawler’s relative underexposure to Kurt’s own ennui. He has a fantastic line about wanting to start living life for himself “instead of some amorphous dream!” This may be self-criticism on Claremont’s part, the recognition that much of his work on the series up to this point has had only a tangential connection to Xavier’s “dream.”

That Rachel’s vision of a horrible future should change Nightcrawler’s mind is not entirely convincing – it’s much more easy to relate to Kurt when he initially opines, “With respect, Rachel, you’ve proved my case.” Rachel’s explanation for why the X-Men are important largely amounts to cleverly phrased rhetoric, the actual substance of which is a little lacking in logic. Still, the very fact that the idealistic Kurt found himself – however briefly – in an existential crisis over the X-Men’s existence is an interesting idea by Claremont. The author will explore this idea again in about a year’s time.


Patrick said...

Rachel does seem pointless, particularly after the creation of Maddy Pryor to fill in as all purpose Jean substitute. Plus, Rachel is victim of the worst 80s haircut in the book, and that's saying something.

Tracking back a bit, I like "LifeDeath" a lot more than you do. I think it's really emotionally focused, and a great departure from the normal proceedings of the book. And, I love the conclusion of that arc, the trippy journey to another world that takes place over in "Fall of the Mutants."

Jason said...

I agree with you about "Fall of the Mutants." In fact, I think you'll find that when we get to those issues I even quoted a line from your review of it.

I guess I am standing alone re: "LifeDeath." There is just something about these Windsor-Smith issues that doesn't click for me. Awesome artwork, but not the best Claremont writing. (Even the "Wounded Wolf" issue suffers greatly thanks to the inclusion of Katie Power.)

I'm glad you agree with me about Rachel's hairdo, though!

Also, I just re-read Uncanny #206 last night, and felt really validated in my "all she does is cry" opinion. An early scene sees Rogue suggest that they go visit Scott and Maddie in Alaska and Rachel thinks, "No -- I can't face my father!" And she literally throws a tantrum, smashing dishes and stuff. Keep in mind: at this point there are at least four different X-Men comics featuring scenes between Rachel and Scott. Yet she STILL starts smashing someone else's dishes just at the *suggestion* that they should go see him again.

It's like Claremont was *trying* to make her as vile and annoying as possible!

Anonymous said...

Cover love. (Actually, cover and colorist love, since it's the clashing colors that make it work.)

Meanwhile, I'm on assignment in Armenia, so I'm coming late to the party WRT Forge, but here's the short version of my anti-Forge rant. Forge is a noble-souled, darkly handsome

Native American
crippled Vietnam vet
genius inventor
with vaguely defined magical powers
and a mysterious tragic past

I could see three or even four of these, but /all seven/? The first time I encountered this character, my reaction was "Claremont is putting us on". It was like one of those eighties parodies of mainstream comics, Megaton Man or the Tick or something. ('And then, after crashing on Earth, I was adopted by Ma and Pa Schmidt, who taught me the dark arts of the ninja'.)

I mean, I haven't even exhausted the tropes -- the elderly mentor, the shadowy government connections...

You mentioned a while back that Gambit was Claremont's first character who was all surface. I might give that honor to Forge instead. He's so encrusted by mainstream comics superhero tropes that there's hardly any there there. I mean, strip away all the stuff mentioned above, and what's left? 'I feel guilty for designing the anti-mutant weapon that took away your powers'? That's... not much.

Doug M.

Jason said...


When you lay it all out like that, it DOES seem a bit much, but I feel like it's a *little* unfair, because a lot of those qualities are connected -- i.e., Forge is a millionaire BECAUSE he has the mutant ability to invent anything. Those are all bound together. Similarly, the tragedy of his past is connected directly to his being a Vietnam vet.

And is it fair to put "Native American" on the list of striking qualities? That is simply his ethnicity. Would "black" be on a list of Storm's unusual traits, or for that matter would "white" be on Scott or Jean or Wolverine's? Everybody is something.

But that said, I'll admit that my inclination to argue in favor of the character is based on coming to like him via "Fall of the Mutants," and his characterization toward the very end of Claremont's run, in 1990/1991.

Looking at him simply in issues 185-188, I agree with you; there is the lack of a core. In fact, Storm even says something to that effect, doesn't she, at the end of "LifeDeath"? That he is not a real person, just an empty shell? Maybe Claremont WAS writing Forge that way on purpose ... ?

James said...

"And is it fair to put "Native American" on the list of striking qualities? That is simply his ethnicity. Would "black" be on a list of Storm's unusual traits[?]"

In a mainstream superhero comic? Definitely. Though Native American superheroes are (still) more unusual than black ones.

Jason said...

Perhaps "unusual" was a bad choice of words. Doug was listing traits of Forge in such a way as to suggest that it all was too much baggage being attached to him. Is it really accurate to suggest that non-whiteness is somehow a gimmicky characteristic on a par with "mysterious past" or "genius inventor"?

James said...

"Gimmicky" would depend on execution, I think, whether you're talking about ethnicity or mysteriousness of past. I don't know enough to comment on Forge as presented here, but presumably Claremont thought everything on the list was important to the character.

Stephen said...


Dunno if you missed this since it got kind of lost near the end of the last entry, but, but get a load of this about Morrison's BATMAN: http://comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=19176

And, if you don't know, Rich Johnston IS liable to fault, but about 90% of the time with the "green lights" he's right on the money.

(Apologies if you did in fact already pick up on this and simply felt that it didn't merit a comment.)

Geoff Klock said...

Stephen -- no. it does merit a comment ("awesome!") but I have been swamped with grading, and I figured a twitter about it would be enough. Thanks for the link, in all seriousness. I could not have found it without you.

Anonymous said...

Rachel is a bit hard to take in these issues. She is written a lot better by Claremont (and Alan Davis) later on in Excalibur. I also remember her being pretty cool in the X-Men vs. Alpha Flight mini-series. She even encounters and gains a measure of peace with her father in that story (although she doesn't tell him who her father really is).

As for the Forge discussion, I think Forge being Native American normally wouldn't be listed as one of his many traits...but Claremont insisted on making his heritage a front and center issue by making him a shaman/sorceror. Why does the Native American character have to be schooled in magic? It seems like a stereotype, one that Claremont did earlier with the Alpha Flight member known as Shaman. It would have been much cooler if Forge had been allowed to be Native American, but also be a super high-tech genius working for the government without bringing in all the magic stuff. A guy whose mutant power is to invent almost anything, was in Vietnam and is a wounded veteran, and has a bionic leg and a bionic hand...I don't think it had ever been done before, and is a unique character. But then you throw in all the sorcery and it gets not only over-the-top, but into some well-worn territory, as well. Claremont was going for a character conflicted between the high-tech modern age and his magic heritage, but I don't think that was quite pulled off, especialy when the character relies so much more on his laser guns and such in later stories.

Some other Claremont characters come pretty close to Forge in terms of piled-on elements:

Mirage-Cheyenne heritage, a kick-butt no-nonsense leader, ties to some magic "Demon Bear" that I for one never understood, able to conjure images of people's greatest fears and desires, and becomes a VALKYRIE to boot.

Magma-daughter of a Roman Senator from a long-lost offshoot of ancient Rome based in the Amazon jungle AND has the ability to cause earthquakes and shoot lava. I like the character, and she's criminally underused these days (heck, for the past 20 years) but explaining who she is to someone can give you a headache.

Wolverine: Honestly, this guy is not much better than Forge. Rapid healing ability, unbreakable skeleton, claws that cut through almost anything, heightened senses (how come no one ever wonders why he has TWO mutant powers? This is long before Morrison and "secondary mutations"), former Canadian secret agent, trained as a ninja.

Storm: Former master thief, power over weather, and I think she had some magical powers at some point, too (wasn't her mother a sorceress?).

OK, so Magma and Storm maybe aren't as bad as Forge, but I think what it shows us is that Claremont loved to take widely disparate character traits and amalgamate them into single characters. Forge is just an extreme case.

Jason said...

Anon, if we're talking stacked up powers, an even better example than Wolverine is Nightcrawler (teleportation, sticks to walls, has a prehensile tail, and for a while could become invisible -- though later that was retconned to just being "near invisible" as a side-effect of having dark blue skin ...).

Magma is a great example ...I could never quite get on board with the whole "ancient Rome," "city out of time" thing. It was never all that well-developed.

You're right about the Native American stereotype, though. One of Claremont's more embarrassing inclinations was to make all of his Native characters somehow involved in magic. (Although in the case of Shaman, I think that was more Byrne than Claremont.)

There was a rumor at one point that author Sherman Alexie, a Native American who delights in debunking the stereotypes about wise old magical Indians, was going to write a "Forge" miniseries for Marvel. That's something I'd have loved to see.

scott91777 said...

While we're laying on the Forge hate... I've always had problem with his power... how is his power different from being just a really smart guy? Is Reed Richards a Mutant? Tony Stark? They make things comparable to Forge don't they? (I also had this same problem with Cypher) I mean I know it was Xavier's School For 'Gifted' Children... but that's taking it a bit literally isn't it?

What are the limits of his power? What things CAN'T he build or invent?

Jason said...

I don't think Cypher is problematic. He can learn a language after hearing a single sentence, which I think is suitably superhuman and beyond just having a knack for languages ... even in the Marvel world where geniuses are virtually superhuman anyway. I mean, one sentence, c'mon, that's pretty good.

With Forge, though ... yeah, it does seem a bit strange. But I'm guessing there is a similar philosophy behind it as with Cypher ... the idea that Forge can even things without really having do any research or learning into whatever science is required ... he can just figure it out via intuition, almost more psychically than via actual intellectual deduction.

Conversely, I could just be full of it. :)

Anonymous said...

No, you are right. Forge sometimes doesn't even know how his inventions work; he has to take them apart to figure it out. He intuitively can figure out how to make something work. Interestingly, I think the Marauder known as Scalphunter is supposed to have a similar power, but much more limited, he can only build firearms. Try explaining THAT one. I get a power that lets you build a machine, but a power so specific you can only build GUNS? What the heck?

Anonymous said...

Despite Forge's genius (and Prof. X's and Reed Richards and Tony Stark and Hank Pym etc etc) there are no devices (apparently) that can help Rogue or Cyclops control their powers. There are no prisons that can hold most super villains.

Shlomo said...

During the phalanx crossover, I remember there was a scene where Forge is introduced to doug-lock, and the visuals make it seems as if forge is having a "mental orgasm" of color and light. The implications seems to be that this is because doug-lock is such a great machine, or something like that... Its a cute idea that doesnt really fit in with that many other notions in all the other forge stories.

Jason said...

I made a comment just recently about Cyclops and Rogue. It's one of those things that one cannot really think about too hard, or it falls apart.

As far as the "only being able to build guns" thing, that actually reminds me of the prose series "Wild Cards" (which Claremont was an avowed fan of at first, and later wrote for). It debuted around the same time as Dark Knight and Watchmen, and attempted to do something similar as far as "realistic superhero" stuff, but it had much more of a sci-fi approach. It was more about superhumans as a premise than "superheroes" as a genre.

Part of the authors' approach was to give all the superhumans in their world a common origin -- a virus that basically lets your mind re-arrange your entire body exactly once -- but it would tap the subconscious, so it was just luck of the draw that the virus tapped something *good*. This led to a lot of characters who just became mutated freaks or had useless powers. The freaks were ghettoized into a place called Jokertown. (Morrison seems to have cribbed a lot of this for his X-Men, hence the idea of useless mutants and "Mutant Town.")

ANYWAY, point being that a lot of times the powers manifested into an affinity for something very specific, because of whatever image the virus tapped when the person in question was infected. One guy might build himself an "Iron Man"-like suit of armor, but find himself unable to invent anything equally advanced. And that, if asked, he wouldn't even be able to tell you HOW he made the armor suit. (And furthermore, that if you took the suit apart, you might find that it is not even made up of stuff that *should* work, scientifically.)

The idea of a character whose only power is as a gunsmith would fit right in in "Wild Cards," and I wonder if that was in the back of Claremont's mind when he created Scalphunter. (Sidebar/trivia: Uncanny X-Men #222, which features Scalphunter, also features a guy on a beach reading a "Wild Cards" book. And Uncanny X-Men #240, which also features Scalphunter, has as well a cameo by four scientists each named after one of the "Wild Cards" authors.)

Anonymous said...

I don't know if you assessed Rachel correctly, CC is trying to portray someone who is mentally ill, she is an emotionally stunted teenager. Not only has she been granted the power of a God, she's not dealing with her own issues because she's trying to correct the mistakes that lead to a horrible future. It's a complexity that CC shows writes really well. Sure she's uncomfortable to read about and it's irritating to see her make the wrong decisions, but that's true to characterization. It would be far worse to have someone with the same past be a self assured, wise-cracking mary-sue teenager. You can get a lot of that at DC.

sexy said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Michael said...

It's long bothered me that nearly all the American Indians I've seen in comics are mystics of one sort or another. The only exception I'm aware of is Wyatt Wingfoot, and for all I know he might have some magical baggage too, in some story I missed. (And maybe Thunderbird and Warpath. I've only read a few stories with either of them.)
I've also noticed that they all seem to come from reservations, and hold traditional religious beliefs.
I live in Oklahoma, surrounded by Indians, and the ones I've known are nearly all Christian, and more often than not they have commonplace Anglo last names.

(Also, for those who wonder about my terminology, 'Indian' is the most common word used here. In fact, I've never known an Indian who called himself 'Native American' to the best of my knowledge. But I've never gone around asking them what they prefer to be called, either. The subject doesn't come up very often, but when it does, the ones I've known say 'Indian'.)

wwk5d said...

Mirage - I don't remember her having any magical abilities. Her grandfather and parents did. Remember, this is the girl who confronted the Demon Bear with a bow and arrows...

Rachel was whiny. I actually started to like her around #199, and the Asgard issues, where she seemed to make her peace with Cyclops, and seemed to want to grow and become a better person, and to be worthy of her mother and be a 'good' Phoenix. Then, as Jason points out, she's crying about a visit to her father, and throws a tantrum. She does get a pass initially, given her horrible background, but yeah, she was very annoying at times.

Isaac P. said...

I'll throw my 2¢ in to support Rachel. I only started reading her with the introduction of Excalibur and am just now reading her initial appearances as I read through the Essentials. I very much see Anon's take above that Claremont is portraying her as suffering severe mental trauma in addition to the burden of her powers and the annoying tendencies of being a teenager. I can see how having this view of her be the only one you get for several years in a row would turn off someone who is reading the book monthly, but zipping through the issues one after another and already liking her character, I am enjoying them.

DB said...

Did anyone else notice when Rachel is telling the X-Men about her past it is Kurt and his wife Amanda who take Illyana to the bus stop and not Peter and Kitty? At first I thought it was a quirky detail intended to make you wonder why Kurt and Amanda seem to be raising or helping to raise Illyana but after Peter thinks about marrying Katya I wonder if it is just an error.

Also, I love Rachel. I love her for all her convolution, not in spite of it. I love her because she is uber X-Menny. Sure she grates here but by 209 I'm annoyed to see her go. Plus, she is great in Excalibur. I hated her return to the xbooks under Claremont and Brubaker (and her big sworded boyfriend and space limbo was aggravating for her fans) largely to do with her new prsonality and ugly outfit. Also, I liked when she's shown up in the past five or so years except for that ass ugly red outfit. Rachel, you used to be sexy and risque. Why are you covered up like you're exploring Alaska? Also the whole AvX event was ruined before it began for sidelining Rachel. Actually, shit, Hope sidelined Rachel in many ways. But now she's a rainbow meme or something. Yikes.

The xbooks have never been worse than they are right now. Alas.