Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #189

[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.]

“Two Girls Out to Have Fun”

The most immediately noticeable difference in the nature of the X-franchise once the editorial reins have passed from Louise Simonson to Ann Nocenti is that the latter seems to have encouraged a greater amount of fluidity among the core series, Uncanny, and its main ancillary title, The New Mutants. Whereas the two series had remained admirably (if artificially) independent of each other for the first year and a half of the spin-off’s existence, 1984 brings about a new paradigm, where Claremont seems happy to shuffle subplots back and forth between the two, treating the two monthlies as if they were really just one bi-weekly.

As a result, re-reading Uncanny X-Men issues from this period years later without also reading contemporaneous issues of New Mutants leads to some confusion. On the other hand, I will testify that when one is able and willing to read everything in its proper order, the results are quite satisfying, and at times thrilling.

Uncanny X-Men #189 is NOT one such example. Noteworthy for centering entirely on female characters (the protagonists are, as the title suggests, “two girls” and their antagonist is Selene), the issue nonetheless leaves a lot to be desired. To quickly annotate for anyone not familiar with New Mutants: Selene and Magma both first appeared in an arc running through New Mutants 8-12. Magma is a woman out of time, having grown up in Nova Roma, an anachronistic lost city whose culture, technology and politics were all stuck at the level of the Roman Empire. Selene was a black-magic priestess who lived in Nova Roma, and at some point in the past had slain Magma’s mother as part of a ritualistic sacrifice. Selene was also revealed to actually be an immortal, genuinely as ancient as the original Roman Empire.

Magma left her city in New Mutants 12 to join the titular team, and as was shown in Uncanny #183 and 184, Selene has now abandoned Nova Roma as well, to prey upon the contemporary world. From Uncanny #184 Selene bounces into New Mutants #22, where she connects with Friedrich von Roehm, the member of a religion apparently dedicated to worshipping her. Selene explains that she “require[s] a residence ... preferably one which provides access to wealth and influence.” Which brings us at long last to Uncanny #189, wherein von Roehm and Selene show up at the Club, the latter dressed in the “black queen” outfit last seen during the Dark Phoenix Saga.

With “Two Girls Out to Have Fun,” Claremont is trying to achieve some sort of symbolic level of resonance with the Dark Phoenix material. He first establishes a new wrinkle regarding Rachel’s character: in the opening flashback (which presciently casts an image of “the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center [lying] in ruins” as an emblematic, iconic representation of early-21st-century New York), Claremont reveals that Rachel Summers acted as a “hound,” seeking out and killing mutants on behalf of human masters. “So many died,” she recalls, “because of me.” Claremont is alluding obliquely to Dark Phoenix, who also caused the death of “so many.” Rachel now has deaths to redeem, just like her mother did. When Rachel later is brought into opposition against Selene, it is significant that the latter is wearing Jean Grey’s Hellfire outfit. Claremont is thus pitting two Dark Phoenix avatars against each other. (Note also that both Rachel and Selene are telepathic/telekinetic, just like Jean.)

Ultimately it doesn’t work, because there are no stakes beyond the surface cleverness. Also, Magma and Selene aren’t particularly interesting characters, and Rachel remains downright irritating. It’s frustrating to see Claremont once again sideline the putative stars of the comic in favor of some of his less interesting original creations. The bit with Rogue and Colossus smashing through a wall to save the day only three or four pages from the end -- like a deux ex machina (or deus x-machina) -- has now become so rote that Claremont even has Rogue comment on how often it seems to happen. Issue #188 had gone some way toward re-establishing the series’ focus, but now it’s only one month later and Claremont seems to be spinning his wheels again.


scott91777 said...

First of all, this issue totally proved you right about Dan Greens inks... I thought it was someone other than JRJR until I checked the credits. JRJR would definitely go on to define his own style... but Green definitely had a role in shaping that style and this issue is proof of that.

Also, I liked the bit where Rachel thinks about how the Professor has told her not to invade others thoughts and, on the very next page, we see him doing exactly that. Of course, he's doing it for 'research' ... yeah, Charlie... sure. It was little elements like this that Millar would pick up on for his depiction of the character in Ultimate X-men.

Jason said...

Someone should do a comparison/contrast paper (or just a "comparison" paper, sorry Geoff) that examines the parallels between the Xavier/Magneto relationship in X-Men and the Jack Bristow/Arvin Sloane relationship in "Alias." In both cases, you've got two old white guys who used to be friends but are now arch-enemies, constantly at odds (though occasionally forging alliances). And while one is "good" and the other "evil" (more or less), they both utilize a lot of the same morally questionable tactics -- deception, violence, subterfuge ...

An X-Men TV series starring Ron Rifkin as Magneto and Victor Garber as Xavier would've been very good, I think.

Anonymous said...

1) Wasn't Selene the woman the Juggernaut was trying to pick up in the bar a few issues back? (Meaning that Colossus' attack inadvertently saved his life...)

2) HYR _Umbrella Academy_? It's a superhero comic with obvious debts to the X-Men (children brought together by a mysterious wise mentor who lives in a mansion), but it's a rather different take on the material.

Doug M.

Jason said...

Yeah, in the grand style of Claremontian coincidence, Selene was hitting on the Juggernaut. And then later she happens to meet Rachel. Then of her own volition, she decides to join the Hellfire Club.

Claremont loved his coincidences!

I haven't read Umbrella Academy? Well, I read the first page in the store once. It seemed good. I remember Geoff commenting on issues on his blog, when they came out, but I can't remember -- Geoff, did it get a thumbs up from you?

Generally speaking, I've seen mixed reviews on it. Never could quite take the plunge for some reason. Doug, you recommend it?

Anonymous said...

I recommend it. I think it's been somewhat overhyped, but it's definitely worth a look. A friend described it as "X-Men by Edward Gorey", and that's not far off.

Doug M.

Anonymous said...

I always liked Magma. She was a confident kick-butt strong willed heroine. I always thought it was a shame she was sidelined in the late 80s and never again has been in a prominent role in a comic.

I didn't think Selene was telepathic, but had a power called "psychokenesis" which was somehow different than "telekinesis". Different how? Beats me! Claremont said so, so it is, I guess.

Gary said...

Claremont gave Selene control over inanimate objects. First time I read about her was in X-Men 208 or 209, and she makes Rogue's gloves disintegrate, stating "You forget my control over inanimate objects!" or something like that. I presume that must be the difference that you are looking for.

sexy said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
wwk5d said...

"Claremont is trying to achieve some sort of symbolic level of resonance with the Dark Phoenix material."

Jason, I do wonder if here you're over-analyzing a bit...especially with regards to 2 Phoenix Avatars. Selene was wearing that outfit because that's the Hellfire Clubs rules were, it had nothing to do with Jean.

Magma and Rachel both simply had reasons for hating Selene. I think, since Rachel was a new character, he wanted to give her some of the spotlight, and why not throw in Magma, who has her own history with Selene? Plus, since there was so much back and forth between UXM and NM back then, Magma was the logical choice. And, they were both out of their own time, so to speak, making the team-up more logical...

wwk5d said...

And they both have dead mommies ;)