Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Jason Powell on X-Men/Alpha Flight #’s 1-2

[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.]

“The Gift”

Published in late 1985 but set chronologically earlier (circa Uncanny #193), the X-Men/Alpha Flight miniseries is one of Claremont’s purest stories, possessing a sweetness and simplicity that are almost musical. He works from a premise conceived by committee -- it is credited collectively to Jim Shooter, Ann Nocenti and Denny O’Neil (at the time the editor-in-chief, the X-Men editor and the Alpha Flight editor, respectively). One would expect that to be the kiss of death creatively, but the premise is rather direct: In order to gain the favor of a pantheon of beings even more powerful than gods, Loki (the Norse god of mischief) tries to give the world a gift: a magic fountain capable of creating a utopia for all of humanity, but at the cost of all our souls. Take away the Marvel Universe trappings, and it’s a timeless and universal theme.

Re-teamed with penciller Paul Smith, whose work is as beautiful as ever, Claremont crafts a work rich in character detail. Unburdened by the latticework of plot threads that now continually rest upon the proceedings in the monthly Uncanny title, he is able to let this story unfold with grace and sensitivity. Potentially clichéd sequences, i.e., extended moments of mentally or physically handicapped characters (Puck, Aurora, Rogue) being cured thanks to “the gift” contain a genuine sense of joy. This story also contains a key scene in the X-Men canon, historically: Scott learning that Madelyne is pregnant. In depressingly prosaic terms, thanks to post-Claremont ret-cons, this is kind of the “first appearance” of popular X-character Cable, and thus one of the most significant moments in X-Men history. More importantly in terms of creative expression and emotional weight, and certainly for the purposes of this series (which could not be less interested in the banal story developments that followed immediately in the wake of Claremont’s departure), this is simply one of the sweetest moments in X-Men history.

Rachel Summers, meanwhile, once again starts weeping (as she does at virtually everything said or done in the present since she arrived from the future) at the news that Madelyne’s baby is a boy and, thus, not her. Considering that Madelyne wasn’t her mother in the alternate timeline anyway – not to mention the very fact that this timeline IS alternate – you’d think this would all be moot. To give Claremont credit, however, he parlays Rachel’s angst into a genuinely tear-jerking final scene between Cyclops and Rachel in issue 2 of the miniseries.

Other standout characterizations in X-Men/Alpha Flight include that of Colossus, the only X-Man (other than Rachel) who proves willing to accept Loki’s gift despite the sacrifice; and of Rogue, who develops a charming rapport with Alpha Flight’s Northstar (the first gay superhero, though in 1985 he was still closeted) over the course of the two-parter.

Most intriguing of all is Claremont’s use of Madelyne Pryor in the comic. Made into a healer by Loki’s fountain, she is tested more intensely than any other character. Loki puts the screws to her excruciatingly in the story’s climactic sequence – and she buckles. When put to the ultimate test, she comes down on the side of selling out to keep her power. This is another example of serendipity via serialization. At the time he wrote this arc for Scott’s wife, Claremont surely didn’t know that three years later he’d write a massive X-Men crossover that hinged on Madelyne making a deal with a demon, trading her soul for power. Yet in her confrontation with Loki, this is pretty much exactly what happens. Retroactively then, “The Gift” turns out to contain a very key bit of foreshadowing regarding Madelyne’s ultimate fate in Claremont’s X-Men saga.


Anonymous said...

I think you're being too harsh on Maddie. Loki threatened to allow a man she knew to die, and she caved. The important point was that she stood up to him earlier. The Inferno crossover was completely different. She thought it was just a dream when she chose the Goblin Queen nail.

Paul G. said...

While I always have a fond spot for X-Men/Alpha, in retrospect it suffers from the plot cheat that Paul O'Brien summed up a few years ago: "an interesting moral conundrum is raised, but then it turns out that something very nasty is going to happen, making one side automatically right while avoiding the need to actually address the issue raised."

This cheat isn't as bad here as it is in the story O'Brien was reviewing (the High Evolutionary plot in 2000)--the characters here genuinely wrestle with the problems raised by the fountain for a period of time--but it's still the main weakness of an otherwise wonderful miniseries.

ba said...

I especially enjoyed this storyline when paired with the New Mutants story in the Asgard Adventures TPB. It gave it much more of a place in canon...and the art in the NM arc was a really nice contrast to that in the AF/XM mini.

Jason said...

Anon, I think either interpretation is fair in this story. As I said, she really gets the screwed put to her here, more than any one else. And she does ultimately give up, but hey, who wouldn't under that level of duress?

As for "Inferno" ... Claremont having her choose the "evil fingernail" during a dream sequence is as much a trick of the light, but the psychological undercurrent of the story -- minus the demons and other fantasy trappings -- is that Madelyne wanted vengeance for being wronged, and she sold her soul for the power to do it.

Ultimately, I don't think either of those choices make her less interesting as a character. In fact, she is one of my favorite characters in the Claremont X-Men canon. I *like* that she doesn't always end up taking the high road. I think it's relatable -- no human being always makes the right choice, all the time.

Paul G, yeah, it is a cheat, but I don't think it suffers for it at all. The thing had to wrap up in 96 pages after all, and as you said we DO get to see where every character falls in the debate, before the twist comes that realigns them all.

ba, that's where I first encountered this one as well. The Asgardian TPB is a really nice package. Not only collects a lot of primo comics, but also has a classy overall design and a great, original Art Adams cover. Makes me wistful, just thinking about it.

Anonymous said...

Inferno was cheating. There was no in-character way Claremont could have Madelyne do anything that would endanger Scott or Nathan or Alex. But Claremont was told by Harras that Madelyne had to be turned into a baby-killer within a few months. So, he had her agree in what she thought was a dream, and had her personality magically change. That's why Inferno didn't work. It was using a character being tricked as an excuse for a complete personality change.

Patrick said...

I'd agree that Inferno is really problematic on that level. As someone who was just reading X-Men through, and not the corresponding X-Factor issues, I had much more affection for Maddy than I had for Jean Grey. I love the way Madelyn pulls her life together after Scott leaves her and stays with the X-Men.

I think it's essentially impossible to reconcile the Maddy of Inferno with the character we'd seen in the series to date, and they just pile it on by using Jean battling her as a way for Jean to absolve herself of the Dark Phoenix guilt. It seems odd that Marvel would want to remove the most interesting elements of Jean's character and revert her to the boring character she was before she became the Phoenix. But, I suppose that ties in to the general return to an imagined status quo that never really existed that happens around the time of the X-Men #1 launch.

Anyway, you could view Inferno as a kind of psychogenic exorcism of Scott's guilt. Maddy and Alex turning evil is an inevitable consequence of his abandoning her, and all she does is ultimately Scott's fault, and the crossover is his way of dealing with that, and metaphorically atoning for his guilt by killing Sinister and saving his son. I think that was Marvel's intention with the story, but the casualty is Maddy herself.

More on that when you get to Inferno.

Jason said...

Patrick, yeah, I think that is exactly what they were going for. You can really see the wheels grind, particularly in the X-Factor Inferno issues, which lack Claremont's ability to turn phrases with some sophistication. Simonson's X-Factor issues just lay it all out, with no subtextual nuance of any kind: Scott is absolved of guilt because Sinister warped him as a child. But now he's better. Maddy was always evil -- it was inevitable, because she was grown in a lab, and her "father" was pretty much the Devil.

It *almost* works, but in the end Scott still seems a bit pathetic, at best.

As far as Maddy goes, the more I look at "Inferno" the more I find it kind of works for me. Yes there is the layer of artificiality to it, because of the demonic-possession trope. She goes from being one of Claremont's plucky feminists in the Kitty Pryde/Jessica Drew mold to being one of his comic-opera villainesses in the Selene/White Queen mode.

But under that veneer there is something very righteous about Madelyne in "Inferno" that I like, and which puts it ahead in some ways of "Dark Phoenix," wherein Jean Grey's transformation is genuinely artificial. The "Goblin Queen" persona is extreme, but often entirely justified in her rage.

Anonymous said...

One thing about X-Men/Alpha Flight that I liked was how the crew and passengers on Scott and Maddie's plane were transformed. Lots of imagination there, and cool costume designs from Paul Smith.

The Northstar/Rogue bond is really cool. You could see them maybe becoming a couple, if not for future revelations about Northstar's character. By the way, has Rogue ever used her French anywhere else?

This story, by the way, has one of the most badass Wolverine moments in Claremont's run. We see Wolverine get attacked by two guys out in the snow. Later he turns up with one of the guys. The guy is bloody and torn up and quite unconscious. Wolverine tosses his limp body to the ground. Someone asks where the other guy is. Wolverine replies, "Flying with the angels", as he throws his head back and takes a huge drink of hooch from a bottle. Nice.

Anonymous said...

You don't see why Inferno can seen as misogynistic-A feminist is turned from a loving mother into a scantily-clad baby killing witch because a man left her!And yes, it was still artificial. If I wrote a story where T'Challa cheats on Ororo, and Ororo takes revenge by killing T'Challa's stepmother, it would still be bad writing. Why? Because even though there might be women who might react this way, Ororo wouldn't react this way. And there's nothing justified about trying to kill your son.

Jason said...

Anon, yeah! Those great moments. The relationship between Rogue and Northstar was really nice -- although I think even at this point Northstar was meant to be gay, yes? Even though it hadn't been made explicit ... Recall that Rogue uses her power on him early on in the story, and after that there are several hints dropped that she knows his "secret." There are other bits as well that strongly hint at it ... although I confess it went over my head back when I was a kid reading the Asgardian Wars TPB.

Anonymous said...

Anon, you forgot to mention one more thing that made that Wolverine scene badass. Maddie had healed him of his berzerker rages. This was a completely human Wolvie. But, you know, that raises a question I've been wondering about- why did Maddie heal Wolvie of his berzerker rages? Was she trying to aid or hinder him? I mean, think about it- the transformed humans had someone on their side who could control Wolvie through his bestial side. Without his bestial side, Wolvie stil has a century's experience in the arts of war. It only makes sense if she was trying to help him- or does it?
Interesting how Scott, the patriarch, makes the "right" choice while his wife and daughter let their emotions run away with them.

Jason said...

Michael, your post is the first time anyone brought up "misogynistic."

Yes, I can see it that way.

Bottom line: As Patrick said, top priority for X-editorial was redeeming Scott. Madelyne was being tossed aside. Claremont decided to make this an actual intrinsic part of the story, with Mr. Sinister as a stand-in for editorial mandate. Thus, he and the Marauders try to kill her as soon as Jean Grey shows up.

I like Madelyne a lot, and I enjoy the fact that there is a level on which she can be seen to be reacting righteously to what is essentially an entire universe deciding it doesn't want her around anymore. She says, "To hell with you, universe ... I'm taking you down with me."

I like that.

Anonymous said...

Actually, Nitz the Bloody wrote an entire essay on why the treatment of Maddie was misogynstic. You can find it on Comic Book Resources. It was entitled-"Madelyne Pryor-Victim of the Refrigerator". And the problem with Inferno is that Maddie's always a pawn of someone- Sinister,the demons. Before that, she was evolving into someone other than just Sinister's and Scott's victim.

Jason said...

Thanks for the link. Yeah, it can of course be read that way. Certainly the virgin/whore read on Jean/Madelyne is very compelling.

I disagree that Madelyne is always a pawn, though. Several times it's commented that she ISN'T, despite what Sinister and the demons might think. Her dialogue in the climax of Part Two of "Inferno" is something to the effect of, "You lose, Sinister. I don't belong to you, and I won't be condemned by you," as she casts off the chains that he's bound her in.

There's a sense almost of Claremont fighting himself -- he's been told to write Maddie out, but we know he doesn't really want to.

I'm not trying to be naive here -- I know how "Inferno" reads, and I understand that Madelyne in her Goblin Queen outfit is pretty insane. I just think there are more interesting ways to look at it.

And ultimately, "scantily clad" doesn't mean much to me as any kind of debasement. All superheroes are naked, with colors just painted on them. Wolverine is the ultimate bad ass, and his clothes get blown off all the time.

Again, not trying to be naive. I see what's there. It's not hard to see the flaws in "Inferno" -- they are hardly well hidden. I enjoy it despite those flaws, and am fascinated at the ways it can still work.

Patrick said...

I think Maddy undeniably gets a shitty deal in the story, that's not in dispute. But, my feeling is that the story is conscious of doing that to her, and that Claremont subtly reacts against the editorial orders to redeem Scott by sending her so over the top insane. So, it's not the same as other 'women in refrigerators' since Maddy is in a lot of ways justified in what she's doing. She's turned in to a villain to save Scott, but what Marvel intended people to take away and what the reader actually takes away from the story don't necessarily converge.

rob said...

I recently reread this on a train ride in one sitting, and it may well be the perfect superhero story. Smith's art is beyond beautiful and everyone is given time to shine. Also, I should mention that you made some excellent points about the continuing evolution of the X-Men and their portrayal in your #193 review.

Jason said...

Thank you for saying so, Rob!

Patrick, well said.

O said...

Jason: Having first read this around the time Inferno was published, I saw Madelyne's powers as Anodyne (the healing flame) as some kind of manifestation of the Phoenix force. Or is Claremont just playing with us here? Considering how everyone else's new-found powers relate to a skill or personality trait, I would have thought Madelyne's would have had something to do with flight/being a pilot.

Anonymous said...

The point is that Madelyne's inherently gentle, so she gets turned into a healer. (Claremont showed this aspect of Maddie's nature later. She's more horrified than any of the other X-Men at what Forge did in Vietnam. She volunteers to help the Flying Doctor's Service- the only one of the X-Men to volunteer to help people outside of superheroing. She comforts Jessan Hoan.) Also keep in mind that she's got survivor's guilt from the plane crash and probably wants to make up for it. (The flames are suggestive of the plane crash.) Plus, her husband and friends are always in dangerous situations and she often feels like there's nothing she do to help them. She's probably wished for a similar power in case one of the X-Men got hurt.

Anonymous said...

I forgot that Wolverine had been healed of his berserker rages! Goes to show that ol' Logan doesn't need to get all angry and crazy to kick some butt!

Anonymous said...

Yeah, but that still raises the question- why did Maddie heal him? I thought she was under Loki's control the first time I read this but then I realized that made no sense since the guy who could control animals could control Logan.

O said...

I think I phrased my question/comment unartfully. Trying again:

When Madelyne is first introduced, Claremont plays with the idea that she is possibly a reincarnation of Jean/Phoenix. At the end of the "From the Ashes" run, Claremont seems to say definitively, "No, Madelyne is not Phoenix."

In this X-Men/Alpha Flight two-parter, the fact that Madelyne is granted powers by Loki's fountain reinforces the fact that she is not a mutant. However, Claremont's choice for her powers as Anodyne are, to my mind, a deliberate reference to Phoenix: the flame imagery, for one, and the healing ability (reminiscent of Phoenix restoring her sister Sara after Attuma's attack).

In other words, despite his having faked Madelyne's transformation into Phoenix (via Mastermind), Claremont actually does mean for her to be a reincarnation of Jean Grey sans memories and powers, even before the editorially-mandated Madelyne-as-clone retcon. Anodyne's powers are his way of hinting at that.

Okay, perhaps too much of a stretch, but just wanted to throw that out there.

Jason said...

O, I think it's a great observation.

I've opined before that I think the only reason Claremont did the "she is definitively not Phoenix" bit in FROM THE ASHES was to slip it under Jim Shooter's radar (Shooter having decreed Jean could not come back).

Beyond the obvious things (which Shooter would have looked for), there is an abundance of textual clues to support the idea that Maddy is "good Phoenix" returned, and your points about Alpha Flight/X-Men make the case that much more compelling -- for me, anyway.

wwk5d said...

Poor Maddie. I really liked her. Looking bad, it wasn't the clone retcon that bothered me, it's that they had to turn her into an evil batshit crazy bitch, ir order to negate the fact that Scott walked out on his family and Jean was kind of a homewrecker. Ok, the fault is def more with Scott than Jean. At least Jean initially called him out on walking out on his family.

Still, these 2 issues are lovely, and Smith knocks it out of the park.

Anonymous said...

Haven't read this in a while but remember that being one of my all time favorite Wolverine moments. Not just because of how bad ass it is but also because it's a huge dramatic turning point in the story. I love Wolvie as the sober bringer of bad news who brings everyone down off their cloud and divides them.

Derek E