Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #195

[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.]

“It Was a Dark and Stormy Night ...”

Claremont has nothing but good things to say about Louise Simonson’s work as an editor on Uncanny X-Men, and indeed there are some fantastic issues to be found from the Simonson (then Jones) editorial tenure – the phenomenal Paul Smith run, for example. As a writer, however, Louise Simonson would come to make some terrible contributions to the X-Men franchise when she took over as regular writer of both X-Factor in 1986 and New Mutants in 1987.

Her first blow against the franchise’s integrity occurs right here, however, when the 12th issue of her original creation Power Pack – an altogether too precious series about superhero kids – crosses over into Uncanny X-Men #195.

Since the action mostly takes place in the Morlock tunnels, a grimy milieu that suits the down-and-dirty style of Romita Jr. and Green perfectly, the issue is not a total loss. It’s as lovely to look at as anything by the art team. (Plus, Romita Jr.’s iteration of Power Pack is surprisingly adorable.) Claremont’s writing has a few fun moments as well – the revelation that Shadowcat’s power has increased to the point that she can phase four people plus herself is very cool. Also well handled is Kitty’s embarrassment/pride at Wolverine’s constant deferment to her authority as temporary team leader.

Still, in spite of those pitifully few bright points, this issue ranges in quality from just generally bland to rather awkward and even laughable. There surely is no more embarrassing moment in Wolverine’s history than when he corrects a four-year-old girl for suggesting that Luke Skywalker’s adventures were “fun.” Apparently, Logan is an anal-retentive “Star Wars” geek. Who knew?

32 comments:

Anagramsci said...

I wonder if I'm the only one who vastly preferred the Simonson X-Factor to Claremont's X-Men during the late 1980s... The original X-Men as confused collaborators with humanist regime? I LOVED that stuff!

don't hate me Jason!
Dave

Patrick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Patrick said...

I don't think Simonson's X-Factor comes close to what Claremont was doing concurrently, but it does have some great moments. And, it's a massive, massive improvement over the first few issues of the series. She manages to salvage the series and even make some sense of the bizarre character actions in the early days of the series. Scott in particular gets some great development, the complexity of which is largely wiped away when he's 'redeemed' in Inferno, but for a while there, there's a lot of conflict and interesting stuff going on there.

If nothing else, it takes Claremont's blend of action and soap opera to the extreme, with easily the most over the top, melodramatic events of any X-book.

Jason said...

Dave, I'll confess to being easily won over or turned off by style and voice (as opposed to plot, or admittedly even thematic coherence). Simonson's dialogue -- particularly in early X-Factor, but she never quite curbed it -- suffered from Secret Wars-esque exclamation-point-itis. Also, I don't know if it is specifically the result of Simonson having written kids in Power Pack as one of her first major gigs, but her characters always seem very petulant to me. Having Scott and Jean -- with all they've been through by the time X-Factor gets rolling -- resorting to "Shut up!"/"Make me!"/"Oh YEAH?" type arguments (and I am not even exaggerating) always felt like utter juvenilia.

Every so often she could score a hit -- as Patrick notes, there are some decent moments in her examination of Scott's abandonment of his wife and child, and in Jean's coming to terms with what her old lover has become. They're too few and far between for my liking, though.

By contrast, Claremont's X-Men from the same period, though certainly not without its murkiness or its excesses, had by that time developed such immaculate presentation and classy production values. Silvestri and Green had developed such fluency and expressiveness (in contrast to Walt Simonson, who on X-Factor was all bombast and no feeling), Glynis Oliver's palette was refined and often ingenious, and Tom Orzechowski's letters were crisper than anybody else at Marvel. And Claremont's writing itself, well ... I'll have plenty of opportunities to talk about that, after all. The whole X-Men package in 1987 and 1988 was very professional and, at least on the surface, completely classy. X-Factor just couldn't compare, in my eyes.

scott91777 said...

I had noticed that Power Pack and the X-men seemed to team up a lot in the 80s, I had always thought it was an odd match... but the Simonson connection would definitely explain it.

Jason doesn't seem to care for the kiddie superheroes... but I know some seem to be quite fond of it and, as I recall, the series achieved a certain amount of critical praise at the time as well. I'm pretty indifferent myself. Anyone care to weight in?

Oh, and Wolverine as a Star Wars geek? Totally awesome, this should still be called back to at least once a year in Wolverine's current comic appearances... refer to Armour as his 'Padawan' or something... only to, when called out on it, just be like "Uhm, nothing... nothing.... nevermind"

Patrick said...

I always found the Power Pack teamups pretty nonsensical. In general, I think X-Men doesn't really work when people try to integrate it in to the larger Marvel Universe. The whole mutant/human dichotomy is undercut in a world where there are so many other superpowered people.

That's one of the things I loved about Morrison's run on the book, he set it in a world that is like our own but with the twist that there's mutants, rather than trying to play with things in the context of the larger Marvel Universe.

But, as for Wolverine and Star Wars. My guess is the reason he said Luke's adventures weren't fun was that he was there! A long, long time ago he got caught up in the fight and happened to be a part of the Rebel Alliance. If he can have fought in World War I and World War II, why the Star Wars as well.

Jason said...

People, we are only a few posts a way from starting a debate about whether Luke's light-saber could cut through Wolverine's bones. WE SHOULD NOT GO DOWN THIS ROAD.

I don't mind the kiddy heroes, but I think it's hard to really write them well. They either read too old or they read too cutesy. I will say I would rather read Simonson's writing on Power Pack or New Mutants than X-Factor. All her characters read like little kids to me anyway, so the closer her characters actually ARE to that age, the more convincing the voices are.

Patrick's right, though, they usually don't fit very well in the X-Men's world. The worst offender is "Mutant Massacre," which introduces a major bad-ass team of villains who cripple multiple members of the X-Men and X-Factor, but then sees those same villains get their butts kicked by the kids of Power Pack. We see The Marauders go from chillingly cold and professional killers to bumbling, "Home Alone"-style comedy villains, and it is pretty painful.

scott91777 said...

Patrick,

Haven't you heard? That's the next story-arc in Wolverine origins :)

If he can be a samurai... why not a Jedi? (which are, basically, space samurai)

Jon Brown said...

I think you are right. I can never make it all the way through a single issue of X-men that features the Power Pack. It just cannot be taken seriously with these little kids running around. It is painful to look at.

The X-men always should have been a part of a seperate universe than the rest of the Marvel heroes. It makes less sense that the public hates mutants when the exact same people love the Fantastic 4 and the Avengers.

Also, what other things did Simonson do to harm the franchise with her writing? I have never actually read her X-factor stuff because I have always been opposed to the entire concept -- bringing Jean back, having Scott abandon his family, etc. X-fact only existed because of some calculated corporate decision, not because it actually makes sense for these characters to interact with each other. I can't read it... its bad.

Anonymous said...

Part of Simonson's problem is that she killed off three popular characters- Doug,Warlock and Maddie- in horrible stories. And she threw in idiotic retcons- she tried to convince the readers that Maddie was always evil and Magneto never reformed despite the fact that it contradicted two dozen issues of thought balloons. She tried to portray Empath as misunderstood after Empath forced Tom and Sharon to have sex before they were ready. What she did to Illyana makes no sense- can anyone explain how Inferno happened if Illyana was never the Darkchilde? A lot of plot contrivances on X-Factor were idiotic- Warren's plane blows up in mid-air and everyone assumes it's suicide, Scott assumes Nathan is dead after finding MADDIE's body,Scott doesn't tell Alex that he thinks Maddie and Nate are dead for no real reason,etc. And the original five drive a kid to suicide and never have to pay for it,except Warren! And she got continuity wrong- Scott wonders why he can't find evidence of Nathan's birth in Alaska? Um, because Nathan was born in WESTCHESTER.
As for Power Pack, I don't see what's wrong with them. They may be kids but they're very powerful.
I could see a villain losing to them.
Michael

Jason said...

A villain losing to them, sure. The same villains who crippled Angel, Colossus, Nightcrawler and Kitty Pryde (and several super-powered Morlocks)? I don't buy it.

My main thing, again, is Simonson's dialogue, which really does at times read like it was written by a ten-year-old. Maddy in "Inferno" says stuff like, "Your wimpy lover can't save you now!" Her sense of language seem incredibly limited; you get a lot of scenes where characters repeat themselves almost verbatim over the course of a few pages -- like Simonson has never heard of the notion of synonyms.

It's really grating.

And yeah, her whole concept of character and plot development is pretty wack. Besides Michael's examples, there is the whole deal with Angel becoming blue-skinned with metal wings that fire razor-sharp "feathers." Ooooh, *dark*. Killing off Doug Ramsey is really uncreative -- it's the most obvious thing you could do with the character whose whole schtick is that he has a passive power that is useless in a fight.

I would almost forgive the ret-conning of Magneto since it was probably editorial edict, but it was done so ham-fistedly, with Magneto painstakingly explaining why he joined the X-Men for nefarious purposes (complete with Sam Guthrie going, "So THAT's why he ..." -- multiple times in one issue, that exact wording each time!).

It's all the kind of stuff that just makes superhero comics seem utterly embarrassing. When Geoff in his book sets up Claremont's X-Men as an example of what stuff like Authority was reacting against, even though I of course felt Claremont was getting short shrift, I still was utterly on board with the thrust of Geoff's argument, because the horrible stuff he talks about IS there in the X-books, and Simonson is one of the worst perpetrators. Simonson IS "Clairmont," Geoff!

Anonymous said...

Well, between the four of them, Power Pack are extremely powerful. Katie once absorbed enough energy to defeat Kurse even though Kurse was seriously amped up by the Beyonder. And Claremont had Maddie hold off Scalphunter and Arclight for a page and a half later on, even though she was shot at the end of it.
You're right about the dialogue in Inferno. You haven't mentioned the worst of it."And the dagger which I have raised will rip open heaven's heart." And even worse, it seemed vague at several points. I had to read Marvel Universe to understand Maddie's death scene because I didn't get that Maddie was fatally wounded by the same blast that Jean was unharmed by, even though they were standing next to each other.
Michael

Jason said...

Power Pack have amped-up powers, but they are still like six years old or whatever. Again, it turned the Marauders from professional killers to Joe Pesci in "Home Alone." It was dumb.

No argument on the X-Factor stuff, though. You also had Al Milgrom (who I honestly think is the worst superhero comic book artist of the last 30 years, even worse than Liefeld) inking those last couple "Inferno X-Factor" issues, so it was an awful package all around.

Gary said...

"The X-men always should have been a part of a seperate universe than the rest of the Marvel heroes. It makes less sense that the public hates mutants when the exact same people love the Fantastic 4 and the Avengers."

"But there was something about the mutants. The were the dark side of the Marvels. Where Captain America and Mister Fantastic spoke to us about the greatness within us all... the mutants were death.
They didn't even have to do anything. They were our replacements, scientists said. The next evolutionary step.. We - homo sapiens - were obsolete. And they were the future.
They were going to kick the dirt onto our graves."
Coupled with a panel of Cyclops glowing visor, the whole panel in deep red, as Cyclops declares, "They're not worth it!"

Marvels #2, as Phil Sheldon thinks about mutants. I had been reading X-Men for 6 years when this came out, and never seen it explained this well. Hopefully it works for some of you folks, as well.

Anonymous said...

Gary -- agreed, that the Marvels bit was very powerful. Other than Morrisson, nobody else has ever made so clear why mutants were scary. Claremont came close sometimes, but was IMO handicapped by his "mutants as civil rights" paradigm.

Jason, I'd argue that there's one good Power Pack / X-Men crossover: the issue (#204?) with Wolverine being chased by the Hellfire-borgs, and helped by the youngest Packer. I'm pretty sure you disagree; let's argue it out when we get there.


Doug M.

Jon Brown said...

Jason,

I'm laughing really hard about your comparision to Joe Pesci in Home Alone...

Jason said...

Gary, I almost mentioned that! It is a clever explanation by Busiek, but it still doesn't *totally* make sense. It doesn't explain why, for example, that in the X-Men's world if some anonymous bloke demonstrates superpowers in public, the people around him go "He must be a mutant! Kill him!" Yet in other contexts and comics this does not happen.

Still, I don't totally mind that there is a Fantastic Four and Avengers in the world of X-Men. I think there are ways that it can kind of make sense. Neil Shyminsky (that guy again!!!) had some great thoughts about it on his blog when he talked about whatever issue of Whedon's X-Men featured the FF has guest stars.

Jon, thanks!

Doug M, yep, you guessed right! Meet you here in a month for another argument.

David Fiore said...

my goodness!

I love Al Milgrom's work on the mid-80s Avengers and Spider-Man titles! And I also liked Walt Simonson's X-Factor art a lot more than anything I ever saw on the Uncanny title

but, on the subject of the relative value of the mutant franchises, I must own that I haven't read any of those book in 20 years (and I actually have NEVER read an issue of New Mutants--I was about as close to being an X-phobe as anyone could have been during that period, while maintaining a 70-comic a month reserve between 1986 and 1989)

so I don't really remember Louise Simonson's dialog at all--but I do remember being dazzled by the double-bind in which the X-Factor team had placed themselves by simultaneously posing as repressive "mutant catchers" and as mutant terrorists--known as X-Terminators, I think!

And when you add the crazy layers of Manchurian Candidate style indirection associated with Calvin (?) Hodge--you really have somethin'!

perhaps some of my Simonson love has been preserved because I think I quit buying mutant comics entirely around the time that Inferno began?

or maybe we just disagree on everything Jason!

except Gwen Stefani

Dave

Jason said...

Do we even agree on Gwen Stefani, David? I'll bet we could find lots of disagreement on which individual songs of hers are the choice ones. :)

But you know, you're right, I forgot that I like Al Milgrom's work on Spectacular Spider-Man. I do have fond memories of that material. Weird, though -- I can barely reconcile the Spec-Spidey Al Milgrom with the guy who drew Kitty/Wolverine or Secret Wars II.

How long did you read X-Factor, by the way? The crazy status-quo you describe (which had its intriguing aspects, I don't deny) didn't really last that long ... it was all kind of handily-dandily tied up by issue 25, and suddenly X-Factor were celebrated as heroes and everything was good again. See, whereas *Claremont* never wrapped things up so easily (which is frustrating also, but in a different way) -- instead he always kept things in a constant state of perpetual chaos. He even made a point of keeping the X-Men in the dark about the aforementioned heroic turn in X-Factor, so that when the teams finally met, the X-Men were still indignant that the originals had become mutant-hunter-terrorist types. It probably says something about Claremont's penchant to keep things as chaotic as possible, that he worked the situation so that as far as the perception of HIS series was concerned, X-Factor was stuck in their most dramatically complicated state, their narrative resolution rendered non-existent via a sin of omission (and even more brilliantly, we later learn this was because Madelyne Pryor censored the news reports that X-Men had access to).

Bubble pop electric!

neilshyminsky said...

Jason: Do you have any idea where I wrote that? Because I was looking on my own blog and couldn't find it. But I can remember having written something about why that was my favorite issue...

Anonymous said...

To be fair to Milgrom, he was often asked to work on projects when a series was late or the artist left at the last minute, which meant that his existing workload suffered. And both Englehart and Gruenwald have admitted that they were the ones responsible for Wonder Man's Christmas tree costume,not Milgrom.
Regarding the X-men's knowledge of X-Factor, it was confusing as to WHEN Maddie started censoring the news reports. This was more of Simonson's bad dialogue. Simonson had Maddie say "I censored the news reports. The demons came later." but Maddie was SHOCKED to see Scott and Jean in UXM232, she falls unconscious and in UXM234 S'ym turns her into the Goblin Queen. Did Simonson mean that she was censoring the news reports before UXM232, which makes no sense, or that she censored the news reports and the demons came to Earth later(i.e. in Inferno)? I thinks Claremont's idea was the Reavers' computers were keeping the truth about X-Factor from the X-Men before UXM234.
Michael

Gary said...

I do not know how people at Marvel know mutants are mutants instead of altered humans.
I'm going to have to get out Power Pack #27 and re-read it. Perhaps I will get out UXM #195 at the same time. The current Power Pack series often bother me with how easily the Pack takes apart big villains, and I don't remember this story bothering me the same way.

Jason said...

Michael, that's a good point. The demons couldn't have come after the censoring, could they? Still, I kind of like the idea that she was censoring things post-demons. That would work. There is that bit when Storm is fiddling on the computer and accidentally finds the same news report (with Scott and Jean) that Madelyne found earlier. Storm is shocked to learn at that moment that Jean Grey is alive. This of course is also kind of silly, when one considers that the end of FF vs. the X-Men sees both teams partying and conversing at the end, and the Fantastic Four were all present to see Jean's resurrection. You'd think that's a topic of conversation that would've come up ...

Neil, I'm not sure. It was on the blog, right? I know it was the one where you talked about what makes X-Men truly sci-fi characters vs. superheroes like the FF. (Which you probably remember.) It would've been right after the issue came out, whenever that was ...

James said...

Neil, Jason: Here, the FF stuff is in the comments.

David Fiore said...

you know, it's amazing, I guess I only really read comics regularly for about two/three years, although I sure went bonkers on back issues (thanks to many paper routes) during that period

so it makes sense that in memory I've reduced X-Factor to one fairly lengthy storyline... lucky for me it was an interesting one!

Jon Brown said...

Gary,

The quote you posted from Marvels is about the best thing anyone has come up with to explain the superhuman/mutant conundrum in the Marvel universe. However, it is still not a perfect explanation.

The difference between mutants and baseline humans is that mutants have powers that put them above and beyond humanity. The sting of being replaced by a more powerful species limited when you have thousands of other baseline humans running around with powers as well.

Also, it is just bad from a narrative standpoint. People only see mutants' phenotype, not the geneotype. In terms of phenotype, the only difference between a mutant and superhuman is the genotype. Yet we are supposed to believe that a) people automatically know the difference when they are mobbing a mutant, and b) people will hate someone for gaining powers through genetics and love them for gaining powers through radiation poisoning.

It also takes away from the uniqueness of mutants. If there are so many superhumans running around, it doesn't really make mutants all that special anymore.

Anonymous said...

About the FF vs. X-Men mini, at the end of FF 286, Jean decides not to immediately tell her family and friends, and Reed,Sue and Cap agree to go along with her. Now, Reed and Sue CAN be complete jerks-once Reed concluded that Ben's inability to return to human form was psychosomatic and they witheld Reed's conclusion from Ben- but it's completely out of character for Cap. Not to mention that you would think that Reed and Cap- two of the greatest strategists in the MU- would worry about what might happen if the X-Men found this out in the middle of a battle and became distracted.
Michael

Gary said...

Jon Brown said:
Yet we are supposed to believe that a) people automatically know the difference when they are mobbing a mutant, and b) people will hate someone for gaining powers through genetics and love them for gaining powers through radiation poisoning.

Yeah, I have no idea how MU denizens can tell who's who and what's what. In Power Pack (the Pack again! You're welcome, Jason!), one of their major villains thinks that they're creepy mutant kids, which makes sense. It's not like they particularly look like they got their powers from a magical space pony.

As to the people loving gaining powers through radiation poisoning and hating it through genetics, maybe a different spin on what Phil Sheldon is saying: think of it as a story about a prophesied king who will rise from the common folk to unseat the current ruler and lead the country to peace and prosperity. When it's an altered human, humans are the common folk. One of yours will lead the country to peace and prosperity. When it's a mutant, they're the current ruler. It's time to kill all the children born at the prophesied time.

James said...

The ability to differentiate is a stretch*, yes, but that people would? Well, that's racism for you, isn't it? Why would someone automatically hate an immigrant from Africa but not from Europe?

*Though perhaps not even an issue: most of the celebrated heroes I can think of (the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Captain America) have been (or appeared to be) forthcoming with their Origin Stories.

neilshyminsky said...

James: Thanks!

wwk5d said...

"The worst offender is "Mutant Massacre," which introduces a major bad-ass team of villains who cripple multiple members of the X-Men and X-Factor, but then sees those same villains get their butts kicked by the kids of Power Pack. We see The Marauders go from chillingly cold and professional killers to bumbling, "Home Alone"-style comedy villains, and it is pretty painful."

Yeah, that pissed me off as well! I know the kids are supposed to be powerful, but c'mon. I know nobody wants to see kids being brutalized by villains (well, back then, anyway), but either give them appropriate villains that are on their level, or show what would really happen.

I don't their appearance in this story, but in the MM...god no.

"He even made a point of keeping the X-Men in the dark about the aforementioned heroic turn in X-Factor, so that when the teams finally met, the X-Men were still indignant that the originals had become mutant-hunter-terrorist types."

I found this so contrived and silly, all so that the two teams would have a cliched fight when they met up (Inferno influencing the X-men or not). It reminded me of the time when Beast and Phoenix were separated from the others...then again, for me, things in the X-titles dip in quality post FOTM...X-men included.

Guys, if you think Simonson's X-factor was bad (I wouldn't say it was bad, but it wasn't great), check out her New Mutants...ugh.

Anonymous said...

My first contact with Louise Simonson was in The Xtinction agenda. This was back when I was very young and just learning how to discriminate between writers. The gap in plot, dialogue and even art between Claremont's 3 issues and the rest is mind boggling.

I was about to say, you could make a case for LS being the worst writer in the X-franchise at this time, but then I realized she's pretty much the only other writer at this time. Why is this? My guess would be she's the easiest for editorial to steer.

Every time CC was given an editorial mandate you can almost see his unhappiness on the page. Most times he would follow in the most passive aggressive way and later on go so far as to try to hide his characters when he saw it coming.

LS on the other hand would jump in with both feet. "Magneto and Maddie Pryor are bad? Sure! Kill Doug and Illyanna? Why not!" I'm over simplifying of course, but her writing is so one dimensional how do you not.

Derek E