Thursday, February 05, 2009

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #196

[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.]

“What Was That?”

Thanks to the free flow of ideas and threads moving back and forth between Uncanny X-Men and New Mutants – not to mention Jim Shooter’s compulsive need to dip his pen into the ink, giving the X-Men and Magneto key roles in his action-figure-tie-in-turned-vanity-project Secret Wars – it’s probably hard to track the evolution of Magneto if one is only reading Uncanny and nothing else. He shows up in Uncanny #196 as the friend of Charles Xavier and lover of Lee Forrester with a distinct lack of explanation. Here’s how it got to that point [deep breath] ...

After Magneto becoming repentant at the end of Uncanny #150, he next appeared in the quasi-canonical X-Men graphic novel “God Loves, Man Kills,” which showed him working with the X-Men against an anti-mutant bigot. He next appeared in Jim Shooter’s first Secret Wars series -- a simple-minded comic book in which heroes fight villains for twelve issues for the edification of a cosmic, all-powerful being called The Beyonder. In Secret Wars, Magneto works on the X-Men’s side once again, at Xavier’s behest.

Magneto’s chronology then picks up in an ongoing New Mutants subplot that for a long time does not intersect that series’ main narrative. Crashing into the ocean after the destruction of Asteroid M, he is rescued by Cyclops’ ex-girlfriend Lee Forrester, and the two return to his base in the Bermuda Triangle. Magneto’s past with Magda is alluded to – we are given the impression that perhaps Lee reminds him a bit of how much he misses certain more human luxuries: friends, lovers, etc. He and Lee become both the former and the latter over the course of a few months, at which point Magneto is contacted by Professor X. Weaker than ever since his mugging, Charles sends Magneto to gather both the X-Men and the New Mutants to help Captain America against the Beyonder. The storyline crosses over into the first issue of the depressingly bad Secret Wars II, which sees Magneto once again working with the X-Men.

That brings us, finally, to Uncanny #196. At this point, we’re only four months away from Claremont’s most severe status-quo change yet, wherein Xavier departs the series entirely and Magneto takes his place as an X-Man and as the New Mutants’ new teacher. Surprising as the move is, there is a narrative precedent, and Claremont even reminds us of it here: Rachel points out to Rogue midway through the issue that in the “Days of Future Past” dystopia, Magneto was an ally of the X-Men. Recall that Byrne even drew the character in a wheelchair for that story, making his status as a replacement-Xavier quite clear.

A scene between Magneto and Rachel was inevitable. Granted, when “Days of Future Past” was originally published, it’s unlikely that Claremont knew then that Magneto’s presence in the concentration camp would be thematically prescient. His new back-story for Magneto wasn’t conceived until Cockrum replaced Byrne as artist on the series. The serendipitous resonance that resulted, however, in the decision to make Magneto a Holocaust survivor certainly can’t be ignored now. When Rachel goes mad in the face of pure hate and bigotry, only to be talked down by the newly rehabilitated Magneto, there is a fascinating psychological parallelism at work. Essentially, both characters have the same origin: Having endured death camps in their youth, each is inclined toward extremism to prevent another Holocaust. When Claremont depicts Rachel’s fit of rage toward the end of “What Was That?”, the reader is invited to consider that Magneto must have had a moment like this too, prior to becoming a villain. (Later, Claremont would show us that exact scene, in the brilliant “Fire in the Night” from Classic X-Men #12.)

Since Magneto’s origin is tied to a real historical tragedy and Rachel’s to a fictional one, the latter character cannot possibly bear the same sense of psychological weight. On a meta-narrative level, Magneto’s maturity and wisdom in the face of Rachel’s naivety parallels the fact that a superhero comic book can never fully bear the weight of reality.

True, the allusions to the Holocaust that occur in X-Men can and do give a sense of gravitas to the storyline; Claremont’s Magneto emerges as the author’s single most psychologically complex creation. But for all that, it is still just a comic book. It can never pretend, with its four-color fictions, to speak to the realities of racism, hatred and bigotry as experienced by actual victims and survivors.

This is why “God Loves, Man Kills” – with its audacious and awkward use of the word “nigger” to somehow prove the hurtfulness of the imagined epithet “mutie” – is such a failure. Ironically, issue 196 once again features Kitty throwing the “N word” in a black person’s face. It’s fascinating that this inflammatory slur appears for the first time in an X-Men story since “God Loves, Man Kills” in the exact same issue that contains a metatextual acknowledgement of the Uncanny X-Men series’ limitations in speaking to racial experience. This is perhaps Claremont’s tacit acknowledgement that “God Loves, Man Kills” was a wrong-headed and immature work.

It’s also significant that it is Kitty who keeps slinging the offensive word around. She’s the youngest member of the team (Claremont makes a point of reminding us she’s 15 one page after she uses the epithet), and therefore the least likely to recognize the full implications of using such loaded language, even in an ironic context that attempts to make an unsubtle point about how “words like that” can be “hurtful.”

30 comments:

pla said...

I'm pretty sure Secret Wars II is hilariously bad, not depressingly bad. Though, as a kid, I think I actually liked it better than the first one, since it largely featured characters sitting around talking.

Jason said...

Well, it's hilariously bad when it is supposed to exciting or sad.

It's depressingly bad when it's trying to be funny.

Paul G. said...

Reading any Marvel comics from 1985 and 1986 is always frustrating because no matter where the plot is for a title, in strolls the Beyonder in a terrible outfit and hairdo, (almost exactly like one imagines Shooter strolling into a writer's office) to derail whatever plotline is underway. The best writers at the time, like Claremont, Stern, Walt Simonson, rolled with the punches and still managed to wrestle good stories out of this editorial remit. But the machinery below the stories starts to show badly.

Claremont did an okay job in this issue, but the effect on the New Mutants storyline at the time was ridiculous. In SWII #1, The Beyonder flies in, rips open the Gladiator arena where several members are undercover, and then boom, sends the team to Limbo. In the crossover issue of the book, Claremont gets them back from Limbo in first few pages, and immediately gets on with his plot. The speed bump was almost visible on the page.

He does a much better job incorporating it later, when the Beyonder kills and resurrects his entire NM cast.

Still, on the whole, what a wreck of a crossover ripping through a year's worth of stories.

Jason said...

It's Magneto who rips open the Gladiator arena, but ... yeah. That is a weird moment. Of course, the gladiator story was pretty weak anyhow (Sienkiewicz seems to have been getting a little tired out), but one wonders if it might've worked better had the SWII crossover not have intruded.

Anonymous said...

This might be the comic that establishes that Wolverine's healing factor protects him from the harmful effects of smoking cigars. Kitty complains about how smelly his cigars are, takes one and gives it a puff, then almost throws up.

Jason said...

I am aghast and agog.

http://www.newsarama.com/comics/020906-X-Men-Forever.html

Geoff Klock said...

I KNOW. I thought of you as soon as I saw that.

It looks like your work on Claremont's X-Men here will NEVER COME TO AN END!

Jason said...

Crazy. You're right, the first issue of this thing will probably come out right as the last blog entry is posted.

Do you think there's a way for Marvel and this blog to cross-promote? "Read reviews of the first 186 issues of Claremont's story, then buy X-Men Forever #1 for part 187!!!"

Patrick said...

I was just about to post that link here. It's pretty insane, that's pretty much the series I always wanted to read from Claremont, so it'll be interesting to see what he comes up with. It'll have the freedom of Elseworlds type stories to kill off characters and mess with stuff, but at the same time, it'll be grounded in the many, many issues he's already written.

I'm excited for it, I may even pick this one up in singles to show it some support.

Jason said...

Y'know, I got really excited when I read the news. My mind kind of reeled at the possibilities ...

... but then the cynic in my kicked in and now I'm wondering if this won't be more bait and switch. Consider "GeNext," which was supposed to be self-contained, then ended up being a continuation of "The End."

It would be fascinating if Claremont actually did go back and pick up storylines from where he left off. But something is telling me he probably won't ... and the last few Claremont series have NOT been tightly edited (GeNext and Big Hero Six both were rife with sloppy mistakes than an editor should've caught.)

So who is going to edit this thing? Who is going to make sure it's consistent with the X-universe as it stood at the beginning of the 90s? I don't think Claremont's memory is that good, and editors these days don't seem willing to really put in the time and research. (Geoff suggested on my Facebook page that they should hire me to track the continuity ... this blog could basically be my application.)

I'm scared there will be inconsistencies and continuity hiccups galore ...

... but, my curiosity will be impossible to overcome. I'll be in the store to buy the first issue, most definitely.

Patrick said...

The thing that worried me was in his interview about the series he was talking about how the rules are all off now and he can go nuts on this. I'm hoping that means that he can do the sort of experimentation and character development that aren't possible on a mainstream X-Men title. but, it could also mean another spin through a bunch of alternate versions of the same characters, a la Exiles.

Perhaps I can ask him about it tomorrow in person. He's at the New York Comicon and I'll be there as well. He's supposed to have a table, so I'm going to try to talk to him for a bit. I'll report back any interesting findings.

Jason said...

Awesome, Patrick! Please do; I'd love to hear what he tells you!

Gary said...

I want to be certain I understand the issue Jason brings up with the use of the word "nigger". Is it because the young Kitty uses it to respond to "mutie", or is it because Claremont uses the real racist epithet to illustrate the fictional one? That is, would the issue exist if Phil had asked if Kitty was a "kike" and she responded "I don't know, Phil, are you a nigger?" or is the issue not with Kitty's spat back in Phil's face response, but rather with the fictional v. real epithets?

Anonymous said...

Ha! I saw it too, and came over here to post a comment about it. Heh.


Doug M.

neilshyminsky said...

re: X-Men Forever - Wow! Even if Claremont is bound to fly off the handle and fill the book with crazy shit, this really isn't the kind of book you can skip, is it? I wonder whether he'll go through with a bunch of the plans he subsequently revealed - killing Wolverine, revealing that Gambit is Sinister, etc.

Gary said...

Looked at the "X-Men: Forever" article. I'd like to get excited, but Claremont's previous returns to the X-Men - The End and that short run with the Neo - were so disappointing... I don't know if he can go home again.

Jason said...

Gary, yeah ... last time this came up there was a bit discussion about how I was bringing some 2009 baggage to the epithet that didn't really exist in quite the same way in 1983. So my take on it here is probably wrong. I'm just very cagey about the use of the word -- I feel like it requires a strong justification or it just seems gratuitous. And yeah, to me, seeing it used as a comeback to the made-up comic-book epithet "mutie" seems offensively trite.

But, y'know, I'm just a liberal white dude so who knows -- I can't remember who took me to task back on the "God Loves Man Kills" thread ... might've been Plok, who is quite a discerning guy. He could well be right on this. The stuff I wrote about it here for the X-Men #196 entry, was written before the back and forth with Plok, so it doesn't take that new perspective into account.

As for "Forever" ... yeah, it is for me un-skippable. Claremont keeps on drawing me in with these vanity projects and I confess they keep disappointing me. X-Men The End was atrocious, GeNeXt was blah ...but, I keep giving the guy chances, and "Forever" will be another one!

Gary said...

Jason tends to be more reasonable than 97.61% of the internet:
"...last time this came up there was a bit discussion about how I was bringing some 2009 baggage to the epithet that didn't really exist in quite the same way in 1983."
That baggage (for me) makes the scene more powerful, not more offensive. Because these days, the n-word is so taboo, so prevalently forbidden and nasty, that seeing it, and Phil and Kitty's give and take... man, they're tearing into each other in a way that they didn't back in 199X when I bought this thing and that I'm sure they didn't back in 1985 when it was first printed.

"I'm just very cagey about the use of the word -- I feel like it requires a strong justification or it just seems gratuitous. And yeah, to me, seeing it used as a comeback to the made-up comic-book epithet "mutie" seems offensively trite."
If this was Garth Ennis, I would agree with you, because Garth Ennis tends to be offensive for offensive's sake. I don't think Claremont ever played the mutant plight anything but straight, and that buys him some hefty latitude in my mind. There is a visceral reaction to "nigger" that "mutie is a very, very offensive word" just doesn't give you. Does "show don't tell" apply here?

Would this make it past editorial today? Would Claremont do it today? That's towards what you and Plok discussed previously - though my Beatles-fu is weak, so I did a LOT of skimming of the "God Loves..." comment thread. Perhaps there was more there in amongst the AYNILs and Walruses.

Oh, also previously discussed - my "kike v. mutie" comment above was nearly dead on given by Jonathan Brown as the last comment on the "God Loves..." thread.

Patrick said...

So, I did get to talk to Claremont yesterday. He was there at the table with his wife and kids doing pretty heavy pitching on Forever. He talked about how it forked in continuity from #4, but his primary question with the series was exploring the idea of why no mutants ever age. I assume that is because of the nebulous nature of continuity, but he claims this series will answer the question.

He also said that the series doesn't exist as an out of continuity fork from X-Men #3 in 1991. It's an alternate world within the Marvel multiverse, so, for example, Rachel Summers couldn't appear in this series while simultaneously being in the regular X-Men book. It's kind of a particular distinction, but it's interesting that he's thought about this stuff. And, it also means no Rachel in the series, so Jason's happy.

I flipped through some of the preview art and it looked pretty nice. the costume design finds a middle ground between the civilian attire of Grant Morrison's crew and the normal superhero look. I got a signed poster for the series and Rogue's outfit in particular looks great. It's not the 90s Jim Lee style, the amount of pockets and pouches is pretty reasonable. The series is set in 2009, he emphasized that, and I'm not sure how that squares with the continuity of X-Men #3. But, he did talk about how they have to go find Fabian Cortez, picking up a plot thread from back then.

I didn't get that much time to talk to him, but I also flipped through some pages from a series he's doing called "X-Women" with Milo Manara. The art looked amazing, it's a graphic novel targeted at the European market, but it'll turn up here as well.

I also talked to Louise Simonson a bit, and she told some interesting stories about working on the series back in the day, and in general was a lot more with it than Chris, who seemed kind of torn between watching his kids, signing his books and talking. His booth was really crowded, and he was pitching Forever pretty hard. I'm definitely sold on it, and since it's coming out bi-weekly, it'll be easier to pick it up in singles.

Jason said...

"Jason tends to be more reasonable than 97.61% of the internet."

I try! :)

You're right, Claremont is not Garth Ennis ... but I still sometimes feel that what Ennis might do out of flippancy, Claremont is still capable of doing out of naivety. Specifically, abuse the "N word" in a context that doesn't justify it. But, I am definitely re-examining this one.

As far as the show-don't-tell ... you know what I think worked really well, even though generally I've read a lot of online negative reviews of it ... is Claremont's own invented epithet "genejoke" (first scene in his first Genosha storyline). "Mutie" has a kind of precious quality (maybe for being one letter away from "Cutie"), but "genejoke" really hits nicely for me as a rear. Something about the phonetic quality of it ... it's harsh and cruel-sounding, and I think it's one of Claremont's best linguistic inventions. And the X-Men's reaction to it in that storyline also feels right to me. Storm's first reaction to being called by the term is an ice cold, "That word ... I do not like it." Gets me every time! That solution, finding a word that somehow is more evocative, strikes me as more creative and ... maybe more classy? ... than dropping the "N" bomb to get your point across. If nothing else, the latter choice is heavy handed.

Jason said...

Patrick, thanks for the report! That's some fascinating stuff. And no Rachel? BONUS!!!

The idea that it takes place in 2009 rather than 1991 doesn't bother me at all, since Marvel Time is impossible to square anyway. (Consider how in X-Men #98, Jean Grey mentions fighting the Sentinels "back in 1969," then her gravestone in issue 138 says she was born in 1956. So she was 13 when she fought the Sentinels? Etc.)

The alternate reality thing ... hm. Not sure I like that. Sounds like maybe he's giving himself an excuse to import material from his recent "New Exiles" series ... something that kind of defeats the purpose of the "last 18 years of continuity didn't happen" remit.

So what is the "X-Women" all about? It's a graphic novel? What's the premise, do you know?

This is exciting stuff! Congrats on getting some scoop, Patrick (and a signed poster too, how fun)!

Patrick said...

It's true that the alternate reality would put it near Exiles, but it did sound like it's a sealed continuity and won't be crossing at all with the main Marvel U. All the events of the last 18 years did not happen in this universe, it picks up a few weeks after X-Men #3.

X-Women is either a mini or a graphic novel. It's targeted at the European market, Milo Manara draws. The preview pages I saw had a bunch of female X-Men characters on a boat going to some mysterious island with a whole bunch of skulls and crashed planes, sort of a cargo cult kind of thing. I'm not sure where it goes from there, but Manara's art was really amazing. It's supposed to be out this summer.

Jon Brown said...

Jason,

One thing I am suprised you didn't comment on was the dialouge between Kitty and Magneto at the end. Magneto nearly killed Kitty last time they had met, and yet here he is holding her in his arms and carrying her to safety while she is telling him "maybe you really are a hero after all". I think this is a very touching moment.

I don't think you are correct in your assumption about this issue's meta-narrative. Claremont still ranks GLMK as his greatest accomplishment, I doubt he would consider it an immature work. I posted a comment in the GLMK section defending the "nigger" comment. I won't repost it because Gary brought up the same point here.

Also, X-men forever sounds great. However, I think that Claremont's downfall came years before X-men 1-3. Once Jim Shooter brought back Jean Gray and decieded that Magneto is a villian again I think Claremont started to run out of steam. During the Jim Lee era, Claremont wasn't even plotting the book anymore.

I wish they would let Claremont continue the series from the point right before they brought Jean back.

whenever Jean Gray was

Patrick said...

Jon, I've heard that sentiment a few other places, that Claremont went downhill after Jean came out and the series should start before #3. For one, I think it would be a bit insulting to tell Chris to start this series before his writing "went bad," but beyond that, I think doing so would miss out on a lot of Claremont's best stories.

The X-Men of the films, the fighting for a world that hates and fears them X-Men, the storyline that's closest to that is the Mutant Massacre. And, for me, Mutant Massacre to Fall of the Mutants era is second only to Paul Smith as the high point of Claremont's run. Each has its own merits, but I would aruge that the 210s and 220s are more thematically critical than Paul Smith, and more audacious too. To write out Kitty and Kurt, two of the most popular characters, was a huge risk, but it works well, and Claremont builds up a great new team afterwards.

Sure, it sucks that Jean came back, but that gave us a more interesting Maddy Pryor arc than we would have otherwise had. As I've said before, I love the way the character is played as someone who is totally without purpose once Jean comes back, but manages to still fight the good fight and become even stronger.

And it's even debatable how much of a villain Magneto is in 1-3. He's still a coherent extension of the character we'd seen over the course of Claremont's run.

Sure, there were some weak stories in the later years of Claremont's run, but by no means should they be written out of X-history.

Gary said...

No Magneto as villain means no X-Men #273-#275, which are some of my favorite comics ever. If you don't recall, these are the issues where Rogue and Magneto face Zaladane and the Savage Land Mutates in the Savage Land.

Unfortunately, Claremont did have to keep pulling up harder because Louise Simonson, who was handling the other X-books, was nowhere near his equal as a writer. Magneto's return to villainy is pathetically done in New Mutants, but it is well-saved by Claremont in X-Men. In these issues, he makes Magneto's return to villainy, as Patrick points out, "a coherent extension of the character we'd seen over the course of Claremont's run."

I don't like the idea of X-Men Forever taking place on an actual numbered world of crosstime. It seems a waste of concept to deny access to Rachel Summers just to maintain that consistency. I'm no Rachel fan, but I just want X-Men if Claremont had never left.

That Tom Grummett is drawing X-Men Forever makes me very happy. That man is one of the most solid superhero artists in the business, and any time I see him working, I'm happy. I may need to go read some Thunderbolts back issues now, just to look at his work.

Jon Brown said...

I think my comments have been taken the wrong way, so I'll clarify. I love the stories from Claremont's later years. No question. Mutant Massacre and Fall of Mutants are great. I don't think Claremont's writing was bad at all. On the contrary, I think he was still doing a wonderful job right up to the end.

All I meant was that the editorial decisions forced him to take the series in a different direction than he wanted to. He was working under highly constrained conditions and forced to make decisions he was opposed to. I have an interview with Claremont from the early 90s (right after he quit X-men) where he explained that Magneto's return to villiany was an editorial decision that he opposed. So was Jean's return. His plan was to make the X-men living, breathing characters who age and grow over time. He wanted Scott to go get married, Xavier to die, new villians to be brought in, etc.

I think X-men 1-3 is flawed because it is simply a rehash; everything in it has been done before. Jim Lee wanted to come in and do his riff on the X-men and to do that, he had to undo alot of the changes Claremont had made. For example: Magneto is a bad guy again, Xavier is crippled and leading the team, Jean is back, the X-men run exercises in the school, etc.

I like Claremont's Magneto because he had genuine character development. He started as a one dimensional villian and then moved 10 steps forward and became a realistic and psychologically complex character. In X-men 1-3, Magneto has taken 5 step back. He still has complexity thanks to Claremont's scripting, but he is reverting back to type.

I would much rather have seen Magneto as a Wolverine type character -- basically trying to do the right thing, but sometimes ends up letting the darker side of his nature take over. The possibilities would have been great, especially if we would have seen Xavier and Magneto team up and work together again.

Anonymous said...

Jon, one correction- it wasn't Shooter who decided Magneto was to be a villain again. Magneto didn't start down the road to villainy until significantly after Shooter left Marvel. It probably was DeFalco or Harras who made the decision.
Michael

Jon Brown said...

That's a fair point. I guess Shooter did leave by then. My bad.

wwk5d said...

"As far as the show-don't-tell ... you know what I think worked really well, even though generally I've read a lot of online negative reviews of it ... is Claremont's own invented epithet "genejoke" (first scene in his first Genosha storyline). "Mutie" has a kind of precious quality (maybe for being one letter away from "Cutie"), but "genejoke" really hits nicely for me as a rear."

That's like someone calling me an "Ay-rab" versus someone calling me a "Sand Nigger". One *sounds* less offensive...but they're both very offensive.

All in all, another good issue from a great run. I do wonder what was the point of labeling this issue under SWII...it's not like the Beyonder does much story-wise, especially compared to his later appearances. Guess it was all just marketing?

Harry said...

While Magneto was merely an ally of sorts here, rather than the fully-fledged X-Man (though he rarely accompanied them on field missions, conveniently, so I would liken him more to Xavier's mentor role) and teacher (more explicitly adopting Xavier's other main role) that he would become, this one issue sort of does show him in the best light, and all while he barely uses his powers, except to hold back the bullet that Rachel had telekinetically redirected. And, unlike in modern Marvel, where so many characters have either been killed off (hello, Kurt Wagner) or darkened (Cyclops, even Colossus, the former heart of the team in many ways, though he did harden slightly in the issues to come during and after the Mutant Massacre, admittedly), his former misdeeds are not swept beneath the carpet by the X-Men, or even by Magneto himself: 'merely a man...who has seen and done and endured what can never be forgotten...or forgiven', indeed. A far cry from how few heroes these days have any nobility, let alone former dyed-in-the-wool supervillains.