Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #199

[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 Spiral Path”

Besides being an advertisement for the contemporaneous Longshot miniseries (drawn by Arthur Adams and written by X-Men editor Ann Nocenti), the title of this issue also alludes to the odd vicissitudes of the serial narrative. Particularly in comic books like X-Men, with a history decades long, it’s often the case that story ideas, themes and plot twists tend to recur in a perpetual but uneven cycle.

We see a lot of evidence of that phenomenon in Uncanny #199, which features the return of Mystique’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, recurring villains who themselves are a “twist” on other recurring villains – the original Lee/Kirby brotherhood formed by Magneto.

The Brotherhood return here because that’s what villains do in serial superhero narrative – yet now they work for the U.S. government and they are out to capture Magneto, the founder of their precursors, who in his first appearance in 1963 attacked a U.S. government installation. As Mystique points out, her and her team’s defection to the “good side” is not without precedent: Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, charter members of the 1960s Brotherhood, defected to the Avengers very quickly after their first appearance.

Meanwhile, Cyclops – written out of the comic over a year ago – has been called back to the team. The story opens with him, the original X-Man, practicing in the Danger Room, like so many times before.

Jean Grey became Phoenix almost a decade ago. Now her daughter becomes Phoenix, in a scene whose fiery bombast (followed by a collapse) recalls the original transformation by Jean in 1976. There are familiar story turns occurring left, right and center.

Yet matters are not so symmetric that any of these plot points can be said to be coming full circle. Rather, events are proceeding along “The Spiral Path.” Things are the same, but also different. Magneto, of course, is the most significant anomaly. A one-dimensional villain for much of his narrative existence, here we have his most profoundly sympathetic portrayal yet to appear on-panel. Placing him at the National Holocaust Memorial with Kitty, his fellow Jew among the X-Men cast, is striking in its own right. The subsequent revelation that Magneto “saved many” people at Auschwitz is even bolder. Claremont is endowing Magneto with a level of dimensionality that no character in Uncanny X-Men (and few in mainstream superhero comics in general) has ever had before.

As with Rachel fighting the Black Queen or Rogue fighting the psyche of Carol Danvers, when Magneto is attacked by the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants – now ironically dubbed Freedom Force – it is a superhero metaphor. He is facing the crimes of his own past (having founded the original Brotherhood), as manifested in comic-book style. Magneto’s willingness to give himself up to the government has a narrative precursor in Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men: specifically when Wolverine gave himself up to Alpha Flight. But while that was just a superhero story for its own sake, here there is genuine psychological weight behind Magneto’s decision. It is noteworthy that his surrender is not because he recognizes the authority of the establishment. (“Words and titles have never impressed me,” he tells Mystique, “nor do I accept the dominion of any nation over my person.”) Instead, it is about facing up to his personal demons, as personified in the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.

As for the Brotherhood themselves, the fact that Mystique sells out to the establishment is another example of Claremont upending the politics of the X-Men’s premise. Back in X-Men #1, it was the X-Men who went out to capture Magneto. The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants were the revolutionaries, while the X-Men, as pointed out by Neil Shyminski (quoting Julian Darius), were “explicitly counter-revolutionary.” (Back in the Lee/Kirby days, it was the title characters – or the narrative captions – that branded their opponents “evil mutants.” Magneto just referred them as his “brotherhood” or his “band.”)

Now, however, the Brotherhood are aligned with the establishment. The X-Men are outlaws, fighting to defend the revolutionary Magneto from being persecuted at the government’s hands. Note also that the only Silver Age X-Man to appear on panel in this issue is Cyclops, and he ends up being the mouthpiece for the X-Men’s now out-of-date conservatism. “I know Magneto says he’s reformed, but I don’t believe it!” he declares, and in context seems entirely square for holding such a morally absolutist point of view. The times, they are a-changin’.


Anonymous said...

Jason, Scott's believing that Magneto was still evil was a necessary plot device. You had to have some reason why Scott and Jean couldn't return to the X-Men instead of forming X-Factor. (Although, actually, the way this plot device was executed made Scott look like even more of a jerk, especially after Scott concluded that Magneto was cutting a deal with the Hellfire Club behind the X-Men's backs and decided not to warn them for no real reason.)

Jason said...

Indeed, and Cyclops also worked alongside Magneto during "Secret Wars," so his stance here seems very square for a number of reasons.

Jon Brown said...

Spot on analysis as usual Jason. I find it depressing that most people never read these issues, instead focusing on the Bryne run, and that Magneto's psychologically complex characterization here has subsequently been written out of the series by later writers.

The fact that the original five X-men were written out of the comic and placed in the X-Factor book is just totally embarassing to me. It speaks poorly on these characters and portrays them as conservative reactionaries. It totally lacks sincerity.

Or maybe I don't like comics with a superficial Republican view of things.

Jason said...

Jon, thanks.

Yeah, this is sort of the Lost Era. With Magneto, the Holocaust backstory stuck but the present-day characterization did not, which ... is kind of twisted, I think.

I never really thought about X-Factor's premise in partisan terms ... not the first place my mind goes. But that is an interesting observation, and it will stay with me.

I was thinking the other day, how annoying it is to read early X-Factor issues and see the credit "X-Factor created by Bob Layton and Jackson Guice." So you change the name of the comic and suddenly you created the characters? I'm amazed that actually happened.

Jon Brown said...

I don't mean to say that the series itself is overtly political, but rather that while X-men are becoming "a law unto themselves" and the villians are becoming feds, X-Factor looks shockingly old fashioned an conservative. They even pose as a band of anti-mutant hunters as well. It just seems like a black or white Republican morality.

Also, what did you think of those Savage Land comics with Magneto and Rogue? I thought he had more depth than the original villanous Magneto, but at the same time I found it unconvincing. When he executes the villian at the end of the story and Rogue pleads with him not to murder in cold blood, Magneto remains unconvinced. This seems wrong to me, considering that it was Magneto who stops Rachel from murdering the anti-mutant bigots in the earlier issue, using almost the exact same arguments that Rogue used.

Jason said...

Jon, despite the contradiction, I find that I *am* convinced by the Magneto of those issues. The line that always gets me is Magneto saying that his attempts to reform (i.e., the era from X-Men 196 to the 240s or so) were an attempt to emulate Charles Xavier, but that ultimately, "I am not Charles Xavier, and I can never be Charles Xavier."

I'm maybe just letting myself get swept away by the power of the moment, but the portrait that Claremont paints (with help from Jim Lee and Scott Williams, who are amazing in that issue) of a noble attempt to change ending in a tragic failure ... well, it always gives me chills.

Anagramsci said...

great stuff Jason--

but (again at the risk of deep error, given the 20 years that have passed since I read these comics) I really don't think X-Factor should be dismissed so lightly!

the depiction of conservative characters doesn't make the story itself conservative! We've already established that the Calvin Hodge stuff didn't last all that long in X-Factor, but I think that storyline in particular absolutely nuked the conservative/liberal binary in American poltical history, and provided some of the most important meta-commentary on Marvel's Silver Age mutants (with a lot of bleed into the Claremont years)

of course--I could be completely misremembering the whole thing...


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if I'd consider that the original five were being portrayed as conservative reactionaries in X-Factor. Rather, they were portrayed as jerks and idiots. Few Republicans would approve of abandoning your wife and child and lying to your girlfriend about it, or attacking MPs just because you THINK the person they're after might be innocent or not telling your friends and family that you're alive or pretending to kidnap and torture people, with the result that a teenager kills himself.
I have no problem with the idea that the original five would refuse to believe that Magneto really reformed. The problem is that they use that as a reason not to rejoin the X-Men. Now, it makes sense that the Avengers and the FF refused to trust the X-Men because of Magneto- after all, for all they know Magneto is still evil and the X-Men helped Magneto kill Xavier. But the original five know what really happened and think that Magneto is just pretending to reform and has fooled their friends. So the smart thing would be to rejoin and keep an eye on Magneto. But instead, they decide to cut off all contact with the X-Men and leave Magneto with access to Illyana, Rachel and Warlock, all of whom are potentially VERY powerful, so that he can corrupt them.

ba said...

Hmmm, I cannot remember the issues exactly...is this the one where Rachel disappears with virtually no explanation to Mojoworld, not to be seen again until Excalibur, and no one seems to give a shit, or even NOTICE? Because honestly, that was one of the worst plot danglers Claremont has ever perpetrated. (particularly since I am a big rachel fan)

Jason said...

Dave, for me (and this dovetails a bit with Michael's comments), those issues of X-Factor were just so un-entertaining on the surface level that the potential meta-commentary was lost on me. I see where you're going with the line of thinking, but -- just as I often feel when really smart folks expound on what Morrison is doing -- I enjoy the theory more than the content that inspired the theory.

Ba, nope. That is issue 209. And the reason we never got the story on Rachel in Mojoworld is because the miniseries that would've explained it got nixed. (The first few pages were drawn by Rick Leonardi and are available online. I downloaded them to my desktop at one point.)

Anonymous said...

Jason, you raise an important point about X-Factor. Those early issues were awful: the premise was flawed (it was, if you like, a bad "story engine"), the writing was pedestrian, the plots were dull, and the characters all seemed a bit off key. I bought the first few issues of X-Factor, but I don't think I've reread them in 20 years.

Well: sometimes stuff that fails, fails. IOW, if it fails as entertainment, then whatever metacommentary it's trying to carry is just lost.

Oh! By the by -- Jason, can you please e-mail me? You can find me at "vormuir", in the domain men call yahoo dot com.


Doug M.

Jon Brown said...


If the Magneto sequence is convincing, it is because Claremont is such a good writer. However, I don't think that his explination that "I will never be Xavier" fits exactly. It is shown in other stories that Magneto was a good person from the begining, even before he met Xavier. For example, Magneto speaks of how he saved many people from the gas chambers during the Holocaust. He is also portrayed as a glorified super-hero while hunting Nazis and bringing them to justice. He even refuses to execute the Nazis he captures, instead letting them stand trial.

To me, the Savage Land story marks the first time when Magneto started losing his psychological complexity as a character and began to slowly revert back to a one-dimensional villan (which he argueably did after Claremont left).

Have you read the recent Excaliber series? It has Magneto reformed and working together with Xavier to rebuild Genosha following its destruction in Grant Morrison's run. This is probably my favorite of the later-day Claremont works. This story shows Magneto return to his sympathetic characeterization again.

Jason said...

Jon, that is a good point.

But your mentioning the Nazi-hunter material reminds me of how that story (in Classic X-Men #19, my all-time favorite) ends: with Magneto pushed over the edge into villainy, a combination of circumstance and a what we are led to believe is a mental imbalance brought about by how his powers interact with the functioning of his brain.

The latter is a bit pseudo-scientific, and I think exists mainly as a way for Claremont to explain away the maniacal Silver Age incarnation of Magneto. But it does give Claremont an "out" when he is forced in 1991 to put Magneto back into his Silver Age box. Claremont even brings up the mental-instability angle again in his final X-Men story (when we learn that Moira tried to correct the problem at one point).

Uncanny 275, the Savage Land piece, resonates with that material as well -- it's when Magneto gets his magnetic powers back that he becomes a killer.

it is not the most persuasive thing ever, I realize -- it gets into that area where it becomes all about the literal text of the comics, and lacking in any metaphorical, subtextual weight. i.e., so Magneto's powers make him "evil" ... what does that MEAN?

One could go the Greek route and blame it all on tragic fate, I suppose.

At any rate, I still think Claremont's arc for Magneto works, even those last few stories.

I've not read the latter-day "Excalibur" stuff, no. It doesn't interest me too much, and from what I could garner, any long-range plans Claremont had for it were derailed by "House of M" at any rate.

Jon Brown said...


those are all good points. I'm not so much disagreeing that the Savage Land arc is brilliant (because it is!) as much as I am saying that it makes less sense to me in the context of what came before it. I may be one of the few people who likes the idea of Magneto reforming -- I think it changes the dynamics of the X-men in a positive way and it keeps the series from stagnating.

I never really considered the explanation that Magneto's powers make him evil. This has been implied numerous times throughout the series, but never fully expained. Do you know if Claremont was going anywhere with this, or did he just use this as a throw-away explanation for the Silve Age Magneto stories?

You might like the Excalibur series. It has an interesting premise (to me anyway) -- Magneto and Xavier reconcile and work together to rebuild the nation of Genosha. You are correct, the story got completely ruined by House of M and Claremont was forced to end the series before he got started.

The reason I brought it up is because it is filled with meta-narrative commentary that Claremont throws in. Xavier makes statements to the effects of "Magneto is essentially a good man but it is as if he is not allowed to change", which seems to be commentary on how the other writers and editors have handled the character.

Jason said...


No clue as to whether Claremont was going to re-explore the powers-causing-insanity bit. It may indeed have been there to explain Silver Age Magneto (and then, serendipitously, the Bob Harras-Jim Lee Magneto). But I think that is enough to justify it, for no other reason than that Classic X-Men #19 is ingenious.

wwk5d said...

The funny thing is, I don't mind Cyclop's attitude here just yet. The guy still has reasons to doubt Magneto...if anything, I thought the rest of the X-men were to eager to accept him. But it's not that big of a deal for me, especially not at this stage. It's when X-factor starts, and Contrivance Jones begins editing the books, that things become ridiculous, trying to keep the 2 teams as segregated as possible.

"Back in the Lee/Kirby days, it was the title characters – or the narrative captions – that branded their opponents “evil mutants.” Magneto just referred them as his “brotherhood” or his “band"."

Well, they were evil lol It's not like we saw Magneto or anyone else in his Brotherhood volunteering to read to blind orphans.

The shift with Mystique's crew does work, since as you pointed, it does shift the X-men even more into the role of "outlaws". And you have to hand it to Mystique, back then, she was one of the best villains the X-men had. And she was an awesome leader. In this issue, she offers the Brotherhood's services to the government - not out of any sense of altruism, mind you, but out of self-preservation more than anything - and in return, the Brotherhood is allowed to beat up the X-men without fear of any legal prosecution AND they get a paycheck from Uncle Sam as well? This is badass that Cyclops and Storm can only dream of.

The issue itself has lots of great stuff going for it. The scenes with Kitty and Magneto, the fight with the Brotherhood, and Rachel actually becoming interesting (after her obligatory crying scene at the beginning) make this one of my favorite issues.