Thursday, March 05, 2009

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #202

[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.]

“I’ve Gone to Kill – The Beyonder!”

Forced by Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter to devote this issue and the next to Shooter’s absurdly bloated vanity project Secret Wars II, Claremont still accomplishes enough here to make the issue not seem like a mindless cog in a giant crossover machine. For one, he consolidates Rachel Summers’ convoluted back-story via a brief but helpful flashback. In the days before trade paperbacks were SOP as a means of keeping old issues in print, such reminders of old storylines were necessary – doubly so given Claremont’s penchant for open-ended, elliptical storytelling. The way for a reader to get the most out of Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men -- which by 1985 was not so much a narrative straight line as a huge, ever-widening, two-dimensional field of characters and plot threads – is to constantly keep all these things in his or her head while reading.

Since that aforementioned narrative field largely has to be ignored in Uncanny #202 so that the X-Men can fight the Beyonder, Claremont gets into action-mode. Aided by Romita Jr. and guest-inker Al Williamson (whose rough style fits Romita like a glove), the author produces an extended fight sequence that demonstrates imaginative use of the protagonists’ super-powers. In battle with a Sentinel, Magneto uses his powers to “create a magnetic vortex ... to suck super-cold air from the very top of the atmosphere to sea-level,” which is very fun -- both the idea and the poetically sci-fi diction of Claremont’s description.

More entertaining is the stratagem exercised by Colossus and Shadowcat a few pages on, with Kitty hiding herself inside of Peter so that his strength and her phasing ability can be utilized in tandem. A clever idea in its own right, the image has an added narrative crackle when one considers that the two characters are ex-lovers. The idea of merging bodies can’t help but take on a sexual level, and there is something oddly realistic about the notion. The reader is invited to imagine that the two characters would never have conceived of such an intimate use of their own powers had they not, at one time, been romantically involved.

This is not quite using superheroes as metaphor, but there is definitely a unique energy in what Claremont accomplishes with the oblique sexuality of the Colossus/Shadowcat idea shown here. Like the asymmetry between Xavier’s mutant power and Magneto’s, which Geoff so cannily observed is oddly realistic on some strange level, the Peter/Kitty merger is another intuitive cross-wiring of pure fantasy with psychological realism that, to me at least, seems like something altogether different than what writers like Alan Moore do, with their relentlessly dark take on superheroes. I’m not sure if there’s a name for it, but Claremont is the only mainstream superhero writer I’ve ever known to achieve this peculiarly enjoyable trick.


Anonymous said...

Since this issue and the next are Secret Wars II tie-ins, here are a couple of links. Con:

-- and pro:

Okay, pro is a minority view.

Bloated SWII certainly was, and vanity perhaps -- though like pretty much everything else Jim Shooter did, you have to take everything everyone said about it after the fact with a big damn grain of salt. And in retrospect, it's even more annoying than it was at the time -- the Beyonder's "story" is wordy, rambling, distracting, and just dumb, while the Big B himself... oh, dear; those outfits; that hair.

That said, it was a commercial success, and it established the model for the next quarter-century of megacrossovers. If you bought more than a couple of issues of House of M or DC One Million, you can't really turn your nose up at Secret Wars II.

-- By the end of his run, Claremont would have participated in several of these events. I think it's fair to say that he showed varying degrees of enthusiasm -- in some cases he was deeply involved and clearly enjoying himself, in others he was mailing it in.

But maybe this is a good point to pause and take stock. In 1985, the X-Men were about to go viral; one title had become two, then three, and by the early 1990s there'd be half a dozen plus mini-series and guest appearances all over. The flagship title was becoming Marvel's best-selling comic, meaning it would be for a while the best-selling superhero comic in North America. As a result, the X-Men were moving towards the center of the Marvel Universe. This would have very marked effects, good and bad -- I'd say mostly bad, but YMMV -- on the title.

(I like your point about Claremont's use of powers very much, and would like to discuss it, but now I really should get back to writing my report on pharmaceutical supply chains.)

Doug M.

Geoff Klock said...

Doug -- do you know John Ashbery's poem The Instruction Manual?

Jason said...

For the record, I didn't buy even one issue of a "House of M" crossover or DC One Million.

So my nose-turning-up is guiltless.

(Now, if you'd said "Inferno" ...)

Doug, did you read Claremont's "Excalibur." There's a funny panel during the Cross-Time Caper that shows Claremont and Byrne each sitting at a computer terminal. The dialogue tells us that each of them is constantly trying to "out-do" the other with a bigger crossover. (This was in early 1989, just after the big 1988 crossover, "Inferno," which had Claremont at its center, and just before "Acts of Vengeance," the 1989 summer crossover that Byrne begat.) Alan Davis has drawn Claremont with a big X on his chest and Byrne with a giant A (for Avengers, I guess). She-Hulk is serving Byrne drinks while Claremont is surrounded by women in Hellfire Club White Queen/Black Queen outfits. It's funny that Claremont seems to have viewed this rivalry with Byrne with some good humor. Byrne, on the other hand, has nothing good to say about Claremont anymore. (The punchline is Nightcrawler, after seeing the two of them at work, storming off in the opposite direction with the line, "I've had enough of those two to last me a lifetime.")

I guess my point is that I realize that Claremont was complicit in the mega-crossover phenomenon ... he copped to it himself in that issue of Excalibur.

Still, yeah, Secret Wars II, ugh. The core issues in particular are just so low on production values. Slapped together art by Al Milgrom (ugh, THAT guy again), artless dialogue by Shooter. Just some really terrible comics.

For all that Claremont's X-Men was about to "go viral," the comic *never* slipped this low in terms of basic production value between '85 and '90 as SW2 did. These days it might be a different story, but back then you never saw Claremont hacking anything out that was as slipshod as Secret Wars 2 #'s 1-9.

Anonymous said...

Jason, Acts of Vengeance was fall 1989, not summer 1989.
And for all the bad press Secret Wars II gets, it wasn't nearly as bad as Inferno. I at least understood Secret Wars II, which is more than I can say for Inferno. And the premise of Secret Wars II wasn't shamelessly misogynistic. And the art on the X-Factor issues of Inferno was much worse than on Secret Wars II- even taking into account that the X-Men's costumes had been altered, Wolverine didn't look anything like Wolverine.
And yes, X-Men 251-267 was almost as bad as Secret Wars II. I still remember the letters page- "Please get your mess straightened out.""We're trying but when you have a mess this big it takes time to get it straightened out."

kperson said...

Not everything Alan Moore has produced is relentlessly grim. Much of his ABC comics work is fairly bright and fun.

ba said...

Secret Wars II was an awful crossover, and Acts of Vengeance just as bad (though I liked how, at the time, Claremont seemed ticked to have to include magneto, so he inserted a conversation between magneto and moira about how he's just doing it to keep up his street cred, or summat).

I rather liked inferno as a crossover, even though I have the aforementioned complaints about madelyne/goblyn queen/letting cyclops off the hook for being a douche (though this has been discussed ad nauseum in the last few of your columns).

Why would the beyonder choose to look like michael jackson again? 'twas a terrible introduction for boom-boom, and I believe it directly led off into Fallen Angels, correct? My least favorite x-spin off ever, with the exception of the super-intelligent lobsters.

Also, SWII marks the first connection of the x-men as misfits fitting into the misfit town of san francisco, no? A meme that is currently being over-exploited.

Jason said...

Michael, thanks, yes, "Acts of Vengeance" was Fall of 89. "Inferno" was fall of 88. My mistake. Doesn't really change the thrust of what I was saying one iota, but ... hey. Comic book fans love to correct. (I do it myself every chance I get.)

"Inferno" does make sense, story-wise, if one is willing to puzzle it all out, but the crossover does do some weird chronological jumps that do not do the comprehensibility any favors.

Still, Claremont's chapters are much more polished than the Simonsons', and far more accomplished than what we see in Secret Wars 2 -- which by the way does have its share of ... well, sexism to be sure, if not quite misogyny.

As for which has worse art, Secret Wars 2 or the X-Factor issues of "Inferno," I'd call that a wash. (Guess whose name is common across both comics -- a certain Al Milgrom!)

And X-Men 251-267, well, we'll agree to disagree on that. I think that run of issues has got a lot of fantastic stuff. Granted, it's all a matter of opinion at the end of the day, but if you think that run is anywhere close to Secret Wars 2 in terms of flaws, then you are categorically wrong. Just sayin'. :)

Ba, absolutely correct. I'll definitely be discussing the San Francisco thing. I was writing these blogs just around the time they announced the new San Fran direction for X-Men. I couldn't believe the synchronicity, just as I couldn't believe that here was *another* thing Claremont did first that he was once again not getting proper credit for!

neilshyminsky said...

I forgot to mention - I have a distinct memory of this being the first comic that I ever "read". And I place "read" in quotation marks because I could only have been about 5 years-old. It was a funny thing - when I started getting into comics around 8 or 9 years old, I picked up an issue with a badly-colored sentinel on the cover (246, i think?) because I had this foggy memory of reading another comic with two sentinels in a snowstorm. It wasn't the first X-Men comic that I had my mom buy me, but it was definitely when I started buying them every month. Big robots? Heroes dying? Just what I wanted.

Jason said...

Neil, there is some rather well-known/loved blogger, maybe the "Dave's Long Box" guy, who did a nostalgic look-back at this issue. This seems like a good first exposure to the X-Men. Giant robots do speak to the kid in all of us, and as noted, everybody in this issue gets a chance to shine, which is to say use his or her powers in a fun, entertaining way. Dave's Long Box actually commented on that aspect of the issue as well, but I promise I didn't know that back when I first wrote this blog entry.

Jason said...

Here we go, Neil:

Read and become five years old again!

Anonymous said...

Geoff, I did not know that poen -- and it's great! Thank you.

Doug M.

James said...

Matt Fraction did something similar to this Shadowcat/Colossus merger in The Order. Supernaut (a paraplegic) has his mech/battlesuit disabled/destroyed, so to get out of a bind, Aralune (female polymorph) liquidizes herself and encases his body, right down into the bio-ports, so he can "pilot" her. They form a kind of dual/composite consciousness called Hybrid. Afterwards, the characters explicitly categorize the experience as sexual intercourse.

James said...

It's probably worth noting that in both cases the woman can be said to be inside the man, inverting traditional penetration. (However much Hybrid resembles the ColossusCat manouver, their connection comes from Becky's insertion into Milo's ports).

Thinking on it more, Fraction kind of subverts Claremont's* move by reversing the gender roles - in the Order, it's vulnerable Milo who gains strength and protection from Becky.

*I have no idea if he's aware of this comic, obviously.

Jason said...

James, that is interesting. Anyone know if Fraction was reading X-Men at this time? It may not be coincidence that he did that trick in "the Order" and he's also doing the "X-Men in San Fran" over in Uncanny.

And yeah, James, good point about the inversion of what we consider the traditional positioning, as it were.

Note that this move happens again in Uncanny 209, and it involves Kitty rescuing/saving Colossus. So, y'know, not to get broken-record-y, but ... Claremont did it first!!! Seriously, he was having strong women protect vulnerable men YEARS ago. For all his faults, he was way ahead of the curve on that one.

Anonymous said...

Re-reading this issue recently, I have to say that, while I'm not a huge John Romita, Jr. fan, the image of Rachel going Phoenix-supernova over Alcatraz Island is pretty spectacular. JRJr. has a horrible design sense but a great eye for action.

James said...

Jason: I'm talking specifically about the way the power sets interact. In ColossusCat (lame but succinct), Piotr provides physical outer strength while Kitty's purpose is largely defensive, whereas these is reversed in Hybrid, with Milo unable to even walk if not for Becky. (His paraplegia is actually healed after the mingling of their nervous systems.)

I'm almost certainly labouring the point, but the gender roles seem important given the subtext. I'm not trying to argue Fraction's the first genre writer to include strong women! But in the context of a sexual superpower it seems especially noteworthy. Especially in a genre where aligning female sexuality and power usually results in a negative/destructive force (Phoenix, 90s "Bad Girls" etc.)

Jason said...

But Kitty's power is used offensively in that moment (the lamp post that is made intangible, then solidified, which f*cks the Sentinel all up), while Colossus' is used defensively (the armor hides Kitty from the Sentinels' sensors).

To put it another way, Colossus' isn't protecting Kitty in that moment. She would, if I'm recalling the scene correctly, be fine without Colossus' protection. The point is that by being inside him, the Sentinel is tricked, thinking it has to prepare itself to fight the big strong dude when in fact it should've been prepared to defend itself from the phasing chick.

I am laboring the point as well, I realize. But this is what comic-book discussions on the internet are all about, right? :)

James said...

Right you are. I still think Fraction goes further than Claremont, but given the 20-year gap he'd have to.

Jason said...

I suppose I should read this Fraction scene before I really argue the point any more. Though I guess if he made explicit the sexual element of it (which Claremont never did, for Code reasons if nothing else), then that alone means it goes further.

I wonder if I should be looking at the Doug Ramsey/Warlock connection in Claremont's stuff too. That began with Warlock doing the whole bit where he *becomes* an armored suit for Doug to wear, but evolved to the point where they were actually said to be "merging." There never seemed to be any kind of sexual element implied by Claremont in that stuff, to my eye, but maybe that is a flaw in my reading. Hmmm ...

Anonymous said...

Claremont seemed to actively avoid even the very faintest whiff of male homosexuality. As opposed to Byrne, who was perfectly willing to depict gay characters as long as they were doomed, fatally flawed, or really unlikable; more to the point, as opposed to Claremont's fairly consistent interest in female homosexuality.

Still thinking about the "combining powers" point. 5 more pages of report.

Doug M.

Anonymous said...

I love the sequence of Storm leading the Sentinel into the upper atomsphere in the Blackbird. The Sentinel doesn't make it...but Storm does. Totally awesome. Another example of how Storm, even sans superpowers, still was able to kick some butt using her wits and whatever was handy (in this case, an extraordinary airplane).

Anonymous said...

Briefly: Claremont was always interested in creative combinations of his characters' powers. The Fastball Special is probably the earliest example, but in the first few years we also have Nightcrawler teleporting Wolverine around, Cyclops bouncing optic beams off Colossus, Cyclops using Jean as a psionic switchboard to coordinate the attack against Magneto, etc. etc.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that this was a trick Claremont learned from -- gulp! -- Jim Shooter. Nobody is calling Shooter a /great/ comics writer, but he was generally a workmanlike one, and he had a particular strength for superteams. (Recall that he first started writing the Legion of Superheroes as a teenager.) Shooter's Avengers run was not bad at all, and it was marked by -- among other things -- the Avengers regularly using their powers together, instead of just bashing the bad guys one-on-one.

Freely granted, the teamwork tended to consist of "we'll all zap/punch/tackle the bad guy at the same time!" or "you blast him to soften him up, then I'll punch him" -- without the kind of playful creativity we see in high-end Claremont. But Shooter's superteams did tend to work /as teams/ -- or to get whipped when they weren't doing so -- and this was, I think, a concept that Claremont grabbed with both hands and ran with.

-- There are a number of lines in the early years where Claremont is explicit about this, BTW. Like when they fight Magneto in #104, and then again in #111-12, it's made very clear that individual attacks against Magneto only lead to defeat; only a carefully coordinated assault can stop him. Or in the first fight with Alpha Flight, where the Canadians are gaining the advantage: Vindicator says, "Teamwork. We have it -- you don't." Oddly, these references don't seem as common in the later years; I'm not sure what to make of that.

There's still more to say on this topic, but I'm back to my report now.


Doug M.

ba said...

I think Claremont avoided specifically mentioning sexual overtones to the Kitty/Peter thing not only because of code reasons, but because he was writing her at something like 14 years old at the time (I think she started in the comic at 13 1/2 years, by x-men vs. fantastic four, she mentions being 15, and in excalibur, she goes to the high school from heck, and they mention her being old enough to drink in the UK), and he was writing peter as like 19.

Jason said...

Ba, good point. Although Claremont wasn't very shy about sexualizing Kitty in Excalibur. Probably because she'd been around for ten years in real time. But I believe she stated explicitly as having her 15th birthday around Excalibur #24.

Doug, I should say, I have no problems with Shooter as an idea man. I'll even go so far as to say that I like his plotting in Secret Wars ... granted, Secret Wars is less of a story and more a giant exercise in logistics, but still, he did a pretty impressive job of it. So I won't balk at the idea that Shooter might've contributed to Claremont's "power combination" penchant. If Shooter was the mind behind it, cheers to him!

(Oh, trivia: Jean Grey as "psychic switchboard" actually dates back to Arnold "Doom Patrol" Drake's run on X-Men back in 1968. I think it's issue 49 where we first see the idea -- he even uses the exact phrase ("switchboard"). Drake's run was weird, but he actually did contribute a few very lasting ideas to the X-Men, and that use of Jean Grey's power was one of them.)

And, in the pedantic, "Acts of Vengeance was Fall, not Summer" department: It was Shaman who said "Teamwork, we have it, you don't," not Vindicator. :)

Pedantic mode off. Thanks for bringing this up, Doug. I really should've mentioned it when talking about those early issues, and I am a little surprised at myself that I never did. It is an aspect of Claremont's writing that I really like, and wish more superhero "team" books did.

(One of the things I liked about the first Fantastic Four movie -- despite its myriad flaws -- was that it actually had an ending that involved the four characters combining their powers to defeat Doom.)

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wwk5d said...

X-Men 251-267...yeah, that's when the title goes off the rails for me. I remember liking it at the time, but that's because I loved the characters, and wanted to see what would happen the next. The first noticeable decline in quality for me was after FOTM, and this was the next decline. Looking back, it's not that bad, but it's still a mess.

This issue: You know, people remember the Byrne era for it's great fights, but C&JRjr were knocking it out of the park here. You have the great fight with FF in # 199, this, the re-match with FF (where unfortunately, our heroes get their asses handed to them) in a few issues, and the fight with Nimrod in # 209...those fight scenes were awesome. And lots of great moments here for Magneto, Storm, and Shadowcat/Colossus. And since you mention their powers, how they are pretty much opposites, it makes them being lovers also interesting.

rhamilton said...

I think the Doug/Warlock connotations are relatively explicit - if not sexual, at least romantic. Warlock reserves his "selfsoulfriend" term for Doug. Homosexuality here I think is complicated by the fact that Warlock is of a single-gendered species: what having that single gender be "male" means is not entirely clear to me.

Anonymous said...

I must have been in middle school in the early 90s when I declared in the comic shop how much I hated Al Milgrom. Very nice to see some Milgrom hating going on here. The guy could singlehandedly tank a book.