Thursday, March 19, 2009

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #206

[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.]

“Freedom Is a Four Letter Word”

The issue opens with another iteration of Storm vs. street-thugs (the first two occurred in issues 122 and 180), and we’re invited once again to recognize all that’s changed since the last time we saw such a scene play out. The key difference here is that, while in Uncanny #180, Storm was met with fear by the people she saved, now she is applauded – both by the rescued couple and by local law enforcement (personified by Lt. Sabrina “Bree” Morrel, an old supporting character Claremont’s early-’80s Frisco-based comic series, Spider-Woman). The point is to remind readers that the X-Men have found their happy ending: having been forcibly relocated to San Francisco -- an apparently less intolerant city than New York, at least in the Marvel Universe – the mutants are now regarded as local heroes. They have a home, they’ve made some good friends (all old Spider-Woman characters), and their lives overall have settled into a pleasant routine.

But since this is serial fiction, the status quo has to be disrupted. And since Claremont is now on a darker trajectory as of 1986 (possibly influenced by his anger over the “resurrected Jean Grey” fiasco), that disruption takes a notably pessimistic form. Essentially, the X-Men are run out of town by Freedom Force. In another example of the politics of the comic having been flipped, the bad guys are again instruments of the establishment, while the X-Men are the underdogs – just trying to live their own lives, but having their civil liberties trampled on by government agents.

There’s also a motif of usurpation at work here. Pyro refers to himself and his teammates as “good guys,” stealing the role that is supposed to be the X-Men’s. The new Spider-Woman (introduced in Jim Shooter’s first Secret Wars series) is now a part of the government-sanctioned Freedom Force, and thus is now the official, real Spider-Woman, while the old, heroic one – a now powerless Jessica Drew – has also lost her identity. Spiral speaks of stealing Rachel’s life (and will proceed to do so in three months’ time), and usurps Rogue’s body briefly as well. This can be read metaphorically – though it’s perhaps a stretch – for how a sanctioned majority is often able to assimilate the individualism of oppressed minorities. For the first two decades of their existence, as Neil Shyminski has pointed out, the X-Men were often found on the other side of this dichotomy – their original face-off against the Morlocks, for example, wherein Nightcrawler in particular had a naively positive view of assimilation.

Indeed, as an adjunct to the core events in “Freedom Is a Four Letter Word,” we are reminded acutely of Nightcrawler’s naivety. The last page portrays just how badly out-of-sync he is with the times: while the other X-Men have just been ridden out of town on a rail, Kurt is dwelling obliviously in a fantasy of “beauteous damsel[s] in distress to protect” and “arch-villains to hunt down, confound and trounce.”

Ann Nocenti’s Spiral appears for the second issue in a row, now playing a role that bears no resemblance at all to her part in issue 205. Claremont has clearly taken a shine to Nocenti’s six-armed creation, and cast her as a sort of all-purpose instrument of chaos. She’ll continue to appear in X-Men stories of this period – often alongside equally odd Nocenti villain Mojo – and usually motivated by an arbitrary desire to sow random insanity. Indeed, though the character was not created by him, Spiral stands as a perfect icon for Claremont’s writing style. Always juggling half a dozen plot threads and story arcs at once, Claremont is more at home when he’s disrupting the lives of his characters and never seems inclined to stabilize them. And oftentimes, his motivation seems as arbitrary and whimsical as Spiral’s. (The most dynamically chaotic Spiral moment in the present issue is the one in which she messes with Shadowcat’s power, causing Kitty to be literally “smeared” across the panel. It’s a fantastically freaky visual by Romita and Green.)

Finally, Madelyne Pryor shows up in a San Francisco hospital, suffering from “multiple gunshot wounds.” This is Claremont’s meta-commentary regarding the character’s treatment at the hands of X-Factor writer Bob Layton. Earlier in issue #206 Rogue had been shown reading a postcard from Madelyne, one that bore a “really ancient postmark” and which sported a picture of her and Scott and their baby posed together happily. The irony would have been clear for anyone who’d read X-Factor #1, in which Scott cruelly abandons Madelyne and their son to see the resurrected Jean Grey in New York. Obviously, the postcard was sent before those events took place. The juxtaposition of a happy Madelyne as depicted on the “really ancient” postcard and the bleeding, unconscious woman on a hospital gurney gives a clear message about how Claremont felt about the character’s treatment in X-Factor #1.


Anonymous said...

Jason, Maddie needed to be in a coma until after Rachel left for another reason. If Maddie told the X-Men Scott left her, Rachel could track Scott down with her "hound" powers, read his mind, and find out Jean was alive and X-Factor was a scam. So, Maddie's coma was another plot contrivance to postpone a meeting between X-Men and X-Factor.
The Spider-Woman thing is weird. She's written out of Freedom Force in an Avengers Annual, shows up in an Iron Man issue and a limited series is promised that never happens. I think putting her in Freedom Force was an editorial imposition. I don't think Claremont liked Jessica losing her powers and being replaced by Julia, though and Jessica's dialogue reflects it.

Jason said...

Michael, I s'pose, but if this were the case, Maddie could have just moved somewhere else. A coma is pretty extreme. Especially since it happens in 206, and Rachel is written out in 209. It's not like there was time in that stretch of issues for the X-Men to jaunt to Alaska for a ski holiday.

Jason said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
O said...

Great analysis, Jason. I'd never thought of Madelyne's coma as anything other than Claremont's not knowing what else to do with her character. I love the notion that Claremont was commenting on the whole Jean Grey/X-Factor situation.

This idea also supports the theory (brought up in the comments section of one of your previous posts, I believe) that the characters ultimately responsible for Madelyne's condition are stand-ins for Marvel editorial.

Jason said...

Thanks, O!

Anonymous said...

Jason, I think that part of the coma plot was an attempt by Claremont to explain why Scott couldn't contact Maddie and the other part was to drive home just how badly Scott failed in his responsibilities.

ba said...

Re: Rogue's mind being taken over; Claremont has remarked before that control over her powers is purely a psychological issue. The fact that she doesn't really have psychosomatic control over her own body would lead me to believe that it would be relatively easy for someone else to take it over.

Anonymous said...

Some thoughts on claremont's indulgences:
Claremont seems to have not wanted to kill Jean to begin with, but under duress, he was still able to craft a classic. But even before editorial resurrected Jean, Claremont himself couldnt let Jean go. Madeline pryor was claremont's first jean "stand-in" (before she was revealed to be an actual clone). Rachel was the second "stand-in" a daughter from the future. In a way editorial was giving him back what he always wanted, and couldnt seem to let go.

And then Morrison went and killed her again basically restoring the iconic status in the wake of the "dark Phoenix saga". At the same time that it was harkening back, it also was looking forward: New readers would expect the status of third x-men movie, in which once again Jean had been killed.

fascinating twists...


Jon Brown said...

One comment:

I don't think its fair to say Nightcrawlers view was "naively positive." His speech about being judged by the content of his character, not his looks, is very consistent with Xavier/Martin Luther King's "dream." Nightcrawler isn't advocating assimilation here so much as peaceful coexistence, which is subtly different.

I think the "new" X-men were pretty radical in their politics from the begining, and as I have said before, it is the original team that is Republican.

Reading back over the Magneto Savage Lang story, I think you may have been right. The way Magneto is written by Claremont here makes his return to "villain" entirely convincing. Its even debatable whether or not he is a villain or just a man who is sometimes willing to use foul means to achieve noble ends.

Jason said...

Good points to think about; thank you, Jon.

Anonymous said...

Jon, the difference is that Magneto has a racism that characters like Jack Bauer who are willing to use foul means to achieve noble ends don't.

Jon Brown said...

I'm not sure who Jack Bauer is, but I think Claremont intentionally played down Magneto's racism. In the hands of incompetent writers who only understand the characters on the surface level (i.e. Mark Millar or Grant Morrison), Claremont's Magneto was adamantly opposed to dictatorships and wanted to create a world that would benefit all mankind, mutant or not. He says this explicitly in the GLMK story.

Magneto also stated in X-men 150 that his racism against humans is deeply ingrained psychological problem caused by his traumatic childhood -- "I remember the guards laughing as they herded my family to their deaths. As our lives became nothing to them, so human lives became nothing to me."

wwk5d said...

Well, Magneto didn't start out that way seems Morrison and Millar are basing him on his Silver Age incarnation, when he was your typical conquer the world villain.

I wonder if Claremont had the idea of making her a clone, even back here. Even if, as you say, this scene is "meta-commentary regarding the character’s treatment at the hands of X-Factor writer Bob Layton', in story, he'd need to solve who shot her...and since we do find out, even before FOTM, that Sinister sent the Marauders after her, you always wondered why. I wonder when the idea of her being a clone was decided.

Another good issue. It was interesting to see the X-men whupped so badly here.

Weren't the X-men always underdogs? That's always how I saw it, regardless of whether they were fighting for the establishment or not. And they're not completely hounded by all of the establishment; Bree and SFPD do help them out after their defeat.

One nice scene in this issue: good to see that, even after becoming a harder character, Kitty still brings out the mother hen in Storm :)