Thursday, April 16, 2009

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #213

[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.]


Like a lot of the mythos surrounding the Marvel UK superhero Captain Britain, Elizabeth “Betsy” Braddock is a creation of Chris Claremont who developed into a more interesting and appealing character thanks to writers Alan Moore and Jamie Delano, and artist/writer Alan Davis. His interest in his UK creations re-ignited by those British talents, Claremont imported Betsy Braddock into the X-universe. The world of the X-Men first collided with the world of Captain Britain in New Mutants Annual #2, illustrated by the aforementioned Davis. Now, in Uncanny #213, the integration of Betsy into the X-Men’s world continues, as she officially joins the team – and again, Davis is Claremont’s collaborator.

Reprising the Wolverine/Sabretooth rivalry of the previous issue, the story here is lacking in any particularly striking invention. The comic book is marvelous to look at thanks to Davis’ gorgeous pencils, inked by the equally impressive Paul Neary. Claremont’s plotting doesn’t quite match the smooth, clean perfection of the art, however; the text seems clumsy in comparison. Furthermore, subsequent issues will demonstrate that the author is winging it here – improvising story developments without any notion of how to develop them. For example, the previous issue gave the first tantalizing mention of Mr. Sinister – an audaciously named mystery villain – as the mastermind behind the Morlock massacre. Here, Psylocke telepathically penetrates Sabretooth’s well-protected brain for information about Sinister and the Marauders; we’re led to believe she’s acquired an abundance of useful information. But that never goes anywhere – indeed, when the X-Men finally meet Mr. Sinister two years later during the “Inferno” crossover, they are dumbfounded as to who he might be.

(Betsy’s ability to break into Sabretooth’s mind, by the way, is an oblique hint as to the punning meaning of her seemingly arbitrary code-name, which doubles here as the title of the issue: She is the “lock” that acts as counterpart to the psyche, or “psy-key.” A few seconds of thought about this pun are enough to recognize that it really doesn’t work at all.)

The defining contradiction of Betsy Braddock is hammered home here: Though she’s outwardly feminine (in the cliché sense of the word – soft, shy, demure), Betsy’s soft exterior disguises an experience-hardened warrior.

This isn’t particularly exotic thematic territory for Claremont. If anything, Psylocke is distinguished from other “Claremont women” only by the sheer lack of subtlety in her defining contradiction -- her superhero costume is even pink (a first for any X-Men member), to drive home beyond all doubt that Betsy is the quintessence of stereotypical femininity.

Less immediately obvious, perhaps, is the way Claremont sets Psylocke up as the flip-side of the coin to the recently jettisoned Rachel Summers. Both are young, female telepaths, and Rachel and Betsy are also both survivors of dystopian anti-mutant realities (the latter as per Alan Moore’s “Jim Jaspers” storyline in Captain Britain).

Like Rachel, Betsy is – throughout the “Mutant Massacre” arc – constantly dismissed by the X-Men in somewhat unheroic fashion. But whereas Rachel couldn’t cope with such treatment, and thus deliberately abandoned the team in their time of need as part of a childish tit-for-tat, Betsy sees the X-Men’s snub as a challenge. Spurred to acts of heroism by a desire to prove herself, she ultimately wins the X-Men’s trust and respect, and subsequently is invited to join the team.

As we’ll see in the next few issues, Psylocke’s replacement of a former member is not an isolated incident, but part of a pattern. New members will continue to join over the next few months, as Claremont slowly builds a new, third generation of X-Men to replace the previous one.

This is nothing new in superhero comics, even in 1986 – the Avengers, for example, have rotated members in and out since the 1960s – but a resonance can’t help but be struck when this happens for the X-Men, who didn’t become hugely popular until after their first – and at this point in their history, only – massive roster revision.

Also, crucially, Claremont is bringing in characters that share key characteristics with earlier X-Men. i.e., a telepath is brought in to replace a telepath, an insouciant swashbuckler (Longshot) is brought in to replace Nightcrawler. A relatively inexperienced superhero (Dazzler, introduced precisely one issue after Kitty Pryde back in 1979) replaces Shadowcat, who occupied the “neophyte” role years ago. And Cyclops will be replaced by his own brother. It’s as if the X-Men’s membership has evolved to become somehow archetypal, with certain key personas necessary to complete the gestalt.


Anonymous said...

One major problem I had with this issue-Rogue is defeated by being punched 3 times by Sabretooth. Previously, she had withstood being knocked into orbit. WTF?
I'm not sure if it's fair to compare Dazzler to Kitty Pryde. Dazzler had a lot more experience than Kitty when she first joined. I've always wondered about Alex joining- I wonder if Claremont originally intended to have Alex prove himself a better man than disgraced Scott but this got shot down by Harras.

Anonymous said...

Interesting, I had never picked up on how the four "new" X-Men (Psylocke, Longshot, Havok, and Dazzler) filled the shoes of previous members so neatly.

The pattern is repeated a few years later as Longshot leaves and Gambit comes in, Dazzler leaves and Jubilee comes in, Havok leaves and Cyclops returns, and Psylocke almost replaces herself-morphing from the outwardly super-feminine character with a heart of steel to a persona where the hard-edged warrior supplants the outward "stereotypical" femininity, becoming a super-ninja-telepath-warrior woman. Of course, in that later era of two separate X-Men teams, we get TWO telepaths, the other one being, of course, Jean Grey.

Also, Rachel's "tortured time traveler" persona is taken up, much later, by Bishop.

I liked this issue a lot-it was only my second issue of Uncanny X-Men ever-but it does have its flaws. I remember even as a kid thinking, several issues down the road, "Um, what happened to all the info Psylocke stole from Sabretooth's brain?"

Also, where is Longshot during this story?

Magneto utters an oath to hunt down the Marauders and make them pay for what they have done. But like Callisto's similar promise, and that of Colossus (in the previous issue, before he is paralyzed, he is ranting about finding the Marauders and crushing them) it would go unfulfilled. Are we to believe that Callisto and Magneto just gave up looking? So neither Callisto, with her natural tracking powers and being an ally of the X-Men, and Magneto, working with the Hellfire Club, were never able to follow up on their promises of retribution? Seems unlikely. I thik that lack of following up in pursuing the Marauders, and the nascent X-Men/Hellfire Club alliance, are two very, very large storytelling balls that get dropped. It's as if Claremont got bored and decided to let them slide in favor of the lead-up to "Fall of the Mutants". I remember it being very jarring to go from this issue, and the next issue where they deal with Malice, to the "Old Soldiers" story. Rather than follow up on all this great momentum that had been built up, Claremont has Wolverine and Storm running around in the woods, fighting a trio of old coot mutants. Actually not a bad story, it just doesn't fit with the flow of what is going on.

Magneto is a bit lackluster in this issue. I never understood if he was an X-Man or not. He doesn't go to San Francisco with them, he doesn't help fight Nimrod, he doesn't go help fight the Marauders, and in this story, the mutant who once proved capable of defeating the entire team of X-Men just kind of hangs around. Why couldn't he halt Sabretooth from diving off the cliff at the end of this issue with his magnetic powers? He was, like, five feet away. This continues an era where, for whatever reason, Claremont and Simonson decide to make Magneto into an ineffectual dolt, not accomplishing anything of significance and developing into a ranting pain in the neck in the New Mutants comic. Again, all the development and "momentum" put into the character (going all the way back to before the Dark Phoenix Saga) is allowed to fizzle out in favor of "Fall of the Mutants", "Old Soldiers", and hanging around in the Outback.

Jason said...

MIchael, it's true that Dazzler is more experienced at this point than Kitty was when she joined, but she is still portrayed as the neophyte. Indeed, a recurring motif for her for a good year after she joins is "Dazzler protests that she's been doing the 'super hero' thing long before she joined the X-Men -- Dazzler runs into trouble -- Dazzler screws up -- Dazzler realizes that for all her experience, 'She still has a lot to learn'". Claremont plays her as a neophyte, despite those years and years of Alison fighting Dr. Doom, the Hulk and Galactus in her solo comic. :)

Anon, a letters page from around issue 223 or so (?) explains that there is a reason for Longshot's absence during the Mutant Massacre (since he clearly joined before the Massacre began), and that it will be explained in a second Ann Nocenti/Art Adams Longshot mini. Seems like another miniseries that was lost in the shuffle, along with the Phoenix miniseries that was going to tell us what happened to Rachel Summers in between X-Men 209 and Excalibur Special Edition.

You're right, the Hellfire Club Alliance bit is a bad dropping of the ball. At least the X-Men did go after the Marauders in issues 221-222, and then they do finally hunt them down at the start of "Inferno."

The Hellfire Club thing gets a kind of half-hearted ending in Louise Simonson's New Mutants 75, but it is far from conclusive.

As for Magneto, he actually DID go to San Francisco at the end of Secret Wars II. He seems to have returned to New York before the others, though, to minister to the New Mutants in NM #'s 38-40 (which is one of my favorite Magneto arcs, actually, culminating in Magneto vs. the Avengers -- it's great, the Avengers come off as complete jerks).

Magneto is also an important contributor to the X-Men/FF miniseries (which is another favorite Claremont story of mine). But as of X-Men #220, he is gone -- as you said, right when Claremont starts building up to "Fall of the Mutants." Presumably this was because Louise Simonson was taking over New Mutants the following month, and rather than try to coordinate Magneto's appearances in both series, Claremont just gave up custody and let Simonson take him. At which point Simonson completely drops the ball, as you said, making him into an ineffectual fool. And one who eventually confesses to having just been "playing good" all along ...! (An admission that Claremont himself will overturn later, by having Magneto saying that has decided to start "playing bad"!)

Anonymous said...

Magneto's appearances in Inferno have got to be some of his lamest appearances ever. First he wanders around for four issues accomplishing nothing, then he tries to make a deal with a demon that's killing mutant babies.

ba said...

I agree with all the complaints about magneto becoming rather wishy-washy, but in claremont's defense, he was meant to serve as the headmaster of the school, not necessarily an active member of the adult team, and indeed, he is seen being a jerk headmaster in NM. Though if you have arguably one of the most powerful mutants on the planet teaching at your school, to not persuade him to help out every now and then is a bit silly. Like using "improvised chains" to hold sabretooth? What happened to holding him by the iron in his blood, mags?

That said, I love this issue, and since I started reading x-men after 255, I loved seeing OG psylocke (you know, jason, I never really even though about the "psy-key" pun before...I just thought it was a dumb name, like most captain britain things), and truly prefer her that way.

And it's a good point about the gestalt of the x-men. They have actually brought it up a few times over the years with the avengers - needing a "thor" and a "captain america" and an "iron man" whenever they start a new team. I think it's pretty funny, but it makes sense, because it's almost like taking the same basic characteristics, but you get to start over with the character's story.

Jason said...

Ba, if you started reading X-Men with issue 255, you might recall that the title to issue 256 is "The Key That Breaks the Locke ..." Which is, I guess, punning on the pun ... ? Or it is just kind of silly. (Could be a good title for a "Lost" episode, though.)

I could be wrong, but it seems like 1986 is before they started saying that Magneto could contain people thanks to the "iron in their blood." Indeed, I'm having trouble recalling a time when Claremont actually used that particular conceit. Claremont's thing was more that Magneto had control over all the basic forces: including electromagnetic and gravitational.

I don't know ... superpowers, go figure. As Michael noted upthread, Psylocke held her own physically against Sabretooth, just after the latter was shown taking out Rogue in three punches -- Rogue a woman with the strength and invulnerability to survive being punched into space.

(Oddly enough, Claremont later wrote a story set before Rogue absorbed Ms. Marvel's powers, which showed Ms. Marvel beating Sabretooth pretty handily with that same strength and invulnerability.)

This stuff is never very consistent, is it?

ba said...

Jason, I cannot say that I remember ANY titles to individual issues, let alone that one (also, I didn't start reading until AFTER 255...meaning it wasn't until years later that I learned she wasn't always asian).

I always chalked the rogue thing up to her being caught off guard, and having her head immediately bashed into the ground. She's definitely been knocked out before, so a concussion might do it, and sabretooth is supposed to be very fast...but I'm also rationalizing.

And you're correct about Magneto not holding someone by their iron...I was confused by #104, where he fuses iron particles around banshee.

Anonymous said...

The whole "Magneto controls people via the iron in their blood" thing came about in the 1990s, I think. Is there really enough iron in someone's blood to do that, anyway? The movie Magneto couldn't do it unless a person had an abnormal amount of iron in their blood (see "X2").

It is too bad there is no good follow-up to the Mutant Massacre. The X-Men's fight with them in 221-222 is good, but we were all itching for another rematch. We wanted to see the Marauders get their clock cleaned. The X-Men take them on again, as you said, right before Inferno...and it kind of just fizzles out. The Marauders kind of roll over and die and the X-Men are off to fight demons. Very disappointing. I also wish Claremont and co. could have let Riptide, Blockbuster, and Mr. Sinister die. There is such visceral satisfaction in seeing them get dispatched by the heroes that bringing them back was awful.

Something we haven't talked about is how Colossus's attitude towards killing changed over time. Storm's ethics fluctuate, but so did Peter's. He had killed before Riptide. He was the X-Man who slew Proteus, and afterward he is shown having remorse. He thinks to himself that it had to be done, but wonders at the rightness of it. Fast forward to the Mutant Massacre, and he is not only slaying Riptide, he is threatening to kill all the Marauders. Do you think things had to get personal (i.e, wounding Kitty) before Peter starting killing without remorse?

Jason said...

Sorry, Ba, I misunderstood the significance of issue 255 in your initial post. I get it now!

Anon, yeah, I think that the darkening of Peter was specifically to do with Kitty. But I don't think that's a case of fluctuating ethics so much as Peter just getting supremely tested. I don't think he suddenly change his stance on killing; he was just in a rage at the events of the Massacre.

I really *like* the way the Marauders get taken down in "Inferno"; I think it was a really satisfying final match ... and I like that Claremont complicates those moments, so that the X-Men's moment of triumph is immediately usurped by the demons, the Goblin Queen, etc.

And, Claremont DID let Mr. Sinister die at the end of "Inferno," as far as I know. The character didn't come back until Claremont had a foot out the door.

I don't know, personally I find "Inferno" a very worthy payoff to all those long-running storylines. Maybe I'm in the minority on that one.

Anonymous said...

Hi- I've been lurking for a while. I've really enjoyed these reviews. Thanks for doing them!

I really liked Davis and Neary's art here- I particularly like the way they did Kitty. Her lines are noticeably thinner than the ones used to draw the others- I'd never seen that before, and it actually makes her condition come across in the black and white version of the art. (I'm reading these stories in the Essential X-Men collections.)

I'll miss the X-Men/New mutants informal crossovers. I started really enjoying those after your reviews got me interested in them. :) I also like this version of Magneto.

I'm lousy about commenting, so this may be it for a while, but I'll be reading.


Jason said...

Hi Heather,

Glad you're here! Thanks for commenting. Davis and Neary are fantastic. A shame they didn't do more Uncanny issues around this -- their work in 215 is also excellent.

Dougie said...

I think the "manipulating iron in human blood" gimmick is an invention by Steve Englehart, dating back to Magneto's appearance in The Avengers in the very early 70s. Arguably, "Erik" might have lost this ability after the "regenerations" forced upon him by Alpha and Eric The Red. Similarly, Magneto's bio-engineering expertise (as depicted by Roy Thomas and Len Wein) was dropped by Claremont. I miss the days when villains had that kind of "super-science" at their disposal!

jon brown said...

Did Sinister actually die? I never understood whether Sinister was a clone used by Nate, or whether Nate turned himself into Sinister. Can anyone clear this up?

Jason said...

Well, obviously X-Factor #39 (the end of Inferno) felt very much like the death of Mr. Sinister, definitively.

But yes, thanks, Jon, I had forgotten that after that story we got the Classic X-Men backup stories that depicted a mysterious connection between the orphan named Nathan and Mr. Sinister.

And yeah, it has been said that Claremont's idea for Sinister was that he was some sort of projection of Nate's mind, and that Nate himself was actually much older than he looked, but stuck perpetually in the body of a child (or something?).

The idea was that the kid had an evil boogeyman in him, which was Sinister, and also an idealized "ultra-cool" hero in him as well, who was Gambit.

Some of this filtered into the actual continuity ... it WAS decided that Gambit was connected to Sinister -- but not two halves of the same psyche.

But they also made it that Sinister was just disguising himself as the orphan Nathan to get close to Cyclops.

I much prefer the original idea, because it makes so much more sense of Mr. Sinister, who is so generically comic-book villain. His whole look was designed to make him seem rather outrageous, like a child's idea of some cackling, vampiric evil force. Same with the name.

And it also makes sense of Gambit, who is such an absurd agglomeration of "cool" surface traits.

Instead, they made Sinister a 19th-century geneticist (ugh). Nothing against the idea of a 19th-century geneticist, but ... why the hell would he give himself a name like "Mr. Sinister"?

ba said...

Let's not forget that the two demons involved in Inferno were Sym and N'astirh. Coincidence? I doubt it.

Jason said...

I've heard that it *was* a coincidence. Certainly the S'ym thing was, as that was just a play on Dave Sim's last name.

I don't know ... it's a strange coincidence, but on the other hand, if it was deliberate, what was the point? S'ym and N'astirh really had nothing to do with Sinister, other than that they all had an interest in Madelyne. (A "prior interest"? Oh, the word-play never stops!)

If it wasn't a coincidence, then it was just wordplay for the sake of it, and I'm not sure what to do with that, really ...

Gary said...

Anonymous was wondering about Colossus:Fast forward to the Mutant Massacre, and he is not only slaying Riptide, he is threatening to kill all the Marauders. Do you think things had to get personal (i.e, wounding Kitty) before Peter starting killing without remorse?I don't think that Proteus had anywhere near the body count of the Marauders. Remember that the X-Men were walking through the Alley, which at that point was a slaughterhouse with hundreds? thousands? dead at the hands of the Marauders. Proteus killed an easily countable number of people by possessing them and burning them out. He would continue to do so, and needed to be stopped. There was also a reign of terror that would only increase, but by superheroic comic conventions of the time, probably wasn't causing any deaths. This was Uncanny X-Men circa 1979 (close?), not The Authority. The difference is the intellectual question of "Would you kill Hitler as a child?" versus the question of "Would you kill Hilter after climbing out of a mass grave at Auschwitz, even if you weren't a victim?"

jon brown said...


I wish claremont had definitely cleared this up, because I am still confused about how Sinister's power works. Does Nate himself physically transform his body into Mr. Sinister (like Capt Marvel saying "shazam")? Or does he project Mr. Sinister out of his mind?

Because if Sinister is just a pshyic projection, his death in X-Factor wouldn't necessarly mean the death of Nate. I wonder if Claremont will try to touch on this stuff in his new book.

Shlomo said...

Jason, are you the one who mentioned that claremont admitted that he only killed off all the morlocks... because he couldnt think of anything else to do with them? was there ever an in-story explanation for Sinister's intent of the massacre? Or does it not matter? does the story work for you guys, anyway, even if there is no explanation for this evil? Kind of like Anton chigurh nihilism? cause frankly it always really bothered me. The marauders and the later the reavers, always seemed like weak villians precisely because they were so evil, with very little motivation.

Jason said...

Jon, I guess you're right. Technically, depending on how Claremont intended Nate to work, the death of Sinister would be far from final. But if nothing else, I think this undercuts the ending of "Inferno." It's really powerful to see Cyclops blow this evil bastard away.

Shlomo, it wasn't so much that Claremont couldn't think of what to do with the Morlocks as it was that he intended for the Morlocks to be a pretty small community, but Paul Smith went nuts on the visuals and created a giant army in the first Morlock story. Paring down the Morlocks to only a dozen or two was just bringing it back to Claremont's original intent.

The explanation for the Massacre given originally is that Sinister had some sort of grand plan that "didn't allow for wild cards like the Morlocks." But since Sinister's master plan was never revealed, this isn't too helpful. After Claremont left, an explanation was given ... something to do with the "Age of Apocalypse," as I recall. I'm fuzzy on it.

I do not know the "Anton chigurh" reference (I'll go ahead and cop to cultural ignorance here), but I do like Sinister and the Marauders as just nasty, evil bastards. I like the X-canon having one such villain in the fold. Actually, in Uncanny 239 (and probably a few other places), Mr. Sinister refers to himself as "the Devil," which -- though he means it figuratively -- wouldn't really bother me had it been the canonical explanation. (I know the Marvel U already had like three other Satan avatars, at least, even then, but ... the idea does have an Occam's-razor sort of appeal to it.

The Reavers were a little less satisfying, because after the Marauders/Sinister I don't think the canon needed ANOTHER bunch of evil bad-asses sowing chaos ... but I personally give the Reavers a "guilty pleasure" pass, because I enjoy the perennial comic-book gimmick of different villain factions (Hellfire mercenaries, Lady Deathstrike, etc.) teaming up into a villain supergroup.

jon brown said...


I agree in regards to the death of Sinister. It was cathartic seeing as how Claremont basically revealed that Cyclops had been tortured by this bastard since his childhood, and now he is finally getting even with him.

Anton Chugarh is the bad guy from No Country for Old Men.

The 1990s explanation for the Mutant Massacre was that the Morlocks were actually created by Dark Beast, and Sinister was apparently pissed off at Beast for doing this, so he ordered them to be killed.

Jon Brown said...

Also, Claremont introducing all these evil bastard villians into the cannon during the late 80s works really well, I think. If his intention was to pull apart the X-mythos and make the team confront a reality where life was "kill or be killed", then the old villians needed to be replaced by something even more vile. As you can see during this time when the team was in Australia, they began to become more concerned with survival than with thier long held ideals (notice how Havok, for example, starts to embrace killing as a means).

I feel like Claremont's 90s stuff was building some great momentum towards a final conflict, but thanks to his leaving the series we never got to see what that was.

wwk5d said...

"At least the X-Men did go after the Marauders in issues 221-222"

That was luck, more than anything. They just ran into them when they went to get Maddie.

This is an interesting time. I still like much of the stories before FOTM, but it does seem disjointed. It's like Claremont had waaay too much going on, juggling too many plots and sub-plots. And the disconnect with X-factor will expand one Simonson starts writing New Mutants...under Claremont, Magneto had his failings, but he always seemed to have good intentions, of wanting to become a better person and live up to Xaviers goals and ideals. Under Simonson, the less said, the better.

Jon, Claremont def had and endgame in mind for # 300, with the Shadow King and the Hand playing a role, but of course, he never got around to it.

Teebore said...

an oblique hint as to the punning meaning of her seemingly arbitrary code-name, which doubles here as the title of the issue: She is the “lock” that acts as counterpart to the psyche, or “psy-key.”

Wow, all these years and I never knew that.

You're right, it totally falls apart when you think about it too long, but it's neat to know there's more to it than just a vague comic book-y name.