Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #214

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men. For more in this series, see the toolbar.]

“With Malice Toward All”

Though she first appeared in an issue of Claremont and Byrne’s X-Men (#130), Dazzler is not a creation of theirs. Indeed, apart from a repeat appearance in the series a year and half after her first, Alison Blaire – whose gimmick is that she’d rather be a singer than a superhero -- doesn’t seem to have captured Claremont’s interest enough to be integrated into the X-mythos. This changed in 1984 when, with her “Beauty and the Beast” miniseries, Ann Nocenti struck upon a clever twist to make the Dazzler’s characterization more workable. Under Nocenti’s pen, Alison was recast as a fame addict – not only a reluctant hero, but one whose sense of morality is skewed by an addiction to applause. It was a subtly brilliant turn, taking the arbitrary psuedo-science of her mutant power (transmuting sound into light) and giving it a harsh metaphorical twist: Dazzler is an attention whore, absorbing the cheers and applause of her audience in order to increase her own personal glamour.

Claremont was taken enough with the new, morally dubious Alison to incorporate her into a New Mutants storyline in 1985 and then, with issue #214 of Uncanny (published exactly seven years after her first appearance) to make her a full member of the X-Men. In a possibly deliberate bit of irony, given that John Byrne was the first artist to draw Dazzler in a comic book, Claremont uses a plot pinched from one of Byrne’s Fantastic Four issues (FF #281, also titled “With Malice Towards [sic] All”).

The Byrne version featured a psychically possessed Invisible Woman, re-christened Malice, turned against her teammates. The same happens to Dazzler here, though we’re given to understand that Claremont’s Malice (established in previous issues as a stray member of the Marauders) merely draws on the evil that already exists in people. Thus, Malice/Alison’s diva posturing here is motivated by her own addiction to the spotlight.

Dazzler was a morally unambiguous character as first conceived back in 1980, her pristine character symbolized by her pure silver superhero outfit. Claremont, as should be clear here, is fascinated by the tarnished version that Nocenti has crafted, and he’ll continue to explore the “dark Dazzler” over the next couple years.

As for the rest of this issue, it’s standard Claremont super-heroics. The gimmick here of jumping the psychic villain from host to host so that the team is constantly wondering who they can trust, is fun – Claremont had already used it, though, in a New Mutants storyline two years earlier. So it all seems a tad rote, albeit peppered with fun details. The reference to Alison’s animosity toward Rogue, for example, is a nod to early-’80s Dazzler continuity. Meanwhile, Claremont hints at a longer-term plot when Malice possesses a morally righteous SWAT captain, but – like Psylocke’s mind-read of Sabretooth in the previous issue – this goes nowhere.

Matters are elevated a bit by Barry Windsor-Smith’s visual flair. He draws a more convincing version, by far, of Dazzler’s lighting effects than any other comic book artist. But Uncanny #214 never quite shakes its workmanlike feel – it’s Claremont trudging through the necessary dramatic beats to get Dazzler to join the X-Men, but without much sense of passion. It won’t be until after he relocates the team to Australia that Claremont really begins to have fun with Dazzler-as-bitch.


neilshyminsky said...

This issue is also notable, for me, as a mid-point in a very subtle transformation for Wolverine. The battle with the Marauders, where he picked up Jean's scent, and his misidentification of Storm as Malice are part of a process whereby he begins to doubt his senses - both his physical and moral senses, given that they're so intimately connected in/through him. Over the next few years, Claremont will revisit and reinforce this newly developed (and multi-layered) self-doubt in increasingly sadistic ways: having him go feral, stripping him of his powers, having him leave the team, having him crucified. Having built Wolverine up into the fanboy's ultimate dream, he'll spend years tearing him down.

Unfortunately, this is all ultimately wiped away - and, appropriately for such an overdetermined figure of white masculinity, the suffering of Wolverine becomes a heroic-masochistic (an important shift from sadistic) cliche in and of itself - he triumphs through sheer force of will and is all the more awesome for it. Given that, at this point, Claremont characterizes his over-reliance on his powers and their assorted failings as the sort that nearly get his teammates killed, nearly get him killed, and reduce him to a figure of pity, I would guess that this was not his original intention.

Anonymous said...

One problem with this issue. The X-Men's brilliant plan to stop Malice hinges on her possessing Storm even though Storm has no powers at this point. And lucky for the X-Men she does just that.
I didn't see Malice possessing the SWAT team guy as part of a long-term plot. The ending required Malice to know that she won in a way and in order for that to happen she had to possess someone to spy on them.

ba said...

I remember malice from that issue of FF, and she gets used a number of times since then (notably with polaris), but did they ever give her a back story? She was used for a short time in x-factor before sinister kills her, but I don't remember anything about her as a person (is someone born an empathic entity?).

I am ambivalent about the art in this issue - you're absolutely right about how well dazzler's light effects are drawn, jason, but all the characters' faces seem rather sallow, like they had a couple of years of heroin abuse.

Also, like the beginning of wolverine's self-doubt. One could say that he sort of downward spirals from sidekick (kitty) to sidekick (jubilee).

Stephen said...

Though she first appeared in an issue of Claremont and Byrne’s X-Men (#130), Dazzler is not a creation of theirsI get what you mean, and of course in the common sense of creation (which here is subtler than the technical one) you're right: what's worthwile and interesting about the character is not theirs.

But this is still confusingly worded, since "created by" is (if I'm not mistaken) a technical term in the comics field and Dazzler *was* "created by" them in that sense.


Jason said...

Stephen, I'm not sure what you mean. Dazzler was created by Jim Shooter and Tim DeFalco and some other folks (I don't remember, it was creation by committee). Shooter than ordered Claremont and Byrne (neither of whom had a hand in her creation) to slot her into an issue of X-Men. Both Byrne and Claremont disavow any part in the creation of the character.

Ba, yes, Malice's whole deal does make one wonder about the details of her life. Presumably she wasn't born as an entity of pure thought, but since mutant powers are usually said to kick in at puberty, did she dissolve into mental mist when she was 12?

I don't think the Malice in FF and this Malice are the same character, are they? (I'm really asking ... I had always assumed they were not the same character, but I never was 100% clear on this.)

I know what you mean about Windsor-Smith's faces, Ba, but ... I don't know, I like it for some reason.

Michael, it's not just that he is possessed at the end, but that SWAT team character gets what seems to be the beginning of some real characterization earlier in the comic. It seems to be teasing at something, to me.

Neil, what a fantastic observation. You're right, Claremont's efforts were entirely diluted ... not only by what happened toward the end of Claremont's run and after, but even what was going on DURING all that Logan-abuse, over in the Wolverine solo comic. It was pretty weird at the time ... while Wolverine was getting bashed to hell in an extended arc in X-Men, he was over in the Wolverine title being his typical bad-ass, fanboy-pleasing self. (Indeed, as a kid, I preferred the solo title, because it had the bad-ass Wolverine that I preferred, and I abandoned the Wolverine in Claremont's X-Men because what was happening to Logan (and everyone else, really) was just too weird for me.

Marvel editorial totally played me back then! I'm ashamed.

Dougie said...

IIRC, FF Malice was an alternate identity for Susan Richards, created off-screen by Lee/Kirby villain Psycho-Man. It was Sue's "Black Queen" persona, if you like. I'm not aware of any connection with the villain in this issue, whose schtick is more like Jericho or Karma.
I didn't enjoy that FF storyline at the time and recalling it now, it seems misogynist and unpleasant: very, very 80s, in fact.

I now wonder if Marauder Malice's somewhat fetishistic choker gimmick was recycled from the Claremont/Rogers "Daughters of the Dragon" vampire story?

Stephen said...


Isn't it obvious? What I meant was something that it turns out was totally wrong. I thought you were saying something you weren't.

My bad.


Jason said...

Dougie, I haven't read the FF story, only *about* it, but it does sound pretty bad. Byrne likes to imply he's above that kind of fetishistic story, but his own work proves him a liar.

(I've not read the "Daughters of the Dragon" story either, but certainly Claremont had lots of motifs he liked to re-use.)

Stephen, cool. :)

Anonymous said...

That story is problematic. Sue emerges a stronger character after it and graduates from Girl to Woman. OTOH, it is fetishistic, Reed slaps Sue to snap her out of it and Sue comes off as a bad mother during parts of it. I've had mixed feelings about the ending to this day- on the one hand what Sue does to Psycho-Man in revenge is cruel but OTOH, it's exactly what he deserves.

ba said...

Re: the fetishistic choker - makes it pretty freaking easy to see that someone's being possessed by malice, no? And didn't they just have to rip it off to make her leave the body?

What a fatal, fatal weakness.

Jason said...

Please, ba, I think we've all had enough of your reasoned opinions and common sense.

(Actually, in fairness, I don't think ripping the choker off freed a person of Malice, did it? At least, things got more complicated when Malice synched up with Polaris.)

Michael, now that you say that, I have heard about the "Reed slapping Sue" bit. Byrne is weird. Not good-weird, but bad-weird.

Anonymous said...

Jason,no, ripping off the choker didn't free a person from Malice.
Although ba has a point. At the end of the story, Wolverine thinks Storm is possessed by Malice. Um, you'd think he'd notice there was no choker on Storm's neck. Then, when Betsy confirms that there's no trace of Malice in Storm's head, the team wonders how they can be sure Betsy isn't possessed by Malice. Well, you can look at her neck,morons.

Jason said...

Well, by that token, how could the X-Men be sure that the choker would ALWAYS show up on the person Malice inhabited?

Anonymous said...

The choker didn't always show up, at least not immediately- I think that Polaris was possessed for a while before the choker appeared. (Although the art just may have avoided showing her neck too clearly.)

No-prize explanation for Malice: she was a psychic mutant whose body is now dead, and survives in the same way as the Shadow King. Or possibly her real body is in a coma somewhere...

Re: Archetypes: Dazzler ends up being the team member who tries to show off and as a result messes up, like Nightcrawler did in the stories just before the Massacre. It doesn't happen all the time, but I thought it was interesting.

Anonymous said...

Oops, that was me above. Sorry!

Jason said...

Hm, never thought of a Dazzler/Nightcrawler parallel ... but it's true, they are both people whose dream was to perform before they joined the X-Men. (Trivia: Claremont wanted to be an actor before the writing thing absorbed him completely.)

There was a guy posting on an X-Men/Claremont discussion thread who had come up with some crazily brilliant theories tying together all the loose ends from Claremont's original X-run. He had every loose thread worked into this mega-epic idea, and it was amazing to behold ... (HE's the guy who should be writing "X-Men Forever," come to think of it.)

Anyway, one of his theories was to make the Shadow King the mastermind/ultimate-evil who was responsible for a lot of unexplained aspects of Claremont's X-Men run ... So it's interesting, Heather, to see a parallel drawn between Malice and the King. There's probably a way to tie her in to that guy's massive Shadow-King-is-behind-everything theory. (As in, Malice is some splinter-personality of the King's or something ... I dunno, I'm not as good at theory-spinning as that dude was ...)

Jason said...

Also, does anyone recall how often that choker was actually mentioned out loud, by anybody other than Malice and/or the person she possessed? I don't suppose it's possible that the choker wasn't actually visible to the naked eye, or something? Like it was just something that appeared in the mind's-eye of the possessed host?

(I'm sure there is dialogue in issue 214 to contradict me, but I haven't read it in a while, so ...)

ba said...

The choker was mentioned by alison, and then ripped off by storm. I don't think it was noticed by anyone else.

And I'm relatively sure that in the issue where polaris gets possessed, initially, she blows up her house and pins sabretooth, nude...but for the choker.

wwk5d said...

I liked that we saw Dazzler appear a couple of times in this title prior to this issue. She appears in # 210, and then in # 213, and then we get to see her join the team here. I'm surprised Claremont didn't start planning the seeds of her appearing way back in the late 190s ;) A good example that not all his subplots ran forever and/or went nowhere.

A good looking issue. Yeah, it kind of has to move the plot from point A to point B, but it reads well. Was this the last time we see Lila Cheney in this title until the Jim Lee era? I think it was also the first time we see her...Claremont seemed to prefer using her in New Mutants more.