Thursday, April 23, 2009

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #215

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men run. For more in this series, click the label at the bottom or see the toolbar on the right.]

“Old Soldiers”

Published in November of 1986, Uncanny X-Men #215 hit the stands at the same time that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen was coming out. Of course, Watchmen’s influence would be felt all over superhero comics to be published over the next few years. The series’ main, and most oft-lamented, effect is the gradual darkening in the tone of comics that followed in Watchmen’s wake. But, as Geoff pointed out, another key aspect of Watchmen was Alan Moore’s relentless running commentary on the tradition of the superhero narrative, going all the way back to the superhero’s heyday, the 1940s.

Never unwilling to be blatantly derivative when he sees fun to be had, Claremont pairs up with Alan Davis (Moore’s collaborator on both Captain Britain and Miracleman) to give us “Old Soldiers,” which – as far as the X-Men franchise is concerned – is apropos of nothing, but makes perfect sense when considered as an early reverberation of Watchmen. One of the motifs of the Moore/Gibbons opus is an examination of how wanly naive the bright and shiny four-color icons of the ‘40s seem when under the long shadow of post-WWII nuclear paranoia. Claremont’s take on the theme is to create three new characters – Super Sabre, Crimson Commando and Stonewall – and cast them as aged ex-superheroes who fought in WWII (presumably alongside people like Captain America and Nick Fury). Now, they are old, obsolete relics who try to make themselves feel useful by sadistically playing out endless iterations of “The World’s Most Dangerous Game” with petty thieves and drug dealers they happen to catch. It’s all awfully contrived – this issue and the next feel very much as if Claremont is so taken with playing in Watchmen-esque territory that he’s entirely distracted from what makes the X-Men interesting.

Crucially, the three aged superheroes – who could, theoretically, be an interesting bunch – come off as pathetic old bastards. Contrasted against the convincingly cold-blooded ruthlessness of the Marauders, a fantastic villain team whose presence has informed the series for six months now, the WWII ex-heroes are hopelessly lame.

The Marauders appear in this issue as well, in a Madelyne Pryor flashback that is significant as the first step in revising her entire character. Claremont no doubt never planned on explaining the mystery he set up back in 1983 regarding Maddy’s plane crash occurring at the same moment that Phoenix died. The clues were there for careful readers: Madelyne was Jean reincarnated, unofficially. With that solution no longer workable thanks to the X-Factor debacle, a new explanation was required. First, however, since several years have gone by, Claremont must reintroduce the mystery in the first place, hence the opening scene of the issue that recreates the plane crash, with Alan Davis working the Phoenix emblem into the explosion.

We then segue into a classic example of serial entertainment’s greatest and most addictive trick: answer one question with a larger one. Madelyne was gunned down in issue 206 with no explanation. Now, we learn that the Marauders were responsible, but that brings up the next question: Why? Claremont is setting up his mysteries very skillfully here, tantalizing the reader with little bits of information at a time. And contrary to his reputation, these mysteries will be explained to quite satisfactory effect – albeit not for another two years.

At one point in “Old Soldiers,” Rogue notes that Wolverine and Storm are now the “core” of the X-Men. Indeed, they are the only two who remain from the Cockrum/Wein reboot of 1975. The rest – including Longshot, who turns up this issue having finally caught up with the continuity from X-Men Annual #10 – are all more recent additions, and only Rogue has been a member for longer than a few months, real time. It’s fascinating to realize what Claremont has done – in his ragged, narratively irregular way, he has recreated the dynamic that existed when he first began writing X-Men, with all new members built around a core of old ones. Wolverine and Storm are now occupying the roles once occupied by Cyclops and Jean, who – over 100 issues ago – were, along with Charles, the “heart” of the X-Men.

In terms of the franchise’s history, this is a monumental era in the series’ status quo, with Claremont ushering in a third generation for the X-Men (albeit wihtout a single, benchmark issue on a par with Giant-Sized X-Men #1). Because Claremont has been writing the series for over a decade, he is in a unique position to set these narrative templates for the X-Men, canonizing traditions that crystallized around him.

His attempt to replicate the meta-commentary of Watchmen may fail here, but Claremont’s hand when it comes to overwriting the X-Men is as sure as can be. With his use of repeated plot elements, his deliberate structural resonances, his generation-spanning narrative scope ... Claremont is building the X-Men saga into a true epic.

[It is worth noting that the third X-Men movie also set up Storm and Wolverine as the core of the X-Men, though primarily be default after they de-powered or killed everyone else.]


Triumph of the Underdog said...

Someday, someday soon I am going to get my shit together and write something in depth about X-Men 3 and all of the connections to the shakier era's of the X-Men comics.

As the years have gone by I like X-Men 3 less and less, but find myself more and more fascinated by it. A near perfect failure, maybe?

Jason said...

Yeah, some fans complained about Wolverine and Storm becoming the stars in X-Men 3, with an undercurrent of, "They're just doing that because Jackman and Berry are the biggest names." But it is one aspect of the movie that didn't really bother me, precisely because it's exactly what happened around the Mutant Massacre era. And for the same reason, really ... the comic book did a lot of killing and de-powering to get us to this point (or at least putting people into comas ...)

I thought I mentioned the "X3" connection of one of my blog postings, but maybe not ... either way, I'm glad Geoff brought it up here.

"Perfect failure"? I don't know, even that seems too kind ...

ba said...

These filler issues make more sense with the watchmen comparison, so thank you for that.

Let's also not forget that kitty has been around almost as long as wolverine and storm, and longer than rogue. She's been considered a junior member of the group, really up until astonishing x-men, despite being around almost as long as storm and wolverine.

Now, are you sticking with UXM, or are you going to cover avengers vs and fantastic four vs, which I think starts right after these two issues.

And great Davis art (who I am usually apathetic about) in this issue.

Jason said...

X-Men vs. FF, yes. One of Claremont's best.

X-Men vs. Avengers, no. It's not by Claremont for one thing, but the other problem is that it's terrible, because the final issue completely guts the whole miniseries. (Apparently Roger Stern was going to end it with Magneto returning to villainy. Claremont was -- at that time -- able to exercise enough clout to prevent that happening. (Obviously he was fighting a losing battle there.) )

But the result is that Roger Stern didn't write the last issue. Instead, Tom DeFalco delivered a fill-in conclusion that is utterly boring and horrible, and which makes a hash of the whole enterprise.

That said, do you have some comments on it? Again, I wouldn't have covered it anyway because I'm only doing Claremont stuff on the blog ... but I'm sure there is interesting stuff to talk about. It's also some of the earliest examples of Silvestri drawing the X-Men. (I seem to recall a quote of Claremont's that he saw the art in "X-Men vs. Avengers" and told Ann Nocenti, "We gotta get this guy.") But Silvestri doesn't draw the final issue, either. The aesthetic unity of that whole mini just goes to hell in that last chapter.

Alan Davis is always great when he's got Paul Neary inking him. Their work on the early issues of Excalibur is gold, I think.

Anonymous said...

I know that Claremont has an apparent fascination with airplanes and is given to naming characters after airplane types. Hence, we get Lockheed, Sikorsky, Corsair, the Harriers, and probably others I'm not thinking of. My point is, how a WWII-vintage superhero like Super Sabre get his codename when the airplane didn't come out until the 1950s? Maybe he's not named after the airplane, that he just liked the alliteration? Or he had a different codename before the 1950s, when he presumably fought in the Korean War?

How did Crimson Commando get through this entire issue without announcing what his superpowers were? I thought a character in an Uncanny X-Men comic at this time was required by law to announce their superpowers (or at least have a caption box or another character do it for them). I know his powers are kind of subtle, but come on.

It would have been cool if at some point we'd seen a shout-out to these guys from Captain America, or these guys mention working with the Invaders, or something.

If I remember correctly, Commando is the only one left, rendered a cyborg after being seriously jacked up in Iraq. Sabre was killed by an Iraqi mutant named Aminedi, and Stonewall was killed by Donald Pierce. It's as if the writers (Claremont included) thought these guys were lame and had it in for them. It's tough to root for these guys later (as members of Freedom Force fighting during "Fall of the Mutants" and against the Reavers) when you remember that they were depicted as cold-blooded criminals in this two-part storyline.

This storyline is such an odd diversion. I'd never thought of it as a response to "Watchmen", but I really wish Claremont could have restrained himself. Even when this first came out I thought this was a huge distraction from the storyline with Mr. Sinister and the Marauders. All that great momentum built up--and allowed to wither as Storm tussles in the woods with three geezer has-been superheroes-turned-vigilantes. What the heck?

ba said...

I love FF vs, but I can only claim to have read Avengers vs. once, so...I really have nothing to say about it...didn't even know that claremont didn't do it.

I think those two characters got killed off way after claremont left the comic, no? If i were to guess, I think claremont didn't plan on using them again after these filler issues, but then needed to pad out freedom force a bit.

Jason said...


Yeah, Claremont's mother is a pilot and served in the RAF. Pilots and airplanes are big with him.

It's true, the three characters are pretty much bastards here, though I have a notion that Crimson Commando came off as a bit nobler than the other two. That may be me just projecting his later characterization onto this initial two-parter.

I don't know about other writers, but I'm sure Claremont didn't find the WWII trio lame (he seems to get very attached even to minor characters that he creates). His killing off of Stonewall was part of a larger debacle that saw other Freedom Forcers killed as well. (Or at least one other member.) I don't think he did it because he didn't like the characters.

And Ba, Claremont never (or at least very, very rarely) lets go of a concept once he's introduced it. I would theorize the opposite of your idea ... I bet Claremont started thinking of ways to have the WWII trio return as soon as that two-parter was over. (He was also into teaming up disparate villains too -- see: the Reavers -- so, putting the WWII guys with Freedom Force was right in character.

But yeah, the injuries in Iraq are a post-Claremont development. The only one of the three that Claremont killed off was Stonewall.

Gary said...

Okay, I'll say it: I like Stonewall, Crimson Commando, and Super Sabre. I like the way that Super Sabre uses his powers - microsonic booms, air pressure doing the work for him, the wonderful statement that "Martin Fletcher is still the man who can run the four-second mile." That's a great description for a super-speedster. I like that he smiles.

I like that Stonewall lobbies against hunting Storm. I like the way he cradles Destiny in the Fall of the Mutants. I like the fact that he dies in battle against Pierce fighting to save people he has no cause to care for because he's never stopped thinking of himself as a hero.

I like that Crimson Commando looks down on Freedom Force because they were straight up criminals, while he and Stonewall were heroes who couldn't quit and fell. I like his parlay with the Cheyenne chief in Fall of the Mutants. I don't have much to say about Frank beyond that. He never sparkled for me like the other two did.

I really dislike the way Fabian Nicieza pulled the wings off of Freedom Force to pave the way for a Brotherhood of Evil Mutants led by Toad, particularly because it cost me Crimson Commando and Super Sabre, and even Avalanche, who had a slick costume design after they redid it so his mask covered his whole face. But then again, it always seemed nobody but Claremont understood the pitch that Freedom Force had to hit to be written well, as antagonists and heroes all at once. So maybe Fabian just couldn't come up with anything better for them.

Man, I write a lot of love letters to Claremont villains.

Jason said...

Gary, I love posts like these. I always enjoy when someone can make me appreciate an aspect of the Claremont run that I didn't already love, and that is what you have done.

Keep the love letters coming!

wwk5d said...

FYI...the Cyborg version of Commando was supposed to be part of X-factor in the early 90s relaunch. It was pitched by Erik Larson and Fabian. The team would've been Havok, Polaris (from rough sketches, she's have retained her super-strength that Claremont gave her, not her magnetic powers), Pyro, the Commando, and a new female character. Since the pitch was obviously rejected, Larson used the new female in his Freak Force series, and interestingly enough, the cyborg design was used for 2 separate characters, Commando, and supporting Larson character in Savage Dragon. For some reason, I find irrelevant stuff like that interesting lol

For me, not some of the best issues. The best thing about is the Alan Davis art. I agree with Anon, an unwelcome diversion, and the to me, signs that Claremont was just beginning to juggle waaay too many plots and sub-plots. The book is starting to lose quality.

Aaron Forever said...

I have to think that part of the reason that Claremont lost momentum immediately after the Mutant Massacre is that the book was strangely without a regular penciller for several issues, with varying quality to the fill-in art. I think he was waiting to pick up with the ramifications once a regular was established so that he could see how best to procede. There's a lot of water-treading in this little chunk of the series. But he's always been very good at writing the kind of stories that are suitable to his artists. When Cockrum left and was replaced by Smith, the tone changed almost immediately to a very introverted, introspective style which suited Smith perfectly. When JRJR came along, he stuck with that very understated tone overall but managed to still make the book action-packed and with a lot of lurking dread a lot of the time, playing to Romita's visual style.

Here, he's got no regular penciller and even though long-term plot threads are advanced or introduced, there's no way for him to really know what's going to work until he's got a regular penciller to inform the tone he should take.

Imagine if Alan Davis had been appointed the regular penciller on Uncanny at this time? I worship the ground he walks on (Excalibur #9 was my first-ever comic), but there's no way that Fall of the Mutants, Inferno, or hell, even the Mutant Massacre itself would have happened. Davis is a fantastic artist, but he's more suited to light-hearted or zany super-hero fare. Which is exactly why Excalibur was the book that it was.

Imagine Brett Blevins taking over. I feel he was well-suited for the New Mutants the way Simonson was writing it, but that kind of art has no place in this book even on these fill-ins. He's more suited to drawing awkward teens than the grim-n-gritty that Claremont was plunging Uncanny into.

Claremont is incrementally moving his plots forward here and introducing the next bunch of them, but I feel that one of his best qualities as a comics writer is to write to his artists' strengths, at least in tone, and the truth is, he didn't have a writer here. Silvestri very much informed the direction that Uncanny would take (and later, Jim Lee would too, obviously, considering how all that ended). And it's possible that Claremont hand-picked Silvestri because he knew the direction he wanted to go in and that Silvestri's visuals were going to be pitch perfect for the sort of ramshackle, claustrophobic, on-the-run, darker stories Claremont was aiming for.

Anyway, to re-iterate: Claremont is treading a lot of water in this period because he's unsure of how to procede with regard to tone, even though he's got to keep the ball rolling from the last thing onto the next thing.

Aaron Forever said...

I meant "he didn't have an artist here."

Obviously. Unless you believe Byrne. And no one should ever be that stupid.

NietzscheIsDead said...

Okay, just because I feel the need to chime in: Crimson Commando was, by far, my favorite of three. Not 100% certain why, but he just struck a chord with me, I suppose. Also, I was also an enormous fan of Super-Sabre's unique uses for his rather standard powers.