Thursday, April 30, 2009

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #217

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's Uncanny X-Men run. For more in this series, see the toolbar on the right or the label below. I ask a brief question at the end of this post.]

“Folly’s Gambit”

A common complain about Claremont – one that, as of this writing, I’ve come across online TWICE this past week, both times completely by accident – is that Claremont is overly verbose. His prose is dense and “impenetrable,” his word-choice inelegant. But this is the opening sentence of Uncanny X-Men #217: “Above Cape Wrath – on the north coast of Scotland – is a lonely slab of rock, jutting out of a sea that’s silver-slashed obsidian, rolling in the light of the just-risen moon.”

Later, in describing the scene when Alison sings at a local tavern:

“The pub falls silent as her voice – glazed into a rich contralto by the pure malt she’s indulged in – washes over the crowd. The songs are old, and she does them justice.”

Consider the crisp alliteration of “silver-slashed obsidian,” the tactile imagery of a voice “glazed into a rich contralto.” Claremont’s narrative voice has more in common with a classical poet than, say, Stan Lee, which is perhaps why superhero fans so often deride his talent as a wordsmith. But whereas the Marvel authors who tried to emulate Lee’s brilliant hyperbole (e.g., Len Wein, Gerry Conway) were more often than not excruciating, Claremont’s voice is richly imagistic, and actually takes into account rhythm and meter. The resulting phrases are rhetorically elegant, possessing a subtle flow that the work of his peers almost always lacked. The critics who say Claremont ought to have curbed his verbosity for the sake of narrative expediency are missing the point, and failing to get on board with Claremont’s enjoyment and relish of the English language. The people who are sick of the Wolverine catchphrase “I’m the best there is at what I do” have probably never noticed that it’s written in iambic pentameter.

Getting back to this issue, “Folly’s Gambit” serves primarily to consolidate the “Dazzler as diva” characterization first conceived by Ann Nocenti in the “Beauty and the Beast” mini. She rationalizes her cowardice -- “All I ever wanted was to make people happy,” she thinks to herself, “to bring some light and color and joy into their lives...” But the dark truth is that she is addicted to fame. She thinks she deserves to be in the spotlight, and becomes petulant when she can’t have what she wants. It’s interesting to watch her arc unfold over the next three years, as she becomes less and less sympathetic, the diva-aspect of her personality brought more and more to the fore. Indeed, Claremont will prove much more inclined to bring out the worst in every member of this third generation of X-Men, possibly because they lack that bright and beautiful Cockrum sheen of purity to protect them.

Claremont has fun with the Juggernaut here too. That he’s a Dazzler fan is a humorous touch (“I got your records, I saw you perform, I love your music”), as is his subsequent reluctance to beat on Alison TOO badly.

A good issue, this one. Lightweight, certainly, but lots of fun.

[A great point about Claremont's word choices, Jason. There is something odd, though, about a writer who as you have pointed out cares about language so much -- and even has Banshee name drop Joyce -- ending up primarily as a comics writer rather than a novelist. (How do his novels compare on this point?) The phrases you point out are well constructed but the iambic of "I'm the best there is at what I do" is the genius phrase for comics I think because its poetry is very subtle. Like Dickens' famously iambic pentameter "It was the best of times it was the worst of times" it does not scream I AM POETRY but it sticks in your head and you always remember the phrase without knowing exactly why. I think the other quotations you point out deserve the praise you give them but they also unbalance the comic just a bit -- that kind of language really draws attention to itself, and I am not sure that is what comic book captions should do. This is a problem so subtle, and based in Claremont being a good writer, that is barely deserves the name "problem" but I wonder if "silver slashed obsidian," which might work well in a poem, and is certainly a nice turn of phrase, is a little precious for a comic book? Raymond Chandler's language as used by Frank Miller works fantastically for comics because it is so terse. Also, and just for fun, I do not think it would be totally out of left field to compare Claremont's editorially mandated repetitive phrases used to re-introduce characters every issue (e.g. "I'm the best there is at what I do") to Homer's use of the same adjectives to describe places and people -- the sea in Homer, for example, is always "wine dark." Those phrases were commonplace in ancient Greece because they fit the strict meter of ancient poetry and so worked every time. That you point out that Wolverine's is also metrically sound is really interesting. ]


Gary said...

Jason pointed out:The people who are sick of the Wolverine catchphrase “I’m the best there is at what I do” have probably never noticed that it’s written in iambic pentameter.This is the coolest thing I will learn today. Thank you so much.

This issue does hold one hiccup for my "Juggernaut as class act" theory, when he nearly runs over Alison and her bekilted boyfriend with his vehicle as they cross the street, spitting out some "Get out of the way!" dialogue. That's pretty cookie cutter villain right there, like kicking a puppy to demonstrate that the villain is evil.

Jason said...

I like your reading on the Juggernaut, Gary, but yeah, I guess he can't always be classy. He is a villain whose power is knocking stuff down, after all.

Actually, when I think about it, Cain almost running someone over rather than swerving out of the way seems rather in character. It's what he does even when he's on foot, after all.

Geoff, I always love when you post a long comment at the end. I am not the student of poetry that you are, but I have certainly noticed that certain phrases recur in poetry because they fit the meter. (Similarly, I'm often struck by those rhymes that seem to recur a lot because the first word is incredibly common and the second word is one of only a few that actually rhymes with it. Like "life" and "strife," or "world" with "unfurled." You never hear anyone say "strife" or "unfurled" in normal conversation, yet their ability to rhyme with incredibly common words means their place in the poetic tradition is assured!

All of which is to say, the comparison of Claremont's stock phrases to Homer is awesome.

Re: the caption that draws attention to itself. I think the superhero comic-book caption has had an uneasy evolution ... the earliest ones in old Batmans from the 40s are heavily redundant and often crushingly boring. Stan Lee jazzed things up in the 60s with his easy-breezy style that addressed the reader and often made fun of the comics (like doing a thought balloon for Glenn Talbot about how he's going to prove Bruce Banner is a traitor and thus make Betty love him, then adding the caption, "And thus ends this month's lesson in character motivation and psychology!").

That was brilliant, except then you had all these people like Len Wein and Gerry Conway trying to mimic that off-the-cuff style but having it be completely forced and unfunny.

These days, comics tend to go for a more cinematic quality and narration is out completely.

But somewhere between now and the post-Stan-Lee era was an attempt at being more formally poetic with superhero comicbook narration. There is something about it now that does probably seem off -- it is *very* heavy handed. You get the sense that Claremont takes this stuff very seriously. It's sort of easy to scoff at now, but even his earliest stuff in the 70s stands out in stark contrast to all these writers like Wein and Conway who were just trying to limply carry on the Stan Lee tradition of taking-the-piss (which only works if you are funny, like Lee is).

Similarly, I think the poetic/melodramatic caption is a valid choice if you can carry it off. I mean, I guess I can understand where someone just doesn't want that at all, but I am sometimes amazed at people suggesting that Claremont actually doesn't use language well, full stop. It's one thing to say his style is too wordy for comic books, but to say he's just overall bad at the craft of writing? Seems an indefensible position to me.

What I like about Claremont's captions is that, though they do call attention to themselves, they are very rarely redundant. Other than recapping information about the characters for potential new readers, most of the information in the captions is stuff that you would not necessarily see from the artwork. We can tell Wolverine has claws, but the imagery doesn't necessarily tell us that they're razor sharp and unbreakable. Hell, if he's in costume, a new reader wouldn't even know they weren't part of his gloves.

The captions make for a denser, richer reading experience, I think. You can look at the pictures and get the basics -- guy with claws, guy turns to metal, blue demon-guy teleports, gal shoots lightning. But the prose touches ... "organic steel," "honed razor-sharp," "the smell of brimstone," "shaping the forces of nature" ... enrich the those initial impressions. The surface coolness of the characters and the powers takes on a kind of added intensity. It's something I definitely don't see in other comics of the period -- stuff like "Secret Wars" or even the stuff from that period that is considered pretty classic like Roger Stern's Avengers or John Byrne's Fantastic Four. The characters, the powers, the whole she-bang seems lighter and less impressive, and I think a lot of that is down to Claremont's words. A Claremont comic book from the 80s just feels like it has more going on per page than other Marvel comics of the period.

Modern comic-book writers seem all to be following the screenwriter ethic, where it's all about economy. They have a better handle on what Roger McKee espouses, where every line of dialogue says a lot, and lots of narration is superfluous. So most comics read like movies now, whereas like you said, Geoff, Claremont seemed to approach them more like a novelist.

As for Claremont's actual novels, I think they demonstrate the same love of language. He has not published many ... he's basically got one hard sci-fi trilogy. Arguably it might have bugged people for the same reason some people don't like what he does in comics -- I don't know how many fans of aliens and space battles want to read phrases akin to "silver-slashed obsidian" either ... But personally, I loved it. :)

His other trilogy is fantasy, where his baroque style would seem a perfect fit, but from what I've read, his command of language is less assured in those novels. I don't know the circumstances under which he wrote them (they are credited as being co-authored by George Lucas, who as far as I'm concerned is a totally shit writer, no matter what Joseph Campbell might say), but they quite so good.

Claremont's skill with words has gotten shakier. I don't know if it's just that editorial at Marvel has gotten lax or what, but nowadays every Claremont comic I try to read has some really poorly edited dialogue. Lots of redundancies that should've been easy to spot, like, "The people behind this attack may try again. We should stay alert. Whoever was behind this attack, they're bound to try again." I'm sure every writer is guilty of this kind of thing, but man, where are the editors at Marvel these days?

(That last isn't limited to Claremont comics ... it's one of the reasons I'm slow to pick up new Marvel titles. I paged through that "X-Men Noir" thing, and the last issue I saw ends with Wolverine saying, "Bub, from where I come from, those are fighting words." It's supposed to be, presumably, this awesome line that leaves everybody excited to see Wolverine start kicking ass in the next issue ... and apparently nobody actually read the line before the freaking thing went to press.

Whew. I just typed a lot of stuff.

neilshyminsky said...

"Bub, from where I come from, those are fighting words."

That's brutal.

Anonymous said...

Something that is odd about this era, before and after "Fall of the Mutants", is the utter lack of thought that Storm, Rogue, and Wolverine give to Kitty, Colossus, and Kurt. These people have been teamates for years, are as close as a family. Yet except for Storm moping at Kurt's bedside in #212, we don't see them missing their old teammates at all. As much angst as Claremont likes to inject into his characters, you'd think he's jump on the chance to Storm, Rogue, and Wolverine pause to think about their good friends. Rachel seems like she's been utterly swept under the rug, too. Even in the big issue where the X-Men decide to sacrifice themselves, it would have been nice to have a thought balloon or two, with Wolvie's, Storm's, or Rogue's thoughts going out to their old friends. Something along the line of, "Almost glad you guys got hurt. Now you aren't here with us. You still have a chance to live." Sure, we see Kitty watching them go to their deaths on television, but we see no emotion going from the active X-Men in the direction of their former teammates. In fact, Kitty and Kurt exhibit tons more grief in the early Excalibur issues regarding the "deaths" of their friends than the others ever exhibited for them. It makes Storm, Wolverine, and Rogue look extremely callous. The situation is made much worse when they all "return from the dead" but only after several months do they have a limp, belated reunion with Kitty and Kurt. I would think the first thing all parties would do would be to get together and catch up.

On another note, I love the fact that Juggernaut is a Dazzler fan. Adds a dimension to this guy we'd never seen before. When he's not demolishing cities, he's chillin' to pop music! Funny. I wish it had been brought up again somewhere.

I've always been amused by Rogue punching the corner off of Banshee's table in this issue. Banshee just goes on serving breakfast, like nothing happened. It's actually the kind of immature tantrum that Rogue used to get on Rachel's case for. It's like this rough period is causing everyone to regress. Dazzler, back to behaving like a "rookie" even though she is an accomplished solo adventurer, Wolverine losing control and becoming a "wild man" again, Rogue throwing tantrums, Storm going off on her own to seek out Forge and regain her long-lost powers. Even Longshot, in his way, has regressed, what with him having his memories wiped clean, remembering nothing of his previous visit to Earth. Interestingly, it is really the "rookie" Psylocke who maintains the center as a cool, collected professional while almost all the others lose it.

ba said...

Anonymous, to be fair, they did do an entire mini-series focusing on the concern for kitty and trying to save her. And colossus rejoins the team shortly thereafter. But for the most part, you're right, and I find it particularly egregious for rachel.

And they do dumb down longshot a LOT from his miniseries, which is a little annoying.

I don't mind the characterization of alison as diva, though, because in her series, she was portrayed as something of a flibbertigibbet; something like patty walker's old comics.

Though Claremont's comics now rather irritate me, because he seems stubbornly unable to admit that the 90s happened and adapt to them, I must say that he has taught me a lot of good GRE words, like tenebrous, elegiac, leman, catspaw, self-same, etc. I will say that I can't stand how he reuses stock character names (like in this issue - Conal, which he has used on a number of occasions. Neil is another).

Also, concerning Juggernaut - he might have been humanized a bit by showing him as a dazzler fan, but until he recognizes her, he shows no problem with being about to hurt or kill a woman.

Though I enjoyed this issue, the art does suffer in comparison to 218, even down to the cover.

ba said...

Oh, and Geoff, I believe it is "It was the best of times, it was the blurst of times"

Anagramsci said...

is it possible to like Claremont AND Conway? Probably not, so I guess it's only fair that a defense of Claremont (whose style always bothered me) naturally entails an attack on the early bronze age marvel writers...

some day, though, I'm gonna have to come up with a formal defense of Gerry Conway, whose work certainly wasn't all great... General rule of thumb with GC, solo character titles (especially Spider-Man and Firestorm) wonderful, team books problematic or worse...

for now though, all I can say is--Gerry Conway wrote some of the most interesting comics of the Bronze age!


Jason said...

Was Conway a bad choice? I may have been too rash throwing that name out there ...

Wein is the one whose style really irks me to no end. I could probably be convinced (certainly by you, Dave!) of the strengths of Conway, but Wein is a lost cause as far as I'm concerned.

Anon, I like your "regression" point a lot.

Gary, I never found Claremont to be too bad when it came to stock character names ... maybe I just never paid close enough attention. Feel free to mention other examples if they come up.

Anagramsci said...

ah a challenge!

I hope I can rise to it soon!

I don't think there's any shortage of Conway-hate out there, but my sense is that even his most ardent detractors would concede that there's something distinctive about his work (again, on solo-protagonist titles), even if they dislike it...

Wein, on the other hand, is a lot more colorless... I'm a huge bronze age fan (and that's not nostalgia talking--I didn't start with the comics until the mid-1980s), and I'm interested in the next-generation Marvel writers (especially Roy Thomas, Conway, Englehart, Gerber, Roger Stern and Gruenwald--but Claremont has to be reckoned with here as well, for sure, even if I'm not as keen on him as the others on the list) for theoretical reasons...

I can agree, though, that Wein's stuff lacks personality, even if I found his Amazing Spider-Man run serviceable...


Teebore said...

First, let me just say that your defense of Claremont's style, his verbosity and predilection for purple prose (whee alliteration!) is inspired, both in the post proper and in your response to Geoff in the comments.

I'm thinking I should paste that somewhere, or save a link, for the next time I hear someone deriding Classic Claremont's style.

Also, his fantasy trilogy with George Lucas was a continuation of Lucas' Willow movie. I read the series when I was in middle school or so. Having loved Willow and being fully engrossed in Claremont thanks to the back issues I was devouring, the series seemed like a perfect fit for me.

It was a bit...well, baroque is probably the best word for it. Not dense, per se, but sorta. It's definitely something I'd like to revist as an adult, if I ever find the time, as I think much of the style was lost on my adolescent self.

It also took the characters from Willow in some interesting and puzzling directions, and suffered from something the Star Wars prequels suffered from as well: the elimination of the Han Solo-esque character (Madmartigan) from the novels (he was said to have died between the end of the film and the first book) left the proceedings somewhat dry and stuffy, bogged down as they were in the minutiae of the fantasy world Lucas and Claremont crafted, with no character around to humorously take the piss out of things.

Jason said...

Thanks for the kind words, Tee!

Since writing this post, I actually DID start reading the first book in the Claremont/Lucas "Shadow War" trilogy. I actually was really enjoying it, a lot more than I thought I would -- not being a fan of the "swords and sorcery" genre -- but things have gotten hectic with some of my real-life commitments and I kind of lost my way on it. I might have to start over from page 1 if I ever get back to it.

It was good, though; very, VERY Claremont, which for me is a good thing. :)

Teebore said...

It was good, though; very, VERY Claremont

Yeah, I think it might have even been TOO Claremont for me when I first read it, lo those years ago.

I think I'd enjoy it much more nowadays. I really should go back to it soon.