Thursday, May 07, 2009

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #219

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

“Where Duty Lies”

A letter writer to the X-Men once pointed out the way Chris Claremont not only seems to favor the female members of his cast, but actually is a little bit cruel to his males. Issue 219 was cited by the correspondent as a case in point: After inviting Dazzler to join them in issue 214 – partly out of a desire to keep her safe from the Marauders -- their reaction to Havok when he arrives at the mansion is to erase his memories and send him back to New Mexico the first time. The second time, they seem to consider killing him (!). Certainly Claremont’s logic seems unaccountably bent in this issue. Also, his writing is sloppy. As established in last issue’s cliffhanger, Havok has come to the mansion with a specific purpose: to warn the X-Men that a Brood ship has landed on Earth. That plot thread is not even mentioned here – it’s lost in the massive logic-gap that seems to swallow up most of this issue.

Claremont also seems to have forgotten a lot of Alex Summers’ character history as well, if the narration is any indication. Alex’s rampant hatred for Magneto seems out of proportion, given that the X-Men never fought Magneto while Havok was a member. (This could perhaps be explained by Havok knowing about Lorna’s history with Magneto – although, Lorna actually only ever encountered a robot duplicate, but then again she might not realize that ... ah, the complexities of X-Men continuity....) Alex also makes mention of bad memories that he associates with the school, even though he attended the school only very briefly during X-Men history, and accrued few bad memories during that time as far as readers are aware.
Also, what are we to make of Havok’s narration on Page 12, “Professor X was associated with a lady scientist in Scotland, a good friend to the X-Men ...”? Alex – along with Lorna and Madrox – actually lived with Moira MacTaggart for a long stretch of time. Yet now he seems not even to remember Moira’s name ... ? Claremont’s writing is decidedly screwy here.
The one redeeming bit to this issue – with its skewed plot logic – is Claremont’s cleverly striking a parallel between Alex and Scott. At the start of the issue, Havok leaves Lorna alone to seek out the X-Men, and she is subsequently assaulted by the Marauders. This is, of course, exactly how Scott and Madelyne’s story played out roughly one year earlier in X-Factor #1 and X-Men #206 (albeit the Marauders’ involvement with Madelyne’s disappearance was revealed more recently, in issue 215).

To make sure readers pick up on the parallelism, Claremont spells it out in a canny two-panel sequence on Page 12: Just after a bus with a giant X-Factor ad drives by an oblivious Havok, he thinks to himself, “Why’d I leave Lorna behind? Summers stubborness [sic]. Summers stupidity.” Much the way Claremont struck a parallel between Scott/Phoenix and Corsair/Kate years ago – two generations of Summers, both losing the women they love under similar circumstances – he now does the same with the Summers brothers. And again, it involves the loss of their lovers. Only a few issues down the line, the “Greek tragedy” quality of the Summers saga will be further intensified by a quasi-incestuous angle, with Alex and Madelyne becoming romantically involved.

Repetition and resonance also play out in this issue’s use of Polaris, who – for the third time in her comic-book career – has her will suborned by a supervillain. (The first was by Magneto in Arnold Drake’s original Lorna story, the second by Eric the Red in one of Claremont’s very first X-Men issues.)

Despite some wonky storytelling in “Where Duty Lies,” the issue nonetheless contains these wonderful instances of recursiveness and parallelism that elevate it. Claremont is now in a fantastic position as a writer: He is the primary caretaker of a dense and multi-layered mythology, from which he can pluck elements at whim in order to complicate and enrich each chapter of his unending narrative.


Anonymous said...

Jason,Lorna should know about the Magneto being a robot- the X-Men found out about it in issue 112, and Lorna refers to it as a robot later on in issues of X-Factor. Then again,I could see Alex not liking Magneto because he tried to kill Scott. Remember, Scott didn't think Magneto really reformed, and it's possible he shared his concerns with Alex off panel.

Jason said...

Sure, but the Magneto thing is just symptomatic of a larger problem, which is that Havok is being written pretty much as if he was a part of the Silver Age X-Men -- when he wasn't really, except at the very tail end. To have bad memories associated with Xavier's school (where he lived for a day or two), and to so viscerally despise Magneto (whom he's never met before).

Meanwhile, he's also written as if Claremont never wrote him before, as if Claremont forgot that he had Havok living on Moira's estate for a couple years back in the late 70s and early 80s. A "lady scientist" ...?

Maybe the idea is that Pyslocke has really scrambled Alex's brain hardcore (she does say it was a dangerous thing to do) ... that could certainly explain why his memory of Moira is foggy -- though it doesn't leaven the strangeness of how he relates to the X-Men's Silver Age era.

Anonymous said...

In such dire straits as they are, you'd think the X-Men would gather all former members, all allies to help out. Havok himself raises the argument: He's been an X-Man much longer than Longshot, Psylocke, or Dazzler, and the X-Men trust them. Why not him?

At this point the X-Men believe Cyclops, Beast, Iceman, and Angel to be mutant hunters. It is unfathomable to me that the X-Men never seek out X-Factor, regardless of what they think of Scott and company's current status, and at least try to warn them about the potential threat of the Marauders. For some reason there seems to be an "Old X-Men" vs. "New/Newer X-Men" rivalry that I can't quite figure out. It's like Storm and her team don't trust Havok and Polaris because they are from the "old team", even though they were barely on the team for any length of time (as you point out). But Havok and Polaris are not involved with X-Factor. There is no reason not to seek them out and bring them into the fold. You'd think the X-Men would also try to recruit allies like Siryn, Madrox, Sunfire, Havok, Polaris, Captain Britain, Meggan, and also give Callisto a greater role in their affairs. And why not go to heroes they've teamed up with in the past, such as Spider-Man and the Avengers, for help? Thor fought the Marauders, he would have vouched for what the X-Men said. The X-Men's "go it alone" policy is truly baffling.

When you come down to it, the X-Men have no one to blame but themselves for what happens to Polaris. If not for their ludicrous treatment of their old members, Polaris wouldn't have been caught alone and fallen prey to Malice.

This issue also marks the last time Magneto is closely associated with the X-Men. From this point on he is at the school being a jerk in "New Mutants" and the other X-Men are off on their own. After the milestones of issue 150 and issue 250, and all the great development of Magneto's character that took place in between and after those issues, it is such a shame to see him just kind of drift off like this. Claremont would have been much better off to have Magnus go with the X-Men to the Outback and leave the New Mutants in the care of Dr. MacTaggert.

ba said...

Alex could have picked up the hatred for Magneto from hearing the other silver age x-men talk about him nonstop, perhaps?

I think claremont really wanted to play up the summers' dichotomy, to the point where alex says about wearing spandex, "How super people do this every day, I'll never know."

That he never mentions the brood, whom the x-men (especially storm and logan) have had serious problems with in the past, is to me the biggest flaw in this issue. That storyline is dropped until after the fall of the mutants.

BTW, I happen to really like the art in this issue, guest penciller or not. Lithe figures, with very soft faces.

Jason said...

"It's like Storm and her team don't trust Havok and Polaris because they are from the "old team", even though they were barely on the team for any length of time (as you point out)."

Ah, good point. This does seem to be key. It is certainly faulty logic on the characters' parts.

This is indeed a bizarre time in the characters' history.

As for Magneto, he does have one last hurrah as an X-Man, in the "X-Men vs. FF" miniseries. Granted, it was published before Uncanny 219 but it is set after it. Again, I presume Claremont just let him go because he wasn't going to be writing New Mutants anymore and he thought it would be too hard to coordinate Magneto's appearances with Louise Simonson.

It's possible the overall confusion over the X-Men's direction in these months -- (Are they staying at the mansion, or Muir Island, or in the Morlock Tunnels? Are they going around warning mutants or isolating themselves from them?) was something to do with Claremont trying to figure out how to position the X-Men so that they could be segregated from the New Mutants and allow Louise Simonson to have total rein over previously shared elements like Magneto and the X-mansion.

Part of me doesn't really mind that it happened that way. Magneto is my favorite comic-book character, but I prefer him as a recurring guest in X-Men rather than as a constant presence. It gives him more weight, I think. So I don't mind that he left Uncanny after this issue.

Unfortunately, Simonson flubbed Magneto badly -- possibly at the behest of Bob Harras, who took over editorship of New Mutants from Ann Nocenti in short order. Simonson's reveal that Magneto was "playing" a good guy the whole time, that was misguided (which is why Claremont ret-conned it). And even before that, his characterization at her hands lacks the appropriate gravitas. He is, as you say, just a "jerk" in New Mutants.

But at least Claremont got to do one last great Magneto story, in issue 275. I actually like his send-off in X-Men 1-3 as well, though that story's merits are a bit more precarious.

And yeah, Havok hates Magneto by osmosis ... that of course is a valid theory. It is just so undramatic, I think, and doesn't play right in issue 219.

Bret Blevins' artwork is good here, true. He's a good artist. He did some great stuff as a regular on New Mutants too. (I think specifically of the image during "Inferno" of demons raining down on the sky ... rather breathtaking.) He's one of those really solid professionals who never quite got his due. It's depressing to think that he did so much great stuff on New Mutants to minimal fanfare, then his replacement on the series churned out shit and became a millionaire for it.

Anonymous said...

It seems such a damn shame for Claremont to give up any character for Louise Simonson, who was writing the majority of mutant books at this point. Sorry, but I never cared for Bret Blevins art. His females have such childlike bodies with prominent breasts. I feel like I'm looking at kiddie porn.

Anonymous said...

Well, the "why don't they call in the Avengers/Justice League?" is a problem in a lot of comic books. Denny O'Neil once answered "We wouldn't have much of a story" if they did that- if the Avengers/ Justice League could solve EVERY problem, then what would the other heroes do?
The X-Men not contacting X-Factor was confusing- do they know about X-Factor? Magneto and Wolverine do, but in 2 issues, the team rescues Maddie and no one asks her "Why are you hunting mutants?" even though Magneto thought he saw her with X-Factor.

Anonymous said...

Third use of "Welcome to the X-Men, ___- Hope you survive the experience!" on a cover.

If nothing else, the X-Men should have contacted X-Factor to find out what was going on. If they trust Cyclops & Co, they should hear them out; if they don't, why aren't they at least sounding out the threat?

On the same note- not only do the X-Men stop crossing over with the New Mutants, they never mention them. Sure things were hectic, but I'd expect them to do one of the following:
-Try to find the kids after they went missing after the Mutant Massacre.
-Note that they are in fact alive.
-Try to recruit one or two of the older New Mutants as X-Men. Cannonball and Karma were old enough.
-Make some kind of provision to protect the New Mutants from the Marauders.

That said- I like this period. It has its faults, mostly where X-books should meet and do not, but it's fun.


Dougie said...

This was the tipping point in my relationship with these characters as a reader.I never liked Silvestri's scratchy, feathery style. In true Marvel Zombie fashion, however,I continued to buy X-Men and the annuals religiously for the next three years while actively enjoying very few of those comics.Gateway,the Reavers, Dazzler's stalker,Forge's vision quest and Giant-Size Lorna (ugh!) compared very poorly with the Starjammers et al. I look forward to rediscovering this period in this blog but I was much more of a DC guy for the mid-to late 80s.

Anagramsci said...

gotta side with Doug here--I really lost interest in X-Men after the Massacre (although, idiosyncratically I suppose, I continued to enjoy X-Factor during this period)... I bought and read 'em all though--until about 275 (and I'm certainly looking forward to hearing Jason's take on each of them!)

Teebore said...

It's depressing to think that he did so much great stuff on New Mutants to minimal fanfare, then his replacement on the series churned out shit and became a millionaire for it.

Indeed. I also quite liked Blevins art, especially on a book like New Mutants.

This issue really does stand out for all it's wonky plot/character stuff, doesn't? You'd almost swear it was written by a fill-in writer.

Anonymous said...

Obviously, Havok met and fought Magneto in the Savage Land, then again during the Namor and Magneto team-up in the Hidden Years, as chronicled by John Byrne./sarcasm/

I didn't care for Bret Blevins angular, exaggerated cartoony style, nor for Louise Simonson's simplistic, cartoony writing. They were perfect for each other, but horrible for the New Mutants.
-- Mortsleam

Aaron Forever said...

I think the logic gaps in this story can mostly be chalked up to the art. Blevins did a nice New Mutants with the way Simonson wrote them. He's good at gangly, awkward teenagers. But he doesn't do the quieter moments here very well. Claremont probably had something a little less overly dramatic and a little more logical planned when he plotted it, but when he got it back, it was full of ghoulish and cartoonish looking people looking very exhasperated and angry at every turn, so he adjusted at the scripting stage to accomodate it.

As for why they wouldn't trust Havok, it's true that he was barely in the X-Men under the old guard, but they don't really know him that well, and aside from being an X-Man for a few issues, he has a stronger connection to those people who are running around claiming to be mutant hunters: he's Cyclops's brother.

But this is a very awkward period on the title where Claremont is not only trying to segregate the X-Men from the wider Marvel Universe (and who can blame him when you look at Power Pack and Thor of all titles joining in on the Mutant Massacre), but also the other X-books. He probably had a great amount of control over those books if he chose to exercise it since he was still the hot shit writer of the X-Men and was driving the direction of what was quickly becoming a franchise. But he was also friends with Louise Simonson.

I think he just chose to disentangle himself from the other books so he could get on with what he wanted to do in Uncanny. You can almost hear the gears turning as he disassociates the X-Men from the other two teams. Even if there are in-story reasons for it, the out-of-story reasons result in a lot of awkwardness in these issues as the book prepares to head off on its own (barring the occasional mega-crossover).