Thursday, May 21, 2009

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #221

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

“Death by Drowning”

Claremont knows how to have fun. A case in point are the Marauders – an agglomeration of super-villains, no one of which has a particularly compelling personality or superpower, yet who collectively made such a delightfully chilling impression during the “Mutant Massacre” storyline. Now, as Claremont sets up a deliciously action-packed rematch between the X-Men and their latest set of archenemies, Claremont begins with an intriguing new wrinkle: The first appearance of the Marauders’ evil mastermind, Mr. Sinister.

With his Silver Age name, his audaciously extemporized visual design (thank you, Marc Silvestri), and his absurdly opaque motivations, Sinister is on every level an audacious villain. Reportedly, this is all intentional: Sinister was to be revealed as the evil side of a mutant stuck in a state of permanent emotional adolescence. Not only was Sinister deliberately created to be the generically evil boogeyman of a child, but 1990’s Gambit – a character who, like Mr. Sinister, was and is all surface “cool” with no true substance, and thus, inevitably, also was and is a huge hit with the fans – was apparently going to be the other side of that same strange child’s personality. Sinister was an agglomeration of generically villainous elements; Gambit, the ultimate hodge-podge of heroic character traits.

This is all a rather intriguing idea, but Claremont never got around to fleshing it out – the closest he came is with the back-up strips in Classic X-Men #’s 42 and 43, which introduced the mutant boy, Nate, but didn’t go very far in explaining the connection between him and Sinister. Later writers gave the villain a different origin and motivation entirely, casting him banally as a long-lived 19th-century geneticist.

Despite all that, Mr. Sinister is a fantastically over-the-top character, and – as the Marauders did a year earlier – he makes a powerful impression in his debut here, hitting the ground running as the X-Men’s new, major powerhouse villain. The series needed such a catalyzing figure at this point – it was running out of major bad guys as a side effect of Claremont upending the X-Men’s politics and making allies out of former enemies.

Granted, both Sinister and the Marauders are extreme to the point of absurdity – killing mutants, and other friends of the X-Men, for no apparent reason. But what they lack in dimensionality, they recoup by means of dramatic impact. (And, in fact, they do have a reason to kill Madelyne, though it won’t be explained for another year and half.)

The fight choreography between them and the X-Men in “Death by Drowning” is exhilarating, Silvestri and Green designing a number of creative action set-pieces, while Claremont gives the entire thing an added gloss of melodrama by tapping the Rogue/Alison antagonism from five-year-old issues of the Dazzler solo series.

All in all, the creative team works hard to sell us on what is – in many ways – a whole new comic book, as different from the Uncanny X-Men of one year ago as the Cockrum X-Men were from the Lee/Kirby iteration. Consider that in “Death by Drowning,” none of the Cockrum-designed characters appear except Storm, long ago punked-out and de-powered and whose subplot with Naze only comprises two pages here anyway. To all intents and purposes, the “All-New, All-Different” Cockrum/Wein X-Men, as of this issue, do not exist.

Claremont and company, however, deliver such a vibrant, adventure-filled comic that one scarcely misses the previous team. This new iteration of X-Men – scrimped and scraped from other adjacent mythologies in the Marvel Universe – are proving every bit as exciting as their predecessors.

[One of Morrison's main points in Flex Mentallo and other works is that the "grim and gritty" era of comics was the result of immaturity: "Only an unhappy adolescent would confuse pessimism with realism." Now it appears that Morrison was only activating a dormant Claremont point. Claremont was already beginning to deconstruct the influence of Dark Knight.]

32 comments:

Anonymous said...

One major problem with this issue- the Adversary explains that it was Dormammu who was responsible for setting in motion the forces that would enable him to destroy the universe. Later, in issue 227, Forge explains that it was the spells that he cast that enabled the Adversary to gain a foothold on Earth. Then what did Dormy have to do with it?
Michael

James said...

I'm going to burn all my Grant Morrison comics, and waft the resulting fumes directly into Claremont's bunghole.

Jason said...

Michael, I always tend to skip over the Dormammu stuff. I know it references a Dr. Strange issue in the footnotes, but I have never had any strong desire to seek out said issue.

James, please videotape and post to YouTube.

Anonymous said...

Jason,the Dr.Strange issue is significant,since it's the story where we find out Clea is Dormammu's niece. But it's not clear what it has to do with THIS story.
Michael

Jason said...

It looks like just a thing that Claremont instantly revised, and probably would have cut had he the opportunity to "George Lucas" this issue.

ba said...

It's hard to criticize all-action issues.

That said, "lightengale" is one of my least favorite Claremontisms.

Jason said...

I like it. (Surprise!)

My least favorite Claremont-ism is when he has someone comment that such-and-such character just made a joke. (But the dialogue being commented on was not at all funny.)

James said...

Jason: Ha! It didn't pan out, and now I'm under a restraining order.

Anonymous said...

I never did understand why everyone...bad guys, good guys, neutral parties, random people...would call Dazzler "Lightengale". I would have made more sense to have one person (like Rogue, for instance) call her that than for everyone Dazzler ran into pull out this bizarre nickname.

The article says the Marauders didn't have compelling powers. Really? I always thought Harpoon and Scrambler, for two, had nifty powers. And combined, you can't match these guys for deadliness. Vertigo makes you sick, Arclight makes the ground shake, and while you're disoriented, the others stab you, shoot you, or mess up your powers.

Jason said...

Anon, yes, I agree that collectively the Marauders are great. They're one of my favorite villain teams, most definitely. I just don't think any one character on his or her own would impress the average comic book reader (Sabretooth excepted, I suppose). As you note, their powers are much more formidable when we see them being used in tandem.

Jason said...

P.S. If you haven't, you should check out X-Men/Spider-Man #2. Really beautifully drawn comic, and a really kick-ass visual interpretation of the Marauders.

Starman1976 said...

One of the most memorable scenes for me from this issue is how easily Sinister dominates Sabretooth, and how no one else in the Marauders even lifts a finger to help Sabretooth.

ba said...

Well, I'm pretty sure they're unaware of it at the time, but Sabretooth does turn out to be the only non-clone marauder. Maybe there is some genetic anger towards him.

Which occurs to me now as being strange...Blockbuster, Prism, and Riptide all come back to life in Inferno, but I don't recall them being pointed out as clones until after Claremont's run...did he mean for that to be the case?

And re: the different interpretations of Sinister over the years; my favorite remains the geneticist farmer with barbiturate-laced 4 legged chickens in Cable/Deadpool.

Jason said...

That is a great scene, Starman. (Is your name from the Bowie song, by the way? I just had that song come up on my iTunes, coincidentally.)

Ba, I'm pretty sure you're right. There is no explicit reference by Claremont to the Marauders being clones, but it is strongly implied in the dialogue at certain points. There is dialogue in Uncanny 239 about how Malice's merger with Polaris makes her "unique" among the Marauders. I can't remember the specifics, but the implication is that Sinister would never be able -- through cloning -- to duplicate the Lorna/Malice synthesis. And if that makes her "unique" among the Marauders then obviously it means the other Marauders ARE clone-able.

Then in 240, there is a line from Scrambler about how the Marauders have "at least as many lives" as a cat. And one of the resurrected Marauders tells Scrambler, you won't be so flip about it "when your number comes up." What I take from that is the Marauders know that if they are killed, Sinister will bring them back. But this process is maybe not as slick as they think -- the ones who have actually been through it don't think it's anything to wisecrack about.

Of course, the term "cloning" never comes up in any of these scenes, but that is because they are before the big reveal of issue 241, that Maddie is a clone of Jean Grey. I think Claremont was keeping the specifics vague as to how the Marauders were resurrected, specifically because it would have lessened the reveal in issue 241.

But in 241, we get the whole story of how Sinister cloned Jean, and we see that he still has a machine in which he grows bodies. (Interestingly, the earlier Genoshan arc had shown that the "Genegineer" has a similar creche in which he can grow mutant babies. Anyone know, was that connection ever explored? Did the Genoshans get that tech from Sinister?)

Anyway, so all the pieces of the puzzle are there. But again, I think you are right. It is not until later (post-Claremont) that someone explicitly makes it clear that Sinister can clone Marauders. That said, I prefer the idea that the ones we see in the Massacre are all original, first-generation, and that the only clone Marauders we see during the entirety of Claremont's run are Blockbuster, Prism and Riptide.

The idea that they are ALL clones except Sabretooh ... meh.

Starman1976 said...

Another explanation could be that Sabretooth has always been characterized as not being a team player (except for in the Age of Apocalypse) and was only in the Marauders for the joy of the kill. I'd figure he was both feared and disliked by his team members, as basically he's just a wild ferocious beast, a living weapon you aim towards a target and then get out of the way of. Someone you couldn't trust, because if you tried to reign him, he would thrash you too. That's also shown by that the other team members during the Mutant Massacre were split into groups, while Sabretooth worked alone.

ba said...

Well, there was some point in the 90's or so when they made a comment about how they've been cloned so many times that they've lost a lot of parts of the originals' memories, and recently, after the whole messiah whatever event, nightcrawler hunts down scalphunter to kill him, but then says that it's not worth it, because a copy of a copy doesn't have a soul, or something to that effect.

Starman1976 said...

I think Spider-Man would disagree with Nightcrawler's sentiment about souls. (Poor Ben Reiley...)

By the way, out of curiosity, has anyone made a count on how many times each Marauder have been cloned?

Jason said...

So have either of you guys seen the X-Men/Spider-Man miniseries that came out recently? The whole crossover kind of hinges on how the concept of cloning has been a significant presence in both the X-Men canon and the Spider-Man canon. Issue 2, for example, takes place circa 1986 (Mutant Massacre and Kraven's Last Hunt, respectively). Lots of talk of Sinister and cloning, with Spider-Man saying, "Can you imagine having a clone of yourself running around somewhere? Creepy."

It's fun stuff!

I still prefer the idea that Claremont's Marauders were not clones when they first appeared, and that only three of them were by the time of "Inferno." I'm sure that notion doesn't match post-Claremont canon but I nonetheless like it better.

ba said...

The spider-man/x-men mini was pretty great, because it got through a lot of eras of both of them in only four issues, and the art was above average for a mini.

It's very funny how, in the first issue, they point out how often spider-man, beast, and iceman went out to coffee shops on dates. Back in the original x-men run, it seemed like hank and bobby were on a date every other issue.

I can only hope that Brand New Day ends up a punchline much the way the clone saga was.

Jason said...

The coffee-shop escapades were one of the best things about the Silver Age X-Men! The one where the hippies all want to paint on Beast's feet is the best! (I think that might be the first coffee-shop issue, actually ...)

Menshevik said...

Just wanted to note that I for one love the nickname "lightengale" and think that it is actually a pretty obvious one for Ali - she has light powers and she's a singer. Of course for me as an old reader of Tintin and connoisseur of the artistry of Bianca Castafiore, the Milanese Nightingale, the singer = nightingale connection is perhaps more obvious than to others. ;-)

Gary said...

ba thinks Sabretooth goes unaided against Mr. Sinister because:Well, I'm pretty sure they're unaware of it at the time, but Sabretooth does turn out to be the only non-clone marauder. Maybe there is some genetic anger towards him.My take was always that the Marauders don't help because Mr. Sinister will whup every last one of them, at once, without breaking a sweat, and they know it.

In terms of an introduction, think about how intimidating that made Mr. Sinister in his first 3 pages of existence.

ba said...

Only to be taken out by one eye-blast.

Starman1976 said...

One by Havok super-charged eye-blast. Cyclops eyes shine like miniture-suns and smoke comes out of his mouth. If Cyclops can punch a hole through a mountain unaided, just imagine how strong that super-charged eyeblast were. ;)

Jason said...

It is strongly implied that Cyclops' optic blasts have something in them that Sinister is especially vulnerable to, as if it's his kryptonite.

Anonymous said...

re: Nightcrawler's explanation for not killing Scalphunter- I thought that he said a copy of a copy was not guilty of the original's crimes. Of course, I could remember wrong.

Random thing: Is there any functional difference between Harpoon's power and Gambit's?

-Heather

Jon Brown said...

I love this issue. I am not too fond of /havok (I never cared for his whiny emo routine about trying to kill his girlfriend), but the other x-men are great. The battle scene is beautifully staged. The antoganism between Rogue and Ali has some very genuine pathos too.

I always hated the "mad scientist" interpretation of Mr. Sinister. Claremont wanted the Silver Age shit to be ironic. The later day writers took it seriously, at face value.

Claremont never did explain how his powers worked. Was Sinister a psychic projection, or was it like Nate transformed into Sinister? If the later is the case, then how was he gambit?

sexy said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Teebore said...

@Jason: The coffee-shop escapades were one of the best things about the Silver Age X-Men! The one where the hippies all want to paint on Beast's feet is the best! (I think that might be the first coffee-shop issue, actually ...)

Agreed, on both counts!

@Ba: Back in the original x-men run, it seemed like hank and bobby were on a date every other issue.

And, more often than not, they had to run out on their dates to face some menace. It's wonder they had as many dates as they did!

Isaac P. said...

Silvestri created a cool visual for the Eyekillers in this issue. I wonder if they ever turned up anywhere else in the Marvel U.

Isaac P. said...

Oops! I'm an issue off. They don't appear until next issue :P

Jason said...

The Eyekillers are in Claremont's Dr. Strange, which precedes this issue. I just learned this recently, having read the run on the now-defunct online comics library HTML Comics. Well after I wrote this blog entry, so at the time I had no idea. But apparently these guys are reprises -- and from a story that was a good six years old at the time ... !