Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men 229

[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 labels below. Jason sends me his entries way in advance. This one was sent seven months after the last one, so you may notice Jason returning recharged to his subject. This one is especially good. ]

“Down Under”

On the one hand, the previous issue was a rather frustratingly bland diversion after the promise of something new at the end of Uncanny #227. On the other, the idea of delaying gratification for a month by inserting a fill-in has a possibly unintentionally positive effect on the X-Men’s serial narrative. Much as Dave Sim perversely slowed the pace of Cerebus circa in issues 138-149 so that the explosion of incident in issues 150 and 151 would be that much more impactful, so now has Claremont heightened the power of “Down Under” by preceding it with issue 228’s month-without-the-X-Men place-holder.

In fact, Claremont continues the effect for several pages of the present issue as well. It’s a 23-page story, but the first appearance of any X-Men on panel is delayed until Page 11. Claremont spends his time before that point introducing the Reavers, a new group of hardcore sci-fi villains (blatantly influenced by “Mad Max”) and establishing the new locale: an abandoned town in the Australian outback presided over by an apparently mute aboriginal Australian known only as “Gateway.”

Claremont’s careful prose – complemented by the gloriously textured landscapes of Silvestri, Green and Oliver – serves both to immerse us in this new setting while simultaneously ramping up the anticipation for the inevitable arrival of the X-Men. When the team finally arrives, it’s with phenomenal narrative force. It’s tremendously cathartic to watch the heroes cut through the Reavers without effort and very little mercy. This issue is, in many ways, the first payoff to an implicit promise made by Claremont and his collaborators during the “Mutant Massacre” arc: specifically, that we would start to see a different kind of X-Men, hardened by experience into something darker and more intense that anything we saw in the past.

Furthermore, Claremont has truly displaced the X-Men – not only are they no longer in a familiar setting (no more X-Mansion, last seen in issue 221 – and the flashback of the previous issue -- and not to be seen again until issue 243), but they even enter their own story 10 pages late. The effect is to make the X-Men seem genuinely alien and exotic. As noted in past entries, Claremont has flirted in the past with casting the X-Men more as sci-fi characters than conventional super-heroes, but never more convincingly than right here. Consider the way Claremont confounds the quintessential superhero moment when the hero arrives to save the damsel-in-distress at the last possible second. In this case, it is Longshot, who even swings in on a rope like Spider-Man would. His dialogue in that moment: “Dazzler – that monsterman is stealing her days!”

Note that this is the first line that any of the Reavers hear spoken by any member of the X-Men, and it is borderline gibberish. The very vernacular of the heroes has become alien and alienating. With Silvestri assisting him, Claremont even manages to make Wolverine (even 20 years ago in danger of being overexposed) seem dangerous again, saving his debut until Page 16. Panels five through seven in particular – a close-up of Wolverine’s eye bracketed by red-tinted Reaver parts flinging through a blank white background, all without any accompanying dialogue or narration – make Logan seem more deadly and dangerous than he’s seemed in years.

This is where Claremont’s importing of characters from relatively obscure corners of the Marvel Universe – Psylocke, Longshot, even Havok – suddenly makes sense on the narrative level. The unfamiliarity of them is part of Claremont’s intended alienation effect. We know now it wasn’t arbitrary whim that the two longstanding characters written out of the comic – Kitty Pryde and Nightcrawler – were also the most invitingly affable. That was a necessary move to make this new swerve possible – we longtime X-Men fans all LIKED those two. Colossus, the X-Men’s gentle giant, had been written out as well, but returns in a truly battle-hardened state: Because of his battle with the Marauders, he now literally CANNOT BE HUMAN. Peter is emblematic of the entire team: cold, hard and uninviting.

Even the color palette has been evolved ingeniously – and is gloriously executed by Glynis Oliver. Dave Cockrum’s team was all brightly colored: blue, yellow, red and green. They were fresh and inviting – they lived in a mansion and joked around with each other and we wished we could be X-Men ourselves.

Now, the colors are all over the spectrum, and black predominates: Havok is a black, colorless void. Longshot and Storm both wear black leather; Psylocke is composed of clashing pinks and purples. Rogue’s costume – as of this issue – is a black bodysuit supplemented by Silvestri’s sexily designed, fetishy neon green accouterments. The primary colors of Colossus’ outfit have been reduced – just red trunks and boots – and the silvery metallic sheen given greater emphasis than in the past. Even in terms of the hues, things now jar.

The X-Men are outcasts now, truly, for the first time. Exiled to a squalor-choked ghost town at the desolate bottom of the planet, they’ve become more exciting, more unpredictable, and more dangerous-seeming than they’ve been for over a decade.


jonbrown said...

Reading this issue in light of the X-men circa David Cockurum is jarring to say the least. Claremont pretty much wrote (or at least defined) the X-men riffs that would examplify these characters for decades to come. Yet it is so interesting to see how Claremont moved past these original riffs and completely undermined them, intentionally deconstructing the mythology that he himself created. I think that, in the end, this new status quo proved far too radical for the Marvel brass and by the time Claremont ended his run, the series had reverted back to the Cockrum era.

I personally feel that these last few years of his run are some of the most excited, and underdeveloped, stories that Claremont ever wrote. We've seen the status quo (X-mansion, sentinels, evil magneto, etc.) retold a thousand times -- how interesting can it possibly be when we hear it the 1001 time? Nobody has ever explored the new status quo Claremont ended with: Peter Nicholas and Calisto, Wolvie's healing factor failing, The Reavers, mutants as a global commodity, Mr. Sinister, the Brotherhood as government agents, etc.

There is room for endless possibilities. Thats why I have some hope that X-men Forever will be a good book.

Marc D. said...

Well, these days even Sinister has been overexposed. I loved the Reavers, Pierce, Gateway...these are among the first X-Men issues I'd ever read (lifelong DC guy) and they were jarring, as you said. This wasn't a friendly team, a welcomed team, even a normal team. Grant Morrison would later push the envelope even further with Doom Patrol, but I think Claremont started it all here (maybe with a bit of help from Wolfman on Titans).

ba said...

I love the Oz-Men era, and this issue helps to explain why. I like that there are sort of two sides being set up - the pro-vengeance side (psylocke, rogue, and wolverine) and the pro-justice side (dazzler, longshot, and havok), with storm arbitrating. This was shown before, when havok first rejoined the team.

Also - this issue is the first appearance of Tyger Tiger (Jessan Hoan), no? I wonder if Claremont knew what he had in store for her when he introduced the character.

I only have one question - how did the x-men know who the reavers are at this point? They aren't the original hellfire goons, are they? Was that ever cleared up, as in...did reese become bonebreaker, cole become pretty boy, etc?

Anonymous said...

No,they aren't the original Hellfire goons. Presumably, Roma knew who the Reavers were because she was keeping an eye on Gateway and told the X-Men about the Reavers.

Jason said...

Ba, good point about the two sides of the X-Men when it comes to how brutal they ought to be. Havok says here that they should kill the Reavers, Wolverine agrees, Havok says he was joking, Wolverine says "I wasn't." This team has a great dynamic -- in this way and others. I'd have loved to see it continue longer, but I also like that it has such a definite beginning (this issue) and a very deliberate ending (issue 251, when they all go through the Seige and get scattered to other parts of the world). It's a nice, brief, precious little bubble of X-Men continuity that I think holds up really well. It's perhaps for the best that it is not explored often (though I read online that Mike Carey recently set an X-Men arc in the Outback).

On the other hand, it's quite possible that we will see the X-Men in the Outback again. Having mined the Cockrum, Byrne and Smith eras of the Claremont run, the mainstream "Uncanny" series has finally moved on to the JRJr run (which saw the X-Men relocated to San Francisco). Five years from now, we might well see the Silvestri material reprised.

Oh and Ba, yeah, this is the first appearance of Jessan Hoan. My guess is that Claremont DID already have her story in mind -- as I recall, her second appearance, in "Marvel Comics Presents," was published only four months later.