Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Uncanny X-Men #232

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's Uncanny X-Men.]

“Earthfall”

This is more like it. After two issues of bleeding off the momentum of Uncanny #229’s strong relaunch, Claremont – reunited with both members of the regular art team, Silvestri and Green, and now under the guidance of a firmer editorial hand than he was used to (that of Bob Harras) – snaps sharply back into focus. Harras’s ability to rein in Claremont’s chaotic storytelling style (which will become tighter and tighter over the next three years, ultimately proving so constrictive that Claremont will quit in frustration) is demonstrable in the very first page, which pointedly draws together several random threads from X-Men issues 215-218, finally explaining their significance. The sudden tightening of these previous loose strands is the dramatic equivalent of a whip crack – immediate, arresting and impossible to ignore. Though Claremont has nothing good to say about his time working under Harras’ editorship, it can’t be denied that – at least during the first year of their collaboration – the two seemed to find a powerful equilibrium. The tension between Claremont’s chaotic creativity and Harras’ conservatism created a brand new dynamic, and was another factor in the sense of renewed excitement and exoticness that washed over the series during this time.

Uncanny #232 also reprises “Down Under”’s trick of delaying the X-Men’s arrival, this time all the way until Page 13 of a 22-page story. Once again, the results are spectacular, allowing the tension to build over the course of several eerily surrealistic scenes, e.g, a woman being eaten by a gigantic space-shark (accompanied by a massive “CHOMP” sound effect), and a paramedic molesting a dying mutant with a tentacle. We also get our first in-story look at Silvestri’s version of the Brood aliens. His variation on Cockrum’s design is astoundingly frightening.

As noted in the entry on Uncanny #229, Colossus – now perpetually stuck in his “organic steel” form, is an emblem for what the entire team has become: cold and hard, almost alien. The effect spreads to a second member of the cast in this issue, with Psylocke suddenly draped – without preamble or any satisfactory explanation – in pink body armor. Not only is the costume itself alienating, but so is Claremont’s decision not to let the readers be privy to where it came from. Once again the audience is being excluded from the X-Men, whereas in the Cockrum/Byrne issues, we were always invited welcomingly in.

(Note that Claremont will eventually explain how Betsy got her armor, though notably never in an issue of Uncanny. He saves the explanation – which itself only raises more questions – for the Wolverine ongoing, inaugurated in July of 1988.)

Along similar lines, the Longshot/Dazzler romance first hinted at in the Fantastic Four vs. The X-Men miniseries also seems to have progressed between issues. Even here, though, the audience is kept on the outside, wondering whether Alison and Longshot’s physical intimacy is just part of their cover while they spy on Harry Palmer. The Claremont of earlier years would’ve been obliged to supply thought balloons for both characters, to let us all know exactly what they were thinking.

All of this contributes to the X-Men seeming more dangerous than they have in a long time. Consider this no-nonsense bit of strategic instruction from Storm (who’s also in a new costume, having given up the “punk” look at last, only to trade it for fetishistic full-body black leather):

“He has been running free ever since the crash. We must not – dare not – harm him ... until we have learned if he has implanted any others with Brood eggs ... and if so, who they are. Then, we will deal with them all. Think of this as a plague, X-Men, more virulent than any you can even imagine.”

This is a new era of X-Men – they’ve collectively become tougher and meaner, less likeable as personalities but far more hardcore as sci-fi protagonists. They now truly seem like outsiders, a notion that always hung over the X-Men premise, intellectually, even in the 1960s, yet never has felt more visceral than it does now. Geoff commented on how the original Brood arc made him impatient, with Storm in particular having a crisis of conscience over whether she should kill the Brood embryo inside her. The 1988 iteration of Ororo is a different woman, the storylines of the intervening six having toughened her up. Her desire to keep Palmer alive not out of compassion but only for questioning is striking, particularly in that it mirrors similar instructions she gave to Wolverine regarding The Mauraders during “Mutant Massacre.”

Having made his X-Men seem like outsiders even to the audience, Claremont brilliantly draws them back in through that old saw, continuity. No matter how frustrated some readers may have become at the loss of the friendly, familiar team they’d loved, the siren’s song of continuity surely must have drawn them right back in: The return of the Brood is the most obvious use of the now extremely dense X-Men mythos, but other allusions turn up here as well. Wolverine’s attacking a policeman on the next-to-last page, leading a teammate to believe Logan has snapped, alludes directly to Wolverine and Nightcrawler’s first encounter with Proteus over 100 issues ago (Uncanny #126). And detail-minded X-Men readers (practically a tautology) would be sure to spot the “Reverend William Conover: Glory Day Ministry Billboard” and wonder whether it meant a reprise of “God Loves, Man Kills,” whose main antagonist bore the same title and first name.

With its freshly unpredictable set of cast members and liberal use of comfortingly familiar continuity bits, “Earthfall” is a dynamic package. Whatever tension was lost in the last two issues’ sentimental meanderings is recouped and then powerfully consolidated here.

12 comments:

ba said...

I hated the explanation of the costume change for psylocke...I wasn't even aware that wolverine issue was later, and not concomitant. However, this is my favorite iteration of psylocke...powerful psychic with few hand-to-hand skills, requiring her to wear armor. Seeing as she's my favorite character, I was always irked about the asian transformation that he put her through, because ninjas were in vogue.

I like the increasing brutality in the series, as you mentioned, but not just by the x-men. Claremont seems to be getting quite cruel - check how the character Donald leaves his date behind to be chomped on. Vicious. Of course, it seems about right for the late 80s, at least from a NYC perspective.

Also, I like the little hint given during the pryor part of the issue, where she sees x-factor and breaks the tv. This foreshadows the later revelation that she begins to censor the information that the x-men get about x-factor.

scott91777 said...

Ba,

Are Ninjas ever not in vogue?

Jason,

First of all, just wanted to mention that, while I've been too busy to comment on the X-post, I've still been reading/enjoying them... so kudos. I will probably be more participatory as we get to the issues that I am MOST familiar with (the 240s or so).

Which brings me to my next question, you mention Harras' tightening the leash around Claremont in order to bring more focus to the series but, as I remember, there is a period come up where the series goes all over the place and, for the course of over a year, there isn't even a 'proper' X-men team.

I'm sure you'll address this when we get to those issues but, am I remembering wrong here?

Anonymous said...

Scott, you are right, that was a strange year for the X-Men. They were scattered all over the globe and Banshee and Forge were teamed up to try and find them.

That summer, Marvel tried to do their typical annual crossover, a story called "Kings of Pain". It crossed over into X-Force, New Warriors, X-Factor, and X-Men. What X-Men were available for this crossover, you might wonder? The "Muir Island" gang of erstaz X-Men, that's who. Multiple Man, Siryn, Polaris (the bulked-up She-Hulk Polaris), and a couple of others I can't remember. Probably pissed off everyone who wanted to see Wolverine and the gang.

scott91777 said...

Actually Anon, the Kings of Pain Annual was well after the scattering period... the team had already reconvened in a sort of interim line-up between the X-tinction agenda and the debut of the Jim Lee X-men series.

I'm not sure but I THINK that story was supposed to have taken place while the main X-men team (at that time: Storm, Wolverine, Gambit, Jubilee, Forge, Banshee and Psylocke) were in outer space in a Shi'ar recconecting with Professor X.

In fact, I think the Kings of Pain Annual actually came out around the time where the story in Uncanny was chronicling the X-men's return to earth and their combat with the Shadow King on Muir Island.

It was always an odd story... I think I still have all four parts in 'the box'... I might dig them out for a 'Rememberance of Comics Past' piece one day.

Jason said...

Ba, yeah, that X-Factor moment is cool, and key. I think Storm keys up the exact same footage in UX #239 (Cyclops and Jean in the exact same poses). Worthwhile to note that the revelation that Madelyne censored those tapes is nowhere to be found in Uncanny. It's in the big info-drop in X-Factor #38 (which contains a lot of other little ret-cons, some of which work, some of which are way off the map).

Scott, I imagine Harras' control got tighter over time. Maybe I am misinterpreting these early issues, and giving more credit to Harras than I should for the renewed focus of the series at this point ... ?

In any case, one symptom of Harras' editorship seems to be a return to a lot of Byrne/Claremont classic "riffs." (Harras had been a fan of that run as a kid.) Hence, post-"Inferno," we get Sentinels, Robert Kelly, Sebastian Shaw, Donald Pierce, the Savage Land, Zaladane, Amahl Farouk, Muir Island, Banshee ... a bunch of stuff from the Byrne run, some of which hasn't been seen in quite a long time.

... But, there is another aspect of the Claremont/Byrne run that is probably less fondly remembered -- the suspension-of-disbelief-testing year-long sequence in which Prof. X, Jean and Beast thought the other X-Men were dead, and vice versa. (Well, almost vice versa -- nobody ever thought Charles was dead.) The Prof went off to space, Jean left to get it on with Jason Wyngarde, and the X-Men went to Antarctica, Japan and Canada.

This is the trope that Claremont was attempting to re-do. (He even says in his "X-Men Visionaries" volume that the "scattered team mates who believe each other to be dead" is a storyline he kept returning to because he never felt like he got it right.

Certainly that last attempt, that you bring up, was the most ambitious variation Claremont ever attempted -- and I'm guessing that it had the full blessing of Harras because it was a re-iteration of a Claremont/Byrne riff, like so many other plots from the period. Then, of course, sales started to drop as Claremont dragged things out past most readers' point of patience ... sales picked up just as Jim Lee came aboard, and the "X-Tinction Agenda" crossover brought folks back together ...

And somewhere in there I imagine Harras (looking at the bottom line, as were the stockholders) said, "You know, Claremont's stories are starting to piss readers off, whereas they LOVE Jim Lee and they eat up these crossovers that are plotted by committee anyway ..." And at that point, Claremont's creative control was probably slashed severely, as Harras and Lee went to work resolving the outstanding plots and dragging Claremont along by his heels.

Until Claremont said, "Screw it," and just headed out the door.

And that's my take on it. :)

Yeah, Scott, you should do a "Kings of Pain" evaluation. I won't be touching that (never even read it) because Claremont didn't write the X-Men Annual that year. I'd assume "Kings of Pain" was another Harras brainchild, though, dealing as it did with the return of Proteus -- yet ANOTHER Claremont/Byrne thing!

Anon, the annual that took place during the "scattered around the globe" year was Annual #13, the year of "Atlantis Attacks." I haven't read that annual either (Claremont didn't write it -- his contributions were seriously diminishing at this point). Who were the X-Men to appear in that annual? Was it the Muir Island folks again?

Jeff said...

What is the story behind Psylocke's armor? You've got me curious now.

Jason said...

Jeff,

There's not much to it, really. In X-Men 232, she just suddenly has it, and says, "Good thing I decided to start wearing armor." We are left to assume the X-Men just made it or bought it, and that there is nothing special about it.

Then in X-Men 239, much is made of how the armor is actually something special -- it is "state of the warrior art" and that it can come through major stresses with literally "not a scratch." This kind of makes one wonder where they got this magical super-armor.

Then in Wolverine #5-7, we find out that Logan commissioned the armor from a mysterious corporation called "Landau, Luckman and Lake." We see Logan acquire the armor (in a roundabout way) during those issues, implying that even though they were published roughly concurrently with "Inferno," they actually take place before Uncanny #232 -- that what we are seeing here is the "origin" of where the armor came from.

(This in turn creates a bunch of chornological knots, because backdating those Wolverine issues to a year earlier leads to continuity paradoxes with other stuff published around the same time ... but that's another issue entirely.)

Anyway, the short of it is, Wolverine got the armor from a mysterious company that he has ties to. Basically creates a new mystery, i.e., what is Logan's connection to these guys? Claremont teases us a couple times, as we see photographs of Wolverine as a younger man (presumably) sitting in various Landau, Luckman & Lake offices in different parts of Asia. But it's another thing Claremont didn't get around to spelling out (if he was ever going to) before he left.

ba said...

Without getting out the file to check it, I think the atlantis attacks annual had the oz-men team. I definitely remember rogue and dazzler...that's the one where they are gathering some little totem for a random guy, right? And dazzler and diamondback switch bodies? If so, yeah, it was the oz-team.

Around that time there was also a pretty decent issue of marvel comics presents with the x-men, speedball, powerpack, and cloak and dagger. It was a sentinal based issue.

Also, let's not forget that wolverine's friend (was her name lindsay?) wore the armor for a few issues, and wolverine says something to the effect of "don't ruin it, that's for a teammate of mine."

Also, while the whole LL&L story in wolverine was useless, the original run of deadpool used it to fantastic effect.

Jason said...

Lindsay wears the armor in issue 5, then Jessan Hoan wears it in issues 6-7. Curiously, in Wolverine, the armor comes with a weird mask that looks like one of those theatre masks -- it covers the wearer's entire face. We never saw this in Uncanny. I guess Betsy wasn't diggin' the look ...

But yeah, Logan does say specifically that he got it for "a friend" (I don't think he ever says "teammate," but anyone reading X-Men would've gotten the point).

Bob Temuka said...

This was the first regular issue of the X-Men I ever got, because I was 13 and it scared the shit out of me. Silvestri could do some nice atmospheric stuff and the storytelling from the perspective of the X-Men's target turned them into pretty creepy characters. Then Wolverine kills a female cop and it's like something out of a horror film.

Man, the X-Men had me for life after that.

Jason said...

I like you, Bob. :)

Michael said...

I guess our tastes are completely different. I see this as the issue where the series started falling apart. I thought it began going downhill mid-way through the Romita period, as it became progressively darker and paranoid, and then declined rapidly in the lead-up to the Fall Of The Mutants, and right here it all just crumbled.
It just seemed to me like Claremont was losing his grip on characterisation, which had always been his strength, and he stopped doing fun or quiet moments (except in Excalibur). And having the Brood only hunt down mutants in this story seemed stupid to me. I got the impression that everything that happened in X-books by this point had to revolve around mutants, whether it fit the story or not.
It has been a very long time since I've read these, though. I lost my issues several years ago, and I've never replaced them.