Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Uncanny X-Men #233

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

“Dawn of Blood”

Fans who were reading X-Men during this time complain that the X-Men lost its heart when Nightcrawler and Kitty were replaced with the likes of Longshot and Psylocke, who weren’t as empathetic or likable – but this was the point: a new, less immediately accessible team whose motivations and internal lives were not as obvious to the reader. Indeed, Claremont’s choice of villain for issues 232-234 even parallels the point: mutants possessed by aliens to take on a team of alienating mutants.

To give the Brood super-powers this second-time around is a canny decision on Claremont’s part, for several reasons. First and most obviously, it ups the stakes from the previous Brood saga (issues 154-167). Second, it’s a logical extrapolation of the Brood’s agenda in that earlier storyline, which was to implant eggs in the X-Men and create enhanced-power versions of themselves. It only makes sense that, having arrived on Earth, they would seek out mutants and attempt a second crack at that plan – and how horrifying it is that, this time, the Brood have succeeded. Finally, and most subtly, this premise allows Claremont to synthesize two different types of X-Men stories: the politically naive Silver Age type, wherein the X-Men fight other mutants to protect humans (thus demonstrating a counter-revolutionary, assimilationist stance, as noted by Neil Shyminsky and others), and the more recent paradigm, with the X-Men working to protect mutants from being victimized. Here, Claremont is able to eat his cake and have it too, offering up villains that are mutants, but ones possessed (or assimilated) by an external force. It’s a shrewd maneuver– a storyline that lets the X-Men exist – for these three issues at least – in a state of perfect, guiltless equilibrium between two contradictory political paradigms.

Also, it’s just great fun. The opening splash drops the X-Men right into the middle of a horror movie, surrounding them with tentacled abominations approaching from all sides (Silvestri has one of them descending from a fire-escape, an ingenious detail). Colorist Glynis Oliver gets in on the fun as well, coloring the X-Men in their appropriate hues but drenching the Brood monsters all in red and the background in complementary orange. The “Night of the Living Dead” vibe is clearly intentional – the title, “Dawn of Blood,” removes any lingering doubt – and it is a clear signal that we’re not meant to take this one TOO terribly seriously. It’s as if Claremont and company have taken the previous Brood story (which stretched out over a year), and boiled away all the fat. The result is a lean, mean trilogy that’s big on thrills and almost entirely devoid of angst (albeit not entirely, as we see on the final page).

Instead, Claremont saves the heavy stuff for the interlude: a five-page dream sequence that’s absolutely horrifying. If the Brood represent b-horror-movie grotesquerie, here is something far darker, more akin to the deeply psychological terrors of Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. In what amounts to a chilling symbolic recreation of Cyclops’ abandonment of Madelyne for Jean Grey in X-Factor #1, the scene depicts Scott callously rejecting Maddie for a featureless mannequin, then taking their baby from her as well. Finally, with a ruthless and methodical efficiency, he simply plucks Maddie’s physical features from her head – hair, nose, lips, then finally eyes – and places them all onto the mannequin, which of course becomes Jean.

Throughout this surreally awful process, Scott’s dialogue is emotionless and brusque. “I’m really sorry,” he says. “But I loved someone else first. And best. Her needs take priority. There, that’s better. A few more details ... the finishing touches, pulled from the copy ... and the original will be restored ... good as new.”

There is, of course, a certain degree of meta-narration occurring. Claremont is commenting both on the character assassination of Scott that occurred in X-Factor #1 as well as his own earlier creative ambitions for the Madelyne Pryor character, which involved making her a proxy for the murdered Jean Grey.

The scene works on that level as well, but it’s also creepily effective on the basic textual level. Once again, Silvestri’s phenomenal sense of detail adds to the scene in surprising ways – i.e., Madelyne begins to cry as she is disassembled by Scott, but when Scott takes her eyes and places them on the Jean figure, the tears remain, re-contextualized now as signifiers of joy rather than terror. Note as well the way Cyclops wears his X-Men costume throughout most of the fantasy, but it quietly becomes his X-Factor outfit just before he, Jean and the baby disappear. It’s an utterly stunning sequence, and the true centerpiece of the issue.


Matt Jacobson (formerly Ultimate Matt) said...

This issue was actually the very first X-Men comic I ever read, back when I was 8 or so, and it creeped me out big time. That scene with Cyclops, even though its a dream sequence, formed the basis of my mental image of the character for years. When people said his cheating on Jean with Emma was out of character, I never bought it - because this (and X-Factor 13/14)was my first exposure to the character.

Jason said...

Yeah, how could Scott ever recover from this?

It's sort of brilliant that although the scene shows Madelyne being disassembled, it's really Scott that we're seeing be utterly taken apart.

Anonymous said...

I'd love to read the plot for this issue specifically for that sequence... how much of that was Claremont or Silvestri (even Harras)? Looking onward to the rest of Silvestri's career I would be hard placed to find anything drawn with this kind of emotional impact.

Where did the Silvestri who laid out this sequence go when he was foisting Cyberforce on us?

ba said...

As far as I'm concerned, these issues through inferno painted my opinion of cyclops forever. Perhaps it's because I read from madelyne's (UXM) pov, and not cyclops' (x-factor). But agreed with Matt - the whole Emma frost thing (not to mention the psylocke thing in the 90s) was completely in character, in my opinion.

At some point in the 90s/00s, they had an annual or summat that dealt with the fate of the reverend's wife. She was placed in suspended animation, but I can't remember what happened to her.

Also...what the hell is a brickbat?

Jason said...

brick·bat (brkbt)
1. A piece, especially of brick, used as a weapon or missile.

What does he say in that issue? "My name's Brickbat ... because I HIT LIKE ONE!!!"

Classic! :)

Yeah, there's a website devoted to "X-Men Danglers" (which sounds dirty), and there's a segment devoted entirely to, specifically, "Claremont danglers." It does mention that somebody eventually got around to telling the reverend's story, but not the paramedic, I don't think ... ?

Ba, if you'd been reading X-Factor, you would have hated Cyclops even more. Simonson had the occasional nice moment of giving Scott some suitable sense of shame, but often he just came off as a childish little baby. And the end of "Inferno" has some really labored sh*t from Jean trying to justify Scott treating Maddie so badly. "Your lie answered the living lie that Madelyne had become!" Hmmm ... sure, Jean, whatever helps you two sleep at night.

Yeah, Anon, I sometimes feel a bit weird when I talk up Silvestri, because his latter-day work is ... well, it's not my cup of tea. I think he's unquestionably a talented artist, but his own sensibilities don't seem particularly concerned with emotional depth. It's all boobs 'n' guns. Still, if that's what he likes -- "To thine own self be true" and all that.

Dave M. said...

I think this arc summed up part of what made Claremonts x-men great, the way he would jump from one ongoing storyline to something completely unexpected. At the time this came out I was not expecting him to suddenly pick up the story of what that alien was several issues earlier and the fate of Harry Palmer but here right out of left field that is exactly what we got! I loved that sort of surprise.

This was a proper all action storyline showing Claremont at his best, good character work allround and Harry Palmer made for an excellent moral dillema given we know he's an innocent but there are no easy options in how to deal with him. What eventually awaits him is something only Wolverine could, or rather SHOULD do. I think Storm might have made the same decision yes but Wolverine's role is well defined here as the X-mens Judge, Jury & executioner.
Not many writers since have understood Logans moral simplicity hid a much greater personal complexity, he straddled the moral border of being the x-mens concience and taking no-nonsense decisions.

Jason said...

Nicely stated, Dave.