Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Uncanny X-Men #234

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont's X-Men run. This is a particularly good entry, as we see a lot of stuff coming together here that has been building for a long time.]

“Glory Day”

One of the advantages of Claremont’s spiraling writing style, wherein storylines are suddenly dropped midway through only to be picked up months or even years later, is that every so often it allows him the advantage of a certain kind of surprise. After the cliffhanger involving S’ym at the end of Uncanny #231, readers surely expected that it would be a good half-year, at least, before he showed up in the series again. Instead, shockingly, he returns after only two issues’ absence, revealed as the manipulator behind Madelyne’s disturbing nightmare of the previous month. What we get now is the birth of the “Goblin Queen” persona, a surprising reversal that was – to some degree – an arbitrary choice by Claremont. Something had to be done to absolve Cyclops, so he – possibly brainstorming with Louise Simonson – decided to turn Maddie into a supervillain.
Yet for all that this narrative swerve happened unnaturally – shaped more by editorial concerns than creative ones – it is crazily brilliant in its own way. First of all, Madelyne’s willingness to trade away integrity in exchange for power has a precedent in Claremont’s long-running X-Men narrative: we saw this character trait before in “X-Men/Alpha Flight: The Gift.” Also, Madelyne’s corruption by S’ym mirrors Phoenix’s by Jason Wyngarde (which occurred almost exactly 100 issues before this one, and which—in an oblique way — was beginning again contemporaneously with the present issue, in the b-side of Classic X-Men #24).

Indeed, when Maddie first appeared, the tease was that she might be Dark Phoenix reincarnated. In that original “From the Ashes” arc, it was all revealed to be a feint by Wyngarde, yet now it turns out to have been true all along. Madelyne is a proxy for Jean Grey, and since Jean was corrupted by evil, it is only natural for her successor to go down that same road. Like the Corsair-and-Kate/Cyclops-and-Jean connection that occurred with Phoenix’s death (another story turn shaped by editorial mandate outside of Claremont’s creative vision), or the Scott-and-Maddie/Alex-and-Lorna parallel from issue 219, this is another wonderful example of a classically elegant parallelism occurring serendipitously over the course of Claremont’s sustained serial narrative.

Meanwhile, a much smaller parallelism is contained in the issue at hand. While Maddie is seduced by a real demon, a preacher named William Conover deludes himself into believing he’s exorcised a fake one -- thanks to a laying-on-of-hands bit with Wolverine that occurs just as the latter’s healing ability neutralizes a Brood egg. Silvestri plays this as a kind of time-lapse-photography version of the first time we saw this, in Cockrum’s Uncanny #162. Then, Wolverine’s battle with the Brood inside him took an entire issue. Now, perhaps because his healing factor has encountered this particular infection already, the whole process transpires over the course of only two pages.

The William Conover character is striking in his own right – Claremont plays with our expectations, giving us another “Reverend William” years after the “God Loves, Man Kills” graphic novel, whose chief antagonist was a violently anti-mutant bigot called Reverend William Stryker. Reversing the typical use of religious figures in mainstream fiction, Claremont now gives us a preacher who is genuinely compassionate. Both in his public persona and behind closed doors, he is explicitly sympathetic to mutant rights. Fascinatingly, the character proves to be – despite his heroic core – utterly susceptible to the sin of pride, convincing himself that he personally is responsible for the affects of Wolverine’s healing factor upon the Brood “demon.” Conover’s naivety even extends toward his wife’s healed arthritis, which he also credits to the grace of God rather than her inhabitation by another Brood embryo.

Finally, on the meta-textual level, it’s rather appropriate that a Brood alien is mistook for a demon just before being excised not only from Logan but from the overall X-Men series. Claremont is thus bringing his extended “Alien”/ “Aliens” homage full circle (the riff having begun with Uncanny X-Men #143, a story titled “Demon”), before ending it.

(Granted, it seems likely this wasn’t meant to be his final Brood story, given that he very pointedly leaves room for a sequel. Yet by the same token, since the whole story functions as a “b-movie” pastiche, the blatant pointing toward a sequel can also be chalked up simply as the concluding beat of the genre exercise.)


ba said...

I think there has hardly been a brood arc I haven't liked, right up through the x-men/ghost rider one in the 90s.

Right in the beginning of the issue, I can see a perfect example of why I love claremont, and one of why I hate him:
Love - the couple kissing in the corner of the diner, unaware of the fight around them (though this could be silvestri's work)
Hate - the use of the word "skunge." really? I know it's the 80s, but still..

Jason said...

"Skunge" is a more common word in the Marvel Universe than it is here.

True fact!!!

Nathan P. Mahney said...

Ah, my second issue of Uncanny X-Men. My first was #163, with the Brood. So by this point, I kind of figured that the X-Men spent all their time fighting these guys, sort of like G.I. Joe vs. Cobra. My third issue was #275, which had more alien shenanigans with the Shi'ar and Skrulls. So it was a good long while before I had any idea what the series was usually like.

Anyway, I've been enjoying the hell out of your reviews. It's great to see some Claremont love on the net - the guy gets savaged for his recent work, and it gotten to the point where people kind of forget how influential and just plain good his old stuff was.

(Heh, but what do I know, I've enjoyed most of his recent material as well! Especially X-Men Forever.)

Jason said...

Thanks, Nathan!

Yeah, this whole blog-series was originally conceived as an answer to all the Claremont-hate on the net. (I later learned that Patrick Meaney had already done a similar appreciation. Cheers to him for fighting the good fight!) I still think Claremont's online karma is balanced too far towards the yang, but it is great to read encouraging words like yours.

(I keep hoping Claremont himself will discover this blog and maybe start commenting ... alas, not yet.)

No spoilers on X-Men Forever! I am still only on issue 3!!

Oh, and also ... There should be a name for the phenomenon of reading two issues of the same series, published years apart, and creating your entire concept of that series based on those two issues and what you imagine going between them. A "macro" version of Scott McCloud's comic-book "closure."

For me, the two issues were 124 --conclusion of their first fight with Arcade and 218 -- Silvestri's first issue, the new members fight the Juggernaut. Not a single X-Man appears in both comics!

But the Juggernaut is in both, and both make mention of "Captain Britain" ... ! That was all I had to go on. I spent a long time wondering about all that happened between those two issues, and it was even longer before I finally found out ...

Dave M. said...

Another fascinating review, I remember this era so well and with great fondness but your mention of Classic X-men makes this especially nostalgic as i enjoyed both books and Classic & Marvel Tales were my only chance of ever reading the older material that inspired the current, it was a truly great era to discover comics.

X-Men 234 stands out to me more for the cover than anything inside it, this is one of THE covers of the 80s and still stands out from the rest today.
The issue itself was okay but a bit dissapointing in areas, I never warmed to the Reverends story for example as it was too pious and came across as slightly hypocritical. I think Claremont threw this kind of character in quite regularly but for me they often didn't work, it's like that cutaway in another issue of this era (possibly 246?) where there is a page that has absolutely nothing to do with anything but concerns some guy and his friend talking about what they'd do if they discovered their child was a mutant "God help me i'd kill it" ends the sequence, but they rarely fitted into the story for me....

Really the standout moment in the issue is the fate of poor Harry and the choice Wolverine makes. Is it an execution or a mercy killing? Sobering stuff both then and now.
I felt a lot more for Harry than moral sermon characters like reverend Conover.....

Jason said...

I agree, Dave, that was a great time. The Classic X-Men stuff was gold -- all the great Byrne/Cockrum material, supplemented by the amazing new strips by John Bolton ...

Meanwhile, Silvestri and Green on the main book. All of Claremont's best X-collaborators, all sort of simultaneous. (And he had Alan Davis on Excalibur too!)

I really go the opposite way on the Reverend, though. I feel like at that point, the religious-person-as-racist-and-evil was becoming a cliche ... one that Claremont had indulged in himself with Stryker, a character I find pretty lame.

So the reverend who supports mutant rights, who seems genuinely kind and Christian, I find that a refreshing change of pace.

I'm trying to remember the other sequence you mention -- the "God help me I'd kill it" bit ... I think it might be in the 220's, actually. And if I am thinking of the same one, you're right, it is odd and sticks out badly. But I like how the reverend is woven into the Brood story. I think that whole sequence -- the "exorcism" and all -- is quite well handled.

Evan said...

One point I'd like to mention about the appearance of S'ym. He appears in Madeline's dream, but is in no way techno-organic in this dream.

I wonder if this is him taking a subtle jab of disapproval at the direction New Mutants had taken, while simultaneously coming to terms with the damage X-factor #1 had done to his plans.

NietzscheIsDead said...

Dave M.,

I agree. Twenty-six years later, and this is still my favorite X-Men (or anything X-related) cover of all time.