Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Uncanny X-Men #235

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

“Welcome to Genosha ... A Green and Pleasant Land ...”

Illustrated by guest artists Rick Leonardi and P. Craig Russell, Uncanny #235 inaugurates the four-part Genosha storyline, Claremont’s hugely ambitious attempt to apply the mutant metaphor to South African apartheid. In June of 1988, when the issue was published, apartheid had been in place in South Africa for 40 years.

The story is one of Claremont’s all-time finest, applying its analogies deftly and carefully – and keeping them implicit throughout. There is no garish use of vile, real-life pejoratives (as in “God Loves, Man Kills”), nor any attempt to make a fetish out of another culture’s seeming exoticisms (as in “LifeDeath II: Heart of Darkness”). Instead, Claremont places the world of Genosha squarely inside the fictional bounds of the Marvel Universe – or more specifically, his own corner of it – allowing it to be read entirely inside those artificial lines if one is so inclined. However, the signifiers to the story’s larger context are all right there, for anyone with eyes to see. Claremont’s ability to write toward both perspectives throughout all four installments of this saga is one of his most impressive achievements.

In service of this dual-minded approach, Claremont constructs each chapter of the “Welcome to Genosha” epic to contain at least one sequence of wrenching brutality and tragedy (always set in the titular African nation), juxtaposed against at least one containing straightforward superhero action. It’s an altogether unsubtle example of using spoonfuls of four-color fun to make the commentary go down, and Claremont is even kind enough to signal us that the action bits – as well-executed as they are – exist more to fulfill genre requirements than because the story requires them. “C’mon, Havok,” says Psylocke, just before the X-Men take down a squad of Genoshan magistrates. “Time for some gratuitous heroics.”

The action is indeed gratuitous; what’s more important in the present issue is all the evidence of Claremont’s universe-building. The world of Genosha is rigorously illustrated right from the opening page: an obnoxious propaganda billboard, whose text doubles as the issue’s title, and whose final word, “freedom,” is obstructed by a fleeing mutant fugitive clutching a baby in his arms. Claremont is offering us a witty mutation of the traditional opening splash page -- which so often presents a big, bold image of characters in violent battle (e.g., the opening splashes of Uncanny 222 or 234). Claremont replaces those bold images with giant, uppercase text, which then in turn is fought, or contradicted, by the image set against it. We don’t yet know what Genosha is or why an X-Men story is beginning there, but our attention is immediately snapped in by the simple and direct irony of a disenfranchised fugitive (who, we know thanks to the shorthand of the baby, is innocent) stumbling past the word “FREEDOM!” The story has now been firmly framed in an instance of visual irony, which is appropriate.

This segues into a fast and brutal sequence (given added poignancy by Glynis Oliver’s violent swaths of color) wherein a mutant father – whose syntax is mangled and awkward, inexplicably at this point in the story – dies in battle against racist antagonists calling themselves “magistrates.” The magistrates are armed with tech that, thanks to Leonardi, has a subtly futuristic sci-fi look to it, and their vernacular includes a new epithet for mutants besides the long-familiar Stan-Lee-ism “mutie.” They call the fugitive a “genejoke” – a particularly strong linguistic invention by Claremont, containing a certain sci-fi exotica as well as a surprising phonetic harshness.

The hypocrisy upon which Genosha is predicated – pointed out in the blatant opening splash – is implicit here as well, though it won’t be explained until later chapters: The Genoshan tech used to take down the mutant by bigots is, in fact, made possible by the country’s mutant population. Possibly influenced by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ world-building in Watchmen (which suggested that 1980s America would look like an exotic sci-fi metropolis if it truly contained superhumans), Claremont has fashioned Genosha as a place whose superhuman resources – i.e., its mutant population – have been rigorously exploited in order to put the country at the technological forefront, especially in terms of its military. That technology is in turn used to keep its mutants oppressed, which is a brutal irony.

Much of this is not spelled out in the opening chapter, of course. Still, the hints of the nightmarish world of Genosha (basically an iteration of a classic sci-fi trope, the utopia with a dark secret at the core) are rather disquieting right from the start. The repeated mentions of someone called “the Genegineer” (a lovely portmanteau from Claremont), the alien-ness of the Press Gang (whose modem-centric member, Pipeline, is one of comics’ first Information-Age super villains), the magistrates’ fascistic resolve, the political intrigues, the kidnapping of a baby ... it all conspires to be something quite chilling and disquieting.

Even Claremont’s one-page denouement is exciting in its way -- with its incorporation (as in X-Men Annual #12) of the X-Men’s new eight-point-star logo and its somewhat wacky inclusion of an Australian police inspector called Mick Dundee -- and constitutes another example of leavening the dark allegory of the overarching plot with more playfully “comic-booky” bits.


ba said...

Love this arc; actually, I think genosha has been handled quite well by most of the future x-writers, serving as both south africa, and now israel.

As always, I enjoy Rick Leonardi. He's a good cartoonish break from Silvestri from time to time.

Jason said...

Ba, what in your opinion are some good post-Claremont Genosha stories?

I really, really love this arc too. It might very well be my favorite story arc of the entire 17-year run.

Arthur said...

I loved this first Genosha story. The only thing that bothered me was the lack of any build up. Both the X-Men and Magneto are supposed to be concerned with mutant rights, and here's this society enslaving mutants for what must be years and there's been no mention of it in all this time. Was the whole mutant enslavement supposed to be a secret? Genosha seems to be relatively open about it. Its citizens seem to know about it. Don't they ever travel the world? Doesn't Genosha have visiting tourists? Word would have gotten out, I would think.

I never cared for Genosha much after this. It lost some of its potency due to the X-Tinction Agenda. I have trouble seeing the real world analogy once you get a silly villain like Cameron Hodge involved.

Jason, I'm curious -- how are you going to review Inferno and X-Tinction Agenda? Are you going to stick with Uncanny and just summarize the events in the other parts of the crossover, or will you devote a review to each issue in the crossover?


ba said...

It does raise questions about how Genosha is marketed as a tourist destination, while also coming across as an isolationist nation where no other citizenship is recognized, and extraordinary rendition is publicly carried out against ex-patriots in other countries. It's mentioned in one of the upcoming issues that Australia's government has a problem with the kidnapping of its citizens.

As for the use of mutants as slave labor, well, one could point out how apartheid went on for decades without any specific condemnation from other nations. However, it also should be pointed out that a good portion of the population does not like mutants (something like..."hates and fears them?"), so it's not surprising that there is no public outcry.

Chalk it up to good marketing, I guess.

I can't remember specifically the arc, but it was towards the end of magneto turning genosha into a mutant homeland. It had a relatively cynical outlook, featured jean grey collecting a homophobic italian-american mutant, dazzler, etc. It sort of led into New X-Men. I enjoyed that arc muchly, as I see it as one of the plots that helped lead the x-men out of the horrible 90s.

Magneto Rex also was pretty good.

Jason said...

Thanks, Ba. Do you know who wrote that stuff?

Jason said...

Art, exactly, X-Tinction Agenda really muted (so to speak) the potency of the Genosha metaphor.

Crossovers? I'm not going to review the non-Claremont stuff. (You can see what I did for "Mutant Massacre." It'll be more of the same.)

It doesn't seem to have messed with the flow too much, because more often than not I don't formally summarize the plots of these issues anyway; I just pick out the elements that I find most interesting.

scott91777 said...


Leonardi: cartoony, but also ... what's the word I'm looking for... dark? Or capable of a sort of dark vibe. I'm thinking of the upcoming issue where the Reavers are hunting down Wolverine and Jubilee as being rather creepy.

But we can talk about that when we get there...

ba said...

The arcs I am talking about were written by Scott Lobdell, which is surprising (this is the three issues right before grant morrison takes over x-men), and Joe Pruett, who I've never heard of (Magneto Rex).

Scott - I totally agree. Just because it's "cartoonish" doesn't mean it's not very evocative.

Jason said...

Scott, I think part of the moodiness of that Reavers/Wolverine issue is thanks to the inker -- can't remember his name, but his style was pretty insane. He also contributed to the very visually dynamic "Havok/Wolverine" miniseries from around that same time.

But yeah, Leonardi IS very expressive. As a kid, I hated his style. I can see why Leonardi never became a fan favorite ... not sleek enough, not "cool" enough. (Unlike Liefeld, ha ha).

But his stuff has grown on me, definitely. He does a lot with body language and expression. His work in these Genosha issues is my favorite of his stuff.

Gary said...

Scott Lobdell is capable of some good stuff - I've always found him to be good at writing character moments that are among my favorites. Right around X-Cutioner's Song, he did 2 issues - one where Beast, Senator Kelly, Professor X, and Graydon Creed have a televised debate where Hank is just delightful; and another where Professor X has the use of his legs back for one issue, the end of which makes me want to shed (manly, very, very manly) tears just thinking about it.

Then there's the other dreck he put out that makes me want to cry like a little girl.

Magneto Rex was okay, but at that time, killing Magneto was just starting to get played out in my opinion.

The original Genosha storyline is fantastic, though. Very aggravating, but with the hallmarks of Claremont's writing - two sides to an issue, real fears, real problems, the mutant issue played straight and well thought out - the Genegineer is especially well written as a man who is trapped by what he has done and forced to keep doing it lest everything fall apart.

Jason said...

I've never seen Lobdell do a good character moment, but I can't claim to be a completist. I do like his X-Men/Wildcats crossovers. Good clean fun.

I remember just despising stuff like Forge proposing to Storm, and then getting pissed for no reason and walking out on her just before she ... "was going ... to say ... yes ..." (gah.)

Or the mass suicide of Peter's brother and the Morlocks? Double gah!

ba said...

I'm going to have to side with Gary here - that one issue where Xavier can walk again for a short time and goes rollerblading with Jubilee makes me...mist up...yeah....

Menshevik said...

For me Lobdell on the mutant books was a study in contrast - there were some real low points but also moments I really consider excellent, which often were indeed character moments. I'd mention the issue where Rogue accompanies Iceman on a visit to his family (well, it helped that he had Bobby voice some of my misgivings about her "romance" with Gambit), his contribution to "Age of Apocalypse", the Christmas story before the X-Men were whisked off to space (and everything turned to crap on their return), and of course early Generation X. In that weird mixture of very bad and very good I found him much more "interesting" (through being unpredictable) than his contemporary collaborator Fabian Nicieza, who for me represented a plateau of turgid mediocrity on the X-books (although he also wrote the ghastly new origin story for "Erik Lehnsherr" in in XMU).

Jason said...

For all that people complain about Claremont's writing tics, I found Lobdell's and Nicieza's far more distracting. Lobdell's trick where he has someone say the same word -- usually someone's name --five times in a row (kind of Sorkin-esque in a way, but it always was annoying when Lobdell did it.)

Warren: "Bobby."
Bobby: "blah blah blah etc etc"
Warren: "Bobby."
Bobby: [continues to talk as if he hasn't heard Warren]
Warren: "Bobby."

Always bugged me.

And Nicieza's hazily structured, kitchen-sink rhetoric...

Apocalypse: "The fires of the past shall burn the earth's future, as the present comes raining down on all our souls."

I don't know, I'm probably wrong to give Claremont a pass on his idiosyncratic idioms while condemning his successors for their quirks, but I just found all that X-stuff produced in Claremont's immediate wake to be so hacky and trite.

ba said...

Nicieza is at his best when he embraces the silliness, a la Deadpool, and at his worst when he tries to be serious, a la his entire run on X-Force.

Gary said...

Please understand that I am not defending Lobdell's run on X-Men. I'm simply stating that there are some diamonds in that rough, and I'm fortunate enough to own some of them. I include the issue where Cannonball legitimately defeats Gladiator, something I never thought could be done to my satisfaction until I read it.

Jason said...

Understood, Gary. I was just explaining why my anti-Lobdell bias is so strong. The proximity to the end of Claremont is a big part of it. When I read his X-Men/WildCATS years later -- when the pain of Claremont's loss did not weigh so heavily on my heart -- I found it pretty snappy and fun. Still not a fan of some of his particular tics, but I think X/WC are perfectly good superhero comics.

Anonymous said...

Should we mention what Morrison did to/with Genosha? AFAIK it's one of the few major changes that Morrison made to X-continuity that wasn't later retconned.

Doug M.

Teebore said...

I have to agree that there are definitely some diamonds in the rough of Lobdell's writing: his quiet, pre- or postcrossover character driven issues.

As for the both Lobdell's Sorkinesque tic and Niceza's purple prose ("The fires of the past shall burn the earth's future, as the present comes raining down on all our souls" is spot on), well, I suppose it's just a matter of familiarity and timing.

As much as I love Claremont, I read his work as back issues; he was gone before I really started reading X-Men, and Lobdell and Nicieza were the guys writing during my formative X-Men years (the awful Storm/Forge proposal quoted was actually in the first issue of Uncanny I ever bought) and as a result, I'm much more forgiving of their tics, in the same way, I imagine, Jason is of Claremont's, partially because I was too young at the time to notice them and once I did, nostalgia went a longs way towards smoothing over the rough edges.

Aaron Forever said...

Niceiza and Lobdell have done good stuff on and off the X-books. And they've done some utter dreck as well. Consider, though, that when they started on the books, they were merely brought in as scripters. Replacement scripters for Byrne at that. Harras put the artists in charge of plotting and Byrne threw his hands up very quickly. Then Harras lost those hotshot artists he'd put in charge, and Niceiza and Lobdell suddenly had to start writing the books themselves. Most of the really bad stuff came in the wake of that, but really what could they do about it with that situation thrust on them. Also consider that after Claremont and Simonson left, the X-books were plotted by committee and stories were either handed down to them or they were forced in the middle of a story to either drop it or go a completely different direction with it.

Much of what was wrong with the Lobdell/Niceiza years can be laid at the foot of the Harras regime. X-Men #1 in 1991 was a game-changer for the X-books, Marvel, and the industry as a whole. And really, for all the talk about a return to creative freedom in the early 2000's, not much has really changed. When nobody's looking, there's a lot of creative freedom. When there's a strong brand to promote and money to be made, they'd be just as well off publishing reprints as wasting the money to hire writers.

Mr. Inman said...

I realize I'm very late to the discussion, but I thought I'd chime in anyway. Jason, I love your Claremont blogs. I wish I'd stumbled upon them as you were writing them. I've been re-reading all of the Claremont issues along with your posts. Very entertaining. As far as Lobdell goes, I can take or leave his Uncanny work. Most of it was average at best. But, I really enjoyed his run on Generation X, issues 1-25. Maybe it was because they were mostly new characters, I don't know. But that first 25 issues by him and Bachalo I really like. It's better, in my opinion, than his entire Uncanny run.