Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Uncanny X-Men #236

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men. This is a particularly good entry.]

“Busting Loose”

Silvestri and Green return for the second part of the Genoshan storyline (which, because of its bi-weekly release schedule, required penciller Rick Leonardi and guest-inkers to pitch in on both odd-numbered chapters). Silvestri and Green open strong, producing the finest of all their X-Men covers, a dramatic “photograph” of Wolverine and Rogue strung up by their feet and flanked my smirking Genoshan magistrates. It’s an emblem for one of the running motifs of the story – the smug complacency of evil. (Note the way the soldier on the right casually and cavalierly lets his gun rest atop folded hands.)
The intensity is ramped up entirely in Part 2, Claremont possibly having been emboldened by Silvestri and Green’s more grittily intense style (versus Leonardi’s cartoonishness). Once again, as in Uncanny X-Men #s 229 and 232, the title characters have an almost alienating coolness to them. Note that the bulk of the team only appear on four pages out of a total 22, and in that time make a disconcerting impression, as they interrogate the magistrates caught by Crocodile Dundee in the previous issue. Inflamed by the unabashed racism of their antagonists, the X-Men are merciless in dealing with then:

Magistrate: “You here to finish us off, genejoke?”
Storm: “Do not tempt me. That word – ‘genejoke’ – I not like it.”
Magistrate: “Makes us even. I don’t like you!”
Storm: “Good. That will make this more ... pleasant. I require information about our missing friends.”
Magistrate: “I won’t talk!”
Storm: “You will not have to. Psylocke, he is yours.”

Silvestri has given Ororo a shit-eating grin -- as she faces the officer with steely, supernal calm -- making the moment that much more frightening. Later, after Betsy has picked their brains (in a sequence eerily saturated in Pyslocke’s trademark pinks and violets by guest colorist Petra Scotese), she begins to psychically torture them. In contrast to Storm’s icy resolve, Elizabeth is maniacally incensed:

Pyslocke: “May you rot for what you’ve done!”
Magistrate: “NO!”
Psylocke: “May you burn!”
Magistrate: “MERCY--!”
Psylocke: “And what have you shown, magistrate – you so-called upholder of the law – to the mutants you’ve enslaved and tortured and slain?!”
Colossus: “Psylocke – stop – for pity’s sake – would you kill these men?”
Psylocke: “No, Colossus. That would be too quick. Too easy.”

These X-Men are murderous, scary, righteously enraged. This was new in 1988; the first time that the “oppressed minority” aspect of the X-Men premise is being genuinely, deeply felt. For all that there have been a few dozen examples over the last 25 years of the X-Men fighting for “mutant rights,” they have never been so horrified as now by an oppressing entity (in this case, the government of Genosha) and its treatment of their kind. The series has been a long time waiting for this, but the pay-off has proven worth it. Never before this moment have the X-Men (either the team nor the series) felt so simultaneously powerful and indignant. The effect upon the narrative is utterly electrifying. As the title suggests, the X-Men are indeed “Busting Loose”: Free of the complacency of the conservative politics that derived them; free from their inability to connect in any visceral way the civil rights struggle – the Xavier “dream” -- that they supposedly embody; free from their privileged perch nested above the fray. They are truly in it now, and the series has never felt more right.

The formidability of the lead characters is also supported via third-party accounts, most particularly the Chief Magistrate’s report to the Genegineer. The scene is marvelously economical, conveying information about the relationship between these two new characters, even as they share data about the X-Men. Claremont even executes a nod to very old continuity, reminding readers of the computer virus that Kitty Pryde and the Starjammers created all the way back in Uncanny #158. In what is perhaps deliberate synchronicity by Claremont, issue 158 was also the first appearance of Rogue in an Uncanny issue, and the first on-panel encounter between her and Carol Danvers. Much of the Danvers/Rogue material first inaugurated there comes into play in “Busting Loose” as well. The use of the series’ long-term continuity here is brilliant.

Meanwhile, in one of the darkest turns the X-Men has yet taken, Rogue becomes deeply traumatized by molestation at the hands of the magistrates. The dialogue makes vague allusions to “liberties” being taken, and the narration clarifies that “All they did was touch her” ... but Claremont’s intent lies only a tiny bit below the Comics Code-approved surface. We cannot help but think that whatever happened to Rogue was very close to rape. Silvestri’s images of the character crouched in the corner of her jail cell, arms and legs wrapped tightly, are heartbreaking, and the parallels with this story’s overarching theme are devastating.

And there is yet more that Uncanny #235 accomplishes, as much of the issue is given over to sketching out the layered complexity of Genosha itself. Chris Claremont’s work has long been pigeon-holed, too often torn to shreds by those quick to point out the “Claremont clichés.” One such cliché is the team of generically nasty bad-guys, each identified by some appropriately hard-edged appellation. (See, for example, the recent Brood story, and its team comprised of Brickbat, Lockup, Tension, Whiphand, etc.) Yet here Claremont proves just as capable of creating subtler antagonists, whose relationships are not so prosaic and one-sided.

With the Genegineer, for example, Claremont primes readers for a one-dimensional conception, naming the character David Moreau (thus, a “Dr. Moreau” whose field is genetic mutation, living on an “island” nation). But instead of an outré lunatic, the character’s first appearance has him studiously at work in his own back garden, dressed in a sweater and bantering with his teenage son. (He even quotes Stan Lee!) This may be Claremont’s riposte to Louise Simonson’s “Island of Dr. Moreau” riff in issues 59-61 of New Mutants, replacing Simonson’s maniacal gene-splicer with something more insidiously evil. Indeed, the Genegineer actually seems somewhat sympathetic in his early scenes -- most notably his chastisement of the Chief Magistrate for allowing Rogue’s molestation:

Chief: “Those responsible have been disciplined. It won’t happen again.”
Genegineer: “If it does, Chief Anderson, you’ll answer for it. I thought your people were professionals.”
Chief: “They’re human. They’re fallible.”

Moreau is painted with at least some modicum of compassion, while Anderson seems incredibly heartless, rationalizing rape as the result of mere human fallibility in order to sweep her officers’ transgressions under the table.

Yet during Moreau’s later confrontation with his son, Phillip, the former’s true colors become obvious. The Genegineer heartlessly describes the process to which he plans to subject Phillip’s mutant girlfriend, Jennifer, changing her natural mutant power – a healing ability – into an ability more useful to Genoshan industry. Claremont creates more harsh imagery (in an issue already packed full with it), as David explains that “instead of bending flesh to her will, [Jennifer will] cut through rock, shape stone and steel ...” Just as Jennifer’s seemingly benign ability is to be warped for something hard and brutal, so are we slowly shown that David’s seemingly soft exterior disguises a dark, evil core – he is as heartless as the Chief Magistrate he reprimanded. And of course, this is also emblematic of the entire country, which disguises its cruel system of slavery and apartheid behind bright, shiny “Green and Pleasant” slogans.

Phillip, meanwhile, is clearly marked to be the main character of this entire piece – the character who will truly change over the course of the rest of the story. When we first meet him, Phillip seems genial and well intentioned, yet is surprisingly and sickeningly numb to the grotesque sight of a large, bald mutant – his syntax as labored and stilted as the mutant killed early in the previous chapter – decked out in a rainbow-hued skintight costume. When the Genegineer’s garden is charred by a magistrate vehicle’s afterburners, Phillip casually commands the brightly colored (or “Coloured,” as it would be put in South Africa) mutant servant to “Fix it, willya, boy?” and departs the scene.

Phillip is as numb as anyone else to his country’s amorality, and his eyes are not opened until his girlfriend and her family become targets. Claremont is as horrifying here as in every other scene of the comic: Phillip’s terror is tangible as he is nearly beaten by a magistrate, and then the terror becomes sheer awfulness when the magistrate – having realized Phillip’s identity – instead becomes almost sexually cajoling in his desperation not be reported to the Genegineer. The sequence gives a true and visceral sense of the profound moral rot that exists on every tier of Genoshan society.

Amidst all this, Claremont also weaves in the threads of Madelyne’s seduction by S’ym from issue 234. We are introduced to another demon, N’astirh, who appears on a computer screen in the X-Men’s Outback fortress, claiming to be a messenger from S’ym. N’astirh will turn out to be a major player during the “Inferno” crossover; he’s not important here, and Claremont could have kept his appearances in this issue limited to the single one in the Outback. Instead, he complicates the story and increases the density of information found in “Busting Loose,” having the demon show up again, this time in Genosha! It’s yet another discordant element contributing to issue 236’s overall eerie tone.

Finally, Claremont also brings a surprising new wrinkle to Rogue’s characterization, as we learn that Carol Danvers’ personality is not only still present in Rogue’s psyche, but also entirely self-sufficient. She is, furthermore, eager and willing to take over for Rogue while the latter nurses her own psychological wounds. Danvers’ entrance during the astral-plane sequence is incredibly striking – she look as sexy as any Silvestri woman, yet simultaneously classy in her Dave Cockrum-designed costume. Claremont clearly always had an affinity for the Ms. Marvel character, one of his most confidently conceived feminist superheroes. Her appearance here reflects Claremont’s idealization – from her first moment on-panel she stands as beacon of purity and strength amidst internal corruption. More than any individual X-Man, Carol is the superhero of the story, the one who – after “busting loose” from her prison inside Rogue’s head – arrives just in time to come to the rescue, to save the day. And she does so with style and panache, inviting the readers to stand up and cheer for her. (Note, too, Scotese’s clever touch on Rogue’s eyes: In the first few pages, they’re brown, but later, once Danvers has taken control, they become bright blue.)

Ultimately then, “Busting Loose” has all the trappings of a conventional superhero story: There are evil masterminds, people in trouble, a city buried under moral corruption – and a bright, primary colored superhero who emerges toward the end to take care of everything. Claremont’s genius is in both complicating and enhancing all of these story beats, making the danger harsher, the morality murkier, the heroes more troubled – then clothing it all in a real-world allegory.

With its powerfully realized antagonists, morally outraged heroes, breathtakingly designed setting, superbly complex character dynamics and surprising political astuteness, issue 236 is a true triumph on the part of Claremont and company. In some ways, “Busting Loose” is the apex of Claremont’s creativity and expression on the Uncanny X-Men series, a peak blend of intelligence, action and drama that few X-Men issues before or after would match.

11 comments:

Gary said...

[b][i]Jason says:[/i][/b]
[i]Yet during Moreau’s later confrontation with his son, Phillip, the former’s true colors become obvious.[/i]
It's not his true colors, though. Watch issues later when he pitches his picture of Phillip (and Jenny?) across his office after monologuing to it in the privacy of his own office. He asks (I don't have the issue here, so this won't be exact): "You were willing to ignore it until it came to your doorstep. Do you think it didn't hurt me, too? Curse you, boy, she was my goddaughter!" And he hurls the photo away in agony.

The Genegineer is the most complex character on Genosha. He's key to this society. Millions depend on him to maintain their standard of living. The entire economy hinges on his actions and what he's done to the mutants of Genosha. Truly, he's a man trapped by his own actions, forced to perpetuate something he no longer wants to by how many need it. The TRAINS run on mutants in Genosha. Genosha is a garbage, inhospitable hunk of rock without him and what he does. He has to live with that choice every day. To paint him as a 2D, uncaring villain is to do him an injustice. I believe that Silvestri's expressions in this issue convey some of that internal struggle (if I remember rightly, it's in his conversation with Phillip).

What he does is monstrous, but as you point out, he's not a raving loon like the Ani-mator from the New Mutants Fall of the Mutants story. I submit that he has another difference in that he is also not a one-dimensional straight up villain.

Paul said...

Another great overview, Jason. This is one of the most memorable, potent, and visceral issues of Uncanny X-Men. I remember it really having an impact on me when it came out (I was in middle school).

While Claremont does a little softening in the dialogue, it was alway obvious to me, given the cruelty of Genoshan society towards mutants, that Rogue was sexually molested. This was something that I had never encountered before in a superhero comic book. Sure, they die and resurrect on a daily basis, but this kind of violation seemed unheard of at the time, at least to me. After Rogue's disappearance into the Siege Perilous, the event seems to have been swepted under the rug, never to be addressed again (though Mike Carey may have mentioned it during his multi-issue journey through Rogue's mindscape in X-Men: Legacy). As a result, the impact of such a horrific event is further lessened, since it hasn't really been mentioned again. I always thought that it would be extremely sad that if Rogue was able to control her powers, that she wouldn't be able to touch another person due to her experience in Genosha.

ba said...

Ugh, I hate that I wrote a long thing, but it didn't post.

Short version - The cover of this issue comes across to me as a bit of black humor. To me, it's obviously meant to be like a stereotypical fishing photo, with the fish strung up upside down, and the fishermen on either side, smiling with hands on hips and fishing pole over their shoulders.

Also, the whole Rogue rape thing...I dunno. I know Claremont always slips things under the comics code on purpose, but I think he didn't realize what he was insinuating here. In a later issue, Carol Danvers (in Rogue's body) is asked about it by someone, either Dazzler or Psylocke, I think, and she says "nothing happened, but that's not the point." I see it as - Rogue hasn't touched anyone in years, and the first human contact she has, she's manhandled, at least violently, and probably with some molestation.

Which brings a question to my mind - can Rogue, say...pet a dog?

Jason said...

Gary, Paul, Ba, thanks for commenting. I really love this issue.

I'd love to continue the discussion as you all raise great points. But I am extremely busy and ridiculously fatigued. I hope the convo perpetuates for this and the remaining Genosha issues, even if I can't contribute as much as I'd like to.

(Best Show)Watch said...

"Hi:

Two things

1) I’d like your permission to (re)print your article on ‘Dollhouse’ for our website

2) I was hoping we could use your ‘scribing’ talent for our website.

The Best Shows Youre Not Watching (dot) com [all one word]
‘Dollhouse’ is one of our featured shows. We’re hoping to round up a few people who can occasionally contribute perspective (via an article/blog) on the shows – maybe a recent episode, future direction, plot shortcomings etc.

What’s in it for you?
Primarily a larger audience back channeled to your blog. We don’t pay but the site has a lot of promise and we're pretty excited about getting it off the ground. Let me know what you think.

Thanks

Geoff Klock said...

Ha! Jason HATES Joss Whedon! This is a kind of spam-bot I assume...?

Jason said...

Heh. :)

Shlomo said...

Jason, would you say that the claremont issues/arcs that you esteem highly are the ones that are more structured, ie have explicit chapters. Are there any instances where claremont made use of that structure, but it still fell flat for you?

Jason said...

Interesting question. I am a fan of solid structure, and I think Claremont is good with structure when he wants to be. (Though obviously he is also a fan of more amorphous storylines too.)

Ones that fell flat for me ... ? Certainly "God Loves, Man Kills," which is divided into chapters. It has its moments (thanks to Magneto's inclusion), but it doesn't do a good job in achieving plot tension. Storm and Cyclops getting killed by a car bomb is a rather weak cliffhanger.

"Mutant Massacre" perhaps? It has such a strong beginning, but no clear ending.

Going way back, there's the "Moses Magnum" two-parter. The most disappointing of the Claremont-Byrne arcs, I think. Part Two makes zero sense.

I don't know, those are the only examples that come to mind.

(Unless we are also talking of more recent Claremont work. He can still tell a good story if he wants to, but his sense of structure has become really unrefined. The "Big Hero Six" mini was a self-contained, five-part story and it was just all over the place.)

cease ill said...

Gary was right: the Genegineer is that rare villain with the depth to help us analyze a truth that "the evil men do" is, after all, committed by living, breathing, birthed and raised human beings, filling us with pity, rage, compassion and questioning.

Once again, Jason, you remind me these comics were not mindless Saturday morning embarrassments, but rich tapestries of allegory and characterization. They in fact serve to intrigue, to enrich contemplation, to encourage inspiration, and restore a modicum of self-respect that such weighty matters and tropes of the medium could be wed as satisfying entertainment. Well done.

Mr. Inman said...

This entire Genoshan arc is one of all-time favorite X-Men stories, not just one of my favorite Claremont stories. I still remember the first time I read the entire arc. I remember the anger slowly building inside me with every read page. And the scene with Rogue----chilling. This must have been especially tragic for her given that she was so careful about being touched in general due to her power set. No wonder the Carol psyche was able to take over. I also enjoyed the juxtaposition between the Limbo demons and Genoshan society/Genegineer. It really made the Genoshans look even more sinister because they were so believable because it could, and has happened, in the real world.