Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Uncanny X-Men #239

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


Claremont loves to keep things varied. The previous four issues were dense with political allegory and metaphor, and featured comparatively quiet villains who wore sweaters or prosaic military regalia rather than gaudy supersuits, and whose most heinous acts included simply the complacent, apathetic acceptance of indoctrinated racism.

Now, Uncanny #239 is hosted by Mr. Sinister, who, at least on the surface – with his rhyming name, chalk-white face and flamboyant purple costume – is the most one-dimensionally comic-opera super villain in Claremont’s entire X-mythos. To go from Genosha to Mr. Sinister is a fairly intense swerve; a cold plunge into storylines that had been left dangling for a couple of years by this point. As such, the issue has an incredibly invigorating quality to it. It is somewhat dark, in its way – but it is not the brutal, racist murkiness of the Genoshan material. “Vanities” is thick instead with melodramatic pronouncements, soap-opera-esque sexuality, and one or two classically kinetic action sequences. In a word, it’s fun.

A lot of credit for this issue’s quality belongs to Silvestri and Green, who outdo themselves on the visual design of Sinister’s throne – a severely vertical agglomeration of piping and wires stretching toward nothing in particular. The impracticality of the design is one of Claremont’s hints, along with the aforementioned visual accoutrements, as to his notion for Mr. Sinister’s origin: That he is actually a psychic manifestation borne out of the dark side of a child’s imagination. Another hint of this intriguing notion is in Sinister’s facial expression on the first panel of Page 4 – a petulantly childlike disappointment that the X-Men are (so far as he knows) dead.

Also fantastic is Sinister’s “glass menagerie” of X-Men statues (like a child, Sinister enjoys playing with action figures). Besides working as an excellent showcase for Dan Green’s incredibly expressive embellishments, the glass statues are a fun, novel way to segue into each of issue 239’s various tiny X-Men vignettes.

There is also a quasi-religious overtone to Sinister’s characterization. His allusion on Page 4 to his “will” making things “right” has a vaguely Biblical ring, and the character’s general “pure evil” aura can’t help but suggest Satan, or at least some sort of Satanic avatar. Where Claremont was going with this – if anywhere – is unclear. It may have been a feint, or perhaps he planned to reveal that the child (Nathan, as shown in the b-story of Classic X-Men #41) was painting his boogeyman in Luciferian strokes because of a religious upbringing. Whatever the case, this will turn out to be one of the frustrating loose ends left over from Claremont’s premature departure in 1991. Answers won’t be forthcoming, so all readers can do is enjoy -- as Claremont clearly does -- the gaudy, over-the-top villainy that characterizes this unique member of the X-Men rogues gallery.

Sinister’s encounter with Malice is rather grin inducing as well. The pseudo-science to explain the unexpected permanence of the Lorna/Malice amalgam is some of Claremont’s most effortlessly enjoyable: “Given the way [Lorna Dane’s] magnetic powers have interacted with the energy matrix that is your own natural being,” he tells Malice, “one would be tempted to observe that the pair of you ... were made for each other.” Later, Sinister’s silver-tongued manipulations even incorporate a pun on Lorna’s longtime “Polaris” codename. “You are the linchpin of the team, Malice,” he says. “The one I depend on most – the unchanging pole star about which all the rest revolve, that points the way to glory and their true destiny.” It’s hard not to smile at a villain this clever.

As to the X-Men vignettes, the most notable among them is the practice session among Colossus, Psylocke and Rogue, a bit that accomplishes several dramatic goals within the span of only a few pages. First, it’s established that Rogue and Carol’s personalities now switch in and out regularly, Jeckyll/Hyde style. (Glynis Oliver even reprises Petra Scotese’s “eye-color” bit, switching out Rogue’s green for Carol’s blue at the appropriate moment.)

This segues into Silvestri’s incredibly sensual portrayal of Betsy as she languidly strips out of her sci-fi armor -- revealing only a tiny negligee beneath – then has a brief, luxurious swim in an underground pool. The scene is quite striking, and emblematic of one of Claremont’s less celebrated accomplishments as the writer of Uncanny X-Men – his ability to incorporate sexuality as a key psychological component of the characters. At least as far back as the introduction of the Hellfire Club, with its kinky costumes for female members, Claremont has consistently made sexual tension a part of the X-Men universe. Though early attempts were sometimes forced, over time the author became quite accomplished at integrating sexuality into the characters, far more thoroughly and credibly than any of his mainstream peers. (Consider that at around the same time Claremont made Logan and Ororo fuck buddies, John Byrne was doing scenes in which She-Hulk professes to be attracted to Hercules because “this is a man whose name has become an adjective!”) Now, around 1988, is when the Comics Code seems to become less strict, and this – combined with Marvel’s influx of artists (like Silvestri) with a penchant for cheesecake – emboldens Claremont to push the sexuality envelope further. His use of Psylocke here is an emblematic example, more explicitly sensual than much of what’s come before, but still a notch classier than the T&A that will become more and more an industry standard over the next decade.

Claremont also drops an intriguing hint – never again to be capitalized on – that Carol is able to control Rogue’s mutant absorption-ability. Much is made of her touching Betsy’s bare shoulder; in context it’s clear, this is no mistake. Purportedly, this was Claremont’s way of priming for the eventual reveal that Rogue’s inability to control her power is psychological. For whatever reason, the idea appears to have been dropped. (Still, it would crop up again in the post-Claremont years, albeit applied to other characters and their powers: e.g., Scott Lobdell with Archangel’s wings, and Joss Whedon with Cyclops’ optic blasts.)

Finally, “Vanities” contains a striking dream sequence. Although it’s a device typically derided by authors as a lazy way to convey subtext, there is something to be said for their ability to code a greater density of information in a small amount of space. Claremont has quite a poetic flair for dream sequences, although he was more than capable of overusing the device. Here, the author constructs a lovely symbolic consolidation of the arc he conceived for Alex and Lorna that deliberately parallels the Scott/Madelyne debacle from X-Factor #1, while simultaneously drawing a line under the most recent development: the obliquely incestuous connection between Havok and Maddie. Issue 239 is where the long-running Havok/Madelyne sexual tension at last is consummated, in a very soap-opera-esque scene. Like everything else about the appropriately titled “Vanities,” the entire affair has an air of decadence to it. But over the course of the “Inferno” storyline, Claremont will succeed in raising the material to something far more epic and majestic in tone – like something more out of Euripides than “The Young and the Restless.”


Matt Jacobson (formerly Ultimate Matt) said...

Mike Carey followed up on - and resolved - Rogue's power issues being psychological recently in Legacy (she can control them now).

Richard Melendez said...

Touching upon the recurring theme of heroes' issues with power control, I recall an issue during Lobdell's run... I believe they were facing Ozymandias as Apocalypse was priming himself for another return, and Scott found himself falling down a pit when he struck his head. I forget how the narrative was phrased, but it alluded back to how Scott supposedly lost the ability to control his powers as a child, when he struck his head. The implication being that this head-strike could/would result in Scott regaining control of his powers, again. I remember that sequence standing out for me, and waited for something to develop out of it, but as with so many other X-plots, nothing came of it.

With that said, has anything about Scott's power control developed since Whedon's storyline? Was it ever firmly established that Scott now has control of his eyebeams again? I've never heard mention of it again, nor am I clear if it was ever Whedon's intent to have Scott again be able to control his powers.

neilshyminsky said...

Jason - Just wanted to let you know that i got around to writing something on my blog in response to your Genosha stuff.

Jason said...

Cool, Neil, I will check it out presently.

Richard, you should check out Neil's blog as well; he did a post about that Scott Lobdell issue you mention, with Cyclops hitting his head. (I've not read the issue, but I thought of Neil's blog post immediately upon reading your response.)

Matt -- EVERYTHING goes back to Claremont! That is still my core thesis. I understand Carey even set some issues (might be the same ones you are talking about) in the Australian Outback.

ba said...

Indeed, the entire arc involving Rogue took place in the outback.

This was a fun issue, though Sinister is not the first to use figurines to represent the characters they are talking about. Off the top of my head is Roma at the beginning of fall of the mutants, but I'm sure there have been others.

Also, how about the mention of the beginning, wherein the father wishes his kids were dead, and then the entire family gets eaten by the demonic elevator? That's COLD.

Jason said...

Oh yeah, good call on the figurines. But that was "chess board" thing. Chess is adult.

With Sinister, it feels more like toys.

(Is that what we're talking about? I really should re-read my blog posts before I start answering comments.)

The opening scene in the elevator is great!

neilshyminsky said...

re: the demon elevator - I recall thinking, when I first read this, that Inferno must be a riff on Ghostbusters.

Gary said...

Jason poked fun at:
...John Byrne was doing scenes in which She-Hulk professes to be attracted to Hercules because “this is a man whose name has become an adjective!"

Why not? He is literally the source of the word Herculean. Fame is an aphrodisiac, and the man is literally a legend. I liked that line, personally.

Anonymous said...

Neil, yeah, I figured that too. I think I mention that in the next blog entry.

Gary, true. But the way it's phrased by Byrne makes it sound clunky and pedantic.

Anonymous said...

(That was Jason, by the way.)

Dave Mullen said...

Pretty much agree with your assesment Jason, Mr Sinister worked best only in these early appearances as we knew not a thing about him so could read into him any way we liked, it was a nice mystery that started to lose its shine in Inferno as he starts to pick up an actual backstory and becomes a flesh & Blood character with rather too generic super-villain motivation... :(

I loved this issue as even back then you got the fact that this is an artistic team at the very height of it's success, they had finally gelled to the point every panel was a delight to look at and the writer gets to do some very nice characterisation for the team.
I feel sad there were only a mere four more issues of this overall quality though....

ba said...

Re: She-Hulk - it's also been established a number of times that she's a rather sexually liberated kinda girl.

Gary said...

Jason anonymously accused:
But the way [She Hulk's line about Hercules' legendary status] is phrased by Byrne makes it sound clunky and pedantic.

Since I like the line, I guess we just disagree on this. It helps that I think that She-Hulk and Hercules are just a great gf/bf match up in terms of personalities - I'm probably some sort of closet Jen/Herc shipper or something.

Aaron Forever said...

To be fair to Byrne, which I am normally loathe to do, wasn't he writing She-Hulk as a comedy book? In that regard, I think it's a little unfair to compare that instance to what's in this book.

Of course it's not as if Byrne has a very evolved or open-minded taked on sexuality (or gender for that matter), so maybe I'm wrong.

I haven't read that issue of She-Hulk, but I can imagine it being meant to be comical. I kind of giggled anyway....

NietzscheIsDead said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
NietzscheIsDead said...

With regards to Whedon intending Cyclops's control of his power to be permanent, I had heard that it was supposed to be, but that Whedon and Cassaday's Astonishing X-Men was too delayed for it to be incorporated into the main title in a timely manner, and editorial forced Whedon to reveal that Cyclops's psychosomatic surrender of control was only part of the problem and thus step one on a long road toward actual control (with further steps presumably never to be taken, as this is Marvel post-1991, and thus post-continuity).