Thursday, October 15, 2009

Uncanny X-Men #241

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

“Inferno: Part the Second — Fan the Flames”

It’s excessive, it’s bloated and it’s plagued by more than a couple dubious leaps in logic, but for all of that, the “Inferno” crossover can be said to have delivered some major climaxes to several long-running mysteries and plot threads. The X-Men had been talking about bringing down the Marauders for a good long while now … indeed, the Marauders were the reason the X-Men decided to “let the world believe them dead.” Now, in the previous issue and this one, they finally take those bastards down. Silvestri is in excellent form, and he has a lot of fun with the action sequences. He and Green sell the Marauders’ last stand with gusto.

Meanwhile, we also get (as the cover blurb puts it) “At last! The startling secret of Madelyne Pryor!” Indeed. Now, again, Claremont has always, always said that Madelyne was meant to just be a dead ringer for Jean, and the whole “Is she Phoenix reincarnated” mystery was a red herring. He maintains that position to this day. In this issue, we learn that she was a clone of Jean Grey, but this is a ret-con that was shoehorned into Maddie’s backstory, so that she could find out about it and thus have more reason to become an insane villain. This is still Claremont’s idea, presumably, but not one he seems to have liked very much.

Yet, the original, “random doppelganger” alternative has always rung false to me. That a woman who looks exactly like Jean exists, okay. That’s the “everybody has a twin” school of thought (which Claremont has quoted in discussing this subject). Yet, she just happens to have been involved in a massive plane crash that took place at the exact same time that Jean died on the moon? Why was that a part of the story if Madelyne’s looks are coincidence? Why did Claremont deliberately have Madelyne mention this in Uncanny #176 (just after Mastermind’s defeat), thus making it clear that the plane-crash date was not part of Mastermind’s illusions?

And this dead ringer for Jean just happened to become a pilot (the same occupation that Scott’s father had), and then just happened to get a job working for an airline owned by Scott’s grandparents? If these are things that Claremont never planned to address, and was only forced to integrate them as part of the “Inferno” ret-con, then I say three cheers for “Inferno.” These coincidences are now woven into the tapestry, and the whole thing works quite neatly. Hell, even the name Claremont gave her (originally only a reference to the lead singer of Steeleye Span) now actually has a thematic justification. As Sinister explains here, Maddie had a “prior existence” as Jean Grey (and, though, no one realizes it yet) the Phoenix.

“Inferno” also resolves the long-running New Mutants arc about Illyana, S’ym and Limbo. Though most of it is resolved in New Mutants (written by Simonson), we get a taste of it here, during a scene between Colossus and a demonic “Right” robot. Both Illyana’s story and the mystery of Madelyne were begun back in 1983, and now we at last see them culminate, five years later. Sinister had been lurking for a while now too, and here we finally get some information on his motivations (though, overall, Mr. S’s full scheme remains rather smokily opaque).

So there is a lot of momentum leading up to Uncanny X-Men 241, a story that builds its tension on the constant shifting back and forth between the same two scenes: Sinister and Madelyne in “the secret, high-tech catacombs of a Nebraska orphanage” (one of my all-time favorite narrative captions ever), and the X-Men vs. the Marauders in demon-filled New York City.
The X-Men/Marauder sequence is a simplistic variation on a familiar Claremont theme: X-Men battle old villains, but their rivalry is set aside briefly to take on newer, more threatening villains. We saw it in the previous year’s “Fall of the Mutants” crossover – the X-Men fought Freedom Force until the Adversary made the world go insane, forcing a team-up.
The variation here is that – although the world is once again being turned upside-down – this time, the X-Men are being corrupted as much as the world around them. Over the course of the story, Silvestri evolves each character’s visuals, turning them into cartoonish, demonic caricatures of themselves. (Wolverine’s look is the most humorous, as by the end of the issue he looks as if his entire face is covered in char.) I love that Silvestri adds a humorous touch to this demonic invasion – something that we did not see in “Fall of the Mutants.” The anthropomorphized fire hydrants and mailboxes give the entire affair a slapstick feel that leavens the usual Claremontian melodrama (and Claremont, to his credit, seems more than eager to go along with the jokes).

With the X-Men turned nasty, they don’t really team up with the Marauders (who are pure unrepentant bastards anyway, unlike some of Freedom Force, so a team-up was not really in the cards). The heroes hold off briefly on taking them down while fighting some demons, but then just go right back to kicking their asses, as efficiently as possible. (Indeed, at least one Marauder is defeated off-panel, which is a bit of a disappointment.)

Meanwhile, Madelyne Pryor learns that she is a clone created by Mr. Sinister from a genetic sample stolen from Jean Grey years ago. She inexplicably came to life on the day Phoenix died, reciting a truncated version of that very familiar Claremont refrain “I am fire, and life incarnate. Now and forever, I am Phoenix.” Appropriately enough, Sinister’s revelations take Maddie the rest of the way towards villainy, and the final pages see her transformed entirely to the Goblin Queen (“Dark Madelyne,” by any other name.)

Note: The full “secret origin” of Madelyne – her ties to Phoenix, etc. – is never given by Claremont. He leaves it to Louise Simonson to reveal in X-Factor #38. But we do get a lot of it here, and I still maintain that “Inferno” works perfectly well to explain the long-running mysteries, certainly more effectively than “She was just this lady who looked exactly like Jean, but it was all just a coincidence.”


Dave Mullen said...

I think when this came out I'd bought The Dark Peonix Saga as a Trade and possibly around this time the sequel which collected Maddies introduction, so I was more or less upto speed on the continuity apsect. As I've noted before this was a good time for comics fans as reprint material was fairly accesable and cheapish so while this issue was probobly too heavy with it the continuity dump here isn't totally unfathomable.... only if you're a serious X-Men reader though!

I always felt some anxiety about this issue and It really comes down to the treatment of Maddie. Even back then to me as someone who'd only known her since #215 and followed Cyclops searching for her in X-Factor, this treatment felt very wrong and very very forced.
There seemed little logic to any of it really and it was plain it was being done to get rid of her in favor of Jean, what had existed before Inferno was a very likable sypathetic character who pulled her weight with the x-men and none of that seemed to matter one jot with the Goblin Queen twist - hell, even Terra's departure got more emotional exploration and fallout after the Judas Contract!
So no, I'm not a fan of this aspect of Inferno but accept there was likely some arms being twisted backstage on the creative front...

Seeing more of Sinister was interesting at this juncture, I still had barely a clue as to what his place was in the X-universe and this issue seemed to sell him as a generic super-Villain in the Arnim Zola/Doctor Doom mold, it didn't seem to fit the book at that point and here he was basically being presented as a plot device character shown to be manipulating events on a grand scale behind the scenes... not a good villain in hindsight and an omen as to where Marvel were heading in the 90s with OTT omniscient 'Masterminds' like Stryfe, Apocalypse & Onslaught methinks.

ba said...

I think Claremont was given to a bit of hyperbole due to being disgruntled every time he lost a bit of creative control. The idea that Pryor was just supposed to be a coincidence as far as looking like Jean Grey is terrible on its face, given all the hints you mentioned (e.g. the plane crash). I'm sure he had plans for her that were probably worse than what came out of Inferno, and now he's embarrassed.

That said, you mentioned the little touches of whimsy in this issue, particularly the anthropomorphic mailboxes, etc (which there were a ton of in the even more whimsical Inferno issue of Excalibur). However, you missed two very funny lines - one, Colossus says to Storm "Mailboxes attacking people, police demons, maurauders we have slain, risen from the dead...this is MADNESS!"

To which storm replies: "Of course, 'little brother," how else would you describe life in New York City?"

The other line that tickled me was when Colossus is interrogating the robot demon from limbo (a former baddie from NM, correct?), and the demon says "Better maybe you should worry about yourself."

Colossus promptly smashes the demon, quipping "Why?"

Jason said...

I do love that second one, Ba, particularly because it is built up as a more ominous moment. (You probably recall, when the demon says "Worry about yourself," he is morphing from the smiley-face look to something more hideous and menacing (and Colossus is actually looking away).

Then Colossus turns back, not impressed at all by the transformation, and punches the thing apart with his great deadpan reply, as you noted.

I love the art in the "Inferno" issues. It sells the whole concept.

The fact that some of the X-Men maintain their Claremontian humorlessness even in the face of the absurdity, that also tickles me. Wolverine threatens the mailbox with his typical tough-guy rhetoric, seemingly oblivious to how ridiculous it is that he is saying these lines to a cartoon mailbox. It's brilliant.

Dave, the Madelyne argument will always rage, I think. Many people hate what was done to her in "Inferno" and they have sound reasoning. It still works for me. I continue to love her righteous anger at Cyclops (that is totally justified); the way her transformation parallels Jean Grey's seduction into the Black Queen (speaking of "Mastermind" villains!); and her overall bad-assery throughout "Inferno." It's great. Way back when, Geoff did a blog where we were asked to name our top-ten favorite comic-book characters, and Madelyne always is near the top of my list. She is fascinating to me, and "Inferno" is as much a part of the reason why as any of her other portrayals leading up to it.

Nathan Adler said...

Enjoyed your latest Inferno post, but just a few comments with regard to Madelyne!

While it did seem a little coincidental that Madelyne is involved in a massive plane crash taking place at the exact same time Dark Phoenix suicided on the moon, and is a dead ringer for Jean who just happened to become a pilot for the airline owned by Scott’s grandparents, I always considered it in the following way:

Chris was upset that Jean had to pay for her crimes as Dark Phoenix with death, and secretly still wanted to provide her and Scott with a happy ending.

He therefore introduced Madelyne and drew the close parallels for readers to know that she was really Jean reincarnated.

The other big hint for me comes when Madelyne is granted powers in Asgard by Loki. This to me was Chris suggesting that although Jean had previously shown the ability for destruction on a grand-scale, when once again being granted powers by another supervillian this time her goodness wins out and her powers for healing remanifest.

This time however instead of healing the universe as she had through the M’Kraan Crystal, she comes down to the human level of individual healing, and in so doing, redeems herself for the mass genocide perpetrated by her Dark Phoenix aspect.

So I suspect the whole plot with Madelyne was Chris’s effort to redeem Jean and provide her and Scott with the happy ending they never got the first time around. And they ride off into the sunset.

But once the mandate for Jean's return comes, editorial enforce the annihilation of Chris's human story.

Jason said...

I agree, Nathan. I have argued much the same thing in earlier blog posts.