[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men run. Can you believe how far he has gotten?]
Claremont wrote Uncanny X-Men for 17 years, and it has now been 18 (and counting) since he stopped (the first time). His accomplishment and his status in the industry has unsurprisingly diminished – which is partly why I started doing this blog in the first place – but two decades ago, as the writer of the #1 comic-book of virtually the entire 1980s, Claremont loomed large on the comics scene. Even The Comics Journal, which tried its best to ignore superhero material as much as it could, had plenty to say about Claremont’s work. It was as hard to ignore back then as it seems to be easy to ignore now.
Thus, a review of any comic-book with female protagonists would garner the inevitable comparison to Claremont, whose X-Men work was populated with so many well formulated female characters. “These are real women,” the Journal would rhapsodize about whatever black-and-white indy book had won their hearts. “Not men with breasts, like Claremont writes.” The implication being that Claremont’s women are simply superheroes who happen to be girls, but aren’t readily distinguishable in any meaningful way from their male counterparts.
Uncanny X-Men #244 sees the four female members of the team go shopping at the mall, get makeovers and haircuts, try on dresses for each other, and then enjoy the stylings of a male stripper.
True, this is the most extreme example in the X-canon of girls acting girly under Claremont’s pen, and it is not as if shopping and perms represent a particularly nuanced portrayal of late-20th-century femininity. Still … saying that Claremont didn’t write women as women? That’s a tad ridiculous.
It strikes me as particularly sexist on the part of the people levying the original criticism, personally. Women who want to be superheroes are not realistic? Only men are willing to put on uniforms and fight for principles? (Claremont has noted in interviews that his own mother served during wartime.)
Claremont’s population of the X-canon with so many formidable females remains one of his most worthwhile and lasting contributions. (Anecdotal sidenote: A female friend of mine has actually commented to me that when watching superhero cartoons with her son, she is struck by the fact that X-Men is one of the few in which the female characters actually fight alongside the men. In the comparable Spider-Man cartoons, she wryly commented, the girls are generally there to argue over who will take Peter Parker to the prom.) Even the actresses in the X-Men films commented on how impressed they were to learn that this particular superhero franchise had so many good female roles. It’s sad in a way that even in 2009, this is still anomalous. But it speaks to how rare and how significant Claremont’s attitude was.
As for “Ladies’ Night” itself, Claremont very much enjoys the “weaker” sex as the four gals in the cast – Storm, Rogue, Psylocke and Dazzler – head to the mall and in a roundabout way, recruit a fifth: Jubilee.
A character who would prosper quite a bit in the 90s, Jubilee is not quite familiar in her debut issue. A few months down the track, the character starts speaking in some rather outré slang – Claremont’s attempt to make her the Carrie Kelly to Wolverine’s “Dark Knight” – but here, she seems quite a bit more mature and down-to-earth, more of a latter-day Kitty Pryde.
The issue is also notable for a speech made by Dazzler midway through, in which Claremont gets a bit meta. Alison actually comments on the cyclical nature of the X-Men’s existence, all but spelling out the fact that every year they seem to get involved in some gigantic world-changing crossover. She says that all the characters are in danger of being “reduced” to “stereotyped cypher[s]” [sic]. This seems to be Claremont lamenting the direction of the franchise, with everything geared towards the gigantic fall crossovers, the editorially mandated mega-plots making characterization (Claremont’s hallmark) a secondary concern.
“We fight, we save the world, we die, we get resurrected, we rest up, and then start the whole stupid cycle over again,” Dazzler says. “But where in that eternal Moebius loop do we get to live?”
Thus, this issue and the next comprise an opening one-two punch in Claremont’s attempt to get his characters out of the pressure-cooker and let them live, and breathe. The villains (a parody of Ghostbusters, portrayed by writers of the Wild Cards series, to which Claremont contributed around the same time this issue was published) are a joke. The obligatory fight – while excitingly illustrated by Silvestri and Green, as always – is perfunctory. The fun is in the characterization, as Claremont presents a surprisingly authentic girls-night-out montage. It’s sort of a superhero Sex in the City, well ahead of its time. (In more ways than one: As I write this, Marvel is putting out a comic-book that actually totes itself as a superhero Sex and the City, which in 2009 is decidedly behind the times.)
I had a brief exchange recently with Neil Shyminsky about how the Genoshan arc of issues 235-238 is the thematic conclusion of Claremont’s run, at least in terms of the politics. The X-Men become, in that story, as revolutionary as they can become – a full 180 degrees from the counterrevolutionary stance of Lee and Kirby’s first issue. Then “Inferno” is the conclusion of the run in terms of the major long-running plot threads. A massive amount of momentum comes to a breathtaking finale over the course of 1988.
Now it’s 1989, and Claremont is free to do whatever he likes. “Ladies Night,” with its deft characterization, charming story, jokey-joke villains and pitch-perfect delivery, feels like the sun coming out after a massive, cataclysmic storm. Claremont clearly relishes this new sense of release from pressure and sense of new possibilities. That he can so unashamedly indulge his enjoyment of the feminine members of the cast is icing on the cake.