Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Uncanny X-Men #244

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men run. Can you believe how far he has gotten?]

“Ladies’ Night”

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.


scottmcdarmont said...

And here it is, the beginning of my X-men X-perience... well, sort of... this wasn't my first issue (that was 269) but, within a year of purchasing THAT issue I had quickly accumulated pretty much every issue between THIS issue and THAT issue so, to this day, this issue until I got out of comics remains the era that I am most intimately familiar with.

It's an odd era to enter a team book as, over the next few issues, Claremont goes about dismantling the TEAM. And not in the gentle way he has done previously where, slowly, over the course of about a year he takes out characters and replaces them with other characters so that there is never really a time when there is NO team. This would be a much more brutal dismantling where one by one, each character leaves and then, the final four, disapear through the siege perilous.

It's odd that you should mention indie comics here because, as I'm re-reading these issues and when I originally read them, I had a sense that this was something far removed from mainstream superheroics and, both now and then, I would say that the series definitely felt more like an 'indie' comic to me. Again, a big appeal to me with the X-men was always its weirdness... so, when it became just another superhero book after Claremont 'put all his toys back in order' it's no wonder that I lost interest.

As for Jubilee, while in hindsight, I can see how annoying she is, I really liked her at the time... being 13 myself at the time I read these issues, she was my POV character so to speak... as sidekick's were always meant to be, and, of course, I did have a bit of a crush on her (but that was before I picked up Excalibur and met Kitty Pryde *sigh*)


Any inside word on what Claremont was intending to do with with Jubilee? Just a street-smart Kitty Pryde?

Jason said...

Nothing inside, no. I imagine it was an attempt to inject some youth into the series. Come to think of it, there is some parallelism here. "Inferno" was a cataclysmic event involving a Dark Redhead (so to speak), much like "Dark Phoenix Saga," which was immediately followed by Kitty Pryde joining the cast.

So here we've got the end of "Inferno" followed by Jubilee joining the cast. Kitty was initially presented to give a sense of youth and vigor that contrasted against the tragedy of Jean's death. So I imagine there was a similar aim here, to lighten things up with Jubilee after the Madelyne corruption/death/debacle.

(Note that the Dark Phoenix and Inferno "tragedies" both are owed -- to varying degrees -- to editorial fiat overriding Claremont's original intentions.)

Anyway. Glad you asked the question, Scott, because I didn't think to put any of this in the actual blog entry, but probably should've ...

Anonymous said...

i've always felt jubilee had a odd choice of powers at this stage of the x-men considering that dazzler had very similar powers not to mention the non- claremont character of boomboom wandering around in x-factor and then new mutants .

ba said...

There was an issue of some x-comic in the 90s to the effect of jubilee calling boom-boom a rip off (which, obviously, she wasn't, having been around since secret wars II, so maybe it was the other way around). But jubilee was a main character in the comics during the 90s, when comics were massively popular, whereas boom-boom was relegated to x-force. Though, I must admit, since nextwave, I have come to love boom-boom.

Anyway, I've always loved this issue. Having gone farther back in the x-men oeuvre, I now find it a bit funny that psylocke is embarrassed at trying a dress on, when she was originally a model.

I think the dazzler comment is very reflective, particularly when you consider that, back in the 100s, the characters used to have regular baseball games. As far as I remember, they didn't have any up til this point (though they do in the very near future). The baseball games were a hallmark of claremont's, and a great way of integrating non-superhero life into a superhero comic (which, actually, stan lee and kirby et al used to do that a lot, with spider-man's dates, and beast and iceman going out for dates in the village regularly).

neilshyminsky said...

Having read these issues when I wasn't even 10, it never even occurred to me that Jubilee was a Carrie Kelly rip-off as much as she was (or even more than she was) a new Kitty Pryde. I wonder if Claremont was picking up on Miller's Batman being a bit Wolverine, and so returning the gesture?

j.liang said...

Claremont had the idea for Jubilee since at least 1986. A character with the same name and powers (a magically aged and enhanced Darla from the Longshot mini-series) appears in New Mutants Annual #2. He obviously loved the concept enough to repurpose it three years later.

scottmcdarmont said...

I think Jubilee was most likely originally intended as a new 'Kitty Pryde' but, once the charcter took on a role as Wolverine's sidekick... and particularly when she donned the costume with the Robin color scheme... the Carrie Kelley parralel becomes evident... however, was the costume Claremont's idea or that of the artists during that period... Jim Lee and Marc Silvestri? It's probably one of those culmination of things, Claremont introduces the character, the artists sees the Carrie Kelley sidekick angle so he decides to do the costume and then Claremont runs with it...

Jason said...

J.Liang, good call, I always forget about that, and am always re-surprised everytime I re-read that annual and see the original "Jubilee."

I don't remember who first pointed out the Miller parallels in the Wolverine/Jubliee sequence, but once you see it it can't be unseen. Wolverine is basically Miller's 50-year-old Batman, still kicking ninja ass despite being frail and weak. Jubilee's dialogue once she hooks up with Wolverine is VERY Carrie Kelly. (It isn't like that here, but by the time you get to the 250s, it's clear.)

Throw in the return of the Hand, which were Miller creations, and Psylocke becoming the new Elektra, and the Frank Miller pastiche is beyond clear. And Scott, I wouldn't credit the artist with it in this case. Jim Lee is the one who clothed Jubilee in Robin gear (with aid from the colorist, one assumes), but the "Dark Knight Returns" parallels were seeded almost six months earlier. I'd bet money it was Claremont's idea to do the Robin costume.

(I should thank Patrick Meaney at this point for giving me a sneak-peek of the footage he shot of his interview with Claremont, Ann Nocenti and Louise Simonson. In that interview, it's made clear Claremont -- despite the peculiarities of the "Marvel method" had a lot of creative control over the series, and even artistic touches that might've seemed like they originated with the artist were based on instructions from Claremont's scripts. He deserves a lot more credit than even I've been giving him in some of these blogs.)

Come to think of it, the Carrie Kelly vs. Kitty Pryde thing is not oppositional so much as dovetailing. Carrie Kelly was the replacement Robin; Jubilee was the replacement Kitty. (Logan even hallucinates Kitty just before meeting Jubilee, in Uncanny 251.)

ScottMcDarmont said...

"I don't remember who first pointed out the Miller parallels in the Wolverine/Jubliee sequence, but once you see it it can't be unseen."

That was me Jason :)
... at least as far as this blog goes... I'm sure someone else, somewhere has come to the same conclusion.

Jason said...

Well now I feel silly. :)

Dave Mullen said...

It is odd looking back but yeah, Jubilee was defintly Millers Robin/Carrie.
I was okay with the character but it did seem to be treading old familiar grounds given that Kitty/New Mutants had been there before. It's strange looking at her now as it seems very clear to me she was very very disposable when all's said and done. She never had much of a character which is unusual for claremont, usually he can introduce the most disposable characters and make them really shine for the brief time they are around but Jubilee was really one-dimensional when introduced and stayed that way long after Claremont had exited the books. Contrast her with Gambits introduction for example or even Rogues back in #172 and she just doesn't stack up...

Any thoughts on that?

Jason said...


I guess I don't, no. I am at a bit of a loss as to what to say about Jubilee. Like you, I am sort of fine with the character but have no particular attachment to her. I guess they can't all be winners.

(Granted, she is no Rachel Summers, who remains my least favorite of any Claremont creation.)

Dave Mullen said...

Hmm, Ray 'first appeared' in one of my very 1st X-mens - 184, so I'm sort of the opposite in that i've always had an attachment to her... same goes for Sam Guthrie who was introduced about the same time. Both are favorites who don't always get their due but i can well regognise why Ray is an oddity in the modern x-men universe.

I think the chief problem about Jubilee is she's very much of her time and unlike Kitty Pryde and others never evolved past that initial outline. She was created as Wolverines Robin and that's it; almost a pastiche character claremont was forcibly saddled with but never had any empathy for. She's almost the antithesis of his characterisation style to be honest as if you look at his New Mutant work all the teens there were pretty serious and three dimensional. Maybe you can argue that the adult X-men team is nowhere for a kid to fit in but Kitty Pryde was treated with the very same maturity as his New Mutants characters despite being inside the x-men unbarella.

I have the distinct impression Jubilee on the other hand was never taken onboard or seriously by claremont (one of editorials forced ideas?) and hence the almost caricature presentation of a purely MTV generation brat.... even Boom Boom was never quite this shallow a character.

dschonbe said...

I doubt this comment will be read, as it is being written 6 months after the original post, but oh well. Jubilee as a POV character is interesting in that it ends the run of alienating X-men. The end of the alienating X-men becomes more obvious over the next few issues, but Jubilee is the first hint of the end. Even by starting the issue with Jubilee, Claremont is drawing us back into the X-men, and X-men that ultimately falls apart when the reader is brought back in.

Dan S.

Jason said...

I read the comment, Dan, and a very interesting comment it is! :) A great point, and thanks for reading and for posting!

dschonbe said...

To be fair, I'm only placing your points adjacent to each other :)

And thanks for this blog. It has brought me an amazing number of hours of joy.

Dan S

Jim McDermott, SJ said...

I've just found this blog. Really like it. Just by chance, I've been rereading most of Claremont's run right now myself. And I have to say, I really like the Jubilee we find in this issue. I definitely see her as a new POV character, with a sparkly, upbeat, I'm an orphan living on the streets but nothing can phase me kind of character. She's her name -- jubilee. Joy.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately in light of the whole we love Jubilee but don't know what to do with her so let's have her become a vampire strategy. It strikes me as utterly misconceived. The essence of the character is devil may care. Making her dark and broody is just more casting about.

I wish they'd not have taken her powers away, but on the other hand, given that original character presentation, maybe she should be a lot more independent/what the hell, it was never about the powers anyway, you know? And become somehow an equal partner in one of the books -- although whether that's an X-book or something else, I don't know. I liked the idea introduced in one of the recent X-collections of her as a sort of teacher/counselor to the younger X-men. Makes perfect sense.

Bottom line, it was never about the powers with her. Or about the deep, dark angsty conflict. I wish new writers would go back to #244 and see how clear and clean her character really is.