Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Uncanny X-Men #248

[Jason Powell is like Hercules, if Hercules wrote blogs about Claremont's X-Men. And was also really nice and smart. He continues his issue by issue look at the greatest X-Men run ever. What will this blog do when he goes? It keeps me up at night.]

“The Cradle Will Fall”

There is a great bit in the documentary that Patrick Meaney is doing on Chris Claremont, wherein the author and Ann Nocenti are recounting a bit of their history on The Uncanny X-Men. When Nocenti mentions that she left her assistant Bob Harras in charge when she went freelance in 1988, Claremont gives her a loaded look and wryly says, “Thanks.”

Continuing the analogy of the Seige Perilous being a safe haven for Claremont’s children against Harras’ ever-expanding reign of editorial terror -- with Rogue going through first because she’s the one Claremont created himself -- what does one make of the unceremonious departure of Longshot in Uncanny X-Men #248? Longshot, of course, is Nocenti’s child, deliberately imported into “Uncanny” during her tenure so that nobody else could touch the character. When Longshot is torn to shreds in this issue’s dream sequence, then dropped from the series permanently in Storm’s blink-and-you-missed-it hallucination, is it a kind of tit-for-tat for the way Nocenti abandoned Claremont to Harras’ tender mercies?

(Footnote 1: Actually, since writing this paragraph, I have since been told that no, it is simply that Nocenti planned on doing a second Longshot miniseries and needed the character freed up for it. Said mini never materialized, however – possibly still Harras’ fault, as he was the head of the X-Office at the time. So my alternate read still kind of appeals to me.)

(Footnote 2: Thanks Patrick for giving me a sneak peak at your footage, by the way. Everyone be sure to buy a DVD of his documentary when it comes out, and also go watch his new webseries “The Third Age.”)

So, as of now, Longshot is abruptly gone. With Rogue and Wolverine written out in the previous two months (as Havok points out in some helpful exposition), the team is down from eight members to five. Some ads and marketing materials created by Marvel promoted these issues of Uncanny at the time as a single storyline entitled “Dissolution and Rebirth.” The first word is apt; the team disintegrates with startling speed, and we even know from the cover – with its clunkily hyperbolized word-balloon -- that a fourth character is being ejected as well. Of course, given the nature of death in superhero comics, fans weren’t inclined to believe the cover/cliffhanger was legit, but the next issue makes it clear that – whether “permanently dead” or not – Storm has indeed been written out of the team along with Rogue and Longshot.

As Scott McDarmont pointed out in the comments recently, this is Claremont’s ambitious attempt not only to disassemble the current X-Men roster, but to abandon the entire concept of the X-Men as a “team” at all. Uncanny X-Men under Claremont has often been described with the buzzphrase “soap opera,” but never would that be truer than over the course of this massive overplot, which would essentially cut between different characters from the x-mythology as they engaged in ongoing adventures that were more or less entirely separate from one another. Very much like contemporary soaps.

It was a potentially un-commercial idea, but – as with everything Claremont did back then – fans continued to be enthralled. The tangled complexity of the series once again proved to be its biggest draw.

Whether Claremont could have sustained this chaotic status quo all the way to Uncanny X-Men #300, which some accounts claim was his plan, is another question. Editor Bob Harras was far more concerned with the commercial viability of the property, and under his hand -- along with penciller Jim Lee, who became Claremont’s “co-plotter” right at the end -- the “team” would be reinstated inside of two years, rather than four. Given the artist’s involvement in cutting the whole concept short, it’s somewhat ironic that Lee’s first issue of X-Men is this one, which began the arc in the first place.

Why did Harras approve this elaborate disassembly of the status quo in the first place? Possibly, as a fan of the Claremont/Byrne X-Men run, Harras was attracted to an attempted reprisal of that era’s sequence in which two X-factions each think the other has died. Indeed, Claremont – in his “X-Men Visionaries” volume – explicitly discusses that very concept, and calls it an idea that he “kept on trying, but never quite got right.” Uncanny #248 begins what would be his most intense attempt to “get it right.”

Or perhaps Harras was simply perfectly happy to see the destruction of the Australian iteration of the team: Claremont’s most outré mutation thus far of the original X-Men setup.

The Reavers get their full reveal in the opening pages of this story, in a classic double-page spread adorned by code-name captions. That device has become a bit of a Claremont cliché, but I’ve always loved it as something that is only truly effective in the comic-book medium.

The Reavers’ actual roster is also classically Claremontian, comprising old villains previously seen in separate stories. Lady Deathstrike became an X-Men villain in a Bill Mantlo Alpha Flight arc, and it was Claremont who mashed her together with the three Hellfire mercenaries in Uncanny 205. The mercs’ most recent appearance before that had been in Marvel Graphic Novel #4 – also the last appearance of Donald Pierce, who is added to the mix here. Finally, the three remaining “original Reavers” from Uncanny 229 round out the team (revealed later to be creations of Pierce that, intriguingly, pre-date the mercenaries). Arguably it is all a bit fanfiction-esque – particularly as it’s portrayed in this issue’s opening sequence -- but Jim Lee’s slick signature style serves perfectly to realize the potential “cool” aesthetic possibilities inherent in the idea of a whole team of cyborgs. (And at least Claremont has the self-awareness to make fun of the entire concept via Jubilee a few issues later.)

The main villains of Uncanny X-Men #248, Nanny and the Orphan-Maker, are rather unremarkable. A recent addition to the X-mythology courtesy of Louise Simonson in X-Factor, the villains boast both a dubious aesthetic appeal (an egg with legs and a man in generic comic-book armor) and an entirely weird M.O. (turn their enemies into babies and then adopt them). Simonson’s inspiration would seem to have been the “Nanny” robot from Claremont and Byrne’s Magneto two-parter (back in Uncanny 112 and 113), though it’s not clear to me whether it is meant to be the same character. Claremont’s use of Nanny is perfunctory and brief, simply a plot device to set up the adolescent-Storm premise -- a seemingly arbitrary development, as it turned out, albeit one that Claremont was so apparently fond of that he would reprise it 20 years later in “X-Men Forever.”


scottmcdarmont said...

Jim Lee's first issue, so should we talk about what he brings to the table or hold off that discussion until he becomes regular penciler?

Matt Jacobson (formerly Ultimate Matt) said...

I always thought Nanny and Orphanmaker have the potential, inherent siomewhere in the concept, to be very scary and distrubing villains. Their entire MO is deeply psychotic - to "save" you, they will salughter your parents, turn yoou into a mental cripple, and then "protect" you. I dunno, I always thought that, with the right writer/artist - Jason Aaron could probably write it well- they could work, in theory. With different names and appearances.

Peter Farago said...

Lot's to talk about regarding Longshot's final appearance. Watch on page four as Rogue literally slips inside of Dazzler, creating a four-armed composite being, before Ricochet Rita falls into her, whereupon the six-armed creature morphs into Spiral.

As usual, Claremont's dialogue for the Mojoverse characters falls pretty short of Nocenti's psychedelic prose - I think the closest he got was Annual #10. Nocenti really deserves her own retrospective at some point - she's up there with David Lynch in her ability to write stories that feel like a tripped out nightmare you can't wake up from.

Longshot's departure scene on pages 8-9 reads like Claremont apologizing for not having developed the character. I guess that makes sense if he really was just holding Longshot in safe keeping for Nocenti, but he had no hesitation about incorporating Mojo into ongoing plotlines for Psylocke and Rachel Summers, or putting Spiral on Freedom Force.

Patrick said...

Thanks for the shoutout. For those curious, the documentary in question is a profile of the history of X-Men comics, with a prime focus on the Claremont and 80s era. I've been focusing primarily on finishing up my doc on Grant Morrison, then the X-Men will follow, hopefully debuting at New York Comicon in October 2010. As Jason said, we interviewed Chris Claremont, Ann Nocenti and Louise Simonson all together, which was pretty awesome.

Jason said...

Scott, hey, go for it if you'd like. I held off, mainly because the art in this issue isn't really representative. It looks like either Lee was rushed, or he just hadn't developed his signature style yet, or the inking by Dan Green made for very non-Jim-Lee-ish look. But if you want to get a jump on the Lee talk, that's totally cool wit' me. (Especially 'cause then I can steal it from your comments and not have to come up with as many observations on my own when I get to issue 256 ...)

Matt, yeah, that is a good point. Execution is everything I guess -- a fine line between crafting something genuinely terrifying and just being another example of generic superhero comics-excess.

Peter, thanks, those are excellent things to bring up, both about the Longshot scene and Nocenti. I agree, her writing does deserve some examination; your description of it is perfect. I will say though that I think Claremont's Mojo was pretty accurate. Granted, I read his Mojo before going back to read Nocenti's Longshot mini, but I was surprised at how much the voice stayed consistent between the two writers. I really think Claremont nailed it. Perhaps that's my bias.

Still, yeah, Nocenti's writing is really awesomely insane. I was quite surprised, watching the footage that Patrick was kind enough to show me. I sort of expected Nocenti to be some kind of tripped out hippie chick, but she comes off just as this very sweet, soft spoken lady. THIS is the lady who tortured Daredevil for years? Quite surprising, and charming. (There's also a great bit -- Patrick, should I not be spoiling stuff? -- where Claremont is digging through a box of Nocenti's stuff and comes out with her "Someplace Strange" graphic novel, and Claremont gets kind of excited and says, "Oh, this is brilliant!")

Patrick, you da man.

Geoff ... wow, that was a good one. Thanks! I'm almost blushing.

Gary said...

I personally think that Claremont's attempt to get the broken up team right here is excellent. The book ends up completely rudderless - it's like the old zen koan, "What are the Uncanny X-Men when there are no Uncanny X-Men?" - and then starts to pull itself back together starting on Muir Island with the issues with the ragtag band of mutant misfits - the Sunder, Polaris, et. al. iteration. I have no love lost for Bob Harras, as it has long been my understanding that he pushed Claremont off of the X-Men, but the story that gets told because of his editorial meddling is a fantastic tale of dissolution and rebirth that Bendis only WISHES he could have pulled off with Disassembled and New Avengers. From Rogue's death forward, this book goes to as dark a place as any comic ever has - made more effective by the fact that it is serial, and you KNOW something has to happen next, it's not going to end - and then climbs out of it into the bright, brand new day of X-Men #1, with our heroes back in the light again. DANG it's good, and I remember being surprised back then when Claremont left because I had NO CLUE what was going on behind the scenes. I thought it was all his master plan.

If nothing else, that man makes some sweet lemonade out of his lemons.

Jason said...

Right on.

Triumph of the Underdog said...

Hey Y'all - haven't posted in a while, but I'm AMAZED that you have already gotten to the Jim Lee era, Jason. Sheeshush. I can't wait for this to be a book.

Patrick said...

Spoil away, it will only entice people to check out the finished product and get even more of the behind the scenes tales.

Dave Mullen said...

I remember being rather non-plussed by this issue as i couldn't understand what was happening with the team and it felt very unneccesary and forced - Longshots poor write-out was the prime culprit to my suspicions.
Granted this ambivalence was heightened by the addition of the Orphan-maker and Nanny who i just couldn't stand, at all, it's not that i dislike Louise Simonsons writing as such but her villains are generally terrible i'm afraid to say a mix of the truly bizarre and the mediocre - Apocalypse is easily the single villain i despise the most in comics due to his sheer one-dimensionalism. It's just that bad.

I can't add much about this issue as it is what it is. I did like the introduction of The Reavers I have to say, immediatly they felt like a serious threat and while i don't think i knew Donald Pierce beyond what i'd seen in the Dark Pheonix storyline he too seemed like a major threat due to that well established grudge.

The subject of Jim Lee is a fascinating one to discuss in this context as you have to look at it as it was when this issue came out - this was before the creator hype of the early 90s took hold and I don't recall any such mentality or push for celebrity/superstar status at the time this book came out.
Sure John Byrne was a big name, and deservedly so, but while i liked the work of Simonson, Miller and Perez I would not say they were seen as 'superstars', just very talented and popular creators who did great work.
So Jim Lee... by this point i'm sure i knew him from his work on Alpha Flight, which was pretty good, but then again so were artists like Pat Broderick or Whilce Portacio over on The Punisher, both were very nice on the eye and quite dynamic but again neither were deemed by anyone as some sort of 'Superstars' at that time, artists came and went after all.
So where and how did the collosall Hype and publicity shove these young guns into the stratosphere all at once and how was it allowed to happen to such an overwhelming degree given Marvel never gave creators such free reign and flattery up till this point?!

It's very much a case of the company and fan-press going ever so slightly insane when you look back on it and put those days into context, I don't know if it might count as one of the single biggest mistakes Marvel as a company did when you add up what the true cost was in the end.

Nathan Adler said...

On page 14 of this issue Psylocke points out that Nanny was not a cyborg but rather a robot.

However, Louise Simonson revealed that Nanny was a scientist working for the Right who trapped her in the Nanny suit when she found out they intended to use her inventions against mutant children (cf. X-Factor #40).

So it appears that the Nanny Claremont uses here might not be the original.

What is the deal here?

Jason said...

Patrick, sweet, thanks!

Mitch, thanks for the kind words. You don't happen to own a book-publishing company, do you?

(Also, to be fair, I am not *quite* into the true "Jim Lee era" yet, as such. This issue was just a fill-in, and Silvestri remained the regular artist for the next year (albeit there is a three-issue Jim Lee arc in the middle of that, which is really great). But as Dave Mullen points out, this is a fill-in by Lee and lacks a lot of the characteristic Jim-Lee-isms that would mark his "superstar" time.

Nathan, clearly the answer is that the Nanny in issue 248 was created by the Machinesmith. :)

Gary said...

My zen koan made the Twitter sidebar! I am pleased by this. Thanks, Geoff!

Evan said...

I was really confused by Longshot's sudden dissapearance form the team. I've always found him to be interesting.

The issue with Nanny can probably be written off by claiming that her egg body armor wards off mental whathaveyou, thus Psylocke thinks she is a robot.

Nanny as a villain has always interested me, because she is just so completely weird. I hope that there is some tie to her and Gambit with this new young Storm in X-men forever.

As for Louise Simonsons, I'm definitely not a fan. When I read through my collection, I try to avoid as much of her work as possible.

I'd like to point out that around this time, the Wolverine comic series had Wolverine continuing his adventures in Madripoor, under a much less talented writer than Claremont. Claremont wrote Wolverine 1-8 and 10, after which point Wolverine returned to Uncanny only to be savaged by the Reavers and meet Jubilee. It seemed to me that around this time, when Wolverine and Jubilee escaped and wandered around for a bit with Wolvie completely out of his mind, that it would be a great opportunity for the Wolverine series to tell some of those untold travel stories. I consider the ball dropped here.

With regards to Apocalypse, Apocalypse is actually an interesting villain from a Claremontian perspective. I realize I'm getting a little ahead of the article with this, but at the end of the X-tinction Agenda, in an Uncanny issue written by Claremont, the three X-teams make a bucketlist of all their villains. They identify the Reavers (willfully undealt with by Claremont), Fenris (dealt with by Claremont in one of his very last Excalibur issues), The Hand (with reguards to the new but unimproved Psylocke) Magneto (although they don't worry about him) and Apocalypse. The reason this is so interesting, is that it completely ignores the goings on in the New Mutants books at this point, where they spend the better part of their time inventing backstory for Cable, and hunting down the MLF led by Stryfe. Completely ignored by Cable in that dialogue. This alone makes Apocalypse interesting to me. Why include him but ignore another 1 dimensional villain like Stryfe? Well, because Clareont gets dibs on writing the final X-factor Apocalypse battle. It's strange, since he has never written X-factor before this point, even during the big Genosha crossovers, or Inferno.

Up until this point Apocalypse seems less one dimensional to me and more Bi-polar. His initial assault in what? X-factor 5, leaves him beaten but not broken. The next time we see him, he has changed Angel to Arc-angel more or less just to bring X-factor more drama. X-factor then takes his ship thereby "playing into" his hands in some way. Then he gets into arguments with the High Evolutionary (evolutionary war annual) leading to nothing, and with Loki (acts of vengeance backup story) leading to nothing.
He converts Caliban into big evil Caliban, leading nowhere. Then, in a Wolverine annual, he sends Wolverine to the savage land to fight a robot of himself. Finally, just before the end of the original X-factor, just before the Muir Island saga, Claremont takes the reins and has Apocalypse finally makes his move.

Teebore said...

If nothing else, that man makes some sweet lemonade out of his lemons.

Well said, Gary.

Jason, fascinating stuff about the behind-the-scenes moves reflected in the pages of the story itself. Being the X-Men fan that I am, I'm a bit ashamed that I never before connected the dots about Claremont bringing Longshot into the fold as a favor to Nocenti or him moving the characters into the Siege Perilous to protect them from Harras.

While I'm relatively new to your posts and this blog (Gary, actually, brought them to my attention via a comment on the Comics Should Be Good blog), as I read through them, catching up, it's insights like that I find most compelling, and which force me (in a good way) to reexamine my readings of these stories.

Great stuff!

Jason said...

Thank you! It's great to hear that. I hope you'll stick with us till the end.

hasan said...

I just finished up reading the whole claremont run myself, and while i think overall he did great work, i always hated the "breaking up the team" thing, including the Byrne era one. The one that starts up in the 240's is the one i dislike the least, partly because it doesn't have everyone thinking everyone else is dead, which i hated the most, and because it had a few great issues/storylines including Wolverine vs. the Reavers, the ninja Psylocke thing, the Muir Island Reaver thing, and the Savage Land/ Magneto adventure.

I do think it dragged on too long though, and i hated the "Colossus the artist" and "Star '90" stories. Dazzler has a stalker? Wow! I can't believe how much I don't care!

Also he broke them up AGAIN in the late 90's just before the 12 storyline. Remember the Alan Davis issues with the Skrull Wolverine? Claremont ghost wrote those. It's pretty obvious if you pay attention to the narrative captions and some of the dialog.

Jason said...

I agree about the "thinking each other is dead" stuff. Didn't mind it in parts, but the stuff where Misty knows Jean is alive while Colleen thinks Jean is dead, that's all f'd up.

But I love Colossus as artist and Dazzler in "Star 90." The stalker stuff is done with a grain of salt -- played mainly for laughs. (But more on that in a few weeks.)

I never read the Alan Davis X-Men. I have read very, VERY little Claremont X-Men from 1998 and forward. Doesn't interest me, quite frankly.

Vanessa said...

I would absolutely love to see that documentary! I hope I am able to get ahold of a copy of it on DVD when it comes out.

I really hated how Longshot's exit from the team was written. I was left sitting there scratching my head like "Really? That's it?"

I also agree that Jim Lee's art was very un-Jim Lee like. I actually kept forgetting he drew this one.

I love these entries! It's so fun to have an analysis to read after each issue.

Jason said...

Thanks, Vanessa! Hope you'll keep commenting.

Matt said...

I've long wondered: if Chris Claremont had such issues with Bob Harras, why did he return to Marvel during Harras's tenure as Editor-in-Chief? He even held some sort of editorial position which was desribed in an article (I think in Wizard) as Harras's "right-hand man"!

I guess it was just a case of "forgive and forget" or something, though the moment you mention from that documentary makes me think there wasn't as much forgetting as I'd have thought...

Personally, I've never had any problems with Harras. The last time I truly enjoyed Marvel line-wide was when he was the EiC. I get that he had a heavy editorial hand, but in some cases I think that's needed. By this point the X-Men had become so muddled and unrecognizable as the X-Men, that I think he was right to try and get things back to a more commercially marketable status quo.

Also, if you have to do line-wide crossovers, I find Harras was much better at coordinating and carrying them out than most of his successors (and most of his contemporaries!).