Thursday, April 30, 2009

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #217

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's Uncanny X-Men run. For more in this series, see the toolbar on the right or the label below. I ask a brief question at the end of this post.]

“Folly’s Gambit”

A common complain about Claremont – one that, as of this writing, I’ve come across online TWICE this past week, both times completely by accident – is that Claremont is overly verbose. His prose is dense and “impenetrable,” his word-choice inelegant. But this is the opening sentence of Uncanny X-Men #217: “Above Cape Wrath – on the north coast of Scotland – is a lonely slab of rock, jutting out of a sea that’s silver-slashed obsidian, rolling in the light of the just-risen moon.”

Later, in describing the scene when Alison sings at a local tavern:

“The pub falls silent as her voice – glazed into a rich contralto by the pure malt she’s indulged in – washes over the crowd. The songs are old, and she does them justice.”

Consider the crisp alliteration of “silver-slashed obsidian,” the tactile imagery of a voice “glazed into a rich contralto.” Claremont’s narrative voice has more in common with a classical poet than, say, Stan Lee, which is perhaps why superhero fans so often deride his talent as a wordsmith. But whereas the Marvel authors who tried to emulate Lee’s brilliant hyperbole (e.g., Len Wein, Gerry Conway) were more often than not excruciating, Claremont’s voice is richly imagistic, and actually takes into account rhythm and meter. The resulting phrases are rhetorically elegant, possessing a subtle flow that the work of his peers almost always lacked. The critics who say Claremont ought to have curbed his verbosity for the sake of narrative expediency are missing the point, and failing to get on board with Claremont’s enjoyment and relish of the English language. The people who are sick of the Wolverine catchphrase “I’m the best there is at what I do” have probably never noticed that it’s written in iambic pentameter.

Getting back to this issue, “Folly’s Gambit” serves primarily to consolidate the “Dazzler as diva” characterization first conceived by Ann Nocenti in the “Beauty and the Beast” mini. She rationalizes her cowardice -- “All I ever wanted was to make people happy,” she thinks to herself, “to bring some light and color and joy into their lives...” But the dark truth is that she is addicted to fame. She thinks she deserves to be in the spotlight, and becomes petulant when she can’t have what she wants. It’s interesting to watch her arc unfold over the next three years, as she becomes less and less sympathetic, the diva-aspect of her personality brought more and more to the fore. Indeed, Claremont will prove much more inclined to bring out the worst in every member of this third generation of X-Men, possibly because they lack that bright and beautiful Cockrum sheen of purity to protect them.

Claremont has fun with the Juggernaut here too. That he’s a Dazzler fan is a humorous touch (“I got your records, I saw you perform, I love your music”), as is his subsequent reluctance to beat on Alison TOO badly.

A good issue, this one. Lightweight, certainly, but lots of fun.

[A great point about Claremont's word choices, Jason. There is something odd, though, about a writer who as you have pointed out cares about language so much -- and even has Banshee name drop Joyce -- ending up primarily as a comics writer rather than a novelist. (How do his novels compare on this point?) The phrases you point out are well constructed but the iambic of "I'm the best there is at what I do" is the genius phrase for comics I think because its poetry is very subtle. Like Dickens' famously iambic pentameter "It was the best of times it was the worst of times" it does not scream I AM POETRY but it sticks in your head and you always remember the phrase without knowing exactly why. I think the other quotations you point out deserve the praise you give them but they also unbalance the comic just a bit -- that kind of language really draws attention to itself, and I am not sure that is what comic book captions should do. This is a problem so subtle, and based in Claremont being a good writer, that is barely deserves the name "problem" but I wonder if "silver slashed obsidian," which might work well in a poem, and is certainly a nice turn of phrase, is a little precious for a comic book? Raymond Chandler's language as used by Frank Miller works fantastically for comics because it is so terse. Also, and just for fun, I do not think it would be totally out of left field to compare Claremont's editorially mandated repetitive phrases used to re-introduce characters every issue (e.g. "I'm the best there is at what I do") to Homer's use of the same adjectives to describe places and people -- the sea in Homer, for example, is always "wine dark." Those phrases were commonplace in ancient Greece because they fit the strict meter of ancient poetry and so worked every time. That you point out that Wolverine's is also metrically sound is really interesting. ]

LOST gets the details right

I can verify that Daniel Faraday's Oxford graduation robes are totally authentic. (Sorry -- this picture of Jeremy Davies in the robes was the best I could find). 


Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Free Form Comments

Say whatever you want to in the comments to this post -- random, off topic thoughts, ideas, suggestions, questions, recommendations, criticisms (which can be anonymous), surveys, introductions if you have never commented before, personal news, self-promotion, requests to be added to the blog roll and so on. If I forget, remind me. Remember these comments can be directed at all the readers, not just me.

ALSO. You can use this space to re-ask me questions you asked me before that I failed to answer because I was too busy.

AND you can use this space to comment on posts that are old enough that no one is reading the comments threads anymore.

You do not have to have a blogger account or gmail account to post a comment -- you can write a comment, write your name at the bottom of your comment like an e mail, and then post using the "anonymous" option.

WRITING FOR THIS BLOG. If I see a big free form comment that deserves more attention, I will pull it and make it its own post, with a label on the post and on the sidebar that will always link to all the posts you write for this blog. I am always looking for reviews of games, tv, movies, music and books.

Andy Bentley on The New Gods 4: The Forever People 1

[Andy Bentley continues his look at Jack Kirby's New Gods. For more in this series see the label at the bottom or the toolbar on the right. I make comments at the end of the post.]

I’m a firm believer in the Marshall McLuhan phrase “The Medium is the Message” and the debate over how one reads comics rages on. There’s the weekly in store customer, the Amazon member who buys the 6 issue collection, and the downloader who reads his issues on a LCD monitor. Reading a piece of a story once a month is a different experience that reading it all in one sitting. Current comic writers are aware of this, however Kirby was probably the first to plot a long spanning series that would ultimately be collected and enjoyed for years to come. With Forever People #1, we get another step closer to a unified and timeless story, but there are still some plot elements that hinder this progression.

The story opens with a literal BOOM as we see our first appearance of the Boom Tube, an extra dimensional point-to-point travel portal opened by a mother box used primarily by residents of New Genesis and Apokolips. Out of it comes the Forever People, four young New Gods searching for their 5th member Beautiful Dreamer who is being held captive on earth. The Forever People have classic Kirby outfits, 60’s hippie style, and ride in a psychedelic ATV, somewhat similar to the Wiz Wagon we’ve seen previously. They crash onto a road heading the wrong way and narrowly evade an accident with a young couple. The cowboy themed Forever Person, Serifan, attempts to calm the couple but is cut short when he faints due to mental contact with Beautiful Dreamer. Intergang thugs are watching all this unfold and are about to attack but Darkseid commands them to not engage.

The story shifts to the Daily Planet where Clark Kent is wrapping up an interview with a champion boxer, Rocky (Quick fact check, the movie Rocky is still six years away). The Boxers inadequacy towards Superman causes Clark to question Superman’s place on Earth. Jimmy Olsen quickly interrupts him with photos from the couple who met the Forever People who happens to be friends with Olsen. This continues the all too convenient plot coincidences involving Olsen and Superman. It’s to the point of distraction, and I question whether editorial mandated their appearance in the book. It also breaks the Kirby continuity. In Jimmy’s book, the two of them are at the Earth Project, not at the Daily Planet. So although we’re reading an overarching story, the continuity is not moment-to-moment between books. Clark uses his hidden X-Ray vision on the photos to see a fantastic city inside the Boom Tube not unlike a Kryptonian urban setting. He hustles Jimmy out, changes and flies off as Superman to investigate. The motivation for the Man of Tomorrow is he would like to visit this Supertown to feel more at home with super people like himself. Although it’s an often-used motivation for Superman in the Silver Age, it seems more like an afterthought here.

The Intergang crew sees Superman approaching the Forever People and with Darkseid’s permission shoots him out of the sky with their Sigma-Blast. Superman reacts by tossing a telephone pole through the helicopter in a fairly deadly maneuver. He has a brief discussion with the Forever People and learns that their target is within the area according to mother box. After a bout with a toxi-cloud and gravi-guards, the Forever People reveal their power. By evoking “the word” to Mother Box, another dimensional portal is opened for the Infinity Man!

The process appears to be the Forever People switch dimensions with the Infinity Man when there’s trouble and once it’s quelled, they revert to their respective dimensions. It’s a device seen in several superhero titles although this is the first time I’ve seen a combined effort for the transformation. The Guards are quickly dealt with and Darkseid seemingly appears in front of them with the unconscious Beautiful Dreamer in his possession. He explains that he was futilely attempting to use her mental powers to discover the anti-life equation with which he will erase life on Earth. He then disappears as quickly as he appeared (leading me to believe he was merely a projection) and it’s up to Superman to save Ms. Dreamer from the radion bombs below her body. Super speed does the trick and Infinity Man and the Forever People return to their original dimensions. Superman is rewarded by the young New Gods with a trip to Supertown, However Superman realizes that if Earth is the battle ground for a “strange super-war” then he must be here to defend it. We’re left with a melancholy Superman hunched over on a rock contemplating his future.

This issue brings about many staples of Kirby’s fourth world including the Boom Tube and the Mother Box. The Motherbox, which I liken to my iphone, [ed note: Morrison calls it the iPod of the Gods, though the iPhone seems better] has many powers but also the connotation that all New Gods that posses one are in tune with one another and their creator. The Infinity Man’s design leads me to the realization that Mattel has Kirby to thank for many of the inspirations for their Masters of the Universe toy franchise. [Something we discussed on the blog a while back HERE] As he tosses 2 grvi-guard into the heavins he proclaims “where the answer to gravity is ANTI-GRAVITY-- and simply done!” You get the sense that although the Forever People are somewhat human and inexperienced, the Infinity Man they conjure is truly a New God. His dialog is one of absolutes and proclamation. This issue also reveals Darkseid’s ultimate goal, that of an equation to destroy life and that Earth is the first to go. Kirby continues to build Darkseid up into a major villain by not allowing anyone to assault or capture the ruler of Apokolips even though his minor plan has failed.

The concepts are getting bigger and bolder each issue and will no doubt continue next issue with New Gods #1, “Orion Fights for Earth!”

[The laptop and the iPod do seem eerily close to Kirby's concept of the mother box, except they do not carry spiritual connotations -- but maybe they should, especially since Mac (surely the company closest to the mother box) takes as its symbol the apple with a bite out of it to remind us of the bitten apple of the tree of knowledge in the garden of Eden. (It is not an apple in the bible but it is traditionally imagined to be an apple). 

I would also like to say that the Boom Tube, the Mother Box and the idea of a cowboy "forever person" (nice phrase Bentley) with cosmic cartridges in his hat are totally awesome, and the cycle is pretty cool -- but Infinity Man is absolutely lame. I can see that Kirby loved the eternal principle of youthful energy as Blake did -- even though he was 53 -- as embodied by hippies is very cool in theory (and sometimes in practice) but their ability to summon an ill defined infinity man to fight FOR them kind of strikes me as weak. I always tune out when he shows up]. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #216

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men. For more in this series see the label at the bottom or the toolbar on the right.]


This one is sunk immediately by the art of Jackson Guice and Dan Green – both solid craftsman (especially Green), who maybe for some arcane, behind-the-scenes reason, had to do a last-minute rush job on this? Whatever the reason, their work here is unbelievably awkward and amateurish.

Claremont, meanwhile, is wasting readers’ time a bit with this entire “Old Soldiers” affair: three flaccid and uncreative villains, a murkily defined moral quandary for Storm, and a lot of material about Wolverine possibly going insane, until he suddenly is not. (That latter bit is at least explainable, presuming Logan’s healing power extends to mental disorder. Still, it’s not the stuff of great drama.)

The one marvelous moment of the issue is when Wolverine finally shows up to bail out Ororo. It was in Uncanny #211 that Claremont established an arresting new dynamic for this pair of characters, with Logan acting as Storm’s pet psycho. That characterization is consolidated brilliantly here, as Wolverine arrives on the scene ready and able to kill any and all of the WWII superheroes. Yet, he immediately defers to Storm: “I don’t know these clowns. Want me to take ‘em, boss – or do we call things quits, and everyone goes their separate ways?” In that single ingenious moment, the new “core” of the X-Men has been perfectly defined. The previous two iterations of X-Men were both, for better or worse, built around a “heart” that comprised Cyclops and Jean: a pair of wholesome white-bred kids in love with each other, presided over by a parent-figure, Professor X.

The new X-Men are built around Logan and Ororo – a psycho killer and a former thief (“We are both damaged goods,” Storm tells Wolverine on this issue’s final page), both with hazy morals and personal demons, and who share a queer kind of dominant/submissive relationship (which, as blogger Patrick keenly notes, does indeed have a sexual dimension). The presiding parent is Magneto, a former villain – also haunted by demons, and more familiar than anyone with moral compromise.

Geoff has suggested that Grant Morrison is the author who first made the X-Men dangerous, examining “what it means to inherit the earth and make your own rules.” I think the seeds of that are here, however, in Claremont’s creation of a generation of X-Men beyond the Cockrum/Wein iteration. It is not perfect – Claremont hedges a lot, hence Storm’s dubious moral victory toward the end of issue 215 (“Tonight, I was better!”) and Logan’s uncertainty on the final page.

Still, with a quartet of new members building around the jagged-edged new center that is Storm, Logan and Magneto, the X-Men are approaching a new era of hardcore – what Geoff calls “pop sexy post humanism.” I contend that, when Marc Silvestri becomes the regular penciller four months from now, Claremont nails this aesthetic entirely.

[Jason Powell has been called the nicest guy on the internet. That is why he wrote that he thinks the "seeds" what Morrison does are in Claremont, rather than just saying I was wrong. :)]

New Gods 3: Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen #135

[Andy Bentley continues his look at Kirby's New Gods. For more in this series see the label at the bottom or the toolbar on the right.]

“Evil Factory”

There is a quote by Kirby in the afterword written by Mark Evanier at the back of this Omnibus that helped me better understand Morrison’s intentions in Final Crisis. An artist on Captain America said he hoped “to do it in the Kirby tradition” to which Kirby replied “This kid doesn’t get it. The Kirby tradition is to create a new comic”. Morrison attempts to do this in Final Crisis by experimenting with readers cognitive time between panels and little to no exposition or footnotes. Both writers use and influx of new and wild creations, but always return to Superman.

This third Jimmy Olsen issue follows the trend of an increasing amount of Kirby inventions and characters per page and although the plot is a bit bizarre, there’s some great kinetic energy by the end of this issue. We open with 2 new characters, Mokkari and Simyan, who were last seen in current continuity experimenting on Batman’s mind in the Morrison penned Final Rites issues of Batman. Here in the Evil Factory, they have unlocked the mystery of human cloning and seem to have the DNA of Superman and Jimmy Olsen. They are in the process of engineering a giant clone who’s only motive will be to destroy Superman. Superman is traveling with Jimmy, the Newsboy Legion and the Hairies towards an underground complex to investigate some strange activity. We learn the blonde leader of the Hairies is named Jude which can’t not be a Beatles reference. The Newsboys, Superman and Jimmy enter the heavily guarded facility and are directed towards the cell duplication and refining section. It is there the Newsboys are shocked to discover their fathers, the Original Newsboy Legionnaires are working for this facility known as The Earth Project. This seems like quite the coincidence but is certainly not the last. Jimmy, speaking for the reader, finally demands some answers from Superman and he cheerily obliges. Superman explains that the genetic code has been broken and that human clones are possible. He further explains that the Hairies were grown and raised here. Jimmy refuses to believe this until Superman reveals that the soldier in the room with them is none other than a Jimmy clone!

How is Jimmy the focus of this cloning experiment? Sample tissue was taken during a Daily Planet physical exam. This could have been at the request of the Planets new owner, Morgan Edge who we’ve seen is in league with Darkseid. It’s revealed later in the issue that Mokkari and Simyan stole the cloning process from The Earth Project. Perhaps Darkseid believes he can exploit Superman’s friendship with Jimmy. It’s a bit of a stretch but most of the logistics presented here are. Either way this isn’t on Superman’s radar, nor is the moral implication of manipulating and cloning someone's DNA without their knowledge. Did he just assume Jimmy would love a bunch of clones of himself running around? I will not soon forget the image of tiny Jimmy Olsens flopped about in their underwear under a microscope. I’ll give Kirby the credit for predicting the success of cloning, but the idea that clones would just be perfectly formed small versions of their source is a bit goofy.

Mokkari and Simyan are now coating their masked giant clone with a Kryptonite mist when they receive a transmission from their lord Darkseid. We get a little better sense of Darkseid’s philosophy which is death over life, lie over truth, chaos over control. He is a pastiche of Hades, Ares, Ragnarok and other myths. Just then, the clone breaks loose and begins a mindless rampage throughout their lab. Simyan transports him just in time to the Earth Project where he and Superman have it out. The green Kryptonite tips the scale of the battle, but before Superman drops he removes the giants mask to reveal the face of Jimmy Olsen. This supports my earlier theory, but I’m still not convinced we didn’t just take Jimmy, Superman and the Newsboys DNA because they’re the lead characters of the comic.

The military guards are no match for the brute either and the Newsboy fathers decide drastic measures must be taken. They lead Jimmy to a life chamber where a shadowed figure is pressed up against the glass, pleading for freedom. “Let me out! I sense Trouble. My mission is to defend - to protect” the figure proclaims. Jimmy begins to catch on as the figure leaps towards the reader in the classic Kirby pose. Kirby and Joe Simon’s old creation, The Golden Guardian lives again as a clone of the original 1940’s adventurer!

The reveal of the Guardian feels like the first real burst of Kirby magic. it also proves another parallel between Morrison and Kirby. Both writers treat their disconnected contributions to the DC universe as their own separate continuity. Morrison brings his DC One Million Superman into his All-Star Superman. His Ultramarine Corps from JLA move to JLA Classified and the Knight and Squire move from the Ultramarines to the club of heroes in his recent Batman run. Kirby in Jimmy Olsen has brought back his Newsboy Legion and Golden Guardian from his 1940’s DC work. Does it make any sense that the adult Newsboy Legion run an underground cloning experiment and keep a clone of the Golden Guardian for emergency purposes? Absolutely not. But the fact that it’s all Kirby makes it better. Doing some research, I discovered that the Cadmus project is a post-crisis revision of the Earth Project. This puts the idea of the Superboy clone in a different context. It’s funny how a far fetched idea in a comic book somehow seems more level headed when you discover there’s a precedent for it.

The Jimmy Olson narrative will continue, but next time we’ll take a look at the first Kirby created book, The Forever People, who aren’t merely a bunch of long haired kids on an ATV. Promise.

[That quote about the Kirby Tradition -- the tradition of breaking traditions -- explains a lot about Morrison's iconoclastic approach, and justifies a lot of his aggressive revisions of Kirby in Final Crisis and Seven Soldiers. It is also a tradition they both share with poets like Milton and Blake -- Blake emphasized Milton as an image breaker, in part to justify his own bizarre mythology.

Last time I mentioned how Kirby's alien characters seem so threatening by their very ontology, something Morrison really picks up on in Final Crisis (where Darkseid's fall tears through the fabric of society). This different status is only helped along by the fact that DC has someone else drawing Superman -- he really is of another order. Also, and not an intelligent comment by any stretch: Mokkari scares the hell out of me for some reason I cannot explain.]

Friday, April 24, 2009

Whatever Happened to the Commonplace Book

For a while on here I had a commonplace book running on Tuesdays -- poems or paragraphs I thought worth quoting. That kind of fell into disarray (as a lot of my work on here has) but I want to try to revive it in a particular form.

I have decided to radically revise my Composition One course. I am envisioning a structure where every day I hand out a paragraph from some work of philosophy, cultural criticism, literary criticism, religious parable, anecdote, etc. and then as a class we work with it (using the excellent textbook They Say/I Say, if you teach this kind of thing and care). But I can't find everything myself, and want you send me stuff. Then I would like to put some of the things you send me into the commonplace book on the blog -- because if they are not interesting to us then they are not interesting enough for my students. Right now I am thinking of a paragraph from Nietzsche for example -- one of the short ones from Beyond Good and Evil. But I am also thinking of that passage in that superhero book that Tarantino ripped off for Bill's Speech in Kill Bill about Clark Kent being Superman's criticism of the human race. I am thinking of the Parable of the Greedy Man and the Envious Man, or Harold Bloom on Freud and Love.

Here are the parameters:
1. It can be no longer than 600 words.
2. It must be relatively self contained -- to the point where it would require no more context than 40 words of introduction.
3. I do not mind weird allusions in the text -- I can always add footnotes.
4. Preference will be given to important "History of Idea" guys but this can come from anywhere.
5. It should come from a work of non-fiction.
6. Vocabulary is not a problem -- my students need to get in the habit of using the dictionary anyway.

Basically, I want you to go though your non-fiction books at home, look for a paragraph you underlined, and if it looks like it might fit the parameters, email it to me.

Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader Pt. 2

by Scott

[My comic book store sold out of the first one, so I am not able to participate in this whole discussion. It became part of a general "wait for the trade unless it is some prestige thing I cannot live without (A Morrison-Quitely team up, All Star Batman, Casanova)" thing.]

One of Gaiman’s strength as a writer is that he has a knack for stating the obvious in really interesting ways. All of the variations he gives here are pretty obvious ways for Batman to ‘die’; the basic two options here are, as stated in the story, he either dies in a massive gesture saving the universe/world/city or he has a quieter, occasionally ironic death. In the various recountings offered here, Gaiman hits all the beats he needs to, his relationships with The Joker, Superman, Robin etc.

There is, of course, the in-text explanation that the only possible end for Batman is that he must die (as he would not quit otherwise) but there is also the subtext of, no matter how his death is portrayed, there will be those who would say “No, it should have been this way…” So, how Gaiman gets around that problem is giving the reader several options to choose from. This also ties in to the concept of the last issue which is there are multiple versions of the Batman story (Film, Cartoon, Elseworlds, Infinite Earths) so, therefore, there are just as many ways for him to die.

I also like how, at the end, where we see Bruce being born again this addresses one of the quintessential conceits of ongoing comic stories… or any ongoing franchise where the characters never age for that matter. Of course there is the obvious implication that Batman’s story will never end; that he will always be reborn… however, if one thinks about it, since Batman has been around since 1939 yet has never aged beyond (in Grant Morrison’s calculation) about 35 then it stands to reason that, every few years, Bruce Wayne is ‘born again’ in the ever sliding time scale of comics continuity. So, it is only logical that, if we’re assuming that Batman is going to be around for another 35 years, that there must be a Bruce Wayne being born right now. The overall message of the piece? Batman is dead, long live Batman!

Geoff wanted me to comment on the negative responses to this issue a bit and I'm going to start off by saying that I don't really think it was by an means an incredible issue but that I did find what Gaiman was doing interesting and, in terms of condensing Batman's continuity, I feel he was ultimately more successful than Morrison.

Among the Criticisms:

The Good Night Moon bit- This was, in fact, hokey but it was very Gaiman and, therefore, not all that much of a surprise or an offense to me. In fact, a lot of the criticisms I'm seeing seem to be about Gaiman and, ultimately, come down to taste... if you don't like Gaiman, you won't like this story. It's a very Gaiman story, even if you like Gaiman; if you're expecting him to do a Batman story (or what you might expect from one) that's not what you're getting either.

Gaiman says nothing 'new' or gives any special 'insight' to Batman- True, but I don't feel that was the point of the story... that's been done to death over the last 20 years and the last person to really try anything different with the character was Morrison and look at how that turned out.

Batman gives up at the end- He actually doesn't give up... he decides to go back and start the whole story over again. Sure, an ending where Batman gives death the finger and charges back to the world of the living would have been great I point matter what ending we have it would have pissed someone off.

Also, for the record... while I didn't read Final Crisis, the death Morrison gives Batman, killing Darkseid with a gun, is the best possible scenario for the character dying that I can think of.... Gaiman just gives us a few other options to choose from.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #215

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men run. For more in this series, click the label at the bottom or see the toolbar on the right.]

“Old Soldiers”

Published in November of 1986, Uncanny X-Men #215 hit the stands at the same time that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen was coming out. Of course, Watchmen’s influence would be felt all over superhero comics to be published over the next few years. The series’ main, and most oft-lamented, effect is the gradual darkening in the tone of comics that followed in Watchmen’s wake. But, as Geoff pointed out, another key aspect of Watchmen was Alan Moore’s relentless running commentary on the tradition of the superhero narrative, going all the way back to the superhero’s heyday, the 1940s.

Never unwilling to be blatantly derivative when he sees fun to be had, Claremont pairs up with Alan Davis (Moore’s collaborator on both Captain Britain and Miracleman) to give us “Old Soldiers,” which – as far as the X-Men franchise is concerned – is apropos of nothing, but makes perfect sense when considered as an early reverberation of Watchmen. One of the motifs of the Moore/Gibbons opus is an examination of how wanly naive the bright and shiny four-color icons of the ‘40s seem when under the long shadow of post-WWII nuclear paranoia. Claremont’s take on the theme is to create three new characters – Super Sabre, Crimson Commando and Stonewall – and cast them as aged ex-superheroes who fought in WWII (presumably alongside people like Captain America and Nick Fury). Now, they are old, obsolete relics who try to make themselves feel useful by sadistically playing out endless iterations of “The World’s Most Dangerous Game” with petty thieves and drug dealers they happen to catch. It’s all awfully contrived – this issue and the next feel very much as if Claremont is so taken with playing in Watchmen-esque territory that he’s entirely distracted from what makes the X-Men interesting.

Crucially, the three aged superheroes – who could, theoretically, be an interesting bunch – come off as pathetic old bastards. Contrasted against the convincingly cold-blooded ruthlessness of the Marauders, a fantastic villain team whose presence has informed the series for six months now, the WWII ex-heroes are hopelessly lame.

The Marauders appear in this issue as well, in a Madelyne Pryor flashback that is significant as the first step in revising her entire character. Claremont no doubt never planned on explaining the mystery he set up back in 1983 regarding Maddy’s plane crash occurring at the same moment that Phoenix died. The clues were there for careful readers: Madelyne was Jean reincarnated, unofficially. With that solution no longer workable thanks to the X-Factor debacle, a new explanation was required. First, however, since several years have gone by, Claremont must reintroduce the mystery in the first place, hence the opening scene of the issue that recreates the plane crash, with Alan Davis working the Phoenix emblem into the explosion.

We then segue into a classic example of serial entertainment’s greatest and most addictive trick: answer one question with a larger one. Madelyne was gunned down in issue 206 with no explanation. Now, we learn that the Marauders were responsible, but that brings up the next question: Why? Claremont is setting up his mysteries very skillfully here, tantalizing the reader with little bits of information at a time. And contrary to his reputation, these mysteries will be explained to quite satisfactory effect – albeit not for another two years.

At one point in “Old Soldiers,” Rogue notes that Wolverine and Storm are now the “core” of the X-Men. Indeed, they are the only two who remain from the Cockrum/Wein reboot of 1975. The rest – including Longshot, who turns up this issue having finally caught up with the continuity from X-Men Annual #10 – are all more recent additions, and only Rogue has been a member for longer than a few months, real time. It’s fascinating to realize what Claremont has done – in his ragged, narratively irregular way, he has recreated the dynamic that existed when he first began writing X-Men, with all new members built around a core of old ones. Wolverine and Storm are now occupying the roles once occupied by Cyclops and Jean, who – over 100 issues ago – were, along with Charles, the “heart” of the X-Men.

In terms of the franchise’s history, this is a monumental era in the series’ status quo, with Claremont ushering in a third generation for the X-Men (albeit wihtout a single, benchmark issue on a par with Giant-Sized X-Men #1). Because Claremont has been writing the series for over a decade, he is in a unique position to set these narrative templates for the X-Men, canonizing traditions that crystallized around him.

His attempt to replicate the meta-commentary of Watchmen may fail here, but Claremont’s hand when it comes to overwriting the X-Men is as sure as can be. With his use of repeated plot elements, his deliberate structural resonances, his generation-spanning narrative scope ... Claremont is building the X-Men saga into a true epic.

[It is worth noting that the third X-Men movie also set up Storm and Wolverine as the core of the X-Men, though primarily be default after they de-powered or killed everyone else.]

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Kirby's New Gods 2

[Andy Bentley continues his look at Jack Kirby's New Gods. For more in this series see the label at the bottom of this post. I write a paragraph at the bottom.]

Jimmy Olsen #134
The Mountain of Judgement!

This issue wraps up the two part story that introduces Kirby to the DC audience and gives a small hint towards The Fourth World Saga. A quick aside: The price of this comic is .15 which even adjusting for inflation is low for what we currently pay for 22 pages of story. I have to wonder if our expectations for a comic book are often too high because of raised prices. But that is a column for another time. We last left Jimmy in Tree City as the new leader of The Ousiders, a band of wild bikers who are intent on traveling towards The Mountain of Judgement. On the sidelines is Superman, who has asked Jimmy and his new friends to exercise caution which has fallen on deaf ears. Superman tries to impose his authority and is rebuked with an amazing stock of weapons including a green K paralysis gun. Before Supes passes out from the gun’s effects, an Outsider explains all the weapons and even the city was built by The Hairies, a group of Wizards who have disappeared. The Hairies seem to be a variation on the theme of modern gods Kirby is toying with. With Superman out of the way, Jimmy and his crew ride off to meet the mountain. Kirby was a movie enthusiast and you can see echos of The Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause with his 4-color biker creations. The group rips through the facade of the mountain to find increasingly wild and dangerous roads ahead. We’re treated to a gratuitous under water section just so aqua-newsboy, Flippa Dippa, has something to do and then....things start to get weird.

The following two pages are in black and white despite a caption that reads “a nightmare of Kaleidoscope form and color!”. It depicts the Wiz Wagon still traveling on a semblance of a road with the remaining scenery a pastiche of psychedelia. The Wagon looks almost 3d rendered while the scenery appears to be a amalgam of photos. It’s jarring and an interesting experimentation, however I’m curious for an explanation as to why it isn’t in color. I’d argue that Steve Ditko’s psychedelia in the pages of Dr. Strange are more effective.

Superman regains consciousness and travels at super speed to discover the Wagon is about to be dismantled by the real Mountain of judgement which is revealed to be a giant missile carrier, designed by the Hairies to scare off intruders. The carrier looks like a giant green Chinese New Years Dragon but also harkens back to the many monster designs from Kirby’s past. There’s a quick interlude where Morgan Edge, decides to check in on his sick employee, Clark Kent. A classic silver age Superman misdirection (later used by Ferris Bueller) is used to fool Edge although he’s beginning to wonder about the coincidental disappearance of Kent and Superman’s appearance. Back in the action, Superman rescues the Wagon and the Hairies emerge from the Mountain to begin scanning the Wiz Wagon for a bomb. Superman regains his authority by explaining to Jimmy he’s known of the Hairies and was only trying to protect their secret. One of the Hairies discovers a bomb in the recorder Edge sent Jimmy with and Superman rushed to shield the explosion from everyone. The Hairies invite Superman, Jimmy and the Newsboy Legion into their Mountain for a quick tour and a dinner. They question the source of the bomb which is revealed to the reader as Morgan Edge speaks with his Lord, Darkseid, on a monitor in his desk.

It’s a serviceable issue, but I find myself flipping further in the book to see Orion, Mr. Miracle and the other New Gods. Many of the characters are one dimensional and we’ve yet to discover the motivations of The Hairies and the specifics to Darkseid’s agenda. The dated slang the younger characters use is difficult to ignore. However Kirby is not without a wealth of ideas an concepts. Final note: There was a Superman moment in this issue that made me think All-Star Superman. Post explosion, Jimmy once again becomes Superman’s pal only to have Superman proclaim “Well! It’s about time someone showed a little concern for me!” In this not-so-super moment, the Man of Steel is fallible and mortal which is the how Grant Morrison and other Silver Age fans envision Superman. Knowing that the invincible Superman can sometimes get jealous, angry or upset allows us a human connection to a Kryptonian who can move planets.

[William Blake came up with an absurd bizarre and overly complicated mythology of Gods that were also aspects of the psyche and so on -- but one of the things that makes his poetry so weird is how this meshes with the mundane -- Milton at home, a garden, a political figure clash with OLOLON who is a Dove, a River, and Milton's works personified among other things. Kirby is up to something similar with the New Gods, and I especially like the way they are introduced in a comic book with Morgan Edge and Jimmy Olson -- and Superman. Grant Morrison worships Superman, but the way Kirby handles this material Superman is basically a fancier kind of earthman compared to the New Gods. Kirby is making a move to reduce the DC universe to the mundane by putting them in the context of his New Gods Universe, which is striking particularly because it threatens to overwhelm that universe. Even small appearance, like Darkseid's face on Edge's monitor (the first appearance of Darkseid?) feels dangerous, partly because you can't get a handle on exactly what is going on. WHERE is the Wild Area in comparison to Metropolis? You see maps every once and a while but the geography boggles the mind -- intentionally. The Wild Area is more like Lincoln Street in Blue Velvet -- a metaphor for how right around the corner lies INSANITY. Morrison's New Gods in Final Crisis were just the mortal shells -- he posits that we have never seen a REAL god, only avatars -- and the real thing would destroy our mind. There is something of that here in the photographic pages not in spite of but BECAUSE they are in black and white -- the text says colors explode and then they don't: something is bizarre here, and the comic book is too limited to show you what it really is. It can only gesture toward it, leaving you to feel that the real thing is bigger than anything that COULD ever appear in ANY comic. The New Gods as Hippie Bikers can seem weak, but you have to be amazed that the 53 year old Kirby was so enamored by the power of youth to raise it to a cosmic principle that will hold back the apocalypse of a holocaust of bombs. And Morrison's reading of the New Gods as merely avatars is really persuasive here as well -- the Forever People do seem like Alien Gods trying, and partially failing, to fit in with earth lingo and fashions. They are too big and fabulous to be contained by words like hippie. ]

Free Form Comments

Say whatever you want to in the comments to this post -- random, off topic thoughts, ideas, suggestions, questions, recommendations, criticisms (which can be anonymous), surveys, introductions if you have never commented before, personal news, self-promotion, requests to be added to the blog roll and so on. If I forget, remind me. Remember these comments can be directed at all the readers, not just me.

ALSO. You can use this space to re-ask me questions you asked me before that I failed to answer because I was too busy.

AND you can use this space to comment on posts that are old enough that no one is reading the comments threads anymore.

You do not have to have a blogger account or gmail account to post a comment -- you can write a comment, write your name at the bottom of your comment like an e mail, and then post using the "anonymous" option.

WRITING FOR THIS BLOG. If I see a big free form comment that deserves more attention, I will pull it and make it its own post, with a label on the post and on the sidebar that will always link to all the posts you write for this blog. I am always looking for reviews of games, tv, movies, music and books.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #214

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men. For more in this series, see the toolbar.]

“With Malice Toward All”

Though she first appeared in an issue of Claremont and Byrne’s X-Men (#130), Dazzler is not a creation of theirs. Indeed, apart from a repeat appearance in the series a year and half after her first, Alison Blaire – whose gimmick is that she’d rather be a singer than a superhero -- doesn’t seem to have captured Claremont’s interest enough to be integrated into the X-mythos. This changed in 1984 when, with her “Beauty and the Beast” miniseries, Ann Nocenti struck upon a clever twist to make the Dazzler’s characterization more workable. Under Nocenti’s pen, Alison was recast as a fame addict – not only a reluctant hero, but one whose sense of morality is skewed by an addiction to applause. It was a subtly brilliant turn, taking the arbitrary psuedo-science of her mutant power (transmuting sound into light) and giving it a harsh metaphorical twist: Dazzler is an attention whore, absorbing the cheers and applause of her audience in order to increase her own personal glamour.

Claremont was taken enough with the new, morally dubious Alison to incorporate her into a New Mutants storyline in 1985 and then, with issue #214 of Uncanny (published exactly seven years after her first appearance) to make her a full member of the X-Men. In a possibly deliberate bit of irony, given that John Byrne was the first artist to draw Dazzler in a comic book, Claremont uses a plot pinched from one of Byrne’s Fantastic Four issues (FF #281, also titled “With Malice Towards [sic] All”).

The Byrne version featured a psychically possessed Invisible Woman, re-christened Malice, turned against her teammates. The same happens to Dazzler here, though we’re given to understand that Claremont’s Malice (established in previous issues as a stray member of the Marauders) merely draws on the evil that already exists in people. Thus, Malice/Alison’s diva posturing here is motivated by her own addiction to the spotlight.

Dazzler was a morally unambiguous character as first conceived back in 1980, her pristine character symbolized by her pure silver superhero outfit. Claremont, as should be clear here, is fascinated by the tarnished version that Nocenti has crafted, and he’ll continue to explore the “dark Dazzler” over the next couple years.

As for the rest of this issue, it’s standard Claremont super-heroics. The gimmick here of jumping the psychic villain from host to host so that the team is constantly wondering who they can trust, is fun – Claremont had already used it, though, in a New Mutants storyline two years earlier. So it all seems a tad rote, albeit peppered with fun details. The reference to Alison’s animosity toward Rogue, for example, is a nod to early-’80s Dazzler continuity. Meanwhile, Claremont hints at a longer-term plot when Malice possesses a morally righteous SWAT captain, but – like Psylocke’s mind-read of Sabretooth in the previous issue – this goes nowhere.

Matters are elevated a bit by Barry Windsor-Smith’s visual flair. He draws a more convincing version, by far, of Dazzler’s lighting effects than any other comic book artist. But Uncanny #214 never quite shakes its workmanlike feel – it’s Claremont trudging through the necessary dramatic beats to get Dazzler to join the X-Men, but without much sense of passion. It won’t be until after he relocates the team to Australia that Claremont really begins to have fun with Dazzler-as-bitch.

Monday, April 20, 2009

NEW FEATURE: Jack Kirby's New Gods 1

[Andy Bentley has stepped up with a plan -- a plan to look at every issue of Jack Kirby's New Gods here on the blog! This struck me as dead perfect for several reasons. 1. New Comics suck and I have been meaning to take this time to go back and read old comics, just like I got all caught up on TV I missed during the writers strike. 2. Kirby's New Gods, now collected in four very nice plural-of-the-word-Omnibus, has been at the VERY TOP of my COMICS TO READ list since they came out as part of a lead in to Morrison's Final Crisis. (Just under that -- Drake's hella-nutty old skool Doom Patrol, so anyone can get started on that project when they feel like it). Final Crisis had problems, but the New Gods sucking were not one of them, and Morrison has spoken of them in hushed tones forever -- Rock of Ages was the first non-X-men comic book I ever bought -- a dozen years ago now. That means that Powell and Bentley will be taking me through the background I should have had in the first place for the stuff that started me loving comics. I am also particularly interested in thinking through Morrison's claim that Kirby is the Blake of the 20th Century, which is interesting -- I can certainly see it in the raw poetry and personal mythology that comes crashing into the mundane world in weird places. 3. New Gods is TOTALLY DIFFERENT from Claremont's X-Men all cosmic DC space opera instead of Marvel soap opera so we will have two totally distinct things running here. I will be reading along, but I read Claremont as well, and did not necessarily have that much to say, at least so far. But we will see. I always tell myself I can pipe up whenever I want to. As for the rest of you, go get those Kirby New Gods trades, and enjoy. They are a must if you like Morrison -- right from this first issue you can see where Morrison comes from, all compressed insanity, and a hipster Olsen.]

Andy Bentley

“The Newsboy Legion” AKA Jimmy Olsen, and the Mountain of Judgement
#133 October 1970

Because this is a little informal blogging, I should give you some context for this opening article about Kirby’s Fourth World. I am not a Kirby devotee. I respect the man and his work a great deal, however I have read little of his material. I’m 29, I was an Image Comics kid when I started out. My exposure to The Fourth World is limited to 1996’s Superman: The Animated Series and a handful of appearances by New Gods in the 1990’s and 2000’s. I’ll never fully know what it was like to be a Marvel Zombie of the 1960’s eagerly anticipating Kirby’s first work with the Direct Competition. But we do have the historical benefit of seeing this in almost 40 years hindsight. Nixon is in the White House, the Kent State Shootings are fresh in a collective consciousness and Vietnam is at full tilt. The Beatles have disbanded and Sabbath and Zeppelin are around the corner. The comic industry is also in upheaval. Newstands are shrinking and comic books are the 1st to go. The secondary comic book market is on the rise as people have begun to collect comics. This could have influenced the large spanning type of story told by Kirby. Mark Evanier also cites the rediscovery of the epic Lord of the Rings Trilogy as another factor. At DC, Kirby has 3 new books and takes over one existing book, Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen. Superman’s Pal didn’t have a solid creative team so Kirby didn’t push anyone out.

And so begins out journey, with issue #133 of Superman’s Pal. The cover proclaiming “Kirby is HERE!”, the cover suggests a common silver age theme: Jimmy or Superman doing something horrible to one or the other, to entice readers to buy the comic just to see how this unimaginable scenario unfolded. For more of these types of covers, merely google “Superman is a dick”. We open with Jimmy, who now looks a lot more like James Dean than Jimmy Olsen, meeting the successors to Simon and Kirby’s 1940’s creation, the Newsboy Legion. The Newsboy Legion, along with the Yancy Street Gang, confused me when I was foreign to comic books. I came to learn that the Yancy Street Gang was just a 1 note gag in the Fantastic Four, while the Newsboy Legion was a group of wise talking street kids who sold papers. The Legion kids do not stand the test of time. They’re one dimensional with no cool costumes and limited powers. The leader is a bit of a Scrappy Doo character and we all know how Scrappy is remembered. Jimmy has been sent by Morgan Edge, the president of the Galaxy Broadcasting System (and new owner of the Daily Planet) with the Legion and their new Wiz Wagon to go get a story in the wild area, a sanctuary for weird motorcycle groups. Clark Kent gets word of this and feels Jimmy is over his head and goes to investigate as Superman. It's here that you really start to get the sense of a generational gap. Clark and Superman are played as out of touch and while Jimmy is our 25 year old everyman who can blend in with the ‘Hairies’, a biker gang in the Wild Area. Kirby is 53 when writing this and served in WW2 but seems to have some progressive ideals. Jimmy and the Legion take off in the Wiz Wagon, (a quintessential Kirby design) encounter The Outisders biker gang and of course get into a brawl with them. Jimmy beats up their leader, which in turn makes him the NEW leader (logic?) and then brings us to the moment we see on the cover. Superman is doused with some green K from an odd looking weapon of unknown origin which is a hint of things to come. When he comes to, Jimmy reveals his true assignment: to discover the mystery of the Mountain of Judgement. But before more can be revealed the mountain begins to move, bright lights are seen in the distance and Jimmy heads out with his new gang threatening Superman to not stop them.

If I were to have read this back when I was 17 I’d have hated it. The 1970’s hadn’t become retro-hip yet and Superman taking a back seat to Jimmy Olsen wasn’t my idea of a good time. Even now, it’s a bit of a struggle. There’s none of the elements of the Fourth World I came to love in the Superman cartoon. Kirby delivered a Jimmy Olsen story with some small elements of his Fourth World saga and looking at it with an academic eye, there are some interesting elements. The broad representation of the counter culture movement, the distrust in authority and the move of news to the TV instead of the paper. I don’t even know what the Mountain of Judgement is yet, but I feel like you could write a term paper just on the name. The dialogue doesn’t ring true for 1970 but that argument can be made throughout comics . The art is solid, my particular favorites are the look of the Wiz Wagon, the design of the wooden city the bikers live in, and the storytelling sequence of Clark Kent being hit by the car. It wasn’t until I was leafing through the book again that I realized how great the storytelling was in the car sequence. Good sequential storytelling is often only noticed when it is absent.

Final note: Longtime comic fans have heard the tales of how DC had artists redraw Superman’s face in these Kirby comics because DC’s feared their greatest icon would look to Marvel-ish. It’s fairly apparent here and its a shame. The ironic twist? DC Direct producing a 100% Kirby-Superman into their 2nd line of New Gods Action Figures.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Twittering about the Spirit

The Spirit is a tonal disaster but not without entertainment value. Plus some interesting intertextual stuff with Batman Elektra Acme etc.

Both Dark Knight Returns and Sin City also featured that shot of the soles of shoes running on a wire. Miller's signature?

(from Matt Brady): Octpopus vs Spirit like Spawn vs Batman: exhausted, unbeatable, violent men insulting each other.

Samuel Jackson opens a box that glows gold inside, just like in Pulp Fiction. Was that Marsellus Wallace's soul, btw?

Sin City. Miller is taking back the Sin City derived film aesthetic from Rodriguez (unsuccessfully, I think).

"Elektra Complex" reminds us of Miller's Elektra in a film about a dead guy with a tragic love revived against his will.

"Robin" is the computer password. Is this trying to get us to connect All Star Batman to the Spirit? I don't see it.

I definitely heard an echo of Elfman's score from Batman, a movie that would not exist without Dark Knight Returns.

[I should clarify that I thought the Spirit was pretty bad, though I have to agree with the AV Club who said it functioned as a pretty efficient babe delivery mechanism, and I did think some of the images were pretty arresting. I would give it a D overall. I am not sure what I think of the intertexts, but with my Bloomian training my ears perk up when I get near them. Still -- this is hardly Kill Bill. I think most of these are probably not important.]


Some like it Hoth. One thing LOST still knows how to do -- even four episodes from the end of the second to last season, we can still have a pretty light episode where two guys talk about Star Wars and hang out. The fifth season of Buffy was unrelentingly grim, the fourth season of Angel was also very serious (though very good), and I don't remember Alias having any goofy stuff in it's fifth season (though that season, and the previous two, were pretty forgettable). Lost does a good job distinguishing Hurley's abilities from Miles in funny scene (“You’re just jealous my power’s better than yours.”), and it does an especially good job with the sort of "second generation" problems -- Jack with a chance to assert himself leaves the leader-ing to someone else now, and Hurley can impart the wisdom he learned from his relationship with his father to Miles. I also like how Miles is totally incurious -- not quite as Nikki and Paulo, but still: on the island with his long lost dad for three years he never gets to know him, even after he sees the birth of HIMSELF. There is something really fantastic about the use of the Darth Vader relationship to discuss this: it plays with and against the way pulpy stories will draw on the classics to give their stories the sheen of gravitas -- superheroes, people are always telling me, are modern incarnations of the ancient Greek heroes. That argument has always struck me as sort of pointlessly true -- there have always been heroes in history, sure. Star Wars of course highlights these Arthurian legend stuff and it is nice that LOST -- which seems about to head into Egyptian territory -- can point to the pulps like Star Wars for importance knowing both how CLASSIC the text is for fans, MORE important to most people that saying the island is like the moving island in the Odyssey or whatever -- but also fundamentally the same kind of thing.

These "do you know what lies in the shadow of the statue" -- last week I assumed they were more of Widmore's guys because of the way Ben talked to them. This week it seems like they were Ben's guys, trying to talk Miles OUT of working for Widmore. Is it possible they are a third team?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #213

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont's X-Men run; for more in this series see the toolbar on the right.]


Like a lot of the mythos surrounding the Marvel UK superhero Captain Britain, Elizabeth “Betsy” Braddock is a creation of Chris Claremont who developed into a more interesting and appealing character thanks to writers Alan Moore and Jamie Delano, and artist/writer Alan Davis. His interest in his UK creations re-ignited by those British talents, Claremont imported Betsy Braddock into the X-universe. The world of the X-Men first collided with the world of Captain Britain in New Mutants Annual #2, illustrated by the aforementioned Davis. Now, in Uncanny #213, the integration of Betsy into the X-Men’s world continues, as she officially joins the team – and again, Davis is Claremont’s collaborator.

Reprising the Wolverine/Sabretooth rivalry of the previous issue, the story here is lacking in any particularly striking invention. The comic book is marvelous to look at thanks to Davis’ gorgeous pencils, inked by the equally impressive Paul Neary. Claremont’s plotting doesn’t quite match the smooth, clean perfection of the art, however; the text seems clumsy in comparison. Furthermore, subsequent issues will demonstrate that the author is winging it here – improvising story developments without any notion of how to develop them. For example, the previous issue gave the first tantalizing mention of Mr. Sinister – an audaciously named mystery villain – as the mastermind behind the Morlock massacre. Here, Psylocke telepathically penetrates Sabretooth’s well-protected brain for information about Sinister and the Marauders; we’re led to believe she’s acquired an abundance of useful information. But that never goes anywhere – indeed, when the X-Men finally meet Mr. Sinister two years later during the “Inferno” crossover, they are dumbfounded as to who he might be.

(Betsy’s ability to break into Sabretooth’s mind, by the way, is an oblique hint as to the punning meaning of her seemingly arbitrary code-name, which doubles here as the title of the issue: She is the “lock” that acts as counterpart to the psyche, or “psy-key.” A few seconds of thought about this pun are enough to recognize that it really doesn’t work at all.)

The defining contradiction of Betsy Braddock is hammered home here: Though she’s outwardly feminine (in the cliché sense of the word – soft, shy, demure), Betsy’s soft exterior disguises an experience-hardened warrior.

This isn’t particularly exotic thematic territory for Claremont. If anything, Psylocke is distinguished from other “Claremont women” only by the sheer lack of subtlety in her defining contradiction -- her superhero costume is even pink (a first for any X-Men member), to drive home beyond all doubt that Betsy is the quintessence of stereotypical femininity.

Less immediately obvious, perhaps, is the way Claremont sets Psylocke up as the flip-side of the coin to the recently jettisoned Rachel Summers. Both are young, female telepaths, and Rachel and Betsy are also both survivors of dystopian anti-mutant realities (the latter as per Alan Moore’s “Jim Jaspers” storyline in Captain Britain).

Like Rachel, Betsy is – throughout the “Mutant Massacre” arc – constantly dismissed by the X-Men in somewhat unheroic fashion. But whereas Rachel couldn’t cope with such treatment, and thus deliberately abandoned the team in their time of need as part of a childish tit-for-tat, Betsy sees the X-Men’s snub as a challenge. Spurred to acts of heroism by a desire to prove herself, she ultimately wins the X-Men’s trust and respect, and subsequently is invited to join the team.

As we’ll see in the next few issues, Psylocke’s replacement of a former member is not an isolated incident, but part of a pattern. New members will continue to join over the next few months, as Claremont slowly builds a new, third generation of X-Men to replace the previous one.

This is nothing new in superhero comics, even in 1986 – the Avengers, for example, have rotated members in and out since the 1960s – but a resonance can’t help but be struck when this happens for the X-Men, who didn’t become hugely popular until after their first – and at this point in their history, only – massive roster revision.

Also, crucially, Claremont is bringing in characters that share key characteristics with earlier X-Men. i.e., a telepath is brought in to replace a telepath, an insouciant swashbuckler (Longshot) is brought in to replace Nightcrawler. A relatively inexperienced superhero (Dazzler, introduced precisely one issue after Kitty Pryde back in 1979) replaces Shadowcat, who occupied the “neophyte” role years ago. And Cyclops will be replaced by his own brother. It’s as if the X-Men’s membership has evolved to become somehow archetypal, with certain key personas necessary to complete the gestalt.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Free Form Comments

Say whatever you want to in the comments to this post -- random, off topic thoughts, ideas, suggestions, questions, recommendations, criticisms (which can be anonymous), surveys, introductions if you have never commented before, personal news, self-promotion, requests to be added to the blog roll and so on. If I forget, remind me. Remember these comments can be directed at all the readers, not just me.

ALSO. You can use this space to re-ask me questions you asked me before that I failed to answer because I was too busy.

AND you can use this space to comment on posts that are old enough that no one is reading the comments threads anymore.

You do not have to have a blogger account or gmail account to post a comment -- you can write a comment, write your name at the bottom of your comment like an e mail, and then post using the "anonymous" option.

WRITING FOR THIS BLOG. If I see a big free form comment that deserves more attention, I will pull it and make it its own post, with a label on the post and on the sidebar that will always link to all the posts you write for this blog. I am always looking for reviews of games, tv, movies, music and books.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #212

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont's X-Men run; for more in this series see the toolbar on the right.]

“The Last Run”

After the intense final pages of Uncanny #211, the “Mutant Massacre” storyline wound through issues of New Mutants, X-Factor, Power Pack and Thor. The momentum created by Claremont in Uncanny #211 chafed away almost completely, hitting a nadir during sequences of the Marauders (a team nasty enough to mortally wound two X-Men and one member of X-Factor) being made fools of by the 5-to-10-year-olds comprising Power Pack.

By the time the story returns to Uncanny, a lot of the new villains’ initial intensity has been undercut. So Claremont bucks expectation a bit by leaving all the Marauders out of this chapter, except for one: Sabretooth. A Wolverine-esque villain who’d first appeared years ago in Claremont and Byrne’s Iron Fist series, Sabretooth was revealed as a Marauder by Louise Simonson in X-Factor #10, and here, finally – eight years after the character’s creation – he finally appears in a comic book with Wolverine.

Claremont establishes immediately that the two have a rivalry dating back years -- and thus, another bit of X-Men history is made. The precedent is now set for literally hundreds of derivative “Wolverine vs. Sabretooth” comics over the next 20 years. Indeed, Claremont even predicts what’s to come in a bit of prescient dialogue from Logan after he deliberately cuts this first fight short to save a Morlock’s life. “We’re too evenly matched,” Wolverine observes of him and his archenemy. “We could’ve fought till doomsday, with neither of us winning.” Exactly what happened, in the event.

Arch-enemies turn out to be a theme for “The Last Run,” as Wolverine’s battle with brand-new arch-villain Sabretooth is counterpointed by a final battle between Storm and Callisto. This rematch was teased at for years before this point, ever since their first fight back in 1983. Just as Claremont bucked expectation with the Cyclops/Wolverine explosion during the Byrne days – wherein, after years of antagonism, Scott finally took on Logan to help him, rather than hurt him – the Ororo/Callisto takes on similar dimensions. Callisto challenges Storm not out of animosity, but in order to snap the latter out of a psychological funk. Once again, the underdog – Callisto, originally cast as a villain while the privileged X-Men were heroes -- becomes the champion. More inured to tragedy and hardship than any of the X-Men (all of whom have lived for years in the comfort of a mansion), Callisto shows no signs of cracking in the face of the Morlock massacre, yet Storm – softer and weaker than she realized, despite earlier pretensions – is about to give up. Like all psychological conflicts in superhero comic books, the one between Callisto and Ororo is confronted and resolved via physical violence. This is facile, of course, but the fight rings with a certain amount of dramatic resonance thanks to the sense Claremont gives of the characters having come full circle: They fought nearly to the death when they met and now, at the final turning point of their relationship, they fight once again.

The hero/villain dichotomy is also developed in “The Last Run” through Claremont’s use of Magneto. Having been a force of destruction for so long, here he is able to use his powers to heal, when Colossus collapses as a delayed response to injuries sustained in the same fight that felled Shadowcat and Nightcrawler. Somewhat ironically, Grant Morrison also cast Magneto as a healer during his “New X-Men,” but it was a deliberate ruse – a villain pretending at heroism. Here, years earler, the same motif – destroyer becomes healer – is used by Claremont as an earnest symbol of redemption.

That the attempt fails is fittingly tragic; Magneto cannot redeem his past so easily. This will turn out to be a harbinger for the larger failure that occurs at the very end of Claremont’s Magneto arc (in 1991’s Uncanny X-Men #275 and X-Men #’s 1-3). Thus we see another case where the long-term nature of Claremont’s X-Men yields, intentionally or not, an instance of foreshadowing as shrewd and subtle as what can be found in “proper” literature.

Issue 211 of Uncanny was John Romita Jr.’s last, so the next eight months featured the work of rotating guest artists before Marc Silvestri became the new regular with issue 220. “The Last Run” is pencilled by Rick Leonardi, whose style is both grotesquely distorted and surprisingly expressive. Inked by Dan Green, Leonardi achieves some particularly lovely panels here – e.g., Storm’s grieving over Nightcrawler’s comatose body on the final panel of Page 5.

Monday, April 13, 2009

What’s the best way to listen to music?

by Scott

Even thought I finally fall into the camp of listening to music more on my computer or through the advent of an MP3 player (iPod being my ‘weapon of choice’), for some reason it still seems to me as though ‘CDs sound better’ than digital music files. My favorite way to listen to a new CD is still on my trusty old walkman. It just seems like I hear a lot more of the nuances that way, even though I use the same headphones when listening to my iPod (earbuds aren’t part of the equation as they never fit my ears comfortably).

I have heard many different schools of thought on this. One is that, since the files are taken directly from the CD, there should be no real difference in the sound quality (i.e. it’s all in my head). Another is that files are usually condensed when you put them on an MP3 player or play them through iTunes and this usually results in a loss of sound quality. Yet another is that the overall sound quality of CDs is being reduced as artist and producers are now catering to the fact that most people are now listening to music through their computer speakers or on inferior earbuds. I remember reading an article last year which stated this typically takes the form of everything being ‘louder’ and there being less variety in volume levels in the mix; the basic logic is that, on smaller/inferior speakers, ‘louder is better.’ This would explain why the new Killers album sounds much better coming through one speaker of my ‘factory issue’ car stereo than it does when I’m listening to it on headphones (where the production sounds like an overly busy mess). And then there are those who still insist that vinyl has the superior sound quality…

I recall reading an interview with Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood where he said a lot of the bemoaning the decline in sound quality was simply the result of aging hipsters desperately wishing that they could get music to sound as good to them as it did when they were teenagers.

Any thoughts on this?

Follow up: Just for kicks, I bought the new U2 album on Vinyl and, honestly, I don’t hear any superiority in sound quality... granted, probably don’t have the best of turntable seeing as mine is over 20 years old… but, for the time, it was a really good turntable

[And my question is this: my headphones break all the time, and I have gotten the the habit of picking up cheap ones over and over -- is it worth it to spend the money on large, expensive headphones that cover the ear?]

Friday, April 10, 2009


LOST: Dead is Dead. I was extraordinarily excited to watch this, as Ben is one of my favorite characters, and season four Ben-centric episode The Shape of Things to Come was one of my favorite LOST episodes of all time. I think it is fair to say I may have been expecting too much from this, and while I definitely liked it -- and I bet tons of other people loved it -- it also had bits that did not work as well for me.

The key moment is the scene in which Ben in judged by the smoke monster. This was a moment in the show -- even more than the donkey wheel -- where the show just really confronts you with its looney pulpy Indiana Jones insanity that usually stays hinted at, stays on the margins. My first reaction is that the scene is pretty cheesy, but I am pretty sure it is supposed to be cheesy (though at least one reviewer said the scene filled him with holy awe and dread, so maybe this is just me). It was an interesting scene certainly. Like the donkey wheel I respect the show for just going for the silliness and having the confidence the audience will just come with you, but I also felt for just a moment in sympathy with the people who objected to the donkey wheel.

The flashbacks the monster shows Ben are the flashbacks we have seen. It makes sense, though I feel like the episode might have been more elegantly structured as taking place IN the cloud so that the flashbacks we were shown were the RESULT of the smoke (we see what Ben sees) rather than the audience prep to understand what is in the smoke: but of course in that instance they would have had to put the episode's big moment in front rather than in back, so I guess I can see why they did it this way. I thought the flashback involving Desmond was especially good in the way it tied into Alex, and I liked how swift and brutal it was.

Some parts of the show left me in a puzzle in a bad way (though it could always be cleared up later, I suppose) -- why, when Rousseau had Ben did she hand him over to the castaways in season two -- you have to think she would want revenge for his kidnapping of her baby? And Ben's explanation of his previous summoning of the smoke monster was unsatisfying -- now we see that he has to go drain water out of a pool in some basement cavern to call the smoke monster -- last time it seemed to come quickly, but now it is faster to march for like 12 hours (or at least till night becomes day) and just go to where it lives in spite of the fact that you told it you would be somewhere else? I feel like the writers wanted Ben to go back to his house (to pick up Sun, to remember where Alex died), but also wanted to have Locke take us to the temple (cool in and of itself) but did not have a convincing reason to do both.

It is fantastic to see John Locke back in top form -- his and Ben's fates are always inverse -- one's ascent is the other's descent. Locke being coy and knowing and in charge was great and I particularly like how he pushed Ben into doing what he said he was going to do -- playing along with what was surely a lie (based in the truth) he MADE Ben be judged. The dynamic between these two guys is a lot of fun and really interesting, and Ben's new role as reluctant acolyte should be something to see. Though I am sure Ben will have lots of tricks up his sleeve, I have to admit I hate to see him deflated so much and am a little worried that this episode marks his redemption (the smoke monster seems not to care about, say, his mass murder) -- Alias had a bad habit of redeeming its villains to the point where there were no real bad guys left -- and LOST is really in need of an active bad guy at this point in the narrative, with only three episodes before the two part finale.

And that brings me to by two favorite parts of the episode, in which LOST does what it always does so well -- gesture significantly toward bigger things, and change the game at will. Ben says they keep a wall around the temple so people can't see it and then the go under instead -- leaving this place, which was mentioned for the first time I think in the season 3 finale (it is where Ben told the Others to wait for him), to be revealed in the season finale or some time in season six. And finally it looks like the woman who brought Said in knows more than she lets on -- she is obviously looking for other sleeper agents or freindlys with the pass-phrase "What lies in the shadow of the statue." You have think she is working for Widmore but in any case we have a bad guy for the season finale. Should be good.

One final concern, perhaps an unfair one: Locke dies and returns to comes back with all kind of important knowledge in his head about the mysteries of the island (though he does not know where they came from). One of the things that worried me most watching Battlestar Galactica fall apart explaining all the mysteries in the last two hours was that the same thing might be in store for LOST. Having John Locke's story echoing Starbucks, at pretty much the same point in the narrative (20 episodes or so till the end)? Not a good sign.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #211

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont's X-Men run; for more in this series see the toolbar on the right.]


The first major X-Men crossover, “Mutant Massacre” was the “M-Day” of its day, having been conceived by Chris Claremont as a way of reducing the number of mutants in the underground Morlock community. (In the original Morlock storyline in Uncanny #’s 169-170, Paul Smith drew substantially more Morlocks in the crowd scenes than Claremont had intended.)

Issue 211 is an incredibly strong start for the story, depicting Claremont’s newest and most sadistically cruel group of villains, the Marauders, on a surprisingly violent spree. The X-Men’s reactions, upon entering the tunnels and witnessing the results of the carnage, are realistically handled. Most striking and powerful of all is the Marauders’ ability to deliver genuine damage to the X-Men. True, the fight scenes aren’t as creatively choreographed as that of the recent tour de force in Uncanny #209 – indeed, this issue even reveals some sloppy mistakes if one is inclined to track the action closely. But the story makes up for its deficits through sheer shock value.

The stakes here are so amped up that even familiar X-Men moments -- e.g. Kitty phasing through an attack -- demonstrate a level of directness and brutality we’ve not yet seen in a Claremont comic. The most unshakable image of the issue is that of a massive shotgun barrel pressed right against Kitty’s temple and then fired immediately.

It’s also a monumental moment to see Colossus pushed over the edge for the first time, as the sound of Kitty’s screams ignite a literally homicidal rage. Not even Wolverine manages to achieve any kills during the fight with the Marauders, but Peter does, which is amazing.

The final panel sees Claremont twisting expectations a bit. The previous issue had contained a fairly standard Clarmontian moment: Ororo lecturing Wolverine on his behavior during the Rachel Summers debacle. “The X-Men are a team, Logan” went the familiar refrain from Storm. “And if we are a team, my friend, then I must have your trust. And, when required, your obedience.” In other words, Wolverine was going to have to rein in his impulse to “take care of business” in the most expediently violent way.

But on the last page of “Massacre,” Storm’s talk of “obedience” takes on a strikingly different light, as she orders Wolverine into the alley with a tone that suggest nothing so much as taking a dog off its leash. The memorable final panel is a close-up on Ororo’s eyes as she tells Logan she wants one of the Marauders taken prisoner for interrogation. When Wolverine asks from off-panel, “What about the rest?” her reply is chilling: “One prisoner is sufficient. The remaining Marauders are yours.” In the space of one issue, Storm has reversed her moral stance – she is now all but ordering Logan to use his dubious discretion, the exact thing she’d just tried to curb.

The “Mutant Massacre” will ultimately become bloated, scattered and unfocused (thus setting a precedent for a score more “X” crossovers over the course of as many years) – but Uncanny #211, with its breathtaking ability to wreak huge and frightening changes on both the X-Men’s individual members and their overall world in the space of 22 pages, is a brilliantly effective beginning.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Free Form Comments

Say whatever you want to in the comments to this post -- random, off topic thoughts, ideas, suggestions, questions, recommendations, criticisms (which can be anonymous), surveys, introductions if you have never commented before, personal news, self-promotion, requests to be added to the blog roll and so on. If I forget, remind me. Remember these comments can be directed at all the readers, not just me.

ALSO. You can use this space to re-ask me questions you asked me before that I failed to answer because I was too busy.

AND you can use this space to comment on posts that are old enough that no one is reading the comments threads anymore.

You do not have to have a blogger account or gmail account to post a comment -- you can write a comment, write your name at the bottom of your comment like an e mail, and then post using the "anonymous" option.

WRITING FOR THIS BLOG. If I see a big free form comment that deserves more attention, I will pull it and make it its own post, with a label on the post and on the sidebar that will always link to all the posts you write for this blog. I am always looking for reviews of games, tv, movies, music and books.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The Parable of the Greedy Man and the Envious Man

Jewish Parable, The Seven Deadly Sins, Solomon Schimmel, 1992. 

A greedy man and an envious man met a king. The king said to them, "One of you may ask something of me, and I will give it to him, provided I give twice as much to the other." The envious person did not want to ask first for he was envious of his companion who would receive twice as much, and the greedy man did not want to ask first since he wanted everything that was to be had. Finally the greedy one pressed the envious one to be the first to make the request. So the envious man asked the king to pluck out one of his eyes. 

Jason Powell on X-Men Annual #10

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont's X-Men run; for more in this series see the toolbar on the right.]


Ostensibly a generic superhero action story the like of which we’ve already seen in years and years’ worth of X-Men annuals, “Performance” makes less sense on those terms than as a meta-commentary on the “X” franchise.

First, the backstory: By 1986, artist Alan Davis had been illustrating the adventures of Captain Britain for Marvel UK for several years, collaborating with writers Dave Thorpe, Alan Moore and Jamie Delano (in that order) before writing a couple vignettes himself. Davis’ penultimate Captain Britain story was a harsh one in which the title character’s sister, Elizabeth “Betsy” Braddock, replaced him in the role of Captain Britain, only to find herself not at all qualified; in a battle with the Captain’s enemy Slaymaster, her eyes were carved out.

This brings us to Claremont, who -- as the original creator of Betsy and the Captain -- imports their entire mythos into the “X” franchise in the Davis-illustrated New Mutants Annual #2. That same comic book also featured Mojo and Spiral (from Ann Nocenti and Art Adams’ six-issue Longshot miniseries) as the villains. Though they had returned to their home dimension at the end of the Nocenti/Adams mini, Mojo and Spiral were depicted returning to Earth, where they kidnapped the now-blind Betsy, outfitted her with bionic eyes, and used her telepathic powers to enslave children. The New Mutants teamed up with Captain Britain and foiled the plan, and Betsy decided to enroll in Xavier’s school.

That brings us finally to X-Men Annual #10, wherein we learn that Betsy (re-christened “Psylocke” by Claremont) is actually transmitting everything she sees at the X-Mansion to Mojo’s dimension via cameras in her bionic eyes. When the issue begins, the X-Men are fighting Magneto as part of a Danger Room exercise, and the action translates in Mojo’s dimension into a hit television show.

It’s one of Claremont’s zaniest plots, but there is logic to it. That Mojo sees the X-Men as a franchise is a kind of futuristic take on the old Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four comics, which established that the Fantastic Four were – even in their own fictional universe – also stars of a Marvel comic book. Now, in 1986, well into the “MTV” generation, the X-Men are the stars of a hit media franchise in the insane, short-attention-span universe ruled by Mojo. While the audience on Mojo’s world watches, the X-Men are forced into an adventure that reprises the iconic moments that begat the first two generations of the series: the X-Men vs. Magneto, which inaugurated the Silver Age series; then, the establishment of a new team to rescue/replace the old, a la Giant Sized X-Men #1 (the cover of which is emulated on the cover). Now, circa Uncanny issues 210 and 211 -- which Annual #10 unevenly fits between, chronologically -- the series is at the threshold of its third generation. If “Performance” is a microcosm of the watershed moments in the team’s history, then clues about the nature of that third version ought to exist here.

One such hint is the overdetermined nature of the story itself: the Captain Britain mythos, as personified by Psylocke, is forced onto the same plane as the X-Men’s world, and so are the characters and settings from Nocenti and Adams’ Longshot universe.

Note that the letter “X” can denote the intersection of two lines – an interpretation that will greatly inform Claremont’s remaining years on the comic. A series ostensibly about mutation will now be about cross-pollination – the intermingling of ingredients that have no rational reason to co-exist. As noted, Claremont’s new icon as of 1986 is Spiral, a six-armed dancer/poet who finds beauty in chaos. More and more as the series continues, Claremont will juggle an increasing amount of complex threads and plotlines, enjoying the chaotic beauty as he mixes and matches disparate elements. (The quintessence of Claremont’s philosophy is found in the appearance here of – absurdly -- a family of talking frogs that appeared recently in Thor.)

The other hint of what’s to come occurs at the end of the story, just after a hilarious bit wherein Claremont mocks his own typical melodrama by cutting from a cliché speech by Storm about heroism to a stylized Mojo-logo (“MGM: Mojo’s Giant Movies ... of Death”) and the image of fat creatures going wild with applause.

Afterwards, Mojo justifies his existence in the X-universe: “Where would all [the X-Men’s] heroism be without someone truly nasty to properly test them?!” he asks rhetorically. “Thanks to me, their existence has purpose.” It’s almost as if Mojo is an avatar here for Claremont himself – forcing the X-Men into increasingly horrible situations in order to give the characters purpose. This is, indeed, a predictor of what the future holds, as the X-Men’s rogues gallery starts to fill up with villains like Mojo – irredeemable bastards motivated simply by a desire to do “truly nasty” things. Thus, Mr. Sinister and the Marauders with their impending massacre of the Morlocks; the Adversary, who wants to destroy the universe on a whim; the Inferno demons, the Reavers, the Shadow King ... all these villains are ultimately, like Mojo, just Chris Claremont in disguise: giving the X-Men a purpose while keeping the ratings up.

Looked at from this perspective, Annual #10 emerges as Claremont’s most self-aware and most cynical X-Men comic.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Religion in Popular Culture

Thinking about Religion in Pop on my twitter feed -- feel free to discuss it here. I may update the twitter feed later today if anything strikes me. The question on my mind is what makes some of these successful engagements, others superficial, and others just bad?

Buffy and Angel, The Last Airbender -- I feel like the fantasy context make these different but perhaps that is unfair.

Supreme. Didn't Kirby turn out to be God? Or am I thinking of another book?

Preacher. This was too ... something for me. Pandering? Juvenile? Were the religious themes interesting in the end?

Superman. In Returns he is Jesus, and the story is lame. In All Star he is our benevolent creator, always watching.

City of Angels, Touched by An Angel, Michael -- far too overt.

LOST. To early to call. Destiny? Egyptian mysticism? Angels? Time travel? I miss Mr. Eko's Christianity being in the mix.

Joan of Arcadia. I missed this but it strikes me as a more overtly Christian, less quirky version of Wonderfalls.

Wonderfalls. Mystical forces mature a disaffected 20 something into caring about, and helping, the world around her.

Quantum Leap. A satisfying reveal that Sam -- along with others -- has been a kind of angel, with a bittersweet ending.

Kings. A tricked out soap opera that avoids being accused of one by drawing on, and taking seriously, the Bible.

BSG. A literal Deus Ex Machina (I think I have to avoid saying more for for fear of spoilers).

Friday, April 03, 2009

Friday Round Up: 24, Lost, Kings, Seaguy

24. The first seven episodes of season seven and the movie Redemption, all filmed before the writer's strike, were kind of awful -- like the worst season of 24 ever. But the break obviously cleared everyone's heads because after those seven episodes the rest, (written a year later?) have been equal to the heights of season 7. It's all a simple formula, each season essentially a remake of the first, but the back third of season seven and season 5 are to my mind the best. John Voight is one of the best villains, with even more comic book-y impish charm than Dennis Hopper in season one -- at one point, when he realizes his agent Quinn will face off against Jack he says "Quinn's Good. But Jack's good too." You have to think most actors would have read the line as if they were worried about the outcome but Voight plays it like a guy who just likes to see a good fight and anticipates that this one will be interesting whatever the outcome. The most recent episode has the US military facing off against Voight's private army of 1500 mercenaries armed with WMDs and Jack, on the sidelines, dying from a chemical weapon. Surely Jack will get better (24 season 8, the last, has already been announced) but right now this show is at the top of it's game. The most recent episode also typified what 24 does best -- stall for one hour at a time, here with a fake out where an employee seems like he is leading the army to the place where the weapon is, but is merely stalling for time, just as the show's producers need him to.

LOST. My friend Jill already sent me an email about the most recent episode and I agreed with her 100% -- the conversation between Hurley and Miles was a lot of fun, and the bit and the end where Ben, taken by the Others, will not remember anything solves a problem that does not need solving. I liked better the idea that he DID remember them, just never said anything. Maybe the next episode -- an amazing looking Ben flashback that should have lots of mythology -- will clear that up but like the ending of the last episode this was a bit of a cop out. As for the Kate story -- the actress has said that she does not really like or understand the mythology stuff and so the writers seem to keep her far away from the pulpy stuff Locke and Ben are better about -- here they avoid TWICE her having to relate the weird goings on on the island to Cassidy and Claire's mom with a well timed commercial break. Still the episode hit some very good emotional beats and provided a good explanation why she would be motivated to return -- not just with the "find Clare" thing but also why she realizes she needs to. Jack's refusal to help was also good -- it allowed the writers of the show to take his character somewhere and also not repeat themselves with Jack saving Ben again. What's left for this season: A Ben flashback, what happened to Daniel, the big purge, Sun finding everyone? Only six episodes to go this season.

Kings -- the recent episode of Kings was pretty good as well, though again, this show is totally doomed. It was a pretty typical soap opera but it did include an interesting defense of the monarchy as something for people to believe in, a kind of show they NEED, and had a great sequence where Silas hits a deer and makes a hard sacrifice to say in God's favor.

Seaguy -- I like Seaguy OK. I liked the last series as well but of Morrison's stuff this was never my favorite. It is a great series, but something about it leaves me a little cold. Jog makes a great argument that the previous Seaguy was motivated by Morrison's despair over his New X-Men run -- his inability to make lasting changes for example, and the idea that there are forces keeping superheroes (Morrison's metaphor for the Blakean Imagination) in check, to keep them from being as imaginatively revolutionary as they should be. With Captain Carrot and the Zoo Crew in Final Crisis 7 however and the success of All Star Superman it feels like Morrison kinda won -- comics have made major strides to embrace the crazy kooky past they spent the post Watchmen years being kind of ashamed of. This was the argument he was floating in Animal Man, and Flex Mentallo, and JLA and New X-Men and the Invisibles, Seven Soldiers and so on -- including Batman where he put him in that insane outfit. I mean obviously there are a lot of crummy comics out there but I am not sure a new iteration of his old argument is really going to do anything about it. And Morrison seemed like he was not going to need to anymore the way he sort of has his own Micro-Universe of Morrisonia like Solaris and the Golden Superman in his All Star Superman run. I am curious to see what his return to Seaguy is motivated by. I kind of feel like it is time for a Phase 2 Morrison now and I am not sure what on earth that should look like -- except I feel like he has gone awfully far in his main direction, and it needs to be something ELSE, or at least a kind of half twist on the kinds of stories he has been telling. Or maybe I have my Phase 2 Morrison in works like WE3 and All Star Superman, works that are much more subtle about their agenda, works that put story first, message second (or maybe works that make sure the story is fully functioning on its own before the message gets there) -- and I want more of that, instead of more commentary on the genre, and how the imagination need to be released from the shackles of a dictatorship that only wants to twist it to dull ends. It's the same argument Moore makes in Promethea and the most recent League, and it is pretty much the same argument Blake spent all his time on. That said -- a lot of writers have sort of one theme they keep approaching in different ways over and over -- maybe, as a person who has almost everything he has done, I have just sort of had my fill. Beckett is a genius, but I got to a point reading Beckett where I needed to move on too. (I read way too much Beckett my sophomore year of college).

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #210

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont's X-Men run; for more in this series see the toolbar on the right.]

“The Morning After”

Five issues ago, in “Wounded Wolf,” Claremont attempted to heighten the drama by leaving certain crucial plot points to reader imagination. (How did Spiral come into contact with Deathstrike? How did Deathstrike and the mercs manage to mess Wolverine up so badly?) The effect was more alienating than absorbing. Here, however, the same technique is used much more effectively, as the opening sequence introduces us to a Hellfire mercenary and his lover, a young Morlock girl. How it is that two such disparate characters met, much less fell in love, and how they came to move from New York to Los Angeles – those are all stories for the reader to conceive. With readers invited to fill in the blanks left by Claremont, a certain sympathy with these two canon-fodder characters instantaneously exists, and their murder seems all the more cruel and shocking.

The murderers, meanwhile, identified collectively as “Marauders,” are imbued with a sense of menace more pervasive and persuasive than any villain created by Claremont before this issue – this despite the fact that they never appear clearly on panel. The final sound-effect, a “BOOM” rendered in forced perspective and signifying the death of the female Morlock, is melodramatic – but the context imbues it with horrible foreboding.

Meanwhile, in between the “Marauder” sequences that bookend the issue are a series of attractive character bits that consolidate the helter-skelter events of recent issues and also incorporate continuity from other series in the “X” franchise – particularly the most recent addition, X-Factor. Deservedly hated by Claremont and thus to some extent studiously ignored at first, X-Factor was at this point being written by Claremont’s friend and former X-Men editor Louise Simonson. So while Simonson was doing backflips to try and refashion Bob Layton’s brainchild into something workable as a long-term series, Claremont happily helped out, presenting here an X-Factor/Magneto scene that interlocks with the concurrent X-Factor issue. In Uncanny #210, we see the scene from Magneto’s perspective, while in the sister title, Simsonson writes the exact same scene from the POV of her titular team. In Uncanny, Magneto sees X-Factor and wonders, “How could [the original X-Men] have so betrayed their heritage, Xavier’s ideals ...” by becoming mutant-hunters? In the X-Factor version, they wonder how Xavier could have left the school in the hands of their archenemy. Seeing Magneto enter the Hellfire Club’s headquarters, Scott says, “I’m just glad Professor Xavier isn’t here to witness this betrayal!” It’s all a bit ham-fisted.

Magneto’s scene inside the Hellfire Club is lovely. Their surplus members gone, the Lords Cardinal are now down to only a Black King, Black Queen and White Queen. That leaves an opening for a White King, and the chair is offered to Magneto, to accept – if he so desires – on behalf of all the X-Men. “Something deadly is in the wind,” Shaw tells Magnus, “and we mutants can no longer afford any form of internecine warfare.” The very concept is a fascinatingly creative one on Claremont’s part, immediately flagging up questions. It’s one thing for the X-Men to become allies with underprivileged mutants like the Morlocks, or revolutionaries like Magneto. But the Lords Cardinal are somewhere else on the spectrum: they’re mutants, but they’re also rich, privileged and morally bankrupt. On the other hand, as Shaw points out, the X-Men could benefit from sharing Hellfire resources. As readers, we can’t help but consider that Charles Xavier probably would have refused the chair outright if offered. Magneto, however, is a former extremist, who is intimately familiar with the notion of moral compromise. On several levels then, Magneto becoming the White King of the Hellfire Club is a rather ingenious idea. Unfortunately, the follow-through will end up being weak, never quite living up to the dramatic potential implied by this fantastic initial scene.

Hinting slightly at the tragedy soon to befall Nightcrawler and Colossus, Claremont gives both characters a small “full circle” moment in “The Morning After.” First, Peter returns to his classic, Cockrum-designed uniform. (In one of Claremont’s funnier lines, Peter’s explanation to his sister for the bright, primary colors of his original outfit is, “I was ‘new wave’ before my time.” It’s a small joke, but the way it finds an equivalence between superhero costumes and a real-life fashion movement predicts Grant Morrison’s “Bollywood” joke in “New X-Men.”)

Then, Nightcrawler finds himself cornered by an angry mob, and notes to himself that it’s the same predicament in which Professor X first found him, back in Giant-Sized X-Men #1. Thus, Kurt and Peter have come full circle on the narrative wheel – and next issue, they both (along with Kitty) will be mortally injured. Such is the karmic cycle of the serial superhero story.