Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Uncanny X-Men #253

[For you all this may be just another blog post. But you guys were getting ones in the que for a while -- this one was written in the final moments of 2009, and represents the beginning of Jason's final push toward the end, as he looks at every issue of Claremont's initial X-Men run. I make a brief comment below, but it is not that smart.]

“Storm Warnings”

The story cycle from issues 246 to 252 saw Claremont steadily narrowing down his cast of characters, to the point where Wolverine was the only one left. Logan is even referred to as “the last of the Uncanny X-Men” in the opening splash pages of issues 251 and 252, just to drive the sense of finality home. What could possibly come next?

The answer, in issue 253, is surprising yet obvious: He suddenly swings the doors open wide on the massive X-mythology that he spent the last 15 years building. Banshee, Moira MacTaggert, Amanda Sefton, Polaris, Magneto and Forge all return, reminding us with a jolt that the eight X-Men who went to Australia were far from the only characters Claremont has available to him. Muir Island – a staple of the series since the 70s but not seen in Uncanny for almost two years – is suddenly a setting again. Claremont even imports characters and concepts from his concurrent Excalibur series (which were already imports from the Alan Moore/Alan Davis/Jamie Delano Captain Britain comics published in the UK). The scope of the series sweeps outward from one corner of the globe to all of them, an explosion of color and atmosphere that contrasts brightly against the bleak, existential desolation that had settled on the series over the previous three months.

The artwork, too, seems to soften to accommodate Claremont’s departure from the gritty Outback sands. Steve Leialoha returns as a guest inker, seeming much more comfortable than he had in issue 250. His work is still a departure from Green’s, but it feels lighter and more carefully applied.

Story-wise, “Storm Warnings” serves as a prologue to Claremont’s final phase on the X-Men. It is here that he re-conceives the entire comic-book as – in Paul O’Brien’s words – “a globetrotting adventure series which didn't even have an official X-Men team to star in it.” Over the next year or so, the series will become more soap-opera-like in its construction than it ever had before. Just as in a soap, the comic-book will cut back and forth among different groups of characters, each following their own personal threads.

In order to give some sense of coherence and direction to this multi-vectored approach, Claremont settles on a single villain who will sit at the heart of this web of different storylines like a giant spider – Amahl Farouk, from the John Byrne days. A relatively minor addition to the mythos at the time, Farouk suddenly becomes a major player, set up to be the antagonist who will eventually bring all of Claremont’s narrative strands together. (It won’t work out this way in practice, but this was purportedly Claremont’s original intent.) This is why Amahl shows up in Forge’s vision in “Storm Warnings,” putting an important piece in play right at the start.

There is some logic to the use of Farouk as the character who will eventually reunite the team. He was established in his first appearance as the dark reflection of Charles Xavier: a mutant telepath devoted entirely to evil. So, in much the same way Krakoa was responsible for the “all-new” team being formed (by planting the suggestion in Charles’ head), or the Brood Queen was responsible for the creation of the New Mutants (while possessing Charles), once again a villain with close ties to Professor X will be the force that assembles a new cast.

(Claremont does seem to be assuming that anyone reading the comic at this time has pretty much been following all of his mutant titles for years. For anyone only reading Uncanny, Farouk would have seemed like an odd choice. He’d only appeared in one issue of X-Men, over ten years earlier. It was in Claremont’s New Mutants that Amahl played a more substantial role, as the villain in a six-issue arc in 1985.)

Claremont also takes advantage of his expanded narrative playground to indulge in a bit of housecleaning: The scene in which Magneto decides he will “act the part” of a villain in order to be a scapegoat for mutants and thereby take the heat off of the rest of his people, is Claremont attempting to smooth over Magnus’s mischaracterizations in both New Mutants 75 and the upcoming “Acts of Vengeance” crossover. It is a compromise on Claremont’s part, the most awkward scene of the issue (although Magneto’s voice is as strong and assured as ever). Bit it serves as a prelude as well – specifically, to the increased editorial interference that will cause this entire arc to be similarly compromised well before the end. None of what Claremont is setting up in Uncanny #253 will turn out precisely as intended. For better and/or worse, Claremont’s authorial autonomy on X-Men is dying. The Magneto scene in “Storm Warnings” is – appropriately enough – the first warning sign. The domino chain starts here, and will end in almost exactly two years, when Claremont’s final issue of Uncanny run hits the stands.

[One of the reasons Jason started this project was to show me that there was nothing "new" in Morrison's X-Men: Morrison was taking it all from the Claremont days. Farouk as the final villain that never got to play out seemed like something Morrison was trying to revise and undo in his Sublime-Apocalypse-Casandra Nova thing -- Casandra Nova was Xavier's dark side, and Sublime was a relitavly minor villain who turned out to be a much bigger deal in the end.]

13 comments:

Teebore said...

Claremont attempting to smooth over Magnus’s mischaracterizations in both New Mutants 75 and the upcoming “Acts of Vengeance” crossover.

Ah, thank you! I never connected the two before, but it seems so obvious, in retrospect.

I've long been bothered by Magneto's portrayal in NM 75 and his subsequent return to villainy in Acts of Vengeance/Avengers West Coast (when he popped up after Scarlet Witch's first bout with madness), especially when Claremont doesn't have him even come close to outright villainy again until 274-275.

One of the things I appreciate about Claremont is that he'd take the time to do something like this: write a scene attempting to explain mis-characterization by other writers on other titles, instead of just focusing on how he portrays the character in his book.

It really helps maintain character integrity in a way we don't see much anymore.

Dougie said...

Ironically, after Claremont has to justify Magneto's "re-villianization", the Avengers West Coast storyline is derailed in turn by one of Byrne's perennial abrupt departures.
Is there really a problem with character integrity these days, with Bendis books and Geoff Johns books? I seem to recall the 80s and 90s suffered more with regard to editorial volte-faces.

Teebore said...

Is there really a problem with character integrity these days, with Bendis books and Geoff Johns books?

The problem, I'd say, isn't in the books that each of those authors writes, but when characters they write appear in other books by other authors.

Very little effort is made these days, I'd say, to maintaining a consistent character voice or characterization across the company.

Certainly not any effort of the scale of what Claremont did during his X-Men heyday. Where Claremont sees Magneto behaving differently in another book and decides to write a page or two reconciling the conflicting behaviors, nowadays, if Luke Cage or someone Bendis is writing acts out of character in a book Bendis doesn't write, Bendis is too concerned with telling his own story to bother reconciling the differences, leaving it up to the reader or some other writer, later to explain the disparity.

Anonymous said...

Claremont did this type of thing even in his less appreciated recent works. In his x-treme x-men run, for example, he had a scene in which Sage jump started Beasts mutation in order to explain the awful cat Beast(secondary mutations for no reason?? Morrison's run was good why??)

Gary said...

Morrison's run was good because Morrison wrote it. Honestly, is it that hard to figure out?

RE: Claremont pointing out he's got LOADS of other places he can go without the X-Men: The cover practically screams this, once you know that view of the issue exists. It's like, "No X-Men? What about so and so? And what's his face?" I always was thrown off by the Silver-Agey cover, but now it just rocks.

Claremont was so bold with what he was willing to do with characters and situations, and the fact that he was always back next month to sleep in the bed he'd made makes it that much better. Comics Should Be Good recently did a poll of what readers favorite storylines were; Dark Phoenix Saga made number 2. There were a lot of stories in there, though. It's different writing an open-ended story. Sure, "Watchmen" is awesome, but what would Alan Moore write for "Watchmen" #13? What about Grant Morrison's legendary "WE3" issue #4? Even Morrison's "JLA" tenure always built to the planned end of "WWIII". There's a real difference in what someone writing a discrete story can do vs. what someone writing a true neverending serial can do. And Claremont? He didn't care. He had one of his main characters EAT A SUN. Not as the lead up to the final battle that would end the book, but as part of a story inside of that title. He slaughtered an entire secret alcove of mutants and came back to tell us what happened next. And here? He's torn apart the titular team, has to write an X-Men book without X-Men, and does it. This? This is good stuff.

Man, I rant.

Teebore said...

Keep ranting. I couldn't agree more about the difference between writing a great story within an ongoing narrative and writing a great story with a clearly defined beginning, middle and end, which the author gets to walk away from when he's done.

Jeff said...

What exactly happens in that New Mutants storyline with the Shadow King? I've never been able to find a summary. I read Claremont was going to reveal him as the power behind the Hellfire Club eventually, too. But the published story kind of peters out due to editorial interference. Joe Kelly brought Farouk back in a pretty great two-parter in the 90s. In fact, Kelly's 10-issue run overall is pretty great.

Peter Farago said...

The NM storyline is sort of absurdly complicated, inasmuch as it's a follow-on to the Ann Nocenti penned Beast/Dazzler miniseries, interrupted halfway through by a New Mutants appearance in Secret Wars II, and features a crossover appearance by Kitty. The short version: Karma, missing since NM #7, turns up as the corpulent overseer of a gladiatorial contest. It turns out she's been possessed by the disembodied spirit of Farouk, who has turned Karma's own power to possess others against her. The New Mutants drive him out of her (Illyana, in typical form, steals the show).

The whole thing is actually incredibly creepy when you think about it. Karma's origin is basically drenched in the trauma of rape and slavery in the service of her gangster uncle. Claremont, having brought it up but then not seeming to know how to tread tastefully on the topic, writes her out in frustration in NM #7, and replaces her with Illyana, whose rape background is metaphorical and thus easy to touch upon in figurative terms through actual fisticuffs with the literalized demons of her past. When he brings Karma back, he has Illyana lead the charge, saving her from a literalized representation of Karma's own past. The whole thing, as illustrated by Bill Sienkewicz, is pretty epic. In a way, this is Claremont's triumphant statement of the use of strong female figures to advocate women's empowerment in comics.

...and now compare this to his successor, Louise Simonson, who wraps up Illyana's arc by having Rahne, the moralizing, prudish christian werewolf "save" her younger, uncorrupted self before she was corrupted by Belasco, thus erasing the adult Illyana from existence - a woman who had taken the first steps to put her abuse behind and define herself as an independent person - and New Mutants' should-have-been breakout character. This in the name of giving Illyana a "happy ending", by "restoring her innocence".

Sorry, huge digression. But I could talk all day about this shit.

The Inkwell Bookstore said...

Nicely explained, Peter.

Inspired by this blog to become a Claremont completist, I recently read the Claremont/Sienkewicz New Mutants tps. While the 'fat Karma' storyline follows the infinitely more iconic 'Demon Bear' storyline, it was the Karma/Farouk story that stuck in my mind the most. Part of that was no doubt due to the fact that for much of the story, I had little to no idea what was going on, so my brain found itself working harder to forge connections and fill in the gaps. Another part, though, was the absolute feeling of degradation that Claremont and Sienkewicz were able to imbue Karma's character with. I'd read some of the early Wolverine issues where Claremont had Karma working with her mobster uncle in an effort to save some missing family members (am I remembering this right?), but there she was portrayed as a strong presence caught up in a set of tragic circumstances. In the 'fat Karma' books, though, she was just plain tragic. Disturbingly -- and memorably -- so.

Dougie said...

Wasn't the Farouk storyline originally supposed to be concluded in a miniseries for Kitty and Rachel? I vaguely recall a WWII setting with Wolverine;is that right?
On the topic of aborted subplots, did we discuss the Judith Rassendyll storyline, which seemed to be an homage to The Priosner of Zenda?

cease ill said...

Comment section's always a treat; some new faces, too, along the way!
These, I've not yet read (STILL want Neil's Morrison book 1st)but the analysis is so evocative of the thought behind good writing.
My plan (and 1st,2nd and 8th chapters) for a multi-vectored novel here received great encouragement, as all spokes converge on a gradual world-change. Good v. evil gets no predictable call backs, though I mixed some of our beloved heroes into some pastiche fiction to help me work out the fantastic plot (integr8dfix.blogspot.com: end of sheepish plug).

dschonbe said...

Another months late comment, but I feel I must add a comment missing from this discussion. In particular, this discussion includes several mentions of Claremont adding a scene to smooth over a mischaracterization of Magneto. I was surprised that the Claremont-Byrne-Dr. Doom parallel was not raised. The issue is clearly similiar to when Byrne fixed what he felt to be a mischaracterization of Dr. Doom by Claremont.

Anyway, I just added this in case Jason's hints of editing this series and then publishing it ever come to pass. That sounds like a book I'd very much like to read. In fact, I think at some point, Jason should give a pointer to his other works. Jason, you clearly have a significant following here.

-Dan S.

NietzscheIsDead said...

Dan,

Apropos of nothing, you have caused me to recall (again, four years late, so sorry) a backup feature in an X-Factor annual starring Dr. Doom and Magneto. The feature, while relatively strong in and of itself, does a lot of backtracking on John Byrne's part to recover his version of Magneto: the maniacal, racist, genocidal conqueror (parallels to be seen between Grant Morrison's poorly-conceived portrayal and Mark Millar's more balanced, but still clearly psychopathic, racist, genocidal, and hypocritical, version of the character). The backup featured in XF annual 4, I believe. Of particular note to me is Byrne's continued disavowal of Claremont's characterization of both Doom and Magnus: here, Byrne notably ignores (not even retcons, just ignores) that the two met during Claremont's X-Men vs. Fantastic Four miniseries.