Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Uncanny X-Men #262

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men. If this is your first post, then you have a lot of archives to go through to catch up. Get started now. Right now. They are really good.]

“Scary Monsters”

Uncanny X-Men 261 to 267 comprise a sequence that is looked back upon ruefully by Claremont, as no two consecutive issues in the set feature the same penciller. Marc Silvestri’s last issue and Jim Lee’s first (as the new regular artist) bookend five issues by fill-in pencillers. It is the longest such string in Claremont’s run, although the sequence from 211 to 216 (the transition from John Romita Jr. to Silvestri) is similarly ragged. But the run from 261 to 267 apparently nags more incessantly in Claremont’s memory – he’s mentioned it in multiple interviews – because it is also the first time in years that Uncanny X-Men slipped out of the #1 slot in the sales charts. The lack of consistent visuals accounts for this, as does the contemporaneous debut of Todd McFarlane’s massively hyped Spider-Man #1 – both matters out of Claremont’s control. But surely the X-Men’s rotating cast was also frustrating readers as well. Granted, the series’ unpredictability had always been part of its massive appeal … but it seems as if Claremont finally went over the line in terms of how far he could perversely play on reader expectation. In issues 262 to 264, the protagonists are Banshee, Forge and Jean Grey – two of the canon’s lesser lights, and a third character on loan from Louise Simonson’s X-Factor. It’s a bit daring on Claremont’s part to trust in such a motley crew to carry the series over three issues, but commercially the risk didn’t pay off.

Hubris may have played a part as well. Claremont has noted with pride that, back in his heyday, he was able to take such maligned characters as Wolverine and Rogue and eventually turn them into fairly hot properties (in collaboration with John Byrne and Paul Smith, respectively, and several others besides). There’s a sense, as one reads issues 262 to 264, that Claremont was utterly confident he could do the same with, for example, Forge.

His belief may also have been fueled by rising fan interest in Cable, added to the cast of The New Mutants three months earlier by Simonson and Rob Liefeld. As a gun-toting cyborg/mutant, Forge preceded Cable by years, and Claremont may have been playing a game of “mine’s better” with the New Mutants creative team. Clearly it didn’t work out in the author’s favor.

“Scary Monsters” is the first part of a two-act “X-Men vs. Morlocks” story. In an example of the series becoming less politically complex at this stage, the Morlocks have devolved since the “Mutant Massacre” into the same one-dimensional villains they began as, six years earlier. This would be a trend during Claremont’s 90s material – the most extreme example being Magneto’s reversion (still a year away at this point). The benefit, in retrospect, is that there is a sense of Claremont’s massive run being bookended – these latter day stories so often recall some of his very earliest for the series, and suggest that Claremont’s X-Universe is coming full circle. The main problem is the lack of thematic logic, and an occasional sense of artificiality.

So, as in the original Morlocks story, we again see a very small group of X-Men descend into the sewers to rescue an ally. The twist here is that body-warping villain known as Masque is now in charge (he was formerly just a lackey) and, as such, much more liberal with the use of his powers. The result is a bizarre cliffhanger ending wherein Banshee has lost his mouth and Jean Grey now has tentacles instead of arms. As comic-book cliffhangers go, this is hardly too ridiculous – but coming so hard on the heels of Pyslocke and Storm’s transformations, this seems like yet another arbitrary mutation. There’s an unshakeable sense at this point that Claremont is burning out – or at the very least, just a little bit bored.

Apart from Claremont himself, the only other constant over the five issues of fill-in art is Josef Rubinstein. The inker does his best to create a consistent look for the series during this tumultuous period, but can only do so much. Pencils for issue 262 are by Kieron Dwyer, a solid storyteller whose work here is less than his best, lacking the dynamism of his work on Mark Gruenwald’s Captain America.


Anonymous said...

Teetering on off-topic, but inspired by this series' recent and repeated references to Mark Gruenwald's run on Captain America, I picked up the trade paperback, Captain America: Streets of Poison. It was a lot of fun...but a bit preachy at times. Is this one of the stand-out story lines from Gruenwald's run? Are there any other must-reads that the readers/writers here could recommend?

Dave Mullen said...

An excellent review and I agree with your assesments.
My memory of this arc is in line with what you say, but the context you place it in with regards happenings in the New Mutants and elsewhere are very interesting to contemplate. The fundamental problem with this phase in X-men history is it has no direction. You can actually feel the writer struggling to find a place to go now that he has destroyed the team and scattered characters to the four corners of the world and beyond and as prodigious as Claremonts skill was this move (and the length of it) is what broke the back of his reputation in my view.

This story we have reached the point where the main characters are actually being drawn from other books, X-Factor chiefly, and the by now clapped out Morlocks.
There isn't anything to latch onto as as it turns out this is actually Forge's story and he was never the most involving of characters to begin with....

I think what's more interesting to discuss is your point about the imminent rise of the speculator boom and hot names like Liefeld, McFarlane and Lee. The sort of Independence, narrative experimentation and risk taking moves Claremont had helped built the books success & readability on was about to be well and truly stamped out with the arrival of rampant commercialism and mass marketing branding. :(

(Not once did I never note the similarities between Forge and Cable so thanks for pointing it out, I'm sure it was just coincidence though. Cable has never interested me in the slightest but Gambit was an instant hit for me, it's the difference between character charm and the sheer utter genericness of Cable's reason for being.)

Teebore said...

Thanks for placing this issue in the context of its time. I had never quite realized that this chunk of issues was published contemporaneously with the debut of MacFarlane's Spider-Man and the growing popularity of Cable (a character for which I have a certain affection, I'm not too proud to admit, though my introduction to the character came around the same time as his connection to Cyclops, my favorite character, was being heavily hinted at, well after his debut as a "mystery with a gun").

Encountering these issues as back issues once upon a time, I too was put off by the inconsistent fill-in art and the fill-in characters.

And while Claremont has always had (in fact, prior to these issues, relatively recently) a history of foisting drastic physical changes on his characters, the "Jean Grey with tentacles" cliffhanger was awkward and downright laughable, which makes me question if we were even supposed to take it seriously, or if Claremont even was, at that point.

@Anonymous, regarding Gruenwald's Cap: "Streets of Poison" is both a notable storyline from his run and indeed a bit preachy, but I wouldn't call it THE standout of his run: that would be the long-running storyline (I'm not sure if it has a name or is currently collected) in which the government strips Cap of his uniform and title, making the future USAgent the new Cap, while Cap becomes "the Captain", wielding a Stark-designed Vibranium shield and wearing a darker version of his uniform, to fight evil on his own terms.

The storyline then follows both old and new Caps, and along the way, examines the issue of what makes Captain America, Captain America. It ran roughly, IIRC, from issues #332 to #350 and had repercussions all throughout the Marvel Universe (this was back when the events of one title would actually be reflected in other titles).

Gruenwald's run is noteworthy and worth reading. Aside from its notable longevity (on par w/Claremont on X-Men and David on Hulk), it has some tremendous highs (the aforementioned story, the Red Skull/Magneto Acts of Vengeance issues), though it suffers its fair shares of terrible, terrible lows (Cap Wolf).

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the Cap summaries, Teebore. I'm going to go ahead and order issues 332-350 on your recommendation.
In return, allow me to point Dave Mullen to these two reviews of the short-lived Mutant X series starring Cable.
1. http://robot6.comicbookresources.com/2009/09/collect-this-now-soldier-x/
2. http://www.savagecritic.com/jog/my-life-is-choked-with-comics-6-soldier-x-1-8-and-surroundings/
I, too, had little-to-no fondness for the Liefeld creation until reading the first eight books of this series. Truly great stuff -- philosophically deep, perversely playful, darkly humorous, and a pitch-perfect marriage of writer and artist!

Jason said...

Dave, glad you liked the review. I'm sure you're right that similarities between Forge and Cable are coincidence, but I still wonder about Claremont suddenly putting Forge at the forefront (after the character'd been mothballed for years) just as Cable was creating such a buzz amongst X-fandom.

As for branding, yes, it was definitely an issue at this time. Comments in earlier threads have noted the fact that Marvel started pushing their trading cards pretty heavily come the 90s, and there were also T-shirts and other paraphernalia, as well as the cartoon. As Claremont noted in an interview in 1992, the reason his "death of Professor X" plot was nixed (or at least, a primary reason) was because it would have rendered any X-merch with Xavier on it commercially obsolete.

Tee, I probably liked Cable a lot too back in the day. Actually, truth be known, I still like him a bit when he shows up in Uncanny 270-273. Claremont can make me like just about any character, I guess. (Except Rachel Summers.)

Thanks for the notes on Greunwald's Cap too. I still hold out hope that David Fiore will eventually give us an issue-by-issue look at that run. (I myself have only read a few of those issues ... though I do remember liking the ones just after the long epic you mention -- must've been issues 352-354 or thereabouts ... when Cap was fighting the Soviet Super Soldiers and John Walker first became USAgent.)

Dave Mullen said...

I think you're reading too much into Claremonts possible motives Jason, Consider the diminishing characters he had to play with by this point and that Forge's story had actually been on the boil since at least #227 and his role here is actually quite organic and natural when put into context. Classic Claremont in fact. Pairing him with Banshee was a natural move as both had strong personal reasons for tracking down the fate of the X-Men and this was claremont tieing up loose ends with Forge.

I kind of wonder what amount of interest Claremont actually had in following New Mutants or Wolverine by that point, both were out of his hands though he did contribute a nice story for NM#82. The style that Liefeld brought to New Mutants is a near 180 degree difference to Claremonts more workmanlike Cerebral approach, Jim Lee brought a similar 'MTV' energy but his style was extremely polished and complimented Claremonts quality perfectly, for example the dip in quality on the newly lanched X-Men book once Claremont left was very notable, the book suddenly felt as artificial and derivative as Liefelds X-Force. I'm certainly not saying it was bad but the shift from Claremonts long established character-over-style formula to derivative full blown & ultra colorful super-heroics is undeniable.
I started with X-Men with the early #180s, the contrast between that era and approach and the Lee/Liefeld driven titles is about as stark as it gets..... almost Night & Day in fact and though you can argue they were just reverting it back to the Byrne/Claremont era the fact is the book had evolved very succesfully way past that sort of treatment.

Teebore - I agree with you on the Jean Grey thing, it was not only bizarre at the time but close to jumping the shark! I think the problem was that the actual Horror of it was not played up and it instead came across as a send up. This story was a real hodge podge of such random ideas and players it was very much like Claremont was playing a game, assembling a plot by pulling the (dubious) component elements out of a hat and having a stab at making them work as a story .....

Anonymous said...

I think these entries are starting to play a little loose with the timeline. As Dave Mullen notes, not only had Forge been a dropped subplot for a long time, but he came back a few months before Cable debuted. Can't see any grounds to say the latter influenced the former, not at this stage.

Maybe Claremont himself is muddled about the McFarlane timeline. My recollection -- which could be wrong after 20 years -- is that McFarlane's adjectiveless "Spider-Man" didn't debut until the late summer of 1990, probably August or September. Maybe as early as July. That would put it contemporaneous with the end of the fill-in era on Uncanny, somewhere during the Gambit arc.

If the Morlocks issues weren't at the top of the charts, it wasn't because of McFarlane, who had left Amazing by this point and hadn't begun on adjectiveless. It was because each month during 1990 Marvel launched a much-hyped new series, including John Byrne's Namor, the '90s Ghost Rider, New Warriors and Guardians of the Galaxy (not sure how much of a threat those were to X-Men, not much I imagine), and McFarlane's Spidey. A stray Robocop series, of all things, may be in there too.

So yes, Claremont did have sales competition, but not necessarily the big-time competition we remember in retrospect. Forgotten projects like Namor were actually quite big in their opening months. And slipping quality on Uncanny is surely a large part of it, just as Jason says.

Jason said...

Anon, there is no contradiction here. As noted, the debut of Spider-Man #1 by McFarlane was concurrent with Uncanny 265, which both falls in the range discussed in the opening paragraph (the opening sentence in fact) of this blog entry, AND is the first part of the Gambit arc, as you say. I appreciate the additional information in your comment, but there is no need to argue. We're both saying the same thing.

Meanwhile, I'm not convinced by the argument that Forge was bound to come back eventually anyway. This is Claremont we're talking about. He left things dangling for years.

That said, it is true that he was re-introduced into Uncanny way back in issue 253, well before Cable's introduction. And the Reavers -- yet more cyborgs -- came back even earlier. I guess my Cable theory is not so solid. I guess that's why I kept saying "Claremont MAY have" in the original blog entry ...

Anyway, Dave, I certainly agree with you 100% on where the franchise went when Claremont departed. I stuck with it for a bit, thinking that *maybe* they could keep the wheels on despite Claremont's departure. But it just came apart so fast. (Claremont was quoted in Wizard Magazine in early 1992, saying, "This is my life's work, and it's taken them six months to gut it like a fish.")

Anonymous said...

I wonder if the dip in quality was due to scheduling. Uncanny was coming out 16 times a year at this point. These issues were also
right about the time Claremont left Excalibur. And his novels were coming out.. are those worth checking out?

Joe Gualtieri said...

I'll happily second Gruenwald's replacement Cap arc, but with the caveat that it starts earlier, With #321. Steve Rogers loses the costume in #332, but the set-up for that story starts Cap gunning down a terrorist in #321 and builds with the introduction of John Walker a couple issues after that.

Jason said...

Thanks, Joe. And I will add that even though it may climax with issue 350, there is a great epilogue in issue 354.

Anon, I'm not sure scheduling was an issue. If anything, Claremont by this time was writing fewer comics a year than he did at his peak. In the middle of the 1980s, he was writing over 30 comics a year, and a majority of those was X-related.

And theoretically he only had one novel in the hopper at this point -- his second, "Grounded." His first had been released back in 1987.

As for their worth, well, even though I had said I would stop blogging after we got to X-Men 3, I confess I have drafted a few blogs about Claremont's post-X-Men/NON-X-Men work, including a post about his novels. So if Geoff is cool with it, you'll be seeing a few words for me about them.

For now, short version (and recall that I am obviously VERY pro-Claremont biased): First novel, "FirstFlight" = good 'n' fun, but very much the work of a first-time novelist. Second novel, "Grounded" = fantastic, very assured, Claremont much more comfortable in prose. Love this one. Third novel, "Sundowner" = very good, very readable, but a bit loosely plotted in comparison to the middle book.

Dave Mullen said...

I stuck with it for a bit, thinking that *maybe* they could keep the wheels on despite Claremont's departure. But it just came apart so fast. (Claremont was quoted in Wizard Magazine in early 1992, saying, "This is my life's work, and it's taken them six months to gut it like a fish.")

It was just mass commercialism running rampant and no thought into the longterm integrity of the concept. The X-men went from outcasts and theoretically a cult hit book to being pushed as very public poularist superheroes and even supplanted the Avengers as the flagship heroes of the Marvel Universe.
They milked the concept to death in the 90s and it never recovered, it is frankly utterly burnt out at this current stage.

Above any of the artistic concerns I think what solely sticks in my mind about that whole era is the day i opened up Uncanny #279 on the train returning from a comic shop to see Fabian Nicieza on the writing credits.
A major shock as Claremont was the writer of the X-men as a matter of course.... I learned he'd been fired/resigned from that fanzine Peter David wrote for and put two and two together.
I think the state of the X-men and the motives of the powers that be at that point was typified by the thought of John Byrne coming aboard for a stint, only to exit after a mere ONE issue!

Ruthless commercialism ruled and No one was bigger than the potential profits to be made by this point. I guess Bob Harras found that out though....

The observation about Claremonts prose Books at the time is very astute and something i'd almost forgotten, somewhere I still have the shop poster advertising X-Men #2 with Magneto on the cover and a banner at the bottom promoting Claremonts book 'First Flight'(?).
Presumably that was him leaning on Marvel for a little advetising favor but reflecting on post-Siege era of the X-Men here on the blog it does feel the book became very much more prose orientated and decompressed, was Claremonts book writing being filtered into the X-men book at this point i wonder? You do wonder what effect this sideline project it was having on his plotting of the X-men...

Jason said...

I think the advertisement would have been for "Grounded," as that's the book that came out in 1991 -- almost contemporaneously with his final issue of X-Men, as I recall. "First Flight" was released back in '87.

Not sure how much the projects were filtering into X-Men. If anything, my guess is that the influence extended in the other direction. The cast of "FirstFlight" includes a few characters that seem very much like avatars for X-characters, most notably Jean Grey, Wolverine and Colossus.

And Claremont has actually ended a few X-projects, including his third novel and his "Aliens/Predator" comic, in ways very very similar to how he ended his X-run: The cast all in an aircraft, jetting towards their next adventure.

But Claremont's comic work has always been prose-heavy, I think. I don't see it as getting *more* wordy in conjunction with his prose novels, but ... I could be wrong.

I did find it striking that the *middle* book of Claremont's "High Frontier" trilogy is the most satisfying, and somehow the most "Claremont-esque." Given the writer's reliance on open-ended plotting in his comic-book work, it seems appropriate that the best book in the series was the middle one, which both fed off a previous installment and left threads to be resolved in a future one. (I think Geoff has commented that "X2" is the best X-Men film adaptation, for similar reasons.)

Anonymous said...

I'd agree that X2 is the best, but that's because X1 had to bear the burden of introducing all the characters, and X3 simply sucked.

Forge: as I've mentioned before, Forge is a mutant cyborg millionaire genius inventor Native American sorceror Vietnam vet with post-traumatic stress issues. It's hard to see him as a template for anything.

Jason, it would be interesting to read an overview of the run, including some discussion of why it was great, and also when and how it jumped the shark.

Doug M.

Peter Farago said...

Forge is by far the most ridiculous character in the Claremont canon, but Storm isn't far behind: she's an African-American raised in Cairo, worshipped in Kenya, born to an ancient line of sorceresses, who can manipulate the weather, is a master thief, and leads both a team of mutant superheroes and a band of sewer-dwelling outcasts while she sits in the inner circle of an elite masonic cabal.

Unsurprisingly, subsequent writers don't seem to have been able to puzzle out either character.

That said, even Forge's grab-bag backstory is more tolerable than characters like Cable, who are only interesting by virtue of their interchangeable "bad attitudes" and their relationships with with previously established characters.

Dave Mullen said...

Forge: as I've mentioned before, Forge is a mutant cyborg millionaire genius inventor Native American sorceror Vietnam vet with post-traumatic stress issues. It's hard to see him as a template for anything.

There's nothing all that complex about Forge, he was introduced in one of the very first x-men books i picked up around #181 and the background to him is atypical of comics treatments to native americans like Black Bison, Shaman, Black Crow or Red Wolf. Modernday men of science who conveniently have strong roots as powerful Shamans, a truth that they are in denial about... Forge appears to be a counter-image of Tony Stark though.

What defined Forge from day 1 is a moral ambiguity about him, he either didn't care that much about what the effects of his actions had or he just didn't think or care enough to follow through the consequences.
I think that's one of the reasons he never caught the imagination of readers, he's an amoral Tony Stark with no real charisma to latch on to.

The idea of making him so visually partially bionic is an interesting one and hard to fathom the 'why' given it was largely a purely visual thing with no practical application.
Cyborgs in comics are usually very demonstrative - as we see with Misty Knight, Pierce and his Reavers and even to an extent Psylocke with her bionic eyes.
Maybe the idea with Forge was to more graphically show the man of Science vs Magic schism, it's hard to say...

Teebore said...

@Peter: For me, at least, one of the reasons Storm's convoluted mishmash of elements isn't as egregious as Forge's is that Storm, at least, has been a major character for a long, long time. The serial nature of comics automatically adds a lot of baggage to long running characters no matter what.

Forge, on the other hand, was loaded down with character elements from his very first appearance.

While both are subject to laughable amounts of character elements, at least Storm has the excuse of being one of the main characters in a book for over 40 years.

Jason said...

"Forge is a mutant cyborg millionaire genius inventor Native American sorceror Vietnam vet with post-traumatic stress issues. "

And if Grant Morrison had created him, the above sentence would be used by bloggers everywhere as proof of how AWESOME he is.

Teebore said...

@Jason: Ha! It's funny cuz it's true... :)

Jason said...

PS Doug M, I would've thought it was a bit obvious, but I think X-Men jumped the shark in 1991, when Claremont left. :)

I think it'd be more interesting to know when YOU think it jumped the shark!

Aaron Forever said...

Doug M. said "as I've mentioned before, Forge is a mutant cyborg millionaire genius inventor Native American sorceror Vietnam vet with post-traumatic stress issues. It's hard to see him as a template for anything."

actually, now that you mention it, Forge's convoluted background is nothing compared to what Cable's became, so maybe he is a template after all. Son of Cyclops and a clone (of a clone?) of Jean Grey, infected with the transmode virus from the future, later raised by Scott and Jean in the future, with a (half?-)sister from an alternate future, cloned into his own arch-enemy, returns to the past with a big gun and a big space island to lead children in a war for mutantkind until he becomes a religious cult figure in South America, until he's bonded to Deadpool. and on. and on. and on.

Aaron Forever said...

the "and on. and on. and on." should have sufficed, but I can't believe that I forgot to mention his AoA counterpart upppity brat turned cosmic shaman(?) that also populated the 616 reality for a time. or that Cable has recently gone to the future to raise who might or might not be the reincarnation of the woman that his mother was cloned from. and he's currently dead. for the second time in about 3 years.

aye yi yi!

Teebore said...

@Aaron Forever:

And that, in a nutshell, is why I love Cable.

Only in comics can you get a character that convoluted! ;)