Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Uncanny X-Men #263

[Jason Powell continues to look at every issue of Claremont's X-Men run. In a note attached to this one he worried people are going to think he is phoning it in because it is so short, but I am here to tell everyone -- he just got the last Claremont post into me, and he is not phoning it in. He is reserving strength for the final push, which is now done, even though, like the light from a distant star, it will not reach you for weeks.

I also want to do a comment pull quote here. In the comments to last week's post Jason quoted a Doug M, who described Forge as "mutant cyborg millionaire genius inventor Native American sorceror Vietnam vet with post-traumatic stress issues." Powell retorted, "And if Grant Morrison had created him, the above sentence would be used by bloggers everywhere as proof of how AWESOME he is." Well played, Powell, well played.]

“The Lower Depths”

Fill-in art this month comes from Bill Jaaska, an artist whose figure-work is wildly distorted but still consistent and expressive, and whose skills as a storyteller are considerable. Very similar in several ways to Rick Leonardi, Jaaska was never going to get a regular assignment on X-Men, whose fans were used to a sense of weight and realism. Still, compared to Michael Collins, with whom he plays fill-in artist leapfrog over the course of the next few issues, Jaaska is quite dynamic indeed.

Jaaska’s energy helps to lift the latter half of the Morlock two-parter into something rather above the expectations set up by Part One. His interpretation of the tentacled Jean Grey is particularly strong, making a goofy story point into something genuinely disconcerting. The story acquires some additional narrative crackle from Claremont’s delightful use of Colossus – who uses his mutant power here without ever realizing it. This and other deftly applied details (like the Morlock “Bliss,” amusingly derived from John Joseph Miller’s “Ti Malice” character in the Wild Cards novels) make “The Lower Depths” a surprisingly fun adventure story – and signals that Claremont’s wheel-spinning is, again, only temporary. (See the similar floundering following immediately after John Byrne’s departure ten years earlier.)

Meanwhile, Uncanny 263 is given some genuine psychological heft through Forge’s first-person narration. The action in the Morlock tunnels is counterpointed with his flashbacks to Vietnam, effectively making this the “origin issue” for Forge. The parallel narrative tracks are laid simply but effectively, winding into a strong sense of redemption in the story’s final pages. A feeling of triumph suffuses the ending, similar to what Claremont accomplished with Dazzler in Uncanny 260. With Claremont’s run so close now to wrapping up, it is stories such as these -- with their effervescent moments of hard-won, well-deserved victory – that ring the most true.


Teebore said...

Still loving that retort about Forge and Morrison...

Jean Grey's tentacles, if not to be taken entirely seriously, do seem genuinely disconcerting in this issue, which is something of an accomplishment in and of itself.

No worries about phoning it in; short or long, your insights are always thought provoking and appreciated.

Jason said...

Thanks, Tee!

I'm glad you agree about the tentacles. I thought I might be alone on that one -- it really is a silly cliffhanger for the previous issue, yet I nonetheless like what Claremont and Jaaska did with it here, in the follow-up.

Thanks for the great intro, Geoff. I WAS kinda wondering what your reaction was to that Morrison comment. :)

Peter Farago said...

I think you're being extremely charitable to this run of issues. Forge and Banshee make for an odd couple, to be sure, but at least their team-up was set up properly in UXM 254-255. In these issues, Jean Grey pops over from X-Factor apropos of nothing. Remember, due to the Phoenix retcon, this version of Jean barely knows Banshee, and she's never met Forge at all. Why would she give either character a second's thought, rather than return to X-Factor? Why does Claremont put her in one of the retro Black & Yellow costumes? The whole thing seems pointless - it's not even a competent exercise in nostalgia.

And yet again, we see the weird Claremont trope of a former X-Men villain going after a new team of X-Men he has no connection with. Masque has never encountered any version of the X-Men with either of this story's characters on the team. And why create those weird facsimile X-Men with "Alien" tongues? Claremont doesn't tell us. The "Masque wants control of the Morlocks" plot has been brewing for almost a hundred issues by this point, and when it finally culminates it includes no previously named Morlocks, and none of the X-Men who ever encountered Masque.

Weirdly, Callisto - the character who we would expect to square off against Masque - is completely stripped of agency in this story, and treated as little more than a pawn. Again, this is totally nonsensical and out of character - would Callisto really settle down with Peter Nicholas and be content with her pretty new face? What about the Morlocks? What about the mission Moira gave her? And are we really supposed to believe that she doesn't tell Peter about his past life?

The entire thing is nonsense. It's really down there with the Dr. Doom/Arcade team-up in terms of sheer pointlessness. Claremont is clearly just marking time while he waits for a new permanent artist.

Jason said...

Let me start by saying, Peter, that I agree with much of what you say. But a few quibbles:

"And are we really supposed to believe that she doesn't tell Peter about his past life?"

From what I can tell, Callisto doesn't know it's Peter. The story implied that she was drawn to him because he looked like Colossus, not because she knew that he was.

"What about the mission Moira gave her? "


"this version of Jean barely knows Banshee"

Did Jean have Phoenix's memories absorbed, or no? I know she got Madelyne's. In any case, the timescale for those early Uncanny issues is meant to be pretty large -- virtually real time, which means that before Jean went in the shuttle, the new team had been together an entire year. And Jean knew the new team well enough to have opinions on them, even though the time with them was apparently off-panel. I'm thinking of her reaction to Banshee and Moira hooking up ...

I'm not really bothered by that aspect. Don't Banshee and Forge rescue Jean? Why would she not be cool with a couple of X-folks who saved her life? I'd argue you're being too critical of the premise, which is no less contrived than any given issue of "Marvel Team-Up." Superheroes who don't know each other team up all the time in the Marvel Universe. Why is it a problem here?

"The "Masque wants control of the Morlocks" plot has been brewing for almost a hundred issues by this point..."

This is a BIT of an exaggeration, I think. Yes, there have been Morlock issues that showed Masque to be much more sinister than any of the other core Morlock characters, and perhaps even an implication that Masque was dissatisfied with Callisto's leadership. But I'd ask you to name three issues of Uncanny X-Men in which we see an actual "plot brewing" involving Masque's desire to lead the Morlocks. No way has it been brewing for 100. This story is not the payoff to some gigantic epic. It's just a new Morlock story.

With all of the above said ... you're right, I've glossed over some plot problems here. Guilty! Most of what the points you make I cannot really argue with -- Callisto is very much at the center of it. The twist that she is actually horrified to have been made beautiful is interesting, but as you note, she becomes a cliche damsel in distress with no agency, and it is weird. Also, isn't there a bit where Masque temporarily turns her back to her normal self again, and her eyepatch just magically reappears?

Part of why I ignored it is because the execution uses a lot of misdirection, and I confess I'm a sucker for Claremont's sleigh-of-hand. In this case, some of the weirdest elements of this story were -- as I recall -- in previous issues, on sub-plot pages. Issues 259 and 260 had a bunch of weird stuff with Callisto being kidnapped by people in a limousine, right? Where did the Morlocks get a limousine?

Pretty screwy. I like the issue anyway, because Forge's arc is so compelling. I never fail to be moved by his narration on the final page.

Not to say I mind your drawing attention to the story flaws. I appreciate it actually, because I can indeed be blind to them at times.

(On the other hand, what "run of issues" am I being too charitable toward? I thought I was pretty negative about Uncanny 261 and 262. And 264 doesn't get much love either, believe me!)

Peter Farago said...

Claremont's X-Men isn't under the kind of format constraints that a done-in-one issue of MTU imposes, so it's harder to forgive him for going that route here. As I mentioned, the Forge/Banshee team-up was set up adequately in earlier issues, so it's in comparison to that that Jean Grey's appearance seems out of the blue.

But worse than failure to set up the narrative in advance is the fact that Jean doesn't actually do much of anything in this story. There's no reason she couldn't have been exchanged for any other member of X-Factor; the story would have worked the same. Remember, this is only Claremont's second time writing Jean since the Dark Phoenix Saga. The first was the suitably epic "Inferno". Choosing to use a character wrapped up in so much high melodrama sets up certain expectations, and Tentacle!Jean does not live up to them.

Really, the obvious character to use here would've been Angel. He had history with Callisto - she'd kidnapped him in the first Morlock appearance because he was the most beautiful man in the world, right? And he'd since been horribly mutilated by Apocalypse, while Masque had altered Callisto in reverse. And it would've been his first return to the Morlock tunnels since the Massacre. Masque could even have tempted him by offering his old face back. Banshee and Forge, both of whom had suffered great injuries of their own, could've provided a counterweight. Boom, thematic parallels, dramatic tension. It writes itself.

Instead, we get Jean brachiating through the sewers like Tarzan, which is, as you say, a nice visual - but that's all.

As for Forge's narration, let's just say I found it a lot less moving than you. It's nothing we haven't seen before, either in form (it strongly resembles the Wolverine-centric UXM 162, only with a less compelling narrator) or in content (we learn practically nothing about Forge that hasn't already been revealed in either his first appearance or in Fall of the Mutants). I respect the impulse to deepen Forge's character, but thematically, the flashbacks have nothing at all to do with the Morlock story. The whole thing just fails to cohere.

Jason said...

Okay, agree to disagree re: Forge. I may be alone in how much I like the character. I'm cool wit dat.

As for the Angel stuff, damn -- you're right. Makes perfect sense, and would be a really brilliant payoff to a lot of threads, while also bringing us full circle to the original Morlock story. Very nice.

Obviously Jean was chosen instead because Claremont likes his ladies ... and he did go for some thematic parallels, with Jean being "uglified" but with said mutilation actually becoming advantageous in certain ways, while Callisto gets pretty-fied and finds herself less effective. There's an attempt here to say something about the uselessness/meaningless of physical beauty. And to that end, it makes sense to use Jean because she is kind of the alpha female of the X-verse, the beautiful woman that every male mutant this side of Northstar seems to fall for.

But yeah, your Angel idea is much better. Damn, that's a good one. I wish I'd thought of it! Well, or that Claremont had, I guess. :)

Dave Mullen said...

I'm sure there was the implicit suggestion that Masque's powers had evolved past just morphing flesh. Wasn't it the case that when he let Callisto loose in the tunnels to Hunt her the watching Banshee/Forge noted that he (Masque) had altered the tunnels the same way he'd altered the people?

Anonymous said...

I like the Angel idea, but where that story would be an ending to older plot threads, you need to look at this arc as a beginning. The two teams(x-factor:x-men) had met face to face for the first time during Inferno, but this was the first step in the (Bob Harras mandated) reunification arc. And for that purpose I think Jean is the correct character choice.
All the other members of X-factor had left the X-men long ago, (not all on the best terms) and seemed content in their new roles. Jean, however, had just inherited Maddy and Phoenix's memories. Both with strong x-men ties. Angel on the other hand had left cause he was pissed about wolverine and certainly wouldn't be eager to lead a movement to rejoin the x-men. Jean was best friends with storm and had the obvious connection with logan. She was always the "heart and soul of the x-men" or as JP put it the "Alpha female"... This arc served to connect her to Forge and Banshee(I wonder if claremont would have had them become mainstays, if control of the book hadn't been taken away from him?) to set the groundwork for the united X-men.

Neil H

Jason - Been reading for a while now. Love the series, glad to see someone on the net still loves CC. Thanks for the great work.

Jason said...

Neil, thanks, glad to have you aboard.

That is an interesting take. In terms of plot, you're right that with Maddy's memories, Jean *would* have a connection to Forge, a pretty strong one in a way, as one of the nine "souls" used by Forge to cast his spell.

Your point that Jean is the only member of X-Factor who didn't definitively cut ties with the X-Men is good too. Circa X-Men 98, she was still palling around with the team regularly despite having quit.

Peter Farago said...

This is taking obsession with continuity to a truly absurd level of pedantry, but Jean expelled Madelyne's personality in X-Factor 50, during the "Judgement War" storyline. She retained their memories, but without an emotional attachment to them, Carol Danvers-style. So, no no-prize this time :-)

I'm not sure what to make of the whole Jean/Phoenix/Maddy memory fusion. A transparent attempt to make it easy for subsequent authors to gloss over the stacked-up plot twists and retcons of the 80s and treat Jean 2.0 as if she'd been around the whole time, but Simonson managed to get a little bit of mileage out of the idea in its own right before the era was completely forgotten about. Funny, then, how Jean Grey goes from having three personalities in 1989 X-Factor to having none at all in 1993 X-Men.