Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Uncanny X-Men 270

[Jason Powell takes us into the home stretch of his look at every issue Claremont's initial Uncanny X-Men run. I apologize for this coming out a day late but some LOST foolishness distracted the blog. It will not happen again (for obvious reasons).]

“First Strike”

With the previous two years having seen massive, line-wide crossovers, Marvel were perhaps a bit concerned about the fans becoming a bit fatigued. (Current Marvel doesn’t seem to worry about this.) Thus, 1990’s X-over is a quick, self-contained 9-issue affair. As someone noted during the “Inferno” discussions, the early Marvel X-events did a fairly admirable job of possessing a true sense of occasion. “Mutant Massacre” and “Fall of the Mutants” both featured large changes to the status quos of the series involved; “Inferno” succeeded in resolving several very long-running plot threads. And “X-Tinction Agenda” marks a large change as well, as it reunites the long-splintered X-Men and also introduces the new editorial standpoint, wherein the arbitrary divisions among the different mutant series are dissolved, and the X-universe becomes more of a melting pot, with characters freely moving from one series to the next. This attitude hasn’t really changed in the 20 years since – if anything, it’s become more extreme, with characters like Wolverine being gleefully dropped into every X-title on the shelves. (Much to the consternation of fans such as those who run the Marvel Chronology Project.)

The 1990 mutant crossover, titled “X-Tinction Agenda” comprises nine chapters published over three months, appearing in three issues each of Uncanny X-Men, New Mutants and X-Factor (the latter two series still being penned by Louise Simonson at this point). As the Uncanny author, Claremont writes chapters 1, 4 and 7 – the beginning of each month’s triad. With the “Days of Future Present” crossover in the summer X-annuals, Claremont was able to write the final chapter, expertly cleaning up the mess left by the earlier parts. Here, the inverse occurs: Claremont provides a slick, exciting beginning in collaboration with new regular art-team Jim Lee and Scott Williams, only for things to go haywire as the narrative ball is passed to Louise Simonson and a collection of less effective artists.

In 1988’s “Inferno” crossover, Claremont gave his chapters a faux-literary gloss by naming them “Part the First,” “Part the Second,” etc., alluding to Dante’s Inferno. He uses a similar trick in “X-Tinction Agenda,” with the opening page presenting the “Dramatis Personae” a la Shakespeare. Claremont even does his best to mimic Shakespeare’s style of listing his characters in order of social rank – note that the X-Men are placed at the top of the page, and the New Mutants along the bottom. (See also: X-Men Annual 9.) (“Dramatis personae” literally means “masks of the drama,” making it a particularly canny choice for a comic about superheroes – granting that very few of the X-Men and New Mutants actually wore masks at this point.)

Sandwiched between the “Dramatis Personae” panels is a news-report/exposition sequence, reminiscent of Frank Miller’s “Dark Knight” and Paul Verhoeven’s “Robocop.” With both a cast list and a Greek chorus, Claremont is framing the crossover structure as something more elegant than it really is – a classically constructed play, with three acts composed of three scenes each (hearkening back to the original “Dark Phoenix Saga”). The reality will prove to be something quite less impressive – like Shooter’s “Secret Wars,” more an impressive exercise in logistics (watch how well we keep track of 20-plus characters!) than narrative facility.

Still, Uncanny 270 is a very strong start. Taking the story’s triplet-structure to yet another level, Claremont develops “First Strike” as three distinct parts, which very much recall the early, “classic” John Byrne days: 1.) a Danger Room sequence, 2.) a bit of soap opera, 3.) the villains attack. There are a lot of structural parallels to the Dark Phoenix Saga’s opening chapter here, and so it’s no surprise that Jean reminisces about some classic Phoenix-related moments at one point.

Indeed, several aspects of this issue feel a bit like a “greatest hits” package, or at least like a kind of Claremont-sampler. Stevie Hunter turns up rather out of the blue, a decision so arbitrary that Bob Harras openly mocks it in an editorial caption. (In answer to the footnote’s question, her previous appearance had been New Mutants 48, four years earlier. Thanks, Marvel Chronology Project!) When the New Mutants complain about the X-Men hogging the Danger Room, this is Claremont picking up on a thread from all the way back in Uncanny 201: the friction created from two teams sharing a headquarters.

Later, as Jean and Ororo reminisce – in Harry’s Hideaway, another Claremont creation, from the Bill Sienkiewicz era of New Mutants – the author inserts a ret-con, revealing that Wolverine and Jean shared a kiss a few days before the events of X-Men #98. (Recall that in issue 100, Jean tells Wolverine, “I have tried to like you, Wolverine, obnoxious little upstart that you are … but for the life of me, I don’t know why I ever made the effort!”) Overall, we see here Claremont displaying an easy mastery of X-Men continuity and characterization, an expertise that – at the time – was unique to him. There was friction at this point behind the scenes, as Bob Harras was leaning more and more towards Jim Lee’s vision of the X-Men. The “greatest hits” aspects of Uncanny 270 reveal a Claremont who’s perhaps showing off a bit, and attempting to remind both his audience and his collaborators of just who it was that had been with this franchise from the start, and kept it at #1 for the better part of a decade.

Still, the truth is, Claremont was paired with (and in many ways working against) a true dynamo of an artist, whose natural talent and enthusiasm made him a match for Claremont’s experience and expertise. Lee’s work here with his partner Scott Williams – and guest-inker Art Thibert – is once again excellent. The familiar Claremontisms of this issue are powerfully invigorated by the sweep and movement of Lee’s layouts, and everything old seems new again. At the time, Claremont railed against the series going backwards: back to the Danger Room, back to the mansion, back to Professor X, but it is not hard to see why he was overruled, given how fresh and lively those old standby’s became under Jim Lee.

On the other hand, there are certainly places where the flash and dazzle fail to cover up the editorial weaknesses. The whole Genosha concept – so incredibly powerful when first introduced in Uncanny issues 235-238 – is defanged here. Granted, part of the initial premise of the Genoshan magistrates was their advanced tech, an implicit benefit of their mutant-slave-based industry. Still, that was an incidental component, while the true terror of the whole concept lay in the country’s indoctrinated racism. In “X-Tinction Agenda,” the Genoshans are refigured as just another generic bunch of comic-book villains. With Claremont still providing the text, Genosha’s original conception hasn’t been forgotten, but the true, heartbreaking awfulness of that premise is given mere lip service, and the reader is asked to be more impressed by the sci-fi technology. This is where Jim Lee’s flash and dazzle becomes less advantageous, burying the more interesting aspects of Genosha under four-color cliché.

And in the second chapter – New Mutants 95 – things get worse, as the entire country are revealed to now be mere henchmen for a ridiculous new supervillain (whose hideous design is debuted by Rob Liefeld … of course, who else?).


deepfix said...

please tell me you're not skipping over the annuals x-over? I've been waiting for that deconstruction the whole time!

Jason said...

Oh yeah, thanks, Deep. Geoff, the review of X-Men Annual 14 was meant to slot in in between 269 and 270.

Menshevik said...

Another thought-provoking review, although as usual I am a bit sceptical about some of your conclusions and theses. For instance, possibly due to the differences between your literature education and mine, chapter-headings like "Part the First" to me do not specifically indicate Dante's "Divine Comedy" or even whoever wrote the English translation, but rather 18th to 20th century writers putting on an (affected) "ancient-speak", as e.g. in Lewis Carroll's "Hunting of the Snark" (where the parts are called "Fit the First", "Fit the Second" etc.) or even a 1950s "Goon Show" ("Dishonoured Part the First" to "the Last"). Also, I don't recall if you mentioned it in your reviews of the Byrne era, but the triplet structure - 1) Danger Room, 2) some soap opera, 3) the villainous attack - goes back all the way to X-Men vol. 1 #1.

Re. the behinds-the-scenes struggle between Claremont, Lee and Harras, I wonder how much that was magnified in the participants' memories when they talked about it later, because at least in this issue Chris Claremont seems to be enjoying the "old-time show", bringing back Stevie Hunter, revisiting the early days of his run as well as his early New Mutants. But then I always had the impression that Chris Claremont was good at rolling with a punch or making lemonade from the lemons his higher-ups handed him...

I also see the difference that you describe between before and after X-Tinction Agenda a little different, inasmuch as the situation afterwards is not unlike what had existed at the time when there was only Uncanny X-Men and New Mutants, when characters from one book would continually appear in the other and also quite a few subplots threaded between the two books. Indeed, for me X-Tinction at the time actually appeared almost as a return to a more natural kind of storytelling where the largely arbitrary segregation of the different books and teams was no longer maintained by every plot contrivance known to man. Also I have to wonder if the change may not actually appear greater than it was because fairly shortly after the X-Tinction Agenda the X-Men were spread over two parallel titles - the separation from the new X-Factor, Excalibur and New Mutants/X-Force was still very strong.

Geoff Klock said...

Crap! Sorry I put that up out of order Jason. Is slotting it in next week with an apology good? it is totally up to you. Sorry everybody!

Teebore said...

a news-report/exposition sequence, reminiscent of Frank Miller’s “Dark Knight” and Paul Verhoeven’s “Robocop.”

If memory serves, Claremont opens each of his X-Tinction Agenda issues this way, doesn't he (I suppose we'll find out soon enough...)?

At the time, Claremont railed against the series going backwards: back to the Danger Room, back to the mansion, back to Professor X, but it is not hard to see why he was overruled, given how fresh and lively those old standby’s became under Jim Lee.

I think this is a great point, and it suggests that, perhaps, the move back to the old X-standards wasn't ENTIRELY marketing based. While a return to the status quo makes good business sense, one could also argue that the illusion of change is maintained despite returning to the old trappings simply because Lee depicts the old standards in such a new and different way.

Actually, I really enjoyed your discussion of Lee's role in the book in this post, pointing out both his strengths (making the old look fresh and new again) and weaknesses (playing up the less unique aspects of Genosha to the detriment of the story).

It's refreshing to read an honest critique of his work, beyond "his art is kewl!!" or "his art totally sucks!!".

Anonymous said...

From the last post's comments thread:

Jason: "Which one was 'Star Blazers'? Was that the one where they each had a badge, and when they touched the badge it activated their powers? That one was cool."

That would be The Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers:

No guts, no glory...

Jason said...

Mensh, as always I appreciate having my declarations challenged. (Okay, not "always" -- sometimes it pisses me off. But in this case, I do appreciate it.)

So thanks for putting some perspective on this issue beyond what I was looking at. Being so involved only in the Claremont material as I have been for years, it's easy to overlook the Silver Age precedents (even though I like the Silver Age X-Men a lot). And it's even easier to generalize about post-Claremont X-Men -- even though I did stick with the X-Universe for over a year after he left. You're right that there were still separations amongst titles, although the crossovers became so frequent that the boundaries -- to me at least -- felt much more porous. Starting in 1990, with the back to back "Days of Future Present" and "X-Tinction Agenda," were were getting two X-overs a year, every year. (Of course, since I bailed in 1992, I'm a bit hazy on whether that practice continued. Presently, of course, Marvel comics are in a constant state of crossover -- though it sounds like that is ending for a while, maybe.)

On the other hand, I'm going to stick to my ground on one point. Despite the fact the Divine Comedy is not the only work ever to utilize the "part the first" construction ... You're saying you don't think the chapter titles in a crossover titled "INFERNO" were specifically meant to invoke Dante? Seriously ... ? I'm going to go out on a limb and say I'm pretty sure they were.

Geoff, yeah, next week is cool for the X-Annual review. Thanks, man!

Tee, yeah, as was pointed out last week -- and I think I might mention it in one of my blogs, and if I didn't I should have -- Jim Lee was in many ways like a new iteration of John Byrne. Byrne kept Claremont on his toes, and his love of the Silver Age X-Men meant that he (along with Roger Stern, who sounds a bit like Bob Harras), curbed Claremont's wilder excesses and kept the series on-model. (If "model" is understood here to be classically Silver Age in construction.)

When Byrne/Stern left, Claremont was free to go nuts for nearly a decade. Which was awesome, yet Byrne/Claremont is still the most well-remembered era of X-Men. It's understandable why Lee/Harras wanted to go back to it.

I do think Lee is as good a superhero artist as John Byrne was, too. (Though I'm happy to hear from more technically art-savvy folks why that might be a wrong-headed opinion ...)

Jason said...

"That would be The Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers:"


Dave Mullen said...

When Byrne/Stern left, Claremont was free to go nuts for nearly a decade. Which was awesome, yet Byrne/Claremont is still the most well-remembered era of X-Men. It's understandable why Lee/Harras wanted to go back to it.

Yes, maybe. Marvel at this time were big into nostalgia and the 'Image' explosion began here in 1990 so it's the ultra-commercial aspect combining with nostalgia to remold the book into a more 'classic' feel.
I think the School is arguably the linchpin that they felt would bind together the X-universe at this point as you by now such a large choice of characters that breaking them into chunks (teams) was the only way to go. The side effect is that this is possibly where the X-men starts to ammass such a sheer weight of continuity and baggage it is no longer as polished and accessable today. In short the slick style Lee, Liefeld & Harrass stamped onto the franchise at this point was never going to be sustainable on a longterm basis as it put the visuals before content and creative patience.
Claremont spent something like 15 solid years slow burning and getting the book to this point but I wonder if it's accurate to say this is the era where these decisions forced the x-men to take all that carefully built up 'fuel' and burn it all up in one almighty ultra-commercial blast?

1990/91 made a lot of people at Marvel succesful beyond their wildest dreams, but the impact on the books longterm I question.....

Jason said...

"Claremont spent something like 15 solid years slow burning and getting the book to this point but I wonder if it's accurate to say this is the era where these decisions forced the x-men to take all that carefully built up 'fuel' and burn it all up in one almighty ultra-commercial blast? "

Damn, I love this.

Menshevik said...

Thanks. Re. the inter-title connections, your post got me to reflect on just how many and how many different kinds of connections there were between UXM and NM in the 1980s, so at a time it was almost as if you had a bi-weekly mutant title (just look at the way e.g. old UXM plots were continued and new ones set up with the Magneto/Lee Forrester subplot in New Mutants, which really had little to nothing to do with the New Mutants at the time, other than that Warlock's arrival on Earth had accidentally caused Asteroid M to crash).

Re. "Inferno": I suppose that in an English-speaking context the very word is enough to conjure up the name Dante, but are the parts called "Part the Nth" in any English translation? According to wikipedia, in the original the three main parts ("Inferno", "Purgatorio" and "Paradiso") are called "cantiche" (singular "cantica"), and the subdivisions of each are called "canti" (singular "canto", English plural "cantos"). And at least in the first English translation I found on the net (by H.F. Cary, 1805-1814, and H.W. Longfellow, 1867) these were simply called "Canto I", "Canto II" etc., not "Canto the First" etc.
Also, I don't really remember any specifically Dantean references and connections in the "Inferno" crossover - while you have them in spades in "Nightcrawler's Inferno". Since Claremont clearly knows a bit about the "Divine Comedy" (he had Dr. Strange quote a few lines in UXM Annual #4), I'd think he'd have used something more specific to specifically invoke Dante in the "Inferno" crossover.

Re. the Stern/Harras analogy: Ain't that the truth! When Roger Stern talks about how he disallowed various of Claremont's ideas, he often sounds a little too gleeful to me...

Menshevik said...

(That should be: "first TWO English translations").

Jason said...

Mensh ... hm. Fair enough on the Dante point. I guess I should've done more research on the point. I bow to your knowledge!

(By the way, though, "Nightcrawler's Inferno" in X-Men Annual 4 also labeled its individual chapters "Part the First," "Part the Second," etc.)

Say, do you have any links to Stern talking about nixing Claremont plots? Most of what I know about that comes from Byrne, and I'd like to hear Stern's take on it.

Menshevik said...

Well, I had to look the Dante thing up myself, so before yesterday my knowledge wasn't that superior ;-)

Re. Stern: I don't remember everything exactly, but e.g. he is quoted in BACK ISSUE #29 (August 2008, the "Mutants" Issue), an issue in which Chris Claremont for unknown reasons refused to participate. It probably would be worth your while to get it (it should still be available from TwoMorrows Publishing), as it also contains interviews with Ann Nocenti, Art Adams and John Romita, Jr. Stern talks about nixing the idea of Nightmare being Nightcrawler's father in "Nightcrawler's Two Dads and the Owl That Could Have Been". (He first prevented that from happening before he was X-Men editor, when he was writer on Dr. Strange).

Actually, I probably exaggerate re. Stern's attitude, but my impression is that he does have quite an ego (see him discuss Peter Parker/Mary Jane - they don't work as a married couple because he says so, he does not have to explain why!) and of course even after he left the X-Men he would try to counteract Claremont on occasion (he was involved in bringing Jean Grey back, for instance), most notably in the X-Men vs. Avengers mini-series. See his statements in BACK ISSUE #35 (August 2009) in the article on Magneto, which again was written without any input from Claremont, but where Stern is given a full page to rant against Claremont's reinvention of the character (not MLK and Malcolm X, for him Xavier and Magneto are like FDR and Hitler). Btw, what is given in the "rough outline" for Stern's unpublished plot for XMvA #4, is actually to a large extent what was published without him, (written by Jim Shooter and Tom DeFalco). So he tried to destroy Claremont's work on Magneto in that series and still seems proud of it. (He says he had to take on the assignment because if someone else had written it, the Avengers would have appeared like jerks. What a nice thing to say about your colleagues).

Jason said...

That is interesting. I post on an internet forum that Stern semi-regularly posts on, and he doesn't come off that way at all. Maybe his online persona is tamer. :)

Thanks for the recommendations on the magazines. I will have to look into some of that stuff.

Menshevik said...

Well, part of it may be that my opinions differ on a number of things that he feels quite passionately about (1960s version trumps all later versions, Peter and MJ should never marry, Magneto should be a Hitler-like bad guy), so I may be a trifle (over-)sensitive on these matters. Of course I've seen more of his comments re. Spider-Man than re. X-Men.