Wednesday, June 02, 2010

X-Men Annual #14

[Jason Powell continues to look at every issue! ever! of Claremont's initial X-Men run! This one was supposed to be up last week, and last weeks was supposed to be up this week, but I screwed up the order, even though Jason Powell made it super clear. Sorry. ]

A-side: “You Must Remember This”
B-side: “The Fundamental Things”

In 1992, only a year or so after his departure from the X-books, Claremont was interviewed by The Comics Journal. Interviewer Kim Thompson notes at one point that, in order to prep, she had read the paperback collection of “Days of Future Present.” Claremont’s reply is sarcastic: “That was a good one.”

A story told over the course of four 1990 annuals, “Days of Future Present” is as bloated and horrible as a beached whale (thus, perhaps appropriate that it contains so many allusions to “Moby Dick”). When Kim Thompson notes that she couldn’t follow the storyline, Claremont agrees that it’s a clusterfuck, blaming the whole concept of the company crossover rather than the creative personnel involved. “That was done by three people who knew what we were doing,” he says, in reference to himself and the Simonsons.

It’s a charitable assessment. While Walt Simonson’s opening chapter in that year’s Fantastic Four annual is perfectly readable, the two middle episodes – both by Louise – are dreadfully written. Her New Mutants annual is a chaotic mess of characters and concepts without a single cohering element. The X-Factor annual is marginally more focused, but suffers from egregious characterization of the lead characters. The entire affair is so obnoxious, that Claremont’s conclusion in X-Men Annual #14 – while still suffering from the lingering logistical problems – feels like the window opening to let in a gentle spring breeze.

The opening pages contain some characteristically thoughtful narration, juxtaposed with a delightfully prosaic scene (illustrated by Art Adams, who drew all of Claremont’s best X-annuals) of Rachel Summers enjoying a burger and fries at a diner. The serene normalcy of the pictures, combined with the mellifluous poetry of the text, go a long way towards washing away the sheer, excruciating noise of the preceding chapters.

From there, Claremont does his level best to juggle a gigantic collection of characters (the entire casts of the previous three annuals, plus Gambit and Young Storm), and is more or less successful thanks to a sense of pacing and focus bred from years of experience. He also has the advantage of being the person who gets to answer the questions set up by the story’s premise (i.e., the Franklin Richards of the future appearing in the present). It’s refreshingly on the nose when Storm finally cuts through the chaos midway through to ask the question that should have been asked two chapters ago: How can Franklin have come from the “Days of Future Past” timeline when, in the original story, we saw him killed by a Sentinel? (It is emblematic of Louise Simonson’s work on the X-titles that this obvious question hadn’t come up already.)

Because of the crossover it concludes, the a-side of X-Men Annual #14 was never going to be a masterpiece. Nonetheless, it is a shrewdly constructed ending to a troubled story, redeeming much of the flaws and almost convincing us by the end that this was all a worthwhile saga. As always, Art Adams’ work is brilliant, and Claremont even makes Rachel Summers likable for a few pages.

As for the b-side, it is -- curiously -- set between the pages of the a-story, depicting a diversion in which Rachel and Franklin head to Madripoor for a chat with Wolverine. The first half comprises an abridged retelling of the X-Men’s origin (as related by Wolverine to Jubilee – it’s bemusing to think she’s been going along with Logan’s agenda for this long without really knowing anything about the X-Men).

It’s often been commented that there is something a bit dodgy in the X-Men’s Silver Age origin, with Charles Xavier endangering the lives of teenagers. Logan’s spin on the origin story here is almost amusing in its cynical response to such accusations: He chose kids “for the same reason the military does,” explains Wolverine. “They’re flexible … they adapt fast and well to new situations and regimes. They respond to authority. And they believe – give ‘em the right cause, the problem isn’t makin’ em go, it’s holdin’ ‘em back. Most of all, though, they have no real concept of mortality. Death, even as an abstract, doesn’t mean much – it’s something that happens to other folks, never to them, so they’re willing to throw themselves into a meat grinder without a second thought … where someone older might not only think, but question.” When Jubilee comments that Xavier sounds like a “nice piece o’ work,” Logan’s responds dryly with, “Simpler times.”

It’s not only funny, but it is a rather cogent and convincing spin on the origin story. It’s become fashionable in more recent years to look at some of the weirder aspects of the Silver Age and decide that entire miniseries are required to reconcile some of their more questionable aspects, usually mixing in a dark sensibility that was never part of the source material being re-evaluated (see: “Identity Crisis”). As with so many modern-day excesses, we can see in Claremont’s finest work a much simpler way to go – he answers the questions in a few panels, then moves on.

And thus ends Claremont’s final X-Men Annual. He would quit before the 1991 issue rolled around. It is serendipitous that his final story for it would actually be a reflection on the series’ beginnings. Though it is drastically low on incident – to the point where it can barely be called a “story” at all – its tone is eminently appropriate at this late stage of Claremont’s sage: Pensive and reflective, with a mature appreciation of the X-mythos’ rich history.

19 comments:

Dave Mullen said...

The back-up with wolverine's view of morality and responsibility is one of the best little forgotten tales from the x-mens entire history. Claremonts wolverine was fascinating, on a surface level just another action hero with dubious morality but scratch the surface and his ethics and code is surprisingly mature and sensible, Rachel confronting him about his unilateral and wholly unrepentant decision to 'execute' her back in #208 and his response to her is one of Wolverines top defining moments in my view. The character has never been quite as seemingly admirable and contradictory as he was under claremonts pen...

I remember this particular annual (and the previous Terminus one) with great fondness, partly due to Art Adams fun and complex style but also because it was a real treat to see Claremont take on an Annual or special project outside the main X-Men series. Sort of a busmans holiday almost.
It's strange looking back from todays perspective at Art Adams work, contemplate trying to tell someone reading comics today just how incredibly special his stuff was back then.... his stuff was extraordinary at the time, utterly awesome in fact. 'Was' being the keyword. It's strange how art has progressed to such a point in comics nothing is actually taking our breath away anymore like Adams, Lee or Byrne used to, sad in fact.

I can't pass much comment on the main story as you pretty much summed it up for me - I remember the FF annual solely for Jackson Guices amazing art, like Art Adams another artist with an extraordinary talent who just sort of faded away. I know he's stil working but his stuff is a far cry from the crisp work he did back in the early 90s on Iron Man, Doctor Strange etc and it's quite sad when the only reason you remember this story is solely by the artists working on it - I can't remember a thing about the X-Factor/New Mutants annuals for example.
The X-mmen Annual is definitly the best though thanks to Claremont and Adams, I really enjoyed it overall and it was nice to see the Rachel/Jean relationship looked at though it seemed Ray always had a raw deal thanks to Jeans perrenial rejection. I never mke any secret of my general dislike of the X-Factor team of this era but it was always kind of nice to see a writer like Claremont or Peter David take a try at subverting their typical treatment and see about actually making them likable...

Ironic that considering the story and Franklin Richards precise role in it this would be far from the last time the Days of Future Past idea would be returned to, next to the Pheonix this remains the single most mined story in X-mmen history.

Gary said...

I like the review, Jason. You've again hit on the head the problem with X-overs at this point - Louise Simonson just can't write on Chris Claremont's level. It was true in Inferno, it's true here, and as you've already pointed out, boy is it ever going to be true in The X-Tinction Agenda.

It never really occurred to me that Claremont was rationalizing the Silver Age X-Men's ages in the b-story, but I've never really cared for that story. You've given me a new, selective (specific to that one portion) appreciation of it.

Alan Davis drew Uncanny X-Men Annual 11, which is second only to Annual 10. None must deny Davis his rightful place in the annals of awesome Annuals.

Anonymous said...

This is the issue which brings up the question of Rachel's parentage -- specifically, whether or not Cyclops is actually her father, since he cannot locate her in his hound form. The b-side reference to UXM #207, wherein the psychic bond between Rachel and Logan seems unusually strong, points to the possibility that Logan is her real father, and that Claremont had at least toyed with the idea of re-writing Rachel's family history around the time of Jean's resurrection (and Scott's abandonment of Madelyne) in X-Factor.

Also, Ahab's "See someone you know?" to Cable implies that Ahab may be Cable's future (or at least alternate-timeline) self. I'm assuming this annual was written before the decision was made to turn Cable into the adult version/clone/whatever of Scott and Madelyne's son.

I like that the a-side ends on a minor cliffhanger -- does Jean pick up the holempathic crystal or not? (Just curious: does anyone know if there has been a Claremont-penned reunion between Jean and Rachel since this annual?)

Jason said...

Dave, Gary, Anon, great comments all.

Dave, is it the progression of comics or is it just us getting older, the reason why artists now are not "taking our breath away"? It is certainly true of me, but I see people online getting fairly breathless over people like Alex Maleev. And our wonderful host Geoff was pretty gaga over David Aja a few years back, as I recall.

Jackson Guice was an interesting one. He seems to have been pretty prolific too. Weren't there a couple months where he was the regular on both X-Factor and New Mutants. (He looked especially great on New Mutants, inked by Kyle Baker.)

Gary, so kind of you to say I gave you a new appreciation. That's like the heroin of blog comments -- why am I writing these if not to try to make people like some of these old Claremont comics more? So thank you for saying so.

(I'm not a big fan of X-Men Annual 11, though Davis' art is great. It's not my favorite Claremont script, though. I'm still of the opinion that the best annuals are 9, 10, 12 and 14, the four Art Adams ones.)

Anon, the word on the street is that Claremont's hint about Cyclops not being Rachel's real father was seeding the eventual reveal that Rachel's "father" was actually the Phoenix Force. Basically going for a Christ parallel, I guess, with an all-powerful godlike being impregnating a human female. Obviously this can't possibly have been Claremont's original intention for Rachel, since he was against the whole retconning of the Phoenix into a "force." But he clearly took it and ran with it once it was part of the canon.

That said, I prefer the fan theory that Logan was Rachel's father. As you note, it gives a new meaning to the stabbing scene, and to the psychic connection between Rachel and Logan in X-Men 207. X-Men 207 also revealed that Logan was the one person who never forgave Rachel for betraying her own kind in the "Days of Future Past" timeline. Another fascinating tidbit that takes on a new resonance if he is her father.

So yeah, I've always liked that better. But apparently it is just a fan theory, and Claremont never intended it. Go figure!

Patrick said...

FYI, Kim Thompson's a dude. I interviewed him as part of the Grant Morrison doc a while back.

Jason said...

You know, as soon as I saw this blog entry in cold, hard blogprint, I thought to myself, "I should've actually googled that name and made sure that the feminine pronoun is the correct one."

Palm to the forehead! Thanks for the correction, Patrick!

Dave Mullen said...

Dave, is it the progression of comics or is it just us getting older, the reason why artists now are not "taking our breath away"?

Yes & No. Reviewing this Annual as I say up above brought back a lot of great great memories of this era and Claremonts excellent special Projects such as the Annuals and the X-Men/Alpha Flight/Asgard stuff.
All of this material is amongst the finest Comics I've ever read and the late 80s was a bit of a Golden-Age for me personally as in the Mutant universe alone you were getting Nocenti & Adams' Longshot and experimental stuff like the Meltdown Prestige Format mini's. Artists like Guice and Adams predate The Lee/McFarlane/Liefeld led explosion in '91 and since then the level of artistic quality has never looked back, those three thanks to Marvels overegging and engineering of that Summers launches changed the expectations of comics art forever and more pointedly introduced the unfortunate 'superstar' mentality that has corrupted the buisiness ever since.... Back in the 80s I'm not sure popular gifted artists like Mike Golden, Jackson Guice, Alan Davis, Byrne, Perez or Art Adams were given any such 'megastar' preference and i'm pretty sure they didn't actually expect it either. The late 80s was an extremely good era for talented artists plying their trade but the summer of '91 saw a major company deliberatly put a handful of relative newcomers onto a pedestal and play Hollywood for a season, With... unfortunate... consequences(!)

I hadn't thought of Art Adams' stuff in a long long time before this review, I have all his 80s work in Trades up in the loft, it's still quality stuff but in todays marketplace not all that remarkable either. That's not demeriting it just observing the sheer commonplace nature or technically brilliant art out there in the years since. Comics in the modernday is largely all about marketing and selling a creator but back in the late 80s, as seen by this Annual, an artist still did whatever he was given to a large degree.....

Teebore said...

You know, this series of annuals is worse than awful: it's forgettable. I barely remember anything from it (aside from the Adams art).

I should go back and check out the X-Men one at least, for Wolverine's take on the Silver Age X-Men alone.

Anonymous said...

Re-reading this and "The X-Tinction Agenda," I'm starting to wonder whether the qualitative break between the Claremont era and what came after is really as strong as it seemed at the time. I'm afraid I can't find anything redeeming about the a-story in this annual, and precious little in the crossover in the main title. They're both garbled, soulless messes filled with expository dialogue and incomprehensible characters doing meaningless things. In other words, a lot like much of the '90s X-Men. Editorial interference may be to blame, but it makes me wonder whether if Claremont had hung around post-1991 we wouldn't have seen a dip in quality much like the one that actually took place. Something goes off the rails, for Claremont and the franchise, in late 1990.

(Having said that, I'm one of the few people who really likes the preceding Morlocks story and everything else up to these crossovers.)

Jason said...

"Having said that, I'm one of the few people who really likes the preceding Morlocks story and everything else up to these crossovers."

As am I.

You may have a point about the qualitative dip, although I think my perception is the inverse of yours. At the time, I was willing to go along with the franchise even after Claremont left, and it wasn't so terribly jarring of a transition because Lee and Portacio had already been in on the plotting during Claremont's final year, and Harras was still masterminding everything. But I nonetheless perceived a real slide in quality over the next year, and it was quite easy to drop everything in 1992.

Looking back, I find the quality dip MORE precipitous. It's very easy for me to look at Uncanny 281/X-Men 4 and see that it all fell apart right there.

As for whether things would've fell off as badly had Claremont hung around ... Dunno, so many factors. Would Harras have been replaced with another editor that Claremont liked, like Simonson or Nocenti? Would he still have been paired with really good artists (which he needs)?

I dunno. I think the 90s X-Men could've been much, much better with Claremont still involved. Of course, the oughts are another story, as X-Men Forever has pretty well proven that Claremont's all out of X-Men ideas.

I'm nonetheless glad that CC stopped when he did. He got to end on a very high note, both commercially and creatively. But I talk about this in the blogs for X-Men (Vol. 2) 1-3 so I'll shut up for now.

Dave Mullen said...

I dunno. I think the 90s X-Men could've been much, much better with Claremont still involved. Of course, the oughts are another story, as X-Men Forever has pretty well proven that Claremont's all out of X-Men ideas.

If he'd stayed on I do think the X-men in '92 would have been better to an extent sure but the fact is it had well and truly begun to run away from Claremont by then with TWO core X-Men books he couldn't have both written, X-Force, X-Factor and generally a lot of new creators and editors pulling in seperate directions. The next few years from when he left saw constant plotlines randomly started then immediatly shut down as editors jostled for position and greater control over the books content - this era was infamous for that sort of chronic non-stop interference and I don't think for a minute Claremont was ever going to tolerate that sort of attitude to things much longer than he did....

With X-Men Forever you have a strange beast, a mishmash of ideas. It is being crushed by the weight of the 90s lee/Claremont expectations and the fact Claremont naturally wants to go in fresh directions from that as this is a book he actually wants to be totally uninhibited by Marvel continuity - so the result is utterly disorientating for its target audience. I just don't know what i'm reading here to be honest.
It would work far better if they dropped the idea it's a continuation of the 90s run and is just an alternate take on the X-Men. But in terms of characteraisation and pacing it is indeed a far cry from the confidence of his original run i fully agree...

Jason said...

"TWO core X-Men books he couldn't have both written"

Well, he could've done *that*. He regularly had at least two monthly series during his career at Marvel. Hell, he's almost doing it now, with X-Men Forever coming out twice a month.

That's why I say, a lot of it would've depended on other factors, and you're right that the editorship was a big part of it.

And why I also say that I am glad he stopped when he did. He might have given us better stuff in '92 than what we actually got, but probably not anything better than what he gave us throughout the 80s.

Doug M. said...

The bit about teenagers was a fairly inspired retcon.

You just don't much care for Louise Simonson's writing, am I right?


Doug M.

Jason said...

Not for the most part, no. It's mainly the dialogue that bugs me. It is great for kids -- Power Pack were cute, and her style worked for New Mutants too, even though she made them sound younger than Claremont did.

In the mouths of adults, her dialogue just seems way off. I think it's in X-Tinction Agenda that a villain taunts one of the heroes by calling them "wimpy." "You'll never stop me with your wimpy mutant powers!"

Lacks a certain je ne sais quoi, doesn't it? Maybe it's just me.

(She did the same thing with Mr. Sinister, but that actually made sense because of the origin they were planning for him.)

Plus, turning Archangel into Flying Wolverine was kinda lame, I think.

dschonbe said...

Jason, I don't know if you've followed it at all, but you may be interested in the Uncanny X-cast podcast. In particular, they recently interviewed Louise Simonson (http://www.uncannyxcast.com/main/2010/3/1/episode-83-the-x-phone-with-louise-simonson.html).

During the interview, she states that when taking over New Mutants, she was told to make the New Mutants "younger." During the interview, she admits that in retrospect she feels she made them too young.

-Dan S.

Jason said...

DS, that is interesting. Louise Simonson seems like a sweet old gal.

That said, she made the members of X-Factor act like little kids too, so I still call shenanigans on her.

"Cut it out, Jean. I said, CUT IT OUT!" Blah.

dschonbe said...

Granted that LS definitely wrote all her characters too young. Was she writing New Mutants, Power Pack, and X-Factor all at this time? Maybe she just didn't have the kind of range necessary to write a full mix of characters.

Has she ever written nuanced adult characters?

-Dan S.

Matt said...

Also, Ahab's "See someone you know?" to Cable implies that Ahab may be Cable's future (or at least alternate-timeline) self.

I forget where I read this, but apparently Bob Harras just tossed that line in himself for the heck of it. He was big on constantly throwing out clues and red herrings that might or might not lead to something down the road. I think his successor X-editor, Mark Powers, was even worse about it. And of course, longtime X-writer Scott Lobdell named Onslaught before knowing who or what he/it was.

Strangely, I actually kind of like that philosophy...! It keeps the fans guessing, and creates lots of open avenues to be explored (or ignored) later on. But I've long been a Harras apologist, so it's not surprising that I'd feel this way.

NietzscheIsDead said...

Nathan Adler over at fanfix.wordpress.com actually has an entire post somewhere about how the idea that Ahab is an older Cable makes absolutely no sense even within this storyline. Nevertheless, he does suggest that Ahab is someone that Cable should recognize. I think his ultimate conclusion is that Ahab is Rogue's child, with the idea of a mutant's child growing up to resent the fact that they were born human later being recycled into the Graydon Creed character.