Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Uncanny 275

[Jason Powell continues his look at every issue of Claremont's initial X-Men run. Here is what he wrote to me in the email this came in: "Another long one. I'm getting long-winded as we reach the end ... there's still SO MUCH LEFT TO SAY!!!"]

“The Path Not Taken”

I’ve always enjoyed the introduction to this issue: “Stan Lee proudly presents … a pulse-pounding, rip-snortin’, rootin’-tootin’ sci-fi/high-adventure Double Feature!” Presumably at this point in his tenure, Claremont wasn’t having much fun writing X-Men, but he certainly knew how to fake it.

The two components of the story’s “double feature” are: 1.) Magneto/Rogue in the Savage Land -- which concludes here in a powerful finale that forms the centerpiece of the issue – and 2.) the X-Men in space, a more light-hearted adventure that brackets the Magneto material and ends the issue on a very old-school-style cliffhanger.

The Savage Land material is the more significant here, as it ends the story of Magneto’s attempt to redeem himself. I talked in the previous blog entry about Claremont’s achievement in crafting Magneto’s psychology, and I won’t go on at length yet again here. Suffice to say that while – in purely story terms – Magneto’s quest ends in failure, on a creative level it is phenomenally affecting. Claremont may not have wanted things to work out as they did here, but – as with the editorially mandated tragic ending to The Dark Phoenix Saga – the change makes for a much more intense conclusion.

The final story-beat occurs on Page 39 (which is one of Jim Lee’s most well-composed pages ever, and one I would love to own the original artwork for). Zaladane – the villain of the piece, described throughout as a reflection of Magneto himself, particularly the Silver Age villain version of the character – has been defeated, and is held at Magneto’s mercy. She’s surrounded on all sides by metal shrapnel, which will tear her to shreds if Magneto but gestures. Rogue pleads with Magneto to remember that he is trying to walk a hero’s path. With an intense calm, Magneto replies, “I am not Charles Xavier. I will never be Charles Xavier.” He closes his fist, and Zaladane dies horribly.

If this were simply Magneto turning his back on heroism and returning to his pre-Claremont villainous iteration, it would be a terrible – and terribly absurd – ending. But that is not what’s happening; the clue being that in the same gesture with which he renounces heroism, he also slaughters the character that was set up from the start as an avatar of his original terrorist incarnation. Magneto is now neither a superhero nor a supervillain. Having been both, he is now moving on to become something more complex than either; something that a Marvel comic-book cannot really contain. (When next he appears under Claremont’s pen, he will have ascended from Earth and explicitly given up on the melodrama of the Marvel Universe.)

This is, ultimately, a perfect ending for Claremont’s Magneto: Neither standing among the heroes whose naivety (i.e., sparing the lives of irredeemable villains) he does not share, nor to be ghettoized amongst the two-dimensional villains who comprise the rest of the X-Men’s “rogues gallery” (fitting then that he abandons a “Rogue” as well at the end of this arc). His psychology is simply too vast, his morality too ambiguous for a four-color world. Note how much of his dialogue in the present issue twists around moral questions like a snake, impossible to nail down. Before murdering the Russian soldier Semyanov, whose son he killed years earlier, Magneto offers condolences. “I am sorry for your son, Colonel,” he says. “Which is more than I ever heard … for the slaughter of those I loved.” “Your … daughter, you mean?” Semyanov replies. “And that absolves you of any crime?” Magneto’s equivocal reply: “I never said it did. For what we are, and what we have done, Comrade Colonel … we are both of us condemned.” Much like Miller’s Batman in “Dark Knight,” Claremont’s Magneto is simply “too big.” Beyond judgment by any but the power that he sees himself “condemned” by. This is the only possible endpoint that Magneto’s trajectory (begun a decade earlier) could have taken him, and it feels utterly right.

By contrast, the “X-Men in Shi’ar” material surrounding this glorious narrative centerpiece on either side seems like quite a lot of fluff. But these sequences play their part in the issue as well. If nothing else, they provide a bit of narrative cushion; we are given something colorful and pulpy and fun around which to wrap the much denser story within. There are also some fun parallels to be found with the Savage Land narrative, most blatantly Professor X’s switch at the end into a ranting super-villain, which adds a light irony to Magneto’s earlier idealization of Charles. It’s also amusing that the X-Men spend the entire issue essentially fighting on the wrong side of the Shi’ar war – a perfect example of the heroes’ comic-book naivety (which in turn is so aptly emblemized in their new primary-colored costumes). In the end, we realize, it is not that Magneto wasn’t fit to be a comic-book superhero; it is that comic-book superheroics are not worthy of Magneto.

Uncanny X-Men #275 is very much the grand finale of Claremont’s X-Men run, even though he would write three and a half more issues before leaving – and cap things off with a perfunctory three-parter in X-Men (Volume 2) #’s 1-3. The size and scope of the story – both in terms of page-count and incident – are appropriately sweeping, for one thing. Also, this is the last full issue to feature both of Claremont’s longtime collaborators in the less celebrated fields of lettering and coloring: Tom Orzechowski and Glynis Oliver, respectively. (Both Orz and Oliver would also letter #279, the issue that Claremont only wrote half of before walking away.) The pair were very much a huge part of what made Claremont’s run feel so artistically consistent. By the end of 1991, Orzechowski had lettered 146 issues of Claremont’s Uncanny, and Oliver had colored 137. (And this is not even including annuals, miniseries, spinoffs, etc.) It’s nice that they both are included on the credits of this, Claremont’s culminating climactic issue (the last of roughly a dozen “double-sized” X-Men issues that Claremont produced in as many years).

Most notably, Uncanny #275 also brings many long-standing Claremont threads to a close, and gives a sense that X-Men history is coming full circle. There are strong textual reflections here with Uncanny #200, which saw both Xavier joining the Starjammers and Magneto attempting to take his place, after appearing before the World Court. Both those arcs culminate tragically here: Magneto’s attempt to walk Xavier’s path has failed. (When Ka-Zar suggests that Magneto should allow Zaladane to live, and let her fate be decided by a court the way Magneto’s was, he replies, “And perpetuate one tragic error … with a greater one?”) Meanwhile, Charles himself seems to have been corrupted by his time in space.

The pseudo-Xavier’s reference to the X-Men having made “yet another metamorphosis” is not only a humorous nod to 1975 (when Claremont began his creative odyssey) but also a knowing joke on how mutable the book has become. It is not that the X-Men have gone through “another” metamorphosis – it’s that, since Charles departed 75 issues ago, the team has actually undergone several.

Other touchstones are contained herein as well: The use of the Imperial Guard takes us back to the original Cockrum run and the Dark Phoenix Saga (and Claremont acknowledges just how long ago that material was in an editorial footnote signposted by a comically gigantic asterisk.) The Savage Land mutates, and Magneto’s association with them, is a riff from the classic Neal Adams/Roy Thomas issues. And of course, the use of the blue-and-gold uniforms hearkens even further back, all the way to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. (Charles’s nostalgia upon seeing those outfits is rather charming, too, albeit marred in hindsight by the twist that this Xavier is an impostor …)

Of course, the first issue of the second volume of X-Men will also contain several, very similar, nods to history and continuity (de rigueur for Marvel at any rate, and for Claremont’s X-Men especially so), but in that latter case it is more often in service of creating a sense of a new beginning. Uncanny #275, by contrast, is an effulgent, triumphant climax.

12 comments:

Peter Farago said...

I love your analysis of Magneto's arc here. This is indeed the best possible coda, and a classic end to the hero's journey: Magneto nearly returns to where he began, but he's been so fundamentally changed that he can never really go back.

I want to point out three great Scott Williams moments in this issue:

Page 29, in which Magneto relives his traumatic past while Zaladane tortures him, Williams goes nuts with a series of ink splatters connecting Isabelle's neck to Magneto's screaming mouth, suggesting all at once and Isabelle's blood, Magneto's agony, and the sort of hallucinogenic inner space of the imagery. (Did we ever get to see the untold Magneto vs. Shadow King alluded to here?)

One page 38, Magneto's muscular, naked, delicately shadowed body will go on to become a sort of visual cliché for the Image style and 90s comics in general. It looks pretty great here, though.

And my favorite panel in this issue is on page 40, right after the scene you mentioned. Zaladane is dead, her arm lying in the foreground, and as Magneto draws his chain mail costume onto his body, it looks like he's dressing herself in Zaladane's blood - visually counterpointing a line from Magneto's monologue in 274, "I wear red, the color of blood, in tribute to their lost lives."

Back to last week's topic of Claremont vs. Jim Lee on plots: on page 34, Rogue gets her Carol Danvers powers back and goes zooming off triumphantly. It's a stand-up-and-cheer moment, but I get the feeling that Claremont intended Rogue to be depowered following the "death" of her Carol Danvers persona in 269. I can just imagine Jim Lee getting tired of that story and throwing that panel in here. At least with the Wolverine material here, there was no visual cue of his powers that could contradict Claremont's "sick Wolverine" plot, but here he had no choice but to roll with the punch.

Finally, I love this hilarious pastiche version of Xavier. Every time a writer needs some Xavier drama, they either give him his legs back, send him into space, or make him evil. Here he's all three!

Jason said...

Peter,

Those are all some amazing observations about the art. Great call.

I don't think we were ever shown the Shadow King/Magneto battle. One of the many great lost X-Men plot threads ...

J said...

I love how Claremont left Magneto here and in X-Men 1-3. It's a shame that no other writers could figure out what to do with him like this. Then Fatal Attractions happened...

Teebore said...

@Peter: Every time a writer needs some Xavier drama, they either give him his legs back, send him into space, or make him evil. Here he's all three!

Ha! Good catch.

@J: I love how Claremont left Magneto here and in X-Men 1-3. It's a shame that no other writers could figure out what to do with him like this.

Ditto. I've always loved Magneto's dialogue with the Russian colonel that Jason quoted, in which Magneto basically says they're both damned.

Jason, another fantastic analysis. Nice point about how the callbacks to past events here are climatic whereas in X-Men #1 they are more introductory.

Just as these issues grow more bittersweet in light of Claremont's imminent departure, so too does my reading of these reviews, as we're equally drawing nearer to the end.

deepfix said...

my least favorite Jim Lee addition from these issues: turning Lila Cheney from Joan Jett into an asian pop-singer.

There you have it. The real reason I quit reading The X-Men when Claremont left....

Shlomo said...

i think this issue highlights something I started thinking about with the last couple of reviews: We've been schooled by Jason (thanks!) in Claremont's great work to build up the nuances of magneto. In this issue magneto's complexities are contrasted sharply with the stale plot device that xavier is stuck with. the "imposter!" device negates any possible development of his personality.

Is it strange that claremont was able to succeed so well with magneto, but (from my vague recollection) was never able to succeed in building up xavier? Geoff, pulled out many interesting elements from millar and Morrison's stories, exploring how those authors dealt with the character. And, if the long-running question/theme of this blog has been whether Claremont did everything first... When it comes to Xavier did Claremont..NOT get there first?

Maybe Jason can remind us of which issues claremont brought xavier to the fore.

Jason said...

Interesting question, Shlomo.

I think the answer is probably that Claremont's significant Xavier characterizations mostly took place in his "New Mutants," which I did not cover here. The "Legion" trilogy in New Mutants 26-28, for example ... and actually the previous arc (the "Cloak and Dagger" stuff) has some good Xavier moments, issue 25 particularly, as I recall.

A lot of Claremont's work with Xavier was to humanize him and limit his power, I think. I don't think Claremont much liked the whole idea of Xavier-as-teacher. I may have commented before that the privileged, rich white dude as mentor never seemed to work much for Claremont (whether or not he thought about things in those terms), and the author preferred the X-Men's mentor (if they ever had one at all) to be Magneto -- a Jew, and Holocaust survivor -- or, obliquely, Gateway -- a seemingly disenfranchised black Australian.

Claremont seemed to want to bring Xavier down a few pegs, and make him more fallible and human. And with the exception of the above New Mutants issues, I don't know that Claremont ever really succeeded particularly well at it. Xavier's most human moments in Claremont's X-Men, off the top of my head:

X-Men 168 (Xavier wrestles with the fact that he cannot walk, despite having been healed by Shi'ar science -- also, Kitty tells the world that he is a jerk)

X-Men 180 (Xavier plays basketball, laughs at how bad he is at it; then realizes he thinks Storm is hot)

X-Men 192/193 (Xavier gets beaten by racist teenagers, then gets dressed in fetish gear by Callisto and the Morlocks)

In terms of what Geoff has talked about Millar doing with Xavier -- the powerhouse personality and moral ambiguity (that's possibly a horrible oversimplification) -- that is not territory that Claremont really touched too much, so I can certainly concede that the credit for that goes more to Millar (who was taking his cue from the Silver Age characterization, I'm guessing, but giving it a much cooler and more deliberately modern edge).

Sorry if these comments seem a little scattered. I am writing this post from an airplane!

Menshevik said...

Re. Xavier - well, Chris Claremont did add a lot to his biography, quite a bit in the pages of UXM and CXM, such as his engagement and scientific partnership with Moira MacTaggert, his romance with Gaby Haller (setting up the Legion saga) and early friendship with Magneto in Israel (both UXM #161), and his encounter with Amahl Farouk in Egypt (UXM #117), and his pre-X-Men work with Jean Grey (Bizarre Adventures and CXM). Plus of course he gave him Lilandra as a love interest in the present.

What Claremont also did was render the relationship between Xavier and his students more conflict-prone, having various X-Men criticize him and his decisions. One thing that really stuck in my mind was UXM #138, where Cyclops reflects on the past at Jean's grave and recalls how much it hurt him to discover that Professor X had made him (and everybody else apart from Jean) believe that he was dead.

So all in all I'd agree that Claremont did a lot to humanize him, and show that he was fallible. Writing him out (e.g. by sending him off to the Shi'ar galaxy) or depowering him also would have had pragmatic reasons as at full telepathic strength he was too powerful in relation to the team (that probably was why they had killed him off during the Silver Age).

Re. what Jason wrote about the mentor thing I'm a bit sceptic. Magneto really only played a mentor role with the New Mutants (and arguably with Rachel in UXM #199, but that was a special case because she remembered him that way from her past in the future). The relationship to the X-Men was quite different. Also CC never implemented Gateway as mentor, and I am not entirely convinced he intended to do that in the first place given Gateway's moral ambiguity and that he never said anything (except once as a gag to Jubilee). The way I see it, the person who played a mentor role most frequently to other X-Men (apart from Xavier) was Wolverine.

Menshevik said...

Whoops, the scene with Magneto and Rachel that I was thinking off was actually in #196. Sorry, my bad.

ba said...

God, I love the art in this comic, perhaps one of my all time favorites. Also, I appreciate that Lee drew Jubilee as normal-looking for a teenager, rather than pneumatic like every other x-chick (and comic in the 90s).

Anyone else like the little aside claremont threw in when he apparently realized that he needed to get the hologram machine from magneto to rogue? Just a little paranthesis saying "It's a good thing magneto gave me that hologram machine before!"

Dave Mullen said...

The power of Magneto's character in these final issues still resonates with me today, In light of Claremonts imminent departure I laways wondered if Magneto's disenchantment with the world and basically giving up the path he'd been trying to adhere to was an analogy Claremont was using for his own feeling at theat point.
Nontheless I think this characterisation and gradual narrative path he did with Magneto (and others to be fair) really did have a profound effect on the way writers presented their villains in other books; just at Marvel villains had become much more complex and refined in their motivations and methods throughout the 80s and echoed the more ambiguous nature of Magneto - The Red Skull, Kraven, The Mandarin, even The Absorbing Man was given added depth!

Still, in the final analysis this is a classic run of stories, but the signs that old hand Claremont is losing his control are starting to become evident....

NietzscheIsDead said...

Menshevik,

Good catch on Wolverine-as-mentor. Nonetheless, Wolvie does conform to the Claremontian style of mentor: he's a psychopath and a failed samurai, and various of his decisions (stabbing Rachel comes to mind) end in disaster rather than success. Even when successful, his style of mentorship is more conflict-laden and aggressive than Charlie's.