Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Uncanny 277

[Jason Powell works on his musical in NYC, and his posts about Claremont's X-Men go up here, every Tuesday. He may be in town for the final one at this rate. Jason, below, discusses reading this issue in the winter. Please keep in mind that the winter in Wisconsin is the best eight months of the year, as Newsradio taught us.]

“Free Charley”

For the conclusion to his final complete multi-issue arc on Uncanny X-Men, Chris Claremont pulls out all the stops. With artistic collaborators Jim Lee and Scott Williams at the top of their game, Claremont is able to go full-out here, delivering one applause-worthy moment after another.

The somewhat rote premise of this storyline was discussed in the previous blog entry: Heroes are being replaced by Skrulls. There is a twist to the typical Skrull concept here – these are “Warskrulls,” who not only can make themselves look like someone or something else: they actually “imprint” the powers and personalities of the people they impersonate. Two questions for those who know more about Marvel than me: 1.) Did Claremont make this up, or does the “Warskrull” concept have its origins in an earlier comic? And 2.) Is this the concept that formed the basis of the recent Bendis-helmed crossover, with heroes replaced by Skrulls? (I can’t even remember what that story was called.)

It is still a fairly perfunctory superhero plot, but it works perfectly well here as the hook for a straightforward action story. The appeal here is not in the concept but the execution, which Claremont, Lee and Williams handle masterfully. Some favorite moments:

Gambit’s rescue of Storm and Banshee (foreshadowed in the previous issue by a pair of hands playing solitaire on an upper console of the Starjammer)

Forge’s “Errol Flynn” moment, using a home-made grappling gun to make his way inside an enemy ship.

The Starjammer crashing to the rescue, and the door opening upon the five heroes as Gambit says nonchalantly, “Remember us?”

Gambit taking down Gladiator by using not just “a single [playing] card” as per usual, but instead using his mutant ability to charge up “the WHOLE DECK!” (Gambit gets a lot of the best moments here. Jim Lee was indulging in a bit of Mary Sue-ism around this time.)

The real Xavier at last emerging, tapping his doppelganger on the shoulder, then summarily taking him down in several panels worth of fisticuffs

(Am I forgetting anything? Anyone with as fond memories as I have of this issue, feel free to elucidate in the Comments section.)

Given that he is known primarily for introspection and characterization, a blockbuster-action issue is perhaps not the most appropriate note for Claremont to go out upon. Still, in terms of pure, visceral satisfaction, “Free Charley” is a momentous triumph. I recall reading this as a kid in April of 1991 (nineteen years ago!!!), winter ending, the weather warming up, school winding down … This issue was such a perfect complement: a fresh and exciting finale to an extremely enjoyable sci-fi adventure – with a well-defined and newly minted regular cast (after years of the “wandering the globe” premise) – it felt like the sun coming out. I remember being so optimistic about the future, thinking I was sure to be an X-Men fan for life.

Which kind of turned out to be true, if these blogs are any indication. I didn’t know that the Claremont/Lee dream-team was months from splitting apart, of course. Once that happened, it didn’t take me too terribly long to drop not just this series but the entire franchise.

In any case, that’s hindsight. For all that this issue signaled an end rather than a fresh new beginning, it still stands as an explosive blockbuster of a comic-book – genuinely thrilling, from cover to cover.


Jason said...

"Secret Invasion"! (I honest didn't remember at the time of writing.)

Jason said...

("honest" = "honestly")

scott91777 said...

"Given that he is known primarily for introspection and characterization..."

Funny you should mention that, as I was just rereading Morrison's run and those are the very things that I feel are lacking from the run. I've always felt Morrison was strong on concept, weak on character -- it's almost as if each character is one aspect or another of Morrison himself-- I mean all authors do this, but Morrison is particularly bad about it. While, I feel, Morrison did give the franchise a much needed 'shot in the arm' in terms of concept, the "characterization and introspection" which, for me, was always just as important, perhaps moreso, as the mutants-as-metaphor-for-whatever aspect. Morrison's run just doesn't FEEl like X-men to me, which is why I like Whedon's run so much better... but I'll just leave it at that since Jason doesn't cotton to either.

Ken Dynamo said...

i'm pretty sure gambit using THE WHOLE DECK (whoooooooaaa!!!) was the exact moment where he passed the point of no return as a character. no more potential mr sinister alter ego wackness for him, just straight up mysterious badass fanboy indulgences from then on.

and of course i was one of many thousands of nine yearolds shrieking in delight when i read it.

also vividly remember the panels of xavier, covered in wires and microchips or whatever, pounding the hell out of fake skrull xavier. good times all around.

Joe Gualtieri said...

I'd hesitate to say that SI owes nothing to this arc, but it's real roots, as with a lot of Bendis's Marvel work, lie with Byrne's body of work. Specifically, in this case, it traces back to Byrne having Galactus eat the Skrull homeworld.

Byrne also had what I think are the first Skrulls other than the Super Skrull duplicating super powers pop up, in #250, where a group of Skrulls impersonated the X-Men.

Arthur said...

I was 20 when this issue came out, so I probably should have known better, but I loved Gambit back then. As you said, he got a lot of the cool moments. Plus, he hadn't been assimilated into the Rogue/Remy entity yet, and, as Not Blog X notes, he didn't speak in caricature with all the "disses" and "dats".

I still enjoy X-Men Forever, but I'm waiting for the old Gambit to show up.


Jason said...

Scott, well, I don't cotton to Morrison or Whedon's X-Men, but clearly a lot of people do -- and a lot of them, from what I can tell, are people who really dug the material from Claremont's heyday. So I can accept that I'm an oddity on that point.

Joe, ah, thank you! From the "anxiety of influence" standpoint, it's VERY interesting that Skrulls imitating the X-Men are a Byrne concept. Jim Lee was, in some ways, the second coming of John Byrne, as he brought back that very epic superhero-coolness to the title, i.e., everything bright, shiny and primary colored, and filled with cool moments. (Compare Gambit's "the whole deck" moment to something like Scott destroying a bunch of killer cars by bouncing a single optic blasts of the walls back in X-Men 124.)

So having the X-Men defeat villains created by John Byrne -- especially villains *pretending to be X-Men* -- strikes me as a very symbolic moment for Jim Lee (who we know was co-plotting at this point ...).

Most interesting indeed!

Arthur, I think there must be a bunch of us old Claremont fans reading X-Men Forever and waiting for certain things to happen. :) (I myself am tapping my foot and waiting for the team to go back to the Australian Outback where they belong ...)

I think we'll all be waiting a while. No wonder the series is titled "Forever" ...

Arthur said...

Jason, I'm surprised you're still reading Forever. I thought you gave up on it after the first arc or so.

I enjoyed the first "season," but I'm enjoying the second much, much more. So far we've seen Orphanage Nate (next to a sinister looking exoskeleton) and Robyn Hanover! Has she even appeared since those Classic X-Men back-ups?

Have any of CC's XMF decisions made it into your reviews? You've reviewed the X-Factor storyline with Apocalypse, haven't you? The fact that Nathan Summers didn't get sent into the future indicates that Claremont wasn't fond of how that storyline ended.

I hope you're enjoying NYC. Have your hometown blues melted away yet?

dschonbe said...


I've noticed in the past couple of reviews that you've been talking about symmetries between this arc (Claremont's final with the appropriate caveats) and his initial arc (also with the appropriate caveats). I find this interesting though since Claremont did not think of this as his final arc. How much symmetry could Claremont be thinking about, since to him the end was not near? Did CC have some sense that the end was near? How spontaneous was his decision to leave? Assuming Claremont wasn't really planning on his departure from the book for more than a couple of days at most, there's no way he could think about what time of issue he would leave on.

Also, did Jim Lee have some sense that the end was near for CC? I can't imagine Lee having a sense that his own time at Marvel would be short.

Anyway, these are just some of the questions that come to mind reading your analysis. Thank again for this series.

-Dan S.

Jason said...


Yes, Robyn Hanover was quite a surprising addition, and it's one of the things that has me curious about where things are going. (I think you're right that she's never appeared anywhere else except those two Classic X-Men backups. It's great to see her; that's an example of the kind of thing "Forever" does right, and ought to do more of -- incorporate obscure Claremont characters that only he would ever think to use.)

I'm sticking with "Forever" mainly out of curiosity. I have a lot of problems with it on the philosophical level (i.e., the way Claremont is not really sticking to the "picks up where X-Men #3 left off" premise); but more troubling for me is that the stories are not really all that satisfying. So often they just seem to kind of stop, rather than conclude in any climactic manner. Claremont used to be great at rousing climaxes, and in this series the conclusions are often unsatisfying.

The new current status quo is kind of weird to me, too. The team -- the entire mansion, in fact --is now inside of a tesseract thingie that makes them out-of-sync with the world, like ghosts. But apparently when they leave that pocket (like Rogue did), they are back in sync with the normal world.

Yet they are based right on top of where the Sentinels are. So, how do they not get detected every time they leave the mansion? And every time they return? Kinda weird. They should've just gone back to Australia, dammit!

(Also, I think we see one of the X-Men possibly using the internet outside of the mansion? What kind of connection do they have, I wonder, that lets them connect despite being out of phase with the entire rest of the planet?)

I did already mention XMF when I reviewed some of the Uncanny issues with young Storm, noting that if XMF is any indication, Claremont apparently wanted to keep her young for much longer.

I think that's the only time. The X-Factor issues don't list Claremont as a plotter in the first place, so I think even without XMF we could've guessed that he didn't want to get rid of Scott's kid. It's not really Claremont's style to dispose of loose ends so perfunctorily. He always prefers to keep that stuff around in order to further complicate and enrich the narrative.

Hometown Blues? Hm, I guess they come and go. I think my blues will be much worse when I have to leave NYC and go back there. :)

Jason said...


Hmm, are we sure Claremont didn't think the end was nigh at this point? He was unhappy for a while. There's always the possibility of subconscious concerns informing a writer's ideas too. I'm pretty sure I've read Claremont talk about how he had thoughts around this time that things might get better, but eventually realized that he'd been kidding himself. So it seems possible that his subconscious was trying to tell him something through what we see in his scripts, particularly in issue 273.

I find it impossible that he wasn't wrestling with the question of whether to go or stay when scripting that issue, even if it was only on the subconscious level.

Meanwhile, some of the reflections here between the end and the beginning (with caveats, as you say) are, I'm sure, coincidental. I may indeed be putting more significance on them than there was for the creators. In some cases, it was just a matter of Harras and Lee being fans of early Claremont/Byrne, and thus bringing back a lot of those elements. Which neatly created some unintentional "bookends" for Claremont's run.

So, yeah, I think there's a little of all of that coming into play to make these final issues so reflexive/reflective: some consciously meaningful decisions, some unconsciously meaningful decisions, and some stuff that was just lucky coincidence.

Ken Dynamo said...

its pure speculation, but i'm guessing claremont, after years of losing creative control struggles, he probably saw the writing on the wall, especially if he noticed how much the new not-yet-image artists affected sales. it's pre-diamond monopoly distribution days so i couldnt find any good numbers on the internet but im guessing the w/ and w/o jim lee sales made such a difference that claremont couldn't help but realize that in that current market he was, maybe not irrelevant but at least marginalized.

given all that, i'm kind of curious to hear of any creative struggles in which claremont was able to prevail, especially during the bob harras days. i know byrne has griped about claremont changing the plot through ad-lib scripting, but im curious if there was a time when harass demanded a change for business purposes and claremont put his foot down, using his clout to prevail.

re: XMF, i'm not sure if this came up in previous comments, but i just read the first 3 trades and just want to ask, paul smith and terry austin's brief run on the book: most disappointing x-artist collaboration/reunion ever?

dschonbe said...

Caveat: Everything I'm about to argue is based on hearsay and is not rigorously backed up. If you can provide reasonable counter evidence, I'd be willing to completely back down.

I have a hard time buying the "Claremont knows the end is coming by the writing on the wall" argument. He had a lot of plans for stories with the X-men past his departure (see XMF plus lots of interviews post departure). He was still in the habit of dropping hints and making plans for longer term stories. Granted there was likely some subconscious recognition that things had changed, but the story on the page does not reflect that sort of thinking.

Heck, in Jason's reviews he points out how story elements were analogues for the restrictive editing he was living with. Subtle attacks through story fit my mental image (see the above caveat) of how Claremont would show his displeasure much more than thinking through concluding his X-men run.

How much had sales grown under Jim Lee? It's my understanding that the X-men had been a leader for Marvel for a long time. Were X-men sales rising under Lee significantly faster than what sales for comics as a whole were doing?

Anywau, I've rambled too long. Thanks.

-Dan S.

Jason said...

Good question about the sales, Dan. From what I know, sales started on a downturn as early as the Australian arc. (Whether this was reflective of an industry-wide downturn or X-Men specifically, not sure.) And Claremont himself has said that X-Men got really low sales around the time of issues 263-267, blaming the rotating artists. (It seems probable that fans were getting impatient with the "no team" status quo as well.)

When Lee took over, not only did sales take an upswing, but while Claremont was still there they swung up to higher than they'd ever been. (Again, this might've been the speculator market -- but even if it was, editorial was definitely giving a lot of credit to the new crop of artists. They seemed to see it synergistically: Put the hot new artists on new "#1 issues" and let the speculation feed the fanboyism, and vice versa.)

As for Claremont still dropping hints to new stories when Uncanny was on the 270s ... I don't know, there weren't *that* many, at that point. I can only think of a couple really. Force of habit? Or possibly he was seeding plots that Jim Lee or Bob Harras were telling him to? Little of both?

Consider the "Delgado" mystery of X-Men #1, or Wolverine noting that Fabian Cortez smells familiar. These were in Claremont's script, and we know for a fact he had already quit by the time he scripted that issue. So either he was just doing what is his natural habit as a writer, or he was seeding plots for Lee and Harras and whoever succeeded him. Either way, knowing he was on his way out didn't stop him from dropping hints of future plotlines.

Ken, yeah, that's a very interesting question. Would love to ask Claremont about it. Maybe someday ...

I wasn't too disappointed by Paul Smith on XMF. I knew his style had changed a bit. (He pencilled Uncanny 278 of course, which will be reviewed on the blog in two weeks -- next week is X-Factor 65-68 -- and his style was already quite a bit different from the brilliant work in 1982.) I actually liked his work on XMF a lot, and certainly much much more than Tom Grummett's stuff, which does absolutely nothing for me. XMF is a title where I'm always glad to learn that there's a fill-in artist, because I always like the fill-ins better.

Dave Mullen said...

Good points. But Jason has read a number of in-deph interviews with Claremont on the subject that I simply have not, I do know though that friction between He and the editor was very real and that the editor was having a much greater influence than Claremont had previously been used to - really you've only got to look to the fast changing tempo of the plots and marketing and the fact Marvel were about to push the X-Men right into the centre of it's publishing & Media portfolio.
That level of exploitation and aggressively controlled marketing would have seen most writers off who'd been there longterm and were used to a very different environment, Whether the editor himself was under pressure from above or whether he'd simply declared ar on Claremont is unknown but as wiith most editor in chiefs he racked up a fair share of enemies by the time he himslef was ironically forced out....

Anonymous said...

Omega Red was an interesting seed plot in Claremont's last issues -- even though CC was leaving and the thread would be picked up by Lee, it seemed like a Claremont concept in two respects: the involvement of Fenris (whom CC had started using again in his last two years, in Uncanny and Excalibur, and who never seemed to play much role after he left) and the way Omega Red was presented as a kind of living tool or weapon. This seemed to be Claremont's "mutants as commodities" ideas.

Regarding whether CC knew the end was nigh, I vaguely recall seeing reports sometimes in 1990 or 1991 that Claremont was planning to take a sabbatical from X-Men. It wasn't immediately before his actual departure -- my hazy memory tells me it was about a year before that. Does anyone else recall seeing such a rumor?

There were a couple of things mooted in 1990 that never happened -- some of the promotional materials for "X-Tinction Agenda" advertised it as being the first part of something called "The Mutant Wars," involving Sinister, Apocalypse, the Hellfire Club, and the Shadow King. But again, I can't remember where I saw all that mentioned -- maybe Marvel Age magazine?

Matt said...

Regarding hint dropping, I mentioned yesterday in a comment to the "Days of Future Present" post that Bob Harras was fond of inserting dialogue and captions with various "clues" that might or might not lead anywhere, just for fun.