Tuesday, August 31, 2010

X-Men 1-3, part 3

[Jason Powell started writing these from Wisconsin, years ago. He came to New York City this summer because his science fiction musical, which I will review soon, was accepted to the New York City Fringe Festival. Today he leaves New York City, on the same day his blog about the final Claremont X-Men issue in the initial run goes up. There will be like 6 more posts from him in the next six weeks, epilogue type stuff, but we have reached the end of an era folks.]

“Mutant Genesis”

(Part Three of a Three-Part Blog)

I do wish to end on a positive note after the last two entries about this arc. So let it be said that -- troublesome politics and backstage dramas aside -- “Mutant Genesis” is a genuinely fun superhero story. Jim Lee and Scott Williams were at the top of their game in 1991, and their enthusiasm is evident in every panel of X-Men 1-3. The artists adorn both the plot and the visuals with a lot of slick, sci-fi trappings: Note the abundance of sci-fi technology in almost every setting, and how many of the characters wear brand-new costumes, tricked out with extra bucks and pouches (common in 90s superhero couture). Even Professor Xavier’s chair is now a piece of science-fiction machinery.

Claremont, while not nearly so enthusiastic about the comic at this point, clearly has no intention of being outpaced by his young collaborators. Displaying all the confidence of a master craftsman, the author produces text that matches the visuals at every turn. Lee and Williams clearly want the X-Men to seem as futuristic and “cool” as possible, so that’s what Claremont delivers. Even Xavier, the perennial “mentor” figure, has become something of a bad-ass (continuing the characterization that began with his pummeling of a Skrull in Uncanny 277).

By the same token, he also still has a huge emotional investment in these characters, having lived with them for a decade and a half. By all accounts, including his own, Claremont thought of them almost as real people. (His first prose novel, First Flight, is dedicated to “Charley, Scott, Jean, Ororo, Logan, Peter, Kurt, Sean, Kitty, Rogue, Betsy, Alex, Ali – and all the rest – who helped (and help) pay the rent!”). That affection shines through to the end as well. For all that they are infused with Lee’s sense of contemporary coolness, the X-Men are still portrayed with characteristic sensitivity and depth: Consider Rogue’s plea to Magneto, which displays continuity from the recent Savage Land arc that increased the two characters’ emotional closeness. At every turn, Claremont and Lee strike a beautiful balance between characters who seem remarkably sexy and hip yet still emotionally relatable. Of course, this is, to some degree or another, what Claremont had been doing for the entire 17 years.

Note also that despite the fact that he’s leaving, Claremont still employs his favorite trick of sprinkling smaller mysteries amongst the broader goings-on, to be explicated at some later date: The “Delgado” mystery in the first issue is absolutely Claremontian; while I have no evidence to back it up, I’d bet money it was Claremont’s idea and not Lee’s.
Darragh Greene, a favorite comics commentator of mine, writes about his experience of the first issue of X-Men, saying:

“My first American superhero comic was adjectiveless X-Men 1, so I just caught the tail-end of Claremont's long run writing those characters; but those three issues made an indelible impression on me. (Indeed, without them, I probably would not have gone so deep into either the genre or the medium.) They were a swansong, of course, but they were all the more powerful and passionate for that. Naturally, I was blown away by Jim Lee's art, but Claremont's assured command of language, the theatrical fluency and elegant rhythm of the words, elevated the collaboration to a dazzling work of art/literature whose epic grandeur and deep humanity fired my fourteen-year-old imagination.

I had to hunt down the back issues of Uncanny X-Men, of course, and when I did, I realized that there had been a slump in quality prior to Lee coming onboard. After he came on as regular penciller, and began taking a hand in the plotting, the book began to fizz again. I think Claremont certainly became better with the right collaborator, and I think Lee was such a collaborator even if I now know that Claremont was not happy with Lee's plotting and plot changes. Whatever the situation, there was a synergy that worked, and the book was better for it.

So, as a reader, I think Claremont's run ended on a high whatever his own thoughts were at the time. Certainly, ever afterwards, I judged the quality of the X-Books with reference to those first three startling issues of X- Men, but nothing came close.”

Though Greene is perhaps singularly eloquent in the expression of it, his experience is far from unique. Upon its release in 1991, X-Men #1 was the best-selling comic ever. Many people bought and read it, including scores of fans who had never read an X-Men comic-book before. And unlike two earlier massive Marvel best-sellers, McFarlane’s Spider-Man #1 and Liefeld’s X-Force #1, Claremont and Lee’s series actually delivered on the hype. The issue was so effervescent and absorbing that it turned brand-new readers into lifelong X-Men fans.

This is part of the brilliance of Claremont’s departure – to leave on such an extraordinarily high note. His seventeen years as writer of The X-Men is not only remarkable just for the sheer length of time itself, but for the fact that – from his first issue to his last – he was hooking vast amounts of readers. As he noted himself in an interview in 1992, the average X-Men fan when he quit hadn’t been born yet when he first started.

Having spent years now attempting to enumerate what makes each individual chapter of Claremont’s opus a unique jewel unto itself, I feel qualified to argue that just about any given issue – including his very last -- contains all the qualities that made the series a success: Fun, intelligence, eloquence, action, intrigue, an unabashed affection for the characters, and an unqualified respect for his readers.

The final monologue of X-Men #3 contains an unabashedly humanist message, a call for everyone in the world to do everything he or she can “to leave our world better than we found it.” The very fact that we live, Xavier says, “gives us the obligation to try.” Considering just how many people have been positively affected by the X-Men franchise – especially after the widespread dissemination of the mythos thanks to television and film adaptations – and considering just how much of that franchise is the invention of Claremont, it seems fair to say that the author has certainly followed his own advice. Claremont put his heart and soul into The X-Men, and infused the entire mythology – for all time, I would argue – with an irresistible power and pull. John Byrne once said that every writer and artist who worked on The X-Men after Neal Adams were just riding the wave that Adams created, but I disagree. Adams’ influence was strong, but eventually it dissipated in the wake of a much larger phenomenon. It is Christopher S. Claremont who built this mythology to last.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

X-Men 1-3, part 2

[Jason Powell in his second to last post on Claremont's X-Men run, though there will be some epilogues.]

“Mutant Genesis”
(Part Two of a Three-Part Blog)

Claremont writes the first three issues of the newly minted X-Men series in a subtle dialogue with the franchise’s other new launch, X-Force, whose first issue also broke the sales record, two months earlier. X-Force, drawn and plotted by Rob Liefeld and scripted by Fabian Nicieza, was the quintessence of lowest-common-denominator crap: A borderline incoherent mish-mash of violence, scowling faces, impossible musculature, giant guns and ripped-off layouts, all held together with nonsensical text by Fabian Nicieza (“Stab his eyes, he got away again!”). That the comic spun out of Claremont’s own brainchild, The New Mutants, clearly didn’t sit well. It’s not difficult to glean the subtext, then, when in on Page 8 of X-Men #1, we see Xavier holding a portrait of The New Mutants as he says, “I look at the world, and cannot help wondering … if my dream has any validity anymore.”

Magneto, meanwhile, is manipulated into playing the villain by an unsavory new lieutenant who is eventually revealed to have his own traitorous agenda. This new villain’s name: Fabian. (Thanks, Nathan Adler, for pointing this out.) Claremont’s little swipe may also be to do with Nicieza having been the one who finished off “The Muir Island Saga” when Claremont couldn’t bring himself to write the concluding chapters.

Magneto’s scheme this time around is telling as well: To brainwash the X-Men into villains. The first time we meet the transformed X-Men, in X-Men #2, Scott justifies thusly their reason for acting so out of character: “…Times have changed. We have to change to match it. Same as Cable and his X-Force.”

Clearly, for Claremont, X-Force was emblematic of the franchise’s future, and where it was going wrong. With hindsight, it’s easy to agree with him. (Actually it wasn’t too hard at the time either, for perceptive fans and pros, both.)

The problem wasn’t just the mindless action, but the re-establishment of the conservative politics that Neil Shyminsky identified in his paper, and which has been discussed here. While the Silver Age versions of the X-Men were assimilationists, vilifying the revolutionary faction represented by Magneto, Claremont eventually “mutated” them to the other extreme. By 1985, they were aligning themselves with the mutants they had previously vilified: the revolutionary Magneto and the disenfranchised Morlocks. Those mutants who allied themselves with the “establishment” (Freedom Force) were now the enemy. As Neil and I both talked about, the Genoshan arc in Uncanny 235-238 represents the point of fullest turnaround: The X-Men are true freedom fighters, whose goal is to topple a government that oppresses their race through a relentless system of apartheid. (Note that we are explicitly told in that story that Genosha is a U.S. ally, so there can be no confusion that the X-Men might actually be acting in alignment with the establishment.)

But as Neil points out, the politics of The X-Men did not stop revolving at that point. Instead, they just kept on swinging past 180 degrees, slowly but surely turning back to the zero point thanks to increasingly more constrictive editorial mandates. Once we get to “Mutant Genesis,” the “explicitly counter-revolutionary” iteration of the X-Men are back in full force. We’re in the Silver Age again, only it’s worse because the comic can no longer hide behind the curtain of naiveté. We’ve seen now what the series is capable of, which makes the pro-establishment politics seem not only cowardly, but almost sinister. When Magneto’s acolytes launch a strike against Genosha in X-Men #1, the X-Men rush to the country’s defense! Not surprisingly, the Acolytes accuse the X-Men of being race traitors, and Gambit’s explanation is that the Genoshan government has changed, and so have its policies. Really? From what I can garner from “X-Tinction Agenda” and this issue, the country is now being headed by Anderson, the Chief Magistrate – the woman who, in the original Genoshan arc, was the most zealous defender of the government’s anti-mutant policies.

Meanwhile, the X-Men here are attacking Magneto at the behest of Nick Fury, in tandem with the U.S. government. This is the same government that – unless I missed something – is still enforcing the Mutant Registration Act. It is also implicit that it is the U.S. that are acting as the watchdogs for Genosha, to prevent them from re-instituting their system of apartheid (the one we never actually explicitly saw dissolve in any case). So the X-Men are trusting the enforcers of the Mutant Registration Act to police Genosha?

As for Magneto himself, he emerges – as always, under Claremont’s pen – as the most sympathetic (and just plain coolest) character. He establishes Asteroid M as a sovereign nation for mutants, and says that all mutants are welcome – including, Magneto says quite explicitly, the X-Men themselves. The so-called “villain” is the most magnanimous and inclusive character in the story!

Interestingly, Claremont even has Magneto himself question what has turned the X-Men into counter-revolutionaries (though he doesn’t use that term). He notes that during their fight in issue #1, Logan actually tried to kill him. “I have fought by [Wolverine’s] side,” Magneto muses. “For the brief time I worked with the X-Men, he accepted me wholeheartedly. If not as a friend, then at least as a comrade-in-arms. Why then has he turned on me? What has changed?” Indeed, we never get an answer to Magneto’s question. Claremont knows there isn’t one that will satisfy.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Scott Pilgrim, C'est Moi! (plus a little more on Inception) [Movie Reviewery]

Spoilers for Inception maybe a bit

When I see a movie I like my brain spins around trying to figure out exactly what I thought of it, a process that can takes weeks of conversation and movie-review reading. Inception is a good example of this. Mitch and I wrote a whole blog about Inception, and talked about it with like a dozen people and I only just now feel like I can really articulate what I thought about it in a clear an specific way.

(For the record what I think of Inception this: the five levels of reality shown in Inception break down like so:

Level 1 is like the mind blowing first act of the Matrix.
Level 2 is a Steven Segal movie
Level 3 is this really excellent sci-fi thriller in a hotel starring Joseph Gordon Levitt in an awesome suit zero gravity fighting in a rotating hotel.
Level 4 is another Steven Segal movie
Level 5 is a weak version of Stephen Soderbergh's Solaris, where I see what is going on but don't feel it.

The awesomeness of the movie is not in the levels but in how the levels are edited together to make a compelling machine of a movie, which is more an engineering feat than a philosophical, emotional, or stylish feat, which sounds like more of a complaint than it is because the engineering is REALLY good. A-).

This part of my brain was always muddled reading the Scott Pilgrim comics, which I enjoyed, but was never really able to form a strong or clear opinion on. Neil Shyminsky or the Savage Critics would say things on their blogs about what is wrong or right with the comics, and I would sort of agree with both while still liking the book basically, even though they were maybe disagreeing with each other. It happens, maybe more often now than it used to. It's like Flowers for Algernon over here sometimes.

The Scott Pilgrim movie, like the comics, I liked. I liked it more than the comics probably, but I am not 100% why. Probably because it was much shorter, and as Neil pointed out this is not really a story that needs 1200 pages, however decompressed. When the movie calls itself "An Epic of Epic Epicness" this is ironic. It is harder to be ironic on that point, though not impossible, when you have 1200 pages. I liked the fight scenes and the sense of humor and the direction was always entertaining, and I loved how even though it was not always perfect, every line and scene was trying to do something interesting, and there was enough stuff so that when things did not work you were on to the next thing before you could say "That didn't work". Making a pun on "bi-curious" with "bi-furious" for example would be a weak joke if there were not so much other stuff going on, and calling Ramona a "has-bian" (as opposed to a lesbian) made me laugh, though maybe it should not have. Some people have called that ADD-addled, but it makes for a fun energetic movie. And for a summer pop movie action comedy thing energy and verve and bounce count for a lot, more than anything else maybe. I think my favorite joke was when Scott is on the phone with his sister and she says something Wallace Wells just said a moment ago as he was passing out, and Scott asks her how she knew that; she says Wallace texted her, and suddenly has a phone in his hand, though he is still passed out.

But ultimately I am not able to really judge it too specifically, or respond very well to claims that the movie is misogynist, for example, because I am too close to it, and specifically to Scott. He doesn't drink, and when he does drink he drinks gin and tonics, and he worries about his hair, and he wants to impress a girl who is clearly out of his league, and he is going nowhere, and he is weak-willed, and he only knows how to make garlic bread but is surprised and distressed to find out bread makes you fat, and screws up and he sees his life as a video-game, and everyone loves him and he gets the girl the end? Yeah that particular brand of wish-fulfilment is too close for me to judge. It just makes me want Scott Pilgrim to win so bad I don't really care about anything else.

With wish fulfillment you want a character who is a blank slate for the audience to project themselves into, which is why you get so many movies with bland leads, characters who are just cyphers for the audience. I mean I like the Jason Bourne movies but the hero works because he has no memory, is not that specific, so he could be you. On the other end you have movies that create specific characters that are still relatable or sympathetic but also real people who are not you. You relate to them as people, without feeling like you are them. Like everyone on the Wire. Otherness is involved. Scott Pilgrim is a third thing, something that is maybe part of what makes cult movies work. The main character in Scott Pilgrim is a blank cypher like Jason Bourne, but for a much more narrow audience. Jason Bourne hits a nerve with most men I would bet. Scott Pilgrim hits the same nerve for nerdy videogame-influenced ineffective dopes like myself. This may account for its modest success at the box office. It went up against the Expendables and Eat Pray Love, both movies that I imagine most men and most women, respectively, can easily project themselves into. I imagine that in the Expendables you get to imagine you are a big action hero. The pleasures of imaging you are a mostly ineffective kid from Toronto with no job are smaller, though more intimate, even after he defeats the bad guys and gets the girl. So I don't know what to say about it other than I thought it was a blast. I can't for example, get into the debate about whether Cera was a good choice or a disaster, because anything negative I would say would be like going after myself. I want him to get the girl and save the day and be funny, and I can't see the flaws that are probably there, just as I can't see so many flaws in my own life. Scott Pilgrim, c'est moi.

On a side note, I don't know that much about homosexuality as it appears in PG-13 mainstream movies generally, or in movies attempting to be big summer movies, but it seems to me that Scott Pilgrim is pretty progressive, in the way both Wallace Wells and Ramona have same-sex relationships and it is presented as just something that is just part of life, no big deal. Scott is surprised Ramona had a girlfriend but the joke is that he failed to catch the warning sign of her correcting his "evil ex boyfriends" with "evil exes." It is presented as something he should have seen coming, but was oblivious about. Even Scott sharing a bed with his gay roommate, and even his gay roommate's boyfriends, is just like something people do and barely worth remarking on. I thought the presentation of this as unremarkable was remarkable.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

X-Men 1-3, part 1

[Jason Powell has reached X-Men 1, 2, and 3 in his look at Claremont's X-Men run. Every time he says something about how many issues Claremont did, all I can think of his how many blogs Jason did.]

“Mutant Genesis”

(Part One of a Three-Part Blog)

Rather than talking about Claremont’s final three issues one at a time over the course of three blogs, I’ve decided it makes more sense to look at the three issues as a single arc, and simply break up the review into three parts.

1991’s X-Men #1 was, at the time, the best-selling comic-book ever. And I believe (someone jump in to correct me if I’m wrong) it still holds that record. Claremont describes this issue and the next two as his “severance package.” Considering how well those issues sold, and Marvel’s royalty system at the time, it must be said that that’s one incredible package.

Still, creatively, Claremont was far from satisfied with the work he turned in here. And indeed, the story is very much an epilogue. Magneto is the central character – appropriate, as Claremont’s version of Magneto qualifies as the writer’s finest single creation – but we saw the tragic, brilliant ending to this character’s journey in Uncanny X-Men 275. That was the true climax. Magneto even says, right in the opening sequence of “Rubicon,” that he has “no more cause.” But he is nonetheless persuaded by a new group of young acolytes to put on his costume and be the X-Men’s arch-enemy – one last time.
There are some clear parallels here. Claremont was done with the X-Men; yet Bob Harras and Jim Lee -- both avowed fans of the glory days of Claremont and John Byrne – coax Claremont into writing one more X-Men tale. So, having realized that there is no place for himself in the current state of the X-franchise, Claremont writes the story of how there is no place left in the world for Magneto.

It ends with the character’s death, which is an eminently appropriate way for Claremont to go out. As a one-dimensional Silver Age villain given extraordinary psychological depth and complexity by Claremont, Magneto is emblematic of the author’s achievement as the writer of X-Men. That Magnus departs when Claremont does is a truly poetic stroke.

Of course, the move was destined to be undone by subsequent X-writers, but such is the nature of the game. Claremont would eventually play the game from the other side, undoing Grant Morrison’s “death of Magneto” story with a carelessness that disheartened many Morrison fans.

In fact, in the present story, Claremont actually attempts to preclude too much future deconstruction of his definitive Magneto. In issue 2, the possibility is introduced that everything Magneto has done since his “resurrection” (read: since Claremont started writing him) was not his own choice; the heroic quest -- begun in Uncanny 150 only to fail tragically in Uncanny 275 – was all manipulated by Moira MacTaggert and Professor X. Note, though, that this possibility is introduced only so that Claremont can reject it. Moira’s long monologue in issue 3 reveals that, no, the attempts at manipulation were always doomed to fail: “The choices you made,” she tells Magneto, “were the ones [you] would have made, regardless.” It’s a fascinating attempt by Claremont to maintain the integrity of his noble Magneto, to gird that figure against any future reinterpretations. I’d argue that it was ultimately unnecessary. Comic-book writers will do whatever they want, and for anyone with eyes to see, Claremont’s Magneto will always stand as the quintessential version, the minutia of continuity be damned. (And speaking as a fan, I’ll always be grateful to Bryan Singer and Ian McKellen for making the noble Magneto the definitive version in the eyes of the mainstream audience as well.)

Along with Magnus’ death, the story comprising X-Men 1-3 contains several other noteworthy elements of finality. Although conceived by the creators as a new beginning – it would eventually be packaged under the umbrella title “Mutant Genesis” – the story’s deliberate allusions to other watershed moments in X-Men history make it a strong ending as well for Claremont’s run. (Years later, Claremont would confirm that he considers his run from (Uncanny) X-Men 94 to X-Men 3 to be “all one story.”)

The basic, straight-ahead “X-Men vs. Magneto” premise recalls the Silver Age X-Men 1, of course. In fact, the basic plot skeleton for “Mutant Genesis,” wherein the X-Men fly to Asteroid M to rescue their teammates, has a twin amongst one of the earliest Silver Age X-Men comics (issue 5, wherein Magneto captured the Angel). One team flying to rescue another is also the premise of Giant-Sized X-Men #1, which introduced the new team and was the last issue before Claremont became the writer.
The “Magneto Protocols” plot-thread, a ticking-clock that even the villain is aware of, recalls an element of Claremont’s very first issue, “The Doomsmith Scenario.” Part two of “Doomsmith” also ended with the death of a character – and, both in that story and in “Mutant Genesis,” Xavier taps into the thoughts of the man who dies.

Claremont’s run also, famously, began with thirteen X-Men. It ends with the exact same number. Eight of them are the exact same characters; and among the other five, a rather surprising number of correspondences can be found.
John Byrne espouses the philosophy that a writer can wreak all sorts of changes on a comic-book series during his time on it, so long as he “puts the toys back in the box” before moving on. While some elements of the “Mutant Genesis” re-boot are editorial mandates and/or the desires of plotter Jim Lee (e.g., the rebuilt mansion, Xavier back in a wheelchair), it must be said that Claremont did exactly what Byrne suggests. Despite a 17-year run containing massive, sweeping revisions of the status quo, the X-Men are, as of Claremont’s final issue, back where they started just before he arrived. For better or worse. (It turned out to be worse.)

Monday, August 16, 2010

"Everybody needs Money. That's why they call it Money."

David Mamet's Heist, an underrated movie, includes the line "Everybody needs money. That's why they call it money." I have a friend who hates that line, and mocks it by saying things to me like "Everyone needs chairs. That's why they call them chairs." I was defending it in an email, but then figured, why not put it on the blog, and link him to it, just to get on his nerves.

These are the opening lines of Heist.

Coffee Cart Man: Hey buddy. You forgot your change.
Joe Moore: [Takes the change] Makes the world go round.
Bobby Blane: What's that?
Joe Moore: Gold.
Bobby Blane: Some people say love.
Joe Moore: Well, they're right, too. It is love. Love of gold.

Gold, money, is established as the end-all be-all in the opening exchange, the thing that makes the whole world go round. Money is not FOR anything else -- everything, including love, and the world spinning around, is FOR MONEY. Money is the THING IN ITSELF. It is the ROOT, in Mamet's view. Radix malorum est cupidita. Money is the root of all evil. Psychoanalysis describes the object of desire as this ever deferred thing -- you want something, but when you get it you want something else. Mamet does not agree. Love and the world turning are for something else -- MONEY. But money is it, the end of the line.

The the key exchange is Heist is this:

Joe Moore: Anybody can get the goods. The hard part's getting away.
Bergman: Uh-huh.
Joe Moore: You plan a good enough getaway, you could steal Ebbets Field.
Bergman: Ebbets Field's gone.
Joe Moore: What did I tell you?

So this is not just about low level street crime, dudes swiping gold from each other. This is about capitalism, which in Mamet's view erodes all values. Mamet's American Buffalo was about the same thing. The street level gold theft is the same thing, according to Mamet, as major corporate deals.

So when the Bergman says "Everybody needs money. That's why they call it money," this a joke about the same idea set up in the opening. If you want to understand Love you have to look outside of love because love is really a love of money. In David Mamet's world you can't joke "Everybody needs love, that's why they call it love," because the objection would be "but people don't really need love, what they really need is money." But the desire for Money is not a desire for something else. It is its own justification, its own reason for being. So Mamet jokes that the word "Money" by definition means "Everybody need money." Because the desire for money is so obvious and pervasive, and such a dead end, he ironically claims that the word it self must justify the thing it refers to. In Mamet's world, it is unique in that nothing else could justify it. It would be like asking a religious person, "if god created the world, who created god?" At some point you find this self-creating origin, and for Mamet, in our world, that thing is cash.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Uncanny X-Men 279

[Jason Powell's final post about Uncanny X-Men. Sheesh. The guy is a Piotr Nikolievitch Rasputin among men.]

“Bad to the Bone”

This is Chris Claremont’s final issue of Uncanny X-Men. Per his Comics Journal interview in 1992, it became so “painful to write” that he stopped halfway through, and writer Fabian Nicieza was brought in to complete the issue (and the remaining two chapters of “The Muir Island Saga,” in X-Factor 69 and Uncanny X-Men 280).

Thus, none of the latter material – featuring Forge, Wolverine and Rogue and a few others on Muir Isle – is Claremont’s. Essentially his 186th and final issue is a single vignette featuring Professor Xavier vs. a possessed Colossus.

It is not the most sonorous note on which to end, although happily Claremont gets to go out on a more tangible high, with X-Men #’s 1-3. And other material from around this time – Uncanny 275 and 277, and X-Factor 65-68 – contains some prouder material. Perhaps it’s best to think of it all as a grand fireworks display, with those other, greater stories the ones that provoke all the “oooh”’s and “aaah”’s, while issues 278 and 279 are the inevitable duds.

Then again, that’s not entirely fair. Uncanny X-Men 279 actually does contribute a unique note to this chorus of endings: one that is dark, and rueful, arguably adding a bit of bluesiness to the brightly colored excitement of “Endgame” or “Mutant Genesis.” Claremont’s pages in Uncanny X-Men 279 are narrated by Xavier, and his running monologue – surely being informed by Claremont’s own feelings at this point – are profoundly depressive in both tone and content. Consider first his early description of Colossus:

“Piotr Nikolievitch Rasputin. I found him in the Siberian collective that had been his home for most of his young life, a farmboy with the soul of a poet. But also – most importantly in my eyes, in my arrogance – a mutant. And so, I made him a warrior.”

Xavier’s chastising himself for recruiting Peter in the first place is quite affecting – it takes us back to Giant Sized X-Men #1, which is, of course, the issue just before Claremont began writing. There is a genuine sense of regret being conveyed here. Xavier questions his actions from 17 years ago; just as, perhaps, Claremont is questioning a decision that he made 17 years ago? It doesn’t seem at all impossible that, with his tenure ending so ingloriously, the author might genuinely be questioning whether writing a comic book was the best way to spend the last 17 years of his life. (Note that this was all happening not long after Claremont had turned 40 years old – prime mid-life crisis time.) It’s a surprising moment from both Xavier and Claremont, not least because it seems so very much from the heart.

The other particularly significant moment in the sequence occurs towards the end, when Xavier uses his telepathy to snap Colossus out of the Shadow King’s mental control. Per the narration, the key to accomplishing this end is by stripping away the “Peter Nicholas” persona that Piotr gained via the Seige Perilous, thus forcing him back into his original, Colossus identity. Considered as metaphor, this is harsh stuff. Only a few pages after lamenting having made Piotr into “a warrior,” Xavier finds himself forced to commit the exact same sin. There is a sense here that Peter’s humanity is being sacrificed to Xavier’s agenda.
As noted earlier, a lot of the tension between Claremont’s aims and Bob Harras’ was to do with Claremont viewing these characters as people first, superheroes second. Harras – representing the view of Marvel shareholders as much as anything else – held the reverse priority. Uncanny X-Men 279 can be persuasively read as Claremont’s final surrender. The character of Colossus is the final battleground, which seems appropriate as he has long been portrayed as, first of all, the artist/creator in the cast (thus well aligned with Claremont), and also the “soul of the team” (and therefore emblematic of Claremont’s humanist outlook).

With Peter’s humanity sacrificed on the altar of editorial fiat, the war is truly over. This is why Claremont can’t write anymore. After one last scene -- a two-page interlude wherein the villain of the story proclaims that his evil influence will now spread beyond Earth and to “the stars!” – Claremont calls it a day on the series that defined him as much as he defined it for the better part of two decades.

As for “The Muir Island Saga,” it is guided over the rest of this issue and the next into a decent – if somewhat anti-climactic – conclusion. Nicieza manages to weave several of Claremont’s subplots into a logical ending that quite cleanly disposes of the Shadow King. The material is all perfectly readable, though from Nicieza’s first page the character voices seem off. It’s astounding how quickly it becomes clear that these really are Claremont’s characters, and anyone else attempting to continue their story will seem like a shadow (so to speak) in comparison.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Uncanny X-Men 278

[Jason Powell. X-Men, Chris Claremont, every issue, this blog, reviews, Unscramble, go.]

“The Battle of Muir Isle”

In looking for a truly satisfying ending for Claremont’s epic run, the most fitting candidates thematically are Uncanny 275 (with the conclusion of Magneto’s story), Uncanny 277 (the ending to the Shi’ar space opera), or X-Men 3 (the death of Magneto, and Claremont’s last issue of any mutant comic for seven years).

But in terms of the actual Uncanny X-Men series, the fact is that his last full issue is the present one, 278, and the last one to which he contributes anything at all is 279 (Claremont writes the first eleven pages out of 22). Neither one seems quite majestic enough, all things considered.

What we have here is the four-part culmination to the Shadow King subplot, which had been on a slow burn for a year and a half. Issue 278 is the opening chapter of the “Muir Island” saga, which then continues into Uncanny 279, then X-Factor 69, then finally Uncanny 280. (X-Factor 70 features a pleasantly reflective epilogue by Peter David.)

In the era before decompression became en vogue, four issues was a perfectly reasonable length for a superhero epic – yet after such a large build-up, the payoff as presented is undeniably scrappy. The concluding chapters, penned by Fabian Nicieza, contain some nice payoffs to some of Claremont’s dangling threads, but the entire affair is nonetheless a bit rough around the edges. After the satisfying conclusions to the recent Savage Land and Shi’ar arcs, one can’t help but wonder how things would have gone had Claremont and Lee stuck around to see it through. But Claremont was avowedly too frustrated at editorial’s restructuring, and Lee was presumably gearing up for the new X-Men #1.

Claremont’s planned conclusion to the Shadow King/Muir Isle story, if it was anything like his typical work, was going to be a rather complicated affair. The most striking thing about “The Battle of Muir Isle” is its utter straightforwardness (title included). Even his “X-Tinction Agenda” contributions, despite being the middle parts of a strictly contained nine-part structure, contained a reasonable share of Claremontian subtleties and complications, but no such complexity exists here.

The X-Men simply fly to Muir Isle to investigate Moira’s strange behavior, and are duly attacked by the island’s possessed mutant population (including, curiously, such characters as Siryn and Madrox, who were not seen at all during any of the Muir Island scenes in earlier Uncanny issues). Six members of the team are beaten, with only Forge left on the loose (so that he can whip up a deus ex machina or three in later chapters).

Xavier, meanwhile, returns to the X-mansion, where he’s attacked by a possessed Colossus. It’s all superhero-by-numbers, basically.

Art comes from Paul Smith, with whom Claremont collaborated on some of the best Uncanny issues in the entire run. While his work here lacks the dynamic imagination of his 80s X-material, his storytelling is still very much on point. There very little to complain about in “The Battle of Muir Isle” – it contains everything it needs to contain. Yet, after the excitement of the previous four issues, Uncanny 278 seems just a bit too placid. After so much build-up, the Muir Isle arc really ought to have quite a bit more spark.