Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Fantastic Four 17-18

[Jason Powell continues his Claremont epilogues. This is a good case for these issues. I want them now.]

Okay, this is kind of a weird one, I’ll admit.

Remember in 1996, when Marvel reunited with all those Image artists, and gave them control of “Heroes Reborn,” a quasi-reboot of their major characters? Liefeld got Captain America, Portacio got Iron Man, and Jim Lee got the Fantastic Four. Then when they collapsed the “Heroes Reborn” idea, they rebooted everything *again.* Scott Lobdell and Alan Davis were given control of the Fantastic Four this time, but after only three or four months, that team was replaced by Chris Claremont and Salavador Larocca.

Apparently the assignment just sort of dropped into Claremont’s lap; this was 1998, when – as I recall -- Claremont was working as an editor for Marvel rather than a freelance writer. He didn’t seem to have any FF ideas, and so for the first few months the title was in danger of becoming Excalibur redux. Perversely, Claremont started using material from the Alan Davis-penned issues of Excalibur, as well as the issues he wrote himself. There was even talk of Kitty Pryde joining the cast. The first full FF arc that Claremont wrote took them to Genosha of all places. It was a mess.

Eventually Claremont started to find his FF voice, and while he never came close to making any kind of masterwork, there were two issues wherein I think he just nailed it.

FF 17-18 seem to have been influenced by The Matrix. That’s assuming the dates work out … I’m not sure if the movie was in theaters yet at this point in 1999, but if not Claremont could easily have been influenced just by teaser information about the film’s premise. It’s possible that Dark City was influencing Claremont here as well.

So the FF end up in a shared virtual reality scenario. As in the Wachowski Bros. film, the populace of this world are actually all unconscious, each one secure inside one individual chamber of a massive hive. They are all plugged into a fake city, playing roles that they do not know are fake.

But here’s the twist: The city in question is basically a virtual Gotham, complete with its own versions of Batman and Robin, called – respectively – Lockdown and Rosetta Stone. (There are shades here as well of the old Bottle City of Kandor stories where Superman used to become a Batman-like figure to protect the Kandorian populace.) When the FF – during one of their characteristic treks across various dimensions – wind up getting plugged into this virtual scenario, the master computer that runs the show does the logical thing: Makes each member of the FF into a new villain for Lockdown’s rogues gallery. And while Sue, Johnny and Ben are brainwashed into playing these new roles, Reed manages to retain his own identity – but he still has to play along in order to figure out a way to escape.

Lockdown, meanwhile, becomes fascinated with Reed, realizing that this is the first “villain” he’s ever faced that qualifies as his intellectual equal. He’s found his perfect arch-enemy basically, and he doesn’t want to let him leave.

So it’s Batman vs. Mr. Fantastic inside The Matrix. That’s the kind of high concept that would have the modern-day comics community going insane if it was being done by, say, Matt Fraction or Jeff Parker [Ed. note: Fair point.]. Claremont, however, just doesn’t inspire that kind of excitement in modern fandom. (And I understand there are reasons for that, I am simply not persuaded by any of them.)
It just ain’t right. This story is kick-ass by any standards. Everyone should go grab these out of their local LCS’s dollar bin. Granted, it is part of a longer arc that features the FF wandering through different worlds, and because of that there are a few subplots that are brought in from earlier installments. And FF #18 kind of ends on a cliffhanger as the FF move on to the next weird world.

It doesn’t matter. These two issues can easily be enjoyed on their own terms, without buying any of the rest of the run. And Salvador Larocca’s art is really fun, too. Go get these comics, guys. They’re a hoot!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Two Mamet quotes on Teaching

From David Mamet's Redbelt:

Chet Frank: Ah, but you train people to fight.
Mike Terry: No, I train people to prevail.

From David Mamet's Spartan:

Scott: What they gotcha teachin' here, young sergeant?
Jackie Black: Edged weapons, sir. Knife fighting.
Scott: Don't you teach 'em knife fighting. Teach 'em to kill. That way, they meet some sonofabitch who studied knife fighting, they send his soul to hell.

I like the idea in both of these quotes that what it appears you are teaching, what you think you are teaching, what you think are are learning, is not the real thing. The real thing you should be teaching is something else, something more fundamental. I wonder if when I teach writing I am really teaching something more basic, like thinking.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Post 1991 Claremont part 2

[Jason Powell continues to epilogue away. Three more after this one.]

Continuing a look at Claremont’s post-1991, non-X-Men work …

This week, the “High Frontier” trilogy.

Claremont wrote three sci-fi novels all set in the same universe that was – at one point – marketed by publisher Ace under the umbrella title “High Frontier.” The individual titles are:

FirstFlight (1987)
Grounded (1991)
Sundowner (1994)

It’s cheating a bit to include FirstFlight in this “post-1991” series, but what the hell. Grounded I guess technically shouldn’t count either, as I think it was released before Claremont’s last X-Men issue was published. Ah well.

This series is probably the very best demonstration of Claremont’s ability to create a fully-fleshed out fictional universe, something he wasn’t able to ever fully show off when writing within the Marvel Universe.

The world of “High Frontier” is marvelously well-realized in Claremont’s prose, each novel building consistently on earlier material, making it clear that even from page one of FirstFlight, Claremont had put a lot of work into developing a coherent milieu.

The timeframe in which the books take place is never explicitly spelled out, though most of the clues suggest sometime circa 2050 (which, of course, felt a lot further away then than it does now). The backstory for “High Frontier” involves the unexpected invention, well ahead of its time, of a practical means of faster-than-light travel, which has in turn led to radical upheavals in the space program. Claremont’s lead character is a female (naturally) pilot named Nicole Shea, whom we encounter just as she’s about to be given her first off-world mission.

FirstFlight is a straightforward adventure story detailing the increasingly surprising events of that mission (well, surprising if you don’t read any of the spoilers on the back cover or front-page teaser). X-Men fans will enjoy Claremont’s dedication in FirstFlight – “to Charley, Scott, Jean, Ororo, Logan, Peter, Kurt …”. And there are some Easter eggs (or, less charitably, just plain old duplicates of X-Men characters) amongst the novel’s cast. The Wolverine analogue, Ben Ciari, is particularly noteworthy. And there’s another familiar name dropped right in the opening chapter, when we learn who Nicole’s favorite musician is.

The book is a brisk 250 pages, and the story jumps quickly from one set-piece to the next. The tangled complexities that one expects from a Claremont story are mostly missing here – sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. The prose is strong, albeit not nearly as solid as Claremont’s concurrent comic-book work was.

Grounded is something else. This one features a Claremont who seems very assured in the medium of prose, and he produces a much more characteristic piece here. His use of language is masterful, expertly exploiting the poetry inherent in both sci-fi and real-world technical jargon. The cast this time around is quite a bit more well-realized, and the storyline more layered and complex. Compared to the narrative straight-line of FirstFlight, the trajectory of Grounded is multi-vectored, even recursive at times. But the pay-off is there: an exciting, fully realized climax that incorporates every narrative thread, even those that seemed more like digressions at the time. A spectacular effort, this one is; the best of the three books.

(And as with any good speculative fiction, Grounded features some shrewd predictions about the world to come. Published in ’91, it gives us a universe of PortaComps – basically iPhones and Blackberries – and cars with built-in GPS trackers. There is even a direct reference to the Second Gulf War, which seemed like a perfunctory “Look, we’re in the future!” sort of detail when I read the book in 1991. Rereading it in 2010, I found it pretty darn striking.)

Sundowner ended up being the final volume of a trilogy, though I am not sure Claremont planned on stopping at three books initially. The story certainly leaves things open, but at the same time there is an “everything but the kitchen sink” quality to this novel that makes it feel suitably “grand finale”-ish. The major characters from FirstFlight that had been absent from the sequel return here, and the villain from Grounded is given a chance to be redeemed. The ending actually recalls that of Deadliest of the Species, basically leaving things open for the cast to engage in more adventures. Come to think of it, this is how his X-Men run ended as well: All three of these Claremont epics feature the cast in an aircraft, flying optimistically toward the future.

Overall, the ending of Sundowner feels a bit rushed to me, and I think Claremont kind of botches what should’ve been a really fantastic twist in the final chapter, because his writing is too opaque. Still, it is one eventful finale – kind of reminiscent of the final episode of Angel, with that same spirit of “the adventure isn’t over yet.” A worthy ending to the saga, albeit Grounded is more the quintessentially perfect Claremont sci-fi novel.

Overall, like “Deadliest,” this trilogy is a great sci-fi epic, loaded with great ideas and clever twists.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Antichrist is to Horror what Dark Knight Returns is to Superheroes

So you read Batman comics and you start to notice it is the story of a guy who hides his identity and tramples over people's civil rights and beats them up till they do what he wants them to do, all in the name of a higher order of morality that the police are incapable of serving because they are inept or corrupt or whatever. Superheroes are sort of like the KKK. You start to notice that there is something politically questionable about all superhero comics.

Then Frank Miller makes the Dark Knight Returns and there is something just crazy about how the characters in the story are suddenly engaging in debates about whether Batman is the spirit of American heroism or just a crazy fascist psychopath. Meanwhile Batman is still totally being BATMAN: kicking ass with Batarangs and Batmobiles, and yeah its TECHNICALLY illegal but it's BATMAN for christ's sake. It's a superhero comic book made from theories about superhero comic books, and it leaves things maybe a little ambiguous, before Miller went more clearly conservative. The whole genre is pumped up to ELEVEN, which means it can read as a satire, or just a really hardcore version of what you have been loving this whole time.

You watch enough horror movies and you start to notice that these patterns emerge: nature is evil, sex is evil and will get you killed, women are connected to nature, violence is sexually charged, the reason and logic and science of men is overturned by cthonic forces they think they can control or understand, but can't.

Then Lars von Trier's Antichrist comes out and you have these characters totally talking about the theory of horror movies. The characters are talking about the conflict between Men-Reason-Good and Women-Nature-Evil, like something out of Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae, or one of Slavoj Zizek's pieces about the symbolic order of language barely covering up the horror of THE REAL. Or Nietzsche talking about Apollo vs Dionysus. And you totally get the stuff of a horror movie: extreme violence, sexualized violence, helpless people being chased through the woods by someone who wants to torture and kill them. It's a horror movie made from theories about horror movies. And it leaves things maybe a little ambiguous because the whole thing is so over the top. The movie is called ANTICHRIST and at one point a dead fox speaks "CHAOS REIGNS." Because it is so over the top it can be read as satire of the misogyny of horror movies, or just a really hardcore version of what you have been loving this whole time.


Friday, September 17, 2010

Repetition and Irony in Frost and the Mountain Goats

Here is Robert Frost's Stopping by Woods on a Snowy evening.

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there's some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

The famous final pair of lines are justly famous because although the words are exactly the same, the final line means something more than the second to last one. The second to last line means something like "And I have a lot of things to do, and traveling to get in, before I get home and go to bed, and I don't have time to be looking at nature." The last one, terminating the poem, makes you remember that sleep is a famous metaphor for death ("to sleep, perchance to dream"), that darkness and winter and silence ("the rest is silence") also mean death, and so it means something like "death is very attractive right now, but I have a lot to do before I get the sweet release of death."

I was reminded of this listening to a Mountain Goats song today.

Here are the lyrics

on the morning when I woke up without you for the first time,
I felt free.
and I felt lonely.
and I felt scared.
and I began to talk to myself almost immediately,
not being used to being the only person there.

the first time I made coffee for just myself,
I made too much of it.
but I drank it all,
just 'cause you hate it when I let things go to waste.
and I wandered through the house, like a little boy lost at the mall.
and an astronaut could've seen the hunger in my eyes from space.

and I sang oh
what do I do?
what do I do?
what do I do?
what do I do without you?

on the morning when I woke up without you for the first time,
I was cold, so I put on a sweater.
and I turned up the heat.
and the walls began to close in
and I felt so sad and frightened,
I practically ran from the living room out into the street.

and the wind began to blow and all the trees began to bend.
and the world in its cold way started coming alive.
and I stood there like a businessman waiting for a train.
and I got ready for the future to arrive.

and I sang oh
what do I do?
what do I do?
what do I do?
what do I do without you?

He is like a little boy because he feels lonely and scared without a woman to take care of him. She obviously made the coffee. And so his metaphors are appropriately boyish: the astronaut, the non-specific "businessman." He is heartbroken and more than a little pathetic. The thing about drinking too much coffee threatens to distance us from him. But ultimately, once he gets out of the house he starts to feel better: the world comes alive again, and his world won't be like this forever: the future is coming. The second "What do I do without you," though the words are the same, and it is sung in almost the exact same way, is subtly more hopeful than the first. The first "What do I do without you" suggests "nothing" as an answer, where the second is almost imperceptibly answered by a tentative "well actually I have a lot of options."

Other examples?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Post-1991 Claremont Part 1

[Jason Powell continues to talk about Claremont. And we will listen to him forever because he is awesome.]

In the spirit of not-wanting-to-quit, and as a testament to the addictiveness of Claremont’s writing, I thought I’d follow up the end to the Claremont/X-Men blog series with a few epilogues, if you will. (Epi-blogs?)

First off, people at one point were asking if I was going to look at any of Claremont’s “return to X-Men” work that started in 1998 and has pretty much continued non-stop since then. As noted, this simply isn’t in me, because I don’t have any interest in that material.

But I do hate that it makes me sound as if I find none of Claremont’s post-1991 work edifying. Quite the opposite, actually. There is much of it that I enjoy – it’s just that none of it is “X”-related.

So I thought I’d do a multi-part run-down of what I consider the best of Claremont’s post-1991, non-X-Men work.

First up:


This was released by Dark Horse over the course of more than a year (a monthly schedule, with a few delays). I think it was over 1995-1996 … ? Art was supplied by Jackson Guice for the first issue or two, then quickly transitioned to Eduardo Barretta for the bulk of it. (Hope I got that name right … a lot of these comics are in storage …)

Clocking in at 300 very text-heavy pages, this is pretty much a full-on sci-fi novel. The use of the respective mythologies from the two movie franchises is canny and accurate without being overwhelming, so that the story can stand as a solid, self-contained epic in its own right. (Really no more than a rudimentary knowledge of the Aliens or Predator films is required.)
Set in a future wherein the aristocracy live in giant, luxury space-stations while the planet Earth itself is an alien-overrun slum, “Deadliest” takes as its departure point the concept of the “trophy wife,” which here is explored to a science-fictional extreme: women who are genetically engineered to be the ideal mates for the billionaires who requisition them – “perfect” not just physically but psychologically as well.

Interestingly, the storyline also involves Predator/Alien hybrids, which I seem to recall reading was the macguffin of the most recent crossover film. Claremont did it first AGAIN! Ten years ahead of Hollywood! (Although this strikes me as such a no-brainer of an idea for a crossover between the two franchises that I doubt Claremont was really the first to do something with it.)

For the Claremont fan, characteristic touches here include the strong feminist agenda: Beyond the critique of the whole trophy-wife phenomenon, there is also the title’s implicit pushing of the female gender as the more formidable one, and the fact that the three protagonists are, as Claremont put it when he plugged the series in an interview, “a female human, a female Predator, and a female Alien.” (The latter, of course, is a perfectly natural choice, as the original films already established the “Queens” as the dominant creatures.)

The storyline gets characteristically complex too, with a large cast and several nicely fleshed-out settings. Claremont’s talent for world-building is shown off to good effect here (a skill he never got to demonstrate much in X-Men, since he was operating in the already-established Marvel Universe). It’s not all just flash and dazzle, either. Every detail gets woven into the overarching mystery, all feeding into a strong payoff.

For X-Men fans, the series also features lettering by Tom Orzechowski, which is awesome. And there is something fun about seeing Claremont being able to write actual “Aliens” after having contented himself previously on doing his pastiches via The Brood. Each issue also features a beautiful cover by John Bolton (my favorite of all of Claremont’s artistic collaborators, on X-Men or anything else).

The series is still in print, courtesy of Dark Horse’s “Aliens vs. Predator Omnibus Volume 2,” which features all twelve issues of “Deadliest.” (Sadly, though, it omits the Bolton covers.) I have the original issues, but I’ve often been tempted to buy the Omnibus, just to have the whole epic in one handy little volume.

Then there’s …

The ending of “Deadliest of the Species” reads very much like an “origin” story for a new sci-fi/superhero comic-book. It’s even got the superhero name spoken melodramatically as the last line of dialogue in the story: “RENEGADE!” Apparently at one point there were plans for Claremont to do a comic with this title for Dark Horse – in fact, a year or two before “Deadliest” was published, Claremont did a sixteen-page Renegade story published in the first two issues of a Dark Horse anthology comic entitled DARK HORSE PRESENTS (which also, somewhat coincidentally, featured a Predator story drawn by Claremont’s occasional X-collaborator Rick Leonardi).

This li’l tale (titled simply “Renegade,” appropriately enough) appears to be set years after the events of “Deadliest of the Species,” despite being published first, so it stands as kind of an odd quasi-prologue/epilogue to the longer work. I think I’d suggest reading it AFTER “Deadliest” even though I personally read it first. (I picked up all this stuff as it came out, ‘cause I was all Claremont-crazy back then).

As a story in its own right, it’s quite brisk and exciting. At its core a basic construct of superhero versus supervillain (both of them female, unsurprisingly), it’s notable for the larger universe hinted at. Claremont seems to have an elaborate backstory/history/milieu all worked out, and even in the space of sixteen pages he paints a compelling portrait of it, through only a few deft strokes. A shame this one never got off the ground, as it had a lot of intriguing potential.

Can’t remember who supplies the artwork to “Renegade,” but I quite like it. It’s rather sleek and sexy (but not at all doing the pandering Image art style so en vogue at the time), particularly the design of the antagonist. And once again, lettering is by Tom Orzechowski (yeah!).

Taken all in all, the above two works comprise a fabulous sci-fi graphic novel, well worth the time of any fan of the genre.

JLA: Scary Monsters 1-6 (these have kick-ass covers too, this time by Art Adams)

Fantastic Four 17-18 (most of Claremont's Fantastic Four run from 1998-2000 is too mired in confusing subplots, but right in the middle he does this fantastic "Matrix meets Batman" two-parter that is just amazingly entertaining)

WildCATS 10-13 (good solid action, feels like a direct continuation of the slam-bang Claremont/Lee stuff at the tail end of Claremont's Uncanny run)

The "High Frontier" trilogy of novels (FirstFlight, Grounded, Sundowner). (The last one gets just a *tad* confusing at times, but overall this is great, pulpy sci-fi material.)

The Black Dragon and Marada the She-Wolf (Claremont's fantasy collaborations with John Bolton. Fantasy is not my favorite genre, but the combo of Claremont and Bolton is awesomeness that can't be denied)

Star Trek: Debt of Honor (Set after Star Trek IV, a really brilliant synthesis of Star Trek mythology up to that point and great space opera in its own right as well. Art is by the awesome Adam Hughes, who really goes all out. Claremont even gives us the best-ever explanation for why Klingons look different now than they did in the 1960s. A beautiful graphic novel, all across the board -- exciting, clever, touching. Who'd have thought a comic book would turn out to be the best Star Trek movie ever made?)

Gen13 issues 0-7 (I think ... whatever is collected in the September Song trade. I honestly think this had the potential to become a really fantastic team book. The characters were fun, the Manga-inspired art was bright and attractive, the writing was snappy and engaging. The September's Song arc is loads of fun. But I get the impression that when sales dipped on this series, Claremont changed his focus mid-stream, so that a story about a whole new team instead became a confusing arc about revivifying the original Gen13, who I don't think were all that great. That's why issues 8-16 don't make the list. Very frustrating to read these comics now, because it all seemed to be heading somewhere really interesting.)

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

A review of Jason Powell's "Invader? I Hardly Know Her!"

I first met Jason Powell in the comments to this blog, and of course you all know he became the site's major Guest Blogger -- in fact you can hardly call him a guest anymore, as the place is now more his than mine. Well now I have met him in person. He came to New York from Milwaukee because his science fiction musical -- Invader? I Hardly Know Her -- was accepted to the New York City Fringe Festival. A few years ago Mich Montgomery, who I also met in the comments of this blog, and who also became a guest blogger, had a play accepted to the Fringe Festival: Triumph of the Underdog. Since he lives in New York, he was able to give Jason some advice, and he and I went to see the final performance of Jason's musical -- a musical Jason wrote both the words and music for, and also has the lead role in, where, yes, he sings, and sings well.

I hate musicals. I went to a performing arts high school for choir, and listened to way too many musicals as a kid, so I am kind of allergic to them now. Phantom and Les Mis and Cats and all that. Just like when I saw Mitch's Triumph of the Underdog at the Fringe festival I went in doing something obligatory for a guy I knew, was not at all sure what I thought about it for the first 15 minutes or so, then got into the grove of it, then had a great time.

Just as in Mitch's Triumph of the Underdog the plot of Invader is absolutely not the point. In both, the world is threatened by extinction by a meteor and an extra-dimensional menace respectively, but in both what the doom of the world really heralds is a chance to geek out. It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine. You know that moment on the Simpsons, in one of the Halloween episodes, where the meteor is heading at comic book guy and the last thing he says is "I have wasted my life"? Both Mitch's Triumph and Jason's Invader reject that idea. I think both these guys, staring down the barrel of extinction, would ultimately feel like they had had great lives. Because as we all know, all this geeky bullshit matters, deep down. Because happiness matters.

Mitch's protagonist is delivering a lecture about pop culture and mythology, as the world is about to die -- that is his geek out. Powell's play is about a guy who finds out on his wedding day that his bride is an alien and they have to go to space to stop a 5th dimensional force from destroying the world. Powell's geek out is about sexy women and vocabulary. You are not at all surprised that this is a guy who could write 280 blogs about Claremont's X-Men, because wow does he love sexy powerful women and vocabulary. Not even as separate things. Powell's sexy powerful women use great vocabulary just about all the time. The bride has sexy super-agent bridesmaids, one of whom gets into a lesbian affair with a former female lover of the bride, and they all talk like this, while dressed as a sexy cowgirl, a sexy school girl, a sexy Pocahontas type, and a sexy French maid, all dancing:

It’s true that we’re all ravishing creatures,
The kind that cause bold men to give chase.
We’re fortunate to have flawless features;
We’re blessed to have such feminine grace.
I’m glad that in this shallow society,
I occupy so privileged a place.
But let me tell you, in all sobriety,
I’m not just another pretty face.
She’s not just another pretty face.
Now I know I’m extremely curvaceous.
‘Stremely curvaceous
I’m hot in leather; lovely in lace.
Lace lace lace lace lace lace
My schoolgirl garb might seem ostentatious,
Seem ostentatious
Designed to cause your heartbeat to race.
Race race race race race race
And granted, on my whole physicality,
Whole physicality
Of imperfection there’s not a trace.
Trace trace trace trace trace trace
But let me tell you, in actuality,
In actuality
I’m not just another pretty face.
She’s not just another pretty face.
Oh, behind
This fetching physiognomy
Is a mind
Immersed in physics and astronomy.
And though I’m built like an ecdysiast,
My brain’s one of the busiest, Aaaaaah
Always cogitating, contemplating, calculating
Even while my figure’s got the fellas salivating.
And not only am I among the planet’s very smartest,
I’m a classical musician and a black-belt martial artist.
I can outshoot any marksman; I can out-fly any ace.
Yes, I’m more than a pretty face!

When David Mamet's mixed martial arts movie Redbelt came out I said I was going to love it because all I really want from movies is fancy poetic dialogue and violence (which is also why my favorite movie is Kill Bill). It is girls who kiss girls and use words like "ecdysiast," for Powell. And for me too, from now on. I have written two books. Alone. Jason Powell, in Wisconsin, wrote a science fiction musical where pretty girls make out with each other and him. Then he came to New York City and cast VERY attractive, very talented, actresses in all the parts. The man is a genius, before you even get to the word play and the music.

The strong women and the vocabulary are not the only places you see Claremont's influence on Powell -- he also makes little nods to Claremont, as a robot character refers to himself as "This Unit" like a good Sentinel. In the conclusion of the story the 5th dimensional menace possesses someone, and when attacked burns out the body and jumps to the body of the attacker, then again, then again, then again, until it goes for a robot at which point is gets trapped there by a kill switch. Shades of Claremont's Proteus abound.

Jason Powell and I are also die hard fans of Newsradio, which we both quote with abandon. When I got married, my wife and I quoted Newsradio in our vows (in the fifth season Lisa marries Johnny Johnson, who writes his own, beautiful vows about how she is his rose; Lisa, who did not know they were writing their own vows, improvises with "You are my sunshine ... my only sunshine ... and heybabeyourockmyworld." That was what my wife said when we were married, and maybe one person in the audience noticed).

In Invader one of Powell's character's says of her effeminate robot, "He's indispensable!" which is what Phil Hartman says about his "gentleman's gentleman." Later in the play the same character says "We are dealing with a dimension much higher than three or four." Someone asks, "How high exactly?" And she says "Five." Which Powell admits is a direct steal from the White Noise episode of Newsradio.

And if you think that is an obscure in-joke, nothing could be more obscure, or please me more, than one character having gotten something out of my book on superheroes:

Of the reference books
Worth the slightest of looks,
I’m the latest and greatest revision.
In the parlance of Bloom,
I’m the poet in whom
One can find other poets’ misprision.

What's funny is that while you can see the influence of so many things that Powell loves in his musical, you can also see the influence of one thing he elsewhere hates: Joss Whedon. Whedon of course did a musical episode of Buffy and created the webisode musical Dr Horrible. Powell, like Whedon, is bringing the musical to sci-fi geek outs, and like Whedon he loves to deflate the ridiculousness going on: at one point one of his characters, a sexy Indian, sings:

Then there is I,
Lucy Walks-on-Sky.
I don’t think you’ll deny,
I’m a pretty far cry
From any semblance of what you’d call political correctness.
But I admit, I’ve come to expect this.
Still, come on, a blonde girl dressed as a Native?
Couldn’t somebody have been a bit more creative?

He even breaks the fourth wall more explicitly at the end of act one, whose final words are "Don't worry this will make more sense in act 2!"

But my favorite thing about Invader is the rhymes. Claremont may have a great vocabulary, but Powell rhymes his great vocabulary with other great vocabulary:

The world will never be the same.
Who's to blame?
An old lady's been possessed.
My fiancee's extra-terrest-
Reality has just been turned upon its ear.
And I fear
The worst is yet to come.
My brain is starting to go numb.

It isn't right; it isn't fair.
It bends the rules of karma.
Of lousy breaks, you've had your share.
You nearly bought the farm; a
Casual observer would say
That for good luck, you're overdue.
But instead -- to your extreme dismay --
Someone drops the other shoe.

"Extra-terrest-Reality" is a nice play on words; the fact that before it is over it is rhymed with "possessed" makes it doubly good. There are a lot of things you can rhyme with "Karma" including "Samba" and "magma" -- but "farm; a (casual observer)" is fantastic good fun, as is the whole show.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

In Summary …

[Jason Powell CONCLUDES his look at every issue of Claremont's 17 year X-Men run. I literally don't know what to say, other than thanks Jason. And thanks to everyone reading. You guys generated 2,826 comments on Jason's work and I know both he and I appreciate it. Even though at least a chunk of that was spambots and Jason taking the time to respond to basically every single person who commented, it is still goddamn tremendous.]

I’ve written so many words about Claremont at this point – and I know I’ve repeated myself a lot from entry to entry, far moreso than was necessary I’m sure – and the result is that a summary is probably not necessary. I think I’ve said all I wanted to say about Claremont at this point, despite the fact that he has a huge body of material outside of Uncanny, much of which is very, very good. And even within the X-sphere, there is stuff like The New Mutants, Excalibur, the Wolverine ongoing, which I didn’t talk about.

Still, I think I have done what I set out to do here. My feeling was and is that Claremont gets short shrift as a comics writer. This is someone who defined for more than one generation how to do mainstream superhero comics, particularly team books. From “New Teen Titans” on down through “Gen13,” his influence can be felt. (Claremont actually wrote a “Gen13” series in 2003 that wasn’t half bad. Well, okay, actually the second half was pretty bad. But the first half was good.)

The list of X-characters that Claremont created or co-created is rather amazing, and consider how many of these characters are still hugely important components of the franchise: Kitty Pryde, Sebastian Shaw, Emma Frost, Rogue, Mystique, Pyro, Sabretooth, Mr. Sinister, Forge, Jubilee, Gambit … plus Dani Moonstar, Wolfsbane, Sunspot, Cannonball, Cypher, Warlock, Magma, etc. Add to that all the characters for whom Claremont gave us the definitive incarnation, including Wolverine, Storm, Magneto, Nightcrawler … Also, it is Claremont who made Magneto a survivor of the Holocaust, who made Charles and Magnus into old friends, who created the Scott-Jean-Logan love triangle. These are contributions not just to the relatively insular world of comic-books, but to pop culture in general: So many elements of the Bryan Singer films (and even the Ratner one) are drawn from Claremont’s material.

A recent article on Singer – who was slated at the time to direct the upcoming “X-Men: First Class” film -- gave the director literally all of the credit for the opening scene of the first X-Men film: young Magneto in a concentration camp. The article makes no note of Claremont, although there is a sentence noting that Jeff Parker wrote a comicbook called “X-Men: First Class.” Parker gets name-checked for a title. The man who produced the material that set the entire tone for Singer’s take on the franchise? Not a mention. Meanwhile, jokey-joke internet pieces about the ten lamest comic-book characters, or whatever, will gleefully use Chris Claremont’s name as a punch-line in their entry on The Dazzler.

Via the work of Joss Whedon, Chris Claremont has impacted pop culture even beyond X-Men. The character of Buffy is an avowed Kitty Pryde analogue (based on Claremont’s characterization), an entire season of “Buffy” riffed on Claremont’s Dark Phoenix Saga, and Whedon’s “Firefly” has a heavy Claremont influence as well. (That show also has boasts a clear Kitty analogue as well, in the character Kaylee.)

Claremont’s use of women in “X-Men” was ahead of its time 30 years ago, and I feel that modern comics are still catching up. During his tenure, Claremont populated the X-universe with so many female characters that were well-realized in their own right, and not defined by how they related to their male counterparts. The females of Claremont’s X-Men were essential to that mythos, far moreso than in any other franchise. A great test of this is the film adaptations, which so often have to pare down the continuity to the core elements. For the first X-Men film, this gave us an ensemble including Storm, Jean Grey, Rogue and Mystique, all key players in the action – to be joined in the sequels by Kitty Pryde and Callisto. Contrast with the Spider-Man films, in which the only major female character is Mary Jane, whose job it is to get captured in the third act – every time. The third film added Gwen Stacy. Her purpose: To be a romantic foil for Spider-Man, just like Mary Jane.

Cartoon adaptations are just as telling. The X-Men cartoons again feature Rogue, Storm, Kitty Pryde and Mystique prominently, just for a start – again, as heroes fighting alongside the males. In Spider-Man, the women exist for no other reason than to be attracted to Peter Parker.

I don’t see much different in contemporary comics (though I confess I am hardly an expert). In team books, the males always outnumber the females. If it’s the opposite, usually there is some kind of gimmick involved, or it is a series aimed specifically at “girls.” Has anyone other than Claremont ever given us a mainstream super-team in which females outnumbered the males (and in which this wasn’t any kind of ironic twist or something that needed to be commented on, it simply WAS) … ?

And finally, there is the sheer length of the run, which Claremont never seems to get credit for. He wrote X-Men uninterrupted for 17 years. No one has duplicated that length of time on a mainstream superhero comic. Factor in all the X-related spinoff series, and you get something in the area of 380 comics, which far outweighs any other run in terms of quantity. Claremont has said that he considers everything from his first issue (Uncanny X-Men 94) to his last (X-Men 3) as one single story. On these terms, then, he even beats Dave Sim’s 300-chapter “novel.” Claremont’s “novel” is not only longer, but he also finished first. No one since Claremont has even come close to this.

For all that, the guy is mocked. As the world turns and the X-franchise continues to forge ahead -- and the time since Claremont’s original run ended becomes longer than the time he spent crafting it – less and less people seem to remember or care that he built the X-universe from only a few seeds. On comic-book message boards everywhere, idiots who think of themselves as die-hard X-Men fans decry Claremont’s work and diminish his contribution, apparently not realizing the irony that if Claremont hadn’t done what he did, they wouldn’t even BE die-hard X-Men fans.

With all the poison directed at Claremont on the net, I wanted to put something out there that redressed the balance somewhat. And an issue-by-issue look seemed to make the most sense, as it was a way to truly emulate the massiveness of Claremont’s accomplishment.

Now I’ve done that. At the end of the day, it doesn’t seem like enough. I still feel like the positive is outweighed by the negative regarding Claremont, particularly on the internet. But hey, I did my best.

Thanks to everyone who read and commented. It was heartening to read other people speaking positively about Claremont, and it was always particularly nice to be given new insights that made me appreciate his work even more. Thanks to Art, Dave, Neil S, Douglas, Nathan A., Scott, and all the other incredibly erudite and fantastic commentators, who really made this whole project come to life with their addendums, corrections, arguments and elucidations.

And my eternal gratitude to Geoff Klock for hosting this blog. Putting these writings here gave them a much larger audience than they’d have gotten had I posted them at my old Live Journal. More importantly, his deadline forced me to stick with this even at times when I started to think this was a gigantic fool’s errand. And his encouraging comments on the content itself were immensely gratifying, particularly given how much a fan I am of Geoff’s own writing. Thanks so much, Geoff!

And even though he’ll probably never read this or any other the other 230-plus (!) blog entries … Thank you, Chris Claremont, for the hundreds and hundreds of awesome superhero comics.

-- fin --