Tuesday, October 26, 2010

X-Men 100 (#1 in a four-issue limited series)

[Guest blogger Neil Shyminsky With Two Ys heroically picks up where Claremont SuperBlogger Jason Powell leaves off.]

When Geoff asked me, many months ago, to cover Claremont’s return to the X-Men – 100 or so issues after he left – I told him that I would be glad to cover the issues where he set the new status quo, but that I didn’t have enough enthusiasm to go beyond that. At the very least, I had genuinely fond memories of X-Men #100 and Uncanny X-Men #381.

But memories are a funny thing. There’s a University of Washington study that’s commonly taught to Intro Psych students where, under particular conditions, researchers found that they could convince nearly half of their subjects that they had met Bugs Bunny at Disneyland. Which is, of course, impossible. I bring this up because, having re-read the issues that I agreed to write about, I can only assume that Jason’s series – and, of course, the issues that I’ve read alongside his analyses – somehow warped or otherwise compromised my sense of just how good these comics were. Which isn’t to say that they’re purely awful...

But let me back up. X-Men #100 shipped only a month after #99, but six months had passed since the High Evolutionary depowered and repowered all of mutantkind. The six month gap isn’t unprecedented – the X-books pulled something similar a few years after Claremont left, after the “Age of Apocalypse”, and also skipped an indeterminate amount of time prior to Giant Size X-Men, which immediately preceded Claremont’s first run – but there’s something lazy about it. Over at uncannyxmen.net, Peter Luzifer writes that the gap occurred in lieu of “slowly building up new plot elements and having the characters coming up with lame excuses for their new looks”, and the results are generally underwhelming: there’s no explanation for why this is the current line-up, who’s leading, and why it’s such an unusually small team; Psylocke has new powers, inexplicably; Rogue’s absorption power no longer affects Colossus; Colossus and Rogue hook up spontaneously*; a new Thunderbird appears and we’re given no reason to care about him; the new villains, the Neo, have no clear motivation, ambiguous powers, or stock-villain personalities and dialogue.

(*Okay, so this one could have been good, in the classically soap opera-ish way that CC really excels at: Claremont later explained that the idea was to give Rogue a choice between a man she loved but couldn’t touch and one she could touch but didn’t love. But it unfolds too quickly and awkwardly, and it’s never picked up again.)

It’s not all bad. Aside from Warren Ellis on Excalibur, it seems like no one since Claremont himself had done much (or ANYthing) to develop Shadowcat, so the change in her appearance and attitude and the central role are nice surprises, if awkwardly executed. (Of course, she would be separated from the team and wouldn’t reappear for the duration of Claremont’s stay on X-Men.**) Take the line of dialogue, given to Shadowcat, that would become emblematic, at least among people on internet message boards of the day, of how Claremont was pressing too hard: “Reboot your system, baby. ‘Cause time only goes in one direction.” Ugh. Nightcrawler’s turn as a priest is also a worthy development, even if it’s strange that Claremont effectively skips the developmental bits – why he left, how he’s changed – in order to “return” him to super-heroics after he had retired from it for... zero issues. These are minor victories, clearly.

(**I’ve read that this was due to – stop me if you’ve heard it before – editorial interference. Kitty was supposed to get a miniseries that would address where she went, why Seth said she was a Neo, and so on, but the L.S. was dropped and Claremont was told to move on. One other interesting side-note on editors: the X-editor who chased Claremont off in the first place, Bob Harras, was presiding as editor-in-chief and rehired him for this run. And it wasn’t his fault that CC’s second run was so short, either – Claremont was booted this second time by Harras’ replacement, Joe Quesada.)

But for a Claremont reader with a long (if malleable) memory, these things shouldn’t be surprising. The first dozen or so issues of his original run have a similar slap-dash feel, as if Claremont is just throwing ideas against a wall as they come to him, knowing that most of them probably won’t stick. (Spoiler: most of them don’t, the second time OR the first.) We fans remember how early he planted the seeds for a Wolverine-Jean relationship and are impressed with his forward-thinking, but we forget that he did the same for Colossus and Storm; the first hints of what will eventually lead to the Phoenix Saga appear in Claremont’s first ten issues, but so is the suggestion that Wolverine is literally a mutant wolverine (though this was originally Len Wein’s idea), which will turn out to be much less fondly recalled. The point, simply, is that Claremont’s stories have always unfolded slowly and he needs time to set things up, to figure out what will work and what won’t. Whether this is an adequate defense of these newer issues or a knock against the older ones depends on how much patience you have as a reader.

In a move that’s entirely to be expected if you’re a long-time reader of either Claremont’s X-Men or Jason Powell’s re-evaluation of them, there is also a very deliberate effort on Claremont’s part to revisit his own work: the space station, Peter Corbeau, the telekinetic bubble to protect the team on re-entry – this stuff all recalls the first year of Claremont’s original run and the events that lead to the first appearance of Phoenix. (So, too, does the series of variant covers, each drawn by someone who had their own lengthy penciling gig during Claremont’s run, and often featuring the team as it existed when that penciler was on Uncanny X-Men. And so this has the effect of feeling like a tribute to the writer after-the-fact, a remembrance of what he’s done, which is a curious choice when you’re supposed to be pushing new stories with new characters and a new set of villains.)

What’s lacking here, though, is any obvious commentary on the older stuff. Jason’s series did a particularly good job of showing how Claremont’s backward glances were always meta-commentaries on where the team had been and where they were going – there are too many that fit the bill to list them all, but here are a few*** – but I don’t really see that meta-element, here. (Except, I suppose, in Kitty’s brief dialogue.) I’m not even sure that we can call this connection anything more than “interesting”, especially since it’s not clear that the events of the space station are meaningful outside this story – it provides a scene for a Neo terrorist attack, but why did it need to be a space station? It’s as if Claremont thought that a lazy gesture would be good enough.

(*** Thanks goes to Jason, once more, for helping me track down a lot of the posts that are found via these hyperlinks. There’ll be more of them, too.)

I should also add that Claremont is simply not the same narrator he once was. In the very confusingly rendered scene where Kitty descends into the, um, I guess the bowels of the space station, we would be forgiven for wondering whether we were watching a flashback. For a writer who was famous for over-narrating in order to compensate for poor art, Claremont is surprisingly unhelpful. More surprisingly, none of that purple, poetic language that Jason has noted numerous times is in evidence, here. The issue is set in outer-space, but he never describes it to us in anything but a perfunctory manner. It’s a notable absence.

A bit of good, a lot of bad, and the feeling that something is missing – it’s an auspicious start to Claremont’s second-coming.


neilshyminsky said...

Keen! I hope these are as fun to read as they were to write.

And I probably should've been clearer, but the "...in a four-issue limited series" part refers to the fact that I'm doing four reviews/critiques in this short follow-up series: X-Men 100, Uncanny X-Men 381, X-Treme X-Men 1, and Uncanny X-Men 444.

Arthur said...

Welcome to the Remarkable X-Blogs, Neil... Hope you survive the experience!

I recently got rid of a bunch of comics during a recent move. I got rid of almost anything non-Claremont, Morrison, Whedon, Kelly or Seagel. I always wanted to re-read these issues to see if they'd be any better, but maybe it's better that I don't.

I don't remember hating Claremont's return. Maybe it's because I was such a fan of his original run that I took a "wait and see, this is building something" approach, and figured any problems or inconsistencies can be patched up later.

Plus, these characters read like their old selves, more or less, regardless of whether the stories they were in made much sense. I also liked his take on Cecelia Reyes, a character I liked from Kelly and Seagel's run.

I was one of the few who was disappointed when his run was cut short without seeing where he was going with the Neo. (Alas, my hopes are crushed again with X-Men Forever ending prematurely.)

Since you mentioned editorial interference, I remember hearing that the penciler (Yu, was it?) would often get the scripts weeks late and have to rush to get it done. Claremont has the reputation of getting all his scripts in on time, so it's possible that both the art and the script suffered at the hands of the Editor.

Editors make handy scapegoats, don't they?


Jason said...

Great stuff, Neil! This is really fascinating, particularly because I have not read any of the issues in question.

j said...

I still haven't read any of these. Maybe it's something I need to check out as a Claremont fan.

Ironically I read X-Men (vol 2) 200 right before checking this blog (which is a pretty good issue).

Teebore said...

Hooray! More Claremont X-Men. Thanks for doing this, Neil.

For me, these issues suffered from unfair expectations. I was beyond excited when it was announced that Claremont was coming back, and that announcement came just as I was on the precipice between doe-eyed, loves-whatever-they-give -me comic fan and the more traditional, skeptical and jaded comic fan.

Even if these issues had been excellent, I probably still would have been let down, cuz I'm pretty sure I had unfairly built it up in my head that Claremont's return would be one of the highlights of Western literature.

So I've always had a hard time separating what doesn't work in this story from what was simply a letdown of my unreasonable expectations.

The Neo only bother me in hindsight, and I recognize that's largely because of factors outside of his control.

The new costumes didn't bother me too much; even then, that was pretty standard fare for a new creator/new direction launch.

The arbitrary power changes bugged me though, if for no other reason than, knowing Claremont, it'd be decades before we got an explanation.

neilshyminsky said...

Jason: I don't know that these will inspire you to read them, but I hope you find them interesting.

Art wrote: "I was one of the few who was disappointed when his run was cut short without seeing where he was going with the Neo"

The problem is, I'm not sure that he actually had a plan - that he was actually going somewhere with them.

Art wrote: "Editors make handy scapegoats, don't they?"

But they're not a 'scapegoat' if it was actually their fault, right? But, to be fair to Harras/Quesada/whoever, Claremont was barely treading water when they pulled the reins on him.

Teebore wrote: "So I've always had a hard time separating what doesn't work in this story from what was simply a letdown of my unreasonable expectations."

Yeah, this was one of the things I was trying to balance in my mind as I wrote this - what was reasonable and what was an effect of the insane expectations? It helped that I hadn't really re-read these since I first read them, and so my initial impressions were still my only impressions and readily available to use as a basis for comparison.

Teebore wrote: "The new costumes didn't bother me too much; even then, that was pretty standard fare for a new creator/new direction launch."

Except that the Neo and the X-Men clearly have the same uniform designer - identical stupid-looking shoulder pads, even! - and that's just horribly sloppy. (I thought that I had recorded that observation somewhere...)

Teebore said...

@Neil Except that the Neo and the X-Men clearly have the same uniform designer - identical stupid-looking shoulder pads, even! - and that's just horribly sloppy.

Good point, and I should clarify: the idea of the X-Men suddenly being in new costumes didn't bother me.

The costumes themselves were pretty horrid, though.

errant said...

I haven't read these issues in a long time. I haven't done a massive re-read in years. I'm actually getting ready to do one in the coming weeks/months... oh god, at this point, it'll probably take years. Anyway, my point is that perhaps like Neil, I have good memories about this run that may be completely unjustified and looked upon through rose-colored glasses (I had just recently started buying comics again after 6year absence). OR. It's a reaction to all the assholes all over the internet who were deriding Claremont at the time and have been ever since.

So perhaps my opinion of this brief run will be changed whenever it is I get around to re-reading them.

However, I find it ironic (or fitting) that it wasn't until Claremont came back on board that some genuinely new and potentially interesting ideas, directions, and villains were introduced after a decade of other writers riffing on and contorting his work for the previous decade. (And the following decade, come to think of it).

Also, there was so much talk about what the expectations were at the time... He's going to make Kitty to focus (he wrote her out first issue). Nothing anyone else wrote since he left will matter (mooted by the 6 month gap). He's going to bring back the purple prose. And it's not here. Yes, I remember it being extremely wordy, but as Neil mentioned, the narration is a bit perfunctory. And on and on and on....

There were some rough spots in the early run here, but I think a lot of the ambiguousness about the Neo's powers, their similar costume designs to the X-Men, not being able to tell any of them apart visually fall to Lu's art.

I think the failure of Claremont's second run can be chalked up to timing. He came on board when everything was pretty stale, Alan Davis was treading water on his run with some beautiful and fun straight-up superheroics (most likely ghost-plotted by Claremont), and Marvel were not expecting the X-Men movie to do anything at the box office.

They bring in Claremont to give fanboys what they'd wanted since his departure, give the books a shot in the arm when a movie is coming out.

And what does he give them? New villains, new mysteries, new status quo. Then the movie hits and all of a sudden Marvel are saying to themselves "Why does this book bear no resemblence to this blockbuster hit we've got on our hands?" Well, they hired him. They approved the plots up front. In a last ditch effort on the part of the editors and higher ups, Claremont was forced to abandon everything he had set up and revert to a more familiar status quo, the established villains, etc.

It's ironic (yes, I'm using that word -- there's so much that's ironic about Claremont's homecoming to the books) from a creative standpoint that the second half of Claremont's run on both of the books when they're more integrated is actually pretty good when he's toning it down and brining it back into a more marketing-friendly area.

Too late, though, because Bob Harras pretty much got fired over the books not remotely resembling the movie early that summer, among other things, and booting Claremont off the books as a result became one of the focal points of the new Jemas/Quesada regime.

Claremont wasn't going to revitalize the brand in the wake of the movie the way Morrison did, but he wouldn't have had to with the movie doing all that work for him, if only there had been some foresight when they had been planning his return that the movie would be a big hit. Or even good.

Jeff said...

Part of the problem with these early issues is an interview Claremont gave where he said the Neo were going to be as far above mutants as mutants were above humans. I think people were expecting some awesome new characters and they turned out to be cyphers who had crappy mutant powers. I think there is some attempt to show that they can swap powers with each other, but it really doesn't come through at all.

I do like Leinil Francis Yu's artwork on the adjectiveless X-Men side of things and it looks like Claremont enjoyed writing this team a little better than the one in Uncanny.

All in all, these issues are not terrible, but they aren't great either and honestly, I know he may not be popular on this blog, but Morrison's issues right after this blew these out of the water.

Arthur said...

Neil said: The problem is, I'm not sure that he actually had a plan - that he was actually going somewhere with them.

I find it hard to believe that a seasoned professional like Claremont wouldn't have some long term plans for where his characters were going.

I remember one of Paul O'Brien's complaints with the Neo was the lack of proper motivation. Their mysterious society was apparently devastated by Sinister. What's their response? They lash out at the X-Men, Sinister's arch-enemies.

I don't have a problem with that. Granted, it's not the most clear-headed response, but given what the Neo had been through, I don't think it's out of the question for them to react emotionally and decide that they don't care which side of the war did what, they're going to end it permanently by taking out both sides. (A few issues later, in a scene I rather liked, it was revealed that, yes, the Neo struck Sinister too, "killing" him several times in the process.)

One problem I see is that the Neo got watered down by introducing characters like the Shockwave Riders that may or may not have ties to the Neo. The Crimson Pirates? The Goth? I seem to recall they all were hinted to be subsets of the Neo.

As for my comment about editors and scapegoating, well, as a Claremont fan, it's almost become a cliche to blame "editorial interference" on every problem. It's hard to decipher the truth.


neilshyminsky said...

Art wrote: "I find it hard to believe that a seasoned professional like Claremont wouldn't have some long term plans for where his characters were going."

Possibilities, maybe, but an iron-clad plan? I don't know. I think he had a concept in mind, and some ideas of where they might go, but no grand arc in mind. I don't know that he ever worked that way. And given how many seeds he plants in this one issue alone and then immediately abandons...