Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Jason Powell's Top 20 Claremont X-Men Comics, part 3 (of 5)

[Jason Powell continues to epilogue the hell out of his huge look at Claremont's X-Men.]

PART THREE: 1984 - 1985


Uncanny X-Men #183, 1984

Kitty and Peter break up. Original blog entry says: “Thanks to Romita’s incredible talent for drawing a fist-fight, combined with Claremont’s peerless ability to write superheroes as real, psychologically credible human beings, this is the first issue of Uncanny X-Men that – instead of being weighted one way or the other – is truly equal parts superb melodrama and dynamic action story. The balance would never again be this perfect.”


New Mutants #27, 1985

It’s probably obvious that I’m sort of cherry-picking a favorite issue from each miniature “era” of Claremont’s run. Obviously Claremont/Sienkiewicz has to be represented somewhere, despite the relative brevity of their collaboration on New Mutants (it lasted just a little over a year, from issue 18 to issue 31). It was a really fantastic bit of synergy – Claremont was explicitly pleased with it when he talked about Sienkiewicz in the “Comics Creators on X-Men” book. I had always assumed that some of the wild concepts that cropped up over the course of that run were the result of Sienkiewicz co-plotting, but apparently I had it backwards. According to Nocenti in her interview with Patrick Meaney (as always, thanks, Patrick!), Claremont was just coming up with wilder and wilder ideas, so Nocenti felt obliged to seek out an artist whose sensibility was out-there enough to match with Claremont’s increasingly weirder ideas. (So, the next time you see someone online say that Warlock was created as a way to showcase Bill Sienkiewicz’s weirdness, be aware that it just ain’t so. Sienkiewicz was recruited so that Warlock would be portrayed according to Claremont’s vision.)

Anyway, this issue is my favorite of the Claremont/Sienkiewicz run – it’s the middle part of the “Legion” three-parter. It’s a stock plot, one of Claremont’s go-to’s: a journey through the astral plane, inside someone’s psyche. It allows for a lot of weird, dream-like imagery, which normally can feel a bit self-indulgent and wearying. But Sienkiewicz’s art style – so impressionistic in style, and so varied in form – really elevates the concept beyond what has become a superhero-genre cliché. The story is visually insane enough to actually feel like it might be taking place inside of someone’s mind. Meanwhile, Claremont’s characterization of Xavier, as he explores the mind of a son he didn’t know he had, is quite powerful and multi-faceted. Xavier has always been portrayed as the guy who knows more than he tells. He’s the one who knows all the secrets. But here, we see a fantastic reversal of that – we get to see Charles as the naïve one, for a change. And it’s all completely credible.

The issue also feels rather strikingly topical when reading it now, as part of David “Legion” Haller’s mental backdrop is informed by the Arab-Israeli conflict.


New Mutants Special Edition, 1985

Unlike with X-Men, where Claremont loved to shake up the roster on a regular basis, the New Mutants had a much more consistent line-up during Claremont’s tenure. Possibly because Claremont had a special affection for his own babies – the X-Men were largely created by other people, but all nine New Mutants were created or co-created by Claremont himself. (Except for Illyana Rasputin, technically, but she really was a cipher until Claremont did the Limbo story with her.)

Anyway, there is no better showcase for all nine New Mutants than the 64-page 1985 Special Edition, which drops each of them in a different domain of Asgard and then has fun watching as they attempt to survive and thrive in a realm of pure fantasy, slowly but surely making their way to each other.

What I said earlier: “Ann Nocenti once again earns her chops as an editor; she’s got every member of the creative cast working not only at peak efficiency, but seemingly in telepathic unison. The various design elements – layout, line, color, letters – complement each other so well, it’s almost hard to believe that so many different people were involved. The clarity of expression and continuity of design are breathtaking.”

Art Adams didn’t draw all that many mutant stories by Claremont, but whenever he did, the results were always gold. Adams’ depictions of the New Mutants are actually my favorites. I don’t think anyone drew these nine characters better.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Jason Powell's Top 20 Claremont X-Men Comics, part 2 (of 5)

[Super-villains monologue. Jason Powell epilogues.]

PART TWO: 1982-1983


Uncanny X-Men #161 –1982

This is the best of the post-Byrne collaborations between Claremont and Cockrum, as they reveal the “secret origin” of Xavier and Magneto’s first meeting. Excerpt from my original blog entry: ‘That Magneto is two steps ahead of Xavier already speaks volumes about both of them – ingenious characterization on Claremont’s part – but just as clever is the contrast in their differing reactions to meeting a fellow mutant. For Magneto, it is not necessary to be commented upon; to Xavier, it is “fantastic!” That single image and its accompanying text -- Page 15, panel three – is one of my personal favorites in the entire Claremont X-Men canon. That one panel alone tells you almost everything you need to know about those two characters and their relationship. Absolutely brilliant.’

Uncanny X-Men #172-173, 1983

Wolverine and Rogue team up in Japan. Issue 172 is the standout of these two issues, but they are both fantastic, my favorite of the Claremont-Smith collaborations. Here’s an excerpt from what I wrote about issue 172: “So, “Scarlet in Glory” brims with cross-connections, right from the start: Logan catches up on what has been happening in X-Men in continuity (his enemy, Rogue, is now a team member; Kitty has a pet dragon, etc.). Meanwhile Yukio, from the Wolverine miniseries, fights the Silver Samurai, etc. Also in the mix is the slow-burning “Phoenix resurrection” bit. There is a lot going on in this issue, but – buoyed by penciller Paul Smith’s ingenuity -- Claremont handles the disparate components gracefully, weaving them into a clockwork plot that still stands as one of the most elegant and precise that the series has ever seen. So meticulously thought-out is the story that Claremont and Smith are able to execute no less than five surprises/reveals over the course of Pages 12-18, each one perfectly set-up and brilliantly executed.”


Uncanny X-Men #179, 1983

Kitty is kidnapped by the Morlocks. What I said originally: “With its dark tone, its powerful (and powerfully arranged) sequences of both terror and tragedy, and its genuinely hard look at the skewed politics that comprise the series’ foundation, Uncanny X-Men #179 is a watershed issue for the canon, and an overlooked gem.”

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Kill Bill and Miltonic Allusion: His Girl Friday

The next part in my series looking at Tarantino's allusions in Kill Bill: my argument is that he alludes like Milton alludes in Paradise Lost -- to reinterpret the whole history that came before, and set his work up as the culmination.


[Cary Grant says "I've always been kind of particular whom my wife marries.]


[in the opening to volume 2, Bill says to Thurman that he has always been kind of particular whom his gal marries.]

Here Tarantino is not, I think, making a serious link between Kill Bill and the Screwball romantic comedy. Kill Bill performs "transumption" on many genres, but the Screwball romantic comedy is not one of them. He is not trying to "out-do" the screwball comedy in Kill Bill, in the way he is trying to out-do the Western by exposing it to it's samurai roots.

In fact I might argue that this is not an allusion Tarantino is making at all. This is an allusion that BILL is making. BILL, the character, has seen the movie His Girl Friday, and is quoting the film to The Bride, wryly discovering a line from the film to be appropriate to his present position.

You could argue that Bill will shortly bring to the surface the depth of feeling the line hides in His Girl Friday -- the jealousy that Cary Grant does not want to show. But of course Grant also shows his real emotion by the end. Grant of course does a lot in the course of His Girl Friday to spoil his ex-girl's upcoming wedding, including kidnaping her would be new mother in law. And he is eventually successful. Bill's also does immoral things to ruin his ex-girls wedding, but he really leaves the Screwball genre completely behind. It is too silly to call his a raising of the stakes. It is a total game changer that shows Tarantino is not trying to comment on the screwball comedy.

There may also be something to the fact that the Kill Bill scene is in black and white. The "classical" -- as embodied in His Girl Friday, one of those movies that embodies the "silver screen" -- is about to get smashed to pieces. The allusion establishes a kind of status quo that, because we know the rest of the film is in color, we know is about to get wrecked. It is an allusion that serves to raise tension. This black and white world can only last so long. Color is coming. And with it, Tarantino.

Maybe the most you could say is that Tarantino is sort of "name checking" all the film genres, just to show that he has considered them all. But he is not equally attacking them all. I think in this case it is much simpler: on the way to building his masterpiece, he pays tribute to one of his favorite films.

Although: we will return to this scene at least twice more, as we get to allusions to The Good the Bad and the Ugly and The Searchers. HIs Girl Friday is directed by Howard Hawks, director of John Wayne's Red River, Rio Bravo, and El Dorado. I don't think it is a coincidence that Hawks is alluded to just at the moment we get to these other major Western allusions, but more on that to come.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Jason Powell's Top 20 Claremont X-Men Comics, part 1 (of 5)

[Jason Powell returns for this encore presentation. Because you demanded it! Neil should be back with the final part of his series soon.]

Per some folks’ request (hi, Jeremy), here is my top 20 favorite Claremont X-comics. (Today.) Note: I’m going chronological, not with a ranking.

PART ONE 1975-1981

Uncanny X-Men #96 – from 1975

The first issue fully plotted by Claremont, and it introduces several motifs that will recur often over the next sixteen years: Demonic invasion (see also: X-Men 143, X-Men 184-188, “Fall of the Mutants” and “Inferno”); women kicking ass (note Moira coming out with the machine gun, and of course it is Storm who saves the day); Ororo’s claustrophobia; and the one-page cutaways that seed upcoming plots (not something invented by Claremont, but it’s a device that he loves, and this is the first issue in which he uses it).

When I first blogged about this, Josh Hechinger made a great comment about it. Here’s an excerpt …

“ … notice how everyone's attacks on the monster are mainly them trying to defend whoever just got smacked down by the monster? Storm goes down, Colossus saves her. He goes down, Nightcrawler lays into the monster. Nightcrawler goes down, Wolverine goes berserker. It escalates, to the point of overcompensation. … Everyone on the team clearly A) doesn't want to see another teammate die and B) is trying really, really, REALLY hard to make up for the fact that they sat on their thumbs when Proudstar went boom. … (Except for Banshee, who DID try to save Proudstar, and as such is barely involved in the fight.)”


Uncanny X-Men #113 – 1978

The quintessential X-Men vs. Magneto fight, by Claremont/Byrne/Austin. That team always did action really well, and this is one of their best fight scenes, and it’s against their arch-enemy! (It’s also pretty much the final appearance of the evil, Silver Age Magneto. His rehabilitation begins to take place over the course of his next few appearances.)

Uncanny X-Men #132 – 1980

Here’s what I wrote originally: “This issue is a triumph by Claremont and Byrne, containing an embarrassment of riches. With the exception of their utter masterpiece, Uncanny X-Men #137, this one’s their very best. It contains the return of the Angel, a beautiful love scene between Scott and Jean, a wonderfully suspenseful assault by the X-Men upon the Hellfire Club, the full unveiling of Sebastian Shaw (arguably Claremont/Byrne’s greatest addition to the X-Men rogues’ gallery), the payoff to Jason Wyngarde’s seduction of Jean along with the revelation that Wyngarde is actually Silver Age villain Mastermind, and to top it all off the best picture of Wolverine ever drawn.”

Then in the comments, Doug M pointed out the use of contrast in the issue: “ … it is structured, to a degree rare even for top-form Claremont & Byrne, and almost unknown in mainstream comics up to this time. … We have two parts to this issue -- the intro in New Mexico, and the attack on the Hellfire Club in New York. … New Mexico is sunny and warm and clean. In New York, it's night and cold and snowing, and some of the action takes place in a sewer. … In New Mexico the X-Men are casual, in jeans and bathing suits. In New York, they're formal, in uniform or in evening dress. … New Mexico is wide open and outdoors. All but a couple of panels in New York are indoors, and some are claustrophobically so -- Nightcrawler and Wolverine going through tunnels. … New Mexico is heavenly, with an angel soaring high above. The Hellfire Club is hellish, with the two least human members of the team -- the one who /looks/ horrible, and the one who really /is/ horrible -- creeping through the sewers. … The very first panel has Angel flying high. The very last panel has Wolverine emerging from the muck deep underground.” Doug goes on with some interesting observations about how these contrasts reinforce thematically what is happening with Jean … it’s all great stuff. Check it out if you haven’t.


Uncanny X-Men #137 – 1980

The issue that everything before it was leading up to. A Greek tragedy, with superheroes.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Kill Bill and Miltonic Allusion: Citizen Kane

I continue my look at Kill Bill's allusions to other films -- "Miltonic" because like Milton, when Tarantino alludes to something, he does not do so to simply pay homage, but to interpret, revise, subvert, and reorganize, and make himself, as the inheritor, the man who stands above it all.

FROM CITIZEN KANE (embedding and sound on this one is not allowed by YouTube, but you don't need the sound anyway):

[the opening of Citizen Kane -- the camera slowly moves forward to the latticed windows of Kane's room and we see him in profile in near silhouette on the bed with the window behind him. Snow blows. The light changes slowly. He dies and a nurse comes in to check on him. Start at a minute in here: CLICK HERE]


[Opening credits to volume 1. Thurman is in profile near silhouette on the bed, with a lattice window behind her. The light comes up slowly.]

The opening of Kill Bill visually recalls the opening of Citizen Kane: The slow fade in, the slow change of the light, the light slowly growing in the window, the still figure in profile.

Citizen Kane has this romantic reputation as the greatest movie in movie history. "It's not Citizen Kane" is shorthand for "That movie is dumb" -- the point, of course being that no film wants to invite comparisons with Citizen Kane. It is like a comparison to Shakespeare or Einstein. You always lose.

Tarantino is going to allude to 100 movies in Kill Bill. And like the insanely confident auteur he is, he is going to start out, seconds after quoting god-damn STAR TREK, by alluding to the greatest movie of them all. For starters the allusion is not comedic -- Tarantino is dead serious. And it is not coy and it is it oblique. Tarantino's START recalls Orson Welles' START in a BIG WAY because he wants his WHOLE MOVIE to recall ALL OF Citizen Kane. He is BEGGING for the comparison everyone else would go out of their way to avoid. "It's not Citizen Kane"? NO! Tarantino, says, this IS my FUCKING Citizen Kane. THIS WILL BE THE GREATEST PICTURE EVER SEEN, is his opening boast, made over the opening credits.

Other images in the Citizen Kane opening will figure later in Kill Bill -- the nurse, the flurry of snow. And both of those images, images at the END of the life of Charles Foster Kane, are images at the BEGINNING of the revenge quest of Thurman -- Elle Driver dressed as the nurse is one of the first conflicts Thurman must survive, and the snow falls during Thurman's first (chronological) battle in her revenge.

Citizen Kane begins with the end of its main character. We start with his death. But the death-like state of Thurman is ONLY THE BEGINNING of Tarantino's protagonist. Where Orson Welles' main character ends Tarantino's main character BEGINS. Kane is dead but Thurman only LOOKS DEAD. Advantage Tarantino.

In one of the ballsiest moves I can imagine, Tarantino figures the Death of Charles Foster Kane as one of those comic book cliffhangers where it seems like someone is dead -- and then at the very beginning of the next issue BAM! they were only faking it! Tarantino figures Kill Bill as issue 2 of Citizen Kane. Uma Thurman rises for her revenge, now possessed -- now BLESSED -- by the dying breath of Charles Foster Kane, and Citizen Kane, Patron Saint of All Films. And as she rises for her revenge, Tarantino begins his revenge on the movies that came before him. And like Thurman fighting Lucy Liu, he starts with the biggest and most obviously dangerous opponent. And also like Thurman, he appears to have no fear.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

X-Treme X-Men 1 (#3 in a four-issue limited series)

[Neil Shyminsky continues his look at Claremont's more recent return to the X-Men.]

In my blogs about Claremont’s return to X-Men and Uncanny, I spent a lot of space writing about how Claremont was never as tediously wordy or prone to allowing characters to soliloquize, and noted how those comics were themselves proof that fan claims had always been exaggerated. But a strange thing happens in the course of a year. Because by the time that Claremont, having been pushed from the core books for Jon Casey and Grant Morrison, transitions to X-Treme X-Men and launches it with a new first issue, his verbosity has become prolixity*, and the writer has become a stereotype of himself.

(* For those who also didn’t know this word existed – I found it by accident a few weeks ago – the dictionary tells me that prolixity is “boring verbosity.” Perfect.)

Of the 31 pages I count in the issue, fewer than half (14, and maybe 15 if you include the page where Thunderbird shoots a fireball) contain any action at all, much less a fight of any kind – and many of those pages of action consist of the X-Men getting pwned by goons in futuristic armor, which is hardly exciting stuff. That means that 17 pages feature characters who are only standing or sitting, all the while talking or thinking. Of those 17 pages, four are devoted to in-narrative storytelling that’s designed to fill-in the backstory for readers who are new to the X-Men (a one page summary of who the X-Men are) and/or wondering what makes X-Treme X-Men different from the other books (three pages about Destiny’s diaries and how they came to learn about them). And then there’s a couple pages where the characters discuss why they don’t trust Professor X anymore**. And a couple more pages where the local police and politicians explain and introduce themselves to one another for our benefit. This isn’t just a lot of exposition – it’s the exposition of your nightmares.

(**Which, on top of being unnecessarily long, also happens to be badly written, since it forces us to a) align ourselves, as the reader being filled in, with the surprisingly ignorant and personality-less Thunderbird who is asking the questions, and also b) believe that Thunderbird, having been on the team for at least a year at this point, is really that clueless and made the decision to join this mission without really knowing why they were doing it. Which is only possible to believe if Claremont thinks that either he or we are stupid.)

The characters that Claremont has chosen are a bit strange, too, given his characterization strengths and traditional favourites among the X-Men. Granted, Claremont was working under restraints, here – Morrison and Casey were given first pick, so Chris only had so many options. (This is why Beast appears only in the first couple issues – Morrison hadn’t yet put his claim in when Claremont started, and so he had to be hastily written out.) But for someone famed for writing so many varied voices, and writing them so well, the uniformity and blandness of his choices is underwhelming: the aloof ‘living-computer’, the aloof no-fun cop from the future, the aloof weather goddess, the aloof English ninja aristocrat, the slightly-less-aloof Indian aristocrat... stop me once you see the pattern. Aside from Rogue and the short-lived Beast, this is a team that is surprisingly (for Claremont) lacking in humor and, well, fun. And when you combine an exposition-driven issue with such seriousness, the result is less than exciting***. It is, in fact, just boring.

(*** Confession time: Even in re-reading this, so as to write about it, I couldn’t force myself to read every word bubble, much less every word. There are entire pages where, while I could tell you vaguely who was there and what was discussed, I couldn’t be compelled under threat of torture to tell you what they specifically talked about.)

This being, effectively, the second year of Claremont’s discontinuous return to the X-Men, it’s at least nice to see some familiar Claremontisms re-emerge in his writing:

Rogue informs us that she is both invulnerable and that her claws will “cut through anything – but ah won’t!” (though, to her credit, she makes a joke out of how she announced the former)

Sage uses the old cliché, “Not today, gentleman. And certainly not by the likes of you!”

This one, from Psylocke: “Weighed in that balance, our own fate, our very lives, they’re nothing”.

And from Beast: “Comes with the uniform, comes with the moniker of X-Men”.

It’s not enough to save the issue, of course, but it’s at least an indication that Claremont is no longer afraid to dip into his bag of old tricks. Too bad that, given the awfulness of its surroundings, this sounds more like a pale imitation of Claremont than it does Claremont himself.

In Jason’s final post on X-Men 1-3, he raves about how the qualities that made Claremont’s writing so well loved were in evidence right until the end of that 17 year run: “Fun, intelligence, eloquence, action, intrigue, an unabashed affection for the characters, and an unqualified respect for his readers.” But in this, his second go at launching a new X-Men title, it’s not clear that more than one or two of those attributes have survived the intervening years.

I want to say something nice about this comic, but I don’t have much. I certainly have nothing nice to say about the non-Claremont aspects – I think Sal Larroca is a weak storyteller and the digitally ‘painted’ panels are muddy and clash badly with the crisp outlines of the text and their bubbles. But the important point is this – it feels, after a year, like Claremont has already run out of enthusiasm. And while it also seems that he recaptured some of his old form by the time that his run on X-Treme (which lasts four years) ended and he returned to Uncanny X-Men (for another two-and-a-half years), it’s not in evidence here and this comic is hardly better than fan fiction. Not good at all.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Kill Bill and Miltonic Allusion: Alfred Hitchcock's The Lodger

From Alfred Hitchcock's 1927 film The Lodger:

[The lodger is a black and white silent movie. In the clip you see people downstairs, the chandelier shaking, and they look up at the ceiling. The ceiling goes "see through" and you see a guy pacing up stairs. It sort of looks like they are looking up at him through a glass ceiling. You see the soles of his shoes. It is a 17:30 here: ]

From Kill Bill

[In Kill Bill Thurman advances toward Lucy Liu over the glass floor of the club and we see her shoes from underneath. They say FUCK U.]

My first thought seeing these two clips together was that there really was no significant connection between the two. A view from below of feet walking. A coincidence. You look for Tarantino to be swiping from Spaghetti Westerns and Samurai pics. Not so much from silent movies. But the more I thought about it the more important it seemed.

The Lodger is about a town in fear of a serial killer who identifies himself as The Avenger and who only kills "fair haired" women. Daisy is a blonde woman whose parents have a room for rent. A mysterious man -- the lodger -- takes a room. He is strange -- goes out at odd hours, demands all the paintings of blonde women be removed from his room. Daisy is dating Joe, a police office who has recently been put on the Avenger case. Daisy and the Lodger share an attraction. Her parents fear he is the Avenger. Daisy breaks up with Joe because of his jealousy, at which point Joe hits on the theory that the Lodger is the Avenger. Joe has him arrested, at which point they find a gun, a map of the kills, and a picture of a blonde woman in his room. The Lodger escapes custody and explains his story to Daisy -- his sister was murdered by The Avenger and he has been tracking down his sister's killer. The town attacks the Lodger thinking he is the Avenger, but Joe gets a phone call saying the Avenger has been arrested elsewhere. He goes to save the Lodger from the mob. The Lodger and Daisy end up together.

We have no idea why the killer identifies himself as The Avenger -- in fact the Avenger is really a McGuffin in the film, just something that brings the characters into a relationship. Hitchcock wanted The Lodger's innocence to be ambiguous at the end. The studio would not allow it, but they did allow him to never show The Avenger.

The scene in the clip is the Lodger, early in the movie, pacing upstairs, worrying Daisy, Joe and Daisy's mother, below. For 1927 the "see through floor" would have been a pretty stylish effect, I think. In 1927 you have to get clever if you want to show how walking above disturbs people below, because you don't have sound. You can see why a a foot-fetishiest like Tarantino would notice it -- his films are filled with images and references to feet, from the foot massage discussion in Pulp Fiction, to loving shots of feet in Kill Bill (Uma Thurman demanding her big toe to wiggle) Death Proof (which opens with the image of feet on a dashboard), and Inglourious Basterds (Christoph Waltz fitting the shoe to Diane Kruger).

Tarantino does not just mindlessly swipe an image from The Lodger. He reminds us of The Lodger to reverse it: The Lodger revolves around a killer of blonde women. Tarantino's main character is a blonde woman who kills. The Lodger paces back and forth, aimlessly. Thurman is walking with purpose toward her target. Tarantino fills in the blank provided by Hitchcock: Hitchcock's Avenger is a non-character whose name is inexplicable. Uma Thurman is the main character who is obviously avenging a wrong. He makes literal Hitchcock's imagery: Hitchcock had a "see through floor" as a special effect. Tarantino has Thurman walk on a glass floor. It is a bit of a fuck you to Hitchcock, a bit of a "LOOK WHAT I CAN DO" so it is a nice detail that Thurman's shoes have FUCK U written across the bottom, and because of that see through floor we can see it.

Tarantino wants to establish his film as better than all other action and suspense films, and himself as better than Hitchcock. But Hitchcock is a pretty major presence to try and overthrow. So he goes after Hitchcock through one of his smaller films, but one that in its themes -- a man wrongly accused, sexually motivated murders -- will be a bit of a prototype of Hitchcock's later films. He is cutting the tree that towers over him at the root.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Uncanny X-Men 381 (#2 in a four-issue limited series)

[Last week, when Neil Shyminsky started his look at The Second Coming of Claremont, Arthur commented "Welcome to the Uncanny X-Blogs, Neil ... Hope you survive the experience!" I wish I had thought to say that. Anyway here is Neil:]

If X-Men #100 was intended to feel epic in scale – and, regardless of whether it was a success, the choice of penciller and locale would seem to suggest that this was the intention – Claremont goes for a much more intimate feel with Uncanny X-Men #381. Or, at least, that’s how it begins.

One of the things that was seemingly forgotten about Claremont’s style on X-Men, even as his replacements – especially Scott Lobdell* – tried endlessly to recreate it, was that the scenes of melodrama or levity for which Claremont was famous were rarely the focus or majority of the individual issues. Take Grady Hendrix at Slate: “The classic Claremont pose is either a character, head hung in shame with two enormous rivers of tears running down the cheeks as he or she delivers a self-loathing monologue, or a character with head thrown back and mouth open in a shout of rage, shaking tiny fists at heaven and vowing that the whole world will soon learn about his or her feelings." But this is a gross exaggeration, if not entirely wrong. A ‘self-loathing monologue’ implies something lengthy and blustering, but Claremont always knew when to reign it in. For instance, when Scott and Jean share their memorable picnic in New Mexico immediately before the X-Men’s assault on the Hellfire Club, it’s only 8 panels long – less than two pages! And then there’s the iconic baseball game – would you believe that there were only three of them (issues #110 and #201 of Uncanny, as well as Annual #7) during Claremont’s whole run? (Thanks to Jason for confirming that for me!) And, yet, the frequency with which these things happened and their duration become organic things in our memories, growing in proportion to our affection (or distaste) for them. (Note, even, how Jason’s fantastic panel-by-panel analysis of the New Mexico scene is itself several times longer than the original scene – how delightfully apropos!)

(* Lobdell was the one who rammed Rogue-Gambit down our throats, and for whom the characteristic mise-en-scene was an X-Man sitting alone on the roof of a building. In the night. While it rained. During a storm. Real subtle stuff, that. And Fabian Nicieza was guilty of doing a bad impersonation of Claremont, too. In the comment thread to Jason’s summary, Arthur recalls that the xbooks newsgroup often playfully(?) referenced Fabian Nicieza's Sledgehammer of Angst(TM).)

Surely, Hendrix is thinking of Claremont’s successors and impersonators. I’m remembering, in particular, two Lobdell-penned issues devoted entirely to 22 pages of the most insufferable emo-whining: Uncanny 303, featuring Illyana’s death from the Legacy Virus, and a Lobdell-scribed issue that preceded Claremont’s second return to Uncanny X-Men, where he wastes an entire issue on a Cyclops-Corsair argument. (Don’t read them – just take my word for it.) For someone with a reputation for verbosity, Claremont could dispense with these kinds of moments both completely and with a remarkable economy of space. Not an easy balance to manage, and almost foreign to us in the age of decompressed storytelling.

I bring this up because the opening scene to this issue – a character piece in the classic Claremontian vein – is probably the best single scene that he’ll contribute during this short, second run. Coming in at an unusually long (for him) six pages – but two of which are a splash and only three of which are text-heavy – Claremont does a fine job of setting up the Phoenix-Cable relationship as the emotional center of the book. This is nicely tragic and complex stuff: Cable laments his inability to express love in any normative way, but wears his deceased dad’s visor around his neck like a soldier would dog-tags. (And as much as I dislike Adam Kubert’s pencils, the way he captures Cable’s hesitance to put his hand on Jean’s shoulder is pitch perfect.) Contrastingly, Jean espouses a sweet philosophy of hope in the face of impossible odds, a philosophy that would perhaps seem trite if not for a subsequent display of anger and aggression that would leave even Wolverine cold. Add to all this ambivalence Cable’s fear that his mother’s dark-side will overwhelm her, as well as the burden of knowing that, if and when that day comes, it’ll be his job to subdue her, and you can see that Claremont has a strong center to this team.**

(** I’ll admit, here, that while I kept up with Uncanny X-Men and X-Men in the interim, I read only scant issues of Cable’s own series and none of The Further Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix, wherein Cable’s relationship with his parents is actually (re)built in the future – that is, Cable’s own past in the future. So if Claremont is covering bases that have already been covered, or even contradicting them, I don’t know it.)

But, as with X-Men #100, we can’t give credit for what works without acknowledging that a lot of it doesn’t. Because, the Phoenix-Cable piece, while being the first proper scene in the comic, isn’t actually where it begins – it starts with narration from Gambit and an entirely predictable ‘life is like a hand of cards’ metaphor. But why is Gambit narrating at all, why are particular characters assigned to particular cards and is that meaningful in some way, and how is Gambit ‘dealing the cards’ in this story and why? And it’s both awfully convenient and left unexplained how a) Gambit knew Phoenix and Cable would already be in Venice, b) Gambit could somehow enter Phoenix’s mind (?!) to plant a card there, and c) the Shockwave Riders knew to find Phoenix in Venice, too. We do get some explanations at the end of the next issue, but too much of it relies on coincidence. It was an excuse to get this team together and get them into a fight, plain and simple. And that’s weak.

That Claremont has thrown multiple balls into the air before the first one has even had a chance to fall is a problem, and it’s a problem that will afflict him throughout this second go at the X-Men. Harras had pulled a 180 when he rehired Claremont: having hamstrung the writer in the late 80s with the requirement to recycle plots and characters from the Byrne days, he gave Claremont complete freedom the second time around. Which is too bad, because Claremont really could have used firmer editorial oversight when he created this series of dull, totally forgettable ciphers. (And I’m putting it gently – these characters were uniformly awful, awful, awful, and the Shockwave Riders are among the very worst. Cole, Macon, and Reese look wholly individuated in relation to these dudes.)

To Claremont’s credit, he apparently realized that there was a problem and was going to reintroduce Stryfe as the nemesis for the Uncanny team, but the realization came too late. This is because Harras’ replacement, Joe Quesada, would resemble the younger Harras moreso than the older one and run the writer off almost immediately. Claremont’s return was met with huge fanfare, but the honeymoon ended fast and Claremont didn’t have the caché or power that he once did – and his new take on the team certainly couldn’t compete with the newly authoritative X-Men that were appearing on movie screens.

And, so, less than a year after his return, Claremont was off the core X-books again. (Of course, he was still playing in the X-Universe’s sandbox – but more on that later.)