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.


Teebore said...

The Legion story was my first encounter with Seinkieicz (I read it back when Marvel reprinted it shortly before Legion Quest and Age of Apocalypse) and despite the art being miles away from anything I was used to and my own artistic sensibilities being fairly underdeveloped at the time, I was completely sucked into it. Great stuff.

I don’t think anyone drew these nine characters better.

Agreed. To this day, whenever I picture that particular cast of New Mutants, it's pretty much as Art Adams drew them.

Anonymous said...

A small thing, but worth mentioning: Claremont had Legion called autistic. He wasn't he was just withdrawn into his own world. It's not the same thing, but I'll give him a pass because it was the '80s, and even Alan Moore didn't get autism right.

Anyway, Sienkiewicz drew Legion with esoteric body movements consistent with people who have severe autism. I first read the comics years and years ago. After working with children with autism for a few years, I read the issues again, and was surprised to see how well Sienkiewicz depicted a person who (supposedly) had the disorder.

The two-page spread depicting Legion's mindscape was unbelievable. Sienkiewicz outdid even his Demon Bear Saga imagery in the Legion issues.

Legion is one of my favorite Claremont creations, and I wish he had been better served. He was reduced to being a plot device in the '90s.

- Mike Loughlin

Jason said...

Very interesting, Mike. Thanks for that!

Totally agree about the two-page spread in this issue, too.

I just recently saw a scan online of a brief interview with Sienkiewicz regarding "New Mutants." It was interesting to see him talk about the logic behind some of his artistic choices.

I have to admit, I had the sense that he was just doing whatever he thought looked cool, but there was a very considered process behind what he did on "NM," which is pretty neat to see.

Chris said...

Like 179, 183 is another gem that I didn't appreciate at all the first time around when I was collecting these as a kid.

At one point in your blog (I forget where) I think you identified the reason for my initial disappointment with these issues (and JRJR's run in general): the shift from what you labeled a 'Silver Age' style of storytelling (plotting, really) to Claremont's more 'unfocused' (for lack of a better, non-pejorative word) through-plotting that begins shortly after 175.

The Silver Age style consists of a series of clearly identifiable 2-5 issue (sometimes more) story arcs with beginnings-middles-ends. Exciting! Epic! Sagas! There may be some overlapping of these plots (foreshadowing of the next villain during the current plot), and occasionally an unusual 'our heroes take a breather/day in the life' story, but for the most part it's a sequence of story-reset to status quo-story-reset-story, etc, with maybe some tweaks over time (Sue's pregnant! Someone lost their powers! Costume change!)

For quite a while, 'From the Ashes' was about the last story arc that followed this classic pattern. As a kid those were my expectations, and I kept waiting for Claremont to get back to the good ole days of Big! Epic! Sagas!

With 183 in particular I remember thinking 'Juggernaut! Yay! Some grand conflict with him and Black Tom and a fiendish plot!'. Instead I got a break-up and the x-men griping at each other and a bar fight (not even in costume!). Not what I was expecting at all, and a big disappointment to a 12 year-old.

Re-reading this ish as an adult, I was blown away by the writing and characterization and genuine human insight. Peter really is, in a way characteristic of adolescence, ruining a genuine relationship with a real person in favor of moping about a faraway fantasy that was nothing to begin with. Eek, that hits close to home - probably for many of us who've lived through our teens and 20s. It's a surprisingly effective use of fantastical elements to talk about a common human experience, but probably not one a 12 year-old can relate to.

Funny - how many kid-ish things that you read as a kid can you actually say are BETTER than you remember?

Anonymous said...

These are some of my favorite issues as well.

Put me down as another person who always pictures the New Mutants in their Art Adams rendition.

The Sienkiewicz anecdote is interesting. I usually prefer that artistic approach - putting in the thought and research, but not flagging it for the reader. When you recognize these elements, as Mike Loughlin did, you appreciate the craft. But even when the reader doesn't recognize such elements, it still improves the reader's experience. In contrast, I'm often bothered when creators feel they need to overtly signal their craft to the reader, particularly when it takes the form of "Hey everybody, look how clever I'm being!" Even the obvious formal experiments Sienkiewicz is known for still feel like organic outgrowths of the story.

-- Mike

Jason said...

"Peter really is, in a way characteristic of adolescence, ruining a genuine relationship with a real person in favor of moping about a faraway fantasy that was nothing to begin with. Eek, that hits close to home - probably for many of us who've lived through our teens and 20s. "

*** Man, does it ever. There's a surprising follow-up on Peter's guilt in an issue of New Mutants, somewhere circa issue 23. (Surprising because it's in New Mutants rather than X-Men.) We get to see Colossus' emotional state post break-up, literalized in a dream sequence because of Rahne and Bobby's "Cloak and Dagger" powers. Actually hit me really hard upon re-reading because of where I was in real life at the time.

'I'm often bothered when creators feel they need to overtly signal their craft to the reader, particularly when it takes the form of "Hey everybody, look how clever I'm being!" '

***Mike, yeah, very true. I've been re-reading Alan Moore's ABC Comics, which are at times downright condescending in their need to explain why what just happened was so very, very interesting -- if not brilliant. There's some great material in ABC, but it really makes me appreciate Claremont's more earnest approach. I wonder, in fact, if part of Claremont's bad reputation among readers is because comics fans are so used to being told that what they're seeing is clever and satirical? So when Claremont plays everything straight and leaves it to you to figure out what he's up to, a lot of the cleverness goes unnoticed?

Or maybe that's me being too judgmental.

Matt said...

Since this is the first time you've talked about an issue of New Mutants, and it was a Sienkiewicz issue, I'll just mention that, having just last month read all five (to date) volumes of the New Mutants Classic TPB's, I was not a fan of Sienkiewicz there. I loved the guy when he was a Neal Adams clone on Moon Knight, but when his style became all weird and "out there", I couldn't take it any more. I was also not too impressed with Steve Leialoha following him on NM. Everything was just so dark and... dark when they were the regular artists.

I have to admit, my favorite issues of New Mutants are the first 18 or so -- the ones drawn by Bob McLeod and then Sal Buscema. Sentinels! The Hellfire Club! Silver Samurai! Team America! It was a fun, colorful, high-adventure type series and I really liked the title at that time, but just as I began to lose interest in the X-Men around the same time (late 170's), the same thing happened with New Mutants. It just became too unfocused and strange, and just not as fun as it was when it first started.

Is it odd that I love Chris Claremont up until right around 1982-83, then he completely loses me for a long time? He really never gets me back on NM, and he only gets me back on UXM when Jim Lee shows up. It seems that the common denominator here is Ann Nocenti. I think she came on a little later than when I lost interest, but she's really the only factor I can see that makes sense. I've never been too keen on her writing, either. I tried to like her Daredevil since it's generally well regarded, but I just couldn't handle the weirdness of it. Plus, since my interest returns around the time Bob Harras comes aboard, I feel Nocenti's influence has to the explanation.

Oh! I do love early Excalibur, though!