[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.)