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.)

15 comments:

Jeff said...

I actually think X-Treme X-Men is probably closer to what Claremont was trying to accomplish in this run from the beginning. Maybe it just took him a little longer to get into "the groove."

Also, let's keep in mind that by this point the Marvel-style had gone by the wayside. And we've already established that Claremont was helped out by his artist-co-plotters...

Teebore said...

Even to someone completely excited about Claremont's return, this issue (and the Uncanny run, for the most part) was a disappointment, even moreso than X-Men 100.

The Neo weren't exactly made from memorable stuff, but next to the Shockwave Riders they came off like Claremont's Magneto. Ugh.

Good point about how Claremont's successor, in aping his style, have contributed to how the comic book zeitgeist thinks of Claremont (though I have to admit, Uncanny 303 was just the kind of emo to appeal to a thirteen year old).

It's funny, because when I read the description of Claremont's alleged classic poses, it says more "Stan Lee" than "Chris Claremont" to me (which isn't a value judgment; simply, Lee's style was very much of the times, and melodrama sold).

Arthur said...

Woo-hoo! I get mentioned not only in Geoff's intro, but in the article itself! I feel so loved!

@Teebore - yes, I always thought of X-Treme as "Claremont's return, take two". Look at his choice of villain -- Vargas described himself as the true homo superior, well-above "normal" mutants, much like the Neo did.

I admit I liked the Illyana death story. As for Lobdell's Corsair/Cyclops story, I kept thinking "why is this being dragged up again? These issues were resolved in Uncanny X-Men 157?" (My nerd-rage subsided some when I considered that Cyke had just un-merged with Apocolypse, so he must have been out-of-sorts.

This is the issue with the treasure trove hidden beneath Venice, isn't it? I have to assume that Stark and/or Richards invented some kind of super-sump pump to get all that water out of there. It must be the same model the Brood used to make their tunnels beneath New Orleans.

Claremont's return sure made Morrison's stories look even better in comparison, didn't it?

Art

neilshyminsky said...

Jeff wrote: "Also, let's keep in mind that by this point the Marvel-style had gone by the wayside. And we've already established that Claremont was helped out by his artist-co-plotters..."

Right, and that'll be mentioned most explicitly in the last of these four posts, the one about his return to Uncanny with Alan Davis.

teebore wrote: "though I have to admit, Uncanny 303 was just the kind of emo to appeal to a thirteen year old"

I remember liking it when I first read it, and I was probably around the same age. But just try getting through it again. Painful writing. Painful art. Just painful.

Jeff said...

I've always thought Lobdell's run consisted of keeping all of the soap opera elements of Claremont's stories, but removing all of the fun, excitement and epic qualities. It really just turns into "Dallas" in the X-Mansion. Terrible.

Jason said...

'“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. '

Preach it! F*cking Slate. I'd like to see them produce such panels from "classic Claremont."

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, X-Treme X-Men lost its purpose rather quickly.
The concept of the Books of Destiny holding the series together seemed fresh and exciting, and then the plot just disappeared after a couple of months.

I absolutely hated that never-ending cross-dimensional story with Khan (wasn't it?).
Those issues were pretty well totally unreadable for me.

Jeremy said...

This is fine and all, but Jason Powell IS doing that "Top 20 Claremont X-men issues" right?

Right!?

;_;

j said...

Little off topic, but did anyone else hate that period when Marvel was assigning Uncanny and X-Men the same writer? Seemed like a little much for me.

errant said...

the second X-Men book was actually originally pitched as basically being just a bi-weekly version of Uncanny. Claremont decided that if they must have two books, he might as well write two different teams and do different kinds of stories. they did eventually drift back to this, obviously.

Joe Gualtieri said...

Jason,

It was just "The Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix" by Lobdell that had them raising young Nathan in the future. "Further Adventures" was by Peter Milligan and had the Summerses venturing back to 1859, where Sinister's origin is told for the first time.

More to the point, while the Summerses raised Nathan in the future, they did so as "Redd and Slymm," not themselves, and Cable didn't find out until years later who actually raised him. The character was very much in flux at this point, as for years, he had been written as the destined savior of mutantkind, but the fallout of Davis's awful "The Twelve" was to look at Cable as a failure in that role, and looking for new purpose.

Jason said...

Joe,

Good of you to offer up the info, but you probably meant to address this to Neil, not me.

neilshyminsky said...

Joe: Right, it was 'Adventures', not 'Further Adventures' - my bad. And while I do recall that he didn't know Slym and Redd were Scott and Jean, (or would it be more proper to say it was the other way around?) I definitely recall Lobdell having established that Cable put it together many years (our time) before Claremont wrote these issues.

In any case, if it was all a confusing mess then that just plays into Claremont's hands where this scene is concerned - the interaction is warm but awkward and clumsy, and that seems totally appropriate.

Jason said...

"This is fine and all, but Jason Powell IS doing that "Top 20 Claremont X-men issues" right?"

It's up now, Jeremy! :)

NietzscheIsDead said...

Jason,

On the topic of producing such panels from classic Claremont, I feel obligated to mention the scene in X-Men vs. Fantastic Four where Magneto does precisely what Neil describes: his head is thrown back, his mouth is open in a shout of rage, and he shakes his fists at the heavens while telling someone (Storm) about his feelings. In fact, when Gary Hendrix was describing this trope of Claremont's, I had an uncomfortable feeling that this was the specific instance he was referencing.