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.


Anonymous said...

I was out of comics when these issues came out, so I never read them. I guess there's not much point to seeking them out.

On a tangentially related note, have all the Claremont fans here seen Byrne's character proposal for Kitty Pryde at the following link:


I would not have guessed Byrne was so involved in Kitty's creation, since he bailed on the series so soon after her debut.

-- Mike

neilshyminsky said...

"Jon Casey" is, of course, "Joe Casey". And my apologies for the other typos, too. I must've been getting sloppy.

errant said...

Loved this book. Still love it. If I remember correctly, the pacing on this issue was a bit skewed because the last few pages intended for it ended up opening issue #2. I like that there's not a lot of action. I like that there are a lot of words. I like spending time reading comics and not racing through them in 3 minutes feeling like I wasted the money. I like the art. I like the characters he picked. He pulled Sage out of obscurity and turned her into an interesting character, even if she did tend to become a deux ex machina at times. He's the first one that gave Bishop a personality and an angle worth reading about. I liked that this book established an in-story reason to be an old-school alternative to what was going on in the other books.

Much of the criticism here could be applied to any first issue of a book that does its job, which is to set up the premise, establish the characters and get the plot started.

It's unfortunate that this book, and all of Claremont's books starting here, were at the mercy of other editors & writers whims more than almost any other books at the time. It's unfortunate that he lost Larroca on art duties. It's unfortunate that Larroca wasn't a native English speaker and there were misinterpretations when he went to draw the art. It's unforunate that Kordey was the replacement. It's unfortunate that Sage and Lifeguard and Slipstream and even the already established characters so often became deux ex machinas and used their powers in unbelievable and creatively lazy ways to advance plots.

But on the whole, I like this book a lot despite its many flaws. And taken together, much of this series and his following run on Uncanny that continued his plots is his best work at Marvel since returning.

Jeff said...

I totally agree with Errant.

I love this run up through the sequel to God Loves, Man Kills after which Kordey's art got to be a serious problem for me.

Something about the premise really clicked for me. I liked this kind of sheltered team of X-Men off to the side having their own epic quest. It reminded me a lot of the Australian years. And for me it was fun. There were a lot of problems with the book due to editorial interference, but I'm not going to lay those at Claremont's feet and I think he worked around them.

Look, it's not great art, but there was just enough of an echo of the old Claremont in this that it reminded me of days as a youngster at my grandparent's house reading those old 80s issues. I had a blast with this series.

errant said...

Agreed Jeff. I think if Claremont had kept the tone that he used on this book when he was launching things like New Excalibur and X-Men Forever, those books would have been more successful.

Somewhere along the way, maybe in his Uncanny run following X-treme, he started to write everything as being action-packed and very quickly paced.

It's what I don't like about how X-Men Forever has gone. Admittedly, I'm only up through the 4th TPB, so maybe it got better, but more of the even-handed tone and characterization of the 80's and X-treme might have improved my opinion of Forever. It's almost like he's over-adapted to modern comics writing for finite trade arcs and the knowledge that he the plug can be pulled at any time. Both are necessary calibrations on his part, but he throws out a lot of ideas very quickly and there's a lot of running around and falling in love at the expense of character development or the feeling of building toward something.

That's why I liked early X-treme. It struck the right balance.

Jason said...

I've read much about this series, but never read a single issue myself. I think at the time that I was hearing about it, I wondered if Claremont was at all influenced by "Alias," a show that I like because it is Claremont-esque, and which I suspect Claremont would like. The focus on artifacts created by someone who could predict the future (and the search for said artifacts) mirrors a major element of "Alias," as does the reveal that Tessa was a "double agent" spying on the Hellfire Club for Xavier (which I think is stupid).

But the first issue of X-Treme predates "Alias" by quite a bit, so my theory was wack.

Anyway. Fun to read as always, Neil ... !

Joe Gualtieri said...

Poor Igor Kordey. The well was so poisoned by drawing that issue of New X-Men in a weekend, people even profess not to like perfectly fine work like his run on X-Treme X-Men.

errant said...

I like Kordey fine. His work was perfect for books like Cable/Soldier X.

His New X-Men work was very rushed and I don't judge his work on X-treme by that. It's just that it's a jarring transition from Larroca's look that fit the book very well, IMO.

I just don't think his pencils suit superhero work. His work on X-treme is miles ahead of New X-Men, but the syle is more at home on grim-n-gritty freedom fighters in the South American jungle. Admittedly, I haven't seen him on anything outside of his work on the X-books.

Paul Steven Brown said...

I've been rereading these issues recently since we are covering this period during our Days of X-Men Past segment on the X-Nation podcast (http://culturalwormhole.blogspot.com/search/label/X-Nation). I have to admit that I really didn't care for X-Treme X-Men when I was reading it as it was coming out, but I've been enjoying the reread for the most part.

I can relate to the word blurring effect that Claremont's script can induce. That first issue is nothing compared to the truly awful depths reached by the X-Treme X-Men: Savage Land mini-series. That was overly written and so boring.

However, if I remember correctly, X-Treme X-Men picks up when Kitty is reintroduced during the sequel in name only, "God Loves, Man Kills II". The "Intifada" was pretty good, too. However, Claremont falls in love with a winding mind-control plotline during the last year and a half of the series.

Teebore said...

@Neil: 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...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.

This is a fascinating idea, Neil. If X-Treme X-Men is a showcase for Claremont's weaknesses, a breeding ground for the tics and tropes that offend his critics, it makes me wonder if people reading it retroactively criticized his original run, erroneously applying his (pardon the pun) extreme tics in X-Treme to his past work, in much the same way that sometimes, when an original work is parodied, it becomes harder to appreciate it without recalling the parody that pointed out its flaws.

Basically, what I'm getting at is this: is X-Treme X-Men responsible for the negative sentiments that follow Claremont online and attempt to tarnish his original run?

(Which isn't to say I disliked X-Treme. Parts of it, I liked (I seem to recall enjoying most of the Khan/Invasion story, and the God Love/Man Kills sequel), though the Sage retcon, the shiny colors and such lame characters as Lifeguard and Slipstream weren't as enjoyable. And by the end, I can't deny that it often displayed the worst of Claremont's tics rather than the best.)

Anonymous said...

Some real problems stick out from this series.
First was Claremont's creation of those surfer twins. They were just horrible, uninteresting characters on every level.
Then, there was the problem of every other plot seeming to involve mind control.
Finally, there was Claremont's turning of Sage into Superman, but I believe that was after X-Treme X-Men when Claremont returned to Uncanny again. It was a bit too much.

Jason said...

Tee, I think it's true that the "parody" aspect of the latter work tarnishes the earlier stuff.

That said, Claremont also seems to be a lightning rod for weird criticisms that are nothing to do with anything he really did. I saw on one website someone complaining about how Claremont is the reason that "death doesn't mean anything in superhero comics," because of all the resurrections that Claremont would do. Err, what? I honestly don't think Claremont EVER did that. (Jean Grey is the big example from X-Men, but he didn't resurrect her.) Indeed, Claremont was loathe even to kill people off, but once he or someone else did (Thunderbird, Doug Ramsey), Claremont sure didn't bring 'em back.

Or on another website, someone posted the infamous "attempted gay rape" scene from HULK MAGAZINE (for those who don't know, Bruce Banner is almost gangbanged by some guys at the YMCA ... yikes ...) And someone posted this (exact quote):

'Did Claremont write the rape/fisting scene? There wasn't enough words....and nothing about the "total sum of his cock powers"....but I get a "take my asshole" sorta Claremont vibe from the story.'

Someone explain to me where THAT reaction comes from (apart from a place of deep homophobia).

neilshyminsky said...

Wow, some unexpected love for X-Treme X-Men!

Just to be totally clear, though, my review concerns the first issue, exclusively. (My final review, of CC's return to Uncanny, is positively glowing, and so indirectly addresses how XXM gets stronger.) So if anyone wants to defend XXM 1 on the merits of that issue alone, feel free. I'm not sure that there's much to laud within these pages alone, though.

errant wrote: "Much of the criticism here could be applied to any first issue of a book that does its job, which is to set up the premise, establish the characters and get the plot started."

Yes and no, though it's probably my fault for being too obtuse. I grabbed the first two trades off my shelf that caught my eye to see whether this is largely true. The first issue of The Ultimates has a 20 page action scene, but that's maybe an exception. The first issue of Seven Soldiers has roughly a 50-50 split, yes. The expository/discussion pages in Seven Soldiers #0, though, largely involve motivated, plot-driven travel - I, Spyder going to and then leaving the seven men, The Whip deciding to join the team and traveling to their base, the team meeting and heading out to find the spider, and so on.

The expository/discussion stuff in XXM 1, on the other hand, is just people sitting and standing around with no particularly destination or narrative attached to it. (And, as I noted, that cardinal sin of reducing one character to the role of the idiot-who-need-stuff-explained-but-he-should-already-know device.) If not for the ambush, there would be no plot at all in this issue.

errant said...

Ultimates, from what I remember, and what I read of the first few books was billed as an action book. And Morrissson.... while I usually like his ideas, I've never found him that competent at expressing them on the page. There's either too much missing to put the idea forward in a credible way or it just ends up a jumbled mess of big ideas punctuated with some action sequences to tie them up.

My point above is that I don't really care for a whole lot of action. A 50/50 talking/action or a 20/80 talking action book is just fine with me. I'd rather read about the characters and what they're up to than read about some battle they're rushing headlong into before the reason has been properly established for me.

Perhaps it's my age. Perhaps it's nostalgia for when things happened AND there was some action because a page or two was required, but to me X-treme harkens back to an age when I cared about the characters because that's what the book was about for me.

I'm not saying Claremont didn't/doesn't drop the ball at times with the balance, but I'd rather spend some time with a comic rather than be finished with it in 3 minutes because there wasn't anything to *READ*. "Too wordy" has never been a drawback on a comic to me.

Marc Caputo said...

It would be SO cool if the next installment was subtitled "Number 4 in a 5 issue mini-series"

neilshyminsky said...

errant wrote: "I'd rather read about the characters and what they're up to than read about some battle they're rushing headlong into before the reason has been properly established for me."

I think that this is where the Morrison example is instructive, though. He establishes the team's reason for existing, and does so in a way that isn't insulting (as opposed to having things explained to Thunderbird) and which allows the plot to advance and characters to take shape while all of the explaining happens (as opposed to the three separate scenes in XXM 1 where character sit or stand and just talk to each other about the concept of the comic). So, sure, you want the concept properly established - my point, though, is that what Claremont did for the majority of this comic could have been covered in a one page 'Previously in...' kind of summary. It was that dry and that unnecessary to the actual story that was unfolding in the book.

Nathan Adler said...

Claremont has been particularly notorious for drawing all us fans in with dangling plotlines he has no real intention of resolving. What has made me come to this conclusion is panels 4 & 5 of page 13 in X-Treme X-Men #1 where Sage reveals how Irene Alder sat down at her desk and began to transcribe the future of human and mutantkind after her mutant powers became active at the age of 13, and it was the weight of what she foresaw during these thirteen months which caused her to become physically blind. However, he earlier reveals on panel 4 of page 19 in Uncanny X-Men #254 that Destiny had been “BLIND SINCE BIRTH”. While he might have forgotten specific details of what he’d earlier written, he could at least have made an effort to go back and check. If I had been his editor he’d never have gotten away with something like that.

With regard to his tropes, yes I got so tired of so many of his characters having a ‘royal heritage’ revealed. It was fine and fitting for Storm given her connection with the Rain Queens of Balobedu, but it got out of control. The next Claremont column needs to be about coming up with a list of his main tics and tropes, this one included.

And yes, his revelation of Tessa as a “sleeper” for Xavier seemed forced, given there was no proper build-up, another case-in-point the garish “Viper is my wife” cliffhanger. Both would have been interesting stories had they had more effective groundwork laid. His editors sure didn’t keep his excesses in check. Claremont requires editors that have a detailed knowledge of his previous plots given his work was picking up on past threads. I’d suggest that Claremont’s titles have all failed since his return because he has had poor editorial management to keep his excesses in check.

While I agree with you on some level with regard to the surfer twins, their story began to get interesting with the entry from Destiny’s Diary implying that the siblings were “Mothered by War,” which seemed to suggest they were the half-Shi’ar offspring of Deathbird’s unnamed sister whom she murdered, Heather’s codename Lifeguard clueing us in to her mother’s attributes being polar opposites to those of her murderous sister who represented death.

NietzscheIsDead said...

Speaking purely in defense of issue #1 of this series and in particular the claim that he was left with an odd grab-bag of characters to use... this doesn't seem quite right to me. Compare the initial cast of X-Treme X-Men to this image:


which was originally a promo for adjectiveless X-Men #1 before Claremont had decided to leave the series. Omitting the obvious absence of Wolverine (who would go on to appear in X-Treme later anyway), the two casts closely mirror one another, with Jubilee as the spunky newcomer who needs everything explained to her (in which capacity she would arguably have done better than Thunderbird) and Forge as the Bishop replacement. Storm is even wearing in the Jim Lee picture the necklace that she picks up during the Khan saga in X-Treme X-Treme also begins with Psylocke being killed in issue #2, just as Adjectiveless would have had Wolverine killed in issue #3 (the second of the planned storyline, after Claremont's proposed one-shot issue #1), and Claremont claims to have planned the Destiny's Diaries arc as early as 1989.

Overall, I would wager that X-Treme is probably very similar to the story that Claremont had planned for the Gold Team of X-Men if he hadn't quit: have them away from the mansion, having global adventures and being completely separate from the Blue Team, who would fill the Harras-mandated "old school" feel.