Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Uncanny 444 (#4 in a four-issue limited series)

[A while back Neil was looking at Claremont's return to the X-Men, a series in four parts. He sent me the first three together, but the fourth a bit later -- and I totally missed that last part. So to give Neil the time I thought he needed I ran Jason Powell's Best Of series. Then when I decided to bug him about where he was with that fourth part, I discovered what happened. Sorry about the confusion. Here is the last of Neil's posts about Claremont's return.]

Before I talk at all about the interior of the comic, I wanted to address its cover. Where the other three comics that I’ve written about are given either standard team shots or dramatic battle poses (or, in the case of variant covers, both) – the stuff deemed appropriate for (re)launches and stories that are ostensibly epic in scope – this one is subdued and whimsical. It’s just Nightcrawler’s looping tail, and Claremont’s name is just one of the several in the bottom corner. There’s no hoopla surrounding this second return to Uncanny, and it seems that the comic is better for it.

I noted, ambiguously, at the close of the last entry that Claremont pieces his voice back together by the end of X-Treme X-Men, and carries that confidence over to Uncanny when he returns one last time. (Well, ‘one last time’ as of this writing, anyway.)

Perhaps most interesting is Claremont’s ‘creation’* of the XSE over in X-Treme, and subsequent decision to carry the concept over to the core books. (Along with more or less the same team that served as the X-Men in X-Treme. It’s a messy transition, since Claremont had to hastily resolve the tensions that originally drove the two teams apart in the last issue of XXM, and does a poor job here of explaining why some characters leave and join the XSE. Cyclops’ and Wolverine’s interaction to this effect is particularly weak.)

(* ‘Creation’ in the sense that the XSE had never existed in the mainstream MU, but Bishop worked for the XSE in the alternate future from which he came. Claremont is shows a lot of willingness to play with the toys that others added to the X-sandbox in his absence – even the stupidest ones, like Azazel. Though, now that I think about it, the issue of Nightcrawler’s parenthood is addressed only in the form of a joke – and this is probably as it should be.)

But there’s an even more important difference, here: it feels like Claremont is actually having fun. The first issues of “Revolution” were weighed down by the expectations that Claremont was feeling, and the first issue of X-Treme tried too hard to justify its own existence through painful exposition. This second return to Uncanny, on the other hand? It opens with a baseball game, and one that quickly devolves into a surprisingly and convincingly tense moment. And it should be added that this isn’t because a Sentinel crashes the party, or anything, but emerges in an entirely organic fashion between two people that were bound to butt heads. (Four words: Rachel pitching. Emma batting.) This is precisely the sort of character stuff that Claremont has always done so well.

I realize that I’ve done hardly anything to address the pictures that accompany Claremont’s stories – and when I do, it’s mostly to dismiss them as crap. Not so with Davis who, in the Rachel-Emma scene, does a wonderful job of playing up the fun and nonchalance before obliterating it: his Emma Frost looks homicidal, his Rachel positively eerie. Jason has noted in a lot of places that Claremont seems especially driven when he’s collaborating with a gifted artist, and I can only assume that the same effect is in evidence here.**

(**Just once, though, just once, I would like someone to look at a picture of a baseball game, of how the players line-up on the field, before attempting to actually draw people playing it. Because it’s clear that Davis probably has some kind of idea or visual references for how they should stand, but no idea where they should stand.)

As compared to the first issue of X-Treme, Claremont also manages to fit a remarkable amount of story and character stuff into the standard-size space. Even the obligatory scene-setting stuff is made interesting. The baseball game is an amusing, if a bit vacuous, way to establish the two factions within the X-Men, and in addition to the Emma-Rachel showdown Claremont and Davis get a chance to show that they can do more subtle emotions, too. When Emma brushes off the fight with the comment to Cyclops that “Rachel’s but a child. [whispered:] Who never should have been born,” Wolverine replies, to no one in particular, “Guess some folks have all the luck”. Davis reinforces the disconnect between the two by boxing Wolverine off in his own panel, despite the fact that he is literally standing beside Emma. (And so this wonderful scene also serves to answer Cyclops’ earlier, awkwardly staged question to Wolverine about why he would join Storm’s team.) Likewise, Sage’s surveillance review could easily be cluttered with tedious narration about who these people are and what they’re doing, but Claremont and Davis cleverly juxtapose scenes like Bishop silently leaving flowers at Jean’s grave (and, amazingly, they give us enough credit to realize that it is her grave, because we don’t actually see her name) with Scott and Emma “conferencing” in the dark in his office.

There are also a few call-backs to earlier Claremont eras that deserve mention. (And, unlike X-Men 100, where Claremont reuses the space station location but to little effect and even less purpose, these ones are meaningful.) First, Claremont puts Storm, Wolverine, and Nightcrawler together in a Danger Room scene in order to make it clear that, a) yes, these three 80s favourites are the core of the team once again, and b) even if there are only three of them, and even if the comic has seemed fluffy up to this point, they are dangerous as all hell. Second, Storm’s articulation of the team’s mission – “The first generation of mutants needs to take responsibility for their heirs” – has a particular irony to it, insofar as this was X-Factor’s original purpose and that same mission was rebuked ferociously by Wolverine and Storm at the time. (I cover this period, briefly, in my own blog post.) It’s an interesting shift from the earlier version of Storm, in particular, but hardly a surprising one – Storm has been so badly mishandled since Claremont first left her that the days of proactive mutant-liberator/terrorist Storm have long since been forgotten and would seem wholly out of place. (Which is a shame, but...)

Third on this list, although we don’t yet know it in this first issue, Claremont is also returning to a storyline that he had to abort and re-write the first time around – The Fury. What inklings we do get of the story are brief but ominous and wonderfully wrought. When Sage asks Brian Braddock whether the X-Men can stop by, his two-panel response is off-screen. Which wouldn’t be all that weird, I admit, except that in one of those panels we see a rotary phone, front-and-center – and the receiver is still on the hook. It’s one of those things that’s subtle enough that you might miss it the first time, and then you get goosebumps when you look it over again and realize what they were trying to tell you.

One of the reasons that my brief series ends here, though, is that Claremont doesn’t really sustain this level of excitement or nuance. Davis leaves after barely more than half a year and Claremont seems to flounder a bit, playing to what I would imagine he perceives to be the desire of his readers or his artists and doing things like writing self-consciously decompressed stories that don’t play to his strengths. (His “24 seconds” in UXM 467 is particularly egregious, as the story is meant to cover exactly that length of time and you can read it in about twice that.) He leaves after only 30 issues, in the middle of a storyline that gets wrapped up by Tony Bedard, no less, but which he’ll kinda follow-up on when he takes over Exiles. That’s a partial victory, I guess, but it’s a long way from the promise shown in this first issue of his final run on the X-Men.

[I would also like to add that “The first generation of mutants needs to take responsibility for their heirs” is also amusing insofar as Claremont is returning to the X-Men to take responsibility for his heirs who have done all kinds of things since he left.]


neilshyminsky said...

"I would also like to add that “The first generation of mutants needs to take responsibility for their heirs” is also amusing insofar as Claremont is returning to the X-Men to take responsibility for his heirs who have done all kinds of things since he left"

Yes, of course! It isn't nearly as aggravating if you read it as metacommentary.

Nathan P. Mahney said...

I loved this run, probably the high point of Claremont's return to the x-books. It's a real shame that he got cut off mid-stream by illness and wasn't able to finish the story (and stay on the book indefinitely).

Jeff said...

How bad are the X-Books right now? This is the first time since the age of nine that I've dropped every single one.

Teebore said...

I remember very little of this issue, or this second return run on the whole, other than having had a mild, inoffensive dislike to it.

I remember that it wasn't terrible, but it wasn't terribly exciting either, though definitely a step up from the previous, much-hyped return.

And man, Sage. Is there a bigger Mary Sue in comics? Something about her Claremont just LOVED.

Isaac P. said...

Coming on the heels of Morrison's New X-Men, Claremont's return to Uncanny felt fun but stifled and musty. I quit buying the issues after the first arc. Now with a little time passed, I'm looking out for the trades at the local second-hand bookstores. I think I'll enjoy the fun and the art over my annoyance at being reminded yet again about Ororo's claustrophobia :)

Anonymous said...

I had some problems with this run at the start (the use of Sage being a big one), but by the end of this run, I was really enjoying it and Claremont was getting really creative again. It was a shame that he got cut off prematurely as he was really hitting a good stride.

Vincent Nunes said...

But...the FURY!