Saturday, November 03, 2007

Jason Powell on Classic X-Men #4, part a (incorporating X-Men #96)

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men. For previous work in this series click his name in the tool-bar on the right.]

"Night of the Demon"

The issue begins with Cyclops having an argument with the narrator, which is ... kind of weird. The narrator is haranguing Scott about the death of Thunderbird, saying, "You and the X-Men saved the world ... but you'd lost a man to do it - and try as you might, you can't balance those scales ... can you, Cyclops?" "No," says Scott. "Can you?" the narrator repeats. "No," Scott says, a little louder. "CAN YOU?" "NO!" Claremont didn't ever really use second-person narration in X-Men after this issue. You can kind of see why.

Still, this is Claremont's first crack at fully plotting and dialoguing an X-Men story, and you can see his ideas about the characters starting to be developed by him and Dave Cockrum, and rapidly taking the place of Len Wein's more pedestrian notions. We see the classic contradictions beginning to take shape: Nightcrawler has the look of a demon, but his personality is out-going and fun-loving. (Wein's original conception of Nightcrawler was that he be more tortured.) Storm is a beautiful and naive native girl, but she's also incredibly powerful and has an iron will. Wolverine is an old, experienced soldier, but also psychotically unpredictable. (Wein's conception of Wolverine was that he was a rebellious teenager.) All of these contradictions are brought out in this issue, while still leaving room for a super-heroic brawl (albeit with a throwaway antagonist). There's also an encompassing aesthetic contradiction as well in these early X-Men issues. As Claremont proceeds to try to build in a stronger sense of psychological complexity than had been seen in superhero comics before now, the characters nonetheless all dress in bright primary colors. Blue, yellow and red dominate the X-Men uniforms at this point, with a bit of green (Banshee) and black and white (Storm) thrown in.

It may be a fanboyish thing to say, but the most fascinating X-Man, even in these earliest issues, is Wolverine. There's a vigorous dynamic established by the fact that the team is working and living alongside this guy who might disembowel them at any moment. In this issue, Wolverine gets mad at Nightcrawler for laughing at him, so he leaps at him and tries to slash him apart. Kurt, naturally, just teleports out of the way, and Banshee says to Wolverine, "You could've killed Nightcrawler then, you know." Wolverine's reply is a terse, "Yeah - I know." Then a few pages later, Kierrok smacks down Nightcrawler, and Wolverine becomes enraged, attacking Kierrok while screaming, "Nobody beats on Wolverine's buddies!" and then he goes to town on the demon with his claws. Already Claremont was giving Wolverine some interesting contradictions, of the kind that would later make Wolverine such a fan favorite among comic book fans, and - 25 years down the line - movie-goers.

There is a scene in this issue that's unique to Classic X-Men #4, not having appeared originally in X-Men #96: It starts as a corny comedy bit, with Storm going skinny-dipping in the mansion's pool only to be discovered by the male X-Men, much to the consternation of them all - except Wolverine, who finds it funny. Storm, who was strutting around topless when Professor X first recruited her, doesn't understand what all the fuss was about. She is telepathically chastised by Professor X to "use more discretion" in the future, and we segue into a scene between him and Moira MacTaggert, wherein Moira observes that the new X-Men are challenging Charles "in ways the old ones no longer could," and that they're "pulling [him] from [his] shell." It's a simple turn of phrase, but a very canny way to segue (retroactively) between the stodgy Professor X of the '60s and the more dynamic version that Claremont would create.

[Geoff Klock: Now that I will be reading these issues alongside Jason, I will drop in small comments from time to time. Here I would just mention the quaint moment where Storm says "That bolt of energy from the cairn -- there's no time to avoid it--*" Mystery Science Theater would be quick to point out that she had time to narrate the thing, but not to get away from it. I am starting to get to a place where I can find stuf like this charming rather than annoying.]


Geoff Klock said...

I notice a connection between Claremont's X-men and Whedon's Buffy -- the bad guys are often forgettable, excuses to explore character.

Anonymous said...

You may discover other Claremont/Whedon connections as well as your reading continues. According to this post by Patrick,, Joss Whedon has been quoted as saying the Claremont comics drawn by Paul Smith are a huge influence on "Buffy." (I want to say that Whedon said his very first X-Men comic was also Paul Smith's first (Uncanny #165), and that it was hugely effective on him.) It will be a while before my series gets that far, but I have already noticed a few connections to be talked about at that point.

As for the conceit that an issue of "Radioactive Man" so amusingly pegged with the line, "No time to get out of the way -- only time to talk about it!!!"

I enjoy it as a conceit of the superhero comic genre ... but even I admit that with Claremont's verbosity it can get a little silly. Trust me, Geoff, if you continue reading you'll find worse examples than this one. :) (I have a great memory of being 12 years old and having a Claremont comic open to a page with the Beast punching something and his mouth open in kind of a roar -- and about six dialogue balloons coming out of his mouth in that single image. My dad looked over my shoulder as I was looking at this picture and without even reading any of it just pointing to that picture and saying, "Wow, he can say all those words with his mouth in that one position?" This was in 1990, and the issue I was reading had come out a week ago.)

Patrick said...

Thanks for the link shoutout. There was an interview with Whedon from when he was starting Astonishing where he said that Paul Smith X-Men basically was Buffy. And, I think 165 was his first issue, something around there.

As for the issue, this one isn't great, but it's definite improvement over the previous two. Claremont's Wolverine really earns the fan adoration he got over the years. My favorite early moment is when he's going to bring flowers to Jean and winds up trashing them, but my all time favorite Claremont Wolverine moment is the issue where Mariko leaves him at the altar and we leave on a silent panel of Wolverine crying.

Josh Hechinger said...

Roughness and goofy bits of the script aside, this issue is a pretty brilliant way of tackling superhero mourning.

I mean, look at the story: grief is a giant monster in your backyard that only stops when you deal with the source? Not terribly subtle, no, but a lot more interesting than everyone standing around crying in full costume.

And on a Comics-Are-Great note:

Nothing else in the issue really tops Professor X's hot European housekeeper pulling a machine gun out of the Mansion's armory and blazing away at the ancient demon from their backyard.

That's weird, right? That Professor X keeps fully loaded automatic weapons around the house?

Anonymous said...

Patrick, I read all of your Claremont posts. I really enjoyed them! I was going to post something to those entries but since they were all older I figured that might not be the best way to start a dialogue. But I am planning on addressing some of the commentary you made in this one-by-one series. So I hope you'll continue reading; I'd like to talk to you about some of that stuff -- especially the latter-day material because that stuff is so rarely discussed. (Not many people go beyond Claremont-Byrne in talking about Claremont's X-Men.)

"I mean, look at the story: grief is a giant monster in your backyard that only stops when you deal with the source? Not terribly subtle, no,"

Subtle enough that I missed it. That's great! I guess that is really Buffy-esque too, huh? The monsters are always a metaphor for some sort of emotional crisis.

"Nothing else in the issue really tops Professor X's hot European housekeeper pulling a machine gun out of the Mansion's armory and blazing away at the ancient demon from their backyard."

Yeah, that is awesome. I was going to talk about that but I felt like I was getting too long-winded already. According to John Byrne's behind-the-scenes account, that bit was not in Claremont's plot. Dave Cockrum added it while drawing the issue. (And when Claremont saw it, that was the moment he decided Moira was not going to be just a housekeeper. So we have that one panel to thank for Moira's entire backstory as a geneticist and ex-lover of Charles, etc.)

Patrick said...

It really baffles me that so many people say the run went down hill after Byrne left. While the Phoenix Saga is good, it's dated in a way that Mutant Massacre of Fall of the Mutants aren't. That's the team I think of when I think of the X-Men.

So, it could take a while, but I'm eager to see your reviews eventually reach there.

Geoff Klock said...

Patrick -- thanks for joining us. Continue to comment here. We like new people.

Josh -- great observations.

I am very eager to see this continue as well. I think I have had a crazy conversion experience. After years and years I finally get Claremont. Something just clicked when I re-read it this time around. Must just never have been in the mood before.

Josh Hechinger said...

I didn't know that about Moira/Cockrum/Claremont. That's great.

Some more grief monster bits that just occurred to me:

Cyclops sets the demon free by losing his cool and lashing out wildly. Which's unusual for Scott "so restrained his costume even features a glorified hairnet" Summers, sure.

But Claremont's illustrating a point here: if the team leader can't keep his head together, it puts the whole team at risk. In this case, from giant invincible monsters.

As for the fight itself: notice how everyone's attacks on the monster are mainly them trying to defend whoever just got smacked down by the monster? Storm goes down, Colossus saves her. He goes down, Nightcrawler lays into the monster. Nightcrawler goes down, Wolverine goes berserker. It escalates, to the point of overcompensation.

Everyone on the team clearly A) doesn't want to see another teammate die and B) is trying really, really, REALLY hard to make up for the fact that they sat on their thumbs when Proudstar went boom.

(Except for Banshee, who DID try to save Proudstar, and as such is barely involved in the fight.)

Anonymous said...

Josh, that's so cool. You're making me think I am the wrong blogger to be covering this stuff!

Josh Hechinger said...

Ahh, I wouldn't have noticed half this stuff if you hadn't taken a look at the issue in the first place.

But either way, glad you dug it.

Geoff Klock said...

Patrick, Josh -- just do us all a favor and come by and comment every time these things go up. I think this is going to be a great series, especially with your input.