Saturday, June 07, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #134

[Guest-blogger Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont's X-Men run. For more in this series, see the toolbar on the right.]

“Too Late the Heroes”

The sheer, thrilling power of Claremont and Byrne’s two-part Magneto story in issues 112/113 were so effective that Claremont would reprise their basic format – heroes are beaten by the villain one at a time in part one, only to rally and combine their powers to achieve success in part two, before some greater disaster snatches a defeat from the jaws of their victory – again and again over the next 13 years.

A fine variation upon the structure exists here. After being trounced by the Hellfire Club in issue 132, the X-Men spent the following issue with all but Cyclops and Wolverine treading narrative water as prisoners, only to rally here in one of the most exciting superhero action sequences ever executed in a comic book. Meanwhile, like the volcano in Uncanny #113, Jean Grey is in the background preparing to erupt and turn the X-Men’s victory into ashes.

The Hellfire Club are Claremont and Byrne’s first original team of villains created for the X-Men (Alpha Flight were created by them as well, but deliberately conceived as superheroes). The expertly execution of issues 132-134 makes them seem cooler than they are; out of context, they are an admittedly unimpressive lineup. Sebastian Shaw is a fantastic creation – a raw and rough-edged bastard dolled up in Edwardian finery – and his creative super-power generates in the reader that classically childlike reaction: “How can the heroes possibly beat him?” But his two sidekicks are hardly as awe-inspiring: Harry Leland is an overweight man who can make other people overweight as well; and Donald Pierce has no discernible personality whatsoever, other than a briefly intriguing notion that he has anti-mutant prejudices – despite all his comrades-in-arms being mutants themselves. (Pierce calls Colossus a freak during their fight.) Unsurprisingly, when Claremont uses the Hellfire Club in future stories, Shaw and the White Queen will always be portrayed as the core, the other members playing incidental roles.

Still, the Hellfire Club’s use here is masterful, and the battle between them and the X-Men is furiously exciting. There is a clever answer to the question of how to defeat Shaw – a man who absorbs kinetic energy and thus cannot be hit without becoming stronger – as well. Cannily enough, Storm simply begins sucking the heat (another form of energy) from the surrounding air, “freez[ing] the fight out of him.”

After the routing of the Hellfire Club, Claremont brings the long-running Wyngarde/Jean storyline to a breathtaking conclusion, employing text in a way we haven’t seen him explore before. Up to now, Claremont’s verbose narration either transitions readers from scene to scene, or is layered onto the scene in order to bring a more baroque, pseudo-literary overtone to the action depicted by the artist. Here, however, after Phoenix dispatches Mastermind, the text deliberately launches on a path that seems far removed from Byrne’s images. While the artist simply depicts the X-Men’s frantic escape from the Hellfire Club, Claremont creates imagery all his own in the prose. In a panel depicting just Jean walking down a corridor as Cyclops runs to catch up with her, Claremont writes:

“The obsidian flames burn brighter within her, and, in the distance, she hears music – a symphony of power long-sought and well-remembered. Transfixed by an unhuman joy, her burning soul spreads its wing, and soars towards a destiny that will no longer be denied.”

On the penultimate page, the X-Men are shown boarding their plane, and in a panel that is nothing more than the aircraft taking off, the narration goes: “She reels under the impact of more sensations than she has names for ... as her song of power builds to its inevitable crescendo.”

The overall effect of this surprising juxtaposition – imagistic prose set against prosaic images -- is chillingly powerful, and could only be achieved with such precision in comics.

On the final page, Claremont and Byrne suddenly snap back into their appropriate roles: The art contains the inevitable surprise cliffhanger of the final page: Phoenix in her evil, red-costumed incarnation for the first time, causing an explosion. And the text – delightfully, deliciously – takes us full circle, as Jean reprises the dialogue from Phoenix’s first appearance in X-Men #101, which ends with the iconic “Now and forever – I am PHOENIX!” Thus is the Dark Phoenix Saga propelled into its final three-issue act, and the momentum of the turning point could not be fiercer.


Anonymous said...

ok dammit, you got me... I just ordered a cheapo copy of Dark Phoenix off of amazon.

Anonymous said...

Okay, very brief here.

Firmly agreed, that the Hellfire Club (other than Shaw, check) were not very impressive; also that Claremont mostly managed to make them work anyhow. Although one wonders why he didn't just come up with cooler villains to begin with.

You skipped Jean's punishment of Wyngarde! It's a very cool four-panel sequence. (Can you post panels here? I think it could add a lot to the discussion.)

Note that Storm's attack here is a version of the one she used against Magneto back in 112.

Note also that Scott continues to be great in combat -- IMS he directs the combined attack that takes the Club down -- but useless with Jean; he knows something's wrong, but can't help he, and is a bystander to the final pages.

The prose. Okay, three things.

One, you're perfectly right; this overlay technique is something that hadn't been used much in mainstream comics, and it's very powerful here.

Two... there's no nice way to say this... that prose is pretty damn purple. "The obsidian flames burn brighter within her"?

Three, that prose is very. Strongly. Sexualized.

Transfixed, unhuman joy, impact of sensations, building to an inevitable crescendo? Ai yi yi -- it's straight from In an earlier thread you expressed disgust at the scene in Whedon where Kitty comes. Well, this was present in Claremont too, and nowhere more blatantly than here.

What Claremont and Byrne are telling us here, as explicitly as possible in a mainstream comic in 1979, is that being Dark Phoenix an orgasm. It's an orgasm that /never stops/.

And it blows stuff up because, well, that's what uncontrolled female sexuality does.

To go from the sublime to the ridiculous, notice that Claremont has managed to once again work in a recurring gag from very early in his run: that every time the X-Men ride in something mechanical, it's going to explode.

Doug M.

Jason said...

Doug ...

Sorry, don't have time for much today. One point, though: Whedon's sexual stuff is explicit and, in my opinion, sophomoric. The Claremont text quoted here is metaphoric. True, it's easy to see what the metaphor is for, but the fact that he doesn't spell it out gives it both an energy that Whedon's material (in my opinion) lacks, and also strikes me as ... I don't know, classier?

Stephen said...

Am I the only one who thought Harry Leland was cool?

And as a kid I found the whole structure of the Hellfire Club -- elite public face, hired goons, scary inner circle -- effectively creepy. The whole chessboard motif was effectively... masonic, I'd say now: evoked the whole secret- society-ruling-the-world thing well.

And yes: the entire issue is well-structured, a cool superhero fight. (I actually liked #133 better than you: a key part of the effectiveness of the trilogy is keeping them in captivity as suspense builds.)

And yes: the prose is purple. And sexualized.

Great post, as always.


neilshyminsky said...

Doug: "one wonders why he didn't just come up with cooler villains to begin with."

My guess is because the Hellfire Club is supposed to be the inverse of the X-Men, metaphorically speaking. The X-Men are young, rebellious counter-culturalist freaks, so the Club must be old, distinguished, hegemonic, and mainstream - they aren't supposed to be cool. This involves silly costumes, sure, but it's a superhero comic, after all. (And I still think the whole schtick is kinda cool, as far as costumes go anyway. They'd undignify it a lot more in subsequent encounters.)

Upon reflection, too, I quite like that the Hellfire Club isn't planning to take over the world. One gets the impression that they don't need to because they *already* control it. (Too bad that influence couldn't have been shown to extend across other books.) Which makes sense, I suppose - if they're the establishment, then there's no need to establish the rule that they already have. But maybe this is too subtle to be frightening or impressive, especially in a superhero comic where impressiveness is usually determined according to the flashiness of your power or size of the panel you're given.

Josh Hechinger said...

Stephen - Harry Leland's visually based off Orson Welles. Of COURSE he's cool.

Speaking of: anyone brought up the Peter Wyngarde thing? Peter Wyngarde as Jason King = Jason Wyngarde.

And Shaw was based on Robert Shaw.

I seem to recall the whole Hellfire concept being lifted from some 70s TV show...minus the mutant and Phoenix stuff, obviously.

No idea if Emma and Pierce were supposed to be anyone....

(I don't have any insight to add, clearly, just trivia.)

Anonymous said...

Josh: Excellent stuff!

From the Wikipedia entry on Peter Wyngarde:

Wyngarde had played the leader of another Hellfire club in "A Touch of Brimstone", an episode of the popular TV series The Avengers starring Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg who appeared in a leather costume that Jean Grey would adopt as the Hellfire Club's Black Queen.

Diana Rigg's character in The Avengers is named Emma Peel.

From YouTube, Diana Rigg as The Queen of Sin.

Anonymous said...

Josh, J. Liang, I didn't know any of that stuff about Claremont's sources for the Club. Great!

About the only thing I can add along those lines is a question. The title ("Too Late, The Heroes"): does it come from the 1970 war movie or the John Entwhistle song?

The movie is a pretty standard late 1960s WWII flick, not bad, not great, and doesn't seem thematically connected in any way. Not that this has ever prevented an artist from snitching a cool title, of course... but the song seems a much better fit. Check out the lyrics:

"Too late the hero
It all comes to zero
And I, I wish I could stop
And start it again.


"It's easy, the villains always wear black
They see your guns and turn back
It only happens in the movies
It's easy, the heroes always wear white
The ladies fall off at the sight
It only happens in the movies.

"As the Viking ship drifts off to the sea
The black sail bursts into fire
I turn to kiss the princess
I have to pacify her
The arrows fall
The sky is red
The music gets higher and higher."

-- and if you listen to the track, with its slow beat, haunting bass line and minor chords, it fits even better.

But! But! The album came out in 1981, almost two years after this comic.

Did Entwistle release this track before the summer of 1979? Because if not, that's a heck of a coincidence.

(Unless the arrow of influence went the other way, and the comic inspired the song... but I can't imagine a generation of Who fans would have missed that.)

Jason, as to the Kitty thing, I didn't read that issue so I can't judge. I will say that this goes to a particular strength of comics as a medium: the ability to show only so much, and let our minds dwell on what isn't depicted. Other media can do this too, of course, but comics are unique because we can stare at the page, returning to it again and again to parse what's not there.

In "Understanding Comics", Scott McCloud calls this the "blood in the gutter" phenomenon. (The gutter being, of course, the blank white linear space that separates the panels on the page.) It's a nice turn of phrase.

And speaking of Scott McCloud, there's an issue of Zot! -- I believe it's #31, from 1990 or so -- that does a great job showing one adolescent male comic fan's reaction to this storyline. That doesn't sound all that interesting, but actually it's excellent. IMO Zot! was very uneven -- McCloud is better writing about comics than making them himself -- but the Earth Stories were a real high point of that series, and worth seeking out for themselves.

Anyway. We've now deconstructed the Hellfire Club trilogy as "Sex", "Violence", and "Sex and violence". Onwards!

Doug M.

Stephen said...

an issue of Zot! -- I believe it's #31, from 1990 or so -- that does a great job showing one adolescent male comic fan's reaction to this storyline. That doesn't sound all that interesting, but actually it's excellent

Alas for those of us who read reprints, the Earth stories have heretofore not been collected.

But! A complete collection of the series from #11 on -- the black & white ones -- is being printed this summer. At last! At long last!

Better believe my copy's on order.

So I'll finally get to read #31, and the Earth Stories generally.

Based on just the first three trades -- up until the mid 20's somewhere -- I'd agree the series was uneven, but I think I liked it more than you. What I'd say is that the color issues (#1-10) were weak, but that from #11 on it was great and well worth reading.

Oh, and incidentally, "McCloud is better writing about comics than making them himself" is only true if you define "comics" as "fictional stories"; his books about comics are themselves comics -- and quite excellent comics. IMO, Understanding Comics is simply one of the high points of the medium, apart from its (very insightful) analysis.


Jason said...

Man, I'm so behind on this one.

Scott -- awesome that you bought a copy of DPS. Let us know what you think!

Stephen and Doug-- I like purple prose. I have since freshman English class. "Obsidian flames" is a cool image! I've never thought of "purple prose" as a pejorative, personally.

Doug -- crazy about the Who song.

Josh -- thanks for listing all those actors. I should've done it in the post, I suppose, but I ... well, I have no excuse. (I believe Pierce is also based on an actor. Byrne made a list on his message board once, but it was a while ago and my memory has faded.)

Neil -- in issue 151, Kitty says something to the effect of, "They [the Hellfire Club] are all filthy rich. They don't have to be criminals. They do it for kicks. They're sick." It's my favorite line of the issue!

Neil and Stephen -- I agree, the Hellfire Club concept is cool. The chess-piece thing is corny, but fun. I stand by the notion that they're less interesting as individuals (except Shaw and Frost), but the secret-society thing is a great idea (albeit nicked from the "Avengers" TV show as Josh and J.Liang have explicated).

Stephen (and Geoff) -- I've been thinking about it over the weekend, and I'm probably being too hard on Whedon. I'm in the process of re-evaluating ...

Jason said...

Ah, found it. From Byrne:

"I designed the original Hellfire Club
members -- [Donald] Pierce was based on Donald
Sutherland, hence his name."

Anonymous said...

Jason, I always loved the X-Men's rally against the Hellfire Club in this issue, and I agree that it's one of the best hero team/villain team battles in comics, period. Cyclops is at his finest when he turns the tables on the Hellfire Club with a few well-placed blasts and well-barked commands. This arc replays a formula that was fairly hoary even in 1979--the heroes are defeated when they work separately but they win when they start working together--but that formula has rarely been executed with such skill. I really get the sense that it's the tactics that make the difference, not raw power (where the X-Men are arguably outclassed).

Oh, and Stephen: I always liked the color issues of Zot!, with their sprawling plot and immersive settings, more than the black and whites. Less ambitious, perhaps, than some of what followed, but they hit what they aimed for.

Anonymous said...

I'd say that Emma Frost is not very interesting in her first appearance (except, um, to look at) -- she developed a lot over the years, first as a villain and then as a sometime hero.

Shaw was good from day one, though. There's a wonderful moment from this issue that we all forgot to mention. It's when Shaw and Pierce are retreating (Leland and Wyngarde having been quite firmly disposed of by then). Pierce comes running up, holding his ruined arm, shouting "We're beaten, man -- beaten!" And Byrne's art nicely shows, not just by expression but body language too, his combination of disbelief and utter panic: how could this happen! You can almost hear his voice cracking.

Shaw, meanwhile -- still with some of Storm's snow in his hair, IMS -- is grim but utterly cool. He's all "this time... but we'll be back. Come along now." It's just a panel or two, but it establishes these two characters for the next 20 years: Pierce is arrogant but brittle and somewhat hysterical, Shaw is all confidence and male charisma.

Marc, tastes vary, but I thought the B&W issues of Zot! gave better weight -- you could see McCloud's artwork better, especially his facial expressions. He put a lot of love into his colored covers, and you can see how he's working in a different way. (Also, there are a lot of foreshadowings of _Understanding Comics_ in those issues!)

Doug M.

Stephen said...

I wonder if the issue of Zot! has to do with how one came to the work.

I first encountered Understanding & Reinventing Comics; then the Zot! online story McCloud did; that encouraged me to seek out the b&w trades -- which did indeed have a lot of cool foreshadowing of UC, just as the online story put RC into practice; was frustrated at my inability to buy Zot vol. 4 & 5;... and then got the color volume.

I think I might have liked the color stories more if I'd hit them first.

Or maybe not: after all, McCloud shares my view... to the point where the forthcoming reprint does only the b&w vols.

Oh, and "volume 5", you say? Yes, it was once promised. The never-published vol. 4 was to collect the earth stories (i.e. final b&w issues) -- which will now be included in the forthcoming reprint, so all is good. But vol. 5 was to collect two things: the issues only *written* by McCloud, but drawn by Chuck Austen (a two-parter done while McCloud was getting married), and, more importantly, all the backup strips & the fill-in issue done by the marvelous Matt Feazell.

We'll finally get to read vol. 4 (as part of the reprint package also including what was in vols. 2 & 3) this summer. But I bet we'll never get 5.



Anonymous said...

I read Zot! more or less in order of publication (through the Kitchen Sink and DC trades), but I'm not sure that's what governs my fondness for the color issues. I would agree with Doug that McCloud had certainly become better artist and visual storyteller by the time of the black and white issues, but his plotting is vastly superior in that first ten-issue arc. The length allows McCloud to luxuriate in plot complications, settings, ancillary characters like the prince who's trying to be his planet's answer to Zot... the arc is a galactic-sized playground that got me invested in Zot's universe. Later issues may have aimed for more emotional heft but it was the early issues that got me to care about the series in the first place.

(And I'm not sure that those later issues were necessarily any weightier or more mature--McCloud's visual craft grew by leaps and bounds, but the writing relies too much on quotidian realism, teenage melodrama, depressing failures, random deaths, and other devices that signal a desire for artistic maturity but are not necessarily any more mature than, say, the handling of the prince's death in the color issues.)

Also, the villains were absolutely perfect--neither Dekko nor 9-Jack-9 would be used so well again.

wwk5d said...

Still not sure I buy the sex and violence argument...but it is interesting to read here. I really don't buy the Phoenix as non-stop orgasm, or a symbol of uncontrolled female sexuality but hey, whatever floats your boat...

Yeah, Shaw was a bad-ass from day one. And cocky too. I remember he seemed to relish the fact that the X-men were about to escape, and that the HC was about to give them another beatdown...till, thanks the Cyclops, the floor literally falls out from under him.