Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Jason Powell on X-Men Annual #10

[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.]


Ostensibly a generic superhero action story the like of which we’ve already seen in years and years’ worth of X-Men annuals, “Performance” makes less sense on those terms than as a meta-commentary on the “X” franchise.

First, the backstory: By 1986, artist Alan Davis had been illustrating the adventures of Captain Britain for Marvel UK for several years, collaborating with writers Dave Thorpe, Alan Moore and Jamie Delano (in that order) before writing a couple vignettes himself. Davis’ penultimate Captain Britain story was a harsh one in which the title character’s sister, Elizabeth “Betsy” Braddock, replaced him in the role of Captain Britain, only to find herself not at all qualified; in a battle with the Captain’s enemy Slaymaster, her eyes were carved out.

This brings us to Claremont, who -- as the original creator of Betsy and the Captain -- imports their entire mythos into the “X” franchise in the Davis-illustrated New Mutants Annual #2. That same comic book also featured Mojo and Spiral (from Ann Nocenti and Art Adams’ six-issue Longshot miniseries) as the villains. Though they had returned to their home dimension at the end of the Nocenti/Adams mini, Mojo and Spiral were depicted returning to Earth, where they kidnapped the now-blind Betsy, outfitted her with bionic eyes, and used her telepathic powers to enslave children. The New Mutants teamed up with Captain Britain and foiled the plan, and Betsy decided to enroll in Xavier’s school.

That brings us finally to X-Men Annual #10, wherein we learn that Betsy (re-christened “Psylocke” by Claremont) is actually transmitting everything she sees at the X-Mansion to Mojo’s dimension via cameras in her bionic eyes. When the issue begins, the X-Men are fighting Magneto as part of a Danger Room exercise, and the action translates in Mojo’s dimension into a hit television show.

It’s one of Claremont’s zaniest plots, but there is logic to it. That Mojo sees the X-Men as a franchise is a kind of futuristic take on the old Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four comics, which established that the Fantastic Four were – even in their own fictional universe – also stars of a Marvel comic book. Now, in 1986, well into the “MTV” generation, the X-Men are the stars of a hit media franchise in the insane, short-attention-span universe ruled by Mojo. While the audience on Mojo’s world watches, the X-Men are forced into an adventure that reprises the iconic moments that begat the first two generations of the series: the X-Men vs. Magneto, which inaugurated the Silver Age series; then, the establishment of a new team to rescue/replace the old, a la Giant Sized X-Men #1 (the cover of which is emulated on the cover). Now, circa Uncanny issues 210 and 211 -- which Annual #10 unevenly fits between, chronologically -- the series is at the threshold of its third generation. If “Performance” is a microcosm of the watershed moments in the team’s history, then clues about the nature of that third version ought to exist here.

One such hint is the overdetermined nature of the story itself: the Captain Britain mythos, as personified by Psylocke, is forced onto the same plane as the X-Men’s world, and so are the characters and settings from Nocenti and Adams’ Longshot universe.

Note that the letter “X” can denote the intersection of two lines – an interpretation that will greatly inform Claremont’s remaining years on the comic. A series ostensibly about mutation will now be about cross-pollination – the intermingling of ingredients that have no rational reason to co-exist. As noted, Claremont’s new icon as of 1986 is Spiral, a six-armed dancer/poet who finds beauty in chaos. More and more as the series continues, Claremont will juggle an increasing amount of complex threads and plotlines, enjoying the chaotic beauty as he mixes and matches disparate elements. (The quintessence of Claremont’s philosophy is found in the appearance here of – absurdly -- a family of talking frogs that appeared recently in Thor.)

The other hint of what’s to come occurs at the end of the story, just after a hilarious bit wherein Claremont mocks his own typical melodrama by cutting from a cliché speech by Storm about heroism to a stylized Mojo-logo (“MGM: Mojo’s Giant Movies ... of Death”) and the image of fat creatures going wild with applause.

Afterwards, Mojo justifies his existence in the X-universe: “Where would all [the X-Men’s] heroism be without someone truly nasty to properly test them?!” he asks rhetorically. “Thanks to me, their existence has purpose.” It’s almost as if Mojo is an avatar here for Claremont himself – forcing the X-Men into increasingly horrible situations in order to give the characters purpose. This is, indeed, a predictor of what the future holds, as the X-Men’s rogues gallery starts to fill up with villains like Mojo – irredeemable bastards motivated simply by a desire to do “truly nasty” things. Thus, Mr. Sinister and the Marauders with their impending massacre of the Morlocks; the Adversary, who wants to destroy the universe on a whim; the Inferno demons, the Reavers, the Shadow King ... all these villains are ultimately, like Mojo, just Chris Claremont in disguise: giving the X-Men a purpose while keeping the ratings up.

Looked at from this perspective, Annual #10 emerges as Claremont’s most self-aware and most cynical X-Men comic.


Christian O. said...

Grant Morrison will later on reappropriate the idea of the Writer-villain, as a single entity, Sublime, for his own New X-men.

(And he does it, for good measure, in All-Star Superman as well. (Taking the familiar form of a bald, aging, supergenius. "Put me away, before I do something really terrible to Superman.")

ba said...

I enjoyed this review moreso than usual, Jason. Interesting interpretation of Claremont's aims for the second half of the 80s, and the nod to the increasing MTV culture of the time.

Also, huge psylocke fan, so I enjoyed this issue anyway. I happen to really like Arthur Adams' run in these next few issues - the characters' bodies seem exaggerated (e.g. nightcrawler and psylocke have extremely long, slender bodies, wolverine stunted and unbelievably hairy, and storm's hair is hyperbolic), but the attention to detail is marvelous.

Sometimes, and especially this issue, Claremont seems to give some characters totally incompatible dialogue. Specifically, Ororo waking up in the morning and speaking in teenager-ese (really bad teenager-ese). Arguably, she had been de-aged, but somehow, I doubt she ever talked like that at any point in her youth.

Though, I guess if you are going to make a zany story, might as well have it be the annual.

Anonymous said...

We're moving into the era of X-comics that I read, at most, once, and remember barely or not at all.

That said, on one hand I really like the metacommentary here. On t'other, I note again that you have to put all this in the context of what was happening in mainstream comics at this time. The late 1980s were an age of grim grittiness and nasty villains (and the equal-but-opposite reaction of whimsiness and wacky fun) everywhere, not just in the X-Men.

Something else I'd like to see brought out a bit more: the transformation of the X-Men from a marginal, minor title to Marvel's flagship and best-selling monthly magazine. This had a nontrivial effect on Claremont's writing, I think, both limiting and inspiring him. It also made him, I suspect, even more senstive to the zeitgeist.

Doug M.

Anonymous said...

Upon consideration, there's another wrinkle here: this is Claremont salvaging a female character again. It's reminiscent of what he did with Ms. Marvel, another interesting female character who'd been trashed by bad writing.

Hm. Pattern here?

Doug M.

Anonymous said...

No mention of the first appearance of the X-Babies? Okay, so they're not Mojo's original creations that we see later, they're just he adult X-Men de-aged, but they're still a lot of fun. Seeing our normally oh-so-serious crew turned into wide-eyed kids is pretty amusing.

I also like how the New Mutants have to step up and be adults. Their adult mentors are now younger than they are; they are the experienced ones now. The "graduation costumes" are pretty cool, especially the ones designed for Cannonball, Magik, Karma, and Magma. All of these characters kept getting stuck in either the school uniforms or forgettable costumes after this. Future artists on the X-franchise would have been wise to just go back and use these Arthur Adams-designed costumes. yet how is it all nine New Mutants have superhero costumes ready for them when they graduate? Wasn't the purpose of the New Mutants not to necessarily prepare them to be X-Men, just to school them in using their powers?

How about the Brat Pack cameo at the theater, sitting in the audience? A nod, perhaps, to the New Mutants annual, where they were a major part of the story.

Interesting how the X-Men annual features adults regressed into childhood while the New Mutants annual showed kids (or teens) being evolved into adults.

Anonymous said...

If you think this annual is a nightmare to shoehorn into the monthly mag's continuity, just wait until the next annual! Longshot, Dazzler, and Havok on the team, yet they live at the mansion. Say wha--?

It must take place in the same pocket universe the X-Men vs. the Avengers mini-series takes place in.

Gary said...

Anonymous: The space between X-Men #219 and #220 may be the most cramped interstitial space between issues ever - 9 (!) issues take place in there (as near as I can tell, in this order): X-Men/FF, X-Men/Avengers, and X-Men Annual 11. That's pretty dang busy!

Jason said...

Anon, yeah, Gary pretty much has the placement pegged. X-Men Annual #11 is easy to place, really, going between issues 219 and 220 with no real confusion. (Issue 220 begins with Longshot and Havok on the team, but all of them residing at the mansion, until Storm departs.)

Annual #10 is the one that raises all sorts of questions no matter where you place it.

But Gary, if you think the space between issues 219 and 220 is the most cramped, oh trust me, there are worse ones. Chronologizing Claremont's X-Men stuff is a big pet project of mine, and there are some gaps in there that are *huge.* The largest one that comes to mind right now is the one between issues 110 and 111, which perhaps wasn't too overdetermined originally, but a TON of the "Classic X-Men" b-side stories have to be shoved there. (And interestingly, they are coming out with a new retro X-Men book that features both Phoenix and Banshee as team members, which means all the issues of that series will have to go in that gap as well.)

Jason said...

Anon, yeah, this issue does have a lot of deliberate reflections with the contemporaneous New Mutants Annual. The whole thing of aging the New Mutants in one while de-aging the X-Men in the other is quite striking.

The "Graduation costumes" were used again by Claremont, in New Mutants 53-54. They say then that it is their "second time wearing the costumes," but then in New Mutants Annual 3, Claremont ret-cons in another instance of them wearing the same suits, in a story that has to go before New Mutants 53-54 (more chronological wackiness from Mr. Chris Claremont!).

As for why they had graduation costumes at all, I'll go ahead and try for a No-Prize: When Magneto took over the school, he knew the New Mutants would eventually have to replace the X-Men (cynic that he is), and so he created the costumes. And even as I write this, I'm guessing I'm wrong and that the comics themselves explicitly say that Professor X designed the costumes ... but it's all I got.

When Louise Simonson had the New Mutants go permanently into new suits, they eschewed the "graduation suits" because they felt like they were actually diverging from the School and its mission, so there was an in-story reason for why those costumes never were used beyond the Claremont tenure on "NM."

I do like those suits, though. Curiously, I recall someone once suggesting on a website that Karma and Mirage's outfits were somehow racist. I don't see that at all.

Jason said...

Doug, interesting point about the Betsy/Carol parallel. Interesting when one considers that those two characters briefly started to bond right around the latter part of the Australian era of the series (late 88, early 89).

Jason said...

Ba, glad you liked the blog entry! I agree with you about Art Adams on the annuals. For my money, his annuals (9, 10, 12 and 14) are the only ones from the whole Claremont era that one really needs to read.

I know what you mean about Claremont's dialogue. I think in this case (and other extreme examples), he's deliberately trying to throw readers off balance. He went through a period where his writing started to get really ... no quite opaque, but certainly a bit harder to penetrate. Storm's quasi-teenage thought-balloons and dialogue here are perhaps one of the earliest indicators of his weirdening aesthetic that really started to flower in the late 80s and early 90s.

ba said...

Jason - the chronological x-men bittorrents have a read order list with them that does a decent job of putting all x-books in chronological order. I've only noticed a few weird things with the new mutants circa inferno, because they had a number of issues that sort of didn't fit into chronology at all (around doug's death, gossamer, etc.). But it's worth checking out.

Jason said...

Thanks, Ba, but I've got it all figured out now. I don't trust those sites anyway, except in the broad sense that they'll generally get it right. The only way to do the nuts 'n' bolts is to read each one myself.

Labor of love!

Gary said...

Jason imparted his vast knowledge:
The largest one that comes to mind right now is the one between issues 110 and 111, which perhaps wasn't too overdetermined originally, but a TON of the "Classic X-Men" b-side stories have to be shoved there. (And interestingly, they are coming out with a new retro X-Men book that features both Phoenix and Banshee as team members, which means all the issues of that series will have to go in that gap as well.)
Don't ask me why, but that last sentence, cramming that gap between two issues with more than is remotely reasonable and then bringing out a whole new series to shove more in, just fills me with glee.

I am in disagreement vis a vis Jason's statement of Art Adams Annuals only, because Alan Davis does #11, which is a very good story. But I also enjoy the Impossible Man's scavenger hunt, and I know Jason's opinion on that is not positive (though I can see why on that one).

And yes, Annual #10 fits nowhere. No Rachel, fully powered Nightcrawler and Wolverine. Best between #210 and #211, but still a rough fit - but without being a stock story pulled out of the bins to fill an annual, because no Rachel, and she was on the team when Magneto became headmaster. FUN!

Jason said...

John Byrne has talked about how Claremont and he used to make plans for their stories, then in the scripting process, Claremont would change stuff because it "felt right in the moment."

I am guessing that's what happened with X-Men Annual #10 ... my assumption is that when Claremont wrote the script for that annual, he was planning on having either 1.) Kurt, Kitty and Colossus not get so badly wounded in the Massacre, or 2.) for them to heal in roughly short order. So then, the annual could just take place post-Massacre.

Instead, it must be crammed before, which means Longshot joins the team before the Massacre and then isn't present for it, and of course there's the whole thing where Wolverine, Storm and Psylocke have their heart-to-heart at the end of the Annual, yet in X-Men #212 (which must take place after), you've actually got dialogue where Betsy introduces herself to Logan, "Hi, I'm Psylocke, I'm new to the school," etc.

Fun, indeed!!!

(Another great one is the whole clusterf*dge around issue 168. There is a ton of stuff -- including "God Loves, Man Kills," which wasn't intended as canon at the time but now is -- that has to go in a gap in that issue, just before that last page that introduces Madelyne Pryor.)

wwk5d said...

Yeah, this issue is hard to place. Anyway, it's still good fun. Art Adams does an amazing job, and the fight between the X-men and New Mutants is great.

Interesting analysis of this issue, Jason. I will say this...after years of villains like Mystique and the Hellfire Club...is it just me, or the villains become a little more 1-dimensional? Not that all the villains pre-Massacre had depth (the Brood, and one shots like Garrokk or Moses Magnum), but still...

Austin Gorton said...

Chronologizing Claremont's X-Men stuff is a big pet project of mine

I still have a stack of legal pad pages that represent my efforts to do the same years ago (when I was in high school and had the time to read the entirety of my X-Men comics each summer). I managed to fit all the X-Men stories (including all the ancillary spinoffs that cropped up in the 90s, like X-Force and Cable) together, from the beginning through at least Operation Zero Tolerance.

It was indeed a tricky endeavor. The transition from Claremont's final Uncanny issues to the first Claremont-less issue is another gap where a whole ton of stories (including Claremont's final three issues) get crammed in.