Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Uncanny X-Men #243

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men.]

“Inferno: Part the Fourth — Ashes”

The previous issue ended with a cool and sexy cliffhanger, as Dark Madelyne stood atop a tower -- Dark Havok by her side, Jean Grey her prisoner, and her own baby about to be sacrificed. From there, Claremont passed the narrative baton to the Simonsons, who turned in a pretty ugly issue, both visually and textually. But, it did at least offer a definitive origin of Madelyne Pryor, every loose end accounted for and every old plot thread addressed. (Claremont is rarely as neat and tidy.)

X-Factor #38 is a faintly depressing comic in terms of production value – but, from there we bounce back to Uncanny X-Men, and we get a gorgeous splash page of Madelyne Pryor, whose cape is a black Phoenix bird, every fold of which is gorgeously rendered by guest-inker Hilary Barta. Claremont’s narration is comfortingly baroque (with Madelyne described as a clone grown from “a clutch of stolen cells” – lovely); Silvestri’s figure-work is beautiful … ah, all is right with the world.

Patrick Meaney has called Madelyne’s transformation to demon-goddess nothing less than “character assassination.” It’s hard to argue the point during the opening sequence here, as – even in death – Madelyne is completely unrepentant, still attempting to kill the X-Men. Claremont and Simonson (and probably editor Bob Harras too) are still so intent on redeeming Scott’s abandonment of Maddie that they seem hell-bent on ridding her of all redeeming qualities. When Mr. Sinister starts rampaging through Jean’s mind, smashing her memories as if they’re made of glass, it can be viewed as a metaphor for what “X”-editorial is doing to readers’ memories of the “real” Madelyne, the heroic woman, loving mother, suffering wife.
I don’t care; I still love bitch-goddess Maddie. Especially when Claremont gives her lines like, “[He] calls himself Mr. Sinister. His hobby’s cloning redheads.”

Anyway, so Madelyne remains a villain to her last dying moment. (Actually, she seems to redeem herself at the last second, but she also seems to have become Jean at that point? Matters are a bit opaque here.) Cut to: the second half of the issue, as the X-Men track down Mr. Sinister, and learn that he has moved from his Nebraska base to Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Claremont is bringing us full circle for this, his last contribution to the “Inferno” crossover. (It’s not only that; the text at the beginning notes that this is also the 25-year anniversary issue of the series, and the “150th issue of the new X-Men” – which makes it also Claremont’s 150th issue.)

The story of “Ashes” jumps around quite a bit – it functions weirdly as the penultimate chapter in the “Inferno” crossover (odd considering that the “Inferno” ended with Madelyne’s death at the end of the previous installment). But there is something else going on here. This issue has less significance to the “Inferno” chronology as it does to Claremont’s personal “X”-chronology.

Consider: Claremont takes us on a somewhat nostalgic tour of the “X”-mythos Continuity references abound: A tour inside Jean Grey’s mental space gives us some highlights (including a fashion-show of all her costumes, which is suitably Claremontian). We’re taken back to the School for Gifted Youngsters (not occupied by the X-Men since Uncanny 221, over a year and a half ago). Wolverine ruminates briefly over a picture of him and Mariko. Even more recent X-riffs are reprised, like Psylocke vs. Sabretooth. (I’m struck by the foresight demonstrated by Claremont in seeming to recognize that particular story as a riff destined to be replayed by other writers after him.)

It’s also amusing the way Silvestri has rendered “Inferno”’s apparent effect on Storm’s full-body leather costume – which is to say, it’s been torn to shreds, and now looks more like the original black-bikini design by Cockrum. Plus ce change …

Claremont’s writing in Uncanny 243 is as fluid as anything from this period, but matters here remain rather subdued throughout. Compared to the previous issue, this story – with its nostalgic turns and somewhat perfunctory action sequences – seems almost quaint.

Still, it contains some intriguing turns. Psylocke, for example, wonders whether “the changes [to the X-Men] wrought by ‘Inferno’ … were more than cosmetic.” This is a fascinating development that Claremont will kinda-sorta explore over the next few months before dropping it (perhaps at Bob Harras’ behest).

The climactic destruction of Xavier’s mansion is also quite exciting. Granted, Claremont has done this particular bit before (Uncanny #154), but the execution is a bit punchier this time around. Plus, it seems likely that Claremont intended it to stick this time. He wanted to kill Charles off and put Gateway in charge of the team. Destroying Charles’ mansion was no doubt meant as a very deliberate step in wiping away the old X-Men paradigm, and perhaps even a foreshadowing of what was to happen to Xavier himself.

Didn’t work out that way, in the event, but to end this milestone issue by blowing up the “school for gifted youngsters” is still very dramatically effective. The reason being: This 150th issue of Claremont’s run is also – in many ways – his final.

(Patrick Meaney uses a TV-based analogy to discuss this: He calls “Fall of the Mutants” the “series finale” of Claremont’s X-Men, while “Inferno” is the motion picture made a couple years later to resolve the final loose ends.)

Indeed, “Inferno” culminates so many of Claremont’s threads, and with such finality, that it does effectively become the climax of the story he began telling 13 years earlier. (Even the demonic-invasion trope provides an almost perfect book-end. The first X-Men story that Claremont wrote himself, sans a guiding plot by Len Wein, was Uncanny #96, about a demon invading the Earth.)

Claremont didn’t realize it at the time, but this is it. “Inferno” is the big, show-stopper finale. What follows is three years of curtain calls.


Anagramsci said...

I'm still reading Jason--but I'm not able to offer anything very useful to the discussion... I only read these issues once, hot off the racks, and did not enjoy them

I do find myself wondering if anyone else out there is as puzzled by your preference for Silverstri's artwork over Simonson's...

I'm a sucker for anything Walt does, and have always disliked Silvestri's slick style--but I wonder if I am alone in this... I've said this before, but, back in 1987-1989, the mutant book that I cared about was X-Factor (although, of course, I was still more interested in Animal Man, Love and Rockets, Cerebus, Dr. Strange, Captain America, Power of the Atom, Quasar, Flash, The Shadow Strikes, Captain Atom and the Superman books... but still...)

and yet--I can do nothing but applaud your continuing devotion to this project--and who knows, perhaps I'll change my mind completely when I finally do take another look at these X-Men (I do have them all on DVD ROM)


Paul Steven Brown said...

Jason, thanks again for making me look at certain points in Claremont's run in a way that I haven't before (this is mainly due to not having read some of these issues in twenty years). Your point about UXM #243 being the true ending of Claremont's tenure on the book is very well-founded. It's definitely a breaking point. The two years would see CC continue to dismantle the "team" concept until there are no X-Men and Banshee and Forge are effectively the stars for a bit.

This makes me think about Claremont's original run in four sections:

1. The All New, All Different era (#94 - 210)

2. Massacre - Inferno (#211 - 243)

3. The No X-Men Years (#244 - 272)

4. The "Here's a New Team While I Fight for Some Semblance of Creative Control" Year (#273 - 280)

Dave Mulen said...

Retrospection like this can be both Pleasure and Torture, it is indeed obvious looking back that this was indeed Claremont narrative peak and it's always puzzled me what changed to make that so... the next two issues are mostly forgettable filler while the next years worth seemed incredibly aimless (though at the same time actually very very good in their own right!).

X-men 243 has a lot of stuff in it but suffers in that it is just one cog in a crossover marking time for the wrap up over in X-Factor, lots of stuff is said in this issue but not a lot of it means much and in the end i always remember X-Factor #39 as a real dissapointment. I haven't read Simonstons X-Factor probobly since it came out and really must revisit it at some time but it was often awkward as a read.
Looking at #243 it's strange how much has stayed the same up till today - Surreal Mindscapes, Wolverine centre stage, OTT villain Sinister, Maddie up to no good, just Swap Jean for Emma and you get the drift(!)

But hey, what a cliffhanger!

Jason said...

Dave, I always enjoy when you comment on the blog. I would be heartened to hear if you do end up with a greater appreciating for this era of X-Men when/if you do re-read. Although MORE heartening would be if you re-decided to do your own issue-by-issue blog series on Greunwald's Cap ...

I should say, I DO like Simonson ... but not on X-Factor. The "Inferno" issues are particularly weak, I think, because of the Al Milgrom inks, which are awful. But even as far back as Fall of the Mutants, his stuff on X-Factor wasn't doin' it for me. I dunno ... I think Louise's text had something to do with it. Between her dialogue and Walt's bombastic style, it felt like reading not so much a story as page after page of giant, bolded, underlined exclamation points.

But I do love Simonson's work on lots of other projects.

Paul, that breakdown works pretty well. Part of doing this series is that I am cursed with the ability to see dozens of variations in how one can break down Claremont's run. You could literally throw out any number between 1 and 186, and I could tell you a sound, logical way to break down Claremont's run into *exactly* that many parts. And could probably write paragraphs on why it works, too.

Dave, yeah! I enjoy the "two years of meandering" quite a bit. It's a really fascinating bit of work. I'm actually not at all sure what I'm going to say about it. (We're getting up to where I have no longer written ahead. These last few years of Claremont comics might be my Waterloo.)

Thanks for the great comments, guys!

Anagramsci said...

if I ever do it (Gruenwald Cap), it will be thanks to your inspiration Jason!

Gary said...

So, question: on Big 2 owned comics, who are the biggies for long runs writing? I know Claremont's got 17 years of X-Men and Peter David's got 12-13 years of Hulk. How long was Gruenwald's Cap run? Does anyone else come close?

Inferno suffered for the X-Factor issues. Claremont would knock it out of the park and Louise Simonson would immediately get the third out to end the inning. For both X-Factor 38 and 39 and their leadup UXMs. My apologies to Louise if Walt was helping with the writing.

Inferno also suffered for the Madelyne Pryor character assassination, but I don't know if I can argue that and stay coherent. I've got a whole big comment on 242 that may never see the light of day because, man, I just rant.

Shlomo said...

digression: I just finished watching season 5 of buffy. I started with four (when i stopped watching the show originally), and I am slowly making my way through.

Do you think claremont (and other writers) would be helped by writing ins more structured "seasons" I beleive brubaker was doing this with sleeper, and the idea intrigued me (I also recall, he said he was going to forgo cliffhangers. idunno how it worked out in the end...)
but although it has killed me to wait for shows like lost to come back, i think that having season finales, that provide a little closure help writers out in a way.

Jason said...

I would read it faithfully, Dave!

Gary: Claremont and David are the Big Two of the Big Two that I know of. How long did Stan Lee write the Fantastic Four?

Shlomo: Yeah, possibly, although to some degree there were such impositions on Claremont anyway, and it only slightly seemed to curb his meandering tendencies. In the latter years, the crossovers acted as the "season finales." There were also anniversary issues and such. And John Byrne has said that when he came on the series to replace Cockrum, the editor used that as an excuse to tell Claremont, "Hey, why don't you go ahead and wrap up that Shi'ar/Erik the Red stuff so that the new artist comes on with a clean slate."

Which is why Byrne's first issue is the climax of the long-running Lilandra plot.

Anagramsci said...

Gruenwald did Cap for 10 years--about the same amount of time that Stan put in on FF and Spider-Man

Gary said...

Anagramski's got it. 10+ years for Gruenwald on Cap, 10+ years on FF for Stan Lee, and here was the real shocker - 102 issues, just shy of 9 years, for Jack Kirby drawing FF.

Still nobody quite catches Peter David's Hulk, and nobody comes CLOSE to Claremont's X-Men.

Nathan P. Mahney said...

How long was Larry Hama on Wolverine? Eight or nine years? Anyway, he deserves credit for his run on G.I. Joe from 1982 to 1994. It's the only other run I can think of that rivals PAD's Hulk for length.

Anonymous said...

Ugly artwork aside, I have always liked X-Factor's conclusion to Inferno for one thing-the full page picture of Cyclops blowing Mr. Sinister to smithereens. It was the visceral payoff we all were looking for when the X-Men fought the Marauders and wasn't given to us. Odd that it had to take place in the Simonson book and not the Claremont book where Sinister and his minions had wreaked most of their havoc.

Jeff said...

We're not there yet, but I always thought X-Men #1-3 was a pretty suitable ending to his run. I know a lot of it was him putting his toys in back in place for other writers and it's co-plotted by Jim Lee, but you get to see a large portion of the best characters, a quick trip to Genosha and Magneto, the character he arguably did the most for, gets a suitable send off. I'm biased because it was the first X-Men comic I ever read, but comic writers always have to return to the status quo at the end of their runs and I think it is one of the all-time greats of that type of story. I think it would have fit the "Reunion movie after the TV series" metaphor you use for Inferno as well.

Gary said...

Jeff said:
...but comic writers always have to return to the status quo at the end of their runs...
Frank Miller, Daredevil "Born Again".

Dan Slott is annoyingly circumspect about putting all his toys back in the box, though. Check out his second to last issue on She-Hulk to see what I mean.

Anonymous: your comment about Cyclops cleaning up Sinister in that big old splash panel just made Inferno hurt that much more. Not only are the X-Men, on the side of the WRONGED Madelyne Pryor, the bad guys in the face of the morally pure (morally horsecrap) X-Factor, not only are the X-Men jobbers for X-Factor to kick around, in the end, only Cyclops can stop the big bad guy. Truly, we are all lost without the guiding light of the man who abandoned his wife and child to chase his pants back to his first love.

What a ham-fisted failed attempt at a character rehabilitation.

Must... publish... before... rant... REALLY starts... DONE!

scottmcdarmont said...

to extend the TV show that becomes a movie to something more specific, I think, maybe that Inferno was Wrath of Khan and the rest of Claremont's run was like the rest of the original Star Trek series... a way of getting the gang back together for some fun, to varying degrees of success...

Anonymous said...

The discussion of Sinister's "death" in X-Factor #39 raises a question -- how much of an editorial creation was Sinister? I know Claremont has said in the past that Sinny was the generic bad guy he came up with to explain all the editorially imposed plot turns (Mutant Massacre, Maddie, etc.), and he's also said his plan was for Sinister to be an ageless mutant in the body of a young boy. But all the original retcons about "Nathan," Scott Summers's friend and later enemy at the Nebraska orphanage, were in X-Factor. Sometime around 1987, Sinny was tied to Cyke. Had that been Claremont's plan, or did editorial repurpose Sinister? If it was Claremont's plan, then his design wasn't thrown off by having Cyke kill Sinister in X-Factor #39. But maybe Sinister was more of a collaborative character, even in '88, than Claremont has let on.

Cease said...

Jason: you dealt with what I was mulling over re: X-Factor issues quite ably. In fact, upon reading ESSENTIALS, I find myself skipping around, just kind of uninspired---this, after that amazing, gripping, tight, inspiring "Genosha" run. I'll go back and read these over dinner some day next month, but really? I"m going to have to read your blog again to even dig "Inferno". Maybe it's me!

However credible Maddy's motivations were, I felt like I was watching her character be destroyed to redeem Scott's, just as you noted. The depiction of the X-Men in general really let me down on first read; it just seemed like a predecessor to the slide into the garbage can that was coming across the board. And you KNOW how positive and sunny my commentary tends to be. Perhaps that wistfulness isn't popular, reflecting upon a time when I wondered if comic books, which had given me so very much, were psychologically isolating me. Glad I found some redeeming value later, though. Love these threads, everyone.

Matt said...

It somehow never occurred to me until just this moment, but: wouldn't it have been a lot easier to redeem Cyclops by saying that he had been manipulated by Mr. Sinister for the past few years? Sinister wanted Scott and Jean to have a baby, right? When Jean died he cloned her to keep his plot alive, but why not say that when he learned Jean was still alive, he mind-controlled Cyclops somehow and forced him to leave his wife and child to go back to the real thing?

I haven't read most of X-Factor, so I suppose there could be reasons why that ret-con wouldn't have worked. But I feel like if they'd tried hard enough, everyone involved could've pulled something off. They could've still killed Madelyne in the end through different means, if they wanted to get rid of her -- but I feel like this sort of solution would've done a much better job of salvaging Cyclops' character!

Oh, also -- I like "Inferno", though I tend to enjoy the peripheral stuff more than the core X-chapters -- in particular, I've always loved the Spider-Man parts.

And -- I like the post "Inferno" parts of Claremont's run more than the couple of years leading up to it. The Outback era didn't do much for me, but I find the scattered team and the issues starring Banshee and Forge to be much more fun!

Blam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Blam said...

I don't think I've said so here yet, but I'm checking in regularly while doing Teebore's read-along. Your insights are always appreciated, Jason, and the comments are pretty good too.

Points to Matt for the elegant solution (if only) of Scott being the one mind-controlled by Sinister.

Marv Wolfman had 16 years at the helm of the Titans series over at DC, which is worth mentioning since Gary originally threw it open to the Big Two. He started the first New Teen Titans in 1980, retitled Tales of the Teen Titans when the new New Teen Titans came along in 1984, and lasted through 1996, at which point the second series had become simply The New Titans. Although it's technically two series rather than one, he wrote a year's worth of both series contemporaneously until the newsstand Tales began reprinting the newer, direct-only series; of course, George Pérez's involvement is crucial to the best of the run, in my opinion, but that's not the question at hand.