Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Uncanny 274

[Jason Powell continues to look at every issue of Claremont's initial X-Men run. He says he went long on this one, but I am happy to hear Powell talk about the X-Men all day.]


As Bob Harras notes in his “Comics Creators on X-Men” interview, the collaboration between old-pro Chris Claremont and up-and-comer Jim Lee was fairly fraught with tension, but nonetheless yielding some fantastic superhero comic-books. Indeed, there certainly seems to be a potent synergy at work between the pair at this point in the run. It’s hard to tell which of the two creative minds is ascendant during this issue and the next, which collectively tell a pitch-perfect adventure story starring Rogue and Magneto and set in the Savage Land.

On the one hand, this is the conclusion of a story begun nearly two years earlier (in X- Men Annual 12 and Uncanny issues 249 and 250), well before Lee was involved as a co- plotter. It also stars two Claremont favorites: His best original X-creation, Rogue, and his most convincingly revamped X-character, Magneto. Pairing them up as teammates, and – possibly – lovers, seems to be a shrewd consolidation of two of the author’s greatest triumphs.

Yet we know from interviews that Claremont always intended Magneto’s redemption to be ultimately successful – not to fail, as it will in the following issue (albeit nobly). So clearly there are major elements to this arc that are plotted by Lee (possibly backed up by Harras). I’ve also seen speculation that Claremont had no intention to put Rogue and Magneto together as a couple – that this was Lee’s idea, which Claremont grudgingly went along with. This seems possible as well: Lee is a professed fan of Magneto (he apparently collects the original art for old Magneto splash pages), and clearly has an affinity for Rogue as well. And certainly there was never a trace of sexual tension between the two characters in earlier Claremont issues. (Even when they both were X- Men members, the two barely even shared any on-panel time.)

Either way, Harras is right. Whatever is Claremont here and whatever is Lee, the end result works brilliantly. (And the very difficulty in distinguishing where one creator’s input ends and the other begins just proves Harras’ point.)

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Basic Instinct

(Poster by Sara Reiss)

Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves

I very rarely read anymore, partly because my job has me reading undergraduate essays all the time, so that when I get free time I prefer TV, movies and music. The last thing I read was maybe more than a year ago, when I read Cormac McCarthy's The Road and No Country for Old Men. House of Leaves was recommended to me by more than one person I knew so I tried it out.

The House of Leaves is a difficult book to describe. Jonny Truant, who does a lot of drugs and works at a tattoo shop, comes into possession of a trunk of papers after a blind old man named Zampano dies. Zampano's papers are his elaborate academic treatise on a documentary called The Navidson Record. Truant edits the papers, including long digressive footnotes about his sexual adventures and increasing madness, and sends them to the publisher, and the book you hold in your hand is the result. The Navidson Record is a movie by Pulitzer-prize winning photographer named Navidson who begins by documenting his family's move into a new house in Virginia, but the movie goes off the rails when he discovers his house is bigger on the outside than on the inside, and that there is a door than opens up into cavernous lightless ice-cold hallways that go on for miles and miles with virtually no variation. The Navidson Record ultimately becomes a project detailing various explorations of the space and the effect it has on the family. Zampano, in part through his huge number of footnotes, makes it clear that the movie is quite famous -- he cites numerous academic studies of it. At at one point Zampano describes an auxiliary film in which Navidson's wife Karen interviews Harold Bloom, Camille Paglia, and Jacques Derrida about the Navidson Record. Strangely, Truant is in the same position we are -- there is no such movie, no such studies. And of course Zampano is a blind man describing a movie.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Uncanny 273

[Jason Powell continues to look at every issue of Claremont's X-Men initial run. Do you SEE how close he is to the END. Crazy. This one is particularly well observed.]

“Too Many Mutants”


“Whose House Is This, Anyway?”

The stars of the three core mutant titles – Uncanny X-Men, New Mutants and X-Factor – all come together in one headquarters for this issue. Thanks to “X-Tinction Agenda,” two of Claremont’s long-running concepts – the “death of the X-Men” hoax from 1987 and the separated-team conceit begun in 1989 -- have come to a decisive end. Presumably neither of these threads has ended quite how Claremont intended, as the editorial dictates of Bob Harras and Tom DeFalco are overriding Claremont’s vision more and more. Meanwhile, the young artists of what would soon be known as the “Image generation” are exerting a greater influence on the future direction of the franchise than any artist since John Byrne. It is, in fact, this tension that informs the central conflict of Uncanny X-Men #273.

Albeit broken up by digressions featuring various other members of this issue’s giant cast, the longest and most key sequence here is the debate amongst the team leaders/elders, Storm, Cyclops, Jean Grey and Cable. It is the latter (not yet revealed to be the son of Scott and Jean) who creates the dramatic tension here, both his militant attitude in-story and his status as the representative of the new generation of X-creators. (While Jim Lee was starting to co-plot Uncanny X-Men, Cable creator Rob Liefeld was becoming the dominant creative force on New Mutants, beginning to overshadow longtime scripter Louise Simonson.)

“It is Cable – and the challenge he poses,” Storm tells Cyclops and Jean, “that we must deal with.” Claremont is once again taking his own concerns as a creative artist, and mingling them with those of his own characters. Lee and Liefeld (and new X-Factor artist Whilce Portacio) are a threat to the old guard (Claremont and Simonson)’s creative autonomy. And while Cable’s attitude as expressed in this issue is not entirely dissimilar to the X-Men’s own post-“Massacre” agenda from a few years ago (basically a first-strike philosophy) it is the changing editorial attitude that truly concerns Claremont. What he sees coming is an action-driven franchise that puts commercialism at the top of the priority list and characterization somewhere quite a bit lower. As was pointed out in a comments section to an earlier blog entry, the 90s saw Marvel becoming more and more concerned with codifying and consolidating their characters, the better to market them on trading cards and other collectibles. This was in direct contrast to Claremont’s creative vision, which was to keep the “X” concept mutable.

Claremont knows what’s coming, however, and – in an achingly reflective bit of writing – he explicitly acknowledges that this is the end of his era. “Times have changed since Charles Xavier founded this school and created the X-Men,” says Storm. “Changed even since he brought in myself and my companions to be the team’s second generation. Now there is a third, and we must answer, my friends – are we fit caretakers any longer, for Xavier’s school and his dream? Or has the time come to turn that role over to others … ?” In this brief but moving monologue, the author first casts an eye backwards to the very start of his run on the title (beginning, as it did, with the moment that the Silver Age X-Men quit the team to make way for Storm et al), and then bids that same run a reluctant but courageous farewell. It is as if we are seeing, right there on the page, the exact moment of Claremont’s decision to leave the series.

Meanwhile, the choice – whosever it was – to make this an artistic “jam” issue, with eight different pencillers each contributing only a few pages each, adds to the story’s reflective tone – particularly with the inclusion of “classic” artists like John Byrne and Michael Golden alongside the more recent artists like Rick Leonardi and Marc Silvestri. The future is represented too, by Whilce Portacio and Jim Lee. The issue becomes a view of Claremont’s run in miniature: A multitude of characters drawn by several different artists in a variety of styles, but all tied together by a crucial single authorial voice.

Both visually and textually then, Uncanny X-Men 273 stands in Claremont’s X-canon as the issue with the largest and longest narrative scope, looking back to the start of his incredible 16-year run, acknowledging how far things have come since then, and finally pointing the way toward a future that no longer includes him.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Uncanny X-Men 272

[Jason Powell keeps this blog afloat with a look at every issue of Claremont's X-Men run. You know. The 17 year one. Seriously.]

“Capital Crimes”

Avoiding foolish consistency, Claremont’s third and final contribution to “X-Tinction Agenda” eliminates the “dramatis personae” from Page 1, instead opting for a “man on the street” segment that gives a taste of how the rest of the mainstream Marvel Universe are reacting to reports of the Genoshan war. It’s a fun little bit, featuring cameos by Mr. Fantastic, She-Hulk, and – surprisingly – The Punisher. (That single panel is the only instance I can call to mind of Claremont writing Frank Castle, by the way. I love that he actually seems to be on Genosha’s side.)

Again, although this issue is mainly just advancing “X-Tinction Agenda” along, it is significant in the larger context of Claremont’s full run, in a number of ways: The X-Men are now a team again, enough members having reunited at this point to constitute a full cast of characters. This thereby marks an end to the “Dissolution” saga begun all the way back in Uncanny 251. Also, since this story makes use of the media – explicitly telling us that these events are being broadcast on American television – we are also looking at the end of an even longer arc: The “X-Men believed dead” conceit begun all the way back in issue 229. Finally, this is the point at which the (somewhat arbitrary) walls separating the three core mutant series – Uncanny X-Men, New Mutants and X-Factor – are dissolved completely. At this point, the X-universe becomes a much more amorphous place, with the X-Men essentially one large team whose story happens to be told in several different series. That’s still pretty much the case today, from what I can tell.

One would expect that such momentous moments in the narrative would have a larger sense of grandeur and glory. Instead, it’s all rather ignominious: The world learns the X-Men are alive by seeing on the news that they’ve been captured; the team is reunited because their separate attacks on the enemy failed. It would be tempting to suggest that this is Claremont subverting reader expectation for a grand finale, but it seems more likely that he is simply following an editorially mandated over-plot (albeit one which he probably had some hand in shaping).

Indeed, Claremont seems a bit annoyed at some of the creative wheel-spinning required of the plot in order to stretch it out to nine issues – hence the commentary from Rictor when he, Boom Boom and Jubilee are finally woven in: “Way to go! ‘Bout time we had something useful to do.”

Although issue 272 is only one link in the chain, Claremont does – whether by luck of the draw or by design – get to write the most exciting part of the crossover’s final act, i.e. the triumphant turnaround that puts the heroes back on top. Granted, the Storm macguffin is a bit pat – apparently the Genegineer programmed no less than THREE deus ex machinas into her “matrix” at the end of Uncanny 271, all in the space of what appears to be roughly 15 seconds or so. Still, the execution is fun, and Claremont gives several other characters some beautifully choreographed cheer-worthy moments as well: Psylocke’s rescue of Anderson and Cyclops’ return to power, for example, are both magnificently handled. (Jim Lee and Scott Williams deserve their share of the credit for the coolness of those moments, of course.)

This issue also contains a fantastically over-the-top bit in which Gambit saves the day through a series of impossible moves. It must be seen to be appreciated; to describe the sequence in cold, hard text does it no justice – which is why even Claremont lets the panels run without any text (a rarity for him at any time, and this era especially). Jim Lee’s choreography truly does speak for itself. Indeed, the Gambit sequence may have been Lee’s invention entirely, although we surely have Claremont to thank for putting the “miraculous-lock-pick” scenario in perspective, as the Beast reminds us that it is a reprise of a sequence from the John Byrne era. (This may have been protestation on Claremont’s part, as he was avowedly against the franchise looking backwards; if so, it backfired, as the nod to continuity simply felt like a reward for longtime readers.)

At this point in the run, each issue of Uncanny takes us farther away from the immensely complicated tapestry that characterized Claremont at his peak. The storytelling here is much less complicated -- more set-‘em-up/knock-‘em-down. Nonetheless, Claremont proves – in all three of his entries in the “X-Tinction” saga – that he can deliver straightforward excitement as well as anyone. What’s more, for people who had been “following the tangled skein” (as Peter David once put it) of the X-Men narrative for years, the adrenalized thrill of these big action-sequences felt hard-earned indeed, and were all the more satisfying because of it.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Uncanny X-Men 271

[Jason Powell continues to look at every issue of Claremont's major X-Men run. Some very good points about Havok here, I think.]


Act Two, scene 1 of “X-Tinction Agenda” begins here, as – quite excitingly -- the Wolverine/Psylocke/Jubilee triad arrive in Genosha. The first page duplicates the structure of the previous issue’s opening: The “Dramatis Personae” on the top and bottom tiers, bracketing an expository news report. In a nice bit of economy, the news report serves a double-purpose dramatically, explaining how Logan et al knew to come to Genosha in the first place.

As noted last week, “X-Tinction Agenda” feels a lot like “Secret Wars” – basically just a big fight between a score of superheroes and a bunch of villains, with the story’s length stretched mainly through clever manipulation of individual factions. There is a lot of “let’s split up into smaller teams” maneuvering. In that sense, “Flashpoint” (part 4 of a nine-part arc) is not terribly remarkable, in that it mainly serves just to add three new pieces to the chessboard.

Still, Claremont is quite shrewd in how he executes the beats, so that every maneuver feels significant beyond its place in the crossover’s logistics game. For one, the introduction of the Wolverine faction is given added weight by its position in terms of Claremont’s much larger “Dissolution” arc. I.e., Logan, Betsy and Jubilee are finally – after nearly two years – linking up with the other X-factions. That fact alone infuses this issue with a particularly explosive sense of energy.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Free Form Comments

Say whatever you want to in the comments to this post -- random, off topic thoughts, ideas, suggestions, questions, recommendations, criticisms (which can be anonymous), surveys, introductions if you have never commented before, personal news, self-promotion, requests to be added to the blog roll and so on. If I forget, remind me. Remember these comments can be directed at all the readers, not just me.

ALSO. You can use this space to re-ask me questions you asked me before that I failed to answer because I was too busy.

AND you can use this space to comment on posts that are old enough that no one is reading the comments threads anymore.

You do not have to have a blogger account or gmail account to post a comment -- you can write a comment, write your name at the bottom of your comment like an e mail, and then post using the "anonymous" option.

WRITING FOR THIS BLOG. If I see a big free form comment that deserves more attention, I will pull it and make it its own post, with a label on the post and on the sidebar that will always link to all the posts you write for this blog. I am always looking for reviews of games, tv, movies, music, books and iPhone apps.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

LOST: A Tale of Two Drafts

After days of conversations with everyone from internet people to people on the streets, this is where I stand on the subject of LOST.

The internet seems to have split into two camps about LOST: people who wanted to mysteries explained, and people who really liked the final message that it was the people who mattered so forget about all the mysteries. I think the camps are limited. One camp says that if you hated the end of LOST you will hate 2001 but love the Phantom Menace (because The Phantom Menace "explains" the force). But I do not think either of those are fair comparisons. I did not want the mysteries of Lost "explained" -- I wanted them unified, related to one another. Still mysterious, but connected. 2001 has some very mysterious scenes but it only asks me to accept one: the obelisk appears at moments of major cosmic evolution, and the movie shows us one from the distant past, and one from the near future. The willing suspension of disbelief works awesome for the obelisk, but when I am asked to accept many unconnected mysteries I find this harder to do, if you are claiming you are telling one story. One of the many mysteries on LOST was the ghosts, but even that "one" mystery turned out to be several: some ghosts were actual ghosts, some where a shapeshifter impersonating the dead, some were maybe psychic projections of the living or something like bi-location (Shannon seeing Walt covered in water on the island when he was captured by the others at the same time elsewhere), some were hallucinations (like Hurley seeing his friend from the institute), and some remain inscrutable ("taller Walt" meeting Locke and the end of season 3 -- can't be the Man in Black because he can only take the form of the dead, can't be a ghost because Walt is alive, it is hard to see how it could actually be Walt projecting himself psychically from far away or something, and to say it was a part of Locke's subconscious seems like a stretch).

The people who agree with the creators that the characters have to be the main thing are right; this is a principle of screenwriting. But equally important to screenwriting is the resolution of implicit promises to the audience (that, say, the statue had something to do with the weirdness elsewhere on the island). And frankly, it was actors like Terry O'Quinn and Michael Emerson that made the characters compelling. Juliet's sudden change of heart about the bomb at the end of season 5, very convenient for the writers but not especially compelling from her point of view, hardly suggests that they are taking character as seriously as they claim, though they are not without some tremendous ones. The characters are great at times, but no one is going to confuse this with The Wire, where everyone in the first four seasons is a fully realized human being, and never a device for a writer's agenda.

So how to make sense of LOST. Here is what I think happened. Not a ton of evidence, but it explains a lot of what I wanted explained.

LOST started out as a show about a plane that crashed. Everyone on the plane died.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

X-Men Annual #14

[Jason Powell continues to look at every issue! ever! of Claremont's initial X-Men run! This one was supposed to be up last week, and last weeks was supposed to be up this week, but I screwed up the order, even though Jason Powell made it super clear. Sorry. ]

A-side: “You Must Remember This”
B-side: “The Fundamental Things”

In 1992, only a year or so after his departure from the X-books, Claremont was interviewed by The Comics Journal. Interviewer Kim Thompson notes at one point that, in order to prep, she had read the paperback collection of “Days of Future Present.” Claremont’s reply is sarcastic: “That was a good one.”

A story told over the course of four 1990 annuals, “Days of Future Present” is as bloated and horrible as a beached whale (thus, perhaps appropriate that it contains so many allusions to “Moby Dick”). When Kim Thompson notes that she couldn’t follow the storyline, Claremont agrees that it’s a clusterfuck, blaming the whole concept of the company crossover rather than the creative personnel involved. “That was done by three people who knew what we were doing,” he says, in reference to himself and the Simonsons.

It’s a charitable assessment. While Walt Simonson’s opening chapter in that year’s Fantastic Four annual is perfectly readable, the two middle episodes – both by Louise – are dreadfully written. Her New Mutants annual is a chaotic mess of characters and concepts without a single cohering element. The X-Factor annual is marginally more focused, but suffers from egregious characterization of the lead characters. The entire affair is so obnoxious, that Claremont’s conclusion in X-Men Annual #14 – while still suffering from the lingering logistical problems – feels like the window opening to let in a gentle spring breeze.

The opening pages contain some characteristically thoughtful narration, juxtaposed with a delightfully prosaic scene (illustrated by Art Adams, who drew all of Claremont’s best X-annuals) of Rachel Summers enjoying a burger and fries at a diner. The serene normalcy of the pictures, combined with the mellifluous poetry of the text, go a long way towards washing away the sheer, excruciating noise of the preceding chapters.

From there, Claremont does his level best to juggle a gigantic collection of characters (the entire casts of the previous three annuals, plus Gambit and Young Storm), and is more or less successful thanks to a sense of pacing and focus bred from years of experience. He also has the advantage of being the person who gets to answer the questions set up by the story’s premise (i.e., the Franklin Richards of the future appearing in the present). It’s refreshingly on the nose when Storm finally cuts through the chaos midway through to ask the question that should have been asked two chapters ago: How can Franklin have come from the “Days of Future Past” timeline when, in the original story, we saw him killed by a Sentinel? (It is emblematic of Louise Simonson’s work on the X-titles that this obvious question hadn’t come up already.)