Tuesday, July 27, 2010

X-Factor 65-68

[Jason Powell continues his look at every issue of Claremont's X-Men run. He continues to rehearse his musical in New York City, and would probably love it if, instead of buying a ticket because you do not live in New York, you just sent him some cash in an envelope.]

“Endgame” (Parts 1-4)

The summer and fall of 1991 saw a full-scale overhaul of the “X” franchise, overseen by editor Bob Harras. The New Mutants was discontinued with issue 100, to be replaced with X-Force. Meanwhile, the five original Silver Age X-Men were moved out of the X-Factor series, rejoining the parent team, whose adventures would now be chronicled in a pair of series – the long-running original, Uncanny X-Men, and a brand-new comic, simply titled X-Men (which actually was the official title of the Silver Age series, at first; the adjective wasn’t added until the Claremont/Byrne run). The void left in X-Factor was filled with a new team of “B-list” mutants, to be written with characteristic quirk by Peter David.

These sorts of reshuffles are actually SOP at Marvel now, particularly with the mutant comics. At the time, though, this was something rather novel. It truly did feel like the start of a new era – and, with Chris Claremont’s departure three months in to the new status quo, it very much was.

Before this new beginning took place, however, the various X-titles had to supply some endings. The story running through X-Factor 65-68, appropriately titled “Endgame,” is clearly designed to bring some closure to the first unofficial volume of X-Factor, just before the “Muir Island” crossover that would spin the characters back into the parent title. Plotted by Jim Lee and Whilce Portacio (the latter of whom also supplies pencils), the story is successful in all the important ways: There is a “final” showdown with Apocalypse, the major villain of the series; we are shown the death of a major character and the loss of another; and Cyclops, whose unheroic actions are – in fact – the very foundation of the X-Factor series – is finally given a reasonably convincing redemption.

Also noteworthy about the plot are its deliberate resonances with the twin-crown storylines of the X-franchise, “The Dark Phoenix Saga” and “Days of Future Past.” Thirty years old now, these two stories still influence the X-franchise more than any others. Back in 1991, when they were barely over a decade old, their influence rang that much louder. Only logical then that the scripter of both those classics should be called in to supply the text for “Endgame.”

If Chris Claremont was at all bored by working from someone else’s plot – particularly one that drew so much from his own, decade-old works – it doesn’t show at all in the finished product. The story reads beautifully, and is littered throughout with characteristic touches that seem very much the writer’s own. The montage in Part One, with each member of the team spending time with his romantic partner (Scott and Jean being each other’s, of course) is very much in keeping with Claremont’s style, for example. In particular the bit with the Beast, as he watches reporter Trish Tilby covering the Iraq War (that’s the 1991 iteration, for all you young’uns) appears to be informed by Claremont’s own personal life. “That’s a war out there,” Hank says, “So be careful.” (One of Claremont’s best friends at the time was a woman who works as a war correspondent.)

I recall reading some idiot online saying that Claremont would have been “better off writing romance novels” instead of X-Men, but such a suggestion stupidly ignores Claremont’s affinity for fantasy and sci-fi. In this story – particularly the first two chapters – the author seems particularly inspired by Portacio’s love for images of complex and esoteric technology. This results in some of the writer’s finest ever sci-fi poetry, e.g. the Beast’s climactic, frantic commands to the team’s sentient Ship at the end of issue 66: “Access please, ship … to all core memory and systems nexii. …. Strike that routing … no use to us … hold it, reference that file again! Try a sidereal shunt … There, Ship! Hold and lock that circuit structure! … Systems initialized, Ship! Enable and execute – NOW!”

Meanwhile, if Lee and Portacio’s desire was for Claremont’s text to add to the resonances with the material that inspired them, they certainly had no cause for disappointment. Claremont’s assured mastery of the X-Men’s storied past – “Dark Phoenix” and “Days” in particular – lets him create some brilliant allusions, the most striking being Scott’s narration during the final, astral-plane sequence: “Once, a long time ago, I fought on the astral plane to save [Jean]. That duel, I lost.” Then, as his sword strikes through the heart of Apocalypse’s psychic avatar -- “This one, I won’t!” The result is exactly as desired. “Endgame” reads as the triumphant capstone to a truly epic myth.

As for the rehabilitation of Cyclops, one cannot turn an entirely blind eye to the commercial considerations at work: It is such a cheat to have Cyclops give his infant son up to a nebulous future-timeline. Granted, it’s a clever way to bring the series full circle, given that X-Factor began with Scott’s abandonment of Nathan. But ultimately this is the creators giving Scott a “get out of jail free” card, freeing him up to be a commercially viable superhero again while absolving him of all guilt.

Here, too, it’s up to Claremont to cover the façade with his text. And here, too, it works, as the writer is canny enough to give Scott’s interior monologue the appropriate sense of guilt, and an acknowledgement of his failures. There is lovely pathos in his line referring to him, Jean and Nathan as “the family I’ve always dreamed of. The one I know I’ll never have.” In context, this is not self-pity on the character’s part. Rather, it is a gentle acceptance that through his own failures, he has lost his chance to achieve that particular dream; he must accept that and move on. This feeds directly into his final narration, wherein he tells us that his “ghosts [have been] put finally to rest.”

One last brilliant turn occurs in the final page of the “Endgame” four-parter, as Lee and Portacio bring in The Watcher – again, to strike a resonance with “The Dark Phoenix Saga.” Claremont, shrewdly aware of what’s required, provides a lovely Greek-chorus-style epilogue, which perfectly dovetails with Oatu’s epilogue from Uncanny 137. It is an ingenious bookend, and a worthy companion to arguably the finest single issue of Claremont’s entire run.

Although not plotted by him nor contained in Uncanny X-Men itself, “Endgame” is – title and all – a genuinely moving capstone to his 17 years of writing these characters. But it wasn’t quite over yet …

Saturday, July 24, 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.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Mitch and I have a conversation about Inception

Total spoilers.

Geoff says
I have to really apologize to Mitch here, who I treated very shabbily. He asked if he could review the film, and I had not seen it yet, but I said yes, and then I saw it before he got his review to me and I hammered all this stuff out, stealing a bit of his thunder. That was not nice of me, but I don't blog that much anymore and I got very excited that I actually had a strong opinion on this one. He fit his commentary into mine, and the result is uneven maybe, but the unevenness is my fault, and it is also my fault that Mitch comes off as too negative -- because he did not want to repeat the compliments I gave the movie. I am sorry Mitch.

Here is the conversation:

Though fanboys are going to claim all three, Inception is not a good sci-fi movie, and it is not a smart or original movie -- and yet somehow it is a good movie. I think like Blade Runner it is a very good movie, but not for the reason people say. Spoilers.

Mitch says
(For all of Nolan’s movies, actually. Sorry.)

When the credits for Inception rolled, my immediate thought was that it suffered from the exact opposite problem you hear screenwriting guru guys like Robert McKee talking about all the time. Here is an imaginatively structured, certainly well made movie that doesn’t suffer from a saggy middle, but a flawed opening and ending, with an absolutely satisfying middle.

Geoff Says
A list of precursors is very important here: City of Lost Children (stealing dreams), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (rewriting memory, especially the memory of a lover), Dark City (the ability to manipulate a cityscape with godlike power), the Matrix (invading a dream-world with big guns), ExistenZ (getting lost in a series of artificial worlds within in artificial worlds), Soderbergh's Solaris (the guilty confrontation with a mental reconstruction of a dead lover, one our hero may be responsible for killing).

Scott Pilgrim vol 6

The comments to the recent Bourne post became about Scott Pilgrim, and obviously we need a place to talk about it. Here is the thing though. I have read the whole thing now and I feel very muddy about it. I thought it was really cute, and liked it, but it is so fluffy it barely stays in my head long enough to get a real opinion on it, except that I seemed to like it while I was reading it. Partly this is reading it to fast, and partly this is the fact that the art can be confusing, and partly it is the time between the other volumes I read a while back and the most recent one. But whatever the excuse I for some reason cannot quite plug in. Like when I read this smart little thing on Young Neil, I could barely remember who he was. Neil keeps saying bad things about it, and I think he might not be wrong, but I also have no idea how to respond. I do really want the Scott Pilgrim movie to be my favorite movie of all time. Anyway -- I have reproduced the comment thread below, and make a comment at the end. Here ya go -- talk about Scott Pilgrim to your heart's content. Geoff Klock

Anonymous said...
Geoff: I like this format of blog post. More, please!

Also, can we expect Scott Pilgrim Vol. 6 and/or movie review next month?

neilshyminsky said...
I would probably be willing to do a back-and-forth with someone in response to Scott Pilgrim. I've had some pretty strong (largely negative) responses to the last couple books - I'll probably post some thoughts on my blog in the next few days. So someone could riff off those, or provide their own starting point to which I can react.

Unless no one wants to. In which case my feelings will be hurt.

dschonbe said...
@neilshyminsky - Such a discussion of Scott Pilgrim 6 sounds entertaining to me. Count me in a as a vote in favor of it. I too haven't liked the later volumes as much as the first volume. I loved the subtle magical realism in the first volume that seems to have lost its subtelty. -Dan S.

neilshyminsky said...
Dan wrote: "I loved the subtle magical realism in the first volume that seems to have lost its subtelty."

Absolutely. This is absolutely the biggest problem. It was cute when the magic popped up in such a way that it enhanced scene - it wasn't technically necessary, plot-wise, but it added some emotional or thematic heft. But in the last couple books, it often feels, variously, as if the magic either substitutes entirely for the plot or else it disrupts the scene or emotion and sends it veering in another direction.

A lot of the magic realism in the first book was either happening in dreams or was made to feel dream-like - very ethereal stuff, in any case, and it worked very well. (Even with something like the Save Point at Lee's Palace - haven't we all wished we could 'save' before having to have an awkward conversation, so that we could try it again?)

And when it wasn't particularly subtle or dreamy - and the notable exception in the first book is the battle - the more absurd stuff was contained and, so, made to seem appropriate to a particular kind of scene or moment: I'm perfectly okay with the big fights being completely over-the-top, especially because, early on, it looked like O'Malley was established that as a pattern. But it's just sort of ALL become absurd.

I'm wondering, actually, whether O'Malley found his early stuff (including Lost At Sea) a little too precious. How else to understand his incessant need to assert ironic distance from the material? I've only just started the new book, but it's filled with narrative self-reflexivity that undercuts all of the most emotionally resonant moments - Scott's kiss with Knives, his snarking at Envy, etc. And it's kind of annoying - it as if he's making fun of me for wanting to be invested in the characters and their feelings.

But I should probably save all this complaining until I finish the book. Maybe it'll surprise me.

neilshyminsky said...
Just finished the book. I was surprised, but not the good kind of surprised.

Wow. It was really, really bad.

James said...
Ha! I'd be up for doing a counterpoint with Neil, depending on how my reading of book 6 goes. I love Scott Pilgrim (and I love Neil[!!!]), but my only worry at the moment is that I wouldn't have much to counter-say about the series other than "I like it".

Though I thought your main problem with the series as it progressed was Scott being such a massive toolbox, so your comments here are interesting. (Man my book hasn't even dispatched yet c'mon.)

James said...
Though Geoff reads Scott Pilgrim, so maybe[!!!!] he'd be better. Maybe we'll all just hate it!

dschonbe said...
@James - Please do write something in favor of the series. Explain to me why I shouldn't be disappointed by how the series has played out. The first volume was so good, but the later volumes were so angsty (and not in a good way).

@Neil - That's disappointing. I haven't even got a copy yet. Maybe I'll wait until a library copy becomes available instead of buying...

This blog sure is the place to be :) -Dan S.

neilshyminsky said...
James: It's hard for me to say whether the too-much, too-reflexive magic realism or Scott's douchebaggery is the biggest disappointment of the series. I think, on my blog, I've previously argued that it was the latter. But I don't think that they're disconnected - in the new book, there's a recurring device where Scott's memory is rendered like an 8-bit video game. And it's in moments like these that Scott's being an insensitive dick combines with the absurdity of the scene's presentation to take it to a whole other level.

But you're right. I was getting carried away by saying that the magic was the biggest problem. Because Scott is still the biggest problem. (Spoiler(?): There's a scene at the end where O'Malley seems to realize that the can't effectively recuperate Scott, so he takes Ramona down a notch instead. Ugh.)

The series works best, I think, when the the magic is at its most precious and unnecessary and when Scott is adorably naive; and it fails when the magic is nasty-ironic and fundamental to the story, and when Scott's naivete bleeds into willful ignorance and self-obsessed jerk territory. (The character bit also being my problem with a lot of the Frat Pack movies, like 'Knocked Up' - there's an epidemic of successful media about jerky losers.) And, unfortunately, the final book consists almost entirely of the latter stuff.

Dan: But if you wait too long, you'll miss out on the exchange! Timeliness matters!

Neil I would love to read your take on the whole thing in detail. You guys are making a very good point about the Magical Realism taking over almost completely -- it will be interesting to see if the movie corrects this, as the director has said he is going his own way after like book 3 or something. I didn't even notice it till you guys pointed it out but that seems right.

But Neil -- why is taking Ramona down a peg so bad. If he is just this lame guy it is hard to get behind -- and your comparison to the Judd Apatow characters seems on point -- isn't there something wrong with her being positioned as this perfect dream girl. Shouldn't they both be flawed? Isn't that more human? Scott may be a lame, self obsessed jerk, but he is easy to sympathize with cause, come on, I am totally like that and I think a lot of us are, or were. I liked when he remembered all these past things he had ignored -- I feel like I do that too. I think his growing up needs to be shown -- the book more points toward a hope that he simply will, but I feel like I can live with that. His heart is in the right place and surely he will start changing as the book ends -- I know I did when I got the girl. You are right that that is not the most satisfying thing, because I am having to imagine the ending rather than being shown it, but somehow I still mostly like it, while also agreeing with what you are saying. Say more stuff, and also, if you, any of you guys, want to review Scott Pilgrim for the blog, send me the review.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Uncanny 277

[Jason Powell works on his musical in NYC, and his posts about Claremont's X-Men go up here, every Tuesday. He may be in town for the final one at this rate. Jason, below, discusses reading this issue in the winter. Please keep in mind that the winter in Wisconsin is the best eight months of the year, as Newsradio taught us.]

“Free Charley”

For the conclusion to his final complete multi-issue arc on Uncanny X-Men, Chris Claremont pulls out all the stops. With artistic collaborators Jim Lee and Scott Williams at the top of their game, Claremont is able to go full-out here, delivering one applause-worthy moment after another.

The somewhat rote premise of this storyline was discussed in the previous blog entry: Heroes are being replaced by Skrulls. There is a twist to the typical Skrull concept here – these are “Warskrulls,” who not only can make themselves look like someone or something else: they actually “imprint” the powers and personalities of the people they impersonate. Two questions for those who know more about Marvel than me: 1.) Did Claremont make this up, or does the “Warskrull” concept have its origins in an earlier comic? And 2.) Is this the concept that formed the basis of the recent Bendis-helmed crossover, with heroes replaced by Skrulls? (I can’t even remember what that story was called.)

It is still a fairly perfunctory superhero plot, but it works perfectly well here as the hook for a straightforward action story. The appeal here is not in the concept but the execution, which Claremont, Lee and Williams handle masterfully. Some favorite moments:

Gambit’s rescue of Storm and Banshee (foreshadowed in the previous issue by a pair of hands playing solitaire on an upper console of the Starjammer)

Forge’s “Errol Flynn” moment, using a home-made grappling gun to make his way inside an enemy ship.

The Starjammer crashing to the rescue, and the door opening upon the five heroes as Gambit says nonchalantly, “Remember us?”

Gambit taking down Gladiator by using not just “a single [playing] card” as per usual, but instead using his mutant ability to charge up “the WHOLE DECK!” (Gambit gets a lot of the best moments here. Jim Lee was indulging in a bit of Mary Sue-ism around this time.)

The real Xavier at last emerging, tapping his doppelganger on the shoulder, then summarily taking him down in several panels worth of fisticuffs

(Am I forgetting anything? Anyone with as fond memories as I have of this issue, feel free to elucidate in the Comments section.)

Given that he is known primarily for introspection and characterization, a blockbuster-action issue is perhaps not the most appropriate note for Claremont to go out upon. Still, in terms of pure, visceral satisfaction, “Free Charley” is a momentous triumph. I recall reading this as a kid in April of 1991 (nineteen years ago!!!), winter ending, the weather warming up, school winding down … This issue was such a perfect complement: a fresh and exciting finale to an extremely enjoyable sci-fi adventure – with a well-defined and newly minted regular cast (after years of the “wandering the globe” premise) – it felt like the sun coming out. I remember being so optimistic about the future, thinking I was sure to be an X-Men fan for life.

Which kind of turned out to be true, if these blogs are any indication. I didn’t know that the Claremont/Lee dream-team was months from splitting apart, of course. Once that happened, it didn’t take me too terribly long to drop not just this series but the entire franchise.

In any case, that’s hindsight. For all that this issue signaled an end rather than a fresh new beginning, it still stands as an explosive blockbuster of a comic-book – genuinely thrilling, from cover to cover.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Why the Bourne movies are a failure… (ed. They Are Not)

Scott submitted the following on why the Bourne Movies fail. I completely disagree, and so we did a kind of point/counterpoint thing.

Why the Bourne movies are a failure by Scott

I recently sat down and watched the Jason Bourne series with my dad and I can see why people like them: they’re stylish and fast-paced with plenty of action (I can particularly see why my father, who constantly complains that most movies are ‘too long’ --- despite the fact that he will gladly sit through any 3-4 hour WWII epic, likes them as they all clock in at under 2 hours). However, I found myself not really enjoying them all that much and I think I know why.

After seeing Kevin Smith’s ‘Zac and Miri Make a Porno’ I came to a crucial conclusion about romantic comedies: in order for a romantic comedy to be a success we have to CARE about whether or not our two leads end up together; this did not happen in ‘Zac and Miri’ and that is why that movie is a failure. So, what does this have to do with the Bourne movies? Well, I also found myself not caring about what happened in these movies either, which brings me to my main point: in order for a suspense/action/thriller (or any other film where the main characters are constantly in peril) to work, I have to care about those characters so that I can, at least, summon some level of concern for their well-being. In the Bourne movies, I could not do that and that is why they are a failure.

It’s become very hip recently to say that ‘the Bourne movies’ are the new James Bond, but they aren’t. Bond was charming, his supporting cast was likeable--- even each movie’s double-entendre nomenclatured femme fatale was likeable; The Bourne characters are not. They are all one dimensional: Evil guy pulling the strings, person trying to help from the inside, girl who is in over her head, etc. But, perhaps worst of all, is Bourne himself. We know nothing about him other than the fact that he is some sort of super-assassin. We don’t know if he has any hobbies, childhood experiences--- anything that might make him more of a person--- he just simply IS. On top of that, due to the character’s amnesiac nature, HE doesn’t know anything about HIM either. Basically, without any knowledge of who he is, Jason Bourne is nothing more than a walking collection very impressive, very deadly skills which, ultimately, makes him no different really than any of the nameless assassins he escapes in each movie. And, worst of all, he is given so little work as a character, I don’t even care if he ever finds out.

Good Villains should also be 'likeable', even so much that, in many cases, we like them more than we like the hero --- at their best they can also be charming, charismatic, sympahthetic--- and, at their very best, absolutely terrifying (Hannibal Lechter and Heath Ledger's Joker)--- or, at the very least, simply be a larger than life embodiment of evil (Darth Vader in the first two Star Wars movies). In the Bourne movies, the bad guys were very... professional. Perhaps a more 'realistic' way to portray professional assassins and spies, but, utlimately, this just made them boring.

Why they are so NOT by Geoff

Maybe -- MAYBE -- in a perfect world the Bourne movies would not be respected. But we live in our world, with the Transporter, Taken, G.I. Joe, Wanted, Bad Boys, Wolverine, Shoot em Up, and Live Free or Die Hard. In that world, you are not allowed to use "professional" in a bad way -- the villains are professional because the movie making is professional, and that is its strength. Kill Bill is ambitious movie, a work of genius way beyond professional, and no one is looking to the Bourne films for such tense dialogue, or acrobatic violence, or interaction with the history of the action movie. Kill Bill is a rare thing. But a movie that just tells a solid story, that runs like a machine, whose set pieces work and work together, that avoids the ridiculousness of taking out a plane, in mid air, with a truck driven off of a highway; a movie that is not driven by absurd coincidence, or features a guy with metal claws and a 0 body count, or involves firing bullets around corners, or out of magic guns; a movie whose leads are not obnoxious jerks acting like children, or how children imagine adults to be; a movie that gives weight to violence when it occurs, is rare too -- though it obviously should not be. The Bourne movies are solid. That should not be a compliment, or not a dramatic one, but it is. The Bourne movies may lack a charismatic characters as dramatic as Heath Ledger's Joker, but it also lacks anyone like Will.i.am; there is no Captain Jack Sparrow, but there is also no one like the romantic couple in the Pirates movies, whose names I cannot even begin to remember. And the Bourne movies' Chris Cooper and Albert Finny, David Straithairn and Julia Styles and Joan Allen are all great actors -- solid actors, who given a part just do a good job with it. You don't see the movie just because they are in it, but there is something good about a movie where everyone is solid, instead of a movie like Pirates of the Caribbean or (to a lesser extent) Dark Knight where basically one guy carries the whole thing, and a lot of the smaller players kind of suck or are distracting. While I think you could care about the characters more, they live in a world you can care about because it basically makes sense, and is presented believably, as a real place of real physics and real people with broken bones. And the fact that we know nothing about Bourne is part of his appeal (though I admit it has limitations) -- as a guy who can't remember anything but a badass set of skills, he is the perfect POV character for the viewer who wishes he were him. Scott McCloud account for the popularity of superhero comics because under that mask, anyone could be Spiderman -- and even with the mask off, Peter Parker is so generic looking many of us can still feel close enough to his look to imagine ourselves as him. Jason Bourne has this same level of abstraction. Sometimes you want fine food, and sometimes in the pursuit of fine food disastrous things happen when the chef thinks he is better than he is. But sometimes you just need a good deli sandwich on your lunch break, and when everything on your block is fast food, a well made ruben is well worth respect.

Scott responded

In a way, you're right-- the Bourne movies are kind of perfect-- like a good ruben, they are lean, well-crafted works that certainly get the job done...

But I don't really care for rubens and, sometimes, you just want fast food-- now, that doesn't mean you have to get the triple cheeseburger with bacon, chili-fries and substitute a shake for the drink-- but a burger and fries can really hit the spot. Also, sometimes places let you substitute a healthier side and, sure, while a baked potatoe or salad may be better for you, that just doesn't go with that burger the same way the fries do. And sure, sometimes, they accidently put mayo on when you asked them to hold the mayo or the fries have been sitting out too long but, sometimes, the fries are just fresh out of the fryer and you've been depriving yourself of fast food for awhile and, when you taste it, it's absolute perfection. It's kind of like that.... I also get the feeling you're probably in much better shape than me.

Geoff responded

Scott, you used my metaphor too much and broke it. Now you owe me a new metaphor.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Uncanny 276

[Jason Powell continues to cover every issue of Claremont's first X-Men run here. But this is a special one, because this one is being posted while Jason Powell is in New York City -- and I will be meeting him and Mitch, who I also met because of the blog, in Times Square in just a few hours.]

“Double Death”

After the previous issue’s tour de force, which ended the Magneto/Rogue arc so brilliantly, this one doesn’t have quite as much to offer in terms of emotional resonance. We are now safely entrenched in action-movie territory, Claremont’s text taking a backseat to Jim Lee’s flair for big melodrama and epic-scale action sequences. Hence a lot of big, violent panels – including the dramatic twist that also dominates Lee’s strikingly stark cover: Wolverine murdering “Professor X.”

Of course, these proceedings are rather silly in their artificiality. It’s clear early on (if it wasn’t by the end of the previous issue) that this is a plot involving doppelgangers. The good guys going evil – whether because they are imposters, evil duplicates, or the genuine characters under some kind of mind-control – is very much a Claremont staple, and has become a cliché in recent years, thanks to too many iterations of it within too small a timeframe. In 1991, this penchant wasn’t quite as over-indulged, but certainly any longtime reader could see what was going on. Thus, there is not a lot of suspense here.

What makes the story interesting beyond its basic internal mechanics are the textual reflections at work here. Uncanny issues 273-277 comprise Claremont’s final, complete multi-issue arc for Uncanny. (His next, begun in 278, would not conclude until after he’d quit the title.) As such, it yields some interesting reflections when compared against Claremont’s first multi-issue arc, the Sentinel trilogy published in issues 98-100. (I’m not counting the Nefaria material, as that was plotted entirely by Len Wein and Dave Cockrum.)

Both stories involve a new team on their first space-faring adventure; thus, in both cases we get to see brand-new character dynamics at work, as recently minted characters interact for almost the firs time: Compare the fraught, combative banter of Jubilee and Gambit in this issue’s opening fight sequence to that of, for example, Nightcrawler and Colossus during their Sentinel battles. This is Harras and Lee trying to return the X-Men to the glory days that they both remember so fondly: the Cockrum/Byrne era. And while Claremont was explicitly uninterested in going backwards, he is still a pro, and proves here and in the next issue that he is more than capable of recreating that sense of youthful excitement. Despite being a decade and a half older, at this point Claremont has lost none of the verve and vigor that characterized his 70s work.

Another shared element between the two arcs is the “evil doppelganger” conceit. In the earlier story, the robot versions of the original X-Men were used to make explicit the tension between the new X-Men and their Silver Age forebears. Here, we see similar tensions play out, as Claremont’s generation (embodied by Storm, Wolverine and Banshee) fights their futuristic replacements. Though in this latter story, the divisions are not quite so clean and neat. Both the “good” and “evil” factions have a mix of the old and the new, a tacit acknowledgement by Claremont – by continuing to script the Jim Lee-plotted adventures – he is more or less working with the enemy, and basically helping to hasten his own obsolescence.

Yet for all of that, the Claremont/Lee chemistry makes for some classic comic-book moments. I will always love Page 18, panel one, in which Lila Cheney and Deathbird re-appear, rendered with shameless sexiness by Lee, the coup de grace being Claremont’s wryly self-aware dialogue for Lila: “We’re baaaaack! Two bad, beautiful babes with REALLY BIG GUNS!”

However contrived it might have been at this point, Claremont’s sense of fun when writing Uncanny X-Men stayed with him right up to the end.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Uncanny 275

[Jason Powell continues his look at every issue of Claremont's initial X-Men run. Here is what he wrote to me in the email this came in: "Another long one. I'm getting long-winded as we reach the end ... there's still SO MUCH LEFT TO SAY!!!"]

“The Path Not Taken”

I’ve always enjoyed the introduction to this issue: “Stan Lee proudly presents … a pulse-pounding, rip-snortin’, rootin’-tootin’ sci-fi/high-adventure Double Feature!” Presumably at this point in his tenure, Claremont wasn’t having much fun writing X-Men, but he certainly knew how to fake it.

The two components of the story’s “double feature” are: 1.) Magneto/Rogue in the Savage Land -- which concludes here in a powerful finale that forms the centerpiece of the issue – and 2.) the X-Men in space, a more light-hearted adventure that brackets the Magneto material and ends the issue on a very old-school-style cliffhanger.

The Savage Land material is the more significant here, as it ends the story of Magneto’s attempt to redeem himself. I talked in the previous blog entry about Claremont’s achievement in crafting Magneto’s psychology, and I won’t go on at length yet again here. Suffice to say that while – in purely story terms – Magneto’s quest ends in failure, on a creative level it is phenomenally affecting. Claremont may not have wanted things to work out as they did here, but – as with the editorially mandated tragic ending to The Dark Phoenix Saga – the change makes for a much more intense conclusion.

The final story-beat occurs on Page 39 (which is one of Jim Lee’s most well-composed pages ever, and one I would love to own the original artwork for). Zaladane – the villain of the piece, described throughout as a reflection of Magneto himself, particularly the Silver Age villain version of the character – has been defeated, and is held at Magneto’s mercy. She’s surrounded on all sides by metal shrapnel, which will tear her to shreds if Magneto but gestures. Rogue pleads with Magneto to remember that he is trying to walk a hero’s path. With an intense calm, Magneto replies, “I am not Charles Xavier. I will never be Charles Xavier.” He closes his fist, and Zaladane dies horribly.

If this were simply Magneto turning his back on heroism and returning to his pre-Claremont villainous iteration, it would be a terrible – and terribly absurd – ending. But that is not what’s happening; the clue being that in the same gesture with which he renounces heroism, he also slaughters the character that was set up from the start as an avatar of his original terrorist incarnation. Magneto is now neither a superhero nor a supervillain. Having been both, he is now moving on to become something more complex than either; something that a Marvel comic-book cannot really contain. (When next he appears under Claremont’s pen, he will have ascended from Earth and explicitly given up on the melodrama of the Marvel Universe.)

This is, ultimately, a perfect ending for Claremont’s Magneto: Neither standing among the heroes whose naivety (i.e., sparing the lives of irredeemable villains) he does not share, nor to be ghettoized amongst the two-dimensional villains who comprise the rest of the X-Men’s “rogues gallery” (fitting then that he abandons a “Rogue” as well at the end of this arc). His psychology is simply too vast, his morality too ambiguous for a four-color world. Note how much of his dialogue in the present issue twists around moral questions like a snake, impossible to nail down. Before murdering the Russian soldier Semyanov, whose son he killed years earlier, Magneto offers condolences. “I am sorry for your son, Colonel,” he says. “Which is more than I ever heard … for the slaughter of those I loved.” “Your … daughter, you mean?” Semyanov replies. “And that absolves you of any crime?” Magneto’s equivocal reply: “I never said it did. For what we are, and what we have done, Comrade Colonel … we are both of us condemned.” Much like Miller’s Batman in “Dark Knight,” Claremont’s Magneto is simply “too big.” Beyond judgment by any but the power that he sees himself “condemned” by. This is the only possible endpoint that Magneto’s trajectory (begun a decade earlier) could have taken him, and it feels utterly right.