X-MEN: THE 200s
I was struck by a number of things while reading UNCANNY X-MEN #206 through #255. (Yes, I did this in a matter of a couple of weeks. I don't want to hear any more complaints from people that Claremont is too wordy! ;-)
First, I miss the 1980s. I was born in 1976, so I remember growing up in the 80s through the rose-colored glasses we probably all see our youths in. Granted, I remember much more about the 90s, but I like them less. The John Byrne and Dave Cockrum era of UNCANNY will always seem a bit dated to me, if only for the fashions worn by the characters in those books. When I look at the stuff the characters are wearing in this phase of the book, it screams 1980s, but I enjoy that. I don't shudder at it.
Second, and this is something I commented on last month in my GEN13 column, Rogue is actually dressed properly. She's not baring any skin. For a character that is so afraid of absorbing others' memories and powers through contact with their bare skin she wears an awful lot of revealing costumes these days. This seems to have started just after Jim Lee left the title. I can remember an early issue of the adjectiveless X-MEN in which Rogue is going out on the town and has on a full-length red dress, with long sleeves. Somewhere along the line, T&A won out over anything that made sense.
Third, there's a great mix of characters there we just don't see anymore. First and foremost in my mind is Longshot. He's just a fun character, who was underused in the series except for comic relief. But he'd be a perfect fit in today's ever-increasing media-conscious society for this book. Likewise, his relationship with Dazzler is interesting. Who'da thunk a disco queen like that could be made into a decent character? These issues were a time when Betsy Braddock was still a Brit, and not Asian. She wore poofy purple sleeves, not skintight unitards with strange wrappings around her limbs.
Fourth, there were some great artists working on this book. Just after Dave Cockrum and John Byrne and Paul Smith, we get John Romita Jr. and Marc Silvestri, back in the days when both would easily to multi-paneled pages with ease. This is at a time when storytelling was key. When one of those artists couldn't draw an issue, the fill-in roster included Barry Windsor-Smith, Alan Davis, and Rick Leonardi. Terry Austin even came back once or twice to ink Leonardi. This is all wonderful stuff by top rate artists. Today, if an issue needs to be pieced together, Roger Cruz or some other hackneyed swipe artist draws it. Artistic integrity isn't key; it's getting a book done with someone who can look just like the original artist. Is this done in for the sake of consistency or in the hopes of duping someone into buying the book, thinking they were getting the regular artist's work? I'm too cynical to judge this one, maybe. Given the state of Marvel editorial, though, I'd almost go with the latter.
Fifth, there's a comforting sense of stability in this run. Chris Claremont wrote all the issues. Tom Orzechowski lettered them all. The art teams stayed on for good long runs. Even the fill-in artists were no strangers to the world of the X-Men.
But the main point I took home in reading all this is that Chris Claremont is not a writer whose strongest work is seen month to month. Yes, there is any number of small wonderful stories in the mix here, but it's the grand scheme of things that makes the book shine. In retrospect, it's easy to see how Claremont plotted the book - in grand sweeping epics of 25 or 30 issues. You can see the Dark Phoenix saga as perhaps the best-known one. The first one I read in this batch of issues was the Marauder storyline. Here's a group of mutant hunters who destroy the Morlocks and then come after the X-Men, corrupting one character, nearly killing several others, and leading all up to one grand confrontation in Dallas at Eagle Plaza. The X-Men are running scared. Their families are in danger. Two of their own - Wolverine and Ororo - are off to find themselves, leaving the team without a defined leader. And then it all comes together masterfully. Destinies foretold come true. Inevitable confrontations explode. Indescribable decisions - such as the one to fake the X-Men's death so as to protect their families and let their legend grow - are made.
I can see where this might grind on some people. Reading from month to month, it might seem that nothing is ever happening, and when it does it's too little too late. I came at this fresh. I didn't read my first issue of UNCANNY until about #258. But in reading these issues in rapid succession, the story lays out beautifully.
In the middle of all this grand plotting, though, you can't lose sight of the characterization. You can see that better when you look at this issue-to-issue. Ororo's journey to find herself has definite consequences to the team and to the final battle that is waged, but you learn more about her than just her place in the storyline. You see her love of mother earth and Forge, just for two. You see her self-doubts as to her leadership of the X-Men, and whether she's fit for it. (Oh, and did I mention she didn't have her powers until the very end of all this? Claremont's quick wit let the other X-Men cover her tracks pretty well on this one, but you'll have to read the issues to see that yourself.)
Colossus undergoes a metamorphosis of purpose, as his life and powers are placed in doubt. Kitty Pryde has her own set of doubt about herself as her powers are altered. Madelyn Prior searches for her place amongst the group as a non-powered combatant, finally relying on her flight training and technical know-how. Rogue and Dazzler come to an unsteady truce, after issues of uncomfortable interaction. Dazzler probably undergoes the second biggest transformation of character after Ororo. She must accept her position as a mutant, and must learn to live the life of an X-Men instead of a rock star. This comes right on the heels of learning to live life as a back-up rock star, a position she's uncomfortable with. For a person who craves the spotlight so much, she keeps being forced to more covert action.
Rogue is constantly under the pressure of carrying Carol Danvers' presence inside of her. It's something she constantly is reminding the readers of, but doesn't do anything about until just after Inferno in the 240s, almost 100 issues later. To many this is an example of a plotline going nowhere. To a certain extent, I'd almost agree with this. There's a lot of rehashing of the same material without it going anywhere. At the same rate, it wasn't always possible to do anything about it. The X-Men were going from one crisis situation to another, from the Mutant Massacre to Inferno, and more. After things calmed down a little, the storyline came to its conclusion.
One important thing that Chris Claremont didn't do is repeat situations. He didn't have Rogue whining constantly about finding a cure for her powers, or repeating storylines about her attempts to cure herself, only to find out at the last minute that the scientist she trusted was actually working for the bad guys, like some bad Spider-man rehash. It came to a head, and it was finished.
It wasn't just the Rogue situation, either. It seems like most new creative teams to the X-Men want to resurrect the Hellfire Club, the Sentinels, and Phoenix all within their first year. Claremont often kept 40 or 50 issues between appearances. NIMROD appeared in #208-9, and then not again until #246. The Hellfire didn't appear at all until the 240s.
Yes, Claremont's women are the most interesting in all of comics. But not all Claremontian women are terrifically strong people. Dazzler's discomfort with her position comes to a head as she contemplates the Siege Perilous "suicide" in #246, for example. Betsy Braddock seems to get short shrift through most of this run of X-MEN, too. She's the team's telepath, but doesn't really ever get the chance to develop her own personality. She's too busy breaking up everyone else's fights and functioning as the sole mind reader on the team.
On a more technical storytelling standpoint, yes, Chris Claremont repeats certain phrases and visual cues a lot. Part of that is an unfortunate necessity in producing monthly comics. Remember the dictum that every comic is someone's first? There's a corollary to that about people who read too many comics needing to be reminded about what happened last issue. Claremont falls prey to that an awful lot. But it's no different for an author of novels, who is often taught to establish two or three strong visual cues to differentiate characters. One character may toss her hair to the side when arguing a point. Another may stub out his cigarette counterclockwise. Another might cluck before reprimanding someone. All of these are subtle cues to remind us of certain characters.
Claremont's writing is very theatrical. Dialogue is not necessarily always natural sounding, but that doesn't bother me. The X-Men is melodrama. All the world's a stage, and the X-Men merely its players. There are different formats to write in, such as poetry or prose of television scripts. Likewise, you can have natural dialogue, theatrical dialogue, or minimalistic dialogue. It's a matter of personal opinion which one works best. Personally, I'm a big fan of writers who can make things sound bombastic and overtly dramatic. I also enjoy the more natural conversational style other writers employ. It's a matter of taste.
I'm really looking forward to Claremont's triumphant return to the books he made best-sellers. I hope Marvel editorial stays out of his way better than they have for all the writers since his departure, not that I'm holding my breath. It'll be fun to see.NEXT WEEK
Drop by again Tuesday for a new Pipeline Commentary and Review,
including a bunch of new reviews. Next Friday be here for a look at the
Marvel title THUNDERBOLTS. How did Fabian Nicieza do on his first
issue? Be here for my analysis of the situation in a special full column