Saturday, March 21, 2009

Comics du jour: X-Men #100-109, Uncanny X-Men #381-389 (2000)

This run of 22 comics — X-Men #100-109, The Uncanny X-Men #381-389, X-Men Annual 2000, Cable #87 and Bishop: The Last X-Man #16 — constitutes the much-heralded return of Chris Claremont to writing the X-Men after almost 10 years away. Fan response to this run, which hit in 2000 as the first X-Men movie was released in theaters, was pretty negative — I don't think Claremont ever took as many public knocks on his stories as he did the the letter cols toward the end of this run. And I can see why this run didn't exactly knock anyone's socks off. While not a total train wreck, this run in many ways undid a lot of the romantic notions fans who decried Claremont's sudden departure from the X-Men in 1991 still clung to.

Perhaps the biggest and most obvious realisation to come from this run is the importance of a good artist when working (I presume) Marvel style. The issues drawn by the better artists, like Leinil Francis Yu, Adam Kubert and Salvador Larocca are the best. The problem is there were many issues drawn — at times in rushed fashion — by the likes of Tom Raney, German Garcia, Michael Ryan, Randy Green, Scot Eaton, Thomas Derenick, Anthony Williams, Brett Booth. The transitions could be jarring, with more than one issue using multiple pencilers. That sort of inconsistency was most apparent in the many convoluted battle scenes, many of which became incomprehensible and even pointless. The coloring also did this run no favors with dark skin tones and colors that ran together and muddled the art rather than made it pop.



But the real reason to pay attention to these books when they came out was Claremont, who ended his unbroken 16-year run as writer on X-Men rather suddenly in 1991. To many fans, Claremont was X-Men — no one else, no matter how hard they tried, made this book their own in quite the same way. There were lots of elements Claremont brought back to this book that were quite welcome and almost nostalgic in the way they evoked the feel of the book from the old days. Among them:

The idea that the X-Men were smart in addition to just strong. For example, the way Rogue took on a leadership role that included her learning how to fly, some engineering and some people skills. Kitty's engineering and tech expertise is another.



The attitude: There was lots of talk about X-Men needing to live up both individually and as a group to increasingly high standards. The X-Men's enemies were never dumb and never stood still — as they worked and improved their skills toward achieving their own goals, so must the X-Men always do the same and be ready for anything and everything. Loyalty and competition are big themes in Claremont's X-Men — his characters stick together, fight hard and play hard.

Having fun — Claremont always had his team blow off steam and have some fun. Yeah, there's the usual baseball games, but also more than a few nights out partying, dancing and (I presume) drinking a bit as well.

Romance — Yes, these relationships were tortured, especially Gambit and Rogue, but they also had a palpable commitment that came through and was more than the usual surface-deep stuff normally found in superhero comics. Sometimes, it was just adding a bit of glamour, as in the descriptions of Kitty's short-lived romance and betrayal by Seth in X-Men #100. But it's there. And the heartbreak is pretty convincing too, as with Psylocke moving away from (and breaking up with) Archangel and seemingly into the arms of the new Thunderbird, Neal Sharra.



The supporting characters — I always liked that there were folks around who didn't have powers in the X-books. Col. Vazhin and Simyon Kurasov in the Russia story are good examples, as is the long-absent captain of the Arcadia, Lee Forrester, and her first mate, Paolo. It makes sense for them to have non-mutant interactions with people who are nonetheless smart and interesting.

The crazy shit — Yeah, a lot of the plot ideas don't get wrapped up nice and neat. But the idea that all kinds of strange stuff would happen to you as a superhero group like the X-Men in some ways works better and makes more sense.

So then, there's the stuff that doesn't work.

First and foremost is the scripting style. I don't mind there being a lot of type to read in a comic — the packing in of ideas and bits of character through dialogue can really add to the believability of a superhero world — but the internal dialogues that rage through the minds of characters like Cecilia Reyes as they're being hunted didn't offer much new in these cases. Also, these issues in particular seemed to suffer in particular quite accutely from another common Claremont criticism, that being that his characters' dialog is pretty interchangeable. Too often, it's a phonetically spelled-out accent or, in the case of Wolverine, his own lettering font.



Sudden, unexplained changes in powers — I always liked the faux scientific authenticity the mutant explanation for powers gave the X-Men. It's a close-enough variation on real scientific principles to really sell to an audience. But messing too much with powers can undermine that believability. Cable has always been a prime offender — whether he is a telepath, a telekinetic or both changes from year to year — and this run takes a lot of joy in messing with Rogue and Psylocke. The former's powers are running out of control and becoming so random seemingly for the reason of giving her an extra burden to handle. The same thing happens to Cecelia Reyes, though a more reasonable explanation is given for it: She is forced to the the power-amplifying but addictive drug Rave to stay alive when she's trapped inside the Neo's fortress. Psylocke, on the other hand, simply shows up as a telekinetic with out telepathy. (Claremont planned to tell the story of how this happened in an annual, but left the title before he could do it.) There also are a lot of costume changes, which I don't mind as much — though I wish the changes that were made to the costumes were better.



The villains were another problem. The Neo had the most potential. Mutants of mutants, they were on the verge of extinction and out for revenge. Domina and Jaeger remain fairly memorable. But when their plot was unresolved in this run, it seems to have largely vanished from X-Men lore. The rest came fast and furious without, in some cases, so much as a good look at these characters or any understanding of their motives: The Shockwave Riders, The Lost Souls, Big Casino, Tullamore Voge, The Crimson Pirates, The Twisted Sisters, etc. Even the few returning foes seen in this run — Lady Deathstrike, Mystique — fail to stand out the way they should.

But the biggest problem with this run of books is the pacing is a complete mess. Individual scenes are well done, but the majority of it is quite confusing, even when you're really paying attention. The stories are so overpacked with ideas — many of them potentially very good — and they squeeze each other out. Nothing has priority, so there's no arc through individual issues or the run as a whole to define it. Had there been more control over the stories, sequences that should have been very powerful, like the deaths of Senator Kelly and Moira MacTaggart, would have felt more dramatic, cathartic and natural rather than seemingly jammed in around a whole bunch of other elements.



So while the early issues delivered on some of the better elements, the middle of this run was where things really faltered — and really, it only was for a few months' worth of comics — and then ran afoul of the Maximum Security crossover from the Avengers. The Dream's End crossover with Cable and Bishop: The Last X-Man showed signs of improvement, but remained unsatisfying both for the reasons cited above and its repetition of "Days of Future Past." The best issue, by far, was the penultimate one, The Uncanny X-Men #389, in which Claremont and Larocca — easily the best artistic match on the run — rather poignantly recounted unseen elements of the Xavier-Moira relationship while intercutting with both her funeral and Kelly's. There also was a decent subplot that planted the seeds for the original concept of Claremont and Larocca's X-Treme X-Men series.

All this added up to a bit of a mess and some difficulty for Marvel. Rumors have always run rampant that this run's impenetrability and its divergence from what moviegoers saw on screen that summer played a role in the changing of the editorial regime that brought in Joe Quesada, Bill Jemas and, notably for the X-Men, Grant Morrison. I still can find things to admire about this run, though it still disappoints, failing by a long shot to live up the best work Claremont did on the book in the 1980s. Those things I admire, though, also give me hope that Claremont and Tom Grummet can find a way to make X-Men Forever, the upcoming continuation of Claremont's original run, will deliver in a way this run did not.


3 comments:

Dan Hess said...

I remember this run well. So much anticipation for Claremont's return only to be followed by such disappointment.

I agree that there are elements in this run that show hints of CC's brilliance, but for the most part it just really fell short...both storytelling- and business-wise.

The fact that these complex and character-driven stories was what Marvel put out while the BRAND-NEW movie fans were searching for some great mutant comics to read is still a sore subject to me...as a life-long fan, it was sad that I had to tell friends NOT to buy the current X-Men issues being published at the time, but to pick up old stuff. I wouldn't be surprised if the rumors were true and that was the reason that Jemas and Quesada took over the editorial reins of the company because of this misstep.

In the end, I do think what makes this run memorable for ANY reason is the risky decision to kill off SEVERAL long-standing X-Men characters over the course of four issues (people always forget that Pyro died heroically in this storyline too). Moira Mactaggert and Senator Kelly are huge parts of X-Men lore and especially Moira has a crucial emotional connection to countless characters in the comics (ranging from Xavier to Rahne and Madrox...), thus making it a very relevant story that even though it did miss all the emotional beats you would have hoped, definitely stands the test of time. Here's hoping they don't just bring her back anytime soon (unless Whedon or Brubaker do it, they officially get a free resurrection pass based on their track record).

Tom McLean said...

I hope they leave Moira dead. Just so she could be the one single character in X-Men history to not be resurrected. And poor Pyro ... if only he'd hung on two or three more issues, they could have cured him of the Legacy Virus.

Rob said...

I wasn't all that blown away by Claremont's return either, and it's a shame, since he made such an impact with his storytelling on X-men. I think the characters have just grown to big and unmanageable to reasonably tell convincing stories about... unlike the days when it was just Claremont writing Uncanny X-men and New Mutants alone.