Saturday, September 17, 2005

Essential X-Men (94-138)

Lately, I've been reading through my Essential X-Men tradepaperbacks, books that collect Chris Claremont's run on X-Men, from its beginning, to issue 213 in the most recent volume. While Stan Lee may have created the concept of the X-Men, Chris Claremont is the one who really deserves credit for making the book successful and culturally important, and though his later work isn't that good, he deserves a great place in both comics and pop culture history because in this book he developed a whole new way of writing action stories.

Claremont's greatest contribution was his blending of heavy soap opera elements into the traditional superhero stuff. So, there's a still a lot of fights and villains menacing the X-Men, but the core of the book is the character relationships and development over the course of the book. It's really striking to compare these stories to more recent X-Men stuff (Morrison and Whedon excluded) because over time the characters have become iconic, they've been through so much it would seem impossible for all this to happen in one life. And that means that it's difficult to really relate to them.

However, back in the 70s and 80s, the characters were not icons, and that gave Claremont much greater freedom to have them change and grow. In the storyline that's widely considered the peak of the book, the Dark Phoenix Saga, the drama comes out of the relationships that have been built up over the course of the book, and the ending combines the action element with the emotional, the action is used as a stage to act out the emotional drama of the book.

This style of storytelling was picked up by Joss Whedon, and used to incredible effect in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Claremont has a lot of flaws, but Whedon takes the form he developed and takes full advantage of it. The 'Dark Willow' storyline is the most explicit tie in to Claremont's work, but the Angelus arc in season two contains more of the emotional beats. Can Buffy put her personal feelings aside and do what's best for the world by defeating Angelus? She faces the same dilemma that Cyclops does, and in both cases, we don't really care if the world gets destroyed, the emotional relationship is much more important.

There are a lot of other similarities. In both cases, they work with genre trappings and the seeming requirement to have a fight scene in every issue/episode, however, this action frequently seems unneccesary and takes time away from the more important character stuff. The other major similarity is the prominence of strong women in a traditonally male genre, and not only strong physically, but women who make decisions. Jean as Phoenix is the causal motivator, not Cyclops who simply observes what goes on, frequently confused. Storm is also quite strong, and Kitty Pryde stands out as a completely different depiction of a teenage girl than what we usually get in the media, strong, intelligent, but still flawed.

Judging from what he's written about the X-Men, Kitty Pryde was a bigger influence than any other character on Joss, and provides the most obvious template for the powerful but flawed adolescent female characters who dominate his work, and when he took over X-Men, he made it a priority to get Kitty on the team.

Still, for all of his undeniable influence on what came after, are the actual comics any good? It's definitely dated, especially the early issues. Alan Moore and Frank Miller redefined comics in the 80s by moving away from thought balloons and third person captions and instead using the art to really tell the story. Claremont, while nowhere near as bad as Silver Age Marvel stuff, relies on a lot of tell, don't show storytelling.

The third person captions are awful, most of the time they don't really add anything that isn't already there in the art, and there's some very overwrought writing within. However, I'm a bit torn on the thought balloons. On the one hand, I'm so used to the post-Moore minimalist comic style, where thought balloons would only be used as a pastiche. However, with such a large cast, it would be really difficult to convey their feelings and emotions without the balloons and they really do help to round people out quickly. But at the same time I feel like it's a narrative cheat. But if it works, is there anything wrong with a narrative cheat? I can't say for sure.

The book also has some hallmarks of its era, the disco mutant Dazzler most notably, but also some of the outfits Kitty wears and the look of the aliens the X-Men encounter on their journeys around. Though looking at the backcover of Essential X-Men Volume 6, it seems like we've barely touched on the 80s. I wish I could find an image online because this is just the essence of 80s, Storm's mohawk, Nightcrawler's chia pet hair, it's great. I have to say I enjoy this period stuff, I don't think it takes away at all from the story and it makes it a lot more fun to read.

Claremont's other big flaw is that he frequently does storylines that tap into the larger Marvel universe and undermine the relatively mundane world he'd developed for the X-Men. So, Storm encountering Luke Cage, that works, but the Savage Land feels completely absurd and just doesn't work at all. I hate those barbarian stories, they're always awful because barbarians make bad characters. Then the Shiar business takes away from the emotional reality of the Phoenix. It is tightly intertwined with the plot, but I just don't like it.

Then he's also sort of constrained by the reality of comics at the time. Marvel's motto was 'each issue could be somebody's first,' so there's frequent scenes where Wolverine will say something like "I can easily cut through this with my retractable, unbreakable adamantium claws," clearly exposition for new readers. And then there's the fact that towards the beginning of each issue someone always gives a speech summing up what has happened before, something that was required by Marvel back then.

And Marvel's edict that every issue must have a fight scene in it also holds back Claremont. I'm not sure if Claremont would have had a much smaller amount of fight scenes if he got his way, but it feels like he doesn't really care about the action parts of the book, in the same way that the fight scenes in Buffy, with a few exceptions, just take away from the actual character development.

But despite its myriad flaws, it doesn't take away from the fact that these books are amazingly compulsive reading. The best works are ones I respect creatively and get totally addicted to, X-Men I don't completely respect as a piece of art, but it's extremely compulsive reading. Character arcs develop over long periods and seemingly irrelevant plot elements freqnetly have additional meaning. For instance, the Warhawk issue seems like a pointless standalone villain tale, but it has a huge impact twenty issues later when we get to the Hellfire Club storyline.

And it's a joy to watch the characters develop. Claremont's run on X-Men lasted roughly 185 issues, and I think Cerebus is the only title that one creator worked on for so long. This book is Claremont's vision and he totally knows all the characters. He's created fully rounded, flawed people that may be successful as heroes, but still have petty jealousy and myriad insecurities. Spider Man might have started the hero as downtrodden victim thing, but his was played more for comedy, here we see the X-Men all really struggling with issues that don't really get resolved or go away, just like they wouldn't in real life. Colossus feels guilty about abandoning his family to join the X-Men, and he can never shake those feelings. Wolverine reminds me a lot of later period Spike, someone who's cold on the outside, but inside has deep feelings and insecurities. Even though I've only read the first few issues with her, Kitty Pryde is probably Claremont's greatest creation, a fully realized, rounded and interesting character.

I also like the way Claremont manages to rotate through a huge cast of characters. There's about six X-men during the Byrne run, but you've got Xavier, Moira, and the original X-Men all cycling through on occasion, bringing the number of recurring characters to around twenty. And if you compare the level of development on the original X-Men to the new ones, you can see just how good Claremont is in comparison to what came before.

Claremont falters when he does overtly mystical or otherworldly stuff, but when he does storylines grounded in reality, the work is great. The Hellfire Club storyline is top notch, particularly the issue that ends with Wolverine in the sewer, getting ready to rescue his friends. It's one of those moments where you just know shit's about to go down. Reading these, I'm trying to pinpoint the moment where Wolverine became the breakout X-Men character, and if he hadn't by that point, that issue would certainly have done it.

The issues I like most are the ones where there's no action, and he just lets the characters do their thing. Though there's a bunch of really good action storylines, notably Proteus, which is a really cool concept, and he uses it take the characters in a new direction.

Ultimately, despite all his flaws, Claremont tells stories that make you want to keep reading. Most ongoing stories use some kind of generic hook, or high concept to bring the reader in, and gradually become less reliant on it in the storytelling, instead focusing merely on the characters. This happens in Six Feet Under, Buffy and one of the problems of X-Men is that it never quite leaves behind this reliance on generic trappings to focus solely on the characters, but at the time, it probably just wasn't possible.

Reading those books, you don't get the feeling that you're reading the start of a franchise that would ultimately end up generating billions and dollars and in many ways, keep Marvel afloat. Instead it seems like one guy telling stories he was interested in telling, and it just so happened that, for once, the best product rose to the top and was rewarded with good sales and success.

With this work, Claremont brings comics as far as they could go under the rules that governed mainstream work in the 1980s, single issue storytelling rather than an overarching narrative, at least one fight per issue and stories geared towards kids. Claremont breaks all of these rules to some extent, but he's still constrained by them. It takes Alan Moore and Frank Miller to open the floodgates, and then the British invasion of Morrison, Ellis, Ennis, etc. to redefine the norms of comics. But look at Moore's Swamp Thing and you'll see a work similarly reliant on overwrought third person captions that aren't so far from what Claremont writes here.

So, Claremont's flaws are in the time he came up in, and despite the revolution in comics storytelling, he hasn't changed, hence the negative reaction to his recent work. Writing about his work, I run into a lot of conflicting feelings, that show up in the constant switch between praising him and writing about his failures. Ultimately what Claremont did was make characters people cared about enough to keep the comic book's sales high for thirty years. And even though the vast majority of mainstream people don't know it, when they go to see the X-Men film, or watch Buffy, they're witnessing the legacy of Chris Claremont.

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