Thursday, November 03, 2005

X-Men 195-213

The journey through X-men history continues here, as Claremont passes the 100 issue mark and just keeps going. By the end of this chunk of issues, he had been writing the book for twelve years, which is incredible, and the fact that the book still feels fresh and relevant is testament to just how strong a storyteller he is.

However, that's not to say there aren't some problems in this chunk of issues. 195 co-stars Power Pack, perhaps the dumbest concept that Marvel has ever published. They're a team of young kids who have superhero adventures without their parents knowing. It's so ridiculous and for some reason, they get teamed up with Wolverine in two different issues in this collection. Wolverine interacting with Kitty is a good contrast, Wolverine interacting with Power Pack is awful. If you saw a bunch of kids going around doing superheroics wouldn't you likely try to stop them and call their parents, not fight along side them? In previous reviews I've mentioned the fact that X-Men is best when it's insular, and that having other stuff from the Marvel Universe intrude usually the human/mutant dichotomy that becomes more and more essential to the book.

In a later issue, in which Wolverine battles Lady Deathstrike, the presence of one of the Power kids undermines what is otherwise a top notch dramatic story, illustrated by Barry Windsor Smith. Smith reminds me of Chris Weston in the way his work has a dirty, almost diseased feel. His work's very unique and, largely due the brilliance of LifeDeath I, his presence in a story is a good indicator that it's something special. The concept of the body shop is interesting, and I like the way that the Hellfire Club soldiers that Wolverine wounded back in the Byrne era keep coming back. It's the same idea as Morrison's brilliant Best Man Fall, to show that the actions of our 'hero' can actually cause huge problems for ordinary, decent people. However good the issue is, it's difficult to really accept it when you've got a member of Power Pack in there, I don't know if Claremont was forced to include the character, but whatever happened, it was an awful choice.

Back in the late 190s, we get more stuff with Secret Wars II. This also hurts the book, and even though some of the material works, you don't feel like you're getting a complete story, it takes away from the important stuff going on in the title, and I'd prefer if the major development on Rachel didn't happen as a result of her involvement with the Beyonder. The other lowlight in this chunk of issues is the awful issue in which Kitty and Colossus battle Arcade's robots, or the similarly bad issue where Kurt fights Arcade. This guy is an awful character, why must Claremont continually bring him back? I see no conceivable way to do a good Arcade storyline.

However, leading up to 200, we get a really interesting series of events featuring Magneto. One of my favorite issues of X-Men is 150, where Magneto battles the X-Men, and for the first time he's presented as a logical man, who may actually have a point, rather than a one dimensional villain. At the end of the issue he breaks down, thinking that he's killed Kitty, and we don't see him again until he washes up with Lee Forrester. When Magneto returns, his character's journey continues down its logical path, and we find he has given up his militant ways and is now working together with Xavier. The scenes where they work together as allies are wonderful and it's a shame that Xavier is shipped off into space at the end of 200 because I think there's a lot of potential to show Erik and Xavier working together, and continuing their ideological conflict on a more intellectual level.

One of the most interesting scenes in this time is when Magneto and Kitty go to the Holocaust museum, where Magneto seeks his ancestors. The scene has a curious blend of real world reverence for tragic events and yet, there is also the strong presence of the fantastic, when Mystique and Freedom Force attack. Magneto reveals he is a mutant and is soon turned against by the people he was just connecting with.

A similarly interesting scene is when Kitty goes after the people who attacked Professor X. They call her a mutie and such, then she makes the racial comparison explicit, asking one of her attackers if he would like it if she called him a nigger. It's very harsh language, and definitely disturbing. The question is, is Claremont's use of these real world racial problems exploitative, or does it come organically out of the story? It's definitely unsettling, but I think that's the point. So, it's difficult to say for sure, but I have to respect his ability to confront issues head on.

So, this stuff leads to 200, 'The Trial of Magneto.' This is a great issue because your logic is played against emotion. The masses have turned out to protest Magneto, and they are justified in wanting him convicted. His prior actions make him deserving of the worst punishment possible, yet we know he has changed, and as a result are strongly behind him. It suffers a bit from recap syndrome, just detailing stories that went before, but there's such an inherent tension in the issue that the recaps just build the suspense. Plus, I like the fact that Magneto does get successfully reformed. The villain turned hero is one of my favorite storytelling tropes and as a result, I was a big fan of this character arc.

Before the Magneto issue, the Essential X-men book reprints two long issues chronicling the adventures of The New Mutants and The X-Men in Asgard. These issues aren't bad, but they don't really do much for the characters. It's a 'ripping yarn' type thing that's much more important for The New Mutants than it is for the X-Men. Art Adams' art in the book is phenomenal, definitely the highlight of the story. But, this barbarian type fantasy just isn't that fun to read, it's something that should have been left in the 80s.

After Magneto's trial, we get some further development with Scott and Maddy Pryor. I feel a real attachment to Pryor for some reason, likely because I know the bad things in store for the character, and the fact that Scott behaves so unkindly towards her. In her first appearances, Maddy is great, and her initial romance with Scott provides the subplot for my favorite era of the book. However, here we see that Scott can never really commit to an ordinary life, he's always going to put himself in the role of leader, and that's what issue 201 is about, where Storm fights him to show that it's okay to let someone else be in charge for a while. I haven't read the start of X-Factor, so I'm a bit hazy on where things go from here, but I do know that Scott abandons Maddie to go back to Jean.

This is what Morrison gets to the core of in his run, the fact that Scott is emotionally stunted, someone who's drawn to Jean more as an idea than as a person. It actually reminds me a bit of Nate from Six Feet Under, in the sense that he tried to have a normal life with Lisa, but the memory of this fiery love he had with Brenda prevents him from fully embracing their life together. That's why Scott's relationship with Emma Frost is so intriuging, he's consciously moving away from the relationship that has defined his life thus far, even as Emma tempts him with Jean's Phoenix iconography, the memory of what they used to be. He's a very flawed character, though with his move to X-Factor, I don't get to see how he progresses. However, there is an Essential X-Factor coming out soon, so I'll be picking that up and following his journey.

Anyway, moving on there's the two Secret Wars issues and the Nightcrawler issue I mentioned before. The Nightcrawler issue itself isn't that good, but it does bring up a lot of interesting stuff about the character. He's restless and not suited to the complex moral landscape the X-Men find themselves in. He'd rather be a swashbuckler in a strict manichean world, where he could easily get thrills finding bad guys, rather than having to deal with issues. It's a nice progression of the character's journey.

That's one of the most satisfying thing about Claremont's writing, all the characters are always moving steadily forward. It may be very slow, gradual development, but they are never stagnant. Storm, Wolverine, Nightcrawler and Colossus are Claremont's most notable creations, and over the course of his run, they've all changed in significant ways, while still remaining true to the core of their personality. It's a lot like Whedon's work on Buffy, by the end of season six, Willow has changed a huge amount, but deep down, she's still the same character. It's a gradual process of evolution that is only really apparent when you step back and examine where the characters have been. The experiences he's had with the X-Men have made Kurt bitter and jaded, causing him to want to escape into fantasy personas, and that's what the issue is really about.

Following this is an arc in which the X-Men battle Nimrod, while turning on Rachel. I'm not a big fan of Rachel, largely because her origin is so convoluted, it's difficult to connect with her as a person. She opened the floodgates for a lot of awful characters, however, this ending for her arc is pretty interesting. I like the role Wolverine plays here, as someone who is so scarred by his own moral decay that he's willing to kill Rachel rather than let her become a killer. It's to make up for when he couldn't kill Jean back in the Dark Phoenix era.

This series of issues, and arguably Claremont's entire run to date, is about the morality of being a hero, and the inevitable compromises that come with that role. Storm started out purely committed to her ideals of good, such that she couldn't even kill the brood back in the 160s. Back in those issues, I wrote that it bothered me how none of the X-Men were willing to kill, even though it was clearly neccesary. That has changed, now their idealism is totally compromised and they're just trying to survive. This leads to the team up with the Hellfire Club to battle Nimrod. Much like with Magneto, their worst enemy has now become an ally, and it's interesting to watch the X-Men work together with the Hellfire Club to defeat a greater foe.

Nimrod himself is even presented in a positive light. The people are behind him, and he's nice enough to help a kid with his homework. He mentions that he's developing emotions, from posing as human for so long, he's starting to become human. The X-Men are hated by the public yet call themselves heroes. In destroying Nimrod they further anger the public to protect themselves. So, fighting for their own lives, can they really consider what they're doing to be good?

At this time, Claremont amps up the mutant/human conflict, culminating in the brilliant Mutant Massacre storyline. For the first chunk of his run, up until Days of Future Past and even beyond, the conflict between mutant and human isn't really a big deal. The X-men don't have too many problems with people and there's no sense of mutants being a threat or menace. That's why I find it hard to accept the Byrne run as the archetypal X-series, it actually has very little in common with what ended up in the film, and though it was good, I'd consider Paul Smith, or this post-200 era to be the work that defined the series.

The Mutant Massacre is the first crossover, which would later become the bane of the X-titles, but here it's very cool to read, seeing all the pieces connect across titles, even as they remain essentially independent. You could read just X-Men and follow what's going on, but like those early Buffy/Angel crossovers, reading X-Factor or New Mutants will fill in the details you'd miss. The overarching event that ties the issues together is the titular massacre, as the Marauders invade the Morlock tunnels to kill all the Morlocks within them. Why? That's unclear as of yet, but reference is made to Mister Sinister, and I know that all of this eventually leads to the events of Inferno.

But this in many ways is the peak of the mutant/human conflict so far. The X-men work best when they're not traditional superheroes, rather they're just messed up people struggling to survive and that's the case here. They try to help the Morlocks, and end up just collecting bodies and trying to help the few who survive. I love the end of the first issue, when Storm tells Wolverine to bring back one prisoner, and deal with the rest. Storm, who once valued life so highly, has become totally compromised, and instructs Wolverine to go out and kill the Marauders. Colossus takes pleasure in killing one of the Marauders, and is raring to go after more, though he is restrained at the mansion. This is the culmination of the moral decay that began with the Brood storyline for Storm, the values have been compromised because there is too much at stake. With so many people dead, and the mansion in a siege to protect the few who survive, they have no choice but to kill. It's a moral conundrum, and these issues raise things to war-level. No one is safe, and at the end of the storyline, Colossus, Kitty and Kurt and all left incapacitated. It's a really brutal storyline, and works wonderfully. I always love the storylines in ongoing narratives when everything is falling apart and the status quo is totally upended, and this is basically that for the X-Men.

One of the other chapters of the crossover is Power Pack, which is awful. However, the X-Factor and Thor issues are great. Thor is a book I'd never read but it was oddly compelling. Thor was this really magnetic character, a bit off, but rather jolly and committed to what he was doing. The end of his issue when he gives the Morlocks a Viking funeral is a highlight. The X-Factor stuff is great as well, as Scott ponders what he was doing by leaving his wife, all the while caught up in a siege of his own. I like the way they never meet the X-Men, but as a reader of both titles, you're aware of how close they come. The ending of the storyline in X-Factor is downbeat and sad, appropriate to what the storyline was about.

By raising the stakes in the human/mutant conflict, Claremont makes it so that the X-Men aren't so much fighting for good or ideals, they're just fighting to stay alive, and that's much more interesting. Watching everyone slowly lose faith in the dream is compelling, and after a brief downturn in the 180s-190s, the book is totally back, the best it's been since the Paul Smith era. I've got the next chunk of the book coming in in single issues from Ebay, so the journey will continue. I want to read to the end of Claremont's run and see where else Claremont is going to send these characters.

So, while I'm on the subject of X-Men, I want to talk about the Decimation event that is currently happening the X-Books. Following yet another alternate reality crossover, House of M, the 'real' Marvel universe has been altered so that there are only about 200 mutants. The idea behind this was that editorial felt that mutants were becoming too common and as a result were not a relatable metaphor for minorities, as they were intended to be. So, they invented this reality warp thing to change that and wipe out most of the mutants.

Now, this baffles me for a number of reasons. Most notably is the fact that if you want to get rid of a lot of mutants, why would you use an alternate reality to do this? Apparently editorial at Marvel has forgot that stories are supposed to have a thing called 'drama' and 'conflict' in them and in a longform narrative, they should build on the events that came before. So, why would you make this major dramatic event something that people won't even remember? But more important, why is something that has so much dramatic potential being done through this awful narrative device. The books have been hinting at this Days of Future Past future for years. There are too many mutants and they want to reduce the number, as well as make mutants feel like more of an oppressed minority. So why not just have the sentinels start up again and do another Mutant Massacre, taking out most of the mutants in the world, and leaving a small few left to fight back. Basically play out Days of Future Past, that story alone could last you three or four years, and would give you more of a sense of mutants as an oppressed minority. Plus, it has the potential to be phenomenal, to have the opportunity to do the definitive war between mutant and human storyline and not use it is ridiculous.

Or you could actually use the oft-discussed mutant cure, but leave a few mutants who could not be cured, making them an extreme minority. There's a lot of drama there, and it was already hinted at in Whedon's run on Astonishing X-Men.

So, as a storyteller it offends me. To use a reality warp to do what could have been an amazing four or five year storyline is horrible. But now that I've been reading this old X-men stuff, it bothers me as a fan of the characters. This basically ends the world that Claremont created. After all the shit that happened in the 90s, Morrison was still able to produce a book that developed the characters and concept of X-Men, while still staying true to its core ideas. That's how stories are supposed to progress, there are some elements that are key, like on Buffy, Buffy's not all of a sudden going to open her own restaurant, but she can go through major character changes. What the House of M stuff does is invalidate the characters who had been developed in favor of an imposed editorial change. I don't want to sound like the typical fanboy here, but I think what Marvel's doing here is trying to mix things up rather than allowing changes to come organically out of the story. Claremont's run had a constantly changing status quo and a huge shifting ensemble cast, meaning that things always felt fresh. I've read 120 issues of his run on the book and I don't feel like he's repeated himself.

But what this gets down to is the fact that X-Men is at its core a corporate property. Claremont had a personal vision for it, and for 15 years was able to guide the books and keep them fresh and interesting, with real characters who changed, not corporate properties. However, after that, the books lost the sense of having a strong authorial vision, something that's inevitably a consequence of having 15 titles set in the universe. So, Marvel Editorial dictates how things go, they dumped Claremont the first time, and they made House of M now, and if the changes stick, you wind up with a major step backwards, or sideways, and in this world, you couldn't have someone like Morrison come along and move things forward again, picking up where Claremont left off. I am intrigued by what House of M did, but it's more from a sense of curiosity about the changes rather than a sense of involvement with the characters. That's what Claremont never did, Magneto turned from evil not becauuse of a mindwipe or reality warp, rather because of things that he and the other characters did. That's how a story should function.

So, for me, X-Men begins with Claremont, takes a break, then ends with Morrison. They took a corporate property and characters, and made them into emotional stories with fully realized people. After Emma Frost and Scott kiss at the graveyard, no more is needed.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Division Shadow Now Available

The first issue of the comic I've been working on for a while is finally out, and you can order it here. I wrote the book and I'm self publishing it. It's been a bit annoying to have to pay for and do all the work to get the book out, but it's rewarding too. It's a story I believe in and really wanted to tell, and if I'm going to work on anything, it might as well be that. I first came up with the story three years ago, so it's been a long journey to print, with a lot of starts and stops, but we're zipping along now, and the remaining five issues should be released monthly.

So, if you've read my reviews and said don't criticize something until you've done it yourself, well now I have, so if nothing else, this earns me the right to critique other peoples' work. You can get more information at and also read a thirteen page preview here. I think it's a cool book, perhaps you will too.