Sunday, March 12, 2006

X-Men 274-280, 1-3

SPOILERS: Claremont's whole X-Men run.

Well, after a roughly seven month journey, I have finished Chris Claremont's run on X-Men. Just reading it all felt like a huge accomplishment, so writing it was unquestionably one of the best accomplishments in comics history. If you consider what happened in comics, and the world as a whole, in the fifteen years that Claremont wrote the book, it's surprising that you could maintain a consistently high standard of story and character development.

After a weak path, and the less than perfect X-Tinction Agenda crossover, I'm glad to say that the wrap up of the run is a return to the fun and drama that made Claremont's run so great in the first place. 274 is one of the strongest issues he's done since Inferno. It's a first person narrative, with Magneto pondering his life's work and the morality of his actions.

Under Claremont, Magneto has consistently been one of the most complex and interesting figures in the book, and this is a great storyline for him. He is in conflict with Nick Fury, because he wants to kill Zaladane, who he considers too much of a threat to survive. It's perfectly logical that someone could consider Magneto himself too much of a threat to survive, and that creates an interesting contradiction.

Also, in this issue, we get some great stuff with Magneto and Rogue. Claremont nicely sets up a bond between them, and plays off of that in 275. Magneto has the chance to form a lasting relationship, but he passes it up because of commitment to a political cause that Rogue can't really understand. His basic flaw is that he can't let go of the atrocities in his past and move on. Even when he tried to live Xavier's way, he only ended up causing more death for his people. The story works because you want Magneto to give up the cause and settle down with Rogue, but at the same time, we know that's impossible for him.

Concurrently in 275, we've got another X-Men in space story, usually a sign of a bad storyline, but this first issue at least works well. We've got the X-Men's reunion with Professor X. Just reading Claremont's issue, Xavier doesn't seem like that crucial of a character to the mythos, because he had so many mental traumas early on, it's tough to tell who the real person is. But it's still good to see him again.

The subsequent space storylien seems to exist primarily to have the X-Men fight various incarnations of each other, something that's gotten pretty old. It's a bit convoluted, but there's some good stuff when they have the X-Men team up with Deathbird to battle Lilandra, reversing the usual dynamics of the Shiar stuff. I suppose one last trip up to space was required before Claremont left the book to resolve the issues with the Shiar.

Unfortunately, this big storyline leads into another rather convoluted, nonsensical big action storyline. This one ties into a really old storyline, going back to X-Men 117, and the Shadow King. These psychic war storylines never work that well because there's no concrete rules to the world. They put on "psychic armor" and fight, but there's no sense of what gives a killing blow. At the end of the storyline, they defeat the nexus, and Forge invents a device that will resolve everything.

Forge is something of a problematic character because he presents an easy out for the writer. He's the perfect crutch to overcome any narrative problem, you simply make him invent something and it's all resolved. The best storyline was definitely LifeDeath, where he had to deal with the consequences his invention had for a woman he loved. The other highlight for him was in Fall of the Mutants, when he and Storm experience life in an alternate dimension, and he has to build things out of his leg. That was fantastic stuff because it put him in a challenging situation.

But this is yet another make the X-Men fight each other storyline. In some respects, this probably has to happen just because there's so many characters to manage. You can't bring in any outside villains, the only way to get everyone some screentime is to have them fight each other.

The business with the Shadow King is resolved in X-Factor 70, which acts as a setup for the whole new status quo. This isn't even a Claremont issue, but I read it because it resolves the storyline he started. This is by Peter David, and it's a really strong issue, lot of inventive stuff with the art, and some nice resolution for a lot of storylines. I loved the stuff with Rogue and Mystique, which shows that they're still close despite fighting on opposite sides at times. At this point, it seems like Mystique has crossed over completely to the good side, and I'm not sure how she wound up as a villain later on.

The late 260s represented the most radical period of Claremont's run, with the characters all split up, drifting along, with no status quo whatsoever. There was no base, it was just people moving along. Starting with X-Tinction Agenda and culminating in X-Men 1, we see a return to a status quo that in fact never really existed. The book moves to fit in with the idea of what the X-Men were, putting all the most famous characters under the X-Men label.

I have a lot of issues with the way that the book implies that the experimental period was a failure. I would agree that the 260s go too far, but stuff like the Australian period and certainly Fall of the Mutants had some really strong stories, and any faults they had weren't because they were lacking Xavier. And yet, these issues move everything back to an easy status quo. One of the dumbest choices they made was the decision to put Xavier back in the wheelchair. That was such a conservative reaction, and doesn't make that much sense, considering that Xavier hadn't actually been in the wheelchair for roughly nine years, he hadn't even been in the book for about six years. So, I don't think there was a need to put him back. It smacks of just wanting to return to the past. That's a criticism I'd also have for the end of Morrison's run, though I suspect in both cases, the creative decisions were largely motivated by Marvel editorial edict.

The way I imagine Marvel approaching X-Men 1 is to return things to the status quo of the Byrne era, set up the Magneto/Xavier opposition, The Jean/Scott/Logan love triangle, and the mansion base for the characters. I'd suspect that as they moved into more licensing and products in the early 90s, there was the desire to have a set idea of what the X-Men were. If you're trying to bring the book into the mainstream media, you want people to be able to say "Wolverine, Jean Grey, Cyclops, Storm, Xavier," those are X-Men. You don't want someone to pick up the book and say "Why is it that an Irish guy and an Indian guy who fought in Vietnam are the only characters? Where's Wolverine, and if Magneto's a bad guy, why is he in charge of Xavier's school?"

I can understand this impulse, and I would certainly agree that things got out of control in the 260s, but I just wish it wasn't such a blatant return to conservatism. The book is about evolution, but this is a clear regression. And it's odd that they feel the X-Factor characters are essential to the team, they were barely in Claremont's run. If you want to restore a classic team, you'd need Nightcrawler and Kitty. For me, the prime X-Men team was in the Paul Smith era: Kitty, Kurt, Colossus, Wolverine, Storm and Cyclops. I'd have liked to see one last appearance from Kitty and Kurt here in Claremont's run, but I believe he was writing them in Excalibur at the time, so it's not like he abandoned them completely.

Anyway, despite issues about the decisions that went into the launching of X-Men 1 and the splitting of the teams, this first storyline is the best X-Men material since Inferno, a storyline that finally returns to the core of the book, the way that mutants live in a human world. This storyline was clearly an influence on Morrison's take on Magneto, and you can practically see the exact line that inspires the idea that Magneto is more powerful dead than alive. This issue deals explicitly with this idea, showing someone who just wants to be left alone, but is constantly getting bothered by people.

I'm not sure if it was the intention, but I was really rooting for Magneto this issue. There's so many X-Men by this point, they've been reduced to caricatures, there's no room for the sort of precise development that Claremont was able to do with a small cast. And considering there's so many of them, the X-Men feel more like an army than an oppressed band. This is a problem, the X-Men are inherently gifted, and the only way to make you really feel sympathy for them is to put them in situations where they're fighting against huge odds, as in the Mutant Massacre to Fall of the Mutants period.

Magneto on the other hand is a legitimately oppressed guy. He doesn't want to fight the X-Men, but Cyclops leads an attack on him. Considering they're the aggressors, you can't expect Magneto to just stand there and get hurt. The thing that perplexes me is why Wolverine chooses to attack him, I can see why Cyclops would, but Wolverine would surely be able to see that he's not an aggressor. I'm glad to see that they've kept up the guilt that Magneto has about sinking the sub back in 150, and the scene where he's thrown into the sub amidst the bodies is great.

This makes clear the essential problem for Magneto. He's been such a major player on the global stage that no one believes him when he says he just wants to be left alone. They keep provoking him, and eventually he's going to turn on them. It's the X-Men attacking him that turns him into their enemy and forces him to return to his oppositional stance. The whole time, I wanted one of them to step up and offer to talk with him. It must have been intentionally ambiguous, because the way it's played, Magneto is sympathetic, while the X-Men are mindless aggressors.

I take issue with the revelation about Moira's genetic tampering with Magneto. This is another case where the tendency towards conservatism wins out over logical story development. Rather than exploring the way that a man who tried to reform can be led back, they chose to go with this copout explanation that in some ways negates all the brilliant development that Claremont did on the character over the course of his run.

The end of 3 seems to imply that Moira's conditioning didn't actually change him, it just held back a psychosis that his powers were causing. So, the man we saw in these issues is in fact the real Magneto, and the revelation is just a device used to make it more acceptable for the X-Men to turn on him. It makes him the aggressor instead of them. But I think it's a dumb retcon, and undermines a legitimate debate between his point of view and Xavier's.

However, I think issue 3 redeems Magneto in some respects. The initial bit with the X-Men fighting each other (yet again) doesn't work so well, but the finale of Claremont's run is satisfying. It's not traditional closure, but in some respects, these last few issues are a really satisfying finale, bringing everything full circle. His run has been a time of intense troubles, with the students starting with Xavier's point of view, becoming disillusioned and less morally sure, while at the same time Magneto tries it Xavier's way. Ultimately, the X-Men return to Xavier's dream, seeing in the horrors they've witnessed that violence cannot lead to good. While Magneto sees the violence and decides that the only way to protect his people is to stand against those who would oppress them.

In the final moments, Xavier recounts Magneto's thoughts, a perfectly legitimate view of the conflict, even if Xavier chooses to go his own way, to re-embrace the dream. So, the finale shows both men becoming more sure of what they're doing because they are back in conflict. It's like Xavier needs Magneto to show him the real meaning of his dream, and it's only in observing Xavier's failures that Magneto can find another way.

Knowing that the book would continue, I wasn't expecting closure, but I feel like the vast majority of Claremont's plot threads have been resolved, and I don't need anymore. The ending tells us that the fight will continue, but each side is more sure of what they believe in, and gives the other a grudging respect. Even if Scott is still stuck in the old view, Xavier and Magneto are aware of the moral ambiguity of the world, as well as the need for idealists.

The status quo is restored and the dream lives on no matter what the X-Men have had to face. It's a satisfying conclusion, and even though Claremont may not have left the books voluntarily, this was probably the right time. This issue really felt like the emergence of a new age, new costumes, a new style of art. Claremont showed them the new world, and then left his characters in the hands of others.

Tomorrow, I'm going to go back and do an overview of Claremont's whole run, its successes, failures and overall themes. It's been a massive journey, but one I'm glad I've taken. It's a fifteen year journey through the history of comics, the world as a whole, and one man's evolution as a storyteller.

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