Tuesday, March 14, 2006

X-Men: Wrapping it Up

SPOILERS: All of Claremont's X-Men, and Morrison's as well

The time has come to conclude my extensive coverage of Chris Claremont's X-Men run. In 1991, Claremont was bumped off the book, and guidance of the franchise went to fan favorite, Jim Lee, who soon left the books. Considering what happened between the 70s and 1991 with regards to ownership of characters, it's pretty absurd to think of someone devoting his life to a property that he has no control of, like Claremont did for X-Men. Chris created these characters, and if he had even a small share of them, he'd be an incredibly wealthy guy. The franchise that he created has spread out into TV and film, not to mention literally thousands of issues of comic book material. All that is the result of one man's unique blend of superhero action and character based soap opera.

If you compare Claremont's writing here to what was going on in TV in the 70s, it becomes clear how revolutionary Claremont's serial plot and character development were. TV featured standalone episodes with static characters, Claremont's book was constantly evolving, layering new plots on top of each other, and all the while subtly developing characters. Most high end TV shows, from The Sopranos to 24, have more in common structurally with Claremont's run than any TV being done then. Joss Whedon has said that the Paul Smith era basically is Buffy.

The start of the run to Fall of the Mutants functions wonderfully as one big story, culminating in the thematic resolution of the human vs. mutant question, as well as the finale of many character arcs, with Storm still maintaining an inherent good despite her compromised values, and Wolverine stepping up to lead the team. Layered into the plot development is the brilliant character development on Kitty, Scott, Maddy Pryor, Kurt, Wolverine and Storm, who all take really challenging, complex journeys over the course of the run.

Storm's relationship with Forge is the strongest in the book. LifeDeath is a revolutionary issue, and the story at the end of Fall of the Mutants calls back to that, bringing us fine closure. Similarly, Wolverine's journey from wild man to leader of the X-Men is a fantastic arc, and it's great to see a time when he was a character not a caricature.

One of the misconceptions surrounding the book is that the Claremont/Byrne run was the highpoint of the series, and that everything later comes out of that. Reading that chunk of the book, there are some clearly important concepts, but other than Days of Future Past, there's very little material dealing with the question of mutant/human relations, or explicit use of the mutant as minority metaphor. The run the films draw most from is Romita's, the Mutant Massacre period.

There are two highpoints of Claremont's run for me, one is the Paul Smith era. He only drew about ten issues of the book, but they see Claremont at his most nuanced in building character. Storm is reborn, gets a mohawk and cuts loose. Cyclops meets a mysterious lady named Maddy Pryor, Kitty rebels against Xavier, Rogue joins the team and proves herself, and the best final panel of any issue ever, Wolverine shedding a tear as Mariko says she won't marry him. It's Wolverine crying, how bold is that. And Smith's art is the best in the book's entire run.

After Paul Smith, there was a bit of lull until the next highlight, the period from roughly 200 to Fall of the Mutants, featuring the art of John Romita Jr. This is where most of the ideas for the movie came from, the conflict between mutant and human, the world that hates and fears them thing. It's dark, intense stuff and the Mutant Massacre is Marvel's best answer to Dark Knight Returns. Fall of the Mutants brilliantly resolves the thematic question of the series by allowing the world to see the X-Men as heroes.

If the X-Men had stayed dead, it would have been the perfect end to the series. I don't think there was much left to do with the book after that, and after this point, Claremont generally stays away from mutant/human conflict. There's no way that Marvel is going to end X-Men at the height of its popularity, and it's that popularity that ultimately dooms the book.

I mentioned this analogy back in my original reviews, but I think it holds true. If X-Men was a TV show, Fall of the Mutants would be the series finale, and Inferno would be the movie made a few years later. Inferno, for all of its flaws, is the last time that these characters feel like real people, and you have the sense that real change can occur. Inferno was designed to clear the deck, and it did that too well, resolving so many long running plot points, from then on, the books had no direction. Inferno's treatment of Maddy bothers me a lot, but as a story, it's epic and crazy, playing off years of character history to create a really compelling narrative.

It's not like it's all downhill after Inferno, but you increasingly get the sense of these characters as fixed entities. Back in Paul Smith, it felt like anyone was expendable, and that the characters were constantly evolving entities. Storm of issue 165 is dramatically different from Storm of issue 94. However, that basic conundrum emerged, it's the dynmaic character development that made the book so popular, but to mess with the dynamics too radically could mean alienating the audience. I admire Claremont for trying some different stuff post Inferno, but in his attempt to shake things up, he separated the characters and there was no sense of the characters as a family.

After that, everything moved back towards the status quo, culminating in X-Men #1, when all the marketable characters are brought back together, Xavier is back in the wheelchair, Scott's back as leader, and it's easy to sell the concept to other media. And as Claremont found out with the Jean Grey resurection, it became increasingly difficult to make lasting changes to the characters.

Claremont's final statement on the book was strong, and it wasn't until Morrison that anyone really moved beyond what he had done on the book. Morrison's run is brilliant because it's a fusion of Claremont style character development and interaction and Morrison's trademark big ideas.

But everything he did comes out of what Claremont created. Everything in the films is tied back to Claremont, as is the animated series. While he's not known outside of comic book circles, I think it's safe to say that nearly everyone has read or seen something that would not exist without Chris Claremont's run on X-Men.

X-Men 94-138

X-Men 139-161

X-Men 162-176

X-Men 177-194

X-Men 195-213

X-Men 214-221

X-Men 222-229

X-Men 230-239

X-Men: Inferno (240-243)

X-Men 244-254

X-Men 255-265

X-Men: X-Tinction Agenda (266-273)

X-Men 274-280, 1-3


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