I’ve been thinking about The Wolverine, which I caught at a morning screening — it’s what you have to do when you have a toddler! — on opening weekend.
There’s a lot to like in this movie, but it’s far from perfect. The movie’s been out a few weeks now, so I’m going to talk about stuff that qualifies as spoilers, so consider yourself warned.
Here’s the pro side:
This is the most faithful adaptation of a Marvel comic-book story to come to screen so far. There are deviations from the 1982 Wolverine miniseries it’s based on, but I was surprised by how much of that story was kept intact.
I liked that the female characters were interesting. Yukio in particular is a favorite of mine from the original comic. And while she’s not quite the same character here, she played a major role in the story and held her own quite well. Mariko didn’t fare quite as well. I never fully bought the romantic connection between her and Logan. The comic version, despite its hokey elements, is a bit more convincing.
The end tag previewing next summer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past was terrific. Patrick Stewart is back! So is Ian McKellan! I am now very much looking forward to that pic and find myself hoping Bryan Singer can really pull off an amazing movie that not only heals some of the wounds left by X-Men: The Last Stand, but also unifies the whole franchise and gives it an exciting way to go forward. My biggest concern is living up to the impact of the original comic book story, which has to be significantly fleshed out for a feature film.
I liked that there was a lot of Japanese spoken in the film, both with and without subtitles.
While Viper was probably the least necessary addition to the movie, I really liked Svetlana Khodchenkova in the role. She had just the right amount of sexy sinister for a character like that.
The posters with the Japanese style artwork are great.
Here’s the con side:
After a very satisfying and interesting set up, the final act is so conventional as to be boring. The Silver Samurai, as done in this movie, was far less interesting than in the comics. The big reveal of Harada as being inside the big robot suit is just plain dull and has almost no emotional impact.
I wish more had been done to play up the love triangle of the original comic, with Yukio being an obvious and very willing match for Logan, who just can’t get over Mariko. That was a nice touch in the comic that this movie could have used a bit more of.
Viper is not well integrated into the story. She seems pretty unnecessary and her power is oddly portrayed and never explained. I don’t recall Viper having any powers in the comics. But I do remember she somehow convinced Wolverine to willingly marry her for some reason. (I remember it was in Chris Claremont’s return to the character in Wolverine #125-128 or so, but not the reasons behind that twist.) That might have been a more interesting element to play with here.
I hate the ripping out of Wolverine’s claws. The bone claws, in a word, suck. I always thought the bone claws were the lamest thing ever done to the character. My problem with it is it makes absolutely no sense. We were told for decades that the claws were housed in some kind of bionic mechanism, which must have been confirmed by all the medical exams done on Logan by everyone from the Sentinels (as far back as The Uncanny X-Men #98) through the Shi’ar and onward. Even in the original Days of Future Past storyline, when the Sentinels burn off Wolverine’s flesh, you can see the manmade mechanism that operates his claws in his bones. Of course, that’s a future timeline Wolverine, so it’s easy to explain away. But that doesn’t mean it’s still not a stupid idea.
No credit whatsoever for Chris Claremont, Frank Miller or Josef Rubinstein for coming up with the original comic-book story. Even more interesting, it appears Claremont doesn’t get even a token payment, while Len Wein, who officially created Wolverine but had little to do with the character as he exists today, did.
The Wolverine looks like a solid but not spectacular hit. So far, it’s made about $113 million at the domestic box office and about $195 million overseas, for a decent total of $308 million on an estimated budget of $120 million. Anticipation for X-Men: Days of Future Past is running high, and it’s clear Fox is going to continue to develop and release X-Men movies on a regular basis, thus preventing the rights from reverting to Marvel. The series appears to be on the upswing, with the well-received X-Men: First Class and now The Wolverine getting fans past the disappointments of X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
I would love to see the franchise move past prequels and into new, fresh territory with new characters, new villains and new scenarios. After The Wolverine, it’s looking more likely than before, and I think fans of the comics and the movies can be glad of that.
It’s been a week, and I finally feel like I have recovered from my one day at San Diego Comic-Con.
Visiting the show for the first time in three years, it was interesting to see how little had changed. Most of the booths were the same, offering much the same kind of material. It made me feel less like I had been missing out by not being at the show every single year, and that in itself was a relief.
Marvel Team-Up #74
With only one day, I cruised around the floor most of the time and hit some key booths, including my pals at Animation Magazine. I did a tiny bit of shopping, picking up an advance copy of Alter-Ego #120 from TwoMorrows, featuring a cover story on the Silver Age X-Men. I also picked up a Wonder Woman bendable figure for my daughter, who’s become a big fan thanks to DVDs of the old Lynda Carter series, and a few inexpensive back issues, including Marvel Team-Up #74, featuring Spider-Man and the Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time-Players (a.k.a. the original cast of Saturday Night Live). I’ve always been interested in this comic, but never had a chance to pick it up until now. I hadn’t realized Chris Claremont wrote it, making it an even more interesting oddity from the late 1970s.
I didn’t buy much more because, well, everything was so expensive. It seems every booth is pushing an “exclusive” item costing anywhere from $20 to $75 and up, and very little appeared to be discounted. Perhaps that’s just a function of exhibitors needing to recoup as much as possible the rather expensive booth rate at the show. Either way, it put a dampener on my shopping interests, especially since almost everything I was interested in can be acquired via a local comics shop or online, often for less and without the need for me to lug it around the show.
The highlight of the day was the Sequart: Advancing Comics as Art panel, during which I talked about my book, Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen, in conjunction with the upcoming documentary Comics in Focus: Chris Claremont’s X-Men run on the series. Director Patrick Meaney and producer/cinematographer Jordan Rennert showed some footage from the doc. It was cool to see how well the shots they took of my original X-Men comics collection turned out, as they were going for a different look when presenting the work from an older, more analog era.
I also jumped at the chance to join Patrick, Jordan and Sequart founder Julian Darius as they interviewed Louise Simonson for the Claremont documentary. I can now check her off my very short list of comics pros whose work I admire who have not yet had a chance to meet.
If there is one reliable result of attending Comic-Con, it is for me a revitalized interest in comics. I’ve been pulling out stuff to read ever since and have managed to catch up on some of my immense reading backlog to very enjoyable effect. I’ll write about some of the more interesting stuff soon.
Just a few notes to pass the time while I try to find some time to read a few comics to write about here.
I will be attending San Diego Comic-Con on Thursday only! This will be my first trip to the Big Show in three years, I think. Very much looking forward to it! Anyone know of any particularly good new COMICS projects I should check out while I’m there? I think it’s cool that Kazuo Koike is going to be there, though I doubt I’ll be at all inclined to stand in a long line to meet him. Anyway, if you see me, say hi. I expect I will be mostly on the floor and avoiding the lines to get into panels, with one exception …
That exception is the reason for my visit. I will be appearing on the Sequart: Advancing Comics as Art panel, Thursday at 1:30 p.m. in room 24ABC. Sequart, in case you don’t know (and if you’re reading this blog, how come you don’t know?) published my book, Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen. They also have gotten into the movie business, with Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods, Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts, and a bunch of upcoming projects. I helped out a bit with their upcoming release, Comics in Focus: Chris Claremont’s X-Men. I was interviewed for the film and provided some additional assets for the shoot. I’ll be appearing on the panel to support this film and the filmmakers, Patrick Meaney and Jordan Rennart, as well as Sequart founder Julian Darius. There should be lots of good stuff going on, so if you can attend only one panel at Comic-Con (lucky you!), make it this one!
Pacific Rim is a really fun movie. As I mentioned, I saw it a while back and wrote about the VFX work on the film for an upcoming issue of Animation Magazine (who also will be at Comic-Con, stop by booth 1535!) and with its release now imminent, I have to say I really had a fun time with this movie. It’s crazy insane in all the right ways. And it’s an original film! Not a sequel, not a reboot, not an adaptation — not a hoax! It’s really cool and I think anyone who gives the movie a chance will be pleasantly surprised if not turned into a big fan.
Additional movie fun: Both Monsters University and Despicable Me 2 are also a lot of fun. I wrote extensively about MU for Animag – check out the cover story here — and it’s funny and cool and looks great, through without rising to the level of Pixar’s best. Me 2 impressed me with the quality of its animation, which looks absolutely terrific. The minions are hilarious and Steve Carell is really good as the weirdo Gru. Again, not quite as innovative as the first one, but still worth the time.
I caught both those films — along with The Internship and a second viewing of Man of Steel — at the Vineland Drive-In Theater in City of Industry, Calif. This is an ideal setting for parents like myself, as 2-year-old Kaya can make all the noise in the car she wants without disturbing anyone else and then, after she falls asleep, my wife and I can enjoy a second movie for less than the price of one at the Arclight or a similar arena. The image quality is quite good, and the sound comes in over the FM radio, and it’s a better experience by far than it was when I was a kid and you had to listen through those little window-mounted mono speakers. Drive-ins are few and far between these days, so I want to call attention to this little gem because it’s a fun experience that I think many movie buffs with young families would enjoy.
X-Men has been thoroughly dethroned as the top franchise in comics, replaced in sales and popularity among superheroes by Green Lantern, the Avengers and Batman. Sales are down, interest is down and the X-Men line is just kind of dismissed by bloggers and podcasters as a property coasting on past successes more than one that innovates, entertains and is a commercial success.
No one who’s read this blog or my book or spoken to me about it at a con or online will mistake me for anything other than a big fan of the X-Men. That doesn’t mean I don’t recognize a ton of crappy X-Men comics have been published over the life of the title. But I do think the X-Men stands apart from pretty much every other superhero out there because its concept is capable of delivering a great deal more emotional depth. X-Men is, at heart, a science fiction concept that features many conventions of the superhero genre. You could do X-Men without code names, costumes, secret identities and crime-fighting elements that define most superheroes. But by making the X-Men mutants — granted powers by accident of birth — and turning them into a race or even a class of potentially dangerous people pitted against normal humans, X-Men has a greater potential to become something deeper and more significant than the superpowered cops commonly found in Avengers or Green Lantern.
The X-Men’s current decline easily began the moment Grant Morrison left New X-Men, ending the last great run of innovation the title has seen. That was 2004, and was followed in 2005 by Marvel placing renewed emphasis on the Avengers, beginning its ascension to the top of the charts starting with Avengers: Disassembled and The New Avengers. I think there were a lot of reasons for this shift, but the most interesting was that also was about the time that Marvel began planning to make its own movies. With the X-Men movies rights and profits locked up at Fox indefinitely, it simply makes sense for Marvel to put all its efforts into building up the Avengers into the most recognizable and profitable brand.
I dropped all Avengers books shortly after the recent relaunch because I think writer Brian Michael Bendis’ style has grown increasingly stale and lazy. How long can you quote movies from the 1980s in a pastiche of David Mamet and Kevin Smith before people stop calling it brilliant? How many issues can you write where superheroes sit around eating and drinking coffee and chatting about nothing while all the action happens off-panel? Bendis is on track to find out.
The X-Men books these days are not horrible, but they’re not great either. What they lack more than anything is the kind of wild energy and the constant sense of elevating danger that marked the best days of the series. The former is a problem that afflicts most comics these days, while the latter stems from the need for the X-Men metaphor to evolve and reflect the nature of being an outsider.
So how to fix that? I have some ideas:
Stop writing comics like they’re movies or TV shows and starting writing them like they’re comic books again.
This is a problem that affects most mainstream comics these days. It’s not uncommon for dialog scenes in superhero comics to run two or three pages, with four or five panels per page. This works for Tommy Schlamme on The West Wing, but in comics, it is extremely boring. Flipping through the current arc of The Uncanny X-Men, “Quarantine,” there’s a LOT of talking. The first issue, #530, starts with two pages of Emma talking to Kitty, followed by a page of almost-naked Emma talking to Scott, followed by three pages of Anole talking about getting sick, a page of Northstar and Dazzler having dinner, two pages of The Collective talking and one of them tearing up a convenience store, followed by a super-exciting two-page press conference, and on and on. Boring.
Similarly, a couple of issues later we get a big fight between Emma and Sebastian Shaw, while Northstar et al. are fighting the Collective in San Francisco. Despite most of that issue, #532, featuring some kind of action, these sequences still lack energy and fail to generate any kind of excitement. I think a lot of it comes from Land’s heavy reliance on photo reference. In theory, photos should make good starting points for comic panels, but in practice the artists who rely on photo reference produce work that looks stiff, or even frozen. Good comic art has a natural look and the storytelling flows from panel to panel and page to page. I don’t think you’ll ever get that flow cobbling together panels based on pictures from Sports Illustrated, TV Guide and the Victoria’s Secret catalog.
In movies and TV, time is valuable. In comics, it’s space. And wasting so much space and so many pages on endless dialog and stilted action simply runs counter to the strengths of comics as a medium. Add in the stretching out of storylines over four or six issues, which often ship late, and the number of people who wait for collected editions to read and it’s almost impossible to avoid material that feels stilted, thin and stretched beyond its limits. At a time when communication is speeding up and people are abandoning short forms of communication like email and blog posts for even shorter and quicker hits offered by Twitter and Facebook, this is an even worse approach. I don’t know why comics aren’t more focused on making each issue, each episode as jam-packed full of cool stuff as they possible can rather than boring everyone to death with decompressed, to-be-continued and irrelevant material.
Next: be subversive. I think good comics are a lot like good rock ‘n’ roll (or any good art): it must challenge the reader in some way. In comics’ case, that usually means being subversive in some ways. X-Men was always good at that, featuring characters who are always on the outside of society looking in. It’s a great premise for criticizing just about any aspect of society. And looking at the state of the world today, there is no shortage of things to criticize. However, X-Men in the post-Morrison years has been astonishingly conservative, sticking to an interpretation of the mutants and their relationship with society that fails to evolve and remains exceedingly safe.
Perhaps that’s to be expected. Both DC and Marvel’s books have felt increasingly like the products of a corporation in recent years, shedding the personalities that the artists and writers used to bring to them. It often feels like I’m not reading a comic anymore, but a marketing plan or press kit takeaway.
The antidote to this has to be taking some chances with X-Men stories, going beyond what’s been established in the past 48 years of comic books and take a few digs at society. The good news is there is no shortage of conflict in the world right now — economic, political, religious, racial — X-Men could easily tap into. The bad news is that Marvel is a big corporation and can’t be expected to court the kind of controversy subversive comics would bring.
So if anyone were to ask me what could be done to fix the X-Men comics, here’s what I would do.
Shorter, punchier storylines. Throw lots of strange ideas in there and see what sticks.
Get the X-Men off Utopia. Putting all these characters on a fake island where all they have to do is talk to each other has turned out to be deadly dull. This is a book that needs to connect with the real world, and they can’t do that on Utopia.
Return a sense of dread to the book. Claremont did this extremely well, by making mutants powerful enough that it was credible for normal humans to hate and fear them. He also had an ear for the kinds of arguments used in the media at the time to discuss divisive issues and shrewdly injected imagery from the Holocaust to great effect.
Tap into real world issues. The Holocaust imagery evoked a universal and undeniable sense of fear and horror in to the X-Men that stood in for a number of different interpretations of the mutant metaphor. It could be about race, it could be about religion, it could be about just being an outsider or it could be about being gay. For too long — ever since Claremont left in 1991 — X-Men has relied a little too much on the homosexual interpretation. A lot of this became more obvious for many folks after Bryan Singer’s movies. But gay rights have come a long way in the last 20 years, and no longer carries the kind of stigma it did in the 1980s and even in the 1990s. With the shrill political, cultural and religious environment found in the United States, there’s lots of ways to move beyond the Holocaust imagery and find new threats for the mutants based on real-life stuff that’s extremely compelling.
Put the X-Men in direct conflict with humanity. The idea of an all-out war between humans and mutants has been inherent in the concept from the start. It’s been 48 years since X-Men #1 — isn’t it time we saw this at long last? There’s enough X-books, and I could see this as a great new status quo for the X-Men for the next several years.
I’d love to hear what other fans have to say — fire away in the comments if you’re so inclined.
“’Twas the night …” Writer: Chris Claremont Pencils: Marc Silvestri Inks: Josef Rubinstein Colors: Glynis Oliver Letters: Tom Orzechowski Editor: Ann Nocenti Editor in chief: Tom DeFalco
When they reprint classic merry mutant tales, they usually omit this one (more on the more popular X-Men holiday stories soon). Perhaps because this tale is tied into the Australian outback era of the The Uncanny X-Men, which is both admired and reviled, depending on who you listen too. This is easily the goofiest X-Men Christmas story, but it’s also not without its charms.
The story begins with the X-Men on a typical training session in the outback town they took over in the previous issue from The Reavers. But Longshot is absent, lured to a room filled with “haunted treasure” that wants to return to the owners The Reavers “liberated” it from. This is a weird idea, that these objects have some kind of sentience and, even more, an emotional attachment to their owners. This is ascribed to Longshot’s power of psychometry, which was an ability outlined in his original 1985 miniseries. Haunted by the pleas of these items, Longshot’s tales prompt the X-Men to try to return every item to its rightful owner.
The ridiculousness of the idea is commented upon extensively in the story — Claremont’s halfway successful technique for selling the idea to an audience most likely too “cool” to take the concept at face value — with Havok and Wolverine noticeably scoffing at the idea. But like most good Christmas stories, the season’s good points melt away the skepticism and everyone joins in whole-heartedly. Even Wolverine gets in on the act, wearing a Santa hat and carrying a big bag of gifts over his shoulder — all of which is pretty out of character and most likely not “cool” with the average late 1980s X-Men reader, but it is Christmas. Amid all of this, there are a couple of subplots. One has Rogue trying to connect in some way with Gateway, who at this point is still a silent mystery. The other has Dazzler trying to come to terms with her new, non-glamorous life living with the X-Men in the outback and craving the missing comforts of books, TV, music and fun in general.
The general hokeyness is complemented by a some quite nice little moments in which people surprisingly recover treasures long thought lost. I particularly liked a four-panel scene in which a couple of kids catch Dazzler in the act and she claims to be one of “Santa’s special helpers.” There’s also a nice little nod to The New Mutants, who at this point believe the X-Men dead and are in mourning, as Storm gives them some weather worthy of an extra Christmas carol.
That all this happens on Christmas is fairly obvious, but not overtly commented upon until fairly late in the story, when the X-Men make a gift to Dazz of the super-trendy motorcycle she’s had her eyes on. (Presumably, it was one of the gifts that had no signature for Longshot to register.) Rogue also gets a subplot resolved as her attempts to connect with Gateway.
The art is an interesting mix. This was the pre-Image Silvestri — lots of mood and emphasis on setting with a slightly sketch and abstract style. I was always conflicted about Rubinstein’s inks, which are polished but also add a soft and slightly cartoony feel that clashed with the usually over-serious approach of Claremont’s stories. Faces in particular were not as expressive with this art team — Silvestri’s sketchy style lacked some range in this area, and Rubinstein flattened out and distorted things a bit.
I remember buying this issue off the stands and thinking it a bit of a throwaway issue — one of those quiet issues Claremont would use to emphasize character after a big change in the status quo. One of these every so often worked nicely, but there was a definite hunger to see the new Australia direction take off. This had come after the resolution of Fall of the Mutants in #227, a fill-in tale in #228, the establishment of the new direction in #229 and there would be one more character-oriented fill-in in #231 before things got back to the meat of things with the return of the Brood in an action-packed three-parter starting in #232. This was obviously never going to be a pivotal issue in the X-Men canon, referred back to via footnotes for as long as they used footnotes, but something about this kind of simple, all-in-one holiday story evokes a fondness for those days when comics could tell stories outside of serialized trade collections and mega-crossovers.
For the first time in a while, there were a couple of new comics out this week that I had to read as soon as soon as I got home. They’re both comics I had at one time really hoped would one day exist and now that they’re here on the same day, serve as bookends for a lot of my 1980s fan experiences.
Up first is Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan #1 (of 3) (IDW, $3.99), adapting at long last the best of the Trek movies into comic book format. It’s hardly the sort of thing you can explain as an adult, but it really used to bother me that this film hadn’t been turned into a comic that I could collect and hold on to way back in 1982. For those who don’t know, the first Star Trek comics were published by Gold Key starting in 1967 and running 61 issues through 1978. With the coming in 1979 of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Paramount did what George Lucas had done with Star Wars and Universal with the original Battlestar Galactica and went to Marvel for an adaptation and original series. Unlike with those other properties, Marvel’s Trek was a troubled mess and after a year was demoted from monthly to bimonthly publication and finally canceled in late 1981 after a mere 18 issues.
It took the success of the movie Khan to convince DC to give it a go starting in 1983, starting their stories in the post-Khan era and producing the first of several successful lines of Trek comics. I always liked the DC Trek comics best and have a complete collection of them bagged, boarded and long-boxed. DC adapted Star Trek III, IV, V and VI quite well, but it was always frustrating to have that one gap in there. And I know I wasn’t the only one frustrated by this, as the question came up more than once in the excellent letters columns editor Bob Greenberger used to prepare for the Trek comics. It was always held out as a possibility, but always a very unlikely one. And it became even less likely as the Trek franchise moved its focus to The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise.
Reading the book at long last is satisfying. It’s a different animal, being produced so long after the fact, when the writer and artist can check every scene and line with the DVD. But it still has its own flavor and a few tics to make it lovable. I even like the use of the Bob Peak poster art on the cover of the first issue, though getting Howard Chaykin to paint a cover to match the ones he did for DC’s version of Trek III and IV would truly be amazing. Maybe for the eventual trade paperback.
On the other end of things is X-Men Forever #1 (Marvel, $3.99), an ongoing biweekly series in which writer Chris Claremont and artist Tom Grummett go back to 1991 and basically pretend Claremont never left the series. Like Wrath of Khan, there’s no way to truly travel back to that point, but this does pick up the threads from that point and go forward with them in a way that satisfies the inner geek in me that always wanted to see what Chris would have done had he not left.
Somewhere on my hard drive, I have saved an interview Claremont did back around 1994 in which he described his plans for the series. They were fascinating, but apparently not going to be picked up in this series — which is just as well.
Part of me really hopes this revives the feeling of reading Claremont’s best work from the 1980s, and part of me hopes this series goes off on completely different tangents and creates a really cool alternate version of the X-Men that takes on a life all its own.
The big complaint (as always) is about Claremont’s style of writing. Yes, he goes overboard on the copy by today’s standards, but I also find a lot to appreciate in it reflecting a time when comics were a serialized medium of periodicals. When each issue had to stand in some way on its own and there was no “writing for the trade.” It always kind of made sense to me to try to pack each issue with ideas and as many bits of characterization would fit, if only to see what would stick. You always could — and Claremont often did — just ignore the stuff that didn’t work or hang on to it until he could work it in. I always thought the density of the X-Men was part of its appeal at the time — there was always something going on in the heads of each character, and Claremont put more thought and took more risks with that kind of stuff than most writers of that time did.
Coming as these events did — Khan in 1982, when I was still in junior high school, and the end of Claremont’s X-Men run in 1991, when I was graduating college — it’s impossible for my judgment on either to be anything less than nostalgic. But even looking beyond the nostalgia, some of the things that originally attracted me to these projects remains in these new comics, and I’m glad to see that sometimes these things remain the same no matter how many years pass.
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.
I wish I had been at New York Comic-Con for all the cool stuff I’m reading about, even as I don’t miss the New York weather at all. There’s lots of X-Men-related news that makes me unexpectedly happy, so here it goes:
First, on the Mutant Cinema front, an interview I did with the blog Four Color Commentary is now posted for your reading pleasure. Check it out here.
As you may have noticed from the image at left, the 1990s X-Men animated series is finally getting an official and complete DVD release! The details on the first two volumes have just been released, and they include 32 episodes in all. Read more here.
On the comics front, The New Mutants is back with a new series starring the original lineup of characters. If they’d get Bill Sienkiewicz and Chris Claremont back on the book, I’d be completely sold. Since there have been a few other revivals along the way that haven’t worked out, I may reserve final judgment until I’ve read a few issues. Zeb Wells, who I just saw win an Annie Award as part of the Robot Chicken team a few weeks back, will write with Diogenes Neves (an artist whose work I’m not familiar with) will be on art.
Lastly, and perhaps most potentially cool of all, is news of a new comic series titled X-Men Forever, in which Claremont will continue the series from where he left off in 1991 as though all the intervening years never happened. While it sounds like he won’t do all the cool stuff he had planned at the time, I think it’ll be really fun to play What If? in this way. Tom Grummet is on the art, which I think is a solid choice and should be able to evoke the feel of the book back then and take it somewhere new. Now, if only they could talk Jim Lee into drawing an issue or two, my 1990s comics flashback would be complete. IGN talks to the mutant master about the series here.