3.28.2014

Byrne and Claremont Redu-X

With the recent news that Chris Claremont would be returning anew to the X-verse, I got to thinking about X-Men Forever:

Not to mention its sequel, which ran 16 issues.
I remembered enjoying it when I read it in 2011 but couldn't remember much about it. So I went over to The Closet of Many Mysteries and rifled through my long boxes for it. While I was in there, I also took out John Byrne's X-Men: The Hidden Years.


I got this around the same time and similarly couldn't remember too much about it. I didn't expect to blog about this - well, initially, I did, then I didn't, and now here I am again. (I am an untethered kite in high winds.) Before we get to these books, though:

I had planned to do a post on Earth X by Alex Ross, Jim Krueger, and John Paul Leon, which is, if you're unfamiliar, sort of a Ragnarok for the old Marvel universe. As mentioned in this review "it’s a nice book if you care more about the small details of Marvel continuity and like to pretend that Marvel stopped making comics in 1983 (or thereabouts)." That made me chuckle. I guess I pretend Marvel stopped making comics - with some exceptions, like the first Origin and a couple of other little things - a little later than that, but not by much.

Anyway, I realized I don't have all that much to actually say about Earth X. I still enjoy it quite a bit, and it's worthy of commentary, certainly. But that quote above hits it on the head, really; it's continuity-porn for older generations of Marvel readers. It sets out to tie all of Marvel history from 1960-1983 (or thereabouts) into one Unified Theory and more or less succeeds - no small accomplishment. But did I really just want to re-cap said Unified Theory? What more did I have to say about it, really, other than "I liked it?" Or maybe "This appeals to me because such a Unified Theory was the Higgs-Boson of my youthful imagination?" While relevant to me, is it worth a whole uncommissioned long spiel?

I guess what I'm getting at is - I have no desire to convince anyone that "my" Marvel is superior to post-1990 Marvel. Related: I got into an argument with someone about the writing of George RR Martin yesterday and ended up losing my temper. He (the guy I was arguing with, not GRRM) suggested my objections to the way GRRM approaches things were rooted in jealousy. (To make matters more irritating, he kept referring to this as "the jelly store." What the fuck is with these cutesy expressions these days? Seriously, America. Venturing into any online discussion is like an echo chamber of Cher from Clueless, as moderated by the alien from Explorers.)


I was disappointed in myself for this, not just for losing my temper, which is a ridiculous thing to do on the internet when discussing pop culture (or politics, or pretty much anything) but for committing one of my own cardinal sins, i.e. conflating something I prefer with something that must be preferable to everyone.

Now I'll be the first to argue that objective quality does exist and can (and should!) be recognized. Media and pop cultural illiteracy offends me; inattention to detail annoys me. I will also argue, however, that when it comes to things like what era of comics you like or what genres appeal to you, there is ultimately no objective paradigm. You like what you like, and you only look silly when trying to argue someone out of enjoying something.

Why this preamble? Because I feel with X-Men Forever and X-Men: The Hidden Years, we get two very different arguments about this sort of thing: how to treat the past, how to celebrate it without feeling trapped by it, etc. i.e. How To Love Bygone Eras Without Coming Across Like an Eternal Curmudgeon. Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it; those who are too attached to it risk being swept along in its undertow.

Let's do a little timeline / recap:

1981: John Byrne leaves The Uncanny X-Men, thus ending a run many still consider the greatest of all X-runs. Claremont stays on the title until...

1991: X-Men #1, written by Claremont and drawn by Jim Lee (then the hottest artist in comics) sells 8 million copies, setting a still unbroken record for single-issue comics sales. I was one of those millions who bought a copy - actually multiple copies. We all foolishly assumed these things were going to be uber-valuable in the years to come, despite everyone we knew having the same multiple copies. When then-X-editor Bob Harras sided with Jim Lee on the issue of redesigning Claremont's plots, Claremont left the series (and Marvel) after issue #3.

Mid-90s: Industry implodes. Millions of people my age realize their multiple-copies-of-X-Men-#1-related retirement plan was probably quite ill-considered.

1999: John Byrne returns to the X-verse for the first time with X-Men: The Hidden Years.


There's a good breakdown of the whole series at this site, should you want more a better overview of the series. The book was intended to fill in the gap between issues 67 and 93, when X-Men was only a reprint title.


Byrne had originally pitched the idea in the mid-80s, but the return of Jean Grey and the original team in X-Factor (not to mention Claremont's objections to Byrne getting even a retroactive toehold in "his" wheelhouse) combined with Byrne's leaving the company for Superman to put the idea in limbo.

Byrne started off the series consciously (and deftly) mimicking the writing style of Roy Thomas and the art / panel design of Neal Adams. (Thomas and Adams being the creative team on X-Men before it went to reprints with issue 67.) His idea was to eventually re-tell the stories where the X-Men appeared during these reprint years

from the X-Men's point of view. The Hidden Years (said Byrne) "was clearly finite, since Giant-Size X-Men #1 was out there as an end point, but the way I had it worked out, I could have easily done 100 issues or more before I had to send the team off to Krakoa."

He only got to issue 22, though, before Marvel axed it in:

2000: When asked at his forum why the title's cancellation led him to sever all ties with Marvel, Byrne wrote:

"There were a series of conflicting stories surrounding the cancelation of XHY. It started with me being assured, absolutely, that the book was in no danger of being canceled. But that really only launched us onto a few months of yes it is/no it isn't/yes it is/no it isn't, until finally it was.

When it finally was, (Joe) Quesada called me up to say that it was because there were too many X-titles, so some had to go, and, so sorry, but HIDDEN YEARS is one of them. Within a few months, however, I seem to recall there were five new X-titles.

Subsequently, the story was tweaked so that XHY was canceled because it had no distinctive "voice" (the original X-Men also appearing in CHILDREN OF THE ATOM -- which was launched after XHY, and which kept missing shipping!)

Finally, it was announced that XHY had died because it was the "worst selling X-Men book ever."

Politics aside, how does it hold up? It's... just okay. Sometimes the art is exceptional, such as this splash of the Savage Land (where most of the first story arc's action takes place:)



Some of the winks to the past work:

"Sigurd Jarlson" was the name Thor went by under fellow 80s Marvel superstar Walt Simonson's run on that title.
While others feel more of the digitally-inserted variety, such as the logical-enough-but-not-particularly-sensational appearance of young Storm

or of the Phoenix.
 

Leading more than one reviewer to ask, If the X-Men saw this sort of thing well before later events, why does no one mention it? I mean, wouldn't you remember if you saw your girlfriend turn into a fiery cosmic creature if the same fiery cosmic creature re-appeared several years later? This is the sort of question Byrne asks of pretty much any inserted-after-the-fact storyline or backstory any other creator has devised, so it's completely fair to levy the same question his way. (When anyone does, though, he gets a little bristly.)


But the main thing that weighed THY down was a tonal mismatch. On one hand, Byrne is playing around with the idea of "Marvel time," i.e. he updates the cultural references made by the original X-team back in the 60s to 2000-era ones:


but on the other, he extensively employs the sort of "re-capping" indicative of that age of comics. Characters stop and reflect on how they got their powers, what those powers are, what happened last issue, etc. Meaning he goes by the old dictum "Every issue is someone's first issue." But people just weren't doing that anymore in comics in 2000, especially with well-known properties like the X-Men. For better or for worse. (I'm perfectly forgiving of that when I read older books, and the argument could be made that this being a retro book should have done so. But why update things to Mel Gibson, etc., then? Seems like if you're making that concession, you can make other (better) ones.) Yet, almost as if insisting on doing it anyway, each issue, the recaps got more and more substantial.

Worst of all, it's not particularly exciting. I mean, this is Byrne returning to X-Men! No one was expecting Hellfire or Death of Phoenix or Proteus, but I just re-read the damn thing and I'm hard-pressed, honestly, to tell you of a single moment that really stands out. There's some nice-looking art (The Angel, in particular, always looks fantastic when illustrated by Byrne) and perfectly acceptable comics-fun, but nothing really memorable.

I wager this was the case because of Byrne's approach to the material. Too beholden to his own take on Marvel's past, he didn't allow himself to really get creative. THY feels more like a stubborn retread of a bygone era than an energetic revitalization of it.

Also in 2000: Claremont returns, first to Uncanny X-Men, then X-Men Legacy, then X-Treme X-Men. I haven't read any of it - these covers are giant scarecrows warning me off, fairly or unfairly:

Just so so much stupid, here. To paraphrase Pulp Fiction, sewer rat might taste like pumpkin pie, but I'll never know...

2009: X-Men Forever appears. The idea behind this series is, Claremont picks up where he left off after X-Men (1991) #3. Here's what would have happened to the X-verse had the past 19 years not existed. It was outside regular Marvel continuity (whatever that is - I mean, once you re-boot it 8 or 9 times, the temporal watershed is compromised) so Claremont had free rein to do whatever he wanted.

Something he demonstrates pretty quickly out of the gate.
He responded with exactly the sort of simultaneous-multiple-storylines, loss-of-powers, powers-swapping, Hear Me, X-Men! No longer am I the woman you knew!, amnesia, angst, romance, villains-turned-heroes, heroes-turned-villains, existential-threat-to-all-mutantkind tapestry he wove on the X-titles during his first 16-year run.


and yet: it works. Which is to say, it doesn't feel like an homage or a retread of any kind. I can't really explain how or why, only that there's a momentum to these stories (1st run 24 issues and one Giant-Sized special; 2nd run, 16 issues) that you don't get in The Hidden Years. Granted, Claremont was under no constraints to tie it into any pre-existing continuity, but - and again, this is merely speculation - it certainly seems like Claremont was simply less encumbered by his own legacy (or anyone else's.) After a few panels of issue 1, it's all systems go, and I quite enjoy where he takes things. 


To be clear, there's no equivalent of Proteus / Hellfire / Death of Phoenix / Mutant Massacre here, either, but one gets the impression that even Claremont himself is shrugging at such comparisons. Freed from a compulsion to reinvent the wheel or live up to anything, he rediscovers the characters and how to write them, and it's considerable fun to go along for the ride.

On the subject of "How do we recap," Claremont does indulge a lot of inner monologues where characters pointedly bring the reader up to date on how they got their powers / why they feel the way they do about whatever's going on. But rather than spend pages re-drawing the events (as Byrne does in THY or later in his Star Trek work) he simply adopts the current model, i.e.


You can get a pretty good idea of whether or not this series will appeal to you from this recap, I wager. Forget Lost; no one juggles as many balls in the air - and more often than not, successfully - as Chris Claremont.

So what have I learned from all this?

1) I prefer the X-Men Forever approach to revisiting the past to The Hidden Years one.

2) When we insist on our own interpretation of form, we needlessly limit ourselves.

And 3) There is no tomorrow. There is no tomorrow.

6 comments:

  1. "The jelly store"?!? Fuck that shit. Were you arguing with a 13-year-old?

    I feel your pain as far as that argument goes. I've more or less tried to recuse myself from commenting on anything, except in places where one of two things is the case: (1) I am in charge and can wield the "delete" function with impunity; or (2) the people I am interacting with more or less already know who I am and what I am like, and vice versa. This is not to say arguments won't still break out, but they tend to be constructive arguments. But for me, the days of wading into some random website's (or message board's) comments sections like a gunslinger and just blasting my opinions at people are more or less over. It is a dispiriting, unpleasant thing, even when you ARE in the right, and especially when you aren't.

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    1. Yeah, totally. This was on a comments thread on my friend's wall, and this guy I didn't know jumped in with that "ticket to the jelly store" ragebait. Gaaaa...

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  2. On the subject of the actual comics:

    (1) X-Men #67-93 consisted of reprints? Good lord, what happened THERE?

    (2) The fact that Byrne brought in both a young storm and a Phoenix appearance kind of makes me disinterested in that series. Both of those things are the worst sort of prequelitis, in my opinion. (Or midquelitis, in this case, I guess.) I'm probably being too judgmental about it, but that's how it strikes me as an outside observer.

    (3) That Mel Gibson reference annoys me even more. Stuff like that can, and does, drive me nuts when it comes to comics continuity. I don't demand that comics hold to a strict continuity, especially if there is a good and valid reason to break away from it. But if your series is specifically designed to act as stitches that will help hold continuity together, then violating it even farther is simply not acceptable in my opinion.

    (4) I can't even begin to tell you how much I hate those "X-Treme X-Men" covers. And the title itself, for that matter. (Hint: it's a LOT.)

    (5) Claremont's "X-Men Forever" sounds pretty cool -- although I'm not sure what to make out of the existence of a "Daisy Dugan" -- but I don't know I'll ever have the fortitude to try tackling any current X-Men. Or, really, any current Marvel (apart, maybe, from the Ultimate universe). It just seems like there's too much to wade through, and too much homework to do to figure out what order to go in. But never say never, I guess.

    Thanks for the write-up!

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    1. Daisy Dugan is (in the X-Men Forever universe at least - I don't know if she exists anywhere else) Dum Dum "Howling Commando" Dugan's daughter. I guess when you're known as "Dum Dum" Dugan, naming your daughter "Daisy Dugan" is a step up. Or something.

      Yeah those covers are awful. Ugh. It seemed within a span of 2 or 3 years every cover Marvel put out started looking like that. I don't get it at all.

      Well, I get it, I just don't like/ respect the approach.

      I think the "Marvel time" business is stupid. Byrne goes so out of his way to rationalize that stuff. When it comes to time travel mechanics or how time passes in comics, he has these really intricate theories that he gets way too defensive about. In my opinion. I mean, dude... it's all made up. But like you say, it just adds a layer of continuity-confusion to an already confused scenario. I don't know. Doesn't strike me as worthwhile.

      As for the reprints-era, I'm not sure what the exact rationale was. In that era (early 70s) they were quick with the with reprints when a book missed shipping, but I can't think of any other title (Marvel, at least) that went exclusively to reprints. (On a side note, I've never seen those issues of X-Men anywhere. I wonder if they're more valuable than the originals? That would be wild. I know Marvel Tales (reprinting Spider-Man) and Classic X-Men (reprinting... well, X-Men) command higher prices than I ever imagined they would.

      But such is the wacky and arbitrary world of numismatics.

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    2. Yeah, I figured Daisy was Dum-Dum's daughter. I keep imagining her looking like Daisy Duke.

      I used to have a few copies of those Marvel Tales reprints. Those, I get; I just had no idea Marvel had ever done reprints as part of their main line of books. Fine by me; just struck me as weird.

      And no, it wouldn't surprise me at all to learn they were harder to get. You've got to figure they had a much smaller print run.

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    3. Sounds logical to me. I love thinking about that kind of stuff.

      For example: whenever they find a stash of gold coins, it's always worth crazy money. Makes sense, I guess (without getting into the actual value we place on rocks) but when they find some stash of paper-money from even 100 years ago, it's only a historical curiosity, donated to the museum or what not.

      But what about a stash of comics? Of course, which comics would be my (and likely your) follow-up question. But it just intrigues me.

      Those Marvel Tales were a great way to introduce folks to the Stan Lee years of Spider-Man. They were for me, at any rate.

      Speaking of Spidey, I hope someone collects all of the Spider-Man newspaper comics at some point. Tho at this point it'd be several volumes and likely very pricey.

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