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.

3.25.2014

Frank Miller's Daredevil: Epilogue

I'm not here to properly examine all of Miller's non-Daredevil work, but given how polarizing he's become in recent years, let's look at just a couple of them before we get to the main course.

Holy Terror.
(2011) 

Here's a not particularly awesome trailer for it:


For what it's worth, this was clearly positioned as a one-dimensional propaganda project. It's an angry reaction to the ever-increasing propaganda of infotainment as filtered through an action movie, My Country Right or Wrong sensibility. Reading reactions to it around the web, people seem to be indulging their straw-Rand fetish as engineered by the very same infotainment rather than reviewing the work.

This is not to say any and all opposition to Ayn Rand or whatever is just media engineering, merely that this is the encouraged take on it from our media betters. And it's certainly not to say criticism of Holy Terror is only coming from a reactionary position. Ultimately, I don't disagree with this review from io9. If it's meant to be the 21st century equivalent of a World War 2 era comic -

such as this
I don't think it succeeds. (If anything, it made me feel sympathetic to the terrorists' position.) Perhaps if it had been Batman as originally planned it'd have worked a little better. Mainly, it's just difficult to look at.

And speaking of Batman:
aka The Dark Knight Strikes Again (2001)
I actually like this damn thing. I think I may be the only one. The art makes me feel like I'm being scolded for liking pretty things, and the mythology of the DC universe is gargling strichnine. But that's kind of what I enjoy about it. Miller's style evolved - for better or for worse - into grotesque caricature and bold contrasts. When he worked with color - as he did in DK2, with then-wife Lynn Varley - this meant imagery that was very challenging for anyone who expected a straight sequel to The Dark Knight Returns.


Much has been made of this technique and how the human form is warped beyond the polite limits of comic book illustration. It doesn't bother me too much, I have to say; I've actually grown to really admire it. (I have no idea what the hell his deal is with hands, though.)


Miller's politics are often much more complex than he's given credit for, and it'd be worth examining the perversion-of-DC-mythos in DK2 in more detail. But beyond my scope here. (It's interesting to note, though, that the Bat-plane is used as a weapon against the skyscraper headquarters of the police dictatorship led by Lex Luthor.) Suffice it to say, his enduring (and prescient) concerns about media engineering, corruption, and sexualized iconography as means of control are given full psychedelic release


Give Me Liberty
(1990-2007)

This is a long and complex work. It's also completely freaking bizarre. I won't even pretend to summarize it; its closest analog would be something like American Flagg or Marshal Law or some sci-fi Ayn-Randian mash-up of them all. But even that doesn't describe it accurately, as it takes so many wild leaps from segment to segment. Along the way, though, as with DK2, he (with Dave Gibbons) are unfortunately all-too-prescient about many things.

The only thing that really changes is the number (and armaments) of security.

More than any other comics creator, Miller has successfully transitioned to Hollywood, thanks to The 300 and


I haven't seen The Spirit. (I recently had a conversation with a friend about topics we avoid because we know we'll get sucked into them for years. Will Eisner and the Spirit are two such topics for me.) Its failure to connect with an audience and relative critical drubbing halted Miller's cinematic momentum somewhat. But I was pleasantly surprised by the film version of Sin City, not just Miller's success at realizing it on the big screen but by my enjoyment of it. I've never been a fan of the comic, so I did not expect to.

The above is just a smattering of the work that resulted from his initial success with Daredevil. (And his leap to superstardom with Dark Knight.) He returned to the character that helped him write his own ticket thereafter on three different occasions. Four, if you count this:

Which I won't, simply because it doesn't actually involve Daredevil.
Art by the always provocative Bill Sienkiewicz.
It's baffling but quite rewarding if you put the time into it. (Question for current-Marvel readers: is Elektra even part of current continuity?)

Miller teamed up with Sienkiewicz again for 1986's


Which is much easier to follow than Elektra: Assassin and no less rewarding. The main attraction, though, is the art. Sienkiewicz's work is, as always, mind-warping. I went through it with the intent of screencapping it, but it's the sort of thing that if you choose one image, you might as well choose them all.


The story serves as a bridge between the end of Miller's first run on Daredevil (which saw the Kingpin and Daredevil calling a temporary truce and working together) and his second, aka

which sees the Kingpin systematically taking apart Matt Murdock's life and mind piece by piece and crushing them.

 

"Born Again" is a grim affair, even by today's standards. Karen Page, introduced in the Stan Lee years as the lovesick secretary in the law firm where Matt works
is reintroduced as a junkie who sells Daredevil's secret identity for a fix, unknowingly setting into motion the events that lead to the dismantling of Daredevil's life by the Kingpin.


Her redemption and Daredevil's resurrection (and the Kingpin's comeuppance) ensure things end on a happy enough note.


On the road to said reinvention, Miller (and David Mazzucchelli, more on him in a minute) brings back almost the entire supporting cast from his first run:

From Lt. Manolis
to Turk
to Ben Urich.

Urich plays a rather pivotal role in events, both as narrator and as participant, which is good to see. (Another question for current Marvel readers: is Ben Urich still around in any capacity?) But of course the main returning character is the Kingpin.


Obsessed with destroying Murdock after the events of Love and War, the Kingpin borrows one of the government's chemically-enhanced operatives when his first attempt to do so fails. This is the most compelling aspect of the whole storyline for me, as it logically extends its thematic Catholicism to the real world. (Well, "real.")


This leads to the Avengers - and Captain America in particular - becoming involved. As with the relationship of DK2 to the original Dark Knight series, this expands the scope of Miller's first run by contrasting it against the myth power of the Marvel superheroes and Uncle Sam here in the sequel.


The art, as you may have noticed, is really something. Courtesy of David Mazzucchelli. The Comics Journal has a great piece on Mazzucchelli's storytelling designs for "Born Again" here. I agree with every word, particularly the praise for his "Toth-ian clarity in combination with urgent linework and tone" His interiors and attention to detail is amazing, as well.

 

Miller's last issue illustrating Daredevil was 185, about two-thirds through his initial run. He's never returned to the character as artist. But he did write the "re-boot" of the character for Marvel in the 90s, as paired with John Romita, Jr.


Based on his own screenplay for a never-realized Daredevil movie,the story tweaks the origin he himself provided during his initial run


and surrounds it with the sort of action sequences one would expect from JR,JR:


Which is to say: among the very best ever committed to page. I am forever in awe of JR,JR. I think only Miller and Janson have ever communicated the visual action of the character better.


As a repositioning / update of the character, little is changed. Which isn't surprising, as the Miller template for the character supplanted all previous and overshadowed all that came after. As such, Elektra naturally plays a major role in proceedings:

Tonally, it's a thousand shades less severe than "Born Again." But still fairly humorless. There is this fun little demonstration of Matt's growing confidence with his powers (from when he rooms with Foggy in college:)

but that's about it.
The Miller/ JRJR Man Without Fear was published in 1993. Does it still work? As a reboot, as a story, as a fun piece of entertainment? Yes, yes, and yes.

There was supposed to be a sequel to "Born Again," written by Miller and illustrated by Walt Simonson, but it has yet to materialize. At this point it seems likely it never will. But if it did, and with no disrespect to the dozens of talented writers and artists who have written or illustrated Daredevil's adventures in the past twenty-plus years, it would undoubtedly leapfrog over all of them to join its Miller-helmed predecessors as the Only DD You Ever Really Need.