Friday, 18 December 2015

Essential X-Men volume 11

Essential X-Men volume 11 comprises Uncanny X-Men #273 to #280 & Annual #15 and the second "adjectiveless" X-Men #1 to #3 plus X-Factor #69 to #70 and the lead story from Annual #6, the lead story from New Mutants Annual #7 and the lead story from New Warriors Annual #1. Bonus material includes some sketches and prints by Jim Lee. The writing on Uncanny X-Men sees the end of Chris Claremont's lengthy run with Fabian Nicieza taking over at the end and writing some of the annual stories with the rest by Len Kaminski. The "adjectiveless" X-Men issues are co-written by Chris Claremont and Jim Lee. The X-Factor issues are written by Fabian Nicieza and Peter David with the annual by Nicieza who also does the New Mutants and New Warriors annuals. The art on Uncanny X-Men is mainly by Jim Lee with individual issues by Paul Smith, Andy Kubert and Steve Butler and the annual by Tom Raney, Jerry DeCaire, Ernie Stiner and Kirk Jarvinen. One regular issue is drawn by Whilce Portacio, Klaus Janson, John Byrne, Rick Leonardi, Marc Silvestri, Michael Golden, Jim Lee and Larry Stroman. The "adjectiveless" X-Men issues are all drawn by Jim Lee. The regular X-Factor issues are drawn by Portacio and Jarvinem and the annual by Terry Shoemaker. The New Mutants annual is drawn by Guang Yap and Kirk Jarvinem and the New Warriors annual by Mark Bagley. And invariably there's a separate labels post.

This volume covers the end of Chris Claremont's original run on the title after no less than sixteen years. And it's something of a damp squib as his last issues show heavy signs of creative conflict, culminating in his departure midway through issue #279. The first big sign in this volume is issue #274, which feels slightly odd, being more heavily scripted than a usual issue in devoting plenty of space to exploring Magneto's inner thoughts. It seems to be almost a struggle for control of the title between scripter and artist - and notably Jim Lee is given full plot credit with Chris Claremont relegated to "Script" whereas the other issues either credit the two of them as jointly producing the title or (more usually with guest pencillers) give Claremont a clear credit as "Writer". As is now well known, Claremont found himself in creative battles with both Lee and also editor Bob Harras over the content and direction of the title, and ultimately Harras had the final say. This issue feels like one of the reported ones where the first Claremont knew of the content was when finished pages of art arrived for scripting and the heavy dialogue and thought captions feel like a natural response to this. Claremont drops out dramatically midway through issue #279 and his name is also completely absent from annual #15 (released on the very same day, according to Mike's Amazing World of Comics).

Much of the conflict feels like a battle between Claremont to continue advancing the storyline in a unique direction and just about all the other creative forces trying to recreate the past, both in revisiting multiple classic storylines and situations but also in trying to bring classic elements back, most notably by bringing all five of the original X-Men back onto the team as well as bringing Professor X back to Earth and crippling him once more. Along the way, there are some new developments and the culmination of the longstanding plots surrounding Muir Island. But there's also a lot of repetition that shows the extent to which the battle is being won by the traditionalist approach. And this fails to grasp that for better or for worse Claremont's Uncanny X-Men was never a title that stood still for long, regularly changing the cast and status quo and not stopping to wallow in nostalgia. As a result we get a move towards a false ideal that tries to preserve the Claremont style at the cost of Claremont himself. It's a very unsatisfactory approach all around.

En route to this we get the trademarks of an introspective issue as the team, now fully reformed, tries to decide on its future direction and the roles of its spin-off; this is also notable for the whole team adopting the standardised uniforms that have been used by the Muir Island X-Men. They may not be the original 1960s look but they have the same colours and represent one of the biggest visual steps back towards a mythical golden age of status quo. Then comes another as the team is whisked off into deep space to help Professor X, who hasn't been seen in the title in a very long time. We get another tale of dynastic struggle within the Shi'Ar empire combined with another alien menace, with the Starjammers and Imperial Guard both adding to the action along with the threat of Professor X seemingly gone bad once more. Meanwhile back on Earth Magneto and Rogue, together with Ka-Zar and S.H.I.E.L.D., confront Zaladane and the Mutates in the Savage Land but the issue is really an exploration of Magneto's character as he steps ever closer back to his traditional role as a villain and the X-Men's archenemy. It's a journey that's been a struggle for both the character himself and the creative forces, with Claremont's dialogue and narration doing what it can to smooth the passage of the artificial pullback. Both the Shi'Ar and Savage Land settings have been done to death by now and there isn't much added beyond manoeuvring both Professor X and Magneto back to their traditional locations and roles.

The annuals contain two crossover stories. "Kings of Pain" brings together the Muir Island X-Men with X-Factor, the New Warriors and a team that starts off in their own annual under the name "New Mutants" but then becomes "X-Force" for the rest of the story. Part of the problem is that the regular New Mutants title had by this stage ceased and a few months later the new X-Force launched to continue the story with this annual published in the interim. Exactly how this mess came about is unclear though it's possible that the regular title was held back due to creative delays, leaving the annual in limbo. Whatever the reasoning, the name of Cable's team is the least of the storyline's problems. "Kings of Pain" is an all too typical example of the messy and overlong storylines that often ran in the annual crossovers of the period, with each chapter trying to satisfy both the title's regular readers who may have only joined the storyline at this stage but also readers of the whole thing. The result is an elongated confusion as one team after another gets drawn into a scheme by A.I.M. via the Alliance of Evil to empower the mutant Piecemeal with the energies of Proteus, resurrecting the latter in the process. The whole thing climaxes on Muir Island and has to tiptoe around developments in the regular series but is ultimate forgettable. A second crossover is "The Killing Stroke" in just the three mutant annuals; this three-part story sees the remains of Freedom Force battling Desert Sword, a team of heroes from across the Middle East, whilst on a mission in occupied Kuwait. It was an attempt to be very much of its time but now feels like a convoluted mess. The X-Men annual also carries two brief back-up stories. One features "The Origin of the X-Men" as Mojo briefly reviews the history of the team as prospective entertainment but balks at all the spin-off teams, in an unsubtle commentary on how the franchise has grown. The other features Wolverine having a nightmare where he battles his adamantium skeleton in an attempt to come to terms with it. As the first full issue released in the post-Claremont era (although here it's placed earlier between issues #277 & #278), annual #15 does not bode well for the future. Instead, it serves as both a demonstration of and a commentary on how chaotic and confusing the whole franchise has become.

The final steps towards restoration and also the end of Claremont's time on the series come with the "Muir Island Saga" in which the Shadow King makes his first full attack in the present day, Professor X is reunited with his original students and Colossus returns to the team, regaining his original memories and personality in the process. Once again we can see the creative struggles manifesting themselves on the pages as characters get rapidly restored or disposed of according to conflicting demands and Claremont departs midway through both the storyline and an individual issue. The Shadow King may be a part of Xavier's history but usually the foes from his pre-teaching days when he travelled the world have been left undisturbed and there isn't as great a sense of an epic showdown as such a storyline demands. This is also the story that dissolves the original X-Factor back into the X-Men, undoing many years of a distinctly different take on the team, and once more it's rather rushed in. As a result the series reaches the twin critical moments of the main guiding force leaving and the expansion into a second title under far from ideal circumstances.

The second "adjectiveless" X-Men series launched in 1991 with a rather silly gimmick of five different covers, four of which fitted together to form a single image that was the gatefold on the fifth. Or in other words if one wanted to see the full picture one could just get the gatefold edition. Coming at a time of rampant speculation not so much by collectors as by comic shops the issue saw over eight million copies sold. This was apparently the record holder for the highest ever sales on a single comic, although the five different covers is a complication as are some of the publication practices in other countries that can split sales over multiple contenders. As is the fact that the bulk of recorded sales were wholesale rather than retail and by many accounts a huge number of copies wound up as unsold overstock in comic shops all over the globe. It was an early sign of the weaknesses in the market but, although no individual issue would again have quite such a high order rate, it didn't encourage restraint amongst publishers.

The new series itself kicks off with a final intersection of the old and the new. Chris Claremont returns for a final three-part story (although he has subsequently returned to the X-Men multiple times in later years) which sets out to establish the new status quo for both the X-Men and Magneto. The mansion is restored and with Professor X having been absent so long he finds there is so much about the team and their powers that is new to him. We're back to an age of the mansion as both a school and a base, with the X-Men developing their powers under the guidance of Xavier and fighting traditional foes such as Magneto. There are concessions to the new age, with the X-Men nominally split into two separate groupings, the "Blue" and "Gold" teams which seems an elegant way to keep so many characters around and have separate writers on the two separate books. There's also another change visually with the uniforms largely disposed of, bar Forge and Banshee, and instead the X-Men now sport a mixture of brand new and older costumes. With the conspicuous exception of Wolverine the visual look is now that which would be adopted by the 1990s cartoon, which also used the "Blue" team as the basis for its main cast albeit with a few alterations.

Claremont's last storyline seeks to return to Magneto to villainy in a way that's respectful to the character development that's come before yet also position the master of magnetism as a recurring credible foe. The latter is achieved with the addition of the Acolytes, a group of mutants who come to him to serve both the man and his vision. However it soon becomes clear that one of them, Fabian Cortez, who has the power to re-energise other mutants, has other plans. The former aim of trying to make the abrupt changes seem natural rather flounders with the revelation that Magneto had been subject to genetic modification when de-aged to a baby and this had affected his behaviour when re-aged to adulthood. It feels as though a decade's worth of character development is being thrown away - and this is probably how it felt to Claremont at the time as he finally lost the battle over the character. The story, the volume and the whole Claremont era all end with a reassertion of the different philosophies of Professor X and Magneto, a fitting point to go out on.

Overall this volume shows the series being dragged in the direction of false nostalgia, first to revisit successful stories ad themes from the past and then to have an as near as achievable recreation of a mythical golden age for the characters, undoing many of the changes made over the years. A lot of comics have gone down the route of reset switches over the years but X-Men has hitherto never fallen into such an easy trap. The result is that this final volume is a rather disappointing end of an era.

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