Monday, October 24, 2005

90s Week Continues: An Interesting Equation - Lee + Claremont = Good

What's that you say? "Brian, 90s Week was a MONTH ago." Ah, but that is what you may have failed to pick up on, which is that 90s Week, just like the 90s itself, is filled with time travel for absolutely NO REASON AT ALL!! So therefore, this is the continuation of 90s Week, which did not end, but rather, was teleported one month into the future to save a world that was not its own! Its mission? To take a look at the good and bad of the last decade. Today, Jim Lee gets a lot of razzing from folks, as does Chris Claremont. That is why it is interesting to me to see how a story by BOTH men could turn out so good. The story I am referring to is Uncanny X-Men #273-277.

The story begins in Uncanny X-Men #273, which is a recap issue after the big X-Crossover, X-Tinction Agenda, which featured the X-Men, X-Factor and the New Mutants (led by Cable, soon to turn the group into X-Force). This issue is not particularly good, except for the collection of artists. The art in this book is handled by the following:

1. Whilce Portacio

2. Klaus Janson

3. John Byrne (in his first issue of X-Men since he left, 130 issues earlier)

4. Rick Leonardi

5. Michael Golden

6. Marc Silvestri

7. Jim Lee

8. Larry Stroman

How trippy of a collection of artists is THAT? Imagine an issue like this being released TODAY? How hyped would it be?!

Sadly, though, the story is strictly exposition. A lot of getting the reader caught up on various continuity matters. What readers today would be astonished to know is that, back when this issue came out (1991), the X-Titles really did NOT have particularly tight continuity. Therefore, this really was the first time that a lot of these characters truly interacted in a long time (yes, they just got over a crossover, but there was barely any interaction in it, just ACTION). And some of the continuity nods are especially weak, like Claremont's attempts to explain Magneto's actions during Acts of Vengeance and the Evil Scarlet Witch storyline.

Michael Golden's vignette stands out as head and shoulders ahead of the others. It is Wolverine fighting Gambit. This issue also marked the official "reunification" of the X-Men, who had splintered since the Australia years. The new "official" team was now Storm, Wolverine, Banshee, Forge, Psylocke, Jubilee and Gambit. In this issue, they all agreed to be a team and began wearing a variation of the X-Men "school uniforms" that Forge designed. The character moments were decent in the comic, but really, this was a "lunch box" comic, just existing to move things along, and we see at the end how things were moving along, as Lila Cheney (the interstellar pop singer and teleporter) shows up to teleport the X-Men across the universe to help their mentor, Professor X! Which is a cool cliffhanger. By the by, a quick aside...while I am not some huge Lila Cheney fan, I have to give it up to Claremont for the idea. An interstellar teleporter/pop singer? That's pretty cool, I think.

The next two issue begins a two-issue stint where the book splits stories. The majority of the comic follows Magneto, Rogue and Ka-Zar in the Savage Land, while the other half sees where the X-Men ended up.

The Magneto story is fairly straightforward, but interesting. Jim Lee's weakest art is in the Savage Land scenes. It almost seems like (besides Magneto) that he does not spend as much time on these drawings. Especially the layouts. Often confusing stuff happens. However, the basic story (Rogue, Ka-Zar and Magneto attempt to free the Savage Land from Zaladane, as Claremont attempts to resolve a story he set up a few years earlier (Zaladane, who had Polaris' powers, took over the Savage Land, and was now being a mean ol' tyrant). There is a lot of moaning by Magneto about how rough his life is. There is also a lot of sexual tension between Rogue and Magneto. Rogue, at the time, did not have her powers (she had just recently finally split off from Ms. Marvel in her psyche, and the result left her powerless).

The X-Men in space story shows them at the mercy of their old enemy, Deathbird, who apparently is there to ask them for HELP! She wants them to KILL Charles Xavier! Nice cliffhanger.

#275 has a nice big gatefold cover, and is double-sized (as, you know, it is the 275th issue. Which has a lot of meaning and significance...hehe). This issue was just wall-to-wall action, but here, Lee and Claremont work together very well. Lee gets to draw the Starjammers fight the Imperial Guard. This was about the last time that Claremont really was able to fully get away with making jokes about how many times the X-Men's roster has changed. There is a double-paged battle between the X-Men, the Imperial Guard and the Starjammers that has the line "For the unitiated among you (who may have lost track over the decades) a line-up." Claremont still makes those type of jokes nowadays, but then, it still seemed kinda charming.

The X-Men end up beating up the Imperial Guard and winning the day. Lilandra reclaims her crown from Deathbird (Wolverine beats her up), and the X-Men begin to celebrate.

Meanwhile, Claremont finishes the Zaladane/Magneto story. Nick Fury guest stars, and this was back when Nick Fury guest-starring was actually kind of unique. The story was pretty good, with Magneto ultimately killing Zaladane (while Rogue regains her powers). A looooooooot of speechifying.

Back in space, Gambit and Jubilee discover Gladiator and another Imperial Guard member being CHARLES XAVIER!!! Three good cliffhangers in a row!

The next two issues are just about the X-Men in space, and really, you can tell that both Claremont and Lee are having a blast. I do not think that I can remember Lee ever being as creative with his art as this storyline. In fact, I do not recall seeing Lee have this much FUN with his art since here, either. Shots of Lila Cheney with a big gun and her poodle skirt, blowing a big gum stuff.

The plot in this issue has Gambit and Jubilee on the run from Xavier, and we see Wolverine apparently KILL Xavier! This, of course, turns out to be a big Skrull ploy. The Skrulls are impersonating the Imperial Guard, the Starjammers (even a couple of X-Men), all in an attempt to take over the Shi'ar empire.

The X-Men then must go on the run, but return to stop the bad guys and save Xavier and the captive X-Men (these are special Power Skrulls who hook people up to some devices so they can mimic their powers).

The battles that ensued include a lot of cool scenes, like Gambit charging up a whole deck of cards to beat the faux-Gladiator. Fake-Wolverine getting killed, and Xavier saving the day. Just good, fun stuff. Even Jubilee was not that annoying of a POV character in this storyline!

So yes, folks, in 1991, Jim Lee and Chris Claremont were, well, GOOD.

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Anonymous Brian (not Cronin) said...

Brian, you just hit the high point of my personal comic history. X-Men #273 was the first issue of any comic I bought as an adult (well, 18, but the point is, it was the first comic I'd read in 10 years). I didn't know squat about the X-Men. I didn't know that being an X-fan was the comics equivalent of being a Yankees fan. I just thought it might be fun to read a comic again, and the cover of #273 looked cool. If I'd known then that within a year I'd be buying titles written by Lee and (shudder) Rob Liefeld, well...let's just say that I might want to borrow that time machine of yours so I can go back and fix things. But those issues were, as you say, Good.

10/24/2005 07:31:00 AM  
Blogger Greg said...

Another reason why, in hindsight, these are cool issues. They are almost the last ones with only ONE X-Men title - The Jim Lee adjectiveless X-Men title started with Uncanny #281 - and nowadays, I yearn for the day when there was only one main X-title. And I always liked the Rogue/Magneto sexual tension thing going on. And although there is a lot of speechifying, the conversations between Magneto and Rogue about whether he should kill Zaladane was interesting.

10/24/2005 10:36:00 AM  
Blogger Bill Reed said...

90's Week should be a Monthly event!

10/24/2005 01:13:00 PM  
Blogger Spencer Carnage said...

Good post. Of course, this was all before the 90s went down hill, so it makes sense that it was good stuff. And Claremont was top of his game. Why he sucks so much now, I can't say. I think he's bitter at what happened to his baby and it shows thru in his writing.

I often wonder if they scaled the x-books down to fewer titles, would they sell more? If you had a solid team on the one x-book, would more people come back knowing that they werent' going to be sucked into a confusing mess of conflicting titles?

I think yes. Give someone the keys and let them drive, instead of having multiple titles just because you can.

10/24/2005 02:13:00 PM  
Blogger phrank of dixieland said...

Very similar to Brian, X-men 275 was the first comic I ever bought. So Claremont's line up on page one actually paid off. It was so long and action packed I was hooked for life (keep in mind I was like 11 when this book came out).

I just had to find out the back story, so I bought issues 269 and on just to find out. 268 was too damn expensive for a 11 year old.

10/24/2005 06:28:00 PM  
Anonymous Cove West said...

What an exciting set of issues. I can really feel the energy Claremont and Lee had going. Especially from Claremont, who had spent the last several years devolving toward the beginnings of the parody he is today. But you can almost sense a kind of freedom in Claremont's script, as though he could finally see the finish line of a saga that had begun back when Xavier first left with Lilandra and put Magneto in charge of the school. The Massacre, Inferno, Fall of the Mutants, Australia, the Siege Perilous, X-Tinction Agenda, even everything that was going on in NEW MUTANTS and X-FACTOR...all those plots were heading toward basically three things: the return of Xavier, the fall of Magneto, and the reunification of the X-teams. And now Claremont was finally to that point and he was practically giddy (if only Marvel had used that energy and not, y'know, pissed him off).

Lee, meanwhile, had a dynamicism he hasn't shown since. He's more polished these days, but it seems the Kirby in him is gone. But back then...woah. He was having an absolute blast with this stuff. Look at that double-page spread of Storm and the Starjammer in #277, or Gambit's fight with Gladiator, or Magneto's face after killing Zaladane; Lee could combine beauty, drama, and action in a way no one before him had ever done (if only Marvel had used those skills and not, y'know, pissed him off).

If Dark Phoenix was the pinnacle of all things X, then this was the flag planted on top.

10/24/2005 07:53:00 PM  
Blogger T. said...

Hate to be the lone voice of dissent, but I actually disagree with you strongly here Brian. First of all, this was an X-Men in space story, so to me it automatically sucked. Second, it just felt complicated for no reason and full of cliches and body doubles. Third, it was X-Men in space.

For me, the X-Men started sucking right after Inferno when the Reavers and the Siege Perilous were introduced.

10/24/2005 07:59:00 PM  
Blogger Chad said...

Inferno happened after the introduction of the Reavers and the Siege Perilous. You probalby mean after The Fall of the Mutants.

10/25/2005 07:45:00 AM  
Blogger T. said...

No, soon after Inferno when all the dangling plotlines were wrapped up, Claremont did the storyline where X-Men went to the Savage Land (2 guaranteed X-Men storyline stinkers: Savage Land storylines, especially when Sauron shows up, and space storylines, where the X-Men just don't work for me and more interesting subplots are put on hold). During the Savage Land storyline, the Reavers are plotting an attack and the X-Men go through the Siege Perilous to escape the attack.

Everything Claremont wrote on the title sucked from that point, in my opinion. I think X-Factor and New Mutants were both better than X-Men during that post-"Siege Perilous" period.

10/25/2005 12:50:00 PM  
Anonymous Brad said...

I only have a couple of the comics mentioned here, but they were a big deal back when I was just getting in to superhero comics when I was 9 or so, 275 especially. That's probably the second most read comic of my childhood (the damn cover fell off!), along with another issue from this collaboration, the one that guest starred Captain America and Black Widow and took place partially in WWII.

10/25/2005 11:56:00 PM  

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