Scratching the Itch
Not really sure how to start this post–but I should’ve written about Chris Claremont months ago. His creatively robust Uncanny X-Men run (between 1975 and 1991) set industry standards for about two decades, and provided the background against which modern writers forged a different, though not necessarily better, era.
Most would call Claremont’s writing florid at best, overwrought at worst. It’s also, depending on what you want from a comic, novelistic and lyrical. To go further is to actually look at panels, so let’s leap into the fray:
Here’s Uncanny X-Men 249-250 from 1989, one of the frequent times when the title came out twice a month. They’re drawn by Marc Silvestri (CyberForce), whose figures, when scratchily inked by Dan Green, scramble across the page like steroidal ragamuffins.
The first issue starts with Alex Summers (Havok) crossing out a picture of Storm’s face on a meeting table featuring several faces. He’s also alone and talking to himself so readers can catch up. He gruffly explains: “World thinks we’re dead, after all, saw it happen ‘live’ on global TV. Now, some of us are for real.”
Right. So, during this era the X-Men lived in an abandoned town in the Australian outback. Mysteriously, there’s a bunker full of monitoring technology; they use it as a headquarters, and the machinery somehow records them doing things–like burying Storm. Odd, since part of their deal with Merlin’s daughter, Roma (don’t ask), is that they’re invisible to all technology. They can’t be recorded.
Also crossed out as DEAD on the dorkiest table of all time (a replica of which should be a comic-con giveaway) are Rogue and some dweeb named Longshot. Alex, chugging a Foster’s, energy blasts the monitors as they replay Storm’s accidental death at his hands. Feedback surges, knocking him out. The screens are shattered… until they repair themselves!
God, I love this stuff. The less something is explained, the less consequential a character’s mention, the more I need to read. But I can no longer tell if comics made me this way, or I came to them craving the endless fizz of melodrama.
Reading critically as an adult, I see the scaffolding in Claremont’s script by which no continuity glitch can’t be written into a protective thicket of sci-fi nonsense. A softer view is that random, unexplained events are plot seedlings to be nurtured. Maybe.
On his game, Claremont is masterful. He extended plots for years, threaded details and motifs through adjacent eras, and made Uncanny X-Men a rich tapestry. Reading twenty or more issues in a row feels like reading a novel; true, superheroes are histrionic by nature, but Claremont tortured his favorites–Storm, Rogue and Wolverine–with Dickensian flair.
Then he left in 1991, and new writers ignored subplots like The Twelve for almost eight years (until Claremont returned to ghostwrite issues drawn by Alan Davis). When Grant Morrison launched New X-Men in 2001, his entire thrust (along with Marvel’s) was to write hip, accessible stories that didn’t accumulate details like dust on the coffee table. This severely cut down on narration boxes, in-dialogue recaps, and carefully choreographed fights. New readers, of any age, could join the audience without being overwhelmed. To longtime readers, however, most comics catering to neophytes are conspicuously underwhelming.
Thankfully, the era of decompressed, screenplay-style comics is winding down. Jonathan Hickman (Avengers) and Dan Slott (Amazing Spider-Man), as brilliant with scripting as they are with BIG IDEAS, are making dense, detail-oriented comics again. And leading the industry doing so.
Sigh. Comics are like an elephant–you start describing the skin only to have to mention the trunk, then the ears. To abruptly return to the X-People, let me say that Claremont, like any good pusher, seduced readers with sparkly drama enough to fill an afternoon of daytime TV. In the issues above: Havok’s ex-girlfriend, Lorna Dane, is possessed by a physic creature called Malice. She calls him from Brazil in need of help, but then warriors from the Savage Land find her. They want to forcibly transfer her magnetic powers to Zaladane, self-styled queen of the Savage Land (and Lorna’s sister).
Meanwhile, the Reavers (mutant hating cyborgs), await the X-Men in Australia. Telepath Betsy Braddock (Psylocke) envisions the team’s death if they go home, and… I’ll stop here. I’ve scratched the itch.