Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Fell on Black Days of Future Past: Chris Claremont’s Adventures in the 21st Century.

This column started out as a Rise My Pets feature, similar to the one I did a couple weeks ago on Peter David. But, as happens sometimes, I got sucked down a research rabbit hole, and something different came out on the other side.

It’s easy to geek out when talking about Chris Claremont. Any comics fan worth his pull list could lecture you about the "Dark Phoenix Saga" or "God Loves, Man Kills" or the "Mutant Massacre" or "Life-Death" or "Days of Future Past," classic stories that have been revisited, What If’d and strip-mined practically to death.

But the world has not always been kind to Claremont. And, certainly, nor have I.

Sometime in the mid-2000s, I bestowed upon Claremont the nickname Pappy. By this point, he had already returned to writing the X-titles after a decade’s X-ile at the hands of editorial whim and the rise of the rock-star artists who would go on to found Image Comics. After a far, far shorter stint than his original run on Uncanny X-Men (10 months vs. 16 years), he stepped aside again, this time in favor of rock-star writer Grant Morrison and Joe Casey.

To quote then-new editor-in-chief Joe Quesada in an interview in Wizard, Claremont’s new X-Men comics “were completely unreadable. Right around the time of the movie, the heavy hand of continuity for whatever reason just came crashing down on them.” And he wasn’t wrong. At the time, there was no Cyclops, they were fighting the Neo, Wolverine had just done a stint as a horseman of Apocalypse, Magneto wasn’t around, Rogue was kissing Colossus, Jean Grey and Psylocke had switched powers, Cable had joined the team and was wearing his missing dad’s visor like a chunky necklace, etc.

So Pappy was given his own book to play with, X-Treme X-Men, that still had a few of the team’s heavy hitters, including Storm, Rogue and Gambit, and a quality artist in Salvador Larocca (who left more than halfway through the series). After that book ended with issue 46, he returned to Uncanny from issues 444-473, starting with a good old-fashioned game of baseball and going on to resurrect Psylocke, one of his most precious pets, though he was also the one to kill her in the first place.

After Uncanny, Pappy disappeared again through a haze of increasingly lower-tier and lower-continuity books, including New Excalibur, Exiles, GeNext and X-Men Forever. Given his fondness for slapping his forehead and shaking his head in interviews when asked about changes made to the X-characters in his wake, taking a sort of “In my day” attitude, I started using “Pappy” as shorthand when referring to him. But just like your grandfather or great-grandfather, “in his day,” Claremont probably kicked way more ass than you, and could arguably be considered among the Greatest Generation of Marvel writers, making lasting contributions most of today’s crop can only aspire to.

As I’ve likely made far too obvious in previous columns, I grew up on the ’90s stuff, a decade that was far from perfect. It wasn’t until I started collecting the Essential trades and actually read all 16 years of Claremont’s Uncanny work that I realized how good the X-books were when they were at their best. But, again, we’re not here to talk about the good times. Consider this the second act of a Behind the Music, when the drugs and alcohol take their toll and the album sales slip … except there aren’t any drugs or album sales involved.

Herewith are some of the quirkier quirks of Pappy’s second act:

The Neo: Claremont’s second tour of X-duty started with a six-months-later time jump from the Apocalypse story "The Twelve," creating a whirlwind of plot points and characters that have since been forgotten. Chief among them was a new species called the Neo claiming to be the next evolutionary step. The main problems with the notorious N-E-O were that each issue featured a different group of characters claiming to be Neo and that they were the major the threat for the X-Men at a time when the first movie was introducing many to classic baddies such as Magneto, Mystique and Toad. They have since been wiped out. P.S.: The Neo is a weird name for bad guys created in 2000, just months after the release of The Matrix, which featured a hero called Neo.

Sage: Though created early in Claremont’s time with the X-Men, in 1980 as an aide to Sebastian Shaw named Tessa, Sage didn’t really get her moment until the early 2000s, when Claremont revealed she had been working as an undercover operative for Charles Xavier the whole time. The mutant with the computer brain was then shipped off to the X-Treme team. As the decade progressed, Sage, like Pappy himself, got pushed into more and more irrelevant books, from X-Treme X-Men to New Excalibur to New Exiles, where she merged with the computer on the team’s reality-hopping base … or something. Greg Pak later used the character in a second volume of X-Treme X-Men, which was actually more like Exiles. Either way, it was canceled.

Psylocke: As Claremont’s pets go, Betsy Braddock was one of his oldest and dearest, having created her in the U.K. Captain Britain comics in 1976, a full decade before she joined the X-Men, fulfilling their need at the time for a telepath. The time jump helped Betsy continue her proud tradition of being a convoluted mess, starting with the retconning of how exactly she went from British noble with funny-colored hair to Asian bad girl and Cyclops seducer. Post jump, she and Jean had switched powers, she got a new boyfriend and, to ice the cake, she was killed by a new villain named Vargas in X-Treme. Pappy later resurrected her in his return to Uncanny, in an arc that included her brother Jamie Braddock, another thought-dead character.

Thunderbird III (Neal Sharra): To his credit, Claremont liked to create characters who hailed from all over the world, to give the X-Men a more global feel and appeal to the widest audience possible. Unfortunately, sometimes, readers just don’t care. Pyrokinetic Neal Sharra appeared after the time jump and took the code name of the team’s most consistently dead member, a bad PR move made worse by the fact that this Thunderbird was the “other” kind of Indian, from the Asian subcontinent. Thunderbird III sought the affections of Psylocke, who had been paired off with Archangel in the ’90s, and succeeded until Betsy was killed. Neal shrugged it off and went after X-Treme teammate Lifeguard, another Claremont creation, and the two lived irrelevantly ever after.

Acting like 1992 never happened: After bouncing from Uncanny to X-Treme, back to Uncanny, to Excalibur, to Exiles, and so on, Claremont bounced out of continuity entirely with X-Men Forever, a book intended to show where he would have taken the band of merry mutants had Jim Lee not edged him out in the first place. Hint: He would have killed Wolverine.

Nightcrawler: With any luck, the fuzzy elf is laying the groundwork for Claremont’s third act, the part where the band gets back together and talks about how the music they’re making now is better than ever, regardless of whether it actually is. In April, he launched a Nightcrawler ongoing that reviewers said harkens to classic Chris, in that it contains “a heavy-handed narrative style and classic overexplanation.” Which could just be code for “it has thought bubbles and yellow narrative boxes,” which went passe sometime in the past decade.

Dan Grote has been a Matt Signal contributor since 2014 and friends with Matt since there were four Supermen and two Psylockes. His two novels, My Evil Twin and I and Of Robots, God and Government, are available on Amazon.

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