Monday, May 10, 2021

A Few Words About Carol Danvers

Here’s an old piece you probably haven’t seen. Back when I was doing The Hurting Gazette I produced a few exclusive essays for the ebooks that were never published anywhere else. Along with a longer piece about Thor: Ragnarok and the larger MCU, the following was designed to slip into the reading order in the collected version of Ice Cream for Bedwetters, tentatively titled Salting the Wounds. While at least putatively a review of the 2019 Captain Marvel movie, it mostly offers a brief outline of my thoughts on the character. 

This essay isn’t about Rogue. It’s about another character who means a lot to me, completely separate from her relationship with Rogue. She’s suffered a lot, but in a completely different way. Rogue is strong because she has always had to be strong, she doesn’t know how not to be. Strength is survival. Carol isn’t strong because she always was, she had to learn. She was crushed repeatedly by life and circumstances, and had to rebuild herself up from ground zero. Multiple times. She’s at her best when she has to overcome. 

As solitary as she may be by nature, Rogue also recognizes in the X-Men she has a family who will always have her back. Carol has no family. The Avengers betrayed her, the X-Men rejected her, her own blood relations are strangers. Rogue is responsible for two of those losses. Carol isn’t a loner by temperament but by circumstances. Having to rebuild yourself so many times makes you strong but brittle. Civil War II was a terrible character assassination from which she may never recover, but it’s not outside her character to stake her ground on an unpopular position that would alienate everyone she knows. For her that’s practically positive reinforcement.

If only said position hadn’t been, you know, fascism. Ah, well. At least Steve was a Nazi because of the Cosmic Cube, which was a fair play even if I found the results wanting and timing unfortunate. Carol only has herself to blame.

In all likeliness this will also be added to the final running order of Oh, What a Rogue, as an appendix. The essay was the germ of many of the ideas that have appeared and will appear in that series - I was chagrined to find I recycled a few phrases directly without even remembering. That these two incredibly strong but temperamentally dissimilar women share such a crucial trauma in their backgrounds make them a fascinating pair. Perhaps one day I’ll write a similar series on Carol, but it would be difficult to stop myself from criticizing her politics. The one thing she and Mystique share is that they both voted for Reagan. Carol would have voted for him twice but she was in space the second time around. 

“Raven, I see very clearly that you’re going to march in that booth and pull the lever for Reagan, again. After all that I’ve seen!”

“Well, Irene doesn’t see the tax bill, now does she?”

“And you report, what, 5% of our actual income?”

“6% but who’s counting? It’s the principle of the thing.” 

“And what principle is that?” 

“‘Don’t be a pussy.’”And with that she very slowly put her cigarette out on her tongue and walked out of the kitchen. 

Captain Marvel

Carol Danvers wasn’t much of a player in the comics of my childhood. There’s a reason for that - oh boy is there a reason for that - but it’s not as important now. It’ll come up by and by. 


I started reading in the 1980s, and she was gone for most of that time. When she showed up anywhere it was as some kind of cosmic hero called Binary, who didn’t actually do a lot with the other cosmic heroes, and so had no relevance to the space stuff that appeared in, say, Fantastic Four or Silver Surfer. (She was in Starblast, but, like, everyone was in Starblast. You were in Starblast.) Space stuff that appeared in an X-Men book tended to appear only in the X-Men books. 


After spending well over a decade completely off the radar she returned in the late 90s, as a member of the Avengers. They didn’t want to bring back the Ms. Marvel moniker so they called her Warbird, which I liked. She was given a modified version of her original costume, with a one piece and thigh-high leather boots, which I also liked, and that remained the standard for her until the McKelvie redesign. It was tame by the standards of the time, is a completely true statement that nevertheless seems rather odd out of context. 


Here’s why I liked Carol, upon her reappearance: she was fucked up. 


That’s the short way of saying she’d been through the wringer. In-story the metaphor they went with was alcoholism. She suffered from serious memory problems combined with episodes of disassociation stemming from the fact that she’d had a part of her mind stolen by Rogue - another favorite, because she was, you guessed it, another troubled girl who wasn’t afraid to own her anger. So it made sense given all that junk heaped up in Carol’s baggage check that she would turn to alcohol, and that rebuilding her life from the ground up once she had hit rock bottom would be the thread running through the entirety of Busiek’s run on the book. By the time he left she had been successfully smuggled back in from the cold, restored to usable status, even if the A-list was still a while off. 

House of M created far more problems than it fixed, but one thing people might not remember was that it was also the catalyst for the company making a concerted effort to push Carol - back under the Ms. Marvel moniker - into the limelight. The gist of the push was that whereas most every non-mutant character suffered in the House of M reality, Carol actually saw a reversal of fortunes as the most famous and powerful non-mutant superhero on the planet. The “reality,” at least at that time in the 616, was that she was a recovering alcoholic who had just recently been the subject of a disciplinary hearing for killing an enemy while serving with the Avengers (which actually made me angry at the time, which is funny because generally I agree with the principle but also thought Carol getting pulled up on it by everyone else after everything else that happened over the course of that long storyline was complete bullshit. She was, to put it bluntly, a trainwreck. 


I loved Brian Reed’s Carol. She was trying, dammit. 


So now he we are.Credit where it is due - the kind of stem-to-stern update she got at the hands of Kelly Sue DeConnick doesn’t always take. It’s hard to move the needle on a character so many people already knew. But they did, and it was a model for precisely how that kind of thing should be done. Technically speaking it was a two-for-one, as opening up the Ms. Marvel name and logo also allowed them to do something very different with a brand new character. 


But something else is always left behind, even when change is for the better. It would be difficult to argue that Carol hadn’t been the victim of - 


Well, that’s the thing. It’s one story we’re really talking about. Avengers #200. So bad, so weird, so regrettable - don’t be fooled by the cool cover. It’s a story so bad they let the guy who was writing X-Men write the next years’ annual and have Carol Danvers specifically dress-down the founding members of the team for leaving her high and dry, in one of the single worst actions to which anyone of them have ever been a party. If you haven’t read it, you can discover it for yourself, as I fear my description could not do justice to the actual depravity contained therein. 


That’s why she was written out, stolen by Claremont and the X-Men office. Did it really make sense why someone who had been a member of the Avengers for much of her superhero career would suddenly just start interacting exclusively with mutants and mutant supporting characters? Although, it’s probably a more dignified shoehorn than poor Longshot - 


“Hey, why is Longshot on the team? Is he a mutant?”


“Actually, no, it’s going to turn out to be some kind of incredibly arduous ‘I’m my own grandpa’ thing when they get around to streamlining his origin in a couple decades, because they’re going to tie him in with a completely derivative character who also joins another X-affiliated team for no real reason other than the guy drawing the book just bought a new ruler and really liked drawing parallel lines -”


“You know what Gary I'm sorry I fucking bothered to be interested in your crap for once.” 


Another odd thing about Carol Danvers and Chris Claremont: he essentially did put Ms. Marvel on the X-Men by having a mutant, Rogue, absorb her powers, which then got stuck permanently because blah blah Kree DNA super-bullshit. But then they decided to make Carol Danvers a player again and somewhere in there Rogue ended up losing Carol’s powers, which I hated and still hate, but since she had them for twenty years and now has lost them for about twenty years, it’s probably time for her to get them back again. I mean, should could already have. You know I’m out of the loop. (2021 Me: I’m pretty sure she does now, but I’m still catching up. I read two issues of the new Excalibur and all she did in them was fall asleep.)

Anyway: Rogue and me, disenchanted X-Ennials who’ve spent basically their whole life being jerked around by The Man because we were too powerful. Carol’s Gen X so dammit if she doesn't make disaffectedness look so alluring.

It should probably be said that the reason I adore Carol has as much to do with my affection for Busiek’s run on Avengers. He put in the work of rehabilitating her character, and it took a while to stick but by the time he left the book Marvel once again had a functioning Carol Danvers. Again, that’s not an easy thing to do, not for a character who’d been so badly abused and then, in the process of having being put on a shelf for a while, forgotten by a generation of readers.            


Perhaps it’s as simple as that, for me the parts I appreciated about her character were precisely the parts that made her unworkable. She had a reason to be pissed. People she trusted had betrayed her, she’d spent years in deep space getting lost in her own head, she had memory problems stemming from the aforementioned incident with Rogue . . . she was angry and liked to punch stuff, but it wasn’t for vague reasons, no, it was for some very specific and and undeniably hinky shit that made everyone around her uncomfortable for a long time afterwards. There was a considerable paper trail. 


That’s not something people like. People like equanimity. They like resolution. They don’t like it when things or people who had been swept under the rug come dragging their asses back for another round of public humiliation. 


Because that’s what the story was - something terrible, really awful happened to Carol while she was an Avenger. She rightfully blamed the rest of the team, because they all dropped the ball in a number of ways. Think about situations like that - in real life, when women are fucked over, are they usually allowed to come back?


Or more often swept under the rug?


So I liked Carol a lot. I liked the push she got out of House of M because it did feel like a natural progression from where we had been, without sacrificing the vulnerabilities that had endeared her. There were some porny covers on the book over its run, but that was a fairly common thing at that point in the company’s history. 


There was always a hapless element to her, even when she was at her strongest. She kept the unflattering costume partly out of defiance. If post-DeConnick Carol is anything, it isn’t “hapless.” She’s strong and confident but the gnawing insecurity predicated on years of both getting fucked over and fucking up doesn’t seem as apparent. She’s, gasp, got on with her life.  


There’s nothing wrong with characters changing. And it’s worth pointing out, change goes both ways - even if you lose a character to changes you find extrinsic, that same kind of tinkering can just as easily create new favorites. 


It also feels slightly ungrateful, on some level, to resent a character for essentially getting healthy. I liked watching her struggle that boulder up the hill, because I too have pushed that boulder up the hill. Seeing her get the boulder up the hill, and then to get it to stay there, well, by the time she’s done that she’s become a different character. 


But, you know, it’s not like I'm the same person I was in 2012 either, so. That’s life. I’d probably not be inclined to oblige, myself, were someone to burst into my living room decrying me for being too stable and insufficiently interesting.


What I didn’t like about Carol’s 2012 soft reboot I don’t like about her movie. Chuck Yeager-type macho doesn’t interest me when it hangs around Hal Jordan like a cloud of Old Spice, and it doesn’t interest me when it’s a woman either. Switch out Geoff Johns’ usual daddy issues for a heretofore unknown mother figure, boom goes the dynamite. 


A few years later she’ll be on the wrong side of Civil War II, one of the worst stories I will ever read. One of the reasons is that it takes Carol to a place where I don’t think I’ll ever be interested in her again - actually making a strong case for fascism, if I recall correctly? Ah well. I’m not motivated to go back to double-check anytime soon. 


I went in with a bit of a mad-on against the film, on the basis of the trailers I had seen. I didn't know, sincerely, whether or not the Kree would be the villains, and that’s kind of a big question in regards to Captain Marvel’s origin. You could swing it either way. Marvel, for most of the company’s history, stuck to the line that neither Kree nor Skrull had designs on Earth for any good reasons. But given that a rather big deal was made of the movie’s connection to the United States military, it occurred to me that the Kree might be portrayed in a significantly more positive light. Call me paranoid. Like I say, the character was making a strong case for fascism just a few years ago.  


Many have pointed out that the ultimate shape of the plot is resoundingly anti-military. I’d say, yes, that is true, but also completely besides the point. It takes a remarkable feat of storytelling to get American audiences to recognizes their own faces in stormtrooper regalia. People believe we, we as in the United States, are the good guys. George Lucas made billions of dollars from figuring out he could hock loogies at the foundations of American imperialism on an unprecedented scale so long as he dressed everything in outer space junk and made the Viet Cong blonde. American audiences are conditioned to root for America, to root for the good guy, and to finish this syllogism, in that order.         


The movie seemed to struggle in a few instances where it needed to soar. The 90s movie cues were, strangely, both overbearing but not near integrated enough. I have my problems with the Guardians of the Galaxy films, but they do use music well. And what’s more to the point, Marvel sold a lot of copies of the Guardians of the Galaxy ancillary soundtracks. The Black Panther album did some business as well, from what I gather. I expected to see a similar effort for this film, but apparently not, or not yet. 


The use of “Immigrant Song” in Thor: Ragnarok casts a long shadow, but barring that I’d settle for Carol whupping ass on some goons to Nine Inch Nails. We don’t get that, but we do get to see her dressing like my ex-wife who was a ten-year veteran of the Air Force, which is one of those things that did make me sigh deeply when I realized how old I was now compared to how old I used to be. Then I thought about the age lines on Jude Law’s face and my brain flashed to the image of the old guy in the red sweater who guesses he’s now going to die. That was the hard part, to be honest, seeing the music from that time period, the time period of my youth, used as cues in a period piece - not even particularly artfully or incisively at that! In the words of the bard of my people, “Aye, caramba!”


Certainly, it’s not that I’m precious about the music of that period. On the contrary, I honestly don’t listen to much from my teen years regularly these days. Whether it was good or bad, it’s not very pleasant to me when I hear it now. A lot of popular music in the 90s was unobtrusively overproduced in a way that at the time seemed very clear but now just makes everything sound like advertising jingles. 


I’ve made my peace with the fact that this is who Carol is now: someone whose character in 2019 is premised on having overcome great hardship to reach a place of new confidence. I read every issue of DeConnick’s run - I didn’t hate it, but it was clear the character had been set on a very successful new direction that would continue just fine with or without me. Maybe one day the worm will turn and Trainwreck Carol will return for a season - like Black Costume Spider-Man only it’s a joke about how difficult it is to recover from serious trauma. 


Not Trainwreck Carol is, like, that friend you used to hang out with when you were both depressed but now she eats a lot of kale and goes to the gym and doesn’t understand why anything is such a big deal anymore. Call me when you need to eat chocolate cake at three in the morning. Until then, you’re just too happy for me to fuck with.


Oh, What a Rogue

1. I Got No Clue What They Want to do With You

2. Hello Again

3. Make it With the Down Boys 

    I. Everything is Science Fiction 

& A Few Short Words About Carol Danvers

Monday, May 03, 2021

Make It With the Down Boys


Everything is Science Fiction 

(or, All You Need to Know About the X-Men Before Rogue)

Having already examined two Rogue solo stories in painful detail we find ourselves a fair way into exhausting our storehouse of Rogue solo stories. Again, she is not by design a solo character. She’s been a team player for the entirety of her career, with personal drama set aside from much of the rest of the book. It still fits because every team needs a sullen loner with a dramatic inner journey whose private angst can be used as thematic counterpoint to the main plot. Wolverine had been the designated sullen loner, but by the early 1980s had been so effectively domesticated that the X-Men found themselves with an opening for a jerk. 


Enter Rogue. Here was a sullen loner with two advantages over Wolverine: In the first place she is one of the most beautiful women on the planet, and he is a very hairy Canadian man who wears a costume that usually doesn’t cover his armpits. In the second, she wasn’t going to be cured of her sullen loner status with the introduction of a new lovable team sidekick and a few go-rounds with the ol’ inner demons. She wasn’t going to be cured of that anytime soon. Her inner demons had a lot more bite than usual. 

But, now we’ve started, we should back up to the beginning. 


(Invoking the Muse would have been redundant - what else is the title of the book?)


Rogue was created in 1981 and did not join the team until 1983. The X-Men have existed in one form or another since 1963. By any measure Rogue was a late addition, joining the team eight years after the formation of the “All-New, All-Different” team in 1975’s Giant Sized X-Men #1. Joining in #171 in the spring of 1983, she was also the only addition to the team between Kitty Pryde joining in #138 and Rachel Summers in #193 (not counting Lockheed). It was a remarkably stable period in the book’s history, and a generative one as well. The version of the team that existed right before Rogue’s joining casts the longest shadow even after four decades.


So, I said I was going to back up to the beginning, and we haven’t. Sorry! Probably has something to do with the fact that the X-Men has always been a protean concept, from the very first. Stuffing it all into a single thumbnail is problematic, despite the seeming simplicity of the core premise. Even the sixties incarnation undergoes a number of changes. The root dilemma is that concepts don’t become wildly popular, or it’s rare enough to be a marvel in the passing. Characters become wildly popular. The characters at the core of the franchise from 1975 through to roughly 1984 - a group that just barely includes Rogue but which I think most people would agree does not include Rachel - are the group that people love the most. People don’t want to move on from them. They rarely stray far, even when story logic would seemingly dictate otherwise. 

This has been the book’s dynamic since the very beginning. The team and the book need to change because otherwise it gets stale. It’s a school - or at least remains rooted in that structure and that pedagogical mission - and schools are by their nature changing and changeable institutions. This dynamism, the fact that the books and characters do change, and change considerably over time, is part of the appeal. You tune out for a while, things are going to be different when you tune back in. That’s the concept. It’s also the core challenge, because changing rarely means only letting go of things people hate. 


The problem with the X-Men for much of their early history wasn’t that people hated or loved them, but that they were mostly indifferent. The X-Men were created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1963, but they stayed on the book for less than a year and a half. Although both creators spoke about the relevancy of the core concepts of tolerance and education, and the progressive bent of the premise was certainly in line with both men’s avowed politics, I don’t think the book or the characters were close to either of their hearts.


Still, there are few greater testaments to their greatness than the observation that the X-Men were practically an afterthought to Stan & Jack both, relative to the rest of the line and certainly relative to their greater careers. These guys were castoffs. Movie studios have spent and will continue to spend billions of dollars trying desperately merely to approximate what Jack could do in an afternoon with a pencil, when he wasn’t even trying. In his shadow they are utter clowns.

X-Men 1 splash page

The reader is introduced to the premise on the very first page of X-Men #1: there’s a school somewhere in New York where they train mutants to use their powers. Dude with wings is flying around taking orders from a bald guy in a chair. Bam. There we go. Simple, clean. Once someone knows what a mutant is - and if they didn’t, the narration would remind them, frequently - they’re off to the races. As bare premises go it’s pretty sturdy. Hardly the first school-based adventure setup in popular fiction, but as we have seen, the idea of a boarding school for children with special powers remains perennially popular. Worth noting, however, that the Xavier School represents, at least in its earliest incarnations, a very WASP ideal of private boarding school as imagined by two liberal Jewish kids from New York. Less in the way of euphemistic cover for corporal punishment, a lot more in the way of awkwardly sitting around in formalwear being lectured on civic responsibility. Lots of military drills in both instances, however.


Once the unwary reader opened the book they were introduced to a variety of caricatures into which later writers would spend decades breathing life. The personalities of the original team were, respectively, uptight, rich, smart, kid, and girl. Professor X was asshole, Magneto was helmet. There was quite a bit of room for later writers to elaborate, is what I’m saying. If that sounds harsh, it’s not really - those caricatures were still more than the Distinguished Competition had at the time.       

Subsequently however some of the caricatures did better than others. Without question Cyclops has received the most development. The focus has almost certainly hurt him, as will be discussed apace. The Beast received the second most focus, owing primarily to his tenure on the Avengers. He was a fan-favorite in that book, and carried the additional characterization with him when he returned to his first book. However, it’s been a long time since he was more than a reserve and occasional stunt member of the Avengers. In the years since returning to the X-Men family in the mid-80s he’s been victim of almost as many unfortunate character-assassinating plot twists as Cyclops. And while putatively featured in many comics Jean Grey has spent the majority of her many lives successfully dodging the intolerable burden of personality.

Angel settled into a nice role as the Marvel Universe’s resident rich snob (who was still a decent enough guy for the Hulk to consider an actual friend, if you remember your World War Hulk). Eventually they turned him blue, gave him razors for wings, and made him perpetually angry. This fan-favorite redesign - which, we should emphasize, made the character popular during the most commercially successful period in the history of the franchise, and therefore the most popular he has ever been by many orders of magnitude - proved so popular that it had been almost completely walked back a decade later. In the decades since he’s returned to the redesign at least once, but who knows what he will look like by the time you read this? 

Iceman benefitted from a rare bit of late-career development when he was revealed in 2015 that he was gay. Turned out there was a surprising amount of circumstantial evidence attesting to the fact that Bobby Drake was only ever an unenthusiastic heterosexual. Even as far back as his very first appearance in the pages of X-Men #1 - by Stan & Jack themselves! - he had been observed blithely opining, at the debut of Miss Jean Grey: “A girl ... big deal!” It’s still remarkable to me that the last major Iceman story before he came out of the closet, in 2013 during Marjorie Liu’s run on Astonishing X-Men, was specifically about the fact that every romantic relationship he’d ever had was unsatisfying and inconclusive. Unplanned coincidence, mind you. 

All of this still lay in the future in the mid-60s. The first incarnation of the book wasn’t that popular. After Stan & Jack the reins were passed to a handful of successors, the likes of Roy Thomas and Werner Roth. Not necessarily bad comics, but decidedly second string by the standards of what Marvel was publishing at the time. There was a bump at the end of the decade when Thomas was briefly joined by Neal Adams in 1969. Sales ticked upwards on the back of Adams’ breathtaking art, but newsstand figures were very slow and ultimately arrived too late to save a book that had been already been doomed. Adams, already a budding superstar based on only a couple brief runs for both Marvel and DC, never returned to the book. His brief tenure on X-Men is still counted among the best sequences in the franchise, but was curtailed too soon to be more than a curio relative to what followed. The series was subsequently relegated to reprints, beginning with issue #67 in late 1970 and continuing until #93 in Summer 1975.  


For five years the team was orphaned. Magneto appeared across the line, cementing his status in the period as second only to Dr. Doom in terms of utility as a stunt villain. He doesn’t really serve that function anymore. Claremont’s tenure on the book mostly put an end to Magneto’s usefulness as a punching bag for other heroes. Little was lost in the transformation - before Claremont arrived and began to develop him Magneto didn’t have enough of a personality to cement any real second-order rivalries. Certainly not in the way that Doom eventually established relationships with a host of characters separate from his primary antagonism with the Fantastic Four.

Frequent guest appearances across line kept the characters in currency. They split the Beast off for a solo feature in 1972 and folded him into the Avengers soon after that. He was popular in the Avengers, and truth be told I think he’s still more popular when he’s with the Avengers. With the X-Men he’s perpetually mired in dour, dystopian storylines springing directly from the pile of bad decisions accumulated in a pile at his feet over the last forty years, surrounded by people who know him too well to ever trust him. When he’s with the Avengers he’s jumping around like a monkey, kicking people and quipping. Why don’t they ever use the version of the character people actually like? I know, I know - “changing rarely means only letting go of things people hate.” 


(I mean, it’s not like he didn’t make mistakes when he was with the Avengers and the Defenders - bad judgment has long been a hallmark. But I’d argue there’s a qualitative difference between being blackmailed by Patsy Walker for an Avengers membership and breaking the timestream. Which would you rather have, Hellcat or another Scott Summers?)


Everything changed in 1975. It’s an old story. Won’t bore you with repetition. Giant Sized X-Men sold well enough to rate a return for the book after lingering for years in a hazy netherworld of reprints. It was written by Len Wein and pencilled by Dave Cockrum, who would also go on to draw the series that ensued. The series landed on its feet and spent the next 17 years bouncing from strength to strength. 


So here’s where we meet the reason we care: Chris Claremont. Just another in a row of talented writers coming up at the company around the same time. We remember Wein, and Jim Starlin too, and Steve Gerber and Steve Englehart. Englehart is the guy responsible for giving the Beast a solo career and his Avengers membership. However, whereas these other gentlemen were peripatetic, working across the company and across the industry during the same period, Claremont stuck it out on one massively successful title for the bulk of his career at Marvel. Also wrote a fair pile of Spider-Man, and the first volume of Iron Fist. Later had a lengthy run on Fantastic Four, delivered fill-ins and small runs for a host of other books for much of his time at the company. But all that work put together doesn’t add up to a fraction of the popularity and influence of the X-Men. 


He inherited a book that had already been set up by multiple creators, filled with a grab bag of old and new characters. No reason to believe anything other than it might go on to successfully get not canceled for a few years. That was the dream! Worth pointing out, many of the company’s most storied long runs from this period and later originated in similar places: Peter David’s run on Incredible Hulk and Mark Gruenwald’s Captain America were also both more or less dogsbody assignments given to people inside the company with experience but without a big creative profile. Journeymen taking journeyman assignments that just happened to turn into massive character-defining epochs. Also both runs that ended under clouds of acrimony generated by Bob Harras, incidentally. Larry Hama’s G.I. Joe, perhaps the nearest peer to Claremont’s achievement, operated under different incentives: because Hama served at the pleasure of a third party licensor, he was both safe in his job and also unable at such remove to put too personal a stamp on Marvel company IP. 

Because that was always the problem, right? The company likes selling comics but doesn’t like it so much when the appeal becomes less the name on the cover and more the names in the credit box. The X-Men snuck along under the radar for a while. Took a couple years for the book to do well enough to graduate from bimonthly to monthly status. By the time Marvel realized the nature of the book’s enduring success said success had already made Claremont too powerful to completely control. It was too late. Another breed of leviathan would be necessary for an ouster, in another era.

So, why were the All New, All Different X-Men such a success? It wasn’t just one thing. Claremont was the biggest influence at every step of the way, but he had good artists. He had good editors. He inherited a handful of truly classic superhero costume designs - this is no small thing! Picture the core group of Bronze Age X-Men - Cyclops, Wolverine, Storm, Colossus, Nightcrawler. Nothing but clean lines and bright primary colors balanced perfectly, so as to allow them to be recombined an infinite number of times on comic book covers without losing their distinctive, dynamic profile. (Wolverine was a John Romita Sr. design, the other new X-Men were Cockrum’s.) Minus a couple nonessential members like Banshee and the late Thunderbird, the team already has its look down solid on Gil Kane’s cover to Giant Size #1.

Yeah, I said Banshee was nonessential. I’ll pause a moment while you recover upon your fainting chair. 

It’s important that the book never had a bad artist. Made John Byrne a superstar, made every subsequent artist a superstar (excepting Paul Smith, who demurred the question of stardom). The closest it ever got to bland was during the second Cockrum run, a problem I put down to inking. Joe Rubinstein seemed to sap some of the vitality that had been present in Cockrum’s first tenure, where he had been inked by a variety of folks who generally agreed his work looked better with heavier blacks. But that’s a small complaint. Cockrum II was followed by Paul Smith, after all, and Paul Smith changed the game completely.

Anyway. It feels like I’m beating around the bush. The fact is that Claremont inherited a great set-up but no one could ever have predicted the follow-through. 

What sells comic books? Lots of things can sell comic books - but what keeps people coming back? What makes people go from liking a comic book to loving a comic book, from buying a book out of habit or mild affection to slamming it on the top of the pile every month? Claremont figured it out. There was a formula, more or less, although he might bristle at the intimation that there was anything formulaic about the results. It really was a simple recipe, though: establish a group of friends who have good banter and smash them with a hammer, over and over and over. Rinse and repeat for almost two hundred damn issues. 

Am I simplifying? I don’t really think I am. Go back and read from the beginning - second beginning, that is. Claremont inherited a variety of caricatures, whose personalities were, respectively, uptight, imperious, German, Russian, girl, and jerk, sometimes Irish country music fan thrown in. They weren’t much to look at, for starters. He gave them some room to establish voices. Then Claremont put them through their paces, smashing them with a hammer over and over and over, until people loved them. I mean, there were a few steps in between there, but that’s the gist. 

Why do you think sitcoms never go out of style? People like watching other people bicker and banter. The X-Men is an action story and not a sitcom, but they spend their time bickering and bantering as assiduously as any television ensemble, be it sitcom, soap opera, or police procedural. People like watching relationships form and friendships develop and rivalries ripen, all that good stuff that takes a lot of time and space to develop properly. People like seeing friends develop in-jokes. 

One of the problems the first set of X-Men had was, bluntly, they were all too nice. Wasn’t a jerk among them, excepting the Professor. A team needs a jerk to act against, someone to act the part of the irritant, the grain of sand in the oyster around which forms the pearl. Warren Worthington being a slight pill didn’t really cut it. Put Cyclops, Storm, Nightcrawler, Colossus, Jean Grey, and Wolverine in a room together, they’re going to find something to talk about. Even if all you have to start with is uptight, imperious, German, Russian, girl, and jerk. There’s nothing for the reader to latch onto if they get along perfectly fine. It’s too smooth. Put a jerk in the room and suddenly there’s something besides just the plot to which the characters can react.

Why is Wolverine putting his hand down his pants? And did he just smell his hand? Oh my god, he’s so sexy.

Another testament to the vivacity of Claremont’s design is that I can’t stand many members of the team. Not because they annoy me but because I know them too well. Does that sound weird? I’ve read the large majority of comic books Cyclops has ever appeared in, I know the guy really, really well. And he’s so much bigger a jerk than Wolverine. Has Wolverine ever left his wife? Left two wives? Cyclops is a complete sack of shit walking around on two legs who repeatedly uses his commitment to the X-Men to try to absolve himself from having a giant gaping void where his soul should be. Nothing he does ever works because he’s a fundamentally selfish person who refuses to see himself as anything other than a hero even when his actions are actively harmful. This is canon. This was literally the ending of AvX.

No one person fucked up Cyclops so bad, is the thing. After six decades creators have actually done a good job maintaining a consistent through-line for the guy. Just as for Iceman the through-line under most writers led more or less invariably to closet case, the through-line for Cyclops under most writers leads more or less invariably to asshole. It merits mentioning that many of Cyclops’ more egregious sins were the product not of writerly fumble but editorial mandate - I refer of course to the circumstances behind which he left his first wife, primarily but not solely. In that one stroke he went from dipshit who was still basically a hero to fundamentally broken person with whom I could never again sympathize on any level. And it sucks that one bad decision made for bad reasons by an editor in 1986 did that to him forever, but barring a reboot it’s a hard one to put back in the bottle. Not without establishing the precedent that, oh, yes, Scott Summers is indeed the kind of frozen motherfucker who will straight up walk out on his wife and newborn and carry on like nothing happened. So it’s no real surprise when he’s found cheating on his wife - the woman for whom he left his first wife, mind - in another woman’s mind. It wasn't out of character.

It’s all to Claremont’s credit, I think, that I dislike Cyclops so much. He made the guy seem real. That was the design, after all: at first it looks like Wolverine is the biggest jerk on the team, but it’s actually the leader who refuses to adapt and also refuses to take a joke. And then when he does adapt and learns to work with his team instead of against them he faces the depressing realization that inflexibility was inherited from his teacher. The story then acknowledges what was plain from the very beginning of the Lee & Kirby days, if never plainly stated: the real jerk all along was the father figure who impressed his hang-ups on his pupils. (After all, Kitty’s only moment of true insight was the realization that the boss was indeed the real jerk of the outfit.) And that was Cyclops’ arc, and why it made sense when he left the book in issue #201, because he had outgrown the role for which he was created, outgrown both his teacher and his need to be teacher’s pet.  Found some degree of peace in a manner parallel to Wolverine’s journey through the same period. Oooh, theme!

That’s the story of the X-Men right around when Rogue joins, actually: the team was in the process of changing, not just adding new members and processing the trauma and grief of the series’ previous few years, but also continuing the very long arc of maturity that led to them outgrowing Xavier, learning to reject not his ideals but his control. This is similar to what Grant Morrison would later do for the Doom Patrol, during a run influenced by Claremont's first few years on Uncanny and published concurrent to Claremont’s last few years on Uncanny. The Doom Patrol was another idea that had been progressive in the sixties but come to seem increasingly out of touch, and for much the same reasons. Kids eventually outgrow teachers, who are often ill-equipped to deal with change. One of the many themes the two franchises share is that education is necessarily grounds for generational conflict, for better and for worse. Educators become calcified and conservative almost despite themselves, students bristle even at necessary boundaries placed by experience. Eventually the team leaves the authoritarian asshole behind. 

By the end of Cockrum’s second run Colossus and Nightcrawler had settled into their positions as the team’s supporting players. The book rarely centered their lives - Kurt’s relationship with Amanda Sefton is consistently shown only in passing, Colossus often overshadowed in his own plotlines by Kitty and his sister. They start off the picture of loyal and steadfast but both decline over the course of the series. Kurt began as a swashbuckling free spirit, was gradually worn down by circumstances, and ended his first tenure on the team an insecure neurotic mess. Kurt was eventually returned to something resembling his former self after bamfing over to Excalibur, a lighter spinoff that launched in 1988 featuring three characters written out of Uncanny - Kurt, Kitty, and Rachel. 

There would be no such light-hearted redemption for Colossus. After the merciful end to his completely inappropriate relationship with the underage Kitty Pryde, he fell into a funk out of which he never really snapped. Sullen and withdrawn, his mood and demeanor grew darker with the book’s darkening tone during John Romita Jr’s tenure as artist. His artistic frustrations become more relevant in the book’s later stretch.

All that still lay well in the future, however, when the new team was first assembled by Xavier to rescue the old. At the outset of his run Claremont established an important principle: these guys kind of sucked. They got rolled every other issue. Old enemies like Juggernaut and Magneto came out of the woodwork to give the new kids a kick. Even when the team won, the victories were practically Pyrrhic. People got hurt, lines got crossed. As they got better and more confident the enemies kept getting more powerful. All the way back to the first Cockrum run the series' hallmark was seeing characters in desperate straits either learn and improve in real time or suffer the consequences. Mistakes and lapses in judgement are common. As the series progresses moral questions become increasingly thorny and the characters' responses more contemplative. The characters themselves realize alongside the reader that their lives are far more complicated than previously imagined. Maybe the readers look at their own lives different.

Easy to see all the ways it could have gone wrong. Readers like seeing characters overcome adversity, they don’t like open-ended failure. There’s no way Claremont could have known - in fact, every historical trend strongly argued against - him ever having the kind of tenure on the book that would enable him to set up such a long game so early. He killed a member of the new team on their second adventure! And yet somehow he managed to stick with it long enough that he could make the story of the team coming together the work not of a month or a year but over half a decade. 

That Claremont was able to chronicle this evolution and track these changes so precisely over so many years is perhaps the best answer to the question of how, exactly, he could make so many people love this book. For much of its tenure it was the best book Marvel published, and none of the other candidates for the title were anywhere near as good for as long. He respected peoples' intelligence by assuming they could read subtext and inference, and remember subtle details at years' remove. That alone made the book a veritable feast compared to almost anything else offered by the mainstream at the time.

But you can see the germ of the problem even in the very beginning, all the way back to John Byrne’s tenure. The hotheads from the earliest days had already by then become, if not seasoned vets, at least a more effective unit. More trusting of their teammates. What lay in the future? Well, Byrne left right after the team’s biggest defeat to date, and they spent much of Cockrum’s second tenure dusting themselves off from that. Adding a kid sidekick for the team gave the book momentum at a time when it could have gone adrift, even if Kitty Pryde would soon prove a problem in her own right. 

While my antipathy towards Kitty Pryde is well documented, it’s worth pointing out that the period during which she was at the center of the book also represents its sleepiest period. There’s lots of world building that would pay off fifty or a hundred issues down the line, but there’s also a lot of hanging around the mansion looking at Kitty’s terrible costumes. It gives the book a lighter feel when it could have easily veered into darker territory following the death of a founding member. Certainly, enough people liked Kitty that you could argue the focus was merited. But if you find Kitty an excruciating ordeal in human form these passages can be a slog. 

Jesus H. Christ, you ask, do you actually like any of these characters? I mean, besides Rogue. And Kitty, of all people! So harmless, so beloved . . .

Funny thing about Uncanny X-Men is that through most of the book’s history women were the main driver of the plot. There’s often a woman at or near the center of the book, whose travails form the crux of the drama - another unusual aspect of the book for the time, when seeing any character-based drama was worthy of note, to say nothing of one that took women seriously. (Not to imply female-led character-driven stories are all that common today, either.) Dark Phoenix set the template here, and became the impetus for much of what unfolded over the following years. Kitty moved into Jean Grey’s place at the putative center of the book after Jean died. Rogue served the purpose for a while but soon gave way to Rachel Summers, a more difficult character whose saga ends neither in resolution or tragedy but frustration. Rachel Summers was in turn followed eventually by Madelyne Pryor. Storm’s mega-arc spans the entirety of Claremont's run. 

There’s enormous progression here. In the first place, I’ve never thought much of Jean Grey. That’s not euphemism for dislike, honestly I just never really thought of her as a character very often at all. Just what is she? Of all the original X-Men she’s the least developed. She has often seemed more or less a blank slate onto which everyone projected their own desires and inferences, chaste and prurient - reader, character, and creator alike. After she rejoins the X-Men at the outset of the 90s she becomes the team mom. She gets married because it’s what people want to see, for some reason. She’s held up as a paragon by all and sundry for . . . Reasons. She died but got better and then not better and then strangely better again. Unfailingly kind and supportive, but a stubborn selfish lover. I don’t fucking know! Her fantasies are very problematic, but to be fair she's not the only female X-Men whose deepest fantasies involve the antebellum south. Sad trombone. 

Anyway, the most damning thing you can say about Jean is that she saw what he did to Madelyne and somehow thought it wouldn’t happen to her. She dreams in taupe for all I can tell. The Phoenix Force was wise to pick a dishrag.  

Kitty was an improvement on Jean inasmuch as she was usually portrayed as a person with agency, which Jean Grey was most certainly not for most of her career, at least her early career. But as I’ve alluded, if you find Kitty to be less a “fantasy girlfriend” and more a “Cousin Oliver,” its slim pickings hanging around while the creators sexualize a precocious minor, repeatedly, over the course of many years. 

I mean, that’s a thing they did. It’s right there on Marvel Unlimited, you’re welcome to check it out if you’d like - right next to Jean and Rogue's respective Gone with the Wind dream sequences. There’s a popsicle eating sequence at the end of Annual #7 in 1983 so foul I don’t even want to put it up on the blog. She brings out the worst in every creator. A lot of Kitty stories carry that kind of uncomfortable edge, being as they are almost always about adult designs on a pubescent girl. Everyone wants to kidnap Kitty. Everyone wants to trick Kitty. No one ever wants to just seal Kitty in a box and mail her to Abu Dhabi, nope. Which of these options seems the rational course of action to you? 

Now of course, there was another woman near the center of the book for a while in the early 80s during the second Cockrum run - oddly enough not a mutant but a former Avenger by the name of Carol Danvers. She had gone by Ms. Marvel with the Avengers, before becoming estranged from that team in an incident so ugly it wouldn't be resolved for almost two decades, during Kurt Busiek's run on the book. Long before that, beginning with issue #150 she hung out with the X-Men in the pages of Uncanny for a while after being hung out to dry by her old team. Carol was then recovering then from an assault received in Avengers Annual #10 in 1981- a different kind of assault from the one which had prompted her leave from the Avengers. She'd had a rough time of it, is what I’m saying. 

Ms. Marvel was beaten to a pulp and left for dead by a new member of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. Some psychopathic bitch threw Carol’s limp body off the Golden Gate Bridge. Steals other peoples’ minds and powers, like a vampire. What’s worse, after almost killing Danvers she went after Dazzler, too - tried to kill her a couple times. Positively obsessed. Creep must have a thing for blondes.  

Carol Danvers represented one of the X-Men’s lesser emphasized but consistent priorities, using their powers and resources to put right things other mutants break. Certainly there could be no circumstances under which their friendship with the victim of a savage attack on the part of an evil mutant could come into conflict with their commitment to helping fellow mutants in need. No way that could ever turn into just another rejection in a career of rejections for the most unlucky woman in the Marvel Universe, nope. 

The end of Cockrum’s second run and the beginning of Smith’s was the climax of a year-long outer space adventure that introduced both Danvers’ Binary powers and the deathless Brood. The team had been through a lot, both before and after Kitty’s arrival. They worked well together. Wolverine was less the jerk and more the wry older brother, falling in love with Mariko and proving a deft mentor to Kitty. Cyclops had mellowed, ready to begin a new chapter in his life. Jean was long gone and Kitty’s dominance in the plot had begun to wane. Things were stable.

Surely it was clear sailing ahead.


Oh, What a Rogue

1. I Got No Clue What They Want to do With You

2. Hello Again

3. Kick it With the Down Boys 

    I. Everything is Science Fiction