Today is for taboo III: Mess-Factor
This is the third of three posts about Marvel mutantdom in the late 1970s and 1980s; the previous two were Today is for taboo and Today is for taboo II.
I’ll open with perhaps the most rage-inducing comics-geek phrase I can produce: I like Cyclops better than Wolverine. Not ironically. And not in that Marvel-woobie way in which I revel in how tragic, conflicted, paralyzed, and useless he is. I mean in the way which says, ooh, cool bad-ass, now things are gonna happen, better sit up a little more straight when he’s around. I think Cyclops is the better character.
I can’t bring my liking to a geek debate table, because it’s based on my childhood readings of Lee’s version, which are also enhanced by not having the full run, only a few issues here and there, and the scattershot appearances of various X-Men through other titles like Marvel Team-Up during the hiatus. I’m not sayin’ this was always achieved by the stories, nor was it picked up especially well by other authors or artists. At his best, or at least in the composite my younger self developed in his head, this version of Cyclops was a cool-headed, almost Spock-like leader and a terrifying opponent – more or less a youthful version of Black Bolt, with more adolescence roiling in his chest, but definitely possessing that type of gravitas.
[Here are some minor visual opinions for no good reason: his full-head hood always looked terrible, especially with that god-awful racing stripe, and whoever pinched his visor in the top-middle to make goggles needs spanking – Cyclops looks best with no mask, no costume on the neck, with the visor, and although fine it can be a little more aerodynamic than Kirby’s, it still needs to be a serious unibrow-thing, not wussy specs. Cyclops, people, not Swim-Goggles-Man.]
Fast-forward to the New X-Men as the series resumed in 1977, and especially when Byrne took the art in 1980. On the one hand, you have a creator who depicted Cyclops as bad-tempered, choked-up, vacillating, mainly zapping teammates and family-members, and constantly in doubt – and that’s the one who liked him. Add to that Claremont’s penchant for powers going out of control, and pretty much the whole Black Bolt side of the character concept is gone already anyway. In the beginning of the Byrne-Claremont authorship, you have this stellar example of assholery, oh right, “leadership.” After that, all you have to do is look at the panels to see what happened. Claremont disliked the fights, probably didn’t script them, and even if he did, the Marvel method relied heavily on artist input, and Byrne was one of the most ambitious and headstrong artists in the industry. Going by the art, there they are, Nightcrawler, Storm, and Wolverine tearin’ up the joint again, while Cyclops hollers gormlessly and gets crowded into panel corners. Pretty much the same way those Phoenix powers did fuck-all.
And, as with so many characters, their worst late-70s depictions – often matters of error, contingency, creator incompetence, and throwaways – were preserved in amber at the 1981 moment of ‘Verse canonization to become “defining moments.” The same way everyone knows Hank Pym is a wife-beater and general hysteric, everyone knows Cyclops is a wimp and never closes a fight, and finally becomes this guy, who can’t even take down a single powers-less opponent; that his defining trait is to dribble multiple excuses and his defining word balloon is “I lost!”
This was a crucial period at Marvel, those days of the Official Handbook and the two-hit Secret Wars. However the characters are depicted in about 1982-1985 is is, is, is. It’s rooted in these strangely horrible moments among so many to have chosen from. Anything written differently before then was “clearly” off-track and to be minimized or forgotten … even if it had been consistent for a decade or lay at the heart of multiple excellent stories.
So matters stood in 1985-1986 when X-Factor came into existence and tied straight into why it was such a strange and awful title. First, this was late in the Shooter editorship when new X-titles were cropping up past the means of any one person to manage. Claremont managed to hold the mutant material in a social and creative fiefdom, either taking over the writing or working closely with a small group of fellow creators who did it (Ann Nocenti, Louise Simonson), but this range had reached its limit. The idea to re-unite the original team came from Bob Layton and Jackson Guice, and was approved by Jim Shooter, entirely out of this personal zone of control.
Second, and this is my own bald speculation, I think that Byrne was effectively sabotaging titles at that point, intentionally or not, in a fashion worth a whole post involving canon-consistency. Enter a bigmouthed fan and you get this sort of thing, which obviously brought the 1980 Claremont-Byrne-Shooter argument about what to do with Phoenix back into the ring. I still couldn’t tell you any possible value added by it. The whole Jean Grey Lives deal may have wiggled a legalistic path through “continuity” barriers, but it was terrible writing, turning the already-bad Madelyne situation into a complete shambles, capping even the Gwen Stacy clone. It was compounded by the morally defunct Uncle Tom idea of pretending to hunt mutants, which I think was Layton’s and Guice’s, making the book entirely full of badness.
Yes, those are my letters printed in so many issues during the first two years, and yes, I knew it was awful then too. I can only cop to classical magical thinking, that if I wrote that it was good, and suggested good things, it would suddenly be made so.
What kept me on it for longer than I would have were issues #13-14, hence the cover I chose for the lead image. In this story, Cyclops is wandering about alone, understandably pissed off regarding the inane bullshit fomented upon him via petty unprofessionalism and fanwank now painted the color of canon. He happens across the huge disembodied head of the Master Mold Sentinel, which unfolds neck-legs like the thing in The Thing (1982) and they fight with much eye-blasting. One striking feature is that for perhaps the first time in a decade or more, Cyclops fights with intelligence and spine. What matters more, and most, is that the story presents the first published mention of Master Mold’s unwanted insight that [humans / mutants] isn’t an opposed set. All mutants are humans. All humans are mutants.
As presented in the dialogue and captions, this notion seemed clearly based on past events. I’d thought it reached into older Sentinels stuff, and therefore I was puzzled a few weeks ago when I tried to reference it. I learned a lot more about it recently with Moreno Roncucci’s help, specifically about a title which I didn’t follow back then – in fact, which began just about the time I gave up on Marvel entirely, in 1988-90. Reading Howe put it all into editorial focus too, which is the buyout by Ron Perelman and the shift from Shooter to DeFalco. An additional person in this mix was Bob Harras, and how all this threw down regarding Chris Claremont.
My topic concerns an idea which evidently differed strongly between Harras and Claremont, and regarding which, I am emphatically not neutral. In case I haven’t been clear about the New X-Men of 1974 and especially as elaborated afterwards for 17 years with Claremont as primary author, I’ll stop with being polite. They are:
In sum of these points, it accords precisely to what Norman Finkelstein criticizes in The Holocaust Industry and is picture-perfect Zionist in all but name. I draw the line at speculating how this relates to Claremont’s description of his experiences in Israel in the early 1970s – it will not be discussed here or in the comments.
Then, in 1989, there’s a Cyclops vs. Master Mold story in the anthology title Marvel Presents, in issues #18-24. Although the mutant-human synonym isn’t explicit, the story has a lot of “humans and mutants are in this mess together” similar to the by-now very old Thomas story. It clearly occurs before the X-Factor events, e.g. it depicts how Master Mold’s head came to be buried somewhere in real-time, not as flashback. This timing mismatch may seem odd for continuity-fanatic 80s Marvel, but a lot of these anthology titles are filled by more-or-less out-of-continuity “short stories” that have been worked up and are lying around waiting their turn. (Also, Marvel had just undergone a complete takeover and editorial shake-up, and the Shooter-Gruenwald continuity emphasis was blown sky-high. Think Roger Stern, Tom DeFalco, and the Hobgoblin.)
Now: this assertion that all humans are mutants & all mutants are humans is completely at odds with the new-race, really-other (and better), surrounded by murderous bigotry, which had been strongly favored by the X-titles at least since God Loves, Man Kills and completely cemented in place by “Days of Future Past.” I certainly spotted it right then. In one of those many fulsome letters I had printed in X-Factor (Lord help me), the one about this issue praised the humans-mutants synonym and hoped it would receive prominence in mutant stories from now on. It didn’t.
Now, the author of that Marvel Presents story, whenever it was actually written, was Bob Harras. He’s also the author of the Iron Man Annual issue (#8, 1986), mentioned by James Nostack in the comments to one of the earlier Taboo threads, which seems to be a lone cry in the night as far as black American mutant characters are concerned, and also showcases points of view about mutantdom across many Marvel characters … all of which are very much in tune with “labeled as Other but we’re all the same.” It also makes no bones to have the members of X-Factor state outright that the whole idea of their own group stinks.
And at that very moment of #14 as well, Harras was the editor of X-Factor. Howe’s book describes how Harras had inherited X-Factor from its initial team (under editor Mike Carlin) under absurd circumstances, a completely petty three-way spat among Byrne, Shooter, and Claremont. During or following the ownership shake-up, a few years later, as described by Howe, Harras would literally wrest the X-Men and the associated unofficial editorship of X-material away from Claremont in what amounted to an editorial coup.
I don’t like to go into author intentions and I’m still not doing it. This is about raw textual content of Marvel mutantdom in 1986. What we’ve got on the “Harras wrote/edited it” plate objects to two things, explicitly via the characters and implicitly via the events: first, a non-Claremont text thing, the Uncle Tom nonsense in X-Factor’s starting concept; and second, and more fundamentally, to the definitely-Claremont text thing, the notion of mutants as scions of a super-race who have to choose how they will treat the (generally stupid and reflexively murderous) mundanes. I’m not surprised I confounded the Harras material with the original Trask story and Thomas’ elaboration of it – it’s entirely consistent with those, a 25+year throwback and very fitting cap to them.
Say what you like about Harras or Claremont as anything you want; for instance, I think the latter is the superior writer and generally more important contributor to comics. Nor am I saying anything about Harras’ motive for seizing the X-Men et al. But if we’re talking about morality of content, which I am, the verdict is straightforward: Harras’ treatment comes down square on the admirable side and Claremont’s does not.
Links: Four-color Flashback, X-examining X-Factor #36 (just for the unseeable furry-Beast-old-uniform abomination), and just because, The X-Men Guide to Puberty
Next: Bad guys and bad fathers
Posted on August 16, 2015, in Heroics and tagged 'Verse, Bob Harras, Bob Layton, canon, Chris Claremont, Cyclops, fanwank, Jackson Guice, Jim Shooter, John Byrne, Marvel Presents, Master Mold, Norman Finkelstein, Sentinels, The Holocaust Industry, Walt Simonson, X-Factor, X-Men. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.
The first few issues of X-Factor struck me less as Uncle Tom and more like… “we gotta do Ghostbusters someway somehow.” The worst of that sort of thing was toned down after five issues or so.
Random comments: I bought issue 14 off the rack at a gas station. I followed X-men from 219 to after Inferno… at which point I switched to X-Factor because X-Men didn’t feel like X-Men anymore. I lost interest in X-titles altogether when Excalibur’s creative team got changed so that it was “just another X-book”.
Harras took over as editor after the first few issues, which is almost certainly why that “worst of” diminished. Good call on the Ghostbusters reference.
I was never an X-Fan, so I didn’t follow any of this stuff. My only encounter with Claremont (even though I was aware of him as a general comics fan) was as the author of the abysmally bad “Shadow *” series of novels, purportedly continuations of the movie Willow. Except, even thought Lucas was co-author, they couldn’t get any of the licensing, so everybody’s names got changed. And also it was awful, awful, awful. I forced myself to finish the first book, even though it made my guts churn; but only made it halfway through the second before giving up in disgust. There are only two books in the history of my readership I have given up on partway through, and Shadow Dawn is one of them. So, I have no interest whatsoever in reading anything else by Claremont, even if it’s considered “classic” or whatever.
Oh, finally a post I can totally agree with! (and I am proud of having contributed to the research material).
About the X-Factor mess… X-Factor #1 is the point where X-Men stop being a story (convoluted, soap-like and with the supremacist understones you describe, but still a STORY) and becomes a terrible mess with no point. A critical mass of bad and worse ideas that start a landslide.
I don’t really understand WHY, every few years, there is someone who still says “let’s bring the original X-Men together! It will be great”. And I understand even less why editors listen to them instead of firing them the spot. The original X-men SUCKED. They were bland to the point of being cardboard shapes on the background. The titles sold poorly and was cancelled in a time when everything else done by Marvel was picking readers like a magnet. The ONLY character vaguely interesting was Cyclops, and it took a new mutation and a total overhaul of the character to turn the Beast into somebody interesting. Iceman and the Angel killed every single group they joined by sheer boredom. Prof X is a sucking black hole that every single writer try to kill off, send away in another galaxy or marry off. And Jean Grey is only interesting (sometimes) when she’s Phoenix.
The new x-men success was born from jettisoning these losers (keeping the only interesting character, Cyclops, writing prof X away as often as possible and turning Jean into Phoenix) and sold very well… and instead of realizing “Eh, even X-Men can sells without these losers, let’s forget about them and not use them anymore”…. you have some guy in a apartment (probably drunk out of their asses, or at least I hope so) that think “let’s ruin our best-selling title and make our best-selling writer mad with rage, it will be worth it to have these so very loved and so interesting characters back together, so they have again their old success”…
They even removed the fur from the beast to make it more bland, like at the beginning…
Shooter did the right thing when he jettisoned the original ending of the Dark Phoenix storyline (that did show the title’s supremacism… “she killed some billions aliens? So what, they weren’t mutants anyway…”), but at this point in his reign I think he was flailing around doing things out of spite and arrogance.
“Who you like more, Cyclops or Wolverine?”. It’s easy: none of the two, they are both characters destroyed by a mass of editorial blunders. Cyclops is more ruined by a few characters-killing terrible decisions, Wolverine by being milked as a cash cow for far too much time by too many people.
But it’s not only X-Factor: that series is the start of the avalanche, but after that there is no x-title that it’s not plagued by terrible writing, plots than go nowhere, and terrible interchangeable characterization. Claremont writes noticeably much worse after that, I don’t know if he did lose enthusiasm for the characters, if he was forced by terrible orders from high, or if it was the effect of being “free” from Shooter after a while, but his writing become stale, very, very formulaic (even more than before…) and every character start to talk the same way.
I still can recall what I thought after reading X-Factor #1: “what is this shit?”. I still didn’t know that that phrase would become the most common one I would use after reading any issue of the x-titles after that.
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I’m beginning to understand why I never really got into the X-Men despite being surrounded by people who loved it and who liked most of the same things I do, and simultaneously why those people love it. It’s an experience overlapping a lot with my experience with Superman — I never liked him until recent years, when I began to understand more about the character and concept and potential baked into that. But then that turns into seeing Superman stories and going “AARRGH no you’re doing it wrong, there’s so much potential to be tapped there and you’re just dropping it all over the floor, why are you doing that” and almost never getting a complete Superman story that functions as a “Superman story” the way I just know that it could.
It’s the kinda thing makes a fellow want to write comics, just to get it right.
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Two things come to mind in that mix.
1. Putting Wanda and Pietro into the Avengers was a stroke of genius, embedded in the larger stroke of genius to change the title into “Cap reforms some supervillains.” Most of the mutant characterization and social issue was developed there, by Thomas. This is where the strongest storylines showed up, like the Larry Trask sequence I wrote about.
2. A lot of X-Men appearances and context showed up in many other titles in the late 60s and early 70s, after cancellation, while Thomas was the main organizing force for Marvel. Some of them were pretty good – I haven’t reviewed Marvel Team-Up #4 for 40 years, but it certainly became a central read for me, with Scott and Jean coming off as more spooky than spandex-wearing heroes, Morbius refers to her as “the girl with uncanny eyes …” in a nice touch.
For individual characters and for the social issue, I think these developments brought in a lot of content. For the X-Men as a team, I completely agree with you.
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