Thursday, November 20, 2014

Some thoughts on Chris Claremont's X-Men

I just finished the third volume of Essential X-Men. I had previously been perusing volumes 1 and 2, which means I'm about 68 issues into the Chris Claremont run (in addition to having read a few annuals). I was excited to witness the introduction of iconic characters such as Storm, Nightcrawler, Colossus, and Kitty Pride (not yet known as Shadowcat). These early issues also feature the death, resurrection and second demise of Jean Grey and the Days of Future Past story arc. Here are a some of my thoughts, in no particular order:

Colour is a valuable interpretational aide in comics. Not only does it convey mood (by way of lighting), it also facilitates the decoding of graphically-complex situations. I won't be buying more of the black-and-white Essential editions (unless they come cheap).

Apart from some very male-gaze-oriented outfits and a few gratuitous shower scenes, Claremont's X-Men is relatively light on the sexism. Many issues even pass the Bechdel test. Practically all of the female characters are given complex, independent personalities. Storm is a particularly capable squadron leader (and indeed: much more suited to the task than Cyclops). Claremont does buy into some gender stereotypes in that his female characters seem somewhat more susceptible to irrational fits than their male counterparts (i.e. the Phoenix Force, Storm's claustrophobia which cause her to lash out).

The world of the X-Men is fairly diverse. White Americans are in the minority on the second X-Men roster. Claremont's depictions of foreign and minority personalities are not unproblematic (there's a good deal of exoticizing and some rather ludicrous patois) but the most stereotypical character (the Apache Thunderbird) is sacrificed a few issues after his introduction. One is glad, for once, for the noble-savage-dying-for-his-colonial-friend trope.

Claremont dialogue is better than I remember it to be. I have often mocked action scenes which depict characters delivering long diatribes between punches. The balance between exposition (tell) and depiction (show) is certainly different from what a contemporary comic-reading audience might expect or enjoy, but it's not unjustifiable from a story-telling standpoint. It was a different era with different conventions; many of Claremont's ideas could not easily have been communicated without extensive speech- or thought-bubble commentary.

Claremont has interesting ideas about religion. In issue #108, he throws some kabbalah at us: 
 "In that instant -- as she feels her power, the power of her friends, sing within her; as she reenergizes the energy lattice -- it's as if a door has opened before her eyes. A new pattern forms -- shaped like the mystic tree of life -- with Xavier its lofty crown and Colossus its base. Each X-Man has a place, each a purpose greater than himself or herself. And the heart of the tree, the catalyst that binds these wayward souls together, is Phoenix. Tiphareth. Child of the sun, child of life, the vision of the harmony of things."
It is not at all suprising that Phoenix was designated to undergo apotheosis, but I am at a loss to explain why Claremont opted for kabbalah as his frame of reference for mysticism. Claremont's Jewish heritage notwithstanding, it seems to me as though there might have been more popular or obvious options at the time. It is possible he chose kabbalah precisely because it was not exceedingly well-known. I am not convinced his interpretation of the sephirot is kosher, but I am not an expert. Perhaps this is irrelevant, or perhaps it is cultural instrumentalization -- I am not sure.

In X-Men Annual #4, Doctor Strange accompanies the X-Men on a trip through Dante's Inferno to rescue Nightcrawler. I am not at all sure what to make of that issue.

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