By Jason Powell, Cover by Steven Legge
Sequart Organization (October 2016)
A copy of this book was provided to WWAC in exchange for an honest review.
It’s no secret that I’m a big X-Men fan. I’m not talking about whatever rebooted/rehashed/resurrected business Marvel has going on right now. I’m talking about those 16 years of X-Men spear-headed by Chris Claremont. I credit late ’80s, early ’90s comics with shaping my young life, so one might say I’m a bit biased when it comes to reviewing a book chronicling his influential run. And there’s going to be more than a little bit of fan flail when I get a chance to talk to someone who is as big a fan of Claremont’s X-Men as I am.
Author Powell discovered the X-Men at a young age on a cereal box, and then found them again in 1989’s Pryde of the X-Men. Awkwardly Australian Wolverine and friends led him to his local comic store where he chose an issue of Classic X-Men that featured a team that most closely matched the cartoon’s. On his next trip, he discovered the latest issue of Uncanny X-Men, which boasted completely different costumes and faces. Like me, Powell was fascinated by the differences between the Classic team and the Uncanny X-Men. It was a mystery that could only be solved by filling in the blanks with as many issues as he could get his hands on over time.
It was not until much later that he realized that the connection between all the issues he was reading was largely one man: Chris Claremont. When Powell could afford to truly fill out his collection and began to explore the work from other angles, he became involved with various blogs, including this one run by Geoff Klock who also provided the foreword for Powell’s book. Klock’s blog houses Powell’s detailed, issue-by-issue reviews of Claremont’s X-stories. These weren’t written with a future book in mind, but, Powell admits, they are likely the seeds from which the idea grew, finally being cultivated when he read Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties. The latter is a song-by-song walkthrough by Ian Macdonald that inspired Powell to buy the albums and listen to them with new ears. The format had a similar effect on me as I read through the meticulous examination of Claremont’s 16 years of weaving the X-Men tapestry, though, for the sake of time, I resisted the urge to bust out my entire X-Men collection so that I could follow along with each section of Powell’s book.
The sections are not quite as detailed as his blog posts, and we have Klock to thank for some of that. Powell admitted that his chronological initial draft included lots of descriptions, but Klock, who had already published his own book, How to Read Superhero Comics and Why, wisely advised him to “get to the good stuff,” rather than rehash the plot. To be clear, this is a book for established fans or people interested in exploring this era of the X-Men, which began with Uncanny X-Men #94 in May of 1975. Powell does not go deep into the details, but the aspects of the story and characters he discusses does require a fair amount of knowledge of the team.
Though I enjoyed reading through the book, I found the lack of reference images a bit frustrating, which also fueled my desire to raid my collection in order to read along. Powell explained that he did not initially “think in images” as he wrote the book. The few covers and panels that are used were at the suggestion of the publisher. While I would have liked to see text about comic books broken up by some well-placed sequential art, I appreciated that the few images selected were not the expected ones, such as Jean’s triumphant emergence from the water as the Phoenix. Those moments are so iconic that Powell’s references to them are enough to evoke the mental image. Instead, the panels included often focus on the more subtle aspects of Claremont and his artists’ storytelling — the physical distance between Rogue and the teammates that distrust her, Kitty’s sleepy apathy over yet another Juggernaut attack.
Powell’s examination reveals Claremont’s little secrets and idiosyncrasies–things that had gone over my head when I was reading the comics as a young girl. Claremont often included pop culture shout outs, such as a character name here and there, or an entire aesthetic or plot line, as with Jean Grey’s transformation into the Black Queen. Her seduction came at the hands of characters modeled after real life people (I always wondered why Donald Pierce looked so familiar) and the Hellfire Club itself is a call back to the 1966 episode of the Avengers, “A Touch of Brimstone.”
The book also offers opinions from various sources — from industry insiders to die hard fans. In fact, Powell says with a laugh, the benefit of writing his initial blog posts was that he was able to get different takes in response to his views. “I knew that someone would respond with a, ‘Well actually…’” In some cases, Powell’s opinions on the various topics is clear, while in other areas, he humbly defers to those with more relevant experience. It’s long since been noted that the X-Men in particular represent the struggles of marginalized groups in our society. While not of these groups himself, Powell includes opinions from various voices citing the overt and subtle feminist, queer, and racial messages that have always been a part of the X-Men’s story. Most notably, Powell highlights Claremont’s affection for female characters, pointing out the obvious facts that his teams were often gender balanced and featured powerful women in leading roles.
So let’s talk about Claremont’s feminist and political agenda — which Powell is quite happy to do in his book. A certain subset of current comics fandom is determined to see social justice and politics dumped from comics and other geek realms, seemingly without paying any attention to the subject matter they are partaking of and realizing that social justice in comics is nothing new. For example, Powell shared with me a conversation he’d had with one fan who felt that the X-ladies were more like powerful men in women’s bodies, which we both agreed implied a level of sexist fear of female empowerment. Powell’s examination never shies away from Claremont’s appreciation for his female characters, whom he wrote as intelligent, sexy, powerful, fun, emotional–you know, human.
Powell’s admiration for Claremont’s work is clear, but he is not entirely blinded by idol-worship. Moreover, while Claremont is the tie that binds all the pieces together, Powell gives credit where credit is due, pointing out the contributions of the various artists, letterers, colourists, editors, and other writers who helped breathe life into the X-Men, both before and during Claremont’s run. And Powell isn’t afraid to identify moments where Claremont’s inability to separate himself from characters that had become much like his own children could be both benefit and detriment to the storytelling. Disagreements between a writer, artist, and editor are to be expected, but interestingly, Claremont’s biggest issues–namely, the death of Jean Grey and later resurrection, the return of Scott summers, and the return of Magneto–have resulted in some of the X-Men’s greatest and most lucrative stories. But ultimately, Claremont was perhaps too close, which is why, when Marvel’s editorial mandate changed to focus on sales and splash pages instead of plot and character development, Claremont angrily walked away from his beloved X-Men.
“Some of the big moments in the run are not things he wanted to do,” says Powell, “or were decisions he was reacting to. It does seem like he was galvanized by things going on, positive and negative. In a broad sense, I think he would have continued to evolve the series and bring about changes, but whose to say if he might have gone back and changed things.”
Powell and I indulged in a little bit of speculation on where things might have gone if Claremont had stayed, with Powell noting that Claremont did get to do some of that on his own in X-Men Forever, a brief series where, Claremont says, “corporate need” was not a priority so he could get back to telling the stories he wanted to tell and could even sacrifice characters as the story demanded.
Despite the animosity that might have surrounded Claremont’s departure, Powell notes that Claremont had likely already seen the writing on the wall, and as was often the case, his stories reflected that, with Storm speaking prophetic words in Uncanny X-Men #273:
“Times have changed since Charles Xavier founded this school and created the X-Men; changed even since he brought in myself and my companions to be the team’s second generation. Now there is a third, and we must answer, my friends — are we fit caretakers any longer for Xavier’s school and his dream? Or has the time come to turn that role over to others?”
Finally, I did have one bone to pick with Powell, which was the dearth of Classic X-Men in his analysis. I had the same complaint for the director of Sequart’s Chris Claremont’s X-Men documentary. Powell does mention the series a few times, with particular focus on the stories that helped shape Claremont’s Magneto into more than just a two-dimensional villain.
In his examination, Powell emphasizes Claremont’s personal touch with his characters, treating them almost as flesh and blood, real live people, yet I was surprised that Powell didn’t delve more deeply into the stories Claremont specifically describes as “getting into the characters’ heads and souls…” Powell sheepishly admitted that this was just a matter of space, referring me back to his blog where he each issue of the Classic X-Men is lovingly expounded upon. Satisfied that his devotion to the Classic X-Men backstories runs as deeply as mine, our conversation diverted to our favourite scenes and thoughts about a possible sequel to this book…