Monday, July 23, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Uncanny X-Men, Part One

(or "When It Worked")

Now we come to an examination of what could be the most successful storytelling engine in comics--certainly, in its prime, 'Uncanny X-Men' was one of the top sellers in the medium, the book that drove Marvel's ascent to the top of the heap in the comics publishing industry. But as previously noted, there didn't seem to be anything special about the X-Men prior to 'Giant Size X-Men' #1, and the establishment of a new team. So what exactly changed?

The first thing that leaps to mind is the tone, and certainly, Chris Claremont took his writing a bit more seriously than other writers had in the past. His version of Magneto was a grand, tragic figure instead of a cartoonish super-villain, and he wrote 'The Dark Phoenix Saga' as just about the closest thing to a Greek tragedy you'll see in a comic (unless you're reading an adaptation of a Greek tragedy.) But he also included stories like "Kitty's Fairy Tale" and had his X-Men referee a scavenger hunt led by the Impossible Man, and let's face it--dark and operatic stories have come and gone since then, and none of them have been as successful as the X-Men.

It also bears mentioning that Claremont gave the X-Men's rogues gallery an upgrade, with memorable villains like Mystique, Proteus, the Morlocks and Hellfire Club all fitting neatly into the X-Men mythos in a way villains like Lucifer never did. But then again, he also added villains like Arcade, the Brood, the mad emperor of the Shi'ar, the N'Garai, and Deathbird, and made them all work despite their lack of mutant street cred. Heck, Deathbird and Mystique were old Ms. Marvel villains.

Ultimately, the major element to the success of the new X-Men comes from two elements of the comic that readers scarcely notice and good writers slave to get right--team dynamic and setting. Len Wein, who never gets enough credit, designed a new team of X-Men that had strong, dynamic personalities that could create conflict, yet still work together. The addition of Wolverine was absolutely crucial, and not just because he was going to go on to become the most popular comic book character of all time--he's the trouble-maker, the hot-head, an element the series strongly lacked before. With the new X-Men, when Professor X gave an order, there was always a chance that Wolverine would just say "No." The added tension made each mission an adventure, even though you knew that Wolverine would help out when the chips were down.

And most crucially, the setting of the series was letter-perfect to allow the kinds of major changes that Wein and Claremont made. Professor X, his school, and his dream of good mutants defending and aiding human-kind, wasn't something that needed a particular set of people around it. The original X-Men could leave and come back as they pleased, new team-mates could join, old ones die...Xavier went ahead and recruited a second team of mutants, at one point, and it all made sense because readers had grown to accept the idea that the comic was about the school and its inhabitants, not any specific person. And that grounded the book even when out in space, or in the Savage Land. The team thought about Xavier and he about them. The school and its mentor enabled writers to make major changes while still keeping the book familiar for intermittent readers.

Then Xavier left in issue #200, and as we'll see next week, that may well have been Chris Claremont's first serious mistake on the book.


SanctumSanctorumComix said...

My first "Uncanny" issue was # 116, given away as a freebie at a new comic shoppe in the area.

When I read that, my $#!T was permanently gripped.

What was new and different about it was that the story seemed more "adult".
Not "oh, nudity and cursing" adult, but treating the characters and READERS as adults.

I immediately got the feeling that these characters were more "real" than most other comic characters.

Claremont had some serious hooks with each member of the team.

Garrok the Petrified Man seemed a bit lame, but the danger he posed to the team seemed dire and immediate.
Making a lame villain seem deadly earnest is a mark of a good writer.

Also, Byrne was at the absolute apex of his game here.

I had NEVER seen stuff like that.
Real looking, but with a style that immediately screamed "awesome comic book style".
(Yes, I know he had some serious Adams influence, but Byrne seemed BETTER. Cleaner, more stylized, while still "real".)

I had read reprints of original X-Men tales at around the same time (Fantasy Masterpieces? was that the reprint title?) and while I liked some of those stories and art, it seemed much more "flat" and non-threatening.

So, from that power of that one issue, I was an X-men reader and bought each new issue with a verve like a drug addict.
I just HAD to see what was next.

The complicated, interweaving storylines... the dangling foreshadowing teasers (some would sit in the background for YEARS) made it seem very much like life.

Sadly, the bloom started coming off the rose for me deep into Cockrum's 2nd tenure.

Paul Smith pulled it out of the fire, giving a new breath of air, but by then Claremont was already getting to be a parody of himself.

Then, a parade of new artists - each worse than the last - and writing more convoluted than good, and I was just buying out of habit and to maintain the collection.

Finally, Marc Silvestri's completely incomprehensible art was the last straw.

I bailed.

(Of course, when Jim Lee came in the scene, I bought the title again for awhile, but I quit it again soon afterwards - primarily because the stories were just not that good.)

By that time, I knew that what made the X-MEN a GREAT title was the unique combination of a fantastic creative team, at the top of their game, boosting a title at a time when it wasn't bogged down with too much history.
They had the freedom to BUILD it, from a good pre-laid foundation, not just maintain and perform creative "upkeep" which is what eventually happened.

Sometimes timing is a part of a successful run as much as a story engine.

I could be wrong.

But just THINKING of that early run makes me long to re-read the title.
Sadly, I know the new stuff just isn't as good.


RG said...

I always dug Silvestri's artwork in the late 80s books because it wasn't typically 'comic book.' I think he was really influenced by Mazzuchelli's work on Daredevil around the same time. I agree about the the convoluted plotting though.