Monday, July 30, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Uncanny X-Men, Part Two

(or "When It Didn't Work")

As briefly mentioned at the end of the previous column, the Uncanny X-Men underwent some major changes as of issue #200. Charles Xavier, dying of internal injuries suffered in a mugging some months back (how exactly the world's most powerful telepath could get mugged by a group of street toughs was kind of glossed over), passed on leadership of the team to a reformed Magneto and went off into space with his girlfriend to recuperate, seemingly never to return. Cyclops, meanwhile, had his first child (a son), reluctantly turned field leadership of the team over to Storm, and left the X-Men, also seemingly never to return. This then sets up the new storytelling engine for the X-Men; can they trust their new leader, a man they once fought against?

Except that this isn't the storytelling engine for the X-Men after issue #200. This is, in fact, the point at which Chris Claremont more or less abandoned the idea of a storytelling engine for the comic, with drastic consequences for the stability of the series.

The idea of Magneto as leader of the team and replacement of Xavier is abandoned first; indeed, "abandoned" is a rather charitable description under the circumstances. While an important plot point in companion series 'The New Mutants', the X-Men don't even see Magneto for ten issues or so, and Storm certainly doesn't feel any need to do more than consult with him on the direction the team is going. In fact, they abandon the mansion almost completely after issue #200, instead taking up bases in San Francisco, the Morlock tunnels, and Muir Isle.

Likewise, the team make-up becomes mutable to the point of chaos; Longshot, Dazzler, Psylocke, and Havok all join the team with very little fanfare or indeed set-up (again, some of the set-up is done in 'New Mutants'; at this point, it's more or less assumed that anyone reading one is reading the other.) Nightcrawler, Colossus, Shadowcat and Phoenix (Rachel Summers) all leave the team during this period, also without much explanation--indeed, a good part of the rationale for 'Excalibur', another X-Book spin-off, is simply to explain where these characters went. (Except for Colossus, who returned as abruptly as he left.)

By the time two years have passed from Xavier's departure, an entirely new status quo is established. As of issue #229 (just outside the current scope of the 'Essentials' series), Storm, Wolverine, Colossus, Havok, Dazzler, Longshot, Psylocke and Rogue operate as a commando unit out of the Australian outback, teleporting to the scene of conflict and vanishing afterwards (since the world believes them all to be dead.) It's a decidedly different "look" from the series, and one that has a lot fewer storytelling opportunities...

But honestly, that doesn't matter that much. Because within the span of another couple of years, Claremont takes that engine apart too. By issue #251, the series consists of Wolverine and his ward/self-appointed protector Jubilee, searching for clues to the whereabouts of the missing and amnesiac X-Men. The storytelling engine that once built a comics empire is at that point two characters and one false status quo. (The remainder of Claremont's run is spent more or less putting the team back to the point it was prior to issue #200; it's difficult to guess how much of that was a plan on Claremont's part and how much was editorially mandated.)

And why did all this happen? (In storytelling terms, that is. Obviously, it happened because these were the stories Chris Claremont thought would flow logically from his initial premise.) It happened because there was no Xavier. Charles Xavier is the only character in the X-Men--and their various spin-offs--whose personal agenda coincides with the storytelling engine of the X-Men series. Magneto does not believe in the same thing Xavier does. Storm has no real desire to teach. Wolverine is not out to change the world. If any character other than Charles Xavier is in charge of the team, it forms itself around the new leader--and unfortunately, we're left with our initial dictum of storytelling engines. Not all engines are created equal. Not all stati quo give the same number of storytelling opportunities. And if the "classic" X-Men is one of the great storytelling engine, then it follows that any move away from that engine has a good chance of being a worse engine.

Sometimes, there's a reason things don't change too much in comics.

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