Saturday, 28 May 2011
SpaceSquid vs.The X-Men #39: Diminishing Returns
Innovation and revelation can be tricky things. Just because someone can blaze trails previously undreamed of doesn't mean they're necessarily going to be any good at laying roads.
So it is with art. As vital and worthy of praise as they are, pioneers are rarely the greatest examples of the genres they forged, and when they are, one suspects it's only a matter of time before they're overtaken. Philip K Dick is not the best sci-fi writer the world has seen. No matter what anyone says, the Beatles are not the best guitar band so far formed. And Chris Claremont is not the best writer of superhero comics.
Obviously, some trailblazers remain relevant and entertaining for longer than others. Clearly, the Beatles have done well enough in ensnaring my generation, and the one following it, sufficiently well to prove there is more to them than simply being first. But even then, it doesn't follow that because what they did was new at the time, and still loved today, that we should be particularly hopeful about the results of them returning to the studio, even if they were all still alive.
There is no doubt in my mind that Chris Claremont's initial sixteen-year run on Uncanny X-Men changed the face of superhero comics forever, and delineated an approach to the team that no-one had seriously attempted to revise by the time he returned in 2000 after a nine year absence. Even now, if a character walks into the comic and the X-Men recognise them, I'd be prepared to bet even money that they were created by Claremont. When he took over Exiles a few years ago (with, by all accounts, distinctly underwhelming results), he was told to ensure every character on the team was a version of one he had put together during his - and the X-Men's - golden era (not to be confused with the Golden Age, natch).
In short, Claremont was a big fucking deal. In the years after he first left the book in 1991, sales took a tumble, along with fan appraisal. It's an interesting question as to whether or not the sales problems were because Claremont left, or whether he simply was lucky (or smart) enough to leave at the right time , but either way, Marvel brought him back to the book with high hopes back in 2000. His opening salvo: a baffling "event" storyline that, amongst other things, introduced Neal Sharra: the third Thunderbird.
Claremont's attempt to revitalise the brand never had a great chance of success. Nine years is a long time in comic (for the industry, I mean, for the characters, that's about fourteen months). Bringing back Claremont to recapture former glories is like R.E.M. hiring Paul McCartney to write their next album; it rather relies on the hope that the negative effects of time were merely a localised phenomenon.
All of this background is crucial for understanding Thunderbird. I don't have any idea whether Claremont made his own decision to stick so closely to his previous template, or whether the big-wigs let him know that that was what was expected, but either way this wasn't so much a reboot as a regression.
This was certainly reflected in the character of Thunderbird. The fact he was another attempt to find a new national/religious origin for a mutant is certainly in keeping with Claremont's approach - he really did take the international flavour of Second Genesis and run with it - but then that had been increasingly true of all the X-books for a while, so one needs to be careful not to overstate its relevance. More obviously recycled was Thunderbird's frequent inability to use his pyrokinetic powers in combat because of his lack of control, an issue Claremont had already thoroughly explored (read: run into the ground) with both Havok and (especially) Colossus, and which he then tied into the umpteenth reshuffling of the "newcomer questions his suitability to the team" that was already old news when Scott Lobdell put Cannoball through it in 1995.
Sharra's arrival also led to yet another X-Man love triangle, this time between Neal, Psylocke, and Angel (which at least made more sense than Claremont's abortive attempt to suggest Colossus had suddenly and implausibly developed feelings for Rogue). Even the name, of course, had been used before - twice, in fact. I realise Claremont's original plan was to give Sharra the codename "Agni", after the Hindi fire god, but whatever prompted the rethink, one has to ask: couldn't they have tried a wee bit more rethinking?
In sum, it was impossible to think of Neal as his own character, as oppose to some kind of identikit Claremont creation. Perhaps that's why he didn't last long, joining the crew for the widely disliked X-Treme X-Men (by the Bright Lady, how did that title get past Marvel HQ?) before disappearing completely for an extended period of time. Eventually he showed up at X-Corp, which was billed as an international mutant police force but should be more properly considered a retirement home for X-affiliated characters no-one gives a shit about anymore, and then disappeared completely. It's not even fair to say I was glad to see him gone. I barely even noticed at all. Hell, I've only managed to write 40% of the paragraphs so far in this post on the subject of Thunderbird, despite him being the reason I wrote it in the first place. That's how pointless and dispensable he was.
You can never go home again, I guess. Though in Neal Sherra's case, you can at least happily just fuck off.
Next time around, we take a look at the first child to be born to a member of the X-Men, and try to work out a) just how he became a world-weary grey-haired soldier, and b) how he survived Rob Liefeld getting his hands on him.
(Oh, and incidentally, there's still six unidentified X-Men remaining in last year's X-Quiz, for anyone who fancies having another go, or indeed a first look).
 Personally, I think the latter more likely. The crisis the comic industry suffered in the late '90s seems to me to be a combination of short term thinking and encroachment from alternative entertainment forms; I don't see what Claremont would have been able to do about that, even if his return to the X-books had been more impressive than it proved to be.