Sunday, September 27, 2009

The X-Men and identity politics #3: Jason Powell and the limits of mutant activism

Over on Geoff's blog, Jason Powell has been doing an amazing job of critiquing every issue in Chris Claremont's run on Uncanny X-Men. He's also caused me to reassess some of the things that I wrote in the paper that I have linked in the sidebar - to acknowledge some material that I had either ignored or forgotten. So this is write-up is something of a corrective post-script.

Jason has just wrapped up his analysis of UXM #235-8, a storyline set in the mutant-enslaving African nation of Genosha (not so subtly modeled on South Africa's apartheid state). This is not the same team of apologist and acculturationist X-Men from the Lee/Kirby or Claremont/Byrne days that I complained about. As Jason notes, this is a team that doesn't find a world order that's worth protecting and decides to attack it instead: "Wolverine’s oath to tear down an entire nation built on racism feels utterly right for an X-Men story. As if this is the kind of thing they should have been doing from Day One."

Jason's probably right, though I have to give him additional credit for having revealed both how gradual and convincing the slow transformation of the X-Men - on the level of individual character, Storm and Wolverine, but also the composition of the team itself - from an anti-mutant police force to a pro-mutant terrorist cell is achieved. And there's no denying that the team that tries to destory Genosha is composed of terrorists - sympathetic ones that should encourage us to avoid reductive explanations of terrorism, but terrorists nonetheless. Jason remarks that one of the issues - and I think this comment is applicable to the storyline as a whole - is "the apex of Claremont’s creativity and expression on the Uncanny X-Men series". It's also, sadly, an indication of the concept's limits.

The storyline completes the reversal that began with the old Brotherhood of Evil Mutants becoming the government-sanctioned super-team Freedom Force - the X-Men have, effectively, become the new Brotherhood. That Claremont could pull this off speaks volumes to his skill in building the transformation up slowly and carefully over a period of years, but it's telling that he blows the team up over the next 12 months. You can turn the X-Men into terrorists, but you can't then write an ongoing book about terrorist "heroes" who punish governments for human rights abuses. (At least, not until Warren Ellis and Mark Millar did so with The Authority, which feels as if it owes something to this version of Claremont's X-Men.)

Nor could Claremont, after writing such a convincing and inspiring change of direction, take a step-backward and return to superheroics-as-usual. And so, after the Inferno crossover that has nothing to do with politics and a couple of stand-alone issues, Nimrod reappears to kill Rogue, Wolverine and Longshot leave, Storm is thought dead, and the other four X-Men sacrifice themselves to escape certain death. And then Claremont builds the concept back up from the ground, (and, in so doing, creates something quite unlike what we've seen before) reunites and returns the group to face a different kind of Genoshan threat, and is summarily removed from the book.

But for those few months...


Jason said...

This makes my day, Neil! For you to say such kind things about the Claremont blog series means I must be doing something right.

You have given me a lot to think about with the post-"Inferno" issues as well, just with your brief words about them at the end. You suggest that the implosion of the X-Men was the result of being caught in a state where they could move neither forward nor backward. Caught in the pincers, the X-Men were forced to come apart.

Oddly enough, I had taken to viewing those issue as something like the opposite. That with Claremont having finished telling all of his giant, epic storylines (Genosha, as you say, completes their thematic transformation; while "Inferno" resolves a lot of the long-running plot threads), was entirely free to do whatever he wanted. Freed from those long-time chains, it seemed to me like Claremont just got crazy and scattered the chess pieces all over the table, just for the fun of it.

That had been the tack I was going to take at any rate, but now I shall have to re-evaluate.

Anyway, thanks again for this blog entry. It is both gratifying and enlightening.

neilshyminsky said...

I don't think that 'neither forward nor backward' and 'freed from the chains' are necessarily opposites. In fact, I think that they work quite well together. The 'neither' position is the chains - the blowing up was unavoidable, (at least insofar as the X-Men couldn't become any more terrorist-like - I think that their demonic-villain turn in Inferno is supposed to serve as a very literal extreme from which they can only subsequently retreat) and he clearly enjoyed blowing the team up and only very slowly drawing them together again.

(And, of course, Sinister's ostensible return in Gambit seems like a pretty clear indication that it never actually ended, that he never actually let go of those chains. Or at least that he found himself drawn back to them. I would've liked to have seen what kind of team Claremont's reformed X-Men would have become, had they not been completely usurped by Harras and Lee by the time the X-Men were once more a team.)

Anonymous said...

Yes, you're right, on reflection, they do seem to dovetail.

It does become a difficult period to assess, because -- as far as I can gather -- Harras' editorship was already feeling pretty oppressive to Claremont even by the time of "Inferno." That whole "dissolution and rebirth" period (as it was solicited at the time) sometimes seems to me like Claremont messing with Harras, playing "catch me if you can" with the characters. Like "Haha, you can't screw with these characters if i screw with them first!"

I wonder -- could the Reavers be seen as a stand-in for Harras? Always waiting around for the X-Men in order to kill them, and forcing the X-Men to sacrifice themselves first, on their own terms, before the Reavers do so?

-- Jason P

neilshyminsky said...

Whether intentional or not, that take on the Reavers works for me. I'm trying to remember, though, what the circumstances were surrounding their reappearance when Rogue emerged from the Siege. Does that work with your reading?

Jason said...

At that point, the Reavers had not changed from where they'd been left when Wolverine and Jubilee escaped them.

What does stick out in my mind from that appearance, though, is Rogue promising Gateway that she'll come back with the other X-Men and free him from the Reavers. So they're the foe that is waiting to be defeated once the X-Men reunify.

Instead, Claremont left, and the X-Men never did go back to Australia to fight off the Reavers. To look at it another way, the Reavers (and Harras) WON.