Wednesday, June 18, 2014

X-MEN FOREVER #1 - August 2009

Love and Loss!
Credits:  Chris Claremont (writer), Tom Grummett (pencils), Cory Hamscher (inks), Tom Orzechowski (letters), Wilfredo Quintana (colors)

Summary:  The X-Men pursue Fabian Cortez, while Xavier, Beast, and Nick Fury remain at the mansion monitoring the mission.  The Blackbird is struck by a mysterious blast just as they reach Cortez’s location.  Cortez takes advantage of the confusion and soon incapacitates most of the team.  Nightcrawler and Gambit eventually team up to knock him unconscious.  At the mansion, Fury announces that the team will now require government supervision.  Wolverine, irritated, leaves on a private mission.  Jean Grey soon senses he’s in trouble.

Continuity Notes:  
  • The X-Men consist of Xavier, Cyclops, Wolverine, Rogue, Nightcrawler, Beast, Storm, Jean Grey, Gambit, and Shadowcat.  Nightcrawler and Shadowcat acknowledge that they’re still members of Excalibur, but they’re treated as regulars in this cast.  The rest of the united X-Men from X-Men #1-3 are gone without explanation.
  • The issue opens with Jean fantasizing about kissing Wolverine on the beach.  The story behind this kiss is eventually told in the X-Men Forever annual.
  • Fabian Cortez exhibits powers not seen in X-Men #1-3, such as superhuman strength when punching Rogue.
  • Jean comments that Xavier has been paralyzed for a month, “and we don't know WHY.”  This is the first hint that Claremont is ignoring the ending of “The Muir Island Saga.”
  • During the fight with Cortez, Rogue and Storm touch skin, and Shadowcat phases into Wolverine while Cortez uses his powers against him.  Both of these scenes become important later.
  • When Cortez tries to use his powers against Jean, an image of the Phoenix Force briefly appears.

Gimmicks: Many issues of this series will feature variant covers, as it is a current-day Marvel ongoing.  I doubt I could keep track of all of them, but has the variants in their cover gallery.  This issue's variant features the first page sans text.

Review:  Since I’ve avoided talking about modern Marvel books until now, I suppose I’ll start with the now-standard recap page at the opening (which can trace its roots all the way back to the original Deadpool ongoing, of all things).  I don’t necessarily mind recap pages, but I can understand why some people are opposed to them.  Ideally, when you open a comic, you should be greeted with an intriguing image that makes you want to keep reading, not a full page of text.  There’s a trade-off in giving people info they might need to enjoy the story, and if it cuts down on awkward expository dialogue that’s great, but what truly bothers me about recap pages is when the production staff (assuming they’re the ones responsible) starts the story directly after the recap page, i.e. page two.  That’s a left-hand page, and comic stories should start on a right-hand page.  I think even in the days of annual backup stories, this was the standard rule.  I can’t explain the psychological justification, but stories that start on left-hand pages just look wrong.  You shouldn’t see the first and second page of a story simultaneously; it simply doesn’t feel right.  Luckily, the early issues of X-Men Forever are good about starting stories on page 3, instead of page 2.  That means the recap page and first ad are easily skipped, especially when you consider how thin these pages are.  I often didn’t know I was starting on page 3 when reading this comic, because I assumed the first two pages were a part of the cover.  Moving on…

The first thing I noticed when I looked at the preview pages for this series was Claremont's revival of narrative captions.  Captions had already fallen out of favor by the late ‘90s, and it was hard to find anyone who claimed to miss them when the Quesada/Jemas collective decided that they should be banned.  Over the years, however, I’ve grown fairly nostalgic for them.  As I believe Kurt Busiek wrote in their defense once -- the combination of art and captions is a unique aspect of comic book storytelling; a narrative technique that neither film nor novels can replicate.  Why take away one of a creator’s tools just to adopt one of the limitations of another medium?  (I’m sure I butchered what he wrote, but that’s the gist of it.)  Captions were certainly abused over the years, and Claremont earned the reputation as a severely purple writer by the ‘90s, but I think that’s a bit unfair.  I’m not going to pretend that I’ve enjoyed all of Claremont’s narration, he’s certainly had his excesses, but the man is a skilled prose writer and his captions often brought more to a story than a recap of what’s obvious in the art.  The first page could’ve worked as an abrupt, silent image, but Claremont adds some depth to it by telling a tiny story that sets the stage for Jean and Wolverine’s relationship in the issue.  And after the first page, Claremont drops almost all captions entirely, instead allowing the art to tell the story.  I don’t think a reasonable person could complain about a judicious use of narrative captions, and I’m glad Marvel allowed Claremont the freedom to use them again in this series.

The reaction to the first issue online was mixed, which tends to sum up how I felt about this series.  There’s a lot I enjoyed about the opening issue, but there are also elements I wish could be left in the past forever.  Another hint that the Phoenix has returned?  Cyclops as the cuckold again?  (Never mind that Jean’s “love” of Wolverine was a retcon anyway.)  There are also moments in the story that simply move too fast, such as Fury’s sudden pronouncement, literally as soon as the injured X-Men get off their jet, that he’s now overseeing the team.  The back-up in X-Men Forever: Alpha does help to set this up, but judging the issue independently, that scene feels incredibly forced.  And wouldn’t an explanation of where the rest of the team disappeared to be nice?  This kind of slapdash storytelling becomes a recurring problem with the book.  

Those complaints aren’t enough to keep me from enjoying the issue, however.  Having the X-Men track down Fabian Cortez is a logical follow-up to X-Men #1-3, one that’s kind of glaring in hindsight.  The X-Men have a mutant-tracking computer, and the world’s most powerful telepath recently moved back in with them, and they just decided to let this guy slip away?  Revealing that we never truly discovered what Cortez’s powers were in X-Men #1-3 is another decision that makes sense, now that I’ve recently reread those issues.  We know that he amplifies mutants’ powers, and that was the accepted use of Cortez following Claremont’s departure, but there’s nothing in his original appearances to indicate that it’s all he can do.  I also have to give Claremont credit for just how much he’s packed into this issue, and for how subtle he manages to be in a few places.  There’s a big mystery brewing with Storm, one that becomes very important in just a few issues, but a cursory reading of the issue wouldn’t make that obvious.  Nor would you immediately pick up on what’s happened between Wolverine and Shadowcat, but the seeds are there for some…interesting plot developments later.  More importantly, the characters just feel real.  The Jean/Wolverine almost-affair is sure to drive some people nuts, with good reason, but I tend to view most of the characterizations as being spot-on.  And if someone isn’t quite in character, like Storm, it soon becomes obvious why.  Little insert panels that give each X-Man a tiny monologue to establish where their head’s at?  Yeah, I’ve missed those.  It could be dismissed as corny, but little moments like this do a lot to make the characters feel more human.  

Regarding the Scott/Jean/Logan triangle, I think I have a better understanding now of where Claremont's coming from, having finally read his X-Men: The End miniseries.  X-Men: The End is one of the strangest things Claremont's ever written, parts of it are truly indefensible, but some coherent ideas start to peak through in the final issues that provide some insight into how Claremont views Scott and Jean's relationship.  Claremont posits that since Madelyne Pryor was a clone created with the portion of Jean that loved Cyclops, that romantic love literally no longer exists inside of Jean.  That's why their romance never quite clicked following her resurrection.  I'm not sure if Louise Simonson necessarily agreed, assuming the aborted Scott/Jean wedding in X-Factor was her idea, but Claremont has some basis for the theory.  Whenever he handled the couple following the launch of X-Factor, he never seemed to portray them as the idyllic young fools in love we saw back in the '70s.  Splitting up Scott and Jean seems like heresy to most readers, but is this possibly what Claremont always had in mind?

Visually, the book is exactly what I want.  I don’t know who’s responsible for hiring Tom Grummett as artist, but it’s a brilliant move.  Some people mocked the idea that Grummett would have logically been Jim Lee’s replacement had this actually been Claremont’s “next” issue in 1991, but I don’t think that’s fair.  Andy Kubert was Lee’s eventual replacement, and he wasn’t exactly a super-star artist at the time.  Neither were the Uncanny X-Men fill-ins of the era, guys like Rurik Tyler and Tom Raney.  And Grummett does have a past with the ‘90s X-books, as he was the extended guest artist on Generation X for a while, and showed up occasionally in other titles, including the first post-AoA Uncanny X-Men issue.  Grummett’s a fantastic choice for this book because he’s reminiscent of Claremont’s best collaborators.  There’s a lot of John Byrne in his art, but there’s also a touch of Alan Davis’ gracefulness, and a knack for page layouts just as dynamic as Jim Lee’s.  He’s able to keep the cast on-model, give everyone an individual face, and tell a coherent story.  With the exception of Alan Davis, he’s the best artist Claremont has been paired with since returning to Marvel in the late ‘90s.  

Grummett is joined by Cory Hamscher on inks, whose style is reminiscent of that early Image look.  His inks are kind of a combination of Scott Williams and Todd McFarlane, and they look great.  Hamscher's issues of Supreme were some of the best-looking Erik Larsen comics I’ve seen in a while.  The book consistently looks amazing, at least in the Grummett/Hamscher issues. Wilfredo Quintana also deserves credit for his color work, which utilizes bright primary colors that evoke the feel of a more traditional superhero comic, while incorporating all of the modern effects that the audience has come to expect.  Just as exciting for loyal fans is the return of Tom Orzechowski as letterer.  The fill-ins are all over the place in terms of quality, Claremont is the only creator who doesn't require a replacement at some point, but the early issues of the title are a visual match for any UXM run in the past.  There's no shortage of continuity games and bizarre plot twists in the book's future, but I think the debut issue really does feel like the start of a classic Uncanny X-Men run.


j said...

I wish they had gone more crazy with this as a nostalgia project and the idea that it is in theory x-men #4 if Claremont hadn't left. How could would it have been if they had given the book the 1991 cover dress and printed it on 1991 newsprint? They could have had a lot of fun with the concept and made it stand out from everything else on the shelves

Matt said...

The problem with Claremont's thoughts regarding Jean and Cyclops, as you state them, is that following "Inferno", Madelyne was reintegrated with Jean. Shouldn't that mean her love for Cyclops would be back as well?

At any rate, I agree with you pretty much entirely on this issue. I believe Claremont goes in some bizarre, unappealing directions as the series proceeds, but this single story gave me great hope for what was to follow. The captions and thought balloons were a big part of this, as were Grummett's artwork and the much brighter color palette than most contemporaneous comics.

I'm totally with you on Grummett, too. I easily see Byrne and Davis in his work, and maybe a bit of George Perez, too. He was a fantastic choice for this series. It's unfortunate he drew so few issues. I recall when the series started, seeing many people calling him a "journeyman" and deriding his talent, but I absolutely love his style. It reminds me of the comics I grew up on: it's energetic and expressive and fun. I wish all Marvel comics could look this good!

I do have to express my disappointment, though, that Grummett chose to dump the Jim Lee costumes within just a few issues. He drew them very well, and it was fantastic to see those designs back in action. And the outfits Grummett replaced them with were generall anywhere between "not bad" to "downright ugly". He should've stuck with the classics.

(I understand there are those who might not accept Jim Lee's work as "classic", but those costumes debuted 23 years ago and most of them stuck around for the better part of a decade!)

j said...

Was it Grummett that dumped the lee costumes or claremont?

G. Kendall said...

j - If the series did have a 1991 trade dress, along with the original costume designs, it would've absolutely stood out on the racks. I have no idea why Marvel didn't do this.

Matt - I'm not entirely certain how exactly the Madelyne/Jean integration played out post-Inferno. Did Simonson treat it as a split personality? Did Jean take on aspects of Madelyne's personality? I know she had her memories, but did she view Madelyne as a part of herself? Also, Madelyne hated Scott by the end, so would that perhaps influence Jean's feelings for Scott?

Matt said...

G. -- Good point! I never considered that, but it makes sense that Madelyne's corrupted feelings for Cyclops could've "infected" Jean. I prefer that they wind up together, but I wouldn't have minded seeing that as a sub-plot somewhere.

j -- You could have a point that Claremont may have requested Grummett redesign the Jim Lee outfits. I tend to assume that artists do these things unilaterally, unless a new costume is specifically a story element, but I may be wrong.

However, in any case, if they had to redesign the costumes, they should've gotten someone with better design sense to do it, then handed them off to Grummett. I love him as a penciler, like I said, but his new costumes were mostly quite ugly. And the fact that he handled the Jim Lee costumes so beautifully for three issues makes the change sting even more.

Anonymous said...

When were narration boxes banned and was it a formal ban or just a suggestion? I piked up some random TPB's off the shelf from the mid-late 00's and half of them are caption free, but they're all over Garth Ennis' Punisher, The Dark Tower series and the Stand adaptation

G. Kendall said...

It's my understanding that this was a formal rule imposed on writers in the early 2000s during the Quesada/Jemas days. Other rules included "no flashbacks" and "start stories as early as possible" (which is actually the opposite of the accepted rule of writing.)

Anonymous said...

This sounds so awful. Such a disappointment because I remember how this series was marketed and I thought that someday I could pick up the trades and have my own "What if CC never left" marathon.

I just don't understand what CC was going for. He takes certain parts of the continuity at the time but then blatantly disregards the rest. Why? What are we left with then? We now have a story that doesn't fit anywhere.

I know CC has a fanbase but how did stuff like this and X-Men: The End every get published?

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