Sunday, 18 August 2013

TWTYTW: 1984

The best way to summarise the X-books during 1984 is probably with two numbers: 6 and 800.  The former is the number of years the original X-Men comic had been running for by the point it had produced as many issues as our merry mutants romped through in 1984 alone.  The latter is, give or take, the number of comic pages Chris Claremont wrote (or co-wrote, for 88 of them) over the same year.

That's a pretty impressive output, if not in terms of rate, then certainly in terms of focus.  Claremont remains the unquestioned master of the X-universe at this point, cranking out more material than ever before.

It wouldn't last, of course.  The point at which it becomes clear Claremont has become a victim of his own success is still to come, but already the waters are being tested with the Iceman limited series, and with Hank McCoy appearing in Beauty and the Beast.  Claremont had done very little with either character at this point, of course, and one could argue that in 1984 more readers would associate them with the Defenders than with the X-Men, but between these two titles and the continuing (if inexplicable) success of Alpha Flight, it's becoming increasingly clear that whatever magic formula Claremont used to make his band of mutants such a runaway triumph, it didn't actually require him to be at the reins.

In short, then, this year probably marks the zenith of Claremont's work on the X-Men. In terms of control, at least, not necessarily creatively.  Though while we're on the subject, let's talk about the creative side. There's still plenty of ideas tossed out that will remain important to the franchise to this day - Warlock, the Hellions, Forge - but the overall impression here is of things unspooling.  There's nothing wrong in extended storylines, of course, it's one of Claremont's best features as a writer.  But the effect of his approach here is to lead to is too many issues that do nothing but mark time, or which finish a major story half-way through and then start off in a crazy new direction, or which spill over from one title into another in a way that must have been frustrating to anyone not having the time or money to keep up. 800 pages is a pretty big commitment in an industry that charges as much per square inch as comics companies do.

An argument could be formed from this that Claremont has at this point overextended himself, but I think the truth is slightly different. I think the problem here is that Claremont's obvious talent for generating ideas and for characterisation, as hyperbolic as he is in both instances, doesn't translate into a firm enough understanding into structure.  Two twenty-two page comic books is not the same prospect as a single double issue. A story that lasts two and a half issues needs to be reworked.  Oh, and if you insist on linking multiple titles, for God's sake get your timings right.

For all that some sniff that comics have never managed to recapture the wonders of the Silver Age - an argument I don't have much time for, actually, but that's a conversation for some other time - it strikes me as hard to argue that comic writers in general have become much, much better at figuring out how to use the nature of a comic book sensibly.

Elsewhere in the X-books, Dazzler continues to limp towards cancellation as the plan to make Alison an actress fighting selfish humans rather than villainous super-people fails to provide the hoped-for boost.  Which is a shame, really, since it does have some nice ideas, and allows the anti-mutant angle to breathe more than the main title has arguably managed since God Loves, Man Kills.  On the other hand, the painful slog of Dazzler's own graphic novel suggests that the idea has very much run its course, and with the title relying more and more on removing Alison's clothes at every available opportunity, there's little feminist case one can make right now for the only female-focused X-book (now that New Mutants have added Doug and Warlock to the team) to keep going.

(Maybe if they'd handed the title over to Ann Nocenti, we might have concluded something different.  Certainly the appearance of the first female writer in the X-Universe - arriving in December to give us the first issue of Beauty and the Beast - is worthy of note.  It would have been interesting to see what a female writer could have done on Dazzler.  That said, her first issue of BAB was far from free of problems, so who knows how that would have gone).

Finally, we got our first full year of Alpha Flight. Which, yes, is reliably uninspiring and frequently causes great problems for anyone reading it from a feminist perspective.  But at least the year was bookended by "Snowblind", which I still think is really funny, and "...Dreams Die Hard", which is proof that a tremendously anal approach to continuity can genuinely result in interesting comics (at least when Byrne is working in characters Claremont wrote, rather than the endless parade of self-referencing that helped ruin Hidden Years).  I'm still not looking forward to Byrne's '85 output, but if I'm being honest, he hasn't completely squandered his goodwill just yet.

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