Sunday, 10 August 2014
UXM Annual #9: "There's No Place Like Home"
(Now featuring 100% more everything ever.)
One of the basic rules of annuals as far as I'm concerned is this: they should never kick off, continue, or conclude a story featuring in the parent title. The obvious reason for this rule is that not everyone can afford to shell out for the larger annual, and not everyone can find it (back when I was visiting a now-defunct Middlesbrough comic shop in the years before Forbidden Planet, the stockist had terrible problems remembering to even order annuals in in the first place). People with a subscription to, say, UXM have a legitimate reason to be aggrieved if the story they're following suddenly gets wrapped up somewhere else. It's like buying a video game and finding the final act is DLC for which you have to pay; it's awful (which isn't to say it wasn't common; indeed it was a wearyingly ubiquitous Marvel UK scam in the early '90s, as any Transformers fan can tell you.)
There's also another argument to be made here, though. Annuals are different beasts to their parent titles. They're much longer, and often feature different artists to those working regularly on the associated ongoing. Their size, cost and annual nature (it's right there in the name, guys!) all suggest something out of the ordinary. Not only is treating them as the thirteenth and fourteenth issue to come out in a given year rather underusing the premise, it's failing to recognise that 22 pages per month is a very different beast to a 22 page and a 48 page within four weeks of each other. Pacing issues both within the annual and between the annual and its parent title rear their head if you're not careful.
Up until now, Claremont has shown every sign of understanding this. Whilst I'm not a great fan of his annuals in general, that's because he uses them as vehicles for sides to his muse I've never been fond of. I can still recognise that stories like "Nightcrawler's Inferno" or "Treasure-Hunt" are proper stand-alone stories with radically different approaches to the monthly title.
UXM Annual #9 is different. Yes, it manages to more or less entirely avoid treading on the ongoing's toes (a reference to the X-Men being returned from Asgard as UXM #200 kicks off is about the only reference in the main strip), but that's only because Claremont was too busy cramming as many New Mutants references in here as is possible.
Which is basically breaking the above rule in the worst possible way. Instead of needing the annual to understand UXM, you need NMU Special Edition #1 to understand the annual. Worse, you really need at least some working knowledge of NMU in general to understand the special edition. What this boils down to is that this annual is acting as a capper to at best 64 and at worst 196 pages of New Mutants storylines. The barriers here are becoming more than a little blurred, and the heavy nature of these final instalments (NMU SE#1 was 64 pages, this is 40) create a feeling of bloat which is hardly helpful either.
The obvious retort here would be to argue that yes, this annual is following on from the New Mutant's decision to remain in Asgard at least until they can rescue Storm from Loki, but that the focus changes from the younger team to the older one, justifying this story as an X-Men annual and offering a different perspective on the younger team, which has been operating without back-up since Roberto and Amara were kidnapped back in NMU #29. The problem with this argument is that there's too much time spent furthering the New Mutants plot strands for any shift in perspective to be evident. We spend six pages on Magma and Cannonball alone, for instance, as she frets about her new elf-form and their friends the dwarves create the magic hammer Loki has blackmailed out of them.
But with the X-Men and New Mutants sharing top billing, not only is there no clear explanation as to why this story is hopping from title to title (other than Claremont becoming increasingly disinterested in compartmentalising), but the whole thing is horribly overbalanced by the number of characters. Other characters or teams making guest appearances is the kind of nod to the wider continuity comic book obsessives like me really enjoy, but actually giving them equal billing pretty much guarantees no-one will be particularly well served. Seventeen characters are shown on the opening page; that is is simply too many, even over forty-eight pages, to create any kind of coherent statement. All you can do is messily develop bits and pieces as your plot sputters forward, which indeed is essentially what we get here.
Which isn't to say that none of the individual strands in here aren't interesting. This may be a mess, but it's not a completely dull one. The basic plot is fairly, well, basic, so we'll deal with that first: the X-Men travel to Asgard, meet the New Mutants and Hrimhari, and together plan to rescue Storm, currently mind-controlled by Loki because of course she is. Things go off-track when half the team are discovered by Loki who then mind-controls Illyana into acting as guard (because of course he does) and further mind-controls the wolves (because of course he fucking does) to seek out the other mutants, along with sundry monsters and ne'er-do-wells. They ambush the free mutants but are quickly beaten back, though Wolverine is fatally poisoned from a dragon bite in the process. The captured team manage to release Illyana and escape, and everyone converges at a ceremony Loki is holding in Asgard to present Storm with the hammer he extorted from the dwarves which will restore her powers (under the guise of honouring her as a hero who fought in the recent Surtwar, which is a nice touch). There Wolverine confronts Storm, and convinces her she has been lied to by the rather extreme method of letting her murder him. With Storm no longer under Loki's influence and a dozen plus mutants available to dissuade Hela from actually claiming Wolverine's soul (which somehow let's him survive the dragon's poison; Norse metaphysics is a tricky business), the God of Lies is rather on the back foot, and Shadowcat ties things up nicely by pointing out there are now seventeen mutants abroad in Asgard, all of whom will happily spill the beans about Loki's latest power grab if they're not all allowed to leave in one piece.
Which if nothing else is a nice way to end this, a sensible and unexpected solution to the question of how one can possibly defeat a god (this is maybe weakened by the teams doing exactly that to Hela a couple of pages earlier, but then as is mentioned, she does have more important things to do than swipe Wolverine). There are interesting things are happening in the margins, too. Rachel Summers is getting ever more into her self-appointed role as the New Phoenix, having now chosen not just that codename but a costume that directly references the flaming bird. In doing so she honours her mother's past, but of course Cyclops takes it pretty hard. It's a weird and strong dynamic: Rachel wants the past to be remembered but doesn't care if anyone remembers it in a different way to her, and Scott would rather not be reminded of that past despite the fact his wife looks identical to the dead woman Rachel claims to be honouring. Questions about what we retain from the past, what we leave behind, and what it might be wise or otherwise to replicate are fascinating ones, and as with all the best drama, both sides here have completely understandable positions; though I can't help feeling Rachel is being somewhat unreasonable in her expectations of Cyclops' responses. She's chosen not to explain why she's so fixated on Jean Grey, denying Scott the context that would give him any real hope of processing what's going on (though he learns the truth later from Hela, of all people), and telling someone in front of their new wife that they've got no reason to be upset about their dead former lover is a supreme dick move regardless of context. Wanting to be Phoenix whilst refusing to consider other people's feelings doesn't strike me as a tremendously healthy path to start heading down.
Of course, heading fown darker paths is very much the theme for young female mutants. Illyana briefly acquires the Enchantress' grimoires and seems very much unconcerned that reading them is driving her every further into becoming a dark sorceress/cruel arsehole. Mirage finds every Asgardian who sees her (and Warlock too) is now terrified of her link to the Valkyrie. Even Wolfsbane has to deal with her new found desire to shift into wolf form and sniff her love interest's backside. It's worth noting at this point just how often Claremont alters the status quo of his female characters like this, compared to his male ones. Illyana was turned from a innocent child into a dark magician. Xian became a morbidly obese mind-slave. Ororo was depowered, and Jean Grey died. Sprite became Shadowcat, and Psyche first Mirage, and then a valkyrie, the latter in the same adventure as Amara became an elf.
What is there for the Y chromosome that matches up? Wolverine has become a fraction less rough around the edges? Cyclops got to retire? I guess you've got Professor Xavier oscillating between wheelchair-bound, walking and dead, but I think there's a clear imbalance here, and it's not at all obvious to me why that is. I'm certainly not trying to paint a picture of Claremont as having issues with women - one could even colour an argument that says the imbalance stems from him having more interest in and willingness to tinker with female characters whilst the males just stand around saying the same old stuff. I don't really have any coherent take on the phenomenon, I just wanted to note that it's there.
What else? Well, there's a smattering of very brief but nice moments here. Doug offering part of his lifeforce to keep Warlock alive after being shot by Loki is very sweet, and also manages to foreshadow Douglock's creation almost a decade later. It's also hard not to smile when later in the issue they arrive to reinforce the X-Men by shifting into the USS Enterprise and firing all phasers. There's an interesting conversation between Logan and Roberto, with the former pouring scorn on Sunspot's insistence that Asgard is a better place to live than Earth because so much more glory is on offer for beating up villains. And, for those interested in such things, Rogue demonstrates a new twist to her powers that I think is never mentioned again, when Nightcrawler grabs her and Cyclops simultaneously and thereby allows her to absorb both of their powers.
So yes, there's plenty to appreciate. In the end though it never had any hope of gelling. It's not so much that it's less than the sum of its parts so much as that that sum is so big there's no way to sensibly process the number. These sprawling Claremontian epics are getting completely out of hand. Time now to move on to his UXM #200, which is, inevitably, 40 pages long. I shall have to count up how many pages Claremont produced in 1985. If I ever reach the end of the year, that is...
As with NMU Special Edition #1, much of the action here happens in Asgard, which makes the timing difficult. We do at least know Shadowcat's nightmare must take place between UXM #199 and #200, so we'll place the beginning of this story the day after Magneto surrendered to the authorities, and the rest of it Odin only knows where.
Wednesday 23rd January, 1985.
Britain sees its first televised House of Lords debate.
"We had better things to do in Brazil, than read Viking stories."
Good on you, Sunspot. A few less Norse tales might do us all a bit of good.