Some thoughts on Chris Claremont's X-Men


I just finished the third volume of Essential X-Men. I had previously been perusing volumes 1 and 2, which means I'm about 68 issues into the Chris Claremont run (in addition to having read a few annuals). I was excited to witness the introduction of iconic characters such as Storm, Nightcrawler, Colossus, and Kitty Pride (not yet known as Shadowcat). These early issues also feature the death, resurrection and second demise of Jean Grey and the Days of Future Past story arc. Here are a some of my thoughts, in no particular order:

  • Colour is a valuable interpretational aide in comics. Not only does it convey mood (by way of lighting), it also facilitates the decoding of graphically-complex situations. I won't be buying more of the black-and-white Essential editions (unless they come cheap).

  • Apart from some very male-gaze-oriented outfits and a few gratuitous shower scenes, Claremont's X-Men is relatively light on the sexism. Many issues even pass the Bechdel test. Practically all of the female characters are given complex, independent personalities. Storm is a particularly capable squadron leader (and indeed: much more suited to the task than Cyclops). Claremont does buy into some gender stereotypes in that his female characters seem somewhat more susceptible to irrational fits than their male counterparts (i.e. the Phoenix Force, Storm's claustrophobia which cause her to lash out). 

  • The world of the X-Men is pretty diverse. White Americans are in the minority on the second X-Men roster. Claremont's depictions of foreign and minority personalities are not unproblematic (there's a good deal of exoticizing and some rather ludicrous patois) but the most stereotypical character (the Apache Thunderbird) is sacrificed a few issues after his introduction. One is glad, for once, for the noble-savage-dying-for-his-colonial-friend trope.

  • Claremont dialogue is better than I remember it to be. I have often mocked action scenes which depict characters delivering long diatribes between punches. The balance between exposition (tell) and depiction (show) is certainly different from what a contemporary comic-reading audience might expect or enjoy, but it's not unjustifiable from a story-telling standpoint. It was a different era with different conventions; many of Claremont's ideas could not easily have been communicated without extensive speech- or thought-bubble commentary.

  • Claremont has interesting ideas about religion. In issue #108, he throws some kabbalah at us:
 "In that instant -- as she feels her power, the power of her friends, sing within her; as she reenergizes the energy lattice -- it's as if a door has opened before her eyes. A new pattern forms -- shaped like the mystic tree of life -- with Xavier its lofty crown and Colossus its base. Each X-Man has a place, each a purpose greater than himself or herself. And the heart of the tree, the catalyst that binds these wayward souls together, is Phoenix. Tiphareth. Child of the sun, child of life, the vision of the harmony of things."
 It is not at all suprising that Phoenix was designated to undergo apotheosis, but I am at a loss to explain why Claremont opted for kabbalah as his frame of reference for mysticism. It seems to me as though there might have been more popular or obvious options at the time. It is possible he chose kabbalah precisely because it was not exceedingly well-known. I am not convinced his interpretation of the sephirot is kosher, but I am not an expert. Perhaps this is irrelevant, or perhaps it is cultural appropriation -- I am not sure.

In X-Men Annual #4, Doctor Strange accompanies the X-Men on a trip through Dante's Inferno to rescue Nightcrawler. I am not at all sure what to make of that issue.

Our Panoptean Times?

I am not by any means a philosopher, let alone an expert on Nietzsche. Be that as it may, I believe I have read enough about the Saxonian master to appreciate his disdain for the stultifying influence of dichotomous thinking. As the work of a true visionary, Nietzsche’s tearing-down of essentialized binaries prefigures recent critiques of structuralism: internal life is not made up of unequivocal categories, like fixed stars; it comprises shifting constellations of meaning, shaped by human struggles.

It was recently suggested to me that myth might be a Dionysian cure to present-day Apollonian excesses.

While not without merit, this claim presents a certain number of problems. It suggests myth is primarily Dionysian, and assumes that Western societies are predominantly Apollonian. I wish to suggest an alternate narrative, and perhaps recommend another god to represent our era.

Given the Nietzschean rejection of many conventional dichotomies, it is telling that he should conjure the brothers Dionysus and Apollo to explain art and the world. It is probable Nietzsche believed eternal myth would carry more weight and authority than most conventional concepts of criticism.
The suggestion that myth is Dionysian -- spontaneous, intuitive -- is somewhat undermined by Nietzsche’s invocation of the divine pair for the purposes of criticism. Nietzsche instrumentalizes myth in order to draw fine distinctions, to engage in analytical discourse. Mythic concepts lend themselves to this exercise and so they are intuitively grasped, but very little about this intertextual approach is spontaneous. As Nietzsche is not the first to resort to myth in this manner, one might suspect he is taking a stance against Plato's -- his nemesis -- or else contradicting religionists who offer up less sophisticated readings of myth as the basis of their morals.

If myth or mythopoeia can be used to clarify language and experience, it is possibly because it precedes both epistemologically. It seems we are heuristically better suited to extrapolate lexica from narratives than from other lexica. It is something of an aporia that symbols are intuitions at the basis of our systems of meaning which nevertheless require methodical discourse in order to be made intelligible. Myth is both Dionysian and Apollonian, or possibly neither.

Everyday experience provides ample evidence giving the lie to the assumption that our Western societies are governed by the Apollonian principle (i.e.: rationality, analysis). To be sure, we tend to value methodical thinking over spontaneity under most circumstances, but we are not always aware of our own motivations, nor even particularly consistent at applying the strictest standards of rationality. Advertisers know very well that we do not often consume rationally: their art is to create situations in which we might relax our standards, shrug off the rational pressure to examine our options critically, and direct our aspirations according to non-utilitarian principles. Advertising may not dictate all of economic behaviour -- consumerism may not define us entirely -- but it seems unlikely that the omnipresence of marketing messages does not condition us very significantly.

I surmise the greater part of our decisions concern our consumption in one way or another; at least some of these decisions are swayed by advertising narratives which flout Apollonian ideas. To the extent that we are consumers, we are not, therefore, Apollonian. But consumerism is merely one indication to the effect that Western societies are only superficially rational; there are other signs, like our reluctance to investigate information which contradicts our self-serving narratives of citizenship, race, and gender.

But if we are not Apollonian, what are we? I do not purport to have Nietzsche’s talent for mythological metaphor, but I do have a suggestion. If I am to draw any conclusion from my study of McLuhan’s observations, it is that we have become Panoptean (after Aργος Πανόπτης, the thousand-eyed shepherd) insofar as we are over-informed. The contemporary human is awash in an ocean of competing signals, her senses hyper-extended to the point of taking her own omnividence in stride. The consequence of this condition on the individual and collective psyche is panic; this is evidenced not only in the tone of round-the-clock newscasts but also in the overwhelmingly contrarian attitude of popular online discourse. Intellectually, the tendency of the contemporary media environment is to keep us always in the frantic state of fight-or-flight, or else charging us to proclaim grievous loss, like the voice out of Palodes.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces


"The gods as icons are not ends in themselves. Their entertaining myths transport the mind and spirit, not up to, but past them, into the yonder void; from which perspective the more heavily freighted theological dogmas then appear to have been only pedagogical lures: their function, to cart the unadroit intellect away from its concrete clutter of facts and events to a comparatively rarefied zone where, as a final boon, all existence -- whether heavenly, earthly or infernal -- may at last been seen transmuted  into the semblance of a lightly passing, recurrent, mere childhood dream of bliss and flight." 

Considering how much of his exegesis celebrates the heteronormative male's dominion over female elements, it is perplexing to witness Campbell prescribe mythic thinking as a solution to our supposed crisis of meaning. Neither the imitation of the hero nor the metaphysical interpretation of his journey as a testament to the eternity of the Self constitute a clear guide for everyday living. Were Campbell correct in assuming the decline of the myths' influence, we would still be hard-pressed to find ethical grounds for their restoration to an honorable place in pluralistic societies.

According to Campbell's monomyth, the hero (typically: a man) is part of a diad with his God, (usually: a paternal figure) who confronts the former with the shattering revelation of the hero's own truth. The hero's journey is itself a metaphor for that truth, which is ultimately the realization of some great universal unity. The hero's trophies (i.e. his rescued princess!) are purported to symbolize the elevation of consciousness to that unitarian vision.

Campbell's contention is that all of myth has but one message, audible on that high frequency of mystery, the exalted level at which ordinary signification breaks down. The message is a metaphysic of the constancy of undifferentiated Being, in which we are supposed to discover a justification for all of our suffering and travails (amor fati).

A sober-minded intellectual might instead entertain the possibility that mystery is a reference without a clear referent; the semantic dance of mythic narratives may not conform to a unified theory positing anything more than categories to use for legitimate comparison. One might even suggest that mystery is not media but the point where meaning ends -- for good or ill, the frontier of arbitrariness.

And so: Campbell's genius lies not so much in finding coherence but in articulating schema on the basis of which to comment on similarities and differences. In that respect, his monomyth is immensely valuable. Despite his excessive eagerness to promote his own brand of stoicism as the origin and essence of all myths, his denunciation of literalism and theological parochialism is certainly much to his credit:

"Mistaking a vehicle for its tenor may lead to the spilling not only of valueless ink, but of valuable blood."

The Mystery Play

The Mystery Play is difficult to summarize. Part religious allegory, part mystery novel, it is a well-executed experiment in rural noir, lending itself to many interpretations (and in all honesty: a bit hard to read).

Parallels could be drawn with Arkham Asylum in that madness is a fairly central theme. Muth's hyperrealistic art (which is reminiscent of Dave McKean's) has a kind of oneiric quality, and adequately conveys the protagonist's confusion.

Vimanarama!

Called back to Earth after 6000 years away in outer space, the gods find the human race much diminished, largely unfit to defend itself against the antediluvian demon-robots who are destroying London. Caught in the middle of it all, Ali picks the worst possible moment to have an existential crisis, hoping his arranged marriage will prove the benevolence of God.

In other words: Best. Thing. Ever.

The human cast is immediately endearing. Far from diminishing the supernatural characters' mystique, the deliberate distortion of religious tropes demonstrates the shortcomings of ordinary rationality when it comes to apprehending the numinous.

Grant Morrison is in top shape. Philip Bond's art seamlessly mixes the caricatural and the iconic, to great effect. Vimanarama is both esoteric and fun -- a rare combination -- and accomplishes all it sets out to do in only three issues.

DC Comics Presents: The Demon Driven Out

This one will likely please fans of grunge-era ultra-violence.

I picked up this release not realizing it was the collected edition of a ten-year-old limited series. The best thing about it is probably its fantastic cover. The magazine format may be a cheaper alternative to the regular TPB, but the lower price-tag doesn't quite make up for the disorganized plot, the uneven tone and the heavy-handed references to yakuza culture. The artist attempts some fairly cinematic angles and the break downs are extremely dynamic, but I was left feeling as though he didn't quite know what to do with a script that alternates between earnest noir and farcical grand guignol.