Chris Claremont’s X-Men and the Tragedy of Formula Characters, Part One

In 2003, a number of enterprising comic book archeologists unearthed Jerry Siegel’s original plan for their creation, Superman.  In a storyline entitled “The The Mystery of K-Metal,” the author planned to introduce a mysterious space-born substance that diminishes Superman’s strength, a precursor to what would eventually become kryptonite, but more importantly the storyline would have had Clark reveal his secret identity to his paramour Lois Lane, paving the way for their more committed romantic coupling.  The proposal for the K-Metal storyline was rejected and shuttled by the Siegel’s editorial bosses at National-DC, lost in the shuffle of the drafting of the creators during the war and the subsequent legal acrimony between the authors and their editors immediately following their return.  (For more on this story, see http://k-metal.cc/splash.html).

The re-discovery on the K-Metal storyline is more than an interesting bit of fan ephemera or comic book trivia; it demonstrates fundamental different creative philosophies on the parts of creative and editorial as well as some of the basic outlines that would become standardized in the production of the superhero comics throughout the last century.  Siegel and Shuster created Superman not as a comicbook property — the comicbook not really having been invented in the way we understand it today — but as a comic strip.  In fact, the first panels depicting the character actually were drawn as strips and later reassembled in a comicbook layout.  The comic strip itself was then a relatively new and popular media, likely attractive to young, entrepreneurial artists such as Siegel and Shuster who saw the fame and fortune that could be had with a syndicated newspaper contract.

The comic strip of the early 20th Century was a distinct media format, both like and unlike the contemporary gag strip found in the recesses of the few remaining news dailies.  There were simple strips that offered either single pages or a handful of panels that required no prior familiarity or subsequent attachment.  However, there were just as many strips that serialized their characters or storylines, such as Frank King’s “Gasoline Alley,” or more appropriately the popular adventure strips of the 1930s such as Hal Foster’s “Prince Valiant” or Alex Raymond’s “Flash Gordon” that were most likely influential on Superman’s authors.  The K-Metal storyline likewise demonstrates Superman written as a serialized comic strip with characters aging, changing and evolving and narrative history accruing in an accumulative fashion.

However, the editors at National-DC had an alternative plan.  By boiling down Superman to a set number of predetermined, unchanging characteristics (secret identity, unrequited love, etc.), they could reduce new issues to a matter of variations on formula thereby eliminating much of the complexity of creative work, but even more importantly removing Siegel from the equation.  A ever-evolving storyline where inconsistency reigns could have made the further adventures of Superman attached forever to the creative work or whims of its original authors, but by detaching the comicbook from the serial strip model, National-DC editors ensured that they could farm out the character and concept out to other authors and artists as well as completely different media; as long as a few core elements remained consistent the sanctity of the incontestable core remained intact.  Thus, what Umberto Eco has referred to as the iterative nature of Superman’s adventures — the fact that each new installment re-sets the pins, never moving forward — is an artistic quirk born mostly of economic and, especially, the organizational arrangement of comicbook production.  Superman, in terms of subject matter, generated the modern superhero, and at same time, in terms of organization, generated the formula and format of editorially-owned, frachise-able characters.

This much is obvious to most comicbook readers as characters aren’t typically understood as fully-realized, impermeable, yet at-the-same-time dynamic and changeable selves as much as nexuses where particular manifestations orbit around the more dense, encrustations of accumulated story.  Typically, the essential backstory of a superhero, repeated at the beginning of every issue of Marvel Comics of the 60s and 70s in a caption banner  — what fan discourse calls the origin — is understood as this core (ex. Superman is the last son of Krypton).  However, for some characters, existence precedes essence and, thus, their core is not made of exposition, but of some other characteristics having more to do with tone (ex. Wolverine has a “troubled,” violent past) or even visual style (ex. Spawn is covered with chains as well as an illogically long and winding cape).  Of course, that is all “characters” are: the accumulation and coordination of narrative detail.  However, in superhero comicbooks, only certain details ever count.

In sum, the editorial machinery of comicbook production is one that creates characters entirely unlike the characters constructed in conventional novels or classical cinema.  In these media, story is guided by goal-oriented characters who face obstacles by learning, growing and changing.  Superhero comicbook production superficially appears to have much in common with these other narratives, concerning plots of violent and dramatic conflict; however, superhero comicbooks contain a stronger impulse running parallel to these individual episodes that resists change and restores situations to the their original positions.  To reiterate: this is done to facilitate production and cross promotion, to minimize the importance of individual artists and to ensure that ownership remains tied to editorial lines and imprints.

Of course, the results of such a mode of production in better superhero comicbooks were always more interesting than just wrote wrote repetition of stock stories and situations that a formula-driven model suggests, even with regards to characterization.  This was particularly the case for the Marvel Comics line, which relied heavily on the use of the thought balloon in narration; remember Spiderman’s constant self-doubt and Hulk’s equally repetitive existential pain.  While these markers of subjectivity and character depth were often repetitious, they did at least evidence an interest in interiority and a mental life, even if it only ran on one register.  This use, perhaps over-use, of the thought balloon could perhaps be traced to the over-writing tendencies of Stan Lee himself and the so-called Marvel method of production, which had the writers superimpose dialogue and thought over top of already completed layouts, or perhaps to the business practices accrued during the production of romance comics — whose stories are narrated mostly through the thoughts of the characters — the comicbook fad that directly preceded superheroes at Marvel.

Chris Claremont’s work on the X-Men (from 1975 to roughly 2001) goes even further with regards to interiority.  Claremont’s comicbooks are decidedly wordy with respect to today’s decompressed comicbooks, and most of the wordiness applies directly to the discursive representation of the interior lives of the characters.  X-Men, like its Marvel predecessors, works by interspersing scenes of fantasy, magic and science fiction, with images of violent conflict, with moments of introspection — voicing the near-constant hopes, doubts and fears of its protagonists, even if it was a bit more so in the case of X-Men.  Yet even within this most interior of Marvel superhero comicbooks, the characters are not allowed to change.

For all their relative sophistication, Claremont’s X-Men narratives aren’t able to supplant the overriding organizational logic of character constancy, even though the desire for change and specifically for conclusion increasingly haunts the desires of the protagonists themselves.  Specifically, a series of story arcs subsequent to the much more famous Claremont-Byrne co-written “Dark Phoenix Saga” (which concluded with the death of a lead protagonists) and “Days of the Future Present” (which began to open up storytelling to multiple timelines and dimensions) presented the protagonists with opportunities to grow and change.  And each is given a perfectly acceptable method to get out of being and “X-Man,” but all are forced back into their original conceit.  The organizational lock on characterization, thus, becomes a tragic subtext to the very tales Claremont tells; in these stories he’s literally bumping up against the primordial constraints of formula.

Nowhere is this push and pull of the writer working against production method more clear than in the tortured changes occurring in the characterization of Storm, the nominal leader of the X-Men during this time.  While the X-Men are away in outer space, Storm’s body is inhabited by an alien insect parasite, threatening to take over her entire body.  She only escapes this fate by sacrificing herself to the void of outer space, where she, by luck, is ingested by a giant, benevolent space fish.  This space fish allows Storm to share her consciousness while the alien being literally reconstructs her body inside his own.  All this sounds ridiculous in the paraphrasing, but the important point is that Storm’s body itself is literally re-made in the diegetic world of the X-Men.

x-men166-7

from Uncanny X-Men #166, with art by Paul Smith

Upon returning to Earth, Storm’s interior life is clouded with doubt and confusion; previously a calm pacifist, Storm’s thoughts are now disrupted with the venial thoughts (actualized in discursive thought balloons) and a desire for violence and revenge.  This culminates in Storm’s thoughtless stabbing of the leader of the Morlocks…

x-men-170-19

from Uncanny X-Men #170, with art by Paul Smith

…and the radically shift in Storm’s visual design as long-flowing hair and cape are replaced with punk influenced leather pants and mowhawk.  (This change in costume may have been part of the editorial push by then Marvel head Jim Shooster to update the design of the company’s characters, as Spiderman’s replacement with a busy red and blue costume with a simple black one occurred almost simultaneously.)  And finally, Storm is accidentally zapped with Forge’s experimental weapon that removes her ability to affect the weather, for all purposes “curing” her of her genetic mutation.

x-men-173-19

from Uncanny X-Men #173, with art by Paul Smith

Storm’s transformation is complete; her mind changes, accepting the ambivalence of violence; her body changes, inhabiting a literally new physical form, re-crafted on the outside to reflect her inner changes; her very being changes, deactivating her inborn mutation.  By all accounts this should be the end of Storm as and X-Men, or at least the beginning of a completely different characters.  Indeed Claremont and his then artist, John Romita, Jr, depict Storm leaving the group and returning to Africa to beginning her life anew, inextricably changed.  Of course, this departure — in terms of both character and geography — was not to be and mere issues later Storm was given her powers back, and before long the character had snapped back to form: a pacifist attitudes with inexplicably long, flowing hair.   Given the emphatic interiority of Claremont’s writing style, this inability to change takes on a tragic subtext throughout the series.

In part two, we look more at Claremont’s tortured characterization of the X-Men, looking specifically at  Nightcrawler, Wolverine and Cyclops during this same transitional era for the comic series.

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One response to “Chris Claremont’s X-Men and the Tragedy of Formula Characters, Part One

  1. Oh man that’s kind of dark, its like Ground Hogs day the movie. Despite all of wolverines attempts he can’t make any progress with his therapist (Professor X) for formula’s sake.

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