Friday, December 13, 2013

1987 and all that 019: x-mettle

...reading comics from the year i was born!

Uncanny X-Men #213-224 (Marvel)
by Chris Claremont, Alan Davis, Barry Windsor-Smith, Jackson Guice, Marc Silvestri, Bob Wiacek, Dan Green, Glynis Oliver, Tom Orzechowski, et al.

Earlier this year, the X-Men celebrated their 50th anniversary, so now seemed an appropriate time to go back and revisit the 1987 issues of 'Uncanny X-Men' for this column. This post will actually be the first of two devoted to the title, since it’s a fairly dense book with a lot going on, thanks in large part to Chris Claremont still being the writer at that time. His style may not be to everyone’s taste, but you can’t deny that the man is a great storytelling multitasker, able to have numerous threads of every length and thickness running through his comics simultaneously without bogging things down. That’s as true as ever in his X-Men stories from ’87, because for all their complicated concurrent plots, these comics do a damn fine job of keeping the two most significant narratives on track and weighted evenly. Next time, I’ll look at the more action-packed of these two storylines: the team’s ongoing struggle against the Marauders. Right now, though, I want to talk about the more intimate, engaging, and unusual plotline of a depowered Storm proving to herself and the reader what a noble and bad-ass hero she is, even without being “super.”

When this particular run of issues begins, Storm has already been robbed of her mutant abilities. She’s used to being non-powered by now, though not necessarily at peace with it. She’s still an X-Man through and through, and is in fact the team’s leader at this point, she has to deal with superhero dramas all the time despite not technically being a superhero herself anymore. It’s a lifestyle she chooses to keep up instead of having it thrust upon her like most other mutants, and that’s an admirable choice that makes sense for her character, but it also makes regaining her powers an appealing notion no matter how good she is without them. When all of your problems are nails, it’s mighty helpful to have a hammer around.

The desire to have those incredible powers again is brought to the fore by the first small story arc in which Storm is the central player. After being accidentally knocked unconscious by an out-of-control Wolverine, Storm wakes up imprisoned in the none-too-secure dungeon of some strange hunting lodge in the middle of the woods. She soon meets her captors, three superpowered WWII veterans named Crimson Commando, Stonewall, and Super Sabre, who kidnap people they deem criminals in order to hunt them for sport. Mistaking Storm for an arsonist because they find her passed out in a burned building, the trio of murderers pair her up with a teenaged drug addict/dealer whose boyfriend they have already killed, and give the two women a slight head start out of a weird blend of fairness and sadism. Unlike their usual prey though, Storm is determined, intelligent, and fit enough to cover a lot more ground than her pursuers anticipate, which allows her to set some traps and ambush them instead of merely fleeing. She’s also experienced enough in combat to actually hold her own when the time comes, even though her opponents all have enhanced abilities. They’re used to killing scared, confused criminals; she’s more than familiar with handling supervillains. So all of her moves catch them off guard while nothing they do surprises her in the least.

Though it’s a struggle to fully defeat them, Storm is always a step or two ahead of Crimson Commando, Stonewall, and Super Sabre (who obnoxiously don’t have a team name here, but do join Mystique’s Freedom Force later in the series). She manages to stop them without needing to kill them as they planned to do to her, and even talks them into turning themselves in. This story demonstrates how little Storm really needs her powers, but also reminds us why she still wants them and how undeniably useful they would be if she could get them back. It would've taken a few seconds at best for her to demolish all three villains if she’d been able to control the weather. Or heck, she could have just flown away first thing, since none of them had any means of following her in the sky. As impressive as she is with nothing but her wits at her disposal, some part of her brain no doubt spent the entire conflict wishing she could just snowstorm the bad guys into submission. She even openly pines for her old powers a few times. So once she’s free and back with her team, Storm sets out almost immediately to find a way to retrieve her lost abilities, beginning by finding the man who took them from her, Forge.

Once her search for Forge begins, it becomes Storm’s entire life, a distinct and wholly separate solo adventure she embarks on while the rest of the X-Men do their own thing. And with the exception of Wolverine playing a small role at the start and end, the story I described above about the three superhuman people-hunters was an all-Storm story too. She’s such an interesting character, extremely forceful when needed but otherwise quite serene and composed, so giving her some time in a spotlight all her own is a smart and enjoyable move. And it’s necessary to split her off from the other X-Men for this Forge story, because it’s not really a superhero tale. It’s more fantasy than any other genre, and even simpler than that, it’s a classic overcoming-various-trials-on-the-path-to-a-noble-goal narrative. To tell it properly then, Storm had to be removed from her usual environment so she could be gradually transitioned into the appropriate setting for this story. In many ways, the Crimson Commando (and friends) arc was a small sampling of what would come in the Forge arc, at least insofar as they’re both stories about Storm taking on insane odds with only her inner and outer strength to help her. But the Forge plot is thicker, more emotionally and narratively complicated, and far more tragic in its conclusion.

Storm begins at Forge’s old base of operations, but finds it dilapidated and mostly abandoned. The only person there is Naze, an old shaman and Forge’s former mentor. He tells her two things, both of which completely derail her effort to get her superpowers back. First, Forge’s guilt over taking away those powers drove him insane. Second, that insanity subsequently led him down a path of darkness so that now, rather than being the perfect instrument to prevent the end of everything, he’s going to cause it. Forge was apparently meant to battle a great force of existence-erasing evil called the Adversary, but instead his madness has turned him into the Adversary. Because Naze has the knowledge and Storm has the skills, and because they’re both so close with Forge, they team up (after Naze pretty much forces Storm to work with him) and begin an arduous trip through the wilderness and their own minds to reach Forge and stop him from undoing the universe.

They’re attacked by all manner of monster, usually some sort of oversized and slightly warped/enhanced animals. There are also some unpredictable and insanely harsh weather patterns, an insult-to-injury type of obstacle considering the weather used to totally be Storm’s wheelhouse. The closer she and Naze get to Forge, the more huge and difficult their challenges become, but Storm consistently keeps herself together and comes out on top. She acts quickly and with confidence, because she’s never given a moment to rest and over-think things. Luckily, Storm is the perfect person to deal with these kinds of incessant, fast-moving threats, because she’s self-aware and self-assured enough to trust her instincts and survive. As she and Naze make their way to Forge, she learns to rely on these instincts, so that when they finally find him, she tears through the horde of demons that try to stop her in something like a berserker rage. She gives in wholly to that part of herself, because it’s the part that has gotten her this far.

And when she’s standing before Forge, she stabs him with the same decisive haste, only to learn in his dying moments that she’d been tricked by Naze from the beginning. Forge wasn’t the Adversary, but was in fact trying to defeat the Adversary as he was always supposed to do. Storm, in her attempt to save existence, made its destruction considerably more likely. With Forge dead in her arms, Storm throws herself and the man she loved (and then killed) off a cliff, and that’s where we leave them at the end of 1987.

Of course, both characters would be seen again soon and many times thereafter, but the moment of their deaths is still a heartbreaking one. Because in all the issues leading up to this final fatal confrontation, Storm is such a pillar of self-reliance and intelligence, the revelation that she’s been a dupe and a puppet all along is a tough pill to swallow. To his credit, Claremont hints pretty heavily at it in earlier chapters, but even then, there’s an expectation that she’ll grow wise to Naze’s deceptions in time to stop herself from doing what she does. To actually watch her lose, to see her manipulated successfully, is painful and powerful. As she discovers she was wrong about Forge, the reader discovers that even Storm can be bested and blindsided, despite her unflappable disposition and, usually, the talent to back it up.

Of course, the fact that it feels unnatural to see Storm so thoroughly defeated says a lot about how awesome she is most of the time, including everything she does during her journey to find Forge. Those efforts may have been in vain in the end, but that doesn’t change the fact that she was impressive as hell when it was all going down. Swap out supervillains for magical forest beasts, and she’s no less in her element. Remove the safety net of her powers and the other safety net of her team, and she can still take all comers. If only she’d been a little less willing to so quickly accept that Forge’s agony over what he’d done to her had made him insane. I can see why it’d be appealing to think she mattered so much to him, and because she still had some lingering anger over the loss of her powers and his role in it, the idea of causing him pain might also have held some allure. She allowed herself to buy into this lie, and she trusted Naze from her own past with him, and it led to her kill a man she loved before he could save the world. At least when she screwed up, though, she kicked ass along the way.

Storm’s story is about the value of independence, indeed I’d call that the core of her character, but it also exposes some of the dangers of working alone. Maybe another set of eyes, belonging to someone not quite so close to the situation, could’ve seen Naze for the liar he was. Yet Storm’s lone wolf approach is what makes this narrative possible, because it needs to be a one-against-all kind of story. Her many victories are entirely hers, establishing her as one of the most capable X-Men around. But the enormous failure at the end is all hers, too, providing the gut-punch finale to her personal arc.

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