Saturday, February 7, 2015

Review: X-Men: Days of Future Past

Review X-Men Days of Future Past Chris Claremont John Byrne Terry Austin John Romita Jr. Wolverine Kitty Pryde Shadowcat Marvel cover trade paperback tpb comic book
Writer: Chris Claremont
Artists: John Byrne, John Romita Jr.
Collects: Uncanny X-Men #138-143 and Uncanny X-Men Annual #4 (1980-81)
Published: Marvel, 2013; $19.99

Although The Dark Phoenix Saga is most often cited as the high-water mark of Chris Claremont’s comics-writing career (and, in particular, of his much-celebrated collaboration on The Uncanny X-Men with artist John Byrne), it’s a story of relatively little social force, a fantasy more in line with the likes of Star Wars than with the more politically radical genre narratives whose attitudes Claremont would seek to emulate in his later work. Of greater political and ideological interest, I think – especially given the allegorical weight the X-Men franchise has been invested with in recent decades – are the issues Claremont wrote directly afterward, collected in X-Men: Days of Future Past. Here we see Claremont’s writing in a state of transition, grasping at the social consciousness he would achieve a year later with X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, and yet also falling noticeably short of it.

At the heart of Days of Future Past is a two-part storyline set, in part, in a dystopian future in which mutants have been hunted nearly to extinction by giant robots known as Sentinels. The last remaining X-Men – Kate Pryde, Wolverine, Storm, Colossus, Franklin Richards, and the red-haired psychic Rachel – conclude that their only hope is to change the past, and so Kate is vaulted back through time to prevent a political assassination in the series’ present day. Now possessing the body of her younger self – who has only recently joined the team’s ranks, as “Sprite” – Kate leads the X-Men in thwarting an attack on the U.S. Capitol, saving the life of the anti-mutant Senator Robert Kelly in the process. Whether Kate has succeeded in changing the future, however, is left an open question. (Later storylines, beginning with 1990’s nearly unreadable X-Men: Days of Future Present, would reinforce time and again that she did not.)

The reader is reminded with some frequency that events in the “present day” take place on October 31, 1980, described by the narrator as “the final Friday of one of the closest, hardest-fought presidential elections in recent memory.” And yet, despite setting the story at such a culturally charged moment, Claremont misses the opportunity to make anything more than a vague political statement. The only presidential candidate introduced to the reader is Senator Kelly, and what role his McCarthy-esque anti-mutant hearings play in his presidential campaign is never made clear. Ronald Reagan appears not once, although, as in real life, he would apparently win this election (he appears much later in Claremont’s run on this series, in 1986’s Uncanny X-Men #201).

Confusing things even further, a brief epilogue set a month after the election depicts the president re-activating the Sentinel project. The president appears only in shadow in this scene, although he is obviously (and, by historical necessity, must be) Jimmy Carter – who, if he has indeed lost the election to Reagan, could not realistically possess the political influence necessary for such a move. The attempt to conceal Carter’s identity is all the more baffling considering the fact that he had made a full appearance in the series just a few years earlier, at the height of the original Phoenix Saga.

Any potential for a coherent political commentary in Days of Future Past is thus lost in the book’s ambivalent attitude towards real-life figures and events. Furthermore, I think a great deal of its falling short in this sense can be contributed to artist John Byrne. While he’s credited as “co-plotter” on the issues collected here, the partnership between Claremont and Byrne had in fact all but broken down by this point, with Byrne often drawing scenes in direct contradiction to Claremont’s scripts; the issue following the two-part “Days of Future Past” would be his last on the title. One of the major contributing factors to the book’s confused politics, I would argue, is Byrne’s avowed refusal to draw figures from real life: the aforementioned Jimmy Carter appearance was in fact ghost-penciled by inker Terry Austin. Byrne was notorious, as well, for using his favorite characters (especially Wolverine, who Claremont didn’t care for and planned at one point to write out of the book) as vehicles for his own right-wing views.

It should come as fairly little surprise, then, that a book “co-plotted” by Claremont and Byrne would possess something less than clear political sensibilities. Nor should it surprise us that the story’s most pointed political statements occur only in its script. A caption accompanying an otherwise innocuous establishing shot of the Pentagon, for example, ends with a surprisingly perceptive diagnosis of America’s renewed militarism at the turn of the 1980s:

This is the Pentagon, the largest building of its type in the world, command headquarters of the mightiest military machine that world has ever known. To many people, it is more truly representative – for good or ill – of the reality of America than the White House or Congress just across the Potomic [sic] River.

Claremont addresses the post-Tonkin breakdown of the checks-and-balances system even more pointedly later, in this exchange between civilians fleeing the story’s climactic battle: “‘Good grief! That sound – someone’s bombed the Capitol!’ ‘Yeah – and it was probably the White House that did it!’” As in the narration, Claremont’s politics begin to come through only where Byrne is literally unable to erase them.

While initial printings of Days of Future Past included only Uncanny X-Men issues 141 and 142, an additional five issues have been included since the publication of the 2004 trade paperback edition; the added content begins three issues before the book’s two-part title story, and ends with the issue that follows. Despite the inclusion of a John Romita, Jr.-drawn Annual that relates only tangentially to the rest of the book, the new contents make for a more thematically coherent narrative than in previous editions. The first issue collected not only wraps up The Dark Phoenix Saga with Jean Grey’s funeral and the departure of Cyclops from the team, but serves also as a flashback-filled recap of the franchise’s nearly twenty-year history to this point. It ends with the arrival of a new student to Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters: Kitty Pryde, whose character arc forms the crux of the 2004-and-beyond editions of Days of Future Past. The effect is to de-emphasize the dystopian and alternate-future aspects of the title story itself; newly framed, rather, “Days of Future Past” serves as a super-powered bildungsroman starring Kitty Pryde.

However, this shift in focus also further reduces the impact of a story already weakened by its artist’s failure to endorse the politics of its script. As we can see from later texts, Claremont’s politics would only become clear after he became the sole plotter of his work; in fact, as if to herald what was eventually to come, the first issue of Uncanny X-Men following Byrne’s departure was drawn (but not co-plotted) by Brent Anderson, who would go on to collaborate with Claremont on God Loves, Man Kills. We might well view Days of Future Past as not just the end of the Claremont/Byrne era, then, but also as the start of a progressive sensibility that would be fully realized only in the years that followed.

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