When Words Collide: Chris Claremont, Outer Space Evil and Muppets

Mon, October 28th, 2013 at 12:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer
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This week's column is kind of a hodgepodge of different topics -- some things I have opinions about, some media I consumed, some ideas I'd like to bounce around. So let's jump right into the first one…

TOPIC A: CHRIS CLAREMONT AND FRIENDS TALK ABOUT THE X-MEN

Nocenti and Claremont and Simonson talking X-Men

My old colleagues at Sequart sent me a screener of "Comics in Focus -- Chris Claremont's X-Men" last week, and I carved out some time to watch this not-quite-full-length documentary about Claremont's seminal run on the series that largely defined Marvel Comics for most of the 1980s. This is another Patrick Meaney-directed project, more narrow in focus and with a shorter running time than his documentaries about Grant Morrison or Warren Ellis, but the tighter central conceit -- basically, "Why is Claremont's X-Men run so important, and what were some of the ups and downs along the way?" -- makes for compelling viewing, particularly because the personalities of the creators and editors involved provide a multitude of interesting perspectives. Well, maybe not a "multitude," but at least five. And a pretty impressive group of five it is.

The documentary, which should be available to a wider audience sometime before this Christmas, is mostly a series of interviews with Chris Claremont, Ann Nocenti, Louise Simonson, Len Wein and Jim Shooter. One important interview takes place on a kind of super-X-Men-couch (I have no idea where) with Claremont, Simonson and Nocenti all seated together, bouncing back and forth with anecdotes about the X-Men days. Nocenti, in particular, is full of the kind of passion and energy and matter-of-fact-ness that might leave you walking away from those interview sequences thinking, "I want to hang out with Ann Nocenti and listen to her talk about comics, or anything, really." Simonson comes across as more of a measured voice reminiscing about the more playful days at Marvel when they were mostly left alone by higher-ups and could tell stories they wanted to tell just by coordinating with each other and making it happen. Claremont seems almost wistful about the whole thing, while presenting himself like an intellectual who was well aware of the kinds of stories he was constructing at the time, and almost weirdly distant from it all after all these years. But he still seems to have a fondness for the height of X-Men glory, when the stories he was allowed to tell were massive and impactful, for readers and for the genre of superhero comics.

Len Wein pops in as a talking head occasionally, to provide some context as the man who launched the All-New, All-Much-More-International X-Men team that Claremont would shepherd for over a decade. And Jim Shooter's interview segments act as a bit of a counterpoint to everything else, with him explaining the feedback he would give to the creative teams (particularly around the Dark Phoenix situation), and a strong sense of what would be best for the long term integrity of the series and to meet the needs of the audience without pandering.

The documentary would be highly informative to anyone who didn't know much about this important era of Marvel or superhero history, but even for those of us who basically know the whole story of the rise and enormous-explosion-of-popularity and then-mostly-sidelining of Chris Claremont and his X-Men saga still get to hear some intelligent people tell their side of the tale in a way that is always worth listening to. Overall, "Comics in Focus -- Chris Claremont's X-Men" is compelling and surprisingly entertaining, and it might teach you something along the way.

TOPIC B: THE CASE OF GEOFF JOHNS AND IVAN REIS VS. BEN MARRA

This is, of course, an almost-totally-arbitrary was of looking at two comics I recently read, but I can't help but think about the evil "Justice League" work of Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis in contrast with Ben Marra's viciously awesome "Blades & Lazers" comic. Both offer savagery from beyond the stars and plenty of posturing and threats of violence. They are so fully drenched in the glorious trash of their respective genres that they can be read as ironically detached or as thrillingly sincere. Or both. Or neither. Or maybe.

"Blades & Lazers" is a short, risograph-printed comic written and drawn by Ben Marra and published by Secret Prison (through their colorful "Sacred Prism" imprint). It's a simple story of two brothers with two very different, but complementary, talents and their mission to destroy a monstrous space demon. The usual. One brother uses blades. The other, lazers. It's ridiculous and amazing and one of my favorite comics of the year because it seems to enthusiastically embrace the promise inherent in its title. And who draws guys with blades and guys with lazers fighting space demons better than Ben Marra? Almost no one.

"Justice League" #24, meanwhile, is one of the "Forever Evil" tie-in issues, written and drawn by the regular "Justice League" team of Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis. Like "Blades & Lazers," it is completely ridiculous, and while it's not amazing, it does feature one of my favorite opening sequences of the entire year in superhero comics, as we flash back to the infancy of the evil Superman known as Ultraman and see his parents sending him off in a rocket meant for Earth. Ultraman's whole gimmick is that he's a parallel universe version of Superman, and he's totally horrible where Superman is totally good. So in this flashback, we don't see a benevolent Jor-El and Lara, lovingly and tragically sending their baby to safety. Instead, we see Jor-Il (note the different, implicitly evil, spelling) and Lara sending their baby to Earth to dominate and destroy. As the child journeys to Earth, his little space ship bombards him with demoralizing sentiments like "you're already a disappointment, son" and "I know how weak you really are" while commanding him with Nietzsche-esque will to power statements. It is worthy of a Ben Marra comic, except…not written and drawn by Ben Marra. The rest of the issue is pretty dull compared to this Ultraman-baby opening sequence, but the glimmer of viciousness is a bright spot in what has been a weak year for DC Entertainment overall. Bring on more stories of Ultraman's early years, I say! At least it's not boring.

TOPIC C: I READ THIS BIOGRAPHY OF JIM HENSON THAT I LIKED

"What does Jim Henson have to do with comics?" you may be wondering.

Well, he wrote that movie script that Ramon Perez turned into a gorgeous graphic novel called "A Tale of Sand." And he created "Fraggle Rock" and "Dark Crystal" which have also been turned into comics. And, of course, the Muppets, who have starred in many good Roger Langridge comics and many not-so-good comics by others.

Really, though, it's the Henson attitude that I think has been more influential in the world of comics. That idea of "let's make this thing" and with a sense of whimsy and intelligence and a hint of subversion. To me, that's the spirit of comics that I love to see. I find that attitude in the comics of today from Michael Deforge and the comics of yesterday from Keith Giffen and the comics of the long-ago from Basil Wolverton. They may not have been directly influenced by him at all, and probably weren't, but Jim Henson embodied that spirit, though he was likely more of an optimist than any of those guys. Henson was more of an optimist than almost anyone, according to "Jim Henson: The Biography," by Brian Jay Jones.

I don't know, I guess I'm just thinking that Henson and the 1970s-era Sesame Street and late-1970s/early-1980s-era Muppets are formative influences on the sensibilities of a lot of comics folks. And the Henson biography provided some nice context for how he came to do all the things he ended up doing in his too-short life. I know I learned a few things, too, which you maybe already knew about, but I didn't. Like that Henson won an Academy Award for his experimental live-action short film, prior to his work on Sesame Street or the Muppets. Or that John Landis and Tim Burton were temporary puppeteers during the final scene of 1979's "The Muppet Movie." Or that "The Dark Crystal" was actually financially successful while "Labyrinth" lost money in theatrical release. Or that Henson didn't die because he was a Christian Scientist who didn't believe in doctors, but because he was a workaholic who never took a sick day and by the time he admitted to himself he had more than a strong cold, a bacterial infection had destroyed his internal organs and it was too late for doctors to save him.

The biography is certainly worth reading. Even if it has nothing to do with comics, really. But it might inspire you to make something interesting yourself, and that's enough.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

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TAGS:  when words collide, x-men, muppets, chris claremont, forever evil, ben marra, blades and lazers

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