CATCHING UP ON SOME X BOOKS
My prime X-Men reading era was 1990-1994 or so, I'd guess. I continued to read intermittently for years after that (I think the Claremont/Kelly/Casey era was my last serious run), but the Jim Lee-era X-Men was where I started and where my "Golden Age" always will be.
I went back and read the entirety of Claremont's run, from Dave Cockrum through Marc Silvestri on art, and enjoyed it a lot. It's great stuff. I've talked about in a few times in Pipeline over the years. It feels like one epic saga, with a few bumps in the later era when multiple X-books and crossovers became a thing. "X-Factor" feels like that dividing line to me, where even the smallest crossover pollination became a serious thing and the unity of "Uncanny X-Men" began to crumble.
As the comics industry has changed in the last 15 years, and the "status quo" gets disrupted more often than Wolverine pulls a beer out of the fridge, my excitement to read the line has withered. Still, there are short runs here and there that interest me, and that I'll still go back for.
I may be completely lost as to what the "status quo" was at the time, but even that gives me the same feeling I had when I first started reading comics and had to learn as I went along. Sometimes, a little mystery is exciting. It makes you want to go back and find previous stories. Or use Google. That's not always a bad thing. It gives your reading more focus when you're reading for a particular story or creator rather than reading all the things.
(Also, did you remember that there was a mutant character named "Pipeline"? I had completely forgotten...)
This week, I read a series about a blue guy who's come back from the dead. Yes, it's Zombie Papa Smurf.
No, wait, that's not it:
"Nightcrawler" was a 12-issue series written by classic X-Men scribe, Chris Claremont, with art from Todd Nauck, and Rachelle Rosenberg on colors. It's a great comic that works in large part because it feels like a throwback in many ways. It's fun. It's serialized. It's colorful. It's not dour and grim. There's adventure and romance and swashbuckling and high-flying planes and lots of mutants from across the decades. Maybe this only works so well for the old guard of X-Men fans, but it worked for me.
Look, Nightcrawler smiles in the comic. You have to love that.
This is Chris Claremont writing Chris Claremont X-Men comics in 2014 and 2015, and it's glorious. It's not terribly deep. It does kind of glance off of bigger issues or stronger questioning of deeper character motivations, but that's OK. It's more a popcorn comic than "Watchmen." That's enough for me.
The story picks up after Nightcrawler comes back from the dead, apparently by choosing to leave Heaven. He returns with a crowd of Bamfs, who were Dave Cockrum's cutest contribution to the X-Men ever, only ever challenged by any time Art Adams would draw the X-Babies. Like a video game where the lead character is always directly followed by Player 2, the little Bamfs follow Nightcrawler along and help amplify his powers in specific ways.
I really like the concept, though I'm not sure it would go too well in a more "serious" title. I guess the next artist would just draw the little guys to look more demonic than Smurfy. Ah, well.
In any case, Nightcrawler is dealing with his decision to come back and trying to re-acclimate himself to the state of the world the mutants find themselves in today. Claremont doesn't go too deep into the religious aspect of Nightcrawler's decision, and a two page chat with Wolverine sets the blue fur ball up pretty well. While the aftershocks of being dead and coming back return throughout the series, it's never too serious an issue after that moment.
Most of this series is spent with Nightcrawler caught between two potential love interests -- one, a childhood carnival friend, and the other more of the bad girl space pirate type. Along the way, he travels across the globe and into space having adventures with sword in hand, fighting psychic aliens and possessed X-Men and alien goons.
Any scene with Nightcrawler wielding a sword is a glorious thing. Comics needs more sword fights.
The book has a great look to it. Todd Nauck handles full art duties, and he's perfect for the title. He's not relying on photo-reference and he's not trying to remake reality. He's a stylist, with a classic comic book look to his art. He's not drawing every wrinkle or getting every inch of the page looking as "realistic" as possible. Everything looks believable.
He's best known for drawing teenaged superheroes, perhaps, but this book proves he can do more than that. Claremont's script gives him a variety of characters and timeframes to nail down. He hits every one of them without breaking a sweat, or so it appears.
His storytelling is solid, filled with plenty of fight scenes that are easy to follow, and characters who appear to bounce across the page as they fight. It's a joy to read, because there's so much fun visible on the page.
On top of that is the colors from Rachelle Rosenberg. Like Nauck, her style on "Nightcrawler" is bright and vibrant. Things are bold, but kept relatively simple, with bright colors filling in the lines on the main characters and helping them pop from the backgrounds.
While there are plenty of gradients and soft glowing light, Rosenberg's colors are relatively simple. It doesn't distract from the art. It adds in necessary shadows to add a little dimensionality, and then to keep the layers separated. You won't get three layers of colors to indicate a highlight, nor will you get airbrushing to attempt to model a figure. To be honest, I'm not even so sure that that style of coloring would work on top of Nauck's art. This keeps the art from fighting with itself, and makes the editorial team (Daniel Ketchum, Xander Jarowey, Mike Marts) look smart for putting together complementary creative folks.
It also helps give the book a visual aesthetic to match the feel of the story. "Nightcrawler" has that feel of a classic comic book, not trying so hard to tie into a movie or to a crossover, nor to be 'hip'. Claremont feels slightly restrained here, in that all of the excesses you might assume would come in his writing don't show up. There are still some catchphrase-worthy quotes and the occasional (but infrequent) flowery dialogue, but this is a lean script from Claremont.
He also keeps with the mechanics of what made monthly comics work for so long. He's not afraid to have characters spout the necessary exposition to catch a reader up on a relationship or a power set. It's often obvious, but not objectionable to someone who came up reading such comics. I don't know how well that would work on someone whose entire comics reading life has been in the trade era, where the reader is expected to keep six issues' worth of story in mind at any given time, because the ultimate product is a collected edition.
It's fascinating to watch the master work. Read the dialogue carefully when reading this series and watch how Claremont constructs the dialogue balloons. When there's a moment that requires consideration and thought, characters will speak in a more laid back manner. It feels more expository, with slightly longer sentences and longer words.
When the same character enters in a fray -- as happens often in this series -- the dialogue becomes more staccato. The words are simpler and shorter. There's less time for thinking up those longer words. Short and direct are the order of the day. Claremont's wonderful knack for breaking up dialogue across multiple balloons also helps. Characters speak in short paragraphs, one to a balloon, often with only one or two short sentences in each. It's a great trick to keep the reader moving through the story
There are some clunky moments over the 12 issues. The seventh, plotted by Margueurite Bennett, is a tribute to Wolverine, who had just died in another title. Given that this series is centered on a character who just came back from the dead -- which the dialogue brings up -- it's hard to take seriously everyone's maudlin attitude about Wolverine being gone. A character dies every quarter at Marvel. The thrill is gone. It's more annoying that the through line of the series gets lost for a month.
Even then, the issue gives Nauck some great chances to redraw scenes from classic X-Men history, from "Giant Sized X-Men" #1 to "The Dark Phoenix Saga" to the formation of Excalibur.
As a fan of Claremont's run on "Excalibur," it's good to see him going back to that well, with a few characters from the series showing up in this one.
There's also the issue of the love triangle for Nightcrawler. It's an interesting idea to put him between the good girl and the bad girl. It's very, well, "Archie," in a way. Claremont sells Amanda, the girl Kurt grew up with in the circus who also has some powers. But as much as I like Bess on the other side, I'm not sure I'm as sold on that attraction. It felt a little more forced, and too easily abandoned.
I'm only sorry that the series only lasted 12 issues. I guess the point of it was to get Nightcrawler back on his own two feet and back into the school to teach the next generation. The second half of the series is filled with him acting as teacher as much as an X-Men.
Which, by the looks of it, was immediately squandered by another company-wide crossover, where everything was reset. Again.
But for 12 issues, it was a fun read. I enjoyed myself so much in reading them that I plowed through the issues in a couple of sittings. If comiXology has them on sale again sometime soon, or if you can get your mitts on the trade paperbacks, it's a pleasure to spend time with Nightcrawler this way.
TWEET OF THE WEEK: ON REVIEWS
Lee Bermejo wins the week:
Everybody should try and do a good comic. I say again... a GOOD comic. It's hard. No, it's downright BRUTAL. Then think about your opinions.— lee joel bermejo (@ljbermejo) March 22, 2016
He has a point. You really have no idea how hard it is to make something until you've tried it. I've gained so much more respect for comic book artists just in the last couple of years that I've been drawing (badly) more. Every panel is made of a thousand choices, a hundred erasures, and years of previous mistakes.
It's OK to be critical and even to be demanding, but know what it is you're asking.
This isn't a "Those Who Can, Do; Those Who Can't, Write Reviews" kind of thing. It's just a matter of writing an informed opinion. And even reading a thousand interviews and a dozen How To books isn't enough sometimes. I think the deeper opinions -- the ones that are more valuable -- will more often come from someone who's tried the thing they're analyzing. Some of the best critical dissections I've read of comics have come from other comic artists who see things most people wouldn't pick up on.
You don't need to have a story published in an anthology to validate your opinions on everything else. But your opinions will gain strength and depth from having experienced the process and its pains.