Monday, March 02, 2009

New Exiles #18

"Begin Again!"
Writer: Chris Claremont
Artist: Tim Seeley
Letterer: Tom Orzechowski
Colourist: Wilfredo Quintana
Editor: Mark Paniccia

I'll be honest, I was surprised by the number of people who wanted to know what I thought about Chris Claremont's upcoming X-Men Forever series. If you haven't heard, it's a book picking up where he left off in 1991, immediately after X-Men vol 2 #3.

Now, firstly, the final few issues of Claremont's run were an editorially-mandated reset button, putting Xavier back in his wheelchair, moving the team back to the mansion, and all that. So to be honest, if we're going to do this thing at all, I'd rather have seen it pick up with Claremont's original proposed ending to the Muir Island Saga.

But secondly, the project illustrates Claremont's weirdly marginal position in the X-books these days. In the seventies and eighties, he was the writer who turned the X-Men from an obscure failed property into the defining team book of their time. Now, he's writing strange little fringe properties like Exiles, GeNext and X-Men Forever, apparently aimed at a dwindling audience who think the franchise took a terrible wrong turn eighteen years ago. And you can make a strong case that it did - but it's a bit late to do anything about it now. Quite honestly, I can't help but find something a little bit sad about seeing Claremont forever replaying iterations of his past glories. At this stage in his career, I'd really rather see him go off and make something completely new, instead of playing the nostalgia circuit like this.

New Exiles seems to have been conceived, sensibly enough, as a playpen for Claremont to do what he wanted in his own little corner of the Marvel Universe, visiting parallel worlds and showing us new versions of characters he created. I recall seeing an interview where Claremont explained that the use of his own past creations was an editorial mandate, rather than his own choice; in any event, it's a rule that he interprets fairly loosely, as some of these characters have little in common with their namesakes.

And to give it its due, the book generally read like the work of somebody who was having some fun. But for the most part, the stories weren't great. Much of the time, it felt as though a bunch of randomly selected concepts had been fed through a blender. The final arc, with an army of lizards in Iron Man costume and another army of Daughters of the Dragon, and a bunch of Shi'ar Death Commandos made up of X-Men, and a plot loosely echoing something he wrote in the late seventies, was very much like that. Plenty of ideas, yes; none of them fundamentally bad; but no sense that it adds up to anything in particular.

Issue #18 is a final issue of the old school, apparently racing its way through the stories that the book would have been telling if it hadn't been cancelled due to low sales. (They're replacing it with another Exiles book.) So, Gambit inherits the throne of his world. Valeria Richards joins the team, paying off a subplot from the recent annual. Sabretooth and Psylocke hook up. Sage becomes a literal living computer. Rogue leaves the team to marry a lizard. And everyone more or less lives happily ever after.

It's very cramped. But you used to see this a lot, back in the days when comics got cancelled at short notice. Faced with the impossible task of wrapping up years of planned stories in 22 pages, writers would frequently just bite the bullet and give you a condensed summary of what was going to happen, so that at least you weren't left hanging. It's not an especially satisfying way of doing it, particularly as the book starts bouncing randomly around disconnected stories in an effort to tell us how everyone would have wound up.

The Psylocke/Sabretooth subplot has some chemistry going for it. Aside from that, though, I can't say any of these stories strike me as a great loss. It looks like, given the chance, the series would simply have drifted on in much the same way. It's a conscientious effort to give loyal readers some sort of resolution, and that's to be applauded; but it doesn't leave me wondering whether Marvel made the right call here.

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