Friday, August 13, 2010

Claremont's "Tempest": X-Men 147-150

[ This is quite long. But what the hell. ]

As we search for superhero comics that appropriate, re-enact, manipulate or comment on Shakespeare, it’s easy to restrict ourselves to those in which Shakespeare is actually quoted. “Tempest Fugit” throws us a lifeline of another sort; by making the title of the story into a pun on The Tempest, David sends up a signal that says, “Here there be Shakespeare.” (In case we did not yet notice, he also does quote the play’s most famous lines in a couple of places.) Similarly, characters are sometimes named after Shakespearean characters. When Aquaman’s former sidekick, Aqualad, grew up and became a wizard with magical control over the elements, he renamed himself Tempest. But the most famous use of Shakespeare in this sense is probably the sympathetic monster Caliban, created by Chris Claremont as part of his unforgettable seventeen year run writing
The Uncanny X-Men. Although Caliban would remain a member of the X-Men mythos for decades, his first appearance in Uncanny X-Men #148 (August 1981) is the earliest stage of Claremont’s larger riff on “The Tempest”, which would last through issue #150.

It is difficult to overstate Chris Claremont’s influence on modern superhero comics, especially through the 1980s when the X-Men were the best-selling characters on the stands. An American born in England and educated at Bard College, Claremont came to the X-Men after the book had been cancelled due to poor sales and only recently re-launched with a new, more international and ethnically diverse, cast. As we have seen in other books, this gave Claremont considerable leeway when it came to finding a new direction for the X-Men, since expectations based on previous sales were low. The X-Men, of course, are “mutants”, which is to say they are born with special powers which usually surface during puberty, and these powers make them hated and feared by ordinary people. Claremont’s genius was to make “mutant” a metaphor for almost any discriminated group, so that any reader who felt he had been outcast by society could instantly identify with the heroic, noble, but long-suffering X-Men. By 1991, however, Claremont’s verbose and melodramatic writing style had been upstaged by more popular action-oriented artists, and conflict with Marvel’s editorial team prompted him to leave the X-Men and Marvel Comics.

“Rogue Storm”, issue #147, finds the former leader of the X-Men, the superhero known as Cyclops, working on the fishing trawler Arcadia, captained by the beautiful Alytys “Lee” Forester. A freak storm comes out of nowhere and washes both Cyclops and Lee overboard. “Two score ships were lost the night they were swept overboard,” we later learn. “It’s a miracle their trawler, Arcadia, made it back to port at all. We had freak squalls, sea quakes, islands being raised, or sunk.” This is the source of the mysterious island in Claremont’s vision: rather than being the home of a witch and her fishy son, the island is itself raised from the bottom of the sea by its master. It takes only a few pages for these events to be related, and most of the book is given over to a larger plot in which a member of the X-Men, Storm, loses control of her powers, but in the 1980s it was not uncommon for stories to take a long time to mature and develop. Today’s comic book market is aimed at stories like “Tempest Fugit”, which begin suddenly, last five to eight issues, and then end firmly, so that they can be collected into a single volume, wrapped with a cover, and sold on Amazon or from the shelves of brick-and-mortar bookstores. But in the days when Claremont wrote on The Uncanny X-Men, the audience was being lured back to specialty comic book shops every month by the promise of slowly-unfolding plots and subplots, in a way not unlike today’s serial television epics such as Lost.

The following issue begins with Cyclops and his companion, Lee, washing ashore on a mysterious island which, the redoubtable Captain Forester assures us, “wasn’t here” only a day ago. “It didn’t exist!” Cyclops and Lee explore the fantastic ruined city located on the island, a city made of green stone and decorated with squid-motifs that evoke H.P. Lovecraft’s “Call of Cthulhu” and its sunken island of R’lyeh. In the final pages of the book, Cyclops and Lee Forester discover the island’s terrible secret: its master is none other than Magneto, the X-Men’s “oldest, deadliest foe.” So we can see, already, the basic skeleton of Shakespeare’s plot: a nearly-omnipotent mastermind has lured his enemies to a fantastic island, where he intends to carry out his vengeance. But throughout this issue Cyclops and Lee are still firmly in the subplot position, and most of the comic is taken up with a self-contained story which would seem to have nothing at all to do with The Tempest, were it for the fact that the protagonist of this story is a monster named Caliban.

In the same issue where Cyclops and Lee are exploring Magneto’s island, an all-female cast of X-Men and their amazing friends encounter the monstrous Caliban. While these characters include the spin-off heroine Spider-Woman, a disco-inspired superhero named Dazzler, and the X-Men’s strong African-American character, the woman named Storm, the focus is on Kitty Pryde, who is the center of Caliban’s attention. Kitty’s role in the X-Men is that of the ingénue; she is perpetually fourteen years old, fresh-faced and naïve, curious about the brave new world of superheroics to which she has been introduced. She is, in other words, the Miranda of the X-Men. But, as we saw with “Tempest Fugit”, it is not enough to be Miranda, because Miranda has no superhuman powers and would not be able to keep up with the high-flying X-Men. Instead, Chris Claremont and his collaborators drew both from Miranda and from Ariel, so that Kitty’s superhuman power is the ability to become like a spirit and thus walk through solid objects or even walk on air. When Kitty first earned the right to her own superhero code-name (in X-Men #139), her mentor Professor Xavier explicitly suggested the name “Ariel” to her, wearing Claremont’s Shakespearean influence on his sleeve as it were. But for Claremont, a name based on classic literature isn’t necessarily a name a fourteen year old girl would like, and the need to write consistent and realistic personalities trumps any desire to wave the banner of high culture. Thus, the name “Ariel’ may have literary pedigree, but Kitty reacts to it with “Yuck.” Instead, she chooses the more “childish” name of “Sprite”, a word that still appears in Shakespeare, though not in The Tempest. But regardless of her official code-name – and she would move through Sprite, Ariel, and more in her long career – Kitty was usually addressed as Kitty. It was by this name that she was introduced to the X-Men and to fans, and it was by this name that she would continue to be remembered.

Claremont’s Caliban is a “hulking, rag-clad manform” in a cloak and wide-brim hat who lives in the sewers beneath Manhattan and refers to himself in the third person. His name is expressly a reference to Shakespeare’s play, as we learn when Caliban tells us, “His father named him for a monster!” Presumably, Caliban’s father read the Bard, and it is easy to imagine Claremont’s reference here sending legions of teenage readers to the nearest encyclopedia to look up what “monster” Caliban might be referring to. In any case, Caliban is a mutant, a person born with a superhuman power, though he has spent his entire life in the sewers and seems to know nothing about human society. His unusual talent is that he can sense the presence of other mutants, though because Caliban is so isolated, he does not know that word, referring to mutants as people “like Caliban”, in contrast to “humans” who are not like Caliban. Claremont’s representation of Caliban is, as we might expect from the writer of the X-Men, a sympathetic take on the social outcast. Caliban is motivated by loneliness and fear. He can sense Kitty Pryde and the other X-Men nearby, and is drawn to them out of a desire to find his own kind, but his certainty that he will be chased by any human beings who happen to spot him is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Caliban has another mutant ability which makes his sojourn out of the sewers more problematic: negative emotions such as fear cause him extreme pain while also granting him superhuman strength. When he emerges from the sewer and is confronted by policemen, the fear they feel due to Caliban’s menacing appearance causes the “monster” to lash out in pain. This becomes an elaborate justification for superheroic action, so that Caliban’s violence can be waved away as self-defense, an understandable reaction to being misunderstood by people he does not wish to hurt. Like the Hulk, he wants only to be left alone, but lashes out at those who pursue and harry him.

Kitty re-enacts the role of Miranda to Claremont’s Caliban, though he calls her “Sprite-child”. In the play, Caliban’s lust for Miranda is an instrument of revenge against Prospero; he would populate the island with Calibans as a way of regaining control of his inheritance. But Claremont’s Caliban sees Kitty as a kindred spirit. “You are like Caliban!” he proclaims. “You will come with him, stay with him, be his friend!” The last thing Shakespeare’s Caliban wants is Miranda’s friendship. There, Miranda is protected by her powerful father, but Kitty has no father figure in this story. Instead, her surrogate mother, Storm, comes to her rescue. Ever the sympathetic Beast to Kitty’s Beauty, Caliban knows that what he is doing is wrong, but he cannot help himself. “If Caliban leaves the Sprite-child,” he admits, “perhaps they will not follow. Will not try to hurt Caliban anymore.” But he is at the mercy of his loneliness, revealed as he follows this line of thought to its conclusion: “But then Caliban will be alone again, as he has always been alone. It would be better to die.” Confronted by Caliban, Kitty passes out, collapsing into a convenient and sudden slumber that would do Miranda proud. But before Caliban can whisk her back into the sewers, Storm and the other women of the book rescue her and realize Caliban is not an enemy so much as a lost soul. Beneath his rags, Caliban is white-skinned and hairless, not at all “fishy” but, rather, a kind of Morlock with bulging lidless eyes and albino features. Hated by his own father due to his appearance, Caliban thought he was the only one of his kind, but was forced to follow his urges when he sensed other mutants in the city above.

On the surface, Chris Claremont’s Caliban seems to have little to do with Shakespeare’s. One is a kind but tormented Morlock, living underground and lonely for company, the other is a mean-spirited and fish-like drunkard who would like nothing so much as to be left alone on his island for all time. Claremont’s vision is certainly a rehabilitation of the character, an unapologetic attempt to cast this “monster” in a new light, a more obviously enlightened and sympathetic light in which Caliban’s antisocial behavior (threats of rape or kidnapping) are blamed at least somewhat on his strange appearance and the way in which ordinary society has exiled him. Claremont says, by implication, that if Caliban had been embraced by Prospero or by his father then he would not have become the creature he became. Of course, Prospero claims that he has done just this, that he welcomed Caliban into his home and treated him with kindness until Caliban betrayed that trust; it is not Prospero who calls Caliban a “monster”. But in Claremont’s story, it is. Or, rather, it is Caliban’s mysterious off-stage father who christened him with both name and monstrous description. Claremont suggests that Prospero’s insistence he treated Caliban fairly is a pretense, a ruse which denies Prospero’s own culpability as new master of an island which already had a native occupant. The wizard doth protest too much, and he ignores his own role in Caliban’s vengeance.

This self-contained story ends as a very simple, yet poignant, morality play, for Caliban is far from the only unusual-looking member of the X-Men’s cast. Kitty comes to see how her fear of Caliban is very much like her fear of one of her own teammates, the demonic Nightcrawler, who has been unfailingly kind to her but from whom she continues to recoil in fear even after years of acquaintance. Claremont shows us that if we do not fear Caliban, then he will not lash out at us in pain. From Caliban’s confession, Kitty realizes that appearance should not matter and that fear and hatred only cause further fear and hatred. She resolves to be kinder and more accepting of Nightcrawler, just as we, the readers, are thus encouraged to be more accepting of those who are least like us, who are most “fishy”. Although Claremont’s play on The Tempest will continue through the next two issues, Caliban’s story goes on a long hiatus after this single appearance only to reappear and climax two years later in a marriage-plot where Kitty resumes her role as Beauty to Caliban’s Beast. Eventually Caliban releases her from her vow of marriage when he comes to understand that she does not really want to live forever with him in the sewers, but is only doing so out of a sense of duty and obligation. But that story is a re-enactment of a fairy tale, and has less to do with our current examination.

Having completed his rehabilitation of Caliban, Claremont elevates his Tempest re-enactment to center stage in the issues that follow. From a story angle, issue #149 is largely concerned with getting the rest of the X-Men to the same place where their leader, Cyclops, is already stranded: Magneto’s mysterious island. The character of Magneto has been one of the most enduring antagonists in superhero literature, and he was designed by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby for the first issue of The X-Men when they debuted in 1963. While Magneto was a mutant like Professor Xavier and the X-Men, he had no desire to cohabitate peacefully with human beings. Rather, he saw his mutant nature as the mark of a superior being, and while the X-Men felt morally obliged to protect a humanity which hated and feared them, Magneto sought world conquest and rule over a society in which mutants were a new aristocracy. But in Claremont’s hands, and even in the issue that concerns us, Magneto’s character would be deepened to make him a far more sympathetic character, a man who, like Prospero, has no small cause for what he does. The difference between Prospero and Magneto, we will see, comes largely in the capacity for repentance and forgiveness.

Magneto’s island is protected by special devices which not only augment his already-considerable superhuman powers – so that he can create volcanoes anywhere in the world – but also strip Cyclops and any other mutant of their powers, leaving Magneto the only superhuman individual on the island. It is this sophisticated defense system which finally brings the X-Men to his island when, in Uncanny X-Men #150, they happen to be flying nearby and their jet crashes. Magneto’s island is in the Bermudas, and it was a fortunate coincidence for Claremont that these islands, mentioned in The Tempest, are now associated with missing aircraft and other unexplained phenomena, so that placing Prospero’s island in the Bermuda Triangle is a perfect alignment of myth and literature. And like the potent weapons of the Krell race in Forbidden Planet, it is Magneto’s science fiction hardware which fills the role of Ariel, bringing Magneto/Prospero’s enemies to his island and keeping them under his power. So long as the machines obey Magneto’s will, the X-Men are deprived of their abilities and trapped. There is one key difference in Claremont’s story: the X-Men’s crash on the island goes unnoticed by the island’s master, so that they have the opportunity to thwart Magneto’s latest attempt at world domination if they can only succeed in destroying his machines without the use of their vaunted powers.

Considering the rehabilitation which Claremont has already performed on Caliban, it comes as no surprise to see Magneto reformed in a similar way in the pages that follow, making him a sympathetic character more in line with our intellectual Duke of Milan. Magneto’s plan to blackmail the nations of the world with his volcano-machine turns out to be all for good of mankind. He explains himself to Lee Forrester after issuing his demands:
“The nations of the world spend over a trillion dollars a year on armaments. I intend to deny them that indulgence. The money and energy devoted now to war will be turned instead to the eradication of hunger, disease, poverty. I offer a Golden Age, the like of which humanity has never imagined!”
“What about freedom?”
“Freedom, Ms. Forrester? There are more people starving today than there are those who can truly call themselves free. I offer peace and a good life … or a swift and terrible death. The choice is theirs.”
Reading these stories today, when the United States is embroiled in two foreign wars and a simultaneous “Great Recession”, it is remarkably easy to see the logic in Magneto’s goals, if not his melodramatic means, and Claremont goes further when he establishes the reason for Magneto’s personal commitment to this seemingly impossible goal: he is himself a member of a repressed minority. Not just a mutant, Magneto is a Holocaust survivor. In words which could have come from Prospero himself, as he laments his exile from Milan, he tells Cyclops, “Search throughout my homeland, you will find none who bear my name. Mine was a large family, and it was slaughtered – without mercy, without remorse. So speak to me not of grief, boy. You know not the meaning of the word!” This is not the first mention Magneto will make of grief, a theme which the King of Naples and his wandering son often invoke as they each mourn the other, seemingly lost forever.

The bulk of Uncanny X-Men #150 is taken up with the X-Men’s heroic but fatally doomed effort to thwart Magneto’s scheme. As in Shakespeare’s play, they are split up into small groups who wander the island. Storm has a wonderful moment in which, echoing Caliban’s plot, she finds Magneto asleep and contemplates assassinating him with a steak knife. But while in The Tempest Caliban’s scheme is thwarted by his foolish co-conspirators, who would rather play-act as noblemen than get down to bloody business, Storm’s hesitation is more noble and more in character for her: as an X-Man she has sworn a vow never to take the life of another. Briefly she debates whether it is right to kill one man to save thousands, but before she can put her newfound resolution to the test Magneto awakens and hurls her out the window, much as Prospero arrives and punishes those who dared attempt his life.

The climax to the tale comes a few pages later. If Magneto’s machines are fulfilling the role of Ariel – the supernatural enabler which allows Magneto’s vengeance to be enacted – then it is fitting that Kitty Pryde, the X-Men’s Ariel and Miranda figure, be the agent which puts that enabler out of work. Kitty shuts down the machines while Magneto is distracted by the other X-Men, and in so doing she throws the mastermind into a rage. He confronts her alone and, furious, wounds her so grievously that he believes her dead. But now, cradling the dead girl in his arms, Magneto is stunned back to his senses, and he suddenly reveals another link to Prospero: like Shakespeare’s character, he had a wife and a daughter:
She – she is a child! What have I done?! Why did you resist? Why did you not understand?! Magda – my beloved wife – did not understand. When she saw me use my powers, she ran from me in terror. It did not matter that I was defending her…. That I was avenging our murdered daughter. I swore then that I would not rest ‘til I had created a world where my kind – mutants – could live free and safe and unafraid. Where such as you, little one, could be happy. Instead, I have slain you.
This is Magneto’s great soliloquy moment, when he confesses to Kitty’s dead body that he has become a monster, the very thing he has all his life most hated. He laments his exile from his homeland, the death of his family, and how the need for revenge has burned in him since that day, in a way that Shakespeare’s Prospero eventually outgrew through a desire for reconciliation, happiness, and peace.
I remember my own childhood – the gas chambers at Auschwitz, the guards joking as they herded my family to their death. As our lives were nothing to them, so human lives became nothing to me. … I believed so much in my own destiny, in my own personal vision, that I was prepared to pay any price, make any sacrifice to achieve it. But I forgot the innocents who would suffer in the process. … In my zeal to remake the world, I have become much like those I have always hated and despised.
This is, perhaps, Prospero as he might have been: not a man released by the forgiving heart of an audience after three hours of play, but instead a man whose “ending is despair,” bound by the conventions of his genre and the expectations of audience. Magneto cannot be freed because then the X-Men would lose their antagonist and the story would end. Periodically over the years writers have experimented with making Magneto turn himself in, be tried for his crimes, even join the X-Men or occasionally die; such moves are always ephemeral and temporary. Comics must be printed, writers and artists must be employed, t-shirts and video games must be sold, Hollywood blockbusters must be produced, millions of dollars must be made, and so the audience, while they may applaud, grant not freedom but further imprisonment, an endlessly extended sentence.

“We are such things,” Prospero assures us, “as dreams are made on,” and Magneto agrees, at one point assuring Cyclops and Captain Forrester that, “I am tired of seeing things as they are and asking why, of dreaming of things that never were and asking why not. I have the power to make my dreams reality. And that I shall do.” It is, fittingly, Storm herself who interrupts Magneto’s speech; when she sees his honest repentance, she proves herself a better man than Hamlet and extends forgiveness of her own. “The dream was good. Is good,” she clarifies, in a way that speaks to the whole of Claremont’s Tempest as much as to Magneto’s goal. “Only the dreamer has become corrupted.” In Uncanny X-Men, Chris Claremont presents a vision of The Tempest in which the dream of Prospero’s peaceful reconciliation between two long standing enemies has been corrupted by the antagonistic role which Magneto is forced to play within the confines of his rival’s monthly serial. He can see the evil in his actions, but he cannot change. “It is too late to change, Ororo. I am too old. I have lived too long with my hatred.” Prospero’s dream has become Magneto’s nightmare, a hellish life in which he knows he is a morally bankrupt and ironic doppleganger of the same Nazis whose ideas of racial purity destroyed his family. But there is no way out of this nightmare for Magneto; repentance is impossible, and he will continue to be the thing he is until, one day, his tortured life is at last rounded by a sleep.

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