I don’t read X-Men books much anymore (I made an exception for Morrison and Whedon’s stuff) but back in the day, Young Dave ate the mutant stuff up with a spoon. Claremont’s mutant slugfests were always well constructed and thought out, and darn it, you actually cared about how they turned out. One of Claremont’s greatest gifts was his ability to underpin his superhero sagas with real emotion. Sometimes his writing suffered from histrionics and melodrama, but more often than not he hit the mark and effectively created characters and situations that made readers emotionally invest in the story.
Case in point: New Mutants #40.
This is the era when Professor X is off in space somewhere and his school is under the benign control of the reformed Magneto, the X-Men’s greatest foe. I really loved this whole “good Magneto” phase – Claremont clearly loves the character and did a great job exploring the inner turmoil and outer conflict of a “villain” who tries to do the right thing. Magneto may be a bastard, but he’s a bastard with principles. He vowed to Professor X to take care of his young mutant students, which means playing by Professor X’s rules and not blowing people up and shit. Magneto promised to play nice, and he’s not going to break his word.
Stuff like this really resonated with me when I was a kid – Claremont wrote operatic stories about honor, loyalty, family, love, and closet lesbianism – and he threw in big super-brawls on top of all that. It’s what made the X-Men books stand out from all the other monthly titles the Big Two were publishing at the time; they had heart.
Sure, all of us geeks can make fun of Claremont’s penchant for mind-control and astral combat and his distinctive dialogue tics. I don’t read a lot of his stuff these days, but the common criticism is that his writing style hasn’t aged well and his current work seems repetitive and almost self-parodying. Maybe that’s true – but man, in the eighties Chris Claremont was The Shit. On toast.
But enough preambling. We’re not here to talk about Claremont, we’re here to talk about Earth’s Mightiest Guest Stars: The Avengers!
Here’s the story, simple version: Magneto’s students, The New Mutants, have been taken in by The White Queen Emma Frost, headmistress of the rival Massachusetts Academy through some skullduggery that I won’t go into here. Magneto realizes that he’s been duped by The White Queen and travels to Massachusetts with the alien shapeshifter Warlock to get his kids back. Emma Frost calls the cops, which is pretty smart, really.
The local sheriff calls The Avengers and explains that the world’s most powerful mutant terrorist is heading into his county to kidnap some kids from the Academy. The Avengers assemble to kick Magneto’s mutant ass. Everybody but Captain America believes the worst of Magneto, as we see here in this exchange between Cap and Hercules:
Good old Cap, he’s got a heart of gold. He knows that people can change – indeed, Avengers such as The Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver used to roll with their dad Magneto in the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants but now they’re good guys. The rest of the team isn’t so sure.
The team intercepts Magneto high over a snowy mountain range, where he is flying inside Warlock, who has shapeshifted into a facsimile of the X-Men’s blackbird jet. While Magneto lectures Warlock about the ethics of draining people’s life-force (it’s bad, don’t do it), The Avengers sneak up on him:
Hercules smacks the hell out of the Warlock/plane thing with his mace while bragging about how bad-ass he is. Typical Hercules.
Warlock unravels and falls to earth, and from that point the battle moves to the snowy woods. Magneto is at a disadvantage because a) he has to hold back and not destroy these annoying humans, and b) this particular team of Avengers is hella-powerful.
As you probably know, The Avengers features a constantly evolving roster of heroes. Over the years there have been some lame line-ups (remember Dr. Druid? Yeesh.), but this is a particularly potent team, consisting of The Wasp, Captain America, The Black Knight, Captain Marvel, Namor, and Hercules. Okay, to be honest The Wasp and The Black Knight aren’t exactly heavy-hitters, but the presence of the other four heroes more than makes up for it. Those two could have just stayed in bed and let the big guns handle it, but during this era The Wasp is the chairperson so she has to come along and fly around and look cute and stuff.
Anyway, Magneto plays defense, hampered by those pesky moral constraints and the need to help the injured Warlock:
And Namor? He’s the rich, arrogant exchange student in your high school who got all the chicks. Total dick. Namor gets the drop on Magneto and punches him into an icy lake, then proceeds to pound on him underwater while he talks about how cool he is:
Not very sporting, is it? How exactly does Namor talk underwater, anyway? Never figured that out.
The Avengers have Magneto on the ropes and only Captain America has any doubts about how the whole thing is going down. The injured Warlock sees his mentor in trouble and zaps The Avengers, draining them of their life-force. Magneto has to save his attackers:
See, now that’s good stuff. Claremont keeps putting Magneto in situations where he has to choose the difficult path, the noble path – and he does, even if it’s not his first instinct. These issues made me really dig Magneto as a character, and I regretted his inevitable slide back into villainy. I thought the reformed Magneto was a more interesting character than the master villain Magneto, but what do I know?
Before The Avengers can take Magneto into custody, The New Mutants show up and rescue him, teleporting their headmaster out of harm’s way. The White Queen lets the kids go and they return to Xavier’s and everybody’s happy.
Claremont gets an “A” score for his portrayal of The Avengers in this issue. Sure, they are the antagonists of the story and we’re rooting for Magneto, but their unwillingness to give the guy the benefit of the doubt (except Cap) makes sense. They don’t act like assholes because the plot demands it; logic and circumstance make them the antagonists. Plus, Claremont captures their teamwork and professionalism well.
I only have a few gripes: Captain Marvel is underutilized, but then she’s so insanely powerful that she would be difficult to write. Jackson Guice’s pencils and visual storytelling are great, but Kyle Baker’s inking is a little too shaky and light for my tastes. Other than that, great issue.
Viva la Claremont!