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Acts of Vengeance: Uncanny X-Men – Wolverine, Jubilee & Psylocke vs. The Mandarin (Review/Retrospective)

April (and a little bit of May) are “Avengers month” at the m0vie blog. In anticipation of Joss Whedon’s superhero epic, we’ll have a variety of articles and reviews published looking at various aspects of “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.”

In celebration of the release of The Avengers, this weekend we’re taking a look at the massive 1989-90 crossover “Acts of Vengeance”, which pitted various villains against some unlikely heroes. I’ll be looking at some of the most fun match-ups. This arc is collected in the companion omnibus.

I know that a lot of people would argue that Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men sort of lost the plot a bit after Inferno, when he first sent the team to live in the Outback and then sent them through the Siege Perilous, essentially disintegrating the iconic superhero team and scattering its members to the wind with little idea of who or what they are. I, for the record, actually quite liked that period of Uncanny X-Men history, if only because it was so breathtakingly ambitious and completely unlike anything I ever expected in a superhero team book.

Detractors would, not unreasonably, suggest that there was a very good reason that Claremont’s approach was completely distinct from anything ever tried in a superhero team book. However, most of those who decry that era of Uncanny X-Men will concede that there were some highlights to be found. The Acts of Vengeance tie-ins, featuring the wonderful artwork of Jim Lee, are among the more widely-praised of Claremont’s work in this era, and I find it quite tough to disagree.

Big Trouble in Big China…

I think it’s fair to argue that Claremont was, to a large extent, influenced and energised by his artistic collaborators. His work with John Byrne is fondly remembered as an all-time high for the title, including classics like The Dark Phoenix Saga and Days of Future Past among countless other classics. He has also worked with iconic and respected artists like John Romita Jr. and Marc Silvestri. Jim Lee worked with Claremont until the end of Claremont’s tenure on the book, and I think the pair had a great rapport with one another. I still think Lee’s work is absolutely beautiful, especially his early stuff.

Anyway, as one might expect, the story actually has relatively little to do with Acts of Vengeance. Sure, the story features the Hand, the cult of undead ninjas that Frank Miller drafted into Daredevil, but Miller and Claremont had already grafted that group of assassins into Wolverine’s back story. The Mandarin, the arch-enemy of Iron Man and one of the big players in the crossover, does appear, but he feels almost tangential. In a way, his appearance feels like any other time Claremont has crossed over his team with other Marvel characters, be it Ka-zar or Arcade or even Dracula. It would make as much sense without the Acts of Vengeance branding on the three covers.

In the same boat…

In fact, the only title-drop comes from Matsuo Tsurayaba, the member of the Hand in charge of “recruiting” Psylocke and Wolverine. Asked to explain why he has targeted Wolverine, the ninja explains, “Consider it — an act of vengeance. Wolverine single-handedly decimated one of the great houses of out order. That is a debt which cannot be left unpaid.” Despite shoehorning in the title of the crossover, the motivation stems entirely from Claremont’s work on Wolverine. In fact, it almost seems like he’s only acknowledging the gigantic crossover as a courtesy.

Even Claremont’s Mandarin bares little resemblance to the character John Byrne was writing during the rest of the crossover. Perhaps that’s appropriate, given how poorly Byrne handled Claremont’s character development on Magneto, rewinding years of growth in order to present him as little more than a scheming villain. Similarly, Byrne’s Mandarin is very much an archetypal supervillain in his blue battlesuit. While Claremont’s take on the character is something quite different and, dare I say it, more fascinating.

A Wolverine in the fold…

The Mandarin is a bit of a tough villain for modern comic books. A lot of comic book characters have their roots in an earlier time, which leads to all sorts of uncomfortable associations. For example, it’s hard to believe that superhero comics wouldn’t be a lot more diverse if they were created today, which creates a bit of tension when creators start regressing toward the predominantly white, male, hetrosexual Silver Age.  If the Silver Age were being written today, writers would probably be a bit more careful about populating Africa with super-intelligent apes.

The Mandarin is, as you might have deduced from his name, a character who has an unfortunately long association with “yellow peril”, almost seeming a spiritual descendent of Fu Manchu. (Marvel also has a hero who is a literal descendent of Fu Manchu, but that’s a matter for another time.) I wonder if that’s also a reason the Mandarin has been relatively sparingly used in the comics, as compared to other go-to bad guys like the Red Skull or the Kingpin or Doctor Doom. On the plus side, this means the character has saturated comic books, and that he still carries a hint of threats very few long-term foes can claim.

A cutting retort?

In fact, I get the sense that Iron Man and Iron Man II skirted around the character, making oblique references to a terrorist group named “the ten rings” in his honour, because of that association. I can imagine the groups protesting the use of the character on film, and can see why the producers might want to avoid that. This is an era where the poorly-considered decision to cast the Chinese as the bad guys in the Red Dawn remake has cost millions of dollars in post-production to “fix” that mistake.

Still, I can’t help but feel that these must be a way to use the Mandarin, and that he is somehow more than a cheesy “yellow peril” villain who has lived well beyond his “sell by” date. After all, Tony Stark represents American industrialism, and perhaps even embodies some of the naive enthusiasm of American foreign police (he was forged in Vietnam, and then the Middle East, depending on which origin you prefer). Surely the Mandarin has a place in the twenty-first century, where America is being rapidly surpassed by Chinese industry. People called the twentieth century “the American Century” and people are already describing the twenty-first as “the Chinese Century.”

Like a ninja!

I actually think that Claremont and Lee do a good job pushing the character in that sort of direction. Apart from a confrontation in the third part, they eschew the Mandarin’s traditional battle armour, which looks like an Oriental stereotype. Instead, Claremont and Lee give the Mandarin a snazzy business suit, bringing the character up to date. Rather than playing into Western stereotypes about the East, it acknowledges that Chinese power is increasingly modern and economical.

Indeed, Matsuo contextualises the Mandarin’s status quo with a bit of realpolitik. “Before the century is done, Lord, Hong Kong will revert to Chinese sovereignty,” he explains. “Yet even now, winds of change blow from the Gobi to the South China Sea. The Middle Kingdom is in ferment, the old men in Beijing have broken faith with their people, their world will end with their lives.”The world is constantly changing, and I think Claremont was much better at acknowledging that than most comic book writers. That said, it isn’t a surprise that Claremont writes a surprisingly solid Mandarin, the British writer always had a bit of a gift for looking beyond American conventions in crafting his adventures.

What a Lady (Mandarin)…

In fairness, Claremont also had quite a gift for looking to the work of fellow creators and consolidating their own clever ideas into his work as an affectionate form of homage. The Acts of Vengeance tie-in reads as an extended homage to Frank Miller, the writer and artist who collaborated with Claremont on the Wolverine miniseries. Hell, Psylocke’s ninja outfit is pretty much a direct lift of Elektra’s, only in purple instead of red. Claremont and Lee also switch the Hand’s ninjas from red to purple, to make the comparison clearer. Even outside of that, pairing Wolverine with Jubilee creates a sort of Batman-and-Robin type relationship, mirrored in Jubilee’s wardrobe, with the yellow cape, green shorts (and boots) and red top. The notion of a female Robin itself seems like a shout-out to The Dark Knight Returns.

Of course, this arc is also famous for race-swapping Betsy Braddock, turning the character into an Asian mystery. I still have absolutely no idea why the race change necessary, beyond the fact that it played into Claremont’s recurring themes of identity. The closest we get to an explanation in-story comes from Mojo himself, explaining, “And we can’t have a Westerner running the Hong Kong underworld.” A lot of people would blame this story for converting Psylocke, who previously wore relatively conservative battle armour, into little more than a fetish object, with her purple thong-like swimsuit. I’m more inclined to see the purple swimsuit as an homage to Elektra, and it’s worth noting that the character wore far more conservative armour into battle.

She’s a (Psy)locke for head of the Hong Kong Underworld…

I can’t quite make the case that Claremont was firing on all cylinders when he wrote Psylocke’s transformation sequence, as she sheds her old life and becomes a ninja assassin. However, there’s a wealth of interesting character material there, most of which stemming from Claremont’s tendency to write strong women. It’s fascinating that the first male X-Man to appear in her dream is Doug Ramsey, who she dismisses as “a consummate child.” In contrast, she is introduced to Storm as a reasonable authority figure – in fact it’s her version of Storm that she spends the most time with as she visits each of her former teammates.

Perhaps faintly echoing Jean Grey’s transformation into the Pheonix, there’s the faintest hint of female rage behind her transformation here – a sense that Betsy is angry at being dismissed and ignored and overlooked because of her gender. Just because she is a woman doesn’t mean she has to conform to gender roles – we’re shown that she was far more adventurous and out-going than her brother, who displayed more traditionally feminine traits like studiousness and stability.

No claws for concern…

“Why was Brian chosen to become Captain Britain and not me?” Betsy asks, and it seems more than likely she thinks that her gender informed the selection. One might reasonably suggest that she also had deeper rooted insecurities that would have been measured against her, as Claremont has portrayed Betsy as consistently weak-willed and significantly flawed. Indeed, it seems that the Hand exploit Betsy’s internal insecurities, amplifying character flaws that existed before. “But what are friends, compared to power?” she asks. However, it seems fair to say that Betsy isn’t quite as objective when it comes to identifying her strengths and weaknesses.

“I was too soft, too sentimental, too weak!” she insists, remembering her failure as Captain Britain – it’s interesting how she uses adjectives traditionally associated with female gender roles. Psylocke seems to actively reject any of those traditionally feminine attributes in pursuit of power, and the result is not a good thing. The irony, of course, is that Psylocke than adopts the title “Lady Mandarin”, more firmly establishing her as the distaff counterpart to the Mandarin rather than as a distinct entity with her own identity.

Man(darin), I feel like a Lady…

Inside her own mind, confronted with her own fears, the villain Slaymaster mocks her as a girl, “How frail the girlish dream — the girl herself — before the true, terrible reality!” Even after she has been converted to Lady Mandarin, it seems that Betsy takes particular umbridge to casual sexism. At one point, she seems to take exception to one of the “lords of the Hong Kong underworld” partonisingly referring to her as “young woman.” But that’s probably enough of that. I’m probably best served leaving the gender commentary to those more familiar with it.

Still, there are other nice touches to be found here. I especially like a small moment with Wolverine as he catches up with an old friend. Told the Mandarin is “consolidating control over the local underworld”, he doesn’t immediately step up to stop the supervillain. He instead replies, “Soon as I have what I need, I’m gone.”It’s a nice touch, acknowledging that Wolverine isn’t your standard superhero. He’s a man with his own objectives who won’t allow himself to be distracted.

A cutting remark…

I think it’s significant that Claremont didn’t let Wolverine go through Siege Perilous. Indeed, it’s possible that Logan would have tried to stop his team mates from giving up – Claremont always had Logan firmly embrace Charles Xavier’s vision, and it’s fitting that he should be the one tasked with putting the team back together following their deconstruction. Wolverine, the perennial loner, has evolved so far that he can’t imagine life without the team. I think that Jason Aaron’s portrayal really builds upon that aspect of the character – the unlikely successor to Xavier, and Charles’ greatest personal success. While Scott was the student who became a soldier, Logan was the warrior who became a protege.

Still, reading these three issues in isolation from the surrounding stories does illustrate just how long-form some of Claremont’s plotting actually was. Happening in the background, and occasionally intruding on the action, we jump to Storm in a child’s body or sinister scheming on Muir Island. It all makes sense as Claremont builds toward his climax, but it also illustrates how hard Claremont’s work can be to break up into easy-to-digest chunks. He really was writing the “great American novel” with spandex and superpowers.

Soon to be an eX-Man?

Uncanny X-Men might be one of the tie-ins least connected with event itself, but it’s probably one of the more compelling and fascinating additions to the event itself. It’s really just a relatively stand-alone chapter in Claremont’s on-going saga, but it is an interesting one with great art from Lee. While it doesn’t adhere too rigidly to the plotting of Acts of Vengeance, it does take some of the better themes – allowing Claremont to cross-pollinate some of his ideas and to celebrate the wealth of the Marvel Universe outside his own title. I think the event would have been much stronger if more books had done that instead of simply throwing heroes at unfamiliar bad guys.

In celebration of Acts of Vengeance, we’ve taken a look at some of the more memorable tie-ins and crossovers:

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2 Responses

  1. I REMEMBER THIS MAG! Thanks for the flash back.

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