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X-Men: The Asgardian Wars (Review)

With our month looking at Avengers comics officially over, we thought it might be fun to dig into that other iconic Marvel property, the X-Men. Join us for a month of X-Men related reviews and discussion.

It has been said that the X-Men rarely interact with the broader Marvel Universe. While characters like Wolverine and the Beast might have appeared on a roster or two of The Avengers, and Storm might have popped up in Fantastic Four, events within the X-Men line seemed to be self-contained, with Marvel’s mutants generally fighting their own problems in their own way. After all, Captain America was hardly a champion of civil liberties if he didn’t stand up for mutant rights, so it made sense to keep the mutants relatively self-contained.

However, despite this (somewhat deserved) reputation, it’s interesting to look back at the connections that writer Chris Claremont fostered with the wider Marvel Universe. Some of these (like the Claremont’s frequent connections to the Ka-Zar mythos) were relatively frequent within the pages of the main title (and no less strange for it), but Claremont was also a fan of making an event of a crossover between the X-Men and any other major players – things like Fantastic Four vs. X-Men. This story arc, told over four special issues, is something similar, making a big deal of the crossover between the world of Thor and the X-Men.

The Goddess of Thunder!

The Asgardian Wars is a relatively light crossover storyline, with a fairly minimal impact on Claremont’s overall seventeen-year X-Men master plan. The author all but concedes it in his introduction, reprinted here from the original paperback edition, where he comments that the story was “a heckuva a lot of fun.” Given the length of his run on the title, and the way he so skilfully defined the X-Men across virtually every form of media for the following forty-odd years, I’m more than willing to forgive the writer for the occasional indulgence.

In fact, I will concede that Claremont, as a writer, has a hard time reigning in his indulgences. The Asgardian Wars is not a high-point of the run on the title, and it’s not a narrative accomplishment for the long-running X-Men titles. However, it is solidly entertaining in a very hokey sort of way, with some geekish charm going a long way towards making up for fairly significant flaws in plotting and structure. It feels different. It feels special.

Northstar goes Rogue…

There was, at the time, quite a few threads that linked the X-Men franchise to the world of Thor. After all, Walt Simonson’s Thor had been one of the few non-mutant titles to tie into Claremont’s Mutant Massacre storyline. While Claremont was the vision directing the X-Men franchise, Louise Simonson was writing the spin-off X-Factor, featuring the original five X-Men. Louise was married to Walt Simonson, which created an interesting link between the two franchises. Indeed, the X-Men pop up quite a bit in Simonson’s Thor epic, with Loki even kidnapping Ice-Man at one point. So The Asgardian Wars feels like a logical conclusion to this thread.

Told over a two-issue miniseries, a “special edition” of New Mutants and Uncanny X-Men Annual #9, the story feels strange enough to justify being told in such a fashion. It’s not as lofty or pretentious as most of Marvel’s other “annual” crossovers (thinks like Atlantis Attacks or Evolutionary War), and I find that quite charming. Instead, it’s build around the curiosity of inserting Marvel’s relatively grounded X-Men into the magical world of Walt Simonson’s Asgard, and watching our heroes – the perpetual fish out of water – in circumstances that seem almost surreal.

Putting the New Mutants throw “Hela”…

Being entirely honest, I have always had a bit of a fascination about the nature of the shared universe that comic book titles inhabit. The magic of Asgard exists alongside the scientific and rational heroics of the Fantastic Four, while Captain America is the champion of a nation that doesn’t necessarily acknowledge the right of its mutant populations. I imagine it might be fun to place the concepts in a blender and randomly pair off completely distinct elements, in a way that you’d honestly never quite expect. Sending Marvel’s merry mutants, the characters perpetually down on their luck as hip and in-the-moment civil rights metaphors, into a realm of old-time magic and fantasy feels like a strange cocktail, and one worth a look.

It can be heard finding the common ground to justify such a crossover, but it’s to Claremont’s credit that the writer is able to make sense of this bizarre team-up story. I’m not talking about the plotting, which is a little bit cheesy and shoddy, but in finding a way to make the trip to Asgard matter to the cast of Uncanny X-Men. He manages to use these very strange and other-worldly setting to tease Marvel’s most put-down heroes with the possibility of paradise: to offer them the chance to hang up their spurs and live in peace, away from the world that hates and fears them.

The four horsemen…

The hardcover effectively collects two two-part stories, connected by some fairly heavy story threads, and they both pose a central dilemma for the X-Men: if they could give up their struggle and live in paradise, would they? Of course, the answer is “no” – partially because they are the stars of an on-going comic book series, and partially because they are heroes, and heroes don’t do that sort of thing. At least not until Claremont gets to the whole Siege Perilous thing. Still, Claremont does a very solid job of taking an almost surreal plot and making it work for his characters.

I’ve suggested time and time again that Storm and Wolverine are the two protagonists of Claremont’s extended run. Sure, there are times when either or both might be shuffled on- or off-stage, but they are the characters who seem to drive the action, and who stand by the dream of Charles Xavier almost without fail. Indeed, Claremont’s handling of Wolverine is quite impressive, at once making him a lone-gun master-less samurai, but also allowing the X-Men to instill in him a sense of humanism or responsibility.

Island retreat…

In the first crossover, Claremont establishes that Wolverine is loyal until the end. Offered a chance to come back to Alpha Flight, Wolverine politely refuses. “I got responsibilities, Heather,” he replies. “Duty — obligations — giri, that’s what they call it in Japan — to both the X-Men… an’… another that’s as important to me as Mac was to you. I give Charley a hard time — to keep him honest — but the X-Men are my home — my family. I won’t walk out on ’em.” Jason Aaron has generated a significant amount of controversy around his portrayal of Wolverine as the logical successor to Charles Xavier, but I think it fits with the arc Claremont had mapped out. Cyclops was always a flawed character who ‘drifted’, while Claremont’s Wolverine was loyal to the dream of integration.

It’s Wolverine who admonishes those mutants tempted by the pleasures of Asgard, reflecting a noble spirit and an endearing humanism, beneath his animalistic exterior. When Rachel begs him to accept Loki’s gift – peace in return for the human soul – Wolverine is having none of it, “Your choice, girl. Your privilege. You’ve no right to make it for anyone else.” In the second story arc, he treats Sunspot’s desire to remain in the realm with nothing short of contempt – to him, it represents giving up on the dream, which is worth nothing if it isn’t earned. “Earth isn’t good enough for you, poor little mutie fella don’t get no respect,” Wolveirne goads. “That what you after, Bobby — the glory? No fun bein’ a star if there’s nobody to applaud??”

Doug cleans up…

In many ways, the story is about the type of stuff that made the X-Men popular with fans, and the stuff I believe helped them catch on with the mainstream – the fact that they were very flawed and troubled individuals, who didn’t have an easy way to resolve the problems facing them. Loki can’t understand why the mortals won’t accept the magic that he offers, and why they feel compelled to question it, “Why can they not simply accept my gift without question?”

Indeed, Claremont states his moral, something of a staple among sci-fi and fantasy, towards the end of the first tale. His typically purple-prose narration remarks on a rose growing amid the rubble. “A reminder that humanity alone carries within itself the power to create paradise on Earth — on its own terms, by its own efforts — without the gifts or machinations of greedy gods. Which, for better or worse, is how it should be.”

A kind of Magick…

It’s interesting to note how Claremont uses the Asgardian set-up. The writer falls back on many of his old tricks, especially with regards to mind-control and physical transformation. Storm is brainwashed by Loki. She is also turned into a falcon. Ilyanna is chained up in a bikini while the Enchantress uses her soul for her own evil ends. Reading any substantial portion of Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men makes these elements stand out and seem even stranger, but it’s novel to see them used within a magical setting, However, it still goes just a little bit too far on occasion. I did not, for example, need to see Storm’s vision of a corset-and-stocking-clad Rogue straddling Loki while choking him. There’s just a bit too much going on there for my tastes.

Indeed, Claremont’s story does feel just a bit suffocated by continuity. He goes out of his way to explain the politics of Asgard in as much depth as possible, but one wonders if he gives too much information in too awkward a fashion. I’ve read Simonson’s Thor, and I can probably place this adventure to the issue, but I can’t imagine how jarring it might be to a reader who has never picked up a Thor adventure at all. There’s even a rather strange last-minute involvement of Karnilla, the Norn Queen. On the other hand, it is cool to see Asgard in ruins following Surtur’s attack, and Claremont demonstrates an obvious affection for the inhabitants of Asgard. This difficulty with the Asgardian characters and their continuity is particularly strange because he provides fairly handy exposition around each and every mutant character involved in the story.

Kiss of life…

It’s interesting to note that Claremont’s Storm is such a powerful and hypnotic personality that even the god of mischief himself, Loki, is absolutely fascinated by her, displaying a respect you rarely see from the trickster (and extended to nobody else in the story). “This woman, Ororo, has no special abilities,” he muses as he watches the battle against Surtur on Earth. “Yet she fights with a fierce courage that would do the Lady Sif proud.” In fairness, the use of Storm as a counterpart to Thor, given the similarity in their powers, is quite clever story-telling on the part of Claremont.

Indeed, Loki offers the most tempting proposition to Storm herself, who has been depowered and is now nothing more than human. “The X-Men and their world hold no place for thee,” he suggests. “Let them go. Stay, Storm, be a goddess. Rule Asgard by my side.” It’s fascinating, because Len Wein actually introduced Storm posing as an African goddess in Giant-Sized X-Men #1 all those years ago, so it provides a full circle. It’s also somewhat telling that Loki actually seems to be genuinely attracted to Storm. I know it’s because she’s Claremont’s feminine ideal, but it’s interesting to think of her as a surrogate for Loki’s brother (their powers are similar and she does weild the hammer) – adding a rather complex layer to the attraction.

Doug out of the rubble…

As an aside, it’s interesting to note that Claremonet actually makes the Asgardians (or, at least, the villainous Asgardians) slightly racist, as if to create some hint of continuity between the foes the team generally faces and these gods. In particular, these white Norse deities seem to look down on those who don’t share their skin-colour, perhaps foreshadowing the recent discussions over Kenneth Branagh’s Thor. Of Storm, Loki remarks, “Her name means beauty and she is in truth most pleasing to the eye, despite her dusky colour.” Later on, the Enchantress makes a point to call the latino Sunspot “shadowskin.” It’s an interesting way of subtly suggesting that perhaps things aren’t so much better in Asgard than they are on Earth.

Of course, it ultimately comes down to Wolverine and Storm, the two leads in Claremont’s saga, to make the tough decisions. It’s Wolverine who breaks the enchantment holding Storm, and it’s Storm who cradles his dying form. (Remember when Wolverine could die?) While the story isn’t essential to Claremont’s on-going X-Men saga, the writer does make sure that all the pieces fit properly, and I think that’s something that stands to his credit as the guiding light of the X-Men franchise for so long.

Loki’s plans are crystal-clear…

It’s also worth noting the awesome art from Arthur Adams on the second two-part adventure. That stuff is beautiful, and it prefigures the sort of style that Jim Lee and Marc Silvestri would bring to Uncanny X-Men as it moved towards the nineties. The book is well worth a look for the artwork alone.

I never subscribed to the idea that comic books need to “matter” to continuity to be worth a read, and it’s fair to say that The Asgardian Wars has a minimal impact on Claremont’s gigantic Uncanny X-Men story. It’s a pleasant little diversion, and a fun distraction, written and illustrated with the joy of taking the team out of their comfort zone. It doesn’t say anything too novel or special about the X-Men, but it stays true to Claremont’s central themes. It’s not groundbreaking, and it’s not great, but it’s fun for those interested in this sort of thing.

You might be interested in or reviews of some of the rest of Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men run (and other assorted mutant-related work):

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