As promised, the first in a series looking at the things that are really just so great and progressive in Chris Claremont’s run on The Uncanny X-Men and The New Mutants. Exhibit A: Storm!
I was a pretty obsessive X-fan as a kid, lost interest around the time I was 12 or 13, came back around for Grant Morrison (and caught up on Scott Lobdell’s run, which was also pretty great), and have been kinda half-in, half-out since. I liked Joss Whedon’s and Matt Fraction’s runs a lot, hated Peter Milligan’s. When I was in the height of my X-Men fandom, around 7th and 8th grade, Jim Lee was drawing the tail end of Claremont’s sixteen year run. This was before bookstores had a graphic novels section, so I would hunt down and save up for back issues, try to get as much of the back-story as I could.
And I never liked Storm. I thought she was boring. Re-reading the early parts of the series, it makes sense that I thought that: She was, at first! She had the whole goddess spiel down, and was really far removed from all of the realness of the other characters. Kitty was real, so was Nightcrawler, so was Cyclops. The closest Storm got to a real emotion was being jealous of Kitty’s dance teacher.
Like, check out Storm and Luke Cage here, after searching a drug den. Cage knows the score, and Storm is just bewildered. But over the next few years of the series, all of this changes slowly. She gets tough, and at first that looks like a gimmick. Claremont transformed her into the team leader, and the template for that has usually been to have her act like the dude leader who preceded her. Suddenly, she’s willing to kill a motherfucker if that’s what the job entails, just like Wolverine. But there are a couple of things that are interesting about this: One, the change doesn’t come because of some trauma she suffers. She doesn’t get hard because she gets jumped or attacked or is too weak one crucial time and it costs her big. She becomes wilder and more free because she meets another woman, Yukio, and sees how much fun Yukio is having. The entire issue before Storm cuts her hair into a mohawk and starts wearing leather jackets and stuff, it’s just her and Yukio running around Japan laughing together. Two, the change doesn’t turn her into more of a dude. In fact, it’s the opposite.
Suddenly, how that she’s dropped the “untouchable goddess” thing, even Professor X is looking at her and realizing that she’s a woman. And that’s striking to me, because I think in most stories like that, it’d be the opposite. As she becomes the leader of a group of mostly-men (though in another dozen issues, the team’ll tilt super-heavy toward women), that’s when she’ll become elevated and above it all. That’s when she’ll become unnatural — because it’s hard to portray a real woman as a leader of men. We haven’t got a lot of models for it in adventure fiction, especially. Usually, they’re just dudes with tits drawn on. Instead, Storm runs around laughing with Yukio; she defends Rogue; she gets zapped and loses her powers, then beats Cyclops in a duel anyway; and she falls for Forge, and starts boning him in the Adversary’s realm.
That’s actually a theme of Claremont’s work, and it’s something that is really pretty exceptional — his women are powerful and leaders and they’re not asexual. Their sexuality is very much a part of them — or it’s not, like for Rogue, but they’re not written to be “above” sex, and they’re not written to be dirty for getting down. No more than Cyclops is, or Nightcrawler (though Nightcrawler’s is with his stepsister, so it kinda should be). Check out Dani Moonstar from the New Mutants:
She puts on the tiny dress in Rio, lamenting that it’s still too modest for her, but the fact that she likes to dress like that on occasion is maybe 1% of her character throughout the run of New Mutants. Mostly, she’s responsible and clever and brave, leading the team and occasionally flirting with Sunspot, but never in a way that makes it even remotely shameful.
And that’s just super progressive and, I’m willing to bet, responsible for changing the way a whole generation of kids who grew up giant X-fans saw gender dynamics. Probably there are a bunch more who missed that point, but that happens.
I’m a big Saul Williams fan, and I saw him read Said The Shotgun To The Head a few years ago. And one thing that he stressed is how it’s the story of a man preaching about a female god that he’s encountered and been intimate with, because he wanted to get the point across that we need to be able to see women who are both elevated and sexual. (We see men who are elevated and sexual all the time, of course — Cyclops hooks up with Jean Grey, Colleen Wing, Lee Forester, and Madeline Pryor throughout the first eighty issues of Claremont’s run, for example.) It’s probably the most interesting part of Said The Shotgun To The Head (and that’s coming from a guy who has a line of that poem tattooed on his arm). So when I was re-visiting all these X-Men comics, I found it especially striking that Claremont covered that exact same topic a couple decades earlier in a series written for 14 year olds.
Next in the series: Wolverine — feminist role model for boys!