I find myself at a bit of a loss after reading Jason Powell’s The Best There Is at What He Does: Examining Chris Claremont’s X-Men. In an earlier life, I was trained as a theologian and I find that Powell’s book brings back memories and associations from those days, memories of sitting in the divinity school library, pouring over biblical commentaries, books whose authors spent lifetimes analyzing and interpreting ancient holy texts and producing commentaries that were, at times, denser than the scriptures they were supposed to illuminate.
I couldn’t take too much of those commentaries and usually found myself forcing my way back to the surface of the scripture itself, finding those holy words more accessible and open than the countless words that had been written about them. But I admired the passion of those who could produce such tomes, the dedication of those who loved the scripture with such force that it resulted in such chapter-by-chapter, verse-by-verse, word-by-word analysis.
Powell, it seems to me, has brought something of the commentator’s passion to comic books, particularly the X-Men comics written by Chris Claremont. From 1975-1991, Claremont was the sole writer for Marvel’s mutants, producing 186 issues of X-Men. He wrote superhero battles, teen angst, and space opera as well as anyone and produced, during his long tenure, an undeniably grand body of work. Much of Claremont’s X-Men was both critically lauded and commercially successful, and his influence on comics, and popular culture, probably can’t be overstated.
Two of his story arcs, in particular, are considered classics in the genre: The Dark Phoenix Saga and Days of Future Past. His stories were for adults, but were not “dark” or “mature”. They were grounded in true-to-life characterizations while pushing superhero storytelling from crime filled streets into distant galaxies. Some stories, of course, were better than others. But Claremont was there, year in and year out, telling one great big extraordinary story — over 186 issues.
Powell’s new book is an intimate and detailed look at every single one of those issues. It’s a careful analysis of every issue of X-Men that Claremont touched. His commentaries are not just brief synopses of the events in each issue, they are deep reads. This isn’t a simple summary, a CliffNotes-style recap of what happens over the course of those nearly 200 issues. Well it is that, but it’s so much more.
I suspect that Powell may know as much about Claremont’s X-Men as anyone other than the creator himself. Everything he knows, he puts on the page here.
The Best There Is At What He Does is a critical reading of Claremont’s work and Powell isn’t afraid to say when something works and when something fails to live up to Claremont’s own standards. His book is a historical study, tracing the ins and outs of Marvel Comics politics and personalities over 16 years. It places Claremont’s work against the background of the comics creators who had come before him and in the context of a time that also gave birth to major films that seemed to borrow ideas right from the pages that he produced.
There’s a lot to learn here about Claremont, about the X-Men, about Marvel Comics, about superheroes, about late 20th century popular culture. There’s a lot to learn and Powell has a lot to say.
But I’m at a bit of a loss. As I read Powell’s book, I kept finding myself wishing that, instead of pouring over Powell’s issue-by-issue breakdown, I could just immerse myself in Claremont’s art, just read his words, just enjoy the artistic partnerships he shared through the years. Powell is sometimes denser than the material he wishes to illuminate.
While I admire what Powell has done, I’m stuck wondering why. Why say all this when the word is so open and clear? Why ask people to read this when so much of Claremont’s work is available to those who want to experience it for themselves?
Powell’s intimate knowledge of Claremont’s X-Men corpus seldom rises above the level of individual comic book reviews, deep and well-researched though they may be. There are too few discussions of big themes and big pictures. Powell too seldom bothers to give us a hint as to what he thinks it all means.
I suspect that there’s something similar to religious devotion evident in Powell’s book, though please don’t read too much into that observation. I’m struck by how much he must love Claremont’s work in order to give so much time and energy to it — to give so many words, so as to explicate these comic books, issue-by-issue, panel-by-panel, word-by-word, producing, I suspect, more words about Claremont than Claremont himself wrote in all those 186 issues combined.
I’m not sure that The Best There Is at What He Does is a book for everyone. I’m not sure that it’s a book for every fan of the X-Men. I’m not sure that it’s for me. But I’m glad it’s here. If nothing else, it reminds us how important long-form storytelling can be and that Claremont is one of its masters.