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Retro Review: God Loves, Man Kills, Claremont Confounds

So Amazon had this insane digital comics sale a while back. Tons of trade collections going for pennies on the dollar. It was all Marvel Comics stuff, but so much of it was so very cheap that I found it hard to resist. I mean, I might not have been willing to pay cover price for Jason Aaron’s Thor or Dr. Strange, but when I can get five or six issues for the price of one? Sure! Sign me up! Likewise, I might not normally seek out collections of old Steve Gerber Defenders comics or The Complete Son of Satan, but at three bucks a pop… Why not read some of the most whacked-out mainstream comics ever? Which brings us to the topic of discussion for today:

God Loves, Man Kills
by Chris Claremont and Brent Anderson

Unlike most of the other older books I bought in the big sale, I’ve read God Loves, Man Kills before. Back in 1982, when it was first released. But I probably haven’t looked at it in 25 years, and my original copy’s long-gone, sold off during the speculator boom of the 90s. So, since a digital copy was only 80 cents, I figured it might just be worth revisiting what many call the best X-Men story ever told. I’m not willing to think hard enough about X-Men to decide if I agree with that assessment, but I will say that this story pretty well captures everything that made Claremont’s tenure on the book both wonderful and awful at the same time.

But first, a bit of background. This story was, as I said, originally published thirty-five years ago, in 1982, as Marvel Graphic Novel #5. The Marvel OGNs were slim volumes; God Loves, Man Kills weighs in at 61 pages. Kinda short by today’s standards. But that’s still the length of three monthly newsstand comics, and Claremont relished telling a longer story without the need for cliffhangers and recaps every 20 pages. He also relished being cut loose from the Comics Code. So this story plays a little rougher than your average X-Men book of the time, and deals with subject matter that the Code might not have allowed. It’s hardly a “mature readers” title, but 14-year-old me thought it was very mature indeed.

One interesting historical side note before we really get going: Neal Adams was originally supposed to draw this book. This was a surprise to me, because by 1982 Adams had pretty much stopped doing work-for-hire comics art jobs. He felt that if he was going to put that much time and effort into an art job, he ought to retain some kind of ownership of it (a not-at-all unreasonable position). So when Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter approached him about doing the book, he said that he’d agree only on the condition that it not be the usual work-for-hire deal. He didn’t think they would do it (and I’m not sure how that would have worked, to be honest), but Shooter assured him they would. Then the contract came in the mail, and… They didn’t. So he backed out of the deal. But not before he drew the first six pages, including a Danger Room sequence featuring Angel, but not Cyclops or Kitty…

…and a page-three Magneto death scene that was written out of the final script:

It’s very nice stuff, and I’m sure Adams would have done a good job with the book. But I’m kind of glad he didn’t. Because, as good as Adams was in 1982, there’s a professional sheen to his work, a certain degree of comic booky over-statement, that wouldn’t have served it well. The man who did eventually draw it, Brent Anderson, was just about perfect for it. While not as dynamic as Adams, Anderson tends toward subtler shades of emotion, and this is a story that very much needs that kind of human touch.

Take the opening scene as it actually saw print, for instance. Instead of the death of Magneto, which would have served mostly as empty shock value, we instead see two mutant children hunted down and killed.

Now, seeing two children get lynched (two black children, at that) is pretty freaking shocking. But it’s far from empty, and it’s considerably more affecting than just seeing a costumed bad guy get killed. It makes anti-mutant racism into something more relatable, something that really hits home for the reader in a way all the overblown anti-mutant hysteria of the regular X-Men series never could. But it’s still sensational enough all by itself that heightening that sensationalism with the art might take it too far. Anderson’s approach is emotional, but natural. It hits just the right note.

And that kind of dramatic understatement is important. Because Magneto finds those two dead children on the very next page, and his response is plenty overblown.

Claremont’s walking a fine line between drama and melodrama here, with Magneto’s proclamation of revenge taking the whole thing WAY over the top. When I got to that “for all my vaunted power” line, for instance, I just started laughing. Because, holy crap. NObody talks like that! But look at the rest of that scene. Look at the way Anderson handles the display of his super powers, dismantling the swing set into a bower and laying their bodies gently down upon it. It’s awe-inspiring, but quietly so. It completely lacks the bombast I normally associate with X-Men comics, and that sells this as a serious moment, in spite of Claremont’s best efforts to cheese it up.

And lord knows he cheeses things up in this book. There’s a Danger Room sequence later, for instance, in which Nightcrawler has to teleport a box across the room.

Such ANGST! Such ANGUISH! And keep in mind, this isn’t a serious climactic battle in which lives are on the line. It’s a freaking TRAINING SEQUENCE! He has to move some damn furniture, and he’s acting like it’s the end of the world.

I laughed again.

But! A few pages after that, when the team gets the news that Cyclops, Storm, and Professor X have apparently died in a car accident, Anderson once again pulls out the understatement to give the same character a genuinely affecting moment:

So that’s what you’re dealing with here: a book that swings wildly from the ridiculous to the sublime, and back again. The theme of racism is the strongest, expressed plenty well with the lynching seen above. But, Claremont being Claremont, he’s gotta drive the point home. So there’s a scene (a pretty infamous scene, actually) in which Kitty Pryde utters a few choice words on the subject of racial slurs:

That was strong stuff back in ’82, and it’s even stronger now. Some modern readers have debated the appropriateness of the scene, but I think it’s fine in context, especially for a story meant to make an impression on teen readers. It got the point across to me when I was a dumb ass 14-year-old white boy, anyway. So I’m good with it. But as an adult reader, it comes across as gilding the lily. “If you didn’t get it when you saw those two black kids get lynched… just let us spell it out for you in the plainest terms possible.”

Of course, on the other hand… I wish every writer inclined to hit their audience over the head did it with a scene as powerful as that one. So… Sublime. Ridiculous. Claremont.

He gets up to something similar with the villains. You’d think, after the child-lynching, that shades of gray might not be on the menu in this comic. I mean, let’s face it: when your bad guys commit an act so vile that even MAGNETO is appalled by it… It’s kind of hard to see their side of things. And for the most part, they are one-note racist fanatics with no redeeming characteristics and no further motivation than hate and cruelty.

But not entirely. Claremont explains their mindset through their leader, the Reverend William Stryker, a televangelist who preaches that mutants are an unnatural abomination in the eyes of God. And he’s no charlatan, either, no shallow parody of the religious con artists who dotted the television landscape in the 80s. No, Stryker actually believes what he’s saying, and is a talented enough demagogue that he’s able to convince people he’s right.

But why does he believe that mutants are the devil? Personal experience.

Guh. That struck teenage me as some pretty heavy stuff. And adult me is even more horrified. That’s some impressive writing, I think. Because even as I’m repulsed by Styker’s actions, they also make a terrible sort of sense. He’s not evil in the usual, banal sense. He’s just a man who saw something he didn’t know how to deal with, and it broke him. I don’t like or even sympathize with it. But I can understand it. I’m not sure if that makes me hate him more or less, but it does raise his villainy above the level of your average funnybook heel.

Even though he pretty much does resort to the tactics of one. Because Xavier’s not dead, of course. He’s a captive of Stryker, who uses high-tech brainwashing to break his mind. The result of that is a sequence that’s been burned into my brain since my teenage years:

Anderson really knocks it out of the park here. That scene goes on for three pages, and ends with Stryker appearing to the suffering Xavier to offer a hand of salvation.

I especially love how Anderson handled the end of that sequence. Something in it reminds me of the early experimental stuff Bill Sienkiewicz was getting into around the same time (a style he’d blow out completely working with Claremont on New Mutants not long after). There’s that Neal Adams influence (ironic, I know), but with a little something abstract seeping in around the edges. It’s nice stuff, and goes a long way toward selling Xavier’s eventual conversion to Stryker’s cause.

Which is spoilery, yes. But hey… It’s a 35-year-old funnybook. I regularly hang out with people younger than this comic. So I think a few spoilers are probably okay.

At any rate. The story progresses from there, with the X-Men teaming with Magneto to face off against Stryker’s Purifiers. That alliance leads to some difficult decisions for Our Heroes, including an especially nasty scene in which Wolverine and Magneto play a game of “Bad Cop, Worse Cop” with a Purifier in order to get information out of him. The act doesn’t work, however, so Magneto backs it up with actual torture.

That’s more really nice work from Anderson, who (if I haven’t already gotten this across) is just on fire in this book. I’ve already praised him for his understatement, and his inventive approach to the visuals of super powers (he especially seems to dig Magneto), but he delivers on the action stuff when it’s called for, too. Like in this car crash scene, where he uses unconventional layouts to dynamic effect:

It’s really great stuff. But it’s not all awesome. Claremont delivers endless thought balloons, too, of course (jarring in our post-Alan-Moore era of funnybook writing), and all the terrible dialogue you’d expect from an 80s super hero comic. Characters whine constantly and speechify horribly, belaboring points at every available opportunity, and much of the drama is too heavy-handed for me to take it entirely seriously.

Which, as I said earlier, is a problem. There’s a story worth telling here, but it’s continually undercut by Claremont’s bad habits, and by the end I just didn’t care anymore. Which is really too bad, because there’s a pretty great moment in Our Heroes’ final confrontation with Stryker. One that, in a book I hadn’t long since lost patience with, I would love. It’s not this moment…

…though that one is pretty great, as defining an X-Men image as you could wish for.

But, in spite of my earlier protestations to the contrary, I’m not going to spoil my favorite moment from the finale. It wouldn’t be fair to anyone reading this review who’s decided to go out and read this bit of X-Men history for themselves. Maybe you’re not as jaded as I am. Maybe you won’t get as impatient. And maybe that scene will have the impact for you that it’s supposed to. Because it really is good. I just wasn’t of a mind to appreciate it by the time I got to it.

And that, right there, is the triumph and tragedy of Chris Claremont. He shaped my ideas of what good drama looked like. His dialogue, when he’s on, reads like a dream. I still ape his cadences in my own writing, even now. I’ve done it throughout this review, and only occasionally on purpose. He’s a giant of my own personal young adult library, and I wouldn’t trade all those hours I spent reading his stuff for anything. But, man. MAN. Coming back to him as an adult, even when he was at his peak (which, arguably, he was on God Love, Man Kills)… It’s tough going.

I’ve been sitting here for a few minutes now, trying to decide on a star rating for this book. But I don’t think I can. I’m not even sure if I can reliably recommend it for reading. It is simultaneously magnificent and awful. It is confounding. And for that, if nothing else, I suppose it’s worth a look.

Especially if you can get it for under a dollar.

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About Mark Brett (418 Articles)
Shaved Yeti. Alien. Writer of stuff. Read my fiction at http://reportsfromthefieldblog.wordpress.com/. Read my thoughts on comic books and other dork culture ephemera at https://dorkforty.wordpress.com/.

1 Comment on Retro Review: God Loves, Man Kills, Claremont Confounds

  1. I loved this story! Heavy handed, but magnificent in my opinion. My husband wrote a guest review about this story on my blog, as it’s a favorite of his too.

    Liked by 1 person

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