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X-traordinary People: Mary Tyler Moore and the Mutants Explore Pop Psychology

Early in Issue #168 of The Uncanny X-Men, comic writer Chris Claremont uses dance instructor Stevie Hunter to present his thesis for the next nine issues: “Life is lousy, no argument there. What matters is how you cope with it.” 

Issue # 168 succeeds masterfully at setting the tone for it and the eight issues that follow. These issues, which make up the trade paperback From the Ashes, not only represent Claremont’s golden years on the book, but also an excellent investigation into methods of coping with loss and change.

In fact, From the Ashes has more in common with the 1980 Robert Redford film Ordinary People than it does with Claremont’s earlier work on Uncanny, including The Dark Phoenix Saga, God Loves, Man Kills and Days of Future Past.

From the Ashes begins in the aftermath of these downbeat, but classic X-Men stories. To start off with: Jean Grey, a founding member of the X-Men and the lover of Cyclops, committed suicide when she developed uncontrollable powers as Dark Phoenix. Soon after, the team’s mentor Charles Xavier was killed, only to have his still-living psychic brain transplanted into a cloned body. These two blows proved too dramatic for Cyclops and he soon relinquished his position as team leader to Storm. After Cyclops’ departure, the X-Men were given a glimpse of their own future failure in Days of Future Past, and now the mutant team wonders if their battle to integrate humans and mutants is even worth it.

From the Ashes sees a forlorn Cyclops traveling with his father and brother, a suddenly accountable Storm struggling with her powers and newest team member Kitty Pryde dealing with her adolescence. The X-Men have all kinds of weird adventures, like saving the winged mutant Angel from the sewer-dwelling Morlocks and attending Wolverine’s wedding in Japan, where they must battle the Silver Samurai and the Japanese underworld. Along the way, they pick up a pet dragon from space and a new team member, Rogue, who was formerly a member of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. Storm’s disillusionment leads to a profound change in her demeanor and Cyclops’ new girlfriend Madelyne Pryor might be Phoenix reincarnated. This collection concludes with a remarkable and complex battle with Dark Phoenix and the illusionist Mastermind, who has been working against the X-Men in the background all along. In the epilogue, Cyclops and Madelyne are married and we see their new life begin together on the way to their honeymoon.
Suicide also serves as prologue in Redford’s Academy Award winning Ordinary People, which is based on the novel by Judith Guest. Following the death of Buck Jarrett, his family members each cope with the loss in different ways. Calvin, Buck’s father, portrayed by Donald Sutherland, concentrates all his energy on his surviving son Conrad, while Beth Jarrett abandons the warmth typically associated with motherhood, focusing instead on trivial day-to-day activities like planning vacations and shopping for upcoming birthday parties. When Conrad attempts suicide and fails, what is left of his family drifts even farther apart.
Ordinary People begins when Conrad returns home and tries to live a normal, teenaged life after a long stint in a mental hospital. He goes to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Berger, twice a week, but their sessions do little to repair his relationship to his distant mother. Eventually, Beth leaves Conrad and Calvin.
Something that successfully adds mystery and psychological depth to both From the Ashes and Ordinary People is that from the get-go, readers and viewers are not exactly sure what happened beforehand. One of the largest complaints about comic books is that new readers might have trouble jumping in at, say, Issue #168. And yes, comics are usually meant to be absorbed sequentially, but in the case of the From the Ashes trade paperback, not knowing precisely what has occurred actually strengthens the drama in Claremont’s narrative. The information is steadily fed to us as the story progresses; we are given the impression that something isn’t right, but are deprived of lengthy descriptions such as, “after Scott ‘Slim’ Summer’s long-time lover Jean Grey commits suicide on the Moon to save the Universe from the terrifying cosmic entity that possessed her as she piloted a shuttle back to Earth after being captured by mutant-hunting robots called Sentinels on Christmas Eve, he finds himself wandering the United States and visiting old girlfriends.” Back in those days, continuity wasn’t as important to readers and creators as it is now. Claremont and skilled artists like Paul Smith and John Romita Jr. approached every issue as an entity unto itself; each chapter gives you enough back-story to comprehend what is going on, but brilliantly leaves out the particulars to heighten tension.

Merely alluding to key plot details proves to be a powerful device in the psychology of storytelling. In the film Waking Life, director Richard Linklater expresses the notion that humans routinely “create fictions” to reconcile disparities in their memory. Similarly, when storytellers like Claremont and Redford purposefully leave gaping holes in their stories, the reader/viewer is left with no option but to fill it with their own imagination or experience. On an emotional level, this allows the reader/viewer to be an active participant in the goings-on of the storyline. For instance, Claremont finds a captivating and functional use for Wolverine in From the Ashes. Again, in Issue #168, Wolverine explains to Nightcrawler that he needs to head to the Canadian Rockies for some “solitude.” And that’s it. Literally, that’s all we see of Wolverine until Issue #172. When we finally catch up to him, he has made his way to Japan, he has killed a mobster patriarch of a influential Japanese family and he has become engaged to Mariko, who is the heir to that same family, the Clan Yashida.
Wolverine, by his very nature, should be able to get from Point A to Point Z with little effort. His character offers a wealth of opportunity because his own character history is so riddled with holes that new characters, government agencies and even new comic book titles should be able to emerge quite effortlessly. Much like the shark in director Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, or Batman in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, Claremont’s Wolverine is actually more effective if we do not see him. In fact, having Wolverine out of the picture for four issues affords readers two unique options. They can pick up the Wolverine miniseries, written by Claremont and drawn by Frank Miller, which charts his solo adventure. Or, even better, they can simply use their imaginations to construct the bizarre sequence of events that leads Logan from the Canadian Rockies to Japan. In either case, Claremont is cashing two checks, not to mention adding some magic and subtlety to a character that has sadly become a parody of himself in the years between From the Ashes and now. Back in those days we believed Wolverine really was the best at what he did and even if we didn’t see him do it.
In the character of Karen, Redford and Guest provide an equally compelling story fracture for audiences to repair in Ordinary People. Karen (played cheerily by Dinah Manoff) is a friend who Conrad meets while he was in the mental hospital. We are never told specifically why Karen was institutionalized, but the fact that she was in the same ward as Conrad suggests that she too has attempted suicide. We only see Karen once in the film, when she briefly meets Conrad at a diner to catch-up. Their rendezvous is the first genuine emotional connection we see from Timothy Hutton’s Conrad; his eyes light up when she sits at the booth with him.

He tries to reminisce with her about the hospital, because he remembers it as a more pleasant environment than his normal life. Conrad is visibly disappointed to learn that Karen has made significant steps in her recovery. She has matured into a confident and functional young woman. “Things have to change,” she says. “This is the real world.” As she leaves, we know that her obvious progress will intimidate Conrad and only send him into deeper depression. As I said before, we don’t see Karen again in the film. Conrad tries to call her on two different occasions, but never reaches her. The first time he calls she is out; the second time he calls Karen, her father tells Conrad that she has committed suicide. This revelation is the emotional turning point for Conrad, but it is an effective story device because it petitions the viewer to re-examine Conrad’s only encounter with Karen. Redford leaves it up to the audience to create the fiction necessary for Karen’s character to go from mentally healthy to dead by her own hand. The only possible conclusion is that her behavior earlier in the film is entirely false. It was an act to convince others (and perhaps herself) that she had moved beyond her self-destructive tendencies, and in hindsight she suddenly appears to protest her mental health too much.
In both From the Ashes and Ordinary People, we are presented with female characters who deal with anguish by dramatically altering their behavior. Though I certainly never imagined there would be a study connecting “Mohawk” Storm to Mary Tyler Moore’s Beth Jarrett—nor did I expect to be the one conducting it—I was struck by the similar motives of these two characters’ journeys.
Before The Dark Phoenix Saga and Days of Future Past, Storm was largely thought of as graceful heart of the X-Men. Her history as an African weather goddess taught her the beauty of all life. In From the Ashes however, her grace and her connection to the Earth begin to falter under the weight of leadership. She finds herself plagued by life or death moral decisions. The stakes are higher and the old pacifist, Earth-mother Storm isn’t tough enough anymore. This trauma first manifests itself outwardly as an inability to control her amazing, weather manipulating abilities. Throughout these nine issues, we see Storm question Professor Xavier’s every decision, even to the point of hurling a dagger at a psychic projection of him. She threatens to leave the team if he accepts Rogue as a member of the X-Men.
Later, when Storm descends into the sewers to face the Morlocks, she kills Morlock leader Callisto. The fact that the Morlock’s healer manages to save Callisto seems irrelevant to Storm when Nightcrawler mentions it. While in Japan, Storm encounters a devil-may-care adventurer named Yukio, who has been tailing Wolverine and the X-Men. As she and Storm encounter ninjas and Japanese mobsters, Yukio laughs in the face of death at every turn. Storm becomes envious of this dismissive attitude towards mortality and eventually succumbs to Yukio’s unique brand of “madness.”

When we finally see Storm again at Wolverine’s wedding, she has cropped her flowing white hair into a Mohawk and wears an all-leather biker outfit complete with a dog collar. Kitty Pryde’s initial reaction to Storm is one of horror; she literally runs the other direction. Storm copes with her internal turmoil by pushing her teammates—her friends—away. In the final battle with Mastermind, Storm very nearly drowns the entire team in a monsoon. Storm obviously doesn’t feel the need to be team mother anymore. More than likely, she’s made sure that she doesn’t feel anything.

In Ordinary People, again we do not have the luxury of knowing Beth Jarrett’s detailed history. After Buck’s death and Conrad’s suicide attempt, Calvin points out that Beth has “buried her love.” She has completely disconnected herself from her family. Like Storm, she lashes out needlessly at those closest to her, concentrating most of her anger on Conrad. Throughout the film, she constantly berates Conrad about his closet not being clean enough or his swim times not being fast enough as though she cares deeply about him, yet she refuses to even be photographed with him. In one exchange she tells Conrad that she was terrible at trigonometry in high school. Conrad asks, “You took trig?” To which she replies, “No…wait a minute…ha, did I take trig?” She has even disconnected herself from the person she used to be.
Redford wisely gives us only two glimpses of what Beth was like before the death of her son Buck. In one flashback, Buck recounts a drunken, adolescent adventure to his mother and she laughs uncontrollably despite herself, fully enraptured by her son. The other flashback is of Beth and her husband Calvin dancing gleefully against a stylized backdrop, lit by stars. Beth is joyful and charming in both of these flashbacks, yet neither is Beth’s memory. The first belongs to a jealous Conrad, who feels the death of his mother’s favorite son is his fault. The second is Calvin’s memory and obviously exists in some sort of fantasy space, beyond the otherwise much-grounded reality of the film. It is likely that neither of these occurrences is depicted accurately. However, it is important that both of the men in her life remember her as kinder, gentler person than the hard-hearted beast she has become.

Even the casting of Mary Tyler Moore, who was America’s sweetheart for a generation, carries certain implications that cannot be ignored. Moore is burned into our collective memory as both the Capri-panted housewife of our dreams from The Dick Van Dyke Show and the carefree single woman tossing her hat into the air on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Our subconscious wants to attribute these endearing archetypes to Moore herself and every character she plays, which is ludicrous. Redford uses this strange association to the film’s benefit, and Mary Tyler Moore’s role in Ordinary People is a significant and gripping departure from her previous image. We continually ask ourselves throughout the film, “What’s happened to Laura Petrie?”  
As From the Ashes and Ordinary People progress, Cyclops and Conrad emerge as the chief studies of psychology in storytelling. They each use transference in coping with the devastating loss of someone to whom they never got to say goodbye. Cyclops and Conrad Jarrett both suffer from survivor’s guilt; each has lost a valued companion in a traumatic situation that could have ended their lives as well. As Grant Morrison mentions in Comics Creators on X-Men, the seminal moment of Cyclops and Jean Grey’s relationship is when they run out to die together. Cyclops survives and Jean Grey does not. What’s worse, the battle they were fighting isn’t even what ended her life. Jean decides to give up on her life, her lover and her chance at happiness. Likewise, Conrad and his brother Buck were, by Conrad’s own admission, “goofing around” on a sailboat during a tumultuous storm. Conrad and Buck both held onto the boat, hoping to wait out the merciless weather. Finally Buck could hang on no longer. He yielded to the storm and allowed himself to sink into the churning water, while Conrad watched in horror.

As noted earlier, Cyclops finds a new girlfriend in this story named Madelyne Pryor (yes, as in “prior”) and she happens to look just like Jean Grey. Even more interesting, Cyclops can’t find any background information about Madelyne before an airplane crash of which she was the only survivor. The plane crash occurred at precisely the same moment as Jean Grey’s death. Tension mounts until Cyclops can stand it no longer, and finally he asks Madelyne point-blank if she is the reincarnation of Jean Grey.

Madelyne transforms into Dark Phoenix and launches an attack on Cyclops, the X-Men and the world. Actually, the evil illusionist Mastermind is only manipulating the X-Men into believing that Madelyne is attacking as Phoenix, which suggests to the reader that this encounter should probably best be understood in the realm of the psyche. Cyclops isn’t really confronting Madelyne as Phoenix; through Mastermind’s illusion he is confronting his survivor’s guilt issues with Jean as Phoenix.
In Ordinary People, psychiatrist Tyrone Berger (Judd Hirsch) stands in for Conrad’s brother Buck at the emotional climax of the film. In a powerful scene, Conrad visits Berger in the middle of the night after Karen’s death. Judd Hirsch’s Berger sharply catches that Conrad is emotionally transposing the events of Buck’s death with Karen’s and he realizes that Conrad might finally be open to confronting his guilt.
Conrad begins to recount the events of Buck’s death to Berger, while Redford stylishly punctuates Hutton’s monologue with silent cutaways of the sailboat event—a cinematic trick that will come to be perfected by the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Soderbergh and David O. Russell. Eventually, Conrad asks his deceased brother why he let go of the boat. Berger answers for Buck: “Because I got tired.” By acting as Buck, Berger provides Conrad with closure and allows him to realize that he was not responsible for his older brother’s death.    

As Mastermind begins to run out of tricks against Cyclops and the X-Men, he casts a final illusion that makes the X-Men see Cyclops himself as Phoenix. This is an interesting technique on Claremont’s part, because it suggests that Cyclops is facing the part of Jean/Phoenix within himself that has yet die. Eventually he overcomes this representation of Jean/Phoenix through strength, ingenuity and some help from the X-Men. In a sense, we are seeing Cyclops overcome his survivor’s guilt by defeating the same Phoenix entity that Jean Grey couldn’t. Berger makes a similar suggestion to Conrad in the climactic scene of Ordinary People when he asks, “Did it ever occur to you that you were stronger?” Ultimately both Cyclops and Conrad must learn to celebrate their own survival and move past their comrades’ deaths.
From the Ashes and Ordinary People are stories about finding reserves of strength when life refuses to go back to normal after a traumatic experience. In each narrative, we are presented with different methods of coping: Beth Jarrett and Storm push their closest peers away and this method is shown to be more damaging than helpful. Even in the off-screen adventures of characters like Karen and Wolverine, who claim to be able to take care of themselves, the emotional support of peers proves to be pivotal. Wolverine reaches out to a friend who eventually saves his life, while Karen keeps her friends too far away to save her life. In contrast, Conrad and Cyclops confront the sources of their grief and are able to move past them, with the help of their contemporaries. There is a wonderful moment from Judd Hirsch’s Berger in the film, when Conrad says, “I don’t know what I would have done if you weren’t here.” Berger doesn’t respond out loud; he only gives a little half smile. It is a subtle signal of recognition that he has saved Conrad’s life. This moment in Redford’s film, like X-Men, is about finding a place to belong and a group of people on which to rely. Ultimately, everyone succeeds or fails because of a support system—whether it is ordinary or uncanny.
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