Saturday, November 24, 2007

Jason Powell on Classic X-Men #5, part b

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men here. For more in this series click his name in the toolbar on the right. Powell is tying these posts together nicely.]

“Prison of the Heart”

Another character spotlight, this time on Colossus. “Prison of the Heart” opens with narration about how on the “Ust-Odynski collective” where Peter Rasputin grew up, there were only 1,237 people, and he knew each of them by name. Now he’s living in a city with a huge population, and it’s a brutal culture shock. The story also reinforces a character element for Colossus that was conveyed in the John Bolton sequence in Classic X-Men #1: Peter as artist. This is another thing that was actually introduced into Colossus’ character much later (Uncanny X-Men #174 is the earliest issue that I can remember.) But Claremont is using Classic X-Men to integrate these characterizations very early on.

The story has some action sequences, but they once again take a back seat to providing a poignant character sketch. Colossus thwarts the attempted kidnapping of a young and beautiful girl from Russia (coincidence). She is knocked unconscious during Colossus’ big save, and Peter decides to revert back to human form before he revives her. Ostensibly this is so as not to frighten her, but the clear subtext is that he fears her reaction will be hurtful, which is a deliberate parallel of Nightcrawler’s situation in the previous issue’s “The Big Dare.”

Upon awakening, the woman, Anya, falls quickly for the hunky Colossus, and him for her. He learns that she is a dancer who has defected to the United States – in defiance of the wishes of her father, who sent people kidnap her back to her homeland. That night, Piotr attends her debut performance at the Metropolitan Opera House, and afterward – in a lushly romantic and sentimental scene, the kind of thing at which Claremont excels – gives her a sketch he’s done of her.

The two of them spend all night walking and talking, and at dawn the kidnappers return for another crack at Anya. Colossus transforms into his metal form and fights them off easily, but Anya is horrified to learn that Peter is a mutant. Peter, in the gentle, subtly poetic cadences with which Claremont always writes Colossus, insists that he is as human as she, and that she should look into his heart. She crumples up his sketch and throws it at his chest, and as she runs off, cries, “A man made of steel has no heart!”

The final page is another example of Claremont’s oft-forgotten ability to be sparse and simple when the occasion calls for it. The first panel silently depicts a stricken Peter (another gorgeously expressive face by Bolton), and a sequence of silent panels follow, depicting Colossus standing rooted to a single spot, stricken, as day turns to night behind him. Finally, Peter tears his portrait of Anya in half and discards it. His actions and expression suggest emotionlessness, but he speaks a single, simple line to contradict the visual: “You are wrong.”

The story is set up to provide stark contrast with “The Big Dare,” in which Nightcrawler’s fears about prejudice were made to appear largely groundless: with the exception of a few bad seeds with chips on their shoulders, humanity as represented in “The Big Dare” is benevolent and tolerant of Nightcrawler’s mutancy. This perhaps bordered on naive, but was appropriate to the whimsy of Nightcrawler’s character. Here, Claremont gives us the flip side: He pours on the saccharine in the first ten pages of the story, portraying a very idealized “first love” scenario, and then wrenches it into a grotesque image of prejudicial hate in the final two pages. It’s manipulative, to be sure, but effectively harsh, and it works fantastically in conjunction with the previous backup story’s breezy optimism.

The drama is also strengthened by making Colossus, in particular, the target of a racist rant. He is the X-Men’s gentle giant, whose essential contradiction during Claremont’s tenure is that he is a warrior with literally as hard an exterior as possible, while his heart nurses gentle passions (poetry, art) and enjoys simple pleasures (nature, farming). It’s fitting that the “hardest” X-Man should be, as of this story, the first of them to be struck right to the heart by the power of hate. (Claremont doesn’t leave Piotr out to dry, however. Redemption will come in Classic X-Men #21b, the thematic sequel to “Prison of the Heart.”)

1 comment:

Randy Scott's Ghost said...

The Bolton Classic X-Men backups are my favorite X-Men stories and this one in particular is one of the best.

I'm only just now discovering this wonderful issue by issue log of the Claremont X-Men and want to say 'thank you'. I agree with just about all of it.