Thursday, January 29, 2009

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #194

[Guest Blogger Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont’s X-Men run. For more in this series, see the toolbar on the right.]

Uncanny X-Men, The #194
“Juggernaut’s Back in Town”

While from late 1984 to early 1985 Claremont was reaching new heights of narrative complexity with Bill Sienkiewicz on New Mutants, he seems to have been relatively less inspired by the art on Uncanny. John Romita Jr. is a formidable artist by any standard, but compared to Sienkiewicz he is of course much more conventional. So in February of ’85, while New Mutants completed the multi-layered “Legion” trilogy, featuring a metaphoric struggle between an Arabic terrorist and an Israeli mutant -- a story that still seems timely over two decades later – the Uncanny X-Men fight the Juggernaut for the umpteenth time.

What lifts the story above expectation is Claremont’s shrewd decision to transfer his apparent own sense of ennui as an author to that of the characters. In one of Claremont’s funniest openers, we get a montage of the X-Men hearing a radio report of Juggernaut’s return to New York City, and most of them react with boredom, apathy, or – most humorously in Nightcrawler’s case – a petulant tantrum. The sequence (filled with lovely art details by Romita Jr. including, marvelously, Kitty phasing through her alarm clock so that it explodes and she can go back to sleep) can’t help but bring a grin. The very notion that the X-Men are simply fed up with this sort of thing is a wonderful dash of prosaic realism, lifting the story into being something beyond the rote superhero clichés it makes fun of.

The bit wherein Wolverine talks Nightcrawler into going out to take on Juggernaut again is priceless as well, worthy of extended quotation:

Nightcrawler: “Anyone ever tell you, Logan, that you’re a sadistic brute?”
Wolverine: “You’re the first.”
Nightcrawler: “We’re in no shape for this.”
Wolverine: “We’re also all there is.”
Nightcrawler: “Do we have to?”
Wolverine: “Nope. We never have to.”
Nightcrawler: “Sigh – coffee?”
Wolverine: “Already brewed.”

Logan’s deadpan responses are quite funny, a canny way of sweetening the firm undercurrent of the X-Men’s responsibility (“We’re also all there is”). Note also that Wolverine doesn’t contradict Kurt’s assertion that the X-Men are in “no shape for this,” nor is he enough of a “sadistic brute” to suggest that they go out to fight the Juggernaut before they’ve had their morning coffee. Hilarious.

Claremont also comes up with a clever new use for Rogue’s powers in Uncanny #194: Although Rogue had previously absorbed several characters’ powers simultaneously (it was during her first appearance in Avengers Annual #10), this issue marks the first time Claremont has made a visual trick of the idea. The image of the Rogue/Nightcrawler/Colossus amalgam is great, very comic-booky, and it’s also nice to see a reiteration of Nightcrawler’s trick from two issues earlier of teleporting only a piece of the enemy.

“Juggernaut’s Back in Town” also features the use of a simple, but classic, trick in the arsenal of any good serial superhero writer: The taking down of a classic powerhouse villain to demonstrate how formidable the NEW bad guy is. Granted, Cain Marko’s “unstoppable” gimmick had been devalued over the years thanks to various comics in which he was physically overpowered. Still, Nimrod’s ability to toss Juggernaut around like a toy is a good shorthand way of establishing his power-level. It also continues Claremont’s political re-alignment of the X-Men. Once again, they find themselves in sympathy with former enemies – outcasts, in other words – in the face of a new enemy who represents the Establishment (Nimrod was built by the U.S. government, his entire existence dedicated to the maintenance of the status quo). Not only do the X-Men protect Juggernaut in spite of the fact that he’s a “jerk” (another hilarious line from Rogue toward the end of the issue), but they also escape the scene of the altercation via the Morlock tunnels.

Annotations department: The epilogue set at KGB headquarters with Colonel Vazhin ranting about a coming Armageddon goes nowhere – but in an oblique symmetry, Rogue’s listening to the “Nazgul” on Page 5 is a reference to George R.R. Martin’s 1984 sci-fi novel “The Armageddon Rag.”


The Intellectual Redneck said...
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Anonymous said...

Am I the only person who thinks that letting a criminal who's sworn to kill your mentor escape from the authorities is a sign of stupidity, not a sign of being anti-establishment?

Stephen said...

You quote the whole dialogue, and discuss most of it, but don't highlight my favorite two lines:

Nightcrawler: “Do we have to?”
Wolverine: “Nope. We never have to.”

Wolverine's a wonderful, pithy encapsulation of a whole bunch of notions of freedom and responsibility -- and the perfect riposte to Nightcrawler, by undercutting the premise of his question.

(Incidentally, a similar spirit lirks in a nice bit of dialogue between Wolverine and Kitty in issue #4 of their much-derided mini-series, when she falls into the snow and he refuses to help her. But then he turns it around, and makes it that sort of freedom/responsibility towards *herself*: you don't have to. You never have to.)

I think that much of what is best about Claremont's ethic -- which, as a teenager, I found inspiring -- is in those lines. I've always liked them.

And of course the coffee ending is, as you note, *perfect*.


Jason said...

Well said, Stephen. I often find Claremont inspiring. Nice to know I'm not the only one who thinks so (or who remembers Claremontian dialogue for a quality other than the frequent repetition of certain "tics").

Michael, there is probably an entire post to be written on the literal content of a Claremont story vs. the feel that Claremont is going for. When it comes to the former, Claremont's whole universe is a fragile house of cards built on absurd coincidences, bizarre plot twists and illogical scenarios. When it comes to the latter, he nails things perfectly a good 80% of the time.

My numbers may be off there, but you get the idea. :)

Anonymous said...

This issue also marks the beginning of Nimrod as some sort of local hero to the citizens of New York, right? Everyday people were fed up with supervillains, too, and they liked Nimrod's harsh dispensation of justice. The ultimate killing machine from the future turned local hero is a logical outcome for Nimrod-after all, he was created to protect normal humans, so of course normal humans like him. But as he becomes less of an inhuman killing machine and begins developing a personality, gets a job, lives with a family (he boards with a Hispanic family) it starts becoming something more. Unfortunately, after Uncanny #209 we don't see Nimrod for a lonnnnnng time (What was he up to that entire time? Did his mission to eliminate mutants totally go by the wayside while he did construction work?) and when he does return he is merged with the Master Mold and shoved through the Siege Perilous. Then we didn't see him for a long time after that...I know he returned in X-Force, but my will to read X-Force was (and is) very weak. All this to say, this seems like an intriguing ball that Claremont dropped.

David Fiore said...

my memory of these issues quite vague, but I certainly recall the effects of the Nimrod stuff upon my nascent punk sensibilities, when I first encountered was definitely the right way to go (i.e. left!)

and Stephen--thanks for the quotation--it is indeed a very nice exchange (and I'm definitely one of those who remembers Claremont for his tics rather than his triumphs!)


Jason said...

Anon, when Nimrod does return in issues 246 and 247, we are told that he's basically been doing his thing all the time he was off-stage, taking down criminals and doing his thing.

The way he's dealt with in that arc is a bit perfunctory, but I've always liked it anyway. There are some solid ironies (he -- the last, ultimate Sentinel -- merges with Master Mold, who is the first), and Nimrod's final act is, I think you could argue, one of heroism.

Dave, always a pleasure to see you comment! But hey, I quoted that bit first! (But Stephen did do the heavy work, so kudos.)

David Fiore said...

that's true! sorry Jason--I meant to thank you both (Stephen for the added emphasis), but my haste got the better of me!

Teebore said...

This is another issue I think of when I recall how great the Claremont/JRJr run is.

That opening sequence, of the X-Men's morning routine, including that fantastic bit of dialogue you quoted, is something that has always stuck with me (and I'm one of those who remembers Claremont's writing for more than his tics, as well, though I do love poking fun at his tics :) ).

This is also a great example of a perfect "done in one" issue: the main narrative of the story is told in one issue, but it still has strong ties to the ongoing narrative.

Also, the comments for issue 193 deviated a bit so I didn't feel comfortable commenting there (not that it probably matters this late in the game...), but I really appreciated your analysis of that issue as the one where the X-Men clearly become anti-establishment. I thought your analysis was spot on, and for all the dozens of times I've read that issue, I never made the explicit connection before. Once again, thanks!

wwk5d said...

"Am I the only person who thinks that letting a criminal who's sworn to kill your mentor escape from the authorities is a sign of stupidity, not a sign of being anti-establishment?

In all fairness, 1/2 the team was unconscious at this point, Rogue was probably exhausted, leaving only Wolverine (who took a few good hits from Nimrod) and Rachel. If they were in no shape to take down Juggernaut before, they certainly is less shape now ;)

I love the scenes at the mansion at the beginning. One of the great things about this era is that, even if the issue itself isn't outstanding, there's so much great character work in the issue anyway.

Jason, I am shocked, shocked, that you didn't mention this is one of the few times someone mentions Jean Grey and Rachel DOES NOT BREAK DOWN IN TEARS :)

As for the epilogue: this was a theme Claremont was touch on, but never flesh out, about mutant factions appearing throughout the world, and they were becoming players. Also, mutants were becoming the new nuclear weapons, and the government with the most mutants could be dangerous. This issue is just the seed of the idea, actually. There is another issue post Inferno, where I believe Vazhin and Valerie Cooper meet to discuss, and by then, it's gotten much worse, as by then, you have Sinister and the Marauders, Stryfe and the MLF, Apocalypse and his Horsemen, etc (the KGB was def waning by then as they didn't know Sinister was 'dead' ;)