Saturday, March 01, 2008

Jason Powell on Classic X-Men #16, part a (UXM #109)

[This post is part of a series of posts looking at Claremont's X-Men issue by issue. For more in the series see Jason Powell's name on the toolbar on the right.]

“Home Are the Heroes”

Dave Cockrum’s favorite of the new X-Men was Nightcrawler, and he doesn’t seem to have liked Wolverine at all. (Peter Sanderson has pointed out that, for all his ostensibly toughness, Wolverine is almost a comic character during the Cockrum run: he gets his clothes burnt off, tossed around by Colossus, smacked down by Cyclops, and talked down to by a leprechaun.) John Byrne, a Canadian, took a quasi-patriotic interest in Wolverine, and part of his agenda upon taking over from Cockrum seems to have been to make Wolverine cool. (It seems fair to say that he succeeded. Just ask Hugh Jackman.)

The start of that campaign is in this issue, in which Byrne and Claremont pick up on a thread from Giant-Sized X-Men #1 – when Wolverine quit his job as a Canadian super-agent, his superior told him he’d regret it – and debut a character dressed in the Canadian flag who’s come to America to bring Wolverine back. Wolverine was called “Weapon X” when he worked for the Canadians, so the new superhero is called “Weapon Alpha.”

It’s a little silly, granted. Surely, most readers have to laugh when Weapon Alpha brags to Wolverine, “My battle suit is the ultimate product of Canadian technology.” (But remember, this is the Marvel Universe version of Canada, the ones who figured out how to give a guy razor-sharp adamantium claws.) But it would be sillier if we didn’t have Byrne and Austin giving the action scenes so much bite. The sequence in which Colossus transforms from flesh-and-blood to metal in mid-punch is a classic (though Byrne claims to hate the sequence now). Once again, the detailed rendering by Austin makes it that much cooler.

There are also interesting character bits going on in “Home Are the Heroes.” With his giant space epic at last complete, Claremont does what is often referred to as a “breather issue.” The fight with Weapon Alpha provides some action, but it is in many ways incidental. The meat of the comic occurs earlier, with the return of some characterization (and, of course, soap opera melodrama). Banshee and Moira become pretty much an official couple when he kisses her on Page 2. That same page introduces Storm’s attic-full of plants, a deft touch that illustrates the amount of thought Claremont was starting to put into the lives of these characters.

Nightcrawler calls back Amanda, the girl he met back in Uncanny #98 (note the Errol Flynn poster in the background – very possibly Byrne’s idea). He suggests a double-date with Colossus and Betty (also from Uncanny #98), but Peter says no, he wants to finish writing a letter to his parents, and then accompany other X-Men on a picnic. Nightcrawler is the incurable romantic, out for a night on the town; Colossus is the family man who prefers the simpler things. (Also, Neil Shyminski, please note the Star Wars reference here: It is one of Nightcrawler’s “favorite films,” and Nightcrawler is said to resemble a “wookie.”)

And Wolverine goes hunting, but not to kill anything. “It takes no skill t’kill,” he says. “What takes skill is sneakin’ up close enough to a skittish doe t’touch her...” Wolverine is a wild man, but not in the predatory sense. His desire is to be so at one with nature that it accepts him. Anyone reading these stories in Classic X-Men would’ve gotten a sense of these traits much earlier, because the new pages and Bolton backups were written with the characters’ personalities already in place (Storm’s attic full of plants is in issue 3, for example, and Nightcrawler calls Errol Flynn his “idol” in issue 4). But to view this story in its original context, it’s striking how much Claremont suddenly gives us in this one issue. Already he is increasing the dimensionality of these characters, and in doing so striking upon the key to why they will eventually become so beloved, the stars of the best-selling superhero comic in America for decades.

I am again struck by Nightcrawler’s place in the world of the four core members of the “new” team. Colossus, Storm and Wolverine all feel ill at ease in their city environs. Storm surrounds herself with plants; Colossus dearly misses the “emptiness” of his homeland; Wolverine yearns to be at one with the forest. Only Nightcrawler, the so-called “misfit,” prefers the opposite. He wants to go to the city, a beautiful woman on his arm, and see a sci-fi film. It’s curious that Nightcrawler – the only one of the four who is not outwardly human – also does not share the naturalist-streak that other three possess. To be honest, striking though the contrast is, I’m not sure where Claremont is going with it.

[One minor thing to notice, is a nice art detail -- a sound effect that follows the plane of a beam of energy, rather than being angled on the flat "window" the reader is looking through to read the comic book.]


Patrick said...

This was one of those issues where the ostensible plot, Wolverine's battle with Alpha Team, distracted from what was really working about the issue, the character stuff. That's an area where Claremont reminds me of Whedon a lot, I frequently felt like the fight scenes were forced into the work, when the really interesting stuff was elsewhere. But, both of them are at their best when the fighting becomes a way to express character emotion on a grand scale, as Claremont was able to do quite consistently later in his run.

Patrick said...
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