Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Jason Powell on Classic X-Men #17, part a (incorporating UXM #111)

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


This issue, and the ones that follow it, are again best understood in Morrison’s schema of the X-Men being defined by certain “riffs.” It really does all go back to Lee-Kirby, who in their brief 17-issue collaboration on the X-Men gave us not only the basic premise (with Xavier, the school and the students) but also Magneto, the Brotherhood of Mutants, Juggernaut, Ka-Zar and the Savage Land, aliens, and the Sentinels. In Uncanny X-Men #’s 54-66, we got Roy Thomas and Neal Adams playing those riffs and adding some new licks. Over the course of those final 13 issues before the comic went on hiatus, we got the Living Pharaoh/Monolith, Havok, the Sentinels, Sauron, Ka-Zar and the Savage Land, Magneto, the Japanese mutant Sunfire, aliens, and the Hulk.

Claremont and Byrne were both huge admirers of the Neal Adams run, and so only a few issues after Byrne replaced Cockrum, they began an extended run (exactly 13 issues) that again hit familiar chords and added a few new ones. It actually begins in Marvel Team-Up, which Claremont and Byrne were also collaborating on at the same time. In Team-Up #69-70, Spider-Man teams up with Thor and Havok against the Living Pharaoh/Monolith. That story pushes the dominoes over to Uncanny X-Men #111, wherein the Beast searches for the disappeared X-Men. He eventually learns that they’ve been kidnapped and made into circus freaks by Mesmero, a Silver Age X-Men villain whose mutant power is hypnosis. (I have a theory that Claremont originally intended Mesmero to be the surprise identity of Eric the Red – the fact that both characters’ power was hypnosis is a clue, and there are a couple others seeded in the early Cockrum issues as well – but that’s obviously not what saw print.)

From here, the X-Men will face Magneto, then go to the Savage Land and team up with Ka-Zar, fight Sauron, go to Japan and team up with Sunfire, then fight Canadian superheroes (which is what Wolverine was when he first appeared in The Incredible Hulk). For good measure, Claremont and Byrne even bring back the Beast, so that three of the five original X-Men are back in the series.

Claremont, Byrne and Austin manage a wonderfully cheap and sleazy tone for this issue, all set on the grounds of a low-rent circus. The tawdriness of Storm in her leopard-print bikini and Jean in her fish-net stockings (an embellishment added by Austin, according to Byrne, who seems to think they were a bit much); Wolverine’s smacking Jean around. There’s a subtly jokey tone to this one (which continues into the b-side), which we won’t really see from Claremont again as writing style grows darker and darker on X-Men. Ten years from now, Claremont will have to invent an entire new title to accommodate his sense of fun (Excalibur), because he’ll have painted himself into a dark and angsty corner on Uncanny. The surreal sense of humor on “Mindgames” will end up being a rarity.

Geoff did those “Cassaday repeat panel watch” blurbs at the end of his Astonishing X-Men reviews. Since Byrne and Austin such an awesome team, I feel compelled to start putting a “Byrne/Austin Awesome Panel Watch” on these next reviews. For the present issue: The panel in which Colossus cold-cocks the Beast in the back of the head, and the final page, a splash of Magneto. That cool shadow effect on Magneto was created by Austin using something called zip-a-tone. I have no idea what that is.

Trivia: X-Men fan and fan-favorite artist Jim Lee collects Magneto splash-pages. There was one at the end of Uncanny X-Men #17 (Kirby’s final issue), and Cockrum did one in Uncanny #104, and now there’s this one by Byrne and Austin. If I recall correctly, Lee owns the original pages for all three. He’s also drawn a couple himself.


Matthew J. Brady said...

Zip-a-tone is a brand name of screentone, the dot patterns used to create textures and shadows in art. I don't know how much they were ever used in American comics, but they're really big in manga.

Anagramsci said...

also in Cerebus!

Jason Powell said...

Thanks for the link, Matthew! Good stuff. I guess I can't speak to American comics in general, but I know Austin used it a lot around this era of X-Men. I believe Byrne has stated on his website several times that he wishes Austin had used it less. I do not agree.

wwk5d said...

One of the best cliff-hangers in the series so far. You know even Cyclops was shitting in his pants.