Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #181

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men. For more in this series see the toolbar on the right.]

Uncanny X-Men, The #181

“Tokyo Story”

Set chronologically after Secret Wars #12 (despite being published in the same month as Secret Wars #1, eleven months earlier), Uncanny #181 is a light-hearted story, one of Claremont’s most fun-filled issues. The opening sequence -- depicting a group of Japanese school children reacting to the sight of a dragon by pulling out spiral-bound “monster books” to look up which one it is – is extremely cute. (“Gojira ... Space Cruiser Yamato ... Astro Boy ... Red Ronin ... Hulk ... the dragon isn’t in our monster book! It must be a new one! We’ve discovered a brand-new monster!”) Here and elsewhere, Claremont seems to be poking fun at his own past portrayals of Japan, generally more based on clichéd, anachronistic and/or out-and-out fictional versions of the country than rooted in reality. Hence the very funny scene set in a Japanese war room, as reports of a giant dragon in Tokyo are met with reactions such as “It can’t be, this is the off-season!” and “Why us...? Why couldn’t it have attacked Los Angeles?” The whole idea that this is just another in a long string of giant-monster attacks in Tokyo is amusingly silly – a rare bit of meta-commentary from Claremont. He even pokes fun at his own exploitation of Japan and its culture in order to give Wolverine depth, as Logan laments, “[I] can’t seem to stay outta this flamin’ country, even when I want to.”

(As a sidebar, it’s also nice to see Mariko Yashida wearing something other than a kimono for once. She’ll dress similarly sensibly in the upcoming Kitty Pryde & Wolverine miniseries, a welcome indication that Claremont is finally willing to portray Japan in a more accurately contemporary way.)

Meanwhile, for all its ridiculousness, the actual premise of “Tokyo Story” is also rather sweet: a female dragon has fallen in love with Lockheed and is smashing up the titular city because – as we learn at the end – it needs material with which to build a nest for the two of them. The page in which Lockheed rejects his female counterpart is surprisingly effective, combining whimsy and pathos seamlessly. And while it’s not stated explicitly here, there is a deliberate parallel here between the situation of Lockheed and his “lady-love” and that of Colossus and Kitty. (At Claremont’s request, one of Jim Shooter’s plot threads in Secret Wars involved a romance between Peter and a beautiful female alien, which ended tragically.)

The actual mechanics of the parallelism are a little muddy – who exactly is representing who? – but the general contours of “Tokyo Story,” wherein a fantastical romance goes badly wrong, clearly are meant to have a resonance beyond its surface light-heartedness. It is Wolverine, acting once again as the cowboy-philosopher, who drives the point home at the end. “Love makes you crazy,” he says. “You find yourself thinkin’ about settlin’ down, raisin’ a family ... buildin’ a house ... or a nest. It’s a nice dream – when it works.” The lines resonate with the previous issue’s Logan/Colossus scene, which had Peter making similar comments about what he wanted for him and Kitty. One also can’t help but think – especially given the story’s setting in Japan and the occasional cutaways to Mariko – of Wolverine’s own recent failure to “settle down.” (In that context, Logan’s spontaneous adoption here of an orphaned Japanese child is thematically appropriate, although it’s a thread that Claremont will not do much with.)

Meanwhile, there’s also the amusing implication that Lockheed has rejected the alien female dragon because he is already in love, with Kitty – the same woman whose heart Colossus is two issues away from breaking.

All in all, Uncanny X-Men #181 is a kind of throwback to ‘70s-era Claremont (hence the inclusion of Sunfire, whose last X-appearance was in 1979); the adventure is more light-hearted, brightly colored and fun, but with resonances that imply the superhero action has meaning beyond the obvious. If there is a difference between “Tokyo Story” and 1970s Claremont stories, it is less to do with the arrangement of genre elements and more the result of the author’s own increased skill and fluency.

The story’s epilogue also harkens to the past. Since Uncanny #181 is the first issue to be published in 1984, Claremont takes advantage of the date, deliberately alluding to the alternate history related by the adult Kate Pryde in “Days of Future Past” (Uncanny #141). In a panel from that story depicting a rabid anti-mutant politician whose poster slogan reads “America! It’s 1984! Do You Know What Your Children Are?”, we learn that 1984 was – in the “Future Past” chronology – the year that the “Mutant Control Act” was passed. Now, obligingly, only 23 days into the “real” 1984, Senator Robert Kelly (the man whose life the X-Men saved in part 2 of “Days”) introduces a bill titled the “Mutant Affairs Control Act.” Thus does Claremont ominously suggest that the dystopian future the X-Men fought to prevent is still coming – right on schedule.

10 comments:

scott91777 said...

First of all, I think it's noteworthy that JRJR's art is growing in leaps and bounds at this point and, within a couple of issues, his style will much more closely resemble that of his initial daredevil run.

I'm reading these issues in the Black and white essentials volume and this art looks great in black and white.

Secondly, was Xavier's walking and becoming part of the field team, so to speak, Claremont's idea or editorial mandate? I think I meant to ask this back at the conclusion of the Brood saga... but the whole 'Now he's a in a clone body and can walk' scenario seemed kind of tacked on... like someone wanted Charlie to walk but didn't want to put forth the effort to explain how.

Anonymous said...

Ah, Secret Wars. What's interesting is that Marvel managed to screw this up massively -- the 12-issue long series took a year to complete, by which time the books it affected had already moved 11 months beyond it -- but /it was a huge success anyway/, setting the stage for 25 years of Big Stupid Crossover events.

Good point, about Claremont handling Japan better over time. (His earlier portrayals seemed to have been drawn from reading _Shogun_.) I never did warm to Lockheed, though -- magical flying pets were already hokey in 1984.

(Which reminds me: has anyone here been watching _Avatar_? There's a show that takes hokey old tropes by the fistful... and manages to breathe life into them.)


Doug M.

Jason said...

Scott, I certainly don't wish to devalue JRJr's art in any way, but a good share of the credit for the awesome look of these issues has to go to Dan Green. It's clear that his inking is a big part of the visual style, especially when you compare any of his issues to, for example, issue 189 (which has JRJr inked by Steve Leialoha, and completely lacks the grounded grittiness of the Green issues).

I don't know about walking Xavier, but I'm assuming it was Claremont's idea. The cloned body is perhaps not the greatest way of making it happen, but it beats what Roy Thomas did in the Silver Age. (Mechanical legs?!?!?)

Doug, I've always found it intriguing the way Marvel handled Secret Wars -- totally unconcerned about Spoilers, blithely giving away plot details in the other series, which were plunging ahead of SW month after month. In a way, I think it's kind of cool. As you say, Secret Wars was a huge seller, so people clearly were still intrigued, presumably because even though they knew a lot of what was going to happen, they were fascinated to learn HOW it would happen. (Answer: Usually in as perfunctory and undramatic a way as possible, but ... hey, what'cha gonna do? Jim Shooter.)

It's also intriguing to note what elements were not in place yet as the titles progressed. Uncanny #183 has Colossus pining over his dead lover from Secret Wars, yet curiously never using her name. Why? Claremont didn't know what her name would be yet. (I'm guessing Shooter didn't either...)

scott91777 said...

Jason,

You're right, the point where Green took over inks is directly the point where JRJR's style becomes more apparent. If nothing else, we can at least say that Green's inks were a more natural fit that played more to JRJR's strengths... or maybe he played more to Greens.

Another thing worth noting in terms of JRJR's art... there is a definite similarity to the shape Romita's art is taking to that that Frank Miller's art was taking at the same time. If you look at Miller's art from his final issues of Daredevil (about a year before the publication of this issue) and, then, compare then with Ronin (which would debut shortly after these issues in 1984) it's almost like Romita is filling a happy medium between the two styles. I wonder if part of this could be the influence of Manga among many comics artist around this time, we know Miller was part of this trend, how about JRJR?

Even today, there is a striking similarity between the styles of the two artist. I'm curious, does anybody know if these guys are good friends or have some sort of mutual admiration society? I know they've worked together on at least one occasion (Daredevil: Man Without Fear).

Andrew said...

I'm curious how many "light-hearted" issues of Claremont's X-men are made to seem more relevant with serious Epilogues and how effective this strategy is? (I'm thinking of the issue with the absurd alien invasion in Australia, but I'm sure there are others)

Gary said...

On the subject of Secret Wars and Claremont not using a name for Zsaji, I also notice that he makes no note of Colossus' out in that instance - that the "love" he had for Zsaji may have been simply a side-effect of her healing abilities.

Jason said...

Gary, Claremont would (I think) not have Peter use that excuse in any case, because of what was going on in that scene (according to Wolverine, anyway) -- Peter was sabotaging his relationship with Kitty deliberately, out of a fear of things getting too "real." A bit of characterization that, I must say, strikes me as more and more heart-rending the older that I get.

Andrew -- nice observation. In terms of getting people to keep tuning in for the next issue, the strategy seems to have been very effective. As for the dramatic effects of the shift in tone ... tougher question. Overall, Claremont has a somewhat weird tendency to drop overly dramatic bits into comedic issues. I will say that I think it's a stronger choice to do the "dark epilogue" than it is to drop the seriousness into the *middle* of the story. (See: The Hellfire Club sequence in X-Men Annual #7 ... it's my favorite bit of the issue, but the contrast in tone is jarring.)

sexy said...
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sexy said...
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Teebore said...

@Doug M. Which reminds me: has anyone here been watching _Avatar_?

Yes, I watched Avatar, and it's brilliant!

@Jason it beats what Roy Thomas did in the Silver Age. (Mechanical legs?!?!?)

What's sad is that the nonsensical mechanical legs weren't the worst part; it's that in true Silver Age fashion Roy Thomas completely forgot about or ignored them for the most part. So he introduced this zany idea for seemingly no reason.

I've always wondered whether Colossus' love interest in Secret Wars was a Shooter idea or Claremont one. Good to know it was part of Claremont's plan all along.