Friday, May 30, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #131

[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.]

“Run for Your Life”

The first trilogy in the Dark Phoenix Saga concludes here, in a quite conventionally super-heroic way. Claremont and Byrne are still being unapologetically Silver Age in their delivery, the only hint of the “holocaust” promised two issues ago being the further corruption of Jean Grey.

First, to speak to the former: “Run for Your Life” opens with a splash page ringed by headshots of the six X-Men, along with captions saying their names – a classic device, in this case implicitly promising that each character will play his or her part.

And, except maybe for Storm, they do: Cyclops is once again the supreme tactician, spearheading rescues, formulating strategies, and getting to deliver dialogue like, “I’m through tangling with shadows. Mind-scan our prisoners, Jean, and find out who we’re up against.”

For Nightcrawler, Byrne reprises a slick idea from Uncanny X-Men #111: Nightcrawler teleporting so fast that he knocks three villains down in a single panel. While Uncanny #111 had no accompanying dialogue or narration, this time Claremont gets in on the fun, letting Nightcrawler revel in his ability to “deck all these men before the first one even hits the ground!” The panel also contains the most entertaining use of Nightcrawler’s “bamf” sound effect, with a single instance of “BAMF” interpolated one letter at a time amongst the three simultaneous instances of Nightcrawler.

Kitty gets to use her phasing powers to rescue Wolverine, realizing in the process that when she phases through electronic equipment, she short-circuits it. (Byrne and Claremont clearly are already keen to have fun with their brand new creation.) Colossus has his moment in the sun when he takes down a Hellfire soldier and basks in the subsequent adoration from an already crushing Kitty. And Wolverine even gets to kill some people off-panel.

In the funniest gesture towards the Lee/Kirby X-Men, Professor X ends up “holding back and playing observer,” because he wants to see how the X-Men handle themselves in a combat situation. This as opposed to, say, using his telepathic powers to help out here and there. This is the kind of thing he did in the 1960s all the time.

The only unconvincing note is Dazzler. While all the other characters get to do something impressive, Dazzler “creates a lightshow, so intense and beautiful, that the guards’ minds can’t cope with it!” Even Claremont doesn’t sound very convinced by that.

On the other end of the spectrum is Phoenix, who in this issue is more of a powerhouse than all the other X-Men combined. Claremont and Byrne are using her very shrewdly in this issue – on the one hand, she’s so powerful that she lets the X-Men do anything they want. Her telepathic abilities allow her to learn almost all they need to know about the Hellfire Club, for instance, and her powers also get the rescue team into Frost Industries with utter ease. From a plotting standpoint, it’s a huge cheat, giving the good guys the ability to do whatever’s necessary to make the story work.

But all through the issue, Cyclops is expressing his fear and discomfort over the range of Jean’s abilities, thus not only disguising the narrative cheat but also deliberately directing readers’ expectation in the other direction: Rather than looking askance at the convenient nature of Phoenix’s powers, we’re all waiting for the other shoe to drop.

This thread culminates in the telepathic battle between Phoenix and the White Queen, a scene that both visually and verbally alludes to the Xavier/Farouk “psi-war” of Uncanny X-Men #117. Cleverly, Claremont and Byrne position the characters so that the White Queen – at a disadvantage and seemingly hopelessly overpowered – reminds us of the hero of that story, Xavier, while Phoenix’s mutation into her giant bird form is reminiscent of Farouk’s transformations in “Psi War.” The visual and verbal cues quite cannily serve a double function, both hinting at Jean’s further corruption and also foreshadowing the upcoming psi-war between Xavier and Jean in Uncanny X-Men #136.

Finally, Storm – the only X-Man who doesn’t get any cool, superheroic bits in “Run for Your Life” – makes another crucial allusion, this time to Uncanny X-Men #108, “Armageddon Now.” That story, the climax of Claremont’s first major X-Men saga and the apotheosis of Phoenix as a cosmic force for creation, featured Phoenix saving the Universe. Classic X-Men #15’s revision of the story added a dark twist, suggesting that the moment in which Phoenix triumphed, she also was set down the path to becoming Dark Phoenix. Storm being reminded of that moment as she sees Jean triumph over the White Queen reinforces this idea. “Armageddon Now” will be alluded to again and again over the next few issues, positioned very clearly as a reflection of this, Claremont’s second major X-Men saga and the apotheosis of Phoenix as a cosmic force of destruction.


Anonymous said...

Jason, lots of good stuff here. Agreed, that the framing on the first page was cool. (IMS Byrne did this at least one other time, but I can't remember just when.) And Nightcrawler's attack -- I had forgotten that for lo, these many years! Good stuff.

Kitty Pryde was used really well in this trilogy. She's an outsider, not an X-Man. She's hesitant and often confused, but trying her best in a scary situation. I found this early version much more interesting than the hypercompetent, more generic superhero character she later evolved into. "Kitty as innocent" gave much more punch to scenes where she was threatened or forced to do something dangerous, and of course it's what made issue 150 work at all.

Anyway. Let me throw in a dissenting voice on the psi-war. Maybe this was just the way Byrne drew mental combat? As we would find out later -- to our dismay -- Byrne had a tendency to re-use the same tropes and designs over and over. During his X-Men tenure this was less obvious, partly because it was early in his career, partly because Claremont was making him stretch. But this could be an early example.

(Byrne and his art really deserve a post of their own. Without going into details -- because this stuff has been debated by the fan community forever -- I think most of us can agree that this period shows a lot of Byrne's very best work, and also the beginning of some of his bad habits.)

Finally, how about some love for covers? The 120s and 130s had some of Byrne's best cover work ever. The cover of this issue, for instance, has a really insane-looking White Queen -- with the cheesecake dialled down to zero and the menace turned up to max --over a montage of captured X-Men in cages. It's just pure superhero comic goodness.


Doug M.

Troy Wilson said...

Claremont talks about the old days:

Mostly old news, but there is at least one interesting tidbit.

Jason said...

Doug, I'm thinking a bit about what you said about new characters introduced in Claremont's first 100 issues. I'm trying to think of some more examples of lasting characters, but wow, you might be right. (Although most of the characters you name are characters I like. Moira MacTaggert's a favorite, for example. There is only one major Claremont X-character that I strongly dislike. I won't say who it is just yet. :)

On another earlier point, in case you missed it, I feel compelled to point out again that issues 129/130 are not the first appearance of "X-Men racing bad guys to the new mutant" trope. It's a staple of the Lee/Kirby X-Men issues.

On the subject of Byrne ... I have very little negative to say about his X-Men work. In fact, I'm not sure there's a single sour note for me. He was on top of his game. Post X-Men, it's quite the opposite. :) I mean, he continued to do some good things, but the work became less and less interesting to me. And also, when he both writes and draws, it's hard for me to separate the one from the other -- so even if he manages some good visuals, it's tainted by his considerable weaknesses as a writer. (He is, I think, among the bottom five of comic book writers, especially when it comes to dialogue. Just atrocious.)

Covers -- I have a virtual blind-spot when it comes to comic book covers. There are a few exceptions among the X-Men (like the iconic Days of Future Past one), but generally my brain barely acknowledges them. Covers will probably continue to get the short shrift from me in these posts, sorry. :) (Although I think the next one, for 132, is pretty great, and it was ripped off for use as the cover for the Sealab 2021 Season 2 box, which is awesome.)

Troy, thanks for that link! Darn it, it would've been cool to attend that. I've had so many questions arise as a result of writing this blog series. Ah well ...

Anonymous said...

Jason, you're right about Lee using the "X-Men racing the bad guys trope". Don't know if I'd call it a staple, quite, but you're right.

The character you strongly dislike: I'll take a spin and guess Gambit, the Wesley Crusher of mid-period Claremont.

Moira McTaggert: trying to be objective here, there are some characters that ended up being lasting, important, influential additions to the mythos. Others, less so. Moira is towards the less so end of the spectrum (though she's certainly more important than, say, Callisto).

Byrne: I love his X-Men work too, but I wouldn't say there are /no/ sour notes. He had the whole hangup with eyeballs, for instance, and also the fear of straight lines. And the various tricks of subtle exaggeration, which usually worked, but sometimes not -- I've already mentioned his version of Kitty Pryde. I'll keep an eye out for stuff as we go along!

Byrne as writer: actually, early Byrne was occasionally good-to-excellent. His first two issues of FF -- the Diablo one and the Johnny Storm solo -- were both solid old-fashioned comic book storytelling.

However, he tended to get steadily worse over time. This is common with writer-artists, especially those working for big companies: they start off scripting stuff they'll want to draw, but economic pressure combines with convenience to nudge them towards scripting stuff that is /easy/ for them to draw.

Covers: huh, go figure. Well... I first encountered these issues as a young teenager, back in the days [cough, cough] when you bought your comics in the drugstore or the grocery store, from a spinner rack. So the covers were the first thing I saw, and they often made a lasting impression. I can still remember the exact moment I picked up #137 off the spinner: it was in a bookshop in Saco, Maine in 1979. Not only was the cover awesome, but I saw at once that it was double-size... something big was obviously going to happen!

Well, if you don't do covers, how about taking a moment for the colorists? Glynis Wein and Bob Sharen took turns with the coloring through the last couple of years of Claremont/Byrne. By modern standards their work is no great shakes -- coloring technology has come a long way since 1978-9, and so has coloring technique -- but for a contemporary comics reader, it was awesome. (Though you might have to stare at a lot of contemporary late-'70s comics to appreciate just how awesome.)

They're both good, but if you look closely you can see that Glynis Wein is a little better -- her issues manage to combine bold, splashy foreground stuff with some nice subtle effects.

Doug M.

Jason said...

Doug, you keep me honest. Lee/Kirby did the "racing for mutants" trope in issues 6-9 and 11 ... so, maybe not a staple, but that's more than 25% of their run.

I'll admit to being pretty biased as far as Byrne goes. I see your point about Kitty Pryde, but it doesn't bother me too much. I'm sure there are flaws in Byrne's work here (Byrne himself has very little positive to say about his art from this era), but I guess it's another blind spot. I just love it. What do you mean about the eyeballs and the fear of straight lines? You definitely should keep an eye out for his sour notes. I'm always eager to have my eyes opened to things like that.

I haven't read any Byrne writing that's THAT early. Probably the earliest stuff I've seen from him is circa 1986 (FF, Hulk ..). And that material is horrible. You're not the first person to tell me that his early FF stuff is excellent, but I guess by this point I'm pretty confident that I wouldn't like it, since everything I've read from him as been so very weak.

Didn't issue 137 come out in 1980? I'm too young to remember, but if issue 143 came out in Christmas of 1980 ... (For my part, I have a lot of affection for the covers on the Classic X-Men series, which is the way I first encountered a lot of these stories. Instead of my first impression being Cockrum and Byrne covers, I was getting Art Adams, Steve Lightle, Mike Mignola and Adam Hughes. Which is not a terrible trade-off.)

I've made note of Glynis' work in my review of one of the Bolton backups, I'm pretty sure. You're right, I should talk about the colorists more. But Glynis has another shout-out on the docket -- see the posting about Uncanny 133. Claremont has always spoken highly of the way Glynis Oliver and Tom Orzechowski contributed so much to the consistent tone and feel of his X-Men run, so I do intend to give both of them their due over the course of the series.

Anonymous said...

Eyeballs: Byrne had a weak spot for drawing blank eyeballs -- no iris or pupil, just a solid color wash. Notice how many of his characters either always have blank eyeballs, or have their eyeballs go blank when using their powers?

Straight lines -- He doesn't like 'em. Prefers drawing curves. Most of the straight lines in this run were inked in by Terry Austin; when you see Byrne pencils, there's hardly a one. If you want to see the contrast sharply, put a Byrne page (especially one without Austin) next to, say, a George Perez page.

Byrne writing: his earlier stuff is much better! Most of his first couple of years on the Fantastic Four is at least readable. His Captain America run had a number of good-to-excellent stories (Cap vs. Baron Blood was one). I strongly suspect that he was good because an editor was keeping him on a leash, and that his writing quality nosedived when he got too big to be disciplined and could write what he pleased. (It's a pretty common problem.)

I'm not sure I'd call those stories so good you should actively seek them out, but if you run across them, don't flinch away.

Doug M.

wwk5d said...

Aw, I liked Byrne's FF. Lots of good stuff there.

And as for Dazzler...well, they did the best they could with her. Her powers at that point did fit her name, and I liked the scene where she took the guards out. Plus, she was on freakin' roller skates lol I always liked that :)