Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #138

[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.]


It’s appropriate that the title of Uncanny X-Men #137 evokes “Fate,” since factors beyond the control of the creators were so integral to the creation of its utterly perfect ending. That Claremont and Byrne originally had a different ending planned would be inconceivable were it not so well documented. But it’s true: Originally, the X-Men were to lose the Duel of Honor, and Jean was to be given a psychic lobotomy, her mutant powers excised. Editor in chief Jim Shooter said this wasn’t apt punishment for a character who had caused the death of millions, so a different ending was brainstormed by all parties. No one could think of anything that didn’t seem contrived or forced, so – with the deadline looming – Jean Grey was killed. But as Occam tells us, simplicity is often best. So it was in this case: Jean, the love of Scott Summers’ life, dies because of the Shi’ar Empire, just as his mother – his father’s love – did years earlier. How brilliant, and how amazing that it almost didn’t happen.

Fate continued to be on Claremont and Byrne’s side when it came time to work on Uncanny #138. They had already planned for the issue to be a retrospective, almost the entire story made up of flashback panels that recreated images from the series’ first 137 issues. None of that had to change – only the framing sequence. Conceived originally as a dual reminiscence between Scott and the now-powerless Jean, it instead became Scott’s own private reflections during Jean’s funeral. And of course, that worked out perfectly.

The opening page is wonderfully done: The X-Men and Jean’s family, swathed in a massive and almost unbroken swath of black, while Claremont quotes from Scott’s words to Jean in Uncanny #129: “Jean, you’re everything to me – as necessary as the air I breathe ...” Claremont didn’t know, when he wrote those words originally, that Jean would be dead nine months later, and that’s what makes the new context so moving. We never know in real life, either.

The comic then launches into a 17-page summary of 17 years of X-Men continuity, framing it all as the story of Scott and Jean’s love. On the way, Claremont and Byrne take the time to smooth over awkward storytelling gaffes from the Silver Age run.

For example, the actual moment at which Scott and Jean became a couple was, weirdly, never shown in the original run. So Claremont and Byrne insert a scene among the events of X-Men #32, with Scott and Jean passionately sharing their first kiss during a walk through Central Park. The same scene also adds a new wrinkle to Scott: His optic blasts are uncontrollable because of the head trauma he experienced after falling from his father’s plane. It’s amazing to see such a clever idea inserted so off-handedly amidst pages and pages of flashback.

Claremont also makes a point of smoothing over the weird introduction of Havok during the original series’ run, explaining that Scott and Alex were separated in the orphanage when the latter was adopted, and Charles had tracked Alex down at Scott’s behest at some point before the character’s first appearance in X-Men #54. I suspect that all this housekeeping is occurring here because at this point, Claremont had recently gone back and read the entire 1960s run.

The final page of the issue has a wonderfully subtle bit, with Nightcrawler emerging from a tree as the funeral ends. We suddenly realize that he was the only X-Man not on the opening splash, and was obviously hiding in that tree the entire time, so as not to blow the X-Men’s cover.

Finally, Kitty Pryde is nicely used in “Elegy,” serving twice over as a symbol of redemption. At first, during Scott’s summary of the recent past, he suggests that Kitty was life’s way of balancing things out after the Mutant X debacle: “We’d found a truly evil mutant in Proteus. But soon after that we found a truly good one ... in Kitty Pryde.”

Then, at the very end of the issue, a deliberate contrast is set: the somber burial of Jean’s casket vs. Kitty’s arrival, by taxi, at the mansion. In Lee and Kirby’s X-Men #1, Jean Grey first appeared when she arrived at the mansion in a taxi (that moment is deliberately recreated by Byrne in this issue, page 2, panel three). So Kitty has balanced things out again, recreating the first appearance of Jean at the exact moment of the character’s burial, and thus bringing the series full circle.

[And the cover -- just like Planetary 12.]


Anonymous said...

Nightcrawler in a tree: what, he lost his image inducer? No, he was there because his presence would have upset the neat Old/New symmetry of the splash page. Byrne even forces Hank McCoy into a rubber mask for that one -- an egregiously silly device which AFAIK has never been used before or since.

That said, yes, it's a nice bridge issue, with some good tributes (I missed the Jean/Kitty in a taxi thing!) and, as you say, some subtle but effective retcons.

Mind, this issue would be a lot more powerful in retrospect if they'd actually kept Cyclops away for a while, instead of bringing him back just six issues later.

Doug M.

Jason said...

The symmetry aspect is nice, that's true. But Nightcrawler did say in issue 130 that he will "never hid his true appearance again." So there is an in-character/in-story reason for him hiding in the tree ...

True about Cyclops. This is the first of quite a few "almost-goodbye"'s for that character ...

scott91777 said...


Something else I noticed when reading The Dark Phoenix Saga was the fact that Wolverine's 'healing factor' had not been introduced yet (otherwise he needn't have worried about being shot). When was that written in to the character? Were his mutant powers at this point just heightened senses and reflexes? (since the claws weren't part of his powers at this point)

I really feel that writer's have jumped the shark on that one, the healing factor used to make him one tough little bugger... now he's nigh-indestructible... which kind of takes something away from the character.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I know Jason loves not the Morrison, but nobody used the healing factor better.

In the first issue, Logan is digging slugs out of his flesh, with an expression of bemused resignation. This makes it more impressive when, an issue or two later, Cassandra Nova does something really gruesome to him that leaves him almost incapacitated with pain. And some issues later... well, there's a spoiler moment at the end of an issue in which Wolverine takes drastic action to unleash the Phoenix force. The final panel is an explosive shot of the Phoenix effect, definitely inspired by the end of issue #135. The first line of the next issue is, "Have your eyes grown back yet"?

Anyway. Nightcrawler: I guess either Byrne or Claremont got tired of the image inducer. Which was sort of a shame.

Doug M.

Stephen said...

Wolverine's 'healing factor' had not been introduced yet

If memory serves, Wolverine's healing factor was first mentioned in the "Days of Future Past" storyline -- #142, I think.

And the cover -- just like Planetary 12

If anyone else has, like me, somehow failed to have a perfect memory of all the X-Men covers, there is a picture of the cover of X-Men #138 here, and, for good measure, one of Planetary #12 here.

And they are not the same: Planetary #12 is much cooler. X-Men #138 reproduces, on its cover, past covers of the series; Planetary #12 reproduces -- in miniature -- every single page of the series to date. No contest.

Great analysis, as always.


Teebore said...

@Doug an egregiously silly device which AFAIK has never been used before or since

Hank's rubber mask (and gloves/sleeves) was a staple of his Amazing Adventures stories (the ones in which he first became hairy and beast-like). He would remove the mask, Clark Kent-style, to go into action as Beast.

It was as lame there as it is here; just thought it was worth mentioning that it wasn't a device Byrne came up with.

wwk5d said...

It may be cooler, but it has none of the emotion of the X-men cover.