Saturday, June 28, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #139

[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.]

“Something Wicked This Way Comes”

When it was announced in 1991 that Claremont would be departing the X-Men series after serving as its writer for over 16 years, it prompted Peter David to do a brief retrospective of Claremont’s work on the series. Though he makes clear his affection and respect for all that Claremont accomplished right up until the end, David (who himself would go on to do an impressive 12-year run on Incredible Hulk) also opines that when Claremont was forced by editorial edict to kill off Jean, X-Men suffered a permanent “loss of focus.”

In this issue and the next one – which tell a two-part story about Wolverine teaming up with Alpha Flight to fight the Wendigo – it’s easy to see what David was talking about. It begins well, boldly opening with a substantially changed status quo. Here we suddenly have Wolverine in a new, Byrne-designed costume; Kitty in her first costume (a slightly modified version of the “school uniform” from the Silver Age); Angel officially back on the team; and Storm having replaced Scott as field leader. It’s an interesting choice to keep all of those changes off-panel, and it works well, giving the feeling that – with Uncanny #138 having provided a capstone to the first 137 issues of the series, and simultaneously brought it full circle with Kitty arriving at the school a la Jean Grey in X-Men #1 – the comic has now entered a powerful and exciting new phase of existence.

But when it lurches sluggishly into a plot involving the Wendigo – a fairly weak Hulk villain – the comic botches the momentum created by the abrupt status-quo change. Granted, the Wendigo/Alpha Flight two-parter may have been the story that Claremont and Byrne were going to do even before they were forced to kill off Phoenix, but you can’t shake the sense as you read issues 139 and 140 that the authors are flailing around just a bit in reaction to their suddenly derailed long-term plans (which included a climactic Phoenix/Magneto confrontation in Uncanny X-Men #150). The fact that issue 139 is the first in the series to contain 22 pages instead of 17 – thanks to a company-wide increase in page count for Marvel Comics on that particular month – only compounds the problem, as Claremont and Byrne seem to strain to stretch their bare-bones plot beyond its natural length. (Hence nearly two entire pages devoted simply to recapping Wolverine’s first appearance in Incredible Hulk #181 – a job that could’ve been done in two panels.)

Claremont will ultimately prove more rattled than Byrne at having had to kill Phoenix. (He was similarly frustrated back when Len Wein made him kill off Thunderbird; Claremont was clearly not a fan of killing off his characters.) While Byrne and Austin still manage here to craft their usual quota of dynamic images – including a well choreographed Danger Room scene at the beginning and a striking cliffhanger on the final page – Claremont’s accompanying text feels awkward and arrhythmic, as if he’s forcing it a bit.

The contrast is also evident in how the two collaborators manage their attempts at humor: Byrne’s visual gag in the issue is very funny – a Nightcrawler whose hair stands on end upon seeing a bear and who leaps onto Wolverine’s head to escape (see the note about Byrne’s “Daffy Duck” interpretation of Nightcrawler, in the analysis of Classic X-Men #27). Claremont’s attempts at humor, by contrast, fall rather flat. He has to have other characters point out the joke lines, lest the readers not even realize they’re there. He really seems to be having some trouble with dialogue this time out.

There is one beautiful exception, however: The scene in which Kurt hears Heather Hudson speak Wolverine’s real name contains some of the most memorable lines Claremont ever produced.

Nightcrawler: Wolverine, she called you ... “Logan?”

Wolverine: Yup.

Nightcrawler: Is that your name?

Wolverine: Yup.

Nightcrawler: You never told us.

Wolverine: You never asked.

Note that this is the third such scene involving Wolverine: Uncanny #98 had Sean reacting in shock that Wolverine’s claws were a part of him, with Wolverine replying it was none of Banshee’s business. Then in Uncanny #118, 20 issues later, Cyclops’ surprise that Wolverine can read Japanese is met with “You never asked,” a retort repeated verbatim here, again 20 issues later. This version of Wolverine – the one whose mystery is the result not of amnesia and/or brainwashing, but simply of taciturnity – is the classic edition of the character. His erosion post-Claremont (at the hands of writers who decided to turn Logan’s origin into a gimmick-filled parlor game) is one of the X-franchise’s most lamentably tragic losses.


Anonymous said...

Firm agreement, that this two-parter shows a real lack of focus and is generally disappointing. When I first started jumping in on these threads, I remember thinking "137 is the end of Phoenix, 138 is the flashback issue, 141-2 are the Future Past story... wait, am I missing an issue or two?" And I was! Because these issues are really forgettable.

On the other hand, after this two-parter C&B will pull it out to produce three really strong final issues. So I'm not sure it was as simple as the loss of Phoenix. The change in page count, maybe, though I'd want to look at other Marvel titles to see if they had the same problems.

Anyway, three things here. One, in terms of canon, C&B decided to snip off the Wolverine/Alpha Flight plotline once and for all. I'm not sure if this was becase AF was getting their own title (they did, but IMS it was a year or two later) or whether Claremont just thought it was time, but anyway this was a good decision -- "Canada wants Wolverine back" wasn't something that could have been done forever.

Two, cover love! Come on! The "...hope you survive the experience!" tagline on this cover must have been repeated, referenced and hommaged at least a dozen times since then, including at least three times by Claremont himself.

Three, Wolverine's origin: while Claremont did indeed do a good job with the "taciturn Wolverine" slow reveal of clues, it's only fair to point out that he also started various other sorts of nonsense about Wolverine's origin. I didn't bother mentioning it in the last thread, but in "Nightcrawler's Inferno" he inserts a throwaway thought balloon with Wolverine thinking something like "haven't seen mud this bad since Monte Cassino". That's the WWII battle, which would have made Wolverine at least fiftysomething in 1980 (and, hey, in his eighties today). Claremont was playing with the idea of "immortal Logan" -- which at one level makes sense; Wolverine's healing factor could plausibly make him immune to aging too. But AFAIK Claremont never could quite decide if this was what he wanted to do or not. The resulting confusion provided fertile ground for subsequent writers and editors to, well, scribble.

One last thought: given that we're soon to enter a mostly mediocre (and occasionally downright sucky) stretch of Claremont's run, might you consider clumping some of these reviews? I mean, do the two Doctor Doom issues really deserve individual posts?

Doug M.

Patrick said...

I totally disagree with Peter David saying Claremont lost focus after the end of the Phoenix story. Think about what the core X-Men concept is, what turned up the most in the movies: the conflict between mutants and humans. There's that classic tagline fighting for a world that hates and fears them. That hate and fear is barely present in this part of the Claremont run. Between the trips to space and various other locations, the team barely meets up with ordinary humans.

Much as I do love the Phoenix stuff, I think it's easy to romanticize these issues at the expense of the really amazing stuff that comes afterward. This isn't helped by Marvel reprinting that initial run in every format imaginable, while never issuing a lot of later Claremont stuff in trade.

But, this issue isn't particularly good, and does seem unfocused. But, coming after the biggest story the series had ever done, almost anything's going to pale in comparison. It reminds me of Buffy, where the series premieres were inevitably disappointing. I think Claremont does go through a prolonged funk for the next twenty or so issues, with the exception of #150, but starting with the brood storyline he comes back stronger than ever.

Patrick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
scott91777 said...

I think I agree with Patrick... part of the appeal of X-men to me was always the 'misfit heroes' thing. I remember seeing issues before I started reading the series... before I even understood what mutants were supposed to be... and thinking "Geez, these guys look weird." And, as important as dark Phoenix is in the canon, Patrick is right... up until this point... they had just been super-heroes... after this... the misfit/outcast angle would get played up a lot more and, for me, that's always what X-men has been about.

Stephen said...

We'll debate it as we go, but I disagree with Patrick and Doug that Claremont's next 20 (to use Patrick's figure) issues were weak. I actually think (although I haven't reread all of these in a while, so I may just be wrong) that you could make a very solid case that the twenty issues after 137 were better than the twenty before. I think that Claremont's writing, always mixed, actually got better (as Jason mentioned in an earlier comment thread).

Anyway, I strongly, strongly dissent from this:

given that we're soon to enter a mostly mediocre (and occasionally downright sucky) stretch of Claremont's run, might you consider clumping some of these reviews? I mean, do the two Doctor Doom issues really deserve individual posts?

The fun here is the individual, issue-by-issue analysis; loose that and you loose a lot. And I think this is true whatever one thinks of individual issues.

So please, Jason: as you were. Hold 'er steady. Full steam ahead.


Stephen said...

PS: I grant that a fair amount of nostalgia is coloring my perceptions; I began reading issues in the mid-140's, working back w back issues & trades; but those are the issues I cut my teeth on, as it were.

But even granting that, I stand by the above.

Jason said...

Hey all,

Glad to see a lot of comments are still coming. My online access is intermittent lately, because I just quit my 9-to-5 (a job I hated, but it did have the benefit of keeping me plugged online 8 hours straight every day).

Anyway, I think issues 144 to 164 represent a long stretch of protracted growing pains for Claremont. By all accounts, Byrne was doing a lot of plotting on X-Men by the time he left, and the impression I get is of Claremont being left rudderless upon Byrne's departure. (Issue 144 itself sees Claremont particularly at sea -- Claremont is sort of the Scott to Byrne's Phoenix here, a bit lost after losing his collaborative partner.)

Stephen, I can't say I agree that the 20 issues post-137 are better than the 20 preceding it. Though the very boldness with which you express that opinion has me thinking about it ...

Nonetheless, the period between Byrne's last issue and Paul Smiths' first are certainly an important period, in that we see Claremont finding his own legs, and really making the book into "Chris Claremont's X-Men," rather than "Claremont and Byrne's X-Men" or "Claremont and Cockrum's X-Men."

Doug, good call on the cover ... Claremont does that "Hope you survive" again when Rogue joins, then once more with Havok if I'm not mistaken ... And then, as you say, other writers will continue that running refrain every time a major new character joins the team.

I've nver minded Claremont's contributions to Logan's backstory ... he can't really be blamed for other writers' "scribbling," can he? Where I really think Marvel lost the ball was when they let Larry Hama do the protracted "Wolverine has done everything but remembers nothing" motif in the solo title circa 1992.

Alpha Flight did indeed get a solo title, but not until 1984. Uncanny issues 139 and 140 were published in 1980, so it's highly unlikely the solo-title idea was the reason. It might be that since the characters were Byrne creations, and with Byrne leaving the title, he simply wanted to divorce the X-Men connection ... ? (Not sure that works either, since I seem to recall that Byrne quit after the publication of issue 140.)

Patrick, I of course agree that Claremont's writing got better after the death of Phoenix. I have a hunch that when Peter David talks about the series' post-137 "loss of focus," he's talking not necessarily about Claremont and his writing ability (for which David professed a lot of respect), but about the direction of the franchise. Consider that when Claremont finally came back swinging on X-Men (circa issue 166), it was at the same time that the first X-Men spinoff, New Mutants, was released. And as time went by we saw more and more spinoffs, resulting in a diffusion of the core concept. While Claremont's writing got stronger, the concept was becoming thinned out over multiple titles. This may be part of what Peter David was commenting on.

Finally, Doug and Stephen -- "clumping" vs. staying the course -- I did consider putting certain issues together, but ultimately decided that one-at-a-time remained the best way to do this. If an issue comes along that I can't find much to say about, it'll just be a shorter blog entry. (But given my own natural long-windedness, this won't happen all that often.)

Thus, coming up in a few short weeks: three glorious blog entries about the Dr. Doom/Arcade trilogy! Be there or be square!

Troy Wilson said...

Like Stephen, I started with the mid-140's issues - 146, I think. Actually, a friend bought it, and from there on out, I'd always read his copy. He bought all things X-related while I bought almost everything else. Nonetheless, Uncanny was my favourite comic for quite awhile.

Prior to my friend's purchase, I'm pretty sure I bought Uncanny 136 with my own not-so-hard-earned cash. But that was a bit of a false start, because, incredible as it sounds, I didn't purchase the next issue. It was just a bit too weird and unsettling for me at the time. But ten issues later, during a much less momentous stretch of issues, I was good to go. (And yes, I loved the Dark Phoenix Saga when my buddy got the back issues. I was fortunate enough to read it while Jean was still dead.)

Anonymous said...

Yes, I agree that these two issues are not very memorable, but I always thought of these issues as more Byrne than Claremont. I seem to remember reading somewhere that this was one of their last big fights. Byrne wanted to be listed as the sole plotter and Claremont to only get a dialogue credit.

wwk5d said...

I liked this era. For me, # 94 up till Fall of the Mutants is one of my favorite runs ever...I kind of look at is as one long opus. Does the book lose some of it's focus post-Byrne? A little, but it is nowhere near as bad as people say.

As for these 2 issues being unfocused, well, it mirrored to me the characters and story adjusting after all the recent changes. Jean was dead, Scott left, Storm is the new leader, Angel is back, and Kitty just joined the team...a big change from the last few issues, and the biggest change in the team line-up and dynamic so far.

rhamilton said...

I think there's a real difference in tone this time, when Wolverine pulls the "you never asked" bit. It's not just that he's taciturn: it strikes me as really sad that over all of these little adventures together none of his closest friends and allies, often represented as family, ever bothered to ask him his name.

NietzscheIsDead said...


I agree. One of my favorite things about Wolverine's habit of "You never asked" is the difference in context each time. The first time ("None of your flamin' business" to Banshee), he is angry and defensive. The second (to Cyclops, over speaking Japanese), he is reserved but no longer aggressive toward the rest of the team. Now, he seems wistful, almost teasing Nightcrawler. This is, of course, shadowed by the tragedy that he is so private (or at least seen as such by the rest of the team) that even something as simple as his name is considered verbotten to ask about.