[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?”
Nightcrawler: Is that your name?
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.