Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #140

[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.]


A dramatic scene from Claremont and Bolton in Classic X-Men #1 featured Angel and Wolverine getting into a violent altercation over Jean Grey (both men nursed an unrequited love for her at different periods in the history of the franchise). It ends with Warren passionately denouncing Wolverine as a “lunatic,” noting that he’s “as ready and willing to slaughter us as fight our foes.”

Besides being a strong scene in its own right, it also retroactively gives some helpful context to an early scene in “Rage,” in which Angel tells Professor X that he has a problem with Wolverine. Originally, this complaint must have seemed to readers to come completely out of nowhere, and only become more arbitrary when, eight issues later, Warren quits the team in disgust at Wolverine’s behavior – and all of this in spite of there never being a confrontation between the two characters in an issue of Uncanny. (The most likely explanation is that Claremont – not as big a fan of the Silver Age team as Byrne was – simply didn’t like Angel very much, and sought the most expedient excuse to make Warren leave the series soon after Byrne did.) Thanks to Claremont’s revisions via the Classic X-Men series, Angel’s characterization here at least doesn’t feel quite so randomly ascribed.

Storm, meanwhile, has some decidedly more interesting characterization going on in this arc. She’d been feeling a maternal affection for Kitty ever since they first met, but finds herself unexpectedly envious when Kitty finds another potential mother-figure in dance teacher Stevie Hunter. Since Claremont’s style of writing a serialized comic book tends to mirror the rhythms of real life (possibly by design, possibly by accident, but more likely a combination of both), Ororo’s irrational jealousy never explodes into any kind of confrontation. The feelings simply linger for a while and are eventually suppressed. They do, however -- in a very oblique way -- inform the “punk Storm” reveal of Uncanny X-Men #173.

The rest of “Rage” is given over to Wolverine, Nightcrawler and Alpha Flight fighting the Wendigo in Canada. Thanks to John Byrne and Terry Austin, it is a visually engaging fight, but as will become more and more the case as Claremont’s sensibility evolves, the best bits of the comic have nothing to do with the action. An intriguing flashback, for example, reveals for the first time that Wolverine had been found by James and Heather Hudson years ago in the Canadian Rockies, and the couple had nursed him back to health. (Writer Bill Mantlo will go on to show this sequence, adding some clever new wrinkles to it, in Alpha Flight #’s 33 and 34.)

Curiously, the same flashback also implies that it was the Canadian Secret Service that gave Wolverine his adamantium claws and skeleton, and Wolverine knows it. Over time, this idea will be tacitly ret-conned, but here it is given as Wolverine’s main reason for abandoning the Secret Service when Xavier “offered him a way out” in Giant Sized X-Men #1. (Again, in the above-mentioned Alpha Flight issues, Mantlo will offer a different, more relatable motivation.)

The climax of the issue, with Alpha Flight member Snowbird using her shape-changing power to become an actual wolverine to take down the Wendigo, is neat – but when it then becomes incumbent upon Wolverine to talk her down from her berserker rage, we see an example of a new Claremontian tic that will become more problematic as time goes by: his desire to continually tie stories back to Dark Phoenix. (There’s a shade of this in the previous issue, with Nightcrawler being reminded of Jean by the Canadian sunset -- a use of interior monologue that made John Byrne cringe when he saw it.)

Here, Wolverine tells himself that he must appeal to Snowbird in the same way that Scott reached Jean (in Uncanny #136, as a footnote reminds). Here, the parallel works, and it is even rather touching that Logan – who at one point had contemplated killing Scott so that he could have Jean to himself – eventually has come to respect, and has actually learned from, the way the couple once related to each other. As time goes on, the narrative device of characters having learned from the Dark Phoenix tragedy will become increasingly less effective.

The revelation in X-Men Annual #4 that Nightcrawler is a Christian feeds into a final well-constructed character bit in “Rage,” as Kurt confronts Logan about the latter’s cavalier attitude towards killing. The conversation is brief, but significant, and goes on to subtly inform – as Marvel historian Peter Sanderson has pointed out – such sequences as the one in Claremont and Frank Miller’s Wolverine mini-series, which depicts Wolverine deliberately dispatching enemies non-lethally when he has the option.


Stephen said...

I think this is one of two issues in the 90 or so after #129 that I never got (I was still on back issues then), so I have no big comments, but a few minor ones:

Claremont – not as big a fan of the Silver Age team as Byrne was – simply didn’t like Angel very much, and sought the most expedient excuse to make Warren leave the series soon after Byrne did.

Yeah, and really, who can blame him? I dunno. Angel never really fit well, IMO (or not in anything I read, anyway). There are two problems. First, he fits uneasily in the Marvel universe superhero structure, for the reasons Paul O'Brien lays out :

There's a fundamental problem with the Angel, which has vexed most creators over the past few decades. He's the sort of character who would really be better off outside the Marvel Universe. Flight is meant to be one of the powers everyone dreams of having. But in the context of the Marvel Universe, it's utterly nondescript. Where he ought to seem impressive, he usually just seems surplus to requirements. When you've got Phoenix around, there's not much call for a bloke with wings. This is one of the main reasons why we end up with weirdness like blue skin and razor wings.

-- Which wouldn't be a problem if Angel was *otherwise* a compelling character; but he just isn't. So good riddance.

Actually, I wonder if this didn't really serve a dual purpose: it got rid of Angel, but it also helped keep alive the Wolverine issue, develop his ongoing killing issues (a la the Nightcrawler conversation you mention), etc. So really, it's getting rid of Angel -- but it's not just that. As I recall, the defense of Wolverine made when Angel leaves (by Storm? Prof X? someone) was good along these lines.

Since Claremont’s style of writing a serialized comic book tends to mirror the rhythms of real life (possibly by design, possibly by accident, but more likely a combination of both), Ororo’s irrational jealousy never explodes into any kind of confrontation. The feelings simply linger for a while and are eventually suppressed.

One of the best aspects of Claremont's work on the book, IMO. Not everything builds mechanically to something. It adds a lot of the feel of characterization and realism that made the series work as well as it did.

(There’s a shade of this in the previous issue, with Nightcrawler being reminded of Jean by the Canadian sunset -- a use of interior monologue that made John Byrne cringe when he saw it.

I dunno. I don't think this was nearly as bad as a lot of Claremont monologues. Partly it's the context: it's only two issues later; it's a ruminative moment; the coloring of the sunset adds a lot. It's overwritten (if memory serves) -- but then it's at a moment when overwriting is most defensible and least harmful.


Stephen said...

Oops, I meant to link to the source of that O'Brien paragraph, which is from this review here.

Anonymous said...

Cover non-love: this was a /weird/ Byrne cover. Wendigo is about to backhand that woman's head off? And why is she in a total porn-star pose, complete with torn clothing and O-face, *while clutching a baby*? Even back in 1980, this struck me as just wrong.

It doesn't help that the Marvel version of the Wendigo is just not all that scary. Honestly, he looks like he should be playing bass in a hairmetal band. The creature was designed by Herb Trimpe during his "Kirbyoid monster of the month" run on The Hulk, waaaay back in the Nixon Administration, and it shows. Well, I guess that's not C&B's fault -- there was a real shortage of specifically Canadian menaces in the Marvel universe, back before Alpha Flight got going.

I'd forgotten about the Nightcrawler moment in the last issue. Yeah, that was kind of cheesy, and you can see why Byrne got annoyed. But at the same time it sort of fit. Killing Jean was a major event, and it wasn't unreasonable that the X-Men would still be referring back to it months or years later.

As for this issue, well, hum. Despite many Claremontian touches, this two-parter feels like it was plotted by Byrne. There's a pattern we'll see again in his FF run and elsewhere: a setup issue where not much happens, followed by a resolution issue with some pointless fight scenes and then a climax that doesn't logically follow.

I mean, really: a wolverine? An actual wolverine? /It's just a big weasel/, people. And one notably lacking in adamantium skeletal enforcements, a fast-healing factor, or Awesome Secrets of Ninjutsu. Having Wolverine be upstaged by Snowbird here is like having Batman be pushed aside by, well, a bat.

And then, we have another female character who loses herself to rage and has to be rescued by a male character talking her down. As you say, it's hearkening back to Phoenix, and that might be okay... except that Claremont is going to to the exact same thing a few issues later with Storm. Female rage is scary and bad! -- But, okay, we've had that discussion. No need to do it again.

Is there anything to like about this issue? Well, I do remember that lovely big panel with Nightcrawler bouncing all over the Wendigo. Byrne shows motion here by having four or five Nightcrawlers (is there a technical term for this?) doing flips and acrobatic moves all over the enraged monster. Not actually fighting him, but dodging him while bouncing around. Really well done!

And then in the next panel the Wendigo backhands Nightcrawler into the next county. Which, in superhero comic book terms, is really pretty brilliant. Because in two panels, Byrne has established that:

1) Nightcrawler is sort of useless in a fight;

2) Nightcrawler is totally outclassed in this particular fight, because the Wendigo is a badass; and,

3) Nevertheless, Nightcrawler is kinda cool.

A first-time reader would be instantly informed, while a long-time reader could just enjoy the beautiful art. That was real craftsmanship. So, a shout-out to Byrne on that one.

But otherwise, sort of a pointless two-parter. (Stevie Hunter? Please.)

Better things were coming right up, though...

Doug M.

neilshyminsky said...

I've always liked Angel, and always like to point out that his wings are actually much cooler than he's given credit for - by fans and writers alike. Anyone (hollow bones or not) who has wings that can carry the weight of a grown man and fly at speeds comparable to a fighter-jet (and still stop and turn on a dime) should also be able to use those wings as vicious weapons. This is why the metal wings never made sense to me - he should already be capable of decapitating someone with the feather ones, and so that development was not nearly as nasty as they thought.

And while 'having the power to fly when everyone can fly' might not seem impressive, it was his skill that was always meant to set him apart - he can fly, sure, but he does it better than anyone else. And that's what makes it special.

scott91777 said...


Didn't you say you were going to be doing the Wolverine mini-series as part of this series? I was actually just leafing through it the other day. Good Stuff.

Anonymous said...

This two-parter is notable for introducing what is, in my opinion, Wolverine's best costume. The black/brown/orangeish-tan outfit "fits" him (no pun intended) much better than the yellow-and-blue monstrosity he was in and eventually (why oh why?) went back to. It never made sense to me why a character known for his sneakiness, his ninja skills, his wilderness survival abilities, would wear a costume almost as garish as Captain Ultra's. The producers of the 'X-Men Evolution' cartoon knew what costume Wolverine should be wearing. Why can't Marvel realize that, too?

Plus, it really made the guy stand out. How many superheroes wear brown, really?

Anonymous said...

Huh, it just occurred to me: Wolverine's original, horrible yellow-with-black-bits costume was Herb Trimpe's most important and lasting contribution to the visual discourse of modern comics.

According to the Wolverine Files, http://www.typingmonkeys.com/wolverine/wolverine-true-origin/, John Romita did the first early sketches. But it was Herb Trimpe who actually drew him -- and who, presumably, did the color scheme and all.

N.B., the original Len Wein version was supposed to be a short, tough, cocky /teenager/. Visually, this makes some sense... the goofy bare-arms look of that early costume works better with a younger character.

(There was also some discussion of making him Quebecois. Which probably would have ended up sucking horribly, but still.)

Anyway, the first appearance Wolverine was late-period, not-so-great Trimpe. (Though the cover of that issue still has some of the old son-of-Kirby, brother-of-Steranko magic of his earlier work -- go see: http://www.herbtrimpe.com/6.html)


Doug M.

wwk5d said...

I also preferred the brown and tan costume.

I did like the scene with Wolverine and Snowbird. Too bad they never followed up on that relationship...

Anonymous said...

Very stoked on all the brown costume love. Never understood why Jim Lee had to bring back the yellow and blue.

Angel is a cool looking character but just seems like a nightmare to write into fight scenes. How many times can you have him swoop in and knock somebody over or pick em up and drop them. Flight would be an incredibly useful power if at any given time half the team could do it as a secondary power.

Derek E