Thursday, July 03, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #141

[Guest blogger Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men run. For more in this series, see the toolbar on the right.]

“Days of Future Past”

It’s a testament to the chemistry between Chris Claremont and John Byrne that, four months after enduring a huge creative setback in order to create the definitive X-Men masterpiece, they recovered and – without any preamble this time – went ahead and created a second one.

The plot of the two-parter running in this issue and the next sprang from Byrne’s desire to do a Sentinels story (the Sentinels being the only villains from Neal Adams’ run that Byrne hadn’t yet gotten to play with). Claremont had already gotten them out of his system back in 1976, so it was up to the artist to come up with a new Sentinel plot. This resulted in Byrne unconsciously lifting the premise of a Doctor Who episode he’d seen five years earlier titled “Day of the Daleks.” (Thus unintentionally is Byrne following the pattern deemed significant by Neil Shyminski, wherein the X-Men participate in sci-fi tropes as often as, if note more than, they do in superhero ones. Byrne’s deliberate “Alien” homage that immediately follows this story is another, more blatant example.)

“Days of Future Past” begins in the year 2013 with mutants – including the last few surviving X-Men – living in a concentration camp. The specific year was possibly chosen deliberately as the 50-year anniversary of the publication of X-Men #1.

The sequence set in the future contains several fascinating bits. The most obvious is the calculated shock value of a world in which so many beloved characters are dead. (Byrne and Terry Austin’s cover to Uncanny #141, with an aged Wolverine and Kitty Pryde backgrounded by a massive poster confirming that most of the X-Men are “slain,” is the finest cover in the series’ history.) But more noteworthy are the characterizations of those X-Men still alive in 2013. A lot is said about them in a small amount of page space.

One clear bit of foreshadowing is casting Kitty (now called Kate) as Colossus’ wife; her crush on Peter had already been established in her first few appearances, so it’s not necessarily a huge surprise. Her comment that she’s loved Peter “from the moment we first met” is the most striking aspect of the reveal, considering that we know she met Peter as a 13-year-old.

Meanwhile, the character referred to here only as Rachel will go on to become an important part of the X-Men cast. With her red hair and telepathic powers, she evokes Jean Grey, and her being roughly the same age as Franklin Richards (the baby son of Reed and Sue in Fantastic Four) suggests that she could be Jean’s daughter. This was indeed the original intention (the plot for this story having been first conceived before Jim Shooter changed the ending to Uncanny #137), and had the ending to Dark Phoenix Saga not been changed, she would have been named explicitly as the daughter of Jean and Scott. Instead, her identity is deliberately kept vague. She won’t be named “Rachel Summers” until years later when Claremont – inspired by the success of the first “Terminator” film – dips back into the “Days of Future Past” milieu.

Most surprising of all is the appearance in the concentration camp of a wheelchair-bound Magneto, unexpectedly called “old friend” by Peter and “Sir” by Franklin. This, contrary to the Peter/Kate marriage, is the converse of foreshadowing. John Byrne has categorically stated he had no intention of making Magneto a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, and that he was always against the “noble Magneto” who went on to become a surrogate Professor X. Byrne’s choice to place Magneto in that role in “Days of Future Past” can only have been for shock value, and to reinforce the point that the Sentinels’ takeover has forced surprising alliances among mutant factions. It seems entirely credible that Claremont saw Byrne’s pages, was taken with the idea of Magneto as the “new” Professor X, and eventually – once Byrne was off the title – started laying the groundwork to make it happen.

There is a similar reverse-resonance in Magneto being the one who helps the other characters escape from the camp. This seemingly off-hand dramatic choice might have been a seed of Claremont’s eventual decision to make Magneto a member of the Sonderkommando – and thus a man who helped people survive in Auschwitz when and where he could. (Uncanny X-Men #199 will state explicitly that he helped fellow Jews survive, just as in the present story he helps keep his fellow mutants alive.)

Trumped by the apocalyptic future that preceded it in the narrative, the bits of issue 141 set in the present aren’t quite as striking, though they are certainly just as competent. There is one standout sequence that pays off on a thread from earlier issues -- specifically, Kitty’s inability to see past Kurt’s frightening physical appearance. Early in the issue Nightcrawler makes a point of saying how much her fear hurts him. This sets up a delightful moment a few pages later, when the mind of the Kate of the future awakens inside Kitty, and her first reaction upon seeing Nightcrawler is to hug him passionately, much to Kurt’s wide-eyed shock. It’s a charming and poignant scene, a subtle promise that young Kitty will eventually come around.

7 comments:

Shlomo said...

This story marks the first instance of time-travel in the series, and to me it remains the most endearing use of this plot-device. Number one: it gets in and gets out. Theres no time-traveler/displaced person to wander around with a confusing back-story for years to come. Number two: its not even physical time-travel, only mental, which allows the sci-fi element to be a little more subtle.

I think this plot-device is yet another way for the writers to hedge their bets regarding the role of superheroes: they cant be too proactive because then they seem like vigilantes, but if theyre only playing defense than they seem to be always playing catch-up. Having some vague knowledge of the future allows them to have "evidence" of a crime, without actually having done any illegal snooping.

ignoring the whole sci-fi/ethical issue of trying to stop a crime before its committed... Is this the first instance of the x-men "taking the offensive"?

James said...

Oh man, I've still never read this properly, but it always bugged the hell out of me that Wolverine can *smell* the older Kate take control of Kitty. Seriously: whuuuut?!

Josh Hechinger said...

James: The No-Prize explaination would be that Kitty probably always smelled a little nervous/jittery to Wolvie back then.

(Same way that dogs can tell if you're nervous around them or not.)

Kate isn't scared, so her mind doesn't make Kitty's body produce whatever produces that smell.

Troy Wilson said...

Nice one, Josh. Works for me.

James said...

Nice!

Jason said...

Shlomo, interesting question re: "the offensive." The closest thing I can think of is the early Silver Age issue when Professor X has a vague intuition that Magneto is going to recruit the Sub-Mariner. So he sends his astral self out spying and learns that, yes, he was right.

Probably doesn't count. :)

Streebo said...

Nice review, Jason. Days of Future Past was always the my favorite X-Men story.