Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #143

[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.]


Right down to the title, “Demon” is a blatant evocation and recreation of the Ridley Scott film “Alien.” After the astoundingly powerful “Days of Future Past” two-parter (itself an attempt – nearly successful -- by Claremont and Byrne to top their triumph on the Dark Phoenix Saga), Uncanny X-Men #143 can’t help but be a step down in terms of excitement level. Indeed, whereas Claremont and Byrne absorbed an old Doctor Who storyline entirely into their own canon, constructing a narrative that is pure X-Men on every level, they seem content with “Demon” to simply ape their source material -- with Kitty Pryde in the role of Sigourney Weaver and a blatantly Giger-inspired N’Garai demon in the role of the Alien.

(The use of the N’Garai is one of the more interesting things about the issue; they were the villains in Uncanny X-Men #96, the first issue of the comic fully plotted and written by Chris Claremont. That the same villains from Claremont’s first issue are reprised in John Byrne’s last is somehow fitting.)

In “Comics Creators on X-Men,” John Byrne admits to being “demented” enough at the time to believe that their pastiche was not entirely obvious – this in spite of the fact that the climax was lifted from “Alien” wholesale. Reading the published issue was a reality check for the artist, who then started anticipating an inevitable lawsuit (which did not come).

The story might also have been a reality check for fans, who could’ve been forgiven at that time for believing that Claremont and Byrne could do absolutely anything. With this solo Kitty Pryde story – deprived of the chance to engage in the exciting team dynamics and choreography at which they both excelled – they demonstrated an inability to turn every concept they touched into gold. Instead, the plot is fairly predictable (Kitty’s idea to use the Danger Room against the demon is easy to see a mile away), and the unrelenting use of Kitty’s internal monologue throughout the issue can’t help but weigh heavy after 15 straight pages.

The perfunctory use of the other characters – who appear briefly at the start and end of the issue – also fails to inspire. Wolverine almost kills Kurt in anger (possibly another allusion to the earlier N’Garai issue, which contained a similar scene); Colossus blushes when Kitty kisses him (and calls him “sexy,” a surprisingly overt bit of dialogue given the character’s youth); and Angel is excited about his “long overdue date” with Candy Southern. The most intriguing bit is the start of a new Cyclops arc, though as we’ll see next issue, it doesn’t go anywhere terribly interesting. All in all, this is a fairly ho-hum issue, and an anticlimactic one for Byrne to go out on. (The previous issue, with its embarrassment of riches in terms of both story and plot, would have been a far more appropriate finale.) Still, just by virtue of being the artist’s last, thus ending an era of profound creativity and formal elegance for the series, Uncanny X-Men #143 has earned its place in history.

Random trivia department: Byrne claims that when “Party of Five” debuted back in the 1990s, he pegged Jennifer Love Hewitt as the perfect actress to play his version of Kitty Pryde. She never did, but Hewitt was cast years later in a film called “Heartbreakers,” playing – oddly enough – the daughter of Sigourney Weaver.


Stephen said...

You didn't mention but, if memory serves, the creature really looks like alien too.

I agree: a weak issue.

I do like when Kitty picks up the phone and says "Mom!" and it's only Scott.

And there's a great callback to the calling Colossus sexy moment in the opening pages of Whedon's first Astonishing X-Men issue. Kitty walks into the mansion -- returning to the team (she's nowhere in Morrison's X-Men, which immediately precedes Whedon's -- I think she was shipped off to college or something) and having the flood of memories that one does in returning to an old school/home. This manifests in the evocation of scenes from the Claremont X-Men -- "Professor Xavier is a Jerk", asking that her furniture stay in #151, and this scene. And Cassady does a great job of evoking the art too. It's a great scene -- especially for those of us who read the original issues and remembered them as Whedon invokes them. So this retroactively makes the scene work for me.


Jason said...

Yeah, I read that. It's a good set-up for the rest of the run, which is so nostalgia-drenched, but generally speaking that kind of thing didn't work for me in Astonishing. Partly because of Whedon's glibness, and partly because I still feel like he didn't add anything to the tradition of stories that his nostalgia invoked. But that's just me, of course.

scott91777 said...

Nah, Love Hewitt's too busty... Kitty Pryde has actually been one of the few female superheroes to maintiain realistic proportions... and while Hewitt's proportions aren't unrealistic... I'd go with someone a bit more... uhm, subtle... honestly, my pic for Kitty back when I was really into the comics (and her of course) was Kelly Martin ... of Life Goes On and ER fame (she was the right age at the time).

Oh, and Jason,

Your love for Claremont and your disdain for Whedon and Morrison are clear... but what other X-writers do you feel have done a good job over the years?

Jason said...

Was J-Love already busty during the Party of Five days? I know that's the era that Byrne liked her for Kitty. But yeah, you're right -- Kitty was almost aggressively flat-chested in the early days, as if Byrne was deliberately steering clear of typical sexist comic-book-female proportions. Ironic then that he picks someone as curvy as Jennifer Love Hewitt to play her.

Other X-writers ... well, I like Stan Lee's work in the very earliest days. (It's not the best Silver Age Marvel, but I still enjoy it.) Roy Thomas did great work when paired with Neal Adams.

Post-Claremont ... I don't know. Peter David had some great moments with X-Factor. Geoff and others here have convinced me to check out Mark Millar's Ultimate X-Men, which I look forward to diving into after this blog series is finished ... don't know that I'll like it, but what I've read of it makes it sound more interesting to me than any other post-Claremont X comic.

I'm also occasionally tempted to buy Milligan's X-Force/X-Statix, which looks intriguing. Haven't read any of it, though. And Jeff Parker's X-Men: First Class has some great moments, albeit it's too weird about the way it interacts with continuity.

Generally speaking I hated Scott Lobdell's X-Men work, but I did enjoy his "X-Men/Wildcats" crossover, particularly the "Silver Age" one, drawn by Jim "ASBARBW" Lee ...

Basically the only way I can get into X-Men these days is in self-contained stories like "Ultimate," "First Class," "Silver Age" or "GeNext," etc. The mainstream X-Men just dropped the baton for me in 1991 in the immediate wake of Claremont (the comics-by-committee stuff by Harras, Lee, Portacio, Byrne, Lobdell and Nicieza). It was sloppy, hacked-out, dull material, and utterly contemptuous of fans.

When Claremont came back to the franchise in 1998 (a four-part Wolverine arc), I was optimistic for a return to the glory days. When it fell utterly flat, I realized that the whole thing was dead to me, and the franchise would never get me back for more than the occasional one-shot or self-contained mini.

That's the long answer. Short answer: What X-writers after Claremont have done a good job? Basically none. :)

Anonymous said...

Is this issue really so weak? I don't think so.

Yeah, it's a pretty blatant ripoff of _Alien_. So? If you're going to rip something off, rip the best. And the demon is much scarier than the equally Alien-inspired Brood.

And it /is/ scary. This would be the last time (for me) that Byrne would be able to get away with "solid red eye = wooooo, scary!" It's such a cheap trick... but here, it works, probably because those eyes are set in a malformed, vaguely turdlike, and truly hideous head.

You mentioned issue #96. Go back and look again at the demon in that issue. It's a pretty standard generic Marvel monster; if it has a cinematic inspiration, it's Ray Harryhausen. You can see Cockrum trying, but for a plain fact it's just not that scary. At the end of the day, it looks like something you could find in a Happy Meal. The Byrne version, OTOH, is really scary: ugly, threatening, and alien.

There are a lot of things to like about this issue. The contrast between sweet, innocent Kitty with her rather modest defensive superpower, and the ravening horrific demon, is over-the-top... but it works; we're actually a little alarmed for her, which is hard to do in a mainstream comic book. Kitty locking the monster in the Danger Room is obvious, sure, but it's also a nice shout-out to the neglected issue 110, where the equally overmatched Warhawk did the same thing to the X-Men.

Some of this issue's strengths are harder to see in retrospect. Frex, we all know now that Kitty Pryde is an important member of the X-Men and always will be. That was much less obvious in 1980, when the character had only been around for a year. We readers didn't yet know how squeamish Claremont really was about killing characters! All we knew was that he'd already killed one new team member (Thunderbird) and one popular and attractive female character (Phoenix). So, why wouldn't he kill of a character who was both? You complain about how little time the other X-Men get, but I think that really misses the point. This is /supposed/ to be a solo issue. Because by devoting an entire issue to Kitty, Claremont was sending a very clear message at the meta level: go ahead and get attached to this character, because she's going to live.

-- Actually, there are two meta-messages here. (At least.) The second is Claremont telling us that he's not going to take the easy obvious route and have Kitty be a sidekick. That seems obvious now, but in 1980 we thought Kitty would be an underpowered, underaged hanger-on whose main function was to get threatened and sometimes kidnapped by the bad guys. Claremont was clearly aware of this trope -- he'd quite deliberately inverted it back in the White Queen trilogy (where he has the X-Men be kidnapped, and /Kitty/ be the rescuer). So in this issue, by pitting Kitty against an upgraded version of a monster that had fought the whole team to a standstill, he's sending a clear message that he's going to take her seriously, and that we readers should too.

I dunno, man. This was the issue that made Kitty Pryde an X-Man, as opposed to some kid with a kinda lame power who never does much. How can you not like that?

What else... Glynis Wein's coloring is more understated than usual, but look how she makes the black Demon stand out against backgrounds -- and look creepy as hell in the process. Terry Austin is, as always, Terry Austin. Look at the flashlight beam on the cover! (And, hey, cover love! That's a great cover about six different ways. Layout, coloring... the use of perspective alone made it jump off the rack.)

Byrne's artwork really shines (it's a sad truth that some of Byrne's best work came when he was, umm, directly inspired by someone else's visual style). The second half of the issue is basically a chase scene... but it's a really well done chase scene. Most of the issue uses very simple, standard layouts, yet it manages to tell a really action-packed story that drags you from panel to panel. And several of those individual panels -- the half-page spread in the Danger Room, the "she has time to scream" one -- have stayed with me for years.

There are problems with this issue, sure, but they're mostly Chris Claremont. Try this: go back and read that issue again with the sound off -- that is, without reading anything, just looking at the pictures. See how well the second half of the book works? You'd only need a few explanatory captions here and there to make it roll right along. Instead, Claremont fills box after box with blah blah blah, Kitty's internal monologue AND narrative captioning. It's an unhappy foreshadowing of the "please please just shut up" issues to come.

Still, overall I have to disagree with you pretty sharply. I think this is one of the /better/ Claremont & Byrne issues, with a flawed but interesting script by Claremont made extraordinary by some top-notch Byrne art. It was a nice change of pace, and a fine ending to a great run.

Doug M.

scott91777 said...

Regarding Jennifer Love Hewitt's Bosoms (I am so happy I could start a comment with that):

I think they were THERE on Party of Five I just don't think they were utilized... uhm... I mean emphasized... I can see what Byrne means though. The sort of all-american girl next door quality but, for me, part of Kitty's appeal was the fact that she had a dash of nerd. However, that might have been more of Claremont's doing post-Byrne. At what point was it introduced that she was sort of a genius? (I didn't get any indication of this aspect of her character in her introduction in Dark Phoenix)

Jason said...

Scott, issue 139, concurrently with X-Men Annual #4, contain the earliest references to Kitty being a genius. You're right, it doesn't come up in Dark Phoenix Saga. (And, indeed, Byrne hated the idea. He wanted her to be completely "normal" apart from her mutancy.)

Doug, good points all, as usual. Since this blog is so Claremont-centric, I probably am too harsh on this issue, since -- as you note -- most of the issue's negatives are Claremont's fault. I do think generally the "Claremont wordiness" has been blown out of proportion -- he can be quite economical when he wants to be -- but this issue, the narration is indeed belabored. I like your suggestion to simply read it with the "sound down."

Stephen said...

Doug, you make a solid defense of the issue. (I particularly like your point about the "meta-level" point about Kitty being an important character, and not a sidekick.) I'll definitely have to try reading it with the sound off sometime.

But I have to disagree with you about this:

And the demon is much scarier than the equally Alien-inspired Brood.

We should probably fight about this when we get to the Brood. But the Brood scared the living hell out of me.

Granted, I was a kid during the Brood saga -- ten? eleven? somewhere in there. It doesn't scare me today. But boy did it then. The "implantation" fear was done extremely effectively -- moreso (dare I say it?) then in Alien, where the only effective scene along those lines (the very first) doesn't clarify until the character's death. The looming death, diseased pregnancy... well, as I said, we'll fight it out later. But for all this issue may be good, the Brood rock.

At least for a ten-year-old kid.


Jason said...

For my part, I can't say I found Cockrum's Brood too scary, but I do think Cockrum's design is excellent, a very creative re-imagining of the Geiger monster (moreso than Byrne's, in my opinion).

Also, Marc Silvestri and Dan Green's take on Cockrum's Brood are creepy as hell. (I was ten years old when the Silvestri Brood story was published -- maybe this all just depends on which alien we met when we were ten ... ?)

Anonymous said...

The Brood: interesting, well-designed villains, usually quite badly used. They should be so much scarier than they usually are.

But let's have that debate at the proper time.

Doug M.

wwk5d said...

"What X-writers after Claremont have done a good job? Basically none. :)"

PAD's X-factor, Davis's solo run on Excaliber, Ellis's run on Excaliber, Nicieza's X-force wasn't too bad (but was saddled with some bad art), and even in on the whole, Lobdell's run wasn't the best, there are some gems scattered throughout.

For me, the best Brood artist was Paul Smith. Not sure what it was, but his is def my favorite version.

As for this story, well, it's not that bad. It prob does seem like a let down after DOFP, but it seems the point was to sell Kitty as a character, and did so rather well. I mean, up until this point, the adult Katherine has more panel time than Kitty did...

Tim said...

Another place Claremont used the N'Garai was in the Iron Fist storyline he wrote for Deadly Hands of Kung Fu issues 19-24. That storyline is interesting in that it foreshadows/is a prototype for later Claremont plotlines, including the Dark Phoenix saga and the Huntsman character concept he did with Image.

Anonymous said...

I also enjoyed this issue. The alien similarities were probably less obvious because I read it years after it came out. Also since stealing from movies got a lot worse and more obvious (Long Halloween anyone).

One thing no one's mentioned is how great Byrne's mansion was. I don't think anyone else during CC's run did a better job of making it feel like an actual place with actual geography.

Derek E