Thursday, July 24, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #149

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

Uncanny X-Men, The #149

Grant Morrison’s musical paradigm for understanding the X-Men, his idea that you must play certain “chords” but with new “tricks” if you are going to write the series, is incredibly helpful, because it seems to have always been true. Neal Adams’ run on X-Men in 1969 was a treasure trove of storytelling tricks, but was also a powerful cover version of Lee/Kirby elements -- primarily the Sentinels, Magneto and the Savage Land. Claremont and Byrne went on to cover Adams – they also did the Sentinels, Magneto and the Savage Land – but they then went on to write brilliant new songs that were as powerful as, or more powerful than, the Neal Adams riffs. The Dark Phoenix Saga, in particular, became the archetypal X-Men tune. Indeed, Joss Whedon recently attempted – as Neil Shyminski pointed out – to cement that story in particular as the template for every X-Men story (or song) from now until the end of the franchise.

John Byrne, once he had matched and surpassed Neal Adams on X-Men (albeit not in his own mind), subsequently left the series so he could go on to conquer his own personal Everest: Lee and Kirby’s Fantastic Four. Claremont, however, stayed on, and – having completed the unenviable task of topping Lee/Kirby’s X-Men, then topping Neal Adams’ X-Men – now found himself in the awkward position of having to top his own.

So, like the Beatles trying to recapture the glorious psychedelia of their watershed Sgt. Pepper album with the calculated carnival atmosphere of Magical Mystery Tour, Claremont – with Cockrum backing him up – started covering his own hits. It began with the “Murderworld” cover in issues 145-147, and continues here, with the return of Garrokk, from Uncanny #116. (The covers of classic hits will continue for quite some time – next issue is a battle with Magneto; after that, the Sentinels and Hellfire Club return; while in contemporaneous issues of Marvel Fanfare, the X-Men will fight Sauron in the Savage Land.)

The best part of “And the Dead” occurs on the third page, when Xavier thinks to himself, “In too many ways ... Magneto and I are uncomfortably alike.” At this point, Claremont and Cockrum have already begun to devise the Holocaust backstory for Magneto that will make its first appearance next issue. But it will be another year before they hit upon another inspired idea: giving Xavier and Magneto shared history. Uncanny #161 will reveal that Xavier and Magneto were friends before they first appeared in X-Men #1 – this brilliant turn will be crucial in Claremont’s development of Magneto as a replacement Professor X. But that’s still a ways away. For the moment, Xavier’s tantalizing thought on Page 3 is our first and only hint of what’s to come.

From there, disappointingly, Uncanny X-Men #149 is a fairly generic exercise in mainstream superheroics. The X-Men are sent by Xavier to explore the remnants of Magneto’s volcano hideout from their last battle. There, they encounter Garrokk, who inexplicably looks nothing like he did in his previous appearance (though he does look thoroughly menacing, thanks to Cockrum), and he possesses slightly different powers as well. His banal agenda in this issue is to get revenge on Storm for her failure to rescue him at the end of Uncanny #116. He proves embarrassingly ineffective at acquiring said revenge, and any menace he exuded thanks to Cockrum’s imaginative visual design is entirely gone by the end of the story, when the neophyte Kitty beats him through a combination of luck and an unexplained deus ex machina (i.e., her phasing through Garrokk causes him pain for no discernible reason).

It is now exactly a year after the masterful “Fate of the Phoenix” from issue 137, and the comic’s decline in quality between then and now is precipitous indeed. Claremont seems thoroughly uninspired at this point, and the last couple issues feel like water-treading just so that the big Magneto story can appear in issue 150, the anniversary issue.


Anonymous said...

Compare this cover to Byrne's last one (#143, the Demon issue). Interesting, no? Not sure if Cockrum was deliberately riffing, but the similarity looks more than accidental.

Kitty phasing through Garokk: the point of this is to establish that Kitty's power can be used aggressively. Soon, it will be canon that she can disrupt electronic equipment by phasing through it. If I were feeling generous, I'd suggest that Garokk must have been a silicon-based creature whose nervous system was based on semiconducting gates similar to those in printed circuits... eh, listen to me. Anyway, since this will be an absolutely crucial plot point in the very next issue, it behooves Claremont to bring it out now, however clumsily.

About the only other thing I remember from this issue is Nightcrawler starting to do the Yorick thing with Nanny's robotic "skull" (as Magneto himself did in #113) and Wolverine angrily cutting him off. A nice character moment -- it highlighted that his captive status had really gotten to him, and also that the ongoing domestication of Wolverine only went so far.

Oh, and: Kitty's horrible costume. The letters page a few issues later was full of letters hatin' on this. But in retrospect it was probably deliberate, and not a bad idea: by emphasizing Kitty's enthusiasm and innocence, it makes her confrontation with Magneto next issue that much more stark. Whether because of fan reaction or because it wasn't needed any more, it disappeared forever after the next issue.

Overall this is just a "set up the pieces for the big confrontation / anniversary issue". Which isn't a bad thing if the payoff is there. Well...

Doug M.

Jason said...

Kitty's ability to disrupt electronics is set up in her first appearance, when she opens Logan's cage by touching the electronic lock. Then in issue 149, the opening scene features Kitty phasing through Professor X's computers and erasing everything, and Charles makes a big show of being angry. So it was already established pretty well...

Which is to say, the bit where she hurts Garrokk is apropos of nothing. He's a living being, and he's made of stone!

Yeah, I always figured Kitty's costume was meant as a joke, and never meant to be permanent. That's certainly implied by all the jokes in the dialogue about how ugly it is ...

The Yorrick/Nanny thing is a fun moment, I agree.

wwk5d said...

Again, I'm in the minority...I liked this issue. Lots of good character moments, and good set-up for the next issue. And say what you will about the quality of Cockrum's art, but I loved his facial expressions.

Some good scenes:

*The scenes with the X-men fixing the Danger Room and having with Kitty are great.
*Loved the moment where Kurt is about to offer his opinion about Kitty's costume and Storm zaps him to keep quiet.
*Colossus beating Wolverine at cards. Yeah, it's gin, but still.
*Kitty realizing, for the first time, how she needs to be responsible and that others depend on her. No Kitty, Dazzler to the contrary, roller skates are NOT a good idea for a costume.
*The Kurt/Nanny/Logan scene.
*Kurt, for the first time, trying to teleport while carrying someone else (and learning how painful it can be).
*The sense of foreboding, of what's to come. As Wolverine are we (the 5 of us) going to stop him (Magneto)?