Saturday, August 02, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men 151

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

Uncanny X-Men, The #151

“X-Men Minus One”

Because Dave Cockrum’s style is so un-subtle, he’s easy to take for granted. But, as the tour-de-force of Uncanny #150 demonstrated, he is a superb comic book illustrator, one of the true innovators of the superhero genre. And his presence is badly missed in this and the following issue of the series. On “X-Men Minus One,” art chores are credited to Jim Sherman, Bob McLeod and Josef Rubinstein. (Presumably Sherman and McLeod shared penciling duties, and Rubinstein inked?) Though Claremont and McLeod would go on to share a slick collaborative relationship as co-creators of the New Mutants, McLeod’s work here with Sherman is awkward and stiff. As a result, for the first half of the issue, the storytelling moves along in fits and starts. Characterization and motivation is spotty, as we see Kitty – again, still a 13-year-old girl here -- running around the first five pages in a pink bikini, having arbitrary bursts of emotion. (The premise of “X-Men Minus One,” by the way, is a slight variation on Roy Thomas’ X-Men #24, a story that began with Jean Grey’s parents deciding she needed to leave Xavier’s school. Claremont is further cementing Kitty’s role in the title as a surrogate Jean.)

The plotting is ropey as well, and almost seems half-improvised – note the execution of the reveal that Kitty’s new school is Emma Frost’s Massachusetts Academy, via a giant computer that Kitty apparently keeps in her room. Further along in the story, the first appearance in the issue of Emma herself is executed via long shot rather than close-up, a ridiculously un-dramatic choice.

Claremont also botches the reveal that Storm and Emma have switched bodies, with narration that cheats – why is Storm reluctant to break her loving embrace with Kitty if, at this point, she already has Emma’s mind?

Also, body-switching is a dubious plot idea to begin with. The only time it seems to work is in television series, where the fun comes in watching the actors in the roles of the switched characters try to mimic another actor’s mannerisms. (See: Eliza Dushku impersonating Sarah Michelle Gellar on “Buffy” or John Glover doing Tom Welling on “Smallville.”)

Unusually for a Claremont story, the issue becomes stronger when it switches from angst to action. As soon as the plot switches midway through from the White Queen/Storm material to the Sentinels’ attack on the mansion, Claremont’s writing suddenly snaps awake. These pages are terse and exciting, and contain some creatively choreographed battle sequences. The panel in which Cyclops’ optic blast arrives all the way from a window of the mansion to save Nightcrawler is fun, and the bit with Kurt teleporting from Sentinel to Sentinel – he attaches plastique to each robot’s leg in the span of nine seconds, having “set the detonators for ten” -- is the best moment in the entire issue.

There’s also a subtly humorous depiction of the Sentinel control center beneath the Hellfire Club, run entirely by females. This is either a joke by his artists or self-mockery on Claremont’s own part, poking fun at his own “Is there any reason this character can’t be a woman?” philosophy. (Not long before the publication of Uncanny #151, anti-feminist Dave Sim had made fun of Claremont’s pro-female rhetoric in an issue of Cerebus, wherein a female character turns out to be a man in drag who calls himself Charles X. Claremont – Sim’s implicit logic being, “Is there any reason this character can’t be Claremont?”)

Issue 151 gets off to a dubious start, but its latter half shows Claremont slowly getting his groove back. Most importantly, he is proving that he can still create dynamic and creative action sequences without Byrne’s help.


Geoff Klock said...

I suppose the switching minds thing is a well used device, but I cannot help thinking that since this is the period of Claremont's X-Men that we know is his favorite, that he got the idea from here.

Thinking about it "Kitty married to Colossus with a dead baby" in Days of Future Past was the source for the fantasy implanted in her mind in Astonishing's Torn arc. Even the Sentinel image from that story seems used in Astonishing 1 (though a sentinel attack always looks the same I suppose).

Kitty does look about 40 years old in this issue, doesn't she?

I have read half the New Mutant's run, the Kitty-Wolverine mini and am on issue 194 of the main series.

Josh Hechinger said...

Body swapping also works better in TV because putting the actors into a different character can be a funky little callback to a character they've played elsewhere.

Like the JLU episode where Flash and Luthor switch minds, since Flash is voiced by Michael Rosenbaum...AKA Lex Luthor on Smallville.

Anonymous said...

I was just going to mention that JLU episode! It's also great because we get the guy playing Luthor mimicking Rosenbaum's mannerisms.

Two excellent moments from that episode:

As the Flash (in Luthor's body) is leaving the bathroom at the Legion of Doom's headquarters... another villian ask him if he's going to wash his hands... to which he replies "No... cuz I'm evil!"

and, paralelling that,

Luthor (in Flash's body) is hiding out in the League's bathroom and, staring into the mirror, says "At least I can get some use out of this" He then removes the mask takes one look at himself and says "I have no idea who this is"

A great little deflation of a classic supervillian trope, if you think about it... If you unmask Batman... of course you'll probably recognize Bruce Wayne... but who's going to know who the hell Wally West is? :)

Jason said...

That's so funny! I had always wondered if they ever did anything with the Rosenbaum Flash/Luthor connection. I seem to recall there might've been a joke about it on "Smallville" too, on the episode where Bart Allen turned up...

Geoff, issue 194! Sweet! I blogged about the dialogue in that issue on my own blog.

Cove West said...

Yikes, this issue is all over the place, and very little of it is good. Reads almost like an X-Men version of SPIDEY SUPER-STORIES instead of the same guy who gave us "Dark Phoenix" and "God Loves..." And considering the mostly action-free story, I doubt Cockrum would have helped matters -- his kinetic imagination would have been useless. Even Claremont seemed to realize that this didn't turn out right: he will reprise the Westchester-to-Snow-Valley plot several more times in the future (with the New Mutants twice and later Doug Ramsey, and IIRC DeFalco even did it in the FIRESTAR mini, until finally Lobdell gave up and just let Emma have the kids in GENERATION X), as though he had a killer story in his head that he never could quite translate to the page.

Perhaps most disappointing is that this is the culmination of Shaw's Sentinels plot that began in the aftermath of "Dark Phoenix" and formed the backbone of "Days of Future Past," but ultimately came to five pointless pages in the middle of the unrelated Emma/Ororo bodyswitch story that itself came from nowhere. Claremont didn't often step on his own sub-plots (he'd rather put them off for years than ill-use them), but he picked a particularly potent one to fubar this time, especially considering that the Sentinels (excluding Master Mold and Nimrod) didn't resurface as a major threat until...jeez, was it during "Onslaught"?

Speaking of "resurfacing," though...that image of the Sentinels emerging from Breakstone Lake is surprisingly potent, and the Kurt/Amanda (or 'Manda, as everyone has gratingly started calling her) moonlight romance sequence a few pages earlier is also a highlight (for whatever else his faults, Claremont has always been able to turn out some remarkable romantic scenes). As fill-ins go, the Sherman/McLeod/Rubinstein team had its moments.

Ororo's reflexive fear of Emma leftover from "Dark Phoenix" is a nice touch and something I wish was done more often. For as much menace as villains are supposed to give, very seldom is that menace actually received. OF COURSE Storm should feel apprehensive about the White Queen given the torture of their first meeting, and it gives a continuity to the series that extends beyond simply plot. Then again, there are drawbacks: the Jean flashbacks in this ish and the next (and "KItty's Fairy Tale" for that matter, though it at least was essential) are groan-inducing and border on Mary Sue-ism -- it speaks to just how much Claremont was intending to rely on the original post-Phoenix loboto-Jean to drive the arcs that he kept shoehorning her corpse into every story like a zombie eighth X-Man.

BTW, how rich is Emma Frost supposed to be? Kitty and Ororo imply that Emma owns the whole TOWN of Snow Valley, not just the Academy, which is like Scrooge McDuck wealthy. For that matter, how about Shaw and Leland? I kinda get the impression that Claremont intended every Cardinal to be so economically powerful as to be able to do anything and get away with it, essentially Marvel versions of Lex Luthor. And while Lex is a better dresser than Sebastian, Emma's got better hair and Leland has nicer legs. Advantage: Marvel.

Anonymous said...


Do you think that Sim's point with Charles X. Claremont (who's students, if you recall, were all female) was that while Claremont was given so much credit for writing 'strong female characters' was that what he was actually doing was just taking female characters and writing them as though they were men? I mean, I don't see it... but Sim is insane.... so maybe he did.

Jason said...

Scott, Sim didn't mention that when I asked him about it -- I think that might just be Sim's own prejudices leaking through ... no such thing as a strong woman, so the strong woman has to turn out to be a man in drag. But, your interp may be correct. Either way could certainly align with Sim's views on gender.

CW, yeah, the panel in which Kurt and Amanda kiss is cute. I agree with most of your points, although in fairness the use of Sentinels here didn't necessarily have to preclude a more satisfying culmination of the Shaw/Sentinel subplot later on. (And I actually like the way it plays out in Uncanny 246/247, which is a fairly solid and tidy way to wrap things around and tie the Shaw/Sentinel thing into a bow.) And I wouldn't call the Sentinel interlude pointless in this issue -- I still think the coolest part is Nightcrawler attaching plastique to the legs of each Sentinel in the space of nine seconds!

There's a bit in issue 151 in which Kitty says that all the Hellfire Club inner circle are rich. She says "They don't have to be criminals ... they do it for kicks. They're sick." Which is one of my favorite lines of the issue (I thought I mentioned it in this blog entry, but I guess not ...), as it hints -- albeit fairly benignly -- at something a bit warped at the core of the Hellfire Club beyond just typical supervillain vices. (So they're distinct from Lex Luthor in more than just looks ... they've got that whole fetishistic thing happening, which I'd say makes them tons more interesting. Besides, this was 1981 ... wasn't Lex Luthor a mad scientist at this point, and didn't become a Kingpin clone until Byrne's 1986 reboot?)

100% agree with you about the shoe-horning in of Jean Grey at this point. The "Fairy Tale" offering yet another reprise/recap of Dark Phoenix is just about the limit.

Anagramsci said...


Sim was NOT an anti-feminist in the early '80s!!!

Indeed, he wrote FAR more impressive female characters than Claremont ever did--er, in my opinion... Astoria, Jaka, the Countess... even The Elf is quite interesting... and I'd call Red Sophia a VERY perceptive critique of the colonized woman in "asskicking (chainmail) clothing" that so many fanboys have given us, over the years...

he also, of course, systematically destroyed each and every one of those characters, later in his run on Cerebus (I actually cried when I finally read the Jaka is a harlot issue--#26-something...)

but things were different in the Loubert days!

I'm not sure what the Charles X. Claremont stuff was all about--but I'd say that Scott is RIGHT to suggest that it could be an attack on Claremont's supposed feminism (at that time--my subjective recollection is that Claremont improves in that regard while Sim falls into a sickening pit)... I don't think Claremont's women are men-in-drag--but, in the early days anyway, they really aren't very far from being excessive gender caricatures with good powers.. like the co-eds with crossbows in Cerebus #25...



Jason said...

Could be, David, could be ... I only asked Sim about it a year ago, and he has a way of revising history so that everything he did, beginning with Cerebus #1, was written by someone with the viewpoint that present-day Sim espouses. I was falling into the same trap there.

Of course, you're right -- Sim was definitely ahead of Claremont back in the late 70s and early 80s. (Somewhere I actually have a spreadsheet I made with the months of each year from 1975 to 2004 down the side, and the appropriate issue of Cerebus side-by-side with the appropriate one of Claremont's X-Men, just to see roughly where each of the two writers was at any given point in any given year...

Anagramsci said...


now THERE's a chart we need to see!


wwk5d said...

Dave Sim: Great artist, decent write, first class douche.

I will admit, not one of the stronger issues of this era. It's not horrible, but it is average. It does have some good continuity moments, but it does feel blah, nice fight scenes aside.

david said...

Haven't read this one (the Essentials volume its contained in is out of print for some reason), but the Nightcrawler/plastique/Sentinel thing sounds pretty awesome. Just sayin.