Thursday, August 07, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #153

[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 #153

“Kitty’s Fairy Tale”

Cribbing the premise from an issue of Wally Wood’s series T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents entitled “Weed’s Fairy Tale,” Cockrum was the chief instigator behind this issue. Chris Claremont, about to inaugurate the Brood saga -- his first long-term story arc since Dark Phoenix -- thought the “fairy tale” idea worked well as a good palette cleanser for readers.

While the initial idea is Cockrum’s – as is the sense of whimsy particularly evident in the middle section of the issue – the plot is clearly Claremont’s, another example of what John Byrne identified as the writer’s inability to “let it go” when it came to the death of Jean Grey. Thus, minus the children’s-fantasy trappings, issue 153 emerges as yet another retelling of Dark Phoenix. The twist is that it ends happily, with Scott and Jean getting married – but that’s hardly enough to redeem a premise that, after the recap of issue 138 and the hallucinatory revisits of issue 144, had already been stripped to the bone by this point.

By far the best thing about the issue is Cockrum’s brilliant sense of visual humor – the quintessence of which is found in his fairy-tale versions of Nightcrawler (a big-headed Smurf precursor called Bamf) and of Wolverine (a similarly cartoonish gargoyle referred to only as the Fiend With No Name).

Claremont has some fun with the reactions of the eavesdropping “real” versions of Nightcrawler and Wolverine to their bedtime-story counterparts, but generally speaking proves incapable of matching his partner’s sense of whimsy. The author even admits as much in his intro to a reprint of “Kitty’s Fairy Tale” in the X-Men Visionaries: Chris Claremont paperback. He can’t even resist throwing in misguided angst, as when the fairy-tale Colossus laments the fact that he is not as metropolitan as Pirate Kitty. (Why would the real Kitty put something like that in a bedtime story for Peter’s sister, with Peter himself sitting right across from her?)

Still, Claremont has his moments. His dialogue for the Bamfs is fun, particularly the unattributed word balloons surrounding an entire crowd of them at one point. (Claremont will prove so enamored of this device that it will become a staple – almost every crowd scene in Claremont’s X-Men from this point on will find itself adorned with unattributed word balloons. Credit letterer Tom Orzechowski with the gimmick never losing its novelty.)

Also, some sort of Sound Effect Award should go to whoever came up with the sound effect “Bamfitty bamf bamf bamf.” It’s the funniest bit in the whole story, almost surely Cockrum’s idea, but one can never be sure.

Issue 153 also has a place in X-Men history as being, sort of, the first appearance of Lockheed the dragon. Here, it is the X-Men’s “modified SR-71 Blackbird” transmuted into a dragon for Kitty’s story. It’s oddly appropriate that the Blackbird is given dialogue for this issue – certainly the jet has become something of a character in its own right, and an iconic part of the X-Men’s mythology. X-fans have Claremont’s pet love for airplanes to thank that while the Fantastic Four have a Fantasticar and the Avengers have a “Strato-Jet,” the X-Men fly an actual real-life aircraft (albeit always described with that “modified” qualifier, just in case the plane ever needs to do something ridiculous).

At any rate, over a year after the publication of issue 153, Kitty will befriend an actual dragon on an alien world, and without any preamble start referring to the creature as “Lockheed.” As we see, that’s because the preamble is here.

25 comments:

hcduvall said...

This was the first issue I picked up of the X-Men...when it appeared reprinted in the Classic X-Men run with a Mignola cover. Very fond memories of this one.

Jason said...

The Mignola covers for Classic X-Men were fantastic, hey? This one especially was really beautifully done.

scott91777 said...

I had both the actual Issue of this and the Classic X-men issue.
I lovedit at the time... I like the Bamf! especially... and the whole idea of the Fairy Tale version of the X-men. The Dark Phoenix repetion was never a problem for me because, at the time, I had neither read the Dark Phoenix Saga (even though I had a rough idea of what transpired during it) nor had I read the reiterations of it in the intervening issues.

I would have liked to have seen this device repeated actually... but, then again, I also loved the X-babies :)

Jason said...

Scott,

Dave Cockrum wrote and drew a Nightcrawler miniseries circa 1985, which saw Nightcrawler traveling to the universe of Kitty's Fairy Tale (inexplicable that it was a made-up story in issue 153 but a "real" parallel universe in the mini, but what the heck!).

I love the X-Babies too!

Anonymous said...

Jason, was that the horrible thing with Nightcrawler and the Vanisher?

IMS this issue had an Elfquest reference or two thrown in. (It was the early '80s. Elfquest and Cerebus were the future, man.)

I still find it hard to say just why I disliked this issue so much. Cockrum's art could be fun! I still remember the different wings he gave the various X-Men (the jet plane ones for Colossus: that was clever). But at the end of the day it just wasn't enough.

I think the problem may have been that Claremont was trying to do "funny" and "touching"... which, as it turns out, are not his particular strengths. He could do funny /bits/, no problem. Funny lines. Funny scenes. But entire issues of funny? No. He tried several times, and I can't think of a single success. (Again, that Vanisher thing comes to mind. Wow, that was bad.) Touching, much the same... he rarely gets it, and almost never when he's trying to.

But, again, these were sandbox issues.

I suppose there's one thing going on here: Kitty is rapidly rising in Claremont's esteem. Recall that just a year or so back, he was sidelining her because he thought she was sort of useless. Now she's being presented -- not very well presented, but never mind -- as funny and kind and insightful and /important/. I mentioned the meta-message in #143 was that he wasn't going to kill off Kitty; the message here is that there could be entire issues built around her, with the other X-Men in the background. Also, by placing her in a nurturing role to an even younger girl, it's starting the process of "aging" her... a process that will accelerate dramatically in the next couple of years. The Kitty of the middle Smith issues will be almost a completely different character from the very young, naive, and somewhat ditzy girl we saw briefly in #143 and #149-150.

Finally, as to Claremont "not getting over" Jean Grey, I agree this was true in the long run, but I don't think it's a valid criticism of this issue. It was only a year and a half in RW time, after all, and this was a pretty major event. It made perfect in-comic sense that the X-Men would still be working through the aftershocks, while the new member would be looking back in awe and wonder. That aspect didn't bother me at the time or in retrospect.

(Where I think Claremont jumped the shark -- jumped it and continued soaring far into the blue, engines roaring, wheels spinning in the air -- was with the introduction of Madeline Pryor. But we'll get to that.)


Doug M.

scott91777 said...

Jason,

"inexplicable that it was a made-up story in issue 153 but a "real" parallel universe in the mini, but what the heck!."

Study your silver age DC, man! Alternate universes 'inspire' storytellers on paralell universes through their vibrations!... or something like that :)

Jason said...

I think Claremont can be touching, moreso than most other superhero writers. Not in this issue, but there are plenty of times when the sentimentality is very effective, at least on me.

But Claremont's ability to be funny -- yeah, you nailed it. I think you phrase it perfectly: good bits, good lines, good scenes, but never an entire issue of funny.

Claremont wasn't the one sidelining Kitty because he thought she was useless. He liked her a lot -- I think that's clear as far back the issue in which she debuts, and it swiftly became clear that she was Claremont's surrogate Jean Grey.

It was Cockrum who didn't like Kitty, and had to be convinced over time that she was a character that could be fun. Cockrum was the one who gave her a flu for the Dr. Doom arc, and again for the Savage Land arc in Marvel Fanfare #3.

The idea that the X-Men would still be dealing with the death of Jean doesn't bother me. That it takes the form of yet another summary/retelling of the Dark Phoenix Saga, does. From a storytelling perspective, it's rather boring.

I just have trouble seeing this as new territory for Claremont -- we've seen Kitty at the forefront as recently as issue 143, and a symbolic summarizing of Dark Phoenix as recently as 144. The best stuff, to me, really is Cockrum having fun with his caricatures of Nightcrawler and Wolverine.

Great observation re: the start of Kitty's "aging." It's true, she becomes very old, very fast (even though by 1990, she is said, in the text, to be only 15 years old, which is rather absurd ...)

The Vanisher story wasn't Claremont -- there was, in Bizarre Adventures #27, a story about Nightcrawler and the Vanisher drawn by Cockrum and written by Mary Jo Duffy. That was in 1981 - then four years later Cockrum wrote and drew the miniseries, which I think incorporated both elements of that Vanisher story and of this fairy-tale issue. I haven't read the mini, but yeah, the story in Bizarre Adventures isn't very good (artwork is awesome, though!).

Jason said...

Scott, but this is Marvel -- unlike DC, the Marvel Universe is grounded in gritty realism! :)

Troy said...

Hey Jason -- been loving your commentaries -- thanks. I disagree a bit with you a bit on Claremont not letting Jean go (or rather, the X-Men not letter her go). I think that's just how grieving the loss of one you love goes. It can take years for the trauma of a violent death to ease.

I think it would be more unusual if the X-Men didn't continually mourn for Jean. Case in point -- Kitty's loss in Astonishing. It was referenced once in Uncanny and that's it.

And as a kid reading these issues when they came out, it always gave me great satisfaction to see them remember and revisit her loss.

Troy

Jason said...

Troy, thanks! Glad you're enjoying 'em.

I still maintain there is a distinct difference between dramatizing the mourning/aftershocks versus re-hashing the story line.

I think there are times when Claremont does it right, e.g. issue 139 (Nightcrawler's reflecting on her death during a sunset).

Maybe it's just me ...

Stephen said...

I'd agree with the defenses of the Jean/Phoenix reprise here -- both for the reason a few people mentioned, that it was recent, they'd still be grieving -- which in itself made it far more real than most deaths in comics from the time. (IIRC, Thunderbird was occasionally mentioned too.)

But I also like it for another reason: that it was recast happily here, as a kid's fairy tale. This serves as a comment upon their originally intended ending, the ending that some readers wanted, the ending that (years later, thanks to editorial mandate) they would eventually get back to: namely, it's childish. Silly. Fairy-tale stuff.

Overall, I must admit that, while I wouldn't defend it particularly, I myself liked this issue a lot. Oh, all the subsequent call-backs (e.g. that Nightcrawler series!) were terrible. But personally I found this one quite charming.

I love that the Professor telepathically taught them all Russian. Damn, now that's a fun power. (Taught them well enough that they can understand Kitty's story...)

Oh, and while the wolverine fairy tale avatar here is indeed quite funny, it's a bit disturbing how often the apparently seriously meant wolverine looks rather like it (judging by the cover art, which, Morrison/Whedon aside, is mostly all I see these days). The Vaughn-written free-comic book day offering of a year or two back comes to mind...

Anyway, no principled defense, but I liked this one. A fun way to see alternate, whimsical sides of the characters.

SF

Stephen said...

PS: As for Doug's claim that the shark was jumped with Madeline Pryor... yeah, we'll get to this, but my memory is that it was a bit later. For me, the two events that really started to turn me off the X-Men (& Marvel comics generally) were Secret Wars II (hated it, and it kept getting its foul fingers in *everything*) and -- above all -- resurrecting Jean Grey, which made all of the mourning we're talking about meaningless, undercut (what is probably) the best story they ever did, etc. Not Claremont's idea, IMS. Still ruined his book though, at least for me.

SF

Jason said...

"I love that the Professor telepathically taught them all Russian. Damn, now that's a fun power. (Taught them well enough that they can understand Kitty's story...)"

:) That is funny.

I look forward to reading both your and Doug's arguments for both your "shark jumping" nominations. But, I'll say right now -- with perhaps foolish optimism -- I hope to prove that Claremont didn't jump the shark, and that, in fact, right up to the end of his first run, Claremont was doing fantastic things with the X-Men and, furthermore, did everything possible with the franchise -- including giving us the "pop sexy X-Men" that Geoff argues were not born until Morrison/Quitely.

Cove West said...

"KItty's Fairy Tale," even more than the Brood and Phoenix Sagas, is the masterpiece of the Claremont/Cockrum team. It is whimsical, heartfelt, exciting, funny, and lyrical -- all things that exemplify their partnership, as opposed to the serious, tragic, epic, and poetic Claremont/Byrne team -- in addition to being Claremont-standard soap-operatic, character-driven, and subplotted. I really can't say much more about it beyond, "Job well done, gentlemen." Certainly one of the twenty standout issues of Claremont's run, and all the more amazing because IT SHOULD BE UTTERLY EMBARASSING.

And in some ways, it is embarassing. Like you said, yet another Dark Phoenix revisit pushes the limits of overkill at this point (though in fairness, C&C manage to freshen it up this time), and this marks the third issue in a row in which Jean Grey essentially guest-stars. But I tend to give Claremont some leeway with his Jean-obsession; after all, he didn't know Shooter would take Jean away from him until the last minute (and if anyone can be definitively accused of literally not letting Jean die, it's John Byrne). The leeway stops around #175, but then, so does the Jean-obsession, so I can live with it.

Was Claremont writing the fairy tale as funny? I don't think so. It's mostly farce -- swashbuckling and fantasy, a spaceship short of the Cockrum trifecta -- in the first half, with some humor sprinkled through. But Kitty (and therefore, Claremont) intentionally switches the story to an epic romance for the second half, so what begins as "Spaceballs" ends as "Star Wars." In other words, Claremont wrote "The Princess Bride" -- a swashbuckling fantasy farce with humor bookended by epic romance. Cockrum/Rubinstein isn't Byrne/Austin, so the reduxed Dark Phoenix doesn't have the power Claremont intended, and Claremont doesn't quite measure up to William Goldman and Rob Reiner, but the whole adds up to high enough a number for me.

I will say that the interstitial scenes at the mansion don't work in the "Brady Bunch" funny way Claremont wants, but I think they are an important marker in the ANAD team becoming more than a team. This isn't a Danger Room scene or a shopping trip or a picnic -- this is the group with their guard down, relaxed in their skivvies, as comfortable as if they had makeup or (in Logan's case) were clothed. It's practically an episode of "Friends," with Ross and Rachel reading little Emma a story, Chandler and Joey overhearing it, then Monica and Phoebe wandering in followed by, uh, Mike and Gunther-in-a-wheelchair, and jokes ensue until the "awww" ending.

Did Marvel ever put out a Bamf doll? Consider the uses! Adorable play-pal, snugglesome sleeping friend, romantic stand-in, deathbed companion... certainly better than a Snikt doll! BTW, did Illyana ever retrieve the Fozzie Bear doll (the one seen in this ish) from Belasco? Or is Fozzie now ruler of Limbo?

Anonymous said...

Cove,I disagree, but let's battle this out in future comment threads!

Jason, just one thought: now -- before you hit the Brood storyline -- would probably be a good time to dig up those old issues of John Carter. I think you might find that they shed some light.

cheers,


Doug M.

Patrick said...

No way is Maddy Pryor a shark jump. Yes, in some ways she's just another Jean substitute, but once you get past the initial meeting, the whole storyline becomes this creepy Vertigo (the movie) style story of Scott's emotional inadequacies and the woman who's hurt by them. But, then she manages to get it together and still be a hero despite all he's done to her.

Particularly after she joins up with the X-Men after the Mutant Massacre, she's one of my favorite characters in the series. But, we'll get there soon enough.

Jason said...

CW -- well, Claremont seems to agree with you; of the eight comics chosen by him to be reprinted in the "X-Men Visionaries: Chris Claremont" volume, "Kitty's Fairy Tale" is one of them. And it's the only Claremont/Cockrum one of the bunch, so he may even agree with you that it is the "masterpiece of the Claremont/Cockrum team." I respect your opinion (and Claremont's!), but I still don't agree. As much as I enjoy parts of it, I simply don't think it's as charming as it wants to be. Pretty charming, yes, but not completely.

And as for the Cockrum masterpieces, I would put issue 150 ahead of this one, or the early Shiar stuff from 101-105. Or my big-time favorite, Uncanny 161, with its awesome Xavier/Magneto team-up. @#$%, I love that one!!!

That said, I would love to see people's list of Top 10 or Top 20 standout Claremont X-Men issues. Yours, Doug's, Patrick's, Stephen's, Scott's, David's, Geoff's ...? Geoff, maybe we could break into my Claremont blogs one of these days with my top ten or twenty with a call for other people's? I dunno, just a thought ...

Doug -- I'm about to move to a new city, so it's not a good time to spend money on back-issues, even though I'm sure they're very cheap. Besides-which, I write these blog posts very far in advance (in fact, knowing I'd be moving around now is part of why I did so), so the Brood storyline blogs are already written ... I do have the John Carter issues on my "want list," though, don't worry...

Patrick -- Heck yeah! That's the stuff.

j.liang said...

Re: the original cover — does Claremont quote Monty Python elsewhere in this issue? Has he done so before this? Just wondering where/when that started.

Jason said...

No idea. Anyone else know? (I'm not enough of a Monty Python fan -- the only one that comes to mind is years later, when Colossus says "I got better" in Uncanny #225.)

Cove West said...

I'd actually put some of the Brood chapters ahead of this one in terms of quality, but none of them exhibit the full range of the Claremont/Cockrum partnership like #153 does. #150 and #161 are great stories and particular standouts for Claremont, but IMO not for Cockrum who is underutilized in them.

That Visionaries volume is an odd bird. Simonson got 5 volumes for THOR, Byrne 9 (I think) for FF, Miller 4 for DD, and Claremont got one measley Best Of compilation that forced him into picking one-shots and non-collected issues. Wonder what would've been on Claremont's list if he'd been allowed to include Dark Phoenix or the Massacre or God Loves...

scott91777 said...

There are 4 Miller DDs? I thought there were only 3. Is there one that collects Born Again?

I've got to say that I've just recently finished the Paul smith era and am a few issues into the JRR era and I actually think the wrting is getting better... maybe not in terms of genre-defining plots, but just on a technical level as far as what I like when I pick up a comic this is much closer to what I want... it's much more comprable to what modern comic reads like.

Jason said...

CW -- but, for what it's worth, all parties confirm that Cockrum helped Claremont to conceptualize the broadening of Magneto's backstory. Paty Cockrum, Dave's widow, has some interesting accounts (to be found somewhere online, I'm sure) about how she too was involved with Claremont and Dave's brainstorming. So while Cockrum's visual storytelling is perhaps underutilized in those Magneto issues (which, at least in terms of issue 161, I might argue anyway), it's probably fair to say that they would not have been what they were had Claremont been teamed with any other artist at that point.

I, of course, have noticed the inequities of how Claremont's been treated re: the Visionaries volumes. But, in fairness, much of Claremont's material IS collected, just not under the "Visionaries" banner. All his stuff from Uncanny 94 to at least 150 is collected in hardcover Masterworks volumes, and of course all those crossovers remain in print, from Massacre to X-Tinction Agenda. The Paul Smith run has been canonized in the fine "From the Ashes" volume, and -- though it shifts the emphasis -- he is a credited writer on everything reprinted in, for example, the X-Men Visionaries: Jim Lee volume. So, while the message board can be found in which a guy named Jason Powell has railed about the unfairness of Claremont's place in the "Visionaries" reprint pantheon ... in my more reflective moments I recognize that Claremont is hardly being badly represented in the current stable of Marvel TPBs. (Hell, they're doing a hardcover of Magik, for god's sake!)

On the other hand, there is plenty of stuff that I think still deserves to come back into print -- and to segue into replying to Scott's comment, the JRJr material is a good example. The TPBs basically take a reader from the early goldmine of Cockrum/Byrne then jump to Paul Smith, then skip over JRJr and most of Silvestri (except what's represented in the FotM and Inferno trades) to go straight to Jim Lee. There's a real treasure trove of stuff in that huge gap between Smith and Lee, material that I think many people would react to the way Scott is, i.e., finding that it's solid, entertaining material. (If I'm not reading too much into your comment there, Scott!)

Without even having read Byrne's FF, I'm *positive* that the JRJr/Silvestri run of Uncanny (roughly 175-261) is more deserving of "Visionaries" treatment than any of THAT material. I mean, come on -- Byrne's writing sucks!

Cove West said...

Jason, I am in awe of your knowledge of the behind-the-scenes stuff!

Yeah, Claremont's run is mostly collected NOW, but it's a shame Marvel didn't do it a few years ago when the X-Men were still the primary franchise and immersed in continuity that fans might want to read. Even today, there are gaping holes: the trades containing AVENGERS ANNUAL #10 and UNCANNY #266 have been long out-of-print (and maybe INCREDIBLE HULK #181, too), IRON FIST #14 is only in Essential format, and From the Ashes hasn't been in print for years. A greater percentage of Claremont's EXCALIBUR is in print as trade than Claremont's UNCANNY, and there's one more Masterwork for the Silver Age X-Men than for the one that was actually popular -- even to the point where they're reprinting the Beast solo stories from AMAZING ADVENTURES in hardcover before they get to the Outback Era in ANY cover! Whoever it was that decided that Claremont's run shouldn't be in even Essential format by now while frickin' Onslaught gets collected needs to be fired.

Patrick said...

Marvel has a really weird attitude when it comes to reprinting the Claremont run. They've put out countless collections of Giant Size through Days of Future Pats, but when I wanted to read anything after the Mutant Massacre, I had to hunt down the individual issues. I thought the Essential volumes weren't so bad until I picked up the omnibus of 94-131 and saw that the coloring on those issues was actually quite good. I'd love to see a few more of those omnibuses, collecting the entire Claremont run.

It does seem bizarre that they put out the Magik miniseries in hardcover, and really nice collections of all of Excalibur and New Mutants before finishing the parent title.

wwk5d said...

"(Where I think Claremont jumped the shark -- jumped it and continued soaring far into the blue, engines roaring, wheels spinning in the air -- was with the introduction of Madeline Pryor. But we'll get to that.)"

I don't agree with you, but that did make me laugh :)

"I will say that the interstitial scenes at the mansion don't work in the "Brady Bunch" funny way Claremont wants, but I think they are an important marker in the ANAD team becoming more than a team. This isn't a Danger Room scene or a shopping trip or a picnic -- this is the group with their guard down, relaxed in their skivvies, as comfortable as if they had makeup or (in Logan's case) were clothed. It's practically an episode of "Friends," with Ross and Rachel reading little Emma a story, Chandler and Joey overhearing it, then Monica and Phoebe wandering in followed by, uh, Mike and Gunther-in-a-wheelchair, and jokes ensue until the "awww" ending."

One of the many reasons I love this issue. It's good, silly, fun, and a nice change of pace...from what came before, and what's to come.