Saturday, August 23, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #159

[EDIT: Sorry if you saw this Thursday when it was posted by mistake]

[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 #159

“Night Screams”

At this point, sci-fi, space opera and straight-ahead superheroics have all been tested and tried by Claremont, and all have proven appropriate milieus for the X-Men when done right. Now, the author seems curious to test out other genres. In the next issue, he’ll play with fantasy, but here he goes for horror.

Back in the 1960s, at the very nadir of Roy Thomas’ creative inspiration for the X-Men, he had the original team fight Frankenstein’s monster. It was awful, and the premise for issue 159, the X-Men vs. Dracula, seems hardly better. But the gung-ho execution sells the concept surprisingly well. The art is by Bill Sienkiewicz, who in later years will become one of the most dazzlingly innovative comic book artists of the 1980s (and as such, will demonstrate a surprising synergy with Chris Claremont in New Mutants #’s 18-28).

In 1982 however, Sienkiewicz still draws in a relatively conventional mode, though his work is nonetheless strikingly powerful. With his exaggerated character poses and relentlessly busy and asymmetrical page layouts, Sienkiewicz wears the influence of Neal Adams on his sleeve -- but he certainly does the style remarkably well. If Adams had ever drawn the “new” X-Men around this time, they probably would have looked very, very close to how they do in “Night Screams.”

Inspired by the most unusual art to show up in his Uncanny X-Men, Claremont spins a convincing Gothic-horror pastiche, by pushing his already melodramatic style only a few notches in timbre. Tom Orzechowski’s letters (painfully missing since issue 153), with their artful arrangement and subtle shifts in font, give Claremont’s baroque text an added polish and legitimacy.

Urgent in tempo and frenetic in rhythm, “Night Screams” is Claremont’s most compressed X-Men issue to date, cramming almost all the beats of the prototypical vampire story into a brisk 23 pages. The first half of the issue – depicting Ororo’s initial attack by Dracula (kept off-panel), her subsequent seduction, and the ravages of her transformation – is particularly vigorous, while also incredibly moody.

Thanks to Sienkewicz’s confident line (embellished fluently by Bob Wiacek), the story’s segue into superhero action when Dracula battles the male members of the team feels entirely natural. While the straight-ahead intensity of the plot leaves little room for Claremont’s typical characterization, he gives Nightcrawler an intriguing comment at one point: “In my homeland, Bavaria,” says Kurt, “we have learned from bitter experience not to take vampires – especially Dracula – lightly.” The implication that vampires are an acknowledged reality for Kurt seems oddly predictive, somehow, of Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, with its “all stories coexist” premise. We know that Kurt – besides being of demonic appearance himself – was raised with a family of witches, so his pragmatic belief in vampires is both surprising and fitting. The forceful reminder later in this selfsame issue that Kurt is also Catholic creates some definite questions about the specifics of Kurt’s upbringing, but Claremont will never answer them.

Though without any long-term significance to the canon, Uncanny X-Men #159 boasts a wide, cinematic scope – both in the art and the writing – that elevate it from a gimmick story to something of genuine impact. That Claremont could so successfully integrate the X-Men into a Gothic horror story a mere two months after plunging them into unabashed space opera speaks to the versatility both of the writer and the concept.

[I would love to see someone really make Dracula work as an X-Men villain. I wish Morrison had done it in some looney annual.]


scott91777 said...

First of all, what happenned to 158? Are we skipping it for some reason?

Second, I have the 'sequel' to this issue (annual 6) in one of the collections I just bought... which I also used to own... and I remember a specific moment where Wolverine crosses his claws in attempt to fend off Dracula to which Dracula replies "That only works if you believe" then Nightcrawler crosses two pieces of wood and is successful because he "belives"... that wasn't in the annual... I also remember Kitty's Star of David necklace burning him as well. Anyway, I thought that bit was a nice touch. Is this the story that appears in? Or is there a third X-men Vs Dracula story? If so, that's kind of an inordinate number of X-men Vs Dracula stories but, yeah, Geoff is right... Morrison could have had fun with that concept.

As for this story "having no long term effects", could this, in fact, be the beginning of Storm's transformation that ultimately leads to the Mohawked Storm about a year later?

Streebo said...

Great write up, Jason.

This was always one of my favorite X-Men stories. In my mind Dracula is one of the greatest villains of all time and it was nice to see him worked into the X-Men universe - although his battle with Dr. Strange was much more epic.

I always thought the Kitty Pryde Star of David moment was a great touch - but years later I discovered that Claremont basically lifted that idea from Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killer aka Excuse Me But Your Teeth Are In My Neck.

Jason said...

Scott, nope, no third X-Men/Dracula story. This is the one with the sequence you mention. Agreed, it is great.

Streebo, thanks! Who wrote the Dr. Strange story?

scott91777 said...

What's weird is that even though I've read this one... I totally don't remember the cover... maybe I read it in 'classic X-men'... anyone have the cover to that?

Streebo said...

jason: I believe Roger Stern wrote those Dr. Strange vs Dracula stories. I'll check the issues as soon as I scrounge them up.

This issue was one of my first exposures to the X-men and Bill Sienkiewicz. As much as I always loved Byrne, Cockrum, and Romita jr, I always lamented that Sienkiewicz never worked on more X-Men stories.

Fortunately as you noted - Sienkeiwicz blossomed into full blown shamanic insanity over the course of working on New Mutants. The seeds for Sienkiewicz's surreal expansion seemed to be planted in the pages of Moon Knight. We see his art run the full course from the mainstream Neal Adams look of the early issues of Moon Knight to the rougher more impressionistic figures of the later issues.

Jason said...

Streebo, true -- it would've been neat to see more Sienkewicz on New Mutants. I love now those moments when we see the X-Men show up in any New Mutants issue between 17 and 31 (there's at least one good sequence each featuring Nightcrawler, Colossus and Rogue in the Sienkiewicz run).

Jason said...

Scott, this "Classic" cover is by Mignola, and is -- like most Mignola -- really kick-ass. Mignola did covers for, I think, almost all the Classic issues reprinting Cockrum's second run. It's a great format to own those issues in, for that reason alone. (Mignola doing Dracula on this cover is particularly great. It's a perfect fit -- Mignola even drew the comic-book adaptation of the Gary Oldman/Winona Ryder Dracula movie back in the mid-1990s.)

cease ill said...

Steve Englehart wrote Doctor Strange in the days of that crossover---Marv Wolfman handled his part over in TOMB OF DRACULA. I don't even know if you will see this late comment, Jason, but I couldn't recommend Englehart's run on DS more highly! It's the primary content of Essentials vol. 3 for that character---also, both parts appear in Essentials TOD vol.2. Englehart's eighteen issues (with Brunner, then Colan) are highly cherished: philosophy seamlessly folded with high-stakes action. Thrilling, clever, and thought-provoking!