[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.]
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.]