Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #164

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

“Binary Star”

Uncanny X-Men, The #164

For Cockrum’s swan song, he goes all-out in the action sequence that opens issue 164. The artist eschews all subtlety for straight ahead impact as he steers the reader towards Claremont’s climactic “Binary” explosion, wherein Carol Danvers because a cosmic being. It’s quite well handled, particularly Cockrum’s rare use of skewed, asymmetrical panel layouts, which genuinely convey a sense of chaos and danger just before Danvers saves the day. Claremont juggles the sequence admirably, managing his eight protagonists well and giving each something interesting to do (except the convalescent Kurt).

As for the story value of Carol Danvers’ transformation itself, it’s hard to get particularly worked up about it. Claremont seems to be playing to the Ms. Marvel fans (including himself), giving Carol an exciting destiny to redeem the premature cancellation of her own series. But while the buildup and execution is well handled, the actual dramatic choice seems arbitrary. The reasoning makes more sense when one considers Claremont’s long-term plans – the addition of Rogue to the cast is now only seven months away. If Claremont already has that planned now, then making Carol into a cosmic character plants the seeds for her easy expulsion from the series to clear room for Rogue.

The second part of “Binary Star” pulls off an appropriately gloom-filled atmosphere, with the X-Men adrift in a disabled spaceship, unaware that they’re all about to die. Storm’s angst as her alien embryo plays havoc with her powers is well-handled. There’s a particularly wrenching, horror-movie-esque sequence when she realizes that there is a baby inside her, and for a few moments finds herself intrigued by the notion, before realizing exactly what it is.

On Earth meanwhile, Claremont has – in the space of only two issues – entirely rebuilt the mansion, and the Bermuda Triangle headquarters is abruptly dropped. Considering the rapidity of this reversal in direction, it seems very likely that it was not originally part of Claremont’s plan, but a result of the impending launch of New Mutants. According to “Comics Creators on X-Men,” Tom DeFalco had pitched an X-Men spin-off series to Jim Shooter, but as soon as Claremont – concerned about preserving the franchise’s integrity – got wind of the idea, he moved quickly make sure that no one else could write it. Since the concept he’d go on to develop involved young kids closer in age and experience to the original Lee/Kirby group, the return of the school would have been a must.

Indeed, the seeds for the first arc of New Mutants are seen in issue 164, in a two-page sequence involving Xavier and Illyana. The latter makes some enigmatic references to her mutant power – to be revealed in the Magik miniseries that will in turn feed into the New Mutants title – while the former has had his spirit broken by the kidnapping and presumed death of the X-Men at the hands of Deathbird. Xavier’s resultant dispiritedness will flow into New Mutants as well, as his new protégés help Charles redeem himself.

For the moment, Claremont has a bit of fun writing an apathetic Xavier, who – confronted with the enigma of the mysterious 13-year-old version of Illyana – thinks for a moment about what he could to solve it, then promptly decides not to bother.


Dougie said...

Binary is a quintessential Cockrum visual but I never understood what she could do, exactly. Nevertheless, the character seemed embody that very Seventies Marvel paradigm: "the rising and advancing of a spirit".I thought it was a pity, therefore, that she was eventually reset as Ms. Marvel.

Geoff Klock said...

The living broodships reminded me of the cylon ships a bit on Battlestar. Where is the origin of the living ship idea?

I thought this issue had a nice contrast of Storm and Danvers: the former is connected to earth and feels useless in space, the latter is connected to the cosmos and feels hemmed in on earth.

Jason said...

"Binary is a quintessential Cockrum visual but I never understood what she could do, exactly."

***It is vague, isn't it? Just some energy manipulation of some sort ... ?

"I thought this issue had a nice contrast of Storm and Danvers: the former is connected to earth and feels useless in space, the latter is connected to the cosmos and feels hemmed in on earth."

***Ah! I like that.

scott91777 said...


I'm not sure, but I would venture the 'living ship' idea probably has roots going back to the pulps... maybe even earlier. Then again, maybe it's one of those things that was like, "Really? No one thought of this before?"

scott91777 said...


Scratch that...

according to wikipedia, the first story credited as having a 'bioship' is a 1953 story by Robert Sheckly called "Specialist"

Of course, according to the description this seems to be more of a ship 'powered' by organic beings rather than an actual 'organic ship'

Anonymous said...

Binary's super-power was a connection to a 'white hole', absorbing and manipulating its energies for her own purposes, such as flight, super-strength, energy blasts, deep space survival, etc.

Anyone know why Cockrum bailed on the X-Men comic so near the end of a story arc? If I remember correctly, Paul Smith pencils the last chapter of this arc, which is kind of a strange place for a new artist to come on board.

Jason said...


I would guess it was deadline-related. That was -- in the days before Marvel became very lax about deadlines -- typically the reason for abrupt changeovers like this. Cockrum, by the accounts I've read, wasn't great with monthly deadlines. (Hence there being fill-in art on no less than five issues between Uncanny 145 and 164.)

Harry said...

When Xavier dismissed any thoughts of what he could or should do about Illyana's dilemma, I took that as being due to the growing influence of the Brood Queen embryo, perhaps coupled with some down-to-earth despondency, given that he believed the X-Men to be dead.

Jason said...

I don't know about the Broodqueen, but ... him being despondent about the death of the X-Men -- well, yeah. Claremont spells that out in the issue, and I said that in the second to last paragraph.