Saturday, September 13, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #165

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

Uncanny X-Men, The #165


“... One of the most important issues I've ever read, which is just the issue of them waiting to basically die before the big epic. To me, there's more ‘Buffy’ in that than any comic I know because it's just them talking about who they are and religion and sex. I was just blown away that you could do that with a comic and I just love Paul Smith's pencils.” – Joss Whedon on Uncanny X-Men #165

Whedon sums it up rather nicely. In terms of expressive breadth and emotional depth, Uncanny X-Men takes a massive leap forward in this issue, thanks to Paul Smith. With a line as smooth as Byrne’s but softer, as bold as Cockrum’s but possessing more dimensionality, he delivers the series into an entirely different artistic realm. Inspired by the quiet versatility of his new collaborator, Claremont takes the storytelling into new levels of psychological complexity, which seemingly draws less from the tradition of superhero comics and more from the darker and more nuanced independent comics of the day (Claremont’s enjoyment of which is even advertised by allusions to Cerebus in Uncanny #160 and Elfquest in Uncanny #153).

Brought in as penciller for the final chapters of the extended Brood saga, Smith finds himself drawing a few sci-fi sequences, including the opening “explosive decompression” bit and Storm’s dramatic transformation into a “sleazoid.” He handles those moments with seeming ease, but it is the quieter bits wherein Smith demonstrates his profound talent more directly. The “sex and death and religion” motif that Whedon points out is incarnated in two key moments that anchor this issue emotionally and psychologically, and point the way toward a new phase for the series that will begin once the Brood arc is at long last resolved.

“Religion” – A scene in which Wolverine happens upon Nightcrawler praying. The idea that Kurt, raised by a family of sorceresses and witches, should believe in Christ is strange and never gets a full explanation, but perhaps the plaintive comment he offers here is enough. “I admit I’m rarely seen in a church,” he says. “But I draw comfort from my beliefs and from prayer.”

Wolverine makes the surprising admission that he once, as a soldier, tried prayer himself and that it was “a mistake.” Kurt’s response is to pity Logan his lack of spirituality and his loneliness, and Wolverine replies by embracing Nightcrawler, saying, “I ain’t alone, bub – I got you.” This scene is the sentimental apogee of the Kurt/Logan friendship, which Claremont had been developing right from the start of his X-Men run. Emboldened by Smith’s talent, Claremont for the first time looks beyond their surface camaraderie (the essence of which can be found in the running “loser buys the beer” gag of earlier issues) and lets both characters express themselves in a more honest and emotional vocabulary than ever before. Eventually, Claremont would retroactively plant this level of depth into the very start of the characters’ relationship via the Bolton backups in Classic X-Men (issue 4’s “The Big Dare” specifically), but the true beginning is right here.

“Sex and death” – Meanwhile, the origins of Joss Whedon’s take on the Kitty/Peter relationship in his Astonishing X-Men are easily traced to the Kitty/Peter scene of Uncanny #165, which contains the most moving dialogue in “Transfigurations.” Seemingly unsure of how to handle a character of Kitty’s tender age in previous issues – leading to the cognitive dissonance of her detached self-awareness in issue 158 and Cockrum’s ever-awkward desire to put her in a bikini every other issue – Claremont at last seems to lock on to the appropriate way of dealing with her sexuality. Here, her interactions with Colossus feel entirely natural, her desire to make love to Colossus impetuous and fervent, borne out of a confused emotional need for closeness that doesn’t entirely comprehend the magnitude of what she is proposing. Peter, mature beyond his years (he’s only 19 himself), understands what Kitty wants but also recognizes that her desire is coming from a skewed psychological desperation. Her line “Gee, I wish I was older,” rings with irony. Her meaning is obvious – if she were older, sex between them would be legal – but Peter’s response, “You are not older,” comes from deeper awareness. He knows that she’s not ready – that if she didn’t think they were both about to die, she would not be so desperate to go so far. It is a lovely scene. Whedon, I think, has tried to tap the same level of sexual complexity in his re-igniting of the Colossus/Kitty relationship with his work on the Astonishing series. But his ideas – one bit in which Kitty phases as the result of orgasm, another in which she seduces Peter to assuage his fears – lack maturity, and pale in comparison to Claremont’s work here.

[A few things of note, on my end. 

The scene in which Storm struggles in a monologue about killing or not killing the Brood being that is planted inside her and will kill her and will be evil -- this is the kind of thing I have no patience for, and this should have been the example in my superhero book of why the Authority was so liberating - just kill the fucker and move on. The moral hypocrisy is on its way as the X-Men, who don't want to kill, find the beings they will let do the killing for them, and get to keep their hands clean, luckily. 

Notice the irony of Dracula-Storm being the one to put a gentle end to the underage sex between Peter and Kitty: usually monsters like Dracula punish teenagers for their sex drives.

The sex stuff is not the only thing Whedon takes away from this issue -- notice that Storm floating presumably dead in space looks exactly like Scott floating presumably dead in space in Whedon's run -- they will both be scooped up and resurrected by aliens. On a bigger structural level, Whedon was perfect to take over after Morrison because his favorite X-Men period is the post-Jean Grey period, which is exactly what he was asked to write, and he handled it in the same way -- Kitty Pryde. 

I see why you say Whedon lacks maturity, but another way of characterizing it is that Whedon knows the limits of being ernest. Take your least favorite Whedon moment, the scene in which Emma, asked where she disappeared to during battle says "I had to pee." I feel like Claremont, scripting that moment, would have just had her say "I don't want to talk about it" or think "I can't tell him." Whedon's "I had to pee" is just a sarcastic-ridiculous way of indicating the same thing: the outlandishness of it means no one is going to ask her anything else about it. Whedon is also connecting with his readers who are older (I think) than Claremont's were: the geeks have grown up -- they have sex now, but they are still very capable of embarrassing themselves, hence the orgasm-phasing scene. It is actually a bit like Tony Soprano again: you can be a superhero, but you cannot entirely escape your undramatic human failings.]


Jason said...

Yeah, the killing-the-Brood stuff is naive. Patrick commented on the same thing when he blogged about the Brood era. You're right, it would have been a good example for your book. On the other hand, Claremont's X-Men themselves will eventually grow out of this. They won't reach Authority-level intensity, but there is an arc that takes them into a "kill the fucker and move on" mindset. Claremont will even bring the Brood back to illustrate it (in issues 232-234), and the difference in Storm's attitude to them there vs. here is stark.

I definitely get what you're saying about Whedon. In theory I even like how he handles those moments by putting in a joke. It's just in practice, I often don't actually find the jokes themselves that funny. (Sometimes I do, but often not.)

scott91777 said...

I'm in agreement with Geoff here on a both his points. The way Whedon handles the Kitty/Peter relationshp is fine to me because the ARE older in that story and the sex is fine. Now, is it the sexual relationship between them that you object to in Whedon's run... or did you just think the phasing-orgasm was cheap? Perhaps, on some level, you are remembering the sweetness of this moment and the Whedon's actual sexual relationship just seems to kind of dirty it for you... or, maybe, you just didn't want it to have a cheap gag in it.

On a related note, as I'll comment on in later issues, upon Smith's arrival, Claremont turns up the heat in general with the sex.

And, like Geoff, I was kind of annoyed by the "we can't kill the evil brood eggs that are going to kill us"... however, this does make a definite differentiation from the Xenomorphs of Alien... these are actually sentient-self award creatures.

On a more whimsical note addressing the logic of this issue: Woverine's smoking... now, I have no problem with the whole "wouldn't they expode in an all oxygen environment" thing because, as Thank You For Smoking taught us, they probably have a device.... I just found myself wondering "Where the hell did he get cigarettes in space? Has he had them the whole time in his back pocket? Did he bum some space sticks off Lilandra?" Enquiring minds want to know!

What's your best "no-prize" explanation?

Josh Hechinger said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Josh Hechinger said...

Scott - I don't have the issue in front of me, but is Wolverine wearing a costume with his giant-ass belt buckle? He probably has a stash in there.

(Deleted comment was me; had a typo.)

Jason said...

Scott ... Replicators. :)

scott91777 said...


Ah, yes... but then why did he and Nightcrawler have to make their 'beer'? :)

Jason said...

As far as what I'm objecting to with Whedon ... it's probably too knee-jerk of me. There's just this sense, to me, that Whedon wanted to fuck Kitty when he was a teenager reading these issues, so as soon as he can get creative control of the character, he has her getting naked and sexy every chance he can get. I would probably mind it less if he was doing so in the aggressive, dirty-minded way that Frank Miller's been handling the female characters in All-Star Batman, because that's so over the top that it kind of breaks through into something fresh and interesting.

Whedon seems to wants to create a mature, adult, emotionally complex relationship with Peter and Kitty, while also giving us these kind of cheap, soft-core kind of moments (I'm thinking of the bit where she enters Peter's room naked, and Peter makes kind of a jokey comment, and of course the "I phased! THAT's never happened before!" bit.) It feels too much like a sniggering teenage geek writing something one-handed. (I have this image of Whedon as teenager wondering if Kitty ever phases when she gets off.)

So, not saying that sexuality can't or shouldn't be part of how an adult romantic relationship is portrayed. I think it should. I also don't mind something smutty, if smut is what you're doing (All-Star Batman, Sin City).

Can it be had both ways? Probably. I don't think Whedon made it work, though.

I guess the short answer is ... yeah, it bothers me because the phasing thing was a cheap gag.

scott91777 said...

Maybe the reason that I liked Whedon's portrayl is that, as an adolescent fanboy, I, too, wanted to have sex with Kitty... but didn't we all, really?

Anonymous said...

Not me. Claremont obviously liked her too much.

If I had an X-fantasy... but no.

"Because you could never love anyone real the way you loved Thundergirl."

Doug M.

cease ill said...

Imagine how I felt then when I thought Morrison's X-Men should have Jean, Emma and Scott work out a relationship together (an idea I was beginning to see as a possibility in real life, between adults), knowing copyrighted American mainstream comics characters were still a long ways from that kind of treatment.

wwk5d said...

I still think Whedon's run was crap. Gorgeous, good looking crap...but still crap. As to the whole Storm not killing the egg inside her...that was a much more innocent time. Maybe Claremont was stressing this to highlight how much she changes over the next year or so? As Jason mentioned, by the time of the next Brood story, Storm will not hesitate to kill of any of them. Heck, by the time she squares of against Callisto, she's ready to go that next step.

Anonymous said...

How volitional was the Brood larva in Storm? IRRC, in that state it was innocent and dependent on the host. Maybe it isn't a good idea to dismiss Storm's struggles with killing it before it killed her. That's actually a decision a few women have to make, though it's undoubtedly far worse when it's your own kin.

In human decisions, options are more likely to involve greater or lesser risk rather than certain death. Every woman who chooses to carry a first-trimester fetus to term is accepting a slightly greater risk than if she had an abortion. Giving birth wasn't terribly dangerous for me, but it was riskier than any previous hospital procedure I'd had by an order of magnitude.

Anonymous said...

To me this arc is really where Claremont's X-Men begin. The Byrne and Cockrum collaborations being just that, equal collaborations. The other issues seem to be CC struggling to find his voice and a direction for the series, with him trying random new ideas and rehashing old ones that worked.

This is definitely where he figured out Wolverine. Which works perfectly. Wolverine finally realizes how much he cares about his teammates when faced with the fact that he might have to kill them. He's come a long way from "You never asked."

I originally read these years after From the Ashes so obviously knew they all come out okay, but still remember being completely absorbed by the bleakness of these issues and Wolverine's dilemma. I honestly did not know how CC was gonna get them out of this one.

Derek E

DB said...

On topic, I recently bought the third Omnibus so I'm re-reading your posts, Jason, as well as Teebore's. And the comments, too. Fantastic, really. Claremont's run is one of my favorite things in the universe and it's a pleasure to see someone take them seriously. You also can actually write and think, like many bloggers and unlike many comics press staffers.

I enjoyed Cockrum's second run more this time around than I had when I first read the series (maybe because my expectations were altered from "cool, Cockrum's back" to "let's not get too excited here" which allowed for some nice surprises) but the whole time I'd been waiting for Smith to arrive. And he never disappoints. Gorgeous work. The characters really come alive. The difference between the two is quite dramatic. Even the backgrounds. The characters seem grounded in more real environments. And the colorist seems to have gone a less cartoony route and a more animation-y route, if that makes sense. (Although, that might have more to do with the settings change.)

I like how the story is titled "Transfigurations." The art change at the story's climax is a little jarring. The characters are transfigured to slightly leaner, handsomer versions of themselves. Except for Storm. Kitty gets a whole beauty upgrade (now Ellen Page looks kittier) while Storm gets very unbecoming cheek implants.

I don't know if it has something to do with the fact that I'm gay but I could care less about what Kitty is wearing or whether readers or creators wanted to have sex with her. Honestly, the sexualization of Kitty Pryde must be the one of the most over-analyzed subjects on the internet. It wouldn't surprise me if Cockrum simply figured that a girl in a bathing suit would appeal to kids. I'm sure many little girls had Kitty crushes too. Maybe it annoyed Smith and that's why we see Kitty on the Prairie here in her jammies.

I don't know. It's not a big deal and it doesn't bother me but I thought I'd toss my two cents in anyway. (Imagine if you were reading my reviews and me and almost every commenter seemed to always be talking about Peter Rasputin's sexuality. Except he's 13. While I'm on the topic though, despite his good looks and banging body, and being legal, I'd take Scott Summers over Pete any day.)

DB said...

Of the Whedon discussion, I fall somewhere in the middle. I felt like after Morrison's run, which I loved, and even during his run, there was such a shit ton of bad comics and bad X-Men comics on the shelves, Whedon's Astonishing was a glimmer of hope that good X-Men stories could still be told in the 21st century without the Morrison-skewed touch: he was using the A characters, on a small team, the art was absolutely gorgeous, the penciler and colorist worked beautifully together, the characters felt like themselves, the characters felt like characters, Whedon was bringing us back to Claremont's team. It was exciting. The characters made jokes and some of them were even actually funny.

Everything about Astonishing worked. Well, except for the plots. The plots were awful. Really awful. The plots did not work, as most of us realized and ignored because we loved the small moments, the character bits, so much. And his villains were forgettable. He like many creators of his age at this time resorted to the "Xavier is not a jerk he's an inhuman monster" trope, too. If Morrison was reinterpreting Claremont's run, Whedon was just flat out tributing it. And at the time, maybe especially after Morrison (whose run while yes I love, the love dims towards the latter half), a 1980s Chris Claremont tribute was enough. (I never got into Buffy or anything else by Whedon, and I didn't like his work on Runaways, for what that's worth.)

Anway, I'm happy I own each issue of Claremont's, Morrison's and Whedon's runs. I am even thinking of collecting Remender's Uncanny X-Force.

Also, I can't believe I never realized that Kitty became prominent after Jean died twice. Cool. One of my favorite aspects of this blog is when you point out the symmetry and the serendipitous nature of these stories. Lovely.

Off topic, but at the mention of From the Ashes I went to check which issues it contains because I've forgotten and the Amazon description is this odd glitchy nugget:

"I am Norman Spinrad.  I have nothing to do with this book and don't know why it is in my list of books."

Sure, Norman. Sure.

And good luck with whatever you're working on, Jason.