“... 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.]