Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #166

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men. For more in this series see the toolbar on the right. This is a particularly good post: I was not a big fan of this issue, as I was annoyed with the whole magic space whale stuff, but I think Jason has changed my mind.]

Uncanny X-Men, The #166

“Live Free or Die”

Classic X-Men #13b, “Lifesigns,” showed Claremont dabbling in a bit of philosophy about nature, suggesting that there was a karmic balance to the world symbolized by the dichotomous relationship between dolphins – symbols of life, intelligence, the future, etc. – and sharks, who represent death, instinct and the primordial past.

That story, as it turns out, is a mirror for this one, which echoes that philosophy on a cosmic scale via Claremont’s conception of two races, the Acanti – who swim through the cosmos in schools and communicate with each other in song – and the Brood, described in issue 162 as perfect killing machines.

In the middle of this dichotomy are the X-Men, who in this climactic double-sized episode choose between a path of darkness and death, and one of life and light. The former is incarnated in the notion of a suicide run against the Brood; the latter, an optimistic rescue attempt that will save the Acanti’s racial “soul.” The choice of course is no choice at all, but Claremont’s writing is fluent enough at this stage that the contrivances required to build to that moment are convincing, and the X-Men’s decision to make a play for the Acanti’s salvation seems genuinely redemptive.

Claremont’s precise plotting is in top form in “Live Free or Die,” which brings together elements of the long-running Brood arc that seemed at the time arbitrary and/or simply stylistic flourishes done for their own sake. The Acanti were not named before now, but issue 162, the one that started the Brood saga’s final narrative domino chain tumbling, established (in Cockrum’s amazing double-page spread) that the corpse of one of the giant whale-ships served as the capital city of “Sleazeworld.” Wolverine’s long ordeal in the heart of the corpse in Uncanny 162 seemed at the time simply a good milieu to get across that story’s Wolverine-as-ultimate-tough-guy motif. Here, in a well-orchestrated revelation, that earlier adventure proves to have been a key plot point, shrewdly disguised: the very place where Wolverine faced the worst trials is the location of the Acanti soul.

The long climactic sequence, in which the X-Men return to Broodworld to liberate the soul, is superbly constructed. Though artist Paul Smith’s greatest strength is in quietude, he proves versatile enough to craft dynamic action scenes here, and Claremont’s text – crisply dressed in Tom Orzechowski’s letters – glides along Smith’s smooth lines effortlessly. To give the whole thing an extra layer of gravitas and significance, Claremont adds some clever chimes with the past: the sudden rescue by the Starjammers is an effervescently delightful homage to the climax of Cockrum’s first run on X-Men (signaling perhaps that though he didn’t quite make it to the climax of the Brood story he inaugurated, the spirit of Cockrum’s creativity still informs these proceedings). Meanwhile, the recreation of the Cyclops/Wolverine enmity is a downright brilliant stroke, cluing both the readers and Logan that Cyclops is a traitor – the panel in which Wolverine rips off Scott’s visor to reveal alien eyes beneath being a deliciously visceral payoff.

(The panel that immediately follows offers a great visual as well, as Scott’s eye beams are shown firing in two segmented lines from his queer eyes: Cyclops suddenly rendered non-Cyclopean.)

The ending of course is a deus ex machina, but is meant to operate more on a symbolic level. Part of the point of the Brood saga was to test the X-Men’s moral center, to see whether their oft-repeated “X-Men don’t kill” refrain could stand up in the face of a completely unredeemable enemy like the Brood. The X-Men – Storm in particular – find their morals strongly tested, and here, in their choice between life and death as respectively represented by the Acanti and the Brood, they all chose life. Even Wolverine, whose moral compass is separate from the others, was tested. Lacking any compunctions about killing the Brood, he faces the choice of killing the other X-Men once they are infected with Brood embryos.

The X-Men thus passing their moral test, the Acanti soul redeems them, and the Brood eggs (symbolic of their collective immoral urges) are expunged. The entire thing is not subtle, but by tying the conflict of “Live Free or Die” into a larger theme, the entire story is elevated beyond conventional superheroics. Carried by Paul Smith’s sympathetic pencils (and Bob Wiacek’s inks as well), the theme is carried off surprisingly well, conveying a palpable sense of genuine redemption.

X-Men #166 marks another milestone as well, being the climax to the X-Men’s superheroic phase. Having explored to the hilt with Cockrum and Byrne the X-Men’s story potential inside the superhero genre, and armed now with an artistic collaborator capable of new levels of psychological depth and complexity, Claremont is prepared now to launch into a more nuanced style of storytelling. Hints existed in earlier issues of the potential for this change (the new back-story for Magneto being the most significant harbinger of darker subject matter, and the tone and style of the vastly underrated Uncanny #160 pointing the way), but the full transformation had yet to occur. Paul Smith’s addition to the creative team was just the catalyst Claremont required, and with the climax of the Brood story here (followed by a tying off of loose ends next issue), Claremont will change the Uncanny X-Men into almost an entirely new comic book.

Trivia: That the new X-Men’s superhero phase ends with #166 is a striking coincidence of numbering, given that the Silver Age X-Men were cancelled with #66. In a strange way, Uncanny #266 will mark a similar milestone as the first appearance of Gambit – the first Claremont X-character deliberately devoid of any semblance of internal psychology, conceived only as an agglomeration of “cool” surface traits.


Anonymous said...

Okay, dissenting vote here.

1) Brood Saga: Too Damn Long.

2) Paul Smith: Not All That. Yeah, he was better than Cockrum. (And isn't it strange how... /old-fashioned/ the second Cockrum run seemed. He'd only been a major artist for a decade, and his first run was only five or six years earlier, but something in our collective design sense had changed.) (I digress.) Smith had his chops, no question, but let's keep in mind that he was a very new, very young artist when he started on X-Men -- IMS he wasn't yet 30 and, more to the point, had only been doing mainstream comics for a year or two.

And it shows. I remember Smith as being very strong on layouts and creative panel composition (like the Brood-ized eybeam you describe), but very uneven on action -- "strength in quietude" is another way to say "panels that should explode sometimes just lie there" -- and on linework. To give a trivial but telling example, half the time the characters' hair seems to consist of plastic helmets with a few lines dashed in. It looks cartoony, in a way that doesn't always suit the material.

With no disrespect to Mr. Smith, I note that his career as a comic artist more or less peaked with his brief -- one year? -- run on X-Men. Oh, he did plenty of stuff after that, including some that was pretty good. I liked his run on Dr. Strange, myself. But he never advanced beyond being a decent midlister. This is in sharp contrast to his successors Romita Jr., Silvestri, and Jim Lee, all of whom went on to (by comic artist standards) fame and success -- JRJR has done everything from the Stracynski Spider-Man run to the Gaiman Eternals and is now codirecting the "Kick Ass" movie, Silvestri was one of the Image Seven and is now CEO of Top Cow, and Jim Lee is Jim Lee. Paul Smith... um?

3) Dolphins and sharks: geeeez. Even in 1982, this was hokey.

Part of the problem is that we're never /shown/ why the Acanti are wonderful and good. We're just told that it's so. You know... space dolphins... so fine!

4) I note in passing that Claremont seemed to be going through a period of fascination with sea and water motifs. This started with the bad Man-Thing story and continued through the Brood Saga. Magneto's Lovecraftian island, space dolphins... you have the feeling he really wanted to be writing Aquaman.

(In fact, IMS he /was/ writing Man-Thing for a year or two in there. Which goodness knows did not lack for wetness, both literal and otherwise. And I think there was some, umm, soak-through between the titles.)

5) The X-Men can't kill the alien embryos that are killing them, but the problem gets magically solved: even in 1982, this was contrived. You say "the ending is of course a deus ex machina"; I add "and that sucks".

Keep the context in mind: we the reader had been waiting six months for this. And the final buildup -- that page or two with the X-Men transforming and convulsing -- was briefly pretty powerful and creepy. And then... bah.

I clearly remember reading this issue and hitting the scene where the Brood Queen is contaminating the Acanti jewel-thingy, and she says something like "Apparently I can corrupt even this holy of holies" and I was all, yeah! Go Brood Queen!

One measure of an idea's power is how eagerly it's picked up by later creators. It's not the only measure, and it's not always a good one, but it is one. By this measure, the Brood saga falls pretty flat... in 25+ years, only one or two other creators have done Brood or Starjammers stories, nobody ever showed any interest in Binary, and the Acanti have sailed off into complete (and IMO well deserved) obscurity.

6) This was, what, 1982? Which was right at the end of the "heroes never ever kill" era; we were about to see the explosion of grim'n'gritty Eighties murder, torture, and general nastiness. A lot of us look back on that period and flinch, but if you look back to what preceded it -- stuff like this -- you sort of understand why it had to happen.

7) I think one reason these stories are well remembered is because this is the period when the X-Men started moving forward again. The issues since 150 had been, viewed collectively, not much; even if you liked individual stories or arcs (and I didn't, much) the story as a whole wasn't going anywhere. Whatever Smith's strengths or weaknesses as an artist, he does seem to have kicked Claremont out of the rut he'd been in for the last couple of years.

8) And speaking of ruts, I didn't see the Starjammers appearance as an effervescent homage to Cockrum's first run. I saw it as Chris writing himself into a corner and then doing a "oh, the real fans will know how clever this is" move. I mean, really. You don't homage /yourself/, you know?

(I haven't been closely following recent X-Stuff, but I'm given to understand that Cyclops and Havok have an evil younger brother named Vulcan, retconned in by Ed Brubaker, who has taken over the Shi'ar Empire and, in the process, killed off Corsair. Which makes me think kindly of him.)

Doug M.

Jason said...

Geoff, glad I might've actually changed your mind on this one! (Unless Doug has just changed it back ...)

Doug, I don't have put any particular stock in the fact that Smith isn't as much of a comic-book superstar as his successors on X-Men. After all, Liefeld is a huge superstar in the comic-book world, and he got his start on the X-titles. He's not a better artist than Smith.

I like Smith's action-panels just fine -- particularly the Japan stuff in UX 172/173. I agree with you that it is not as kinetic as the work of Silvestri/Lee/JRJr, but there is a beautiful sweep and shape to it that always draws me in. I even like his way of drawing hair. If indeed you're right and he wasn't even 30 yet when he did these issues, that only impresses me that much more. The work looks confident and assured to my eye.

Jason said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
scott91777 said...

You do bring up a good point with this being the end of the X-men's superhero era and, I think, that's why I am enjoying the upcoming period so much more than the classic Byrne-Claremont era. As I've mentioned before, I always leaned towards the X-men as outcast/outsiders concept. For me, it was always what they were about at their core and, while tinkered with here and there by Claremont, he didn't delve too deeply into it until the upcoming issues.

I like Smith's art fine as well (I'll get into specifics on upcoming issues)... I agree that his strenght may not be action... but it certainly isn't a weakness

I like the hair too Jason, In my opinion he did the definitive Kitty-hair. :)

Jason said...

Yeah, Smith's art did make for some beautiful women, and so I can see where you (and others, including Joss Whedon) might crush on Kitty if the Smith version is the definitive one.

For my part, I crush more on Madelyne Pryor -- Smith's version and then later Silvestri's. :)

And yeah, the hair. Doug describes Smith's habit of drawing a head of hair as a single piece as a minus, but I think it's an effective stylistic choice.

Anonymous said...

This assumes that it is in fact a choice. (As opposed to, you know, "dude just couldn't draw hair.")

Liefeld kind of proves my point, no? Even really crappy artists could leverage a run on an X-book into superstardom. Smith is the odd exception here.

I don't have the issues, so I'm working from memory. That means I can't develop a page-and-panel critique of Smith's work. And I don't really want to, because I don't hate it; I find it uneven, but it's not actively bad. It just... doesn't move me.

More to the point, Smith's art is not the problem with this issue or this arc. The problems include hokiness, a deus ex machina ending, an uninspired space opera plot, and Dragging On Way Too Long.

There's something sort of adolescent about this storyline, you know? Space dolphins, ultimate evil, angst and woe turned up to 11, fumbling tentative explorations of religion and sexuality: it feels like something written by a very talented high school kid.

And it /rambles/ so. With Byrne, Claremont was very strong on issue-to-issue pacing; as a reader, I eagerly awaited those issues because most of them gave a story that was complete yet advanced the overall plot. But post-Byrne Claremont just... meanders. And the Brood Saga is the worst example of this. Again, the best thing about Smith IMO was that he kicked Claremont back into writing crisp story arcs again instead of wandering aimlessly.

Finally, if we must discuss Kitty Pryde's sexuality -- not my thing, but okay, we're all fans here -- then someone has to bring in Peter Wisdom. Who is noteworthy if only because he's the rare, rare example of a Mary Sue who is nevertheless an engaging and interesting character.

Anyway. I'll be in and out the next little while, and I'm sorry to say that when I do drop by it probably won't be to strew flowers 'round Claremont's brow; I don't remember these issues with much fondness. I think the Smith period is better than what came before, yes, but that's not saying much. On the plus side, I also think there's a steady general improvement (or recovery) over the next couple of years; by the 190s Claremont's writing would be much sharper on all levels than it was in the 150s and '60s.

Doug M.

Curt said...


In regard to Paul Smith's career (and status as a "decent midlister"), I've always felt that Smith ended up being the Marshall Rogers of the X-Men franchise.

Both artists began work on a major franchise early in their careers (for Rogers, that definitive title was Detective Comics, paired with writer Steve Englehart), both left an indelible imprint on said franchise, and both moved on far too quickly... never again capturing the excitement that they had initially created.

The lengths of their runs, or their subsequent career choices, has little do to with the quality of work being done, though. The remainder of the Claremont/Smith partnership, once the cast is transported back to earth, is absolutely electrifying and really does lay the ground work for the modern interpretation of the franchise.

For me, Paul Smith will always remain the definitive UXM artist. Likewise, Roger's Batman, despite the similar hokiness of some of Englehart's ideas (like the ghost of Hugo Strange), will always remain the definitive Batman artist.

neilshyminsky said...

Doug wrote: "Liefeld kind of proves my point, no? Even really crappy artists could leverage a run on an X-book into superstardom. Smith is the odd exception here."

As I recall, Smith worked incredibly slowly and missed many deadlines - but at a time when that wasn't tolerated, even from popular artists on flagship titles. By the time Liefeld arrived on the scene, that unofficial policy had been totally reversed.

Smith's style also just isn't very superhero-y - which is why his greatest success is on stuff like 'Leave it to Chance', which seems a better fit, content-wise.

Anonymous said...

Ah, so Smith was sort of the Frank Quitely of his day? That makes sense.

Curt, when I first read your comment, I somehow misread "Marshall Rogers" as "Marshall Crenshaw". Strangely, this worked for me. (Decent bubblegum pop tunesmith from the '80s with a cult following that has endured and endured, etc.)

Definitive UXM artist? More so than JRJR, Lee, or Byrne? Well, chaque a son gout.

Doug M.

scott91777 said...


"There's something sort of adolescent about this storyline, you know? Space dolphins, ultimate evil, angst and woe turned up to 11, fumbling tentative explorations of religion and sexuality: it feels like something written by a very talented high school kid."

Considering that, at the time, the average audience for X-men would have been those very same adolescents (at the time, remember, adults who read comics were still a rather odd anomally), this is oddly appropriate, is it not?

Curt said...

Do people really hold JRJR as a "definitive" UXM artist? Granted, he has had a couple of sizable runs on the series and was the artist behind issues #200 and #300 (one of which is essential reading, one of which is decidedly not), but I never thought John was a great fit on the series.

When I think "definitive X-Men," I never think "John Romita, Jr."

I always felt that JRJR started off strong on UXM in the post-Smith era, but he quickly lost my interest. I didn't really come back around until #200, as the title was about to go through a rotating team of artists.

Patrick said...

I'd consider Smith a definitive X-Men artist, and his run on the book is my favorite section of the entire Claremont run, closely followed by the Mutant Massacre era JRjr stuff. I wish he'd stayed on longer, but he made an impact while he was there.

As for the brood storyline, it does go on a bit long, but this was the issue where Storm gets trapped in that space whale and rebuilt, right? That was Claremont doing cosmic trippiness as well as Morrison ever has, really strange and compelling stuff, and nicely setting the stage for what's to follow during the "Saga of Storm's Mohawk."

Anonymous said...

Scott, yes -- this was sort of the last time when pretty much all mainstream comics were still firmly aimed at preadults. Not to say that adults weren't reading them (I was already in college at this point) but in 1982 there wasn't a single mainstream comic on the stands that you could hand to an adult friend and say "This -- this is for grownups". (One more year. Alan Moore's Swamp Thing.)

That said, this arc felt to me like a regression from Claremont's earlier work. Imagine reading this arc alongside, say, the first White Queen and Hellfire Club trilogies. Say further that you were coming to both stories cold, with no knowledge of the characters and no issue numbers. You'd almost certainly think the Queen/Hellfire stories came later: the pacing is better, the dialogue is sharper, the adult-themed material is handled in a more thoughtful way, and they're just all around better written.

Patrick, I have to disagree. Temporary physical transformations of characters were a Claremont staple during this period -- just in this story arc alone we have Carol Danvers being broken down and turned into Binary and, a few issues later, Professor X being turned into mulch and then transplanted into a clone body. Annoyingly, these transformations almost always ended with a return to the status quo. Mohawk Storm is very much the exception here, and it's hard to trace her back to any one particular change in the previous few story arcs. I mean, we had Storm turned into a statue, go temporarily berserk, become a vampire, be implanted by an alien embryo, be rebuilt from scratch, you name it.

Definitive is a slippery word, no? And very very subjective. When I think of UXM, though, I'm about as likely to think of JRJR as of Byrne. I wouldn't think of Smith at all unless someone reminded me to.

Doug M.

Anonymous said...

John Romita jr.'s run on par with Byrne's? Now, that's crazy talk.

Jason said...

"That was Claremont doing cosmic trippiness as well as Morrison ever has,"

Did you ever know that you're my heeeeroooo ... ?

Jason said...

I think the unsung artistic hero of the X-Men during Claremont's tenure (wit Byrne, Smith and Lee being the sung ones) is Dan Green, who inked the majority of JRJr's issues and Silvestri's. He created a consistent look for the series during that time, and his loose, gesturely inks gave X-Men a sense of darkness and grit that the series hadn't had during the years of clarity and cleanness that Byrne and Smith created.

I'd agree with Doug that "definitive" is a tough word to really quantify in this context, but Dan Green -- even though he never pencilled an issue of X-Men -- deserves to be considered for the "definitive X-Men artist" title as well. (He actually inked more issues than any single penciller pencilled during Claremont's run.)

The Inkwell Bookstore said...

Anonymous' complaint that Smith's art was "too cartoony" for UXM is ironic considering that nowadays, most superhero comics (and indies, too!) favor this same "cartoony" style over the scritchy-scratchy, cross-hatch heavy work of the 90's Image guys.

Teebore said...

FWIW, when I think "X-Men artist" JRJr is the first one I picture. But thats just because the Claremont/JRJr run of X-Men is, hands down, my favorite comic book run of all time.

And Jason, your observation that this issues marks the end of the X-Men's traditional superhero phase is probably why: one of the things I love about the JRJr run is the way the series seems less about story arcs as it does character arcs and a collection of subplots that rise from and fall back into the background.

Some of my favorite X-Men moments are the quiter, character-driven, school-bound moments from JRJr's run.

wwk5d said...

"But thats just because the Claremont/JRJr run of X-Men is, hands down, my favorite comic book run of all time."

Me too! So I'm not alone lol

As for the deus ex machina ending...it kind of fits in with what Jason said in his review. The X-men passed the test, and were given a second chance. Knowing how far along Claremont likes to plan his stories, I doubt it was a last minute plot point. It all tied together nicely, and to me, it didn't feel too long at all. A good, space-opera story with good action, character moments, and art work. I'm filing this under 'success'.

david said...

My favorite X Men artist is probably JRJR. Its pretty exciting to watch him come into his own as an artist as the series progresses, and wow, does his work look great under Dan Green's inks. I don't think its JRJR's best work, but its good stuff.

That said, I don't think that he's actually the definitive X-Men artist. I think the title has to go to Jim Lee. Not a guy I care for, not many comics produced under his watch that I actually want to read, and the entire X-universe went to shit once he and the other image guys were through with it, but his pencils set the look and the tone for the entire franchise for all of the 90's, and a good chunk of the decade following. Even the cartoons and video games of the time were using Lee style X-Men costume designs, as opposed to classic Byrne/Smith/whoever versions.

Anonymous said...

Paul Smith couldn't do action? Why because he had a completely unique way of drawing it? Hand a PS action scene to anyone today and then hand them a Cockrum or JRJR scene from back then. Maybe he stumbled a little with his first two issues but the attack on the mansion next issue is incredible.

And while you'll probably never read this (since I'm about five years too late), I gotta say a lot of your comments come off kinda contradictory, Doug. CC's run jumped the shark with the introduction of Maddie Pryor even though every issue post Byrne before it was shit. Claremont's writing was vastly improved in the 190s and JRJR was one of the definitive artists but you'll have almost nothing good to say about it. I don't mean to jump down your throat (as much as I can, arguing with a five year old comment) but I am a bit confused.

Derek E

Jason said...


I still get updates when a new comment is left on one of these entries, even if it's five years later, so I appreciate and enjoy your commenting.

Doug's a fine chap and I always loved his insights into the Byrne run, but he seemed to get into a jag where he would just contradict whatever I said. Somewhere around this area of posts (maybe for issue 175 or so?) he even changes the meaning of what I wrote to the exact opposite so that he can "correct" me instead of agreeing with me.

I remember that at some point along the way in these entries, I told him, "Doug, it's starting to seem like you just like to contradict me," and his reply was an un-ironic "Not so!"

*shrug* What can ya do?