Thursday, September 18, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #167

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

Uncanny X-Men, The #167

“The Goldilocks Syndrome” or “Who’s Been Sleeping in My Head?”

A study in miniature of the two phases of Uncanny X-Men that it situates itself between, issue #167 devotes its first half to a furious action sequence as the X-Men arrive at the mansion with figurative guns a-blazing in a dynamic double-page spread. Having figured out last issue that Xavier’s earlier coma was the result of a Brood egg implanted inside him, the X-Men are forced to fight their way through the New Mutants before arriving – too late – to do something about Charles’ impending transformation.

By his own account, Claremont’s invention of the New Mutants was something of a pre-emptive strike, to prevent a misconceived “West Coast X-Men” spin-off that would have turned the X-Men universe into something too corporate in tone for the author’s liking. Opting instead to re-emphasize the “school” aspect of the X-Men concept, Claremont teamed with Bob McLeod to create five teenage mutants, who collectively represented a watershed moment in terms of Claremont’s creative contribution to the X-Men universe. Before now, he had only seen fit to introduce one new member to Cockrum and Wein’s “Giant-Sized” team – Kitty Pryde. All of Claremont’s other original characters were villains.

With the invention of the New Mutants, even though they were initially kept segregated (somewhat unnaturally) from the parent series for the most part, Claremont has almost doubled the number of active characters regularly based in the X-Mansion – an unprecedented maneuver.

Right around the time when Ann Nocenti took over the editing of both series from Louise Simonson, Claremont began to intermingle the casts of the two books, taking advantage of the much broader character palette to enrich the overall texture of the X-franchise and soon evolving a dynamic wherein the X-Men acted as de facto teachers to the younger mutants. The paradigm was resonant enough that – even though Claremont quickly got bored with it and shook things up again a few years later – it would re-take its hold on the franchise later and eventually become its status quo, utilized by Bryan Singer in the X-Men films and taken to larger extremes by Grant Morrison, whose New X-Men expanded the school’s student count into the dozens.

But that’s all in the future. In issue #167, the series remains primarily about its core cast of six team members. Indeed, Claremont still clearly prefers the creations he inherited to the ones he invented. (Most likely he was more inspired by Paul Smith than he was by Bob McLeod. When John Romita Jr. replaces the former on Uncanny and Bill Sienkiewicz the latter on New Mutants, Claremont’s priorities seem to switch overnight.)

The X-Men dazzle the New Mutants right from their first dramatic entrance – even if Claremont pays self-deprecating lip service to the notion that his new characters are on a par with their predecessors (Wolverine: “Charley may be robbin’ the cradle, but he hasn’t lost his touch. If these kids had the skill t’match their spunk, they’d be dangerous.”). Paul Smith’s gorgeously subtle art conveys the X-Men’s dramatic priority over the New Mutants as eloquently as Claremont, if note moreso. Note on the first panel of Page 11, the depiction of Karma, Dani, Wolverine and Cyclops running single file out of the house: Smith draws the latter pair of characters at a slightly harsher, less naturalistic angle than the former. Even in how they move, the X-Men do everything at a more intense pitch. Page 14 has one of my favorite dialogue bits by Claremont, when after an intensely passionate speech by Cyclops, the closing panel depicts this quick-fire exchange):

Scott: “Any objections?”
Logan: “Lots.”
Ororo: “None.”
Sam: “So that’s Cyclops.”
Dani: “Wow!”

Partly for the delicious musicality of the language itself (given added fluidity by Orzechowski’s smoothly organic balloon placement), the juxtaposition of the X-Men’s intensity and the New Mutants’ unabashed awe is ingeniously handled.

Music was clearly on Claremont’s mind while scripting this particular page. A few panels before the coda quoted above, Xavier is depicted begging Scott to kill him, and Cyclops notes, “I ... heard Phoenix play this riff before she died!” Given Grant Morrison’s eventual assertion that writing the X-Men requires playing certain “riffs” (the Dark Phoenix saga being one of them), that dialogue now rings with long-sightedness.

It’s perhaps appropriate that the “riff” imagery occurs on Page 14, the very page that caps off the X-Men’s superheroic phase. The remaining nine pages serve as a prologue to a second era for Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men, marked by a new level of psychological depth and a decreased priority on the action scenes (particularly ones that occur solely to fill out genre requirements, i.e. excursions to Murderworld or sudden N’Garai infestations).

The shape of things to come is hinted at in these latter pages of “The Goldilocks Syndrome” – in Corsair’s plaintive admission that he envies Xavier for having been Scott’s father figure, or Nightcrawler’s gallant emotional openness toward Ororo at a time when she feels particularly alone. In these simple but affecting strokes is the future of Claremont’s X-Men prefigured.

He’ll opine years later in his “X-Men Visionaries” volume that “the key element in [the series’] longevity and success [is]: these are not superheroes. Foremost and always, these are people.” That philosophy has its seeds in Claremont’s very earliest work on the series, but it emphatically takes root right here.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Before now, he had only seen fit to introduce one new member to Cockrum and Wein’s “Giant-Sized” team – Kitty Pryde. All of Claremont’s other original characters were villains."

What, no love for Dazzler?

Ahem... not to nit-pick, but he did introduce a slew of new characters who weren't villains, from Moira McTaggert to Alpha Flight. He just didn't introduce any new X-Men. When he varied the team's membership, he did it by recycling characters from the original team: Beast, Angel, Havok and Polaris. The New Mutants were significant because they were the first wave of the Great Mutant Population Explosion.

Also, as long as I'm in nitpick mode: I wouldn't call doubling the mansion's population "unprecedented". By this time (1983?) the Avengers -- and, across the aisle, the Justice League and the Legion of Superheroes -- had been through 10 or 15 years of fluctuating membership. I don't know if either of them ever went from 6 to 11 members in a stroke, but I don't think I'd care to bet against it.

Claremont being a bit uninterested in the New Mutants, yeah, agreed. That series was pretty drab until Sienkewicz took over the art. I'd disagree, though, that Claremont lost interest in the main series when JRJR stepped up.


Doug M.

Jason said...

Claremont didn't create Dazzler, and Alpha Flight were ... well, if not villains, then certainly *antagonists* as first conceived.

You're right about Moira MacTaggart though. Of course!

I meant "unprecedented" in X-Men history. As you said, the first wave of the mutant population explosion.

Regarding the JRJr run ... there was a period there when Claremont relegated the team to just showing up on the last few pages to rescue someone. It definitely reads as creative boredom to me ... if not in the series, then at least in some of those characters. And during that period, the New Mutants turn up in X-Men far more often than vice-versa. It reads to me as if the New Mutants now have priority in the author's mind.

I like Romita Jr.'s work on X-Men quite a bit. I just don't get the impression that Claremont liked it much. In interviews, he's much more effusive about Cockrum, Byrne, Smith and Lee (and Sienkiewicz, Art Adams, and Alan Davis) than he is about Romita Jr. or Silvestri.

Not sure why, since both artists contributed great work. Silvestri in particular is tops in my mind.

Teebore said...

This is one my favorite single issues of the series, and I absolutely adore that bit of dialogue you quoted. Absolutely brilliant in its brevity.

Anonymous said...

Couldn't have said it better myself Teebore.

JRJR's art seemed to improve a lot later in his run but really still doesn't even come close to what it would evolve into. Pretty sure I remember reading an interview done sometime around his second run where he admitted that he hadn't quite found his style yet back then.

Derek E