Thursday, September 25, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #168

[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 #168

“Professor Xavier Is a Jerk”

The central conflict of this issue is rather trite. Claremont even points out the silliness of the central conflict, playing it up on Page 1 with his jokey title. After all, it really doesn’t matter whether Kitty becomes a New Mutant.

More significant is the change in focus for the series that we see here. Having finally completed a space-opera story that began over a year ago in issue 154, and in which the lead characters were occasionally buried beneath spaceships and aliens, Claremont uses this entire issue to decompress. Genre requirements are entirely placed on the backburner, and almost every scene of the comic deals with the X-Men’s internal lives. There is a level of reflection and introspection far deeper than anything Claremont has attempted with Uncanny X-Men before this point.

Indeed, the scope of the characters’ ruminations and self-scrutiny is so broad that writer Mitch Montgomery, in his essay “X-traordinary People: Mary Tyler Moore and the Mutants Explore Pop Psychology,” was moved to suggest that what we are actually seeing in issue 168 is the X-Men decompressing from ALL the major traumas from Claremont’s run – including the seminal “Dark Phoenix Saga” and “Days of Future Past.”

In a way, this and the next eight issues – which will eventually comprise the arc collected in Marvel’s “From the Ashes” trade paperback – demonstrate all of the X-Men reacting in more realistic ways to the month-in, month-out catastrophes of their lives. There is a new sophistication to be found here, as the X-Men at last begin to genuinely change, or mutate, as a result of their adventures. This new freedom to imbue his characters with the capacity to evolve is a crucial turning point in Claremont’s development as writer of Uncanny X-Men – the key to getting past the burden of trying to top “Dark Phoenix” and “Days of Future Past.” He has realized that he can’t – those stories took the stakes as high as they could get for the characters. The only solution is to mutate the characters, broaden their psychologies, so that new possibilities open up.

So, indeed, as Montgomery points out, the X-Men are seen here reacting for the first time to the traumas of stories published two years earlier in the chronology. Claremont even links this first issue of the series’ new incarnation to Byrne’s last: both take place on Christmas, and they both feature Kitty confronting aliens in the X-mansion. It’s almost as if everything published in 1981 and 1982 didn’t happen (a notion reinforced by Marvel Comics, who have seen fit to keep Byrne’s run in print as well as “From the Ashes,” but kept the intervening 24 issues out of print for years).

That Kitty faces off against the Sidri, the same characters whose invasion of the mansion incited over a year of space opera in Uncanny #154, is also significant. The all-out action of that first Sidri battle is a stark contrast against the understated 3-issue battle depicted in “Professor Xavier Is a Jerk.” In the latter case, the physical action is incidental and perfunctory, not nearly as memorable as the character bits, i.e., Storm’s failed attempt to control the weather, Cyclops’ reunion with Lee Forrester, and best of all the one-page montage of Kitty trying convince Xavier that she’s X-Man material (Paul Smith’s most attractively designed page of the entire issue).

Claremont’s sense of humor is also more comfortable here than it’s been in a while. Besides the aforementioned Kitty/Xavier montage, there’s a great payoff at the end of Page 7, wherein Claremont has the guts to undercut one of his own characteristically melodramatic monologues (Lilandra: “But someday, Charles, all will be well once more, all that is wrong put right ... and the happiness we yearn for will at last be ours”). We’re expecting the final caption to maintain the tone, but instead it tells us what Lockheed is thinking: “He still hasn’t fed. He’s beginning to get irritated.” The jarring change in tone is cute in itself, but the extra comic punch comes from Smith’s panel design, which shows Lockheed observing Lilandra and Charles from on high, implying he’s been watching and listening during their entire passionate exchange. But while the two of them, swept up in their own eloquent emotions, embrace, Lockheed is unmoved: He just wants food. That makes me laugh every time.

The final page is a reveal of Madelyne Pryor – a cliffhanger moment because she is the spitting image of Jean Grey, although I’ve never understood how Claremont expected that to come off originally. It would work in a television series, because you’d presumably have the same actress in the role as whoever played Jean Grey. But we’ve never seen Paul Smith’s artistic depiction of Jean, so how are we as readers supposed to know that Madelyne is her twin?


scott91777 said...

Because she has red hair?

I think you forgot to mention one very important point about this issue: This is the DEFINITIVE Kitty Pryde story. She had appeared as this, sort of, precoscious Junior member of the team up until this point but this is the first time that Claremont really fleshes out her character and makes me believe that she is more than just a smart fourteen year old, that there is something deeper there. Just as Kitty must convince Xavier of her worthiness to be on the team, Claremont convinces the reader of her worthiness as a central character in the book.


Lockheed: Best. Familiar. Ever.

I was slightly disapointed when, in his Astonishing Run, Whedon, at one point, mentions that Lockeed would "follow her to the end"... but he never followed through on this (as Geoff points out... he didn't follow through on a lot of things). I was fully expecting a momen of awesomeness from Lockheed or, at least, a moment like the one between Matthew the Raven and Morpheus in The Kindly Ones story arc in Sandman, where Matthew refuses to leave Morpheus's side even though it means the furies will probably kill him.

and lastly,

With Smith's arrival, Claremont would really begin to turn up the heat in terms for sexuality. Notice the panel where Nightcrawler is waiting for Amanda when she returns to her apartment; notice the placement of the 'Bamf' doll, notice Amanda's response, "Yum!" How naughty. And, who better to draw this sexier X-men, than Paul Smith. What do you think, Geoff? Quite good at the cute girl art don't you think? Particularly in contrast to the overtly busty femme fatales that would dominate these books about a decade later.

Jason said...

In that sixth paragraph, the phrase "3-issue" should read "3-page."

Scott, yeah, I agree, Whedon sucks. (Just teasing.)

Thanks for identifying the sensual element to Smith's work, which I neglected to talk about. There's something particularly powerful about the way Smith's backgrounds are always so rigidly angular (architecture is always four-square solid in Smith's drawings), whereas the people in the foreground are drawn with gentle, curved lines. The females in particular benefit from this approach -- they stand out as particularly smooth and feminine.

Re: the "Yum!" panel ... another comics website I happened to look at one day commented -- jokingly -- on another element of that panel, one I'd never really given a thought to: the champagne bottle, which seems to be pointing right at Amanda (and the reader). I don't know how "blatant" one could call it, since I never noticed it till someone pointed it out, but ... once you see it, the phallic parallel is hard to ignore.

I think Doug suggested that Uncanny 143 is the definitive Kitty Pryde story. And this issue of course is a clear callback to that one. I don't know where I stand on the issue. Myself, I was always fond of issue 179's depiction, with her sacrificing her life and freedom to save Peter. (And say, where was Lockheed THEN???)

Anonymous said...

I don't think I said definitive... That's a word I rarely use!

[checks] Okay, here's my comment on #143:

"Some of this issue's strengths are harder to see in retrospect. Frex, we all know now that Kitty Pryde is an important member of the X-Men and always will be. That was much less obvious in 1980, when the character had only been around for a year. We readers didn't yet know how squeamish Claremont really was about killing characters! All we knew was that he'd already killed one new team member (Thunderbird) and one popular and attractive female character (Phoenix). So, why wouldn't he kill of a character who was both? You complain about how little time the other X-Men get, but I think that really misses the point. This is /supposed/ to be a solo issue. Because by devoting an entire issue to Kitty, Claremont was sending a very clear message at the meta level: go ahead and get attached to this character, because she's going to live.

"-- Actually, there are two meta-messages here. (At least.) The second is Claremont telling us that he's not going to take the easy obvious route and have Kitty be a sidekick. That seems obvious now, but in 1980 we thought Kitty would be an underpowered, underaged hanger-on whose main function was to get threatened and sometimes kidnapped by the bad guys. Claremont was clearly aware of this trope -- he'd quite deliberately inverted it back in the White Queen trilogy (where he has the X-Men be kidnapped, and /Kitty/ be the rescuer). So in this issue, by pitting Kitty against an upgraded version of a monster that had fought the whole team to a standstill, he's sending a clear message that he's going to take her seriously, and that we readers should too...

"This was the issue that made Kitty Pryde an X-Man, as opposed to some kid with a kinda lame power who never does much. How can you not like that?"

This issue... well, I can remember not liking much, mostly for two reasons. (1) fight sequence a weaker, less interesting version of #143. (2) the whole "Kitty must join the New Mutants" thing was pretty annoying. Because on one hand, Professor X is obviously right: Kitty should have joined the NMs. It's a little whack to have a fourteen-year-old girl running around with the X-Men in the first place, but it's *completely* whack when there's a perfectly good team of underage mutants two doors down the hall.

Doug M.

scott91777 said...

I dunno, I've always loved this issue... maybe it's that panel of Lockheed happily full of toasted Sidri that does it for me (Geoff, notice lockheed has NO compulsions niether killing nor ingesting his enemies)

Jason said...

I love this one too, but more for the storytelling than the Kitty characterization. I enjoy Kitty in this issue, but what I really like is the flow of the story, the artistic design (that single-page montage of Kitty and Professor X is SO fantastic), and the easy humor.

I think it's a huge improvement on Uncanny 143, which I still argue is too wordy and one-note.

Anonymous said...

Almost forgot! Two random things that have nothing to do with the X-Men.

First, Jason, if you're interested in lettering, then you want to add this link to your bookmarks:

Todd Klein is one of the best letterers in comics -- has been for a while now -- and he has a blog, and it's really good. You might no think that comics lettering would provide material for a couple of years of posts, but it does!

Second, a question for you and anyone else. I live in Europe, but I have boys who love comics. A friend is coming to visit us and has offered to mule over half a suitcase worth. I particularly want to get a bunch of the DCAU/Timiverse books -- these were true "all ages" comics, usually just as good as anything on the stands for the grownups.

So: I'm looking for a site that will let me quickly order a bunch of back issues cheap and have them shipped to my friend. Quality is not an issue -- a six year old is not going to distinguish between Near Mint and Fine -- but price is. Ideally this would be a one stop shop, as opposed to spending a week putting orders together on eBay or such. almost fit -- they were a bit pricey, but had everything I wanted -- but they wouldn't ship to an address different from the one on the credit card. Bah.

Anyway... if anyone has any ideas, I'd be very grateful!


Doug M.

Jason said...

I've visited Klein's blog. It's good stuff, although mostly I just skim for Orzechowski's name, since he's my lettering god.

I enjoy Klein's use of different fonts and things, although his default, regular font has always bugged me a bit. Still, that is a good blog, and I haven't visited it in a while, so thanks for the reminder!

Anonymous said...

Great call on the artist who never drew Jean Grey before now drawing her double with a different hairstyle who is supposed to be a huge last page shock reveal. Knowing the basic gist of the story before I read "From The Ashes" made it even more startling. Why Claremont didn't have Smith draw Jean Grey as a Cyclopean mental image or as a Danger Room construct to help the audience get a feel for how Smith would have drawn her is very lax work. Since we have no basis with which to "see" that this is Jean's double the obvious callback is to ASM #42 with Mary Jane, not to Jean Grey.

(Great series of articles here!)

Anonymous said...

IMS Klein got up to... what, a dozen different fonts? fifteen? twenty? to distinguish different characters in Gaiman's Sandman series. Other letterers have picked up this idea, but nobody's used it to that extent; don't know why, but I suspect it's because it's really hard.

I'm trying Midtown Comics, BTW. Prices are good, availability is okay. We'll see about the service!

So Madelyne Pryor has appeared. Rr, I'm tempted to subscribe to for a while just so I can properly justify my hatred for this character concept.

Doug M.

Jason said...

Yes, I look forward to seeing the hatred spew forth! But note that I am in love with Madelyne Pryor, so we will probably be at irreconcilable loggerheads on this issue. (Familiar territory for us two by now!)

Geoff Klock said...

You guys have obviously thought about this WAAAAAY more than I have, but for the record, I love Maddie.

I am at Inferno by the way. 39 issues to go.

Jason said...

Re: Geoff loving Maddie.

Yeah, that's what I'm talkin' 'bout!

Re: getting up to Inferno

Yeah, that's what I'm talkin' 'bout!

Stephen said...

Sorry to come in at the end here -- I haven't been around (& sorry about that, too -- combination of personal stuff & being consumed with watching the US economy collapse (although I will say, I think Jason's posts read better in a bunch -- I just read #161-169, plus the extras in the middle, and I think they have a great cumulative effect...))).

Anyway, after all that, just wanted to add that I agree about the ending: it baffled the hell out of me as a kid -- I knew that it was a big-deal, reveal ending, and that I was supposed to be impressed, but I hadn't the foggiest who she was.

Oh, and Storm's inability to control the weather deserves a slightly bigger shout-out, too. As I recall, that, too, really got to me as a kid -- worried, deeply, that there was something WRONG with her (which was confirmed by the... mohawk! It took me a long, long time, back in the day, to get to the "it's just a haircut" place). A very effective moment.


Oh, somehow I missed the brood saga discussion. Oh well. I will say that the whole "alien eggs inside them" thing was far creepier in Claremont's hands than it was in the Alien movies (which had a lot of other virtues, don't get me wrong (the first two anyway.)) And that I liked the Wolverine/Nightcrawler on prayer bit, too.


Stephen said...

In the third interior parenthesis in the first paragraph of the previous, I meant, read EVEN better in a bunch: they're great one by one, but even better all together.


Jason said...

Really glad to hear you think the reviews read well cumulatively! That is what I've started going for, 'cause I want to try and publish 'em as a book when all's said and done.

It's interesting to know you were affected as Kitty by the mohawk. :) I recently read a blog about Kitty's reaction that kind of mocked her emotional overreaction. But obviously it affected lots of actual fans. (Peter David did a kind-of Claremont retrospective once in one of his "But I Digress" columns, and commented specifically on "punk Storm" as well.)

Stephen said...

I'm sure part of it is that Kitty was my identification character, so I sort of took on her view on the matter. (Which is itself a testament to Claremont's skill, of course.)

wwk5d said...

I'm not sure if this is my 'definitive' Kitty issue...I think I prefer to read them the way you would a trade, and see how she evolves. Because this is not the same Kitty we see in # 143.