Thursday, October 02, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #169

[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 #169

“Catacombs”

The two-parter inaugurated here has been convincingly deconstructed by Neil Shyminski in his essay “Mutant Readers, Reading Mutants: Appropriation, Assimilation, and the X-Men” for its dismally simplified identity politics, wherein, as Shyminski says, “[the Morlocks] are figured as villains as a direct result of their refusal to conform to non-mutant norms.”

Actually, in more prosaic plot-terms, they are figured as villains because inside of the first five pages they commit breaking & entering, kidnapping and attempted murder. But the point is well taken, nonetheless.

Putting aside the problematic politics (which don’t actually manifest until part two), this is a tensely exciting issue. The opening sequence is a particularly solid piece of action-choreography, given a surprising overtone of sensuality via the inclusion of a nude Nightcrawler and Amanda in a bubble bath.

Indeed, Smith’s artistic style in general has a sheen of sexiness to it, a result of his smoothly organic figures, always defined by soft, naturalistic lines, which he then places against architecturally rigorous backgrounds characterized by an inordinately high incidence of hard right angles. The effect is marvelous – Smith’s issues of Uncanny seem, even 25 years after the fact, almost futuristic in their geometric precision.

Smith’s talent for contrast is given further emphasis in this arc particularly, with the artist liberally adding lines to the faces (and even the clothing) of the antagonists, effectively making them appear monstrously overwrought compared to the smooth lines comprising the X-Men.

Meanwhile, a two-page subplot set in the Hellfire Club is one of the first of several red herrings that will appear in the next few issues hinting at a return of Dark Phoenix, but is more notable for its hint of how Claremont’s approach to Uncanny X-Men is changing. Claremont has given up on trying to duplicate the watershed accomplishments that are his run with Byrne and his first run with Cockrum. Instead of trying to recreate them, he is now, innovatively, examining the psychological ramifications of these past superhero epics, and exploring the novel notion that these cataclysmic, cosmic events that occur month after month would create equally catastrophic trauma for the protagonists.

But how, then, to still satisfy genre requirements? How can Claremont still utilize recurring villains, for example, but fight free of the “riff” paradigm, wherein every creator of X-Men offers a new spin on the same old chords? We get a taste of the answer here, as Claremont begins to recast former villains as just additional members of an ever-widening ensemble cast. Sebastian Shaw and Tessa show up in this issue, but they don’t fight the X-Men; they simply are reacting to their own crisis. Next issue, Mystique and Destiny of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants will appear as part of this same arc, but the arc will conclude without them ever coming into conflict with the series’ title characters.

Granted, in this case Claremont is using both the Club and the Brotherhood as plot devices to a degree: they are there to help plant red herrings for an upcoming twist. But as time goes by, we see villains used more and more often as parallel protagonists rather than antagonists, moving through their own miniature arcs that are sometimes as complete as anything seen among the comic book’s lead characters. This new approach offers several advantages, one of the most immediate being an escape route from the cycle of trying to rehash the classics. As the lines between heroes and villains -- between lead and secondary characters – dissolve, so too do the lines between one arc and the next blur as well, so that stories bleed into each other. The resulting aesthetic messiness will pre-empt even the expectation that another epic as clean and classically structured as the Dark Phoenix Saga could possibly emerge.

19 comments:

neilshyminsky said...

"Actually, in more prosaic plot-terms, they are figured as villains because inside of the first five pages they commit breaking & entering, kidnapping and attempted murder."

Touché, Jason. :) Though I think that this is a necessary stop in the plot - if the Morlocks aren't immediately characterized as "bad", then they may very well be too pathetic/sympathetic. And then Nightcrawler's later lecture, which I despise, won't seem deserved.

Anonymous said...

Interesting point about Claremont blurring the line between heroes and villains. This will show up when the Hellfire Club actually helps the X-Men fight Nimrod, and also when Freedom Force helps the X-Men fight the Adversary and the Reavers. They were on the verge of being heroes before lesser writers snapped them back into two-dimensional, generic villain mode.

Jason said...

Anon, yeah, exactly, those are two classic examples of the Claremont trope in which two factions who were formerly at odds team up in the face of a third, greater threat.

Neil -- yeah, Claremont has to go through a lot of hoops to make the story "work" (such as it does), and it doesn't ever disguise the wrongness at its core, at least once it's been pointed out (as your essay did for me). In Claremont's defense, I think he recognized immediately that something was off, and that this led to Xavier's castigating the X-Men in the issue immediately after the Morlock story -- when the X-Men don't want to let Rogue in, Xavier's line is, "We pick and choose who we help, is that it?" A new layer is added to that line when you make it not just about Rogue but about the Morlocks as well.

Claremont would then immediately get back to the Morlock tunnels as soon as "From the Ashes" was over, for a story that again saw the X-Men being examined. Thus, in Uncanny #179, their propensity to attack (mutants) first and ask questions later is criticized by Kitty, and Kitty's own shabby treatment of Caliban is exposed by Callisto.

neilshyminsky said...

Oh, and, uh, jason? My last name has a 'y' at the end, not an 'i'. :)

Jason said...

There's no way I can spell your name that can't be spelled.

Jason said...

But seriously -- sorry about that! I haven't spelled it wrong in other entries, have I?

Triumph of the Underdog said...

Jason-

Sorry, I realize this is late, but thanks for pimping my X-traordinary People article last issue.

As far as this issue goes, I've always been very partial to the naked bathtub teleport rescue. Pure gold. Boy do I love these issues.

Jason said...

Oh, happy to, Mitch! I think I quote you again in a couple blogs down the line ...

Glad you're here, and glad you're commenting!

Anonymous said...

Okay, I think I'm going to break down and do the marvel.com sub for just one month.

Meanwhile: Jason, Geoff, have you seen this?

http://forums.comicbookresources.com/showthread.php?t=237561

-- yes, it's a total fanboy thing, but Brian Cronin brings the snark. Snark with /love/.


Doug M.

neilshyminsky said...

jason: I think I've noticed it before. It's not a big deal or anything, though. All you need is "y".

Jason said...

"Y", she had to go. I don't know, she couldn't stay.

I don't know "Y" you say good-bye, I say "hello."

"Y" don't we do it in the road?

Et cetera ...

Jason said...

Doug,

Generally I have little patience for anything where I have to read bios of characters that incorporate post-1991 ret-cons and revelations.

Example from that list: The entry on Forge begins "Jonathan Silvercloud was born blah blah blah..."

I'm sorry, Jonathan who? Must be a friend of James Howlett and Erik Lenscherr.

Fie, I say!

Anonymous said...

Well, bother.

I went over to marvel.com and

http://marvel.com/digitalcomics/titles/Uncanny_X-Men.1963/page/5

-- and they only have a few of the issues between the end of Byrne and the early 200s. The Smith issues, just 4 out of 10 or so.

Well... darn.

This will make it hard for me to comment any more. I don't have these issues at hand, and -- more to the point -- I didn't line-read them over and over and over with fanboy intensity the way I did the 120s and 130s.

Read something 20 times when you're 16, and it stays with you. Read it once or twice when you're 20... not so much.


Doug M.

Jason said...

Doug, I have faith you'll still have stuff to say! Plus I need to hear your issues with Maddie Pryor at some point!

Anonymous said...

Michael: Harold, don't you have any other music , you know, from this century?

Harold: There is no other music, not in my house.

Michael: There's been a lot of terrific music in the last ten years.

Harold: Like what?

Ahem. My issues with Maddie go on for a while, but I'd probably start with these three:

-- she's boring;
-- she's a bad character concept;
-- she didn't fill a need, or otherwise bring much to the book.

I also have an individual and personal gripe against her, which I don't expect anyone else to share: Maddy's appearance marked the beginning of the baroque recomplication, bizarre even by the rococo standards of modern comics, of the Summers family tree. I mean, geez: the last time I looked, Scott had two kids from two different alternate futures, a third kid from an alternate present, and was related by marriage to Galactus. It's gone beyond a joke: googling "Scott Summers family tree" gives you over a million hits now, and it's listed on TV Tropes.

http://members.core.com/~mindset/tree.txt

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/SummersFamilyTree

But this discussion probably belongs to a later thread.


Doug M.

plok said...

Oh, you guys are hilarious!

Teebore said...

so too do the lines between one arc and the next blur as well, so that stories bleed into each other

That, in a nutshell, is what I absolutely love about this era of the X-Men. Each issues feels less like a continuous, complete issue of a comic and more like a chapter in an ongoing narrative.

@Doug Read something 20 times when you're 16, and it stays with you. Read it once or twice when you're 20... not so much.

Boy, ain't that the truth.

I mean, geez: the last time I looked, Scott had two kids from two different alternate futures, a third kid from an alternate present, and was related by marriage to Galactus.

Different strokes, and all. That's one of the things I LOVE about Cyclops: this relatively straight-forward, down-to-earth character with a ridiculously complicated family tree. It's the kind of thing you only get in comics.

wwk5d said...

And technically, one of the kids isn't from an alternate future, it IS his child...unless that too was retconned lol

James said...

Two things: Claremont is the man, and you sir, Jason Powell, are the man for illuminating his work in a way I never imagined possible.