Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #170

[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 #170

“Dancin’ in the Dark”

Here is where the politics of the X-Men become problematic, never more noticeably than in Nightcrawler’s refusal to join the Morlocks, proudly proclaiming, “I’ve spent my whole life ... fighting to be accepted as I am – to be judged by my deeds instead of my looks ...”

Here I’ll defer to Neil Shyminski, who explains in “Mutant Readers, Reading Mutants,” Nightcrawler here is “[a]ligning himself with a conservative ideology of meritocracy ...” and his speech “rhetorically undercuts the Morlock’s victim claims.” Claremont further stacks the deck at the end of the issue, when Storm’s offer to the Morlocks to come live in the X-Mansion is refused by Caliban (a character defined almost entirely by an unrelenting sense of self-hate), who says, “This [underground] is where we belong.”

The X-Men are now off the hook – they made the offer, after all. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink, right? Never mind whether the horse’s inability to drink is fueled by a self-loathing belief that he doesn’t deserve something as good as water. As Shyminski notes, the Morlocks’ collective “pathological reliance on their oppression as a source of identity” could have potentially been spun into a “more complex recuperation” for them. Instead, Claremont takes the easy way out: The X-Men offer to take them in, and the Morlocks (or one of them, speaking for the entire group) will have none of it. End of story.

It’s a shame, as Claremont had the pieces in place for something much more nuanced. It’s notable, for example, that the X-Men’s two white alpha males of the period – Cyclops and Wolverine – are left out of this particular arc, so that the team is down to four members, all to some degree non-normative: a black woman, a Jewish girl, a Russian emigrant, and the outwardly mutated Nightcrawler. That juxtaposition is certainly interesting, although since the X-Men come off as a homogenous group that’s more or less of one mind about the Morlocks, the overall effect is to simply reinforce the politically naive idea that the X-Men are (Shyminski again): “an acculturating force for good.”

Contributing also to the X-Men’s poor portrayal in this issue is a narrative mistake that Claremont was apparently so embarrassed by that he would move to correct it within six months: During the first scene between Ariel and Caliban (the “Tempest” allusion in the names is arbitrary), Kitty promises Caliban that she’ll stay with him if she’ll help him. He agrees, and keeps his part of the deal -- but her promise to stay is simply forgotten about. Apparently, Claremont felt this reflected so badly upon Kitty that he would quickly do a story specifically designed to confront her with her dishonor (the sequence finally occurs in the fantastic issue 179, though it is foreshadowed a few months earlier). But for the present, Kitty just seems to be exploiting Caliban’s lovesick naivety (which is putting it mildly – his speech patterns, though comic-booky in execution, suggest some level of retardation, making Kitty’s actions that much more reprehensible).

Moving backwards from the subtext to explore the actual text, “Dancin’ in the Dark” is a dynamic action story, the centerpiece being the darkening of Storm. Claremont had been working Ororo’s inner conflict for a while now – the last two years saw plenty of examples of the character lamenting the potential loss of her innocence. Here, that potential is realized in a shockingly sudden stroke. It’s quite a dynamic moment, thanks especially to Paul Smith’s expressiveness (the knife-tossing sequence at the start of the duel is a thing of beauty).

Storm’s angst seemed so gradual, and repetitious, it makes for a wrenching surprise when the actual turn is so violent and so fast. What Claremont has created is an inverse of the “Dark Phoenix” cliffhanger at the end of Uncanny X-Men #134 (exactly three years earlier), where the sudden change in Jean was outwardly explosive. Here, although the transformation is still violent, the actual change is internalized – a key shift in dramatic approach that will define Claremont’s remaining eight years on Uncanny X-Men.


scott91777 said...

Ok, a few trivial things:

1) When did Kitty beging using the code-mane Ariel? When I read this, I believe she was still using the 'Sprite' code-name.

2) Other than the previous issue and "God Loves Man Kills"... did Kitty ever wear that Green Costume ever again?

Oh, this issue also features an interesting moment between Mystique and Destiny that hints at Claremont's original intention for the two characters: that they were lovers.

Geoff Klock said...

I got 20 issues left of the main Claremont Uncanny run, and the Wolverine and Wolverine/Kitty minis out of the way. I am going to try to participate more in these discussions.

Stephen said...

The knifing of Callisto (sp?) is definitely what stays with me from this issue.

It occurs to me that we can find the weekly Whedon-echoes-Claremont moment in it, too. IMS, Storm says something to the effect that Callisto's belief that she was bluffing was her advantage: Callisto didn't think that Storm would really try to kill her and that's why Storm won. A nearly identical sentiment is expressed in the 4th season of Angel: as the others go after the turned-evil Angelus, Wesley says that their advantage is that Angelus thinks that they're going to try only to capture him, not kill him, and that that's their advantage. -- Possibly coincidental, but I thought I'd mention it.

James said...

re: Shyminsky with a Y.
"But seriously -- sorry about that! I haven't spelled it wrong in other entries, have I?"
I'm afraid so.

Geoff Klock said...

Stephen -- I do not think it is a coincidence. The more i read Claremont (and as of now I have read issues 93-260) AFTER i saw all of buffy and when you hit the intro of kitty you see Buffy and Angel plot points EVERYWHERE (not to mention Astonishing X-Men). And as Doug said -- read something 20 times when you are 16 and you will remember it FOREVER.

Anonymous said...

Jason, it's an interesting point that Wolverine and Cyclops were missing here. (Someone remind me where they were? Was Scott already scampering off after Maddy?)

You'll recall our earlier discussion of them as the "lawful" and "chaotic" aspects of Jean Grey back in the the Hellfire Club trilogy. That's somewhat relevant here, I think. Either one of them would ruin this issue. First, they'd ruin the climactic fight scene. Wolverine would fight Callisto (or any other Morlock) and win. Scott would refuse, and -- being Scott -- find some other way. And second, they'd ruin the whole offer-to-the-Morlocks thing, albeit for different reasons.

I have mixed feelings about this issue. Keep in mind (always) the context: this was part of the general fast downward slide into grim'n'grit that started around 1981 and accelerated very fast thereafter. Storm stabbing someone with intent to kill would have been simply unthinkable a year or two earlier -- not because Storm's character evolved, but because mainstream comics, before 1982, wouldn't allow such an act to be depicted. So there was definitely a feeling at the time that Claremont was shocking us because he could. (Yes, with a mere stabbing. Oh, it was an innocent time.)

The Morlocks living in the sewers also grated. I could barely imagine a bunch of superpowered outcasts in a Marvel universe, but mutants and only mutants? All ugly and with useless powers? It was rather painfully heavy handed.

That said, I also remember this issue as being nicely structured, and being a relative high point for Smith's art. (Keeping in mind that I was never a big fan of Smith.) Unfortunately, the lack of a copy prevents me from spelling this out in detail -- unlike, say, the first Hellfire Club trilogy, I don't have it more or less memorized. Sorry!

Finally, it's funny that more writers haven't taken advantage of Nightcrawler's natural position as the Booker T. Washington of Homo Superior. You're right -- he's taking a very conservative, "judge me by my deeds", Good Negro position here. It is a bit much to put in the mouth of a guy who looks like a demon from Hell. On the other hand, in a Marvel Universe context... I dunno. (Did Hellboy ever have a moment like this?) And yeah: overall the Morlocks are an uncomfortable creation. They're victims, but also self-hating; they're ugly and violent and dangerous, but not evil. Thematically it could make sense to have a group of mutants pursuing a separatist, leave-us-alone ideology, but the Morlock's aren't really doing this by choice (even if Claremont fuzzes this). They just don't fit very well in the X-Men's world. And I think Claremont came to realize this, and "fixed" the problem by killing them off.

Doug M.

Jason said...

Scott, the "Ariel" code-name kind of floated in and floated out. It was suggested by Professor X back in issue 139, with Kitty turning it down with a "Yuck!" (According to Byrne, this mirrored an actual difference of opinion between him (who wanted "Sprite") and Claremont (who wanted "Ariel").

"God Loves, Man Kills" is the only time she is explicitly called Ariel, but I believe a line in the Kitty/Wolverine miniseries retroactively suggests that it's been her code-name all the time from around issue 168 to 180 (not that we ever see the name spoken by anyone).

James, thanks. Neil, sorry again. (Obviously I wrote this one before you corrected me ...)

Doug, it's probably worth noting that -- according to Louise Simonson, the editor at the time -- when Claremont conceptualized the Morlocks, the community was significantly smaller. Paul Smith made the community huge when he drew the issue, much to Claremont's surprise. So the seeds of the population-decimating "mutant massacre" were planted right from the Morlocks' first appearance. (More grist for your anti-Paul Smith campaign!)

neilshyminsky said...

Doug wrote: "it's funny that more writers haven't taken advantage of Nightcrawler's natural position as the Booker T. Washington of Homo Superior."

I think that even Claremont himself backs away from this over time, doesn't he? Or at least I can't recall another "Good Negro" moment. Still makes for an awful moral, though.

Anonymous said...

anonymous-all the Morlock's powers weren't useless. OK, most of them evidently where, but there were exceptions.

Sunder-big, strong guy.
Callisto-superhuman senses
Caliban-mutant tracker
Erg-absorbs and shoots electricity
Skids-force field
Ape-shape shifter
Beautiful Dreamer-precognition

Heck, add a few more and they're practically the Legion of Super-Heroes! If the Legion wore leather and eyepatches and lived in the sewers.

The Morlocks numbers did grow out of control over the years. I believe Louise Simonson added more Morlocks during her runs on Power Pack and X-Factor, Thor met the Morlock known as the Piper, even more popped up in the New Mutants (think Feral, Thornn, etc), still more appeared during the awful "Mikhail Rasputin and/or Masque tries to run the Morlocks" storylines in Uncanny X-Men, and more and more popped up in Generation X. Kudos to the writers of Uncanny X-Men of late who have used established Morlocks instead of creating new ones.

The enormous number of Morlocks raises some questions:

1) How does such a huge number of people live below New York City undetected?

2) How did so many survive the Mutant Massacre? It makes the Marauders, professional cold-blooded killers, look kind of sloppy.

3) If all the post-Massacre Morlocks were new recruits, why would anyone, no matter how ostracised from society, choose to put down roots among a community of people that came very, very close to being wiped out by an unprovoked attack?

This two-parter also continues Claremont's sometimes use of Angel. With the Beast popping up now and again in his stories, you have to wonder what Claremont had against Iceman. I think he used the poor guy only once in his entire run, minus crossovers with X-Factor.

Curt said...


Wolverine was off having his Frank Miller illustrated adventure at this point in the run, I believe. He'll return in a couple of issues and we'll get a follow-up, of sorts, to the original Wolverine mini.

I think Scott was, indeed, becoming entwined in the Maddie Pryor subplot by this point. I've gotta dig out these back issues at some point and give them a fresh read!

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree with the Morlock hate. Funny though how Calisto has to explain that they got their name for an H.G. Wells book.

I've always found the whole 'mutants are hated' theme a bit perplexing. I guess as an allegory it works but in the real world the X-Men would be worshiped. Total superstars. Which is why I have always liked the Morlocks. Here, finally, we have REAL mutants. These are the people that would be hated, feared and shunned. And they act accordingly. If you're demented and twisted and hated since childhood you're going to be messed up. You're going to have self-hatred issues. You're going to hide out in the one place where nobody can find you.

I also find Nightcrawler's speech admirable. If people are not judged by their deeds than by what should we judge them? Or should we abandon judgement all together? Are we all equal despite our actions? I should go back and read his speech but my impression was that he is basically throwing down the gauntlet to the Morlocks... "I'm not going to live in a cave and feel sorry for myself. I only have one life to live. I'll live it on my terms and my way and the best way I know how. And if people still hate me cause I look like a freak then that's their problem. So go on living in the sewers then, smell you later."

I was 8 when I read my first Uncanny, number 204. I thought the X in X-Men had to do with X-Rated and the cover had nightcrawler getting it on with a red head so i thought... now this could be cool. I read the book from 204 to around... hmmm... spring of 1996. My favorite story was always the mutant massacre so i have a fondness for the Morlocks and the 'sewer' stories. Funny how people hate on this scenario. It always struck me as one of the more realistic set ups and fit well with the 'fear and hate mutants' theme. I guess we can't go running around the shi'ar empire every issue now can we???

DB said...

I agree with the last Anonymous. (As well as the Anonymous who rightly points out that the Morlocks have very useful powers.)

The Morlocks criticism strikes me as so ham-fisted that it becomes absurd and nearly childish. It kind of epitomizes the problem with over-analyzing pop culture. None of the Morlocks behave anything less than psycopathic in this two-parter. Even Caliban, the least psychopathic, has zero compunction kidnapping and forcing a child into lifelong marriage. Are we reading the same story? So, what, Kitty is a jerk because--while unconscious and fatally ill--she didn't remain behind with her kidnapper? If your 14yo daughter and her friends were kidnapped by a group of psychopaths and she promised to remain with her kidnapper if he freed her friends, you would be pissed if she reneged?

And if Booker T Washington is a "good negro," why isn't Martin Luther King a "good negro" too, since he wanted to be judged by the content of his character and not the color of his skin? As more and more time passes the Uncle Tom criticism becomes so reductive it's actually beginning to feel insulting.

In order for this feeble criticism to work, a black woman, a Jewish girl, a Russian communist (during the Cold War), and a blue furry guy, mutants all, become privileged oppressors.

I think the next generation of critics are going to have a field day with this kind of thing.