Thursday, October 09, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #171

[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 #171


Perhaps having become immediately aware – intuitively at least – that there was something insidiously wrong in the way the X-Men were characterized during their dealings with the Morlocks, Claremont immediately puts the characters in another situation wherein they again come off as intolerant of anyone they deem “other.” This time, however, Charles Xavier is there to chastise them for their single-mindedness: “We pick and choose who we help, is that it?” he says to them. “Some are worthy, others not?” Shamed, the X-Men acknowledge their own hypocrisy, having been put in their place by the man who three issues ago was denounced as “a jerk.” A corner is turned, and as time goes by Claremont will find other ways to knock the X-Men off of their perch of privilege, in the process making them much more sympathetic.

Walt Simonson is the fill-in artist for issue 171, and his bombastic style – though certainly strong enough in its own right (see the X-Men/Teen Titans crossover for Simonson at his peak) – seems garish in comparison to the textured dimensionality of Paul Smith.

Still, the choice of Simonson as a fill-in artist is interesting, forcing a connection between the present issue and the Titans crossover. In the latter comic, Claremont suggested that the good, heroic version of Jean Grey (rather than the evil aspect) might have somehow survived the events of the Dark Phoenix saga. Since X-Men/Titans is non-canonical, Claremont could get away with such a romantic notion. Strikingly, it is in Uncanny 171 that we first learn that Madelyne Pryor is the sole survivor of a plane crash that occurred on Sept. 1st, 1980, “the same day Jean Grey died!” – this being the first major hint that Maddie is perhaps Jean reincarnated. Though the next four issues will deliberately raise the question as to whether Maddie is Dark Phoenix returned and then categorically answer in the negative, Simonson’s art here is the symbolic tether through which Claremont can allude to the alternative possibility that can only be spoken in a non-canonical book: that Madelyne is the good part of Jean’s soul reincarnated, not the bad. I maintain that this is Claremont’s original intention for the character, obliquely disguised so that editor-in-chief Jim Shooter wouldn’t spot the notion and nix it.

Things didn’t work out that way, and the explanation for the Sept. 1st coincidence will become something else entirely during the “Inferno” crossover of 1988. In another example of the serendipity of serialized superhero comic books, “Inferno” is also the culmination of Illyana Rasputin’s arc – an arc that is also jump-started here in “Rogue.” As the first appearance both of Illyana’s “soul sword” and of the Maddie/Jean mystery, Uncanny X-Men #171 is, retroactively, a hugely important prologue to “Inferno.” As if that didn’t make it overdetermined enough, “Rogue” is also – predictably – the issue wherein Rogue joins the team. All of which makes for a comic book that, for X-Men buffs, is a crucial entry in the canon on historical merit alone.

As for whether it’s a quality issue in its own right ... well, that’s rather another question. Simonson – a ferociously talented artist – delivers far from his best work here, offering up several examples of both stiff figures and awkward faces. (His Kitty is ugly in the extreme.) Claremont’s writing is similarly ropey. Particularly contrived is the notion that Illyana would program a holographic recreation of the events of issue 160 subconsciously. (Kitty: “She wasn’t paying attention when she programmed the simulation.”) I’m no expert on how to program holographic simulations, but surely it’s not something that can be done while “not paying attention.” Illyana’s “I – REMEMBERED!” word balloon on the same page, while thematically appropriate, is over-the-top in execution.

Following hard on the heels of the precisely rendered previous few issues, Uncanny X-Men #171 feels like it was tossed together haphazardly. The downside of Claremont having upped his game in 1983 is that issues like this – competent but un-inspired – no longer seem quite up to par.


Geoff Klock said...

Random comment on Maddy: The X-Men are supposed to be about how mutants and humans can get along. I like the basic idea in Maddy -- even if it was not intended to be this way, or is so covered over in insanity it gets missed -- that there is a regular human on the team, who can DO things.

And claremont always mentions movies he has seen in X-Men: characters are always like "This looks like the thing from Alien" or they will mention Predator or the Batman movie or Star Trek, or Star Wars. But he never mentions Hitchcock -- does discuss Vertigo in interviews? Do you think there is a Vertigo Maddy connection? Or is this just another instance of the soap opera twin without such high falutin source material?

Patrick said...

I totally agree with Geoff. The beauty of Maddy Pryor, particularly during Fall of the Mutants, is the way she shows that even just a regular person with no powers can do so much to help.

And, I don't think the intention was ever for her to be a resurrected Jean Grey. I saw an interview where Claremont claimed that she was always meant to be just a woman who happened to look like Jean, a way to deal with the fact that Scott can never really get over Jean, can never move on.

Considering the Maddy name connection, I think a Vertigo reference had to be intentional.

Anonymous said...

It's a Vertigo homage. I'm pretty sure Claremont came out and said so at some point.

Scott not getting over Jean: right. And this is why marrying Maddy could not really be considered a healthy life choice.

Yes, Maddy would eventually become sort of useful -- but not for a long, long time. The "non-superpowered woman who's inexplicably important anyway" niche would be filled by Storm for the next several years.

N.B., it belatedly occurs to me that the stabbing scene last issue was probably Claremont laying the first groundwork for depowering Storm. "Yeah, she can't control the weather any more, but she has other skills! Remember? She kills people!"

Doug M.

Anonymous said...

One thing to like about this issue: the scene where Binary punches Rogue. It's nicely staged, even if it is undercut by some overwrought dialogue thereafter.

It's very similar to a scene Claremont wrote in Power Man / Iron Fist a couple of years earlier... issue #48 IMS, where the two first get together. Luke Cage gets into a fight with IF's girlfriend Misty Knight, knocks her out, and is trying to administer first aid when Fist comes up behind him. "Mr. Cage. Turn around." Different setup, but same rhythym -- and I'll totally forgive Claremont for plagiarizing himself, since it's a really good scene.

Doug M.

Jason said...

I know Claremont has said Maddy wasn't Jean resurrected in any official way.

But the clues are there -- most significantly the fact that the plane-crash in Maddy's past took place at the exact moment of Jean's death. Even if it is only thematic, it seems clear that she was a way of getting around Shooter's "she can't be resurrected" edict. Scott and Jean get their happy ending, even if it can't be officially said so.

I've never seen Vertigo. Guess I have to now ...

(Interesting, I only knew about the connection to the musician Maddy Prior ... that name really has a lot of levels to it, doesn't it?)

j.liang said...

Between the ending of the "From The Ashes" arc and her transformation into Jean's Evil Twin, Claremont drops at least a couple additional hints that Madelyne is Phoenix reincarnated. I'm counting on Jason to point these out in the reviews.

Two other things I think are worth mentioning:

Claremont's economy in developing Scott and Madelyne's romance/relationship. He really covers a lot of ground in a few short scenes: they meet, they dance, Scott tells Madelyne about and shows her a picture of Jean, he reveals that he's a mutant, he comforts her when she wakes up from a PTSD-induced nightmare. (Note the matching/shared sleepwear.)

Also, Scott and Madelyne's signature exchange, introduced last issue, is an example of what Morrison refers to as Scott's "icy lunacy under pressure." Left to his own thoughts, Scott works himself up to a near panic ("Have I made the biggest mistake of my life? Am I chasing ghosts? Do I ignore or deny my feelings?"). When he turns around to find Madelyne standing right behind him, he replies ever-so-cooly to her greeting with the very understated "Hi, yourself."

Patrick said...

Definitely check out Vertigo, both for the Maddy Pryor connection, and because it's a great movie in general. I'd agree that there are hints about Maddy being Jean revived, but I think those were meant to be red herrings. But who knows really, finding out an artist's original intention with a story years later can be near impossible since it's hard to say what's spin and retrospective thinking and what were really their plans at the time. I still feel like the definitive interview with Claremont about his run is waiting to be done.

Anonymous said...

Interesting thing to think about...if Rogue hadn't come to the X-Men for help, Binary might have joined the X-Men.

Rogue wanted help controlling her powers. To this day she cannot touch someone without draining their powers and mind. Why has Rogue stuck around for so long? Why hasn't she had Forge build another mutant-power-removing-gun and rid herself of a power that is more of a curse? You would think after a while she would have been frustrated with Professor X, especially when she is forced to go up against her step-mother in battle.

wwk5d said...

To me, Maddy (pre-Inferno revelations) is something of a Rorschach test. Either she is Jean re-incarnated somehow, and thus, she and Scott get their happy ending...or she's just some random women who looks exactly like Jean that Scott marries, in which case, ew. It all depends on how the readers views her, I guess.

Again, I seemed to like this issue more than Jason. The art does work better in the actions scenes (sorry, as much as I like Smith, no way he could've matched Simonson on the Binary vs. Rogue confrontation). And it's interesting how important this issue becomes important to Inferno after the fact, once Maddie is retconned into being Jean's clone and Louise Simonson decides to end Illyana's story arc.

DB said...

Simonson's Kitty looks more like Cockrum's or Byrne's. She only became "pretty" under Smith anyway. I think she's a little one-note here, petulant brat, but it's kind of fitting.

I always look at this one as odd. I'm a huge fan of Smith's small run and mostly forget he didn't do 171.

Love the Binary scene, though.