Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #172

[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 #172

“Scarlet in Glory”

Published May through August of 1982, Claremont and Miller’s “Shogun”-inspired Wolverine miniseries ended with Logan announcing his engagement to Mariko Yashida. Eight months later, the continuity of the Uncanny series catches up, as we witness the X-Men arriving in Japan for the wedding.

Meanwhile, the Silver Samurai (Mariko’s half-brother) and Viper are on the scene, having sworn (in the contemporaneous New Mutants #6) to kill Wolverine before he can marry the heir to the Yashida empire. There’s a strong energy to comics like these if one has been following all the different threads in other titles (Viper and the Samurai had previously appeared in Claremont-penned issues of Marvel Team-Up and Spider-Woman); a pleasant cognitive crackle at witnessing the different threads suddenly come together. It’s something that can’t quite be duplicated by anyone without access to a large shared universe like Marvel Comics, and Claremont particularly enjoys bringing together these type of cross-pollinated moments. These days, he seems more inclined to try and create such effects without first laying the groundwork – one of the reasons why his latter-day X-Men work fails to satisfy. But in 1983, Claremont was a master.

So, “Scarlet in Glory” brims with cross-connections, right from the start: Logan catches up on what has been happening in X-Men in continuity (his enemy, Rogue, is now a team member; Kitty has a pet dragon, etc.). Meanwhile Yukio, from the Wolverine miniseries, fights the Silver Samurai, etc. Also in the mix is the slow-burning “Phoenix resurrection” bit. There is a lot going on in this issue, but – buoyed by penciller Paul Smith’s ingenuity -- Claremont handles the disparate components gracefully, weaving them into a clockwork plot that still stands as one of the most elegant and precise that the series has ever seen. So meticulously thought-out is the story that Claremont and Smith are able to execute no less than five surprises/reveals over the course of Pages 12-18, each one perfectly set-up and brilliantly executed.

Smith, meanwhile, once again employs a powerful sense of design characterized by hard right angles, this time also incorporating appropriately Eastern-flavored design elements. The cumulative effect is exotically futuristic: the superhero-comic-book equivalent of Ridley Scott’s retro-future aesthetic in “Blade Runner” (barely a year old when Uncanny #172 hit the stands). Some of Smith’s effects cry blatantly for attention, as with the symmetrical relationship between Pages 2 and 3. Others subtly tell their own story – note the final panel of Page 8, with the X-Men seated at a couch, except for Rogue, who sits at a bar. Smith’s choice of perspective masks the significance of the seating arrangement: the characters all seem to be gathered together. When Smith shifts the angle of the scene two pages later – revealing the degree of Rogue’s isolation with geometric exactness -- the effect is dazzling. The narration, wisely, never comments upon this aspect of the scene, letting Smith make the point through images alone.

Claremont, meanwhile, writes a lovely scene between Wolverine and Storm, carefully mixing plot tension (the poisoned tea) with a powerful character beat (Logan and Ororo each gently acknowledge the changes the other has gone through during their months apart). When the tension finally explodes, it’s with the force of a bullet.

From there, the domino-chain of strong dramatic reveals propels the story to a final page crammed with harshly horizontal panels dropping breathlessly to an exhilarating cliffhanger -- the final thrill in an issue densely packed with them. This is one of Claremont’s all-time best.

8 comments:

Thivai Abhor said...

Geoff,

Are these comics being created and reinterpreted (read) in a vacuum--where is the larger context...

Peace,

Thivai

Gary said...

"a pleasant cognitive crackle at witnessing the different threads suddenly come together. It’s something that can’t quite be duplicated by anyone without access to a large shared universe like Marvel Comics, and Claremont particularly enjoys bringing together these type of cross-pollinated moments."
And the story stands perfectly well all on its own without knowing any of that, as well. I didn't know it until just now, and I've read and enjoyed "Scarlet in Glory" loads of times.

"Others subtly tell their own story – note the final panel of Page 8, with the X-Men seated at a couch, except for Rogue, who sits at a bar."
Subtly pointing out that Carol Danvers' nascent alcoholism is influencing Rogue, a storyline that would not come to fruition until around 15 years later in Kurt Busiek's runs on Avengers and Iron Man. Wow. Busiek knows his continuity down to an insane level of minutiae.

Jason said...

"And the story stands perfectly well all on its own without knowing any of that, as well. I didn't know it until just now, and I've read and enjoyed "Scarlet in Glory" loads of times."
True, good point. The first time I read the issue, it was much more of a cold plunge. And you're right, it still works great.

"Subtly pointing out that Carol Danvers' nascent alcoholism is influencing Rogue..."
Interesting, though I doubt it was Claremont's intention. The idea here is simply that she's isolated from the rest of the team, of course.

Geoff Klock said...

Thivai -- Well we cannot expect Jason -- or anyone -- to be exhaustive in discussing all the contexts, by which I assume you mean things like biography, history, politics, ideology, class? Why don't you help us out on this -- what context do you want to talk about?

neilshyminsky said...

Jason: I re-read the Japan story and immediately recalled loving it. Another thing about the 'Eastern' influences on the art - some of the storytelling, such as the way he draws that subtle Wolverine-Storm exchange, actually seems rather manga influenced. The North American convention would've been to show the two sharing a panel with Viper walking behind, I think. Or maybe divide it over two or three large panels. But the series of tiny panels slows time to a crawl and makes the exchange seem both ominous - Viper is shown quite deliberately and by her lonesome - and intimate. (If I felt like opening Scott McCloud's book I could probably discuss this in more technical terms, but...)

Jason said...

Neil, good call. I do recall the bit in Understanding Comics that talks about that sort of thing in Japanese comics.

scott91777 said...

It's worth noting that this was a period in American comics where many artist across the board were being influenced by Manga (most notably, of course, Frank Miller). I think there was even one comic store that had begun carrying untranslated Manga that American artist would pour over, drawn in by the visual style.

I'm not sure if Paul Smith was one of those artist, but it would not be surprising.

Teebore said...

"a pleasant cognitive crackle at witnessing the different threads suddenly come together. It’s something that can’t quite be duplicated by anyone without access to a large shared universe like Marvel Comics, and Claremont particularly enjoys bringing together these type of cross-pollinated moments."

Again, you really get to the heart of one of the things that makes Claremont's X-Men work so good, and why I enjoy it as much as I do.

This issue and the next are simply fantastic.