Thursday, October 16, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #173

[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 #173

“To Have and Have Not”

Whereas the previous issue’s power was in its perfectly executed clockwork plot mechanics, the joy of “To Have and Have Not” comes in watching the character dynamics unfold. Claremont has particular fun with Wolverine’s cold attitude toward Rogue. When she unknowingly sets off a trap that might kill her, Logan narrates (even as he saves her), “I’m tempted to let her take the shot ... to find out what her limits really are ... but I may need her later on.” Later, when Rogue plays at kissing Logan, which would let her absorb his power, he threatens to put his claws through her throat. She notes that she didn’t mean any harm, and his reply -- off-handedly tossed back even as he walks away -- is a terse: “That’s why you’re still breathing.” Wolverine is hard-edged throughout the story, providing proof that the layering of “Shogun”-inspired traits into his personality have not ruined Wolverine’s tough-guy core.

At the same time, the above scenes are setting the reader up for a precisely conceived narrative reversal at the climax: Rogue takes a shot intended for Mariko and is mortally wounded – Wolverine has thus learned “what [Rogue’s] limits really are” after all. Now, however, honor-bound to save her after she saved Mariko, Wolverine deliberately lets Rogue absorb his healing factor: the very thing he had threatened to kill her for. The level of reflexivity here becomes more astounding the closer it’s examined: In the opening scene of the previous issue, Wolverine’s first line of dialogue regarding Rogue was the brutal assertion that he’d like to “cut out her heart.” The cruelty of the sentiment prompted Mariko to offer a courteous welcome. That moment informs the climax of the present issue, as Rogue explicitly states that she’s willing to sacrifice herself to save Mariko -- specifically because of that initial kindness -- and Rogue’s selflessness in turn leads to the reversal in Wolverine’s attitude. The arc is a textbook example of shrewd storytelling: neat, clean and perfectly logical in conception, yet quite surprising as it actually plays out.

And in between the set-up and the execution, Claremont and Smith even make room for a dynamic four-page homage to the climax of the Frank Miller Wolverine miniseries: this time, Logan’s opponent is Mariko’s brother (in the Miller mini, it was her father), and the duplicated layout – multiple pages of four stacked horizontal tiers – creates another layer of symmetry in an issue already dense with it.

Claremont’s use of Yukio in “To Have and Have Not” is rather canny. She is a particularly contrived character, used in the Wolverine miniseries as a plot device that tempts Wolverine toward the more animalistic, less noble aspect of his character. Since Wolverine triumphs over that darker self at the end of the mini, the appearance of Yukio in issues 172 and 173 would seem redundant, so Claremont plays with expectation and instead makes her a foil to Storm. Where once Yukio tempted Logan toward a dark side of his nature, she now tempts Ororo. Logan ultimately refused what Yukio had to offer, but Storm “welcome[s] it!” That choice gives us one more instance of symmetry to bring the two-parter full circle: We opened with an image of Wolverine – the X-Men’s most psychologically unstable member – in a kimono, looking uncharacteristically civilized (as Nightcrawler explicitly notes on Page 2). We end with the shocking sight of Storm – traditionally the team’s most serenely balanced character – gone totally punk, sporting a Mohawk and dog collar. (Peter David, who was following Uncanny month to month at the time, cites the first appearance of “punk Storm” as a hugely surprising moment in the comic’s history, and characteristic of Claremont’s dynamic, “anything-can-happen” style.)

This and the previous issue make for one of Claremont’s best small-scale stories in the entire Uncanny X-Men canon, memorable enough that Bryan Singer even cannibalized it – specifically lifting the “Wolverine lets Rogue take his powers” dramatic beat – for the first X-Men film, made over 15 years later.


neilshyminsky said...

Jason: I can't argue with any of your reasons for liking it, and I'm especially fond of the way that Smith presents the scene where Wolverine lets Rogue take his healing power.

But there's another plot element that just doesn't work for me - why does Mastermind, who's already plotting something far bigger, feel the need to destroy Wolverine's life? If anything, having Wolverine out of the picture makes things easier for him. It's a plot development that seems entirely contrived so as to keep him on the team and in the book when the story would seem to dictate he should do otherwise.

Anonymous said...

A point that should be noted. Claremont has a way of never throwing away a good idea. The last panel of Wolverine in the window with one tear running down his cheek was the way 138 would have ended if Jean had lived and Scott and Jean leave the school at the end of 138

Patrick said...

This is one of my top issues in the entire Claremont run, full of really fantastic moments, like the punk Storm and most notably the Wolverine crying closing panel. Written by Claremont, Storm and Wolverine are two of the most complex, constantly changing characters in his run. The glut of Wolverine stories every month makes it hard to imagine a time when the guy could have something like this happen to him, and have it be really meaningful, but this issue does it, and it also cements Rogue's status as one of the key X-Men. Really great stuff.

Jason said...

Patrick, just for fun I recently put together a list of my top twenty Claremont X-Men issues, and this two-parter takes up two slots. So obviously I agree, it's way up there on the list.

Anon, that's interesting. I think it works better in the published version, although having the tear-drop be the result of a Jean/Scott happy ending would've made a decent beat for the movie version of Wolverine, in some parallel universe where X3 was done right.

Neil ... yeah, Mastermind is just sowing random chaos, isn't he? Indeed, his motivation for severing Mystique's bond with Rogue is also never explained; it just happens because Claremont wants Rogue to join the X-Men, right? (I know I've read where an issue of Ms. Marvel was going to explain the Mastermind/Mystique antagonism, but we never got that.) And hell, what does Mastermind have against the White Queen? That really just seems like a red herring to make people think that Phoenix might be back -- she's the one who'd have a grudge against Emma. Indeed, Mastermind and Emma don't even have any scenes together in the Dark Phoenix Saga. (Although Ann Nocenti did a back-up feature in Classic X-Men #34 that retroactively built in the notion that the two characters had an ongoing rivalry of some sort.)

Streebo said...

This is one of my favorite issues of the entire X-Men run. Mainly for the biff bam pow dynamics of the Wolverine vs Silver Samurai duel. I wasn't buying comics yet at the time this issue was released - but I started soon after and I remember seeing Storm with the mowhawk for the first time and thinking it was really bizarre. It made me not like her character for a while.

scott91777 said...

Streebo reminded me of something,

When I was a kid (I was about 6 at the time this issue came out), long before I actually started reading X-men comics, Storm's mohawk, coupled with Nightcrawler's appearance, the white streak in Rogue's hair and Wolverine's claws... Prof. X's baldness, always made me look at the x-men as being 'weird' which always informed my perspective of them as 'outsider heroes'

There was always something offbeat about them to me, which is why, I think, the upcoming issues... where Claremont will begin to emphasize this... are actually my favorite period of the series.

Jason said...

Streebo, yeah, I remember the first time I saw punk Storm thinking it was horrible. Even now there's an aesthetic level on which it kind of grates at me (The mohawk is fugly, I guess is what I'm saying), even though I do love the idea as far as a creative choice of direction for the character.

Scott, I love that; there's so many different directions from which to look at these characters and this run. Somebody could probably write an entire paper on hairstyles in the X-verse. (Some fans still shudder at the thought of Longshot's mullet and Rachel Summers' rat-tail.)

scott91777 said...

I think I remember Morrison once saying about the Marvel characters in general that, when he was growing up, he always felt they were kind of 'scary'... I guess that's how I felt about the X-men specifically as a kid... and it is mostly based on this era.

I think once JRJR becomes the regular artist, and his style begins to evolve... it would further contribute to this view of the team.

Anonymous said...

Mastermind made Mariko leave Logan because Jean had feelings for Logan and he couldn't get revenge on Jean. He put Emma in a coma because she built the Jean-Control device that failed. (When has Emma built anything that useful since she reformed?)

wwk5d said...

Yeah, that's why he went after Emma...and hey, why sould Wolvie be happy? ;)

Jason, if I'm not mistaken, that story detailing the encounter between Carol, the Brotherhood, and The Hellfire Club was released happened in Marvel Super-Heroes (2nd series) #10-11. Check out the info on Ms. Marvel's entry on; also has the scenes of Mystique beating Carol's lover to death with her bare hands.

Anonymous said...

"Mastermind made Mariko leave Logan because Jean had feelings for Logan and he couldn't get revenge on Jean."

Except, not so much, in the context of the time. Back in the day, the Wolverine/Jean crush was strictly one way. It was until later that the Scott/Jean/Logan love triangle would get played up by other writers, and Claremont would subsequently retcon it in himself.


NietzscheIsDead said...

Again, so sorry for the extraordinarily late comment, but I always assumed that, because Mariko became a criminal under Mastermind's influence, Mastermind was using the Yashida Clan to make money engaging in criminal activity. Hurting one of the X-Men was just bonus.

DB said...

I don't see what all the fuss is about re: Mastermind's motivation for getting revenge on all involved with the DPS. He can't get revenge on Jean so he's taking it out on her loved ones (including of course her friend, Wolverine--close friend if you include the Classic backups) and the Hellfire Club who failed him.

Classic two-parter, regardless. If this were published today it would probably be a twelve issue event, all twelve of those issues would take less time to read than one of these, the art would be all over the place, it would be late, costumes would change page to page, character dialogue would be interchangeable, it would cost an arm and a leg, it would be retconned before it finished and then the new ending wouldn't matter anyway because the title was so late the entire universe was rebooted, etc, etc.