Thursday, October 23, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #175

[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 #175

In Uncanny X-Men #137, Claremont made canny use of continuity and allusion to give the impression of the story being the culmination of the entire X-Men saga – the final chapter of a single story stretching back to X-Men #1. There is a similar attempt at a capstone feeling in issue 175, which opens with a reminder that it has been 20 years since the publication of X-Men #1 and a glib observation that “a lot has changed since then.” This is a classic trick for writers of these long-running superhero comics, to create a sense of epic scope by alluding to the origins of characters. Claremont pulls the trick in several of his big finale issues: besides #137 and the present story, he attempts this “full circle” effect as well in issues 200 and 242, and in X-Factor# 68 and X-Men (1991 version) #1. Such entries in the canon can be looked on as touchstone issues, or as pillars supporting the overall tapestry of Claremont’s unwieldy canon. These occasional instances of historical perspective are crucial, in a way, to digesting such an ungainly mass of interconnected comic books.

Uncanny #175 is a worthy climax to the “From the Ashes” arc, and noteworthy most especially for its tour-de-force portrayal of Cyclops. Scott is a true dynamo here, a brilliant tactician always one step (if not more) ahead of everyone else, and fearlessly taking on impossible odds in order to win. Much is often made of Chris Claremont’s gratuitous use of thought balloons and interior monologue, but that writing quirk is a huge plus here: When Cyclops’ internal monologue never stops as he executes an elaborate plan to temporarily put the other X-Men out of action, the effect is to make Scott’s mind seem like some insanely brilliant tactical computer, constantly juggling variables and making adjustments as the situation warrants. He’s so unflappable that even when Colossus breaks snaps his ribs, Scott just registers that as “a problem [he] didn’t anticipate.”

This issue represents the apex of Scott Summers as action hero. It’s perhaps appropriate then that he marries at the end and, in the following issue, pretty much retires. He won’t return to the X-franchise (except as an occasional guest) until around the creation of the X-Factor comic, an editorially mandated event that inadvertently completely emasculates him. Ultimately it will require the work of Joss Whedon, an author who unabashedly loved the Paul Smith run – of which Uncanny #175 is the climax – to return Cyclops to the level of pure greatness we see him at here. (Given the nostalgia-drenched tone of Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men project, begun in 2004, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see it open with a caption reading “Twenty years ago, more or less, Chris Claremont and Paul Smith wrote Cyclops as the coolest superhero ever. ... A lot has changed since then.”)

A shrewd plotter, Claremont also smartly weaves in other ongoing arcs into this climactic issue: His use of the recently-added cast-member Rogue is quite clever, as is the fact that Storm’s newfound affinity for “violent weather” becomes a key to the team’s victory.


scott91777 said...

I enjoyed reading this period of Claremont much more than I did 'Dark Phoenix' While 'Phoenix' may, ultimately, be the more iconic story... but sometimes it's not the story told but HOW it's told... which is why I like this so much more. It is definitely much more similar to a 'modern' comic. In many ways, 'Dark Phoenix' was the penultimate silver age tale... what we have here is a period of transition, not just for the X-men, but comics in general. The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen were still 3 or four years away, but already a shift can be detected in the direction super-hero comics are going.

I think a lot of this shift on Claremont's part, as I believe we have noted before, is his collaboration with Miller on the Wolverine mini. It would seem that, while there are many far more important stories in the history of superhero comics, the Wolverine mini may have been one of the most important collaborations in the history of Superhero comics.

What Claremont took away from Miller is crucial to his growth as a writer: he learned how to be more economic with his word choice, more subtle in his characterizations and to place greater faith in the storytelling ability of his artist.

We definitely see that in this issue: as you mentioned Claremont is quite verbose during the Cyclops sequences but, unlike his earlier work, that verbosity is totally necessary... it is never redundant and serves to show Cyclops' thought processes.

In terms of character, think of the subtelty of the romances in the last issue or, even though the fact Wolverine's 'solo' issue during the 'Phoenix' arc is more iconic, how much more nuanced he is as a character at this point.

Triumph of the Underdog said...

This one and the one before are my two absolute FAVORITE X-Men comics of all time. That said, I can only appreciate them after the build of the previous seven issues, so maybe all of them are favorites in some way.

It was here that I realized Cyclops was my favorite X-Man, too. As Fraction has said in all the press for his current run on Uncanny X-Men is really Cyclops' story. All of the super hero drama, all of the rights-issues, all of the cosmic angst has just been a giant, telescopic lens thru which we've watched Scott Summers deal with life and become a man.

Teebore said...

This was also the issue in which I realized I was a Cyclops fan, and as an enormous one, this is probably my favorite single issue.

Whenever I need to remind me people of how cool Cyclops is, I point to this issue. "He takes on the entire team-and wins."

Matt said...

Whenever I need to remind me people of how cool Cyclops is, I point to this issue. "He takes on the entire team-and wins."

I'm with you 100%, Teebore! This is without a doubt, the greatest Cyclops sequence ever committed to paper.

Unfortunately, nowadays it's painful for me to look at this issue and try to reconcile it with #201, two years later, when Cyclops loses a one-on-one fight with a powerless Storm!

Teebore said...

when Cyclops loses a one-on-one fight with a powerless Storm!

The only way I can get past it is to use the Inferno-era retcon explanation that Maddie was subconsciously using her powers to trip up Cyclops so he'd lose and leave the X-Men to be with her and Nathan all the time.

Which, granted, does terrible things to Maddy's character, but I'm more concerned with Cyclops'. :)

wwk5d said...

Personally, I never minded Cyclops losing to Storm. I always saw them as equals....*ducks*...

This is a great issue for Cyclops, though. I didn't mind him being written out of the title, and coming back occasionally. But then they had to screw it all up with X-factor...

In light of the Inferno retcons, I wonder who was the man giving Maddy away at the wedding ;)

Isaac P. said...

I've found Claremont's restraint in not flooding the page with words these last few issues quite notable. Scott's point at the top of the thread is well taken.

Raius said...

I can only agree with everything you say here. Cyclops is an awesome, well-rounded character up through the DPS, and this episode, while more weakly plotted than those issues, serves as an echo of that earlier greatness. It's pretty much all downhill from there for him. I totally agree that it's not until Whedon comes along that we see Cyclops reintigrated properly.