Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #179

[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 #179

“What Happened to Kitty?”

Dan Green is one of the unsung heroes of Uncanny X-Men. Debuting here at the tail end of 1983, Green will ink 57 Uncanny issues between now and the start of 1990, thus contributing artistically to more single issues of Claremont’s X-Men than even John Byrne. Green creates attractively loose lines, which seem almost to have been made freehand, despite the inker’s job of following what’s already been put down by the penciler. (Compare the look of Uncanny 210, the last Romita/Green outing, to Uncanny 218, the first Silvestri/Green issue, for a dynamic example of how Green keeps the look unified via his own strong aesthetic, while still remaining true to the different temperaments of his two respective pencilers.)

Green’s organic and gesturely style is different from anything yet seen on Uncanny X-Men, which up to now has always been at its best when Claremont was paired with tidier artists like Byrne and Paul Smith. (Even when Green himself did fill-in inks for one X-Men comic back in 1977, it was in a much cleaner style than he employs years later.) Now supported instead by the gritty John Romita Jr. and the messy Green, Claremont’s writing immediately becomes darker, dirtier and more brutal in tone. The change seems to occur immediately: The first scene of Uncanny #179 takes place among the Morlocks in the grimy New York sewers; the second sees Wolverine, Storm and Rogue (the tough half of the present team) in a morgue, identifying a teenage girl’s corpse.

The latter scene is particularly striking, Claremont working with his artistic partners to evocatively establish the appropriate mood. Note the narration regarding Ororo’s reaction when she sees a dead body she believes to be Kitty’s: “Storm’s face is a stoic masque, the depth of her grief betrayed only by a trembling hand ... [cut to an exterior shot of the building] and a bolt of lightning that turns the night sky to day, followed by a boom of thunder that shatters windows ... and shakes buildings to their very cores.” The simultaneous shift in focus from interior to exterior by both image and text is executed in such a way as to suggest that there is no difference: the violent thunder and lightning shaking the world is simply one internal aspect of Ororo, as if somehow she contains the entire world inside her. More prosaic in scale but no less dramatic in its impact is Wolverine’s subsequent tough-guy intimidation of the coroner (“This once, bend [the rules] a little.”) and subsequent low-key delivery of the line “This ain’t Kitty.” Romita and Green craft the most outwardly masculine version of Logan yet to see print (the cowboy-hat-and-sideburns look innovated by Dave Cockrum has never been more bad-ass than on Pages 3 and 4 of “What Happened to Kitty?”). Right here is the birth of the hardcore X-Men, a concept that will flourish over the next few years, thanks not only to Romita and Green but also to Ann Nocenti (one of superhero comics’ wildest editors), who will inherit the Uncanny reins from the more conventional Louise Simonson in only a few months’ time. (Once Nocenti is replaced by corporate-minded Bob Harras, very little time passes before the X-Men franchise is scaled back in tone – even as it explodes in size – back into more standard superhero fare.)

As for the present issue, Romita and Green’s finest moment occurs midway through, during a sequence wherein Kitty attempts to flee through the sewers, only to fall face first in muck and be rescued by a tragically mutated Morlock (identified later as “Leech”). The tunnel is depicted as tangibly awful, while the panel of Leech as he cryptically speaks only three words (“Lost. Lonely. Scared.”) feels both hideous and pathetic. Leech is the most physically horrible mutant to appear in the series as of 1983, and his distorted visual design (possibly inspired by Spielberg’s “E.T.”), along with Kitty’s observation that “he sounds awfully young” makes for the most tragic portrayal of mutants Claremont has yet managed. A few pages later, Claremont proves equally effective at creating a sequence of pure terror, as Masque mashes Kitty’s phase into a repugnant piece of mush. Ending with Callisto’s terse admonition “She can’t breathe – fix her before she chokes,” the scene is genuinely chilling.

Claremont also confronts the X-Men (both the characters and the overall franchise’s premise) with their own hypocrisy here, several times. Callisto shames Kitty at having exploited the trust of Caliban (the Morlocks’ other tragic character besides Leech), and Kitty in turn chastises the X-Men for their inclination to find “a convenient excuse ... to bash in some skulls” (particularly if those skulls belong to other mutants). While the X-Men are confronted with their own hypocrisy, several Morlocks are portrayed in a positive light: Callisto has a twisted sense of honor; Caliban proves heart-wrenchingly compassionate; the “Healer” is kindly. Only Masque seems genuinely nasty. The overall effect is that the X-Men and the Morlocks stand on equal ground, morally: The X-Men are just as willing as the Morlocks to use violence to get what they want, while the latter have at least as much compassion and honor as the former. The only different between the two groups is that the putative “heroes” are privileged, and the bad guys are not. It is a striking indictment of the series’ premise, and the first of many attempts by Claremont to overturn it.

With its dark tone, its powerful (and powerfully arranged) sequences of both terror and tragedy, and its genuinely hard look at the skewed politics that comprise the series’ foundation, Uncanny X-Men #179 is a watershed issue for the canon, and an overlooked gem.


rob said...

What an excellent analysis of the shape of Claremont's run at this point. My first exposure to it was the X-Men Classic issues of Romita jr's run, so, although I've read it start to finish a couple of times, I've never objectivly looked at those as such a break with what came before because they so define the X-Men for me.

There are some stunning moments here, particuarly Masque's distortion of Kitty and her meeting with Leech. Claremont also wasn't shying away from tough questions about the hypocracy of the X-Men, and it makes this next few years of storytelling so wonderful. Along with your look at the character-oriented shift the title took with #168, this is another excellent piece about the progression of Claremont's run.

Jason said...

Thank you, Rob!

I appreciate the comment, particularly because I do adore this issue (and I am confessedly rather proud of this particular blog entry ...)

wwk5d said...

Interesting how much Claremont adapted to his artists. You have to wonder how the series, and it's tone, would have continued had Paul Smith never left the title...

The whole JRjr run is an under appreciated gem.

DB said...

"The only different between the two groups is that the putative “heroes” are privileged, and the bad guys are not."

Honestly, these kinds of statements boggle the mind. You are such a careful, attentive reader and capable of analyzing these stories with such acuity, but it seems you give way too much credit to Neil S's naive ideas. It is possible to critique these stories through any critical lens out there without hammering the story to fit your needs.

The only difference between the Morlocks and the X-Men is not that "the putative “heroes” are privileged, and the bad guys are not." For one, a very big one, the Morlocks are violent maniacs and most likely casual rapists given what they were prepared to do to Kitty and Angel, while the X-Men routinely and literally selflessly save the world.

It is just embarrassingly reductive to write such nonsense.

Also, it's downright silly to say that the X-Men are counter-revolutionary because they stop psychotic mutants from committing mass murder. This would be based on such a flimsy definition of revolution. Do you consider the SLA revolutionary? Is revolutionary always a good thing to you? While some of these criticisms may be valid, insightful and interesting, they're never couched in any context and too often the facts are twisted beyond all recognition. To the point where a little girl is an asshole for not staying with her kidnapper/abuser--despite how "princely" he may act later.

(Meanwhile, not a peep about the craven way Masque violated Kitty! Nevermind the fact that you have to ignore the character's biographies as well as their minority status as mutants and solely focus on the fact that they've lived in a mansion for a year or two story-time to even try to make this pig of an idea fly. Which may be an inherent problem with "privilege" as people end up drilling down so far that they're parsing privilege based on lefthandedness vs righthandedness. Identity politics really does become the oppression Olympics and unfortunately a once valuable idea is losing all credibility and utility.)

Anyway, I love this blog. I have probably read it multiple times now, but I find it increasingly irksome that this sophistry stands unchallenged.