Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #183

[Guest Blogger Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont’s X-Men run. For more in this series, see the toolbar on the right.]

Uncanny X-Men, The #183

“He’ll Never Make Me Cry”

Kidnapped by the White Queen at the end of issue 180, Kitty was then bounced over to New Mutants issues 15-17, wherein she was rescued by the title characters. With the White Queen storyline complete, Kitty finds herself back in the parent title, in time to appear on one of the most devastating opening pages of any Uncanny issue ever published. Claremont’s writing is emotionally brutal here, as Kitty’s mostly rhetorical question to Colossus – “Anything interesting happen out there?” (i.e., during the Secret Wars) – is answered with painful directness: “I met someone else,” says Peter unemotionally. “We fell in love.”

It hits with the force of a gun, and the following three pages – once again moodily colored by Glynis Oliver – don’t let up on the intensity. Claremont’s writing is gorgeous here – simple, heartfelt, emotionally honest and excruciatingly realistic. Romita Jr. is remarkably expressive as well, demonstrating more subtlety and emotional realism than he has in any prior Uncanny issue. In both the phenomenal opening Peter/Kitty sequence and throughout the issue, the X-Men have never felt more like actual people (note that none of them appear in costume for the entirety of the story – except Nightcrawler, partially, in a mere three panels).

The Colossus/Juggernaut fight is also brilliantly conceived and executed, by far the all-time greatest use of the Juggernaut in an X-Men comic book. A once-impressive villain made to look foolish over time because his “unstoppable” riff rings hollow after so many defeats, Cain Marko here is portrayed for the first time as a genuine force of nature – or at least of karma, as his only role here is to give Peter what he’s got coming to him. (As Wolverine puts it in one of Claremont’s best-ever lines of dialogue, Peter’s beating at the hands of Cain is “what the boy deserves – what I was plannin’ t’do to him myself.”)

Romita Jr. is in his element too. Two huge bruisers engaging in a barroom brawl is the kind of thing that no comic book artist could do better. (As of this writing, the artist draws a comic book called “Kick Ass.”) Thanks to Romita’s incredible talent for drawing a fist-fight, combined with Claremont’s peerless ability to write superheroes as real, psychologically credible human beings, this is the first issue of Uncanny X-Men that – instead of being weighted one way or the other – is truly equal parts superb melodrama and dynamic action story. The balance would never again be this perfect.

Uncanny X-Men #183 is also the first issue that lists Ann Nocenti as the sole editor (instead of sharing the credit with Louise Simonson). Though obviously not every issue Nocenti edited is up to this stunning level, the fact that her first solo attempt at the job yielded such superb contributions from every single creator speaks volumes about her talent. She was absolutely the right woman for the job, fortuitously arriving at it just as Claremont was hitting his imaginative peak as a writer.


vcaramela said...

I have to say; this issue is one of the first comics I remember buying as a wee bit lad... I also purchased Fantastic Four #268 and Daredevil #207.

rob said...

Your entries, charting Claremont's writing style and the focus and feel of his Uncanny as they developed, honestly make me proud to be a lifelong X-Men fan. Everyone always gives Claremont his due automatically, but it's nice to see such a comprehensive issue-by-issue look at what he really brought to the table every month.

Jason said...

It's great to read that, Rob -- thank you!!!

vc -- I confess, it's one of my earliest ones too. I've read that opening scene over and over, and it still gets to me every time.

Dougie said...

Slightly off-topic but I realised this the other day, after, oh, more than thirty years...
Marvel doesn't need second-rate Superman knock-offs like the woeful Sentry. Since the 70s, they've had their own Man of (organic) Steel, raised by farmers and decked out in red,blue and yellow. Complete with a bald-headed thorn in his side and a feisty sweetheart. Yet, one-time cover star Colossus remains a Marvel C-lister.

Stephen said...

I remember that opening scene, too, and I agree it was powerful. But there's a but.

IMS, this came out while Secret Wars was still in its early issues -- the first three or four. (I think the disappearances/reappearances were simultaneous with the first issues.) So we hadn't yet read the actual romance that Peter mentions here.

But at least if you were reading it at the time, as I was, you did, eventually: Secret Wars was not just a Big Event, but it was Marvel's first one, and skipping it was not (that I remember) a widely discussed option.

And the actual romance was, like the comic it was embedded in, atrocious.

So that in retrospect the scene is damaged by poor writing by another writer.

Here, at least, it's not fatal, just damaging. But this is getting us towards some of the events that would break X-Men's several-year old on me: Secret Wars II -- far more invasive than SWI, crossing over everywhere, and far worse; and Jean's resurrection, annulling one of Claremont's best stories. These two events were key in souring me on the Marvel Universe -- and Claremont, clearly the best writer they had working within the MU at the time, was a casualty, for me, of that larger souring.

I read him longer than I read the rest -- he was more interesting and more fun -- but for me the invasion of other bad writing into his was a key moment in my slow drift away from these comics.

And this scene -- good in and of itself, but mired in bad writing by another -- is a foretaste of that.


Jason said...

True, Stephen. Interestingly, Comic Geek Speak just did their first in a twelve-part look at the original Secret Wars. One of them points out that Secret Wars was "the original 52/One Year Later," in that in January of 1984 they published a bunch of comics set AFTER Secret Wars -- a series that would not finish until December of 1984. Readers had to wait a full year before learning how the comics got to that point in January.

(And like with 52, the whole thing ended up being a cheat, with many of the changes occurring suddenly in issue 12 -- the new costumes, Lockheed getting a female dragon companion, She-Hulk joining the FF, Hulk breaking his leg -- but, so it goes.)

I don't think this scene is ruined by it, personally -- if anything, Jim Shooter's amateurish writing bore out what Logan tries to impress upon Peter in this issue, that the "love" Peter felt for the Secret Wars alien was not real. That's how I manage to justify it in my mind, at any rate.

But yeah, the point is nonetheless well taken.

Anonymous said...

I seem to be the designated Jim Shooter apologist. So...

-- Yah, Secret Wars I had some awful writing. But it sold like hotcakes and made a ridiculous amount of money for Marvel. So there's that.

-- Shooter was never a great writer, but he was often a good one. His early Legion work is still good stuff, as is the first part of his long run on Avengers. (The Korvac saga has been collected several times, and was recently voted one of the top 20 superhero battles.)

So it's not that Shooter couldn't write. Rather, it's that he bit off way way too much -- he tried to write a multipart crossover (which is really hard for anyone) while also carrying on as Marvel's Editor-in-Chief (itself an 80-hour-a-week, double-peptic-ulcer kind of job).

He shouldn't have done it... but, given that he did, Secret Wars turned out better than it had any right to. It's not very good, no, but it doesn't actively suck. That puts it over the 50th percentile for major crossover series. And when you consider that it was the /first/ big crossover, it's actually mildly impressive that he managed to more or less pull it off.

That said, one does wonder what SW would have looked like if they'd turned Claremont -- at this point near the top of his game --loose on it.

Doug M.

Jason said...

I do actually like some aspects of Secret Wars. In terms of plotting, I think it's as good as the premise ("good guys and bad guys fight for twelve issues -- GO!!!") would allow. For the most part, every faction (FF, Spider-Man, X-Men, Avengers) gets something important to do -- except the Hulk, who I always thought got the short end of the SW stick. Shooter even had him comment at one point that he wasn't a "relevant factor," which was true. Hulk fans must've been a little annoyed.

It's in the dialogue that SW really just embarrasses itself. Honestly. An exclamation point after *every* line? Constant clunky exposition (clunky everything, really). Just wall-to-wall awful. And yeah, it could just be that Shooter gave himself a tough assignment -- but hey, I've also read Secret Wars II, and Dazzler: The Movie. Worse and worser ...

But that's all I've read. I'm not saying Shooter's a bad writer -- I've read only a fraction of the guy's output -- but I can judge what I have read, which is no less than THREE really bad comic works by him. That's enough to put me off sampling any more ...

Anonymous said...

Yes, it's a very solid issue. I might quibble that the integration of the fight scene into the melodrama is /too/ smooth -- isn't it rather pat that Colossus gets beaten just when he needs and deserves to? -- but that really would be quibbling.

A more trenchant criticism, I think, is that this issue is oddly retro in its treatment of gender roles. "Good guy makes a mistake and hurts good girl, pays for it by losing a fight -- and now the moral scales are balanced!" That could be the plot of any studio B-movie from 1930 onwards. Colossus doesn't *really* pay any price for hurting Kitty; it's a superhero fight, where injuries heal between panels and nobody really suffers. It's at most a symbolic slap on the wrist.

Claremont liked to consider himself a feminist, and mostly he was. But once you got past "strong female charaters with active inner lives" -- a huge step forward, to be sure! -- he got very wobbly; some of his stuff is progressive, almost transgressive, but a lot of it just unconsciously recycles old gender tropes and stereotypes. This issue is one of the latter. That doesn't make it a bad issue. (It's a good issue.) Just... faintly disappointing. There's an alternate version of this story where Kitty goes out with some girlfriends, has her first margarita, gets very woozy, still figures out a way to beat the issue's surprise villain -- and finishes with a hair flip and a "who needs /him/?"

Noted in passing: the panel where Peter says "At last we shall see who is the better man!" This is nice, because of course Peter is struggling with guilt and confusion. He hasn't been a good man... but he'll make it all better by beating the crap out of the bad guy. This is a deft touch on Claremont's part, a nice little bit of genre subversion. And like many of his deft touches it's done in a single panel; blink and you'll miss it.

Also noted in passing: Wolverine's protective feelings towards Kitty are part of his character's slow but steady development arc over the last few years. It's impossible to imagine the Byrne or Cockrum Wolverine's saying something like this! The Cockrum version wouldn't have cared about Kitty; the Byrne one might have felt some respect for the plucky kid, but not enough to beat up a friend. -- Though already the arc was in motion: the Cockrum Wolverine felt no emotional attachments other than basic pack loyalty and the one-sided interest in Jean; the Byrne character felt them, but skittishly backed away. The Smith and JRJR versions are plausible and intersting evolutions from here... in fact, I always felt that Wolverine's progression, up until issue 200 or so, was the best of any of the X-Men. (Much better than Storm's.) Unfortunately, the character became too popular, and so had to be reset to start again and again... but anyway: the Wolverine who lets Peter get beaten here because he has made a moral judgment based on emotional truths is a far cry from the self-centered psycho-loner of the first two years.

Finally, yes, nice to see the Juggernaut get his due. I think this was the first superhero bar fight to pull the (obvious in retrospect) trick of actually /fighting with the bar/.

Doug M.

Anonymous said...

Shooter: try some of his Avengers stuff. The Ms. Marvel plotline in issues 199-200 is a godawful stinker, but his first run (1977-8, 20 issues or so, of which the Korvac saga is about half) is pretty good. You've mentioned you're short on space; well, these are issues you can pick up in the quarter box, read and then give away.

Oh, and his run on Daredevil was good too -- totally overshadowed by Frank Miller's arrival a year later, but good solid 70s comic writing.

His writing got worse once he was Editor-in-Chief. Makes sense, no?

Doug M.

Jason said...

Good points as always, Doug. Like you, I appreciate the way Colossus has something to "prove" in the fight. It is also there in his line, "I am no boy!"

And in fairness, it is not as if Kitty doesn't have her "Who needs him?" moment -- several of them, really -- later on in the series.

Jason said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
GameJudge said...

This issue has on of my favorite moments in it for Juggernaut, a turning point for his character: he PAYS for the bar. This takes Cain Marko over to being an entirely new character from what he has been in the past. It's not the bar owner's fault Cain ran into Colossus there.

It's something that Tom DeFalco picked up on early in the Thunderstrike series, as well, where Cain trashes a town - well, walks down a city street and lets things go from there - and, having been stared down by a VOLUNTEER FIRE DEPARTMENT who turn a high pressure hose on him and don't run until their truck has been ripped in two by the Juggernaut, pays for the damage he caused and throws in something extra for the volunteer fire department. Because he's got class.

It's probably best thought of as those evolutions Claremont liked that Juggernaut moves from being a one note villain to a more complex one during his run on UXM. The next time he'll turn up (and the last time he'll turn up in Claremont's run) will be in 217 and 218, where he takes on Dazzler in a slow motion fight where he gives her every opportunity to just walk away. He then informs her that he's gonna have to rough her up a bit because that's how it goes when you're a superhero, but he doesn't seem to get any real joy out of it. He then trashes Edinburgh as a distraction for a crime taking place somewhere else entirely. When he's incarcerated for that and we next see him in Excalibur 2 or 3, the last time he's written at all in Claremont's run on the various X-Titles, he's in a stasis cage - about the only thing on Earth that can hold him - and he's smiling congenially when Vixen breaks in and releases him. He just sort of... walks out, trashes the place (smiling) and beats up Captain Britain because Cap gets in his way.

The whole vibe that it gives is that Cain knows he's unstoppable, and doesn't sweat it. He's got nothing to prove, so he's a basically good guy. It's a character angle I adore, much like the quasi-heroic Freedom Force, and it's always disappointed me when other writers not only fail to pick up on it but seem to actively ignore it.

I like the power set and I like the character. And I like this issue, because it's where the latter shows up for the first time.

Jason said...

Brilliant take, GJ! I love it!

Jim in NYC said...

Colossus inadvertently saves Juggernaut's life in this issue...that's Selene, the future Black Queen and current psychic vampire, the Juggernaut is making time with at the bar when Peter dumps his drink on Cain's head.

wwk5d said...

I pointed this out before, but since it's relevant to this issue, thought I'd bring it up here again. I read that Shooter was the one who wanted to break up Kitty and Peter, not Claremont. Apparently, Shooter didn't like the idea of a 19 year old involved with an under-age minor. Oh well.

Interesting historical point: Apparently, New York's drinking age back then was 18 and older? I don't think Peter was using a fake ID...

The fight was good, as was the reaction, though I always thought Logan's reaction was a bit over the top. Then again, he was becoming more of a father figure to Kitty, so it *almost* works for me.