Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #190

[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 #190

“An Age Undreamed Of”

Back in the 1970s, Claremont and Byrne seem to have been all over the place. Besides Uncanny X-Men (their greatest triumph), the pair also collaborated on Iron Fist and Marvel Team-Up at around the same time. Around Christmas of 1978, they produced Marvel Team-Up #79, which saw the Marvel Universe cross over with the universe of Conan the Barbarian. Though Conan himself did not appear in Team-Up #79, his female counterpart, Red Sonja, did. The villain of the story was a wizard called Kulan Gath, who manifested in the Marvel Universe by possessing an innocent man who donned a magical amulet. The single-issue tale ended when Spider-Man managed to remove the amulet from Gath’s host, and later he threw the trinket into a river.

Uncanny X-Men #’s 190 and 191 are a sequel to that earlier adventure. Another innocent has found the amulet, thus Kulan Gath has returned and transformed all of New York into the Conan-era world he remembers. The entire premise is apropos of nothing; other than the couple of set-up pages from Uncanny #’s 188 and 189, nothing in the series up to now has prepared us for this kind of story. And the tale even ends with one of those time-travel gimmick-conclusions that go back to the beginning and prevent the whole thing from ever happening. Thus, the story is almost entirely self-contained, and seems to exist solely for its own sake. There’s not much to be gained in trying to analyze its larger place in the X-Men canon. One just has to go with the flow and judge both this issue and the next one on their own merits.

From that perspective, this is a perfectly enjoyable little two-parter. Certainly any fan of the sword-and-sorcery genre should find little to complain about. Claremont clearly has a lot of affection for this sort of thing: wizards, witches, knights, magicians, warriors, etc. If one has the patience to follow the labyrinthine mechanics of the overall arc, some of the plot turns here are fairly clever and exciting – possibly more so for New Mutants fans, given the key roles that characters such as Illyana, Magma and Warlock play. That last one is a particular curiosity. Having debuted at the same time that Bill Sienkiewicz did in the pages of New Mutants, Warlock is very much a Sienkiewiczean creation – a wild-looking entity whose dimensions seem, in a vaguely Escher-like way, to constantly contradict the laws of physics. The in-story explanation for the character’s bizarre look is that he is an alien made out of living circuitry, whose physical shape is in a constant state of flux. The real reason is just that Sienkiewicz is a mad visual genius.

That said, Romita Jr. and Dan Green handle the character’s look admirably. Though their Warlock can’t hope to match Sienkiewicz for sheer wildness, they still create a striking visual. Green in particular seems quite at home with the “living circuitry” idea, his loose line running wildly all over Warlock’s body to quite an impressive effect.

Indeed, Romita Jr. and Green have fun throughout the Kulan Gath arc. Their opening double-page spread of a transformed New York City is breathtaking, for example. Romita Jr.’s viscerally kinetic approach to action -- combined with the remarkable sense of expressionistic detail that Green creates with his gesturely inking style -- all make for some incredibly arresting pages.

[Isn't this also I kind of dark revision of Kitty's Fairy Tale -- except this is "real"?]


scott91777 said...

I had no idea that the state of being under the influence of sorcery was 'ensorcelled'... who says that comics can't help build vocabulary! Thank you Claremont!

Marc Caputo said...

Scott: definitely. I know more words that I use all the time from reading comic books and Rolling Stone/Musician magazine than from 2years worth of SAT prep (I almost wrote SAT test prep - hate when I do that.)

Spidey's all about the 'Drop it in the Water' protocol; isn't that how he turned off Doc Ock's nuclear device in S-M 2?

Ultimate Matt said...

When I was a little kid, I was always incredibly creeped out by whatever is going on with prof. X on the cover - to the point that to this day, I barely remember the interior of that comic - just that image on the cover. That one image of Prof. X is the boogeyman, the monster under the bed, and the monster in the closet all rolled into one. It still makes my skin crawl a little. It's that deep in my subconsious.

Jason said...

It's a bit of synchronicity that this issue review is up just after you re-linked to one of Cove West's remarkably well-researched "Lovecraft in the Marvel Universe" posts. In his last one, he teased that the next piece of the puzzle was the Kulan Gath two-parter in Uncanny 190 and 191.

Cove, are you still around? If so, the time has come for you to lay some more science down on us.

Anonymous said...

And once again, we see Claremont's love of classic pulp bleeding over into -- no, actually, /taking/ over -- X-Men.

Yah, that's what I remember about this two-parter: lots of cool visuals, a couple of neat ideas, otherwise nothing to do with anything. It would have done a lot better as an annual IMO, but of course these were the years when Claremont did his X-Men annual scripts in about half an hour (and usually, from the evidence, after knocking back a few beers, and with Alf playing on the TV in the background).

I remain baffled as to why JRJR doesn't get the respect he deserves. Everybody's all "oh JRJR was okay, but not like /Smith/ or *Byrne* -- THOSE guys were the quintessential X-Men artists!" Yet Smith long outlasted both of them; and if he never got to produce the iconic images of the Byrne run, he produced dozens of memorable moments and hardly ever turned in a clunker. Yet he gets no love and only grudging recognition. I don't get it.

Doug M.

Jason said...

Yeah, dunno. It could be just that JRJr went on to do stuff that was more distinctive post-X-Men. These days, JRJr's style can be mistaken for no one else, whereas his early X-work is a bit less individualized. It's still great, though.

I presume you mean JRJr outlasted both Smith and Byrne? True if you count the timespan, but if you count the actual issues that feature JRJr as penciller from 1983 to 1986, there are only 31. Whereas Byrne -- who still loves to boast about not needing fill-ins -- did 35 issues. And 33 of those were consecutive!

No penciller during the Claremont era (1975-1991) matched Byrne's record for quantity. Silvestri actually came closest, with 32.

And no one came CLOSE to matching the 33-in-a-row feat.

None of which is meant to detract from Romita Jr.'s work on the title, which I think is top-notch. I just happen to have compiled the stats, and wanted to share.

Jason said...

Oh, and also, another reason I believe Dan Green to be the unsung hero of Claremont's X-Men ... granted, I realize inking is not as labor-intensive as pencilling, but ... Green inked an amazing 57 issues of Uncanny X-Men between 1983 and 1990. A larger number than any penciller.

Granted, not nearly as many issues as Tom Orzechowski lettered or Glynis Oliver colored, but ... still, Green contributed to the feel of the series during years of peak popularity for the comic.

Dougie said...

From the final Foom Magazine 22, Autumn 78; Chris Claremont discusses Ms. Marvel:
"I have a story in mind in which Carol Danvers awakens to discover that somehow New York...has been totally changed into a Hyborian city."
Cap and Iron Man would appear as a barbarian and a knight in this scenario.
(To a wee Scottish boy,those Foom Magazines were sexy bulletins from the incredibly cool Shaft-meets-The Grateful Dead world of 70s Marvel.)

Dougie said...

70s DC was Kirby Unleashed-meets-Dark Shadows. Much better but not as cool when you're 9.

sexy said...
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Teebore said...

I think this two parter is my all time favorite comic book story (I say "I think" because I only recently christened it as such and am still mulling over the idea).

As an X-Men story, it's pretty standard but as a Marvel Universe story it's fantastic and fun, and I love the way Claremont weaves in just about every NY denizen (a word, I might add, I learned from comics) of the MU.

Superheroes meet sorcery, a cast of dozens, time travel, all fantastically drawn by the underrated JRJr (my favorite comic book artist, no questions asked, who, I must agree with Doug M., doesn't get enough recognition for this run)?

All told, that's a recipe for a fantastic comic book story.


I though it was very silly.Jr,Junior drew New York as a Hyborean Age either too big or too small.The Kulan Gath storyline came an equilly stupid issue Spider-Man met Mary Jane as Red Sonja.Roy Thomas at the said he felt it was teerible at a local Creation Con at the time.The only I liked as Captain America as a Conan the Barbarian with Hyborean Age transformed Avenger=otherwise it very dum

wwk5d said...

Loved this two-parter! Not much to do with the X-men as a concept, but good, action packed fun.

And yeah, JRjr doesn't get anywhere near the recognition he deserves.