Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #218

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men. For more in this series see the label below or the toolbar on the right. ]

“Charge of the Light Brigade”

Though it’s immediately followed up by more fill-in work, issue #218 marks the debut of soon-to-be-regular penciller Marc Silvestri (whose first and last name are spelled incorrectly in the opening credits). The artist’s style is direct, intense and detail-oriented, providing the series with a welcome shot in the arm. After a few months of relative meandering, Claremont’s new team of X-Men truly comes to life here, and we begin to see the potential in these new members.

The sheer energy and kineticism of Silvestri’s pencils – partly the result of heavily distorted figures, perfectly complemented by Dan Green’s gesturely inks – hit with the intensity of a laser beam ... or, in the case of the opening sequence, a “beam of focused plasma.” Silvestri’s take here on the unique visual created for Havok by Neal Adams almost two decades earlier is beautifully accomplished. Immediately on the Page 3 splash, we get a sense of Silvestri’s eye for contrast, as the crisp, clean circles emanating from Havok with sci-fi precision being are counterpointed by the prosaically messy detail of spilled grocery bags. The visual contrast struck by Silvestri subtly reinforces the tiny story being told in this opening sequence: Alex and Lorna’s normal life, beautifully described in Claremont’s narrative captions on Page 1, is being violently displaced (like their groceries) by the science-fiction universe of the X-Men, which over the course of this issue and the next will come to surround them on all sides (like the circles of Havok’s “plasma”).

Silvestri’s eye for subtle detail is so impressive throughout this debut issue, I can’t resist pointing out a couple other fantastic little visual touches. On Page 4, for example, note that one of the supports for Havok and Polaris’ makeshift tent is their jeep’s bumper. Or how on Page 16, when Rogue absorbs Juggernaut’s power with his own, his muscles shrink so that his arm bands slide down to cover his hands.

Silvestri’s style is also sleek and sexy when it needs to be. The protagonists of this particular X-Men story are mostly women, and Silvestri makes each of them supermodel-gorgeous. On the downside, with Silvestri’s style here, we’re witnessing the first seeds of what will eventually become the Image style, wherein all females are depicted as impossibly proportioned bimbos who fight their superhero battles as if they’re posing in porn mags.

This, however, is a more restrained Marc Silvestri – he’s several years from creating Witchblade, the only superheroine whose costume actually looks like someone is constantly fondling her. The Silvestri of the late 1980s makes his female superheroes seductively feminine, to be sure – long legs (Page 21, panel 4), slender bodies (Page 12, panel 1), come-hither eyes (Page 4, panel 2). But these sexy details don’t overwhelm the narrative; rather, they energize it. Silvestri’s work is, again, what I think of when I recall Geoff’s phrase “pop sexy X-Men.”

The crucial difference between this and typical comic-book “sexiness” as popularized by Image Comics, is that here Silvestri balances the hotness with a sense of whimsy and fun. Page 16, for example, sees Rogue assaulting Juggernaut, wrapping her legs around him and kissing him (as we’ve so often see her do in order to exercise her mutant power). But Silvestri’s motion lines in panel 4 show Rogue cartoonishly bouncing off the ground before leaping onto Juggernaut – reminiscent of nothing so much as Bugs Bunny bouncing into the arms of Elmer Fudd before planting a kiss on him. There is a constant push-pull in this issue’s fight-scenes between sexy and silly, which makes the whole story come vibrantly to life.

Amazingly, there is quietude in this issue as well. The two-page sequence in which a buried Ali slowly absorbs the sounds of nature over the course of checkerboard panel-layout is lovely and evocative. The visual rendering of the sound-effects by letterer Tom Orzechowski is excellent: the “fushfashFushFashFUSH” of a field mouse; the “gurglePLOPgurglegurgle” to render a stream. There is a lush sensory engagement to these pages that is quite beautiful. Even the branches covering Alison’s grave – backgrounded by Glynis Oliver’s delicate pastels – have an elegant tangibility.

The overall effect of all these wonderful visuals is to truly energize the series. Armed with a new artist whose emotional palette seems unlimited, and also with a set of relatively untested and untried team-members to play with, Claremont seems born again. His writing has a freshness and verve to it, which recalls the raw excitement of his very earliest X-Men collaborations with Cockrum. (Appropriately enough, Uncanny X-Men #218 was published contemporaneously with the Classic issue reprinting Claremont and Cockrum’s X-Men #102: the new X-Men vs. the Juggernaut.)

[Morrison is capable of such genius at times that this might be more than a coincidence, Silvestri's first X-Men issue is "Charge of the Light Brigade," named after the Tennyson poem about soldiers going into battle and being slaughtered; when he draws the X-Men with Morrison that is exactly what the arc he gets is about.]


Jimtron said...

Stop reviewing so well! Now I want to go back and reread 218. Why do you torture me so?

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

'Cause dude, 218 is a classic and I must make EVERYONE REALIZE IT!!!

Geoff, if Morrison had titled that last arc "Charge of the Light Brigade" I would take back every bad thing I ever said about him. :)

As it is, I credit the connection more to your cleverness than to his. :)

(Sorry, I posted this from the wrong e-mail account so I had to delete and re-post.)

Richard Melendez said...

i miss this Silvestri... very stylish, yet very raw, and still a far cry from the Witchblade Silvestri. though i had read X-Men on and off for a couple of years before hand, it was with this issue that i started buying it regularly.

ba said...

Love this issue. Regards to silvestri's female drawings, I enjoy the tall slenderness he draws dazzler and psylocke. Distorted and out of proportion, but a far cry from the bust and hips movement of the 90s. The characters are tall and slender - larger than life in a non-demeaning way.

Anonymous said...

Such drama in this issue! Will Alison get rescued from being buried alive? Is Longshot killed by a falling building? Will Rogue stop the train in time?

Psylocke once again shows what a tough lady she is! Forget the psi-bolt, she just tries to run Juggernaut down with a cement truck!

This issue and the last almost make it seem like Alison needs sound to live, like most people need food and water. A good allegory would be Sunspot from New Mutants, who had to charge his powers with sunlight. Yet Sunspot, if deprived of his power source, would just have no powers. Alison, on the other hand, just doesn't have her powers fade away, she loses consciousness. Not a bad metaphor for an attention junkie like her, but it seems kind of extreme.

By the way, this issue has one of the all-time great X-Men covers, drawn by the always-amazing Art Adams. I love the picture of the four X-Men charging into battle, ready to kick butt!

James said...

Even if the specific "Light Brigade" connection is coincidental, there's no questioning Morrison's intent in using an iconic 90s artist like Silvestri to wrap up a run that (at times) meditated on the cyclical nature of X-comics. Brilliant, accidental symmetry is just a bonus.

Jason said...

Richard, Ba, yeah, this era of Silvestri was really good. It's why I can't get on board with anyone accusing Silvestri of a lack of talent. Certainly it does seem as if the eventually started pandering to the soft-porn movement of the 90s, when it came to drawing women. From the slender grace of Psylocke and Dazzler to the "woman whose spherical breasts are constantly being fondled" Witchblade ... it is a depressing trajectory.

But still ... you can't deny the guy CAN draw.

Anon, I agree, the issue is 100% fun. And you're right, Art Adams' cover is a dynamic depiction ... almost hearkening back to the tradition of Giant-Sized X-Men #1, with these more-or-less brand-new additions to the team exploding straight towards us.

To paraphrase what a poster on the X-Men Message Board once said about an issue of X-Force, "I love X-Men 218 so much, it's sick."

Next said...

A thumbs-down? Aw, man ...

Menshevik said...

The sequence of Dazzler awakening in UXM #218 also hearkened back to one of my favourite X-Men pages of all times, the one where Rachel awakens near the Guggenheim Museum in #208 and where what she "hears" progresses from basic emotions to snippets of people's thoughts and fuzzy outlines gradually become clear images.

Teebore said...

The two-page sequence in which a buried Ali slowly absorbs the sounds of nature over the course of checkerboard panel-layout is lovely and evocative.

This is a sequence I always recall (and reference) when discussing the comic pages ability to engage multiple senses at one time.

Now I too am itching to go back and reread this again.

Aaron Forever said...

You're much more of a Silvestri fan than I've ever been. Let me say, that I do like his work on Uncanny, and he was a perfect replacement for JRJR. There's a similar "sketchy" quality to their work that I've never warmed entirely to, but that does suit the kind of stories Claremont was telling very well. Visually -- and don't kill me for saying this, I mean it as a compliment -- he's what Rob Liefeld would be if Liefeld had one shred of talent. Fortunately, Silvestri has many, many, no heaps of shreds.

But to me he's one of the few artists at the time whose work I think benefitted from the shift to digital coloring in the 90's. It added a dimension and completeness to his art, whereas most of his other contemporaries during the transition looked a bit plastic. Unfortunately it coincided with him adding a lot of "dimension" to his female characters' physical forms.

As for Geoff's comment at the end.... Oh, is THAT what the Morrison arc was about? Thanks!

I'm being facetious of course, but that last Morrison arc is nearly incomprehensible to me. It's one of those instances where the modern theory against narrative captions concerning time and place really let it down. It's a mess. Turning Magneta back into the raving Silver Age lunatic was bad enough. That he followed it up with something so sloppy (not to mention boring) really tarnished what could have been a really great run overall.

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