Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Uncanny X-Men #251

[Some men claim they know. Some men claim they care. But Jason Powell actually cares. He actually knows. And it is said that once, he defended Claremont's skills to a bear in the woods and that the bear thanked him, and later they became friends. He continues his look at every issue of Claremont's epic X-Men run.]

“Fever Dream”

Issues 247-250 saw Wolverine once again written out of the comic to accommodate his ever-growing glut of solo adventures and guest-appearances. With issue 251, Logan is back where he once belonged, and the charge of energy given the series is palpable. Claremont’s letting the character go for stretches might have been grudging on occasion, but creatively it made for a nice, hard shot in the arm. The appearances of the character seem more exciting when they’re rarer, and – as Mitch Montgomery pointed out when talking about Logan’s absence almost 100 issues earlier in the “From the Ashes” arc – it even helps a bit to increase his mystique. Anyone not reading the character’s solo title or other guest appearances were invited to imagine for themselves just what exactly Wolverine had been up to.

Here, Claremont heightens that sense of mystery by reprising his trick from Uncanny #205: starting in the middle of the story, with a Wolverine who’s been nearly massacred. It’s an artfully deployed device in this case, given that “Fever Dream” reprises the same villains as well.


Marc Silvestri is an avowed fan of Wolverine (he moved on to illustrate the character’s solo title after leaving Uncanny). Nowhere is that more evident than in this issue, wherein the return of Logan after four months seems to have Silvestri positively exhilarated. Though low on typified superhero action, the comic is rife with outrageously brilliant visual set pieces -- Logan crucified upon a giant “X,” then tortured by cyborgs for days, finally ripping himself free during a violent thunderstorm – and Silvestri makes the most of every single one. Happily, he is reunited with Dan Green after the desultory Leialoha collaboration of the previous issue, and the two of them together don’t miss a beat. Their depiction of the other four X-Men passing one-by-one through the Seige with slow, manipulated deliberation while the Reavers ascend toward them is breathlessly exciting. Accompanied by Claremont’s perfectly paced dialogue – which places the climactic summit of the characters’ recent existential despair in precise counterpoint to the villains’ urgent and predatory exhortations – the sequence is a masterpiece of melodrama.

Tom Orzechowski’s letters are back as well, which in itself is cause for celebration. Claremont actually lets Orz take center stage for one particularly fantastic – possibly Dave-Sim-inspried – panel this issue: Donald Pierce’s histrionic “YOU DARE MOCK ME!!!”, with each word drawn in a different size and given its own individual balloon. Beautiful. Only in comics.

Scott McDarmont helpfully reminded me recently that he is the one who first pointed out (on this blog) that Jubilee was a pastiche of Carrie Kelly, the female Robin from Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns.” I hadn’t seen the connection, but now it seems clear that this entire Wolverine arc takes “Dark Knight” as its departure point. His healing factor failing, Logan finally begins feeling his age, and becomes in many ways another iteration of Miller’s fifty-year-old Bruce Wayne: An old, weathered tough guy forced by circumstance and his own nature to continue playing the role of superhero.

The parallels become more obvious in later issues, but even in “Fever Dream,” Wolverine’s titular hallucination appears to be a telescoped run-through of Dark Knight, wherein Batman lamented the death of his earlier sidekick (Jason Todd), faced his villainous “reflection” (Two-Face), recruited a new sidekick (Carrie Kelly), fought an inhuman monster (the Mutant gang leader), took on his grinning, demonic arch-enemy (The Joker) and embraced his position as the final survivor from an age of heroes (most of them dead, with Superman – the Man of Steel -- having sold out).

Here, Wolverine faces images of: Kitty Pryde, his former sidekick; his villainous reflection, Sabretooth; the grinning demon Ogun, whom he killed in the “Kitty/Wolverine” miniseries; and an inhuman monster in the form of the Brood queen.

Finally, thanks to some Gateway-assisted psychic intuitions, Wolverine – “the last of the Uncanny X-Men,” as the opening caption of the issue informs us -- witnesses what happened to the other heroes: They were sold out by Psylocke, the woman in steel armor, who telepathically tricked them into disappearing through the Seige Perilous rather than standing their ground and fighting. And in the final panel, Logan finds his new Kitty Pryde, his new sidekick, in the form of Jubilee.

Deliberate? Perhaps not. Still, the parallels exist, and by accident or design act as a sign-post for the extended Miller-homage that would characterize Claremont’s final work on Wolverine.

Meanwhile, with his gorgeous, perfectly executed Seige Perilous scene (punctuated two pages later by Pierce’s crushing the crystal to powder), Claremont also closes the door on the “Australian” phase of the X-Men, first inaugurated in issue 229 (“Down Under”). Shrewdly, the author creates a closed loop with that earlier issue: The X-Men are chased through the Seige Perilous by the Reavers, who in turn reclaim the headquarters stolen from them by the X-Men in the first place. Issue 229 was also the first appearance of the Seige (and was the expedient through which the bulk of the Reavers were disposed). Roma’s monologue on the final page of “Down Under” even noted that the X-Men were free to use the Seige themselves, any time they wished. The ending depicted in “Fever Dream” was seeded right from this era’s first chapter. Issues 229 and 251 – with their mirror-image dramatic events, their textual reflections, and their sharing the same writer, penciller, inker, letterer AND colorist – act as perfect bookends.

The Outback era is one of the most under-recognized achievements of Claremont’s original run. It’s certainly as outrageous a departure from the “School for Gifted Youngsters” status quo as any possible; and its esoteric, alienating cast of superheroes share only scant similarities with the bright and shiny Cockrum/Byrne models. Indeed, since it has been largely ignored by X-creators coming after him, and thus not cannibalized the way “Dark Phoenix,” “Days of Future Past,” etc. would be, the Outback cycle stands up 20 years later as fresher than those much-excavated “classic” tales. It’s a series within the series – crafted by a writer at the peak of his powers – and kept locked up with the dry desert air inside the hermetic seal created by its two bookend chapters, as isolated from the majority of X-Men history as Australia is from the rest of the world.

22 comments:

Patrick said...

The idea that these stories are more potent for a modern audience than the 'classics' because they're less mined is great, and I think explains a lot of the way that I responded to reading the Claremont run. The Phoenix stuff is great, but it didn't surprise me in the way that the Paul Smith era, or even stuff like the Mutant Massacre did. I basically knew how the Phoenix Saga would go from the first time I read it, but I wasn't as aware of what would happen in later stories, so they felt fresher and more vital than the canon.

I think the same is true of any perceived classic, as you go through, you want to find something you can latch on to personally, and it's a lot more interesting to consider the virtures of a neglected story like the Outback stuff than to praise Dark Phoenix again. That's not a slight on those early blog posts though, since I think there's a ton of praise for that Byrne era stuff, but not as much in depth analysis, like you did here.

ScottMcDarmont said...

Definitely one of Silvestri's strongest issues, I know Jason has argued the last two were good but I, and others, felt they were weak; I can't help but feel he was saving his engergy for this one.

The outback era was definitely the epitomy of the 'cool, sexy' X-men and also their most outsiderish... I remember when this issue first came out, seeing it on a newstand and finding the cover, semi-sacreligious to someone who was raised Pentecostal Holiness, so creepy and unsettling... but, at the same time, intruiging... about a year later I would would finally become a regular reader of the series... just as it was about to become something far more safe and generically superheroic... but these Silvestri issues composed the bulk of my back issues when I was a kid so, it is this era, that has always most defined Claremont's X-men for me.

Paul said...

Incredible issue. Thanks again for helping me revisit this era. I'm now of the mind that Marvel should release a nice over-sized hardcover omnibus of the Australian years.

I personally think that this era beats out Morrison's in the "sexy cool" department. There's no school, no Magneto, no Phoenix rehash, no Weapon X, just a brilliantly different and deep take on the concept of the X-Men.

End the ending is better.

neilshyminsky said...

"And it is said that once, he defended Claremont's skills to a bear in the woods and that the bear thanked him, and later they became friends."

Best bio ever.

neilshyminsky said...

Wolverine is incredibly badass in this issue. Even when he's chained to a cross and dying. Jason rightly points out the hilarious Pierce panel, but didn't address the the Wolverine panel that prompts that response, and for which - in its hilariously contrasting subtlety - Marc and Tom deserve just as much credit. It's tough to represent mockery in a single comic panel, especially when you're not playing it totally over the top. Silvestri will never be this good again.

Also? The ending of this issue, with Wolverine turning to Jubilee to ask for help? This should just as celebrated as the Hellfire Club sewer scene. And this further cements the Jubilee-as-Kitty thing, doesn't it? Because the Reavers - with Pierce, appropriately - are like the Club. Which makes Psylocke a bit like Phoenix. I wonder how much further we can read these issues back on to the earlier stuff, or if it's merely a weak connection that can't go much further than this.

Jason said...

"That's not a slight on those early blog posts though, since I think there's a ton of praise for that Byrne era stuff, but not as much in depth analysis, like you did here."

***That's true. I was glad to have some other people show up to get a bit deeper with the Byrne stuff.

I would argue that there is more to say about the run the farther one goes into it, because more and more tradition builds up ... but that may just be me making excuses for not getting as in-depth with the Cockrum and Byrne stuff. Thanks for keeping me honest, Patrick!

"I know Jason has argued the last two were good but I, and others, felt they were weak;"

*** Actually I argued that issue 249 was good. I agreed that 250 is weak. :)

"I'm now of the mind that Marvel should release a nice over-sized hardcover omnibus of the Australian years."

****Oh man, that'd be sweet. Yay to this, and to the rest of your comment, Paul. See, Geoff? SEE??!?!?

"didn't address the the Wolverine panel that prompts that response, and for which - in its hilariously contrasting subtlety - Marc and Tom deserve just as much credit."

*** Absolutely true.

"I wonder how much further we can read these issues back on to the earlier stuff, or if it's merely a weak connection that can't go much further than this."

***There are, of course, a lot of repeated motifs, themes and plot points over the course of the run. I invite you and anyone to keep on pointing out stuff that you see -- I've tried to do the same when I came across it.

Thanks for all the comments, guys. I really love this issue (and I'll admit, I'm pretty pleased with this blog entry as well). Great to hear y'all's feedback.

Teebore said...

Fascinating stuff. The way this issue closes a loop with the start of the Outback years in #229 is something I'd never put together before.

neilshyminsky said...

"***There are, of course, a lot of repeated motifs, themes and plot points over the course of the run. I invite you and anyone to keep on pointing out stuff that you see -- I've tried to do the same when I came across it."

Can anyone mention a few off the top of their head? It seems like it's mostly minor stuff, near as I can recall - or, as in this issue, Claremont usually only nods to the past so as to differentiate it from the present - to say that that scene, while superficially similar, belongs in an entirely different universe. It's still the X-Men, but they've come a long way, baby.

Evan said...

I'd just like to mention that Wolverine's absence from the X-men previous to this period only works well with the first ten or so issues of Wolverine, and the bimonthly story pieces about Wolverine from Marvel Comics Presents 1-10. All of which was written by Claremont himself. He even goes so far as to use this time with Logan gone solo to tip up some loose ends from the X-men's first battle in Australia with the Reavers, bringing back that reporter who they saved and also working in plot points from titles he left such as New Mutants and Spiderwoman. Once other writers come in to do these two series, Claremont takes Wolverine back into his Uncanny run starting with this issue. From this point on, due to Wolverines deteriorating condition and mind, no other appearances of him make any continuity sense.

Jason said...

Evan,

Editorial did a decent job of working the Wolverine solo title around the gaps in Claremont's issues, the only problem being that Wolverine is sort of on a time-delay. The arc that is set from Wolverine 17-23, for example, is pretty cannily worked out to be concurrent with the Wolverine-less gap from Uncanny 247-250. (But of course, in real time, those issues of Wolverine came out concurrently with Uncanny 254-260, which did create some weirdness with "Acts of Vengeance," as you probably recall.) It's worked out fairly deliberately, though: A scene in Wolverine #20 cuts to the X-Men circa Uncanny 249, and then at the end of Wolverine 23, we see Logan in his cowboy hat, getting into his truck to drive back to the Outback town (which segues right into Uncanny 251, where he's wearing the same hat and driving the same truck). All in all, they did a pretty good job for the first two years.

After that, because of the whole "deterioration" thing you mentioned, things get less workable. Though they were still trying.

In Uncanny 261-268, Claremont left a bunch of Wolverine-less gaps, and when he did show Logan in the comic, Claremont made it clear that Wolverine was bumming around Madripoor, which allowed room for the Madripoor-based adventures in the solo comic (issues 24-33). As noted, there is no reference in those solo issues to Logan's being debilitated. But at least they got the locations coordinated.

I think from Wolverine #34 onward, the stories take place after the X-Men have reunited (so after X-Tinction Agenda, at least, if not all the way after Claremont's final issue).

I've got a big spreadsheet with all this stuff on it. :) It was going to be an appendix if I turned these blogs into a book. (Okay, I'll admit it, I would have made the spreadsheet regardless. I'm a geek.)

And "that reporter" that the X-Men saved from The Reavers was Jessan Hoan -- not a reporter, but a bank officer. Not that it matters, just me being a pedant. Cheers! :)

Teebore said...

It was going to be an appendix if I turned these blogs into a book.

IF?

Please tell me there's still a chance you might turn these into a book, because I would give my right arm for such a book.

Jason said...

Thank you, Teebore! If anyone out there is willing to give you control of a publishing company in exchange for that right arm, then I can see a way this could work.

Otherwise, it's looking pretty unlikely at this point. Alas!

Teebore said...

Oh, the things I could do with a publishing company!

Jason said...

Neil, not sure if this is exactly what you are looking for, but:

One example of a repeated motif would be (and this was pointed out to me by Nathan Adler, The Claremont Fan Whose Attention No Detail Escapes): In that first big story arc of Claremont's, with the M'Kraan crystal, the macguffin involved "nine deathstars" whose alignment apparently allowed
the force inside the crystal to escape. Years later, Claremont did the story involving the Adversary, and we were told that the Adversary first got a foothold in our dimension when Forge cast a spell using the souls of the dead members of his army unit. And then in issue 227, we are told explicitly that there were nine souls used in the spell. When Forge casts the counter-spell with the X-Men, it is depicted as their souls seeming to
come together (or align) and becoming a star. So, nine souls/stars align, and in two cases it is to allow for the release of some great, destructive force.

The Lovecraftian demon-invasion trope is a favorite of Claremont's -- it is used in the very first issue of Uncanny that he plotted (96) with Kierrok, the N'Garai demon. If Mr. Adler is reading, he can provide other examples from the 70s in other Claremont series that used the N'Garai. (Or Cove West, if he's still reading, probably could delineate it). Later, invading
demons were the crux of Fall of the Mutants in Uncanny 220-227 (and its
prequel story in Uncanny 184-188), and then of course it was the premise behind "Inferno" a year later. (And would go on to be the premise of Claremont's 2003 Justice League story "Scary Monsters" as well.)

There is, of course, the repeated motif with Jean Grey's psychic seduction by Mastermind being mirrored in Madelyne's psychic seduction by S'ym.

The "massacre" trope, after its use with the Marauders and Morlocks, is
reprised when the Reavers attack Muir Isle in Uncanny 254-255.

The X-Men teaming with an old enemy in the face of a new, greater enemy is repeated in Claremont's run: See the X-Men's team-up with Freedom Force against the Adversary in "Fall" and then again against the Reavers in the aforementioned Uncanny 254-255. Or the X-Men teaming up with the Hellfire
Club against Nimrod in Uncanny 208-209. (You could arguably throw "God Loves, Man Kills" into this grouping as well, with the X-Men teaming with Magneto against Rev. Stryker.) This one is fairly common in superhero comics in general, though it seems noteworthy that in Claremont's case, this is almost always the seed of a long-term alliance, not just a one-time deal. The X-Men form an alliance with the Club after their fight with Nimrod; Magneto becomes an X-Men not long after "God Loves, Man Kills," etc. Freedom Force -- at least, Mystique and Destiny -- were always portrayed sympathetically after "Fall of the Mutants."

So that's some stuff.

Gary said...

One big problem I have with this arc: why are the Reavers a credible threat? The X-Men took out, what, 50 - 100 Reavers when they first arrived and took the town? 8 X-Men, 50-100 Reavers... that's a minimum of 6 Reavers to an X-Man. Now we're supposed to believe that 8 of them pose a threat to 4 X-Men? Let's pretend that Deathstrike and Pierce, as named characters, are worth one X-Man apiece. That's still 3 pud Reavers for the other two to take out before they can go help against the named guys. This is a threat? I just don't buy it. Somebody, please defend, because this has always struck me as a case of "they're dangerous because the writer says they are."

Jason said...

Fair point. There is probably no satisfactory answer. Arguably the X-Men were missing some big guns: Rogue, Storm and Wolverine.

And previously, the Deathstrike-Cole-Macon-Reese faction was shown to be pretty formidable. So there's that.

Other than that, I got nothin'. You're probably right, there is some flawed logic a-happenin'. Not uncommon for Claremont, but he always sells me on it with the execution.

The Inkwell Bookstore said...

While reading this series, I've repeatedly come across references to an article titled, “X-traordinary People: Mary Tyler Moore and the Mutants Explore Pop Psychology.” Unfortunately, I've been unable to find it anywhere on the net. Does anyone have a working link to it?

Oh, and Jason:
Even if you ever decide to just do a 'cut & copy' print-on-demand version of this series, consider one copy sold. It's the sort of thing I know I'd pull out each and every time I re-read any comic in the Claremont run!

Jason said...

Thanks, I.B.!

Don't know much about Print On Demand and am not sure that I'm inclined to learn at this present moment. But, maybe eventually I'll put something together. Ideally I would want to revise it all and -- if going to the trouble of making a book, even a vanity-press jobby, really making it feel like an honest to gosh book. But at the moment, other passions are taking precedence to such a project.

Mitch's essay was up at silverbullet for a while, but now I can't find it either. I know the first time I mentioned Mitch's blog there was a hotlink to it, but I'm guessing that it might be disabled, given that the Google search didn't work.

Don't know if Mitch is reading these comments still, but maybe he can let us know if there is still a place online where one can read it.

It's good stuff!

Anonymous said...

I'm glad I found this blog. It is going to be interesting.

I was searching for Uncanny X-Men 251 because I'm looking to fill up my collection. And now I'm looking forward to it more than ever.

Am I the only one that finds it kind of sad that the sixth link on Google(right after the link here) is a place that you can illegally download this comic?

I thought it was supposed to be hard/wrong to steal things? Not recommended by Google.

But at the same time it makes me feel a little good that more people will be able to read the classics even if they don't have the money to buy the large anthology editions.

ba said...

Cheers to the end of my favorite phase of the x-men.

Wikipedia Brown said...

Jason, Inkwell,

Here's the MTM/X-Men article courtesy the Wayback Machine: http://web.archive.org/web/20061026022926/http://www.silverbulletcomics.com/news/story.php?a=2894.

NietzscheIsDead said...

I have previously listed Uncanny X-Men #234 as my all-time favorite X-anything cover. Allow me to amend that here, as the cover to Uncanny #251 ties.