Sunday, October 02, 2005

X-Men 162-176

In my continuing series of reviews tracing the history of the X-Men, I now reach uncharted territory. I'd already read everything from Giant Size to 161, but with these issues I move into unread material. Now obviously I know where most of these characters end up, but not how they get there, and that's what this journey is all about, as well as obviously reading some great comics, and with this chunk of issues, Claremont brings the book out of the funk it was in post Jean's death, and returns an urgency and sense of direction to the comic, not through an epic action story, but rather through an increased focus on character development. And it may just be coincidence, but the issue when everything took off was also the issue when Paul Smith took over on art, raising the bar on the book quite a bit.

The collection begins with the Brood storyline. This is a pretty big story in X-Men mythology, and proves that Claremont was still a fan of Alien two years after the Kitty Pryde Christmas story that clearly referenced the film. However, he uses this setup as an opportunity to do some very interesting stuff. The first issue is a Wolverine solo issue, where his healing factor battles the alien implant within him, even as he battles the Brood out in the physical world. The issue is perhaps most notable for the huge amount of first person Wolverine narration. In the early days of the character, there was very little insight into what motivated Logan, but here we begin to understand what the X-Men mean to him, that he sees them as his family now, and as a result is horrified by the prospect that he might have to kill them. This is a great plot point because it forces Wolverine's animal side and human side to battle it out. It makes sense to kill the X-Men, they're infected and a danger to him, but he can't do it, and that shows a major change in the character from where he was back in the early days of the book.

So, after this there's some stuff with the brood that isn't that exciting. Carol Danvers takes centerstage for a while, as the X-Men battle on the Brood planet. The most interesting thing here is Xavier's belief that he's failed the X-Men, and Moira's prompting which leads him to create the New Mutants, the first X-Men spinoff title.

The storyline takes a bit of a break with the first Paul Smith issue, which catches up with the characters, the best kind of Claremont writing. The best part of this storyline was Storm's transformation. It's huge scale stuff that's really cosmic and symbolic, the kind of thing Morrison would do. Storm goes out into space and dies, only to merge with a giant space-whale type entity and be reborn, appearing to the X-Men as an astral projection while her body regrows. It's really cool stuff, the sort of over the top, crazy concepts that comics are able to do like no other medium.

This sets up one of the most compelling throughlines of these issues, the transformation of Storm. In the previous review, I mentioned being frustrated at the fact that the X-Men wouldn't kill, even though it was clearly neccesary, here Storm recognizes that contradiction and decides that taking life sometimes has to be done. This comes to a head in the Japan issues, when she cuts loose with her powers, and ditches the Earth Goddess style for the mohawk and leather look. It's a really compelling character journey.

The other thing I loved in this set of issues was the ongoing subplot about Cyclops and Madelyne Pryor. This whole thing has been rendered moot by what happens later with the return of Jean, but with this read I'm trying (pretty successfully) to journey back into the mindset of a reader from the 80s, when Jean was dead, and there was no way to know exactly who Madelyne is. It's a great mystery, to have Scott run into someone who looks exactly like Jean, it keeps the issues Jean represented front and center without having to actually ressurect the character, and thus undo the dramatic impact of the actual Phoenix storyline. I don't get the need to bring Jean back, she wasn't a particularly interesting character in and of herself, it was more what she represented to Scott, and that part is still alive.

Over the course of the issues, we see Scott and Madeylne growing closer, all the while Scott is caught up in a web of grief and fear that she may in fact be Dark Phoenix. This is a nice example of using the genre to address the very real issue of people who try to substitute for the loss in their lives by finding a replacement, and placing undue expectations on that person. I think Claremont's writing during the Maddie/Scott sequences was some of his best, and notably it was fairly removed from the need for action scenes, it's just straight ahead romance, and that's one of Claremont's major strengths as a writer.

It's a strength on display in the really fun interactions between Kitty and Colossus. Kitty is trying to convince him she's old enough, but Colossus won't have it, and this leads to numerous interactions where Piotr cluelessly leads himself into another situation where they're kissing, and he's befuddled as to how they got there.

Paul Smith's art in these issues is phenomenal. His line work is striking, making really good looking people very capable of conveying emotion. He also does a lot of really interesting layouts. I'm not sure if it's coincidence, but around this time we see a lot less captioning from Claremont, instead relying on the pictures to tell the story.

Following the Brood Claremont does another classic storyline, as the X-Men encounter the Morlocks. This is a chance to see the darker Storm in action, and introduces more characters who will become a part of the X-Men mythos.

This is followed by a trip to Japan for Wolverine's wedding. Storm is again the highlight, but there's also a great issue where Rogue and Wolverine go out to bust some heads. Rogue is a character who's become an institution of the series, and it's interesting to see her start. She has to prove herself to the team, and by the end of that issue, I was sold on her. Even the exaggerated Southern accent works. The Japan story is also notable for the brilliant closing image of Wolverine, having been rejected by M'iko, shedding a tear as the issue closes. It's great art from Smith and a really striking antidote to the image of Wolverine as hard killer. The whole storyline in fact shows off Wolverine's human side better than anything else Claremont has done.

From there we get the return of Mastermind in issue 175, an issue that's a bit too long, and mainly has you wondering, how this will turn out not to really be Phoenix. It does end nicely, with Scott and Maddie getting married. This leads to a fun issue where Scott and Maddie battle a giant squid, and also have a lot of sex. This reminds me of old Hollywood movies in that we end a panel with Maddie saying "This old crate can fly itself for a while," then the next panel has a caption that says "Later," and Scott saying "That took my breath away." I think we know what went down between panels. And the issue ends with Scott deciding he wants to have a normal life with Maddie, and a caption saying "The Beginning."

I would say these issues go beyond the legendary Byrne run and stand up to the best comics being done today. The strong focus on character development, augmented by action stuff, recalls the best years of Buffy, and seeing Storm, Scott, Wolverine and Kitty go through major changes is great reading. There seem to be real consequences to every action, and the concepts Claremont works on here would define the book in the years after he left it. Reading this, it's easy to see why it was the most popular book at the time, it's easy to care about the characters and their world. That goodwill has kept the book on top of the charts for twenty years, and it's all due to the work of Chris Claremont, helped out now by Paul Smith.

1 comment:

Jonn said...

yeah, paul smith definitely gave the book its second golden era... and the rogue and wolvie issue?? bad ass.