Wednesday, June 29, 2016

An Uncanny Readthrough: #151-175

Excerpt from a splash page. Kitty Pryde whirls around in an open doorway to point her finger at someone. Her dialogue bubble reads, ‘Professor Xavier is a JERK!’ in bold letters.
Kitty Pryde knows what’s what. From UNCANNY X-MEN #168

As always, this post contains spoilers of the sort anyone who’s read some contemporary X-Men comics knows anyways.

I’m on a mission to read UNCANNY X-MEN in its entirely, twenty-five issues at a time. You’ll find all the previous posts under my X-Men tag, while this one covers #s 151-175, written by Chris Claremont and drawn by: Dave Cockrum and Bob Wiacek from #154 to #158 and #161 to #164; Paul Smith and Bob Wiacek from #165 to #170 and from #172 to #175 (with additional pencils on #175 by John Romita, Jr); and Jim Sherman, Bob McLeod, Joseph Rubenstein, Bill Sienkiwicz, Brent Anderson, and Walt Simonson, who all step in as guest artists for an issue or two.

These issues takes the X-Men in some bold new directions and bring them closer to becoming the team I remember from my teenage years, even as the creators strike new formative ground. While individual mutants have played a role in the wider Marvel Universe for years now, the X-Men’s core brand has always resided in this one series. Now, however, the creators set up and segue into two four-issue miniseries: one about Wolverine, perennial fan favourite, and another that covers Ilyana Rasputin and Storm’s years in the demon Belasco’s realm. Both miniseries have an impact on the stories the wider series aims to tell.

On top of this, Claremont lays the seeds for a continuing spinoff series about the New Mutants, a group of Kitty Pryde’s contemporaries whose arrival ensures the mansion is once again a school in deed as well as name. They’ll be important down the line.

Within UNCANNY X-MEN itself, we see our first lengthy story arc. The Brood storyline stretches over a solid thirteen issues, from #154 to #166 and eventually extends into NEW MUTANTS. While the creators still deliver the same sort of soap operatic side stories that are 80s comics' bread and butter, the focus always returns to this one, long storyline. It’s a big change from anything UNCANNY has done before, and one that hints at all sorts of experimentation to come in the form of extended crossover miniseries and, eventually, the now-standard six-issue story arc format.

Three panels arranged with so one vertical rectangle abuts two horizontal ones. In the vertical panel, Cyclops stands in a pink-tinted space bubble. His thoughts read, ‘Incredible! The yacht’s extruding a temporary blister of ruby quartz--just like my visor--so that I can fire my optic blasts without damaging the ship. Wolverine knows something he isn’t telling about us and the brood.’ In the next panel, tinted pink, Cyclops raises one hand and thinks, ‘He’s never been shy about speaking his mind before, so it must be as unpleasant as it is important. When we get out of this—if we do—I’ll have to make him talk. That should be fun.’ In the final panel, he fires a laser bolt at a passing spaceship as he thinks, ‘Why are we here?! What does the Brood want with us?! Here come the fighters. These seem to be living creatures, as are the Brood starships. I’ll have to be careful—so my shots force them to disengage without seriously hurting them.’
Everyone’s angstier in space. From UNCANNY X-MEN #164

Changes like these ones have got me thinking about how series like UNCANNY X-MEN serve as an extended, hands-on course in the history of superhero comics. They allow us to follow one team (or concept) through the genre’s evolution. New tropes emerge, narrative priorities shift, artistic standards change, new storytelling modes enter the fray, and certain character types come into or fall out of fashion. It’s fascinating, and it’s the sort of engagement that’ll be be a lot more difficult for readers interested in early 21st century comics given how few contemporary titles make it to #24, let alone #544, without a reboot. Future readers will still be able to watch our contribution to the progression, of course, but they’ll have to seek out multiple series.

On another note, these twenty-five issues show an even greater interest in the team’s women. Storm and Kitty remain cornerstones with a key role to play in pretty well every encounter, from their clash with Emma Frost in #151 and #152 to Kitty’s struggle to remain an X-Man in #168 and Storm’s evolving understanding of her nature across the two-plus years these issues take up.

Carol Danvers features prominently, too. We meet her first as a patient of Professor X and a friend to the mutants as she copes with losing her powers and her memory to Rogue’s touch, then as Binary, a superhero who can harness the power of the cosmos. She looks set to become a regular member of the X-Men despite her non-mutant status until Rogue turns up on the mansion’s doorstep in #171 and begs for the X-Men’s help, thereby ensuring Carol’s swift exit.

Sad though I was to see Carol go, you’d better believe I geeked out over Rogue’s arrival. She was one of the mutants of my teenage years. While she’s been kicking around the Marvel Universe for ages by the time she enters UNCANNY X-MEN, these issues mark her transition from villain to hero. While the series’ early issues displayed the X-Men’s willingness to turn foes into friends, Rogue is the first former baddie to join their ranks in a long, long time. The creators give her plenty to do as she works to earn her new teammates’ trust.

But even in the midst of all these female-focused storylines, we run into the old women-in-comics problem. Claremont et al know they’ve got some awesome characters here and they’re determined to showcase them, but they’re so bound in by their period’s idea of What Fiction Should Be that they don’t always do right by them.

Three vertical panels of Storm battling Callisto, a dark-haired white woman with an eyepatch. In the first, Callisto begins to fall backward while Storm stares straight ahead. In the second, Storm takes a step towards the still-falling Callisto, a knife visible in her hand and her gaze still fixed straight ahead, seemingly unfeeling. In the third, Callisto is on the ground and Storm’s feet and lower legs fill most of the frame, indicating she’s walked away from Callisto’s body without a second thought.
Space changed Storm. From UNCANNY X-MEN #170

This is especially true of Storm. She has her bodily autonomy violated again and again: by Emma Frost, then by Dracula, then by the Brood (who implant their eggs in the whole team), then by the Acanti that bonds with her in the blackness of space. These incursions often grant her Damsel In Distress status, albeit with an inevitable twist when she finds the means to secure her own salvation, and begin to alter her sense of self. She transforms herself into a Mohawk-sporting, leather-wearing minimalist who's rather blase about all living things.

It’s a fascinating character arc for the woman who was once willing to love everything. It also demands she be hurt horribly as a prelude to the main event, and that carries a lot of weight given that Storm is a black woman, a mutant, a non-Christian, and a non-American; ie, someone who’s marginalized five times over. So while we can see that the creators give her these dramatic story arcs because they recognize what a wonderful character she is, we’ve also got to consider their choices within a wider cultural context.

Regarding the whole Damsel In Distress thing, I’m not sure the creators are entirely insensible to its pervasiveness or its gendered implications. Angel’s sole appearance in these twenty-five issues involves a plot by Callisto (queen of the sewer-dwelling mutants who call themselves--Morlocks!) to kidnap him and make him marry her because he’s pretty. He doesn’t have a single line of dialogue over this two-issue arc, so the reader still isn’t sure how he feels about the situation or whether his clipped wings will grow back1.

It’s far from a nice storyline on any level, but it’s noteworthy in that it’s a rare example of a male comics character’s unexamined pain pushing a female comics character’s story forward. This arc isn’t really about how the X-Men rescue Angel. It’s about how Storm engages with her new moral compass as she duels Callisto to the death for control of the Morlocks.

A single panel of Magneto hovering in the air, a massive block of gold behind him. Professor X stands on the ground, an unconscious woman in his arms. Magneto says, ‘An impressive sight, is it not? How is Gaby?’ Professor X says, ‘I’m not certain. I think I reached her. But what of Stucker and his men, Magnus?! What do you mean to do with that gold?!’ Magneto replies, ‘Do you really need to ask, my friend?’
Now we know how Magneto funds his Secret Islands. From UNCANNY X-MEN #161

The male characters do get non-damsel chances to shine, of course. Wolverine almost gets married to Mariko, the head of a Japanese soon-to-be-former crime family. Cyclops does get married to Madelyne Pryor, an Alaskan pilot who looks exactly like Jean Grey (because that’s not weird). Colossus engages with his little sister’s changes in the wake of her years in Belasco’s realm, and with his feelings for Kitty (who’s four years younger than him; a pretty scandalous age gap for two teenagers). Nightcrawler is… around. Professor X gets a new body (thanks, Space Science!), and also a spot of retcon in which we learn he and Magneto were buddies who worked together at a hospital for Holocaust survivors--until Magneto ran roughshod over a bunch of Nazis and stole all their gold.

I ain’t even mad at Magneto for that. Like, intellectually I am, but emotionally... well. I’m far more miffed with Professor X for forcing one of his patients to acknowledge her horrific memories, then later making out with her even though he knows she’s in an emotionally vulnerable place and it's a morally reprehensible move. Professor X is perennially the worst.

Other interesting developments: the school is destroyed a couple more times, on a much larger scale than Kitty managed in #143. The Starjammers play a large role, both during the Brood storyline and during the quieter moments that lead into Cyclops’s relationship with Madelyne Pryor. We learn Wolverine’s healing factor is his primary mutation, and strong enough to bring him back from certain death. The X-Men take a firm stance against killing people, then kill a bunch of people. Everyone starts casually mentioning the enormous messes they leave in their wake.

A single, square panel of five superheroes surrounded by a pile of broken steel beams. One says, ‘What a mess!’ Another replies, ‘One of the X-Men’s hallmarks, according to Angel, is that you can generally see where we’ve been.’ Another says, ‘Colossus? Can you hear me? Are you all right?! Colossus?! Fan out, people. Wolverine, try to pinpoint his scent.’
Being an X-Men is very messy. From UNCANNY X-MEN #155

These issues are also notable for showcasing the three cardinal rules of X-Men. Number one: Professor X is the worst, for the abovementioned reasons and for the ways he treats Lilandra and Kitty. Number two: the X-Men have a secret island they stole from Magneto. Number three: retcon rules as Professor X and Wolverine both have bits of their history rewritten.

  1. We later learn that Callisto didn’t cut the right feathers, so they will. Until we heard that tidbit, though, I wondered if this might be the Terrible, Horrible Thing that happens to Angel. I’m familiar with quite a lot of the stuff that went on prior to my teenage tenure as an X-Men reader, compliments of every character’s enduring inability to shut up about the big stuff, but all I know about Angel’s Terrible, Horrible Thing is that it leaves him a metal-winged weirdo. He’s the one original X-Man I haven’t often encountered outside of the early issues of UNCANNY (and, of course, ALL-NEW X-MEN). A few discrete peeks at X-FACTOR covers lead me to think Apocalypse might have something to do with it, so I guess I'll have to investigate.


  1. I didn't know Professor X made out with anyone ever! I think I thought comics creators thought he was a fully nonsexual being. If he is doing feelings things with a vulnerable lady, he should CERTAINLY NOT be making out with her. I say the most number of tsks about this.

    This news about Storm and her bodily autonomy is -- regrettable, but not surprising.

    1. Professor X makes out with quite a lot of ladies, really. He broke Moira MacTaggert's heart at some point in the distant past, he nurtured this really creepy thing for Jean (which thankfully didn't become a plot point), and at the point I've reached he's married to Lilandra, a Space Empress. I'm sure there are many more to come.