(Re-)Reading Uncanny X-Men: From the Ashes

My gigantic reading of every issue of Marvel Comics’ Uncanny X-Men continues!

I’ve made it to the second half of 1983 with issues 169 to 175, and the 20th anniversary of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s original creation and debut of the X-Men. Of course, the characters were on hiatus for 5 years in there, but to go from cancellation to being the best-selling Marvel comic book is pretty impressive.

This set of story concludes Paul Smith’s stint as artist, which I was really sad to discover. Having never read the vast majority of his issues, discovering his work has been a delight. He continued to improve and provide clear, graceful, character-driven scenes that really added personality. I really wish he had stayed on longer, but his too-short run remains influential. His cover of Uncanny X-Men #173 was used as the inspiration for a cover by Art Adams for a charity book Marvel produced a few years later. Apparently editor Ann Nocenti specifically requested that the cover be modeled after Smith’s layout and design. This cover was then in turn used for a promotional poster and retailer standee. These images really cemented Art Adams as a superstar artist and the late ’80s/early ’90s look for Wolverine.

John Romita, Jr. takes over on the final 8 pages of issue 175. Apparently those pages were done over a weekend because Smith had left the book over creative differences. I don’t know what the differences were about specifically, but that now makes 2 out of 3 artists that left over creative differences. A pattern seems to be forming. Are the editors pairing writer Chris Claremont with temperamental artists, or is Claremont not playing well with others? Hard to know for sure, likely a combination of both along with other factors, but it’s really a bummer to lose Paul Smith so soon. Nowadays, 10 issues is normal, bordering on a long stint, but in the ’80s, it was expected that creative teams would stay on for years. Romita tried to draw like Smith in those final 8 pages to make the transition somewhat smooth but it’s pretty rough due to the tight turnaround time. A few characters are mis-colored and some are unidentifiable.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. This starts off with the introduction of the Morlocks, a misfit society of mutants that live underground in the lower levels of the New York City subway systems. Growing up for me, they always seemed like such an established element of the X-Men mythology, so I was surprised it took this long for them to show up. For some reason, I was sure they were part of John Byrne’s run.

The issue also sees the return of Caliban, who seemed like a throwaway sorta-villain when he showed up two years ago. He’s working with the Morlocks to find them new members but they don’t seem to get along very well mostly because of the Morlock’s leader Callisto, an eye-patched punk who has always looked like some kind of weird, flawed amalgam of Pat Benatar, Joan Jett and Chrissie Hynde. She’s kidnapped Angel and wants to marry him. I’m not exactly sure why. I can’t tell if she really expected it to be a binding marriage, or if it was some kind of statement about “pretty mutants” vs. “ugly mutants”. Angel is silent for the entire two-part story, usually unconscious, and is essential a cypher or stand-in. I don’t know if this was an intentional gender-swap of the damsel in distress trope, but I’m going to pretend it is.

The team is outnumbered and overwhelmed, and the only way they can get medical attention to their injured teammates in time is for Callisto to be dethroned as leader of the Morlocks. And of course that is done by a duel to the death. Nightcrawler issues the challenge, but knowing he won’t go through with the “to the death” part, Storm steps in instead despite being one of the injured. In an extreme reversal from the last 13 year of Storm’s deep concern for life, Storm does not hesitate in making the fatal strike. Of course, the Morlocks have a mutant healer in the ranks so Callisto won’t actually die, but it’s made clear she would have.

mohawkstormEver since Storm returned from being reborn through a space whale (a phrase I will never get tired of writing), she has been acting weird. She’s lost her connection with nature, which is causing her powers to go wonky, and apparently it’s also affecting her personality. In the following story, she teams up with former Wolverine lover Yukio, who seems more than a bit crazy, and is inspired to take on a more punk look, complete with mohawk. As startling a redesign as it is for her, it somehow works. Still, there’s a part of me that’s disappointed to see Storm be taken in this direction. Her character needs to go through a challenge or she’ll just stagnate, but the metamorphosis seems too vague. There’s never any reference to the changes she went through during the Brood Saga, that’s my own theory. In-story, she just starts acting tougher and then shows up looking completely different and then everyone carries on. At times, it just feels like she’s being made more Wolverine-like for the sake of making her more cool. I think I’m going to pretend that Storm actually did die in space and the ‘rebirth’ was actually a not-exact, slightly flawed duplicate created by the space whale.

This also features Rogue joining the team. This is the first new X-Man since Kitty Pryde joined in 1980, right after the conclusion of the Dark Phoenix Saga. This is actually a controversial move because Rogue has been a recurring villain since she was introduced in 1981 as a member of Mystique’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. In that first appearance, she permanently stole the powers and memories of Carol Danvers, who after recovering became a supporting character. This was actually an unusual shift as Carol Danvers had starred in her own book as Ms. Marvel for a couple of years and was also a member of the Avengers. Her solo book was written by Chris Claremont at the time of its cancellation, so it’s not terribly surprising that he would take her over to his best-selling book despite her getting de-powered. Still, kind of weird at that time to have a former Avenger as a supporting character for the X-Men. (Although, founding X-Man Beast became an Avenger, so I guess it was evening out the trade?) During the Brood Saga, Carol Danvers gains cosmic powers different from her Ms. Marvel powers and now goes by Binary.

Anyway, Rogue suddenly starts feeling guilty for stealing Carol’s powers and memories, and starts to feel haunted by Carol’s emotions that she absorbed as well. She abruptly flees Mystique and heads straight to Xavier’s mansion. How she knows where the X-Men live isn’t clear – maybe it’s common knowledge? Or maybe it’s due to the mystery man who appears to be influencing her. Either way, Professor Xavier decides that Rogue can stay and announces to everyone else she’s now a full-fledged member. The rest of the team strongly objects, especially Storm who has been in a few fights with Rogue and as the field leader, feels she should have say. Then in a really gigantic coincidence, Carol Danvers decides to pay an out-of-the-blue and unannounced visit to the X-Men, sees Rogue, flips out and a fight ensues. In the end, Xavier’s decision holds, as he makes the point that they defend Wolverine’s position on the team despite his questionable past.

I found this issue really interesting in that the central character, Rogue, doesn’t get much page time. She’s the impetus for a lot, but she’s most often sitting quietly. We know she’s telling the truth about freaking out and not feeling like Mystique can help her, but we don’t really know if she’s truly remorseful and wants to give up her villainous ways. All we really have to go by is Professor Xavier’s word based on his off-panel examination of her. For a few issues, she remains pretty quiet, and understandably uncomfortable around the rest of the team, who have made it all too clear they’re not happy with her presence.

So during much of this, Wolverine was off starring in his first solo title, the 4-issue mini-series by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller. While tempted, I did not read it. But that’s apparently where Yukio is introduced, and I think where Wolverine proposes to Mariko, who he’s been dating for some time now. The X-Men, along with new recruit Rogue, show up in Japan to attend the wedding of Wolverine and Mariko. But while walking down the aisle, Mariko abruptly cancels the wedding. It’s pretty obvious she’s being mind-controlled because it’s such an about-face. Her change of heart appears to be caused by the same guy who drove Rogue to the X-Men. Paul Smith’s art on the traditional Japanese wedding attire is really nice here.

Meanwhile, Cyclops is getting closer to Madelyne Pryor, who everyone notices looks just like Jean Grey. It’s even discovered that she has no memory of her life before surviving a plane crash where everyone else died except her. And oh yeah the plane crash happened on the exact date of Jean Grey’s death. But you guys, that’s just a coincidence! She’s just a normal person where her entire life makes it seem like she’s the reincarnation of Jean Grey, who became a cosmic entity known for resurrections. Why are you so suspicious? This is totally possible!

What’s particularly frustrating about this is that there is a really good way out of this nonsense just staring at us and it isn’t taken. The mystery guy that manipulated Rogue and Mariko, and probably is at least partially responsible for Storm’s transformation as well, is Mastermind. This is the sleazy guy who tried to seduce and manipulate Jean Grey into being a pawn of the Hellfire Club. It didn’t work out so well, and Jean basically drove him mad. He eventually recovered from the psychic battle but he wanted revenge and set out to basically break the hearts of the X-Men.

So why couldn’t Madelyne Pryor actually not look exactly like Jean Grey but instead just be kind of generally similar looking in that way white people look alike, and Mastermind’s illusions were causing everyone to see her more as an exact match? Why couldn’t Mastermind have basically used Madelyne as a tool, forcing her to forget her life and think she was in that plane crash? She could still have survived the crash even, but maybe not on that exact day? All the ridiculous coincidences would then have been explained as part of Mastermind’s ploy to play with Cyclops’ mind. Madelyne would then get to be her own person, rather than a lookalike forever defined by how much she is or isn’t Jean. Cyclops would then get to finally move on with a new life and a person who isn’t just a Jean Grey proxy.

Or how about Madelyne Pryor doesn’t exist at all, and her entire existence was just a creation of Mastermind? Now Cyclops is really shattered, and he can go off into space with his father Corsair and the Starjammers, an option that kept getting hinted at in the final two issues. It’s obvious Cyclops is getting shuffled off the book one way or another.

But no. Instead, all of the ridiculous questions about her are still in place. And on top of that, they got married. Jeez, way to show up Wolverine, Scott. Way to rub it in. Way to steal his thunder. Still, I think this was the first X-Men wedding, so fun to see.

I was really disappointed with the Madelyne Pryor part of the story, but otherwise these were great. Kitty and Colossus got caught making out in Storm’s attic. Lockheed is still adorable. Nightcrawler didn’t get a whole lot of focus but he’s just fun to look at. Professor X is still struggling at walking with his new cloned body and his space girlfriend is probably going to take off soon. Some really great Paul Smith-choreographed fight scenes (Storm vs. Callisto, Wolverine vs. Silver Samurai). I was tempted to read issue 176 because it’s included in the collected edition of these issues. But the story concluded and there’s a big creative team change-up, so I’d rather stop here.

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