Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Brilliance of Paul Smith's Run on Uncanny X-Men

(Click on any of the images to see larger versions. These are scans from hard copies of the comics.)

I've been rereading old X-Men comics of late and a couple of different posts have been percolating in my head, but the first one isn't my usual style of analysis, this one is more about the art. To say that I'm an X-Men fanboy or that the comics had a massive impact on my life would be an understatement. As I'm rereading these comics, I'm learning that these really were some of the key texts in my life. With family largely abdicating moral education of me and my brother, and pop culture being a mixed bag, at best, especially during the 1970s and 80s, the progressivism that filled the pages of the Chris Claremont run on Uncanny X-Men was a massive influence on who I am. There will be a lot more about that later, this post is about someone else who played a role in those comics--Paul Smith.

It's very easy to forget Smith. His name is too common to remember. He only worked on the comic for about a year. And when you're proceeded by Dave Cockrum and John Byrne and followed by John Romita Jr., three of Marvel's greatest artists of the period, it's easy to get lost. Smith only drew 12 issues at the time, but there is so much great art in them that I couldn't even begin to include it all here. And this is not to say that Smith was perfect, many issues have bad panels, especially in the first few issues, but there are so many iconic images in these few issues that it's breathtaking.

Smith had a tough job jumping right into the middle of the Brood Saga, an X-Men classic, after Cockrum left. His first issue beings with this cover:

Uncanny X-Men 165, from 1983, is a superb example of something that Smith was brilliant at, saying a lot with very little. If you hadn't been reading the issues and don't know about the Brood Saga (shame on you), it's hard to fathom everything in this image. But here is Storm, probably the most important black woman in comics history going through the agonizing transformation into one of the most evil species in the universe, the Brood, which means not only the end of her life as she knows it, but probably the death of many of her family and friends, possibly the entire earth, where she plays a significant role. Her agony is just as obvious from this picture as the Brood's evil was. As a writer, Claremont was superbly good at picking up on other pop culture trends and seamlessly incorporating them into his writing in ways that never felt stolen or stale--in this case, the Brood are clearly in the spirit of James Cameron's Aliens, but they stand alone because only the surface details are similar. Artists of lesser quality than Smith and Dave Cockrum (who started the storyline) could have messed that up and not made them distinct. The continuity of inker Bob Wiacek certainly helped.

In that issue, there is a ton of great art about the world and the combined organic/technology approach the Brood take to their conquests, most notably their enslaved living starships, the Acanti, which Smith draws this way:

I haven't read enough of the backstory on this saga to know whose idea the Acanti were (probably Claremont/Cockrum), but this is a wonderous creature and a great take on what flying through a nebular might be like. The next issue looks like this:

The number of massive action sequences both on covers and internally that Smith had to put massive amount of time into in order to reach the level of detail you see here had to be intense. A key thing to note here, is that all of these characters have ridiculously distinct appearances, something that many X-Men artists later on couldn't say.

From the interior of the issue, we get this classic image that encapsulates so much of the modern history of the X-Men--the divide between Cyclops and Wolverine, with the other X-Men and their allies caught in the middle. This is seriously maybe the second biggest on-going X-Men storyline after the Xavier/Magneto civil rights conflict.

Issue 167 provides another classic cover, with one of the first "deaths" of Professor Xavier and the emotions of the X-Men in response. Note how Wolverine's shoulders are slumped and he looks defeated. Subtle but powerful. Also, note the ridiculousness of Kitty Pryde's costume. There is a running gag with the character in the early years that she's a young teenager who keeps experimenting with costumes and names until she figures out what fits. These were often comic relief, but Smith works it into this scene flawlessly, I think, helping keep the characters unique and consistent.

The cover of the next issue is even better to me. Here is Kitty Pryde, then 13, who is not sexualized and while she's clearly in danger, she's no damsel in distress, she's smart, tough, and determined to win. The story inside matches that, as, once again, the youngest X-Man takes on killer monsters well beyond her power set and proves herself a valuable member of the team after Xavier tried to shift her to the junior team, the New Mutants.

And you turn the page and get one of the most classic splash pages in Marvel history, directly part the storyline I mentioned above:

The next story arc is one of my all-time favorites, both writing- and art-wise. The Morlocks, a group of ugly, outcast mutants who have taken up residence in the tunnels underneath Manhattan under the leadership of Callisto. But she wants someone pretty to be her husband, so she kidnaps Angel in an attempt to force a marriage. It isn't going to be a happy one, as Angel is crucified, Christ-like. the reactions of the other X-Men are pretty well-drawn, too, I think.

This next sequence is where Storm went from being a character that I sort of liked, to being one of my all-time favorites. Before this, Storm (in a very uncommon pop culture leadership role for a black woman in the early 80s) replaces Cyclops as leader of the X-Men. Historically she has a very strong compunction against killing, but as she struggles with self-doubt in replacing the lifelong leader of the X-Men, of being forced to kill to survive, and the struggles her powers have encountered since she went into space (she'll soon lose them temporarily), she is crippled at times with inability to make the right decisions and is in constant conflict with Cyclops and Professor X. Then this happens:

There are so many amazing things that Smith has done in this sequence: The look of determination on Storm's face (she's no longer playing ANY games), the depiction of the action of her catching the knife is beautiful, the look on Callisto's face when she realizes that Storm is tougher than she tought, the look on Callisto's face when Storm stabs her in the heart in order to save her friends and take control of the Morlocks. Just insane quality here. And the look on Storm's face in this next panel is just plain unforgettable:

But Smith was just getting started. Here's the next issue:

Wolverine, in the height of his (the character's not the writer's) cultural appropriation phase, is getting married to a powerful Japanese woman who inherited her father's criminal empire. This image conveys so much: that Wolverine is finally going to have a love interest that isn't someone else's girlfriend or wife, that Wolverine has an obsession with Japanese culture, that Lady Mariko is powerful enough to warrant an invitation sent out by the emperor, that Wolverine loves his alcohol and his friendship with Nightcrawler, and that somebody, somebody dangerous, wants Wolverine dead.

From the interior, you get this amazing shot of Rogue:

The backstory here is that Rogue has just joined the X-Men (in the previous issue, not drawn by Smith), but she comes to them from the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants where she not only previously tried to kill the X-Men, her powers ruined the life (by stealing the powers, memories, and personality of Ms. Marvel permanently) of one of the X-Men's closest friends. They hate her. And yet she travels with the team to Wolverine's wedding. In the shot above, Rogue, probably only second in power to Storm at this point among this group of X-Men, is shown here too look very, very meek in the face of what she knows is deserved hatred.

But this shot is even better, because it not only conveys everything I just described about Rogue, even more clearly, but so much more:

The divide between Rogue and the rest of the X-Men is so apparent, but not mentioned in the dialog or in Wolverine's inner monologue. And it's clear that all of the above turmoil related to Storm is being carried over into this pic, too. You also get a ton of other character-related info from this one shot: Nightcrawler is playful, agile, flexible; Kitty Pryde and Colossus have a burgeoning romance that is chaste and age-appropriate; Wolverine thinks of himself as a sexy beast, and if you had read the previous pages, you'd know that the woman in yellow kneeling and pretending to be a house servant is actually the deadly assassin Viper. Here she has sneakily inserted herself into the X-Men's safe abode (in the visual metaphor, she's literally right in the middle of the mix) where she's about to poison the X-Men and take most of them out of action. This is not only part of a great sequence, both art-wise and in the issue's plot, but it sets up what, at the time, was one of the biggest character changes in Marvel history, Rogue's transformation from a horribly evil person to one of Marvel's most iconic female heroes. That is literally set up by this sequence and couldn't happen without it. The next issue looks like this:

Again, there is so much conveyed with very little there. With only Wolverine and Rogue still standing, Rogue knows she both has to prove herself, but also follow Wolverine's lead, not just because she's knew enough to not really know everything that's going on, but because she knows she hasn't earned anyone's trust yet, and following orders and kicking a little ass will certainly help. Later she goes on to make several sacrifices that win her admiration from her teammates, but it starts here. And Wolverine looks really fierce here. He's used to being the last man standing and fighting his way through things, but now he's in charge and is fighting for the lives of his friend and for the love of his life. Then a few pages later:

Smith effectively recreating the cover on an inside panel, but notice how much more savage and animalistic Wolverine looks. Things have gotten more serious and he fears for his bride-to-be's life. And he's the best at what he does and what he does isn't nice. The transition here, from the cover to this interior panel, is amazing.

Smith is also good at action sequences. There's so much coolness in this brief sequence that helps establish how bad-ass Viper and her ninjas are:

Even better is this epic and brutal battle, presented without sounds or dialog, that goes a long way towards establishing Wolverine as the most rough-and-tumble fighter in the Marvel Universe. And it doesn't paint Silver Samurai as any slouch, either. This is just a beautiful sequence, as far as I'm concerned:

Even that last panel is amazing, as Wolverine shows emotion through the mask, with no visible eyeballs. He looks shocked to me that he was both pulled out of his beserker rage and that it was Mariko that did it.

The comes one of my favorite things from the period, Storm's new look:

Not sure whose idea it was, but Smith nailed the look that to me still says Storm, when she was written her best, is a unique and powerful character that isn't just another member of the X-Men, she's the leader.

Smith also does good at comedic sequences like this one, where Madelyne Pryor's face is perfectly still after discovering Kitty's pet dragon.

Most of Smith's covers involve action, not surprisingly, but this one goes in a different direction. So much of recent X-Men history is shown in this cover, particularly once you realize that isn't Jean Grey, but Pryor, on the cover. And that the storyline that led to her death was instigated by the character in the background, Mastermind. And this point in the plot, there was a lot of confusion as to who Pryor really is and Scott Summers falling in love and proposing to a woman who looks exactly like his dead girlfriend. And this cover gets at the big questions: Is Mastermind going to do it again? Is Pryor real or a Mastermind creation? Is Phoenix back? How will Cyclops deal with Mastermind trying to bring back, in one way or another, the worst moments of the hero's adult life? That and the colors are just as amazing as the composition of the cover.

Another one of those awesome busy Smith covers. He's drawing a team with seven unique members and a huge cast of supporting characters, and he never fails to make them each distinct and part of the action:

Several issues in this run have a strong Phoenix presence and Smith drew some of the iconic images of the character during the X-Men's rise to superstardom. This is one of my favorites, not just because of how Jean looks, but because of the way that Cyclops looks in defeat as Phoenix rises from his "ashes."

One last one to add here, since it's at the end of Smith's run, but here is a shot of the X-men reacting in shock where Smith and his collaborators took out most of the color. The image does a great job of conveying the shocking death the X-Men watch on TV.

Okay, that's all I'm going to share on this one, even though there are many other beautiful shots. You should definitely check out this run of issues, as well as the rest of the Claremont run, as it is, without a doubt, a classic of popular literature that is very, very well crafted. (More to come on Claremont...)

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