Thursday, September 22, 2016

Beating Of The Minds!

Issue #131 of Uncanny X-Men has so much going for it that it's hard to know where to begin. The team has finally found its legs by this point--not only creatively, with writer Chris Claremont and artists John Byrne and Terry Austin turning out a steady stream of quality product--but also as a result of the team itself now being stabilized, with their field leader, Cyclops, having adapted to the styles of the new people he's come to know on a personal and professional level as they've worked out their rough edges in various conflicts. This team is now the X-Men in name and deed, with even their mentor, Charles Xavier, loosening up on the reins and giving them more of a free hand in the field, if grudgingly. (He's not quite ready to relinquish those reins, as the following issue would make apparent.) They've also made contact with their first "new mutant," Kitty Pryde; Jean Grey, now known as Phoenix, has integrated with the team, with herself and Cyclops making for a nice team blend of old and new; and the X-Men have had their first encounter with the Hellfire Club, a group that would become one of its major nemeses and would certainly qualify for an entry in their rogues' gallery.

It's during their meeting with Kitty and her parents that three of the X-Men--Wolverine, Colossus, and Storm--have come under attack by armed men in the employ of the Hellfire Club, with the Club's "White Queen"--a powerful telepath named Emma Frost--taking them all down with one strike and ordering them captured. (Along with Xavier, who's ambushed off-panel.) Kitty, who was with them at the time, manages to escape and track them to Frost's complex, using her newly-discovered "phasing" power to reach Storm and the others before escaping once more with instructions to contact the other X-Men. Meanwhile, Cyclops (a/k/a Scott Summers) and Jean have recently made contact with another mutant who calls herself Dazzler, and have come under a similar attack by the Club's armed men--and with Dazzler's help, and joined by Nightcrawler, this time it was the X-Men who downed and captured their opposition.

Off-panel, Kitty has made telephone contact with the other X-Men, but now tries to evade the men of the Club who have her fearfully running for her life. What these men don't know is that the X-Men have found them, and the tables have turned.

This display from Phoenix is only the beginning of what we'll see of her prowess in this issue, and it would help to demonstrate why Claremont would very soon have the roof caving in on this character and shifting her status with the team. Her disappointing performance against Proteus aside, it's enjoyable reading to see her provide such an advantage for the X-Men; but there's likely good reason for Claremont wishing to keep this team from turning into "The Invincible X-Men" with an asset like Phoenix in their corner.

Soon, Kitty is found and reassured that she's among friends, and the group retreats to their aircraft (perhaps captured from the men who assaulted them at Dazzler's nightclub; otherwise the X-Men and the Hellfire Club appear to be contracting with the same engineers) in order to pool their information and plan their next move. And thanks to their captives--and, again, their I-can-do-practically-anything teammate--the X-Men soon have the details they need to initiate a little attack of their own.

With Jean along for the ride, the group gains access to Frost's plant by using the reassembled wreck of their captives' car, as well as the captives themselves--animated and under the telepathic control of Phoenix--to pass the gate under the pretense of their having captured the X-Men. Meanwhile, Kitty again phases into the chamber where the other X-Men are, only to find that Storm has been removed for interrogation by Frost. Under instructions from Cyclops, she then moves to free Wolverine; but armed guards are called "guards" for a reason, and Kitty's stealth hasn't been entirely successful.

According to a 1980 interview with Byrne, we often have Austin to thank for enhancing the facial intent we see in characters such as Wolverine and Sebastian Shaw:

AUSTIN: "It's the subtlety in John's pencils that keeps me on the X-Men. I'm not that interested in people who get hit and fly out of the panels with their arms outstretched. But when John arcs an eyebrow or twists a grin, I think, 'Oboy! Here we go!' "

BYRNE: "There was this issue of the X-Men in the Hellfire Club sequence [X-Men #132], where Terry did something to Sebastian Shaw's eyes. And it wasn't in the pencils, but there was something that he did in the inks which was so great... he made Shaw's face look so twisto! And you could tell from that look that he was a man who--heh, heh!--enjoyed his work! I mean, we could have had him take a whip and beat Storm, or strangle Nightcrawler, to show he was evil. But that shot of him standing there with his buddies, with that Bruce Dern kind of look on his face was so much more effective! That's subtlety really working!"

Outside the plant, the X-Men are making their move in force, with Phoenix obviously coming in handy as a more sophisticated substitute for any technology-based communications linkups.

Curiously, we see no signs in this assault of the prior advantages Claremont had given the Hellfire Club in going up against the X-Men. In Cyclops' words to the Angel on the subject, "These people knew our powers, our plans, the way we fight--the way we think!" The Club's troops also have as part of their armament weapons and gear specifically made to deal with the members of the X-Men. Yet one man here remarks that "...we're hittin' them with everything we've got--an' they're clobberin' us!" Small wonder, since all the studying they've done on the X-Men seems to have gone out the window.  And they're hitting them with everything? Really? Did someone misplace the key to that weapons locker?

As for Frost, still brutalizing Storm with mental probing, she's already making plans to pull out, but not before making sure that there is at least one casualty for the X-Men to find. And there will be--though perhaps not the one she planned on.

Elsewhere, the X-Men that Kitty released are forming up on Cyclops' group, though they're not out of the woods yet as far as mopping up Frost's men. And that's refreshing to see, since these men have engaged the X-Men before and should be able to hold their own to an extent as well as carry out offensives that don't involve a forward charge.

Again, attacking with a generic weapon, rather than something which would deal specifically with Cyclops, or Wolverine, or Nightcrawler, or Colossus. (What's in that backpack, soldier? Lunch?) On the other hand, the scene obviously lays the foundation for what would become Kitty's developing crush on Peter, and nicely handled at that.

The lone confrontation of the X-Men by the armed trooper has served to convey a "last stand" impression that the armed resistance the X-Men have faced is over, though Claremont would have the team press on as if the fighting could start up again at any time. For all intents and purposes, however, the story has wrapped up that segment and pivoted to another battle that is heating up--the match between Phoenix and the White Queen, the intensity of which speaks for itself.

No matter how many times I re-read the final stages of this fight where the White Queen makes a desperate, final strike against Phoenix, I can't help but think that Claremont and Byrne were perhaps of different minds in their respective approaches to the scene. With the final fate of Phoenix not yet set in stone, nor the true nature of this Jean Grey having yet been revealed, the scene plays out visually as if Frost, realizing she couldn't match Phoenix's sheer power, had perhaps attempted to transfer her mind to Jean's body, with that revelation being kept under wraps for a few issues down the road. We even see some evidence of that possibility when Jean, in the final pages of this story, impatiently acts to adjust the memories of Kitty's father when he angrily confronts Xavier over the disappearance of his daughter.  On the other hand, taking this approach would over-complicate the Jason Wyngarde subplot that has been building, if not render it pointless. At any rate, there seems to be no reason to treat Frost's fate following the battle so ambiguously.

Regardless, it's a clear mark in the win column for the X-Men, and certainly for their series.

Uncanny X-Men #131

Script: Chris Claremont
Pencils: John Byrne
Inks: Terry Austin
Letterer: Tom Orzechowski

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