Wednesday, May 15, 2019

UNCANNY X-MEN #381 (June 2000)

Night of Masques
Credits: Chris Claremont (writer), Adam Kubert (penciler), Tim Townsend (inker), Comicraft’s Wes Abbott (letters), Richard Isanove (colors)
Summary: In the midst of Venice’s Carnival, Phoenix takes Cable to an abandoned, underground “library” she first visited as a youth with Professor Xavier. While reminiscing, she notices psychic calling cards left by Gambit. Beast and Storm soon arrive, citing notes from Gambit, directing them to Venice. Suddenly, a Neo faction called the Shockwave Riders targets Phoenix and Cable. Their Psishark enters Phoenix’s mind, consuming her memories. Most Neo teleport after their defeat, but one remains for questioning. He wills himself to die; to the team’s shock, Phoenix enters his dying mind, determined to retrieve her memories.

Continuity Notes:
·       The cover is an allusion to Uncanny X-Men #94, the first issue scripted by Claremont.
·       As of this issue, the team consists of Phoenix, Cable, Gambit, Storm, and Beast. All in new costumes, of course. At one point, Claremont seemed to be toying with the idea of Gambit and Rogue leading two factions of the X-Men, but it’s another abandoned idea of the era.
·       Phoenix refers to this mystery cavern, filled with treasures and children’s toys (?) as a library, implying it holds some great significance to her. Claremont occasionally returns to this idea of young Jean and Xavier having these great adventures before the formation of the X-Men, but I have no idea what he was going for here.
·       Cable remarks that Jean is exhibiting abilities “only Phoenix could do,” which continues a plot from the Steven Seagal run. Jean merely responds that, hey, I am Phoenix, so of course I can do these things.
·       Phoenix’s telekinesis is now gone. Later issues will reveal a power swap between Psylocke and Phoenix during the six month gap, but I believe the exact details were never revealed. In her Astral form, Phoenix now has a Phoenix-shaped eye tattoo, similar to Psylocke's Crimson Dawn tattoo.
·       Gambit pops up in Venice, making out with an unidentified woman. At this point in his solo title, Gambit’s powers were out of control, preventing him from touching another person. Writer Fabian Nicieza indicated online he wasn’t overly happy with this, and some fans cited this as an example of Claremont ignoring whatever he felt like. (And, naturally, the scene didn’t go over with those Remy/Rogue fans.)
·       Speaking of which, every Gambit issue prior to its 2000 Annual actually has to take place before this comic, during the six month gap, thanks to an appearance by Shadowcat. (Who’s officially missing in these stories, following X-Men #100.) The X-Men: Black Sun mini also has to be placed during the gap for similar reasons.
·       Per Gambit, the attack from the Shockwave Riders has nothing to do with him calling the team together.
·       Claremont has Gambit using “dat” on several occasions, but fully pronouncing all of his other “th” words. For the record, Claremont didn’t use “dis” or “dat” in his initial run. Scott Lobdell and Howard Mackie popularized this affectation, at approximately the same time after Claremont’s departure.

Continuity Notes - Special Neo Edition: The Shockwave Riders are determined to bring Phoenix with them alive, for unexplained reasons.
I Love the Early Aughts: Phoenix introduces the idea of the Astral Plane by stating, “Welcome to the website of my mind, whose home page is the Xavier Institute…” This line received a decent amount of ridicule online as soon as the preview pages were posted.

“Huh?” Moments:  The X-Men continually refer to Cyclops as dead and Apocalypse as defeated. That story actually ended with Apocalypse overtaking Cyclops’ body and teleporting away, with the X-Men watching, so there’s a clear discrepancy here. (We know now the original idea was to off Cyclops and Alan Davis protested, but it’s irritating to see the characters react to a story that didn’t happen.)
Also, how exactly can Gambit leave psychic imprints inside Jean’s mind? It’s not in his powerset, and even if he could do something like this…how’d he sneak into the most powerful mutant mind on Earth?
Soon to be a Major Motion Picture! : An inbound X-Men movie trading card is included. (From Topps, not the card company Marvel once owned. Fleer, wasn’t it?) My card features a tight close-up of Halle Berry’s face as Storm. The ads for the film at this point still consist of the X-logo opening in the middle, hinting at the upcoming “big reveal” of their costumes.
Review: Okay, we’re going to address the big issue first. What’s the lettering font this time? A hand-rendered brush script or a striped-rough calligraphy typeface? I know what the people want.

Seriously, we see now a different Comicraft font; a curvier, more “fun,” more “comic book” style you wouldn’t normally associate with Claremont’s writing. It actually looks quite nice, although it might be a little large, given Claremont’s verbose reputation. (This issue isn’t heavily scripted, by the way, unlike X-Men #100.) I do question having two different fonts for the two main X-books. My preference is for consistency.
Now, if we are to discuss the real burning topic surrounding this issue’s release, it’s that image of Beast on the cover. I believe this cover might’ve been our first glimpse of the new costumes; certainly it was an early one. The skullcap and big goggles design was instantly mocked, with virtually no one stepping up to defend it. Fan anticipation for this run was high, but one of the first hints this might not be the epic we all wanted could be found in that one image.

Which is ridiculous, admittedly. Looking back on it now, I’m not sure if the helmet/goggles really look that bad. It’s just not how fans envisioned the Beast; at this point, no one had given any serious thought to covering up his unique (furry) facial design. I realize now how lucky fans were, to have editors in charge for so long who actually did take visual consistency seriously, who recognized the foolishness of casually redesigning established characters. If Beast came out with this look today, people would just shrug and wait two weeks for his next redesign.
Thing is, if you ignore the headgear, it’s a solid costume for Beast. The color scheme is right, and the “X” pattern evokes memories of Simonson’s X-Factor. If we’re going “movie inspired,” something like this could’ve worked. Beast’s pouches and gizmos are silly, but that was an intentional call by Kubert to add some humor to the book.
Overall, Kubert’s new costumes aren’t bad, truthfully. I tend to remember all of the X-looks from this relaunch as horrific, but I think I’ve allowed Yu’s designs to overshadow the rest. Phoenix’s costume blends her previous designs quite well, Cable’s still “busy” but far less ridiculous, while Storm retains her regal persona. Marvel was still trying to sell purple as her distinctive color it seems, which I was never a huge fan of, but she looks fine here. (Those metallic curls all over the outfit need to go, however. Did Kubert really think he was going to be rendering those things dozens of times each issue?) As for Gambit, I think he looks ridiculous in jeans, and the scarf is dumb, but that’s one of Yu’s designs.
Adam Kubert had already been on Uncanny for a year by now, adjusting his style to suit the demands of a team book. For the most part, he’s smart about knowing when to drop the detail lines, on how to reconstruct a figure so that the more abstract design is attractive in its own right. Other times, it looks as if literal stick figures populate the background, but that is rare.

Tim Townsend also deserves credit as one of the best inkers of the era. Along with Richard Isanove’s colors, we have a nice looking comic. I’ll also note that the main X-books of this era aren’t using the ultra-cheap Irish color separators forced upon most of the Marvel line during the bankruptcy days.

When the script calls for certain moments—the Shockwave Riders forcing Cable to lose control over his techno-organic virus, a ghost shark consuming Jean’s mental image of Xavier’s school, Beast swooping in on a rope for a “sneak attack” on Jean—Kubert does sell them. The only time I think a sequence doesn’t quite work is when Cable gives serious consideration to using his Psimitar to rob Jean of her powers (thinking it will end the threat of the Phoenix, even while also negating his own powers and likely costing his life). In that case, it’s more of a problem with the script; Claremont tossing in what should be A Very Big Deal into a sequence that only lasts three panels.
By the way, Claremont’s never been acknowledged for his ability to write Cable, but he’s always done a solid job with the character. Claremont first handled Cable in the “X-Tinction Agenda,” back when he was little more than the dangerous, gun-toting tough guy archetype. Even then, he gave Cable personality and a justifiable point of view, even if it’s one Claremont clearly doesn’t buy.
In the years to follow, Cable went from Punisher knockoff to kindly teacher to religious figure with a magic staff. And, oh yeah, the child of Scott and Jean(…’s clone). Naming Cable a member of the team was an attempt by Claremont to acknowledge not only the role the character had adopted over the years, but also how large the canon had grown since his departure from the X-books.
Here, Cable and Jean are attempting some form of bonding. She’s lost her husband, he’s lost the father he never truly knew. Now, they only have each other. Cable’s her “kiddo,” even though he’s clearly older than Jean. It’s an odd dynamic, with Claremont fully aware of Cable’s past as the infant Christopher from the X-Factor days…and the gruff, ready-for-the-1990s leader of the New Mutants shepherded in by his friend Louise Simonson. If you’re familiar with this backstory, the characters’ conversation assumes a new relevance. This is the kind of material the audience wanted from Claremont.

As for the villains…well, they’re here to be villains. Their plan is unrevealed, as is their motive, and at this point, none of the actual comics have explained just what the Neo actually are. The design is okay (Kubert seems to enjoy rendering the intricate circuitry in their attack skimmers and cyborg helmets), if somewhat generic. The sequence that has their leader (?) initiating a mental attack on Phoenix, represented by a telepathic shark that eats her memories, is genuinely cool.
The problem is, we’ve yet to receive a real reason to care about the Neo. And, here in only their second full appearance, we learn the Neo consists of what appear to be sub-factions with their own unique titles and abilities. It’s already too much, already a little too chaotic, and things won’t be getting better from here.
This entry exists thanks to those who posted Amazon reviews of my new novel, Black Hat BluesI’ll continue posting installments in this series—one for every review the book receives. So if you want this series to continue, please, leave a review!


Gurkle said...

This is the font Comicraft was using for the Spider-Man books at the time. I think it was introduced with the infamous Mackie/Byrne reboot, and they also used it for JLA/Avengers.

There were some weird games going on with fonts at the time. Comicraft introduced a completely new font for Avengers around this time (replacing the one they used for Avengers, Iron Man, and Claremont's Fantastic Four), but Thunderbolts had its own font taken away and replaced with the old Avengers font. I'm not honestly sure how they decided which font went with which book.

Of course it all became moot in a few years when Jemas forced every book to switch to mixed-case lettering, and after he left, Virtual Calligraphy introduced a bunch of new all-caps fonts.

G. Kendall said...

I do remember the, um, interesting font from Claremont's FF run showing up in several Marvel books at this time. Kurt Busiek, as I recall, stated using a new font was a choice to help indicate the new direction beginning with the Alan Davis run.

This UXM font seemed to fit fairly well with Byrne's art on ASM. Not so much with Romita's on PPSM. Joe Rosen will always be my favorite Romita letterer.

Aren Karr said...

I truly liked Beast’s skullcap and goggle look at the time. I had no idea I was basically alone in that!

Austin Gorton said...

The costumes (and art in general) are much better here. I don't love Beast's skullcap (it doesn't make a lot of sense to cover that distinctive hair), but the goggles aren't a bad idea (they speak to his scientist nature) and I do like the rest of the costume (I've always been partial to his Simonson-era X-FACTOR costumes). Gambit's jeans are, indeed, dumb, but I don't mind the scarf; it has a kind of "cops & robbers" element to it, speaking to his nature as a thief.

Great point on what Cable's inclusion means here in terms of Claremont's relationship with the character and his evolution through the years; I never really stopped to appreciate how it's Claremont, of all people, who first brought Cable into the fold as an official member of the X-Men.

From Topps, not the card company Marvel once owned. Fleer, wasn’t it?

It 'twas indeed Fleer that Marvel purchased. Topps isn't the only trading card company left standing, but it is the only one which mostly survived the collapse of that collectible industry in the mid 90s to remain intact, mostly as it always has, today.

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