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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

X-amining Uncanny X-Men #186

"LifeDeath"
October 1984

In a Nutshell 
Storm and Forge grow closer as Storm deals with her power loss. 

Story, Script: Chris Claremont
Story, Pencils: Barry Windsor-Smith  
Inker: Terry Austin
Colorists: Wein & Scheele
Letterer: Tom Orzechowski
Editor: Ann Nocenti
Editor-in-Chief: Jim Shooter

Plot
In Dallas, Forge tries to help Storm recover from the loss of her powers, but she is largely unresponsive, much to Forge's frustration. Back at the mansion, Professor X searches for Storm using Cerebro, but is unable to locate her since experiencing a burst of extreme psychic pain from Storm through the rapport he shares with all the X-Men. Nightcrawler worries that this may mean Storm has died, but Professor X forges ahead, switching tactics to try scanning for Rogue. Back in Dallas, Storm emerges from her room and discusses her situation with Forge, asking about Rogue, who is still missing, and mourning the loss of her powers. The pair go for a swim, and Storm learns the extent of the injuries Forge suffered in Vietnam, realizing they share a sense of physical loss. Meanwhile, in Mississippi, Val Cooper continues to search for Rogue when she's attacked by a group of Dire Wraiths. She's rescued by Rogue, who is after Val for information on Storm's whereabouts.


Rogue absorbs Val's memories, learning about Forge's involvement and Storm's power less. Though she feels responsible, she resolves to get the X-Men's help. Back in Dallas, Forge prepares dinner for Storm, and the pair grows closer. They share a kiss which is interrupted by a phone call. Forge leaves to take it in another room, and Storm, realizing she hasn't yet informed Professor X of her situation, picks up the phone. She overhears Forge's conversation with Henry Gyrich and learns that Forge built the weapon which depowered her. Horrified, she tries to run from his home, but loses control of his holographic simulations. Forge puts an end to the illusions and tries to explain himself, but Storm is angry at him for keeping his association with the government secret and refuses to believe he means well. Forge insists that he cares about her and that he's her best chance at getting back her powers, but Storm tells him his words ring hollow and leaves, insisting that though her feet may never leave the ground, one day she will fly again.   

Firsts and Other Notables
This issue marks the beginning of an on again/off again romantic relationship between Storm and Forge, one which play an occasional role in the book for the next ten years or so. 

Well regarded artist Barry Windsor Smith, most well known for his extended run penciling Conan, teams up with Claremont on the plot of this issue and contributes the pencils (longtime former X-Men inker Terry Austin finishes). It's not a traditional fill-in, as his involvement in the issue was planned from the beginning. He will team-up with Claremont in a similar manner for two future issues, a Storm-centric sequel of sorts to this issue and a Wolverine solo adventure.

Also, this is actually Smith's second issue penciling X-Men, following his fill-in on issue #53, the infamous Jean Grey orgasm issue. When that issue was published, Smith hadn't yet developed his now-distinct style, and his work was more akin to that of the numerous pencilers who were aping Jack Kirby at that time.

This is a double-sized issue, and cost $1.00 rather than the then-standard sixty cents. The word "uncanny" is omitted from the cover.

A Work in Progress
It's revealed that Forge fought in Vietnam, and lost his hand and leg there, the prosthetics of which he built himself. It's also established that Forge is specifically Cheyenne.


In the wake of Storm's depowering, Professor X is unable to locate her via Cerebro.


Storm notes that her power enabled her to regulate her body temperature so that she was always comfortable.


Val Cooper reveals that the energy discharge in the wake of Storm being hit by the Neutralizer last issue blew out the mutant scanner the government had received from the Avengers to track Rogue, leaving the government with an inability to track mutants, since Forge is now unlikely to offer up his scanner.

Storm tells Forge the origin of her claustrophobia, and claims he's the first person she's told it too (I have no idea if that holds up in current continuity). Also, before trying some of Forge's champagne, she says she doesn't drink (ditto).


I Love the 80s
The cover continues to depict Forge as being very much of his time. 

He also thinks some awfully exposition-y thoughts.


Storm pickpockets Forge's "porta-console".


Forge's past as a Vietnam Vet, while perfectly fine in 1984, wouldn't hold up in Marvel's sliding timeline. 

After donning an evening gown, Storm changes into a pair of overalls.


Storm uses the term "slow coach"; I have no idea if that's an outdated 80s version of "slow poke" or a Claremontism.


Claremontisms
Forge refers to himself as "the maker", which will become one of Claremont's frequently used nicknames for the character.

In a sequence which Jason Powell did a great job of criticizing, Storm randomly and inexplicable shares her origin with Forge, using some especially odd phrasing.


Young Love
Forge finds himself increasingly attracted to Storm, yet always manages to say just the wrong thing. Nevertheless, the pair share a kiss before Storm learns about Forge's involvement in her depowerment and, er, storms out of his penthouse.


For Sale
The inside cover features an ad for Buckaroo Bonzai.


Chris Claremont on working with Barry Windsor-Smith
"Barry is one of the people I've admired from the very beginning and always dreamed of working with. I never thought the moment would arrive. But when it did, it was everything I could've hoped for and more. Barry ... had written long involved notes on the characterization, on aspects of the relationship between Storm and Forge, on how he might handle scenes. He was commenting on things that I had written in terms of the plot, making suggestions, all of which were germane, fascinating, interesting – and used, for the most part."

Thompson, Kim. "Chris Claremont." Amazing Heroes July 1985: p39

Teebore's Take
Confession time: I am not a huge fan of this issue. Though well regarded and acclaimed amongst many fans and critics, it's never really done much for me. Granted, I'm not the world's biggest Barry Windsor-Smith fan, and I wouldn't put him on a list of my favorite artists, but I can't deny he's a superior artist, and he does his best to elevate this material with some fantastic body language and great panoramic vistas. But the biggest problems, I think, are that nothing really happens in this issue, while Claremont fails to rise to the level of his collaborator. It is essentially, as the cover promises, a love story, but I find myself rather bored by and uninterested in the story it's telling. The Forge/Storm relationship, both here specifically and elsewhere, has just never captivated me the way other relationships have, in part because its foundation in this issue is built more on telling than showing. Claremont simply fails to sell the chemistry between these characters that he insists is there throughout the issue.

And while Claremont has at this point become a master of the quiet issue, where nothing happens except advancement of subplots or character development, the entire focus of this issue is on Storm. Intellectually, I know that an event like Storm losing her powers is something that demands a fair amount of attention, but by keeping the bulk of this oversized issue focused on her (even the few cutaways to other characters all feature reactions to Storm's situation, with an ancillary action sequence shoehorned into Rogue's efforts to locate Storm to remind us of the looming threat of the Dire Wraiths), I find myself more bored with than sympathetic to her plight. Even though she deserves this space to come to terms with her loss, the execution of that process leaves me cold (it doesn't help that the scripting moves further away from "effectively poetic" towards "overly wordy" as it progresses). In the end, it seems this is simply an issue where Claremont's interests are wildly different from mine, and one in which his words come up short compared to the art.  

Next Issue 
Tomorrow, the New Mutants have a slumber party and meet a new friend in New Mutants #21, and next week we catch up with Wolverine and Kitty in the Kitty Pryde and Wolverine limited series.

19 comments:

  1. I'm going to say something which seems to be considered blasphemy in the comic book world: I don't like Barry Windsor-Smith's artwork. I doubt I ever will. His people all look weird to me; too lanky or something, and what's with all the droopy eyelids? And everyone has that yucky stringy hair. Maybe he's a good storyteller, but the ugly people kind of cancel that out.

    That said, for whatever reason, I love his cover to issue #214 (which you should probably add to the list of issues he guest-penciled). I don't like Storm's mohawk, as we've established, but Smith's illustration of it in that super-exaggerated style actually looks pretty good to my eye.

    Also, like you I'm not much of a fan of "Lifedeath" -- and I'm even less of a fan of "Lifedeath II"! I'm glad they never got around to "Lifedeath III". I believe Smith re-tooled it for an original character and took it to another publisher years later.

    Speaking of which, it's kind of weird to me that Claremont collaborated so strongly with a guy who was essentially a glorified guest-penciler. As you note, this wasn't an unscheduled fill-in, and Claremont was excited to work with Smith, but even so, it just seems odd that an artist would come in, have very strong input on story direction and character relationships, then just leave.

    I think -- though I could be a little off-- that Smith did the same thing in the epilogue issue of Iron Man's "Armor Wars". He basically plotted and penciled the story that capped off that event which he was otherwise totally uninvolved with, and regular series writer David Michelinie scripted over it.

    I guess this says something about how highly-regarded Smith was at the time, and about the creative process at Marvel in general back then. I can't imagine the Marvel of today, with its super-strong emphasis on writers as the "architects" of the stories, giving that much freedom and input to an artist. Nowadays artists are just, to use a John Byrne phrase, "art robots" working from full scripts with little, if any input even on things they should have full reign over, like staging.

    Which seems especially odd to me since for a decade, they had an artist as their editor-in-chief. You'd think Quesada would've presided over a new age of writer-artists along the lines of Byrne, Simonson, and Miller. I never thought about it before, but in retrospect it seems kind of odd that didn't happen. Does anyone know if artists were more or less favored when Dick Giordano was DC's EiC? I guess he did lure Byrne and Miller over, at least.

    I do like the brief Dire Wraith scene, though. I love how Claremont would borrow bits and pieces from other Marvel books like this -- not that he was the only one who did so, of course.

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  2. @Matt: I don't like Barry Windsor-Smith's artwork. ... His people all look weird to me; too lanky or something, and what's with all the droopy eyelids? And everyone has that yucky stringy hair.

    I certainly won't crucify you for that opinion. I am also largely turned off by his figure work, here and elsewhere. I do think the elements I pointed out in my post (body language and the holographic vistas) are strong in this issue, but I actually had a whole rant about how this issue is the first time I find Mohawk Storm ugly and thus have a hard time reconciling the Storm on the page with the one Forge is apparently seeing when he keeps talking about how beautiful she is. I've found Storm (including Mohawk Storm) attractive elsewhere (most recently in New Mutants #20) but not here.

    I ultimately cut it out because it was pretty ranty and not terribly on-point, but yeah, not a fan of how most of the characters look in this issue.

    which you should probably add to the list of issues he guest-penciled

    Oh yeah, I'd forgotten about #214. For whatever reason, that one feels more like a legitimate fill-in, as opposed to this, #198 and #205, even though it was probably as planned as the others.

    I believe Smith re-tooled it for an original character and took it to another publisher years later.

    That's my understanding as well (he used it at Valiant, I think?). There's Comic Book Legend out there that confirms it.

    You'd think Quesada would've presided over a new age of writer-artists along the lines of Byrne, Simonson, and Miller.

    That is a good point. I guess the industry itself has become so focused on the writer that even a Writer-Artist EiC wasn't powerful enough to change directions.

    Or he just didn't care enough to try, so long as the product was selling.

    I do like the brief Dire Wraith scene, though. I love how Claremont would borrow bits and pieces from other Marvel books like this

    Ditto, and ditto. The Dire Wraith scene is hands down my favorite thing in this issue.


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  3. That is a good point. I guess the industry itself has become so focused on the writer that even a Writer-Artist EiC wasn't powerful enough to change directions.

    When Fraction and Waid was on Kieron Gillen's podcast, they brought up the fact that even though Quesada's preferred method of working was Marvel style script, the practice largely disappeared during his reign as EIC. They didn't have a good reason why that happened either.

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  4. entzauberung -- Interesting. It make sense Quesada might prefer Marvel style, since that's how he came up as an artist. I would just assume that fell out of favor during his time as EiC because all the writers went full-script, so he just went along with it.

    Personally, and this is my lazy side coming out, working Marvel style just seems like it would be so much easier for the writer (assuming you have an artist you trust)! Rather than come up with the full script plus stage directions and typing it all out, I would much rather send a broad-strokes plot to the penciler, let him go nuts with the pacing, "acting", etc., and then script the pages as they came back.

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  5. Teebore -- "Oh yeah, I'd forgotten about #214. For whatever reason, that one feels more like a legitimate fill-in, as opposed to this, #198 and #205, even though it was probably as planned as the others."

    I dunno, it may not have been. X-men went through several guest-pencilers at that time. Romita's last issue was something like 211 or 212, then you had Rick Leonardi, Alan Davis, Barry Windsor Smith, and Jackson Guice all filling in over the next six months or so until Marc Silvestri arrived.

    I don't really know either way, though.

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  6. @Matt: I dunno, it may not have been. X-men went through several guest-pencilers at that time.

    Good point.

    Also, not surprisingly, it's always bugged me that Romita's run ends with the first part of "Mutant Massacre", both because I feel like finishing that story would have been a strong way to cap off his run, and because it bugs me that what has become such a significant storyline is handled by three differently pencilers, even though I enjoy the work of all three.

    (Of course, I know it's not fair to judge "Mutant Massacre" in the same context of the later crossover events it inspired because it wasn't designed like they were, but it still bugs me).

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  7. Slow coach is a British equivalent to slow poke - as a Brit myself I'd never realised before that the term wasn't used in America, but then unlike Claremont I haven't lived in America for most of my life!

    Excellent reviews, by the way - I've been reading for some time but haven't found anything to say, and at last there was something I could add!

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  8. Matt - I'd guess it would have something to do with having control over the story (Warren Ellis wrote a great column on CBR regarding this, examplifying with an artist who only really wanted to draw dinosaurs :) ).

    I also read a comment by Peter David saying he switched to full script because he had difficulties gauging how much plot that could actually fit in one issue. So I guess that's a couple of reaons.

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  9. Also, thinking about writer-artists...maybe it's because most don't have time to both at the same time? Marvel employs several professional artists which they only use in a writing role (Hickman, Brian Wood etc). They may think it's better to get three scripts on time than one late "full" book?

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  10. Lifedeath 3 was repurposed as Adastra in Africa. The back of the graphic novel contains a mock-interview, in which BWS confirms it (through the title character) the powers that be at Marvel thought the story glorified suicide.

    I'm a huge BWS fan, but Lifedeath 1 isn't my favorite comic. The story isn't compelling enough, although some of the visuals are nice. Lifedeath 2 & Wolverine vs. Lady Deathstrike are much better. I came to BWS through Weapon X, which, for my money, looks fantastic. I'll admit his faces can be off at times, but I love the level of detail, storytelling, and experimentalism present in his art.

    - Mike Loughlin

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  11. Storm tells Forge the origin of her claustrophobia

    I so want this issue to be listed in Overstreet as "o: Storm's claustrophobia (retold)".

    You're entitled to your opinion, Teebore, but I'll give you the perspective of someone who was 13 at the time and was much more interested in this than in the surrounding issues.

    "Lifedeath" felt like a revelation just because you didn't often see moody, cinematic, character-based stuff like this in a mainstream superhero comic — and mainstream superhero comics were, if not quite all there was, all most barely-teenaged boys were reading in the medium. Whatever wasn't superheroes but was still widely accessible was, bluntly, for girls or for little kids. I'd probably started reading some Epic Illustrated by this point, and I saw Elfquest right around this time, and there was some indie stuff like the EC-style anthologies from Pacific that were "adult" in terms of the T&A mixed in with the O. Henry storytelling, but stuff like Zot!, Concrete, Miracleman, Watchmen, and Dark Knight was still in the future.

    This was exciting in the way that Sienkiewicz on New Mutants was exciting or, presumably, Miller's Daredevil had been exciting. (I kinda missed the boat on reading Miller's first Daredevil run contemporaneously.) Everyone on the creative team was really rising to the occasion of their guest collaborator — except Claremont, as you say, and then in terms of his florid overwriting as opposed to the creative license he gave Windsor-Smith, and also I think except for Austin in a couple of panels where he doesn't mesh so well with the penciler's dominant style. The languorous opening sequence reminds me of the Wolfman & Pérez mini-masterpiece "Who Is Donna Troy?" in The New Teen Titans #38, nearly a year before. All of this stuff is dated to a great extent now, but at the time it really pushed boundaries and — speaking for myself, but I know I wasn't alone — pushed buttons too. I'm not sure how much I thought of panel arrangement before Pérez's Titans, Miller's Wolverine, and to an extent Paul Smith's work in X-Men; they caused me when I wrote and drew my own stuff to care about more than just poses/figures.

    Plus, Orzechowski classes up everything as always.

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  12. continued

    I'm curious about why Christie "Max" Scheele colored part of the issue, by the way. Was it just because the issue was oversized and she was available? Did BWS request her specifically if the sublime Glynis Oliver/Wein couldn't do the full issue, or even prefer Scheele over Wein? It could easily be the first but BWS was notoriously particular. He not only inked but colored the next "Lifedeath" in #198 and #205 as well.

    Like I said, Claremont admittedly fell short, yet in most of what boys like me were reading for pleasure at the time, prose and comics, big words and fancy syntax meant serious writing. Earnest could easily become too earnest or overwrought, but it was forgiven — if even noticed in the first place — the way speaking out loud to oneself was or coded phrases like "Lord above" were or, heck, blue hair was. Although I did almost always hate the blue hair.

    I take Storm's outburst about her claustrophobia to be impulsive sharing by someone both not used to it and desperate for the other person to do the same. While it may not happen in real life much, that's a definite trope in both print and film, blurting out a secret as proof of being all in, committed to where things are going, in the moment. So the whole point was that it was a non sequitur dragged in by Storm from outside the box.

    And the cover is gorgeous.

    Especially since I didn't care for mohawked Storm much at the time and Forge came across mostly as lame, no pun intended, to the extent that he made an impression on me at all, I've always been grateful and a little surprised that this story could make such a positive one. I think it's due purely to craft — especially, as I've tried to explain, craft in context. It's still kind-of funny that the one issue I liked so much in the run that drove me away from X-Men overall fills the reverse slot for you, a bum issue in your favorite stretch.

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  13. @Matt: I don't like Barry Windsor-Smith's artwork

    I do; I just don't like that his faces all look the same kind of unusual. Since I didn't read any Conan until way after its heyday, I wasn't familiar with his work there — I finally got a Marvel Treasury Edition with the famous Thomas/BWS "Red Nails" story several years ago — and when he popped up with this issue it was a Moment for me. The droopy eyelids and long noses with wide bases don't really bother me per se, it's just, like I said, that everybody has them (and so looks indeterminately exotic). I love his figures and composition, though. Just the folds in Ororo's bedsheets makes me envious of the technique and patience required.

    @Matt: That said, for whatever reason, I love his cover to issue #214

    Art Adams penciled it, so that probably accounts for most of what you like. I don't dislike that one, but I prefer the covers to #186, #198, and #205. BWS is one of those people, Kevin Nowlan being another, whose color choices were nontraditional and whose ability to get such results on standard newsprint comics was almost unbelievable; the fact that both guys colored on top of penciling and inking so well was crazy.

    @Matt: Does anyone know if artists were more or less favored when Dick Giordano was DC's EiC? I guess he did lure Byrne and Miller over, at least.

    I think that he just knew how to recognize and communicate with creative talent, period. One reason why he was hired away from Charlton for his first editorial stint at DC in the late '60s was his relationship with Steve Ditko and others. Carmine Infantino, Giordano's predecessor as EIC, was also a veteran artist, yet he apparently didn't get Jack Kirby's appeal. Dick was certainly open to the writer/artist concept, which I think had fallen out of favor at DC for a while (perhaps simply based on the vagaries of the talent pool), but I think the bigger picture is that he was open to the kind of experimentation and vision that artists who also write may tend to have more than writers who are "just" writers — albeit not exclusively (case in point: Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, although come to think of it both can also draw).


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  14. @JM: Slow coach is a British equivalent to slow poke

    Ah, good to know. Learn something new every day!

    Excellent reviews, by the way

    Thanks!

    @Entzauberung: They may think it's better to get three scripts on time than one late "full" book?

    That could be. The writer-artist also seems to have died out around the same time as the artist who could do more than one book a month, so I wouldn't be surprised if the two were related in some ways.

    @Mike: Lifedeath 3 was repurposed as Adastra in Africa.

    That's what it was, thanks.

    I came to BWS through Weapon X, which, for my money, looks fantastic.

    I've only read it once, but I remember liking the art much more than in "Lifedeath" (and I first read it after "Lifedeath").

    @Blam: "Lifedeath" felt like a revelation just because you didn't often see moody, cinematic, character-based stuff like this in a mainstream superhero comic

    I can totally see how this could be a revelation, certainly a Big Deal, at the time. It really is like nothing that's come before it, in this series if not elsewhere, and it's worthy of recognition for that.

    If anything, it resonates more for me on that historical/cultural level than it does on the level of personal appeal, but I certainly understand why this issue is so well regarded. Like I said, I know I'm in a minority that dislikes it. I get, intellectually, why so many people like it, I just can't help the fact that it ultimately leaves me cold.

    I'm curious about why Christie "Max" Scheele colored part of the issue, by the way.

    I wondered about that too. It seemed an odd arrangement for all the reasons you discussed.

    So the whole point was that it was a non sequitur dragged in by Storm from outside the box.

    I can see that. It didn't read that way to me at first, but now that you've pointed it out, I can see it.

    I don't want to call it a stretch, per se, because it's not, but perhaps it's best said to be a device that wasn't perhaps as obvious as Claremont might have hoped. Or maybe I just being particularly dense at that point in the story, or missing the more punctuated poetry present earlier in the the script, as Claremont seemed to get more wordy (and less effective) as the issue went on.

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  15. "After donning an evening gown, Storm changes into a pair of overalls."

    Indubitably a genuine LOLZ moment.


    "Storm uses the term "slow coach"; I have no idea if that's an outdated 80s version of "slow poke" or a Claremontism."

    Her facial expressions don't seem to match the "lovely laugh" Forge says she has in the next scene.

    I thought the speech she gave Forge on page 39, about him living in his high tower, was pretty poignant.

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  16. "I take Storm's outburst about her claustrophobia to be impulsive sharing by someone both not used to it and desperate for the other person to do the same. While it may not happen in real life much, that's a definite trope in both print and film, blurting out a secret as proof of being all in, committed to where things are going, in the moment. So the whole point was that it was a non sequitur dragged in by Storm from outside the box."

    I saw it that way as well. Given that it's Storm, flirting and opening up should be very awkward for her at this point.

    Personally, I always liked this issue. The writing and the art both worked for me.

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  17. Does Blam mean that BWS inked 214's cover or something? He's listed as the cover artist at Marvel, but did he work with Adams on it?

    (Message in a bottle comment apologies.)

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  18. Adams penciled the cover according to the GCD index. There aren't any signatures visible, but Dazzler sure looks more like Adams' work than BWS'. While I do see BWS in Storm's face, the figure work and Dazzler's face and general impression are not his style to my eyes and I'm sure whoever added the credit had good reason; I could ask on the GCD mailing list to source it if you like.

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  19. I didn't like this issue enough to read it more than once, but Barry Windsor-Smith is one of my all-time favourite artists. Absolutely majestic.

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