Ewing and Rocafort's "Ultimates" Stand Guard Against Alien Empires & Cosmic Entities
Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Paul Smith, and the issue is Uncanny X-Men #173, which was published by Marvel and is cover dated September 1983. Enjoy!
Smith didn’t work long on Uncanny X-Men, but he made a huge impression, because his run is really, really well-regarded. There’s a reason Our Dread Lord and Master gets weak in the knees when he thinks about issue #173, because it’s just that good. If I had to make a list, it would probably be on my Top Ten favorite single issues EVER. If anyone wonders why I love Rogue so much, I can just hand them this issue and say, “Start here.” If anyone ever bashes Claremont, I’ll say, “Yeah, fair enough,” but I’ll still give them this issue and say, “It’s not all bad!” I know I’ve messed around with you guys on some of these posts, because I haven’t done the issues you might expect, and I almost picked a different issue from Smith’s run on UXM, but I ultimately went with this issue, not because I love it (even though I totally do), but because art-wise, it’s amazing. I’m basically going to show 9 consecutive pages from the middle of the issue, and then a few from after that. So strap in!
So Viper and the Silver Samurai are trying to kill Mariko, Wolverine’s fiancée, and since she’s at the hospital with the X-Men (who were poisoned, but not fatally), they show up there. Smith shows that he has a nice, clean style, which works well for superhero comics, and with Bob Wiacek inking him, we can still get some rougher lines, more than if Terry Austin had been doing it. But the way Smith designs these pages is what I’m looking at. Smith worked in animation before heading into comics, so he doesn’t do anything too fancy with layouts in this comic, preferring a lot of horizonal stacks, which allows him to focus on what’s going on inside the panels. The sense of motion is superb on these two pages. On the first one, Smith uses wide horizontal lines to lead to the vanishing point of the double doors, and then he places the one guard on the right side of the panel, blocking our view as we move across the scene. The two guards on the left side mysteriously disappear in Panel 2 (maybe they needed a Snickers?), but Smith begins to move the guard, as he leans to the left (his right) and draws his gun. The movement of the guard is so good that we don’t need to see his face, because we can imagine him looking off the panel to his left at the throwing stars or perhaps the ninjas throwing them. We still read left to right, so we reach him last, and then, in Panel 3, he’s way on the other side of the panel, driven there by the throwing stars, which twist his body horribly as he dies. Significantly, we never see his face. The speed lines of the stars and the motion of his gun help move us across the panel, leading to Panel 4, where more stars appear. Our view has shifted from the hallway to the double doors at the back, and like Panel 3, Panel 5 shows the men being thrown to the “left” (really, backward, but the perspective makes it appear to the left) while the motion of the stars leads us back toward the right. Finally, Smith shifts our view again so that we’re looking at Viper and her ninjas coming down the hallway toward the double doors, which are now where the reader is “standing.” So we’ve circled completely around, and now instead of looking down a long hallway at the doors, we’re standing in front of the doors looking back down the hallway at Viper. But then, on the second page, Rogue bursts out from “behind” us, scooping up the bad guys with what appears to be a giant log. Smith draws a dynamic panel, a bit crooked to imply crazed motion, and then returns to the horizontal stack as Rogue bursts out of the hospital and scatters the ninjas. In Panel 2, the ninjas are beginning to fall, and in Panel 3, they all land, so the two panels are nicely linked. Then, on the right side of Panel 4, Rogue streaks in and bashes a couple of ninjas, while in the foreground and on the right, Viper looks back at her but still leads us to the next page. We’ll see below that her head, on the right side of the panel, is synced up with Wolverine’s, whose head is the first thing we see in the first panel of the next page. It’s a nice juxtaposition.
As I noted, Wiacek inked this issue, and I wonder how much he added. In Panel 2 of the first page, he adds some thick lines to the guard’s shirt as he moves, showing the way his torso moves and also turning him from a crisp professional to a panicked victim. I have to believe that Wiacek added most of the motion lines, which work really well in Panel 1 of the second page, where the lines obscure the lower part of the ninjas’ bodies as Rogue scoops them up. Glynis Wein, back on colors, probably added the spatter effect when Rogue shoots out of the hospital, which makes it look both more violent and more superheroey, which is not a bad look. This is only the beginning of the awesomeness, though, so hold onto your hats!
Man, remember when Wolverine was cool? I mean, I don’t, although he was still pretty cool in 1988/89, when I started buying comics, but he was really cool in the early 1980s. This issue came after the famed Claremont/Miller mini-series, which might be the coolest Wolverine has ever been, but he’s pretty motherfucking cool in this issue, too. As I noted above, Smith placed his head on the extreme left of the panel, linking it to Viper on the previous page, and because of the way he set up the hospital, we get the horizontal lines on the wall leading from Logan’s eyes directly across the page. In Panel 2, Smith makes it even more obvious, as Wolverine’s fist covers the lines, which then lead back to the hole Rogue punched in the wall and to Silver Samurai, who walks into the frame from the right. It’s simple storytelling, but it’s very effective. Then we get the fight, which is magnificent. In Panel 5 of the first page, Wolverine slashes at Harada, and Smith works against our instincts to read left to right, but because Orzechowski places the word balloon in Panel 4 where he does, we don’t leap back to the left side, sliding down to Wolverine’s head, which leads us to the cut and takes us both left and right, as we look at the sweep of the claws and Silver Samurai’s body as he reacts to the cut.
Then we get the rest of the fight. Man, look how well Smith lays it out. Harada doubles over from the slash, but still gets his sword out. Then Wolverine spins and kicks his arm away, then keeps spinning in Panel 3 to bring his left arm across Harada’s mask. But Harada reacts quickly and grabs Logan around the neck. This is an amazingly fluid sequence, beautifully laid out by Smith, moving us in a circle even though he’s drawing this on a flat surface. Wiacek’s inks are done well, adding some metallic elements to Harada’s armor, while he makes sure Logan is nice and hirsute. Wein smartly colors the background red, keeping the distractions away and heightening the violence of the fight. Smith continues the fluidity on the next page, as Silver Samurai punches his sword right through Logan’s midsection. Smith does a really nice job with Wolverine’s surprised expression as the sword enters him. Harada pulls the sword out and almost gingerly lays Logan down, but Wolverine recovers, spins again, and jams his left hand into his enemy’s gut. Then Silver Samurai slashes at Logan’s neck, and again we see a nifty inking job, as Wiacek simply hatches out from a blank center where the cut is, implying that Logan is in a great deal of pain. On the final page, however, he spins, grabs Harada’s right arm, and snaps it. He never lets go, takes a step back, and extends those ridiculously long claws in Panel 3 (I tend to like it when Logan’s claws are slightly shorter) in preparation of applying the killing blow. Once again, Smith leads us across the page well – in Panel 1 of the final page, Silver Samurai is on the right side of the page, but then Logan drags him over to the left before turning him back around to the right. Harada has become a puppet, and Smith gets that across really well. Then Mariko intervenes, and Wein changes the color of the background because Logan and Harada have come out of their bloodlust. It’s a wonderful fight, almost completely due to the way Smith lays it out.
When that fight between Wolverine and Silver Samurai isn’t even the coolest thing in the issue (heck, it might be the third- or even fourth-coolest thing in this issue, depending on how you feel about the final few pages), you know you’re reading a great comic book. So after Mariko stops Logan from gutting Harada, Viper shows up with her big-ass gun. Again, look at how well Smith lays out the page. We get the big hole in the hospital, then our eyes move to Viper, who’s looking down the lines on the wall (those things sure are helpful!) at Mariko and Logan, while Logan’s right arm and Mariko’s grip on it form a nice frame for our villain. The middle two panels are nice, as Harada can’t stand up, and Smith draws a really nice Viper in Panel 3, as she moves toward Harada smoothly but still with great concern. Smith does a cool thing with her hair and Mariko’s – Viper’s is just a mass of black, which makes her look a bit more evil, while Mariko’s is styled and Wein adds the touches of blue, which makes her look more civilized. In Panel 4 of the first page, we get a good close-up of Viper aiming her gun – of course it’s from the left to the right – and Wiacek once again does a good job with the inking – he uses thick lines on part of the gun to make it look ugly, but adds a few swirly circles to make it look metallic, which Wein backs up by using light purple and white on the entire thing.
When Viper fires, Rogue shows up, and we get that great Panel 1 on the second page, where Smith uses the tiles in the drop ceiling to radiate outward from the back of the panel, looming over Viper and the fallen Silver Samurai to create a starting line, almost (the checkered flag is associated with the end of a race, but it might be what Smith is going for here). The smooth motion lines behind Rogue and the track of Viper’s laser blast line up perfectly, so the idea of it being a race is even clearer. Smith keeps the motion going in Panel 2, as Rogue outraces the blast and pushes Logan and Mariko out of the way. Wiacek’s motion lines help, but Smith’s figure design is nice, too. In Panel 3, we get a close-up of Logan and Mariko flying through the door, another good drawing of motion. The three top panels form a fluid narrative, and Smith constantly pushes us from left to right deftly. Then we get Panel 4, which is an echo of the final panel of the first page, except this time Viper is already firing. Using that nifty perspective, Smith expands the radius of the blast as it gets “closer” to the reader and the right side of the panel, and then we get the final panel of the page, where Rogue takes the full brunt of the blast. Smith, presumably, drew this in, and then either he or Wiacek inked in the blacks and then erased most of the holding lines. Wiacek or Smith (probably Wiacek) added the lines radiating outward, and he smartly used several layers of short lines instead of simple long lines, because it makes it feel like a pulse, buffeting Rogue more intensely every time, which is a cool effect. On the final page, Logan runs back into the hallway just as we get another echo of the original panel, this time as the gun explodes. Again, Smith uses his thin line work, and Wiacek adds a lot of nuance, with thin lines on Viper’s head and face to create shadows from the light of the gun, with the side of her arm inked more thickly because it’s not in the direct light. Wein uses very light yellow at the center of the blast, moving into a bit warmer tones farther away from it. In Panel 3, we get some nice Kirby Krackle from the laser blast on Rogue’s chest, and even there, Wiacek uses short hatching and Wein uses yellow to show the wound glowing. After Viper disappers, we get the superb final scene, which still gives me chills. I imagine Claremont wrote this “Marvel style,” which means Smith laid out the page the way he wanted, which means the final panel is his idea, and it’s a great one. He shrinks our heroes down and gets rid of everything else in the panel, so we focus on the two of them but don’t intrude on them sharing this intimate moment. It’s amazing.
This is the first time we see Storm with a mohawk (don’t get me started on its return!), and Smith and Wiacek do a wonderful job with it. She’s standing proudly but still a bit hesitantly, as if she’s happy with her change but doesn’t know how her friends will react. Smith stands her up straight but still puts her left leg back a bit, making her the slightest bit tentative. Wiacek’s inks are stupendous, as he uses what appears to be a brush to get the whole leathery look of her new clothes. We don’t get to see as clearly how upset Kitty is because it’s too far away, but the sequence is still done well, as Kitty freaks out, then Storm looks for a fight because she is uncertain about her new look. She’s taken aback by Madelyne, though, so the fight is short-circuited. It’s not anything to do with Smith, because it’s just the way it would be no matter who was drawing this issue, but the contrast between Scott in his suit and Ororo in her new duds is striking.
On the final page, it’s all about Smith’s storytelling, because Claremont wisely doesn’t use any words (I know – it’s even shocking today when you know it’s coming). Mariko has just broken her engagement because Jason Wyngarde messed with her head, and we get this page. The reactions of the spectators is well done in Panel 1, as Mariko walks away and leaves Logan like a chump. She walks out the door and we see Mastermind standing outside the room. Smith again designs the page so we move from the left, up the hallway, past Mariko, and to Wyngarde, who’s smoking a cigarette (was cigarette-smoking a signifier of evil by 1983?). Wiacek uses blacks on the back of his tailcoat to place him in shadow and imply his evil. In Panel 3, Smith gives us a close-up, and he opens Wyngarde’s mouth just enough to give us a hint of an evil grin, which is a nice touch. It’s not an evil grin, but we can believe it becoming one quickly. In Panel 4, Smith once again uses architecture to lead us, as the roof takes us down to the row of X-Men, who are filing out and looking back at Logan, which is where their gaze takes us. Smith cuts off his face, which is not a bad idea, because it highlights the tear a bit more. Wiacek gives him some hard lines on his face, as his heart has been ripped from his chest and stomped upon. Sucks to be you, Logan!
This really is a superb issue, and a good deal of it is because of Smith and Wiacek (and Wein, but not quite as much as the others). Claremont did some nice writing, but he also got out of his artists’ way when he needed to, and that meant Smith and Wiacek could go nuts. The result is a brilliant issue. Smith lasted on the book for only two more issues, but his legacy was pretty much cemented. Tomorrow we’ll move on, but to what? Will it be another mutant book, or will I shift gears? Oh, the tension is unbearable! Calm yourself down with a nice trip through the archives!
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