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Year of the Artist, Day 160: Paul Smith, Part 2 – Uncanny X-Men #173

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

26 Comments

173 is an awesome comic! I love how the Wolverine and the Silver Samurai is pure sequential storytelling at its finest! I love how there is no dialogue, making the art speak for itself and in a Claremont book, that was rare indeed.

Of course, it was done before in the Wolverine miniseries right before it, as you mentioned, but I read this issue first – as it was more affordable when I was buying my back issues initially.

Such a great issue, Wolverine and Rogue at their finest too!

I also like how it is the opposite of the Morlock story, where there are four X-Men compared to the two active ones in this mission. The X-Men are deadly in any number of members.

My favorite comic artist at the peak of his powers. Great job breaking these pages down, and giving Wiacek and Wein their due credit. This was the culmination of just a great two-book story. I think Smith’s long, crisp lines and almost lacquered finish leant themselves particularly well to a story told in Japan. The X-Men/Alpha Flight mini (with the Asgardians) was another high point for Smith. He also did some great fill in issues on Nexus.

Regarding Mastermind’s cigarette – I think it is also a call out to a similar panel during the Dark Phoenix saga. All in all it’s a cool visual signifier to set up UXM 175.

Sweet Jesus, this is a fan-frigging-tastic issue. Got it from a friend as payment for letting him copy my Latin homework way back when. Probably my favorite X-Men comic, and far and away my favorite fight scene.

I read the first 90 or so issues of Claremont’s Uncanny for the very first time last year. Some stories I thought were alright, some I thought were awful, but Paul Smith’s run was where the comic finally clicked for me. Still much of the frenzy surrounding Dark Phoenix, Proteus, etc. leaves me baffled, but reading the Brood saga and especially these issues with Wolverine in Japan, I finally thought “Oh – oh shit, I get it.” Beautiful stuff, and Claremont has really pinned down a great voice for Logan.

Smith also drew one of the greatest issue-opening panels of all time: “Professor Xavier is a jerk!”

The switch from Smith to Romita Jr. and Dan Green was very jarring and to my 12-year old sensibility, a real step down in quality. My first X-Men was actually 176, the beginning of Romita’s run. I quickly went back and got the last Smith issues and felt totally cheated that I missed out on his run.

Kellogg, Paul Smith is one of my all time favorite artists and definitely by far, my favorite X-Men artist – and I also had that feeling of the JRJR run being lesser than the Smith run. At least, the initial stories. It doesn’t help that non-ROM assisted Dire Wraiths show up and that Kulan Gath story happened during his run. Plus Forge, give me Smith’s nine issues any day.

I’ve given people Essential X-Men Volume Four before, as it prints his entire run (Brood Saga included – unlike the From the Ashes trade – which I read so much I broke the spine of it!) and it is the best X-Men primer I can think of.

I wish that Marvel during the What If hay day had done a fun issue where they had “What If Paul Smith drew Uncanny X-Men 171″ as it really does stick out and is a shame that Smith didn’t have ten issues or nine issues in a row. If I had the money and if he would be willing, I would love to get his take on the issue if given the Claremont script. Go all out and get Wiack to ink it and Tom Orzechowski to letter it and of course, Glynis Wein/Oliver to color it. I do miss her color choices in the Essential trades but something has to give to get the twenty dollar price tag on those phone books!

As great as these pages are I’d have loved to seen more focus on his gift for non-superhero moments. Smith just killed it with everyday body language,hair, clothing and facial expressions . They way his characters behave and dress in civies brought the more character based elements to fore. These are people not just superheroes. His smooth lines and realistic but appealing design sense sold the romance of this era so well (this is the X-Men era at it’s peak romance comicness). I’m especially fond of this sequence (pre-teen me was totally smitten with Kitty Pryde from the geeky interests,adorably impish humor and those incredible curls). http://scans-daily.dreamwidth.org/3922753.html#cutid1

James: Yeah, that’s all great. How do you know I won’t focus on that in other comics from other years coming up? :) I agree that he did a great job with all aspects of the book, but a really good fight scene is surprisingly hard for some artists to lay out, so I wanted to show how well Smith does it here.

John: my very first issue of X-Men was #136 at the ripe age of 10. It was a bit too advanced for me, so it wasn’t until the Kulan Gath story (#190) that I started really getting into the X-Men. The main draw for me at that time was Spider-Man! #190 turned out to be my gateway issue. I am so thankful for that Kulan Gath story! LOL As well, I have a fondness for JRJR since he was my first X-Men artist (though I didn’t really notice him what really sold me on him was his Nocenti Daredevil a few years later). While I love Smith’s art on X-Men, I love most of that era, so I really can’t nitpick on any of those issues.

This was an amazing issue to highlight, for those of us who are not artistically inclined. Thanks Greg! The nostalgia that some of these posts provoke in me is just amazing. Oh to be a kid again!

Mike Loughlin

June 9, 2014 at 5:10 pm

Looooove Uncanny X-Men 173. The art is so clean without being sterile, the fight scenes were so kinetic… Plus, widescreen panels before it was the norm and done way better than 90% of the post-Authority stuff. I’ll add my voice to the chorus of JR Jr. non-fans; he drew some good issues but nothing that could touch the Smith material.

I wonder what’s next… X-Men/ Alpha Flight? Dr. Strange? Golden Age? So many good options…

You know what occurs to me? Throughout the fight scenes, Smith is using panels that roughly approximate the widescreen dimensions of a movie screen. The effect is to give the feeling like you’re getting a sequence of stills from a movie. Particularly in the Wolverine/Samurai part of the fight, the stills are so close together, that it’s almost a slow motion effect.

I’ve always loved this issue, and after reading this column I have a better understanding why.

David: I like Romita on X-Men, too. It’s different than Smith’s art, obviously, but it’s still nice.

Thanks for the nice words. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

Mike: Yeah, it’s always interesting to go back and see artists doing things – like “widescreen” panels – years before they were a “thing.” Smith does it really well.

Nu-D: Well, Smith worked in animation before moving to comics, so I imagine he had some idea about how to get that effect.

Thanks for compliment!

Why nobody has collected a colour trade of that Brood story in which Smith’s run starts I don’t know.

Love his art on these X-Men issues so so much.

If pushed I’d say 174 was my favourite. Absoloutely gorgeous

Stephen Conway

June 10, 2014 at 10:37 am

You can take your Cockrums, Byrnes, Lees and Silvestris, to me Smith was the greatest of Claremont’s X Men collaborators. The art on this issue was beautiful, and the storytelling is fantastic. Wiacek’s inking is a great match for Smith’s pencils. I could talk for hours about the way they render everyones’ hair.

David, the cool thing about the Kulan Gath storyline is that we get to see a rare (at the time) instance of some Avengers helping out the X-Men.

Philip, I imagine the reason we haven’t the Brood Saga in print is due to having to pay for both Cockrum and Smith royalties – but that’s just a theory that I’m working on. That or they have been waiting for a Brood movie that will never happen.

Stephen! I sort of love the hair Smith / Wiacek gave everyone! That conditioner Xavier handed out did wonders for everyone! Especially the flow and curve-ness (?) waviness (maybe?) of Kitty’s hair. I wish I knew the actual words to describe hair as I would also talk at length about how great their hair looked. Glad I’m not the only one! Unless this has been an elaborate trap to get me to confess to such a weird thing, then well played sir, well played.

I may be torn on what is my favorite issue of Smith’s. I sort of adore 175 for how epic it is! 165 for the same reason. 166 for the first appearance of Lockheed. 168 for the Kitty and Lockheed moments. The Morlocks for how awesome Storm is. 167 for the New Mutants, finally getting to meet the X-Men.

Fun fact: Paul Smith based Madelyne Pryor on Louise Simonson. Which is not the first time that she inspired a comic book artist. Bernie Wrightson used her as the model for the woman on the cover to House of Secrets #92, the very first Swamp Thing story.

I knew about the House of Secrets 92 but not the Maddie Pryor, I’m going to have to put those images next to each other. That is a fun fact, Ben!

@Ben, @John; Yeah, well, since Louise Jones was the only woman in comics for thirty years, it’s not surprising that all the repressed fanboy creators were using her as a model for the female characters (and that she married one of them). ;p

Imraith Nimphais

June 11, 2014 at 2:55 pm

OMGoddess!
I’ve read and re-read this issue a gazillion times (because yes, it is THAT fucking awesome!) and I never…neverrrr…realised that Rogue hit the ninjas with a wooden beam. Not until you mentioned it. And I had to go back to make sure you were not just seeing things. I always thought she used the sheer force of her attack and her strength to get them out of the way using only her arms. W. O-fucking. W. And then…

Punk Storm.

Dies.

I rank Paul Smith in my top three favourite artists…of ALL TIME! (very close behind Windsor-Smith and Seienkiwicz)

Efrem Pannell

June 11, 2014 at 3:35 pm

I wish I could really describe why the Paul Smith run was so powerful. I wrote to Wizard Magazine, and said that Paul Smith was the most underrated Xmen Artists, and I still believe that.

Can you imagine how many issues this would stretch out in this era of comics? It’s amazing how much in terms of plots, subplots, and detail this comic contained. The 60 cent era of comics was Marvel’s best.

Smith’s work run as artist on the X-Men came as both a breath of fresh air and a revelation that super-hero comics could be drawn in a different style than the Marvel House style (which I still enjoy). It’s been more than 30 years since I looked at those panels but every moment and line is burned into my brain. I recall being so disappointed when I received the first issue in the mail where Smith was gone. Sure the art of JRJR grew on me but it had nowhere the impact that Smiths did. he’s a master at visual story-telling.

Man, I love how grim Logan’s expression is at the end of that fight right before Mariko stops him. It’s so clear that he’s determined. He’s been stabbed through the chest, nearly had his head cut off, yet his lips are pressed, and he’s going in for the kill. Modern artists would have drawn lips drawn back and teeth gritted; Smith’s image is so much more convincing.

Nu-D: Yeah, it’s a good look. It’s like an actor speaking quietly rather than yelling when they’re pissed off. Much more effective!

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