Axel-In-Charge: Waid & Samnee on "Black Widow" and the Dawn of the All-New, All-Different Era
Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Jim Lee, and the issue is The Uncanny X-Men #275, which was published by Marvel and is cover dated April 1991. However, I’m also taking a look at “Brigg’s Revenge” in Classic X-Men #39, which is cover dated November 1989, Uncanny X-Men #269, which is cover dated October 1990, and even one special tidbit from issue #268! Enjoy!
I know I’m cheating more often than I was earlier in the year, but recently I’ve been featuring artists of whose work I have a lot of examples, and I’m finding it hard to track their development in only five days. I’m sure you don’t mind! Jim Lee, of course, became a super-duper-star on Uncanny X-Men, and I adore the issues he drew. They’re some of my most-read comics, because I bought them so early in my collecting days and I love them so much. Yes, Claremont’s writing is often painful today, but I still look back on them very fondly. What’s interesting from this series’ perspective is that Lee was inked by some different artists, which is why I want to check out a few different issues today. First is his short story from Classic X-Men, “Brigg’s Revenge”!
Classic X-Men seems like a weird animal these days, when so much is available in trade. Marvel reprinted the Claremont run, beginning with Giant-Size X-Men, and beginning in issue #2 (as far as I can tell), they began running back-up stories that were supposed to take place at the same time as the primary issue occurred. They got some pretty good talent to write and draw these back-up stories, and I’m not sure when they stopped doing them – the book changed its name to X-Men Classic with issue #46, and it looks like there wasn’t a back-up in issue #45, the final one of this name. This seems to me like a trade waiting to happen – lots of interesting creators doing short stories – but what the hell do I know – I think an omnibus of the Alan Grant/Norm Breyfogle Batman comics would sell (Marvel has reprinted this particular story, so that’s nice). Anyway, Lee drew this story, which was written by Ann Nocenti, and it’s one of those cool little short stories that might have been cooler if it had had more impact. As far as I know, Billy Briggs has never been seen since, so his mind game has no effect. Oh well.
This is Lee’s first X-Men work, and it’s inked by Joe Rubinstein. Lee has become more “Lee-like” by this time, but Rubinstein’s inks, we’ll see, are a bit more solid than some of the other people to ink Lee. He doesn’t use a lot of lines on Storm’s hair, and those he does use are sturdy, making her hair less wavy and more thick. In Panel 2, Briggs has rough inks on his face, implying that he’s not a terribly high-class kind of dude. The Kirby Krackle coming from his eye is always keen to see – we saw two days ago that Lee liked that effect, so I imagine he put it in here. We get a lot of spot blacks, but they’re chunks of black, while later Lee work would use sleeker black effects. We’ll see some of that below.
What’s awesome about this story is that Briggs approaches Ororo because he wants to talk to her about being a mutant, and she totally brushes him off – she doesn’t even talk to him, which leads to this page, where Ororo is dazzled by Dreamy McHandsome there even though she ought to know what it feels like to be discriminated against. That’s why I wish these stories had more impact – Ororo doesn’t realize that she’s being as mean as some anti-mutant bigot, but it never comes up. Anyway, this page is much more Jim Lee-esque, as we can see. He’s drawing his faces a bit wider, especially the male ones, which is a Lee staple. Neither Ororo nor the “gallant” dude are over-hatched, which is nice to see in a Jim Lee comic. Panel 4 is what would become, if it hadn’t already, a “classic” Lee face. Briggs’s hair is that thin, flyaway style that would come to define so many of Lee’s characters, while he gives him eyebrows that look slightly thicker than they ought to be. He has thin eyes, which is also something Lee would do more and more of, and a fairly large mouth. Even the angle at which Lee draws him would be somewhat of a staple as Lee got more popular. Rubinstein’s inks are nice in that panel – Lee puts in the blacks at the top of his face, I assume, and Rubinstein’s harsh lines around his nose, cheeks, and mouth make him look even angrier. Billy Briggs is full of rage!
We never actually find out what Briggs’s mutant power is – he fires generic bursts of energy, which I guess is good enough for a one-off character. He blasts a car next to the X-Men to get their attention, and then we get this sequence, where he tells Storm she has to choose who he’s going to kill. In that first panel, Lee gives us a creepy version of Briggs as he goes a bit around the bend. We get the hair, again, and Lee expands his mouth, making it almost Liefeldian (there’s a panel on the next page that I’m not going to show which is even more like our Rob). The smoke around Briggs means that Lee can pull that “disappearing leg” trick that a lot of Image artists used to avoid drawing feet. Briggs’s legs simply fade, with the black of his shadowed legs becoming hatching and then nothing. Once again, we see that Rubinstein doesn’t hatch too much, which is a good idea. Yes, Logan has a lot of hair, but that’s to be expected. Other than that, the inking is pretty restrained.
Ororo chooses Wolverine, as she thinks he’d have a better chance at survival, and before Briggs can finish the runt off, the other X-Men spring into action. The wisdom of Peter using a giant log to clock a man with no protection on the face isn’t addressed here, as surprisingly, Colossus doesn’t actually kill Briggs with the log, just knock him down. Lee, as we see, has become much more fluid with his action, so it looks quite good here. His pose of Briggs is what we might expect from someone who got bonked by a big log, while Peter’s swing is drawn well. Lee or Rubinstein uses a lot of lines on the log to imply swift movement, as they do in Panel 2 when Storm lifts Briggs off the ground. We can see, as with many other artists, Lee gets a bit sketchier when his figures aren’t in close-up, but in the case of Panel 2, it’s interesting that the figures look a bit stiffer, as well. In the final panel, Logan’s face is unusual – it seems like Rubinstein’s sturdier lines might work against Lee’s fluidity a bit too much, as Logan is more Liefeldian than Lee-ish. The squarer mouth, the heavy hatching, and the thatchier hair seem to imply that Rubinstein went a bit too far with the inks. But maybe Lee did more of that, and it’s just a small misstep.
Not long after this, Lee became the regular penciler on Uncanny X-Men, and comics history was made!!!! I’m going to jump to another one of my favorite issues, #269, when Rogue battles Ms. Marvel. Rogue’s in it – of course it’s going to be one of my favorites!
I’m not going to show very much from this issue, because as anyone who actually owns it can tell you, the print quality is terrible. It was on newsprint, which isn’t a bad thing inherently, but a lot of the pages seem to have bled through to the back, while others are blurry, making me think however it was shot from the original art was lousy. The page where we first see Lila Cheney is awful, but that’s just the worst example, as the fight between Carol and Rogue isn’t much better. This seemed to happen a lot around this time, and I’m not sure why. It makes me want to buy the Jim Lee Visionaries trade[s?] just to see this artwork reproduced in a better fashion. So I’m just going to show a few pages, mainly because Art Thibert inked this, and it’s slightly different than when Rubinstein inked Lee, and it’s different in a weird way. The biggest thing you might notice about this sequence is Rogue’s eyes. Lee had begun making his characters’ eyes thinner, yet with Rogue, we get those wider, almost manga-like eyes. It only happens in this issue, too, which makes me wonder if Thibert had something to do with it. Does Lee not draw in eyes and lets his inkers do it? If Lee drew them, why does he show Rogue with wider eyes than the other characters? Why doesn’t he show Rogue with these wide eyes all the time? THIS MYSTERY IS LIKE AN ONION! Oh, and I like Pretty Boy’s anti-Punisher shirt. Bwah-ha-ha!
So Rogue goes to the Savage Land blah blah blah. It’s Claremontian Craziness at its best! All of the Lee-isms we see over the next two decades are creeping into the work, with the excessive hair (with strands coming down between the eyes!), the long pony tails and the giant bangs, the adorable noses, and, for his inkers, a tendency to use a lot of lines. Thibert is still a bit restrained, but not as much as Rubinstein was, as the dinosaur is hatched pretty severely, while Thibert or Lee uses vertical hatching on Rogue’s left foot instead of spot blacks, which we might have seen earlier in Lee’s career or from a different inker. Rogue’s eyes are still a bit odd, and I wonder if it’s because Rogue is still supposed to be young – I would assume she’s still a teenager, or perhaps very early 20s – and the eyes make her look younger. I don’t know what age Claremont thought she was at this point, but the eyes and even her frame make her look younger – when Lee drew more mature women, as we’ll see below, he tended to give them longer and thinner legs, while Rogue’s legs are shorter and, while no one would accuse her of plumpness, they’re a bit thicker than other Lee women. I don’t know what Claremont, Lee, and Thibert were thinking with regard to Rogue. Perhaps we shall never know!!!!
Let’s move on to our next issue!
Issue #275 was the culmination of the “Rogue in the Savage Land” story as well as what we thought was the end of the “X-Men rescuing Xavier” story (but it wasn’t!!!!), so it’s a 40-page chunk of Lee art, which to my almost-20-year-old brain was a jolt of sheer awesome. Scott Williams, who would become Lee’s go-to inker, is working on these pages, and we see much more of the Lee Look here. Lee has never been afraid of intricate page layouts, and with Claremont writing a script (in San Diego, John Romita may have been joking when he said Claremont could give him 200-page scripts that he needed to fit into 22 pages, but if he was exaggerating, I’d bet it wasn’t by much), Lee needed to pack panels onto the page. So we get Jubilee pulling a spear out of Logan’s back, Logan stalking off to find Deathbird, and Ororo commanding Jubilee to free the rest of them. Lee’s Jubilee is awesome – he and Williams always got her facial expressions really well, showing her as an adolescent who tries to act like she’s not out of her depth but really is. The way her face contorts as she pulls the spear out and she knows she’s hurting Logan, who has become a father figure to her, is excellent. She’s wearing one of those hideous X-costumes, which makes her look like she’s wearing a completely inappropriate bathing suit, but that’s the way it is, I guess. Ororo’s excellent early Nineties haircut, with the trademark Lee flop on the top and the shaved look around the base, is … well, it is, I suppose. Logan in Panel 5 is where I want to focus, because if there’s one thing that Williams became known for, it’s hatching a TON over Lee’s pencils. We don’t see it too much here, as Lee and Williams stick to black chunks, but the cross-hatching on Logan’s shoulders and the somewhat unnecessary line work on his chest, arm, and crotch point the way to future excess. Note, too, that Logan’s foot disappears in the haze. Oh, such handy haze! In this case, the hatching is not a bad look, as Lee and Williams want to show that Logan is going to a dark place because he’s mighty pissed at Deathbird. I get that, but I don’t have to like the trend!
Rogue, Nick Fury, and Magneto go off to fight Zaladane, but the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicopter gets shot down and Rogue ends up in the jungle. Lee, naturally, doesn’t waste any chance to rip her pants and show Rogue’s butt, which I certainly don’t mind at all, and hey, the girl got eaten by a dinosaur, so give her a break, man! Notice that we’re getting more busyness here – the dinosaur is hatched pretty heavily, which makes it look tougher and older, but it’s still creeping toward unnecessary excess. The one thing I don’t like about this page is the coloring on the dinosaur and Rogue in Panel 2. Both Glynis Oliver and Joe Rosas are credited with colors in this issue, so I’m not sure who did this panel, but the fact that they’re colored yellow isn’t the best thing. I get that the colorist wanted to make the violence stand out, so we get a more dramatic orange and yellow palette, but I’m not sure if it works as well as it should. The preponderance of detail in that panel means that Rogue and the dinosaur almost blend together, so that while we see Rogue, it’s hard to tell completely what’s going on. This is another issue where the reproduction isn’t as great, which makes it more unclear – crisper lines might have worked in this panel. It’s frustrating.
I LOVE this pose. It’s so “that era” that it makes me smile whenever I see it. What in the hell is Zaladane doing? She has used that mutate, Worm, to seize control of the Russian colonel, who stands behind her, and I guess she might be trying to seduce him? But why? That outfit totally rules, too, as we know Jim Lee is the best designer of comic book clothing EVER!!!! So Zaladane is standing there, pushing her toned belly against the column and then sticking her butt out. Her legs stretch forever, and of course she has stiletto heels because that’s the easiest thing to walk in. This is the way Lee draws more mature women, as opposed to Rogue in the earlier examples, and that’s why I wonder if that’s why Rogue’s eyes are that wide. I love that she has all those horizontal stripes. It’s just awesome.
Magneto begins to “discorporate,” and Lee gives us this tremendous page of his memories as the procedure takes hold. Brainchild and Colonel Semyanov, in the upper left, are drawn fairly roughly, with Lee being somewhat sketchy and Williams using thicker, sketchier lines. Note the arch on Brainchild’s nose! As we get into Magneto’s brain, Lee does some nice work with him. First of all, as he kneels on the disc and grabs his head, we can see that Lee simply uses an outline and thick black on his body, which makes him look more beaten up. On the right, while Lee still draws his stereotypical hair, he draws Magneto more basically, with black for eyes and a simple shape for his mouth. The blacks on his face also throw him into more stark relief, especially when we compare him to his “beloved Isabelle,” who is more Lee-ish. Lee or Williams drips ink on the page to simulate blood splatter, and deeper in the background, we get flicks of paint that create a jagged foundation for the page. This is really well done, and it hints to some of Lee’s versatility.
We get some nice action here, as Rogue smashes through Zaladane’s goons before getting zapped herself. The perspective is a bit weird in Panel 1, as we’re supposed to believe that Rogue is flying parallel to the ground, but if she’s doing that, how are the bad guys standing? If she’s flying upward from the ground, are they flying through the air as well? It’s very weird. In Panel 2, we see Shanna and Ka-Zar, both of whom are typical Lee characters. Shanna’s hair is long and lush, while Ka-Zar has that movie-star hair that Lee loves. Williams, as we can see, does some good work with the hair on Fury and Ka-Zar, while he uses thicker lines on Ka-Zar’s muscles, defining them pretty well. Panel 3 is pretty cool, as Zaladane blasts Rogue, and Lee does a neat job with the perspective. Rogue’s uniform gets even more shredded, which Lee shows pretty well, and I like the overlay effect of Zaladane’s power. Meanwhile, Oliver’s or Rosas’s use of blue and pink when Zaladane uses her power is neat. We don’t see it as well as we do in other panels, but you can get a good sense of it.
Magneto kills the colonel and then Zaladane in this tremendous sequence. As we can see, the hatching is slowly becoming more apparent, as we get a lot of black blood all over the place, so much body hair, and flyaway hair on Magneto, Ka-Zar, Rogue, and Zaladane. The bangs are tremendous on all of them, too. Lee rips up Zaladane’s robe in Panel 6/7 (it comes after both the Rogue/Fury one and the Ka-Zar one), and notice that the wonderful haze once again covers up Magneto’s feet. Lee is becoming a bit more angular with his faces, and notice how much Magneto, Semyanov, and Ka-Zar look like Briggs in that earlier example. The male eyebrows are becoming a bit more wild (yes, Magneto and Semynov are a bit older and their hair is a bit crazier, but even Ka-Zar’s brows are a bit poufy), while we get nice black/red color on Rogue’s and Zaladane’s lips. As melodramatic as Claremont’s script is, Lee does a good job showing the anguish on the characters’ faces as Magneto makes his choice. The expressions are very cool, but Lee and Williams’s shading is excellent, too. Obviously, this was back when Marvel used a bit more restraint, so we don’t see Zaladane get skewered, and Lee building the tension to that point is really well done.
So that’s the awesome work Lee did on Uncanny X-Men. “But Greg,” you say, especially if you’re Tom Fitzpatrick, “we come here to see more Sexy Time Jim Lee Ladies! What the hell, man?” Well, don’t let anyone say I don’t listen to the fictional comments of my readers, so here’s a scene from issue #268, the famous Wolverine/Captain America/Black Widow story:
Yes, that’s Psylocke smoking a cigarette and Natasha going on board a ship owned by Matsuo Tsurayaba, who helped turn Betsy into a ninja. Oh, and the Strucker twins (also known as Fenris) are around, too, because Fenris kicks ass (don’t even tell me it’s not true!). But look at those ladies! And look at those outfits! 1990 FTMFW, yo!
Lee, of course, went on to co-found Image, but for a long time, I didn’t buy any Lee comics because I just wasn’t interested in his Image work. But tomorrow, I want to check out a very cool short story he drew from the end of the decade, not the beginning of it. You know you want to check it out! And be sure to delve deep into the archives!
Comics Should Be Good accepts review copies. Anything sent to us will (for better or for worse) end up reviewed on the blog. See where to send the review copies.