Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Uncanny X-Men #172 and #173: Bad News Mutants in Breaking Training So They Can Go To Japan... Yet Again!

As anyone who's read this blog knows, I live in Japan and I love American comics with this country as their setting.  Imagine my delight when Comixology delivered up Uncanny X-Men #172 (August 1983) and #173 (September 1983), a couple of thrill-filled Nihon-centric issues originally delivered right to the mailbox of my childhood home and featuring a glimpse of my current home, Marvel-style.

Come to think of it, Uncanny X-Men writer Chris Claremont may be one of the reasons I moved here.  If so, I owe him a huge debt of thanks not just for the entertainment his writing provided me when I was kid about Dani Moonstar's age, but also because here in Japan, I live a life every bit as exciting as Wolverine's.  Okay, not really.  I'm boring.  I've only fought ninja or Yakuza thugs on rare occasions, and only once did I love and have my heart broken by someone as regal and unattainable as Lady Mariko.  I'd love to tell you all about it, but we have important things such as comics to discuss!

It's been years since I last read these two issues.  I plan to give them my full literary attention someday, but for now we're going to confine our discussion to Smith's images of Japan and bits of narration and dialogue in the pages I chose to illustrate this blog entry.  Just from looking at these very pretty pictures, I can tell this story is a direct sequel to 1982's four-issue Wolverine miniseries by Claremont and Frank Miller.  Wolverine Miller's influence runs all throughout their visuals, so much so the cover to #172 features the invitation Wolverine sent his friends at the end of Wolverine #4.  Paul Smith recreates Miller's original image, and even includes the cute handwritten little note from Wolverine to Nightcrawler about bringing beer.

"His Imperial Majesty Hirohito, Emperor of Japan."  He is now referred to as the Emperor Showa, and if you want to place this book within its era here in Japan it would be the Showa 58, the 58th year of the Showa Era.  Imagine receiving an invite from an emperor!  That is one heavy-duty invitation.  Lady Mariko, Wolverine's fiancée, is from a powerful family, apparently.  I love the fanciful Miller-designed attire the loving couple wear in the photo, too.

By the way, beer is readily available in Japan and has been for quite some time, so either Wolverine means bring any decent local brand Nightcrawler can pick up at a convenience store on the way to the ceremony or else pack in his suitcase some favored Canadian label he can't get there.

For this story, Claremont and Smith don't waste any time with flights or airports.  They immediately open with a "widescreen" cityscape and tell us it's Tokyo.  Certainly looks like Tokyo to this ex-pat.  Smith appears to have used a high-contrast photo paste-up to create this image, so what we have is a very convincing night view of the huge concrete and steel electrified wonderland we call Tokyo.

Then we zoom in for a closer view to establish exactly where in...

Uncanny X-Men #172 (August 1983), script: Chris Claremont, pencils: Paul Smith, inks: Bob Wiacek

And there it is!  That telephone-topped building again!  Frank Miller used it in Wolverine, Jim Aparo followed suit in Batman and the Outsiders.  Al Milgrom would also draw it in Kitty Pryde and Wolverine, yet another sequel to or continuation of this storyline.  In this issue, we get to see Smith's super-clean rendering of same. 

Was this telephone an actual Tokyo landmark?  I've been researching this online, but either it wasn't so special people have memorialized it or else it's a figment of Miller's imagination.  Even if this is the case, I think a Tokyo building with a big telephone on top is much more plausible than the existence of a Frank Miller movie that doesn't make Ed Wood weep the tears of artistic validation.  Tokyo is the place for all kinds of outdoor advertisement.  I don't know of any building currently topped with an old-fashioned telephone, but I do know of one topped with what the locals refer to as the "Golden Shit."  It's supposed to be a droplet of beer.  I have to agree with its more scatological nickname.

Anyway, you know you're in 1980s comic book Tokyo if you see the giant telephone.  You know you're in today's real Tokyo if you see a big, gilded turd.

Meguro, as Claremont informs us here, in the voice of his character Wolverine, is indeed an upper class district.  Celebrities and the like live there in expensive high-rise apartments.  It's just the place Mariko's family, the Yashidas, might maintain in Tokyo for their visits there.

Since this is an adventure comic, most of the outdoor scenes take place on the rooftops of those apartments, at night.  That's where the ninja sneak around so they can disrupt wedding plans when they take a notion to do so.  Wolverine and his pal Nightcrawler are pretty good at sneaking around up there, too.  As is Wolverine's erstwhile lover, the thrill-crazed Yukio.

Well, kind of...

Uncanny X-Men #172, Claremont, Smith, Wiacek

"I slipped!"  That would have been a pretty stupid way for Yukio to die, huh?  Lucky for her, Storm was out flying around.

As you can see from this page, Smith constructs his buildings very simply.  Even so, he and inker Bob Wiacek toss enough katakana or hiragana up and down their sides to make things convincing.  His kimono-clad women are the real visual draw in this story.  There's something about the Smith-Wiacek clean-line look, with things pared down to sleek minimalism that goes well with traditional Japanese clothing.  It also helps that Smith and Wiacek draw amazingly beautiful women.  Unfortunately, they also tend to draw them so they resemble each other, except for Yukio and her punk-rock hair.  Smith and Wiacek give her a face with more sharply defined cheekbones and it individualizes her.

The fun extends to the next issue where Wolverine reluctantly teams up with new team member Rogue to fight the villains.  As I've said, I haven't re-read these in detail, so all I know about the plot is the Silver Samurai and Viper want to stop Lady Mariko from marrying Wolverine.  And Storm debuts her Mohawk after hanging out with Yukio.  No doubt spending any amount of time with someone as uninhibited as Yukio would inspire you to drastic style changes.  We'll get into all of this in the future, but for now you don't really need to know the specifics to enjoy our Claremont-Smith travelogue.

Uncanny X-Men #173, the story starts in "the Ginza."  Claremont has Wolverine tell us guide books recommend "the Ginza" for a "good time."  Wolverine's idea of a good time is getting drunk and into a bar fight.  So that's where we find him. 

I really think Wolverine has read the wrong guide books, because Ginza (minus the definite article) is more a shopping area.  And not just any shopping area.  Ginza is where the rich go to drop the big money on Rolex watches, Chanel and Louis Vuitton couture and bags and other luxury goods, many of which cost more each than I make in a month.  There may have been dive bars there in the 1980s.  There may be now.  But I doubt it.  I rather think Wolverine's destination of choice would be the wilder, woolier environs of Golden Gai in Shinjuku's Kabuki-cho neighborhood.

That's where I went when I wanted to pretend to be Wolverine and act all tough.  Whenever I told people I hung out in Kabuki-cho, they'd smile and shake their heads and tell me, "Don't go there!  It's dangerous!"  Dangerous to the tune of the thousands of yen you blow in the kinds of bars Wolverine would more than likely spend his nights. 

No one has ever said anything like that to me about Ginza.  They just told me to go to this famous chocolate shop, which I could never find the one time I tried, way back in 2008.  I did find a toney toy store selling Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull actions figures, the ones with amblyopia.  Some Wolverine, huh?

If you take a closer look at that first vertical panel, notice how Smith includes a puddle in the gutter.  Nice work on the reflections there.  It rains a lot in Japan, so that's a little detail that goes a long way to establishing the setting's bona fides as well.  That image has an impressive sense of place.  That's the Tokyo I've seen with my own eyes.

Uncanny X-Men #173 (September 1983), Claremont, Smith, Wiacek

I'm not too certain about those guys Wolverine's launched through the window.  He does a lot of stuff like that whenever he's in Japan.  Things like this may or may not happen here.  I have a feeling if a foreigner started tossing locals through bar windows, we'd hear about it on the NHK news.  Even more so in the early 80s when we were a rarer breed.  If I had to guess, I'd say this is a more likely to happen in Okinawa where the US military always seems to be stirring things up and causing trouble.  But then, as I've already proven, I'm not Wolverine. 

The worst incident I've ever been involved with was having a guy repeatedly scream, "Pearl Harbor say 'Fuck you!'" at our little drinking group until the bar-owner kicked us out for causing trouble.  I don't blame her.  He was a regular and we were just passing through.  I still wonder what set him off, though.  He approached us in what we thought was a friendly way.  We made small talk in Japanese and tried to use the little abdomen exercise wheel when he asked.  Maybe he felt patronized, or someone said something to offend him when I wasn't paying attention to the conversation.  Perhaps he just hated whitey.  I still don't know what was in his heart.  But I do know he was drunk.

You might read worse stories from other ex-pats here and there around Japan.  Some people attract negativity and bad scenes.  I suppose I've been very lucky in all my years here.  Despite the occasional run-in with Sunfire, mine has been a smooth, laid-back kind of life.  But once again, I don't have adamantium-coated bones or a mutant healing factor.

Marvel Japan is a pretty fun place to visit, isn't it?

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