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Kitty Pryde and Wolverine (Review/Retrospective)

With our month looking at Avengers comics officially over, we thought it might be fun to dig into that other iconic Marvel property, the X-Men. Join us for a month of X-Men related reviews and discussion.

Chris Claremont didn’t invent Wolverine, but he defined him. Long before Wolverine was appearing in multiple team books and multiple solo series, the short and hairy Canadian was developed within Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men. When the time came to develop the character beyond that, it was Claremont that handled the four-issue Wolverine series, and it was Claremont who handled this six-issue Kitty Pryde & Wolverine miniseries. The market had yet to reach Wolverine saturation. However, Kitty Pryde & Wolverine is remarkable as a spiritual extension of Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men run. Without the influence of Frank Miller, this six-issue collection feels more distinctly like a microcosm of Claremont’s extended work on the franchise, bringing into focus his strong character work, his pulpy sense of storytelling and, occasionally, his excessively purple prose.

Stayin’ sharp…

Kitty Pryde & Wolverine is, as the title would imply, the story of two characters. Neither is short-changed in Claremont’s script, with both receiving fairly ample development and exploration across the miniseries. Of course, it’s Kitty Pryde who grows the most, if only because she’s never really had the benefit of this sort of exposure before, but Claremont does get to add a few more details to Wolverine’s engaging and insightful relationship with Japan. It’s a surprisingly dense miniseries, feeling quite substantial for both – this doesn’t feel like an attempt to cash-in on Wolverine’s increasing popularity, nor to dilute the X-Men brand. Quite a lot happens, and quite a lot of it has significant consequences – at least for Kitty.

Claremont is renowned for his strong female characters. He was crafting these iconic women long before comic books had embraced the idea that female characters could be confident or empowered. In fact, some would argue that superhero comics are still trying diversify and accept the equality of the sexes. Claremont’s Storm was, with Wolverine, the bedrock of his extend Uncanny X-Men run, a pillar of strength who refused to compromise. In what felt like a strong statement from the author, Storm even managed to beat the team’s long-established leader Cyclops after she had been de-powered, asserting her right to lead the team.

Child’s play…

Claremont would craft and develop several notable female characters during his run – arguably Claremont crafted more memorably female characters than male ones. That shouldn’t be a big deal, but it was huge milestone against the backdrop of the American comic book industry in the seventies and eighties. Kitty Pryde was one such character, created by John Byrne and Claremont, and appearing very shortly before their collective opus, The Dark Phoenix Saga. She was a kid struggling with everyday concerns, including an attempt to hold her fracturing family together, and then she had the burden of being a mutant just heaped on top. I can see why the character caught on so well.

In fact, Joss Whedon – who made the character the emotional centre of his impressive Astonishing X-Men run – has cited Kitty Pryde as the inspiration for Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, and it’s not hard to see why. Avoiding many of the problems surrounding the characterisation of teenagers in comic books, Kitty was an engaging and appealing character on her own terms. However, like most of Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men cast, she didn’t remain a static character. She evolved and grew under Claremont’s pen, just like Storm or Jean Grey. Sure, some of Claremont’s developments were… less than organic, but he always kept his cast in perpetual motion.

Face-off…

Here, Kitty is brainwashed by an evil sensei and turned into an assassin. As I said, it’s not the most organic development, but underneath the pulpy story mechanics you can very clearly see that Claremont is reworking the character. “He’s taking me apart, piece by piece,” Kitty observes of her captor, and it seems to be so that her creator can put her back together again. Reflecting on the experience, even Kitty accepts that she has changed, “I’m not a Kitty anymore — much as I wish differently — I’ve grown up.” It was a rite of passage. Sure, most teens fall in love, or undergo a test of character, or learn to drive, or move out. Kitty, being an X-Man, doesn’t have it so easy.

Claremont’s Kitty Pryde was never weak, per se. She did, after all, help take down the Hellfire Club in her first appearance, and did do all manner of cool stuff while in the X-Men. (Including taking down a demon at Christmas, because Xavier’s insurance premiums probably weren’t high enough.) However, Claremont transforms her here into a kick-ass sword-wieldin’ warrior who doesn’t just look out for herself, but is well capable of defending herself if needs be.

Cutting away the old Kitty…

And while Claremont’s plotting might occasionally take a turn towards the surreal (and being possessed by a “psychic clone” of an immortal sensei is marginally less weird than turning Storm into a child or changing Betsy Braddock into an Asian ninja assassin), Claremont has a very strong sense of character and theme. His characters are always pushing forwards. “She has endured and suffered so much, will she ever again be the same girl she was?” Mariko asks towards the end of the miniseries. “No,” Wolverine replies, “but life itself is a process of continual change. Each day we’re a little different.” That’s the great thing about Claremont’s writing, at least to me.

Of course, the stranger and more esoteric stuff is also on display here. As seems to be required for a Claremont plot, there’s a creepy mind control domination and submission thing going on, as a pervy bad guy takes a disturbing amount of pleasure in owning his very own X-Woman. There’s even an excuse for Claremont’s age play, as Kitty (already quite young, mind you) is reverse aged into a baby. (Albeit, to be fair, only in a vision.) I have to admit, even after reading a large volume of Claremont, I can’t help but be a little unnerved at the way the same ideas seem to keep coming up, time and again.

Howling at the moon…

Of course, I suspect a large part of the appeal of Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men was the somewhat kinky style, as Claremont touched upon ideas and themes that were somewhat more adult than most of his contemporaries. It’s hard to argue that there isn’t a strong deviant sexual subtext running through Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men from the fetish gear of the Hellfire Club to the Alien-inspired subtext of the Brood. There’s even hints here that young Kitty is developing her own sexual identity, as she longs for one of “Peter’s special cuddles.”

Of course, the collection also features Wolverine, and it makes for a fine thematic successor to the original Wolverine miniseries, as Wolverine returns to Japan. As written by Claremont, Wolverine was the superhero-as-cowboy-as-samurai, the next logical step in a pop culture evolution. “Why one might almost believe we are in the wild west,”Ogún notes at the climax, between sword fights with a self-healing mutant, when happens to chance upon a six-shooter. In fact, Claremont seems uncannily fond of defenestration, recalling those old Westerns where any bar fight required at least one character to go through the window.

The claws are out…

It makes sense. The cowboy is the spiritual descendant of the ronin, the masterless samurai. A Fistful of Dollars is, after all, a remake of Yojimbo, and The Magnificent Seven can traces its roots to The Seven Samurai. Allowing Wolverine to adopt Japan as his spiritual homeland was a stroke of genius, as it captured the dichotomy of the character remarkably well – the honour code built upon a history of warfare.

“I hate cities,” Wolverine muses, prowling the rooftops, “hate civilisation with all its idiot rules. Gimme the free, open, elemental space of my mountains… where a man holds his fate in his own hands. No lies there, no deception, no compromise. So why, I wonder, do I love this land, this city? It’s probably the most structured society on Earth, laced tight with with centuries of tradition and ritual, covering every conceivable aspect of public and private life. I was born to one world. But I choose to be part of this other.”

A slice of the action…

This was the essential conflict at the heart of Claremont’s Wolverine, and I reckon the simplicity of it is at the heart of the character’s appeal. He is a man wants to be better than an animal. Confronting the villain, Wolverine thinks, “The animal in me wants to quit — why make all this effort? No matter what I do, this’ll end the same. Ogún’s got me beat. Once, I would’ve listened. Thing is, I’m a man now.” Of course, Wolverine once had the origin of being a hyper-evolved wolverine, but it works much better as a metaphor.

It’s that surreal combination of his more animal attributes (keen sense of smell, claws, beserker rages) with his desire to be more than the sum of his parts. Also, I suspect, the rather strange combination of the character’s stoic silence with Claremont’s excessively purple prose. So you end up with this rather tough badass who thinks the most ridiculously eloquent thoughts, creating a strange and appeal dichotomy.

Character growth, Claremont style…

As with most of Claremont’s work, Wolverine is still distinctly mortal here. “Moreover,” he explains, in one issue’s mandatory awkward exposition dump, “I’m a mutant, with a fast-healing talent that can handle almost any wound, poison or disease. Makes me pretty hard to kill. But there are ways.” Nobody ever thought he’d actually die, but I always liked that Claremont reigned in the healing factor. (Claremont would eventually kill the character in his separate continuity X-Men Forever series.)

It also seems like the villain, Ogún, alludes to one of Claremont’s proposed plots for the character. “How strange, my old comrade, are the ways of fate,” Ogún reflects. “Kitty’s, you see, is what I originally had in my head for you.” It recalls Claremont’s plan to have Wolverine brainwashed by the Hand, ending in his death. This would end up quite similar to Mark Millar’s later Wolverine plotline, Enemy of the State.

He can see right through her…

I also like how Claremont takes the necessary plot device of limiting the story to Wolverine and Kitty (rather than expanding it to include the X-Men) and actually turns it into a fairly logical character beat. When she’s trying to fight the brainwashing, Kitty’s first instinct is to get Charles Xavier to exorcise the demon, which seems like a fairly logical plan – Professor Xavier is, after all, one of the most powerful telepathic characters in comic books. If he can’t do it, then it can’t be done. So that seems like a logical story beat, albeit one that would change Kitty Pryde & Wolverine into an Uncanny X-Men spin-off.

However, ever a fan of shrewd character work, Claremont turns this into an important defining moment for both Wolverine and Kitty. “If you run to Charley,” Wolverine warns his young ward, “it doesn’t matter if the cure’s successful, you’ll never be strong again. You’ll always be dependent on Xavier, always subconsciously turn to him when things get rough.” It justifies why Wolverine has been so skittish about devoting himself completely to the X-Men, despite hanging around for so long. He wants Professor Xavier to make him a better person, but he doesn’t want to sacrifice his independence and strength for it. Kitty astutely replies, “You sound like you’re speaking from experience.”

The Demon’s Head…

That said, I couldn’t help but smile at the training sequences featuring Wolverine and Kitty Pryde. Claremont always had an eye on popular culture, and those sequences feel more than a little bit like The Karate Kid as Wolverine tries to transform his young student into a zen warrior. As she struggles to lift a sword, she thinks, “All those other times… I was making a big effort to hold the sword. Why not simply just do it?” I couldn’t help but here Yoda observe, “There is no try.”

Kitty Pryde & Wolverine features the art of Al Milgrom. Milgrom isn’t nearly as polished as Frank Miller, but I think that’s smart. Anything too close to Miller’s style would seem like an attempt to emulate the artist, which would do a disservice to the material. Instead, Milgrom’s art is more cartoony, befitting the focus on Kitty. That doesn’t mean his action sequences aren’t intense, or that his character moments are effective. In fact Milgrom’s panel layouts are superb – often switching from a horizontal layout to a more vertical style, the read is never confused about the sequence of events unfolding.

Target practice makes perfect…

Milgrom even, rather awesomely, added an introduction to the trade paperback. It’s illustrated, in which he offers a brief and affectionate overview of the project. It’s a nice touch that immediately distinguishes Milgrom’s work from that of most artists (and provides a nice contrast to Claremont’s occasionally excessively wordy introductions to other collections of his work). It’s a lovely extra, and I’m disappointed there aren’t more Marvel comics collected with the same love and care.

Kitty Pryde & Wolverine is a nice miniseries which does an efficient job of capturing Claremont’s work on both Wolverine and the rest of the the X-Men. It’s a small sampling, but it offers a representative feeling for the writer’s work – there’s that curious blend of awesome characterisation with strange plot development and solid thematic exploration. It’s a nice, fun little story, and you can’t go too far wrong with it, if you are looking for a Wolverine or a Kitty Pryde recommendation.

You might enjoy our looks at Chris Claremont’s other Wolverine-related work:

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