As a geek, I like to have petty and pointless debates. Top 10 lists, worst 10 lists, discussions of which comics artist we think might be more likely to abuse a higher volume of cocaine. That sort of thing. As an academic, I also like to overanalyse things because sometimes it isn’t overanalysis at all. Sometimes there are things in this world that can mean a great deal to us and affect us on a profound level without us ever really understanding why. Questions like “why is Star Wars so awesome?” for example, merit this sort of consideration. The idea of resonance (personal or cultural) is not some sort of magical property passed down from the aether that we should neither question nor stare too closely at. Sometimes there’s a reason. Appropriately, the subtitle of Scott McCloud’s groundbreaking “Understanding Comics” is “The Invisible Art.” His central premise (one previously stated by Will Eisner) is that comics effect us in profound ways that we don’t always understand on a conscious level.
Uncanny X-men #168 is my favorite X-men cover in spite of the fact that it has a low volume of actual X-men on it (just one in fact), no villain to provide a foil (at leas not a visible one), and an illustrator who is known for realism rather than the kind of bombast that we might think sells comic books. So why do I like it? I can elaborate, but I’m not alone, either. This cover is one of a handful of iconic X-men covers, each with their own merits. Here’s my theory on why this image is good:
1) Association with a great story. The story in this volume is “Professor Xavier is a Jerk.” Apart from being a delightfully apt observation that the series tends to forget sometimes, it represents the coming out party for one of the better X-men characters. If Wolverine is defined as a character in his assault on the Hellfire Club and Storm is defined as a character during her lifedeath experience, here is Kitty Pryde’s defining story, and she deserves her own cover for it, one that even has a spotlight shining upon her. This issue features a brave, young female protagonist assuming the mantle of hero, a mantle that was not commonly distributed to young female characters during this era in comics. It’s a great story, not just a novel one, and it represents a turning point in comic book depictions of women. The cover becomes iconic of the narrative itself and thus holds a great deal of positive association.
2) The vulnerable hero. I’ve regarded this as my favorite cover for a long time, often secretly, then I read some material about the sexual pathology of horror films and their fetishization of vulnerable women. I immediately became intensely self-critical. Was this cover the X-men’s PG equivalent of a snuff film? Did I have some sort of creepy primitive lust impulse pushing me to like this thing in a way that people in movie theatres long for the heroine to take a shower then get stabbed to death? I still can’t answer these questions with 100% certainty. I think I’m a stand-up guy, but I have the same chemical composition as everyone else. I think the situation is actually the opposite for me, though, in terms of why I like this image.
The old adage is that you can’t be brave if you’re not afraid, and Kitty is very clearly afraid here. Her back is – literally and figuratively – up against the wall. She’s also damaged. She has cuts on her shoulder, torso and leg. Why does this matter? Because there is a tendency in comics to use representations of bodily harm as a badge of honor for heroes – but only in the masculine sense. In this time period, the pedastolized image of women in comics rarely allowed them to suffer a black eye or broken nose in a way that was quite common for their male counterparts – they were left in the far less superheroic space of being “precious,” instead. Jonathon Swift once wrote of the dangers of pedastolization by presenting a male character whose mind is blown when he discovers that women poop. Well, Kitty isn’t shown pooping (thankfully – though now I’m afraid that there’s some sort of fan art out there somewhere…) but she does bleed (even if the blood is barely visible due to standards of the time), and she sweats as well. She’s also of the sidekick tradition, which likewise tends to downplay physical danger for minors, and here she is, all alone, fighting for her life. It’s downright badass, to be frank.
3) Realism. Here’s where the illustrator comes in. I love the work of Paul Smith (as many people do). His Cyclops is my definitive image of that character, and so too with his Kitty. Smith doesn’t like to present us with the ridiculous balloon-orgy image of human musculature or the grim razor-sharp bone structure in cheeks and chins that are so common in comics illustration. His characters look real, and that, of course, greatly enhances the sense of vulnerability. I enjoy the fantasy aspects of X-men as well, but when the danger is meant to be real, it helps if the character looks real themselves. Otherwise, I can’t really see them being in any danger. Issue #168 establishes that sense of stakes, and does so very effectively. By not depicting the villain, of course, it also enhances the sense of mystery – who is attacking Kitty Pryde? Why? Where are her teammates/protectors?
4) Power inversion. Speaking to this same idea of adding realism and creating vulnerability, Kitty Pryde is kind of a unique character. Her power is to become untouchable – a ghost, essentially. Thus, she’s often functionally indestructible. The image of the cover, however, makes it clear that she is not. She has been wounded, and she is scared. It sends the message that the training wheels have come off, and that’s important for a character who joins the team the issue after they suffer their first major loss of a teammate (no offense to Thunderbird). Jean Grey dies during the Dark Phoenix Saga, then Kitty Pryde arrives. The second the X-men are first exposed to intimate mortality, they take on their most vulnerable teammate – a 13 year old girl from the suburbs. Except she’s also their least vulnerable member due to her phasing power. So the book was trying to have it both ways for a while, and here they commit to the very simple idea that Kitty – like any child thrown into superheroics – is not safe. This idea will dominate Claremont’s use of the character for about a decade after this, and, arguably, this is the cover that declares their commitment to that notion. It’s an important context to establish within a medium that is better known for having Batman dress a small child in very bright colours and throw him at serial killers.
Apart from being a beautiful piece of minimalist design with a clear, crisp line. Smith’s cover of 168 has become deservingly iconic. It symbolizes a new, and highly important era for a character that would redefine women in comics, and even beyond. It is well-known that Joss Whedon’s Buffy Summers character (who radically altered the pop culture landscape with regard to women) was based on Kitty Pryde. All in all, the cover of 168 is a big moment, an iconic image, and just a great piece of cultural history.