The Issue: A Very X-Men X-Mas in ‘Uncanny’ #143
Welcome to The Issue, where we celebrate some of the strangest, most interesting and distinctive single issue comic stories ever to grace the medium. You know the ones; silent issues, sideways issues, backwards issues... and issues set during certain rapidly-approaching holidays.
What makes something a piece of Christmas culture? Does a late December setting qualify? Is a smattering of snow and tinsel enough? When that one friend tells you their favourite Christmas film is Die Hard or Gremlins, or if they're being especially stubborn, Iron Man 3, are they wrong?
See, Chris Claremont and John Byrne's Uncanny X-Men #143 features plenty of festive imagery: the bulk of the issue takes place on December 24th, with a brief 'night before Christmas' riff, and there are Christmas trees and snow, the latter apparently summoned by Storm. It's the home of the “Merry Christmas, sexy” moment I first encountered in Joss Whedon and John Cassaday's Astonishing X-Men #1, where Kitty Pryde grabs a sprig of mistletoe and plants a kiss on Colossus's cheek, turning the steel man pink.
But it's not really a Christmas story. These Christmas trappings are quickly jettisoned to get to the real meat of the story, in which Kitty basically acts out the third act of Alien inside the X-Mansion. The fact that the issue is named 'Demon' should give you an idea of exactly how interested it is in festive matters, and fair enough – the issue's cover-date is March, and its protagonist is Jewish.
There's a page early on thhaat makes it abundantly clear that this isn't going to be a Very Kitty Christmas, as a pair of excited newlyweds sneak into a forest to chop down their first Christmas tree... only to disemboweled by the claws of the titular villain.
The role Christmas plays in the story is basically a plot device to have Kitty left on her own by the grown-ups – something that genuinely does evoke childhood memories of Christmas for me, though that's possibly because of Home Alone.
Just as with Macaulay Culkin, it soon transpires that Kitty isn't truly alone in the house. But, this being the X-Men, the threat she faces is a little more fearsome than a pair of bungling burglars. Which is where the whole Alien thing comes in. The N'Garai demon that breaks into the mansion bears a remarkable likeness to H.R. Giger's Xenomorph.
Byrne, penciling the last X-Men issue he worked on with Claremont, does a marvelous job of making the N'Garai scary. He throws the monster into deep shadow, twists its anatomy into shapes that just don't look right, draws it looming over Kitty … but it's hard to deny the similarity to Sigourney Weaver's extraterrestrial nemesis.
Claremont has never been above a cheeky pop-culture reference, and the issue explicitly acknowledges the influence, as Kitty wishes for one of the flamethrowers “they used … to fight the monster in that movie.” Weirdly, though, Alien isn't actually the closest cinematic comparison for this story.
If the film wasn't released five years after the comic, I could've sworn Uncanny X-Men #143 was a pastiche of Die Hard. Lone plucky hero facing off against a much more powerful force? Check. Borderline irrelevant Christmas setting? Check. Hero utilizing the space around them to overcome the villain? That's a big fat check.
This last one is the real key. According to architecture blogger Geoff Manaugh, Die Hard's biggest successes come through "its depiction of architectural space". The argument is elegantly recounted in Filmish, Edward Ross' collection of comic film essays, but briefly: the idea is that John McClane navigates the space of the Nakatomi Plaza in ways it was never designed for. He travels through air vents and hoses and maintenance tunnels, "basically every conceivable way but passing through its doors and hallways," as Manaugh puts it.
Kitty does the exact same thing, but with two vital differences that result from this being an X-Men comic. First, thanks to her mutant power, Kitty doesn't need any conveniently-placed air vents – she just phases straight through walls, floors, and ceilings. Second, Die Hard has to spend some time establishing the space of the Nakatomi Plaza, but the X-Mansion is a place most readers are already intimately familiar with.
That means that Claremont and Byrne are able to condense their establishing shots into a couple of mistletoe-wreathed pages in the lobby and a couple more in the Danger Room before it all kicks off. But more importantly, there's an added thrill to seeing the Danger Room, the dorms, the Blackbird hangar turned into weapons by Kitty because, if you've read enough X-Men comics, the chances are that these spaces already feel at least a little bit real to you.
There is a missed opportunity here though, which gives Die Hard the edge, at least as a Christmas story. As Kitty runs around and through the mansion, there are no lights, no trees, not even a stray present – apparently the X-Men don't go in big for decorations. Nor, perhaps more gravely, does it at any point feature a Christmas song by Run DMC.
But, look, here's the secret about Christmas culture; It can be anything you want. Your favourite festive film doesn't have to be A Muppet Christmas Carol (though that is clearly the correct answer to the question). It doesn't even to be something set at Christmas.
I'm listening to my Christmas playlist as I write this. Although most of the songs on it go light on the ol' sleigh bells, they're still my way of summoning up that elusive Christmassy feeling because I've listened to them for the past decade of Decembers.
Comics have never been part of my Christmas ritual in the same way. Maybe it's time to slide this issue into rotation, between Die Hard and Home Alone – if only so I can work out once and for all which is the best.