Monday, 17 September 2012

On Kitty Pryde (The 12 Greatest Super-Heroines No 4)

In which the blogger attempts to explain to himself why he thinks so highly of the character of Kitty Pryde, despite having read relatively little of her adventures since the early 1980s. Reader beware, an entirely sentimental and self-indulgent piece follows;

My vote for the best Kitty/Kate Pryde tale ever. For all that it's a fine, and of course oft-imitated, cover, it's a shame that Kate's reduced to the role of woman-in-need-of-saving in it.
        
All men may well lead lives of quiet desperation, but not Chris Claremont's X-Men. Even sitting alone in darkened rooms, their angst-saturated soliloquies were so stiffly and precisely expressed, so congested with despair and anxiety, that Claremont's stories fairly trembled and grumbled with apprehension and misery. In their most private, reflective moments, his character's still seemed to be shouting at the reader, desperate to catch our attention and avoid being misunderstood or ignored. Even the sight of two friendly mutants passing each other in a corridor could project a sense of paint-blistering intensity, with the simplest of greetings coming complete with the minutiae of back-story, declarations of motivation, and suspicions concerning brewing conflicts. And this passionate, soap-charged excess was all delivered with such unnatural self-awareness and purpose that the page often seemed full of the likes of worthy, declaiming drama students expressing the sub-text of an end-of-term play prior to learning their actual lines.

     
Yet this emotionally claustrophobic, psychologically volatile world of mutants, aliens, standard-issue super-folks and even a few homo sapiens never drowned out Kitty Pryde's appeal as the everywoman of the X-Men. Though her character eventually began to reflect the same degree of unceasing, amped-up suffering which all of Claremont's cast inevitably did, she remained far more concerned with recognisably real-world concerns than most of her fellows. The suffering of eternally-stricken characters such as Wolverine and Phoenix served as broad metaphors for everyday human experience. But Pryde's raison d'etre in the book long remained that of broadly reflecting life as it was most typically lived in the world beyond Xavier's School, the Baxter Building and Avengers Mansion. Her concerns were at first glance banal by contrast to the never-pausing End Of Everythings which perpetually threatened the X-Men, and yet that's exactly what kept her character and presence fresh and vital during those first few years. No matter what outlandish, and often tiresomely repetitive, danger threatened the X-Men as a whole, Pryde was also concerned with challenges such as her parent's divorce, the most appropriate way to relate to folks far older than herself, her ever-deepening affection for the ultimately disappointing Piotr Nikolaievitch Rasputin, and her choices of code-names and costumes. In short, Kitty's life was centred far more on her relationships with family, friendship, romance, authority and social status than most of her fellow super-people's ever were, and that left Claremont's tales of space whales and genocidal holocaust victims seeming far more human and involving than they otherwise might have. Even the most cosmic of circumstances tended to have intimate as well as widescreen repercussions for Pryde, and so - of course - it was she who returned from space with Lockhood, an extra-terrestrial dragon who'd decided to audition for the role of Kitty-accompanying pet.

 
And so, when Pryde sulked at the prospect of being reduced in the ranks to membership of the New Mutants, it was an expression of everyone's fear of being dropped back a year, of being humiliatingly shifted a demeaning rung down the hierarchy. When she owned up to her fear, as she did when she found herself in space for the first time, she spoke out for everyone worn down by the blase responses of super-women and men facing the likes of Galactus for the twelfth time. The very qualities of extreme unease and wonder which the more experienced super-people might never express simply had to be given to Pryde, who couldn't ever have not gasped and gulped at the things she was experiencing. In her, the reader could see at the very least a passing reflection of their own selves and their own lives, which in turn grounded the grand mutant-opera of the X-Books in matters far more recognisable and fundamental than one more Armageddon and yet another heinous secret super-conspiracy ever could. The more ridiculously excessive the characters around her became, and the more supremely ludicrous the menaces which threatened, the more her own appeal as well as theirs was amplified.

        
For all that artistic co-creator John Byrne regretted that Claremont had made Pryde a computer expert, it didn't diminish the essential slither of the everyday which she brought. In a world apparently crowded with fantastical mutants, the ability to work quickly and effectively with ICT only served as yet another marker of relatively normality anyway. (Most of her fellow cast members at the time would never have been shown doing anything so everyday and undynamic as staring at data on a screen.) Such skills were, after all, perfectly in keeping with Pryde's ghostly power-set, given that she was, as a fighter, reliant upon her intellect and her ability to improvise to a degree which many of her fellow X-Men never had to be. To have ramped up Pryde's super-powers, as typically occurs to less-kinetically impressive superheroes as the years pass, would have been to have missed the very reason for her appeal. In our hearts, after all, most of know that in the impossible case of super-powers being handed out, we'd be lucky to end up with the capacity to walk through walls like Pryde. In truth, most of us would be shocked at the luck of receiving the ability to communicate with pond-life, or the capacity to control a belt-buckle's worth of angry bees, and that's because most of us have to fight our way through the days simply to qualify as inconspicuously adequate out here in the real world. In that, Kitty Pryde stood for those of us who're doing the best that we can with whatever few gifts we have, and her very lack of globe-breaking power helped make her a far more engaging character that fan-logic might at first determine. There are few super-people whose appeal is based on their lack of wall-flattening might combined with a conspicuous absence of psychological abnormalities. Yet Kitty Pryde's popularity as a character in the X-books over the years suggests that perhaps reflects something of a misjudgement on the part of the industry.

        
Thankfully, Pryde's tended be represented far more as a distinct individual rather than an indulgence of cheesecakery, as has happened to so many other youthful - and not at all youthful - female super-women. The first string of artists who took charge of Pryde's appearance, for example, worked laudably hard to present a youthful, barely pubescent woman whose appearance carried nothing of the hyper-sexualised about her at all. Byrne had begun that process with sensitivity, restraint and charm. After him came Dave Cockrum, who presented Pryde as an at times painfully thin, gauche and yet always enthusiastic teenager, and Bob McCleod, who even succeeded in showing the character in her underwear without a hint of objectivisation contaminating the page. Since then, the best of those who've portrayed Pryde - such as Paul Smith, Alan Davis and John Cassady - have succeeded in presenting a woman with her own unique physical identity and appeal rather than one that's a reflection of whatever the age's malestream-driven stereotypes might be. Indeed, Pryde has more often than not been visually defined by the fact that she doesn't traditionally conform to the t'n'a excesses of the day, which has in itself established her as an individual rather than a type.

         
Yet her status during her first few years in the X-Men as an outsider-  in terms of her background and her youth - didn't mean that Pryde's appeal was limited to that of the token, plucky teenage girl. For in just Pryde's sixth appearance in the comic, Claremont and Bryne also introduced the Kitty Pryde of decades later, a greying, middle-aged freedom fighter attempting to ensure that the mutant holocaust which had occurred in her future timeline never came to pass. As such, the reader had almost immediately been given not just a clear sense of Pryde as a youthful, often impulsive and almost totally naive adolescent, but also of her as a grown, focused, sharp-thinking, street-fighting resistance leader. "Kate" Pryde was effectively the head of what remained of the mutant population under the reign of the X-gene-eliminating Sentinels, and, as Claremont had Professor X declare, she was as "charming and admirable" as her younger self was. Yet the famous Days Of Future Past two-parter established Pryde as one of the most formidable of all of Xavier's mutants, and showed how her more endearing personal qualities were part and parcel of a character which could challenge the most overwhelming of fates. As a result, it didn't matter that Pryde's powers of intangibility could be viewed as regrettably reactionary in terms of traditional gender roles, because her status as an individual rather than her standing as the bearer of an extravagant power-set had been swiftly and convincingly established. If her mutant ability reflected the typical business of avoiding direct conflict and sidestepping the use of force where female characters of the age were concerned, her intelligence, bravery and empathy marked her out as quietly and efficaciously remarkable. Everything in the end, it seemed, was going to rely on Kate Pryde, and where mutants with far more powerful abilities would end up slaughtered by the Sentinels, Pryde would survive, persevere and, ultimately, offer the past the opportunity to avoid the worst of fates.

         
Perhaps it was that very lack of eye-catching, obviously story-turning powers which so often protected Pryde from the worst of abuses at the hands of Marvel's editors and creators in the decades since. It may also be that Pryde''s early-established qualities of decency, modesty, courage and intelligence left her both far less subject to sensationalist revisionism and far more able to return to her long-set identity after unfortunate innovations had worn through. To find her often functioning as the de-facto leader of Excalibur, for example, or maturing into a teacher of young mutants and a cornerstone of the X-community, is to watch the dots being logically joined between the life of the young, neophyte X-Man "Kitty" and that of the Sentinel-resisting "Kate". That Pryde should now be self-evidently capable of mentoring, and even when necessary intimidating, the next generation of mutants makes perfect sense, just as it seems quite logical than even those comrades whom she dislikes - such as Emma Frost - should have respected her capacity to do the right thing when everyone else might fall short.


I stumbled away from the X-Men in the mid-1980s, when the ever-shrill, eye-blisteringly soapy melodrama of Claremont's stories proved just too unrelentingly hysterical even for my comics-habituated taste. As such, I've never had to incorporate Kitty-the-ninja or Kitty-Agent-Of-SHIELD into my own ill-informed schema of the character. I've never even come to regard code-names such as "Sprite" or "Shadowcat" as being appropriate to her identity. As with all of us beyond the most obsessive, my own version of what Pryde is and should be is an entirely sophistic business, strung together from personal taste and experience, lifted from the fragments of continuity which I still think fondly of and damn everything else which might torpedo my own prejudices. That comics published since Days Of Future Past have rendered that tale impossible, for example, matters not at all to me. My Kate Pryde's life leads there, regardless of what either indisputable fact or well-informed opinion could offer to legitimately contradict me. Thankfully, the past almost-decade at Marvel - under the direction of writers of such as Josh Wheedon, Kieron Gillen and Jason Aaron - have provided a version of the character that's as laudable as she's endearing and effective. While Cyclops and most of his inner court have stumbled from tyranny to tyranny, Kitty Pryde's shown herself once again to be the most admirable of individuals. When the very worst comes to Marvel's mutant-verse, it's not, it seems, always the costumed assassins, the super-brawlers, the energy-projectors, or even the world-destroyers who'll step up and attempt to save the day. Sometimes, it'll be the likes of Kate Pryde, who's remained the representative of the reader on the page while gradually growing into the role of the very soul of the X-Men.

        
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17 comments:

  1. I gave up reading X-men full-time [only dipping in now and then] around the time Kitty was introduced, only staying long enough for the Dark Phoenix saga. Too many books, too much convuluted continuity -and besides, I preferred the LSH far better!!!!!!!!
    I did like Kitty though, spunky little teenager that she was, taking us right back to Xavier's original purpose to train up teenagers in using their mutant powers.
    Maybe it was just her character, but she always reminded me of that child actress Kristy McNicol [anyone remember her, a precosious child actress grom the 70s].

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    1. Hello Karl:- I too dropped out of the X-books as their numbers sprawled and the continuity became more and more tortuous. Mix that with the ever-rising angst levels and I couldn't cope anymore. As such, I too found the Levitz/Giffen LSH in particular a relief. Yet I grew to love both books in the late 60s, when they were the only teen super-books of the time and when both were cancelled and apparently dead forever. Then, hitting adolescence, both came hurtling back, and with Dave Cockrum artwork too. Good times.

      I've never heard of Ms McNicol before, but a quick Google reveals a wonderful Seventies centre parting and an unconventional charm too. A good retro-casting call, I'd say :)

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  2. Colin, the amount of angst in a typical Claremont X-Men book was simply knee-deep on the floor. You could practically drown in their collective anguish.

    I was young and impressionable at the time, when I first picked up X-Men however, so I lapped it up with zest. Nowadays I can hardly bear to even look at them anymore, but I always have liked Kitty...even though I rather regret the need to make her a Genius/Ballerina/Computer-Whiz/Ninja/Mutant. I believe that they seriously over-egged the pudding.

    On the other hand, since we did basically watch her grow up, the fact that she doesn't have breasts the size of beach balls is thankfully appreciated.

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    1. Hello Sally:- The angst-level of Claremont's work up until Byrne left the book feel just short of toxic, and I retain my fondness and respect for that period. Beyond that and the angst level just kept rising. By the time Rogue arrived, I just couldn't cope with it.

      Mind you, the market lapped it up, and Claremont's X-Men reached out to folks from beyond the Rump. I wonder how many of the female readers he brought over to the X-Men stayed reading the sub-genre?

      I do understand why giving Kitty the uber-geek qualities which CC did could seem too much. It did for me too! And yet, it did all place her as a representative of everyone who didn't want to fit in. KP, the patron saint of outsiders!

      And yes, thank heavens for super-people who aren't objectivised.

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  3. Yes.

    These kinds of totally personal reflections on comic book characters are most forgivable when the character in question is Kitty Pryde.

    Who doesn't love her?

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    1. Hello George:- It's been heartening to find my e-mail as well as the comments to this piece featuring folks expressing "huzzah" for KP. I'm glad that folks do, as you say, love her.

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  4. Dear Colin,

    I come not to bury Claremont, but to praise him. "Sprite," "Ariel" and "Shadowcat" are names established during his era. I recall at least one letters column where he definitively states that she changes her codename regularly because she's still trying to establish her identity. Her terrible fashion sense was also built into the character. "Cat," on the other hand, was the truly dystopian future version of Kitty Pryde shown in the Magik mini-series. Dystopian not because of the setting, but because the future Kate had become cynical, embittered and entirely too much like Wolverine. That Cat was portrayed as a fierce and supremely accomplished fighter with standard-issue boobs did nothing to lessen the tragedy of her fate.

    That actually fits in quite nicely with your argument, since she was denied even an iconic costume or memorable code name. She had to succeed entirely on her strength as a character.

    Don't forget to mention New Mutants #45, where she battles bullying by confronting the taunts head on. As I recall, she steps up to deliver the eulogy for a new friend who'd killed himself for fear of being outed as a mutant, and begins: "My name is Kitty Pryde, and I am a short, flat-chested, geeky kike mutie. Just words, right? Well, they're words used to attack and belittle, and they hurt." (I wish my memory were better, but I'm confident someone can provide the full quote.) I can't think of any other Marvel character who could speak so well to that very group of socially marginalized teenagers.

    Good call, Colin.

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    1. Hello David:- Oh, I liked the idea that Kitty was constantly going through costumes and code-names as she attempted to generate a clear sense of self. I find it hard to take "Shadowcat" as a code name for her adult self, though it may have sentimental meaning for her, or perhaps she just doesn't care. (I like that idea!)

      I am going to go hunt down a copy of NM#45 right now. I'm rather enjoying the prospect of getting nudged in the direction of KP tales for my imaginary Kitty Pryde Omnibus.

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  5. "Reader beware, an entirely sentimental and self-indulgent piece follows;"

    No worries here, Colin. I consider my newsletters to be entirely self-indulgent as well. I'd probably sell more books if I only reviewed Marvel and DC books, yet I selfishly carry on with Jodorowsky and manga reviews. "Oh, if only more people read the books that /I/ like."

    My exposure to Kitty is very limited; I've only read that X-Men #143, Alan Grant's (very weird, but very entertaining) Excalibur #42, Astonishing X-Men, and Wolverine and the X-Men. But from my limited exposure, it's very easy to see how Kitty became a fan favorite.

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    1. Hello Joe:- I'm always amazed at how little apparent interest there is in the likes of Jodorowsky's books. Looking at Amazon yesterday, for example, I was thrown to see SelfMade Hero's 2011 edition of The Incal out of print and going for three figures second-hand. By which I mean, I can't believe that such a book could ever be out of print - and I'm sure SMH would have keep printing if it were possible - and I'm thrown by folks having to really pay out to get hold of the material in English.

      As for KP; I'd be happier if there was such a degree of fan support that there was a TPB of her best appearances out there on the bookshelves and selling well. For a fan favourite, I suspect that she's a niche pleasure. Which is a shame. If Lisa Simpson had ever acquired a cosmic cube, "The Adventures Of Kitty Pride" would be selling at least as well as Captain Marvel Adventures once did.

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  6. Very nice analysis of one of only two X-Men characters who have managed to retain any moral decency in an increasingly dark universe. I to walked away from the X-men in the 80,s and have only read occassional collections care of my local library. I remain amazed at how consistent the character has remained and still in my mind too she will one day become that woman we saw way back when.

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    1. Hello Peter:- It's one of the quiet wonders of the past few decades at Marvel, isn't it, how KP has managed to sidestep the worst of revisionism? One of the things which won me over to Kieron Gillen's X-Men - despite my problems with Utopia/X-Force etc etc - was how he portrayed Pryde in stories such as his Breakworld-comes-to Earth tales. And it's been heartening to note how she's been treated across the range of recent X-Books that I've come across. Not because she's been presented as a moral paragon, but because she's still recognisably Kitty AND Kate.

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  7. I think that opening paragraph may be the most accurate description of Claremont I've ever read...

    It is pretty stunning to realize that Kitty has mostly escaped the update-and-sexify trend that hits pretty much all comics characters who exist for a long enough period of time, and yet still seems to be popular. The X-cast is gigantic even while sloughing off cast members to obscurity at a frightening rate, and yet she's still around. And of course, Joss Whedon's "Astonishing" was primarily an open, gushing love letter to her.

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    1. Hello Adam;- Thank you. And you're quite right to point out how important JW's work was to the character. Perhaps if he'd eulogised the likes of Nightcrawler too, he might have been saved the quite ridiculous fate which followed.

      Mind you, JW was clearly very fond of Cyclops too, and that's not saved Slim Summers from what looks like being a miserable end for what's become a miserably unpleasant character.

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    2. Whedon did some great X-Men work, the most important part of which wasn't reinventing the wheel, but instead taking all the parts of the X-Men that everybody always liked and using it to tell a solid, relatable story. It's a lot like his "Avengers" movie: it's not revolutionary or particularly groundbreaking, but it's solidly crafted pop entertainment that respected the material that came before it without being slavishly beholden to it. Of course that sounds easy, but it's a lot harder to actually do successfully.

      I was trying to avoid the Cyclops discussion for exactly the reasons you point out :). Whedon was obviously picking up where Grant Morrison (and Claremont/Byrne) left with the character, and the two of them together laid out such a compelling path for him that it's amazing Marvel could f*^k it up so badly. We've had the Utopia discussion before, but the thing that irks me the most about it is that they took what could have been a really compelling set up for Ol' Slim (he's stepped up as leader to a people who are under threat like never before: what hard choices will he have to make?) and made a complete mess out of it, the crowning achievement being the face-palm stupidity of AvX (proof positive forever more that you can gather a group of incredibly smart and talented creators together and still screw the pooch with alarming success).

      But I digress (and good lord could I keep digressing on and on about that particular topic). It was easy to tell which characters Whedon was the most fond of, and I'd say Kitty and Cyclops were the two on top of the list.

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    3. Hello Adam:- I agree with about about JW did with the X-Men. He studied what went before and based his own version on knowledge and his own hardly-insignificant talent. It's notable that there are aspects of the Avengers movie, for example, which really do re-invent the wheel - Bruce Banner always being angry, for example, but those points actually make more sense than just about everything else and they tend to illuminate rather than cancel out other interpretations.

      So it was with his X-Men. I felt he lost control of his material to a slight degree when the Danger Room/Breakworld stories arrived. They were of course far better stories than those which 99.99% of the competition could offer. Starngely though, the further JW diverted from the source material, the less pleasing the work seemed to be,

      Or is that just a sign of what a comics conservative I am? Oh dear ...

      It's true, the whole Utopia business was a complete clusterfuck where Cyclops was concerned. There are signs that Marvel has decided to show that he's too toxic to be redeeemed, at least for awhile, in the current AvX/Phoenix tale, and as I've been saying, the likes of Aaron and Gillen have done good work with what they've been gifted. But Utopia was SO badly done that Slim was pretty much done for where I'm concerned from that moment onwards unless some terrible punishment was made to stick. As will acidboarding Spidey, there are some sins which don't get to be forgotten ...

      If I were to bet on the matter, I'd find it impossible not to back your Kitty/Scott suggestion, with Hank and then Wolverine in my guess-list.

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  8. That Alan Davis Excalibur cover...hee!

    My exposure to Kitty Pryde came mostly from X-Men: Evolution, the cartoon produced not long after the first movie. While I can identify the aspects you mention here in that incarnation of the character, looking back at it I feel that they were rather obscured by the fact that most of the X-Men in that show were also teenagers in regular high school (which they attended in addition to their training the Xavier school--a brilliant stroke, I still feel) meaning that the groundedness was more of a show thing than a Kitty ("Shadowcat", there, although the code name was rarely used--with marked exceptions, this was a show about Scotts and Kurts and Amaras) thing. While fun enough in her own right, she didn't captivate my teenage imagination like gothy Rogue and her crush on Cyclops did.

    As for the comics, my particular flavor of X-Men has tended to taste of Morrison, and his stories didn't have space for a grounding character, and so I've never had the oportunity to see what you or Whedon saw in the character. Thank you for your thoughts.

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