Thursday, June 16, 2016

An Uncanny Readthrough: #126-150

Three panels, one arranged diagonally atop the other two. The top panel depicts a redhaired white woman flying through space. She wears a skintight red costume and has a wide eyes and a broad grin on her face. The captions read, 'Months ago--a lifetime ago--when her power saved the universe, Jean Grey had a vision of herself as Tiphereth, heart and soul of the mystic tree of life. She was a dream representing the order and harmony of things. She was all that is great in us.' The second panel features Jean swooping towards a sun. The captions read, 'But now, the dream is twisted. She knows this--knows what she was, what she has become--and she does not care. What matters is that Dark Phoenix lives! And all creation is her domain--to do with as she pleases.' The last, smallest, panel features a space station hovering near the sun. The captions read, 'Meanwhile, aboard Starcore One--a United Nations sun-watch station--Phoenix's arrival in the vicinity has not gone unnoticed.' A dialogue caption reads, 'Dr. Corbeau to the command deck--on the double!'
Sometimes good people become dark gods. From UNCANNY X-MEN #135

As always, this post contains spoilers that shouldn’t matter to anyone who’s read at least a little contemporary X-Men

Part V of my epic UNCANNY X-MEN read-through takes us into the early 80s with #s 126-150. This chunk is written by Chris Claremont with pencils and co-plotting by John Byrne through to #143. Brent Anderson provides guest pencils for #144, while Dave Cockrum & Joe Rubenstein are the regular artists from #145 on.

Things heat the hell up with these issues, which usher in a slew of characters and storylines set to become a core part of the X-Men canon. And in a surprising shift from the norm, many of them focus on the women.

Don’t get me wrong; UNCANNY X-MEN is still a male-dominated book. There are far more men than women on the page, and the womens’ storylines aren’t always handled well. At the same time, though, it’s clear Claremont and Byrne recognized the uneven male:female ratio of their cast and tried to do something about it, however awkward the results.

Jean intensifies her place in the series’ mythology throughout these issues as she continues to wrestle with her Phoenix powers. Much of this happens within a storyline that introduces the Hellfire Club, a group of mutants who’re out to influence the course of history through their position at the heart of a Skull-and-Bones-style organization that numbers many of the world’s richest and most powerful people amongst its members.

A blonde white woman, Emma Frost, places her hand on the forehead of a black woman, Storm, with long, white hair. Storm screams as Emma Frost says, 'I don't want to hurt you, my dear. I want us to be... friends.'
Yeah, we all believe that. From UNCANNY X-MEN #131

The most interesting and enduring Hellfire associate is their White Queen, Emma Frost, who bursts onto the page in all her lingerie-clad glory as a foil for Jean, whom these bigwigs hope to transform into their equally pro-lingerie Black Queen through the power of mind control. (What an extremely fair and uncreepy plan.) The esteemed Ms Frost--who’s the headmistress of a rival school in addition to her role as Mutant Crime Lord--dies pretty quickly, but fear not! Nobody (except Thunderbird) ever stays dead, so you know she’ll be back soon.

While Emma's off being fake dead, the Hellfire club does succeed in taking control of Jean in rapey ways (she’s theirs “body and soul,” though thankfully the body part doesn’t explicitly materialize) (aside from the wardrobe change), and when she breaks their hold it’s to become Dark Phoenix, a vengeful mutant who devours worlds for shits and giggles. While Jean does eventually manage to regain control of herself on all levels, the text refuses to trust in that control and promptly places her in a position where she’s forced to choose death over dishonour.

Again, the Nobody Ever Stays Dead rule ensures she’ll return--but that’s a storyline for another year.

So we’ve got a couple of interrelated arcs that acknowledge the women are interesting people we oughta focus on, but said arcs also torture and punish them for dramatic effect. It ain’t the best representation out there.

This slate of issues does see the introduction of more female mutants, though. Dazzler makes a huge splash with her light powers, and while she decides to pursue her music career instead of joining the X-Men, they part on good terms and stay in contact. She eventually gets her own ongoing series, too, though only two of its issues are available on Marvel Unlimited.

And, most importantly, Kitty Pryde arrives on the scene and ushers in some big changes to the book’s overall feel. At thirteen and a half, she’s the youngest mutant we’ve yet seen. She’s Jewish, making her the second explicitly non-Christian character on the page (after Storm, who frequently invokes her own gods). And while she’s a genius, she’s still very much a kid. She wants to be in the thick of things, but she doesn’t quite have the emotional maturity to engage with the sort of work the adult X-Men do day in and day out. She’s got a lot to learn.

Being a genius and a good person besides, she tries not to let her enthusiasm block her capacity to change and grow. She pays close attention to everything the adults do as she searches for a handle on this whole superhero schtick. She’s initially scared of Nightcrawler, but she recognizes this is extremely unfair to him and she works to overcome it. She becomes close friends/surrogate family with Storm and nurses a crush on Colossus, who's the closest to her in age. It’s not long before she becomes an integral part of the group dynamic.

Kitty also gets the dubious honour of being the first person to destroy the school; something that’s set to happen at regular intervals in the coming years.

A single panel of a white man in a skintight black costume gesturing towards a bald white man who uses a wheelchair. The captions read, 'We were physically dog tired, and in no condition... mentally or physically... for the surprise awaiting us at the mansion: Professor Xavier... ALIVE! Grotesk had murdered a mutant shape-changer--the Changeling--who had taken the professor's place, while he worked on a super-secret project. Xavier said it was a necessary deception. I wondered. All the pain, the grief we suffered--it had all been for nothing. I thought it cruel.'
No. 1 Rule of X-Men: Professor X Is the Worst. From UNCANNY X-MEN #138

Plenty of other big things go down during these issues. Cyclops has a couple of moments where he’s like, “Could it be… is it possible… that Professor X is actually--THE WORST?!”. Disillusioned with the superheroic lifestyle (/his mentor) and grieving for his fiancee, he leaves the team in #138 but still goes on solo side adventures whenever his new job as a fisherman allows.

Angel returns, first to lend an unofficial hand during the Hellfire Club battle and later, after Cyclops’s departure, as a full member of the team--at least until Wolverine pisses him off so much that he flies away in #148, leaving his X-status up in the air.

Wolverine’s past comes calling again, still without the whole centuries-old amnesiac angle. Turns out, he’s lapsed BFFs with Captain Canuck and wants to repair that relationship (though of course, he’s far too surly to come out and say it).

The Days of Future Past storyline introduces time travel to the X-Men canon, with enduring consequences in the present as well as in all potential future timelines. We see our first glimpse of Rachel Summers, too, though her telltale surname doesn’t make it onto the page.

Doctor Doom clashes with the X-Men for the first time, more or less by accident. Storm finds him fascinating, even though she should be too damned smart for that--especially after he encases her in living metal for an extended period. Ugh.

A white-haired white man, Magneto, drinks water from a fancy glass as he addresses a brunette white man, Cyclops. Magneto says, 'For myself, I am tired of seeing things as they are and asking why, of dreaming of things that never were and asking why not. I have the power to make my dreams a reality. And that I shall do.'
Magneto’s on a mission. From UNCANNY X-MEN #150

In the double-sized #150, Cyclops reunites with the active X-Men to fight Magneto yet again. This issue differs from their other battles with their perennial nemesis in that everyone starts to see Magneto’s point. He does awful things they can’t countenance and he’s certainly driven by a desire for personal power alongside the improve-the-world angle, but they begin to wonder if his motives are as terrible as they’ve always assumed. He's no longer quite so simple a villain (though he continues to laugh maniacally now and then in the spirit of brand consistency).

This issue also establishes Magneto as a Jewish Holocaust survivor, making him retroactively the series first non-Christian character but its third to be named so on the page.

And on that note we enter yet another new era for the X-Men, as we’ll discuss in more detail next time.

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