Thursday, July 28, 2016

An Uncanny Readthrough: #201-225

A single panel in which Nightcrawler crouches atop the back of a couch, facing away from the viewer. He addresses a blonde white woman and says, 'Being an X-Man was fun! We were mutants--outcasts from human society because of the powers we were born with, but our hearts were light! Now, everything is grim. The joy--the romance--the innocense--all gone!' The woman respons, 'Why, Kurt? What changed?' Nightcrawler shouts, 'You wouldn't understand!'
Sometimes the X-Men end up in dark places. From UNCANNY X-MEN #204

As per usual, this post contains spoilers that shouldn’t have a huge effect on anyone who’s familiar with the contemporary X-men.

Welcome to Part VII of my attempt to read UNCANNY X-MEN in its entirety! If you missed my previous readthrough posts, you can find them under my dedicated X-Men tag.

#201-22 is written by Chris Claremont as we’ll be saying in regards to every segment for a little bit longer, but the series' period of artistic consistency has flown the coop. John Romita, Jr pencils seven of these twenty-five issues, mostly with inker Dan Green but, on one memorable occasion, with P. Craig Russell. (Russell drew SANDMAN #50, which for my money is the prettiest issue in the whole series.) Mark Sylvestri draws five nonconsecutive issues from #218 on, also with Dan Green. Otherwise, guest pencillers Rick Leonardi, Barry Windsor-Smith, Alan Davis, and Jackson Guice step in for two issues each, while Bret Blevins, Kerry Gammill, and June Brigman do single issues. Brigman is the first woman to draw UNCANNY X-MEN; a milestone a long time in coming.

These artists may not do many straight runs, but damn do they ever deliver the goods. These twenty-five issues are gorgeously drawn, with plenty of evocative layout work. I could hardly tear myself away, so eager was I to see what they'd come out with next.

The scripts live up to the art. While the X-Men have had a certain moral focus, these 1986-1988 issues delve deeper into the implications of what the X-Men do. One wonders if Claremont got an advance peek at WATCHMEN, which DC published at more or less the same time. Moore and Gibbons’s comic is a lot more complex and thoughtful than this and the X-Men haven't entirely abandoned fun, no matter Nightcrawler's view of the situation, but you can see the same gritty superhero bones underneath the X-Men’s bright costumes.

Or perhaps the market was primed for this sort of thing either way, what with the mid-80s political situation being what it was.

Magneto’s promotion from greatest foe to best buddy serves as a preface to the more serious side of things. Professor X put him in charge of the school before he went off to space (without telling anybody else, because it’s not like he’s a telepath for whom physical distance is no object to clear and concise communication), and nobody’s quite sure what to make of it. Magneto’s the villain! He’s their most inimical of enemies! But they’ve sort of been working with him for a while now? And Professor X does vouch for his change of heart? Unless Magneto actually killed Professor X and made up that whole gone-to-space thing? Which is really plausible given his track record?

We spend a little time on that tack in UNCANNY, but either everyone decides to drop it in the interests of leading a quiet life or that part of the story happens mostly in NEW MUTANTS. Oh, for the reading time to go explore that series, too.

Of slightly less enduring importance, the creators focus in on Rachel for several issues. It’s pretty clear she’s got severe PTSD and depression from the hellscape of a future to which she belongs, and her trauma leads her to go semi-villain for a couple of issues. She’s trying to help, but she’s not always able to recognize what’s actually helpful and what’s going to hurt a lot of people and/or destroy the universe along the way. The others worry about her and try to support her, but Rachel's been hurt so badly she has trouble seeing a way forward. She balks at so much as telling Cyclops she’s his Secret Future Never-Was Baby, even though absolutely everyone else knows.

Eventually, she dances off to embrace a new life Spiral promises her. When she reemerges, it’s in another X-Men spinoff.

As the characters face off against various challenges, including the Magneto thing and everything Rachel endures, they begin to have doubts about the validity of what they do. Is it possible their actions put civilians in danger, just as Rachel’s attempts to stop the Beyonder threatened all of them? What impact do their battles have on the average civilian? How are they supposed to maintain their interpersonal relationships amidst all the world-saving hoopla? Have the choices they’ve made and the things they’ve done rendered them unfit for--or unworthy of--“regular” lives? Will any one among them ever step up and acknowledge that they’re pretty frickin’ slapdash about the no-killing rule?

Claremont et al don’t always delve deeply into these themes, but they don’t try to hide them behind the flash-bang trappings, either.

Two panels of Storm climbing a hill in company with a red-haired white woman. Across both panels, Storm thinks, 'The X-Men have always stood more for deals, than reality--starting with our founder's dream of a world where mutant and human could live together in peace and harmony. As leader, I am supposed to exemplify those beliefs. It is not that saving the girl is the right thing to do--though it may well be--it is that for better or for worse... abandoning her is totally wrong.'
A goal worth fighting for. From UNCANNY X-MEN #216

The creators relieve some of the moral pressure by relocating the X-Men to San Francisco once again, this time for a longer stretch. San Francisco mostly likes them. They’ve got at least one cop who’s happy to work with them, and the average person on the street is far more accepting of mutants than the folks they’ve brushed up against in New York. The creators draw a pretty obvious line between mutants and queer folks, though alas we’re still living in the days before openly out mutants. (Northstar comes out in 1992, over in ALPHA FLIGHT.)

Alongside these sorts of considerations, Claremont et al introduce some hardcore new adversaries in the Marauders, Mr Sinister’s strike force. Sinister himself remains a shadowy figure, barely glimpsed during these issues, but his minions put some pretty fierce pressure on the X-Men and change New York’s mutant landscape forever.

We also get a new team line-up. When the Marauders annihilate the Morlocks and injure Kitty, Colossus, and Nightcrawler in the process, the X-Men find themselves in need of more members. They turn first to Psylocke (still in her original body), who’s been hanging around the school since she met the New Mutants over in their title. She gets a nice prove-yourself issue, after which point she slowly morphs into a cold badass as she explores her role on the team.

Dazzler also returns to the fold after a frightening brush with Malice, a Marauder who can assume control of peoples’ baser selves and make them do terrible things. Everyone vocally recognizes Dazzler isn’t responsible for Malice’s actions, but Dazzler has a bit of trouble internalizing that herself. She’s also ambivalent about being a superhero and leery of working with Rogue, whom she faced off against in her own cancelled series, but she gets over it and commits herself to the team.

Longshot joins, too, even though he’s not a mutant so much as a created being from another world. (They gloss over this by calling him an alien mutant.) He was introduced in a verbose, metaphysical miniseries penned by Ann Nocenti, and his power is pretty simple: he’s the luckiest person in the universe, provided he acts to help people instead of purely in his own self-interest. When he thinks of others, nothing can keep him down. When he gets selfish, his powers fail. He’s a cheerful weirdo and I like him a lot.

Havok, too, returns to the X-Men after his girlfriend, Polaris, is taken over by Malice and forced to join the Marauders. He’s rather blase about the whole superhero thing. Can’t he just go be a geologist again?

Finally, Madelyne Pryor invites herself on board as a civilian member after Cyclops dumps her and Mr Sinister steals her baby. (Said baby still hasn’t been named on the page in UNCANNY, but this is Cable, aka Nathan Christopher Summers Winters Dayspring Askani'son). She settles in pretty quickly and proceeds to do all sorts of things that’ll be important later on, because foreshadowing.

A single panel of six boys and one girl clustered around Colossus, who's showing them his sketch pad. One boy says, 'I dinna know about the X-Men. Team used to be so boss!' Another says, 'Now they're all a bunch'a girls!' Another says, 'They need more BOY mutants.' Colossus says, 'This is one. A mainstay of the team, with a body of organic steel, and strength to match.'
Oh, look, some sexist metacommentary. From UNCANNY X-MEN #225

In other major developments, Storm preserves her place as the X-Men’s leader by beating Cyclops in single combat even though she’s still depowered. She’s that much of a badass and I refuse to entertain any future revelations that say her win wasn’t 300% earned.

Speaking of Storm's depowered state, it's still ongoing; a lengthy stretch indeed, and one I never expected to see extend so long. For the reader, it’s been about four years. For Storm, it’s been several months. Depowered storylines are a staple of comics, but aside from Banshee’s mostly-off-page power loss I’ve never encountered another of this length. Once again, it’s clear the creators are interested in exploring who Storm is, with or without her powers. And, being Storm, she does a damned good job of thriving as a non-empowered mutant.

I've gotta wonder how often the post-House of M creators looked to Claremont et al's work with Storm during this period as they explored everyone else's depowered lives.

Claremont and the artists bombard Storm with considerably fewer stories in which creatures take over her body and/or warp her mind over these issues, too. She has dicey solo adventures, including a brush with some WWII era superhero vigilantes and a far more involved storyline with the Trickster (who lusts after her, but doesn't force her into anything physical), but for the most part they read like standard superhero-in-peril stories instead of another round of “hey, let’s torture the awesome black woman.”

The end of this run also marks a milestone for the X-Men as it features the team's first named-on-the-cover soft crossover: Fall of the Mutants. The crossover's conclusion stretches past #225, so we’ll talk about it next time along with the most complex dose of WTFery the series has delivered to date.

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