[Guest-blogger Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont's X-Men run. For more in this series, see the toolbar on the right.]
“The Quality of Hatred”
When Joss Whedon and John Cassaday began their Astonishing X-Men run in 2003, X-Men fans had endured nearly 20 years of an absurdly uber-cool Wolverine and a pathetically emasculated Cyclops. So when the two creators went about making Cyclops the coolest superhero on the team – in the progress pulling the rug out from beneath Wolverine’s hyper-masculinity – it’s no surprise that they were applauded.
But for all that the above may have been well executed, it must be said that here – as with almost every cool thing ever depicted in an X-Men comic – Chris Claremont and John Byrne did it first.
The centerpiece of issue #127, the Mutant X arc’s middle act, is a sequence depicting the X-Men recovering from their failed first attempt to rein Proteus in. The premise here is that Wolverine, whose existence is grounded in physical reality, has finally met a villain who scared him, via the psychic manipulation of physical reality itself. The experience has reduced him to a stuttering weakling. (If that reaction seems extreme, I heartily recommend the John Bolton-illustrated b-story of Classic X-Men #32, whose script by Ann Nocenti expands deliciously on Proteus’ psychological torture of Wolverine.)
Worried that Wolverine needs to snap out of it or end up “permanently gun-shy,” Cyclops decides to pick a fight with him, in a scene that is simultaneously cool and, at times, humorous. (The panel with Cyclops emptying a mug of coffee into Wolverine’s face and Wolverine petulantly shouting “HEY!” is laugh-out-loud funny.)
A fight between Cyclops and Wolverine had to happen at some point in the series – there had been so many intimations of it over the last 30 or so issues, the idea had become an implicit promise to the readers. Cleverly, Claremont reverses expectations – we’d think Wolverine would start it, not Cyclops, and that it would be an explosion of anger, not a calculated psychological gambit. The result is a tour-de-force showcase of everything that makes Cyclops the greatest team leader in comics: tactical skill, psychological insight, raw power, etc. Meanwhile, Wolverine – after having been built up so long by Byrne as the coolest member of the team – by contrast plays the fool here. He plays right into Cyclops’ hands every step of the way, and never gets an advantage even when Cyclops is forced to fight other X-Men simultaneously. It’s a superbly constructed sequence, all the way down the line. And it even ends somewhat touchingly, with Wolverine – having realized what Cyclops was up to, and that it worked – tersely admitting, “I ain’t thought much o’ you in the past, Cyke – as team leader, or as a man. I was wrong.”
As Peter Sanderson pointed out in his “Wolverine Saga,” this entire sequence puts to rest the Wolverine/Cyclops rivalry that had been a key part of both characters’ characterization since Claremont first began writing. Even the love-triangle tension with Jean is gone now that Wolverine has become infatuated with Mariko Yashida. It’s a testament to Claremont’s fearlessness as a writer that he’s willing to remove one of the key conflicts of the series, confident that he’ll always be able to replace it with a new, equally compelling character bit.
The other major sequence in “The Quality of Hatred” is Moira’s confrontation with her husband -- Proteus’ father -- Joe MacTaggert. This is the first time we learn that “MacTaggert” is Moira’s married name, which of course couldn’t have been the intention from the beginning. The revelation throws a wrench into the chronology of Moira’s back story. I’ve never been able to puzzle out where her respective relationships with Joe and Charles occur in relation to each other. Anyone got any ideas?
Joe is a one-note character, an unrepentant bastard who serves no purpose but to merge with Proteus at the end of the issue, but one line in his scene with Moira is striking. “When we said our ‘fond farewells’ in New York all those years ago,” she says to him, “you didn’t just put me in hospital for a week, you left me pregnant.” The implication of rape is incredibly intense for a 1979 superhero comic, though I’m sure Claremont was counting on kids missing it (the 11-year-old me reading this in Classic X-Men certainly did). But apart simply from the brutality of this narrative turn, it’s notable for the potent literary effect. Proteus is now more than a nasty super-villain – he’s now a metaphor for violence begetting violence. It’s not a subtle metaphor, but it’s an effective one.