[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's Uncanny X-Men. For more in this series see the toolbar on the right.]
Grant Morrison’s musical paradigm for understanding the X-Men, his idea that you must play certain “chords” but with new “tricks” if you are going to write the series, is incredibly helpful, because it seems to have always been true. Neal Adams’ run on X-Men in 1969 was a treasure trove of storytelling tricks, but was also a powerful cover version of Lee/Kirby elements -- primarily the Sentinels, Magneto and the Savage Land. Claremont and Byrne went on to cover Adams – they also did the Sentinels, Magneto and the Savage Land – but they then went on to write brilliant new songs that were as powerful as, or more powerful than, the Neal Adams riffs. The Dark Phoenix Saga, in particular, became the archetypal X-Men tune. Indeed, Joss Whedon recently attempted – as Neil Shyminski pointed out – to cement that story in particular as the template for every X-Men story (or song) from now until the end of the franchise.
John Byrne, once he had matched and surpassed Neal Adams on X-Men (albeit not in his own mind), subsequently left the series so he could go on to conquer his own personal Everest: Lee and Kirby’s Fantastic Four. Claremont, however, stayed on, and – having completed the unenviable task of topping Lee/Kirby’s X-Men, then topping Neal Adams’ X-Men – now found himself in the awkward position of having to top his own.
So, like the Beatles trying to recapture the glorious psychedelia of their watershed Sgt. Pepper album with the calculated carnival atmosphere of Magical Mystery Tour, Claremont – with Cockrum backing him up – started covering his own hits. It began with the “Murderworld” cover in issues 145-147, and continues here, with the return of Garrokk, from Uncanny #116. (The covers of classic hits will continue for quite some time – next issue is a battle with Magneto; after that, the Sentinels and Hellfire Club return; while in contemporaneous issues of Marvel Fanfare, the X-Men will fight Sauron in the Savage Land.)
The best part of “And the Dead” occurs on the third page, when Xavier thinks to himself, “In too many ways ... Magneto and I are uncomfortably alike.” At this point, Claremont and Cockrum have already begun to devise the Holocaust backstory for Magneto that will make its first appearance next issue. But it will be another year before they hit upon another inspired idea: giving Xavier and Magneto shared history. Uncanny #161 will reveal that Xavier and Magneto were friends before they first appeared in X-Men #1 – this brilliant turn will be crucial in Claremont’s development of Magneto as a replacement Professor X. But that’s still a ways away. For the moment, Xavier’s tantalizing thought on Page 3 is our first and only hint of what’s to come.
From there, disappointingly, Uncanny X-Men #149 is a fairly generic exercise in mainstream superheroics. The X-Men are sent by Xavier to explore the remnants of Magneto’s volcano hideout from their last battle. There, they encounter Garrokk, who inexplicably looks nothing like he did in his previous appearance (though he does look thoroughly menacing, thanks to Cockrum), and he possesses slightly different powers as well. His banal agenda in this issue is to get revenge on Storm for her failure to rescue him at the end of Uncanny #116. He proves embarrassingly ineffective at acquiring said revenge, and any menace he exuded thanks to Cockrum’s imaginative visual design is entirely gone by the end of the story, when the neophyte Kitty beats him through a combination of luck and an unexplained deus ex machina (i.e., her phasing through Garrokk causes him pain for no discernible reason).
It is now exactly a year after the masterful “Fate of the Phoenix” from issue 137, and the comic’s decline in quality between then and now is precipitous indeed. Claremont seems thoroughly uninspired at this point, and the last couple issues feel like water-treading just so that the big Magneto story can appear in issue 150, the anniversary issue.