[EDIT: Sorry if you saw that I had 159 up out of order for a few hours today.]
[Guest blogger Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men Run. For more in this series, see the toolbar on the right.]
“The Life That Late I Led ...”
Having let the X-Men get away from him during the extended genre exercise of the previous two issues, Claremont nails them back down to the ground in this one. While a good portion of “The Life That Late I Led ...” is deliberately conceived as an epilogue to Claremont’s Ms. Marvel series (cancelled quite abruptly at the tail end of the ‘70s), the story is also dense with significant story points and character bits for the lead cast as well.
First, Kitty (back in a bikini – sigh) “wrestles with the realities of growing up,” in an extended internal monologue that stretches suspension of disbelief just a bit. Claremont wants Kitty both ways – young enough to be frightened of her burgeoning emotional maturity, but intelligent enough to step outside herself and analyze the situation as well. The combination leads to an unconvincing inner voice, albeit Claremont is eloquent enough to still elicit some amount of empathy.
An attempt by Imperial Guard member Oracle to break Charles out of the coma he’d lapsed into an issue ago makes for a dramatically orchestrated action scene as Xavier tries to use Oracle to commit suicide. Yet even at such a pathetic point, Professor X is again portrayed as a formidable character, most notably in Oracle’s demonstrative description: “I have never interfaced with a mind of such depth and complexity – such subtlety! His mental defenses are phenomenal. He has withdrawn deep within himself. Moira, he is at war with himself! I have done my best, but no outside force can aid him. His recovery is completely up to him.” If Xavier were not such a powerful mutant, he would not be so difficult to cure, which is a nice irony.
An appearance by Senator Kelly reminds readers of the “growing wave of anti-mutant sentiment” alluded to in issue 154. Up to now, Claremont has not really pushed the “outcast” aspect of the X-Men, but he seems keen to start exploring that angle now. He’s already banished them to the Bermuda Triangle, and here he introduces a fascinating MacGuffin: a computer virus to erase all files the government may possess on the X-Men. The idea is fantastic, although it ends up being a little glossed over. Here, it is mainly an excuse to get the X-Men and Carol Danvers into the Pentagon – established in “Days of Future Past” as a base of operations for Mystique – so that they can fight her and Rogue. But the implication is rather exciting: the X-Men are becoming more of a clandestine operation here, deliberately trying to hide their very existence from those in power.
For whatever reason – again, I’d guess at the behest of Marvel’s traditionalist Editor in Chief, Jim Shooter – Claremont will soon snap the X-Men back into their traditional status as part of a school in Westchester. Things like their “open-ended virus program” will be forgotten for years, and not until Claremont exiles the X-Men again in 1987 (to the Outback) will he finally follow through on some of these stranger ideas. (The computer virus is a minor plot point in 1988’s Genosha four-parter, one of Claremont’s greatest and most underrated X-Men stories.)
Of course, the most significant aspect of issue 158 in X-Men history is that it contains the first appearance in the series of Rogue. She will go on to become the second member of the X-Men actually created by Chris Claremont (the first being Kitty Pryde), and actually emerge as a fan favorite. Here, she’s a fairly unlikable one-note villain, though her super-power is creative and makes for some interesting fight scenes. Her battle with Wolverine, Storm and Nightcrawler in the Pentagon marks the first post-Byrne fight scene in X-Men that doesn’t seem to exist even a little bit in Byrne’s shadow.
Nor does this issue seem particularly influenced by any of Cockrum’s inclinations or pet-favorite genre conceits. Indeed, with its density and diversity of plot threads, its intensely dramatized character bits, and certainly its unique antagonist, Uncanny X-Men #158 is the first 100% Claremontian issue – the first time it feels as if the comic is now his alone.
As such, Claremont is perhaps symbolized in this story by Carol Danvers, who unburdens herself of her past at the end of the issue. Far enough removed now that he longer feels the pressure of attempting to duplicate his past triumphs with John Byrne, Claremont is similarly unburdened. Symbolically defeating Byrne via Carol’s defeat of Mystique (who was the lead villain in Claremont’s last major collaboration with Byrne), he is free to chart a path that is of his own singular invention. His artistic collaborators will still prove crucial in making the X-Men seen and heard, but from here on out they will speak entirely with Claremont’s voice.