“Chutes and Ladders”
While last issue’s horror pastiche managed an admirable simulation of classical Gothic creepiness, the tone was mainly a synthetic phenomenon – the result of competent-to-superb execution of the prototypical tropes and story beats. Issue 160 is another genre exercise (by another fill-in artist marking time until Dave Cockrum’s return next issue), this time in fantasy. But where the previous month’s story took its strength from the surface elements, “Chutes and Ladders” cuts much deeper. Here, the X-Men’s immersion in the milieu conceived by Chris Claremont and collaborator Brent Anderson is extreme to the point of brutality, and the result is a story whose impact will go on to be felt for years (as opposed to the Dracula story, which – apart from its notably less inspired sequel in X-Men Annual #6 – has no lasting effect upon the canon whatsoever).
Issue 160’s opening sequence, a generic “Danger Room” practice scene despite taking place at the new Bermuda Triangle location rather than in the literal Room, almost constitutes a feint, promising nothing we haven’t seen before. With Page 2 however, the issue is plunged into more chilling territory, with an enigmatically demonic villain’s invocation to Illyana to “come unto him.” As is explained toward the end of the issue and at much more tedious length in Claremont’s misconceived “Magik” miniseries, Illyana’s mutant power involves an affinity toward magic, and the villain here – Belasco – wants her for use in some oblique ritual. That all speaks to the trappings of the genre, but there is an uncomfortable metaphor at work here, as Claremont evokes child molestation.
If not immediately obvious from the opening seduction of Illyana, the theme is signaled in Claremont’s most shockingly explicit scene yet, when an alternate-reality version of Nightcrawler molests Kitty Pryde. Though the panels are conceived subtly enough to circumvent the Comics Code, the images and text (Kitty’s line “KURT--- !?! How d-dare you ... t-touch me like that!” followed by his hand phasing through her back at breast level) leave no room for misinterpretation. That Claremont conceived such a scene for an issue of Uncanny X-Men is as surprising now as it surely must have been for readers in 1982 to encounter it in a Code-approved superhero comic.
Brutally unpleasant on its own terms, the scene is the key to deciphering the metaphor at work. The thematic significance of the ending twist, wherein Illyana transforms in moments from child to teenager, is clear from Colossus’ interior monologue on the final page. “Childhood should be the happiest of times – and, in a stroke, Illyana has lost that forever. ... What has she seen – what horrors, endured?” In the context of a sexual assault, those words take on a harsh and tragic resonance.
Appropriate to the gravity of the implicit subject matter, Claremont’s writing is mature and intelligent throughout the issue, even in scenes that are entirely plot-oriented. His use of both dialogue and interior monologue is leaner and more economical than usual, with very few extemporaneous digressions, musings or flashbacks to distract from the story at hand. (Note the smaller than usual need for explanatory footnotes.)
This issue marks a massive step forward in Claremont’s scope and ambition for Uncanny X-Men, and its abrupt occurrence in the series’ chronology makes it all the more striking. (Nothing in the issue preceding “Chutes and Ladders” prepares us for it, and likewise it is nearly a year before any successive issues will start to follow upon the plot threads it introduces.)
Claremont’s allusion to Dave Sim’s Cerebus via the character of S’ym here – which on the surface seeming no more than an arbitrarily timed riposte to Sim’s “Charles X. Claremont” character – may have a more appropriate meaning in a broader context. The death of Charles X. Claremont occurs in Cerebus #25, and in the very next issue Sim expanded the entire scope and tone of his comic, which immediately became less episodic as it launched into a longitudinal arc whose individual issues were simply small chapters in a far more ambitious and sustained narrative. “Chutes and Ladders,” with its cold plunge into material much darker and mature in terms of both tone and theme, is perhaps intended by Claremont to be a watershed moment for X-Men -- similar to Cerebus #26, hence the parallel Dave Sim allusion. Certainly it marks a point at which Claremont’s plotting becomes almost equally long-term; the Illyana arc begun here, in 1982, will stretch out over years, not finding full resolution until 1988’s “Inferno” crossover.
With Claremont both dependent upon multiple collaborators and vulnerable to editorial whims and marketplace upheavals when it came to story – all limitations of which the independent Sim was happily free – the path of Uncanny X-Men ended up being far more unfocused than Cerebus. Still, fate will allow a surprising number of poetic serendipities over the course of Claremont’s sustained narrative – not the least of which is that the “Inferno” issues of Uncanny X-Men will be drawn by Marc Silvestri and inked by Dan Green, whose respective subtly distorted figures and dramatically scratchy style bear an incredibly close similarity to the gorgeous work of Brent Anderson and Bob Wiacek on “Chutes and Ladders.” Claremont couldn’t have planned it better.