“Live Free or Die”
Classic X-Men #13b, “Lifesigns,” showed Claremont dabbling in a bit of philosophy about nature, suggesting that there was a karmic balance to the world symbolized by the dichotomous relationship between dolphins – symbols of life, intelligence, the future, etc. – and sharks, who represent death, instinct and the primordial past.
That story, as it turns out, is a mirror for this one, which echoes that philosophy on a cosmic scale via Claremont’s conception of two races, the Acanti – who swim through the cosmos in schools and communicate with each other in song – and the Brood, described in issue 162 as perfect killing machines.
In the middle of this dichotomy are the X-Men, who in this climactic double-sized episode choose between a path of darkness and death, and one of life and light. The former is incarnated in the notion of a suicide run against the Brood; the latter, an optimistic rescue attempt that will save the Acanti’s racial “soul.” The choice of course is no choice at all, but Claremont’s writing is fluent enough at this stage that the contrivances required to build to that moment are convincing, and the X-Men’s decision to make a play for the Acanti’s salvation seems genuinely redemptive.
Claremont’s precise plotting is in top form in “Live Free or Die,” which brings together elements of the long-running Brood arc that seemed at the time arbitrary and/or simply stylistic flourishes done for their own sake. The Acanti were not named before now, but issue 162, the one that started the Brood saga’s final narrative domino chain tumbling, established (in Cockrum’s amazing double-page spread) that the corpse of one of the giant whale-ships served as the capital city of “Sleazeworld.” Wolverine’s long ordeal in the heart of the corpse in Uncanny 162 seemed at the time simply a good milieu to get across that story’s Wolverine-as-ultimate-tough-guy motif. Here, in a well-orchestrated revelation, that earlier adventure proves to have been a key plot point, shrewdly disguised: the very place where Wolverine faced the worst trials is the location of the Acanti soul.
The long climactic sequence, in which the X-Men return to Broodworld to liberate the soul, is superbly constructed. Though artist Paul Smith’s greatest strength is in quietude, he proves versatile enough to craft dynamic action scenes here, and Claremont’s text – crisply dressed in Tom Orzechowski’s letters – glides along Smith’s smooth lines effortlessly. To give the whole thing an extra layer of gravitas and significance, Claremont adds some clever chimes with the past: the sudden rescue by the Starjammers is an effervescently delightful homage to the climax of Cockrum’s first run on X-Men (signaling perhaps that though he didn’t quite make it to the climax of the Brood story he inaugurated, the spirit of Cockrum’s creativity still informs these proceedings). Meanwhile, the recreation of the Cyclops/Wolverine enmity is a downright brilliant stroke, cluing both the readers and Logan that Cyclops is a traitor – the panel in which Wolverine rips off Scott’s visor to reveal alien eyes beneath being a deliciously visceral payoff.
(The panel that immediately follows offers a great visual as well, as Scott’s eye beams are shown firing in two segmented lines from his queer eyes: Cyclops suddenly rendered non-Cyclopean.)
The ending of course is a deus ex machina, but is meant to operate more on a symbolic level. Part of the point of the Brood saga was to test the X-Men’s moral center, to see whether their oft-repeated “X-Men don’t kill” refrain could stand up in the face of a completely unredeemable enemy like the Brood. The X-Men – Storm in particular – find their morals strongly tested, and here, in their choice between life and death as respectively represented by the Acanti and the Brood, they all chose life. Even Wolverine, whose moral compass is separate from the others, was tested. Lacking any compunctions about killing the Brood, he faces the choice of killing the other X-Men once they are infected with Brood embryos.
The X-Men thus passing their moral test, the Acanti soul redeems them, and the Brood eggs (symbolic of their collective immoral urges) are expunged. The entire thing is not subtle, but by tying the conflict of “Live Free or Die” into a larger theme, the entire story is elevated beyond conventional superheroics. Carried by Paul Smith’s sympathetic pencils (and Bob Wiacek’s inks as well), the theme is carried off surprisingly well, conveying a palpable sense of genuine redemption.
X-Men #166 marks another milestone as well, being the climax to the X-Men’s superheroic phase. Having explored to the hilt with Cockrum and Byrne the X-Men’s story potential inside the superhero genre, and armed now with an artistic collaborator capable of new levels of psychological depth and complexity, Claremont is prepared now to launch into a more nuanced style of storytelling. Hints existed in earlier issues of the potential for this change (the new back-story for Magneto being the most significant harbinger of darker subject matter, and the tone and style of the vastly underrated Uncanny #160 pointing the way), but the full transformation had yet to occur. Paul Smith’s addition to the creative team was just the catalyst Claremont required, and with the climax of the Brood story here (followed by a tying off of loose ends next issue), Claremont will change the Uncanny X-Men into almost an entirely new comic book.
Trivia: That the new X-Men’s superhero phase ends with #166 is a striking coincidence of numbering, given that the Silver Age X-Men were cancelled with #66. In a strange way, Uncanny #266 will mark a similar milestone as the first appearance of Gambit – the first Claremont X-character deliberately devoid of any semblance of internal psychology, conceived only as an agglomeration of “cool” surface traits.