The two-parter inaugurated here has been convincingly deconstructed by Neil Shyminski in his essay “Mutant Readers, Reading Mutants: Appropriation, Assimilation, and the X-Men” for its dismally simplified identity politics, wherein, as Shyminski says, “[the Morlocks] are figured as villains as a direct result of their refusal to conform to non-mutant norms.”
Actually, in more prosaic plot-terms, they are figured as villains because inside of the first five pages they commit breaking & entering, kidnapping and attempted murder. But the point is well taken, nonetheless.
Putting aside the problematic politics (which don’t actually manifest until part two), this is a tensely exciting issue. The opening sequence is a particularly solid piece of action-choreography, given a surprising overtone of sensuality via the inclusion of a nude Nightcrawler and Amanda in a bubble bath.
Indeed, Smith’s artistic style in general has a sheen of sexiness to it, a result of his smoothly organic figures, always defined by soft, naturalistic lines, which he then places against architecturally rigorous backgrounds characterized by an inordinately high incidence of hard right angles. The effect is marvelous – Smith’s issues of Uncanny seem, even 25 years after the fact, almost futuristic in their geometric precision.
Smith’s talent for contrast is given further emphasis in this arc particularly, with the artist liberally adding lines to the faces (and even the clothing) of the antagonists, effectively making them appear monstrously overwrought compared to the smooth lines comprising the X-Men.
Meanwhile, a two-page subplot set in the Hellfire Club is one of the first of several red herrings that will appear in the next few issues hinting at a return of Dark Phoenix, but is more notable for its hint of how Claremont’s approach to Uncanny X-Men is changing. Claremont has given up on trying to duplicate the watershed accomplishments that are his run with Byrne and his first run with Cockrum. Instead of trying to recreate them, he is now, innovatively, examining the psychological ramifications of these past superhero epics, and exploring the novel notion that these cataclysmic, cosmic events that occur month after month would create equally catastrophic trauma for the protagonists.
But how, then, to still satisfy genre requirements? How can Claremont still utilize recurring villains, for example, but fight free of the “riff” paradigm, wherein every creator of X-Men offers a new spin on the same old chords? We get a taste of the answer here, as Claremont begins to recast former villains as just additional members of an ever-widening ensemble cast. Sebastian Shaw and Tessa show up in this issue, but they don’t fight the X-Men; they simply are reacting to their own crisis. Next issue, Mystique and Destiny of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants will appear as part of this same arc, but the arc will conclude without them ever coming into conflict with the series’ title characters.
Granted, in this case Claremont is using both the Club and the Brotherhood as plot devices to a degree: they are there to help plant red herrings for an upcoming twist. But as time goes by, we see villains used more and more often as parallel protagonists rather than antagonists, moving through their own miniature arcs that are sometimes as complete as anything seen among the comic book’s lead characters. This new approach offers several advantages, one of the most immediate being an escape route from the cycle of trying to rehash the classics. As the lines between heroes and villains -- between lead and secondary characters – dissolve, so too do the lines between one arc and the next blur as well, so that stories bleed into each other. The resulting aesthetic messiness will pre-empt even the expectation that another epic as clean and classically structured as the Dark Phoenix Saga could possibly emerge.