[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men; for more in this series see the toolbar on the right.]
“Dancin’ in the Dark”
Here is where the politics of the X-Men become problematic, never more noticeably than in Nightcrawler’s refusal to join the Morlocks, proudly proclaiming, “I’ve spent my whole life ... fighting to be accepted as I am – to be judged by my deeds instead of my looks ...”
Here I’ll defer to Neil Shyminski, who explains in “Mutant Readers, Reading Mutants,” Nightcrawler here is “[a]ligning himself with a conservative ideology of meritocracy ...” and his speech “rhetorically undercuts the Morlock’s victim claims.” Claremont further stacks the deck at the end of the issue, when Storm’s offer to the Morlocks to come live in the X-Mansion is refused by Caliban (a character defined almost entirely by an unrelenting sense of self-hate), who says, “This [underground] is where we belong.”
The X-Men are now off the hook – they made the offer, after all. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink, right? Never mind whether the horse’s inability to drink is fueled by a self-loathing belief that he doesn’t deserve something as good as water. As Shyminski notes, the Morlocks’ collective “pathological reliance on their oppression as a source of identity” could have potentially been spun into a “more complex recuperation” for them. Instead, Claremont takes the easy way out: The X-Men offer to take them in, and the Morlocks (or one of them, speaking for the entire group) will have none of it. End of story.
It’s a shame, as Claremont had the pieces in place for something much more nuanced. It’s notable, for example, that the X-Men’s two white alpha males of the period – Cyclops and Wolverine – are left out of this particular arc, so that the team is down to four members, all to some degree non-normative: a black woman, a Jewish girl, a Russian emigrant, and the outwardly mutated Nightcrawler. That juxtaposition is certainly interesting, although since the X-Men come off as a homogenous group that’s more or less of one mind about the Morlocks, the overall effect is to simply reinforce the politically naive idea that the X-Men are (Shyminski again): “an acculturating force for good.”
Contributing also to the X-Men’s poor portrayal in this issue is a narrative mistake that Claremont was apparently so embarrassed by that he would move to correct it within six months: During the first scene between Ariel and Caliban (the “Tempest” allusion in the names is arbitrary), Kitty promises Caliban that she’ll stay with him if she’ll help him. He agrees, and keeps his part of the deal -- but her promise to stay is simply forgotten about. Apparently, Claremont felt this reflected so badly upon Kitty that he would quickly do a story specifically designed to confront her with her dishonor (the sequence finally occurs in the fantastic issue 179, though it is foreshadowed a few months earlier). But for the present, Kitty just seems to be exploiting Caliban’s lovesick naivety (which is putting it mildly – his speech patterns, though comic-booky in execution, suggest some level of retardation, making Kitty’s actions that much more reprehensible).
Moving backwards from the subtext to explore the actual text, “Dancin’ in the Dark” is a dynamic action story, the centerpiece being the darkening of Storm. Claremont had been working Ororo’s inner conflict for a while now – the last two years saw plenty of examples of the character lamenting the potential loss of her innocence. Here, that potential is realized in a shockingly sudden stroke. It’s quite a dynamic moment, thanks especially to Paul Smith’s expressiveness (the knife-tossing sequence at the start of the duel is a thing of beauty).
Storm’s angst seemed so gradual, and repetitious, it makes for a wrenching surprise when the actual turn is so violent and so fast. What Claremont has created is an inverse of the “Dark Phoenix” cliffhanger at the end of Uncanny X-Men #134 (exactly three years earlier), where the sudden change in Jean was outwardly explosive. Here, although the transformation is still violent, the actual change is internalized – a key shift in dramatic approach that will define Claremont’s remaining eight years on Uncanny X-Men.