Perhaps having become immediately aware – intuitively at least – that there was something insidiously wrong in the way the X-Men were characterized during their dealings with the Morlocks, Claremont immediately puts the characters in another situation wherein they again come off as intolerant of anyone they deem “other.” This time, however, Charles Xavier is there to chastise them for their single-mindedness: “We pick and choose who we help, is that it?” he says to them. “Some are worthy, others not?” Shamed, the X-Men acknowledge their own hypocrisy, having been put in their place by the man who three issues ago was denounced as “a jerk.” A corner is turned, and as time goes by Claremont will find other ways to knock the X-Men off of their perch of privilege, in the process making them much more sympathetic.
Walt Simonson is the fill-in artist for issue 171, and his bombastic style – though certainly strong enough in its own right (see the X-Men/Teen Titans crossover for Simonson at his peak) – seems garish in comparison to the textured dimensionality of Paul Smith.
Still, the choice of Simonson as a fill-in artist is interesting, forcing a connection between the present issue and the Titans crossover. In the latter comic, Claremont suggested that the good, heroic version of Jean Grey (rather than the evil aspect) might have somehow survived the events of the Dark Phoenix saga. Since X-Men/Titans is non-canonical, Claremont could get away with such a romantic notion. Strikingly, it is in Uncanny 171 that we first learn that Madelyne Pryor is the sole survivor of a plane crash that occurred on Sept. 1st, 1980, “the same day Jean Grey died!” – this being the first major hint that Maddie is perhaps Jean reincarnated. Though the next four issues will deliberately raise the question as to whether Maddie is Dark Phoenix returned and then categorically answer in the negative, Simonson’s art here is the symbolic tether through which Claremont can allude to the alternative possibility that can only be spoken in a non-canonical book: that Madelyne is the good part of Jean’s soul reincarnated, not the bad. I maintain that this is Claremont’s original intention for the character, obliquely disguised so that editor-in-chief Jim Shooter wouldn’t spot the notion and nix it.
Things didn’t work out that way, and the explanation for the Sept. 1st coincidence will become something else entirely during the “Inferno” crossover of 1988. In another example of the serendipity of serialized superhero comic books, “Inferno” is also the culmination of Illyana Rasputin’s arc – an arc that is also jump-started here in “Rogue.” As the first appearance both of Illyana’s “soul sword” and of the Maddie/Jean mystery, Uncanny X-Men #171 is, retroactively, a hugely important prologue to “Inferno.” As if that didn’t make it overdetermined enough, “Rogue” is also – predictably – the issue wherein Rogue joins the team. All of which makes for a comic book that, for X-Men buffs, is a crucial entry in the canon on historical merit alone.
As for whether it’s a quality issue in its own right ... well, that’s rather another question. Simonson – a ferociously talented artist – delivers far from his best work here, offering up several examples of both stiff figures and awkward faces. (His Kitty is ugly in the extreme.) Claremont’s writing is similarly ropey. Particularly contrived is the notion that Illyana would program a holographic recreation of the events of issue 160 subconsciously. (Kitty: “She wasn’t paying attention when she programmed the simulation.”) I’m no expert on how to program holographic simulations, but surely it’s not something that can be done while “not paying attention.” Illyana’s “I – REMEMBERED!” word balloon on the same page, while thematically appropriate, is over-the-top in execution.
Following hard on the heels of the precisely rendered previous few issues, Uncanny X-Men #171 feels like it was tossed together haphazardly. The downside of Claremont having upped his game in 1983 is that issues like this – competent but un-inspired – no longer seem quite up to par.