[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men. For more in this series see the toolbar on the right.]
As per the title, this is an issue focused entirely on the romantic relationships among the X-Men cast: Cyclops/Madelyne, Wolverine/Mariko, Kitty/Colossus, Nightcrawler/Amanda, and Charles/Lilandra. Partly marking time so that the climax to the “From the Ashes” storyline can occur in issue 175, “Romances” bounces along amiably – Claremont’s inherently sentimental style working in tandem with Smith’s always-attractive images.
The heart of Uncanny #174 is surely the Kitty/Peter material. The sequence portraying Kitty in Peter’s arms, him gradually ascending from one floor of the mansion to another via Kitty’s phasing power, is the super-powered metaphor for the rising sexual stakes in their relationship. In the panels building to Peter and Kitty’s kiss, Claremont cannily leaves much unspoken, and is very shrewd in allowing the scene to be interrupted by the entrance of Storm. (Ororo was long ago established as a mother-figure to Kitty, so who better to put the kibosh on the latter’s sexual explorations?) Serialized storytelling requires a kind of ongoing coitus-interruptus (narratively speaking). Claremont knows this, and under his pen X-Men became one instance after another of dramatic incompleteness – readers left perpetually in a state of wanting more. It’s how Claremont kept people coming back month after month for a decade-plus, and simultaneously why so many fans found the series endlessly frustrating (with a capital “endlessly”). In his introduction to the “X-Men: Asgardian Wars” trade paperback, Claremont himself makes reference to his reputation for leaving plot threads dangling ad infinitum. He knew what he was doing, in more ways than one.
So, Kitty and Peter get a little closer to consummating their love than they did in Uncanny #165, but once again are interrupted. Over the course of the next nine months, Claremont will further frustrate the relationship (and readers), to exquisitely wrenching effect. The effect upon Joss Whedon (who professes to have been a great fan of the Paul Smith era of Uncanny X-Men) will be so profound that he’ll make a point of resolving the sexual tension during his Astonishing project 20 years later. As is the author’s wont, he’ll take the whole thing to unsubtly juvenile extremes, making a fetish out of Kitty and Colossus fucking. (The bit with Kitty coming so hard that she phases and descends to the ground floor of the mansion is Whedon’s crude answer/sequel to Kitty and Peter’s ascension in “Romances.”)
Claremont is finding clever ways to build on his own continuity in “Romances” as well. During the airplane scene, when Scott is handed a picture of Jean (who is posing sexily in a swimsuit in Greece) by a kindly seeming priest, this is an ingenious allusion to a pair of back-to-back panels in the Byrne-illustrated issue 125 (Page 8, panels four and five, to be precise). In plot terms, it’s the clearest signal yet for long-time readers that the mastermind behind the machinations of the last few issues is, appropriately enough, Mastermind. Thematically, it is Claremont’s deftest use yet of continuity. Rather than re-channeling the big moments and characters from great stories of the past – the classic “riffs” – instead he is playing just a few resonant notes: Jean’s vacation in Greece – when the picture was taken (by Jason Wyngarde, during an era expanded upon in Classic X-Men #24b) – occurred when Scott mistakenly believed Jean to be dead, and under that false assumption began a romance with Colleen Wing. What a brilliant little move on Wyngarde’s part (and Claremont’s), then, to remind Cyclops of that time in his life, now that Scott is once again pursuing a relationship with someone new in the wake of Jean’s apparent death.
As Mitch Montgomery points out in his X-traordinary People essay, “From the Ashes” is a sequel to the Dark Phoenix Saga, but not the typical superhero-comicbook sequel. Here, we are watching Cyclops as he deals with his survivor’s guilt in the wake of Jean’s death – that seminal moment in the Phoenix epic wherein Cyclops and Jean go forward together to face their fate, but she commits suicide and he survives. “From the Ashes,” while retaining the surface traits of a traditional comic-book reiteration (i.e., the villain returns for revenge) has greater psychological weight than anything seen before in Uncanny X-Men. The shiny genre trappings on the surface disguise a more universal story, depicting a man at last coming to terms with the death of a loved one. Claremont’s more subtle use of allusion to his own continuity – reprising the innocuous appearance of a kindly old priest on a plane rather than something flashier and more overtly menacing – works as a neat little indicator of how his focus as a writer has shifted. Indeed, “Romances” as a whole, which eschews super-villain battles in favor of pages upon pages of lovers in conversation, does much the same.