[Guest Blogger Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont’s X-Men run. For more in this series, see the toolbar on the right.]
One of the less convincing threads of the many that Claremont introduced during 1981 (quantitatively speaking, Claremont’s most awkward and creatively stunted year) was the Rogue/Carol Danvers conflict from Avengers Annual #10. Among the story’s many problems were: 1.) Rogue’s ability to temporarily absorb powers and memories is introduced by way of an exceptional case – i.e., in Carol’s case, the absorption was permanent. That’s awkward storytelling no matter how you look at it. 2.) Rogue’s motivation for attacking Carol in the first place was never explained – we are given to understand it has to do with a vendetta of Mystique’s, but the source of the Mystique/Carol animosity is never explained. 3.) Carol’s memories come back thanks to Xavier, and she eventually gets new powers as well, so the sense of Carol’s truly having “lost” something was rather muted. Claremont told us something tragic had happened, but never showed us.
In “Madness,” Claremont and his collaborators finally give the palpable sense of something truly awful having occurred, as the harshness of both Rogue’s assault and its after-effects are dramatized effectively for the first time. Employing a particularly oblique style of storytelling (the kind for which he’s now famed among X-Men fans), Claremont deliberately keeps readers in the dark as to what exactly is happening for most of this issue: Rogue seems more confident and clever than she ought to be as she single-handedly assaults the SHIELD Helicarrier. Long-time readers (particularly if they also followed Claremont’s Ms. Marvel back in the 1970s) probably could guess why, but we don’t get the explicit explanation until the end, during Rogue’s conversation with Michael Rossi: Carol’s psyche is bleeding through into Rogue’s as a result of their San Francisco encounter from Avengers Annual #10. At first, this works in Rogue’s favor, and it makes for a fun adventure story as well: Her battle with SHIELD is wonderfully handled, and the repeated bit wherein Rogue/Carol’s only weapon is a Susan B. Anthony dollar hurled at high-velocity is both cutely knowing (Carol was Marvel Comics’ first explicitly feminist superhero) and pretty cool.
Then suddenly the story takes an eerily psychotic turn, as – in a sequence evocatively colored by Glynis Oliver (then Wein) – Rogue’s personality finally starts to re-emerge through Carol’s. A bruised and battered Michael Rossi can only watch in horrified confusion as this stranger seems to go insane while impersonating an old lover, but when he at last learns the truth, he becomes ruthlessly hostile, smacking her down and saying, “I wish I had the power to kill you.” There is genuine pathos in Rogue’s confused/agonized reply “So do I, my love. So do I.”
In almost any Claremont superhero comic, the extraordinary circumstances work metaphorically. Here, the very comic-booky premise – a reformed super-villain finds her psyche invaded by the mind of a superhero she once fought and beat – is simply a heightened version of the prosaic phenomenon of guilt. Essentially we’re seeing the story of a murderer who, though ostensibly reformed, will always be haunted by the ghost of her victim.
As for the larger storyline introduced here – involving Hellfire Club spies infiltrating SHIELD – nothing really comes of it after this. Even the cliffhanger, wherein Rogue is framed for the murder of an agent, will only get a bit more play in Uncanny X-Men #’s 185 and 186 before silently fizzling out. (By the time Rogue and Nick Fury cross paths during the Jim Lee era of Uncanny, they will inexplicably act like old chums.)
Not insignificantly, this is also the first Uncanny issue edited by Ann Nocenti. A fairly unconventional comic book editor, Nocenti may not have realized (or simply didn’t care) that Claremont needs a fairly firm editorial rein to keep him from losing track of his plot threads. The stories Claremont would go on to write during her editorial tenure (roughly from 1984 to 1987) comprise an era both rich with imagination, creativity and innovation, and also – paradoxically, but perhaps inevitably – marked by a lack of overall focus or direction.