[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.]
Published in late 1985 but set chronologically earlier (circa Uncanny #193), the X-Men/Alpha Flight miniseries is one of Claremont’s purest stories, possessing a sweetness and simplicity that are almost musical. He works from a premise conceived by committee -- it is credited collectively to Jim Shooter, Ann Nocenti and Denny O’Neil (at the time the editor-in-chief, the X-Men editor and the Alpha Flight editor, respectively). One would expect that to be the kiss of death creatively, but the premise is rather direct: In order to gain the favor of a pantheon of beings even more powerful than gods, Loki (the Norse god of mischief) tries to give the world a gift: a magic fountain capable of creating a utopia for all of humanity, but at the cost of all our souls. Take away the Marvel Universe trappings, and it’s a timeless and universal theme.
Re-teamed with penciller Paul Smith, whose work is as beautiful as ever, Claremont crafts a work rich in character detail. Unburdened by the latticework of plot threads that now continually rest upon the proceedings in the monthly Uncanny title, he is able to let this story unfold with grace and sensitivity. Potentially clichéd sequences, i.e., extended moments of mentally or physically handicapped characters (Puck, Aurora, Rogue) being cured thanks to “the gift” contain a genuine sense of joy. This story also contains a key scene in the X-Men canon, historically: Scott learning that Madelyne is pregnant. In depressingly prosaic terms, thanks to post-Claremont ret-cons, this is kind of the “first appearance” of popular X-character Cable, and thus one of the most significant moments in X-Men history. More importantly in terms of creative expression and emotional weight, and certainly for the purposes of this series (which could not be less interested in the banal story developments that followed immediately in the wake of Claremont’s departure), this is simply one of the sweetest moments in X-Men history.
Rachel Summers, meanwhile, once again starts weeping (as she does at virtually everything said or done in the present since she arrived from the future) at the news that Madelyne’s baby is a boy and, thus, not her. Considering that Madelyne wasn’t her mother in the alternate timeline anyway – not to mention the very fact that this timeline IS alternate – you’d think this would all be moot. To give Claremont credit, however, he parlays Rachel’s angst into a genuinely tear-jerking final scene between Cyclops and Rachel in issue 2 of the miniseries.
Other standout characterizations in X-Men/Alpha Flight include that of Colossus, the only X-Man (other than Rachel) who proves willing to accept Loki’s gift despite the sacrifice; and of Rogue, who develops a charming rapport with Alpha Flight’s Northstar (the first gay superhero, though in 1985 he was still closeted) over the course of the two-parter.
Most intriguing of all is Claremont’s use of Madelyne Pryor in the comic. Made into a healer by Loki’s fountain, she is tested more intensely than any other character. Loki puts the screws to her excruciatingly in the story’s climactic sequence – and she buckles. When put to the ultimate test, she comes down on the side of selling out to keep her power. This is another example of serendipity via serialization. At the time he wrote this arc for Scott’s wife, Claremont surely didn’t know that three years later he’d write a massive X-Men crossover that hinged on Madelyne making a deal with a demon, trading her soul for power. Yet in her confrontation with Loki, this is pretty much exactly what happens. Retroactively then, “The Gift” turns out to contain a very key bit of foreshadowing regarding Madelyne’s ultimate fate in Claremont’s X-Men saga.