[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.]
“The Spiral Path”
Besides being an advertisement for the contemporaneous Longshot miniseries (drawn by Arthur Adams and written by X-Men editor Ann Nocenti), the title of this issue also alludes to the odd vicissitudes of the serial narrative. Particularly in comic books like X-Men, with a history decades long, it’s often the case that story ideas, themes and plot twists tend to recur in a perpetual but uneven cycle.
We see a lot of evidence of that phenomenon in Uncanny #199, which features the return of Mystique’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, recurring villains who themselves are a “twist” on other recurring villains – the original Lee/Kirby brotherhood formed by Magneto.
The Brotherhood return here because that’s what villains do in serial superhero narrative – yet now they work for the U.S. government and they are out to capture Magneto, the founder of their precursors, who in his first appearance in 1963 attacked a U.S. government installation. As Mystique points out, her and her team’s defection to the “good side” is not without precedent: Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, charter members of the 1960s Brotherhood, defected to the Avengers very quickly after their first appearance.
Meanwhile, Cyclops – written out of the comic over a year ago – has been called back to the team. The story opens with him, the original X-Man, practicing in the Danger Room, like so many times before.
Jean Grey became Phoenix almost a decade ago. Now her daughter becomes Phoenix, in a scene whose fiery bombast (followed by a collapse) recalls the original transformation by Jean in 1976. There are familiar story turns occurring left, right and center.
Yet matters are not so symmetric that any of these plot points can be said to be coming full circle. Rather, events are proceeding along “The Spiral Path.” Things are the same, but also different. Magneto, of course, is the most significant anomaly. A one-dimensional villain for much of his narrative existence, here we have his most profoundly sympathetic portrayal yet to appear on-panel. Placing him at the National Holocaust Memorial with Kitty, his fellow Jew among the X-Men cast, is striking in its own right. The subsequent revelation that Magneto “saved many” people at Auschwitz is even bolder. Claremont is endowing Magneto with a level of dimensionality that no character in Uncanny X-Men (and few in mainstream superhero comics in general) has ever had before.
As with Rachel fighting the Black Queen or Rogue fighting the psyche of Carol Danvers, when Magneto is attacked by the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants – now ironically dubbed Freedom Force – it is a superhero metaphor. He is facing the crimes of his own past (having founded the original Brotherhood), as manifested in comic-book style. Magneto’s willingness to give himself up to the government has a narrative precursor in Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men: specifically when Wolverine gave himself up to Alpha Flight. But while that was just a superhero story for its own sake, here there is genuine psychological weight behind Magneto’s decision. It is noteworthy that his surrender is not because he recognizes the authority of the establishment. (“Words and titles have never impressed me,” he tells Mystique, “nor do I accept the dominion of any nation over my person.”) Instead, it is about facing up to his personal demons, as personified in the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.
As for the Brotherhood themselves, the fact that Mystique sells out to the establishment is another example of Claremont upending the politics of the X-Men’s premise. Back in X-Men #1, it was the X-Men who went out to capture Magneto. The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants were the revolutionaries, while the X-Men, as pointed out by Neil Shyminski (quoting Julian Darius), were “explicitly counter-revolutionary.” (Back in the Lee/Kirby days, it was the title characters – or the narrative captions – that branded their opponents “evil mutants.” Magneto just referred them as his “brotherhood” or his “band.”)
Now, however, the Brotherhood are aligned with the establishment. The X-Men are outlaws, fighting to defend the revolutionary Magneto from being persecuted at the government’s hands. Note also that the only Silver Age X-Man to appear on panel in this issue is Cyclops, and he ends up being the mouthpiece for the X-Men’s now out-of-date conservatism. “I know Magneto says he’s reformed, but I don’t believe it!” he declares, and in context seems entirely square for holding such a morally absolutist point of view. The times, they are a-changin’.