Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #203

[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.]

“Crossroads”

No one agrees on when the Silver Age of superhero comics ended, or what to call the age that succeeded it. Arguably the Silver Age of the X-Men ended when the original series was cancelled at the end of the 1960s and replaced with a reprint title. But in a lot of significant ways, when the series was revived by Len Wein in 1975 it very much continued the same sensibility that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby began with. Most problematically, the conservative politics of the title characters were still in evidence. As Neil Shyminski illustrates in “Mutant Readers, Reading Mutants,” the X-Men’s counter-revolutionary stance was still in full force even as late as 1983, when the Morlocks first appeared. It’s not until 1984 that we begin to see Claremont grappling with the comic’s skewed sensibility, and in 1985 he finally begins to start realigning the comic’s sensibilities. Issue 199 – wherein the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants sells out to the establishment and the X-Men fight to protect Magneto, the quintessential mutant revolutionary – sees Claremont completely up-ending the comic’s Silver Age roots.

That all takes us to the aptly named “Crossroads,” which draws a line under the Silver Age X-Men and brings their story to a close. Tying in once again with Jim Shooter’s risible mega-crossover “Secret Wars II” (the first of its kind, and unfortunately far from the last), Uncanny #203 sees Rachel Summers, the new Phoenix, returning to the milieu featured at the end of Claremont’s first major X-Men storyline: the planet of the M’Kraan Crystal. In the earlier story (from issues 107-108), the original Phoenix drew spiritual and physical sustenance from the X-Men in order to heal the crystal and “save the Universe.” Here, the inverse occurs. Deliberately stealing life essence – even from members of the X-Men who don’t agree to the idea – Phoenix returns to the M’Kraan world. Unlike her mother, Rachel wants to crack open the crystal and destroy the universe, as a means of killing the omnipotent Beyonder.

But when Rachel’s awareness expands throughout the universe, and the X-Men’s along with it, she recognizes – with prompting from Storm – the magnitude of what she wants to do, and chooses to leave the crystal intact. This is Claremont once again attempting to redeem the infamous moment in X-Men history when Dark Phoenix murdered an entire planet. Here, Jean Grey’s daughter is deliberately placed in the position to murder billions, but intellect and compassion win out. Phoenix is redeemed, and Claremont’s X-Men saga comes full circle.

Loose ends do still exist, of course – the most immediate of which is the reference to the New Mutants having been wiped from existence, a large complication that is smoothed out in the final chapter of Secret Wars II and subsequent New Mutants issues. However, in a lot of key, crucial ways, the story begun in Lee and Kirby’s first issue has been brought to an end. Of the characters who appeared in that original story, Xavier has left the Earth to be with Lilandra (essentially married off and retired). Magneto now believes in Xavier’s “dream,” and has replaced Xavier as headmaster of the School for Gifted Youngsters. Four of the five original students have moved on, to be replaced by a new generation of kids wearing the Kirby-designed school uniforms. The fifth, Jean Grey, is dead, but her daughter lives on and has even succeeded in redeeming Jean’s final mistakes. (Actually, Jean is now alive thanks to John Byrne’s insipid ret-con published a few months earlier in Fantastic Four #286 – but in terms of narrative chronology, that hasn’t happened yet.)

As for the Wein/Cockrum-designed X-Men, well ... if the series did not continue past issue 203, they could have enjoyed a pleasant retirement in San Francisco, a city that we are told on Page 5 is apparently much more tolerant of mutants in general and certainly the X-Men in particular.

(Oddly enough, at the time of this writing, the solicits for Matt Fraction’s first issue of Uncanny X-Men read, in part, “What the hell is going on in San Francisco now that the Uncanny X-Men have relocated there? They’ve got a new Headquarters and a new status quo ...” Once again, a “new” development in the X-Men’s tapestry demonstrably has its seeds in Claremont’s work from decades ago.)

All told, this is where Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men ends happily. Matt Brady teased me a bit when I referred to issue 108 as the end of Claremont’s Act I. He’s right. If one were to apply a “two-act play” paradigm to the whole of Claremont’s entire run, then the end of the first act occurs right here, wherein thematic elements, plot threads and character arcs all come together in a giant cosmic event.

Having thus put everything together, Claremont will begin – in next month’s Uncanny #204 – to pull everything apart.

10 comments:

Christian said...

I'm a complete idiot, but I just want to point out that Fraction's run on X-men seem, and I say seem (because he hasn't been on for very long) to follow Morrison in the idea that there are no new X-men stories, just new, clever, twists on old Claremont.

They move the entire team away to a different location for safety (the Australia move was akin to this, right?), the X-men are revolutionaries with Cyclops having stepped up to the plate and having to take some difficult decisions to protect his people. This is inverse to Morrison's, where mutants had almost started becoming the mainstream.

Then there's the new Sisterhood of Evil Mutants, the new Hellfire Cult etc.

Coupling that with them being hunted once more, though for a slightly different reason (they're not being hunted because they're terrifying people, they're being murdered in the same way the neaderthals were in the first New X-men issue), seems to play nicely into the same, but different approach.

rob said...

I've been loving your discussion of the challenges to the X-Men's traditional paradigm and political stance. I haven't been able to keep up with all of the comments, so I don't know how much you've hinted at, but I'm interested to hear your opinions of the late part of Claremont's run (basically from when Psylocke forces them through the Seige Perilous onwards). I personally like the last twenty or so issues of his run, but I can understand those who don't. Plus, they're in a much less-discussed area, so I'm excited to hear some intelligent thoughts on them.

Anonymous said...

One problem with this issue is that Jessica Drew, Kitty and Rogue agree to help Rachel destroy the universe to stop the Beyonder. It's definitely out of character for Jessica and Rogue, although Kitty is arguably being influenced by the Soulsword. Claremont explained it away as Rachel subconsciously influencing them a few issues later.
Michael

ba said...

I hated this issue, to the point where I think, over the three or so times that I've read the claremont run in its entirety, I have never done anything more than skim it.

That said, in the context of history and the entire claremont run, I like how you are calling this the demarcation between part one and part two (i assume the siege perilous on is part three, and @rob - i love the post-siege perilous era, up until about x-men 7 and uxm 281). I disagree about this being the end of the silver age, though...I would say that it's sort of blurry, ending somewhere between giant-sized and the introduction of kitty.

Also, how ahead of time do you write these? The fraction SF run began about 3-4 months ago...how early do you write each review, or do you sort of do a bunch at a time? Not that it matters; I'm just curious.

Anonymous said...

Jason,

This is one of my all time favorite issues. I am suprised you didn't comment on some of the great character moments -- such as Rogue admission of atheism for example.

It is also especially timely that you cover this issue right now, because I always thought it was a nice parallel with Watchmen. In Watchmen, Ozyemandes sacrifices millions of innocents to save humanity and the book portrays this as morally ambiguous. In X-men 203, we are presented with the solution to this moral dilemma. When Rachel experiences absolute empathy with every living being on the planet, she is unable to sacrifice their lives. Unlike Ozemandes, the X-men have empathy for others and are thus unable to use people are tools to achieve their goals, no matter how noble.

During this story, Magneto is mindlinked with the entire cosmos and for the first time, he feels what Xavier feels. He is forced to view these innocents as people, not abstractions. He recalls a question Xavier once asked him: would you slay Adolf Hitler when he was an infant to prevent the Holocaust? Magneto's initial response was yes -- he would even slay Hitler's parents and grandparents, make any sacrifice, to prevent the holocaust. "But now I wonder..." he explains.

wwk5d said...

Another great issue. Man, SWII wasn't a crappy mini-series, but many of the cross-over issues were great.

Jason, for me, I would say the Silver Age officially ended once DC published Crisis on Infinite Earths. Then again, there those who would say the late 70s to the early 90s could be the Bronze Age...ah well. This would be a good end for the team, except for one thing left unresolved: What did happen to Nightcrawler?

wwk5d said...

Sorry, meant to say SWII WAS a crappy series...

Harry said...

Considering that the whole Beyonder/Secret Wars II element would have been forced on Claremont, he sure managed to make lemonade from those lemons! This issue, and the previous one, are not really tied into the ongoing narrative of the X-Men per se, on first glance. Yet closer examination would reveal a lot of character work, mainly for Rachel, and plenty of nods back to continuity. The M'Krann Crystal, obviously, but is it just me, or is Rachel, as Phoenix, sharing her awareness of the universe with the Beyonder not a deliberate nod to when Dark Phoenix/'Jean' made Mastermind similarly aware? Except while Dark Phoenix acted out of malice and revenge, leaving Wyngarde almost mindless for a time, Rachel, in keeping with her desire to redeem the name of Phoenix, enlightened the Beyonder and saved the day. Nice thematic parallels.
Also, the 'strange failure' speech from Storm to Rachel is very similarly worded to Xavier's words to James Proudstar when he felt he had failed due to his inability to kill. It makes sense for both characters as individuals. Kitty gets to be righteously indignant, the ongoing layering of Wolverine from the aloof brawler of his early appearances continues, with his statement that, while he may kill if he's "got cause", he's not an executioner, and, as already mentioned up thread, Magneto (with tears in his eyes) can be seen to be re-evaluating his position before our eyes...a shame, then, that his noble attempt at redemption was to fail, but, then, since when have the X-Men lived in a fairy-tale world?

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Anonymous said...

Know what BUGS the eff out of me in this issue, and it's my biggest gripe with Claremont's initial run (my favorite run of any comic): Hypocrite Wolverine telling Rachel, "But I'm not an executioner, Ray. We do that we play the Beyonder's game--provin' ourselves to be no better'n him." Six issues later--six!!!--Wolverine EXECUTES* Rachel. At least the Cyclops-screws-over-Maddy apologists have better arguments than the Wolverine-stabs-Rachel apologists do. This makes no sense whatsoever.

*Attempted murder