Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #207

[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.]

“Ghosts”

In issue 203, which climaxed the optimistic first half of Claremont’s epic run on Uncanny X-Men, Rachel Summers – the daughter of Jean Grey – returned to the planet of the M’Kraan Crystal and, with the fate of the entire universe in her hands, came down on the side of life. The crimes of Dark Phoenix were thus redeemed by her daughter, and a message of hope and compassion was conveyed.

Now, however, we’re on the dark side. In this issue, Rachel’s redemption turns out to have been only temporary. Still haunted by nightmares of the dystopia wherein she once acted as a “hound” who hunted down mutants on the government’s behalf, she spends the duration of “Ghosts” in a state of compulsive, unrelenting shame. The X-Men -- who in any given pre-1986 issue would have treated Rachel’s psychotic level of guilt with compassion – now just don’t have the time for it. Having temporarily holed up in the Morlock tunnels while waiting for Wolverine to heal from his battle with Deathstrike, they are in straits so desperate that compassion, for the first time in their history, takes a back seat to simple survival. This is entirely new territory for the characters and the series.

The focus of Rachel’s dystopian dream is Wolverine, who acts as an avatar for her own guilt and thus – in every iteration of her recurring nightmare – kills her with his claws. The reason for Logan’s role is only hinted at, but it’s a fascinating hint, one that makes superb use of the continuity as depicted in the original “Days of Future Past” story. In the original comics (issues 141-142), Rachel was just another inmate in the prison camp – that she’d been a “hound” before entering the camp was ret-conned in by Claremont in Uncanny #189. Now, we get another piece of that puzzle. “The government sent me to the camp, figuring I’d be slaughtered by the inmates as a traitor,” Rachel recalls. “But the surviving X-Men took me in. ... Kitty – and the others – forgave me. All of them ... [cut to Wolverine] ... save one.”

Indeed, a re-examination of the original “Days of Future Past” shows that, in the sequences set in 2013, Wolverine hardly interacts with Rachel, except one instance wherein Logan notes that the “timeswitch could be a wasted effort.” Rachel replies, “Wolverine, I’m sorry. I just don’t know!” Logan’s response is to ignore her completely. Now, in “Ghosts,” by revealing that Logan was the one mutant who never forgave Rachel, Claremont casts their brief, original exchange in an entirely new light. This is an ingenious use of retro-continuity.

Meanwhile, back in the present, the contemporary Wolverine knows nothing about this – he only knows that for some reason, Rachel is pulling him into her nightmares. In a delicious bit of dramatic irony, he is the only present-day X-Man to be concerned about the self-destructive trajectory of Rachel’s thoughts. (“What’re you ... doin’, girl – to me – to ... yourself?!” he asks.) While he possesses sympathy for Rachel, the other X-Men ignore her need for forgiveness and compassion – which is the precise opposite of her experience in the dystopian future.

A second, more vicious irony ends the story, as Rachel’s dreams turn out to have been prescient: Just as he did in the nightmares, Wolverine claws her in reality as well.

Claremont tries to sell us on Logan’s rationale, but it’s a bit hard to swallow: He attempts to draw a line between killing when it’s necessary, and killing as “murder.” But the very act of stabbing Rachel undermines his moral stance.

A mitigating interpretation can be gleaned when one considers the milieu: They are in the Hellfire Club, and Rachel – in fully powered-up “Phoenix” mode – is facing off against Selene, who – as the Club’s new Black Queen – is an avatar for the dark, corrupt side of Jean Grey. In the original Dark Phoenix Saga, it was the Club that corrupted Jean, and, indeed, only minutes after she stepped outside its walls, she became Dark Phoenix. Wolverine is perhaps trying to prevent history from repeating itself. However, no such interpretation is suggested by the text itself, and ultimately Claremont fails to sell us on Wolverine’s hazily constructed moral lesson.

This issue also marks the first time that the collective name of the Hellfire Club mutants is given as “the Lords Cardinal” rather than the more generic “Inner Circle.” I’m not sure whether there’s a significance to that name that I’m missing, or if Claremont just wanted something generally more regal. (The Claremont-Bolton backup in Classic #7, published eight months after Uncanny #207, will ret-con the “Lords Cardinal” handle as having been the name of Shaw’s inner circle right from the moment it was first established.)

19 comments:

ba said...

"But the very act of stabbing Rachel undermines his moral stance."

I completely agree, and that's why this issue as a whole has always annoyed me. His argument is ridiculous, especially when rachel was never shown to have anything near the level of power that "jean" had as the phoenix. Claremont clearly wanted to (or was told to) get rid of Rachel, and this was an expedient and poorly thought-out way to do it.

BTW everyone - was there actually a reason to get rid of rachel so quickly, other than the book that was supposed to tell her story? did they expect she wouldn't fit into the mutant massacre arc?

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Anonymous said...

The problem was that if Rachel was still in the book when the team found out about X-Factor, or Scott dumping Maddie, it would be impossible to keep delaying a confrontation between the X-Men and X-Factor.
Michael

Jon Brown said...

Jason,

thanks for pointing out that bit about Wolverine not accepting Rachel in the future. I never noticed that before, but it is a rather brilliant bit of business for Claremont to add.

I agree with you about the stupidity of Wolverine's rational. Maybe the X-men are supposed to be assassins, but Wolverine has advocated killing in cold blood many times before and since this issue. The fact that he kills Rachel himself makes even less sense, and undermines his entire argument. I always thought that Claremont was trying to imply that Wolverine thought Rachel was turning into Dark Phoenix, and that is why he stopped her.

Have you ever noticed that Claremont is always incosistent with his characterization of Rachel? At first she was a traumatized victim, then in Excalibur she was a tough-as-nails hot babe decked out in leather, and then in the newest uncanny series she is a young teenage girl who is unconfident and immature. Do you have any idea why Claremont keeps doing this?

Jon Brown said...

Also, didn't Wolverine say, just a few issues prior, that he supported Rachels attemped assassination of the Beyonder and he regretted that he wasnt personally the one who went in for the kill? His actions in this story make no sense in the context. Its ok to assassinate the beyonder but not selene?

ba said...

"Have you ever noticed that Claremont is always incosistent with his characterization of Rachel? At first she was a traumatized victim, then in Excalibur she was a tough-as-nails hot babe decked out in leather, and then in the newest uncanny series she is a young teenage girl who is unconfident and immature."

I always assumed that her tougher image in Excalibur was because of her time spent on her own in mojoworld, and because they needed a counterpoint to kitty and meggan.

I agree about her use in uncanny since then. From when she was a college student until Cable saved her and she rejoined the x-men, she's been painted as very immature. In the "end of greys" arc (i think that's what it's called...around uxm 455), she was almost childlike - dancing with her grandfather and crushing on...I think it was a cousin, which is creepy. I am enjoying her current characterization in the starjammers, though.

Jason said...

"BTW everyone - was there actually a reason to get rid of rachel so quickly, other than the book that was supposed to tell her story? did they expect she wouldn't fit into the mutant massacre arc?"

I'm guessing Claremont and Simonson were already cooking up the new ret-conned Maddie origin, which involved her having access to the Phoenix force. And Jean had just returned in X-Factor. Presumably they wanted to get rid of Rachel because they didn't want another Phoenix avatar or Jean duplicate/stand-in. (Although that is just a guess; by the time the big Jean/Maddie confrontation came to a head in "Inferno," Rachel had already returned in Excalibur.)

Jon, I can't speak to the more recent characterization of Rachel, but I think ba is right in that the unseen time in "Mojoworld" (originally to be shown in a Rachel miniseries drawn by Rick Leonardi) was to have toughened Rachel up. If I had to guess as to the why, I'd say it was that Rachel had become too one-note in X-Men. As I've complained about before, Claremont basically had one dramatic turn for Rachel that he kept on hitting: She encountered something that either reminded her of her childhood or somehow negated it, and she'd be sent into hysterical crying jags. Rather wearying, and not many places to go.

It was established right away in Excalibur that her time with Mojo and Spiral had resulted in her memories being "jumbled," which allowed Claremont to give her a fresh spin. With her memories no longer reliable, she had no reason to worry about how the present was matching up with the "Days of Future Past" timeline, and could get on with just living life. It was a refreshing change, I think, and a good move on Claremont's part.

Jason said...

Oh, and Jon, yeah, Wolverine not accepting Rachel in the future. It's great, isn't it? And it is surprisingly subtle. I love when Claremont sneaks in bits like that.

O said...

Apologies in advance for the religious overtones of this explanation, but here's how I made sense of this issue:

In contrast to the revenge-driven demon from her nightmares, present-day Wolverine pursues Rachel in an attempt to save her soul, or at least preserve his notion of her X-Men-samurai-hero-warrior honor. In his (and Claremont's) mind, committing premeditated murder is a point of no return along the path to damnation. (Claremont revisits this theme several times during his tenure on the X-Books.) So, when Rachel walks right up to Logan and practically screams in his face, "The only way to stop me is to kill me," he's convinced he has no other choice. (I love that he gets taken to task for this in the next issue.)

Re-reading it now, I still find the last page of this issue to be pretty fantastic. I love how Wolverine appears to be physically shaking/vibrating from the force of Phoenix's power. Also, how awesome is the lettering of the final panel?

Anonymous said...

Why no mention of this issue's cover? An awesome portrait of Wolverine by John Romita Jr. One of the best pictures of the character ever (back before he was the over-exposed character we know today) and a neat gimmick of his claws tearing the cover.

I never totally bought Wolverine's rationale, either. I also never understood the X-Men standing by and allowing Selene to roam around freely. They know she is a "life vampire", killing people by draining their life essence so she can stay alive. They know she killed Magma's mother, not to mention the kind nightclub owner who took Rachel in when she first arrived in their time period. Selene became the Black Queen and had quarters at the Hellfire Club, so they knew where she lived. In the issue where Rachel and Amara go after Selene, they are told by Professor Xavier at the end of the story that his students do not kill. Okay, fine, but what about justice? Poor Amara lost her mother to this powerful supervillain and you do nothing? Is Selene really so powerful they couldn't confront her directly? And if killing her is off the table (as it seems to be in the opinons of Wolverine and Prof. X) then why not try to find a way to contain her, or banish her? It's established the X-Men know Dr. Strange, not to mention the Fantastic Four and the Avengers and Alpha Flight. All of them are people who would have helped them out, especially to rid the world of a menace like Selene.

By Wolverine's rationale in this story, you can't kill a bad guy unless they are going to kill you or someone else. Okay, makes sense. That's why Wolverine had no problem with Colossus killing Riptide of the Maruaders. But what about the future victims of someone like Selene? It's established she feeds on people to survive. Do the X-Men really have to wait until they "catch her in the act" of about to kill someone to kill her?

Another reason to get Rachel out of the book was maybe to further weaken the X-Men for their upcoming battle with the Marauders. Wolverine is severely weakened by Lady Deathstrike. Rachel is off the team. Storm has no powers. In the next story arc Nightcrawler gets injured by Nimrod. The vast majority of the team is not at their best. And so, the Marauders inflict many casualties on the X-Men. Ironically, powerless Storm is the only one who gets out unscathed. Although the Marauders definitely come off as a threat-they have a variety of lethal and/or disorienting superpowers that make them a force to be reckoned with and they are utterly ruthless-their fearsomeness is somewhat undercut by facing an undermanned, weakened group of X-Men. Makes you wonder what would have happened if the team had been at full strength, with everyone healthy and members like Magneto, Rachel, Havok, Polaris, etc. along for the fight.

ba said...

@anonymous -

it's been established since then that selene is pretty f'ing powerful, having been around for a few thousand years, and being one of the first known mutants.

i agree that there might have been problems with rachel in the massacre (i couldn't see any of the marauders really standing up to her), though it bears mentioning that magneto and rogue also end up unscathed, and havok and polaris haven't rejoined the team yet (first running into the brood, which is then dropped for another 10 issues, and then polaris rejoins...the marauders)

Anonymous said...

Jason, I doubt that Claremont and Simonson were cooking up the new origin for Maddie that early. As late as X-Factor 31, Destiny tells Jean, "(Maddie) had no time and you have all the time in the world", which is never explained in Inferno. Claremont has said the whole Goblin Queen thing was thought up after Shooter left.
About killing Selene:It's wrong because Strange and Clea could undoubtedly find a way to contain her. They were able to keep Umar in suspended animation and Umar is FAR more powerful than Selene. The problem is that nobody suggests an alternative between killing her and letting her go.
Michael

Doop said...

I know this post is old, but I was hoping you could still respond to me.

When Rachel returned in Excalibur, Wolverine and the other X-Men were pretending to be dead. When Rachel was eventually reunited with them, was him stabbing her ever addressed?

Jason said...

Doop,

Yessir! Wolverine and Rachel hashed it out in a back-up story in X-Men Annual #14 (the 1990 annual, part of "Days of Future Present"). It's not exactly the most satisfying of confrontations, but it does occur (and it is written by Claremont). Sadly, the backup story is not reprinted in the "Days of Future Present" TPB.

I believe Claremont also had Wolverine and Rachel hash out the event in "X-Men: The End," though I can't remember how it all went down.

Anonymous said...

One of the best Wolvie/Xmen covers ever by JRJR...just striking!

There were rumors once that Rachel was Wolverine's daughter in the future after a tryst with Jean - this would explain her vicious side and also why she could not be detected by Cyclops when he was transformed into a hound by Ahab...i always liked that theory and wondered if there was anything to it...!

Jason said...

Good to see you commenting, John!

By all accounts, the rumor that Wolverine was Rachel's father was just a rumor.

The actual planned explanation by Claremont for the Ahab stuff was that Rachel was conceived without a father -- the Phoenix force just independently reproduced.

But like you, I really like the Wolverine theory. I like it much better, actually ... it gives a whole different context to their relationship in this issue especially.

wwk5d said...

The ending is a little wonky, true, but still a great cliffhanger, in the sense it makes you think "Damn, did that really happen?"

Jason, I like the idea of linking the scene from the original DOFP to this issue, but it seems strained to me. To me, the main reason Logan is involved was because, he fits the best in this particular role, and it couldn't worked with anyone else. Though, had it been Storm instead, the fall out would've been interesting...

I do remember Claremont mentioning that one of the reasons Logan was worried was because, he felt Rachel was on her way to becoming another Dark Phoenix. Her attack on Selene, if anything, reminds me of Jean's battle with Emma during the Dark Phoenix Saga. Granted, Claremont could've made the point clearer...

Too bad Rachel was written out at the end of this story. She's actually a bit interesting here. I like the idea that, no matter how much she changes, or says she wants to change, she's still a hound and violent person at heart. Wish he had done more with this...

Btw, these 3 issues are some of my favorites of this era. This issues ending may be a bit wonky, but the rest is just awesome. Great plotting, dialogue, character moments, art...

Anonymous said...

This issue was the first issue I had to buy the original for because Classic got cancelled. Because of that it always felt like this was the beginning of the next major arc. Two issues ago definitely makes more sense though.

This issue through FOTM is my favorite era of X-Men. The reason it's always overlooked I would guess is because it's always lumped in with all the grim and gritty crap that came later to other comics. This is especially sad because while it's definitely dark it's also one of the most exciting times in any superhero team book. Has there been another mainstream team book where the stakes are this high for an extended period of time? CC makes them outlaws, puts them on the run and keeps them that way for another seventy issues give or take.

Derek E

Oyarsu said...

This is one my favorite X-men comics ever. I remember waiting for Classic X-Men to reach this issue and they cancel it at 206. Anyways, I thought the ending was off the hook. The art was great. The confrontation at the end, was awesome. I likes the idea of Wolverine being Rachel's father, would give more credence to why she was such a good hound.