[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.]
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.)