Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #209

[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.]


Uncanny X-Men #209 occupies a dubious but distinct place in X-Men history, as the last issue wherein Claremont makes excellent use of the “classic,” Cockrum-created team. “Salvation” effectively climaxes the second-generation X-Men’s monumental, decade-long tenure with a single, huge, multi-faceted fight scene – shrewdly counter-pointed by Spiral’s surreal seduction of Rachel.

The character arcs for four key characters come to powerful conclusions here: first, there is the tentative post-breakup relationship between Shadowcat and Colossus. Though other moments in the series’ recent history hinted at a resolution, the most powerful clarification comes during Kitty’s below-ground rescue of Peter. Descending toward him (she hopes) in pitch blackness, she recognizes that she could die in the attempt, but resolves that she’d rather run out of air than turn back before he’s saved. That she’s willing to give her life for Colossus even after he broke her heart is powerful and inspiring, and visceral proof that – whether friends or lovers – the bond between the two characters is as strong as ever. Later, Claremont lets the key turning point in the battle occur thanks to a reprise of the trick last scene in issue 202, whereby Shadowcat and Colossus merge into a single being. Once again, the pair’s stratagem becomes a strikingly persuasive metaphor for intimacy, even more intense this second time because it occurs at such a crucial moment in the battle. In the milieu of superhero comics, the most convincing metaphors are those that lead to the defeat of a supervillain.

As a contrast to the redemptive quality of the Peter/Kitty arc, Kurt’s recent thread of self-delusion – his relentlessly solipsistic notion that his life is a swashbuckling adventure film, starring him – comes to a head in brutally tragic terms. Despite Storm’s warning not to, Nightcrawler attempts a strategy already used previously against Nimrod. With a jauntily silly exit line (“Don’t worry, fearless lady leader, I’ll be careful!”) he teleports from Ororo’s side and takes on Nimrod, only to be torn to pieces. The seeds for this tragic ending were actually planted in one of Claremont’s very first issues: X-Men #99, which saw Cyclops warning Nightcrawler about treating his role as an X-Man as if he were still a circus performer. (“That kind of flamboyance can cost us if you’re not careful.”) Kurt laughed the warning off and proceeded to flamboyantly bash more Sentinels. Yet now – over 100 issues later – Scott’s words prove tragically prescient, as Kurt’s devil-may-care attitude (again, ironically, against a Sentinel) seems to get him killed. This is the kind of long-term narrative payoff that’s only possible in a longitudinal storytelling project like this. That Claremont was able to achieve this kind of dramatic irony between two moments separated by a decade is a large part of what makes his work on X-Men so special.

Finally, Rachel Summers’ storyline terminates in a manner even more pathetic than Nightcrawler’s. Kurt, at least, falls during a moment of bravery (and doesn’t die, as next issue reveals, though a toll is still exacted). Rachel, by contrast, succumbs to cowardice and essentially gives up her soul to the devil rather than face up to her responsibilities. First abandoning the other X-Men out of fear and spite, she later recapitulates the same role she played in the original “Days of Future Past” – sitting idly on the sidelines while monitoring her friends’ defeats telepathically. This is another fantastic juxtaposition of two temporally disparate moments in X-Men continuity; yet more dramatic irony created via long-term plotting.

Then, seduced by the hallucinogenic esoterica of the Body Shop, Rachel is convinced to let go of all her painful memories. The weakest character – psychologically speaking -- in the entire Claremontian canon, Rachel would rather have her burdens artificially removed than to actually deal with the guilt and shame of her past. Having made her choice, she dissolves, not unlike Nightcrawler, into non-existence.

Not only are Kurt and Rachel taken down in issue 209, but two members of the Hellfire Club are killed as well during the battle with Nimrod. The effect of so many “kills” is to give this story an acute sense of anything being possible, and no one being safe. It’s a breathless climax indeed, and by including so many pieces of the X-Men tapestry – Morlocks, the Hellfire Club, a Sentinel – Claremont creates a genuine sense that THIS is what everything’s been leading up to. That feel is consolidated when all the mutants, in all three factions, actually team up against a common enemy. It’s appropriate that the Morlocks and the Hellfire Club are the two teams who should be part of this seminal moment; they represent two extremes – the Morlocks are the destitute outcasts, while the Hellfire Club sit, quite literally, on thrones of privilege. But, rallied by the X-Men – poised midway between those extremes at this point in their continuity – they all work for the common benefit of mutantkind against a villain who represents the pinnacle (technologically, at least) of anti-mutant sentiment.

So, on multiple dramatic levels – plot, theme, character – Uncanny #209 is a culminating issue. But as was just noted a few entries ago, Claremont’s writing is not really about bringing things together. His inclination is almost always toward disruption rather than resolution.

Indeed, all of the dialogue from Spiral in this issue virtually screams warnings of the brutal changes that are just around the corner. “Endings become beginnings, flowing together apart, out with the old, celebrate the new,” Spiral free-associates at one point, which pretty much lays out Claremont’s mission-statement for his next five years on the title.

On the final page, Rachel abruptly hallucinates an image of the current X-Men lineup, and says two panels later, “No. That’s over. That’s done.” And the last line of the issue, spoken by the personification of chaos itself: “What comes next, I decide!” Everything is about to fall apart, and in the process, Uncanny X-Men will become more interesting than ever.

[This was a particularly good post I thought. One question Jason -- why do you think Claremont would chose Spiral, of all characters, as his mouthpiece here?]


ba said...

Great review...now I gotta go back and reread it.

Nik said...

Very good review, really made me see it in a new light. I recall being vaguely disappointed with these issues when I read them as they came out, feeling like Claremont was ripping to pieces everything I loved about the X-Men (and indeed, I did start to lose interest in the title for good around the time of "Fall of the Mutants"). But you make really good points about how it was a thematic climax in a lot of ways.

Lou O' Bedlam said...

great. now i've gotta dig those issues out. I'll blame you for the wasted hours!

Anonymous said...

Just re-read those issues. Great story, though I wish more Morlocks would have been involved. Callisto saved Storm's life, sure, and Caliban led them to Rachel, but they weren't able to contribute much else. Morlocks like Sunder, Ape, and Erg could have been helpful.

I love the full-page panel of Colossus slamming Nimrod into the ground.

By the way, this isn't the last time Claremont uses this line-up. That would be in issue #211, coming up soon...when everything truly DOES get shaken up.

Gary said...

This is interesting. I came on when everything fell apart. Fortunately, UXM #210 was the first issue I bought when it was new, so I can't be blamed.

Wow. There is a lot of what feels like Nightcrawler hate, here. He's really taken a drubbing these last few reviews. Do you sincerely believe that Claremont was (how to put it?) punishing him for being fun, or declaring that there is no place for fun in the WORLD THAT'S COMING!

Sorry... OMAC reflex.

I'm kind of moped by this review. I really like this comic because it's a big fight scene, really well done. Kitty hides in Colossus to fool Nimrod's sensors! Harry Leland lives a fat wishy wash and goes out a hero, taking down someone like Nimrod! "We're X-Men, wanna party?... Guess not." A team up of the X-Men and the Hellfire Club! And really, forget about the Morlocks. Their role here is totally forgettable. Who cares if Callisto says two sentences? Leland gives Shaw the mass of a small meteor, and Shaw lives to tell about it! The fact that the Hellfire Club suddenly finds themselves living with the repercussions of kicking the crap out of the X-Men last issue! This book is fantastic, and I'm wondering if this will be poisoned the same way X-Men #1 has been for me. I hope not, and, given this paragraph, it looks doubtful.

Lou O'Bedlam - just take the time and sort your comics. It will make your life easier. 18 long boxes, and I can have this issue in my hands in three minutes or less, including walking down the steps and moving the boxes that are on top of the one I need.

Jason said...

Gary, regarding NIghtcrawler, it is how I see the the thematic threads coming together for him. I don't think it's coincidence that the three mutants who get taken out during the Mutant Massacre are the three most pure/innocent. Perhaps saying there is no place for them in the world that's coming is too much, but certainly there's no place for them in the X-Men that are coming. When Colossus finally comes back, he is hardened both literally and figuratively, while Nightcrawler and Kitty are shunted off to the new "fun" title, Excalibur.

Sorry if the comic is tainted for you, Gary. For me, taking the comics apart like this makes them *more* fun, not less. I'd hate to think the opposite is happening for you!

Anyway, glad you all seemed to enjoy this entry.

Geoff, I'll have to think about why Spiral. Maybe the visual (six arms); maybe the association with Ann Nocenti, who created her; maybe she was just in the right place at the right time, a new character introduced to the mythos right at the time when Claremont decided to get a little crazier.

Anonymous said...

Great review as usual - interesting that Spiral foreshadowed CC's direction to come..well noted!

Loved the action sequences this issue - so imaginative, so exciting...these days a big battle is just laser beams and messy art...Claremont always found interesting ways to use everyone's power and JRJR was just perfect on art chores. You can feel Colossus strength and he slammed Nimrod apart!

John V

wwk5d said...

Jason, I think you pointed it out earlier...Spiral is someone who likes to create chaos. Who better than to be Claremont's harbinger of the coming chaos to this title?

With regards to the art...I think JRjr had a 'finisher' on this title, right? P Craig Russell? They do good work together, despite Russell having a softer look, it doesn't deter from the raw, dark aspects of the story at all.

Interesting that Colossus and Kitty's plan worked, while Nightcrawler's didn't. I know it's because Kurt's form of attack had been already used on Nimrod recently, and Kitty/Peter's hadn't, but it does go back to the idea of teamwork. Go it alone, and you will lose. Use teamwork, and you start kicking all sorts of ass.

Interesting on why these particular X-men (Colossus, Shadowcat, and Nightcrawler) get written out...and then, a few issues later, Longshot joins.

I think you're being a little harsh on Rachel. I haven't read this particular issue in a while, but I remember she runs away thinking she could lead the HC goons away from the fight, or something like that. And as for how she falls under Spiral's sway...who can blame her? Considering how she was just treated coldly by her teammates, stabbed by Wolverine, and the loss of blood, it's no wonder she fell for what Spiral was selling. Had this story been done, say, a year ago, when 1) she wasn't being written out and 2) the title still wasn't becoming as dark as it was, who knows what her answer would have been?

One final thing...I like your assessment regarding the HC, but the Morlocks were already good allies with the X-men at this point. If anything, it's interesting to see the shift once the Massacre happens. Their closest allies go from being as you pointed, out the Morlocks - the destitute outcasts - to the HC - those who sit on thrones of privilege. It's never a 3 way alliance after this issue anyway, as the Morlocks get wiped out soon enough.

Teebore said...

I still recall the battle scenes of this issue with fondness. Claremont was always fantastic at coming up with innovative ways to depict super-powered combat, and this issue always stands out as a great example of that.

Wonderful stuff as always, Jason. Drawing Nightcrawler's thread back to issue #99? The thematic placement of the Morlocks, X-Men and Hellfire Club relative to one another? Spiral as Claremont's mouthpiece?

That's the kind of stuff that impresses the hell out of me when I read these posts.

Jason said...

Thank you kindly, Tee!

NietzscheIsDead said...

Spiral is more than Claremont's mouthpiece here; she an avatar for the man himself. Her stripping of Rachel's memories is exactly what Claremont is doing to her: having realized that she can't function with her memories, he taking them from her so that she can go on to be a functional character in Excalibur. She is free-associating because that's Claremont's thought-process at the moment: he has only a vague idea of where the title is going, but he knows that it is going to be defined thematically by chaos and change and that the X-Men, as they were and have been, are about to be no more.

Jason said...

That's what I was saying, yes. See here for more ruminating along the same lines.