[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?]