[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men run. For more in this series, click the label at the bottom or see the toolbar on the right.]
Published in November of 1986, Uncanny X-Men #215 hit the stands at the same time that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen was coming out. Of course, Watchmen’s influence would be felt all over superhero comics to be published over the next few years. The series’ main, and most oft-lamented, effect is the gradual darkening in the tone of comics that followed in Watchmen’s wake. But, as Geoff pointed out, another key aspect of Watchmen was Alan Moore’s relentless running commentary on the tradition of the superhero narrative, going all the way back to the superhero’s heyday, the 1940s.
Never unwilling to be blatantly derivative when he sees fun to be had, Claremont pairs up with Alan Davis (Moore’s collaborator on both Captain Britain and Miracleman) to give us “Old Soldiers,” which – as far as the X-Men franchise is concerned – is apropos of nothing, but makes perfect sense when considered as an early reverberation of Watchmen. One of the motifs of the Moore/Gibbons opus is an examination of how wanly naive the bright and shiny four-color icons of the ‘40s seem when under the long shadow of post-WWII nuclear paranoia. Claremont’s take on the theme is to create three new characters – Super Sabre, Crimson Commando and Stonewall – and cast them as aged ex-superheroes who fought in WWII (presumably alongside people like Captain America and Nick Fury). Now, they are old, obsolete relics who try to make themselves feel useful by sadistically playing out endless iterations of “The World’s Most Dangerous Game” with petty thieves and drug dealers they happen to catch. It’s all awfully contrived – this issue and the next feel very much as if Claremont is so taken with playing in Watchmen-esque territory that he’s entirely distracted from what makes the X-Men interesting.
Crucially, the three aged superheroes – who could, theoretically, be an interesting bunch – come off as pathetic old bastards. Contrasted against the convincingly cold-blooded ruthlessness of the Marauders, a fantastic villain team whose presence has informed the series for six months now, the WWII ex-heroes are hopelessly lame.
The Marauders appear in this issue as well, in a Madelyne Pryor flashback that is significant as the first step in revising her entire character. Claremont no doubt never planned on explaining the mystery he set up back in 1983 regarding Maddy’s plane crash occurring at the same moment that Phoenix died. The clues were there for careful readers: Madelyne was Jean reincarnated, unofficially. With that solution no longer workable thanks to the X-Factor debacle, a new explanation was required. First, however, since several years have gone by, Claremont must reintroduce the mystery in the first place, hence the opening scene of the issue that recreates the plane crash, with Alan Davis working the Phoenix emblem into the explosion.
We then segue into a classic example of serial entertainment’s greatest and most addictive trick: answer one question with a larger one. Madelyne was gunned down in issue 206 with no explanation. Now, we learn that the Marauders were responsible, but that brings up the next question: Why? Claremont is setting up his mysteries very skillfully here, tantalizing the reader with little bits of information at a time. And contrary to his reputation, these mysteries will be explained to quite satisfactory effect – albeit not for another two years.
At one point in “Old Soldiers,” Rogue notes that Wolverine and Storm are now the “core” of the X-Men. Indeed, they are the only two who remain from the Cockrum/Wein reboot of 1975. The rest – including Longshot, who turns up this issue having finally caught up with the continuity from X-Men Annual #10 – are all more recent additions, and only Rogue has been a member for longer than a few months, real time. It’s fascinating to realize what Claremont has done – in his ragged, narratively irregular way, he has recreated the dynamic that existed when he first began writing X-Men, with all new members built around a core of old ones. Wolverine and Storm are now occupying the roles once occupied by Cyclops and Jean, who – over 100 issues ago – were, along with Charles, the “heart” of the X-Men.
In terms of the franchise’s history, this is a monumental era in the series’ status quo, with Claremont ushering in a third generation for the X-Men (albeit wihtout a single, benchmark issue on a par with Giant-Sized X-Men #1). Because Claremont has been writing the series for over a decade, he is in a unique position to set these narrative templates for the X-Men, canonizing traditions that crystallized around him.
His attempt to replicate the meta-commentary of Watchmen may fail here, but Claremont’s hand when it comes to overwriting the X-Men is as sure as can be. With his use of repeated plot elements, his deliberate structural resonances, his generation-spanning narrative scope ... Claremont is building the X-Men saga into a true epic.
[It is worth noting that the third X-Men movie also set up Storm and Wolverine as the core of the X-Men, though primarily be default after they de-powered or killed everyone else.]