[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.]
Ostensibly a generic superhero action story the like of which we’ve already seen in years and years’ worth of X-Men annuals, “Performance” makes less sense on those terms than as a meta-commentary on the “X” franchise.
First, the backstory: By 1986, artist Alan Davis had been illustrating the adventures of Captain Britain for Marvel UK for several years, collaborating with writers Dave Thorpe, Alan Moore and Jamie Delano (in that order) before writing a couple vignettes himself. Davis’ penultimate Captain Britain story was a harsh one in which the title character’s sister, Elizabeth “Betsy” Braddock, replaced him in the role of Captain Britain, only to find herself not at all qualified; in a battle with the Captain’s enemy Slaymaster, her eyes were carved out.
This brings us to Claremont, who -- as the original creator of Betsy and the Captain -- imports their entire mythos into the “X” franchise in the Davis-illustrated New Mutants Annual #2. That same comic book also featured Mojo and Spiral (from Ann Nocenti and Art Adams’ six-issue Longshot miniseries) as the villains. Though they had returned to their home dimension at the end of the Nocenti/Adams mini, Mojo and Spiral were depicted returning to Earth, where they kidnapped the now-blind Betsy, outfitted her with bionic eyes, and used her telepathic powers to enslave children. The New Mutants teamed up with Captain Britain and foiled the plan, and Betsy decided to enroll in Xavier’s school.
That brings us finally to X-Men Annual #10, wherein we learn that Betsy (re-christened “Psylocke” by Claremont) is actually transmitting everything she sees at the X-Mansion to Mojo’s dimension via cameras in her bionic eyes. When the issue begins, the X-Men are fighting Magneto as part of a Danger Room exercise, and the action translates in Mojo’s dimension into a hit television show.
It’s one of Claremont’s zaniest plots, but there is logic to it. That Mojo sees the X-Men as a franchise is a kind of futuristic take on the old Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four comics, which established that the Fantastic Four were – even in their own fictional universe – also stars of a Marvel comic book. Now, in 1986, well into the “MTV” generation, the X-Men are the stars of a hit media franchise in the insane, short-attention-span universe ruled by Mojo. While the audience on Mojo’s world watches, the X-Men are forced into an adventure that reprises the iconic moments that begat the first two generations of the series: the X-Men vs. Magneto, which inaugurated the Silver Age series; then, the establishment of a new team to rescue/replace the old, a la Giant Sized X-Men #1 (the cover of which is emulated on the cover). Now, circa Uncanny issues 210 and 211 -- which Annual #10 unevenly fits between, chronologically -- the series is at the threshold of its third generation. If “Performance” is a microcosm of the watershed moments in the team’s history, then clues about the nature of that third version ought to exist here.
One such hint is the overdetermined nature of the story itself: the Captain Britain mythos, as personified by Psylocke, is forced onto the same plane as the X-Men’s world, and so are the characters and settings from Nocenti and Adams’ Longshot universe.
Note that the letter “X” can denote the intersection of two lines – an interpretation that will greatly inform Claremont’s remaining years on the comic. A series ostensibly about mutation will now be about cross-pollination – the intermingling of ingredients that have no rational reason to co-exist. As noted, Claremont’s new icon as of 1986 is Spiral, a six-armed dancer/poet who finds beauty in chaos. More and more as the series continues, Claremont will juggle an increasing amount of complex threads and plotlines, enjoying the chaotic beauty as he mixes and matches disparate elements. (The quintessence of Claremont’s philosophy is found in the appearance here of – absurdly -- a family of talking frogs that appeared recently in Thor.)
The other hint of what’s to come occurs at the end of the story, just after a hilarious bit wherein Claremont mocks his own typical melodrama by cutting from a cliché speech by Storm about heroism to a stylized Mojo-logo (“MGM: Mojo’s Giant Movies ... of Death”) and the image of fat creatures going wild with applause.
Afterwards, Mojo justifies his existence in the X-universe: “Where would all [the X-Men’s] heroism be without someone truly nasty to properly test them?!” he asks rhetorically. “Thanks to me, their existence has purpose.” It’s almost as if Mojo is an avatar here for Claremont himself – forcing the X-Men into increasingly horrible situations in order to give the characters purpose. This is, indeed, a predictor of what the future holds, as the X-Men’s rogues gallery starts to fill up with villains like Mojo – irredeemable bastards motivated simply by a desire to do “truly nasty” things. Thus, Mr. Sinister and the Marauders with their impending massacre of the Morlocks; the Adversary, who wants to destroy the universe on a whim; the Inferno demons, the Reavers, the Shadow King ... all these villains are ultimately, like Mojo, just Chris Claremont in disguise: giving the X-Men a purpose while keeping the ratings up.
Looked at from this perspective, Annual #10 emerges as Claremont’s most self-aware and most cynical X-Men comic.