[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men. For more in this series see the toolbar on the right or the labels below.]
“Death by Drowning”
Claremont knows how to have fun. A case in point are the Marauders – an agglomeration of super-villains, no one of which has a particularly compelling personality or superpower, yet who collectively made such a delightfully chilling impression during the “Mutant Massacre” storyline. Now, as Claremont sets up a deliciously action-packed rematch between the X-Men and their latest set of archenemies, Claremont begins with an intriguing new wrinkle: The first appearance of the Marauders’ evil mastermind, Mr. Sinister.
With his Silver Age name, his audaciously extemporized visual design (thank you, Marc Silvestri), and his absurdly opaque motivations, Sinister is on every level an audacious villain. Reportedly, this is all intentional: Sinister was to be revealed as the evil side of a mutant stuck in a state of permanent emotional adolescence. Not only was Sinister deliberately created to be the generically evil boogeyman of a child, but 1990’s Gambit – a character who, like Mr. Sinister, was and is all surface “cool” with no true substance, and thus, inevitably, also was and is a huge hit with the fans – was apparently going to be the other side of that same strange child’s personality. Sinister was an agglomeration of generically villainous elements; Gambit, the ultimate hodge-podge of heroic character traits.
This is all a rather intriguing idea, but Claremont never got around to fleshing it out – the closest he came is with the back-up strips in Classic X-Men #’s 42 and 43, which introduced the mutant boy, Nate, but didn’t go very far in explaining the connection between him and Sinister. Later writers gave the villain a different origin and motivation entirely, casting him banally as a long-lived 19th-century geneticist.
Despite all that, Mr. Sinister is a fantastically over-the-top character, and – as the Marauders did a year earlier – he makes a powerful impression in his debut here, hitting the ground running as the X-Men’s new, major powerhouse villain. The series needed such a catalyzing figure at this point – it was running out of major bad guys as a side effect of Claremont upending the X-Men’s politics and making allies out of former enemies.
Granted, both Sinister and the Marauders are extreme to the point of absurdity – killing mutants, and other friends of the X-Men, for no apparent reason. But what they lack in dimensionality, they recoup by means of dramatic impact. (And, in fact, they do have a reason to kill Madelyne, though it won’t be explained for another year and half.)
The fight choreography between them and the X-Men in “Death by Drowning” is exhilarating, Silvestri and Green designing a number of creative action set-pieces, while Claremont gives the entire thing an added gloss of melodrama by tapping the Rogue/Alison antagonism from five-year-old issues of the Dazzler solo series.
All in all, the creative team works hard to sell us on what is – in many ways – a whole new comic book, as different from the Uncanny X-Men of one year ago as the Cockrum X-Men were from the Lee/Kirby iteration. Consider that in “Death by Drowning,” none of the Cockrum-designed characters appear except Storm, long ago punked-out and de-powered and whose subplot with Naze only comprises two pages here anyway. To all intents and purposes, the “All-New, All-Different” Cockrum/Wein X-Men, as of this issue, do not exist.
Claremont and company, however, deliver such a vibrant, adventure-filled comic that one scarcely misses the previous team. This new iteration of X-Men – scrimped and scraped from other adjacent mythologies in the Marvel Universe – are proving every bit as exciting as their predecessors.
[One of Morrison's main points in Flex Mentallo and other works is that the "grim and gritty" era of comics was the result of immaturity: "Only an unhappy adolescent would confuse pessimism with realism." Now it appears that Morrison was only activating a dormant Claremont point. Claremont was already beginning to deconstruct the influence of Dark Knight.]