[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont's X-Men run.]
“Dressed for Dinner”
The previous issue’s Christmas-in-February diversion was forgivable because it was so heart-swellingly sweet. But with “Dressed for Dinner” – featuring Colossus vs. characters out of a Russian novel – Claremont IS in danger of completely hemorrhaging away the momentum of the X-Men’s startling debut in Uncanny #229. But this is Ann Nocenti’s final issue as editor before handing the reins over to Bob Harras, so perhaps Claremont simply wanted her to go out on something more emblematic of their collaborative relationship: a character-based story, grounded more in the emotional relationships between characters than in straightforward hero/villain clashes.
Or perhaps the converse is true – that Claremont would have continued to meander from his firmly established “Down Under” status quo had Bob Harras not happened to step in and (lacking the empathy of Nocenti or Louise Simonson) forced Claremont to snap back into focus.
At any rate, “Dressed for Dinner” also suffers from the substitution of Rick Leonardi’s clunky obviousness for the hard, sexy alien-ness of Silvestri’s work two issues before. When Rogue eyes up Colossus on Page 3 and thinks, “Oh, lordy – big guy, d’you have the slightest notion – how good you look! Yum!”, the effect is laughable. With Silvestri doing the art, it would have been steamier than hell.
Nonetheless, Claremont is still in good form, and in several places, his writing proves convincing. The dialogue between Peter and Illyana at the end of the issue, for example, though overly extemporized, resolves into a lovely exchange near the end:
Colossus: “What you are does not matter – because you are trying to become something better.”
Illyana: “I keep failing.”
Colossus: “You keep trying.”
Meanwhile, issue 231 is significant in terms of the long-term serial. We get our first hint of the “Inferno” crossover that will dominate not only the X-Men – indeed, not only the X-franchise – but the entire Marvel Comics line during the latter part of 1988. In a borderline audacious bit of self-plagiarism, the plot is a straight crib from what Claremont did for the 1987 crossover, “Fall of the Mutants,” i.e., invading demons from another dimension who want to throw reality into chaos. Indeed, it’s only been four months since “Fall of the Mutants” ended, yet already Claremont is offering up more of the same: “[Illyana] thinks she’s on top, but she’s wrong,” goes S’ym’s monologue on the final page. “Her wild sorcery’s puttin’ too great a strain on the ‘walls’ between Limbo an’ Earth – nasties are startin’ to slip through.”
It’s the same story again – yet, really, this is no different from what superhero comics always do: Villains recurs, stories are re-told. And Claremont is oftentimes quite brilliant at finding new twists with each iteration of a familiar motif. “Inferno” will be far larger in scope than the Adversary story was -- for both better and worse, as we will see.
Claremont also gives his first hints in issue 231 of a fantastic idea that editorial mandate unfortunately will prevent him from completing. It’s not just out of plot convenience that the Gateway transports Peter to Limbo just in time to stop Illyana’s necromancy spell (which we are told at the end would have condemned her soul beyond redemption). Gateway was being deliberately developed as a character who – with his apparently mystical insights and powers – would become the X-Men’s new mentor figure. This would have been brilliant had it come to pass: Rather than be led by the white and privileged Charles Xavier, these genuinely outcast new X-Men would have deferred to the wisdom of a black, disenfranchised Australian.
Unfortunately, Gateway became lost in the shuffle when Bob Harras – acting on behalf of the corporate behemoth that was Marvel Comics – clamped down on Claremont’s creativity, demanding that the X-Men’s status quo return to the familiar, iconic structure: The X-Men live in a mansion and Professor X is their leader.
One of the most frustrating tragedies of that editorial edict – besides Claremont becoming so incensed by it that he quit in 1991 – is that it took the massive potential of the entire Gateway/Outback thread, and drained it dry as a bone.