[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's Uncanny X-Men.]
This is more like it. After two issues of bleeding off the momentum of Uncanny #229’s strong relaunch, Claremont – reunited with both members of the regular art team, Silvestri and Green, and now under the guidance of a firmer editorial hand than he was used to (that of Bob Harras) – snaps sharply back into focus. Harras’s ability to rein in Claremont’s chaotic storytelling style (which will become tighter and tighter over the next three years, ultimately proving so constrictive that Claremont will quit in frustration) is demonstrable in the very first page, which pointedly draws together several random threads from X-Men issues 215-218, finally explaining their significance. The sudden tightening of these previous loose strands is the dramatic equivalent of a whip crack – immediate, arresting and impossible to ignore. Though Claremont has nothing good to say about his time working under Harras’ editorship, it can’t be denied that – at least during the first year of their collaboration – the two seemed to find a powerful equilibrium. The tension between Claremont’s chaotic creativity and Harras’ conservatism created a brand new dynamic, and was another factor in the sense of renewed excitement and exoticness that washed over the series during this time.
Uncanny #232 also reprises “Down Under”’s trick of delaying the X-Men’s arrival, this time all the way until Page 13 of a 22-page story. Once again, the results are spectacular, allowing the tension to build over the course of several eerily surrealistic scenes, e.g, a woman being eaten by a gigantic space-shark (accompanied by a massive “CHOMP” sound effect), and a paramedic molesting a dying mutant with a tentacle. We also get our first in-story look at Silvestri’s version of the Brood aliens. His variation on Cockrum’s design is astoundingly frightening.
As noted in the entry on Uncanny #229, Colossus – now perpetually stuck in his “organic steel” form, is an emblem for what the entire team has become: cold and hard, almost alien. The effect spreads to a second member of the cast in this issue, with Psylocke suddenly draped – without preamble or any satisfactory explanation – in pink body armor. Not only is the costume itself alienating, but so is Claremont’s decision not to let the readers be privy to where it came from. Once again the audience is being excluded from the X-Men, whereas in the Cockrum/Byrne issues, we were always invited welcomingly in.
(Note that Claremont will eventually explain how Betsy got her armor, though notably never in an issue of Uncanny. He saves the explanation – which itself only raises more questions – for the Wolverine ongoing, inaugurated in July of 1988.)
Along similar lines, the Longshot/Dazzler romance first hinted at in the Fantastic Four vs. The X-Men miniseries also seems to have progressed between issues. Even here, though, the audience is kept on the outside, wondering whether Alison and Longshot’s physical intimacy is just part of their cover while they spy on Harry Palmer. The Claremont of earlier years would’ve been obliged to supply thought balloons for both characters, to let us all know exactly what they were thinking.
All of this contributes to the X-Men seeming more dangerous than they have in a long time. Consider this no-nonsense bit of strategic instruction from Storm (who’s also in a new costume, having given up the “punk” look at last, only to trade it for fetishistic full-body black leather):
“He has been running free ever since the crash. We must not – dare not – harm him ... until we have learned if he has implanted any others with Brood eggs ... and if so, who they are. Then, we will deal with them all. Think of this as a plague, X-Men, more virulent than any you can even imagine.”
This is a new era of X-Men – they’ve collectively become tougher and meaner, less likeable as personalities but far more hardcore as sci-fi protagonists. They now truly seem like outsiders, a notion that always hung over the X-Men premise, intellectually, even in the 1960s, yet never has felt more visceral than it does now. Geoff commented on how the original Brood arc made him impatient, with Storm in particular having a crisis of conscience over whether she should kill the Brood embryo inside her. The 1988 iteration of Ororo is a different woman, the storylines of the intervening six having toughened her up. Her desire to keep Palmer alive not out of compassion but only for questioning is striking, particularly in that it mirrors similar instructions she gave to Wolverine regarding The Mauraders during “Mutant Massacre.”
Having made his X-Men seem like outsiders even to the audience, Claremont brilliantly draws them back in through that old saw, continuity. No matter how frustrated some readers may have become at the loss of the friendly, familiar team they’d loved, the siren’s song of continuity surely must have drawn them right back in: The return of the Brood is the most obvious use of the now extremely dense X-Men mythos, but other allusions turn up here as well. Wolverine’s attacking a policeman on the next-to-last page, leading a teammate to believe Logan has snapped, alludes directly to Wolverine and Nightcrawler’s first encounter with Proteus over 100 issues ago (Uncanny #126). And detail-minded X-Men readers (practically a tautology) would be sure to spot the “Reverend William Conover: Glory Day Ministry Billboard” and wonder whether it meant a reprise of “God Loves, Man Kills,” whose main antagonist bore the same title and first name.
With its freshly unpredictable set of cast members and liberal use of comfortingly familiar continuity bits, “Earthfall” is a dynamic package. Whatever tension was lost in the last two issues’ sentimental meanderings is recouped and then powerfully consolidated here.