[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men run.]
“Welcome to Genosha ... A Green and Pleasant Land ...”
Illustrated by guest artists Rick Leonardi and P. Craig Russell, Uncanny #235 inaugurates the four-part Genosha storyline, Claremont’s hugely ambitious attempt to apply the mutant metaphor to South African apartheid. In June of 1988, when the issue was published, apartheid had been in place in South Africa for 40 years.
The story is one of Claremont’s all-time finest, applying its analogies deftly and carefully – and keeping them implicit throughout. There is no garish use of vile, real-life pejoratives (as in “God Loves, Man Kills”), nor any attempt to make a fetish out of another culture’s seeming exoticisms (as in “LifeDeath II: Heart of Darkness”). Instead, Claremont places the world of Genosha squarely inside the fictional bounds of the Marvel Universe – or more specifically, his own corner of it – allowing it to be read entirely inside those artificial lines if one is so inclined. However, the signifiers to the story’s larger context are all right there, for anyone with eyes to see. Claremont’s ability to write toward both perspectives throughout all four installments of this saga is one of his most impressive achievements.
In service of this dual-minded approach, Claremont constructs each chapter of the “Welcome to Genosha” epic to contain at least one sequence of wrenching brutality and tragedy (always set in the titular African nation), juxtaposed against at least one containing straightforward superhero action. It’s an altogether unsubtle example of using spoonfuls of four-color fun to make the commentary go down, and Claremont is even kind enough to signal us that the action bits – as well-executed as they are – exist more to fulfill genre requirements than because the story requires them. “C’mon, Havok,” says Psylocke, just before the X-Men take down a squad of Genoshan magistrates. “Time for some gratuitous heroics.”
The action is indeed gratuitous; what’s more important in the present issue is all the evidence of Claremont’s universe-building. The world of Genosha is rigorously illustrated right from the opening page: an obnoxious propaganda billboard, whose text doubles as the issue’s title, and whose final word, “freedom,” is obstructed by a fleeing mutant fugitive clutching a baby in his arms. Claremont is offering us a witty mutation of the traditional opening splash page -- which so often presents a big, bold image of characters in violent battle (e.g., the opening splashes of Uncanny 222 or 234). Claremont replaces those bold images with giant, uppercase text, which then in turn is fought, or contradicted, by the image set against it. We don’t yet know what Genosha is or why an X-Men story is beginning there, but our attention is immediately snapped in by the simple and direct irony of a disenfranchised fugitive (who, we know thanks to the shorthand of the baby, is innocent) stumbling past the word “FREEDOM!” The story has now been firmly framed in an instance of visual irony, which is appropriate.
This segues into a fast and brutal sequence (given added poignancy by Glynis Oliver’s violent swaths of color) wherein a mutant father – whose syntax is mangled and awkward, inexplicably at this point in the story – dies in battle against racist antagonists calling themselves “magistrates.” The magistrates are armed with tech that, thanks to Leonardi, has a subtly futuristic sci-fi look to it, and their vernacular includes a new epithet for mutants besides the long-familiar Stan-Lee-ism “mutie.” They call the fugitive a “genejoke” – a particularly strong linguistic invention by Claremont, containing a certain sci-fi exotica as well as a surprising phonetic harshness.
The hypocrisy upon which Genosha is predicated – pointed out in the blatant opening splash – is implicit here as well, though it won’t be explained until later chapters: The Genoshan tech used to take down the mutant by bigots is, in fact, made possible by the country’s mutant population. Possibly influenced by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ world-building in Watchmen (which suggested that 1980s America would look like an exotic sci-fi metropolis if it truly contained superhumans), Claremont has fashioned Genosha as a place whose superhuman resources – i.e., its mutant population – have been rigorously exploited in order to put the country at the technological forefront, especially in terms of its military. That technology is in turn used to keep its mutants oppressed, which is a brutal irony.
Much of this is not spelled out in the opening chapter, of course. Still, the hints of the nightmarish world of Genosha (basically an iteration of a classic sci-fi trope, the utopia with a dark secret at the core) are rather disquieting right from the start. The repeated mentions of someone called “the Genegineer” (a lovely portmanteau from Claremont), the alien-ness of the Press Gang (whose modem-centric member, Pipeline, is one of comics’ first Information-Age super villains), the magistrates’ fascistic resolve, the political intrigues, the kidnapping of a baby ... it all conspires to be something quite chilling and disquieting.
Even Claremont’s one-page denouement is exciting in its way -- with its incorporation (as in X-Men Annual #12) of the X-Men’s new eight-point-star logo and its somewhat wacky inclusion of an Australian police inspector called Mick Dundee -- and constitutes another example of leavening the dark allegory of the overarching plot with more playfully “comic-booky” bits.