Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Uncanny X-Men #238

[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men.]

“Gonna Be a Revolution”

Neal Adams set down so many rules for how the X-Men should be done – he established an extraordinary number of precedents in his brief tenure on the series in 1969. Speaking of it years later in an interview, he said, “I never thought the X-Men should be a story then a story then a story – it should be this tapestry that goes on and on and on.” Indeed, we see that phenomenon in his and Roy Thomas’ issues. One chapter will conclude, but the next will begin by flashing back to before the previous one ended.

Claremont followed that example for years. Here, in the conclusion to the four-part Genoshan story, the author spends a massive percentage of the available 22 pages dwelling on Madelyne Pryor’s development into something otherworldly – it’s all less to do with Genosha and more to do with the upcoming “Inferno” crossover. But Claremont blends the two concepts rather seamlessly, and ultimately his creative decision doesn’t detract from the Genosha plot, but enhances it in bizarre, occasionally ineffable ways.

Right from the start, Claremont floods the narrative with a wide variety of information and invites the reader to process it: The splash page depicts a little girl in an orange dress and pigtails, and we are told that this is how Madelyne Pryor “perceives herself.” In fact, the image alludes to Page 3, panel one of Avengers Annual #10, which featured – apropos of nothing – a little girl, in an orange dress and pigtails, whose only line of dialogue was, “I’m Maddie Pryor. I been sick, but I’m better now.”

By all accounts, this scene originally had no significance – Claremont was simply shouting out to a real-life Maddie Pryor, the lead vocalist of Steeleye Span.

In Uncanny #238’s opening splash, Claremont entwines his old joke with the third Maddie Pryor, tying all three of them together. Part of this can be read as Claremont simply having a new laugh, this time at X-Men readers who’ve learned to obsess over odd details and long-term mysteries in the series. There’s perhaps a bit of fanboy geekery to be read into the exchange:

First speaker: “What’s that song she’s singing?”
Second speaker: “‘Gone to America,’ by a group called Steeleye Span.”
First speaker: “Is that significant?”
Second speaker: “Unknown.”

In fact, there is significance. The opening line of “Gone to America” goes, “Married him in April, lost him in July.” A perfect choice for the estranged wife of Scott Summers. Resonant as well is her line on the following page, “I was sick. But I got better.” An inexact recreation of Maddie’s single line from the 1981 Avengers annual, the sentiment now can be seen as a reference to having recovered – thanks to S’ym – from the psychological toll of the loss of her husband and child.

A lot of information intersects in these opening pages, in classic Claremontian style: allusions to all three Maddie’s, to forgotten inside jokes – even (with Silvestri’s zoom on Maddie’s eye, which in turn contains a flaming Phoenix) to the original Madelyne Pryor story in issues 168-176, which suggested the character might be Phoenix reincarnated. The overall effect as the information sluices through these first four pages is heady and hallucinogenic, and scary as hell. Claremont, Silvestri, Green, et al accomplish with mere pen and ink a level of intensity that many filmmakers fail to do with millions of dollars at their disposal.

Once again, there is a strong parallel here between Madelyne now and Jean Grey during the Byrne/Claremont “Dark Phoenix” epic – the slow seduction; corruption at the hands of villains who didn’t know what they were getting into; and of course, the flame imagery. Interestingly, while “Dark Phoenix” is universally adored by X-Men fans and “Inferno” just as universally reviled, the latter is – at least in terms of thematic coherence – far more accomplished. After all, Jean Grey’s seduction by evil was almost entirely external. Although Claremont’s dialogue occasionally alluded to the notion that Mastermind was simply stoking emotions that Jean already possessed, there was not a huge amount of material to support such an idea. It was all simply manipulation by a villain.

By contrast, Madelyne’s seduction is grounded entirely in pragmatically realistic drama. She’s a spurned lover, an abandoned wife; she’s consumed by grief, rage – and even envy, once she learns that Scott has gone back to Jean. The internal motivation for Madelyne’s dark turn is based in credible, relatable emotional values, which in turn lend her entire character arc a level of pathos that “Dark Phoenix” lacks. Even here, in the last issue before “Inferno” begins, Maddie’s slow corruption feels utterly right, it being a logical – even righteous – reaction to the evils surrounding her.

As for the conclusion of the Genoshan arc, the centerpiece of it all is Phillip Moreau, the idealistic youth who – in this concluding chapter – finally learns the truth about how his country’s mutants are treated. The dialogue in this sequence, as Wolverine and Carol walk Phillip through the “Mutant Settlement Zone,” is marvelously reflexive at several key moments. When Logan mocks Phillips’s naiveté, for example, he condescendingly addresses him as “Boy,” more than once – the same word Phillip used when ordering a mutant around two issues earlier.

Then Carol, after lecturing him about how mutants are viewed in Genosha as “organic machines,” she concludes rhetorically, “And who cares what happens to machines?” The riposte comes from the Chief Magistrate: “Who indeed, young lady?” This alludes to dialogue between Hawkshaw and Pipeline in the story’s inaugural chapter:

Hawkshaw: “Sounds like World War Three down by the bay. Wonder who’s winning?”
Pipeline: “Our guys – the magistrates – who else?”
Hawkshaw: “Who else, indeed?”

Of course, in both cases, the answer to the question is the X-Men, who arrive at last in Uncanny #238 to rescue Logan and Rogue, and to bring about the “revolution” of the issue’s title. Claremont once again demonstrates a clever imagination in finding new uses for his characters’ powers, even after 13 years of writing them. It’s delightfully inventive that Storm uses her rain simply to make Genoshan security forego their protocol of checking IDs at the door (“Give us a break, willya – do that in the squad bay! We’re drownin’ out here!”). Havok, Dazzler and Longshot thus gain entry and begin to blow the place apart from the inside. Brilliantly done.

The climax of the story ends up being a philosophical debate between Phillip and his father. It’s got the typical Claremontian wordiness, though the author leavens the potentially dry sociological debate (which is inherently one-sided anyway) both via one final round of “gratuitous heroics” and through some deft character choices; i.e., it’s lovely that Wolverine began with a condescending attitude toward Phillip, but becomes “proud to stand beside him” when he realizes there is courage backing up the young boy’s ideals. (Happily, Logan remains in character through to the end, wherein he offers up a last twist of cynicism regarding Phillip: “Gotta give the kid credit for guts. Feel sorry for him ... [He] doesn’t deserve ... what’ll happen to him.”)

It’s also heartening to see the X-Men’s righteous fury played through right until the end. Wolverine, appropriately, has been pushed to the farthest extreme. His suggestion for what to do with the magistrates upon their defeat: “Kill ‘em! Tear this slimeball concentration camp country o’ theirs down to the bare rock ... an’ build somethin’ decent from the ashes.” Storm’s solution is more merciful, but no less stern. Ultimately, the X-Men offer Phillip the chance to try – through above-board tactics and official channels – to change conditions in Genoshan for the better; yet they make it clear that should Phillip fail, the X-Men will step in and execute Wolverine’s solution.

To punctuate their point, Havok blasts the Genoshan citadel to powder. This seems a direct precursor to Morrison having the X-Men bomb a facility in China. Morrison’s implication that this level of violence was something new (via Wolverine’s rhetorical, “So we’re allowed to do stuff like this now”) is disingenuous. Claremont had them doing “stuff like this” over a decade earlier.

Compounded among the Genoshan climax is more material involving the new, evil Madelyne. The sequence that sees her facing off against David Moreau while stark naked is sexily disconcerting, and Claremont drops a massive hint about the mystery of her existence when she finds a familiar “resonance” in “the crèche ... where the Genegineer grows his babies.” Finally, when Havok asks where the kidnapped baby is, Madelyne gives the bone-chilling reply, “Not to worry. That’s all been taken care of.” The dominos are all set up for “Inferno” now, just in time for the touch-off in the next issue.

As for the Genoshan four-parter, it pays off its arcs beautifully. The entire affair is sublime from start to finish, pitting the X-Men against a strongly realized enemy faction whose motivations and worldview make them ideal villains for the series. By far, it’s the best “civil rights” X-Men story Claremont ever conceived or executed, making brilliant use not only of the premise’s implicit theme, but of the mythos’ tangled continuity as well (i.e., the computer virus, the X-Men’s “invisibility,” Logan and Carol’s prior relationship as intelligence operatives). It also represents the quintessence of Claremont’s spiraling, complicated writing style, which confounds and compounds storylines by intertwining and overlapping them. (The way the Madelyne arc skates along the edges here, subtly influencing the direction of the Genoshan arc without truly affecting the main story beats, is genius.)

Top to bottom, Uncanny X-Men #s 235-238 are a major high watermark for Claremont’s run – a towering peak of intelligence, intensity, storytelling economy and reflexivity, density of information, social allegory, and dramatic expression. Few X-Men stories can top it, and certainly none published post-1991.


Dave Mullen said...

This Genoshan Arc was always a strange one, I always wondered at what prompted Claremont to do it as it had no set-up, seemed very hastily plotted & sort of came out of the blue, it felt like a rushed out story.
I always wonder if the temporary shift to Bi-Weekly was the impetus for that, it HAD to have upset the schedule an awful lot especially if as i recall 'Inferno' was fast tracked for the Big Summer event....

This issue was for me where Silverstri/Green really started firing on all cylinders, the quality was amazing, I'd liked Silvesti's work a lot even though initially it was comparativley very rough back around the #221 mark. I think by #338 like many i was scratching my head wondering when The Marauders/Mr Sinister problem was going to be developed, the books apparent indifference to this previously omnipresent threat was getting worrying but this 'make-em-wait' aproach is of course part of the enduring appeal to Claremonts Uncanny work. :)

I think looking at the Genoshan arc as a whole it's ramifications and Legacy are of more interest than the story itself, the fallout was developed in a natural way for 'X-Tinction Agenda' where the X-men face some serious payback from not just another bunch of racist villains but in fact an entire sovereign nation hellbent on their perception of Justice. That was a fascinating and huge issue for a book to explore but i don't think it was ever something that could work realistically as how do you fight an entire country like this?

Maybe Genosha as an idea was best left alone in hindsight.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for commenting! I agree about Silvestri/Green. They are fantastic here.

Don't agree about what makes Genosha interesting. I really didn't like at all what they did with the premise later; I enjoy "X-Tinction Agenda" as a solid sci-fi/superhero story, but the threat of Genosha felt more generic. The presence of Cameron Hodge took away from what made this first story special to me: The chilling banality of the villains, whose evil hides behind bland facades. A giant, cackling cyborg-spider kind of ruins that effect.

Also, this initial arc is nice and lean, very little fat on it. Four chapters, beginning middle and end, with a genuine character-arc for Phillip Moreau. "X-Tinction Agenda," though sparse by X-over standards, is still far more bloated than this first story, with something like 20 X-characters running around the country. Like all the X-overs, it is as much an exercise in logistics as it is in storytelling.

This one's top-notch, though, in my humble opinion. Claremont at his very best. I really wish they'd do a TPB of this one.

-- Jason Powell

Gary said...

An aside - I had no idea at this point in my reading of the X-Men that the computer virus existed that wiped them from records. I thought it was Roma's "Legends" factor doing it, which handily explained why the Genoshan programmers couldn't overcome it.

Excellent writeup, Jason. That Maddy workup at the front end of this entry really shows that Claremont knew how to write on more than one level.

Nathan P. Mahney said...

The virus already has an explanation for why the Genoshans can't overcome it - it's of Shi'ar origin (or it was done by the Starjammers). Either way it should be too advanced for Earth-guys to get rid of.

Jason said...


Are you reading? I found my reply to your comment on issue 237. I had written it at work and e-mailed it to myself because I didn't want to post to the blog from work (even though I have done that on other occasions ...)

Anyway, here it is:


Yeah, it was just a few months ago I learned that Byrne was annoyed that Claremont changed it from "skeleton made of adamantium" to "skeleton laced with adamantium." Byrne recently complained about the ret-con being ridiculous because he drew the adamantium skeleton in X-Men #142 (Days of Future Past) and it is "clearly a machined skeleton, not a real one laced
with metal." Which strikes me as ridiculous. How exactly would one spot the difference? (And at any rate, by the time of issue 142, earlier issues' text had already implemented the "laced with" ret-con. Silly John!)

Anyway, Byrne's argument was: who cares if there are medical reasons why Wolverine couldn't be missing bones? He's got a healing factor to
compensate. So yeah, as you say, that argument seems to be what comes into play here.

Note also that in Uncanny #150, all the X-Men -- including Wolverine --
have their mutant powers neutralized for several hours, but Logan never makes mention of being sick, nor does he ever seem to be. But then note also ALSO that if Logan is actually Sabretooth's son -- which he now is in the Claremont "Forever"-verse -- then he is kinda-sorta *not* a mutant (he
just inherited Sabretooth's mutation), so maybe Magneto's
mutant-power-neutralizer-thingie didn't work completely on Logan. This is implied at one point in issue 150, when at one point we learn that Logan's superhuman senses are not neutralized, but simply "dulled." (He catches
Cyclops' scent on the wind, but can't tell who it is, and just barely manages to discern that it's a male. He also can't tell how close the scent is, as Scott manages to sneak up on him.)

Yay, comics!

Anonymous said...


Not only that, but Wolverine pops his claws in issue 150 and doesn't bleed to death. Now, I don't think it was established until the Magneto-pulls-out-Logan's adamantium story in the 1990s that Wolverine cuts himself every time he pops his claws. I personally assumed, before that, that the Weapon X people rigged his hands so that his skin parted for the claws to pop out and retract. That actually makes more sense. Otherwise, how is Wolverine not bleeding profusely every time he pops his claws?

Jason said...

Wolverine says himself in Uncanny 237: "My healing factor seals the wounds made by the claws as quickly as they're made."

neilshyminsky said...

Was it Byrne that created those tubes in Wolverine's arms that, presumably, were built to house and guide the claws? They would occasionally 'show' when Wolverine's arms were cut. Maybe that's what he meant.

I also remember it blowing my mind when I read 237 and realized not only that Wolverine could die, but that it could happen in such a slow, banal fashion.

Arthur said...

Hi Jason,

Yeah, I'm here -- I just didn't have much to add.

Thanks for digging up your response!

I was surprised by the "I cut myself whenever I pop my claws" reveal. In one of my first comics (UXM 183 - the great Colossus/Juggernaut bar fight!) JRJR drew three openings on the back of Logan's hands in the bar scene. It never occurred to me that he was as much as scratched when he "snikts".

I was unclear by what was meant in this issue though -- was it implied that the claws break through the skin, making a new opening each time, or just that they scrape the back of his hands after leaving an existing opening?

As a fan who nitpicks too much, I sometimes hate fans who nitpick too much. I remember fans complaining about "adamantium poisoning" -- coined when Claremont returned in 2000 -- because an indestructible metal shouldn't dissolve into the bloodstream, therefore "adamantium poisoning" is incorrect. I just took the phrase to mean what happened here -- that the adamantium wasn't itself poisoning him, but the sealing off of his marrow caused his body to effectively poison itself.

Now one of the complaints about the Kitty Claw in X-Forever is "what about adamantium poisoning"? Um, no, not the same situation. (I'm not crazy about the claw myself, but not for that reason.)

And sorry Jason, I extend the nitpicking to your too-strict definition of a mutant. A mutant is a Homo Superior, a person born with his powers. Maybe the term is not technically correct in Wolvie's or Siryn's cases, but it gets the job done. Besides, Claremont was wordy enough without having to read "a band of unsung -- often outlaw -- mutant-except-for-one-guy-who-inherited-his-powers-from-his-father-so-therefore-isn't-technically-a-mutant heroes -- the Uncanny X-Men". :)

You mentioned before about hitting a wall here -- does this mean you're now writing them week to week?

(Is anyone else a little nervous posting comments here? I try to write goodly, but I keep expecting Mr. Assistant Perfessor to correct my speling and gramer!)

Jason said...


The nit-picking about Wolverine's mutancy was more of a no-prize-ish type thing, to look at why Magneto's power-dampening-field might not have been 100% effective in Logan's case. It also goes back to the bit in X-Men 98 where Lang's technician says that Wolverine doesn't "read" as a mutant. (It was because there was talk of making Wolverine one of the High Evolutionary's animal-people, but obviously that never become canon.) John Byrne claims to be the first to suggest the Sabretooth-as-Logan's-father theory as an alternate explanation for why Logan is unique.

I am not saying that this is something that needs to be brought up in every issue. It is just a fun line of fan-fic-thinkery.

Uncanny #183 was one of my very first X-Men comics as well. :)

I am not *quite* to the point where I am writing the reviews week-to-week, but the lead time has shrunken considerably. To put it in temporal perspective: The reviews of the 220's, for example, were nearly a year old by the time they were published. The "Inferno" reviews are closer to two months old.