[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men]
Claremont loves to keep things varied. The previous four issues were dense with political allegory and metaphor, and featured comparatively quiet villains who wore sweaters or prosaic military regalia rather than gaudy supersuits, and whose most heinous acts included simply the complacent, apathetic acceptance of indoctrinated racism.
Now, Uncanny #239 is hosted by Mr. Sinister, who, at least on the surface – with his rhyming name, chalk-white face and flamboyant purple costume – is the most one-dimensionally comic-opera super villain in Claremont’s entire X-mythos. To go from Genosha to Mr. Sinister is a fairly intense swerve; a cold plunge into storylines that had been left dangling for a couple of years by this point. As such, the issue has an incredibly invigorating quality to it. It is somewhat dark, in its way – but it is not the brutal, racist murkiness of the Genoshan material. “Vanities” is thick instead with melodramatic pronouncements, soap-opera-esque sexuality, and one or two classically kinetic action sequences. In a word, it’s fun.
A lot of credit for this issue’s quality belongs to Silvestri and Green, who outdo themselves on the visual design of Sinister’s throne – a severely vertical agglomeration of piping and wires stretching toward nothing in particular. The impracticality of the design is one of Claremont’s hints, along with the aforementioned visual accoutrements, as to his notion for Mr. Sinister’s origin: That he is actually a psychic manifestation borne out of the dark side of a child’s imagination. Another hint of this intriguing notion is in Sinister’s facial expression on the first panel of Page 4 – a petulantly childlike disappointment that the X-Men are (so far as he knows) dead.
Also fantastic is Sinister’s “glass menagerie” of X-Men statues (like a child, Sinister enjoys playing with action figures). Besides working as an excellent showcase for Dan Green’s incredibly expressive embellishments, the glass statues are a fun, novel way to segue into each of issue 239’s various tiny X-Men vignettes.
There is also a quasi-religious overtone to Sinister’s characterization. His allusion on Page 4 to his “will” making things “right” has a vaguely Biblical ring, and the character’s general “pure evil” aura can’t help but suggest Satan, or at least some sort of Satanic avatar. Where Claremont was going with this – if anywhere – is unclear. It may have been a feint, or perhaps he planned to reveal that the child (Nathan, as shown in the b-story of Classic X-Men #41) was painting his boogeyman in Luciferian strokes because of a religious upbringing. Whatever the case, this will turn out to be one of the frustrating loose ends left over from Claremont’s premature departure in 1991. Answers won’t be forthcoming, so all readers can do is enjoy -- as Claremont clearly does -- the gaudy, over-the-top villainy that characterizes this unique member of the X-Men rogues gallery.
Sinister’s encounter with Malice is rather grin inducing as well. The pseudo-science to explain the unexpected permanence of the Lorna/Malice amalgam is some of Claremont’s most effortlessly enjoyable: “Given the way [Lorna Dane’s] magnetic powers have interacted with the energy matrix that is your own natural being,” he tells Malice, “one would be tempted to observe that the pair of you ... were made for each other.” Later, Sinister’s silver-tongued manipulations even incorporate a pun on Lorna’s longtime “Polaris” codename. “You are the linchpin of the team, Malice,” he says. “The one I depend on most – the unchanging pole star about which all the rest revolve, that points the way to glory and their true destiny.” It’s hard not to smile at a villain this clever.
As to the X-Men vignettes, the most notable among them is the practice session among Colossus, Psylocke and Rogue, a bit that accomplishes several dramatic goals within the span of only a few pages. First, it’s established that Rogue and Carol’s personalities now switch in and out regularly, Jeckyll/Hyde style. (Glynis Oliver even reprises Petra Scotese’s “eye-color” bit, switching out Rogue’s green for Carol’s blue at the appropriate moment.)
This segues into Silvestri’s incredibly sensual portrayal of Betsy as she languidly strips out of her sci-fi armor -- revealing only a tiny negligee beneath – then has a brief, luxurious swim in an underground pool. The scene is quite striking, and emblematic of one of Claremont’s less celebrated accomplishments as the writer of Uncanny X-Men – his ability to incorporate sexuality as a key psychological component of the characters. At least as far back as the introduction of the Hellfire Club, with its kinky costumes for female members, Claremont has consistently made sexual tension a part of the X-Men universe. Though early attempts were sometimes forced, over time the author became quite accomplished at integrating sexuality into the characters, far more thoroughly and credibly than any of his mainstream peers. (Consider that at around the same time Claremont made Logan and Ororo fuck buddies, John Byrne was doing scenes in which She-Hulk professes to be attracted to Hercules because “this is a man whose name has become an adjective!”) Now, around 1988, is when the Comics Code seems to become less strict, and this – combined with Marvel’s influx of artists (like Silvestri) with a penchant for cheesecake – emboldens Claremont to push the sexuality envelope further. His use of Psylocke here is an emblematic example, more explicitly sensual than much of what’s come before, but still a notch classier than the T&A that will become more and more an industry standard over the next decade.
Claremont also drops an intriguing hint – never again to be capitalized on – that Carol is able to control Rogue’s mutant absorption-ability. Much is made of her touching Betsy’s bare shoulder; in context it’s clear, this is no mistake. Purportedly, this was Claremont’s way of priming for the eventual reveal that Rogue’s inability to control her power is psychological. For whatever reason, the idea appears to have been dropped. (Still, it would crop up again in the post-Claremont years, albeit applied to other characters and their powers: e.g., Scott Lobdell with Archangel’s wings, and Joss Whedon with Cyclops’ optic blasts.)
Finally, “Vanities” contains a striking dream sequence. Although it’s a device typically derided by authors as a lazy way to convey subtext, there is something to be said for their ability to code a greater density of information in a small amount of space. Claremont has quite a poetic flair for dream sequences, although he was more than capable of overusing the device. Here, the author constructs a lovely symbolic consolidation of the arc he conceived for Alex and Lorna that deliberately parallels the Scott/Madelyne debacle from X-Factor #1, while simultaneously drawing a line under the most recent development: the obliquely incestuous connection between Havok and Maddie. Issue 239 is where the long-running Havok/Madelyne sexual tension at last is consummated, in a very soap-opera-esque scene. Like everything else about the appropriately titled “Vanities,” the entire affair has an air of decadence to it. But over the course of the “Inferno” storyline, Claremont will succeed in raising the material to something far more epic and majestic in tone – like something more out of Euripides than “The Young and the Restless.”