[Some men claim they know. Some men claim they care. But Jason Powell actually cares. He actually knows. And it is said that once, he defended Claremont's skills to a bear in the woods and that the bear thanked him, and later they became friends. He continues his look at every issue of Claremont's epic X-Men run.]
Issues 247-250 saw Wolverine once again written out of the comic to accommodate his ever-growing glut of solo adventures and guest-appearances. With issue 251, Logan is back where he once belonged, and the charge of energy given the series is palpable. Claremont’s letting the character go for stretches might have been grudging on occasion, but creatively it made for a nice, hard shot in the arm. The appearances of the character seem more exciting when they’re rarer, and – as Mitch Montgomery pointed out when talking about Logan’s absence almost 100 issues earlier in the “From the Ashes” arc – it even helps a bit to increase his mystique. Anyone not reading the character’s solo title or other guest appearances were invited to imagine for themselves just what exactly Wolverine had been up to.
Here, Claremont heightens that sense of mystery by reprising his trick from Uncanny #205: starting in the middle of the story, with a Wolverine who’s been nearly massacred. It’s an artfully deployed device in this case, given that “Fever Dream” reprises the same villains as well.
Marc Silvestri is an avowed fan of Wolverine (he moved on to illustrate the character’s solo title after leaving Uncanny). Nowhere is that more evident than in this issue, wherein the return of Logan after four months seems to have Silvestri positively exhilarated. Though low on typified superhero action, the comic is rife with outrageously brilliant visual set pieces -- Logan crucified upon a giant “X,” then tortured by cyborgs for days, finally ripping himself free during a violent thunderstorm – and Silvestri makes the most of every single one. Happily, he is reunited with Dan Green after the desultory Leialoha collaboration of the previous issue, and the two of them together don’t miss a beat. Their depiction of the other four X-Men passing one-by-one through the Seige with slow, manipulated deliberation while the Reavers ascend toward them is breathlessly exciting. Accompanied by Claremont’s perfectly paced dialogue – which places the climactic summit of the characters’ recent existential despair in precise counterpoint to the villains’ urgent and predatory exhortations – the sequence is a masterpiece of melodrama.
Tom Orzechowski’s letters are back as well, which in itself is cause for celebration. Claremont actually lets Orz take center stage for one particularly fantastic – possibly Dave-Sim-inspried – panel this issue: Donald Pierce’s histrionic “YOU DARE MOCK ME!!!”, with each word drawn in a different size and given its own individual balloon. Beautiful. Only in comics.
Scott McDarmont helpfully reminded me recently that he is the one who first pointed out (on this blog) that Jubilee was a pastiche of Carrie Kelly, the female Robin from Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns.” I hadn’t seen the connection, but now it seems clear that this entire Wolverine arc takes “Dark Knight” as its departure point. His healing factor failing, Logan finally begins feeling his age, and becomes in many ways another iteration of Miller’s fifty-year-old Bruce Wayne: An old, weathered tough guy forced by circumstance and his own nature to continue playing the role of superhero.
The parallels become more obvious in later issues, but even in “Fever Dream,” Wolverine’s titular hallucination appears to be a telescoped run-through of Dark Knight, wherein Batman lamented the death of his earlier sidekick (Jason Todd), faced his villainous “reflection” (Two-Face), recruited a new sidekick (Carrie Kelly), fought an inhuman monster (the Mutant gang leader), took on his grinning, demonic arch-enemy (The Joker) and embraced his position as the final survivor from an age of heroes (most of them dead, with Superman – the Man of Steel -- having sold out).
Here, Wolverine faces images of: Kitty Pryde, his former sidekick; his villainous reflection, Sabretooth; the grinning demon Ogun, whom he killed in the “Kitty/Wolverine” miniseries; and an inhuman monster in the form of the Brood queen.
Finally, thanks to some Gateway-assisted psychic intuitions, Wolverine – “the last of the Uncanny X-Men,” as the opening caption of the issue informs us -- witnesses what happened to the other heroes: They were sold out by Psylocke, the woman in steel armor, who telepathically tricked them into disappearing through the Seige Perilous rather than standing their ground and fighting. And in the final panel, Logan finds his new Kitty Pryde, his new sidekick, in the form of Jubilee.
Deliberate? Perhaps not. Still, the parallels exist, and by accident or design act as a sign-post for the extended Miller-homage that would characterize Claremont’s final work on Wolverine.
Meanwhile, with his gorgeous, perfectly executed Seige Perilous scene (punctuated two pages later by Pierce’s crushing the crystal to powder), Claremont also closes the door on the “Australian” phase of the X-Men, first inaugurated in issue 229 (“Down Under”). Shrewdly, the author creates a closed loop with that earlier issue: The X-Men are chased through the Seige Perilous by the Reavers, who in turn reclaim the headquarters stolen from them by the X-Men in the first place. Issue 229 was also the first appearance of the Seige (and was the expedient through which the bulk of the Reavers were disposed). Roma’s monologue on the final page of “Down Under” even noted that the X-Men were free to use the Seige themselves, any time they wished. The ending depicted in “Fever Dream” was seeded right from this era’s first chapter. Issues 229 and 251 – with their mirror-image dramatic events, their textual reflections, and their sharing the same writer, penciller, inker, letterer AND colorist – act as perfect bookends.
The Outback era is one of the most under-recognized achievements of Claremont’s original run. It’s certainly as outrageous a departure from the “School for Gifted Youngsters” status quo as any possible; and its esoteric, alienating cast of superheroes share only scant similarities with the bright and shiny Cockrum/Byrne models. Indeed, since it has been largely ignored by X-creators coming after him, and thus not cannibalized the way “Dark Phoenix,” “Days of Future Past,” etc. would be, the Outback cycle stands up 20 years later as fresher than those much-excavated “classic” tales. It’s a series within the series – crafted by a writer at the peak of his powers – and kept locked up with the dry desert air inside the hermetic seal created by its two bookend chapters, as isolated from the majority of X-Men history as Australia is from the rest of the world.