[In a time when people neglect Claremont, in a land where I don't really blog that often, there came a man, a man named JASON POWELL, who looked at every issue of Claremont's X-Men run. And the land was goddamn restored or something.]
“The Key That Breaks the Locke”
Though not the most humble of comic-book personalities, John Byrne has always downplayed both the quality and the significance of his work on Uncanny X-Men in the late 70s. While acknowledging reader reaction to the startling change in visual style between his first issue and Dave Cockrum’s last, Byrne puts it down as much to the inking as to the pencils. Cockrum and Sam Grainger, he notes, both had a softer style, while Byrne combined with Terry Austin made for a look that he likens to “cut glass.” Indeed, however Byrne chooses to contextualize the shift, the effect from going from Uncanny 107 to 108 is powerful, like a leap into the future, and remains so even three decades later.
But, as with so many moments in Uncanny X-Men’s spiraling history, that aesthetic watershed in 1977 was reiterated later … twelve years later, in this case, when the softness of Silvestri and Green in issue 255 (by happenstance the loosest and sloppiest issue of their entire tenure) gave way to the “cut glass” of Jim Lee and Scott Williams in Uncanny X-Men 256. The affect is arresting, and once again feels like a quantum advancement into a new era.
Claremont’s script points toward the future as well. Set up as a mirror to Uncanny 251 (the end of the Outback saga), “The Key That Breaks the Locke” gives hints as to what became of the five characters that passed through the Seige Perilous. As the X-Man whose betrayal sent the X-Men through the portal, and – more pragmatically – as the precognitive telepath of the group, Betsy Braddock is the touchstone. Reprising a trick from issue 250, Claremont gives Psylocke another series of visions, some of which are clear, while others are frustratingly oblique. But the images of Dazzler, Havok, Colossus and Rogue work nicely as teasers as to their separate post-Seige fates, all of which will be explicated over the course of the next year.
As for Betsy’s own fate, she seems to have been crushed under the wheel of karma. Having cajoled and manipulated her comrades into forsaking their identities and individual freedom, Psylocke now quite literally loses her own identity and freedom, at the hands of new villain Matsuo Tsurayaba. As part of Claremont’s extended homage to Frank Miller, Betsy’s brainwashing is perpetrated by the Hand, in an attempt to “succeed where [they] failed with Elektra.” By the end, she has become a ninja assassin, her features reconstructed to appear Asian. More on that odd choice a couple blogs from now.
By poetic happenstance, an issue comprising mainly teasers and hints as to the future of the X-Men is also the first to be drawn by the artistic team of Lee/Williams, who – in many respects (not least as the artists who will actually outlast Claremont on the series) – represent the franchise’s future as well. In fairness to Bob Harras -- the man who over the course of 1990 and 1991 took more and more creative control from Claremont and gave it to Lee – there were telltale signs that the artist possessed a clarity of vision that was escaping the writer by this point. Indeed, “The Key” – the first Claremont/Lee collaboration outside the comparatively forgettable Uncanny 248 – showcases the contrast in microcosm. A simple trope – the brainwashing of a hero into a villain – becomes, in Claremont’s hands, a series of psychic visions of the other X-Men. All rather well and good … yet the ending becomes hopelessly unclear. We are told that an “unknown element has entered the equation,” just as Slaymaster appears (replaying a scene from Alan Davis’ penultimate issue of “Captain Britain”). Mojo and Spiral – present throughout the hallucination, in different guises – reveal themselves, and claim to give her a new set of “inner eyes to match the outer ones we gave her long ago.” The brainwashing seems to fail, but a hard cut takes us to Betsy kneeling before the Mandarin in obeisance. Is she faking? Her smile in the final panel suggests that something beyond the obvious is occurring – yet this is never brought up again.
Also, consider the conceit introduced at the start of the brainwashing: Betsy is set on a pseudo-scavenger hunt for the Mandarin’s ten rings. Yet her attempt to acquire the ninth ring is thwarted by Slaymaster. Surely the cleaner choice would have been for the final ring, the tenth, to be the one she cannot acquire …? The logistics of how the premise plays out seem hastily considered. Other aspects of the long hallucination are out of left field as well, such as the image of Psylocke as a blonde femme fatale for just a few panels. Much of this makes little intuitive sense; we are getting Claremont at his most self-indulgent here.
Yet it is Lee and Williams who sell the entire story, start to finish. The art is so crisp, clear and painstakingly detailed and the storytelling so assured, that the issue feels far more coherent than it truly is. (The artists’ use of thick black border on the “real world” scenes to contrast against standard panel borders for the illusions recalls Byrne and Austin again – it is an inverse of the device used in Uncanny #133.)
“The Key That Breaks the Locke” – with its meandering script by an indulgent, comfortable old pro and slick, futuristic artwork by an ambitious young up-and-comer – must have been an early signal to Bob Harras that the winds of change were blowing.
(Claremont, by contrast, was apparently far less affected in retrospect by these early efforts from his new artistic partner. In an interview in “Comics Creators on X-Men,” he seems not even to remember Lee’s work on the Mandarin trilogy, citing Uncanny 267 as Lee’s debut and Uncanny 268 as the first time Lee’s work impressed him.)