[Jason Powell takes a look at every issue of Claremont's X-Men. And now we have reached 1990. Be impressed.]
Issues 256-258 comprise a self-contained trilogy representing Claremont’s contribution to Marvel’s 1989 company-wide crossover, “Acts of Vengeance.” From what I’ve read, the original concept came from John Byrne, though it quickly morphed into something apart from what he envisioned. The end result was a storyline in which the major Marvel villains teamed up, and began crafting scenarios wherein heroes were forced to fight unfamiliar bad guys.
Claremont’s participation in the game does not seem altogether comfortable. Using Iron Man’s archenemy, the Mandarin, is a clever callback to the Silver Age, back when Roy Thomas had the X-Men fighting Iron Man villains in every other issue – yet the villain doesn’t even appear in this, the middle issue of the trilogy. And at one point, Matsuo Tsurayaba actually derides the Mandarin’s participation in the “Acts of Vengeance” overplot, subtly mocking the entire affair. Claremont’s use of Logan during the proceedings is also strange, given that he could have used any number of people from his large rotating cast; but Wolverine was already fighting an unfamiliar villain in the “Acts” issues of his solo title. To use Logan in Uncanny as well creates a somewhat knotty time paradox.
A concurrent issue of Excalibur supplies a clue to Claremont’s seeming lack of team spirit: Toward the end of a story that parodies the entire Marvel Universe, Claremont presents a scene of himself and John Byrne sitting side by side at identical universe-controlling computers, each trying to outdo each other with a larger “event.” The implication is that “Acts of Vengeance,” title and all, is Byrne’s attempt to out-do the previous year’s company-wide crossover – “Inferno,’ which began with Claremont. Furthermore, Byrne used “Acts” as an opportunity to co-opt Magneto from the X-office, turning him back into a cackling Silver Age villain (a quite deliberate snub against the brilliant psychology that Claremont had developed for Magneto over the last ten years). Claremont’s using Logan in “Uncanny” to muck with the chronology of the solo title was perhaps a deliberate tit-for-tat, as Byrne was the artist on the Wolverine solo book at this point.
(As a sidenote, David Fiore assures me that Mark Greunwald’s use of Magneto in Captain America during “Acts of Vengeance” was quite brilliant.)
If there is a bit of mockery being thrown around during Claremont’s Mandarin trilogy, it must be acknowledged that he was not so proud as to leave himself out of the target range. Issue 257 also sees the first appearance in Uncanny of the “Patch” persona (Wolverine in an eye-patch), which the author created for Logan in the Wolverine ongoing. Peter David had just mocked the silliness of the eye-patch a few months earlier, and in so doing pretty much gave voice to the legion of readers who were unimpressed with Logan’s “disguise.” Knowing when he’s outnumbered, Claremont happily jumps on the bandwagon, and Jubilee duly mocks the eye-patch from virtually the moment she sees it.
Compounding the joke, Jubilee launches her barbs from inside her red shirt (with circular black button on the chest), green shorts and slippers, and giant yellow trenchcoat, looking for all the world like Robin. Scott McDarmont has suggested the outfit was Jim Lee’s idea that Claremont ran with, but I don’t think so. The Dark-Knight/Carrie-Kelly parallels had begun months earlier, before Lee’s involvement. I’d guess the Jubilee costuming was Claremont’s idea.
At any rate, the centerpiece of this issue is the clash between the new, “Dark-Knight”-esque Wolverine (it’s established immediately that Logan is still a ragged shell, his healing factor having apparently burnt itself out) and the new, “Elektra”-fied Betsy. Psylocke currently is wearing an almost exact duplicate of the Elektra costume, the main difference being that it is dark blue rather than Daredevil-red. Thus, it’s no coincidence that Claremont chooses to put Wolverine in the dark-blue Buscema costume from the solo series. This allows Logan and Betsy to match hues, just like Daredevil and Elektra. Wolverine is now elided with not one but two major Frank Miller icons. And by the end of the trilogy, he will have both an Elektra and a Robin in tow.
Claremont is fortunate that none of this comes off as too terribly contrived. This is thanks mainly to his use of The Hand, a ninja clan that fortuitously had already been imported into Wolverine’s mythology seven years earlier by Claremont and Miller in collaboration. It seems perfectly natural that they should return for a rematch with Logan, despite their stronger association with Daredevil. (Oddly, the wildly overwrought combination of mutants and thinly veiled Miller characters, not to mention a teenage party girl, has a precursor in Eastman and Laird’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” the black and white pastiche comicbook that by 1989 had become a massively successful multimedia franchise. This may have been an influence on Claremont as well; note issue 261, which ends with Logan, Jubilee and Betsy sitting around eating pizza.)
And the other bit of glue holding all of this together is Jim Lee. Inked here and next month by Josef Rubinstein, Lee is still on his “A” game, knocking out of the park every challenge Claremont throws at him. Rubinstein, associated with the X-Men since as far back as 1981 (he inked the first half of Cockrum’s sophomore run), doesn’t miss a step as he takes over from Lee’s signature inker, Scott Williams, providing lively embellishments that detract not a bit from Lee’s slickly futuristic style.
And, X-historians note, this issue marks the first appearance in Psylocke’s arsenal of the oft-ridiculed “psychic knife.” One of the more vilified “Claremontisms” is Betsy’s tendency to refer to the knife (a pink energy blade that comes out of her wrist like Wolverine’s claws) as the “focused totality of [her] psychic powers.” In point of fact, before Claremont departed in 1991, that phrase was only uttered a handful of times. Indeed, here and in the next issue, the phrase isn’t used at all; she refers to it as the “ultimate focus” of her telepathy, which feels slightly less labored. I’ll keep count as I see the more hated phrase crop up, and have a final “totality tally” at the end of the blog series.