[Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Claremont's X-Men. If this is your first post, then you have a lot of archives to go through to catch up. Get started now. Right now. They are really good.]
Uncanny X-Men 261 to 267 comprise a sequence that is looked back upon ruefully by Claremont, as no two consecutive issues in the set feature the same penciller. Marc Silvestri’s last issue and Jim Lee’s first (as the new regular artist) bookend five issues by fill-in pencillers. It is the longest such string in Claremont’s run, although the sequence from 211 to 216 (the transition from John Romita Jr. to Silvestri) is similarly ragged. But the run from 261 to 267 apparently nags more incessantly in Claremont’s memory – he’s mentioned it in multiple interviews – because it is also the first time in years that Uncanny X-Men slipped out of the #1 slot in the sales charts. The lack of consistent visuals accounts for this, as does the contemporaneous debut of Todd McFarlane’s massively hyped Spider-Man #1 – both matters out of Claremont’s control. But surely the X-Men’s rotating cast was also frustrating readers as well. Granted, the series’ unpredictability had always been part of its massive appeal … but it seems as if Claremont finally went over the line in terms of how far he could perversely play on reader expectation. In issues 262 to 264, the protagonists are Banshee, Forge and Jean Grey – two of the canon’s lesser lights, and a third character on loan from Louise Simonson’s X-Factor. It’s a bit daring on Claremont’s part to trust in such a motley crew to carry the series over three issues, but commercially the risk didn’t pay off.
Hubris may have played a part as well. Claremont has noted with pride that, back in his heyday, he was able to take such maligned characters as Wolverine and Rogue and eventually turn them into fairly hot properties (in collaboration with John Byrne and Paul Smith, respectively, and several others besides). There’s a sense, as one reads issues 262 to 264, that Claremont was utterly confident he could do the same with, for example, Forge.
His belief may also have been fueled by rising fan interest in Cable, added to the cast of The New Mutants three months earlier by Simonson and Rob Liefeld. As a gun-toting cyborg/mutant, Forge preceded Cable by years, and Claremont may have been playing a game of “mine’s better” with the New Mutants creative team. Clearly it didn’t work out in the author’s favor.
“Scary Monsters” is the first part of a two-act “X-Men vs. Morlocks” story. In an example of the series becoming less politically complex at this stage, the Morlocks have devolved since the “Mutant Massacre” into the same one-dimensional villains they began as, six years earlier. This would be a trend during Claremont’s 90s material – the most extreme example being Magneto’s reversion (still a year away at this point). The benefit, in retrospect, is that there is a sense of Claremont’s massive run being bookended – these latter day stories so often recall some of his very earliest for the series, and suggest that Claremont’s X-Universe is coming full circle. The main problem is the lack of thematic logic, and an occasional sense of artificiality.
So, as in the original Morlocks story, we again see a very small group of X-Men descend into the sewers to rescue an ally. The twist here is that body-warping villain known as Masque is now in charge (he was formerly just a lackey) and, as such, much more liberal with the use of his powers. The result is a bizarre cliffhanger ending wherein Banshee has lost his mouth and Jean Grey now has tentacles instead of arms. As comic-book cliffhangers go, this is hardly too ridiculous – but coming so hard on the heels of Pyslocke and Storm’s transformations, this seems like yet another arbitrary mutation. There’s an unshakeable sense at this point that Claremont is burning out – or at the very least, just a little bit bored.
Apart from Claremont himself, the only other constant over the five issues of fill-in art is Josef Rubinstein. The inker does his best to create a consistent look for the series during this tumultuous period, but can only do so much. Pencils for issue 262 are by Kieron Dwyer, a solid storyteller whose work here is less than his best, lacking the dynamism of his work on Mark Gruenwald’s Captain America.