[Jason Powell takes us into the home stretch of his look at every issue Claremont's initial Uncanny X-Men run. I apologize for this coming out a day late but some LOST foolishness distracted the blog. It will not happen again (for obvious reasons).]
With the previous two years having seen massive, line-wide crossovers, Marvel were perhaps a bit concerned about the fans becoming a bit fatigued. (Current Marvel doesn’t seem to worry about this.) Thus, 1990’s X-over is a quick, self-contained 9-issue affair. As someone noted during the “Inferno” discussions, the early Marvel X-events did a fairly admirable job of possessing a true sense of occasion. “Mutant Massacre” and “Fall of the Mutants” both featured large changes to the status quos of the series involved; “Inferno” succeeded in resolving several very long-running plot threads. And “X-Tinction Agenda” marks a large change as well, as it reunites the long-splintered X-Men and also introduces the new editorial standpoint, wherein the arbitrary divisions among the different mutant series are dissolved, and the X-universe becomes more of a melting pot, with characters freely moving from one series to the next. This attitude hasn’t really changed in the 20 years since – if anything, it’s become more extreme, with characters like Wolverine being gleefully dropped into every X-title on the shelves. (Much to the consternation of fans such as those who run the Marvel Chronology Project.)
The 1990 mutant crossover, titled “X-Tinction Agenda” comprises nine chapters published over three months, appearing in three issues each of Uncanny X-Men, New Mutants and X-Factor (the latter two series still being penned by Louise Simonson at this point). As the Uncanny author, Claremont writes chapters 1, 4 and 7 – the beginning of each month’s triad. With the “Days of Future Present” crossover in the summer X-annuals, Claremont was able to write the final chapter, expertly cleaning up the mess left by the earlier parts. Here, the inverse occurs: Claremont provides a slick, exciting beginning in collaboration with new regular art-team Jim Lee and Scott Williams, only for things to go haywire as the narrative ball is passed to Louise Simonson and a collection of less effective artists.
In 1988’s “Inferno” crossover, Claremont gave his chapters a faux-literary gloss by naming them “Part the First,” “Part the Second,” etc., alluding to Dante’s Inferno. He uses a similar trick in “X-Tinction Agenda,” with the opening page presenting the “Dramatis Personae” a la Shakespeare. Claremont even does his best to mimic Shakespeare’s style of listing his characters in order of social rank – note that the X-Men are placed at the top of the page, and the New Mutants along the bottom. (See also: X-Men Annual 9.) (“Dramatis personae” literally means “masks of the drama,” making it a particularly canny choice for a comic about superheroes – granting that very few of the X-Men and New Mutants actually wore masks at this point.)
Sandwiched between the “Dramatis Personae” panels is a news-report/exposition sequence, reminiscent of Frank Miller’s “Dark Knight” and Paul Verhoeven’s “Robocop.” With both a cast list and a Greek chorus, Claremont is framing the crossover structure as something more elegant than it really is – a classically constructed play, with three acts composed of three scenes each (hearkening back to the original “Dark Phoenix Saga”). The reality will prove to be something quite less impressive – like Shooter’s “Secret Wars,” more an impressive exercise in logistics (watch how well we keep track of 20-plus characters!) than narrative facility.
Still, Uncanny 270 is a very strong start. Taking the story’s triplet-structure to yet another level, Claremont develops “First Strike” as three distinct parts, which very much recall the early, “classic” John Byrne days: 1.) a Danger Room sequence, 2.) a bit of soap opera, 3.) the villains attack. There are a lot of structural parallels to the Dark Phoenix Saga’s opening chapter here, and so it’s no surprise that Jean reminisces about some classic Phoenix-related moments at one point.
Indeed, several aspects of this issue feel a bit like a “greatest hits” package, or at least like a kind of Claremont-sampler. Stevie Hunter turns up rather out of the blue, a decision so arbitrary that Bob Harras openly mocks it in an editorial caption. (In answer to the footnote’s question, her previous appearance had been New Mutants 48, four years earlier. Thanks, Marvel Chronology Project!) When the New Mutants complain about the X-Men hogging the Danger Room, this is Claremont picking up on a thread from all the way back in Uncanny 201: the friction created from two teams sharing a headquarters.
Later, as Jean and Ororo reminisce – in Harry’s Hideaway, another Claremont creation, from the Bill Sienkiewicz era of New Mutants – the author inserts a ret-con, revealing that Wolverine and Jean shared a kiss a few days before the events of X-Men #98. (Recall that in issue 100, Jean tells Wolverine, “I have tried to like you, Wolverine, obnoxious little upstart that you are … but for the life of me, I don’t know why I ever made the effort!”) Overall, we see here Claremont displaying an easy mastery of X-Men continuity and characterization, an expertise that – at the time – was unique to him. There was friction at this point behind the scenes, as Bob Harras was leaning more and more towards Jim Lee’s vision of the X-Men. The “greatest hits” aspects of Uncanny 270 reveal a Claremont who’s perhaps showing off a bit, and attempting to remind both his audience and his collaborators of just who it was that had been with this franchise from the start, and kept it at #1 for the better part of a decade.
Still, the truth is, Claremont was paired with (and in many ways working against) a true dynamo of an artist, whose natural talent and enthusiasm made him a match for Claremont’s experience and expertise. Lee’s work here with his partner Scott Williams – and guest-inker Art Thibert – is once again excellent. The familiar Claremontisms of this issue are powerfully invigorated by the sweep and movement of Lee’s layouts, and everything old seems new again. At the time, Claremont railed against the series going backwards: back to the Danger Room, back to the mansion, back to Professor X, but it is not hard to see why he was overruled, given how fresh and lively those old standby’s became under Jim Lee.
On the other hand, there are certainly places where the flash and dazzle fail to cover up the editorial weaknesses. The whole Genosha concept – so incredibly powerful when first introduced in Uncanny issues 235-238 – is defanged here. Granted, part of the initial premise of the Genoshan magistrates was their advanced tech, an implicit benefit of their mutant-slave-based industry. Still, that was an incidental component, while the true terror of the whole concept lay in the country’s indoctrinated racism. In “X-Tinction Agenda,” the Genoshans are refigured as just another generic bunch of comic-book villains. With Claremont still providing the text, Genosha’s original conception hasn’t been forgotten, but the true, heartbreaking awfulness of that premise is given mere lip service, and the reader is asked to be more impressed by the sci-fi technology. This is where Jim Lee’s flash and dazzle becomes less advantageous, burying the more interesting aspects of Genosha under four-color cliché.
And in the second chapter – New Mutants 95 – things get worse, as the entire country are revealed to now be mere henchmen for a ridiculous new supervillain (whose hideous design is debuted by Rob Liefeld … of course, who else?).