[Jason Powell continues to look at every issue of Claremont's initial X-Men run. He says he went long on this one, but I am happy to hear Powell talk about the X-Men all day.]
As Bob Harras notes in his “Comics Creators on X-Men” interview, the collaboration between old-pro Chris Claremont and up-and-comer Jim Lee was fairly fraught with tension, but nonetheless yielding some fantastic superhero comic-books. Indeed, there certainly seems to be a potent synergy at work between the pair at this point in the run. It’s hard to tell which of the two creative minds is ascendant during this issue and the next, which collectively tell a pitch-perfect adventure story starring Rogue and Magneto and set in the Savage Land.
On the one hand, this is the conclusion of a story begun nearly two years earlier (in X- Men Annual 12 and Uncanny issues 249 and 250), well before Lee was involved as a co- plotter. It also stars two Claremont favorites: His best original X-creation, Rogue, and his most convincingly revamped X-character, Magneto. Pairing them up as teammates, and – possibly – lovers, seems to be a shrewd consolidation of two of the author’s greatest triumphs.
Yet we know from interviews that Claremont always intended Magneto’s redemption to be ultimately successful – not to fail, as it will in the following issue (albeit nobly). So clearly there are major elements to this arc that are plotted by Lee (possibly backed up by Harras). I’ve also seen speculation that Claremont had no intention to put Rogue and Magneto together as a couple – that this was Lee’s idea, which Claremont grudgingly went along with. This seems possible as well: Lee is a professed fan of Magneto (he apparently collects the original art for old Magneto splash pages), and clearly has an affinity for Rogue as well. And certainly there was never a trace of sexual tension between the two characters in earlier Claremont issues. (Even when they both were X- Men members, the two barely even shared any on-panel time.)
Either way, Harras is right. Whatever is Claremont here and whatever is Lee, the end result works brilliantly. (And the very difficulty in distinguishing where one creator’s input ends and the other begins just proves Harras’ point.)
Perhaps even moreso than Claremont’s final arc in X-Men (Volume 2) #’s 1-3, his Magneto story here and in the following issue are a powerful culmination of the character’s development over the past decade. His work on Magneto truly is the author’s most impressive accomplishment as scripter on the X-Men – taking a distinctly thin Silver Age villain and developing from that seed a genuinely three-dimensional psychology. Again, I’d point to the work of Rivka Jacobs for a full elucidation of the astonishing complexity Claremont brought to this character. Equally impressive is Claremont’s work in integrating actual historical elements related to the Holocaust within a superhero adventure story. This was done with remarkable subtlety, and – I think – an admirable respect for actual victims and survivors. It never seemed cheap or exploitative (this is as opposed to Claremont’s use of “the N word,” which I have complained about in the past), nor garish.
That tradition continues here, as Claremont adds more depth to Magneto’s biography, again with subtlety, so that the full significance of some of his text is perhaps not immediately apparent to those without a working knowledge of the history being discussed. Again, let me defer to Rivka Jacobs’ study “Magneto Is Jewish” FAQ, which quotes a relevant portion of Magneto’s first-person narration in Uncanny 274, and notes its revelatory significance:
‘ “I should have died myself with those I loved,’ [Magneto says.] ‘Instead, I carted the bodies by the hundreds, by the thousands ... from the death house to the crematorium ... and the ashes to the burial ground. Asking now what I could not then ... why was I spared?!" So there it is. He describes his job at Auschwitz. That is it. This is no vague job description, this is what the Sonderkommando did. This is fundamental to the history of the Holocaust, to the history of Nazi Germany. Making the Jews the ones who had to do all the dirty work in the death camps.’
Later in the issue, Claremont consolidates aspects of his long-running Magneto arc, making explicit some of the connections that – having been presented out of sequence and over the course of 16 years – might be somewhat elusive to readers: Specifically, the connection between Uncanny X-Men #150 (published in 1981), which depicted Magneto’s destruction of a Russian submarine Leningrad, and Classic X-Men #12 (published in 1987), which told a previously “untold” tale of the death of Magnus’s daughter.
Now, in “Crossroads,” Magneto faces off against a contingent of Russian soldiers, whose commanding officer lost a son aboard the Leningrad, a brilliant and beautifully conceived dramatic irony. “Again, a cry from the past,” goes Magneto’s narration, “one father to another, in anguished grief for a slain child. ... The Leningrad had fired a salvo of nuclear ballistic missiles at me, so I sank her, with all hands. Thinking of that crew not as people, but merely an object lesson: How dare they defy me, threaten me, these Russians whose countrymen let my daughter burn to death?” The drawing together of these narrative and thematic strands, particularly here, so close to the end of Claremont’s run, is phenomenally powerful. There is a tragic bleakness in Magneto’s final words in the same panel: “There is too much history and hate between us. I cannot talk to these men.”
Meanwhile, coming at the character from an entirely different direction, Jim Lee creates the most ruggedly masculine visualization of Magneto yet conceived. The choice is surprising, yet seems entirely plausible – and has a precursor in Claremont’s earlier work: Specifically 1987’s “I, Magneto” from Classic X-Men 19, which portrays Magneto as
a somewhat dashing and attractive figure (and is also, incidentally, the greatest X-Men story of all time). Earlier still were the Bill Sienkeiwicz issues of New Mutants, which detailed Magneto’s romantic affair with Lee Forrester.
Again, Magneto’s psychology is so deep and convincing, these added sexual elements don’t feel as “soap opera” as other romantic motifs developed by the author during his Uncanny run – i.e., the love triangles, affairs, and unrequited crushes. Claremont’s Magneto is too mature for all of that, even if – under Jim Lee’s pen – he looks more than ever like a romantic leading man.
As such, it is not at all difficult to accept Rogue being swept up by the force of both his looks and personality, particularly in the lush, jungle setting of this story that has them both running around in very little clothing.
There is genuine romance in this new romantic relationship, even if it gets short shrift, page-count-wise, in favor of the action scenes. (The latter are just as convincing, of course; Lee and Williams are in peak form here.) Given the jungle setting, the use of classical archetypes (Nick Fury the super-spy and Ka-Zar the jungle warrior), and the sexy artwork by Lee and Williams, Uncanny X-Men 274 has all the makings of a classic pulp adventure – and it is that, no question. Yet the inclusion of Magneto – and all his attendant historical and psychological depth – gives the story a tangible weight beneath all the surface gloss.
“Crossroads” ends with a quick scene change to pick up the cliffhanger from Uncanny #273. Since the previous issue’s final pages were drawn by Larry Stroman, this is actually our first look at the freshly minted seven-person X-Men team (Storm, Wolverine, Banshee, Psylocke, Forge, Jubilee and Gambit), as drawn by Lee and Williams. They now are all (except Storm) wearing matched versions of the original Jack Kirby-designed costumes. It turns out to be a stunningly fresh and exciting new look. (Lee was avowedly a big fan of the old matching X-Men costumes as well, having attended a school that forced him to wear a uniform himself.) Again, I wonder whose idea it was to put the newly codified team in these costumes. Lee professes to have loved them, but Claremont introduced these costumes back when Silvestri was still the regular penciller. More serendipitous synergy at work?
In any case, the costumes are incredibly striking in practice, and I always found it disappointing that they abandoned the look so quickly after establishing it here.