[Jason Powell continues his look at every issue of Claremont's initial X-Men run. Here is what he wrote to me in the email this came in: "Another long one. I'm getting long-winded as we reach the end ... there's still SO MUCH LEFT TO SAY!!!"]
“The Path Not Taken”
I’ve always enjoyed the introduction to this issue: “Stan Lee proudly presents … a pulse-pounding, rip-snortin’, rootin’-tootin’ sci-fi/high-adventure Double Feature!” Presumably at this point in his tenure, Claremont wasn’t having much fun writing X-Men, but he certainly knew how to fake it.
The two components of the story’s “double feature” are: 1.) Magneto/Rogue in the Savage Land -- which concludes here in a powerful finale that forms the centerpiece of the issue – and 2.) the X-Men in space, a more light-hearted adventure that brackets the Magneto material and ends the issue on a very old-school-style cliffhanger.
The Savage Land material is the more significant here, as it ends the story of Magneto’s attempt to redeem himself. I talked in the previous blog entry about Claremont’s achievement in crafting Magneto’s psychology, and I won’t go on at length yet again here. Suffice to say that while – in purely story terms – Magneto’s quest ends in failure, on a creative level it is phenomenally affecting. Claremont may not have wanted things to work out as they did here, but – as with the editorially mandated tragic ending to The Dark Phoenix Saga – the change makes for a much more intense conclusion.
The final story-beat occurs on Page 39 (which is one of Jim Lee’s most well-composed pages ever, and one I would love to own the original artwork for). Zaladane – the villain of the piece, described throughout as a reflection of Magneto himself, particularly the Silver Age villain version of the character – has been defeated, and is held at Magneto’s mercy. She’s surrounded on all sides by metal shrapnel, which will tear her to shreds if Magneto but gestures. Rogue pleads with Magneto to remember that he is trying to walk a hero’s path. With an intense calm, Magneto replies, “I am not Charles Xavier. I will never be Charles Xavier.” He closes his fist, and Zaladane dies horribly.
If this were simply Magneto turning his back on heroism and returning to his pre-Claremont villainous iteration, it would be a terrible – and terribly absurd – ending. But that is not what’s happening; the clue being that in the same gesture with which he renounces heroism, he also slaughters the character that was set up from the start as an avatar of his original terrorist incarnation. Magneto is now neither a superhero nor a supervillain. Having been both, he is now moving on to become something more complex than either; something that a Marvel comic-book cannot really contain. (When next he appears under Claremont’s pen, he will have ascended from Earth and explicitly given up on the melodrama of the Marvel Universe.)
This is, ultimately, a perfect ending for Claremont’s Magneto: Neither standing among the heroes whose naivety (i.e., sparing the lives of irredeemable villains) he does not share, nor to be ghettoized amongst the two-dimensional villains who comprise the rest of the X-Men’s “rogues gallery” (fitting then that he abandons a “Rogue” as well at the end of this arc). His psychology is simply too vast, his morality too ambiguous for a four-color world. Note how much of his dialogue in the present issue twists around moral questions like a snake, impossible to nail down. Before murdering the Russian soldier Semyanov, whose son he killed years earlier, Magneto offers condolences. “I am sorry for your son, Colonel,” he says. “Which is more than I ever heard … for the slaughter of those I loved.” “Your … daughter, you mean?” Semyanov replies. “And that absolves you of any crime?” Magneto’s equivocal reply: “I never said it did. For what we are, and what we have done, Comrade Colonel … we are both of us condemned.” Much like Miller’s Batman in “Dark Knight,” Claremont’s Magneto is simply “too big.” Beyond judgment by any but the power that he sees himself “condemned” by. This is the only possible endpoint that Magneto’s trajectory (begun a decade earlier) could have taken him, and it feels utterly right.
By contrast, the “X-Men in Shi’ar” material surrounding this glorious narrative centerpiece on either side seems like quite a lot of fluff. But these sequences play their part in the issue as well. If nothing else, they provide a bit of narrative cushion; we are given something colorful and pulpy and fun around which to wrap the much denser story within. There are also some fun parallels to be found with the Savage Land narrative, most blatantly Professor X’s switch at the end into a ranting super-villain, which adds a light irony to Magneto’s earlier idealization of Charles. It’s also amusing that the X-Men spend the entire issue essentially fighting on the wrong side of the Shi’ar war – a perfect example of the heroes’ comic-book naivety (which in turn is so aptly emblemized in their new primary-colored costumes). In the end, we realize, it is not that Magneto wasn’t fit to be a comic-book superhero; it is that comic-book superheroics are not worthy of Magneto.
Uncanny X-Men #275 is very much the grand finale of Claremont’s X-Men run, even though he would write three and a half more issues before leaving – and cap things off with a perfunctory three-parter in X-Men (Volume 2) #’s 1-3. The size and scope of the story – both in terms of page-count and incident – are appropriately sweeping, for one thing. Also, this is the last full issue to feature both of Claremont’s longtime collaborators in the less celebrated fields of lettering and coloring: Tom Orzechowski and Glynis Oliver, respectively. (Both Orz and Oliver would also letter #279, the issue that Claremont only wrote half of before walking away.) The pair were very much a huge part of what made Claremont’s run feel so artistically consistent. By the end of 1991, Orzechowski had lettered 146 issues of Claremont’s Uncanny, and Oliver had colored 137. (And this is not even including annuals, miniseries, spinoffs, etc.) It’s nice that they both are included on the credits of this, Claremont’s culminating climactic issue (the last of roughly a dozen “double-sized” X-Men issues that Claremont produced in as many years).
Most notably, Uncanny #275 also brings many long-standing Claremont threads to a close, and gives a sense that X-Men history is coming full circle. There are strong textual reflections here with Uncanny #200, which saw both Xavier joining the Starjammers and Magneto attempting to take his place, after appearing before the World Court. Both those arcs culminate tragically here: Magneto’s attempt to walk Xavier’s path has failed. (When Ka-Zar suggests that Magneto should allow Zaladane to live, and let her fate be decided by a court the way Magneto’s was, he replies, “And perpetuate one tragic error … with a greater one?”) Meanwhile, Charles himself seems to have been corrupted by his time in space.
The pseudo-Xavier’s reference to the X-Men having made “yet another metamorphosis” is not only a humorous nod to 1975 (when Claremont began his creative odyssey) but also a knowing joke on how mutable the book has become. It is not that the X-Men have gone through “another” metamorphosis – it’s that, since Charles departed 75 issues ago, the team has actually undergone several.
Other touchstones are contained herein as well: The use of the Imperial Guard takes us back to the original Cockrum run and the Dark Phoenix Saga (and Claremont acknowledges just how long ago that material was in an editorial footnote signposted by a comically gigantic asterisk.) The Savage Land mutates, and Magneto’s association with them, is a riff from the classic Neal Adams/Roy Thomas issues. And of course, the use of the blue-and-gold uniforms hearkens even further back, all the way to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. (Charles’s nostalgia upon seeing those outfits is rather charming, too, albeit marred in hindsight by the twist that this Xavier is an impostor …)
Of course, the first issue of the second volume of X-Men will also contain several, very similar, nods to history and continuity (de rigueur for Marvel at any rate, and for Claremont’s X-Men especially so), but in that latter case it is more often in service of creating a sense of a new beginning. Uncanny #275, by contrast, is an effulgent, triumphant climax.