Four-Color Flashback: Chris Claremont & John Byrne’s ‘Uncanny X-Men’ #122-128

Welcome to week 3 of 5 in our analysis of Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s run on Uncanny X-Men. Weeks 1 and 2 can be found here and here.

From #122, “Cry for the Children!,” to #128, “The Action of the Tiger!,” almost every X-Man experiences considerable developments. Since I spilled a boatload of digital ink in the first two columns by going through each issue chronologically, I figured I’d take a different tack this week. I’ll discuss each X-Man individually, then offer some overall thoughts after the fact.

First up:

Cyclops, the fearless leader

I don’t know too many people who would cite Scott Summers as their favorite X-Man. (Oh hey, look at that. My inbox just got hijacked by Cyclops fangirls.) He’s not a bad character, he’s just…one who’s hard to like. He’s usually off in a corner brooding, or tormenting himself over the fact that he couldn’t mourn for the not-actually-dead Jean even though they had been in love. Or he’ll yell at the X-Men and basically say to (a somehow understanding) Ka-Zar, “Screw the Savage Land, I’m goin’ home.” Yet in these issues, Claremont begins to resolve these aspects of Cyclops’ character, so that he begins to make sense to the reader.

As team leader, he takes more risks than ever. He’s disappointed in the team’s Danger Room performance and, echoing Shaman’s sentiments from #121, tells them, “I doubt you’ll ever mesh as effectively as the original X-Men. I’m not even sure that’s a desirable goal anymore.” Wolverine calls out Scott’s training methods: if Scott wants them to be a team, why does he give them separate tasks? Cyclops doesn’t offer much of a retort, but later on proves that he knows how to keep the team together. Wolverine and Nightcrawler’s minds are warped by Proteus, the mysterious creature in Moira MacTaggert’s lab previously known only as “Mutant X,” and both of them seem to be experiencing after-effects, especially the usually unshakable Wolverine. Cyclops ruthlessly antagonizes both of them, leading to a serious tussle that causes Storm to lash out at him. When Scott reveals the purpose of this little exercise, Wolverine remarks, “I ain’t thought much o’ you in the past, Cyke–as team leader, or as a man. I was wrong.” Scott thanks him for that, and he means it.

One thing Scott is adamant about–and he says this several times–is that when a threat is so severe, he will sacrifice his life, or one of the X-Men’s lives, if it’s for the greater good. This especially comes into play in “The Action of the Tiger!,” when Proteus is holding Moira, who it’s revealed is his mother, captive. This obviously causes friction with Sean, who hasn’t seen Moira in ages and has a chance to be with her again. But Cyclops holds true: he hopes it doesn’t come to that, but if she has to die to stop Proteus, she’ll die. Interestingly, though, when Moira had tried killing Proteus earlier, Scott stopped her at the last second, because killing’s not something the X-Men do. This is an old conundrum in superhero comics: if Batman killed the Joker, he’d potentially save countless lives in the process, but that would also bring him down to the Joker’s level. When he eventually realizes that there is no other way to stop Proteus than his total destruction, Scott comes round to Moira’s ways, but the fact remains that his nobility can be a double-edged sword.

If Scott is becoming tougher and riskier as a team leader, his personal life remains just as much of a mess. We get to see much more of Colleen Wing here than we did last time, and she actually might be better for him than Jean. With her, he’s able to open up like he couldn’t with Jean, especially not once she made the transformation into Phoenix. There’s a nice scene in “Cry for the Children!” where, over an ice cream soda, Scott broaches the subject of whether or not he might be “stuffy.” “Like King Tut’s tomb, sport,” she says. She sees right through him, but she doesn’t mind. Things grow curious when Scott and Jean see each other for the first time in months, both having believed the other dead. Curious as in “neither of them react, like, at all.” Compare this to Scott’s joyous reunion with Hank, and it’s clear that there is something wrong. Neither Scott nor Jean are comfortable talking with the other about what’s really going on in their lives. It will be interesting to see the choices he has to make in the future.

Colossus, the metal heavy

Last week, I mentioned that randomly, in the middle of an issue, Colossus delivered this whole monologue about how he was going to start “paying his keep.” And damn, if Claremont didn’t deliver on that promise! The very first panel of “Cry for the Children!” has steel walls pushing in on Colossus in the Danger Room. He’s helpless to stop them; he’s not even trying. The only reason he does stop them is because Wolverine shorts the machine with his claws and hops in there with him as an incentive. Colossus has a loyalty to his friends, but his heart is clearly not in being an X-Man. He’d rather be back home in Mother Russia.

He gets his wish, in a way, when the X-Men go up against Arcade, a villain with “a great and unique talent for murder” who’d previously gone up against Spider-Man and Captain Britain. Arcade isolates each X-Man, setting elaborate traps for them. In Colossus’ case, he sends a robotic KGB official to brainwash Peter into thinking that he has been declared a traitor to Russia, causing him to turn on his teammates. Though the working class hero/Super Mario get-up  that Colossus wears after declaring himself the Proletarian is undeniably hilarious, it makes for the best story the character has had yet. Up to this point, Colossus has proven serviceable, but little more, as an X-Man; as the Proletarian, he goes to town in ass-kicking glory. When he’s given a drive and a purpose, no matter how misguided they may be, Peter is formidable as hell. It’s believable that he would have finished off the X-Men if Storm and Cyclops hadn’t made him realize that he was a valued member of their family, reversing Arcade’s brainwash.

It’s not long before we get to see Colossus’ newfound drive in action–this time for the right reasons. Proteus’ one weakness is metal, as it’s a non-organic material, and Peter is basically a walking hunk of metal, and…you see where this is going. Proteus attempts to keep Colossus at bay by conjuring terrible memories of his brother Mikhail’s fiery death, but Colossus overcomes the psychological attack as he smashes Proteus with his fists, “scattering every fabric of the villain’s being–every scrap of consciousness–to the four corners of the earth.” Colossus is paying his keep, indeed.

Storm, the goddess

Despite not appearing until over halfway through “Cry for the Children!,” the story turns out to be largely about Storm. She has Wolverine drop her off at the corner of 135th and Broadway (I love how specific Claremont gets in regards to New York geography), refusing his offer to accompany her. Ororo was born in New York, but grew up in Cairo, and as she walks the streets of the city, she “contrasts the reality around her with fragmented memories from her youth and infancy.” Ororo’s father told her tales of a magical, vibrant city, but all she sees are whores and junkies. She visits her childhood home, only to find that it’s now a heroin den. This feels very much like one of the socially relevant comics of the 70’s–something akin to Harry Osborn’s LSD fixation or the travails of Green Lantern and Green Arrow–but it’s still sad. Granted, the kids who ambush her have some ridiculous dialogue (“Wha’s doin’, pretty mama?”), and the guest appearances of Luke Cage and Misty Knight feel like a plug for Power Man and Iron Fist, which Claremont had written for. Storm can occasionally seem a little distant, though, and the story succeeds in humanizing her. As Cage tells her when she asks, “Is there nothing we can do?”: “We’re superheroes, Ororo. Not God.”

Storm’s godlike abilities threaten to be her undoing when Arcade places each X-Man in different traps. Arcade throws Storm into a steel box, and I was prepared for Claremont to call upon her claustrophobia yet again. However, Arcade’s trap is an artificial environment wherein he can manipulate the elements, and everything Storm throws at the trap, it hurls right back at her. She creates her famous bolts of lightning, only to be struck by even more powerful bolts. The only reason she survives is the well-honed survival instinct she’s had since her youth in Cairo. Ororo gets another strong moment when she, along with Cyclops, convinces Colossus that he’s an important part of the X-Men family. She also shows admirable leadership when striking out against Cyclops when she believes he’s turned on Wolverine and Nightcrawler. Not a god, maybe, but she tries.

Banshee, the broken hero

I continue to fear that Sean Cassidy might not be long for the X-Men. In #119, “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas…,” Banshee unleashed a massive sonic scream to save the team from Moses Magnum. So massive, in fact, that it damaged his vocal cords, perhaps beyond repair. He hasn’t been able to use his power since, and is mostly sidelined during the action in these issues. We see him fixing the Blackbird, making hot cocoa for the team, reading James Joyce in front of a roaring fire. As he thinks aloud during a quiet moment alone,   “Seems, the older I get, the less eager I am to play superhero. An’ yet, if I retired, I think the boredom would drive me crazy.”

He finds himself helpless in Arcade’s trap, confronted with a sci-fi hologram which Arcade jokingly calls “the latest episode of Battlestarwars: 1999.” If his sonic scream were working, he’d be able to use it as radar to detect what’s real and what’s not, but as it is, he can’t do much more than run around and dodge lasers. It’s up to Wolverine to save him, and when Cyclops ask him if he’s all right, he responds, “For better or worse, I’ll live.” Things look up for Sean when, in #126, “How Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth…!,” he is reunited with Moira, who is overjoyed to see that he is alive. Unfortunately, when Moira is held captive by Proteus, Sean is utterly unable to do anything to save her. Tellingly, he’s the only one not in costume during the entire campaign against Proteus. When Proteus is defeated, he and Moira embrace, leading to one of the most touching moments in Claremont and Byrne’s run thus far. Moira is unable to forgive herself for the role she’s played in the death of her son, and Sean can’t forgive himself for not being able to rescue her, but they can still hold each other.

Nightcrawler, the confident one

Nightcrawler is the only one of our merry mutants who doesn’t experience much growth this week. And that’s okay, because from all accounts, he doesn’t need to. He literally fits in with everyone in his social and, er, “professional” life: he helps Sean repair the Blackbird, he goes on a double date with Colossus and their lady loves, he’s the group’s recon man. Sure, he needs Cyclops’ help to escape Arcade’s trap, and he gets a little shaken when Proteus messes with his mind, but he seems to be the only one who has total confidence in his abilities. When Beast, still thinking the X-Men to be dead, breaks into the mansion, Nightcrawler tackles him, not even able to see what threat he’s facing. After Sean falls into a pit of Proteus’ creation, Nightcrawler undergoes severe strain to teleport them both back to safety, strain that “almost kills them both.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but Kurt Wagner is a pimp.

Wolverine, the vicious imp

There’s not as much emphasis placed on Logan as there was last week, but it’s quickly becoming apparent that whether or not Cylcops likes it, he’s becoming second-in-command. This is due, in large part, to the fact that he has absolutely no qualms about calling Scott out on his leadership abilities or battle tactics. But their uneasy relationship also comes with more than a fair amount of begrudging respect. When Wolverine wants to immediately go after Proteus, Scott tells him that they need to learn more about the monster and form a plan. Scott is right, and doing damage to an innocent table, Wolverine says, “I know–but I don’t haveta like it!”

Wolverine’s animalistic nature can be an asset, though, as he shreds through Arcade’s funhouse robots and uses his keen sense of smell to track Proteus through Scotland. It’s a little terrifying the vengeance with which Wolverine lashes out at Colossus/Proletarian, without more than a moment’s thought. He doesn’t take to betrayal kindly, and he also swears revenge–of the death-making variety–on Arcade. As evidenced last week, though, there’s another side to the imp. He’s not entirely fearless, as he’s more than a little leery of holding onto Storm as they fly through the air (“Ya left my stomach back on the flamin’ plane!”), and he is very much shaken by Proteus’ rearrangement of nature. It’s when he’s with Mariko that he seems most at ease. He spots her in New York, and has dinner with her, telling her in a most unusual gentlemanly demeanor, “I can’t remember when I’ve enjoyed a meal more.” Then he asks, “May I see you again?” Yeah, he’s an interesting character.

Phoenix, the other goddess

I’ve saved the most important for last. Even if you’ve never seen an X-Men movie or cartoon or aren’t in any way familiar with comics history, it’s been clear for some time that Claremont and Byrne are planning something big for Jean Grey. From her transformation from Ms. Marvel to Phoenix, her mourning period for the X-Men, and her travels abroad, it’s been building for a while. And things are only starting to get more interesting. Following an innocent shopping trip in Scotland, she runs into a man calling himself Jason Wyngarde, finding him oddly attractive. Claremont allows us a peek into his thoughts, and it’s revealed their meeting was no accident. “Wyngarde” is apparently a shapeshifter, and he’s been following Jean ever since she left the X-Mansion. He’s made himself into the man of her dreams, and if he has his way, she’ll soon join the Hellfire Club. Twice, she has random visions of herself in 18th century garb, Lady Jean to his Sir Jason. When Proteus comes upon Wyngarde by pure chance, he is too afraid to go near him.

Moira has been running tests on Jean in the lab, and finds herself spooked by the results. Moira tells Jean that there’s been a “quantum leap” in her powers, but for a while now, they’ve been rather unreliable. As Moira explains to Scott, Jean has a sort of instinctive psychic circuit breaker that keeps cutting her powers back to Ms. Marvel levels. Yet now that she’s under Wyngarde’s thrall, she’s beginning to let loose a little more, at one point carrying five people through the air with ease. There’s a thrilling moment where Jean is prepared to strike at Proteus with all she’s got, yelling, “Say your prayers, butcher!” Unfortunately, Proteus uses Moira as a human shield, preventing us from seeing the true extent of Phoenix’s powers.

As for her relationship with Scott, well…like I said earlier, it will be interesting to see where that goes. She’s obsessed with Wyngarde at the moment, and when she sees Scott for the first time since she thought he was dead, she envisions that he is Wyngarde. Things get so crazy with Proteus that they don’t have a moment alone to talk, though even if they did, I’m not sure what they would say to each other. She thinks to herself that she picks up a different vibe from him than before. He’s changed, that much is sure, and she’s “glad of that, I think.” There will be much more to come with Phoenix, and I look forward to all of it. Also, I really want her and Colleen Wing to be in the same room together. That would be fun.

The Big Thoughts

Well, okay, they’re not really “big” thoughts. I just want to say that this is probably the strongest stretch of material so far in Claremont and Byrne’s run. Claremont’s more annoying tics are becoming less evident, and Byrne’s work is so consistently wonderful that at this point, one almost takes it for granted. The amount of character development that goes on throughout these rather busy, complicated stories is impressive. One reason that these issues are the best yet is quite simple: the villains are getting better. Sure, no X-Men villain is greater than Magneto, with whom the team has already fought during the Claremont/Byrne run. But the writing here is better, so the baddies come off more interestingly.

Arcade was created by Claremont and Byrne in the pages of Marvel Team-Up, and he’s delightfully psychotic. His deathtraps are ridiculous, but clever, and he leaves each X-Man the small chance of survival, just for sport. He’s sort of like the game show host from hell, with his dapper white suit and little bowtie. Then there’s Proteus, who lacks Arcade’s charm, but more than makes up for it in sheer terror: a monstrous being of pure energy who hops bodies, devouring them from the inside out, before finding a new host. He’s like something out of a horror movie. I know that these characters survive–of course they do, most of ’em are still alive today–but I genuinely kept expecting him to break them. That is a great credit to the talents of Messrs Claremont and Byrne.

I leave you with some stray observations/quotes:

  • Xavier is on Imperial Center–weird name for a planet, but okay–with Lilandra, where he is treated as the “village idiot” and barely gets to see Lilandra, who’s off ruling an empire. Not exactly what he had been hoping for.
  • Looks like Black Tom Cassidy and Juggernaut still aren’t over their defeat at the hands of the X-Men during the Claremont/Cockrum run: they’re the ones who hired Arcade to massacre the mutants.
  • For the first half of #123, lengthily titled “Listen–Stop Me if You’ve Heard It–But This One Will Kill You!,” you would be forgiven for thinking that you’d picked up an issue of The Amazing Spider-Man by mistake. Spider-Man has always been my favorite superhero, so it was fun to see Claremont and Byrne’s take on the character. He gets some hilarious lines, such as when one of Arcade’s trucks kidnap Scott and Colleen with a “SFLANNG!” sound effect. “‘Sflanng’?! Where have I heard that bef–Arcade!!” Though the bit where he smashes a telephone booth out of rage is unintentionally funny.
  • “I was your basic poor little rich kid–spoiled rotten. When I turned 21, Daddy said I was no good…and cut off my allowance. The next day, I cut off Daddy’s life.”
  • Though I’d never read these issues before, the Arcade story was somewhat familiar to me from the insanely difficult Spider-Man/X-Men: Arcade’s Revenge video game from 1992.
  • Byrne does a great job at showing just how scary Jean can be as Phoenix, even in quiet moments, such as when she’s being tested by Moira.
  • Byrne also does some exceptional work when Proteus warps Nightcrawler and Wolverine’s minds, drawing some very surreal versions of our heroes.

Next week: issues #129-135.

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