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Apocrypha Entertainment Presents:









RE-EXAMINING CLAREMONT

I read Chris Claremont’s UNCANNY X-MEN for a long time. A long, long time. And I have gained new respect and admiration for one aspect of his tenure on the book, one that is almost universally reviled. Which one? Play along with me and find out.

The first issue I remember buying was #123. The cover featured the X-Men being tossed about in a giant pinball machine and promised a Spider-Man cameo on the inside. Sucked in by this crazy image, I was hooked, and I immediately took to the characters, especially the short guy with the claws. Oh, yes, I was going to read more X-Men. Count on it.

But it was an inconsistent road for a while. I was buying comics from the newsstand rack at that point in time. I didn’t get to one every month. I was a little boy, so I didn’t understand the concept of “subscription.” So I missed things. Part two of that Arcade story, for one. Dark Phoenix’s death for another. It would be almost three years later before I began to get my monthly dose of mutant madness on a consistent basis. But once I did… I never missed another one.

My X-rebirth came with issue #150, whereupon Claremont set out to redefine Magneto. Now, to me this tactic (humanizing the classic adversary) isn’t always used very well. And to my thinking, in many cases, it’s also unnecessary. But with Magneto, what Claremont did was different. He didn’t take anything away from the character’s past by setting him up as the Malcolm X of the mutantverse. Instead, he expanded on what was there from the start and simply gave it more depth. Plus, the issue completely rocked for other reasons; de-powered, they faced Magneto on his own turf and held their own using the innate skills they possessed as people. It helped define the characters through their actions and beliefs, not special gifts, showing me precisely why Claremont’ X-Men were so popular. You could identify with them, as well as use them for wish-fulfillment.

From there, the eras began to roll. The Brood were introduced as Dave Cockrum said goodbye to the book a second time and Paul Smith said hello. The Brood? Sure, they were a symptom of how much Chris loved ALIEN, but he made them work, and he made them exciting. Great storyline. After that, we saw Wolverine head off for his miniseries and ultimately return in Japan, along with the addition of Rogue to the team.

Rogue’s addition? Gutsy, gutsy, gutsy. Taking a villain universally reviled by the fanbase for her actions against Ms. Marvel and throwing her into the mix of the team? I was stunned when it happened, but it damn sure made for good soap opera. And no one, NO ONE, did better soap opera than Chris Claremont in his prime.

But past Japan and the addition of Madelyne Pryor, the book began to slowly grind to a halt. There was another go-around with Mystique’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. A side-stop for Secret Wars. Professor X was injured yet again. It was pretty yawn. Longtime readers began to question the book’s direction, even as the book retained its place at the top of the sales charts. Really, only one true thing of interest happened in about a three-year span for the book: Storm lost her powers. The character tried to save Rogue from an overzealous federal agent armed with a neutralizer and paid the price. This led to one of Claremont’s best-known side bits, his collaborations with Barry Windsor-Smith, as Ororo was forced to deal with falling in love with the maker of the device and the ramifications of being a sky goddess who could no longer touch the clouds.

What surprised most about this storyline wasn’t just how invested Claremont was in playing out Storm’s evolution as a character, but how long it went on. Unlike modern comics, where things seem to resolve at a ridiculous pace (due to, I think, a lack of patience on creators’ parts) Storm was powerless for over three years in real time. Forty issues of UNCANNY passed (along with plenty of crossovers) where no one controlled the weather.

But again, the book as a whole was floundering. Oh, look, another fight with the Hellfire Club. More Secret Wars nonsense. Nightcrawler has a crisis of faith. It got boring. So along came the MUTANT MASSACRE.

Which didn’t change much, frankly.

The Massacre featured a group of mutant hunters killing off the Morlocks, tunnel-dwelling mutants that lived beneath New York City. The X-Men fought them and sustained heavy damages, and you suddenly could see that Claremont seemed to be having a crisis of faith in himself. He took Colossus, Nightcrawler, and Kitty Pryde completely out of the picture due to injuries suffered in battle. He was facing, for the first time, reader competition from another mutant title, as Cyclops, Iceman, Angel, Beast, and the resurrected Jean Grey were back in X-FACTOR. It felt as though he was trying to forcefully make something happen to pump life back into the book.

Now, you have to respect the attempt. No one, no matter how good they are, should rest on their laurels for too long. But as much as the fanbase loved (and continues to love) the Mutant Massacre, it simply didn’t work. Chris mixed up the lineup, but he just didn’t get the results he was looking for. But he was getting close.

A year later, the writer fulfilled his goals.

Two things happened after the Mutant Massacre that would begin Claremont’s path to redemption. One was the addition of a new, dynamic artist to the title: Marc Silvestri. The book’s art had been floundering for a while at that point, and as brilliant as John Romita Jr. is, even his work looked like that of someone who was completely bored by their assignment. There was no zest, no energy, and no life in the last year or so of his tenure. To me, it looked like Claremont’s malaise had spread into the pencils. Then we got a series of fill-ins from folks like Jackson Guice and Bret Blevins, fine artists, but not the answer to what was ailing the UNCANNY. Silvestri changed that.

Suddenly the book felt alive again.

But it was the second move that really started to put energy back into the comic. Having taken those three classic X-Men off the board, that left him with Storm, Wolverine, and Rogue as his “foundational” members. From there, he rebuilt the team with newcomers: Dazzler, Psylocke, Longshot, longtime substitute member Havok, and a separated-from-her-husband Madelyne Pryor as “girl Friday.” While many fans decried thelineup as boring and uninteresting, it was really just the opposite. It was a rebirth.

Heading back in time to GIANT-SIZED X-MEN #1, the original team, minus Cyclops, was replaced by a group of newcomers that were treated with suspicion and disdain by many. Yet the new group was unpredictable (one died on their second mission), it had personalities with room for growth and conflict. Turning the clock ahead, it now seems obvious that Claremont was diving back into the bag of tricks that he and Len Wein had so deftly used those years back and was renewing his energy for the book, as well as beginning to really find his stride again as a storyteller.

From there, the dominos began to fall. There was a thematic crossover a year after the Mutant Massacre called FALL OF THE MUTANTS, and in it, the X-Men, reunited with a re-powered Storm and the injured Colossus to take on a godlike deity called The Adversary. The battle wound up taking place on live television, and the entire planet wound up watching the X-Men sacrifice their lives to stop the entity. It was only after the cameras stopped rolling that the goddess Roma intervened and re-birthed the characters so they could start over. With the world having seen them die, they were given the gift of not showing up on any electronic surveillance machines and sent off to do the most good they could while maintaining an unusual anonymity. Where they wound up was absolutely ingenious.

In the first full issue after their rebirth, the team battled a group of cyborg warriors called the Reavers, and by the time the battle was finished, the Reavers’ home in the Australian Outback was to be the X-Men’s new home base. Claremont had turned the corner.

Now, I’m keenly aware that there is an ENORMOUS amount of hate for the Australian era of UNCANNY, but I’m here to tell you that point of view is completely off-base. Indeed, as I have been re-reading it over the past couple of weeks, it’s become clear to me that this was actually one of the strongest pieces of Claremont’s tenure, perhaps only second to the Dark Phoenix material. Controversial thought? Perhaps. But let’s take a look at the evidence.

1)It was amazingly brave. Again, Claremont was writing the number one book on the stands. He could coast through its creation and make a shit-ton of cash without really trying. So what did he do? Took away almost all of the comfort available to him (the X-mansion, Cerebro, Kitty Pryde and Nightcrawler, the group’s status of us-against-the law) and started almost completely from scratch. Not many writers would have the courage to throw away their toys in that manner and challenge themselves to do something new and fresh.

2) It re-invigorated the pieces of the X-puzzle he still had left in his hands. The Brood made a return, and this time around, they were much better thought out, a more dangerous opponent, and he made it all happen on Earth, keeping things a bit more grounded.

3) It re-awakened Claremont’s social conscience. This era of the book saw the introduction of Genosha, a small country that practiced a mutant version of Apartheid. X-MEN was always a book about civil rights cloaked in a soap opera, but the basic racism angle Claremont had been using for so many years had grown stale. The real work issues in South Africa provided perfect fodder for a new X-Men foe and seeded dozens of storylines for the entire mutant line of books for years to come.

4) It gave him room to continue the character growth and work begun in the year prior to Australia. Dazzler, Longshot, Havok, Psylocke… they were almost all blank slates before Claremont turned them into the main team. What grew out of them was a volatile mix of personalities and romantic entanglements that kept the book exciting past its regular action quotient. Again, X-Men has always been a soap opera, and this lineup really gave Claremont room to stretch his soap muscles. And with Silvestri proving to be stunningly adept at both pieces of the book, it had a gusto about it that really wouldn’t let you take your eyes off the page.

The team’s tenure in Australia lasted only a couple of years, but the building blocks Claremont put down while they were there would carry him on through to the end of his fabled fifteen year run. The characters would undergo a huge change again after they passed through the Siege Perilous. Jim Lee would succeed Silvestri and continue to reinvigorate the art. New characters, like Gambit and Jubilee, would come into the mix. But none of these things would have happened without Claremont’s shift in tone and attitude.

It took Australia to set UNCANNY X-MEN back on its path to being the best comic book on the stands. It took Australia to force Claremont to dig deep within himself and produce his greatest work again. So when you hear or read fans bitching about this era of the book (which is the only major one uncollected in trade- outside of the Essential X-Men series) I recommend you read it for yourself. For in the Australian outback, a great comic found its way once more. And it wouldn’t lose it again until its creator walked away.

Marc Mason  

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