I’m still here! I’ll be honest, getting through the Secret Wars II period was a bit of a challenge. But I’m glad I kept going because on the other side of it are some stories that prove there’s still some worthwhile comics with these characters.
In case you can’t tell, I’m reading (or in some cases, re-reading) Marvel’s entire Uncanny X-Men series, starting from the original X-Men comic book from the 1960s, through to its relaunch in the 1970s and its rise to the best-selling comic of the 1980s and ’90s until… well, I guess we’ll see. I’m obviously not very prolific, but slow and steady wins something or other.
Anyway, I’m up to 1986, right before the very first X-Men event, Mutant Massacre. This batch of issues covers Uncanny X-Men #205 to 209.
The standalone Uncanny X-Men #205 is one of the best issues of the era, thanks in large part to the return of extraordinary artist Barry Windsor-Smith. This is his third assignment on the series, previously handling the two Lifedeath stories starring Storm. It seems like a pretty good gig. He gets to show up once a year and really spend the time on creating a beautiful book, leaving the month-to-month grind to others. He provides pencils, inks and colors, which is unusual at the time for an artist on a big superhero book to get such ownership over so much of a comic’s visuals. But it pays off, with an atmospheric and tense story.
This may be the most primal and animalistic we’ve seen Wolverine yet, and this is nicely juxtaposed with the innocence of 5-year-old Katie Power, the youngest member of the pre-teen superheroes Power Pack, who first met Wolverine in issue #195. The issue is told from Katie’s perspective for a good portion of the book, which helps present Wolverine as more scary than we’ve seen him.
(Aside: I love how the adult with Katie in the beginning is never fully seen, keeping the perspective on Katie. It reminds me of the charming POV trick used on the animated Muppet Babies show, where we almost never see the Nanny above the height of the childlike main characters. Muppet Babies had already been airing for a couple of years by now, so I’m going to go ahead and claim that Windsor-Smith was inspired by it for this scene.)
Katie is clean and bright, Wolverine is bloodied with muted tones
Another nice juxtaposition device is the initial POV on the villain Lady Deathstrike before shifting to the innocence of Katie. I thought Lady Deathstrike first appeared here but apparently she had been bouncing around Daredevil and Alpha Flight for a few months. This is where she adopts the look she will maintain for a long time. The first scene shows her grotesque transformation into a cyborg with creepy fingers that extend out into long razor sharp claws. It’s left a bit vague but Lady Deathstrike believes that her late father will somehow be redeemed by her confronting Wolverine, to the death if need be. “The key is Wolverine, and the secrets locked within his gaijin brain,” she explains in narration. The mystery of his tortured mind and his feral regression depicted here still seem novel at this point but they become more common devices to amp up Wolverine’s cool factor with increasingly diminished returns. Apparently, Deathstrike believes that Wolverine somehow stole her father’s process to bond adamantium to a person’s skeleton. Geez, Lady Deathstrike, how about just hire a patent attorney?
After that issue, we return to regular artist John Romita, Jr. where the X-Men are still in San Francisco from the events of the last batch of issues. Freedom Force (formerly Mystique’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants but with a government pardon and deputized as federal agents) chases them down and actually beats them, wrecking the neighborhood in the process, and only the intervention of local police buy the X-Men time to flee. It’s a decent fight scene but the X-Men fighting this batch of characters is starting to wear a little thin, even with the addition of Spiral and Spider-Woman. The issue ends with Rachel deciding to finally reveal herself to Scott as his daughter but then the next issue the X-Men are back in New York with no mention of that trip. Maybe that scene happened in the recently launched X-Factor? Either way, it’s a bit weak that there’s no follow-up on it in the next few issues, especially considering their focus on Rachel. This era in particular is muddled by too much interactions between books and not enough awareness that people may not be reading every book. Essentially, if you don’t read it or miss the connection, too bad, you’re on your own.
Once the X-Men return to New York, recuperating with the Morlocks, they all remember that they’re mad at Rachel for co-opting their life essences to fight the Beyonder during Secret Wars II. This is one of the increasingly odd Chris Claremont ticks where the leapfrog approach to plotting has these delayed responses to things. In the previous issue, it seemed like everyone was fine with Rachel but now everyone’s giving her the cold shoulder. Regardless, there’s some good stuff here, including cool dream sequences (enhanced by Glynis Oliver’s colors) of Wolverine hunting Rachel down as she struggles with her survivor’s guilt and even some suicidal thoughts (echoing Jean Grey committing suicide in the Dark Phoenix Saga). Rachel’s dreams foreshadow the final encounter, with Wolverine, dragging himself out of bed while recovering from his fight with Lady Deathstrike, to try talking Rachel down from murdering Selene. The scene abruptly ends with one of the best cliffhangers the series has had in a long time.
The final two issues show the aftermath of that encounter where the Hellfire Club prepares a retaliation and the X-Men and Morlocks search for Rachel. Everyone tracks Rachel to Central Park, and then must also fend off the random arrival of Nimrod, the pink mutant-hunting robot from Rachel’s future. Aside from some goofy costumes (Leland, what are you wearing?!), there is some really creative moments with the different powers and nice juggling of multiple parties with distinct motivations and objectives. Where the Freedom Force battle was kind of boring, this had higher stakes with better choreographed set pieces.
Spiral’s Body Shoppe, which debuted in the first issue of this batch of comics to transform Lady Deathstrike into a cyborg, appears again at the end, luring Rachel into a way to escape from her own guilt. Nightcrawler, who finally returns to the team, appears to be removed again from the playing field (although only temporarily). So the story ends with the team down to five: Storm, Wolverine, Colossus, Shadowcat and Rogue. (I can’t really figure out what Colossus is still doing here. He maybe had five lines in this run of issues. I like him but he’s being wasted and could be swapped out for virtually any other super-strong person.)
John Romita, Jr., and Dan Green continues to be a good visual storyteller. He’s more interesting in dream sequences and other strange scenes where he seems to give himself permission to be more unconventional.
All told, while plotting coordination is slipping, resulting in some uneven issues, this is a mostly decent set of comics, with the Barry Windsor-Smith issue in particular skewing the average up considerably. Next is the first X-Men-centric event: Mutant Massacre! I’ll try to take less than 6 months this time.