(Re-)Reading Uncanny X-Men: Down Under and Earthfall

Brood Wolverine

Perhaps Silvestri’s best X-Men cover

The epic reading of Uncanny X-Men continues as the mutants relocate to Australia, battle cyborgs and aliens, and spread some Christmas cheer.

It was 1988. Chris Claremont was now in his 13th year of writing this comic book series, which had flourished into Marvel’s best-selling title. It had become its own franchise, with the spin-off series New Mutants and X-Factor, and limited series like Wolverine. A third and fourth spin-off, Excalibur and an ongoing Wolverine, were getting prepared to launch later in the year.

It sounds like everything was going great, but there was trouble. The launch of X-Factor over two years earlier had been done against Claremont’s wishes and without his or his editor Ann Nocenti’s participation. The book reunited the original X-Men characters from the 1960s but by doing so it resurrected Jean Grey, undermining both the celebrated ending of the acclaimed Dark Phoenix Saga, and the carefully executed retirement of her boyfriend and fellow X-Man Cyclops. The two books essentially agreed to ignore each other, but it was an untenable solution. As part of his retirement, Cyclops had married Madelyne Pryor, who just so happened to look eerily like Jean Grey. The two had a son. To go back to superheroing, it required Cyclops walking out on his family, a generally un-superheroic thing to do. As if that wasn’t enough, their infant son was kidnapped. Madelyne made her way back to the X-Men for help in tracking down her baby. Instead she became a supporting character in the book.

This all happened over the course of years, where Claremont’s legendary slow-burning subplots were getting more and more drawn out with each new unresolved thread. So Madelyne ended up hanging around with the X-Men seemingly not looking for her baby. I wonder if Claremont was letting X-Factor resolve the missing baby story as an opportunity to redeem Cyclops. Whatever the reason, that book didn’t forward the plot either. So both parents ended up not talking to each other while their son was presumably being held by mutant terrorists the Marauders. No ransom was demanded by the villains. Basically, everyone forgot about it, except the readers.

Now there had been some crazy stuff going on in Uncanny X-Men that would certainly prevent Madelyne from making good progress. And it’s possible efforts were happening off-panel. But it was a long time to let such a desperate plot point linger.

Storm flies in new costume

Storm flies again

By 1988, longtime editor Ann Nocenti wanted to transition out of editing and into freelance writing (she would go on to have a well-regarded run writing Daredevil). Coincidentally, several editors were making the same transition, so Marvel took the opportunity to promote some assistant editors and reassign books. Bob Harras had been editing X-Factor soon after its launch and had proven he could handle a franchise with his coordination of the successful G.I. Joe mini-line of comics. So he was given Uncanny X-MenNew Mutants and the reprint series Classic X-Men. The entire X-Men line was once again under one editor. He would also get the new Wolverine series and the X-Terminators mini-series scheduled for later in the year. Only the upcoming Excalibur would be excluded (and he would eventually take it over in 1993).

This gave the line greater coordination than it ever had before. Right away, letter columns in the back of each issue featured blurbs promoting the rest of Harras’ stable of X-books. The next summer crossover, Inferno, would more tightly weave through each book instead of the more isolated approach in Mutant Massacre and The Fall of the Mutants. No longer would X-Factor be ignored by the other books. And possibly most significant for Uncanny X-Men readers, the Jean Grey/Madelyne Pryor redundancy was forced to a conclusion and one that did not favor Madelyne.

Really, this is the beginning of the end for Chris Claremont’s tenure as main architect of the X-Men universe and his first tenure as Uncanny X-Men writer. Legend has it Harras did not share the same friendship and loyalty to Claremont like previous editors. But Claremont was too big of a name and couldn’t be replaced. Yet. It would be another 3 years before superstar artists made it easier for Claremont to be pushed off the book.

haunted treasures

Longshot and the haunted treasure

But we’re not there yet. Back in 1988, the X-Men had just been killed during The Fall of the Mutants and then, unbeknownst to the rest of the world, brought back to life by the mystical Roma. Still feeling the aftermath of the Mutant Massacre, the X-Men decided it was safest for their friends and allies if they were presumed dead so they could stealthily take the fight to their enemies. This set of issues, Uncanny X-Men #229-234, is the start of this new mission, affectionately named the Outback Era due to the team’s new base of operations in the remote Australian Outback.

The more aggressive strategy of the X-Men was very in-step with the increasingly “grim and gritty” approach of the industry at the time. The tsunami effect of Watchmen was still just getting started. Still, I was glad to see a step away from that for a moment with Uncanny X-Men #230, which unexpectedly turns into a rather charming Christmas story at the end.

This batch is highlighted by the return of the Brood. It was good to see a follow-up to the original Brood Saga but where that story really excelled with some excellent pacing and tension, this ended up feeling a bit one-note. I guess it was more going for a thrill-ride feel and on its own it was a fun adventure with some good creepiness in the beginning, but it just didn’t continue the strength of the original.

Madelyne Pryor gets stripped of humanity

Madelyne Pryor aloneProbably the best part was a twisted dream sequence of Madelyne Pryor getting stripped of her baby and her own facial features, which are given over to a blank cypher to restore “the original,” Jean Grey. It’s during these scenes that she ends up aligning with the demonic S’ym because she thinks she’s just dreaming. It’s messed up and positions the character for the Inferno event but it’s a cool visual.

Despite my decidedly Claremont-favoring summary of history above, I have to say his writing has gotten to a point where I find it a bit of a chore to get through. It’s very possible he’s chafing at the increasing editor oversight. Or it could just be the natural evolution of his style. Whatever the cause, his scripting is getting increasingly dense and stilted. Marc Silvestri is more than competent as artist on the book, with very fluid storytelling. Maybe their styles don’t mesh but the rhythm of Silvesti’s pages gets completely bogged off by Claremont’s dialogue. I’ve now taken to reading the issue, and then sometimes days later going back through the entire issue again just looking at the art and ignoring 90% of the dialogue. The storytelling is so sharp and effortless with too much of the script superfluous. Claremont’s plotting of individual issues and story arcs is generally still spot-on though, and even when it’s a mostly action-focused story, he continues to live and breathe these characters.

Next up: An apartheid analogy in the form of the fictional nation of Genosha.

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