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Fall of the Mutants: Uncanny X-Men (Review/Retrospective)

With our month looking at Avengers comics officially over, we thought it might be fun to dig into that other iconic Marvel property, the X-Men. Join us for a month of X-Men related reviews and discussion.

Part of me does feel a little bit sorry for Chris Claremont. After all, his Uncanny X-Men run was trapped in a perpetual second act. He hadn’t introduced the franchise, inheriting it from a bunch of other writers and artists, and he couldn’t resolve it either. So, as a writer, Claremont was charged with keeping readers interested in an on-going narrative that spanned well over a decade. Occasionally, the writer would try to keep things fresh, and Fall of the Mutants represents just such an attempt. Trying to transition his team from one status quo to another, you have to give the writer credit for pitting the team against an enemy who is (effectively) God, even if it does make this chapter in his on-going saga the equivalent of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.

United we fall…

Fall of the Mutants was a pretty clever crossover. In that it was a crossover that wasn’t a crossover. The reader didn’t need to pick up New Mutants or X-Factor in order to follow the story, with Claremont and Louise Simonson pitching the overlap as more of a “thematic crossover.” Each of the three books would reach an epic climax at the same time, rather than having a bunch of events that fed into one another. I have to admit, I quite like the format, as I think it allows each book to retain its identity while still very clearly tying into the other two being published. Similarly, I think it’s great that Marvel published a giant oversized book collecting the event. Their collections department has done a superb job. Now, where’s my Uncanny X-Men by Chris Claremont Omnibus, Vol. II?

All joking aside, it’s handy to have such a clear run of Claremont’s work on the title collected. The author wrote what was effectively a long-form story, with hints dropped in early issues only paying off years down the line. For example, this collection features the first appearance of Mr. Sinister, although he was mentioned explicitly back in the Mutant Massacre. Claremont would resolve the mystery of Madelyne Pryor in Inferno, years after introducing the wife of Scott Summers. As such, Fall of the Mutants feels like a transitional chapter in Claremont’s epic, moving from the conventional X-Menformat to a more adventurous style.

Something Sinister this way comes…

One might argue that the central point of Fall of the Mutants – the destruction of the Uncanny X-Men team and their move to the Australian Outback – was somewhat undermined by the decision to follow it up with a giant New-York-based crossover in Inferno. In fact, it feels a bit ridiculous to see the team fake their deaths here, knowing that they’ll be fighting demons in public only a few months later. That said, I think that the crossover does allow Claremont to move away from conventional superhero trappings and to tell some of his more controversial and divisive stories later on.

After Fall of the Mutants, many fans argue that Claremont really exhausted his world with the gigantic Inferno crossover, and that a lot of his later work felt like padding, lacking the energy or vitality of his earlier work. Many of those would argue that Uncanny X-Men became a team book without a team, but I am more forgiving of Claremont. I think that the writer was boldly experimental with the book throughout his distinguished tenure, even if some parts of his run do read much easier than others. While I certainly wouldn’t cite Fall of the Mutants as Claremont’s best work on the title, I do think it’s a fascinating little chapter.

Lone Wolverine…

In many ways, it feels like the author is really pushing the characterisation of Storm and Wolverine. Arguably, those two characters served as the leads in his extend Uncanny X-Men run. After all, Cyclops departed fairly early on, Jean Grey was killed off, and Professor Xavier seemed to be rarely about. Storm and Wolverine were very much the constants on his tenure on the title. It is telling, for example, that the X-Men abandon their cause and escape through the “siege perilous” while Wolverine isn’t around to stop them, and that he is a driving force in their reunification.

The arc opens with pure poetry by Claremont, who had a wonderful lyrical quality at his best. Sure, he’s mocked for his excessively purple prose, and I can concede that he is perhaps too wordy an author, but his opening interlude featuring the birds feels strangely elegant. Apropos of nothing, it recalls the conversation between Lecter and Barney in Hannibal, with the pair reflecting on roller pigeons:

We were talking about inherited, hard-wired behavior. He was using genetics in roller pigeons as an example. They go way up in the air and roll over backwards in a display, falling toward the ground. There are shallow rollers and deep rollers. You can’t breed two deep rollers or the offspring will roll all the way down, crash and die. He said, “Officer Starling is a deep roller, Barney. Let’s hope one of her parents was not.”

I always liked that quote, perhaps because it was rather elegant way of stating a basic observation.

A cutting retort…

This leads into a conversation between Wolverine and Storm – Claremont’s two “deep rollers.” I find it interesting that Claremont never tried to pair off his two lead characters. Storm is very much the proto-typical Claremont-ian female, strong-willed and powerful. Even without her ability to control the weather, she’s still formidable. “I do this because it is necessary,” Storm insists. “Because I am needed, Logan, as are you!”

Fall of the Mutants, as with a lot of Claremont’s writing, is populated with characters fixated on controlling and dominating Storm. Posing as the wise old Nazé, the Adversary vows to dominate her. “I’ll do far more than try, my lovely,” he insists, adding the ‘my lovely’ to make it even creepier. “And when I’ve succeeded… you’ll be forever bound to me, Storm, spirit and soul!”

Causing Havok…

The Eye Killers, those most random of monsters, are also fixated on the notion of control and enslavement. “So many ways to slay,” they remark, “but the best is to steal the life force — reduce the body to a withered, mummified husk… and enslave the soul forever!” And Storm refuses to be bound. She refuses to be tied down. She even asserts her independence through stabbing the man she loves, so determined is she to be completely independent. “I am bound,” she insists, “to no one!”

Similarly, it’s interesting to note how Wolverine evolved throughout Claremont’s tenure. In fact, I actually see Jason Aaron’s use of the character as a logical development from Claremont’s use of the character. Here, Wolverine finds himself cast in the role of team leader during Storm’s extended absence. It often seemed like Claremont was using Logan as Charles Xavier’s greatest success – the loner who found a family in the most unlikely of places. Claremont’s Wolverine would be one of the major forces pulling the team back together after it disintegrates towards the end of Claremont’s tenure.

I don’t think Wolverine will like him when he’s angry…

Perhaps reflecting on how far the character has come, this collection includes a crossover with The Incredible Hulk. I think it’s worth pausing to lament the fact that Peter David’s Incredible Hulk run has yet to see an oversized hardcover collection, which is a tragedy when it is so well-loved and features the work of artists like Todd McFarlane. Anyway, playing into Claremont’s themes, and foreshadowing the major shift for the team, Peter David uses the Incredible Hulk issue to explore how much Wolverine has changed since he first appeared as an expendable Hulk baddie back in the day.

“I’ve changed since then,” Wolverine notes. “Me, the loner. Now I’m the leader. Funny world.” The issue plays out that tried-and-tested conflict between the Hulk and Wolverine, trying to determine if either character has really changed. David seems to concede that comic book characters can only change so much. After all, they need to remain identifiable when passed between countless authors. This suggestion is played for tragedy by David, as Wolverine notes, “No matter how far I go, I’m right back where I started.”

Claremont did always like strong women…

Claremont seems to cover similar thematic ground. The holographic device in Forge’s apartment plays out old memories “like a tape replayed so often it is wearing out.” Colossus rages at the heavens as he can’t even enjoy a quiet afternoon in Edinburgh. “After all the good we have done — after all we have sacrificed — why do people still hate us?!” Claremont offers us snapshots of the same petty racism that we’ve seen for decades, even while one character points out that racism against black people is not nearly as prevalent as it once was, perhaps eating away at the potency of Claremont’s central metaphor.

Claremont does make a point to illustrate how Storm has changed and grown. I always admired that about Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men run. Even if the progression wasn’t always logical, the writer was always shifting and changing the status quo. Of course, he did this by offering the occasional insane idea – like turning Storm in a young a girl and Psylocke into an Asian ninja assassin – but it never seemed like Claremont was resting on his laurels. He was always trying for something new, and for something more ambitious. He refused to be confined by a status quo, and I respect him for that.

Sinking his Sabreteeth into something…

It should be noted that the plotting here is rather light, even if Claremont’s themes and ideas are fascinating. There is some foreshadowing of what will happen, but not enough to make this seem like any sort of end. There’s never a sense that the shift is seismic, even if Claremont does set up his plot points. It seems like the ending – the entire point of the story – is almost tacked on. Similarly, the confrontations between the X-Men and the Marauders feel almost like Claremont is spinning his wheels, waiting for Storm’s plot to get to where it needs to be.

Even The Adversary feels woefully underdeveloped. The creature is presented with God-like power and is even described in terms that make him sound like the Judeo-Christian God. “Consider him a weaver,” Nazé tells Storm, “an’ us the individual threads. What intrigues him is the pattern, not the fate of each bit of yarn. He ain’t satisfied with his design… he tears the tapestry off the loom and begins again. ‘Til he gets it right.”

A Hulking opponent…

There’s some powerful symbolism in setting the archetypes of ‘the maker’ (Forge) and ‘the goddess’ (Storm) up against the creature. In a way, it seems like Claremont is exploring comic books as a modern mythmaking exercise. After all, he does have Storm confront the Eye Killers, obsolete and outdated gods from long-vanquished belief systems. As such, it seems quite daring to pit comic book superheroes against the idea of God, but Claremont doesn’t ever really do anything with that central idea. Perhaps because editorial would have had a heart-attack, despite the rich meta-fictional vein the story might have tapped. Instead, it feels rather half-hearted.

On the other hand, Claremont does a lot of smaller things very well, showing that he’s still a progressive comic book writer. He coyly suggests ideas that would be developed by other writers in the years to come. In particular, he explores why normal people might hate mutants, rather than simply because they are different. In his later work on Uncanny X-Men, the author suggested that public unease with mutants reflected a public unease with superheroes in general, and we can see that idea fermenting here.

Muir muir muir…

At one point, Colossus tours the site of a recent battle with Juggernaut in Edinburgh. “Often, we would joke amongst ourselves about how easy it is to see where the X-Men have been,” he jokes. “But I suspect — for those whose lives are devastated in the process, no matter how noble or necessary the cause — it is not so funny.” We’re also shown the aftermath of a confrontation in the hospital, something very few comics would return to after the fact.

There are also smaller recurring elements and plot points that Claremont both suggests and returns to. He observes that the mutants might actually feel strangely welcome in San Francisco, decades before Matt Fraction would suggest it. After all, it is one of the most tolerant places on Earth. “On the other hand,” Rogue muses, “Ah love hangin’ about this town. Ah’ll take any excuse to stay. People here don’t seem to mind the X-Men’s presence — they consider us ‘heroes.'” He continues to none-too-subtly suggest that Mystique and Destiny are lesbian lovers. Mystique calls Destiny “dear heart.” Destiny refers to “our foster daughter, Rogue”, as if suggesting gay adoption. I still can’t believe editorial wouldn’t allow him to make it explicit.

Greatest weapon ever Forged?

These issues also explicitly introduce the character of Mr. Sinister, and I’m reminded of Claremont’s original plans for the character. Indeed, Claremont originally wanted the character to be part of a child’s psyche, hence the ridiculously camp villainy and silly name. I like that idea, because it makes his introduction seem a lot smarter than it would otherwise, as the character tears through the big book of villain clichés. He’s introduced in a splash page with a silly name, immediately besting Sabretooth to prove how badass he is – all while strangely ineffective in killing Madelyne Pryor. “As for you, butt-brain,” Polaris warns Sabretooth, “I hope you learned your lesson. Mess with Sinister… and you’re history.”

Still, Fall of the Mutants remains a chapter in Claremont’s gigantic epic that is more satisfying as a jumble of moments and ideas than it is as a coherent story in its own right. I honestly think that Claremont was struggling a bit to keep the title interesting, and he was trying to find a way to revamp the title while retaining the elements that worked. The result is an uneven little section of story, but an ambitious one nonetheless.

You might be interested in or reviews of some of the rest of Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men run (and other assorted mutant-related work):

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