Three guys talking about comic books, sports, movies, TV shows and the numerous other pastimes that make us Gentlemen of Leisure.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

X-amining Uncanny X-Men #199

"The Spiral Path
November 1985

In a Nutshell 
Rachel becomes Phoenix, Freedom Force debuts, and Magneto surrenders. 

Writer: Chris Claremont
Artist: John Romita Jr. & Dan Green
Letterers: Orz & Parker
Colorist: Glynis Oliver
Editor: Ann Nocenti
Editor-in-Chief: Jim Shooter

Plot
After working out in the Danger Room, a visiting Cyclops meets with Moira and Wolverine, and learns that Professor Xavier is dying. In Washington DC, Val Cooper arrives home to find Mystique waiting for her. In light of rising anti-mutant sentiment, she gives Val a proposal: so as to avoid ending up in jail, or worse, the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants will work for the government as Freedom Force. Tempted by the offer, Val agrees, on the condition that the Brotherhood successfully completes a trial mission: the capture of the Brotherhood's founder, Magneto. In upstate New York, Rachel visits the home of her grandparents. Remembering the heroic actions of her mother, both in this timeline and her own, Rachel claims the mantle and power of Phoenix for herself, determined, in the event of Xavier's death, to defend mutants from both the forces of hatred and the Beyonder, and to make amends for all the bad things both she and her mother have done.


In Washington, Kitty, Magneto and Lee Forrester attend a special reception at the National Holocaust Memorial. Kitty addresses the crowd on behalf of her deceased grandfather, asking for any information about his sister. She meets a pair of Holocaust survivors who not only knew her great-aunt, but were saved from Auschwitz by Magneto. Suddenly, Lee transforms into Mystique, and, joined by the newly-christened Freedom Force, attempts to arrest Magneto. As Kitty leaves to rescue the real Lee, Magneto defends himself while making an effort to clear the room of bystanders. He is soon joined by the rest of the X-Men, whom Kitty radioed for help. Though they ultimately defeat Freedom Force, Magneto asks them to stand down. Seeing the looks of fear on his friends' faces as he defended himself, looking at the damage their battle caused to the memorial, he wonders if he's become what he hated. For the good of his own salvation, and that of mutantkind, he turns himself in to face his accusers and stand trial.

Firsts and Other Notables
This is the first appearance of Freedom Force, the name taken by Mystique's Brotherhood of Evil Mutants as they offer their services to the government. Freedom Force will remain together and working for the government until shortly before Claremont's departure from X-Men, at which point the "Brotherhood of Evil Mutants" name will be reformed under a different leader.


Rachel adopts the mantle and power of Phoenix as of this issue, finally getting a code name. Future issues of Excalibur will reveal that the Phoenix Force bonded with her prior to her return to the past, meaning she's technically been channeling that power since her first appearance in New Mutants #18, but this is the first time she acknowledges it.


The gradual reformation of Magneto continues, as in addition to setting up his trial in the next issue, we see him at perhaps his most sympathetic as we learn that while imprisoned in Auschwitz, he did what he could to help inmates escape, a story that Claremont will flesh out in the backup to Classic X-Men #12.


Spiral, only a month after her debut in the Longshot miniseries, appears in this issue, having joined Freedom Force. She mentions being eager to return to her hunt for Longshot, suggesting this issue occurs before or during her first appearance in Longshot #1 (which the Marvel Index lists as occurring after this issue, while the Marvel Chronology Project lists this issue as occurring during that issue).


Cyclops, as setup in issue #197, makes his triumphant return to the X-Men (though he's not considered to have officially rejoined the team). He'll stick around for the upcoming annual and a few issues after that, before leaving again to star in X-Factor.

Cyclops says that despite Xavier's assurances and his recent time with the X-Men, he still doesn't trust Magneto. On the one hand, it makes sense that one of the original X-Men, who spent the most time fighting Magneto, would be wary of him, and it also partially sets up his attitude towards the X-Men in X-Factor. On the other hand, Cyclops himself has fought beside Magneto, both during the original Secret Wars and "God Loves, Man Kills".


On a personal note, back when I was first getting into the X-Men and doing my best on the limited budget of a pre-teen to read as many back issues as I could, this issue was, for a time, the oldest non-reprint issue of the series I owned (for whatever reason, the Shinders I frequented at the time was selling it for much less than other issues of this vintage). As a result, I carried around a particular fondness for Rachel Summers for a long time, until I realized all she ever did was cry.  

A Work in Progress
A narrative caption mentions Cyclops and his brother having been found, as children, on the prairie, after being pushed out of their parents' crashing airplane, but most depictions of that event usually show it as happening somewhere more wooded and northern (usually Alaska).

Cyclops is forced to blow off a meeting with Rachel, and wonders she seems so interested in him, suggesting he doesn't suspect she is his daughter (despite implications to the contrary in X-Men/Alpha Flight #2, which takes place before this issue even though it was published after it).

Moira makes it clear to Cyclops and the readers that Professor X is dying, as a result of his having not taken it easy in the wake of being attacked in issue #192.


Mystique, while pitching Val Cooper on the idea of the Brotherhood working for the government as Freedom Force, notes that former Brotherhood members Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch reformed and joined the Avengers, as did former villains Mantis and Swordsman.


Rachel recalls a conversation her parents had shortly after she was born; it's unclear how she could possibly remember it in such detail.


Nightcrawler once again can't concentrate on anything but his inability to concentrate.


Later, he teleports Blob and leaves him atop the Washington Monument, noting it's the largest mass he's ever teleported.


Mystique is seen in the background of a panel drawing a gun from her belt, having transformed one of the skulls into the weapon, a gadget she had used previously in Ms. Marvel.

Despite claiming to bow to no authority nor claiming any nation as his own, Magneto ultimately surrenders to Freedom Force, unwilling to cause further damage and endanger further lives by battling them, and accepting that perhaps he can do mutants the most good by standing trial and defending his actions in a court of law.


I Love the 80s
Mystique shapeshifts into President Reagan.


Like a Phoenix, From the Ashes
Rachel experiences the presence of her mother thanks in part to the holoempathic matrix crystal given to Jean's parents by Lilandra in issue #138.


Rachel Summers, Crybaby
Upon overhearing that Xavier, at best, might live to see the birth of Cyclops' child, Rachel begins to cry, though it's unclear if she's sad about Xavier or still upset over the fact that Cyclops' baby isn't her.

  
Human/Mutant Relations
Magneto makes the metaphor explicit by saying he worries that what the Jews suffered during the Holocaust may be next for mutants.


For Sale
Who wants to be an astronaut?


I remember this robot watch (because seriously, a transforming watch? That's awesome), though I recall it being explicitly labeled a Transformer and possibly being some kind of mail away offer with proofs of purchase from Transformer toys. Maybe that came later.


It's in the Mail
The letters page announces the upcoming Heroes for Hope charity jam issue, with the proceeds going to African famine relief, while the response to a letter confirms that X-Men Annual #8 and the then-upcoming X-Men/Alpha Flight limited series takes place in the gap in time during issue #192.


Teebore's Take
Oddly enough for the one hundred and ninety-ninth issue (as opposed to a more rounded, milestone-y number like 200), this is one of the most pivotal issues in the X-Men narrative. Not for Rachel's assumption of the mantle of Phoenix, as teased by the cover, or even for the way it edges Magneto ever closer to full-on reformation, but for the way it completes the transition, begun in earnest in issue #193 (but stretching all the way back to "Days of Future Past") of the X-Men from a group of heroes determined to help humanity by fighting evil mutants, to a group that must fight both evil mutants AND humanity.

The anointing of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants as the government-sponsored Freedom Force is what marks the completion of that transition. The villains the X-Men once fought (sharing a name, if not the exact membership, with the group the original team first fought all the way back in their fourth issue) are now working for the government. Where the X-Men once fought these villains to protect the establishment, the establishment is now turning those villains loose on the X-Men. Their break from the traditional hero model is complete. And while the X-Men will still act as heroes, their goals and methods must change as a result: where once they fought to uphold the status quo, they must now fight against that status quo while also trying to change it. They have, in essence, become revolutionaries. Thus, it is not surprising to find them working alongside Magneto, once the most ardent foe of the human establishment and most notable mutant revolutionary. And while Magneto has been shown to be tempering his methods in recent issues, the X-Men will not be unchanged by their transition either.  

Next Issue
Tomorrow, "The Hunt for Karma" concludes in New Mutants #34, and next week, the New Mutants end up in Asgard in New Mutants Special Edition #1 (it takes place before X-Men Annual #9, hence we'll cover it on X-Men's usual day of the week).

9 comments:

  1. Just a thought, but do you intend to cover any of the X-Men solo stories from Marvel Comics Presents?

    ReplyDelete
  2. One of my favorite comics. I came into X-Men with #192, had no idea what or who the hell Phoenix and/or Jean Grey were. I think these issues were Claremont at his finest -- I was SOLD. I was at the ground floor for the creation of a new X-Man, oblivious to the Phoenix history.

    Rachel continues to be one of my favorite characters (underused since Excalibur), and I can't wait for you to get to Rachel vs. the Beyonder in San Fran, not to mention the big Asgard crossovers.

    ReplyDelete
  3. @Spithead: Just a thought, but do you intend to cover any of the X-Men solo stories from Marvel Comics Presents?

    The first Wolverine story, definitely, all together as one post most likely, since it pretty much leads right into his solo series. And "Weapon X", of course, when we get to that.

    Beyond that, I'm not sure. I've never actually read any MCP beyond "Weapon X", so I'm not too familiar with it, in terms of what stories would and wouldn't be worth covering. I know there's a Cyclops solo story, which might be fun to cover since, you know, Cyclops, and one where Banshee gets his powers back, but beyond that I have really no idea. Any offhand suggestions or recommendations?

    Whatever I do cover will probably get relegated to their own standalone post, rather than taking the place of one of the regular series for a week.

    @Jason: I came into X-Men with #192, had no idea what or who the hell Phoenix and/or Jean Grey were. I think these issues were Claremont at his finest -- I was SOLD.

    Yeah, this is one of my favorites too, and I came to it from a similar place - I hadn't yet learned much at all about all the intricacies of the Phoenix backstory and whatnot.

    ReplyDelete

  4. I feel compelled to point out that we got a "nigh-irresistible" re Scott's optic blasts on Pg. 1, for those of you playing Claremont bingo at home.

    As a result, I carried around a particular fondness for Rachel Summers for a long time, until I realized all she ever did was cry.  

    Ha!

    I'm totally glossing over how old your setup to this makes me feel, as for some years #199 was one of the "newest" issues of X-Men I owned.

    I had to add "Minnesota" to a Google for "Shinders" to get it to turn up, by the way, and I must say that a chain like that sounds almost too good to be true. (Yeah, I see that it's gone now; my condolences.) Outside of comic shops, which in the '70s were still rare and only accessible on family trips to the city, back issues were the purview of flea markets and used-book shops that often, sadly, only had unsold after-market copies illegally jobbed to them once half the cover had been torn off for credit. A chain newsstand with old and new comics, magazines, and trading cards? Whoa!

    I was going to counter that "Alaskan prairie" was not necessarily an oxymoron, but more importantly now I have to warn you against doing an Internet search for that phrase without filters on.

    The whole oops with Scott and Rachel vis-a-vis X-Men / Alpha Flight feels to me like a particularly swift application of the Marvel rule that the most recently published story, retcons and all, is the fullest or most correct version of events. While this often applies specifically to untold stories and the scenes we didn't see in the stories with which we're familiar, it also holds for updated technology, fashion, and other cultural references as well as the establishment of things like whether Lockjaw is a grossly mutated "human Inhuman" or not. Scott hadn't had that interaction with Rachel when #199 was published, but a few months later he had had it by the time the events of #199 took place, in slightly different form.

    Nightcrawler once again can't concentrate on anything but his inability to concentrate.

    Seriously...

    Mystique is seen in the background of a panel drawing a gun from her belt, having transformed one of the skulls into the weapon

    I totally missed that. Even looking at the panel now, I'm pretty sure I would not make that leap unless I knew that the belt-skulls could be transformed into guns, but with the prior knowledge it fits.

    ReplyDelete

  5. Your points about the shift in the X-Men's paradigm are well made. I'm reminded, not so much in terms of mutants' relationship to society at large but the Xavier groups' relationship to Magneto and The Brotherhood / Freedom Force, of Byrne's old "illusion of change" saw.

    The first time I recall hearing it was in interviews regarding Secret Wars and what was happening to Fantastic Four — Ben Grimm staying behind on Battleworld and She-Hulk taking The Thing's place on the team. Byrne said that comics fans thought they wanted change but what they really wanted — all that would be tolerated, anyway, in the modern era by both the fans and higher-up editorial — was the illusion of change. So the Fantastic Four still had a super-strong member, it was just She-Hulk instead of Thing, and Alicia Masters was still the girlfriend of a team member, it was just Johnny instead of Ben.

    Now we can argue, I would argue, that those particular changes were more than merely superficial in terms of the larger dynamic at play, if you look at characters as characters rather than as pegs in a board — as Shooter did, ironically or something like it, writing Secret Wars with a completely deaf ear to the revolution that had occurred in comics scripting since his teenage years on Legion of Super-Heroes. Yet Byrne's own argument is a compelling one, even if "illusion of change" doesn't quite describe it properly to me however much I like the phrase. I suppose a corollary to his hypothesis is that if change turns out to be more actual than illusory the fans and editorial and creators themselves will course-correct, as Byrne did in the short term returning Thing back home and other hands did in the longer term after playing out Alica Masters as Johnny's girlfriend then wife no wait she's a Skrull which is bad maybe not oh forget about it.

    Good creators and perhaps bad ones too in their own way can wring every last bit of drama out of a situation; sooner or later, though, the old familiar deal has to be put back in place, hence Magneto's return to villainy, unless the change occurs early on and pays marketable dividends, such as The Punisher and Venom becoming protagonists. Dick Grayson won't be Batman for too long because that's not the core Batman myth. The Justice League will end up disbanding so that the big kahunas can reform it, time after time, because even though from a shared-world narrative perspective it's tough to coordinate with various solo titles sales won't allow for a team made up only of perceived lesser lights. Peter Parker won't stay married to Mary Jane Watson, nor Clark Kent to Lois Lane, even if it takes continuity-altering magic or multiversal reboots to shake things out, even though those paradigms were the status quo for a generation of readers, because Spider-Man needs to be down on his luck and Superman needs to have that human/alien push-pull going.

    Of course there have been times when characters could be reinvented. Early in the Golden Age they coalesced after some retrospectively weird tangents because they were still being invented. The Silver Age found characters rebooted whole-hog at DC and the most exciting thing about Marvel in the Silver Age through the early Bronze Age was that their superheroes did grow and progress. Yet there's nothing that defines the modern age, whatever you want to call it, quite like creators who grew up reading comics wanting to revisit the way things were in their youth, pitting the same old foes against one another if not actually retelling specific stories. Which is what appears to have happened where Magneto's concerned, along with the fact that for the cartoons and action figures to work the X-Men really need a big bad guy to fight.

    ReplyDelete
  6. @Blam: I must say that a chain like that sounds almost too good to be true. (Yeah, I see that it's gone now; my condolences.)

    It is gone, but at least it went down in a blaze of glory: the owner was arrested (after a high speed chase) for drug trafficking and gun running, and the chain more or less went under because he was (not surprisingly) mismanaging it in the years leading up to his arrest, and then sank all its money into his legal fees.

    If you're curious, you can read more about Shinders and the definitive role it played it shaping my pop culture identity in this very old post, one of my earliest on the blog.

    I was going to counter that "Alaskan prairie" was not necessarily an oxymoron, but more importantly now I have to warn you against doing an Internet search for that phrase without filters on.

    Ha! So noted. :)

    The whole oops with Scott and Rachel vis-a-vis X-Men / Alpha Flight feels to me like a particularly swift application of the Marvel rule that the most recently published story, retcons and all, is the fullest or most correct version of events.

    Good call.

    Even looking at the panel now, I'm pretty sure I would not make that leap unless I knew that the belt-skulls could be transformed into guns, but with the prior knowledge it fits.

    Yeah, I never noticed it until well after I'd read about how Mystique's skull belts became things.

    Very intriguing thoughts on the "illusion of change" (which I agree is a great term, if not a perfectly-accurate one). I don't have much to add, other than to say it reminds of how Bendis, after bending (no pun intended) and, at times, arguably, breaking the Avengers during the course of his decade-long run as the overseer of that family titles managed to, by the time he left, more or less put everything back the way it was before he started. Which, if not quite the illusion of change, sure seems to be in the ballpark of it.

    ReplyDelete
  7. @Teebore: Beyond that, I'm not sure. I've never actually read any MCP beyond "Weapon X", so I'm not too familiar with it, in terms of what stories would and wouldn't be worth covering. I know there's a Cyclops solo story, which might be fun to cover since, you know, Cyclops, and one where Banshee gets his powers back, but beyond that I have really no idea. Any offhand suggestions or recommendations?

    Well, I do recall a Colossus solo story by Ann Nocenti that, as you might imagine, had some heavy handed political message. I believe it was later reprinted into a single special called Colossus: God and Country.

    ReplyDelete
  8. @Spithead: Well, I do recall a Colossus solo story by Ann Nocenti that, as you might imagine, had some heavy handed political message

    Ah yeah, I think that was the one that was original hyped as a miniseries shortly after "Fall of the Mutants", but then ended up in MCP. It might be worth checking that out as well.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Another great issue all around. And the fight scenes with FF were great as well. I especially loved Destiny's comment after Kitty takes her down, how even though Kitty thinks she's evening the odds, it doesn't change the outcome. A comment that slipped by me the first time, but makes the outcome more obvious when re-reading it.

    ReplyDelete

Comment. Please. Love it? Hate it? Am mildly indifferent to it? Let us know!