I don’t love the X-Men. This is partly because I started reading superhero comics when they were neither front nor center, in that little window when the Inhumans were a big thing, and it’s partly because mutants and the creators working on their books remain—in 2021—predominantly white. The latter is often forgiven in light of the mutant metaphor, which says that these characters are marginalized and therefore represent marginalized people, but I’m not interested in implicit representation, especially not after Marvel finally introduced its first Arab American superhero last year. What I am interested in is why other people love the X-Men, so I asked to do a Breaking In! on Uncanny X-Men.
Uncanny X-Men #203
Chris Claremont (writer), Glynis Oliver (colorist), Tom Orzechowski (letterer), John Romita Jr. (penciler), and Al Williamson (inker)
I’m not totally unfamiliar with X-Men comics or characters: I read House of X/Powers of X before writing about #HoXPoX and #XSpoilers for an academic roundtable, and I’ve followed Dawn of X through hoopla and WWAC reviews. It would be difficult, if not altogether impossible, to be a contemporary comics critic and not engage with the X-Men in some way, shape, or form. Consequently, the central cast of Uncanny X-Men #203 wasn’t entirely foreign to me: I know Rogue, Kitty Pryde, Rachel Summers, and Storm, but I know them from Excalibur, Marauders, and X-Factor, not as X-Men proper.
Although the cover teases a face off between Phoenix and the Beyonder, the issue opens up on a past fight between Rogue and Ms. Marvel in San Francisco. This feels almost like a natural starting point for me, since I’ve read enough about Carol Danvers to know about this part of her history — how Rogue stole not just her powers but also her personality — but I’d never seen it happen in comics before. I love how Oliver renders the flashback, with Rogue and Ms. Marvel both washed in blues and voiceover boxes highlighted in bright yellow against purple and black backgrounds. It’s an effective way of distinguishing the first few pages from the rest of the story, which picks up on Rogue returning to the city.
The Beyonder had teleported Rogue and the rest of the X-Men (sans Nightcrawler, for some unexplained yet presumably important reason) there. Among them, Kitty, who Rogue comes upon as she mourns the loss of her best friend, Illyana Rasputin. And you know what? I get it. Illyana’s eldritch armor being bonded to Kitty “as if it’s a living part” of her because they “have some sort of bond between [their] souls” is one of the most romantic things I’ve ever read in a comic book. Kitty being the only one to remember Illyana after she and the New Mutants were erased from existence? Absolutely tragic. Kitty dramatically throwing herself to the ground as she talks about how hopeless the situation is? Unbearably relatable.
As Kitty laments, Rachel/Phoenix appears and tells Kitty and Rogue that she needs their strength—their life force—to stop the Beyonder. What follows is almost a reversal of the flashback that opens the issue, down to the colors: blues and purples replaced by reds and yellows. Kitty voluntarily becomes part of the Phoenix, then Rogue, then Jessica Drew, who appeared out of nowhere. These three women give their consent, but the three men after—Wolverine, Colossus, and Magneto—do not. It’s disconcerting to watch Rachel steal their souls as they sleep, even more so as she does it with clear affection for them. The one character who resists? Storm, and her resistance proves futile.
Phoenix leaves our solar system for Shi’ar space, where she finds the Starjammers: a group that sounds like a rival band to Jem and the Holograms. Charles Xavier is also there? Apparently, history is repeating itself? This page and the one immediately after, in the middle of the issue, are the least clear, because at some point between them, Xavier, the Starjammers, and the great M’kraan crystal (which is significant enough to have its own fandom.com page) also become part of the Phoenix. The crystal contains a city, in which the spirit-forms of everyone absorbed thus far manifest. Colossus has the most appropriate reaction as he shouts, “Boszhe moi!”
In the crystal city, Rachel talks to her family and friends like a stereotypical supervillain, explaining her plan for destroying everything. Storm interrupts her, tells her that she cannot, should not do this. I know there are other dynamics at play — Storm’s relationship with Rachel’s mother for one — because the comic has told me that there are, but this is still a Black woman trying to reason with an out-of-control white woman not just for herself but for the benefit of every living being in the universe. This is why I have a hard time reading superhero comics as escapist: they do not exist outside of the structures in which they are produced and I, as a reader, cannot forget or ignore the racism and sexism still present when I read them.
The two-page spread that follows, the only one in the entire issue, is stunning, not just for Romita, Williamson, and Oliver’s work but for Claremont’s narration rendered in Orzechowski’s lettering, “Then, prompting both surprise and awe, she espies light–speckling her ebony self like fireflies in the night. The brightest are stars: old young fiercely new-formed barely aglow hot cool some proud in their splendid solitude others prouder still because they nurture planets.” It reads like poetry. I am pretty sure this is why people love the X-Men. But the sequence is bookended by misogynoir, a term coined by Moya Bailey to refer to “the particular brand of hatred directed at black women in American visual & popular culture.” Storm, in this issue, is a Black woman subject to the whims of a more powerful white woman. Storm is also the one who finally breaks through and talks Rachel down, but she doesn’t function as a superhero. She’s something like a sidekick, helping the real hero get to where they need to be to save the world.
In this case, San Francisco, where the X-Men return after Rachel restores them to their bodies. They are met there by the Beyonder, who feels like less of a threat than Rachel even before he tells them that they “flubbed it.” The Beyonder’s use of colloquial American English feels absolutely bizarre, as he continues to say, “This is the end of your road X-Men. I hope your plan is to go down swinging–not that you have a prayer of winning–but I really enjoy a good scrap.” On the next page, he rhapsodizes about order and chaos, oneness and multiplicity, unity and apartness. Chris Claremont contains multitudes.
What follows isn’t exactly a fight. Rachel realizes that the Beyonder meant for her to return his power to him. She does so, giving back not just his power but also the sum of her experience while it was a part of her. She gives him, an immortal being, a glimpse of humanity, something profoundly mortal. In the face of an existential threat, this appeal to something shared between people is compelling, but it also glosses over the different ways in which even existential threats affect individuals at different intersections of identity. To take a real-world example: climate change affects everyone, but environmental racism does not.
I still don’t love the X-Men, but I get why other people do. Uncanny X-Men #203 manages to tell a singular, coherent story as part of an ongoing event (Secret Wars II, which I didn’t even have to mention before now). It, further, puts women at the heart of the narrative. At the same time, it privileges white women in service of a supposed greater good. It’s hard not to think about this in relation to the current, predominantly white X-Office. The mutant metaphor means that the X-Men have the potential to represent people of marginalized genders and sexualities and people of color and especially people at the intersection of those identities. They didn’t under Claremont, not fully, and I’m not sure they can under Jonathan Hickman.
I’m left with the same sentiment that closes out the issue, “What happened to Nightcrawler?”