RETRO REVIEW: Uncanny X-Men #191 (March 1985)

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Or – “You Always Hurt The Ones You Love…”

 

There is a common misconception amongst those who listen to the podcast that Rodrigo is the only one who really knows the X-Men.  There are a number of stories (Morrison’s New X-Men, Days of Future Past, the 1991 relaunch, the original appearance of Juggernaut, the Mimic/Super-Adaptoid battle) that are among my favorites, and I’m passing familiar with the team in all it’s iterations (otherwise I wouldn’t be able to manage my back issue bins at work.)  There are even X-Men stories that I think are absolutely amazing, and beyond reproach awesome.  This is one of them…

 

UNCANNY X-MEN #191
Written by Chris Claremont
Pencils by John Romita, Jr.
Inks by Dan Green
Letters by Tom Orzechowski
Colors by Glynis Wein
Edited by Ann Nocenti
Published by Marvel Comics

Previously, on Uncanny X-Men:  Charles Xavier’s dream was a simple one:  for mutantkind to live peacefully alongside humanity.  There were ups and down, certainly, but things were looking quite grim for the X-Men and their mutant brethren, with unrest and government interference at every turn.  Just when things were looking up, Magneto killed an entire submarineful of Russian sailors, while Mystique and her Brotherhood of Mutants tried to kill Senator Robert Kelly.  Thanks to a future version of Kitty Pryde, their attempt failed, but it left the public opinion of mutants at an all-time low.  The death of founding student Jean Grey nearly killed his vision in it’s tracks, but the X-Men managed to survive to fight another day.  Last issue, a chance encounter in the subways of New York led a young man to find an amulet with mystical properties, an amulet which released evil sorcerer Kulan Gath from his imprisonment outside reality.  His first action was to completely transform New York City and it’s inhabitants (save for Spider-Man, who thwarted his previous attempt to conquer the world) into a medieval seaport.  Only a few people have managed to regain their memory, and are moving to stop his reign…  But are they already too late?

We open with a scene that was catalyzing and shocking to my fourteen-year-old brain, a scene that seemed impossible and awesome all at once.  Even then, I understood a little bit about intellectual property and flagship characters, so the capture and brutal torture of the most popular hero of all would be unthinkable, right?

 

Wrong.  And you’ll also notice that there’s actually RED in the blood depicted here…  That was pretty much UNHEARD OF to me, as all comic book blood I’d ever encountered was colored black, or worse, pink.  This completely poleaxing scene wasn’t the last thing in this issue to shock the hell out of me, but we’ll get to that in a moment.  Rodrigo tends to comment on how wordy and expositiony vintage comics are, and this one is no exception, but it does it in a way that’s visually striking and quite efficient.

 

Say what you will about Shooter’s Marvel tenure, there’s quite a bit of good storytelling happening under his editorial control.  The X-Men aren’t the only ones transformed, as the Avengers and the New Mutants are likewise affected by the spell.  As Spider-Man gets tortured (his howls of anguish echo through the streets in a blood-chilling sequence), Storm’s X-Men have linked up with Captain America and his crew, and both teams are making their way through the streets to overthrow the mad wizard…

 

What strikes me the most about this issue is the way Claremont gathers his dramatis personae.  Rather than coincidentally have all the active X-Men as his team, he puts together a couple of Avengers, a couple of X-Men, some Morlocks and…  a librarian.  (I suspect that she’s based on a friend of Claremont, a habit that he slips into many of his stories, but have no confirmation.)  The heroes are suddenly ambushed by the bad guys, and forced to beat a hasty retreat.  Rogue is slain, Starfox and the Wasp are lost, as Kulan Gath turns them through sorcery and transforms them into his footsoldiers.  It’s kind of like a zombie movie, in that our party gets smaller and smaller, and those who fall end up as part of the greater threat.  Claremont really builds the tension, too, as the heroes put together a two-pronged assault on Gath’s fortress.  It does NOT go well…

 

The Vision, Colossus, Sunder of the Morlocks and others DIE in the battle, and there’s a real sense of consequences.  At the time, I wasn’t quite as skeptical of comic-book deaths as my jaded old self would become, but even now, rereading this gives me a chill now and then.  Colossus bursting open like that is just plan creepy.  The heroes make their way to Gath’s throneroom where his greatest prize, a crucified Spider-Man, waits for a final sacrifice.  Seeing his friends being defeated, KILLED before his eyes pushes Peter Parker to act…

 

THAT got me…  Spider-Man’s death surprised the hell out of me.  Sure, others were blown up, but to see Spider-Man have a fatal brain hemorrhage is just too human and terrible to consider, yet… There it is.  Still, his last words weren’t completely in vain, as one other remains untouched:  the New Mutant named Warlock.  Having been unable to act out of sheer terror, Warlock finally finds the wherewithal to attack, and he and Storm sweep in to grab the amulet and reverse the spell.  Unfortunately, Selene (seen watching Spider-Man die above) has a double-cross in mind.  She absorbs Gath’s power and intensifies the spell, and Magma (in her sorcerous thrall) destroys Kulan Gath with a tiny volcano.  Warlock is gravely wounded, but Storm (at this time powerless and essentially human) gives up that which is most important to her to save the world:  her humanity and independent will.

 

Storm’s best efforts are all for naught, as again defeat is snatched from the jaws of victory.  The spell is no self-sufficient, needing neither Selene nor Gath to support it.  Worse than that, it is expanding and will consume the entire world.  In a move that defies conventional wisdom, the day is saved not by the title heroes, nor even by the Avengers.  No, it takes the combined efforts of New Mutant Magik and Sorcerer Supreme Stephen Strange to turn back the tide…

 

So, in the end, only a handful of survivors even remember that the whole thing happened.  A total cheat, right?  Not in the least.  Not only does Captain America remember working alongside the X-Men (something that will come up, if indirectly, in the near future) but there are more LASTING ramifications of the night.  Witness the moment in the sewers when the young man is about to summon Kulan Gath and start this whole thing snowballing away…

 

Witness the first appearance of the mighty hunter, the futuristic Sentinel called Nimrod, later to be transformed into Bastion, a character who continues to plague the mutants to this day.  Rather than NEGATE the heroic sacrifice of the ENTIRE REGULAR CAST, most of the Avengers and Spider-Man, this final scene gives their actions new meaning, as the reality created by saving their lives turns out to be (subjective speaking, anyway) worse for mutantkind.

There has been some unhappiness in the comments and forums of late regarding the contemporary work of Romita Junior, but this issue is  the man working some of his most powerful magic, no pun intended.  The character redesigns are unique and interesting, but still leave our cast recognizable, and the scene of Spider-Man’s torture and eventual death are some of the most horrifying things I’ve ever read in comics (and I’ve read old-school EC, thank you very much.)  This story works so well that Kurt Busiek revisits the notion on a larger scale to kick off the new Avengers series a few years later, and the repercussions of the alternate reality are still felt today.  Chris Claremont’s dialogue still has a few howlers, but the drama and the pacing of this issue are first-rate, better even than the ‘Days of Future Past’ arc, in my opinion.  This is X-Men at it’s basest level, outsiders fighting against forces beyond their control, because they MUST, even if they don’t survive.  Uncanny X-Men #191 is unequivocally an unjustly forgotten classic, earning a dead-solid-perfect 5 out of 5 stars overall.

Rating: ★★★★★

Faithful Spoilerite Question Of The Day:  What stories of yesteryear still have the most emotional punch for you?