Monday, October 14, 2013

The Cheese Stands Alone: Uncanny X-Men #230

The Cheese Stands Alone is a semi-regular column featuring examinations of single issues that can be understood and appreciated on their own, without reading any of the preceding or following issues of the series. 

Uncanny X-Men #230 is one of the cheesiest X-Men stories I've read. But it's also one of my favorites, because it does everything right. It re-introduces the team, their powers, and their personalities. It explains their current status quo even while adding to it. Most importantly, it exemplifies a kind of heroism that is too rare in superhero books—simple acts of decency, done under the radar and without violence, without any desire for recognition on the part of the good guys. There are no villains to battle in this story, but there's still evil to undo, and the X-Men handle it with grace, intelligence, and honor. Plus it's the best use of Longshot's best power that I've ever seen.
     Written by Chris Claremont when he was already deep into his lengthy run on the title, Uncanny X-Men #230 takes place only shortly after the team decided to let the world think they were dead. I've read the issues leading up to that decision, but only kinda/sorta remember the details of what happens. For the purposes of this issue, though, the how isn't what matters so much as the why. In order to operate as superheroes without being the big, obvious target for supervillains that they've been in the past, the X-Men hide out and allow everyone else, including their friends, believe they died in a big, highly-publicized fight. Their hope is that this will allow them to attack the baddies with the element of surprise on their side, and then disappear into "death" so that other evildoers don't come looking for them. Not a bad plan, but also not one they've thought all the way through yet. How will they pick their targets? What exactly do they hope to accomplish that they couldn't have done when the world knew they were alive? These kinds of questions have no firm answers at this point, because their fake deaths are still relatively new, and they are therefore still figuring out the best way to take advantage of that situation.
     In the meantime, they're training, and adjusting to life in their new base of operations, which is the former base of operations of their enemies the Reavers. It's a huge space with several structures and a super high-tech system of monitors and scanners keeping track of everything that goes on. But it's also filthy, because the Reavers were slobs. So we get to see the X-Men use their powers toward the atypical goal of cleaning their new home—Storm floods the buildings so all the garbage ends up in a tidy pile that Havok can then destroy with his plasma blasts. This happens early in the issue, but only after we see the full team engage in a combat training exercise, so that the versatility of their various skills is on display right away. It's an important thing to establish, because the main narrative of the issue centers on Longshot using one of his talents to accomplish something that normally wouldn't fall under the X-Men's purview.
     Though Longshot is best known for his exceptional luck and blade-throwing, my favorite of his powers, and the one which is front and center here, is his ability to get psychic readings off of inanimate objects. When he touches an item, he can see its history, former owners and locations and experiences it's been through. Normally, this is just kind of a neat trick, or a means of getting information on a foe, but in Uncanny #230, it's used for something far nobler. The Reavers had an enormous underground cavern where they kept their massive horde of stolen treasure, accumulated over many years of international thievery and other crimes. These stolen goods call out to Longshot through his powers, even from a distance, because there are so many of them and they all want the same thing: to be returned to their rightful owners. Overwhelmed by the treasure's psychic cries, Longshot collapses when he finds the treasure room, and when he comes to days later, he's determined to give the stolen loot back to the people from whom it was originally taken.
     It's an ambitious task, no doubt, and not one that everybody's on board with right away. Wolverine points out that with the Reavers already defeated, the X-Men have done their duty as far as avenging the villains' victims. But the question becomes, is that really enough? Is being a hero just about stopping future evil, or should it not be about repairing past evil as well? Guess what answer the team lands on.
     With the help of teleporter Gateway, who the X-Men have only just met and who used to work with the Reavers (though not necessarily by choice), the heroes travel all over the world secretly dropping off the stolen items back where they belong. Claremont lays it on a little thick by having this take place on Christmas Eve, but hey, if you're going to do a heavy-handed narrative about the true meaning of being a good person, might as well go all the way with it. We're only shown a handful of the X-Men's doubtlessly innumerable trips, but each one is an opportunity to show one member of the team being affected by their own potential to positively influence the world even as background players. It's touching if a shade saccharine, particularly the scene where the New Mutants are shown mourning the X-Men's "deaths," as well as the all-to-real death of their own teammate, before Storm lifts their spirits by simply lessening the intensity of a the falling snow. Then at the end of the issue, the X-Men do some good for one another, with Wolverine giving Dazzler a motorcycle, Rogue and Gateway definitively forming some kind of friendship, and the whole team getting to enjoy a holiday celebration together in spite of their isolated new home.
     They find a quieter, less dangerous, less violent means of being heroic, and it lifts their collective spirit about the strangeness and loneliness of their current circumstances. They become closer as a team, and more importantly, they operate as one, completing a common goal by concentrating their efforts and using their individual powers together so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Longshot gets his readings off the treasure, and Psylocke broadcasts those images to the rest of the team, who then get sent all over the globe by Gateway, each of them going somewhere suited to his or her own talents. If this was your first issue of Uncanny X-Men, you'd walk away with everything you needed to know about their capabilities, personalities, dynamics, and lives.
     Marc Silvestri pencils the issue, with inks by Joe Rubinstein and colors from Glynis Oliver. The art never exactly drops my jaw, but it does manage to fit a lot of story into a fairly tight package. The entire training sequence, involving all eight of the X-Men who aren't Longshot, only takes four pages, the first of which is a splash of just Storm flying. Five scenes in five different geographical locations are seen during the team's Christmas Eve travels, and that all takes only three pages. This efficiency of space is how the issue has time to give the reader a full taste of the entire cast, while also introducing a new mission for them to carry out and having them do so in full before the final page. Silvestri was new enough at this time to not quite be displaying the overfull, kinetic style he'd ultimately develop. These pencils are far simpler and cleaner, with everyone having a smooth complexion and the backgrounds being generally sparse. Yet the characters are still plenty emotive, particularly Longshot, who has a kind of childishness about him that serves him well in his central role in this story. He is the bleeding heart who's so powerfully touched by the pain the Reavers caused that he pushes the rest of the team to reverse it. It's important that his investment be believable and earnest, that he be convincingly saddened by what he sees, and in that Silvestri and Rubinstein succeed. They also do a great job with the big moment of Longshot discovering the treasure, making the impact it has on him and the size of the space equally evident.
     Oliver's colors, like the linework from the other artists, is mostly straightforward, but where she does her best work when Longshot sees the various thefts and the lives led by the stolen things before the Reavers took them. She does these flashbacks in blue and white, except for the items themselves, which are seen in full color. This coloring helps distinguish these scenes from the present, and the paleness of the blue adds to the sense that they are old memories. Yet having the stolen good be colored as they are in the present keeps the focus on them, and places them firmly as the narrators and stars of their own stories.
     These visual touches are just the cherry on top, though. The heart of this issue is in its narrative, and the way it both reinforces and progresses what the X-Men are all about. No longer in the public eye, and with no bad guys as an immediate threat, they find a new way to do good, and a new source of pride and satisfaction in their work. Claremont isn't subtle about it, but in this instance I think that's a beneficial decision, because it cuts to the chase and gets the whole story told in a single issue. Is it a bit too on-the-nose with its message, and is that message overly optimistic and corny? I'd say yes on both counts, but I still enjoy the hell out of Uncanny X-Men #230 every time I revisit it. It's doing a lot, and doing it well, setting up the book's central heroes as people worth rooting for, and who give me a lot of faith as a team.

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