X-Tra Sauce: The Outback Era X-Men Part 6: Uncanny X-Men #232

X-Tra Sauce is back, this time with Uncanny X-Men #232 from August 1988. Little Dave would’ve just turned 2 months old when this one dropped. I find it to be fate that my favorite era of X-Men comics is also when I was brought into this world. The creative team is the usual all star lineup of Chris Claremont, Marc Silvestri, Dan Green, Tom Orzechowski & Glynis Oliver. We finally get our first multi issue Outback Era story, and this is arguably the strongest and most enjoyable one of them all.

I really dig this one. It is straight up a horror movie while simultaneously letting Claremont clean up the house, dusting away those hanging plotlines in the ceiling corner he has accumulated, while also hanging up new, fresher plotlines and mysteries that will come into play in a big way soon. Do you ever think ol’ Chris is a real life hoarder? With the way he kept introducing new subplots over and over, often way before he even got close to wrapping up prior ones, I could see CC sitting on top of a mound of useless items, bondage porn mags, trippy rock albums, leatherbound novels and so on as he typed up all these stories.

Our story starts with said Claremont danglers, flashbacking us to circa Uncanny X-Men #216-219, before the Fall of the Mutants and before our relocation down under. In Uncanny #218, Havok and Polaris are forced off the road by an out of control van and discover a downed Starshark, the mind infected living crafts of the parasitic alien villains, the Brood. It’s pretty big deal shit that has sort of been forgotten about for a a little over a year in real life publishing time. In #219 we see that an indeterminate amount of time has passed where Havok seeks out the X-Men’s help regarding this but was mindwiped and sent away in one of Claremont’s more confusing decisions. In the same issue we see Havok’s unconscious mind is manifesting the return of his memories as nightmares so he AGAIN, goes to find the X-Men’s help, but this time more for his peace of mind than the rather urgent Starshark emergency. He then joins the X-Men, Polaris is attacked by the Marauders and she ends up possessed by Malice. In this issue we finally get back to the Starshark plot and find out just what the deal was with that run away van. This paragraph shows how great Claremont was at keeping a 17 year adventure with a billion plots on track but also shows how perilously close it gets to utter nonsense.

With this flashback our horror movie starts where else? At a campfire in the woods. An unsuspecting group of campers who we already know from #217 aren’t going to have a fun night, see the Starshark come down like a falling star and in classic horror movie fashion, they all go to investigate. Almost immediately, our X-Men movie that’s Aliens directed by David Cronenberg with a little dash of Jaws thrown in, starts rather terrifyingly.

That panel of the Brood’s dark silhouette against the pink moon as Fran scrambles to escape with a broken ankle is peak horror. It’s horrifying and expertly done by Silvestri and Green & Oliver/Wein here. That it’s magnificently followed up by the close up of the Brood leering at our new POV character, EMT Harry Palmer in a “You’re Next!” pose is the icing on the cake. The Brood, in all their sleazoid fury are back. This is, in a fact I often forget, only the Brood’s second appearance since the original Brood Saga which wrapped in 1983’s Uncanny X-Men #167. Only 5 years, but in comic book terms that’s a lifetime for characters to not pop back up.

I’m going to be real with all of you. Paul Smith is an amazing artist, but the original Brood Saga is not my jam. I find it all to be jarringly inconsistent and half baked, a slog of ingredients consisting of Alien, shape shifters, some of Dave Cockrum’s worst art and whatever weird sci-fi novel Claremont was reading at the time. It’s a mess. A big dumb mess that is almost great if Claremont did some pruning and focusing. Luckily that’s what we get here. The focus in this one is clear: capital H Horror.

This opener ends with Harry bolting the scene in his van, riding Havok and Polaris off the road as seen a year ago and presumably escaping a grisly end from the tentacled, grinning horro from beyond the stars. We see him back in Denver, Colorado in his ambulance, back on the job saving people, this time being called in to an accident involving a fire, which is in actuality a mutant man manifesting his fire powers while also having a heart attack. Harry remarks to himself how he has encountered so many mutants lately in his job as he rushes to help. Just when we thought things were safe however, the horror movie clicks back on and Harry’s hands mutate into tentacles as he impregnates this poor mutant with a Brood egg. JESUS CHRIST!

The Brood are, on paper, so cool and so scary. They are basically smart, talking Xenomorphs with a plan. That is genius and the horror implications of being possessed by an egg that slowly takes you over, killing you, supplanting your very soul as it claims your body and unique powers for itself is sheer terror. I think it’s played kind of silly in the original Brood Saga but here, Claremont is deliberately trying to freak us out by following solely Harry here as our lead. He seems normal enough until we see the horror that is his fleshy impregnating appendage in that scene. From there we get the classic scary movie scene transition to elsewhere.

Elsewhere being Australia as we check in on Gateway, who in about three issues time has gone from someone who will hurt the X-Men to their trusted friend. Madelyne Pryor ports in with some shopping bags. I love the visual of her just going shopping but instead of hopping in the car to drive to the store, she ports across the entire planet to pick some stuff up. We check in on her, fresh from a makeover in a new dress (deliberate Claremont symbolism or Marvel Method writing for Silvestri’s sexed up art, you decide).

I interpret this little scene as obvious foreshadowing for Inferno, especially as she ruminates on how fun it would be to tease Alex Summers with her naked bod but also a meta-commentary from Claremont. Madelyne is an amazing glowing character clearly loved by Claremont but nobody around him appreciates her. It definitely feels as if he is working out his frustrations with Maddy being such a part of his saga, while Jean Grey is ressurected against his wishes and Maddy’s character suffers as a result. Silvestri’s supermodel art style really works here, especially with Dan Green’s inks helping out. She looks amazing, sexy and cool! Maddy just exudes a relatable, fun personality here in thought as well as image.

Maddy makes her way down to the elaborate and bizarre computer system in the former Reaver base the X-Men now call their home where she starts to remark on how miraculous this system is and how it taps into any computer communication worldwide and how it has seemingly taught her how to use it rather than her learning it herself. Just when she remarks that the computer is a little too considerate it out of nowhere turns on and shows her footage of a tv interview from X-Factor of her estranged husband that abandoned her, Cyclops standing comfortably with the shockingly now alive, Jean Grey. Maddy thinks it’s her for a second before she realizes the insanity of it all and punches out the screen. This in turn blasts her back and she falls unconscious on the floor. I applaud Maddy’s rather healthy outburst and computer smashing. She is such a great character and I feel so bad for her here. She just wants to look nice and feel confident in herself while helping her new surrogate family the X-Men, when she’s hit over the head with her real family that abandoned her and the woman who she’s always been thing to replace and never quite live up to. It again continues the horror vibe of this whole story rather nicely.

I’d like to take an aside and talk about the Reaver’s computer system and Gateway for a second. Claremont seems to be winging both of these things right now, as evidenced by how quickly the Gateway villain plans seem to be done. There are many instances of Gateway and this computer system hinted at being seemingly linked somehow, often with the prevailing thought being the Dreamtime of aboriginal culture. Hints I will try to point out as we go. Years later in the X-Treme X-Men Annual, Claremont gives us a story explicitly about the Dreamtime, Gateway’s connection to it, the Reavers again, and his eternal final boss, the Shadow King. If you’re reading a Claremont comic, Shadow King is always involved, ALWAYS. But that’s an article for another day. What were interested in now is how you can definitely see Claremont had story ideas as it related to Gateway and his connection to the Dreamtime, coming back years later to get them down. I feel like behind the scenes as Claremont read up on more Australian background, he became fascinated with aboriginal ideas and started to use Gateway as a mystery plot device to put into his back pocket whenever he finally circled back around to this Dreamtime idea and how he could wrap that into the Shadow King as he did every plotline. Again, at this point I feel there was no concrete plan, it’s just Claremont changing script to script what he wants with Gateway.

I feel this is the same thing with the computer system in the Reaver base. But this one is I think a repackaged or salvaged remain of an idea he had to incorporate a lot of the Captain Britain mythology back into the X-Books. We now know that the Fall of the Mutants and much of the X-Men comics in the 200’s were to incorporate Mad Jim Jaspers and the Fury as well as a whole bunch of other things from Alan Moore’s Captain Britain run. Phil Hall, a comic reporter from the UK who worked for Comics International and Borderline shared this information in a usenet post back in 2000 (posted here and backed up in a CBR Comic Book Legends Revealed post here:

Basically Jim Jaspers, the Jaspers Warp, Captain Britain, the Siege Perilous, the Fury and more from that run were to also be featured in these X-Men stories. Once Moore threw a fit and said no, Marvel and Claremont stopped with this plan and pivoted what was already plotted into something else usable. Instead of Jim Jaspers, we get The Adversary. Instead of a Fury/Nimrod hybrid we get the Nimrod posing as a human plots as they played out. Excalibur still happens but with a different roster. Roma still shows up in Fall of the Mutants but she gifts the team with resurrections and magical gifts and hands them the Siege Perilous rather than have them walk through it and so on and so on. Now, that Roma stuff happened three issues ago and the X-Men going through the Siege Perilous wraps up this entire era in the future, so Claremont’s audibles are still VERY well in play here. I posit that the computer system we get here is another one of these altered plans as a reconfigured Mastermind computer. In The Daredevils 2, Alan Moore and Alan Davis give us a story of Brian Braddock returning to his ancestral home and finding the techno-mystical supercomputer his father built – Mastermind – has grown and somehow taken over the basement with its horrifying circuitry.

Mastermind has essentially become a sentient creature thats figured out how to grow and evolve and take over. It tries to kill Brian after conversing and messing with him in cruel, terrifying ways. It’s a computer system that seems too good to be true. It has a will of its own and can perform miraculous things. It grows, thrives and uses humans to serve its own purposes. Starting to sound a little bit familiar to the mysterious computer that can do miraculous deeds, taught Maddie how to use it and seems to mess with her, doesnt it? I fully believe the Reaver bases computer system is either a changed plan to use Mastermind or a sort of spiritual successor to the same idea like he did with most of the Captain Britain material around this time. Most of Claremont’s inspiration for this period can be explicitly traced back to Captain Britain material. Hell even the Reavers can. Back when chris Claremont first created Captain Britain, who was his first villain:

Thats right, you guessed it, The Reaver! The influence of these UK stories on these Australian era stories is undeniable and although we never do figure out the truth behind the computer system, I feel like I have certainly written out the best guess.

Boy, really went off on a tangent there. Back to our Brood horror story in progress!! We check back in on Harry as he makes his way home. It’s presented as creepy as can be, at night with mist creeping in as we follow his jumbled thoughts on being scared of mutants and thinking someone is out there in the streets stalking him. He even remarks to himself:

I cant help but feel this is expert word play by Claremont again foreshadowing Inferno coming up and Maddy becoming some Demon Queen, waiting to steal souls. A page after Maddy passes out, that’s deliberate and such a chef’s kiss upon multiple rereads. Harry comes home to find Psylocke and Colossus inside his apartment and he freaks out, but not willingly. His body seems to move on its own, performing daring and superhuman feats of skill, like tossing Colossus through the wall and leaping down three stories. He’s doing all this, but he doesnt know how! He’s a passenger in his own body and even his own mind as he starts to think things that he couldnt know, starts to feel things that dont make any sense! The reason this issue works so well is that we really put ourselves in the everyman Harry role, following his journey with great intrigue and horror as he changes and we start to experience the terror of the unknown, of actions and thoughts that arent ours, even though we believe ourselves to be safe.

In this story, Wolverine is Jason, Rogue is a southern belle Freddy. Claremont flips the script and puts our beloved mutant superhero team the X-Men into this tale as horror movie villains and its another stroke of genius. They show up in the lead’s apartment, they have bizarre frightful powers and seem intent on murdering Harry, the good guy. We eventually see the team regroup and we find out that they are finally following up on the Starshark crash and after all this time, they are fulfilling their new Outback Era proactive stance and are intent on ending this Brood threat before it can come to them. Harry, in a mad dash of panic and otherworldy feats, scrambles away from the slasher team like the survivor in an old 80’s VHS frightfest. He boards a bus but we the reader, see a recognizable skunk stripe figure is also there.

Just like Michael Meyers, defying belief, Rogue got there before Harry, hiding in the shadows and just when he thinks he can breathe, he’s attacked by the monster all over again. I love Rogue’s attempt at telling this clown he has no chance and to just give up to her. Rogue is the best X-Man.

Sadly it’s here the Brood pulls a Shyamalan twist on poor Rogue and asserts mental dominance on Harry, almost taking her out before fellow horror movie stalker, Wolverine, hanging on to the outside of the bus plunges his arm in and throws Harry out. I love how much Silvestri is leaning into the horror aesthetic and vibe here. Wolverine doesnt look human leaping through the air to eviscerate this man.

Thats dialed up to 11 as Wolverine starts just gutting some police officers that end up intervening. He’s so quick and brutal that Rogue thinks he’s lost it and tries to restrain him. Unfortunately, the X-Men should know by now to just always bet on Wolverine as Harry starts to transform into a hideous Animorphs mid transition Brood creature proclaiming “We’re all Brood here!” as the X-Men end up surrounded by a mass of giant mawed transforming humans in the final cliffhanger panel.

I love this issue. We are finally being the new, proactive X-Men team we were promised in this new status quo, even if they should have helped Alex a year ago. The fact that we get the Brood again, but its NOT in space as a repeat of what came before is so incredible. We get more of the NEW. We skip over Aliens, Alien 3, hell even Alien: Resurrection and its many teases and we bring the Sleazoids to Earth in one of the smartest, boldest moves imaginable. That it’s done with such a deft, focused attempt at blood curdling horror, in both writing and art is a triumph to behold and this is just the first issue of this arc. The Brood finally WORK here and reach their disgusting and ghastly potential. I love this.

Theres an important behind the scenes creative thing to note about this issue in that this is the first Uncanny issue to have new Editor Bob Harras show up. As noted in the issue’s Bullpen Bulletins, The X-Men Editor and creative genius, Ann Nocenti had decided to move on.

Harras had been editor of Excalibur at this point but now as he takes the reins from Nocenti, all the X-Books, including Excalibur fall under his stewardship as a big interconnected line, something he will focus on and push hard. In this first issue you can already see that effect as on the letters page we get a coming attractions box hyping up all X-books, which as far as I know first debuts really in this issue.

My personal opinion, Bob Harras is an enormous piece of shit. He pretty much single handedly drove Chris Claremont off the X-Men books and ushered in an age of commerciality and idealess sensationalism with creatively bankrupt artists over well told, consistent comic stories. He also is extremely complicit with ignoring the abuse that many people have suffered at DC Comics and has actively sheltered and protected noted abusers like Eddie Berganza and Scott Lobdell for so long. Read more about some of that here. He fucking sucks. This is the beginning of the end for Claremont’s legendary run. In the beginning Harras is still working with Nocenti and the long planned out roadmap before fully taking over and pushing his stupid, creatively bankrupt agenda later when he accumulates more experience and power. I’m going to be reading these next few issues and Inferno with this in mind. Would the transformation Maddy takes maybe be different or resolved in a better, more respectful way with all time Queen Nocenti still here to help guide Claremont, instead of sexist, power hungry asshole Bob Harras who actively disrespects women?? I aim to see if any of that can be seen here. For the most part, I remember Harras really only starting to actually influence the line creatively 6-10 months after the Outback Era ends, but it will be interesting to see where his poor influence might be noticed or discovered in this beloved era I love so much.

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