It was certainly not the first time that Marvel’s Merry Mutants left the comfortable grounds of the Xavier Mansion that housed The School for Gifted Youngsters.
Way back in the late 1960’s, when Charles Xavier faked his own death at the hands of a villain called Grotesk, the original five X-Men abandoned their Westchester-based home at the behest of Xavier’s government contact Fred Duncan and set out on their own. They would return to their collective home in time, a new team of “All-New, All-Different” mutants would join the fold, and the unit would remain there for quite some time.
The fallout of The Mutant Massacre would see the team take up semi-residence in the Morlock tunnels that ran below the streets of New York City as well as beneath the mansion itself. The group would also migrate to Alcatraz Island in San Francisco just prior to The Fall of the Mutants story arc but not one of those moves, and none since (save perhaps the return to San Francisco in recent years), represented such a foundational shift as the team’s move to The Australian Outback after their “death” in Dallas as told in The Fall.
That is the world of the X-Men that I entered into 1988, at just eight years of age, and one that has continued to fascinate me in the ensuing years. It defined the X-Men for me in my dawning years as a comic book reader as it not only introduced me to concepts that have since become staples of the line in the decades since but also exposed me to major elements that predated my exposure to the world of the X.
As stated in my last writing, it was the read through of an early issue in the Outback era that sent my mind spiraling back to that time and led me to this entry here, standing on the doorstep of memory and about to immerse myself once more into what I can now consider my first exposure to a long-form comic book tale. It all started with Chris Claremont & guest artist Rick Leonardi’s Uncanny X-Men #228…
This issue represented a staple of Chris Claremont’s repertoire: the single issue downtime story. A rarity in modern comics, which tend to written to fit somewhat neatly into the collected format, Claremont used this type of tale to bridge the gap between a major story (in this case Fall) and what would come next (The Outback). It was the funeral following The Dark Phoenix Saga in issue #138, #273 following X-Tinction Agenda, or #297 following X-Cutioner’s Song (not a Claremont story but still a good example).
Since The Fall ended with the X-Men faking their own deaths (theoretically to protect their loved ones from being attacked by their enemies), this story entitled Deadly Games! could be seen as a eulogy.
The tale is clearly being told through a letter addressed to a person named O.Z. and, based on the prevalence of Dazzler stuff hidden under the booze and ashtrays, most likely a communication coming from the X-Men resident songbird. The timeframe for when the letter was written is also set as its words place Dazzler and team in their Alcatraz residence (putting it in continuity between #221 and #224) but the tale it flashes back to is set prior to that.
Based on the following page placing Dazzler in the Danger Room (located in the New York based school) along with Wolverine, it is a story that would have had to play out in the pages between #214 when Dazzler rejoined and #215 when the team splintered with Rogue, Dazzler, Psylocke, Longshot transporting Colossus, Shadowcat, and Nightcrawler to Muir Island while Wolverine and Storm are off doing their own thing. It could also have gone down after #218 (when the team reunited) but before #221 when their time in San Francisco began.
The teacher aspect of Wolverine’s personality that is so prevalent in current comics such as Wolverine & The X-Men is somewhat on display here in his treatment of Dazzler during her Danger Room session and her response, “I was a solo act long before I joined this turkey group. And for your information I was a star!” is very indicative of where the songbird’s head was at this point in time. Her subsequent conversation with Rogue and Psylocke confirms it; Dazzler feels trapped, forced onto the team by fate rather than choice, and she is bucking against that harness.
The O.Z. to whom Dazzler’s letter was addressed comes into the picture now via Psylocke’s perusal of the newspaper and her suspicions that this suspected murderer could be a lycanthropic mutant a la Wolfsbane. There is also a cute little Easter Egg in the newspaper tossed in on the final panel of this page:
Dazzler’s insistence of heading off on her own to help her friend further demonstrates her need to feel like the solo artist she described herself as to Wolvie. It’s the role that she so desperately WANTS to have but not necessarily the one in which she has always fit; Dazzler’s recent history, for example, forced her into hiding, under a wig, as part of Lila Cheney’s band (see #214). So this hiding, this dependence on others, it is something she has been forced into for quite some time now, and for a woman who was the feature act not so long ago, it has been a difficult adjustment.
(Side note: As Dazzler heads out on her own, a mention by Rogue of Allison running into Juggernaut last time she needed to “…kick over the traces and go solo” firmly places this tale in that post-#218 yet pre-#221 time frame)
The page above, well used just to establish the threat of the issue, serves as a great example of Claremont breathing some life into the bit players in this drama. Thomas, his wife, and the military daughter whose return they are awaiting may only exist for a handful of panels but they are given a purpose, a story, something to add life to their brief existence.
Dazzler makes her trip to Florida and the captions/letter that tell the story gives us some more depth into her character, something beyond that “I was a star!” she spat at Wolverine in anger. Her own words paint her as a woman who genuinely loves to sing despite the “…pay that barely covered expenses before audiences more interested in my body then my voice” that made up the early parts of her career.
To the surprise of no one reading this book, Wolverine is waiting for Dazzler when she arrives and I must say there is something about the way Rick Leonardi draws the Canucklehead that resonates with me. He is short and hairy with this stocky body and massive forearms, reminiscent of the John Byrne ideal for me.
The mutant pair is being tailed but Dazzler, showing a level of self-awareness the version of her in the Danger Room may not have had, admits in her letter she was oblivious to their shadow due to her inexperience. Wolverine, with his secret agent man past, is on his game though and leaves Allison to take down the thug.
For her end of things, Dazzler heads into the police station but gets stonewalled by the cops. That interaction actually leads us to another revelation in Dazzler’s letter as she acknowledges she studied Undergraduate Pre-Law and, in real time, introduces us to O.Z’s “puppy” Cerberus. The dog, which Dazzler earlier referred to as being meaner than Wolverine, is used to show the reader another side of Logan as they “…hit it off tremendously, especially after Wolvie fed him a couple choice Havana cigars”.
Wolverine’s knowledge of firearms, Dazzler’s usage of the French word Gendarmerie (forcing a young me to pry open a dictionary which I can now say was another benefit of reading comics at a young age), and Wolverine’s conniving fashion to get himself arrested; all of them were excellent ways for Claremont to continue to demonstrating how these characters are something deeper than what they appear. I also have a strong love for the depiction of Wolverine in that fourth panel of the above image…
That sense of the characters being something greater than their appearances continues after Wolverine has busted O.Z. out of jail. Following an attempt on the man’s life by the Russian element that were also following our mutant heroes, the pair reconvene with Dazzler in their hotel room where O.Z. illuminates his compatriots, and the readers, to the events that brought him to this dance.
To no surprise of any modern reader, before it had become a ridiculously abused trope, the element that ties this all together, a man named Vladimir Semyanovitch Zaitsev, is someone familiar to Wolverine from his past…
Although Zaitsev is a character completely specific to this story, the flashback image in that 4th panel depicting Wolverine in his costume while fighting Vladimir would seemingly put it somewhere during his tenure with Department H prior to signing on with the X-Men. For those who may be unaware, at this point in the publication history of Logan, outside of his connection to Alpha Flight that had been depicted in various books over the years and his ties to Japan as told in stories like the Kitty Pryde & Wolverine mini-series, the man’s past had not yet been greatly explored. This allowed Claremont to easily make references to this sort of thing without the continuity police demanding to know exactly when it happened. In the years since it has, to me at least, become an unfunny joke how frequently writers abuse the “person from Wolverine’s past” angle when approaching a story…
Speaking of people Wolverine knows from the past, he opens the door to the hotel room to find one Henry Peter Gyrich standing outside. Gyrich, who had made sporadic appearances in the X-Books prior to this including being the man who fired the gun that robbed Storm of her powers back in #185, sets the trio (quartet if you count Cerberus) on the path to find Vladimir as well as providing the last bit of back story before the hunt begins. The reasons, Gyrich’s explanations, really are not important to the larger picture being painted by this issue.
What are important are the words Dazzler has written in her letter to O.Z. that we see as Wolverine stalks his prey through the Florida swamps. The most important, the ones that define Dazzler as a person: “I like caring about people. And trusting them. Okay that means I get hurt from time to time. But the reward’s well worth the pain. And I’m a lot tougher than I look.”
This entire sequence in the swamps, for its action sequences, is really shaped by the dynamic between the three people and their dog as well as the changing attitude of the songbird as the hunt continues. The words in Dazzler’s letter, since she is telling the story to a man who already knows what happened, serve to let us into what was going through her head as events unfolded. We see her thoughts on killing, we are exposed to her fears about it someday becoming easy for her to do, and while images like this show us how the Danger Room sequence from the opening pays off…
…it continues to be the words of the former solo act that stick with the reader. Dazzler’s reflections on Gyrich losing his way, her hope that she never does, and her own personalized take on the X-Men’s mission statement are what make this story mean more than just the hunt for the super-powered villain. That is the beauty in this story for me; it may be dialogue-laden (as most Claremont stories were) but it has a depth wrapped up in its simple premise. There is character exploration, there is growth, and in the final page below, there is a sense of just what these mutants, and one in particular, mean to those left behind in the wake of their “death”:
With a focus on the relationship between specific X-Men and the loved ones whom they faked their deaths to protect, this issue marked a fitting close to one era for the mutant team supreme. With the next installment it is off to Australia for the true kick-off to the Outback & Beyond Era…