Uncanny X-Men #281 (October, 1991)
“Fresh Up Start”
Plot – Jim Lee
Plot & Pencils – Whilce Portacio
Script – John Byrne
Inks – Art Thibert
Letters – Tom Orzechowski
Colors – Joe Rosas
Editor – Bob Harras
Chief – Tom DeFalco
Cover Price: $1.00
Ages ago following Schism, when Uncanny X-Men had it’s first renumbering and “new #1”, I concocted a list of times that would’ve made more sense to dump the legacy numbering. Schism, wasn’t quite as big of a deal as Marvel made it out to be… and was more or less just another Cyclops and Wolverine “falling out”.
The issue we’ll be looking at today is one of those times where I think Marvel could’ve “gotten away with” a renumbering. I wouldn’t have liked it… but, I could definitely understand it a bit more than following the nothing-burger that was Schism.
To me, if this book was ever going to be renumbered… it should have been either here, or when the book returned to new content following Giant-Size.
Let’s get into it… and try not to feel too bad for poor John Byrne having to script these panels at the 13th hour.
We open in the Australian Outback, where the Reavers are having themselves a good time drinking and chatting. All’s not completely calm, however, as one of ’em is certain he’d heard something stirring from outside their camp. Donald Pierce tells the fella to shut up… they’re too far off the beaten path (and in the middle of a sandstorm) where nobody can find them. Well, not so fast, kemosabe… just then, a group of rough-looking Sentinels peel the roof off the joint as though it were a can of tuna fish!
Meanwhile, in New York City, the X-Men’s Gold Strike Force is attending a party at the Hellfire Club. Turns out they were asked to come by Emma Frost herself. Storm laments the fact that she had to wear a “preposterous gown” to the gala… but, it’s looks more like a minidress to me. She, Jean, and Warren are hanging out upstairs… while Bobby and Piotr mingle among the other guests… and members of Frost’s own Hellions.
Naturally, there’s a bit of friction between the two factions… however, before it can come to blows, Emma Frost hurls some armored woman through a set of double doors. This is an assassin who had been sent to kill her… and it isn’t the first time this happened (this week!). Just as the cover copy suggests… this is the sorta thing upon which “desperate alliances” are built.
Elsewhere, Shinobi Shaw is being attended to by a whole bunch of scantily clad folks while chatting up a fella who we will soon know as Trevor Fitzroy. They’re comparing notes… and discussing a little “game” their group is currently playing. Ya see, these two belong to the Upstarts… a group of assassins who try and rack up points by killing mutants… and assorted V.I.P.s. Shinobi is currently the “king” of this organization… but Fitzroy might just be looking to challenge for the crown.
Back at the party, Frost is about to “peel the psyche” of her would-be assassin. The X-Men naturally protest this sort of psychic torture, and intervene before it goes too far.
This triggers the Hellions to launch into battle… and before we know it, we’re in the middle of a full-blown skirmish! Remembering that they’re there for a reason, Jean sends out a frantic psychic signal to get everyone to stand down. When the dust settles, Frost reveals that the Hellfire Club is under attack… and suggests that the X-Men might be next. Therefore, it might be in everybody’s best interest for there to be a truce.
The Hellion Jetstream posits that they interrogate the armored assassin in hopes that she’ll spill the beans on whoever might be behind these repeated attempts on their lives. Before he can, however, Trevor Fitzroy pops onto the scene!
Back in the Outback, Donald Pierce is fleeing from his robotic pursuers. Bashing through a wall, he runs into Lady Deathstrike. She proceeds to attack the Sentinel, slicing off it’s arm. Surprisingly, this Sentinel is able to reattach the lost limb without much in the way of inconvenience!
More Sentinels follow… and Pierce continues his escape. He runs up a nearby hill, where he finds Gateway… the aboriginal mutant, with teleportation powers. He demands the fella spin his “bullroarer” and send him to “the one responsible” for this assault. No sooner does he step through the portal do the Sentinels arrive. They appear to look at Gateway, but do not attack him.
Back in New York, Fitzroy is just having his way with the Hellions… killing two of their number (Jetstream and… uh, Beef) in as many panels. Frost and the X-Men go on the offensive, however, the armor the baddie’s wearing protects him from any psychic attacks. Suddenly, Donald Pierce arrives on the scene, popping out of a portal…
… followed by a whole bunch of Sentinels! The X-Men and Hellions team up to battle back the bots. In the fracas, however, Emma Frost is struck dead! Somehow, that is… the art isn’t terribly clear.
The X-Hellions alliance continues to fight the good fight while Trevor Fitzroy looks on. After engaging in a divide and conquer approach, it all comes down to a two-on-one confrontation between a pair of Sentinels and Jean Grey.
With one last desperate attempt, Jean does… something psychic-y (which will make a teensy bit more sense next issue). The Sentinels confirm her death, and retreat. Fitzroy looks on satisfied, knowing he just racked up a whole lotta Upstart points.
We wrap up with Colossus carrying Jean’s lifeless body out of the Club while Senator Robert Kelly rushes onto the scene to give the heroes some grief.
I feel like when you talk to comics enthusiasts of the long ago, and you ask them which of the Image founders they like the least (insofar as art style), the immediate (almost knee-jerk) go-to is “Rob Liefeld”. For me, however… it’s Whilce Portacio. Fundamentally, he’s a good artist, don’t get me wrong. There isn’t (as much) wonky anatomy, though there’s still a staggering lack of feet (Liefeld might be the least guilty yet most blamed for this phenomenon)… I, for whatever reason, just don’t like looking at Whilce’s work.
With that out of the way, let’s talk story for a bit.
It’s not great… but, it has some great elements. Lemme tell ya, I absolutely love the idea of the Upstarts. I feel like the X-Offices left money on the table with this concept… and there was just so much more that could have been done with it. Imagine if this group was allowed to linger in the background for a bit… give them the ol’ Claremont “bubbling subplot” treatment over the course of a few years… have them pick off random, perhaps “inconvenient”, mutants for points… and finally crescendo into a confrontation.
Such a concept seems right up John Byrne’s alley (circa 1991). Byrne, feeling there were too many mutants to keep track of, was actually petitioning for a second Mutant Massacre around this time (I’ll include the interview down below). So, why not just have the Upstarts “take care” of that?
Well, a handful of reasons… first, John Byrne wasn’t long for this era of X-Books. Citing difficulty in effectively scripting the book due to the lateness of receiving the pages from Whilce and Jim… he’d skedaddle only a couple months into the assignment. Then, less than a year later, Jim and Whilce would be gonzo from Marvel… then, a year after that, the X-Men had the Legacy Virus foisted upon them, which would more or less do the Upstarts’ “job” of thinning the mutant herd, while being somewhat relevant in its analogousness to AIDS.
I’m still a big fan though! I think the Upstarts could’ve been great. Heck, I still do! Guess it just wasn’t in the cards.
Now, the rest of the issue… ya know, the actual “story”… ehh. It was alright. Back when I first read this, I didn’t know a Hellion from a hole in the head, so I didn’t really get how big a deal it was for Fitzroy to wipe them out. After reading more about the Hellions… that disinterest turned to annoyance, as they really were “jobbed out” here just to establish Fitzroy as a threat. That’s a lot of history to dump just to give the new guy a shine.
The ending, with the apparent deaths of Jean and Emma? Ehh, again. I don’t think anybody was buyin’ it… then again, I don’t think a lot of the folks who were literally “buyin'” this issue did so to check out the story in the first place.
Overall… an important issue… but, all told, not a very good one.
John Byrne Interview (from Wizard Magazine #3 – Nov, 1991):