[This post is part of a series of posts looking at Claremont's X-Men issue by issue. For more in the series see Jason Powell's name on the toolbar on the right.]
Presumably at the same time that the X-Men were vacationing in Europe (in between Uncanny X-Men #103 and #104), Jean is on vacation with her roommate Misty and Misty’s friends (who also happen to comprise the cast of “Iron Fist”).
“Lifesigns” is a breathtaking piece of work. Right from the opening page, in which a lovely image of Jean sitting on a beach, entranced by a campfire, is juxtaposed against an extended piece of lovely Claremont’s narration, we’re in powerful territory. I love the way Claremont’s narration is at once melodramatic and playful (the campfire “roasty-toasts” Jean). In a simple but canny layout, Tom Orzechowski places Claremont’s loquacious description of Jean’s perception of the fire straight against John Bolton’s drawing of the campfire itself. Geoff has discussed Grant Morrison’s and Matt Fraction’s ability at combining words in such a way that they hit you in a powerful burst (with Morrison’s aesthetic typically being sci-fi and Fraction’s – at least in “Casanova” – being noir). Claremont has a similar talent, I’d say, but his influence strikes me as more Baroque, more classical, which is an interesting contrast against the sci-fi nature of the X-Men. “Lifesigns” is full of nice examples. From his description of Jean’s perception of the fire:
“She stares into the heart of the blaze, where hard edges loose [sic] their definition ... wood cast in flicker-flashing strokes of molten gold. She watches electrons spin faster in orbital paths around their atomic nuclei, filling themselves with energy, casting off old structures, forming new, transitioning joyously, spontaneously from one state of matter to another.”
What’s nice about this story – and the quote above demonstrates this quality – is that it focuses not so much on Jean’s increased physical power (which will be demonstrated several times in the next few issues, in the front stories) but rather it couches her new powers in terms of increased levels of perception. So we get no psycho killers or supervillains – instead, Jean receives a telepathic cry for help from a “family” who is out at sea and being attacked by sharks. She telekinetically snags Misty (as backup) and the two of them take a motorboat to the rescue. In a scene poked fun of not long ago by Chris Sims on the Invincible Super-Blog, Misty ends up getting into a fight with a shark, which she wins by punching the creature in the nose with her “bionic arm.” That does seem odd, but Claremont makes it work in context. (Jean is a superhero, why can’t Misty be one too?)
After fighting off the shark, Misty learns that the family whom Jean risked both their lives to save are dolphins, not humans. “I almost got killed – for a family of fish?!!?” she demands. Jean’s reply is that they are “hardly fish,” but Misty isn’t mollified. So Jean telepathically deposits Misty’s consciousness into that of one of the dolphins, and lets her go for a swim with the rest of the school. There’s another wonderfully worded narrative passage here, another example of Claremont’s ability to convey ideas in a classically baroque style:
“The sea stretches far and away – click-whistle delphine sonar printing a picture of her surroundings so complete it takes her breath away.”
I adore the phrase “click-whistle delphine sonar.”
[Yeah that is pretty good.]
The narration continues along in this style, suggesting that dolphins, with their “light and wit and brilliance,” are said to represent the future, while the sharks are a dark anchor to a primordial, brutal past. It’s never stated explicitly, but Claremont’s poetic framing also works as a symbol for the X-Men. The X-Men are attempting to lead humanity into a better future, even as their enemies attempt to prevent it. I like that.
Some X-Men fans complain that the whole Jean-as-Phoenix storyline is entirely out of place in the X-Men, as it has nothing to do with the comics essential themes. And yet, here we see Phoenix using her own elevated perceptions to in turn open up the perceptions of someone else, Misty, a human. By story’s end, there is increased understanding on a personal level -- between Jean and Misty – and on an interspecies level: among humans, mutants, and animals.
“Lifesigns,” then, is a quintessential Claremont X-Men story, wherein the core concept of “mutation” connotes personal growth and increased understanding. It also contains a lovely expression of friendship between two women, another thing Claremont does well.