[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.]
Penciller John Byrne and inker Terry Austin arrive with this issue, immediately giving the series a feel it has not yet experienced under Claremont. Byrne was hugely influenced by Neal Adams’ work, and that’s evident in his more realistic style, very evocative of Adams. Austin’s attention to detail completes the effect (note all the rendering on the giant robot), making for a more intense and realistic atmosphere. Indeed, the effect is very similar to the huge jump in tone between Werner Roth’s last issue of X-Men in the ‘60s and Neal Adams’ first. It won’t be the last time the Claremont/Byrne/Austin team evoke the Neal Adams run. Indeed, as time goes by and Byrne begins to take a more active hand in plotting, these evocations will become more and more deliberate.
As discussed in the review of the previous issue, Claremont is positioning the X-Men here as sci-fi characters. This is the conclusion to Claremont’s first major epic as writer of the title, and it ostensibly has nothing to do with the X-Men as mutants/outcasts. Unless we view their positioning here as sci-fi characters through the lens so cleverly conceived by Neil Shyminski. I’m hoping he won’t mind if I do an extended quote from a conversation with him:
“Science fiction is a genre, at its most base thematic levels, that is expressive of a fear of the Other - and a fear that its degeneracy will somehow rub off on you. Victor Frankenstein violates the laws of nature in creating his Monster and it leaves him alienated and drives him to his death; Rick Deckard, we're given reason to suspect, might actually be one of the replicants that he is chasing; Neo may actually be a failsafe function created by the machines to reboot humanity.
... the X-Men can have superhero adventures, but they can't really be superhero characters. Their marks of difference, of the Other, has always made them a much more comfortable fit with a genre like science fiction.”
That assertion resonates powerfully when looking at this story. The resonance is stronger, I think, in Claremont’s rewriting of Uncanny #108 here, in Classic X-Men #15, than it was originally. But support for Shyminski’s thesis is all over this issue. Note, for example, the cut to the Avengers, and their assertion that the threat facing the universe in this story is “too big and too far away.” The superheroes can’t handle this one; the X-Men can.
The nature of the threat itself provides another clue to Claremont’s possible point here. He dresses it up in some technobabble, but the key is Jean’s comment that it is “anti-energy.” Later, when Jean as Phoenix is the one who faces the threat head-on, she wonders to herself, “Perhaps THIS is why I became Phoenix.” Thanks to the ret-con that Claremont reinforced in Classic X-Men #8, we know that Jean was deliberately bonded to the Phoenix, a being that was made of pure white light – energy. So indeed, the clues all add up: she was merged with the Phoenix force (which represents life) in order to counter the “anti-energy” (death) contained within the M’Krann crystal.
But here’s where it gets interesting: In Uncanny #108, Phoenix – with the help and spiritual nourishment of Xavier and his “dream” — finds the will to defeat and contain the anti-energy within the crystal, and the story ends. But Classic X-Men #15 adds a new page, in which – just after containing the destructive force but before leaving the inside of the crystal – Jean has a vision. “Heroism has its price,” goes the narration. “All things, you see, have their balance – the Yang to counter the Yin – and it is the brightest light ... which casts the darkest shadow.” And suddenly Jean comes face to face with an image of herself, almost identical, except her costume is red rather than green. Most X-Men readers, reading Classic X-Men in 1987, would’ve known immediately what this meant. It’s a vision of Dark Phoenix, which Jean is destined to become – the version of the character that murdered millions. The implication is that the use of her power here, to halt destruction and death, is the first step in her corruption by that power – into becoming a force of destruction and death herself. Jean reacts fearfully to the vision, crying, “No! Whatever you are, wherever you came from, you’re no part of me!”
As Shyminski said, “Science fiction is a genre, at its most base thematic levels, that is expressive of a fear of the Other - and a fear that its degeneracy will somehow rub off on you.” Claremont’s rewriting of the climactic scene of his first arc (Act One of his run) captures this beautifully, and also sends the series on a powerful trajectory toward the Dark Phoenix Saga (the climax of Act Two).
(The soap-opera twist in this issue – that Corsair, the buccaneering leader of the Starjammers, is the father of the orphaned Cyclops – is an audacious bit of melodrama that comes entirely out of left field. But it will weave into the Phoenix drama in surprising ways. More on that when we look at the b-side of this issue.)
[This issue reminded me of some of Promethea, with its big sci-fu universe life-death speeches, and its surprising use of the Kabbalah in which Xavier is the crown of the tree of life.
Also, stupid question -- the evil crystal causes the universe to stop existing for brief, terrifying moments. How are you supposed to notice when everything, including yourself, stops existing and comes back?]