[Guest blogger Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men Run. For more in this series, see the toolbar on the right.]
Claremont loves building large supporting casts for the series he works on, and he loves to make as many of those supporting cast members women. Occasionally he seems to introduce female characters into his comics with no clear idea of how he’ll eventually use them. One example occurred in Uncanny X-Men #136, when Jean was revealed for the first time to have an older sister named Sara, already married with children. It’s possible that Sara would have become a significant part of the cast had Jean not been killed off. As it was, Claremont never thought of anything to do with her – except one time.
In mid-1981 – around the same time that Uncanny X-Men was seeing an expansion of the supporting cast in the form of such notable females as Stevie Hunter, Carol Danvers and Illyana Rasputin – Marvel’s black-and-white tabloid-size comic book Bizarre Adventures came out with an X-themed issue. Of the three X-Men stories contained therein, only one is by Claremont; entitled simply “Phoenix,” it focuses on Jean’s sister Sara as she remembers an “untold tale” of Jean Grey, presumably set circa Uncanny #110. Allowing Claremont to indulge his penchant for writing loving female relationships (this one recalls the Misty/Jean material from Classic X-Men #13, which it predates), it also features some of Claremont’s ideas for Jean’s “secret origin” -- an idea shot down at one point by Byrne on the grounds that her “origin” began when she arrived at the mansion by taxi in X-Men #1.
Claremont, however, exercising his characteristic favoritism for the female members of his cast, decides here that although Jean was the last to join the original Lee/Kirby X-Men, she was actually Xavier’s first student. In a flashback-within-a-flashback (a curiously sloppy technique on Claremont’s part) we learn that Xavier became Jean’s tutor almost immediately after the Lucifer adventure that crippled him. She had been traumatized after accidentally creating a telepathic rapport with her best friend Annie Richardson in the moments of Annie’s death, and only Xavier – another telepath – could help her deal with the after effects. This is ret-con smooths over a flaw in the Silver Age continuity, wherein Jean became a telepath because Xavier gave part of his powers to her (a premise hard to buy given the parameters of how mutant powers are supposed to work in the Marvel Universe). In Claremont’s flashback here, Xavier is depicted as putting blocks on Jean’s telepathy before she joined the X-Men, and helping her to develop her latent telekinetic talent instead. The implication thus being that all he did back in the 1960s to make Jean telepathic was to remove that imposed seal.
The effect of this added back-story for Jean and Charles is twofold: As discussed above, it irons out a wrinkle in the Silver Age X-Men continuity, and more significantly, it retroactively adds another resonance to the penultimate chapter of the Dark Phoenix Saga, which showed Xavier binding Jean’s powers with “psychic circuit breakers” in order to save her. Here, that part of the story takes on a layer of irony: Xavier saved Jean from herself twice, and both times utilized the same methods.
The rest of the Bizarre Adventures story is a weirdly conceived battle between Phoenix and an undersea villain called Attuma. As an adventure story it’s not at all noteworthy, although the artwork by John Buscema and Klaus Janson – which is excellent – flags up an interesting problem that dogs Claremont’s every attempt to be a feminist writer. His female heroines, while strong and capable – especially when compared to how women were written in other Marvel Comics of the time – always seem to end up in tight and/or revealing outfits.
True, Claremont’s comic-book-level feminism was ultimately a positive step, particularly for the X-franchise (actresses involved in the X-Men films occasionally commented on their pleasant surprise at how many strong female roles the franchise contained). But stories like this one, which feature Jean and her sister in swimsuits or slave outfits for large stretches of time, make one wonder if maybe there wasn’t a fetish at work there as well.