[Guest-blogger Jason Powell continues his issue by issue look at Chris Claremont's X-Men run. For more in this series, see the toolbar on the right.]
“God Spare the Child”
The X-Men have defeated Proteus – “... and, for the moment, all is well in their madcap, helter-skelter world.” So goes Claremont’s narration on Page 3 of Chapter 1 of the Dark Phoenix Saga, just before adding ominously: “None are aware that it is merely the calm before the holocaust.”
The portentous tone of the narration promises darkness over the next few issues of the series. The promise will be kept -- but first, Claremont and Byrne take an almost sadistic delight in re-setting the comic virtually to the Silver Age status quo. Professor X returns, Scott and Jean go back to being full-time lovers (the “Scott dating Colleen Wing” subplot unceremoniously dropped, never to be heard from again), and the X-Men are back to doing what they did in the Lee/Kirby days: practicing in the Danger Room and seeking out new mutants to recruit. It’s all almost playful.
Claremont and Byrne even tease at retreating back into Neal Adams/Roy Thomas homage on Page 7: Jean’s dialogue in the third and fourth panels (“Scott – wait! Don’t you remember?! That extra thick-door leads to – the danger room!”) is a verbatim recreation from Adams/Thomas’ X-Men #60. But it is only a tease, and actually a funny joke for people who have read the Adams run. It was already fairly ridiculous then that Scott would forget which door led to the Danger Room. That he has to be reminded again (by the same person, in the exact same words) takes it into comical absurdity. The message is implicit: Too much cannibalization of the past will lead to absurd levels of stagnation. Claremont and Byrne are only setting the X-Men down a familiar road with this issue so that it will be that much more of a shock when they shoot the wheels off the car.
On the other hand, the feigned step backwards into the Silver Age might not have been Claremont and Byrne’s idea. Byrne complains in “Comics Creators on X-Men” that around the time that the Dark Phoenix Saga was just about to get underway, Marvel Editor in Chief Jim Shooter got a “bee in his bonnet,” suddenly deciding that what made the X-Men unique was their attending a school. Byrne quotes Shooter as commanding, “‘I want to see these people getting demerits. I want to see these people getting homework assignments.’” Byrne continues, “I didn’t think Wolverine was going [to] react real well to demerits. I mean, come on!”
Hence this dialogue:
Xavier: “Scott, notify Wolverine that his childish outburst will cost him ten demerits.”
Scott: “Ten – or ten thousand, Professor – I doubt they’ll matter much to him. Wolverine’s a grown man ...”
When one knows the backstage details, it’s clear there’s a message being sent to Shooter there ... while on a more subversive level, Byrne and Claremont turn what may have been a forced step backwards to a dramatic advantage, as we soon learn it is really just a feint.
In the meantime, Shooter’s edict does result in one far-reaching addition to the series, as in this issue Byrne and Claremont introduce their co-creation Kitty Pryde. She is mainly a plot device here: a new mutant for the X-Men to seek out. But she will soon make X-Men history as the first new mutant to join the X-Men since Giant Sized #1, and the first X-Man that Claremont co-created.
This issue also marks the first appearance of the Hellfire Club, though most of them are kept in shadow. Claremont and Byrne are very careful about how much information they reveal, as this issue is only the first chapter of what will turn out to be nine.
Still, to keep from being entirely withholding, Claremont lets one long-standing mystery be explained, off-handedly, in the Hellfire Club scene: Warhawk, who bugged the Danger Room back in issue #110, we find out here did so on behalf of the Club. (He was shown to be in someone’s telepathic thrall in that story, so presumably that was the White Queen.) Claremont had let that one dangle for nearly two years, but at least he does finally explain it. As we’ll see, as we get deeper into his run, his willingness to let mysteries like this dangle indefinitely will grow and grow, until it tries even the most patient X-Men fans (but also, perversely, keep those same fans coming back for more).
The only Hellfire Club member besides Jason Wyngarde not shrouded in the present issue is Emma Frost, the White Queen, another Byrne/Claremont co-creation who will become a mainstay of the series. She will always be a villain during the Claremont run, though post-Claremont creators will make her into a member of the team. Here, she is just a one-dimensional comic book villain, the only twist being the fairly racy (for the time) visual design. And mercifully, no camel toe. (Sorry, Geoff, I still find that a little much. Does that make me a prude?)