Saturday, June 21, 2008

Jason Powell on Classic X-Men #43b

[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.]

“Flights of Angels”

The previous b-side ended with a 12-year-old Scott Summers making mental contact with Jean Grey. This was a sentimental, redemptive ending reminding readers that — in spite of the systematic psychological torture and emotional deprivation he endured during his years in the orphanage – Scott would eventually find salvation and love as a member of the X-Men. The idea that it was Jean, not Xavier, who first discovered Scott mentally also added a touch of melodramatic romance; these two were always meant to be together, even since they were kids. The b-side of Classic X-Men #43 discusses the same idea regarding Jean and Scott’s intertwined fates, but from a different angle.

The a-side of the issue is a reprint of Uncanny X-Men #137, which ends with Phoenix’s suicide. At the time that Classic #43 was published, that death had already been ret-conned, Jean Grey brought back into circulation. So here we get a story that shows where Phoenix went after her seeming death in Uncanny #137.

Claremont’s script contains some of his most oblique writing for the X-Men, made duller by sloppy, generic-looking art from Mike Collins and Joe Rubinstein. Death is cast as a construction worker, eternally building a structure that acts as a “frame” for life. It’s a somewhat uninspired metaphor.

Phoenix comes to the structure after dying on the Moon, her costume now white (as Cockrum had originally intended it) rather than green or red. She wanders Death’s structure understanding nothing of what she sees, until Claremont finally tires of vagueness for its own sake and begins to give some answers. This is where the story brings in some intriguing possibilities, particularly when Death comments on the abundance of coincidences that hold together Claremont’s first 45 issues of X-Men.

“D’you think it was an accident that, as a child, your thoughts touched Scott Summers’?” he asks her. “Or that he was orphaned by the Shi’ar Emperor? That feeling contact eventually drew Scott to Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, where he grew into Cyclops, leader of the X-Men. He fell in love with you, and you with him. So that, at the proper time and place, when that mad emperor attempted the obliteration of all ... you’d be there to stop him.”

Death goes on to explain that the Phoenix is a “force,” and the “embodiment of life.” The M’krann crystal threatened to destroy the force’s “handiwork,” so it used an avatar – Jean Grey – to stop it. Claremont is essentially using the Phoenix force to craft a narrative unified field theory to explain the chain of storytelling coincidences that connect aspects of these earliest X-Men stories together. From the hints dropped here, a thoughtful reader can extrapolate other coincidences that could be ascribed to Phoenix, such as how it is that Professor X’s mind managed to connect with Lilandra’s when he repelled the Z’Nox invasion. Claremont’s idea for Phoenix here as a catch-all for his use of coincidence is pretty clever, even if the execution here is lacking in dramatic tension; this story is pretty much all exposition.

Claremont goes on to set up other stories that have already been published but, chronologically, have not yet occurred. In a single panel, Death tells Jean: “Your unique gift is to be the one capable of wielding ... [the Phoenix] ... force. It came to you, Jean – as it will in time to your children – because, like the sword Excalibur was to King Arthur ... it is yours by right.” (Besides being an evocative analogy, the line also retroactively foreshadows. Eventually, the Phoenix force will come to Jean’s daughter, Rachel, who will then go on to become a founding member of a team called Excalibur.)

While the story is low on incident, there is a character arc to give it some semblance of shape: When Jean first awakens on Death’s structure, she laments the fact that her attempted suicide seems to have failed. After Death’s pep talk – which, in between the swaths of exposition, reminded her to weigh the lives she saved against the lives she took as Dark Phoenix – Jean is motivated to return the land of the living, believing that this time she will be able to handle her power. There is a small sense of redemption as she flies away, which Claremont then immediately twists with an ironic final image of Death, as he views images of the things he was not allowed to tell her about: Mr. Sinister; the Madeline Pryor clone; the eventual emergence of the cocooned Jean in Jamaica Bay.

The story thus emerges as an attempt to transition between the Dark Phoenix Saga and “Inferno.” That job is accomplished reasonably well. The evocations of fate and predestination are applied cleverly, albeit only after several pages of wheel-spinning and pointless imagery.

“Flights of Angels” is far from Claremont’s best work, but one can see why he felt it was necessary.


scott91777 said...

A couple of things:

First of all, I had this issue as a kid and it was my first exposure to The Dark Phoenix Saga and, even then, I felt the B-story was weak, however, your idea that Claremont felt it was necessary (an apology of sorts for decisions that weren't his own) is probably quite accurate.

Second, I just finished reading the Dark Phoenix Saga in it's entirety for the first time inspired by your postings, I actually enjoyed reading the postings more :) One of the things we discussed early on in this series was Claremont's verboseness and the amount of redundancy (some Claremont's fault, some editorially mandated, "Every Issue is Somebody's first") However, one of the things that I think was said at that point was something like "If someone today wrote like Shakespeare wrote he would face similar criticism" Basically, the arguement being you can't fault Shakespeare for writing in what was the style of the time. Which is what Claremont was doing... also, I don't know if you've read Miller's Daredevil run... but It has the same issues. There was only so far they could go within the context of a commercial comic at this time.

So, what both these works sort of are to me... are pinnacle of Silver Age (super-hero)comic story telling. They took the genre as far as it could go at the time and, not all that coincidentally, were being published at, roughly, the same time. (Miller would push violence even further than Wolverine with Daredevil where, he discovered, the secret was, apparently, that you could be as violent as you want... just don't show blood)

In any event, even though I would like to edit the hell out of Dark Phoenix, I do feel it helped the stage for a major revision that was to come later in the decade. Took it as far as the boundaries would allow... all that was left was to kick those boundaries down

scott91777 said...

Oh, and just so you know that I'm not a total Claremont-hater, I was a huge fan of him back when I was first into comics and would have considered him my favorite creator of that time... it's just difficult to read the earlier work because of what I've become more accustomed to since I got back into comics.

On that note... since you're still over a hundred issues away from it... I think something that speaks volumes about Claremont's talent is the fact that my first issue of X-men was 269, Jim Lee's second issue as regular artist... about a year or so before the big commercial push... so it wasn't a bandwagon thing. Anyway, this was possibly the worst timing possible for a new reader to come aboard. It was a 'team' book without a proper 'team' to speak of. About 20 issues earlier, Claremont had sent the Australia team (minus Wolverine) through the siege perilous and during this period, the book would alternate between being, essentially, a solo Wolverine title (with Jubilee as his sidekick), the 'muir island' team, and checking on where the various other team members had manifested themselves. Basically, very difficult for a new reader to have any idea what was going on... but still, I found the series and the characters compelling enough to be completely drawn in over the next several issues (as the team slowly reformed). So, there you have it, I'm unimpressed by what most consider Claremont's high-point or his original run but I was completely absorbed by what most consider his low-point :)

(of course the Jim Lee art helped)

Anonymous said...

I also like the theory postulated by Morrison (and perhaps the seeds were planted in this CC back up tale) that Byrne's horrible retcon in FF286 was not entirely accurate and it was indeed Jean who died on the moon and was reborn in a "phoenix egg" in Jamaica bay.

John V

wwk5d said...

I wish John Bolten had come back for this issue. How awesome would this story have been had he been the artist?

While the white Phoenix costume is interesting, I kind of prefer the green version we ended up with. I read that initially, Phoenix was supposed to be nothing more than a power-up for Jean, so I kind of liked that the Phoenix costume utilized the Marvel Girl costume color scheme.