Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #132

[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.]

“And Hellfire Is Their Name”

This issue is a triumph by Claremont and Byrne, containing an embarrassment of riches. With the exception of their utter masterpiece, Uncanny X-Men #137, this one’s their very best. It contains the return of the Angel, a beautiful love scene between Scott and Jean, a wonderfully suspenseful assault by the X-Men upon the Hellfire Club, the full unveiling of Sebastian Shaw (arguably Claremont/Byrne’s greatest addition to the X-Men rogues’ gallery), the payoff to Jason Wyngarde’s seduction of Jean along with the revelation that Wyngarde is actually Silver Age villain Mastermind, and to top it all off the best picture of Wolverine ever drawn.

The scene between Scott and Jean on the butte, in which Phoenix uses her power to hold back Scott’s, is so memorable that several writers (even Claremont himself) have attempted to exploit/recreate its power. Greg Pak’s Phoenix: Endsong riffed on it with a Scott / Emma Frost scene, which at least respected the source (the point there was that Emma’s attempt couldn’t live up to Scott’s memory of Jean). The film X3 nauseatingly co-opted the scene and turned it into a trap, with Jean controlling Scott’s power just before devouring him like a black widow.

In spite of all those dilutions, however, the original scene is so pure, so perfect, that it holds up, and a re-reading of it causes any memory of its imitators to melt away. The sequence opens with a surprising level of sexuality: Jean saying that “We’ve all grown up, Scott” as her costume changes into a few wisps of summer clothing. Scott’s first reaction is to be disconcerted at Jean’s ability to change her costume at will – a thought that foreshadows, speaks to character, and makes one laugh all at once. Claremont even gives Scott a great, self-deprecating line in the next panel. Jean observes that Scott is “brooding,” and he replies, deadpan, “It’s what I do best.”

When Jean removes Scott’s visor, he is more concerned about potential dangers than the continually rising sexual tension. Finally, the sexual suggestions on Jean’s part dissolve into a simple compliment. “You have a good face.” (Jean’s look as she says these lines is achingly gorgeous. Byrne and Austin’s level of expression is exquisite here.) And Scott can’t stop worrying about the power required for her to hold back his optic blasts, even as he falls into her arms.

This is superhero comics as metaphor, executed at a wonderfully eloquent level. Scott is the repressed male, his inability to let out emotion symbolized by the glasses that hold back his power (a metaphor pointed out by Morrison in “Comics Creators on X-Men”). He can’t deal with the stuff churning inside him, but Jean – the woman, the nurturer, much stronger than the male – can. She takes on the burden easily, even as he wonders how she can possibly handle it all. She assures him that she can, and the scene ends with the clear implication that they are about to make love – as well as the strong suggestion (especially in light of “A Love Story” in Classic X-Men #6) that it is for the very first time.

It is one of the most moving moments in the series’s history, and even though hackwork (like X-Men 3) now and again emerges that attempts to strip-mine it of all its power, the purity of the original scene will always cut through the accumulated latter-day effluvium like a laser beam.

The same can’t be said, unfortunately, of this issue’s final panel – Byrne and Austin’s phenomenal image of Wolverine emerging from a river of sewage. It’s the single most iconic Wolverine image ever, but it has become difficult to enjoy now that latter-day X-Men writers and artists have saddled the X-Men canon with countless weak recreations.

The Scott/Jean romantic sequence and the final Wolverine panel are enough to secure X-Men #132 as a classic installment in the canon, yet sandwiched between these two iconic bits of X-Men history are other, less overt moments that are no less clever despite the brilliant bits that overshadow them. The use of Angel here, for example, is quite clever: His home in New Mexico makes for an alternate base of operations since Cyclops – the master tactician – has figured out that the mansion has been compromised. Meanwhile, Warren becomes useful to the team not because of his mutant power – which is just a pair of wings, after all, at the end of the day – but because of his wealth. As the head of a “multi-million dollar company,” Warren is high society, and as such, he is a member of the Hellfire Club. That’s a fantastic idea, as is the logical next step: He can get the X-Men invited to the club’s next gala. It’s a quietly ingenious use of a character from the X-Men’s Silver Age who’d been neglected by Claremont up to now.

I also love that when the X-Men invade the Hellfire Club, they all arrive as guests except for Wolverine and Nightcrawler, who wade through sewage. How utterly perfect.

With so many glittering moments, it’s almost an afterthought that this issue features Jean’s transformation to the Black Queen, a subplot that had been simmering for months. It happens so fast amid so much other action, it’s anticlimactic in context. When the other shoe drops two issues later, however, that’s the true payoff.

[Whedon was draws on this issue heavily in his run – he pits Colossus versus Shaw, he does the Jean-Scott romance on sunset mountain scene, and he revises Wolverine rising in the sewer as the only one not taken out by the Hellfire Club by putting Kitty in the same situation and pose.]


Jason said...

As it's probably clear from what I wrote (but what the heck, I'll say it again), I HATE when people (including Claremont himself) try to reprise/revisit the Jean-Scott-on-the-mountain bit. Whedon did it, Greg Pak did it, Louise Simonson did it, Claremont did it, Ratner did it ... oh man. I wish it would stop. No one's ever going to match the beauty of the original.

(I hated the Kitty-in-the-sewer panel too.)

scott91777 said...

Isn't the Wolverine-rising-from-the-sewer-moment widely considered the moment that Wolverine becomes WOLVERINE... that is the moment that he finally comes into his own as a character? That is as you have written in this posts, Byrne and Claremont had slowly been building him up from being a comic-relief hothead and this is the culmination of that.

Patrick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Patrick said...

I'd agree with that, I think it says something like "Wolverine vs. the Hellfire Club. 'Nuff Said," and this is one of the few nuff saids that really lives up to that billing.

In a lot of ways I prefer this Hellfire Club stuff to the Dark Phoenix arc proper since I think it plays more to the strengths of the X-Men concept. The whole arc is fantastic, but this and the next issue are the high point for me.

Anonymous said...

Wow, so much to be said here. I may have to break this up!

Jason, I agree with most of your post. But since "I agree" is boring, let me focus on some differences.

The Hellfire Club were the first of several attempts by Claremont to create a set of anti-X-Men... a replacement for the old Legion of Evil Mutants. The original Legion wasn't available, and anyway Claremont had already decided to make Magneto a solo BBEG and then gradually reform him.

So, the Club as Legion of Evil Mutants -- they've even got one of the LoEM's founding members. Does it work?

Well... not for me. YMMV. My biggest problem with the Club has always been that they're not really a menace. They don't want to take over the world or organize the mutants against the humans. They're just a bunch of selfish bastards who want to have fun and play their sick little games. It's clear in this first appearance that they're villains out of boredom more than anything else.

Not that there's anything wrong with that! There've been plenty of good villains who aren't after world conquest. But, thematically, it doesn't fit so well with making them major opponents for the X-Men.

I think Claremont realized this... which is why he made a second run at the concept a few months later, creating an entirely new Legion and explicitly naming them as such. And when that didn't work so well either (for reasons we can go into when we reach those issues), he tried again, with the Marauders, and then again.

The Hellfire Club got more interesting in later appearances. That's because Claremont stopped trying to use them as an alternate Legion and dealt with them on their own terms: as a bunch of spoiled rich jerks playing creepy little games. But in this arc, they're trying to be two things at once, and IMO it results in a certain loss of thematic focus.

(This is a fancy-fancy way of describing the reaction my teenage self had to this issue: wait, so it's the Legion of Evil Mutants! "So the fat guy is the Blob!" "No, he's not the Blob... he has a different name." "But he's fat and has, like, mass powers. And Mastermind changed his name, right?" "Dude, I'm telling you, it's not the Blob." "Well... he's boring, then.")

So ISTM that putting Mastermind in the Club, and having him be the mystery villain, was something of a mistake. Despite his power, Mastermind was always a loser; it was actually something of a letdown to find that the mysterious Wyngarde was really this distinctly second-string old-time Lee-Kirby villain.

That said, having made what I view as a questionable choice, C&B manage to do quite a lot with it. Most obviously, it'll turn out that Mastermind /is/ still a loser; he has no idea what he's doing, or the force that he's playing with; and he's going to end up a slobbering vegetable. Ah, but I rush ahead.

The other thing I'd like to talk about is the whole Dark Phoenix As Fear Of Female Sexuality business. But time presses, and that deserves a comment of its own.

Doug M.

Jason said...

Scott, yeah, that seems about right!

Patrick, good point -- I agree, X-Men vs. Hellfire seems more *right* than X-Men vs. Cosmic Menace.

Doug -- I can't recall if I've mentioned this in any of the blog postings, but I am a big ol' sucker for the "good team vs. evil-team-of-opposites" motif. And I think it's something Claremont does very well. You're right, there are some cracks in the Hellfire's facade when you examine the concept closely, but I think in this issue -- and again in 134 -- Claremont and Byrne find a great balance between "rich sickos" and "super villains." It comes off very well.

But Claremont had a tendency to mutate his recurring enemies, over time, into allies. It's one of his recurring habits -- he did it with Magneto, the Hellfire Club, the Morlocks, and Mystique's Brotherhood. That's something I intend to explore. I'm sure you have some thoughts on that as well!

It strikes me as a little odd that Lee/Kirby created a lackey, second-string villain but called him, grandiosely, "Mastermind." Charitably it's a very early example of irony in superhero comics, but it never quite made sense. So I like that Claremont and Byrne actually make the character into a villain capable of masterminding a long-term plan, and following through. Finally, the guy's name makes sense!

I'll be interested to hear your take on Phoenix. I've heard the argument made before that Dark Phoenix played up negative female stereotypes -- however the argument came from a complete idiot, so I sort of dismissed it. But you, Doug -- you dang troublemaker -- will probably make me completely rethink my position.

Josh Hechinger said...

I love the Hellfire Club. I mean, it's all girls in corsets and racist robot Jefferson and the tremendous badassity of Shaw...

They're not world beaters by any stretch of the imagination, but they make for good comics.

Anonymous said...

Well then, let me make some trouble.

It seems to me that your post, good as it is, misses a couple of elephants in the kitchen... and maybe a girlfriend in the refrigerator, too.

Let's start easy, with the structure of the issue. And it is structured, to a degree rare even for top-form Claremont & Byrne, and almost unknown in mainstream comics up to this time.

We have two parts to this issue -- the intro in New Mexico, and the attack on the Hellfire Club in New York.

New Mexico is sunny and warm and clean. In New York, it's night and cold and snowing, and some of the action takes place in a sewer.

In New Mexico the X-Men are casual, in jeans and bathing suits. In New York, they're formal, in uniform or in evening dress.

New Mexico is wide open and outdoors. All but a couple of panels in New York are indoors, and some are claustrophobically so -- Nightcrawler and Wolverine going through tunnels.

New Mexico is heavenly, with an angel soaring high above. The Hellfire Club is hellish, with the two least human members of the team -- the one who /looks/ horrible, and the one who really /is/ horrible -- creeping through the sewers.

The very first panel has Angel flying high. The very last panel has Wolverine emerging from the muck deep underground.

All well and good, but is there a point to this? Oh my yes.

The biggest contrast of all, of course, is between the Good Jean of the first part and the Bad Jean of the finish. Let's take a closer look at those.

Jean Grey was, hands down, the most boring member of the new X-Men. She didn't come from an exotic background; she had no childhood trauma. She wasn't deformed. Her powers were useful and well-behaved. Her family? Some rather dull people from upstate New York... they were probably Republicans, for goodness' sake. There was nothing distinctive about Jean whatsoever; in a group that included an African goddess, a berserker animal-man, and a guy who looked like a demon from Hell, Jean was a perfectly ordinary middle-class white American.

So, turning her into Phoenix was a stroke of brilliance... but let that bide. Let's look at that scene on the mesa.

What's interesting here is that now Jean -- bland, whitebread Jean -- is *dominant*. She flies them up to the mesa; she changes their clothes; she starts the lovemaking. And when she blocks Scott's eyebeams, it's explicit that /she's more powerful than he is/.

Scott, by way of contrast, is passive. Cautious, repressed... timid, even. She has to unlock him.

Notice that Claremont and Byrne manage to sexualize their powers as well. Scott's power is, well, masculine -- thrusting, blasting, destructive, linear. Jean, well, takes him in hand. It's obvious without being blatant.

So far, so good. But now consider what follows.

The elephant in the room is that this scene comes just a few pages before Jean's transformation into the Black Queen. The wholesome, loving sexuality of the mesa is almost instantly twisted and corrupted. There's a message here, and it's a bit troubling. More on this anon.

The Black Queen: isn't it obvious that this is Jean turned inside out? Mesa-Jean was a nice girl releasing her inner domina and taking charge of things. The Black Queen is Jean's strong-willed id made flesh -- she's all dom, from her bustier right down to her shiny leather boots. But only on the outside! In reality, she's the passive one, totally under Mastermind's control.

So, Jean turned inside out, the overtly sexual Hyde-version: interesting, cool, and it works thematically with what's gone before. If they'd stopped there, this could have been an awesome story arc.

Instead they pushed it further... and came up with something that's a legitimate classic, but also gravely and painfully flawed.

More on that anon too. But already in this issue, notice how we're plumbing one of the fundamental male anxieties: I want her to have sex with me... but if she'll do it with me, might she then do it with someone else? The next smooth-talking guy to come along?

The answer this issue gives is /yes/: female sexuality, once unleashed, simply cannot be controlled. The Jean who's willing to go all the way on top of that mesa is, inevitably, going to turn into the Bad Jean who's draped over that worthless sleazebag Wyngarde.

Now, this isn't a particularly enlightened view of female nature or heterosexual relationships. It just isn't.

On the other hand, it's what gives this story its punch. Take out the mesa scene, and the rest of this arc would... well, it just wouldn't work.

Incredibly, I have more to say on this topic, but I'll stop for now. Thoughts?

Doug M.

Jason said...

Doug, you should be writing this series. :)

The comments on the structure of the issue are great. Particularly the symmetry of the opening shot (Angel above) and the closing (Wolverine below). I know you said it was "obvious," but I hadn't really considered it. I'm red-faced now.

As for the rest ... well, one thing has recently troubled me about Dark Phoenix. It occurred to me when reading comments on this blog about the whole Green Lantern/Parallax thing. I'll copy and paste what Geoff said: "the influence of demons or whatever is more interesting if we feel they are an external way of showing an internal conflict, rather than what just amounts to mind control."

And now I'm thinking about what you wrote, about how Jean's slow seduction plays to a fundamental male anxiety. It's true, but then I start thinking about Jean as a character, and I say, wait. But this entire thing is manipulated by Wyngarde. Jean's transformation is in no way organic, and while I think the sexual metaphors that we see on the butte scene are clear and workable, something gets fouled up when we extend the metaphor to the Mastermind material. Mainly, because it is all external -- Jean's corruption never feels like the result of internal forces to me.

But I could be failing to read the metaphorical level. I guess my question is, what internal conflict in Jean is being shown via the Mastermind seduction? At the moment I can't quite see it, and that is frustrating my reading of the story.

The best I can come up with on the fly is that it's a metaphor for sexual awakening. (In which case, Phoenix could have been the fourth character in Alan Moore's "Lost Girls.") If that's the case, then indeed, matters do become complicated in some troubling ways.

Patrick said...

I don't think the female sexuality component of the story is as probelmatic as Doug implies. Outside of our world (our society), Jean is able to fully express her power and that power can heal the universe. After that, Xavier tries to keep her under control and she isn't able to fully express herself.

On the mesa, away from societal influence, she's able to use the full extent of her power, and, yes, she does dominate Scott, but not in a negative way. It's only the corrupting influence of the patriarchy that messes up Jean, specifically Mastermind's attempts to use Jean's power (sexuality) for his own ends. What he wants is the illusion that Jean has real power, but in actuality, all that power would be controlled by him.

So, in the end, it's not the power itself that's bad, it's the way her power is corrupted by the society she lives in, and specifically the ruling class. It's dressed up in superhero action, but really this is a story about a bunch of wealthy men exploiting one woman for their own ends.

Josh Hechinger said...

I'm going to go with Patrick on this and say that Jean's problems are more a result of old white dudes messing with her than her coming into her own.

But what really interests me in all this is Scott.

See, both Wyngarde and Xavier see Jean's power as something THEY need to control, either through manipulation or by mentally clamping her down.

Neither one really "gets" what's happening to her, they just operate on the assumption that it's too much for little Jean to handle without the firm hand of experienced men like themselves.

Which ends up being a mistake, obviously. In Wyngarde's case, his mistake is not knowing his limitations. In Xavier's case, it's assuming that nobody can match his rigid discipline, even if they wanted to.

Speaking of rigid discipline...

Compare their stances to Scott, who's probably the most spooked by Jean's power...

...And still always takes the stance that SHE'S the one who needs to control it. From a few issues later:

"It consumes me, Scott."
"It doesn't have to. Trust me."

He may occasionally worry that she can control it, but I don't think it ever enters his mind that anyone besides her should be dealing with that responsibility.

Which is kind of brilliant on Claremont's part, because if anyone knows what Jean's going through, it's Scott Summers, who spends 24 hours a day trying to keep his eyes from killing everyone.

Jason said...

This thread is awesome.

Anonymous said...

Patrick, I like your take on it. Good point, that both Wyngarde and Xavier both sell Jean short.

That said, I don't believe the "rich old white guys messing with her head" explanation is the right one. Jean is going a bit wobbly long before she hits the Hellfire club; she /enjoys/ kicking the crap out of Firelord, and later she takes just a little too much pleasure in crushing the White Queen.

More to the point, later we're told that the progression to Dark Phoenix is "inevitable". Yes, this has been retconned six ways from Sunday, but it was clearly what C&B intended at the time.

That's not so great. Yeah, you can give a female character cosmic-level powers, but she'll *inevitably* go out of control and blow up. Oh dear, oh dear.

And the conflation of this with sexuality makes it more complex and compelling, but in some ways even worse. Notice the implicit message of this arc: sleep with your girlfriend, and she'll first turn into a total slut... and then lose control and blow up the world!

Am I reading too much into this? Well, consider Claremont's most successful apprentice, Josh Whedon. What happens when, after a season and a half of rising sexual tension, Buffy finally sleeps with Angel?

Or, to push the anxiety-of-influence arrow in the opposite direction, consider an author who was an acknowleged major influence on young Claremont: Roger Zelazny. Now, I love me some Zelazny -- he's one of the great prose stylists, not just of SF, but of modern American writing generally. But here's a thing about Zelazny: the sexually aggressive woman is always always always bad news. If she's not actually evil, she's deeply implicated in chaos or destruction. There aren't any exceptions.

So, Patrick, I can't agree with your reading. I might find it more plausible if early Claremont showed more of a penchant for social criticism generally. But he doesn't. (Unless you count the Very Special Issue with Storm and the addict kids. Which, umm.)

And speaking of Storm, let's flash forward to the awful "Rogue Storm" issue, where Storm is mind-controlled, put in a sexy outfit and treated as a plaything, and then breaks loose and gets /really mad/. This was bad on multiple levels -- we can go into why when we reach that issue -- but it does show pretty clearly what Claremont had in mind. "She faces the demon within, just as Jean did!" Well, what demon is that, Chris? Sexuality? Anger? Loss of control? It really looks like the three were, at this point, somewhat squashed together in Claremont's thinking.

(To his credit, he seems to have gotten some of this stuff straightened out later. Storm's eventual awakening to sex and love would have problems, goodness knows, but it would be much better than this flinch-inducing first attempt.)

So, I stand my ground: it's female sexuality that's the issue here. And it's being treated in a manner that can fairly be described as adolescent.

But is this really a surprise? Consider where comics were in 1978-79! The modal Marvel comics reader was still a teenage male. Hell, Claremont and Byrne were still both twentysomethings. And it's not like the mainstream books, TV or movies of the late 1970s had a good grip on this sort of thing either.

Jason, it helps a little if you look again at the Heaven/Hell division in this issue. Heavenly sexuality is tender, loving and consensual; hellish sexuality is loveless, exploitative, and based on fraud and messing with your head. In a sense, it couldn't come from within Jean; it has to be at least partially rape.

I say it helps a little because that still leaves the bigger issue confused. In an issue or two we'll see that it /did/ come from within Jean; Mastermind's clumsy fumbling just accelerated a process that was already under way.

This is why I say, if they'd stopped there, with Jean's dark side reified (against her will, but necessarily so) as the Black Queen... then they'd have produced a very strong and memorable story. Instead they rolled for double. And won much, and also lost much too.

But we'll get to that.

Doug M.

Anonymous said...

Jason, glad you like it!

Some quick throwaway thoughts about the rest of this issue:

-- It took me a long time to realize it, but: the lead villain in this arc wears a frock coat and a purple bow in his hair. A BIG purple bow. But Byrne, God love him, made it work.

Did any other artist ever manage to make Sebastian Shaw look cool? I mean, with the bow and all?

-- Neat scene: where wossname the cyborg grabs Nightcrawler, and Wolverine promptly slashes his arm open. The art makes it obvious this would be a serious, life-threatening wound on a normal human. Wolverine never hesitates. It's a nice bit of foreshadowing for next issue's unpleasantness in the basement.

-- Jean's black dress is almost identical to the dress she was wearing in issue #98, the first Sentinels trilogy. Which, you'll recall, she was still wearing -- somewhat the worse for wear -- when she was transformed into Phoenix.

-- Also in issue 98, we have Scott and Jean declaring their love, just before the Sentinels show up and it all goes pear-shaped. Now this is still the Cockrum era, three years earlier, so there's no sexual implication at all; they're walking arm-in-arm through Christmas shoppers, and it's all "I love you, Scott Summers" "And I... love you too." They kiss. Sweet and wholesome. Still...

-- A third parallel to issue #98: that one takes place just before Christmas. Jean's transformation happens on or around Christmas Day; IMS (and it may not) she mentions spending New Years in the hospital in issue #101. This issue takes place in winter -- we see snow in New York -- not long before Christmas, which will arrive just a few issues later (#143, with Kitty).

(Do the intervening issues track the seasons? Why, yes they do -- #110, for instance, takes place in the summer, with outdoor baseball and lots of green leaves.)

Putting aside the obvious Phoenix-Christmas thing, this suggests that Jean-as-Phoenix lasted exactly one year, winter to winter: a full cycle of death, rebirth, and death again.

-- Meanwhile, summing the parallels: in #98 we had Jean in the black dress, expressing her love to Scott -- but chastely! -- in New York City just before Christmas; things immediately go bad, by issue's end she and Scott are captives, and in a couple of issues she'll be transformed into Phoenix.

Here we have Jean expressing her love to Scott (not chastely); the black dress; winter in New York City just before Christmas; by issue's end she and Scott are captives, and in a couple of issues she'll be transformed into Dark Phoenix.

Conclusion: Dark Phoenix is what happens when you go past second base.

Doug M.

Jason said...


Okay, I see what you're saying, re: the treatment of female sexuality in the Wyngarde scenario.

I'm not sure I'm convinced that this rolls over into Act Three in any workable way. We can continue this discussion as the blog entries continue to cover the Dark Phoenix Saga, but ... there's a point at which DPS clicks over, isn't there? Sexuality seems to exit the equation at the same time the Hellfire Club does, and then it becomes something more to do with corruption/abuse-of-power, irrespective of gender.

And even if gender is still a factor, the story is not so one-sided as to suggest that Jean flatly cannot control her power. As Josh pointed out, both perspectives are presented: Xavier's, which is that Jean cannot be trusted to deal with the Phoenix power, and Scott, who believes she can.

Note also that Jean's choice at the end is presented in the story as a redeeming one, rather than one of defeat.

(I'm not totally sure I'm convinced by my own counter-arguments here -- just trying to work through my own initial reactions to what you're presenting, Doug.)

Jason said...

Re: the bow. Geoff made a comment about how lame the bow is during his look at the Grant Morrison run. Somewhere in one of my blogs I did a riposte to that point. Might be in one of my looks at the Bolton back-ups in Classic X-Men.

Those parallels are indeed striking, although I think you're off on placing the time of the Hellfire Club invasion. It is not winter -- it's raining, not snowing. And while issue 143 is set at Christmastime, you forget that the intervening arc (Days of Future Past, in 141-142) is explicitly set on Halloween.

Also, you forget that we've seen a Christmas happen in between issues 98 and 143 -- specifically, issue 119. So the Phoenix cycle lasted at least two years, not one.

Still, I agree with your general appraisal of the arc from 98 to 134 -- there is absolutely a "full circle" quality to it all.

Anonymous said...

Damn, you're right. I forgot about issue #119. Teach me to do this stuff from memory.

What's awesome is that the bow /doesn't/ look lame. It's like drawing a character who's a badass with a mullet.

Let's continue the discussion over the next few issues, check. But note that while sexuality recedes, it never quite disappears. Certainly it's there in the final issue.

Jean controlling her power: well, of course Scott's going to think so. What's he going to do, write off the woman he loves as inevitably doomed? But in the context of the series, it's clear that Scott has trouble being objective where Jean is concerned.

In the meta-context of Marvel comics... well, how long did it take to have a Thor/Silver Surfer level superpowered heroine who /wasn't/ depowered or given the refrigerator treatment? She-Hulk comes close, but she's not quite in that league. (Although I loves me some She-Hulk, and view the Sex And The City version as setting some kind of high bar for the treatment of female characters in mainstream comics.) I'm not sure what the answer is, but I can't think of any before the back half of the 1980s.

A second meta-question: how long was it before Marvel... no, let's go with mainstream comics generally. How long was it before comics showed a female character who was

sane and likable;
had a sex life;
and wasn't punished for it?

I'm pretty sure it was Wolfman & Perez's Teen Titans, circa 1982-3. Both Starfire and Wonder Girl are sexually active in that run, and neither gets in trouble for it. (Though Wonder Girl is forced to hook up with a rather drippy Mary Sue version of Wolfman. And then of course there's Raven, and also Terra. Anyhow.)

These were a bit exceptional, though -- far too many comics writers took the wrong lesson, and responded by letting female characters have sex, but then using it as a stick to beat them with. It's still a problem. Which brings us back to the damn refrigerator again; we'll be talking about that refrigerator some more here.

But anyway, point is, in the meta-context of mainstream comics c. 1979, Jean Grey was headed for a world of hurt.

Doug M.

Josh Hechinger said...

"Note also that Jean's choice at the end is presented in the story as a redeeming one, rather than one of defeat."

When she does make the choice, it really reads like she's using the Xavier argument as an excuse, when the real reason is guilt over, y'know, killing a planet.

And to be fair, "she's super dangerous" is an easier motive for a kid to wrap his head around than a superhero with genocide guilt.

neilshyminsky said...

I'm with Doug on very nearly every point. (i'd go into more detail, but don't have the time) I wrote a paper in my 4th year of undergrad about the way that Claremont gendered superpowers, and about the troubling way in which the moments where his female heroes realize they can transcend their limits is often paired with a change in sexual expression (in addition to this issue, think of Storm's punk phase, Psylocke's reincarnation as a ninja...). If we are supposed to fear the dangerous growth/change in the powers, are we being told that we should also fear their more explicit sexuality?

I'd also suggest that this association seems all the more obvious and disturbing when you look at the male characters, whose powers rarely change (perhaps in degree, but never in type) and whose sexuality and expression of that sexuality is likewise quite consistent.

neilshyminsky said...

Also, Josh's point about Xavier and Mastermind both expression a patriarchal desire to confine and control Jean's power, whereas passive-but-progressive Scott offers empathy, is a fantastic one.

Josh Hechinger said...

Thanks, Neil. Honestly, it's just such a brilliant bit of characterization on Claremont's part; there's just so many natural reasons Scott would have empathy to Jean's situation beyond just the fact that she's his girlfriend.

Regarding your point about the guys in X-Men not changing much in their power/sexuality, though...I don't know about that.

Banshee, the oldest of the team, becomes essentially impotent.

Colossus and Nightcrawler both eventually suffer injuries that hinder their powers.

Captain Britain gets fluctuating powers due to lack of confidence and too much alcohol.

Angel flat out loses his wings.

It's pretty blatant, but it's an obvious flip-side to the empowerment/loss of control theme the women have to deal with.

Speaking of: while the realization of the women's power is always a rough process under Claremont, the end result tends to be largely positive.

Psylocke and Rogue both end up as more formidable and popular characters after their "upgrades".

Jean's daughter controls the Phoenix Force better than her mom did, because she didn't grow up with Prof. X and a 1960s mentality trying to repress her.

And Storm doesn't lose a step after Forge shoots her with his big metal dick and steals her powers.

(Which is probably Claremont's least subtle moment ever. I mean, seriously...)

j.liang said...

Loving this thread, though it looks like Geoff has just posted the next installment of Jason's series.

Doug: Your insights are intriguing but I tend to agree with Jason on this. I haven't worked out anything concrete, yet -- I'm re-reading these issues in trade now because of this thread -- and I'm definitely curious to read what more you have to say about the rest of the Dark Phoenix saga.

Josh: Technically, Storm loses her powers when Henry Gyrich shoots Storm with Forge's "big metal dick." (All together now: Ewwwwwww.) Storm actually regains her powers when Forge pulls the trigger -- and ain't that what love is all about?

Jason said...

Josh, I agree. Claremont almost always is kinder to his women, making them more formidable and powerful as time goes by. His men, meanwhile, often suffer from a lack of potency and formidability.

(Another example is the Havok/Dazzler rivalry circa issues 240-250, where a running bit was Havok doing something impressive with his blaster, then Dazzler pulling off something even more impressive with her laser.)

Consider also the original New Mutants, where a running arc for Cannonball (a male) was that while all the other members of the team (who were mostly females) seemed to get better at using their powers, he just stayed the same.

And Neil, regarding this point -- "If we are supposed to fear the dangerous growth/change in the powers, are we being told that we should also fear their more explicit sexuality?" -- I'm not sure we ARE supposed to fear either aspect. As Josh noted, these changes are almost always shown as being ultimately positive. (Storm and Psylocke both ultimately synthesize their new-found bad-ass-ness.)

Josh Hechinger said...

"Josh: Technically, Storm loses her powers when Henry Gyrich shoots Storm with Forge's "big metal dick." (All together now: Ewwwwwww.) Storm actually regains her powers when Forge pulls the trigger -- and ain't that what love is all about?"

Ha, I forgot that Gyrich was involved (and originally gunning for Rogue, right?). Oh, comics...

Jason: it's probably worth noting that Storm's crisis is losing her powers; Claremont's treating her like one of the boys, even if she does adapt to it quite well.

Jason said...

Josh, that was one of her crises. The first came around issue 172, when her powers were going out of control because she was getting emotional. When she accepted it (and became punk Storm), she was all good.

Then, yes, there was the loss-of-power crisis ... but as you point out, she adapts to it by becoming even more of a bad-ass (we learn two issues later that she is a crack shot with a gun). As opposed to Kurt and Peter, who have a much more difficult time.

Then when Storm regains her powers, she's the ultimate, having synthesized her punkiness, her now-well-cultivated toughness, and her mutant power into one perfectly integrated package that puts virtually every Claremont male to shame.

Jason said...

Sidenote: I've said this in the review for the issue, but ... for the record, I do not like the Forge/Ororo romance as it's first conceived in issue 186 ("Lifedeath"). It strikes me as horribly contrived and forced.

But I do love the issue in which Forge gives Storm her powers back. J.Liang, I agree with you -- that IS what love's all about! :)

neilshyminsky said...

Jason: "I'm not sure we ARE supposed to fear either aspect. As Josh noted, these changes are almost always shown as being ultimately positive."

Ultimately, sure. And maybe that means that Claremont is trying to demonstrate that powerful and sexual women, while at first frightening - Storm losing control, Psylocke being turned into an assassin - are not so scary a thing. I'm just not sure why we have to go through the scary phase first.

Josh: You're right about how a number of the male characters are made impotent, of course. I was thinking only of increasing powers, not reducing or eliminating them. Which is not to say that it doesn't still fit Claremont's odd model wherein anxiety is induced whenever a women becomes more powerful and a man less so.

Jason said...

Neil, it could just be as simple as that sexual change/growth/maturation IS scary for many people?

(Though then THAT raises the question of why Claremont only shows the women going through the "scary" process, and never the dudes.)

Anonymous said...

"I'm just not sure why we have to go through the scary phase first."

Maturation on the part of (1) Claremont as a writer, and/or (2) mainstream comics generally.

Doug M.

Patrick said...

If there's no scary phase, where's your story? Woman gets great powers and uses them for good isn't much of a story, woman gets great powers, struggles to integrate them into her life, then eventually emerges a fuller, more integrated person is more interesting.

It's important to keep in mind that Claremont is writing essentially a soap opera. The characters are always going to suffer because otherwise there's no story. I don't know that much about the man himself, but in the stories at least, there's a clear female dominant, male submissive motif running through, and I think that's why you always have male characters who struggle with impotence and female characters who struggle from having too much power. It's quite similar to Whedon's work, where people like Xander or Gunn always feel like they don't have much to contribute, while Willow and Illyria border on evil because they've got so much power.

neilshyminsky said...

patrick: The problem isn't so much the scary phase as it is that the scary powerful phase is always matched with a scary sexuality phase. (And the fact that it's always the women that go through the scary powerful phase.) The combination seems unnecessary.

j.liang said...

Neil: "If we are supposed to fear the dangerous growth/change in the powers, are we being told that we should also fear their more explicit sexuality?"

Claremont's answer to this is a qualified, "Yes." This being the Marvel Universe, we all know what accompanies great power when you're a hero. In the context of her relationship with Scott, Jean's enhanced telekinetic abilities and newfound sexual confidence are a wonderful thing. Her Black Queen persona is the abandonment of responsibility: power used selfishly, sexuality separated from love or caring.

Claremont is much more explicit about this once Jean becomes Dark Phoenix.

Stephen said...

What a terrific thread. All kudos to Jason & Doug for their extraordinary work.

On the main point here, I think Doug has been more persuasive.

I wish I had more to add than nibbling around at the edges; but frankly I don't.

Two Whedonesque points, however.

Doug M cites the Buffy/Angel romance from season two, which I think is not the best metaphor for a bunch of reasons. The better Buffy-esque metaphor here is clearly Willow from Season 6: after the single most sexually charged episode with Tara, she is turned into Dark Willow -- and is explicitly compared to Dark Pheonix by one of the nerds. And then, after being punished for her Lesbian sexuality, she is saved by her First Heterosexual Love, Xander, pledging his undying love. -- Now that's a recaptiulation of the problematics of the Dark Pheonix story, just squared and given a homophobic twist. (Note to those who don't know me: I absolutely love Buffy. I just didn't like this particular storyline.)

Second, I dissent from Jason saying he didn't like the Kitty-in-the-sewer final panel homage. I personally loved it -- taking the formerly weakest X-man, the one who seemed least Wolverine-like (even saying in Whedon's first issue she wasn't a fighter), and making her the Wolverine-esque badass (even while taking Wolverine himself down several dozen pegs). What I didn't like was the follow-through: other than a good take-down of the White Queen, Kitty didn't do much after the image, not enough to justify the homage.

Again: great post, great thread. Hats off.


Jason said...

The thing is that Claremont already elided Kitty and Wolverine -- put them in a miniseries together and made Kitty into Logan's protege. Whedon's "Wolverine"-izing of Kitty is redundant. (But this has been my major bone of contention from the start. Folks like Whedon and Morrison are getting kudos for X-Men work that really was just doing things that Claremont already did, yet no one seems to remember. Sorry, it's probably getting old by now.)

I do agree that Doug's been more convincing. Dang it. :)

Paul C said...

If this thread doesn't make it on to the Best of the Blog list, there's no justice in this sorry world.

Anonymous said...

Stephen, as for Dark Willow, I moved abroad in the middle of Season Three. So my Buffy-fu is weak for the later seasons.

But the common element here is sexual danger: you get messed up by sexual experiences that are transgressive. Nobody gets transformed into Dark Husband after having vanilla heterosex with the wife. In Season Two, Buffy was still in high school, so any sex was dangerous. By Season Six, when everyone was in college, ordinary heterosex wouldn't do it.

Bringing this back to Scott and Jean, was their sexual encounter transgressive? By the standards of 1979, no... but by the standards of mainstream comics, most definitely yes.

One last thought. I'm a huge fan of Lois McMaster Bujold. She once said that the vast majority of published tragic romances are written from a male perspective, and that most of them end with the woman either dead or forced back into her bad situation of origin (a loveless marriage or some such). The man is usually left free to love, or at least have sex, again. That's certainly the case here -- Claremont practically rushes Scott into a rebound relationship, with a female character who has utterly no reason for existing other than to be his rebound girlfriend.

But, okay, we'll get to that.

Doug M.

j.liang said...

Doug: Okay, I understand that the narrative pattern is "Destruction and death follow transgressive sex," but I'm still a little unclear as to why this is necessarily read as "Transgressive sex CAUSES death and destruction."

I agree that, in the Buffy Season Two example, this is clearly the case. Angel -- note, NOT Buffy -- becomes Dark Boyfriend BECAUSE he has (relatively vanilla) heterosex with a girl two centuries his junior. (Technically, the "moment of pure happiness" during/after sex is to blame, but I think they're practically synonymous.) Sex with Buffy causes Angel's loss of control; death, destruction and chaos ensue. This is a metaphor for typical teenage and not-necessarily-female anxiety: "I want him to have sex with me...but if we do it, he may turn into an asshole the next morning."

Jean's transformation into Dark Phoenix is not caused by having sex with Scott but is instead the result of giving into her repressed fantasies as embodied by the Black Queen: subservience to a man, pleasure as an end in itself, abandonment of all responsibility. She is seduced by her fantasy man Wyngarde into abandoning her very identity as a modern woman and mutant superhero. By the time she wakes up, it's too late: she has, by virtue of who and what she is, become a supervillain of cosmic proportions.

If anyone is having transgressive sex here, it's Mastermind. The use of his mutant power is masculine sexuality run amok -- seducing Jean under false pretenses while violating her mind repeatedly in a quest for power. He pays the price for it, too, so it seems the message isn't "Sleep with your girlfriend, and she'll first turn into a total slut...and then lose control and blow up the world!" but should be "Treat women with respect...OR ELSE!"

Am I being too literal here? Too naive?

Anonymous said...

J. Liang, a professor of mine once pointed out that it's a damn shame English has only one word for "why" and one word for "because".

Events don't have to have one cause. Especially in art! Hamlet dies because his uncle is a treacherous murdering bastard /and/ because he himself is painfully indecisive. Jean falls because she has sex with Scott /and/ she's seduced by Mastermind.

Doug M.

wwk5d said...

I agree with J. Liang, her possession by Mastermind is what drives her over the edge. It has nothing to do with her hooking up with Scott. And, she was already showing signs of corruption and changes before she and Scott did it. As established, Jean would've been corrupted anyway; Mastermind just sped up the process.

One thing to remember, C&B didn't originally intend to kill her off at the end of this story, so, it's not like there was a plan to punish her for having sex. She would be depowered, and then have another character arc culminating in # 150 where, after coping with her power loss, rejects Magneto's offer to give her back her powers...

Aaron Forever said...

I think the issue with Jean is that Claremont and Cockrum gave her a power boost to make her interesting and useful, and the direction that was set out from nearly the first moment was a story about "absolute power corrupting absolutely." it evolved to incorporate some elements like addicts falling off the wagon (she got the taste of the drug - her true unbridled power - and couldn't get enough of it or resist it for long - and it kept corrupting her like a drug). it was only incidental that it was a female that it was happening to, even if that does make it that much more "tragic" in a literary sense.

the added sexual implications are just icing on the cake that evolved organically from her relationships to people in the book, adding a deeper, unintended layer to the entire thing.

of course I could be wrong. the misogyny could have been calculated all along. Byrne was the co-plotter after all.

but I wouldn't change a thing. it all comes together to create a fantastic story on every level.

was anyone writing comics with this many layers, whether every layer was intended or not, in 1979/1980?

Aaron Forever said...

plus, Scott & Jean finally doing it on the butte (hehe) was needed to finally get that over with before it was too late for them to ever consummate their relationship, but to also make it that much more painful for Scott.

the Dark Phoenix saga is very much Scott's story. moreso, after it was decided that Jean had to die.

rhamilton said...

Way late to this party, but one of the funniest implications of the later ret-con to me is that Summers lost his virginity on top of a mesa with an evil cosmic entity of unimaginable power.