[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.]