[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.]
“Too Late the Heroes”
The sheer, thrilling power of Claremont and Byrne’s two-part Magneto story in issues 112/113 were so effective that Claremont would reprise their basic format – heroes are beaten by the villain one at a time in part one, only to rally and combine their powers to achieve success in part two, before some greater disaster snatches a defeat from the jaws of their victory – again and again over the next 13 years.
A fine variation upon the structure exists here. After being trounced by the Hellfire Club in issue 132, the X-Men spent the following issue with all but Cyclops and Wolverine treading narrative water as prisoners, only to rally here in one of the most exciting superhero action sequences ever executed in a comic book. Meanwhile, like the volcano in Uncanny #113, Jean Grey is in the background preparing to erupt and turn the X-Men’s victory into ashes.
The Hellfire Club are Claremont and Byrne’s first original team of villains created for the X-Men (Alpha Flight were created by them as well, but deliberately conceived as superheroes). The expertly execution of issues 132-134 makes them seem cooler than they are; out of context, they are an admittedly unimpressive lineup. Sebastian Shaw is a fantastic creation – a raw and rough-edged bastard dolled up in Edwardian finery – and his creative super-power generates in the reader that classically childlike reaction: “How can the heroes possibly beat him?” But his two sidekicks are hardly as awe-inspiring: Harry Leland is an overweight man who can make other people overweight as well; and Donald Pierce has no discernible personality whatsoever, other than a briefly intriguing notion that he has anti-mutant prejudices – despite all his comrades-in-arms being mutants themselves. (Pierce calls Colossus a freak during their fight.) Unsurprisingly, when Claremont uses the Hellfire Club in future stories, Shaw and the White Queen will always be portrayed as the core, the other members playing incidental roles.
Still, the Hellfire Club’s use here is masterful, and the battle between them and the X-Men is furiously exciting. There is a clever answer to the question of how to defeat Shaw – a man who absorbs kinetic energy and thus cannot be hit without becoming stronger – as well. Cannily enough, Storm simply begins sucking the heat (another form of energy) from the surrounding air, “freez[ing] the fight out of him.”
After the routing of the Hellfire Club, Claremont brings the long-running Wyngarde/Jean storyline to a breathtaking conclusion, employing text in a way we haven’t seen him explore before. Up to now, Claremont’s verbose narration either transitions readers from scene to scene, or is layered onto the scene in order to bring a more baroque, pseudo-literary overtone to the action depicted by the artist. Here, however, after Phoenix dispatches Mastermind, the text deliberately launches on a path that seems far removed from Byrne’s images. While the artist simply depicts the X-Men’s frantic escape from the Hellfire Club, Claremont creates imagery all his own in the prose. In a panel depicting just Jean walking down a corridor as Cyclops runs to catch up with her, Claremont writes:
“The obsidian flames burn brighter within her, and, in the distance, she hears music – a symphony of power long-sought and well-remembered. Transfixed by an unhuman joy, her burning soul spreads its wing, and soars towards a destiny that will no longer be denied.”
On the penultimate page, the X-Men are shown boarding their plane, and in a panel that is nothing more than the aircraft taking off, the narration goes: “She reels under the impact of more sensations than she has names for ... as her song of power builds to its inevitable crescendo.”
The overall effect of this surprising juxtaposition – imagistic prose set against prosaic images -- is chillingly powerful, and could only be achieved with such precision in comics.
On the final page, Claremont and Byrne suddenly snap back into their appropriate roles: The art contains the inevitable surprise cliffhanger of the final page: Phoenix in her evil, red-costumed incarnation for the first time, causing an explosion. And the text – delightfully, deliciously – takes us full circle, as Jean reprises the dialogue from Phoenix’s first appearance in X-Men #101, which ends with the iconic “Now and forever – I am PHOENIX!” Thus is the Dark Phoenix Saga propelled into its final three-issue act, and the momentum of the turning point could not be fiercer.