Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #135

[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.]

“Dark Phoenix”

The Dark Phoenix Saga is perpetually in print, thanks to Marvel’s regular periodic reprinting of a trade paperback containing Uncanny X-Men issues 129-137. But because the seduction of Phoenix by Jason Wyngarde – a key thread of the plot – began in issue 125 and climaxed with 134, a poster to John Byrne’s message board once, understandably, asked whether Byrne agreed with the congregational assessment that 129 and 137 are the appropriate start and endpoints to the storyline. Byrne answered in the unequivocal positive.

Still, the final line of issue 134 is a clear signal that the comics collected between the covers of the Dark Phoenix paperback are only the final phase of a saga that really began back in X-Men 101, the birth of Phoenix. This was the slowest of slow burns, and almost everything to occur in the series between then and now feeds into the closing chapters of the saga somehow.

With that broader context, the present issue’s sudden shift in tone and setting – from the classically superheroic trappings of the Hellfire Club battles to cosmic vistas that incorporate the surprising return to the series of Lilandra and the Shi’ar – seems less violent and arbitrary. More than anything, Claremont wants this final act of the Dark Phoenix saga – the true transformation of Phoenix from creator to destroyer – to be seen as a reflection of the “M’krann Crystal” material from Uncanny #108 (hence two separate references to #108 in editor Jim Salicrup’s footnotes, only eight pages apart, with a third reference to it in the next issue as well, only three pages in).

The key line occurs in Claremont’s narration, after Phoenix destroys a star (thus causing the death of an entire planetary population): “... She knows that this is only the beginning – that what she feels now is nothing compared to what she experienced within the great M’krann Crystal.” It’s a fine dramatic irony at play here: When Phoenix repaired the crystal – thereby saving the Universe – the thrill of using her power also made her addicted to it, and now that addiction has made her destructively power-mad.

Byrne has a lot of fun going cosmic with this issue – his and Austin’s rendition of a Shi’ar starship is a fantastic visual – but as is often the case, it is the artist’s subtler, quieter touches that make all the difference. For all the cosmic craziness of this particular issue, the most eye-catching visual occurs on the final page, with the Beast and Nightcrawler – both blue and furry X-Men – are depicted in identical poses.

Claremont’s finest narrative contribution is also subtle. Again displaying a desire – used to thrilling effect in the previous issue – to augment Byrne’s visuals with imagistic prose, he adds a surprising bit of narration to the end of Phoenix’s decisively one-sided battle with the X-Men:

“For a moment, the goddess-masque slips – and Jean Grey’s face shatters with a grief that transcends thought. But the moment passes, the humanity fades – perhaps forever – and only Dark Phoenix remains.”

It’s a small touch, but ultimately crucial. The exotic spelling of “mask” is a neatly subtle touch of alien-ness that sets up the character’s launch into her newly cosmic-scaled milieu, while the allusion to Jean Grey’s humanity sets up her return to earth in the next issue. These captions are a fine example of the incredible attention to detail in Chris Claremont’s best work, and which sets his writing apart from the more perfunctory work of his peers in the mainstream.

Also characteristic of Claremont and Byrne’s incredible drive to overachieve is the brief conversation in this issue between Shaw and a new character, Senator Robert Kelly, about re-activating the Sentinels. Still two issues away from completing their masterpiece, Claremont and Byrne were already planting seeds for another: Days of Future Past, which would see print in Uncanny X-Men #’s 141 and 142.

["Masque" could just be an exotic spelling of mask. Or Claremont may know that the OED defines "masque" as "A form of courtly dramatic entertainment, often richly symbolic, in which music and dancing played a substantial part, costumes and stage machinery tended to be elaborate, and the audience might be invited to contribute to the action or the dancing." Sounds like a Claremont comic book to me (especially as he loves to use music as a Phoenix metaphor).]


Scene -- said...

The Dark Phoenix Saga is, I think, the only X-men-in-Space story I've ever enjoyed. I didn't make a list in the previous post, but I'll go on record here as saying this is my favourite comic story ever. Not best, but favourite (as we've already cleared up the differences).

Anonymous said...

"Slowest of slow burns"... actually, this was a fairly rapid resolution compared to some later Claremont plots. There'd be stuff that dragged on for most of a decade.

I don't have a lot to say about this issue, because I don't remember it so well. (I'd even forgotten that it starts with Phoenix beating up the X-Men.)

The one thing I do remember, though, is the cover -- a monolithically huge Dark Phoenix, surrounded by fallen X-Men, crushing the title logo. IMS this was another Adams tribute -- he did the same thing in his Living Monolith issue, right? -- but much better. The expression on Dark Phoenix' face is, simply, deranged. Unsettling stuff by the standards of 1980.

There's Phoenix's casual destruction of the D'bari star and homeworld, of course. IMS this was the first of several last-minute changes to the series; I seem to recall this wasn't in the original plan (as reflected in the fact that it ends up being squeezed into just a few panels).

The attack on the Shi'ar starship is very Star-Trek-y. Is this the same captain who was chasing Lilandra back in #105?

Notice how Claremont works in the Beast. I don't remember why he couldn't get Iceman, but in any event this will give him 4/5 of the original X-Men -- or 5/6 of them if you count the Professor -- around for the denouement.

Doug M.

j.liang said...


When you first mentioned the sexualization of powers, I immediately thought of quotes from this issue.

Scott: "Jean's enjoying this! Using her power is turning her on -- acting like the ultimate physical/emotional stimulant!"

Storm: "She was like this when she saved the universe. But then, her power was tempered by joy and love. There is no joy -- no love -- in Dark Phoenix. I sense pain, great sadness -- and an awful, all-consuming lust."

Narration: "She reaches for the sky -- summoning the lightning -- laughing as the awesome bolts of energy caress her body like a lover."

Narration: "She is in ecstasy...She craves that ultimate sensation and she will pay any price to achieve it once more."

If there's any redemption for Claremont in his demonization of female sexuality (an interpretation which, despite overwhelming evidence, I really really want to reject), I think it lies in this notion of Jean embodying a duality alluded to in Storm's thoughts (see above) and the "masque" quote from the narration that Jason mentions.

Jason said...

Geoff, thanks for the "masque" thing; that's great.

Scene, it's probably my favorite straightforward, un-ironic superhero story. Although going through Claremont issue by issue has made it hard for me to claim that about any one X-Men story with 100% confidence.

Doug, the resolution in these last three issues is quick, but I was talking about the slow build-up beginning in issue 101. It was very controlled, taking a good four years. Claremont likes slow build-ups followed by very sudden turn-arounds (like Storm angsting for months then - SNAP -- suddenly going hardcore punk).

J.Liang, I'd love to reject the "demonized female sexuality" reading as well, but -- the quotes make that kinda difficult. :) I'm trying to think if we've ever seen Claremont have a *male* character whose power is a "turn-on" (in which case the "demonization" of sexuality is at least not necessarily genderized). Nothing immediately comes to mind, though.

Anonymous said...

Jason, I know you were talking about the build-up since 101, but even so. Three and a half years is not that long by Claremontian standards. (Though I'll agree it was longish by the standards of the time.)

I think "demonization" might be just a /tiny/ bit too strong. Recall that next issue's title is "Child of Light and Darkness". Also that the preceding trilogy can be read as "Heaven" (sunny lovely peaceful New Mexico, complete with angel), "Hell" (the Hellfire Club) and then -- in the final panel -- a conflation of the two: the X-Men arising into the sky again, liberated (completing the up-down-up progression of the trilogy) but then exploding into flame.

So, Phoenix is an angel with a demon inside; Dark Phoenix, the obverse. Jean Grey -- who is in many ways the most "good" of the X-Men -- is still in there.

Thinking about it, I wonder if we can't parse out a couple of related but separate threads here:

1) The sexualization of a powerful female character;

2) The sexualization of bad female characters generally (most Claremont villainesses are very sexy);

3) The general "sexing up" of the X-Men after Byrne came on board, starting in 109 and progressing quite rapidly thereafter; and,

4) An exploration, sometimes confused, of dualities -- male/female, good/bad, peaceful/violent (although in a comic book context, violence is relative; a peaceful character is one who hesitates to fire the first shot), and chaste/sexual.

At this point, the dualities are getting mashed together in a somewhat unappealing way, such that a sexual female character almost has to be bad. So, if we have a female character going evil, she must become sexualized; or if she's awakened sexually, she becomes vulnerable to evil. Also, since "bad" is somewhat sexualized, and so is "powerful female", a bad powerful female is going to get a double dose -- meaning, she'll spend a lot of time talking to herself about how she yearns for ecstasy.

Notice that Ororo, at this point, is sensual and very attractive -- she has a much "sexier" body than Jean, and a more revealing costume -- but she's almost sexless: no relationship closer than friends (except, you'll notice, with... her completely passive houseplants). She's an earthy innocent. As noted in an earlier thread, the first time she's sexualized, she'll swing towards the "violent" and "bad" directions.

In Claremont's defense, he'd later get a bit less adolescent about all this. And even if there are some squick-inducing gender issues, the story still packs a punch.

Doug M.

Jason said...

The thing about the Phoenix burn (which was four years, not three and a half -- summer of '76 to summer of '80) was that it was:

1.) very front-and-center for a large portion of that time, and

2.) a genuine slow, controlled progression.

This is as opposed to say, Madelyne Pryor, the mystery of whom was explained SIX years after it was introduced ... but in between there you had a good three years in which Maddie wasn't touched -- hardly appeared in the series, even. Often times Claremont will introduce an idea and then backburner it for years before coming back to it. The payoff is often more than four years after the set-up, true, but I don't think of it in terms of a "slow burn" because it will be ignored for years in between.

The one really long, steady burn that comes to my mind is the Magik material in New Mutants, which was on the forefront for a good four years and probably would've gone on much longer had Claremont stayed on the title. (Even as it was, the whole thing lasted from '82 to '88, with Louise Simonson bringing Claremont's thread to a final close at last.)

Regarding your point 2, Doug: I often find myself wondering when I read Claremont's X-Men whether Claremont's sexualization of the villainesses rather than the heroines was less a result of his own fear of female sexuality than his playing within the bounds of superhero comicdom's overriding fear of it.

Neil Shyminski got into a discussion on his blog about the fact that Claremont's X-Men had a fair amount of non-normative (if I'm using the jargon correctly?) sexuality, but always in the villains, and it occurred to me then as well. The thing is, Claremont seems to really *relish* his more sexually liberated villains. I sometimes feel that he wishes all his characters could be like that, but that he's paranoid a bit that there might be a backlash if he doesn't keep his heroes squeaky clean. So, yes, on the one hand, one of the "queerest" sexual relationships in Claremont's X-Men is between villains Mystique and Destiny. However, whenever writing about their relationship, Claremont never cast it in a negative light. Indeed, the implied romance between Mystique and Destiny made the characters more sympathetic. It was a humanizing element.

This is another reason why I often find myself more attracted to Claremont/Silvestri than Claremont/ Byrne, because by the time we get to 1988-90, Silvestri's years, Claremont seems a lot more willing to let his protagonists be not only sexier, but a bit less inclined to keep sexuality in neat little boxes.

(Hence, Wolverine and Storm becoming "friends with benefits," as Patrick pointed out on his blog. Geoff's book suggested that The Authority, with its superhero threesomes, was an antidote to the sophomoric love triangles of Claremont's X-Men, but I think Claremont and Silvestri actually predict The Authority, because their X-Men had a looser, sexier feel to them, and while there was still soap opera angst and love triangles (Rogue/Longshot/Alison), there was a certain free-wheelingness to it all.)

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't say Claremont himself had a fear of female sexuality -- just that he wrote a story (a couple of them, actually) that's more or less drenched in it. That's not the same thing; and, as you say, it could just have been the spirit of the times.

Grant Morrison has opined, in _Flex Mentallo_ and elsewhere, that the weirdness of late '50s and early '60s Silver Age DC -- where every third issue saw Superman getting zapped by Red Kryptonite and given a gorilla head, or sent back in time and turned into an Indian Chief or some such -- was presaging the imminent age of acid trips and psychedelia. He doesn't think (and I don't either) that Julius Schwartz and friends were, themselves, dropping acid; just that they were tapping something deep in the zeitgeist.

You can disagree with this, but comics are a product of their times. And, as I said, other mainstream media were still grapping with female sexuality and empowerment -- if you look at late 1970s TV, for instance, powerful women are almost always either wicked or seriously flawed, and there's often something wrong with their sexuality too. Either they're asexual, or they're cartoony doms, or sex is their week spot. Look at, say, _Dallas_ and you'll see all three.

What's interesting is that Claremont saw himself as a feminist. He was famous for asking "why can't this character be a woman?", and he created a whole string of interesting and variously empowered female characters. His first efforts were rocky -- less female characters than generic ones who just happened to have breasts and talk about their feelings sometimes -- but he got somewhat better over time.

Phoenix was a first, not only for Claremont but for Marvel, in that she was a female character who was more powerful than almost any male. So, given the times, it's not surprising that she comes to a bad end. As we'll see soon, it could have been much worse.

Relishing the sexually liberated villain: this is not unique to Claremont! Consider the Terra-Deathstroke relationship just a couple of years later in Wolfman's Teen Titans. It's clearly sexual, even though she's just fifteen, and both of them seem to like it just fine. Then a year or two after that, there's _Miracleman_. MM, in addition to being a good superhero comic, was also a comic about comics; the central conceit was that the original "Miracleman" adventures from the 1950s were VR dreams that the evil Dr. Gargunza, creator of the Miraclemen, programmed into his sleeping creations to keep them passive. Moore notes that the Doctor is particularly fond of his created villain, "Young Nastyman", because he has more leeway in the dreams he can craft for him -- he "relished the greater freedom that the villain's role allowed". And it's shown, discreetly but disturbingly, that these are dreams of rape and murder. So, the creator having fun (Moore suggests, maybe too much fun, but I don't think that has to be true) with more sexual villains was very much in the air around then. Well, I suppose it still is.

I wasn't around much for the Silvestri years. In fact, I may bail, or at least comment much less, once we hit Cockrum II -- with the notable exception of #150, I don't think there were too many great stories in the year or two after Byrne's departure. And I'm not sure I want to sit through "Kitty's Fairy Tale" a second time.

Doug M.

Jason said...

The Miracleman parallel is interesting, thanks for pointing that out. But my point about Claremont was more that while he "relished the freedom that the villain's role gave him," he also quite commonly made villains -- like Mystique and Destiny, with their implied lesbian relationship -- a very sympathetic role. In other words, he might have been using their "villain" status as a loophole to sneak in a non-normative sexual relationship, but he was not -- unlike with "Young Nastyman" in Miracleman -- equating queer sexuality with villainy. Quite the contrary. The romance between Raven and Irene was the key to making them sympathetic as people. I feel that's a crucial difference -- again, perhaps it's still not unique to Claremont, but important to note nonetheless.

j.liang said...

(Not sure if anyone is reading this thread still, but anyhow...)

Doug: Yeah, demonization is bad word choice on my part. I should have put that in quotes or decorated it with a smiley or something.

My resistance to "Dark Phoenix as Fear of Female Sexuality" is, as they say, futile. However, I still think that, even if Scott and Jean had chosen instead to simply hold hands or talk about their feelings or merely engage in one of the many healthy and satisfying alternatives to intercourse available to young adults, and had then established their psychic rapport that night in New Mexico, Jean's subsequent transformations into the Black Queen and Dark Phoenix would have happened all the same. Sex on the mesa? Totally not a factor. :)

Jason: Regarding a male character whose power is a "turn-on" -- does Wolverine count? To my mind, Logan is the idealized embodiment of male sexuality: he's physical, he's aggressive, and he can never be hurt. Although his mutant healing factor is technically passive, his use of it mostly comes by way of engaging in physical combat, which absolutely turns him on. (The phrase "blood lust" comes to mind.) Also, the popping of those claws is pretty phallic, and he's constantly hyping himself up when he's in action ("I'm the best there is at what I do"). Of course, Wolverine never goes through a "scary powers" phase because he's already comfortable with his abilities and his dark/primal/animalistic side when he's introduced.

Havok, on the other hand, goes through a phase where he's worried about losing control of his powers. However, Claremont never sexualizes Havok's powers and seems to drop the whole idea post-Inferno.

Jason said...

I'm still reading, J.L.

Yeah, there's a case to be made for Wolverine and, in a way, one could even argue that there is a "fear" at play against his uber-masculinity. He often sees his bestial, unhinged side as something to be contained, controlled and overcome.

*Neil Shyminsky has suggested in his blog (http://neilshyminsky.blogspot.com/2007_10_01_archive.html) that the Phoenix Saga -- particularly in the wake of the Whedon run -- can be looked at as as master narrative for the X-Men:

'What I wonder is if it's fair to suggest that Whedon is elevating this story to a sort of 'master narrative', the "totalizing cultural narrative schema which orders and explains knowledge and experience" within the X-Men mythos, the control mechanism though which multiplicity is engaged and difference is recognized, registered, and regulated. Certainly, it seems fair to argue that the Phoenix Saga - both its narrative form and tropes of corruption, forgiveness, rebirth - has established the parameters that allow us to makes sense of difference and what it can be "about" within the context of the X-Men.'

That idea continues to fascinate me, and I wonder myself if maybe the "Wolverine" miniseries with Frank Miller is Logan's Dark Phoenix phase, when he's confronted with the idea that his bloodlusting animal side is somehow wrong, and that he needs to rein it in. The "tropes of corruption, forgiveness, rebirth" are all present, certainly.

j.liang said...

I'm somewhat embarrassed to say that I've never read the Wolverine mini-series. I was (and still am, I guess) one of those weird fans who never really cared for him outside the context of the team.

Still, I was about to say that Wolverine's claws and healing factor never presented a threat to the universe in the same way that Phoenix did. Then I remembered X-Men Annual #11, where Logan manages to die and then is reborn with god-like powers because of his healing factor. So maybe we're on to something!

I totally agree with Neil about Whedon's use of the Phoenix Saga as a template for the entire Astonishing run. This seems to reconfirm Morrison's assertion that there are only so many tales (or types of tales) one can tell about the X-Men. Whedon and Morrison recycle these narratives deliberately, but I've suspected that the X-Men were doomed to a form of stasis ever since Marvel established an "official" roster and design for the X-Men just prior to Claremont's initial departure, both of which have remained fairly consistent over the past twenty odd years. I was hoping that an ongoing series based on Claremont's original concept for GeNeXt would bear this out by way of contrast, but...ah, well.

Claremont, at least, had the liberty of shuffling/clearing the deck throughout his run, which I believe prevented him from repeating himself to the same degree these other writers have. He also tried, at least once (albeit unsuccessfully), to shift the X-Men paradigm -- e.g., setting them up as Legends in the Outback, their presence detectable only by the human eye. (I'm curious to see how long the team's latest relocation to San Francisco lasts.) I believe Claremont intended to correct course after X-Men Down Under by revisiting the Asgardian angle -- I read somewhere that the final full-page reveal at the end of Uncanny #269, with post-Siege Rogue in the Savage Land, was originally supposed to be Loki. I'd like to think Claremont would have gone someplace new and interesting with that over the long-term.

Jason said...

Yeah, the X-Men in the Outback was great; that premise, combined with the influx of newer, far less iconic figures (as the Cockrum team had become by that point) invigorated the series, making it genuinely unpredictable and alien.

I had never heard that about Loki being the original intention at the end of 269. Crazy. I'm not sure how I feel about that ...

I DID read that Claremont did plan to make Gateway the "new" Professor X, an idea I LOVE and really wish we'd gotten to see.

j.liang said...

"When I came onto Uncanny X-Men I had a very strong sense of what X-Men stories should be. A lot of the stuff I wanted to do was to rehash or update stuff I had really liked as a kid, but Chris had done that maybe two or three times already. So there was a difference of opinion from the outset on what the stories should be. That's where the editor steps in, and you talk, and hopefully you compromise. One of the very first issues I did featured Rogue and Magneto, and she gets stranded on his island or something like that. Originally the villain was supposed to be Loki, I guess because Chris hadn't written many Loki stories. Now to me, Loki wasn't an X-Men villain and it didn't feel right, so we compromised and came back to Magneto. It was a case of Chris, who'd been on X-Men for some years, wanting to take the characters in very different directions, and me, a die-hard X-Men fan, just wanting to do the classic stuff. But it still worked. We worked out sound compromises and some really good stories came out of it."

-Jim Lee, interviewed by Mark Salisbury, Artists on Comic Art (London: Titan Books, 2000), p. 134.

Anonymous said...

I just want to point out one small detail that has always made me smile about this issue. At the end when Scott perks his head up and states, "She is coming back and she is hungry,' they are all sitting in the kitchen. Nice touch.

wwk5d said...

Again, I just don't see the sexual overtones...I mean, I do to a certain point, and the dialogue people mentioned can be read as very sexual, but to me, they encompass just about any desire and hunger a person can have. Jean as Phoenix experiences things we, as humans, just aren't supposed to get or understand. It's not just about experiencing the ultimate cosmic orgasm.

Anonymous said...

I think Jason really hits the nail on the head as far as sexuality in Claremont comics. The Mystique-Destiny relationship is a great example. Claremont always seemed like he wanted to push sexual boundaries more than he could in mainstream comics. I definitely remember some very kinky stuff from his first flight novels.

The vilification of female sexuality just doesn't ring true for me in any of his writing. I would say lust with love versus lust without is a much more fitting theme for the Phoenix Saga as a whole and the mesa issue specifically.

Derek E