[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.]
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).]