[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 Fate of the Phoenix”
John Byrne professes to have been a fan of the X-Men “from Day One.” That being the case, he was always keen – once he was assigned as artist on the “new” incarnation of the series – to eventually get all five of the original X-Men back into the comic. In the end, he managed to import all but Iceman (off-limits for use in a different Marvel series, which was shelved anyway), and the result is a perfect symmetry notable on the double-page spread in Pages 2 and 3 of Uncanny #137: On the left, four original team members, on the right, four of the “Giant-Sized” crew, plus Xavier. Byrne’s reuniting four of the original X-Men is one of the Dark Phoenix Saga’s less commented-on narrative coups. It contributes to a sense that the story is not only the culmination of Claremont’s run, but also the finale of the entire X-Men series.
Claremont’s first caption of the issue reads, “A moment ago, they had been on Earth,” which is a verbatim recreation of the opening caption from Uncanny #107, another lovely bit of parallelism. In the story told in #107 (and 108), Phoenix saved the world. Now, that same story has led her inevitably to this one. And, just as they fought the Imperial Guard then, the X-Men will fight the same enemies now, to save the woman who – ironically – saved them last time.
That parallelism, and the shrewd use throughout the issue of dramatic irony (up to and including title’s evocation of “Fate”) all conspire to give this issue a genuinely classical feel. To complete the effect, Claremont and Byrne open with the toga-clad Watcher acting as a Greek Chorus. The character -- a recurring one from Fantastic Four -- bookends the story, appearing on the first and last page. (For aesthetic unity, he also shows up once in the middle, allowing Byrne to do a recreation of the next-to-last page of Lee/Kirby’s Fantastic Four #13.)
One of my favorite X-Men panels of all time is the last one on Page 5: With the Shi’ar guards about to seize Jean for execution, Professor X holds up a hand and shouts, “Lilandra – wait! Jean Grey Arin’nn Haelar! For Jean Grey’s life – I challenge you to a duel of honor!” One more piece of recent X-Men history falls into place with expert precision in that panel. This is why Charles had to leave Earth to spend a year on the Shi’ar homeworld. During that stay, he absorbed everything he could about their culture so that, now, just when he needs it to save his student, his expertise comes crashing into play. It’s a brilliant, perfectly executed moment.
The location of the duel – the Blue Area, a labyrinthine city on the Moon with an “Earth-normal atmosphere” – is a macguffin that, like the Watcher (who himself lives in the Blue Area), first appeared in Fantastic Four #13. The location has never appeared in an issue of X-Men before, but Claremont cleverly weaves in allusions to recent stories to subtly reinforce the notion that all of the X-Men’s previous adventures were, somehow, preparing them for their fight in this location. Hence, Nightcrawler notes that the city has “more twists and turns than Arcade’s Murderworld,” and Wolverine comments that his experience in the Watcher’s domicile was more disconcerting than his encounter with Proteus. You truly get the sense that everything was prepping them for this event, for this fight. And that leads to another layer of dramatic irony: It is the moment they’ve been prepared for by fate (the Watcher even calls it their “ultimate test”) ... and they lose. Pathetically. The weight of their horrible defeat is punctuated perfectly by a cut to Xavier and Lilandra, standing mere feet from each other and both monitoring the fight. Xavier is devastated (“No. No. No. No. No.”), and so is Lilandra, who wants to comfort him but can’t. Every dramatic relationship in this story, even Xavier’s with Lilandra, takes brutal punishment here. This is how the final act of a drama is done.
And Claremont and Byrne keep topping themselves. The few panels just before Scott and Jean make their last stand feature the most unadornedly romantic dialogue Claremont has ever wrote. When they emerge from their hiding place to take on the entire Imperial Guard by themselves, it is a defining moment of their relationship. As Byrne executes a zoom away from them, shifting to an image of the sun, while Claremont’s narration describes their thoughts moving backwards to their earliest days, the effect is heartbreaking. That page, those words – “Once upon a time, there was a woman named Jean Grey, a man named Scott Summers” – are, emotionally, the climax of the X-Men story. No other moment in the series – hardly any other moment in superhero comics – will ever match that sequence for sheer purity of emotional expression.
Then, the dramatic coup de grace: Jean, having regained the Phoenix power, uses it to commit suicide rather than become Dark Phoenix again. Though not the original ending planned by Byrne and Claremont, it is by far the best ending possible, the most appropriate dramatic choice for something that so meticulously emulates a classical Greek tragedy. Indeed, it is the Watcher, in his role as the Chorus, who delivers the final piece of irony, in a story that absolutely rings with it. It’s a verbal irony this time, as – only pages after the X-Men’s thorough defeat at the hands of the Imperials – the Watcher opines, “The X-Men do not realize it – they may never realize or accept it – but this day they have won perhaps the greatest victory of their young lives.” From an artistic standpoint, the same could be said of Claremont and Byrne.