Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Jason Powell on Uncanny X-Men #137

[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.

16 comments:

Patrick said...

It's a shame that Jean was resurrected, the story is still great, but I think it would be even more powerful if she had stayed dead, and Scott had moved on. I found a really interesting interview with Claremont yesterday where he discusses, among other things, the original plan for Maddy Pryor, and the way it changed Scott's arc:

"The original plotline was that Scott marries Madelyne, they have their child, they go off to Alaska, he goes to work for his grandparents, he retires from the X-Men. He's a reserve member. He's available for emergencies. He comes back on special occasions, for special fights, but he has a life. He has grown up. He has grown out of the monastery; he is in the real world now. He has a child. He has maybe more than one child. It's a metaphor for us all. We all grow up. We all move on.
Scott was going to move on. Jean was dead get on with your life. And it was close to be a happy ending. They lived happily everafter, and it was to create the impression that maybe if you came back in ten years, other X-Men would have grown up and out, too. Would Kitty stay with the team forever? Would Nightcrawler? Would any of them? Because that way we could evolve them into new directions, we could bring in new characters. There would be an ongoing sense of renewal, and growth and change in a positive sense.
Then, unfortunately, Jean was resurrected, Scott dumps his wife and kid and goes back to the old girlfriend. So it not only destroys Scott's character as a hero and as a decent human being it creates an untenable structural situation: what do we do with Madelyne and the kid? "

It's interesting that Claremont saw turnover and evolution as essential to the X-Men concept. On his run through the 80s, you can see this. The Phoenix saga remained central to the character history, but the cast rotated, people grew up and changed, and I'm sure if he had his way, others would have died. It's unfortunate that subsequent writers have spent the past twenty years replaying the same stories he did so well, and the franchise became so successful, it also had to become conservative.

But, back to the issue at hand. It's the emotional high point of the book so far, but I think Claremont would go on to eclipse it later in the book. Mutant Massacre and Fall of the Mutants feature a similarly apocalyptic feeling, and hit me even more strongly on an emotional level. But, a lot of that is probably due to the fact that this story is so iconic and so known, it's almost impossible to read with fresh eyes. I love the issue, but I'll never to know what it was like to turn those last pages and not know what was going to happen.

Jason said...

Wow, fantastic interview. I feel like I've read parts of that before. The whole thing about Wolverine becoming a Hand assassin for a year, I recall that. Isn't that pretty much what Millar and JRJr did recently, with "Enemy of the State," except it was Hydra rather than the Hand?

Other parts were new to me. Thanks for linking!

But yeah, I agree, the great thing about Claremont's X-Men was that it kept "mutating" and evolving. Made perfect sense, given the book's theme. You know, there's an early review by Geoff of the Morrison run -- actually it's probably of the first issue, 114 -- where he talks about how Morrison finally gave us an X-book capable of surprising us. I think Claremont in 1987-1989 gave us a similar thing. Hell, even as far back as Mutant Massacre, like you mentioned ... the fact that Claremont was willing to gun down two iconic Cockrum X-Men, and Kitty Pryde as well ... and then to just completely mutate the membership and shutn everyone to the Outback ... THEN to start killing off the Outback team and reboot the membership again with cast-offs living on Muir Island, and then to suddenly give us a series with a rotating cast, so you never knew who was going to be the star of a given issue. And this all happened inside of a four-year-span! It's rather remarkable.

The only thing I'd disagree with you on, Patrick, is your suggesting that if Claremont had had his way, more characters would've died. I wonder about that, because if you look over his run from 1975-1991, you had four major X-character deaths: Thunderbird, Phoenix, Cypher and Warlock.

Well, Louise Simonson killed Cypher and Warlock; Len Wein plotted the story in which Thunderbird died; and we know that Claremont didn't originally want to kill Jean. I see Claremont as being very, very against killing characters off. He'll wound them, mutate them, and certainly write them out for years. But I think he enjoys his toys too much to destroy them completely. (Unless we're talking villains, though even then Claremont only killed a few now and then.)

j.liang said...

I really love the half-page interludes featuring each team member alone (for the most part) with his or her thoughts the night/morning before battle: Jean, Nightcrawler rescued by Angel in the workout room (sharing one full page), Wolverine and Beast, Colossus and Storm, and finally Scott, first by himself and soon after joined by Jean in her Marvel Girl costume. The three middle pairings are juxtapositions of opposites (devil/angel, primal/intellectual, man of steel/elemental goddess) all united in their support of Jean.

(Although Warren doesn't seem to come around until just prior to their assembling for battle. He finishes his scene with Nightcrawler with an expression of doubt, and his next line of dialogue still indicates some hesitancy: "Scott, we, uh, talked about this amongst ourselves....")

Something I hadn't realized until I re-read these scenes: Whedon (again) quotes Claremont directly from this issue: in Giant Size Astonishing, Kitty's inner monologue/prayers (via narration captions) echo Jean's thoughts. "God, help me. God, give me strength."

scott91777 said...

Jason,

I've been holding off on reading the Dark Phoenix posts until I get my copy (it's taking a long damned time to get here), so I'll get some comments to you later.

Shlomo said...

Patrick, that was a great interview. Its such a fascinating evolution: Claremont built up the xmen's popularity with space-opera-plots that went for broke changing the status quo after being seeded for years. yet With the popularity the x-men became cultural icons akin to batman and superman, whoch made it impossible for him to tell the type of stories that he wanted to tell. the question then becomes is it possible to tell interesting stories for the xmen without using the claremont formula (and thus eschewing the need for later reboots), something more like the Batman animated series forumla? where time stands still, and peripheral characters are able to evolve but the main character must remain true to how the culture sees them.

It seems against Claremont's formula to have kept the phoneix around without reperecussion, because thats what elevates the story to epic proportions, however another choice for the charcter would have been to let her roam the stars relishing her powers (without lusting after suns of course) totally removed from the human ocncerns of the xmen. I think this could have been pretty drmartic and would have allowed her to eventually return in a more organic way, however it would have left claremont and byrne without a final climax, violating their mode of story-telling.

Patrick said...

There is no main character in X-Men, so I think it would have been possible to do the kind of thing you're talking about from the Batman series. Post Inferno, the series gets really weird and spends most of its time on a random series of characters like Banshee and Forge, with none of the cast we knew before in the series anymore. It sounds like his original plan was to keep rotating people through the book, so there'd always be something fresh happening.

The X-Men brand name would always sell, so he could rotate characters there, and then put the name people in spinoff books, like Excalibur. I don't think it would be possible to do that today for a couple of reasons. You're not going to get something like the Storm's mohawk arc because one, Marvel wouldn't want to mess with an iconic character like that, and two, I don't think people would believe in the 'reality' of events. Everyone would just be waiting for the inevitable return of the status quo, there's no sense that things really can change anymore.

Shlomo said...

But i think its possible to have good stories even with things not changing, its just that you would have a different type of story. a good example of this would be "God loves, man kills". i havent read it in a while, but it didnt seem as if things were changing to much. i dont think a series needs to have one main character, but i think its easier if they are in a self-contained world, as opposed to shared world with multiple authors.

Patrick said...

It is possible to have good stories without stuff changing, but not in a soap opera, and a huge part of the X-Men's appeal is the soap opera elements. You need to believe actions will have consequences, characters will become entangled with different ways and lives will change, or at least have the illusion that change is possible. The original Claremont run is all about evolution, the book itself is continually mutating in new and different directions. It would be possible to do static stories with these characters, but it would be radically different from what Claremont did. And, honestly, after so many stories about these people, I think it'd be pretty hard to come up with fresh stories that don't evolve the status quo in some way.

Anonymous said...

Very busy this week -- work, getting the house ready for a housewarming party -- so haven't had time to comment.

One brief point: this was the first time Marvel had killed a character as important as Jean Grey. Gwen Stacy comes close, but Gwen was a really secondary character -- she was relatively new (she'd only been significant for 40 issues or so before dying), she was important only as "Peter Parker's love interest", and her death mattered only insofar as it affected Spider-Man. (N.B., this was before later attempts to retcon her into being a more interesting character with more action and agency.) Jean Grey, OTOH, was an original Stan and Jack creation, a founding member of the team, and had been built up over four years as one of the most important -- and by far the most powerful -- members of the New X-Men.

(Was this the first time any mainstream comic had killed this important a character? I'm not sure. When did Elasti-Girl die, anyhow?)

And when they killed her, everyone intended at the time that it should be permanent. (I'm just old enough to remember when Claremont and Byrne attended early 80s comic cons wearing badges that said, "She's dead and she's going to stay that way.") So, this was a seriously big deal at the time, and a major event for Marvel.

That leads to the obvious question of "why THIS character", but that's a story for another post. Give me a day or two.


Doug M.

Anonymous said...

I'd always wondered why Iceman did not get called up to help out. I wonder what the other comic series was that had Iceman off-limits for the Dark Phoenix storyline. Strange that he couldn't be in the last couple of chapters but he could show up for the funeral.

The X-Men were always lousy at bringing in former members during times of major crisis. At least they went to Angel for help, but Beast only happened to get involved. They didn't call him, he showed up.

That's why I always liked that Arcade arc during Cockrum's second run. Iceman, Banshee, Polaris, and Havok actually were involved. It seems like the writers had periodic amnesia that there were former X-Men floating around out there. It also bugged me that the Multiple Man hung around on Muir Island, always on the periperhy of the X-Men, but never got involved in any of their adventures except to have one of his dupes get killed by Proteus.

The Mutant Masscare, as great a story as that was, was even more head-scratching. The X-Men have three members severely injured, the Morlocks are decimated, the team is facing a deadly, relentless foe, and instead of calling in Havok and Polaris they choose to mind-wipe Havok instead. A really stupid decision that led to Polaris being taken over by Malice. Not to mention the X-Men didn't try to reconcile with X-Factor. Haven't these people ever heard of strength in numbers?

On a separate note, what would have happened if Beast hadn't been the Avenger on monitor duty the night Jean became Dark Phoenix? Would Wonder Man, Captain America, the Wasp, etc. have rushed to Central Park the way the Beast had? Would the Avenges have been caught up in the subsequent adventure?

Jason said...

Anon, yeah, I think the mindwipe-of-Havok is one of Claremont's least convincing story turns, particularly coming on the heels of the recruitment of Dazzler. Both moves are ostensibly to keep those people safe -- so why do they keep Dazzler safe by recruiting her, but keep Havok safe by wiping his mind and sending him home?

It might've been interesting if there was an implication that they resented X-Factor (they thought the group had betrayed the race at this point), and since Alex was Scott's brother, he got slammed by some of their hostility as well. That's not really implied by the story itself, though.

Jason said...

Doug, that's crazy about the shirts! Never heard that before.

Claremont does mention (with some boastfulness) in the recent interview book "Comics Creators on X-Men" about how significant it was to kill Jean Grey, noting that she was "one half of the second-oldest couple in the Marvel Universe, after Reed and Sue."

Anonymous said...

Okay, a little more on this issue.

I've said before that I think this story is flawed. Claremont and Cockrum took a big, bold step by turning Jean Grey into Phoenix, a character who was _at least_ as powerful as Thor, Hulk, the Silver Surfer, or any of Marvel's other heavy hitters. There were obvious problems with this (how do you deal, in a team book, with a character who's more powerful than all the other team members combined?), but these were manageable -- the Avengers kept Thor around, after all.

Then, having done this, Claremont began to steadily back away. Jean had to be separated from the rest of the team. Her powers had to be unreliable (the famous "drug gun that goes 'phut'). And finally, her power had to turn bad, and turn her bad as well. We've touched on some of the creepy aspects of this -- fear of female sexuality, the subtext that women + power = great danger, yadda yadda yadda.

So. There's a level at which killing Jean is a huge copout. You only have to ask, why her? The simple answer is, because she was too powerful /for a female character/.

That said... it could have been so much worse.

Anyone who's this far down in the comment threads probably knows all about C&B's original plan for Jean: how she was supposed to be subdued, not killed, and then subjected to a "psychic lobotomy" that would take away her powers and reduce her to child's level of intelligence and maturity. She'd stay that way for many, many issues until some crisis -- Byrne suggested an attempted rape -- blew her fuses and brought her powers back. This was Plan A, approved by the book's editor... until Jim Shooter stepped in and said she had to die.

I've said before that this was a case of two questionable decisions combining to work out really well. Because the original story would have /so fucking skeevy/. It would have been the ultimate superheroine-in-a-refrigerator story. God knows what it would have done to mainstream comics.

Flawed though it is, the story we got is a hundred times better. It is, as Jason points out, a tragedy played straight. Jean /chooses/ to die... and even though that choice has been forced by her creators, she still gets responsibility and agency. She dies as good and as strong a character as she lived.

Okay, end of general statement. Some other, more specific thoughts on this.

1) COVER LOVE. Another awesome cover. That cover has it all -- heroism, desperation, questions raised (why is Jean Marvel Girl again?), beefcake, cheesecake, powerful stances and strong vibrant colors. Nearly thirty years later, this cover is still everything we love about mainstream superhero comics.

2) Structure. After #134, this is the most tightly structured issue in the C&B canon. You mentioned the use of the Watcher; J. Liang points out the half-page bits with the team members. There are also a lot of tricks with things like panel shots and zooms. It's not _Watchmen_, no, but it's first baby steps in that direction.

3) I'm sticking with my position on the uselessness of Scott when it comes to Jean. Come on! Look at those last two pages. She finally, literally does what she's been figuratively doing for a long time now -- she overpowers him, paralyzes him and forces him to be a helpless witness as she /acts/. It couldn't be any more obvious if she'd put him in leather cuffs and a ball gag.

4) Finishing the line: I still remember how that sequence goes. It has the Imperial Guard dogpiling on the two remaining X-Men as the POV pulls outwards: "Once upon a time, there was a woman named Jean Grey, a man named Scott Summers." [panel] "They were young. They were in love." [panel] "They were /heroes/. Today they will prove it -- beyond the shadow of a doubt!"

That final, purple bit of Claremont/Lee narration should really make the sequence jump the shark. (God, Claremont loved his overwrought adverbial clauses. "It devours them -- body and soul!") But somehow it works here, and I'll be those lines are branded into the brains of thousands of comics fans worldwide.

5) You touch on this, but it bears repeating: the X-Men lose here, bigtime. They get their asses kicked individually, collectively, and comprehensively.

C&B do a very good job of depicting this as something different than the usual "good guys take some lumps before the comeback". I can remember reading this issue and thinking, just a few pages into the fight, that /this doesn't look so good/.

The climactic moment of this middle act comes when Gladiator defeats Colossus. This fight is staged so deftly that I remember it clearly: Colossus going toe-to-toe with Gladiator (who's clearly a Superman analog) as, once again, the POV pulls out and the narrative voice takes over. The climax of the battle is not seen, but it ends with the unexpected reversal: Gladiator emerging triumphant, dragging Colossus unconscious from the rubble.

This is where the cut to Xavier's "no, no, no, no" takes place -- and it's so much more powerful this way! Colossus isn't the most powerful of the X-Men, but he's the youngest and has the purest heart. Seeing him beaten is disturbing in a way that seeing, say, Wolverine beaten is not. And the shift to Xavier's reaction tells us that, yes, this isn't a dream, isn't a hoax, isn't an imaginary story -- the X-Men really are getting their asses kicked.

6) Putting Colossus at the climax also helps drive home another point: the X-Men are in a tragedy now. As someone once pointed out, one of the defining markers of tragedy is that /in a tragedy, good intentions are not enough/. Nobody's intentions could be better than Peter's. And it doesn't matter.

7) Speaking of tragedy, the whole "inevitable" speech at the end deserves some unpacking. (But not from me, because it's getting late here.) IMO it both adds and subtracts: adds because inevitability is a key part of tragedy, subtracts because to some extent it robs Jean of agency.

(Also, didn't this get amended in later incarnations of Phoenix? Rachel and others had problems, but they didn't seem troubled by an "inevitable" transformation into Dark Phoenix.)

8) Finally, while there's much to like in the art here, let me point to one detail: how in the last couple of pages of Jean, Byrne manages to imply that she's continuing to evolve. In the last panel, she's pretty much just a floating, inhumanly lovely face.

There are problems, but yeah -- it's a great issue.


Doug M.

lue lyron said...

These comments are beautiful. I haven't held this issue in my hands in years; it's one of the instances where a corporate supported creation really shines with the intensity of art, tying together so much meaning in so many balanced ways. Ironically, an editorial edict was necessary to evoke the very difficult power of tragedy; all the years and ret-cons fall away, and a story published before I could afford my own comics is alive and fresh and heart-breaking again. Way to go, Jason and everyone.

C-Bass said...

Anyone have any insight into the project that made Bobby off limits?

wwk5d said...

My only complaint is that the X-men got their asses kicked a bit too much. I know it needed to be done, to sell the tragedy of it all even more, but it would have been nice to have someone besides Colossus score a victory over one the Guardsmen. I wonder if this would have made the issue a bit better for me, having the X-men score a few initial victories at first, but then as the fight goes on, they start to lose more and more...

Btw, that is a minor, minor quibble, and isn't a huge detraction for me.

The lobotomy story was one proposed idea. Another one C&B wanted to do was have Jean's powers removed by the Shi'ar. She and Scott would have then gotten married and left the team, but Jean would have been depressed over not being able to come to terms with what she had done and losing her powers. It would have culminated in # 150, with Magneto offering Jean her powers back (through some sort of device), and her rejecting him in the end, proving she was a hero after all (or something to that effect). And somewhere along the way, Rachel would have been born...