Thursday, October 8, 2015

When Rages the Dark Phoenix!

"Jean to Phoenix to Dark Phoenix--a progression as inevitable as death."

Following the death of "Jean Grey," with the character committing suicide on the surface of the moon in order to prevent the dark nature of her power as Phoenix from bringing further death to the inhabitants of the universe, it would be about 5½ years before we'd learn what had truly happened at the point in time when Jean appeared to transform into Phoenix. During a crisis situation when Jean had been near death, the Phoenix entity confronted her, thereafter taking her form and placing her in stasis--while assuming her life for all intents and purposes with no one the wiser, not even the Phoenix itself. The revised story had been created in order to explain the return of Jean so that she could appear as a part of the new group (and book), X-Factor, comprised of the members of the original X-Men.

We've already taken a look at the events leading to the death of Phoenix as they were originally conceived by writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne, which at story's end allowed Jean to live while purging her of Phoenix. That story was of course reworked into what became X-Men #137, in order to have Jean fatally suffer the consequences of her actions as Phoenix. Marvel would eventually publish the original Claremont/Byrne story, 3½ years after the version which made it to X-Men #137; but almost three years earlier than the revelations of that story became known, where we learned of the original intention for Jean's fate, a story in the alternate-reality-based title What If had already managed to spill the beans in that regard.

Written by Mary Jo Duffy (one of the many letters column submission writers who would go on to writing assignments for Marvel titles) and pencilled by Jerry Bingham, "What If Phoenix Had Not Died?" takes the approach of a worst-case-scenario story, which was often the case in an issue of What If; and in so doing, sacrifices much of the characterization which you would find in Claremont's X-Men stories of the early '80s in order to leap-frog through pivotal events that see the story through from beginning to end. Duffy, to her credit, doesn't jettison that characterization altogether, instead taking a leaf from Jim Shooter's work in Secret Wars and including just enough of the style of typical X-Men interaction in order to provide a sense of familiarity. As with Shooter's effort, it doesn't make up for the difference--but for what it's worth, there is at least the apparent indication that the story takes its cue from Claremont's original concept for the fate of the Phoenix, which is either an amazing coincidence or more likely the result of a pertinent inquiry to Claremont on Duffy's part.

From that jumping-off point, Duffy's plot works reasonably well. As we learn from the Watcher, the point where this reality diverges from our own is reached during the battle on the moon between the X-Men and the Imperial Guard--and during Scott and Jean's last stand in the alternate timeline, another X-Man is left to witness the other's fall.

Here, it seems that Jean's life will again be forfeit, only this time not of her own choice. But the Shi'ar have something else in mind--indeed, it's the mind of Jean which will seal her fate.

The Shi'ar procedure is a success, and Jean is returned to the X-Men with the Phoenix force believed to be purged from her mind--a different procedure than Charles Xavier's method, which sought instead to bar access to that power while leaving her memories and mutant abilities intact. And afterward, the X-Men--and Jean herself--begin to see the Shi'ar's solution take its toll.

(Cyclops' debriefing provides a good example of Duffy's compromises on characterization. Claremont has often had Cyclops drilling the others in the importance of teamwork; yet it's ridiculous for Scott to indicate the need for more training and blame the X-Men's defeat on the moon on the fact that "we weren't fighting as a team," since it was on his orders prior to engaging the Guard that the team split into smaller groups and separate. He can hardly chide his team for the Guard taking advantage of that.)

Even lacking her abilities, though, Jean has a long history as an X-Man to draw on--and she puts her knowledge in the field to good use by chairing the Danger Room booth and directing the X-Men's training sessions. But we soon learn that the Shi'ar procedure hasn't purged Jean of a guilty conscience.

Of course, at Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, the X-Men don't have the luxury of a lot of down time--so eventually, a crisis situation arises, though one which seems a bit out of their league, as well as their jurisdiction.

Consider the wheels that have been put in motion in order for Duffy to launch this mission. We have the world of Arama, which is included in and under the protection of the Shi'ar Empire--yet it's left unprotected to the point of being vulnerable to an incursion. Arama is also apparently too far from the Empire's patrol routes for any Empire forces to reach in time to deal with this crisis--yet there's sufficient time to prep and send a vessel for the X-Men's use to Earth, a planet nowhere near even the outer fringes of the Empire, including round-trip time back to the Empire and from there to Arama. And if your Majestrix can only turn to a primitive world of humans for the forces she needs to stave off a threat to a world in her Empire, perhaps it's time for new leadership on the throne.

Regardless, the X-Men proceed to Arama and land in force. But before they can confront Galactus, they must first survive the assault of his powerful and merciless herald, Terrax the Tamer, who deals with them swiftly and overwhelmingly.

Only a few panels before, Jean, still aboard the Shi'ar vessel, was frustrated by the fact that she no longer possessed either her mental powers or her mental rapport with Scott, which leaves her in the dark as to what's happening on the planet surface. But since Jean's return to Earth, we've been seeing subtle indications of the return of her assertive personality--and now, Scott's imminent death seems to have brought an image of the scene to her mind's eye. It's quite a leap from one to the other; but regardless, it's enough to trigger Jean's recovery in full. For better or worse.

On the planet, there is one other who moves to defend Cyclops from the killing stroke of Terrax--Scott's brother, Havok, for whom Duffy gives token attention to his incredible wellspring of power that's been so impressively dangerous and formidable in past X-Men stories, but perhaps only for the sake of indicating her awareness of it in order to avoid raising questions as to why that power wasn't used against Terrax to greater effect. (Though in Duffy's defense, Havok's power, like so many of Marvel's characters who debuted with incredible power, had been downgraded by this point. Until his role in the "Rise and Fall of the Shi'ar Empire," "Emperor Vulcan" and "X-Men: Kingbreaker" sagas, his power's last hurrah might have been an early '70s Hulk story.)

Once Havok falls, Terrax faces the emergence of Phoenix.

As for Galactus, who's been completing the assembly of his planetary energy converter, Terrax's defeat has drawn his attention to Phoenix's interference--and with the rest of the X-Men recovering from the assault of Terrax, Phoenix faces him on her own. I have to admit to being of the same opinion as those who wrote to the What If letters page questioning Phoenix's ability to match the power of Galactus. The column's response was somewhat sleight of hand: "It is true that [the power of Phoenix] fluctuated a lot during her career, but at Dark Phoenix-level it was certainly on par with Galactus." Yet, obviously it's not Dark Phoenix who faces Galactus here; rather, it's a character who at one time found herself handily defeated by Magneto.

Given the handful of others who have driven off Galactus in one way or another in other stories, some even using lesser means, it's easy enough to count Phoenix among them and move on. Her assurances as to her state of mind also help to ease the worries of the X-Men at her appearance, and their concerns are quickly replaced with relief that the Jean they remembered seems to be in their midst once more, with no signs of the manipulations of Mastermind which led to the corruption of her nature. However, when Lilandra arrives on the scene, Duffy asks too much of the reader. Where the Lilandra we remember would have at the very least been horrified to find that Phoenix has returned and is once again a potential threat, Duffy instead wipes the slate clean with one panel.

A stark change of character from the ruler who, despite her own feelings, once rendered harsh judgment against Jean for the good of the universe:

While Lilandra attempting to take Phoenix into custody again (and likely dealing with her lethally this time) might have been considered by Duffy as too complicated a development for the story at this point, it's far too crucial an element to be glazed over so casually in this manner--and there are alternatives to a lengthy diversion once again with the Shi'ar. For one, Lilandra could simply choose to bide her time; after all, this is Phoenix she now wishes to take, not Jean Grey, and Lilandra may not want to risk a confrontation which could push Jean too far. Another option is for the X-Men to invoke the Shi'ar equivalent of double jeopardy--a concept which Lilandra might very well disregard, but choose to abide by for the same reason. Either would have suited Duffy's story as it plays out from this point on.

With Jean's path cleared as far as returning to Earth with the X-Men and reclaiming her life, we now get a sense of how the X-Men book would be had Jean remained as Phoenix and basically picked up where she left off, with both the X-Men and with Scott. There are few surprises in those respects--and, in this What If story, no need to find creative ways to deal in a character of Phoenix's power level so that the X-Men don't appear to just trample over their foes.

As we're taken through this interlude, Duffy's choices in characterization continue to be hit-and-miss. In including Kitty Pryde's addition to the team, for instance, she nicely handles the fact that Kitty feels like more of an outsider since, in this reality, she has no "big sister" in Ororo now that Jean and Ororo have resumed their close friendship. Wolverine, however, practically throws in the towel as far as his feelings for Jean, when really having no reason to do so. Jean and Scott are the same they've always been with each other--so what's changed for him (or for Jean, for that matter) in that respect?

But once the story's focus returns to Phoenix, we begin to see that all isn't necessarily status quo with Jean and her life as Phoenix. Wolverine's feelings on the subject are more ominous in nature; but for Kitty, as well as for the reader, Jean's activities behind the scenes are becoming a cause for concern.

Despite Jean's assurances to herself, however, things take a turn for the worse after the X-Men deal with a new threat from the Sentinels. With Phoenix's overwhelming power to turn the tide, the battle is quick and decisive in the X-Men's favor--but as a result, Phoenix takes a deadly new (though familiar) step in her ascendance.

This time, however, there is no slipping back to her room--for the X-Men are waiting for her, and a confrontation about the path she's taking has become inevitable. Unfortunately, Kitty picks the wrong moment to take the initiative.

The X-Men are of course aghast at both the abrupt murder of Kitty in front of their eyes, and the re-emergence of Dark Phoenix. In this encounter with the entity, however, the X-Men will see little of the personality of Jean present, as they did when they first faced her in this form. Here, Duffy presents a fully malevolent entity, with no subtlety of character and practically no dichotomy. There's little doubt where things are headed--but in a nice touch, Duffy first revisits a face-off which, while appearing to be a contest of two formidable wills, has already had its outcome ensured by Phoenix.

With their youngest killed and their mentor now effectively brain-dead, the rest of the X-Men likely realize that they're now in a battle for their lives--though just as in that final battle on the moon in our reality, they remain handicapped by the fact that they still regard this foe as Jean Grey, a friend who can be reached by other friends. Unfortunately, this Jean is more aggressive and ruthless in terms of eliminating her former teammates--and what follows quickly becomes a bloodbath.

It's highly doubtful that these last few surviving X-Men would have prevailed against Dark Phoenix even if Cyclops had stuck to this last-ditch plan and joined Havok in the combined attack against her; yet it serves to set up the final confrontation between Cyclops and Phoenix, which is both sensible and appropriate for Duffy to arrange in order to bring this story to its conclusion. At this stage, it's also sensible for her to avoid having Scott attempt to reach Jean on a personal level, given the lives that have been lost. Jean is beyond redemption at this point, both as Scott's lover and as a character--and Scott's actions, as well as Jean's response, are inevitable.

Given the tone of these final scenes, practically any What If reader will be able to elbow the Watcher aside and describe how this story is likely to end, which often holds true for any characters left standing as well as the world. In short: tragically and sadly--but also taken to perhaps unnecessary extremes.

With some semblance of Jean again appearing to be present here, Duffy's story might have resonated more powerfully if the Phoenix's flare-up over the city was the manifestation of her decision to end her own life, which would have provided this story with a powerful connection to what occurred in our reality--a closing scene made all the more poignant when taking into account the bodies of Xavier as well as the X-Men lying dead at Xavier's estate. Such an ending would have served this story's dramatic purpose well enough--and the final panels could have circled back to Lilandra grimly taking notice of the final fate of the Phoenix and the price that was paid by those who held out the most hope for her. Instead, we're given a "scorched universe" scenario, with Lilandra's inexplicable haste to overlook Jean's past transgressions as Phoenix indirectly resulting in the universe paying that price. It seems an unnecessary leap for the story to make, all for the sake of perpetuating an endless cycle of death.

With the death of Jean Grey still fresh in the minds of X-Men readers when this story saw print, the timing of this What If tale--published just less than a year later--took advantage of the fact that no plans were made as yet to establish Jean and the Phoenix as two separate entities and thereby provide a way for the character of Jean Grey to return to comics. That being the case at the time, it's interesting to bear in mind that this story was likely read from two different perspectives: (1) as a reader, prior to early 1986, who only knew of Phoenix as Jean Grey, or (2) as a later reader knowing that Duffy's story features Jean Grey only in the sense of the Phoenix force believing itself to be her. It stands to reason that in the latter case, there's no sense of fatalism in regard to Jean seemingly following an inevitable course to a fate as Dark Phoenix--rather, only a realization of what could be seen as a case of mistaken identity, concerning a cosmic entity that begins to lash out at the universe out of rage and guilt for the murder of a lover who, in actuality, felt that love for another.

What If #27

Script: Mary Jo Duffy
Pencils: Jerry Bingham
Inks: John Stuart
Letterers: Jean Simek and Janice Chiang (as Chaing)


Anonymous said...

If I remember correctly I only owned two issues of What If - this one and the one where Iron Man gets trapped in King Arthur's Camelot. I thought the ending of this story with the Phoenix force advancing across the universe destroying everything in its' path was really powerful and it's stuck in my mind ever since, very interesting to see this again. In one of the panels Professor Xavier says "Reed Richards, leader of the Fantastic Four, told me about Galactus"...did Prof X really need to be "told about" Galactus considering the Big G had come to New York and tried to consume the whole Earth ? Where was Professor X while all this was happening, having an afternoon doze or something ?

Comicsfan said...

Colin, my guess is that Xavier likely caught the news accounts of Galactus, but obtained a more in-depth briefing from Reed at some point. (In fact, I'd be surprised if Reed didn't provide such a briefing for all his super-being colleagues; with none of them showing up during the attack for whatever reasons, surely they made inquiries to him afterward.)

Dale Bagwell said...

Ha, good point Colin;)

Damn. Like you said, and any faithful reader of What If? can tell you, when things go bad, they really go hardcore bad quick.

Glaring in-story errors and mistakes aside (especially Illandra's big one by not pursuing the Phoenix after saving Arama, and basically going back to the same events that led up to this one again
It's not a bad issue overall.
Of course hindsight being what it is now that we know the truth from different angles, I could see scenario actually happening. After all, Jean-Phoenix was slowly but surely escalating and building up to this moment by taking more and more nibbles of various plantoids, so it's not like wasn't expected.

And on a related side-note, not only Illandra, but Galactus too should/could shoulder some of the blame. True, he warned Jean-Phoenix about her hunger issues, but he could've nipped it in the bud and put up more of a fight to take her out. Then again, despite recognizing her power levels, maybe it just didn't occur to him or he just didn't care about the danger of letting her live.

Have you reviewed the other What If? story abut Jean not dying?

Comicsfan said...

Dale, no--I only collected the first What If series, and a little of the second (bits and pieces of it). But for an interesting twist, you might have a look at X-Men: Phoenix - Endsong, where Jean is brought back to life in our universe. It takes grave-robbing to a whole new level.

Dale Bagwell said...

I've heard of it for sure, as part of Claremont's long-winded three-part X-Men:End trilogy.
I'll check out your review and let you know what I thought about it.

Antiyonder said...

Well I could have been misinformed, but regardless who wrote the story, I've heard it was really more of Shooter using the issue to justify his stance of Jean being killed off rather than what he considered a slap on the wrist.

But then that's really on Byrne for some last minute cooking of vegetables:-).

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