Wednesday, August 17, 2016

My Betrothed--My Killer!

It took just a little over three years after her death for Uncanny X-Men to start the ball rolling with bringing the character of Phoenix back in one form or another--that is, if you don't count earlier issues that teased readers with the possibility. Unfortunately, the book's twentieth anniversary issue takes that sort of bait-and-switch treatment and this time applies it to its story's main plot.

Here, the team firmly believes that Jean Grey has returned, and obviously as Dark Phoenix, the character's ruthless, take-no-prisoners manifestation--reincarnated through the form of Madelyne Pryor, Scott Summers' fiancée, a woman whose own resemblance to Jean is uncanny and whose life offers disturbing parallels and coincidences in regard to the woman whose likeness she bears. Not only was Madelyne the sole survivor of a plane crash that occurred at the instant of Jean's death on the moon--but Scott has also found no evidence of her existence prior to the crash, while Madelyne avoids the subject in conversation. Conveniently, Madelyne also seems to be one of those rare humans whose thoughts are closed to Prof. Xavier. All more than enough to raise the suspicions of the X-Men (and certainly Scott) to an alarming agree; but in a Chris Claremont story, people tend to talk a lot about things which should be looked into, and then look the other way until it's too late and the crisis is upon them.

That point comes when Scott can no longer bear the thought of not knowing the truth about Madelyne, and bluntly broaches the subject during an intimate celebration of their engagement in Anchorage.

For his trouble, Scott receives a right cross that dislodges his protective glasses and forces him to grope for a spare pair while Madelyne bolts, likely believing that Scott only loves her for the ghost she represents to him. But what happens next seems to confirm his suspicions in full--assuming he remains alive to realize it.

It doesn't take long for the X-Men to become involved, with the arrogant Phoenix making her appearance in fiery form over their HQ in Westchester and dropping off Cyclops into their hands (though fully healed of his near-fatal injuries). Realizing the imminent danger involved in the seeming return of Phoenix, the team gathers with Xavier on full alert, even as questions persist. Why would Jean attack Scott? Why wouldn't Xavier have sensed her rebirth?

Seeking to locate Phoenix with Cerebro, Xavier is taken out of the fight when it appears the equipment has been sabotaged, delivering a near-deadly feedback of energy that incapacitates him for the duration. The team is then shocked to see Phoenix rise from the collapsing form of Cyclops--and it appears their death is upon them.

One by one, the X-Men are dealt with by Phoenix--including their newest member, Rogue, the only member whose abilities haven't been tested against this foe. But as formidable as Rogue is, it appears that Phoenix is her match and then some.

Without explanation, Phoenix then breaks off her attack and attends to other matters elsewhere, matters which take the form of a swath of destruction that cuts quickly through the X-Men's allies and leaves the team isolated in their attempts to form some sort of plan that will put a stop to this mad chain of events. With the onslaught of Phoenix and casualties numbering in the millions in a matter of minutes, there has been little time to do anything but react to the carnage and devastation, which is massive and immediate.

Obviously, Claremont's story is giving either the reader or the X-Men little recourse but to react to these events, but something is clearly missing--the subtle glimmers of Jean's personality which have previously been present in Phoenix's interactions with the X-Men, and with Scott in particular. Nor is it clear what's brought on this reign of terror, given that the Phoenix as driven by Jean was ruthless yet not a destroyer for destruction's sake. Until we learn the answers--which must include the connection to Madelyne, in order to get the whole picture--the story lacks a heart, despite the losses that are racked up.

In the midst of all this, Claremont and artist Paul Smith include a strange out-of-body sequence with Cyclops that sees him waved off from passing through to death by an apparition of his mother--an interlude that doesn't appear to contribute anything whatsoever to the story and only serves to bring Scott back to the land of the living, in a series of panels that have him figuring out who is behind all this. The identity of the one responsible isn't yet shared with the reader--but keep a grip on your chair, because what follows is a whirlwind exercise in deductive reasoning that could tempt Arthur Conan Doyle's estate to take Marvel to court for patent infringement.

Cyclops' next move is to approach the X-Men with his suspicions--but, as he suspected, the culprit has anticipated him, making it appear to the X-Men that Cyclops is actually Phoenix, which forces him to spend a considerable part of the issue outfighting and outmaneuvering the efforts of the team to take him down. Thanks to the tinkering he's done with the Danger Room--now configured through Shi'ar technology to simulate realistic environments in testing the team in combat conditions--he's planned for this eventuality, and is able to fend them off on his terms. It's strange filler to pad a 20th anniversary issue with, certainly an odd and ill-timed detour from the story we're turning all these pages to read about--the threat of Phoenix.

On a positive note, the additional pages give those readers not familiar with his work on X-Men ample opportunity to sample the style of artist Paul Smith, who ends his ten-issue run on the series with this story (assisted by John Romita Jr., who stepped in for its last nine pages and will take over art chores following Smith's departure). If you'd care to see more of Smith's X-Men work, there's also the X-Men and Alpha Flight two-part limited series which Smith returns to pencil two years later.

While Cyclops is preoccupied with the X-Men, the real villain of this story takes a few moments to reveal his hand to the confused Madelyne--and we learn just what connection "Phoenix" has to the events taking place here, and why both Phoenix and Madelyne have been chosen as the means to gain his vengeance.

In the meantime, Cyclops' gambit appears to have worked, throwing Mastermind off-balance just long enough to gain the time to bring Rogue to the infirmary and have her absorb Xavier's mental powers in order to help convince the other X-Men that it's Cyclops under the illusion they see and that Mastermind is the one behind all this. (No, I don't know why Cyclops didn't simply utilize Wolverine's sense of smell to verify his identity--it certainly would have saved a ton of pages, wouldn't it?) As a result, by the time Mastermind makes his move, the X-Men are in a position to deal with him--particularly Storm, who of late is far less restrained in using her power to achieve her goals.

Fortunately for Mastermind, Storm intervenes and manages to have Wolverine back off from *ahem* dealing with him. We find as well that Mastermind's plan to have Madelyne end up as collateral damage has failed as well--with a grateful Cyclops, using mouth-to-mouth, succeeding this time in bringing the one he loves back from death's door.

The issue appropriately concludes with the wedding ceremony of Scott and Madelyne, following a final farewell given by Scott to Jean at her memorial site.  Phoenix would return in time, as we know--as would Jean, in just over ten years (our time).  Though the perfect moment might have been just as the minister conducting the ceremony was saying, "If anyone can show just cause..."  (Bet Roy Thomas would've done it.)

Uncanny X-Men #175

Script: Chris Claremont
Pencils: Paul Smith and John Romita, Jr.
Inks: Bob Wiacek
Letterer: Tom Orzechowski

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