Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Rise Of The Dark Phoenix!

In mid-1980, the already-successful Uncanny X-Men title reached what was arguably the pinnacle of its popularity when its co-plotters, writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne, introduced the character of Dark Phoenix--capping the already well-received makeover of Jean Grey, one of the original members of the X-Men, whose identity as the telekinetic/telepath Marvel Girl had literally been given new life as "Phoenix," the ultimate expression of her potential as a psi.

It's not unusual these days to encounter an eye-roll or two when raising the subject of Phoenix, with Marvel having taken that "life incarnate" part a bit too far and recycling/remarketing the character and concept ad nauseam in the nearly forty years since her inception.  Yet in the beginning, when Phoenix was still being presented as tied to Jean Grey, her steady evolution to something beyond her control was riveting, providing a different take on a classic character who up until that point had been eclipsed by even the Wasp.

As for her transformation to "Dark" Phoenix, it seemed to be well-timed to the fact that her friends and teammates had grown worried about her ability to contain her vastly increased power; while an additional factor complicated the situation when an old enemy of the X-Men, Mastermind, began to seduce and corrupt her thoughts, until she became susceptible to casting aside her self-restraint and letting slip away her morals and conscience, a steady shift in behavior that Mastermind encouraged in her.

The result: a twisted version of her former self, wielding limitless power and abandoning her moral compass as easily as you or I might discard a piece of lint. And now, as an entity intent on embracing and following a darker path to the stars, Phoenix severs ties to those who she once considered friends--and viciously, at that.

We would later learn the behind-the-scenes story of Phoenix, detailing Claremont and Byrne's original plans for Jean and why they shifted course at the eleventh hour--and we'd also witness Jean's contrived return and the status quo restored. But in this early tale which begins to explore the dark turn of the character, we're all still under the impression that these shocking developments are the natural progression of Jean's evolution as plotted by Claremont and Byrne--taking her in a direction that raises her profile considerably, at least for as long as the ride lasts.

We'll have to trust Cyclops' later assertion that Jean has made an effort here, conscious or otherwise, to avoid slaying the X-Men outright; otherwise, even though the jury would be out on Wolverine, Colossus would now be dead after a multi-ton solid gold tree was toppled onto him while he was in human form--a death which would have occurred if only a single ton of weight had fallen on him, even if it turned out he was only pinned. Whatever Jean's intentions, come on--Peter is pulp, like any of us would be in his place. When is the funeral?

From here, the story takes a fascinating turn, with Jean--or, rather, the malefic entity she's become--departing Earth forever with no reservations, while other characters react to the emergence of Dark Phoenix in various ways, depending on the circumstances. As for the X-Men at the scene, they're deprived of hearing Jean's "goodbye" sentiments, such as they are.

For those left in Jean's wake, they can only speculate as to what's happening (though the Silver Surfer comes close):

While those in her path are unfortunately reduced to a state of dread that would precede their deaths--a sudden, incredible turn of events that in an instant makes Jean Grey a mass murderer, on a horrifying scale.

It's a sobering scene that carries a wealth of complications for the character, and for the X-Men--though the reader is perhaps wondering for the first time if Jean has reached the point of no return here... if there is any coming back from this. Later, we'd see that Wolverine is convinced that Jean and Phoenix are two separate entities, ergo, Jean can't be held responsible for the actions of Phoenix. Nightcrawler wonders if he can forgive Jean for what he views as an atrocity many levels above those of the Holocaust. And Jean herself all but admits that her feelings and those of Phoenix may likely be one and the same. You can't help but wonder how Claremont will sweep it all under the rug, as he must if Jean Grey survives the repercussions of her actions.

I remember at the time being so impressed with the amount of material Claremont and Byrne were able to pack into this story's 17 (!) pages.  The battle with the X-Men... the aftermath of the team's dealings with the Hellfire Club... the scenes with Xavier and Moira MacTaggert, conferring about Jean's fate... and then, an amazing panorama of scenes by Byrne and inker Terry Austin (the latter departing Marvel for DC following his X-Men and Dr. Strange work--Marvel's loss, to be sure) of Dark Phoenix, a thoroughly corrupted young woman who has already begun effecting massive change and turmoil in another galaxy. When this saga concluded, it would mark a turning point for the X-Men, for Cyclops in particular, and for the book itself as the team dynamic shifted; but this issue was such a page-turner that it was all a reader could do to keep up with the events unfolding here in front of their eyes without even thinking of looking down the road that far.

Since we know in hindsight the Shi'ar would step in shortly to bring Jean to heel and to neutralize Phoenix, this issue also presents the catalyst for their involvement: a Shi'ar battle cruiser, investigating the extinction of the D'Bari star system and finding a single entity responsible. The cruiser's Captain immediately retaliates, and pays the price; yet before the end, he manages to reach the Shi'ar homeworld with evidence of the being responsible.

Lilandra and her Chamberlain, having encountered the Phoenix previously during a Shi'ar crisis involving Lilandra's mad brother, D'ken, are able to grasp the full extent of Phoenix's threat, and move to act accordingly.

As for the X-Men, they're also grimly assessing their own situation--one that seems hopeless, even before a startling new development that closes the issue.

As cliffhangers go, it's an odd one, given Dark Phoenix's parting words to the team. It's been shown previously in this story that Phoenix is now exactly where she wishes to be; and while the X-Men, unconscious at the time, have no reason to suspect Phoenix is gone for good, Claremont's dialog for her made her intentions to depart forever crystal clear to the reader. So why the about-face? And why the gasping shock-statement from Scott that she's ravenous? The following issue shows her returning to Earth not hungry, but "homesick" for want of a better word. It's a strange turn of events that only serves to set up a final confrontation with the X-Men, and, from there, with the Shi'ar.

As the issue which begins the trilogy featuring the fate of Phoenix, this story earns its status as a true X-Men classic--and at something of a bargain, too. With the book scheduled for a price increase to 50¢ a copy after another three issues, this seventeen-page story was only costing you a little over 2¢ a page. However you define "getting your money's worth," 1980 was the year X-Men delivered.

Uncanny X-Men #135

Script: Chris Claremont
Pencils: John Byrne
Inks: Terry Austin
Letterer: Tom Orzechowski


Colin Jones said...

Yes, terrific stuff. The Hellfire Club/Dark Phoenix saga and the "Wagnerian Ring Cycle" Thor issues had me utterly riveted in 1980. But it was such a disappointment and a cheat when Jean turned out not to be dead after all. If she had stayed dead her death would have been legendary like Gwen Stacy's.

Big Murr said...

It's a fantastic epic that brings bittersweet memories. Essentially, this was the end of the X-Men for me. I had been a huge fan of the new line-up and avidly collected each issue. I even had a letter printed!

Not long after this epic, Byrne and Austin left, leaving a void in the artwork that was rarely filled. Then the X-Men stories started swimming out into the sticky, gooey ocean of endless soap opera where death and resurrections happened three times a month.

Obviously they had no intention of resurrecting Jean or any of the subsequent "Phoenix Force" hootenanny. I have every faith the Silver Surfer's senses were accurate in detecting a human in turmoil. Would that they had stuck to that plan.

(and Colin Jones brings up another hard memory. I have to disagree with his love of Thor's "Wagnerian Ring Cycle". I despised it. It was the great decision in my young comic collecting life to stop being a "completist". I had collected Thor thru thunder and drizzle for 120 issues and the utter drooling mess of the Ring Cycle and epic slop of the Celestials in #300 forced me to step away from Thor until Walt Simonson brought me back)

Comicsfan said...

Colin, I suppose the revival of Bucky Barnes has proven that there are some resurrections that can work, even when the person's death was viewed as sacrosanct. But while both Jean and Bucky died what can be considered heroic deaths, it's really the resurrection of the Phoenix concept that Marvel seemed to want to resurrect (though, admittedly, Jean herself had three deaths to her tally). I think Phoenix: Endsong was some of the last reading I might have done in the realm of comic books, so I didn't keep track of the instances where Jean might have been actually brought back to life (as opposed to her body being reanimated by the Phoenix); but I think you're correct in her death on the moon being the defining moment for Jean Grey, one that could have resonated with readers old and new for quite a long time.

Big Murr, you raise a good point about the Surfer's words while soaring above Earth as Dark Phoenix was leaving the planet; then again, it looks like Marvel covered its bases by making sure that Phoenix's "copy" of Jean was indistinguishable from the real McCoy, with even the Phoenix not realizing the truth. As workarounds go, it wasn't a bad one--but I suppose we can all blame X-Factor for the fact that it was tried at all.

Jared said...

Don't know what can be said about this great story that hasn't already been said. I just still am awed by the pacing of the Claremont/Byrne run and how they just flowed from story to story. And I wish that Jean Grey's death had been given Uncle Ben status. In the end, bringing her back just didn't work. It cheapened the story, and wound up pushing a very promising character in Rachel Summers to the background.

Comicsfan said...

To be honest, Jared, I never considered Rachel Summers to be all that promising. Aside from the fact that she was being used to manifest the Phoenix force, presumably without the threat of Dark Phoenix waiting to rise--"Phoenix-lite," so to speak--she was always going to be likened to her mother, either in narrative or when introduced to others, even if she was one day watered down to simply having telepathic/telekinetic abilities (which, if memory serves, was the case, as a part of Havok's X-Men group). But I agree that Jean's revival pushed her a bit off the radar--I didn't really keep track of her afterward, and I couldn't being to speculate as to whatever happened to her.

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