Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Fates Of The Phoenix!

Almost four years after the now-classic X-Men story which saw the death of Phoenix (or so we thought), a behind-the-scenes look at that story was published which not only contained an extensive interview with the Marvel personnel directly responsible for it, but also for the first time revealed the story as originally written and drawn.

Phoenix The Untold Story is precisely that: the story of X-Men #137, before its ending was altered at virtually the last minute to provide for the death of Jean Grey. The issue reveals the intent of writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne to allow Jean to survive, though with her life as Phoenix (and, for that matter, Marvel Girl) brought to an end. The desperate battle between the Shi'ar Imperial Guard and the X-Men would play out as before; but in the original tale, Dark Phoenix does not re-emerge, and Jean does not go on to take her own life. It would seem the best of both worlds, with both the X-Men and the Shi'ar getting what they want--with succeeding stories presumably having to deal with the repercussions to Jean as to the loss of abilities she was born with and which contributed to her growth as a person.

The gist of the decision to rewrite the story at the eleventh hour is perhaps well known by now--specifically, that the character of Jean could not be allowed to simply return to business as usual in light of the millions of lives she incinerated as Dark Phoenix. And so the story was shifted in tone to one of true heroism--particularly in Jean's case, when she sacrificed her life in order to save the universe. Yet in many other ways, the revised story surpasses the original, as the X-Men come to terms with what Jean has done as Phoenix and hard choices must be made in order to resolve the situation. In the end, the X-Men take up the responsibility to put an end to Phoenix when all others have fallen, rather than taking the course of action that might have seen publication: fighting to protect their friend, rather than giving any thought to the notion that the Shi'ar's actions may be justified.

Looking at the two stories side-by-side offers a fascinating look at the creative process, and the decision to take a story that might have passed muster and instead hammer out a story that would not only be better for the characters, but also better for the book. Over time, it seems to be the consensus that X-Men #137 remains one of the top comics stories of all time, leaving little doubt that the decisions made at the time were the correct ones. In this in-depth look at both stories, we'll see plenty of evidence in that regard; and we'll also get an idea of the advantages of running a finished story by a few more sets of eyes and going the extra mile in order to produce a more readable and satisfying finished product.

While it's the far different ending to the story of Phoenix that calls our attention to this 1984 issue, it's interesting to see the other changes that Claremont has made throughout the revised X-Men issue that weren't called for as a result of putting the new ending in place. There are many small adjustments to existing dialog that are small enough to make you wonder why Claremont would bother with them; but the revisions you're most likely to notice have to do with the private thoughts the individual X-Men have on the night before they're to engage in battle with the Imperial Guard.

The revisions are sensible changes to the more character-based dialog Claremont had first planned to use with each of the X-Men, now taking into account the magnitude of the Shi'ar judgment against Jean and the acts she committed as Dark Phoenix--acts that only Cyclops was aware of through the telepathic rapport he shares with Jean. Xavier, in his Shi'ar challenge that forestalls any action taken against Jean, expects the X-Men to defend Jean in the coming battle with the Guard; but the X-Men must first come to agreement on whether fighting in defense of Jean is the right thing to do, given the disregard for life that Phoenix has now proven to have. It might have been helpful to the X-Men in either version of the story to know how the Shi'ar were going to proceed with Phoenix, since they're left to assume that the Shi'ar will simply execute her; otherwise, there's really no mystery as to how they'll decide to act when push comes to shove. That being the case, it's a bit confusing to the reader as to why Claremont devotes so much space to the soul-searching the X-Men go through the night before--after all, which of them is going to think twice about intervening if and when the Shi'ar move to haul Jean before a firing squad?

Following are the scenes in question, which, in the original version, make it appear as if Jean is the furthest thing from the collective mind of the X-Men, their personal concerns seeming to be more of a priority to them. Each scene includes its revision to the right, which gives more weight to the peril facing Jean--which is the reason they're all aboard this ship, right?

Curiously, even Scott and Jean--Scott and Jean, the two people most in crisis here!--don't seem to have the Phoenix situation foremost in their thoughts, instead letting their thoughts center on Scott's growth since his orphanage days. The rewritten scene is a more powerful and relevant one, hands-down.

The Beast's scene reads oddly even after being changed, since in the final cut he makes such an issue about not backing off his outrage at the Shi'ar not giving Jean the benefit of due process of law, that he's "not about to back down" and "not going to stand for it!"--and then goes on to do just that. Thought balloons are all well and good, in reflective scenes such as these--but the Beast grumbling to himself when he could pursue making his case to Lilandra (for all the good it would do) does little to help Jean or add significantly to the story.

There's one last substitution of note--that of Scott being given the news by Angel that the team has decided to stand by Jean. In the original story, the scene is presented as one between Cyclops and Gladiator, and comes across a bit awkwardly.

Scott should really be in no mood to wish Gladiator the best of luck, considering what's at stake--who's at stake. Though the revised scene is also awkward in its own way, since we've really seen no indication of Scott having any notion that the other X-Men were conflicted in the least about whether or not to fight on Jean's behalf; indeed, he might have been a little taken aback at Warren's announcement, if he weren't so grateful.

You'll also find in the original story that Claremont is giving a measure of attention to Warren, as if trying to make it clear that Warren thinks he isn't cutting it on this team. That's been toned down in the revised story, since it would be odd for him to be so self-preoccupied given his deep feelings for Jean's welfare.

And so the battle between the X-Men and the Guard takes place, with the Guard winning the battle but the Shi'ar losing the war.

In the original version, however, the Shi'ar win both--and true to their word, they prepare for the destruction of Phoenix.

It's a procedure that will be familiar to readers of a What If story from mid-1981, which had already spilled the beans as to the intent of the original Phoenix story in a tale which put forth the question of what would have happened if Phoenix had not died.

(Do pick up the What If story--it's a bit rushed, and predictably heavy on fatalities, but not a bad read overall.)

Claremont and Byrne give due attention to Jean's procedure, with the word "lobotomy" heavy in the air despite the no doubt precise skills of the Shi'ar personnel and their available technology. But the focus is on the human element, as the rapport Scott shares with Jean is also severed and he nevertheless stays with her to the end.

Given the profound words that the Watcher shared with the Rigellian Recorder at this story's conclusion, the corresponding scene in the original version reads as if it were phoned in by comparison, with words and sentiments the Watcher might have applied to the FF, or the Avengers, or to any of Earth's heroes who bravely persevered through a difficult situation. Another reason this scene reads so casually is because of the elephant in the room that even the Watcher fails to see--the scores of dead bodies left in Phoenix's wake, which astonishingly seem to carry no meaning in the Watcher's cosmic scheme of things.

While its story has been improved upon, Phoenix The Untold Story would still nicely bookend your copy of X-Men #137 on your comics shelf, if only as an informative appendix to this well-crafted climax to the Phoenix saga. Its conversational afterword, "The Dark Phoenix Tapes," a back-and-forth discussion with Claremont, Byrne, Terry Austin, editor Jim Shooter, and former and present X-Men editors Jim Salicrup and Louis Jones (respectively) on the reasons behind all the revisions, is also included as an appropriate follow-up.

Adaptations of the cover of the issue that started it all: X-Men #101!

(Gee, won't it be embarrassing when Darkwing Duck becomes Dark Darkwing Duck.)

Phoenix The Untold Story #1

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

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately 'What If' was very difficult to get hold of in the UK (well, it was for me) but 'What If Phoenix Had Not Died' was one of the few I did manage to find. "..and predictably heavy on fatalities" is a bit of an understatement as Phoenix ends up destroying the universe !! Great story though and a chilling final image of the Phoenix Force slowly expanding across the universe and destroying everything in its' path - I'm glad I managed to pick up that issue of 'What If'.