Thursday, November 26, 2009

1980 - The Uncanny X-Men

The Uncanny X-Men #128-138
Writer(s): Chris Claremont and John Byrne (co-plot)
Artist(s): John Byrne (pencils) and Terry Austin (inks)


Although John Byrne and Chris Claremont had been collaborating for over two years on The Uncanny X-Men, they reached their creative peak with the Dark Phoenix Saga. The Uncanny X-Men became Marvel’s flagship title in the mid-1980s and its success spawned a rather bulky family of titles that still manages to keep Marvel Comics afloat financially.

However, there was a time when an X-Men story could be told without a twelve-part crossover involving dozens of mutants making cameo appearances simply to promote their own titles. Also, this story line is uncluttered with the multiple and obscure plot threads which tend to drag down the current X-Men titles.

The Dark Phoenix Saga didn’t bring much attention to itself: no cover captions, no in-house ads, no gimmicks. Despite the lack of hype, solid story telling, compelling characters, and beautiful art ensured this story line’s legendary status.

In X-Men #101, Jean Grey (Marvel Girl), an original X-Man, sacrificed herself to ensure the safety of her teammates. However, she was resurrected and was given new powers that allowed her to tap into a cosmic source called the Phoenix force. Unfortunately, one of the X-Men’s oldest foes, Mastermind tampered with Jean’s mind and upset her control of the Phoenix force. The power corrupted Jean and she was transformed into the Dark Phoenix. Jean became a cosmic threat and its up to the people who care about her the most, the X-Men, to stop her.

The return of the Angel and Beast to the X-Men’s ranks for this story line was a nice touch, especially when you consider their close relationship to Jean. It was unfortunate, that Ice Man, the only other original X-Man, wasn’t brought back to participate. The Dark Phoenix Saga also introduces several key characters like Kitty Pryde, who would later join the X-Men, Dazzler, who would earn her own regular series, and the Hellfire Club’s Inner Circle, a group of powerful and wealthy mutants who would plague the X-Men in years to come.

Scott Summers, alias Cyclops, had fallen in love with Jean the moment he first set eyes on her. Claremont and Byrne leverage this emotional tie and at several points along the story line there seems to be moments where love will conquer all. However, that’s where the tragedy comes in and makes Jean’s suicide and sacrifice that much more poignant.


A couple of years after this story line was published, the original ending to the Dark Phoenix Saga surfaced in Phoenix: The Untold Story one-shot. This ending had Jean Grey survive the Dark Phoenix ordeal, but she was exorcised of her connection to the Phoenix and stripped of her mental powers. This issue also included an insightful interview with the Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter and the creative team, and brought to light the fact that there was a bit of a dispute over where the story was going. As the story goes, Jean’s destruction of an inhabited star system, in issue #134, caught Jim Shooter’s attention and he felt strongly that the Phoenix hadn’t been held accountable for her actions.

Shooter spoke with Claremont and asked him to change the story. He felt that “Marvel really does treat these characters as if they were alive. And, that there will be consequences and there will be logical ramification for whatever happens, and that there is no limit to what may happen to our characters”. Byrne, however, “thought of the Dark Phoenix as a tenant” and he was satisfied with the first version.

Claremont didn’t see it that way, and backed the theme that power corrupts. However, in an interview with Comic Book Profiles, looked back at the decision in a different light: “Without meaning to, we stumbled into the right ending for the story; an ending which defined the X-Men better than anything did at the time. It gave the book a weight it hadn’t had before and that no other book had achieved.

The Dark Phoenix Saga is a story line that is worthy of being called an epic. It’s a defining moment in the history of the X-Men and a fabulous example of a well-told story that modern X-Men writers and editors have clearly forgotten.

6 comments:

  1. The past six months I've been reading the Essential X-men books. I'm up into the 180's now. That was a great run on the title. Reading the issues in the omnibus's you don't have the tie to a certain year. I like your posts that place these issues in their respective time frames.

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  2. I began reading the X-men with 108
    (then later went back to 101) and was immediately captivated by these unusual superheroes. John Byrne's art inspired my own wannbe style so much I went around asking my friends to describe their own wish list of superpowers. I would then draw their heroes, doing my best to imitate John's art.

    I agree that the stories leading to #137 had tremendous - epic -impact because, ironically a fantasy play was teaching a powerful truth - we cannot escape the consequences of our actions.

    I loved how each X-man was shown wrestling with ethical and emotional choices. It elevated the story and series from some mere costumed doing good and clobbering of comparably powered, spandex-ed super opponents to something greater, a real window into what people will really fight for...a beloved sister, true principles of justice... a soulmate.

    My heart ached terribly at then end, but somehow I knew it was the right way for the story to finish. I was really stunned and at the time, couldn't imagine anything that could top that.

    I never really followed much of the mutant madness that developed over the next two decades. I casually flipped through an issue or two, saw the movies and critiqued...but I will always remember the thrill of following the story month by month during that awesome ride from 101 to 137.

    I chanced upon this blog while feeling a little nostalgic for John Byrne's artwork. Thanks for allowing the space to comment.

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  3. Hey Mig. Thanks for sharing. Always great to hear from someone who loves the 1980s as much as I did.

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  4. Hi Jason,

    Found your blog yesterday whilst looking for somewhere to get the Michael Golden Marvel poster from the early 80's.
    I'm glad I'm not the only one who pines for the days when Marvel comics (and comics in general) were all done by hand with original and truly excellent stories that had you counting the days until the next issue was released.
    I started reading Marvel comics in the late 70's and The X-Men were always my favourite, along with ROM although I used to buy almost any Marvel comic I could back then as they were all good.
    Nowadays I don't bother with comics other than buying up almost any Marvel/Epic 80's comics I can afford to, eBay has allowed me to sample all the amazing comics I missed at the time, titles like Dreadstar which I couldn't get as there were no comic book stores near where I lived just the local newsagents and they didn't get the Direct Sales and other specialist comics.
    Now I have a pretty good collection - almost every Uncanny X-Men from issue 96-350, Alpha Flight Vol 1 (another old time favourite of mine) New Mutants Vol 1, loads of Epic comics but they are almost completely from the 80's, after that I find most of the artwork to be lacking, in soul if not detail and everything becomes a crossover with every title in Marvels catalogue just to push sales instead of relying on a good story to do just that.
    Anyway, I'm going to have a look at your older posts and see what I've missed, oh and I've just started re-reading the X-Men from issue 96 and I'm off to read issue 98 along with some other 80's titles.
    Hope my comment isn't too long and boring and keep up the excellent work with your blog.

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  5. Hey Jason, welcome aboard! Thanks for the kind words about my blog!

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