X-Men Vignettes, Chapter Eight (1987)

X-Men Vignettes, Chapter 8 (1987)
“Phoenix”
Writer – Chris Claremont
Art – John Bolton
Letters – Tom Orzechowski
Colors – Glynis Oliver
Edits – Kavanagh, Nocenti, Shooter
From: Classic X-Men #8 (April, 1987)

Y’all ready for this?

Today we’ve got a pretty important little ditty… but, one that I… I dunno, I don’t wanna say I have a “problem” with it, because I don’t think I do — but, hmm…

By now, you all (probably) know me, my tics, my weird hyper-focus on things that I shouldn’t be worrying about. I chew the scenery, malaise over “how the sausage is made”, I’m altogether a bit too serious and unpleasant for my own good.

That said, we’re about to discuss a story that was retconned into canon back in Fantastic Four #286 (January, 1986) as part of the lead-in to the launch of X-Factor. This is, of course the Busiek “cocoon” retcon, to sidestep the Shooter edict that Jean couldn’t be allowed to — well, you know — we’ll not get too deep into the weeds, because I’m certain we’ll be chatting about this plenty (perhaps even too much) when The Essentials gets to this point.

Anyway, the story we’re about to look at is a more fully-fleshed out take on a flashback/memory scene from FF #286 (I’ll include a few pics in the “down below”), and ya know – I paid special attention to the “Frontispiece” for this ish. Frontispiece, by the way, is probably the most cringingly pretentious word for “table of contents” I’d ever seen. Anyway, I peeped it to see if there was any “Special Thanks…” to Kurt Busiek, or John Byrne (who wrote the FF story) — but, nope! Not sure that matters in the slightest… but, it certainly elicited a li’l chuckle outta me. Then again, Byrne didn’t even put his name on that FF ish — instead, it was credited to “You Know Who”. Comic pros can be so precious, eh?

Anyhoo, that’s more than enough pre-ramble… let’s get into it!

We pick up right where X-Men #100 (August, 1976) left off — the New X-Men fought (robot dupes of) the Old X-Men. The X-Men are warned by Peter Corbeau that they gotta evac the space station, because a big ol’ solar flare is about to hit. In order to get home, one of our heroes has to sacrifice themselves and remain on the bridge of their ship so they can pilot the thing. Jean Grey is that hero. Our story actually opens with a bit of a retelling of the final pages of X-Men #100 — Nightcrawler and Colossus are holding Cyclops back — trying to talk some reason into him. Scott, as you might imagine, isn’t at all keen on the love of his life dying. Meanwhile, Jean is all by her lonesome on the bridge — trying to a) pilot the rig, and b) lighten her own mood by filling up most of the panel with thought balloons!

The shuttle then passes through the solar flare (which, in that issue of Fantastic Four, is compared to the Cosmic Bombardment that gave them their powers — the FF got to watch this scene play out via a “memory orb”, or something like that). Jean attempts to keep her psi-shield up to protect her… but, it isn’t to be. She’s struck by the flare, shouts Scott’s name… and begins to die.

She fades pretty quickly… though, she’s still got enough wits about her to speak in full-on Claremontian for the next several pages. Her cellular bonds dissolve, her hair falls out, she looks like barely a husk of her pre-flared self. But then… a light. A brilliant light. Jean assumes this is an hallucination as it vanishes just as soon as it appears.

Only, it doesn’t. Jean is left completely unaware of her physical surroundings — everything turns white. She’s floating in nothingness… or at the very least, feels as though she is. Then — a nebulous humanoid form presents itself. This new friend claims that it’d known Jean Grey from the moment of her conception — it heard her cries for help, and has chosen to answer them. This isn’t quite the way the scene played out in FF #286. There (seen below), Jean’s body didn’t degrade — and it seemed as though Jean had more of a choice in the matter.

This figure then makes our gal an offer. Well, first, some parlor tricks to screw with her emotions… but, then there’ll be an offer. The Phoenix Force (I assume I can eschew the faux-shadiness over the identity of this cosmic critter, yes?) shows Jean an image of Scott. Jean doesn’t understand how this weird visitor would know any of her innermost thoughts. Though, I mean, Jean did spend many years living in the home of a mental-pervert, so this shouldn’t be too surprising. Maybe it’s all in the context, eh?

The Phoenix Force reminds Jean that she is human… flesh and bone and all that. Whereas, he/she/it is “of Creation”. The PF then begins to take on the shape of Jean herself. Our gal is just barely holding on… and is growing as frustrated as she is panicky. She demands to know what this visitor wants of her. The Force, calmly reminds her that — all it did was answer the call. Jean asked for help… and so, the Phoenix is here. It asks Jean to name her “heart’s desire”.

Jean is… ya know, a bit distrusting of this entire encounter — and, hindsight tells us, this is with good reason. Jean pretty much expects there to be a “shoe drop” — and, ya know — credit to the Phoenix, it doesn’t lie. It basically gives Jean a play on the Million Dollar Man’s tagline when it assures her that “everything’s got a price”. It also doesn’t really make its offer all that clear. It seems to me, that Jean believes she’s going to be given the powers of the Phoenix here — rather than being jammed into a cocoon and then replaced by the thing.

Jean talks about “dancing with the devil”, which – fair play to Claremont, is a line from the Byrne FF ish, though it’s definitely not a 1:1 quotation. She takes the Phoenix’s hand… as, there isn’t anything she wouldn’t do to save the X-Men. The Phoenix, at this point, basically is Jean — at least in shape and form. It loads our gal into the cocoon, while engaging in a Claremontian cocooning ritual. This performance includes filling most of the panel-space with word balloons, speaking in a purple prose, and finally — striking a pose. Do NOT try this at home, friends.

We close out with the Phoenix’s grand debut in its Jean Grey form as the shuttle barrels ever closer to Jamaica Bay!

So, there we have it – the telling of Jean Grey’s first encounter with The Phoenix Force.

A nice little story, that works quite well in facilitating (or, “aiding and abetting”) the Busiek retcon. Now, again — we’re going to avoid getting too deep into the Phoenix lore, because — trust me, that’s comin’ — suffice it to say, regardless of which side of the “Jean’s dead” argument you fall on, we can all at least admire the effort that went into assuaging her of the asparagus-genocide — and making her “usable” again during the Shooter Era.

But again, we’ll go way too deep into that territory when the time comes. Jean-as-Phoenix has been talked to absolute death — it’s basically the “Montreal Screwjob” of X-Men comics. The last thing anybody needs is for me to wax on about it in full more than once.

Instead, I wanna talk a little bit about the — don’t wanna call it a “problem” — with this story existing here. This is probably the stupidest complaint a fake-ass comics historian can make… but, I feel like adding this back-up to this issue… kinda takes the “oomph” out of the entire thing. Not only does this story lose its gravity (pun possibly intended), but the entire Phoenix Saga, including Dark Phoenix feels a lot less “for keeps”. Does that make sense? Probably not.

When I look back on reprint series’ from back in the day — the pre-internet day — I view them as, primarily, a way in which folks who missed out on the stories the first time can experience them without breaking the bank. Of course, the way in which Marvel added value to Classix is awesome, and admirable to say the very least — but, at least as it pertains to this back-up… I feel like we’re robbing first-timers of the “truest” x-perience. Again, does that make sense?

Let’s break this down a bit. This issue of Classix reprints X-Men #100 (August, 1976) — the Jean/Phoenix story first appeared (in our timeline) in Fantastic Four #286 (January, 1986). That’s a decade’s worth of stories that have been swept up in this retcon — and, I wanna make it clear that I have NO problem with the retcon — but, if I were a “first-time reader” back in ’86 — I know this reveal would definitely affect the way in which I x-perienced some of the more seminal X-Stories to follow! I mean, lemme put it another way — if you were to read the entirety of Classic X-Men/X-Men Classic, you would get to the reprint of Uncanny X-Men #206 — which had a June, 1986 cover-date — meaning damn near the entire run of Classix features a “dead” Jean Grey.

Again, maybe I’m a bit “in the weeds” and worrying about stupid stuff — but, printing this story… this early… I dunno, it just feels as though it robs the potential new reader of some great reading — or, at least changes the way in which they might receive future stories.

Now, I do wanna make one thing clear. This is a really good little story. Bolton’s art here is pretty terrific — his dying Jean is beautifully grotesque… if that makes any sense. Claremont… may have taken one too many Claremont pills the morning he wrote this, as… boy howdy, there’s more words in this eight-pager than a current-year five-issue Marvel trade paperback — but, it was still really good.

Part of me wonders if the x-cessive wordiness was to Chris trying to “shout louder” than John Byrne — but, again — it’s Claremont, who’s never really needed a reason to obscure as much art as possible with flowery verbiage. Speaking of Byrne — here’s three pages from FF #286, where we can see Jean’s original-original first run-in with The Phoenix Force. I’m still not 100% clear on WordPress… but, I gotta assume you can click’a da pics to make ’em bigger? If that ain’t the case, please lemme know!

Overall — despite my concerns over how this story might affect a new reader’s enjoyment and x-perience with the Bronze Age and Beyond X-Men… it’s still a good story. One that I feel everyone should read — it’s just a matter of when it would be most advantageous to do so.

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3 thoughts on “X-Men Vignettes, Chapter Eight (1987)

  • March 24, 2022 at 7:15 am
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    Hi Chris, when I finally found out about all the behind the scenes shenanigans around the launch of X-Factor I became more and more impressed with how much effort Chris Claremont put into the retcon that he didn’t want. He really was the ultimate team player in regards to talking up the Marvel Universe.

    I have a really weird relationship to Classic X-Men. I bought the first issue off the stands the day after my first US X-book (X-Factor 9) but it was always a difficult to find book and my collection was very spotty. I remember I finally picked this issue up at a market stall in my home town at the same time as a whole pile of the early Cockrum reprints and some issues of Punisher War Journal which I picked up for Jim Lee’s art. This must have been after his Psylocke 3 parter so I read this after Inferno which it also informs.

    I feel like I’m constantly plugging gaps in my own personal continuity. It was only last year that I picked up the second volume of the Classic X-Men reprints and finally read the Cyclops/Sinister stories which laid the groundwork for part of Inferno. That means it took me over 30 years to finally read an issue I missed because of poor distribution.

    Anyway I’m happy as always to see comics bringing you joy even if they frustrate you at the same time.

    Reply
  • March 24, 2022 at 6:34 pm
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    I wonder if the bad blood between Claremont and Byrne had something to do with the changes Claremont made to this story. It still tells the same basic story as FF 286 but it is changed just enough to make it Claremont’s story instead of Byrne’s.

    Reply
  • March 26, 2022 at 6:55 am
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    Good point about new readers and the timing. I was lucky enough to go back and read Phoenix/Dark Phoenix way before the retcon in FF and this story. If it had been in the reverse, those older stories definitely would’ve been less impactful.

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