I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.
I started my tenure as a buyer, reader, collector, and near-addict of superhero comics with Marvel issues cover-dated September 1980. With certainty, I can assert that I initiated myself into my fandom with then-current copies of Fantastic Four, Avengers, Daredevil, Marvel’s Greatest Comics, and Marvel Two-In-One Annual. For years, though, I was haunted by the comic I didn’t manage to purchase, the special double-size issue that I would strain and struggle to add to my collection for years. Had I nabbed it, I would have achieved the rough equivalent of watching The Rumble in the Jungle as a first boxing match or introducing oneself to the art of film with Citizen Kane. I don’t believe I ever spied it on the comic rack at my local grocery store, but X-Men #137 came out the month I committed to adventures of spandex-clad do-gooders.
Titled “The Fate of the Phoenix,” the story inside X-Men #137 was the crescendo of a saga that had stretched for multiple issues of the title spotlighting Marvel’s Merry Mutants. In the most expansion measure, it could be seen as reaching all the way back to X-Men #101, when the red-headed stalwart of the team, Jean Grey, first transformed from her former guise of Marvel Girl into Phoenix, her telekinetic and psychic powers dramatically heightened following exposure to cosmic rays. More accurately, the issue delivered the close of what would quickly be termed “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” which got properly underway eight issues earlier, when an nefarious assemblage of privileged elites dubbed the Hellfire Club slipped into the position as primary antagonists for our heroes. Because of the magnitude of Jean’s powers, she becomes a primary target for the villains, and the manipulations of a telepath Jason Wyngarde set off a series of event that culminate in the a full unleashing of the Phoenix force in such a way that she gives in to unhinged malice. In the useful shorthand of the storytelling, Jean becomes Dark Phoenix.
Beyond beating up on her teammates, Jean, as Dark Phoenix, soars across the cosmos to a distant galaxy where she destroys a star. A nearby planet and its population of sentient beings. That action runs her afoul of the intergalactic equivalent of the Hague. She and the X-Men are transported to a space vessel where the terms of Jean’s judicial reckoning are set. In keeping with the narrative need for laser-blasting, fist-flinging conflict, Jean’s future will be determined by a battle on the surface of Earth’s moon. And thus the operatic drama is set into motion.
Employing a skill that’s all but eradicated from current comic series, X-Men #137 was the latest entry in a ongoing story that had a daunting number of preceding installments. But it also stood alone, using exposition — including captions that could admittedly get awfully dense with information — to get a new reader properly up to speed. In quick, meaty segments, the sizable band of heroes weighed the moral uncertainty they had in defending their teammate, who was, after all, culpable for the eradication of a planet and every living thing on it. And those inner monologues served to illuminate who each of these characters were, adding greater import to the requisite action.
This story was the essentially the big, bold ideal of the fractious collaboration between writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne. Also credited as co-plotters, the individual creators saw the X-Men — and really the broad playground of the Marvel Universe — in markedly different ways. Doggedly devoted to his own view of the characters, often locked in from their earliest appearances, Byrne pushed for a continuity-bound consistency, a constant cycling and recycling of the tried and true. Claremont favored what would eventually be termed “big screen storytelling” on the comic book page, casting characters into unexpected realms and having them expound at length on the cataclysmic wildness of their predicaments. The dueling instincts created a thrilling friction in the work, the grounded and the fantastical sparking off of each other. It was the epic and the intimate as one, and it was transcendent.
While “The Fate of the Phoenix,” by credits and by execution, belongs to Byrne and Claremont, there was another cook whose contribution to the dish was vital. Jim Shooter, the towering editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, decided that the offhand eradication of billion required a more decisive judgment than the team on X-Men was prepared to render. Originally, “The Fate of the Phoenix” ended with the alien overseers using their advanced technology to strip away all of Jean’s powers, leaving her a helpless human. Shooter felt that wasn’t enough and delivered an edict that echoed the simplified moralizing of the old Hollywood Hays code. In his estimation, Jean needed to die for her sins.
Under mild protest, Claremont and Byrne reworked the ending. The X-Men were felled by their interstellar opponents, but instead of Jean standing before a tribunal, she ended the drama on her own terms. Slipping away to a hidden cavern with her own true love, Jean, aided be her telekinetic abilities and a handy laser cannon, took her own life.
Superhero comics, I would come to learn, always operated at a heightened emotional level, but this was a Shakespearean ending or a Greek tragedy with brighter, more form-fitting costumes. At this point, death of the major character in the Marvel Universe is about as permanent as the harm of a sprained appendage. Back then, though, it carried far more of a sense of finality. Villains often boomeranged back from seemingly certain doom with a wonderfully implausible tale of their ingenuity in survival, but the rare good guys who were felled — such as Thunderbird and Gwen Stacy — often found their exit from the mortal plane to be permanent. When X-Men #137 landed, it definitely seemed as though, as the title of the story promised, Phoenix had met her final fate.
I eventually did manage to add X-Men #137 to my collection, paying far more than the seventy-five cent cover price to do so. It was arguably the most prize possession in my humble collection. I recently reread the issue and was struck by how it effective it remains. In a way that anticipates (or maybe influenced) the strengths of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the story sets clear expectations and subtly subverts them (the X-Men lose the battle to save their friend) while relying greatly on shrewdly developed affection for the characters. In its particulars, the story is filled with goofball elements (the fight takes place on the moon, for pity’s sake), yet every one of them is somehow gravely serious and deeply plausible. In short, “The Fate of the Phoenix” held every characteristic I loved about superhero comics and took each of them to their pinnacle. It might be a good thing I didn’t buy and read it that very first month. It would have set an expectation so high that the comics that followed would rarely reach it.
Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.