Four-Color Flashback: Chris Claremont & John Byrne’s ‘Uncanny X-Men’ #129-135

Welcome to week 4 of 5 in our analysis of Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s run on Uncanny X-Men. Weeks 1, 2, and 3 can be found here, here, and here.

Well.

This is not quite the reaction I was expecting. They’d fought Magneto, endured the Savage Land, tussled with Arcade and Proteus, and now the X-Men were preparing to go up against possibly their biggest threats yet, the Hellfire Club and Dark Phoenix. And yet I’m sitting here, after these seven issues, with a slight pang of disappointment. There are a number of things I could blame this disappointment on. First and foremost, as you may have noticed by the delayed episode this week, these last few days at Gobbledygeek HQ have been a mite rough. You’re also probably reading this column at least a day late. I don’t regard anything about this column as a chore–it was my idea, and there’s no money involved–but all the same, when you know you have something to do and not much time in which to do it, it can seem like a chore. Which I fully admit is not the best frame of mind to approach a work of art, be it a comic book, a movie, an album, what have you.

But the only reason I bring that up is because I don’t really want to consider the alternative: that for the first time during their run, and ramping up to the most iconic storyline of their joint tenure, Claremont and Byrne have stumbled. Nothing huge or damaging, but instead of continuing their ascent, a little fumbling of the ball. There are parts of these issues that are as epic as they should be, but something feels a little off.

Things start off well enough in #129, “God Spare the Child…,” as the team prepares to leave Scotland. My fears from last week were confirmed: on the very first page, Sean retires from the X-Men, deciding instead to stay with Moira and live a relatively normal life. Cyclops looks to his brother Alex or Jamie Madrox to fill the hole left by Banshee, but neither of them are willing to rejoin that hectic lifestyle. On the flight back to New York, Jean enters another of Jason Wyngarde’s “mindslips,” once more envisioning herself as his maiden fair in the 18th century. She still won’t let Scott in on what’s happening, but he opens up to her for the first time since their reunion. It’s not about Colleen Wing; he quickly dismisses her as “just a friend” (which no doubt would come as a surprise to Ms. Wing, last seen giving Scott a key to her place). Instead, Scott admits that when he thought Jean was dead, he was unable to feel anything. I’d chalked that up to the fact that, with the extreme transformation from Ms. Marvel to Phoenix, there was so little left of the Jean he had known by the time she “died,” that there just wasn’t anything for him to mourn. However, Scott says that if he had allowed himself to feel any grief, it would have broken him. They embrace and declare their love for each other. On the whole, an affecting scene.

When the group returns to the X-Mansion, they find Professor Xavier waiting for them. He’s been offworld with Lilandra for months, but sensing the growing danger of Jean’s powers, he has returned to Earth. Xavier expects to easily resume control of the team, but he’s been away for almost the entire length of the current team’s career. Scott has his own way of commanding the team, a way Xavier finds foolish and bound for failure. Wolverine particularly resents Xavier’s condescension, storming out of the Danger Room in a “childish outburst [that] will cost him ten demerits.” Throughout these issues, Xavier feels relegated to the sidelines, useless. He had expected to be welcomed back with open arms, and instead he finds a group of people he barely knows not willing to submit to his leadership.

In any case, he and the X-Men visit a potential new pupil, fan favorite Kitty Pryde. She’s a 13-year-old girl from Chicago with the developing ability to walk through walls and pop locks just by touching them, powers which manifest themselves in painful migraines she doesn’t understand. You see, when a young girl enters this time of her life, her body starts going through confusing changes…ahem. While Xavier talks to her parents, Kitty heads down to the “malt shoppe” with Ororo, Peter, and Logan. This is where my troubles begin. I adore Kitty Pryde for what Joss Whedon did with her in Astonishing X-Men, and from all accounts, including Whedon’s, her awesomeness began long before that. Here, however, her dialogue mostly sounds like a 30-year-old man trying to talk like a 13-year-old girl. Which, of course, is what it is. The usually awesome John Byrne falters a little as well; at the top of #129, page 13, there are two panels, one of Kitty and one of Storm. Kitty doesn’t look like an enthusiastic teenager; she looks like a friendly elf. Storm, meanwhile, looks oddly feline.

While they’re at the malt shoppe, the group is attacked by a team of heavily armored thugs who it seems have been specifically engineered to combat their respective powers. The X-Men trade off attackers and make easy work of the tin men, but that doesn’t save them from the clutches of Emma Frost, the Hellfire Club’s White Queen, who knocks them unconscious with a psychic force bolt. The only one who manages to escape is Kitty, who instinctively throws herself through a wall and into the alley behind the malt shoppe. Again, this is all good set-up. However, when I read the final teaser at the bottom of #129, my heart sank: “Next: Debut of the Dazzler!”

If you’re unfamiliar with Dazzler, well, consider yourself thankful and move along. Though Uncanny X-Men #130 marks her first appearance, Dazzler was not a character created by Chris Claremont and John Byrne. She was created by a committee of Marvel writers and artists in cooperation with now-defunct record label Casablanca Records. The plan was for Marvel to create a superheroic disco star, for Casablanca to produce said disco star, and for both of them to make a movie starring the fictional character/real-life singer. Do you, dear reader, find this to be anything even approaching a halfway decent idea? Nobody likes disco now, and in a world ravaged by The Sex Pistols and The Clash, nobody liked it in 1980 either. And just as a general rule of thumb, art by committee is never art. The whole endeavor was so ludicrous that Casablanca backed out, and the only appearance Dazzler’s made in a movie was a wordless cameo in this year’s X-Men: First Class.

Unfortunately, Dazzler was turned into a comic book character. While the others went to Chicago to find Kitty Pryde, Scott, Jean, and Kurt stayed in New York to find another mutant. This mutant just so happens to be underground disco singer Alison Blaire. Dressed in a skintight white jumpsuit that screams “early 80’s” more than just about anything else in the whole of existence, her power is the ability to create a really groovy light show. Cyclops’ thought bubble reads, “Wow! I know zilch about disco, but this lady is good!” These are words that trees actually sacrificed themselves for. Imagine if the only remnant of your dead loved one was this scene in an X-Men comic, and maybe we can begin to realize why nature went batshit and tried to kill all of us in M. Night Shyamalan’s masterpiece The Happening. Think about it.

Done thinking about it? Okay. Ororo, trapped in a cage that saps her of her powers, manages to give Kitty the number to the X-Men’s carphone (?), which Kurt answers. Informed of impending danger, he, Scott, and Jean are attacked by Emma’s goons, quickly ruining Dazzler’s dazzlement. The lady gets pissed, exclaiming to one of the baddies, “Chuckles, I had one dy-no-mite debut goin’, till you jokers crashed the gate. Now it’s ruined. And for that, sucker, you gonna pay!” Emphasis mine all mine, because really. Jesus Christ in DayGlo hot pants. Dazzler then flashy-things him into a catatonic stupor, and I begin to wonder what in the hell happened to my X-Men comics. And as one final instance of Dazzler’s utter terribleness, when Cyclops asks her if she’s ever wondered where her powers came from, all she says is, “Nope.”

Cyclops, Phoenix, Nightcrawler, and Dazzler make their way to Chicago, where Jean rescues Kitty from an oncoming car driven by some more Hellfire Club thugs. Phoenix worms her way inside one of the thug’s heads, where she discovers that the Hellfire Club is seeking to gain social, political, and economic power through nefarious means. This rings a terrible bell, as Jason Wyngarde is a member of the Hellfire Club in her flashes to the past. With this knowledge, the team sets off to rescue their friends. While they’re on their way, Wolverine kills his captors–the first time in these pages he’s killed human beings, if memory serves. The devilish smile on his face as his claws pop is wonderful. The non-captured X-Men make their way inside the Hellfire Club’s administration building; Dazzler blows the roof off a car with a “KRAKOW!” sound effect because apparently “POLAND!” didn’t convey the right amount of glitter.

The newly freed Peter smashes a goon, much to Kitty’s appreciation, and Phoenix gets another great/terrifying fight scene where she clobbers the White Queen. After Phoenix leaves the building little more than a pile of rubble, the team regroups outside of Kitty’s house, where Dazzler (oh thank god) turns down an offer to join them before boarding a bus out of our lives. Kitty’s parents are understandably enraged that they handed their daughter over to some weird bald cripple who then proceeded to lose her for a few days, but Jean dips into a moral gray area and refashions their thoughts in a much more positive manner. #131 ends on a nice note as Scott and Ororo, arm-in-arm, walk down the sidewalk discussing their worries over Jean’s ungodly power.

#132, “And Hellfire Is Their Name!,” is where the Dark Phoenix ball gets rolling. Following their escape from the White Queen, the team heads to former X-Man Angel’s chalet in New Mexico to hide out. Cyclops discusses their situation with Angel, who is stunned that Scott thinks the Hellfire Club is behind all this; after all, Warren is a member. Having inherited membership along with the Worthington fortune, he and his lover cum Bond girl Candy Southern only visited once and didn’t much like it, so whatever Emma Frost learned about our merry mutants, it wasn’t from them. Jean interrupts their conversation, leading to some alone time with Scott atop a butte. Jean removes his visor, telekinetically preventing his optic blasts from firing, and they make love.

A week later, the team returns to New York to infiltrate the Hellfire Club’s anniversary party. Now, a bit about the Hellfire Club. There were several real-life clubs operating under that name in the 18th century, and they “were rumored to be the meeting places of ‘persons of quality’ who wished to take part in immoral acts,” so says Wikipedia. When Frank Zappa went on CNN’s Crossfire in 1986 to argue against censorship, he was asked what the Founding Fathers would think, and made a biting reference to Benjamin Franklin’s membership in the Hellfire Club. It was very clever of Claremont and Byrne to incorporate the Hellfire Club as a villainous group in their comics; with its centuries of real-world history, it already has a depth and believability that so many supervillain organizations lack. Led by mutant Sebastian Shaw, with its membership consisting of “people whose wealth outstrips that of many countries,” the Hellfire Club seeks to extract from the X-Men the genetic secret that will allow them to engineer mutants of their own making, and in so doing, rule the world.

Dressed in fine attire, Scott and Jean are on the Hellfire Club’s dance floor when Jason Wyngarde appears, entrancing Jean and stealing her away, then revealing his true form to Cyclops: Mastermind, a masterful illusionist who’s an old foe of the X-Men. Jean is now finally, fully, under the Hellfire Club’s control, becoming the Black Queen and knocking Scott unconscious. Storm and Colossus rush to his aid, but Sebastian Shaw is in their way, and with each blow he takes, he only becomes stronger. They don’t stand a chance. Meanwhile, Nightcrawler and Wolverine are attacked by the cyborg Donald Pierce and the mass-affecting Harry Leland. Nightcrawler is captured, and Wolverine is sent falling into the sewers beneath the Club. As the only X-Man not held captive (boy, for being such a super-strong superteam, they get kidnapped pretty regularly), Wolverine launches a full-out assault on the Hellfire guards, viciously ripping into them.

Held in the Hellfire Club’s library, the other X-Men are helpless to watch one of their own turn against them. Byrne does some nice work here, with one panel showing the reality–Jean in the foreground with Colossus, Storm, Nightcrawler, and Cyclops bound behind her–and Jean’s perception–the Black Queen in the foreground, a trio of 18th-century turncoats and a slave imprisoned behind her. Jean taunts Ororo with the English translation of her name (“Beauty”), then slaps her across the face. Only Cyclops, head covered in a ruby quartz helmet, has an idea of how to get out of this; he attempts to reach Jean through the psychic rapport they share, making his way to the astral plane and engaging in a nifty psychic swordfight with Mastermind. Mastermind almost kills him, but leaves him alive for the Hellfire Club’s purposes.

Wolverine bursts into the library, and Jean immediately hits him with a telekinetic attack. However, this is just a front: she’s broken Mastermind’s control over her, popping the lock on Cyclops’ helmet and allowing him to free the other X-Men. The team fights Shaw by attacking the environment around him, Storm whipping up a deadly cold winter storm that Shaw just barely manages to hobble away from. Colossus tears Pierce’s robotic arm off, and Wolverine uses Leland’s powers against him, dropping him through the floor. And then Jean comes upon Mastermind. She pins him against a wall with her telekinetic powers, forcing him to reveal how an illusionist was able to gain psychic control over such a powerful telepath. It turns out that the White Queen had given him a “mindtap mechanism” which allowed him to project illusions into her mind, taking advantage of her vulnerable emotional state and essentially committing psychological rape. Jean then gives him the power he sought within her, showing him the universe in all its vastness with a single touch. It turns him into a vegetable.

As Shaw calls the police, attempting to paint the X-Men as Public Enemy No. 1, the team boards the Blackbird to get the hell out of dodge. Aboard the jet, Jean is withdrawn, her mind filled with dark thoughts. She then transforms her Black Queen garb into a scarlet-and-gold version of her Phoenix costume, attacking her teammates with all her power. This is where Claremont and Byrne make up for the underwhelming White Queen storyline, the existence of Dazzler, and whatever other faults I had with the earlier issues. #135, simply entitled “Dark Phoenix” and sporting one of the most iconic covers in comics history (a giant Dark Phoenix towering above the fallen X-Men and crushing the logo in her hands), is one of the best issues of the Claremont/Byrne run.

The Blackbird explodes, the X-Men raining upon the ground. The team is utterly bewildered, trying to fight Jean without truly hurting her; after all, she is still one of their dearest friends and most valued members. Jean has no such mercy, relentlessly cutting the team down with psychic attacks. The X-Men are Jean’s last ties to the person she was before she became Phoenix, and with them out of the way, she now has nothing to keep her from her true destiny among the stars. Jean blasts through Earth’s atmosphere, creating a spectacle that Dazzler could only ever hope to pull off; it stops the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and Dr. Strange in their tracks. The Silver Surfer senses within her a kindred soul, but one whose human flaws will be her undoing. As Beast, who saw the police report Shaw put out on the X-Men back at Avengers headquarters, races to help the team, Jean soars through the cosmos with a terrifying lust for power. She consumes an entire star, and in so doing destroys the eleven (life-filled) planets orbiting it.

A pair of Lilandra’s men witnesses Phoenix’s destruction, and attempt to fight her back. Lilandra watches on a video screen as their existence ceases under Phoenix’s wrath. Lilandra, with whom Charles had presumably shared his fears about Jean’s power, makes plans to deal with Phoenix once and for all, “no matter the cost.” Back on Earth, the X-Men gather in the mansion’s kitchen, dispirited and unable to take action. Scott, who has sat without speaking or eating since their return home, suddenly bolts upright. His psychic rapport with Jean tells him that Phoenix is returning to Earth…”and she’s hungry!” Yikes.

Going through these issues again as I’ve written about them allays most of the concerns I had about them. I still don’t think the White Queen story was handled very well; it had some particularly cringe-worthy dialogue, of the kind that Claremont hasn’t indulged since early on in his run. Emma Frost herself is a compelling character later on in the series, but nothing here makes her very interesting, especially because there’s no greater sense of her purpose within the Hellfire Club. It’s mentioned that she was Jean’s predecessor, but what role, exactly, did she fill? And I know I’ve ranted about Dazzler already, so I won’t say anything more about that failure of a story/character. Once Dazzler leaves, though, things get much, much better, culminating in the dramatic, genuinely frightening  emergence of Dark Phoenix. Next week is our last for the Claremont/Byrne run; I’ll bring my A-game, and I’m sure they’ll bring theirs.

Stray observations/quotes:

  • Xavier is pretty much a dick throughout all seven of these issues. I understand that he was frustrated by his uselessness on Imperial Center, and is angered that he is now pretty much just as useless back at home with the X-Men. From other stories that I’ve read, Xavier has an odd back-and-forth relationship with the team; at times, he’s the wise mentor, at others he’s the take-charge asshole. After the strong issue focusing on his past, I’m a little disappointed by how generally unlikable he is here.
  • Before the big reveal, there’s a great visual of Jason Wyngarde standing on a street corner lighting a cigarette, the flame revealing the giant shadow of Mastermind behind him.
  • Kitty’s dad looks more than a little like Ron Jeremy.

See?

  • I’m not sure how sex was allowed to be presented in mainstream comics in the early 80’s, but it was still surprising to see Jean and Cyclops clearly about to make love and then very clearly having a post-coital conversation later on.
  • There are a lot of badass Wolverine moments in these issues. When he’s on his own, making his way through the Hellfire Club’s hired help, he even gets to do his own version of Dirty Harry’s “Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?” routine.
  • Banshee, no long being a member of the X-Men, is understandably absent for most of these issues. But it’s nice to see him being such a loving partner with Moira, even asking her if she wants to go fool around to cheer her up.
  • These issues also introduce us to one of Sebastian Shaw’s old friends, the anti-mutant Senator Kelly, who was featured in the first X-Men movie. Here, Shaw makes the suggestion that they bring back the Sentinels to capture the X-Men, something I’m sure will pay off later on.
  • After Phoenix trashes them, Cyclops checks to see if Ororo’s all right: “My lungs…clogged–difficult to breathe. Also…feel broiled. Otherwise, Cyclops, I am–as ever–ready for action.” Hank: “Don’t look now, Scotty, but I think the lady just cracked a joke.”
  • When Willow goes dark at the end of the sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Andrew jokingly calls her Dark Phoenix. But reading these issues, it’s very apparent that Whedon used the Dark Phoenix template when cooking up the Dark Willow storyline. Willow’s power gradually increases to a terrifying degree, she alters people’s memories against their will, she loses a loved one (well, Jean only thought Mastermind killed Scott, but that’s what set her free), and she goes on a rampage to destroy everything. Yeah, that sounds familiar.

A note about next week’s final X-Column: long story, but I am embarrassingly awful at math, so there aren’t 35 issues in the Claremont/Byrne run, there are 36. Which sort of kills my whole “five weeks of seven issues” structure. So, next week’s column will discuss the final eight issues of their run, #136-143.

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