Four-Color Flashback: Chris Claremont & John Byrne’s ‘Uncanny X-Men’ #136-143

Welcome to the final week in our analysis of Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s run on Uncanny X-Men. The first four weeks can be found here, here, here, and here.

Fearless readers, we have come to the end of Claremont/Byrne’s classic run on Uncanny X-Men. There are some very emotional points in these issues, but on the whole, this doesn’t feel like an ending so much as it does yet another springboard for future storylines. And that’s what it is: after all, Uncanny X-Men is still going 30 years later, and even with Byrne’s departure, Claremont had another ten years left on the title. What’s more, Claremont and Byrne had things planned out for a further seven issues until Byrne decided to leave. But more on that later. For now, we’ll dive headfirst into the final eight issues of their run together.

When last we left our merry mutants, Dark Phoenix was preparing to return to Earth, her appetite for destruction not sated by consuming a whole star. In advance of her return, Lilandra’s Grand Council plans her demise, President Carter (for whom Claremont brings back his regrettable dialects) tells Jarvis to assemble the Avengers, and Beast devises a “mnemonic scrambler” which the X-Men can place on Phoenix to limit her powers. The first place Jean goes upon re-entering Earth’s atmosphere is her family’s home in Annandale-on-Hudson. Claremont’s captions say that “[t]his is Jean Grey’s home, not Dark Phoenix’s,” “[y]et Jean Grey is Dark Phoenix.” Her parents, and her sister, are woken from their beds in the middle of the night, their minds now an open book for Jean to unwillingly read. She senses their fear of her, and lashes out, turning a potted plant to crystal as an example of her terrible power. And she would have done more were it not for an unnatural fog produced by Storm that draws Jean out of the house, allowing Kurt to slap the mnemonic scrambler on her.

Even psychically crippled, Jean has her strength to fall back on, toppling Kurt, Hank, Peter, and Ororo in short order. Wolverine is the only one who senses what must be done, tackling Jean with the intent to kill her. But just as his claws go snikt, the real Jean appears to resurface, crying and begging him to kill her. Overcome by emotions for the woman he used to love, Wolverine hesitates, only for Phoenix to blast him back. Having overloaded Hank’s scrambler, Jean now has five of her former teammates to do with what she pleases. But then Cyclops shows up, attempting the Xander Harris Yellow Crayon Strategy(TM), telling Jean that she can’t kill the X-Men because she loves them and that the entire existence of Dark Phoenix springs from the love that caused her to sacrifice herself to save the entire universe. It seems to be working, but then Professor X rolls on up and stuns Phoenix with a mindblast, causing her to turn on him.

Jean and Xavier engage in a psi-war, the kind we saw Xavier triumphing over back in #117. This one is “waged simultaneously on all the infinite planes of existence” and is expertly drawn by Byrne. We don’t get to see the actual war raging inside their heads, but the panels cut back-and-forth between Jean’s towering phoenix form and Xavier’s strained face with a single tear pouring forth, creating incredible intensity. Much as Jean had bound the neutron galaxy in the first issue of the Claremont/Byrne run, so Xavier binds Dark Phoenix within a network of psionic circuit breakers. Jean collapses, Scott running to catch her. Phoenix seems gone, Jean back to normal. Cyclops telepathically proposes marriage, and Jean says yes. It appears to be a happy reunion, but suddenly, the X-Men are zapped away to Imperial Center for an exciting super-sized issue entitled “The Fate of the Phoenix!”

Lilandra allows right-hand man Gladiator to explain the situation to our confused heroes. When Jean consumed the star D’Bari, she eradicated five billion living beings, and must be executed for such genocide. The X-Men are shocked to learn of Jean’s transgressions, and she herself is overwhelmed with grief. Xavier, having learned much about Shi’ar culture during his time on Imperial Center, challenges Lilandra to a duel of honor as the only way to save Jean from immediate death. Lilandra’s Kree and Skrull allies agree to the duel, giving the X-Men a day to prepare before a battle for Jean’s life. During that day, each team member reflects on whether or not they can fight for Jean, now knowing the true extent of her crimes. Kurt and Warren (who showed up following Xavier’s defeat of Phoenix) can’t decide if they can, morally; Logan knows that Jean and Phoenix are two separate entities, and will fight for her no matter what; Hank is appalled that Lilandra won’t allow Jean a fair trial; Peter feels that to not fight for Jean would be to betray a comrade; while Ororo and Scott are both deeply conflicted.

Jean shows up to the battle in her old Ms. Marvel garb, unsure whether it’s out of nostalgia or pride that she does so. After discussing it amongst themselves, all of the X-Men decide to fight alongside Jean. Thus begins a lengthy duel against the Imperial Guard, one in which the X-Men do not fare well. At a crucial moment, Jean shatters the psychic restraints put in place by Xavier, causing her Phoenix powers to re-emerge. She again begs the X-Men to kill her because she knows that as long as she lives, Dark Phoenix will always return. And then it is that Jean’s secret strategy is revealed: she mindscanned the Kree and Skrull observers to learn what ancient weapons were hidden on the planet, then allowed her fight with the X-Men to drain her to the point of vulnerability, finally placing herself in front of a laser cannon that destroys her. The steaming crater representing all that is left of Jean Grey/Ms. Marvel/(Dark) Phoenix is pretty tough to look at.

With the Dark Phoenix Saga finally having come to its tragic conclusion, the next issue, #138, “Elegy,” feels very much like an introductory issue for new readers. As the X-Men stand over Jean’s grave, Cyclops recounts in his head the entire history of the X-Men, from Jean’s arrival to her death. It doesn’t seem like he misses a single major storyline, and though he offers the occasional introspective thought, it makes for pretty dry reading. The issue doesn’t become effective until the last couple of pages. Lilandra offers a “holempathic matrix crystal” to Jean’s parents, which will enable them to see a three-dimensional image of Jean as well as feel her essence. Jesus. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not; I can easily imagine a grieving parent would become obsessed with such a thing to the point of ignoring everything else in their life. But that’s a story for another post, I guess. Cyclops announces his departure from the team as fresh-faced Kitty Pryde arrives at the school, Claremont exclaiming, “The X-Men will never be the same again!”

Following that, the cover to #139, “…Something Wicked This Way Comes!” feels like a nice punchline. It’s got a smiling Kitty in the center, surrounded on all sides by monsters and mayhem, reading, “Welcome to the X-Men, Kitty Pryde. Hope you survive the experience!” Kitty watches in the control booth with Xavier while the team goes through some rigorous Danger Room training, and soon gets the codename “Sprite” after rejecting Xavier’s initial suggestion of “Ariel.” Ororo, now the team’s leader, takes Kitty to a lesson with dance instructor Stevie Hunter, someone who inexplicably gives Ororo the heebie jeebies. Meanwhile, Wolverine (sporting a new brown-and-gold costume) and Nightcrawler travel to Canada so that Logan can make peace with James Hudson and the rest of Alpha Flight. While the two are in town, Vindicator shows them the tracks of a creature suspected to have made off with a Mountie and his family.

Wolverine notices the tracks immediately: they belong to the monstrous Wendigo he tussled with during his first full appearance in The Incredible Hulk #181. When Kurt goes to retrieve their gear, he winds up cornered by the Wendigo. He attempts to confuse the monster with his speed and agility, but in so doing, underestimates the Wendigo’s own agility; he gets thrown through the forest and into the cabin where Wolverine and Alpha Flight are waiting. Logan and his fellow Canadians give it all they’ve got, but the Wendigo just won’t stay down. Luckily, the Mountie’s wife and son are still alive (the Mountie himself…less so), and Wolverine helps them to safety before suffering a beating that would kill a lesser man a few times over. In a last-ditch effort, Snowbird transforms into an actual wolverine, tearing into the Wendigo and ultimately defeating it. However, she has succumbed to the wolverine’s bloodlust and almost sets her claws upon the others before Wolverine talks her down. The Wendigo reverts to the human Georges Baptiste, who is promptly arrested by Alpha Flight; as Wolverine and Nightcrawler return home, the Great White North’s only superteam is let go by its government, now free to star in their own book.

The next two issues, #s 141 and 142, form perhaps the greatest storyline of the Claremont/Byrne run, “Days of Future Past.” Last week, I complained that Kitty Pryde didn’t do much to deserve the fan adoration she’s garnered, but everything that she does in “Days of Future Past” makes up for it. From its opening scene, the story establishes itself as something very different: in an apocalyptic wasteland, an adult Kitty–Kate–Pryde is assaulted by a group of mutant-hating “rogues.” “Welcome to the 21st century,” reads the caption. Wolverine, his weathered face framed on either side by Reed Richard-like shocks of white hair, saves her. He doesn’t use his claws, though, because that would alert the Sentinels that he’s back in town. At least Wolverine doesn’t have to wear an inhibitor collar like the rest of the mutants because he’s usually off serving as a member of the Canadian Resistance Army. Logan gives Kate the final component for a device that will disable the inhibitor collars without alerting the Sentinels.

It is soon revealed that it is the year 2013 (only two years from now, but over three decades from when this issue was published). Following the passage of the Mutant Control Act of 1988, millions of mutants were hunted down and exterminated. Those who remain are forced to live in internment camps. Only four X-Men have survived: Kate, Logan, Ororo, and Peter. Along with Franklin Richards (son of Reed and Sue), his telepathic/telekinetic lover Rachel, and former foe Magneto, they make up the backbone of the anti-Sentinel resistance force. Kate and Peter are married, their children long since murdered. The story is admirably, unrelentingly bleak, opening the door wide for dozens of alternate-future superhero stories in the years since.

Now that the resistance’s jamming device is finished, Kate goes forward with an extremely risky portion of the plan. Rachel catapults Kate’s mind into the body of present-day Kitty Pryde, who had just finished her first Danger Room session. The old-young Kitty explains to the X-Men that a re-formed Brotherhood of Evil Mutants will kill Senator Kelly very soon, setting off a firestorm of paranoia and hatred across the country. This will lead the government to reactivate the Sentinels, who will kill not just mutants but non-mutant superbeings as well, including Spider-Man, Daredevil, and–perhaps most shockingly–Captain America. The team is understandably rattled.

Back in 2013, the anti-Sentinel resistance, minus the wheelchair-bound Magneto, make their way to the heart of Manhattan through the old subway system, Peter carrying Kate’s unconscious body. Suddenly, a squad of Sentinels are upon them. They kill Franklin before the mutants are able to destroy them. Another friend dead, they soldier on to the Baxter Building, once the Fantastic Four’s headquarters but now the base of operations for the Sentinels. In the present, the new Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, consisting of founding shape-shifter Mystique, precog Destiny, tubby Blob, quake-making Avalanche, and self-descriptive Pyro, arrive at a hearing attended by none other than Charles Xavier and Moira MacTaggert with the intention of killing Senator Kelly. Luckily, the X-Men show up, and not only do they trounce the Brotherhood in a battle involving flame monsters and evil doppelgangers, Kitty saves Kelly from Destiny’s crossbow bolt.

Which brings us to the conclusion of the 2013 storyline. The mutants arrive at the Baxter Building and take a secret elevator deep within the bowels of the Sentinels’ operations. They think they’ve sneaked up on the Sentinels, so Wolverine lunges at one of them, only to immediately have all the flesh melted off his adamantium bones. Storm attacks another of the Sentinels, and is soon impaled upon a bolt not so dissimilar from the one that, in this history, led to Kelly’s death. Peter, once the gentlest of the X-Men, has now experienced more grief than any living being ever should, and reacts in kind. “He feels himself gripped by a murderous berserker fury to rival Wolverine’s,” as Claremont describes it. But Rachel, hiding in an alley with the unconscious Kate, telepathically feels him die. When Kitty averts Kelly’s death in the present, Kate’s mind instinctively leaves her young body. Where does her mind go? Does she return to her world, now a separate branch of the time stream? Or does she simply cease to exist? It may be better for her if it’s the latter.

After the towering accomplishment of “Days of Future Past,” it would be unreasonable to expect an immediate follow-up to outdo it. And true enough, #143, “Demon,” the last issue by the team of Chris Claremont and John Byrne, doesn’t come close. However, it’s a fine one-off thriller, even though it’s derivative of Alien, an inspiration the issue both alludes to and flat-out references. The issue calls all the way back to #96, when the X-Men faced off against the ancient, demonic N’Garai race. It turns out that the team didn’t finish the job, and a lone N’Garai (looking very much like an H.R. Giger creation) now stalks its way toward the X-Mansion, killing innocents along the way. The timing is poor: it’s Christmas Eve, and the rest of the X-Men leave Kitty alone at the mansion, something that Scott, calling from Florida, rightfully considers odd. Unfortunately, there’s never an explanation as to why the team, including Xavier, thought it might be a good idea to leave the newest X-Man all by her lonesome. On a holiday, no less.

In any case, alone she is, and she decides to run a combat workout in the Danger Room just so she has something to do. That’s when the mansion’s burglar alarm goes off. As she races through the house, Kitty is set upon by the N’Garai demon, who also has the Giger-esque ability to spit dissolving acid. Kitty knows that she is physically out-matched, and she can’t call the cops either, because what use would they be against an untold monster from hell? She tries to outsmart the thing by phasing through the floor, but the demon is only half-a-step behind her. With no other recourse, Kitty leads the demon to the Blackbird, which she had just been learning how to operate earlier. Just as the demon passes the Blackbird’s jets, Kitty starts them, burning the demon to a cinder. Having heard police reports of nearby murders, the team returns home shortly thereafter, and Kitty practically leaps on Peter with joy. She’s even happier to see her parents. And on this note ends an unusual holiday and a legendary run of comic books.

It really was a legendary run, too. Even if Claremont and Byrne’s joint body of work consisted only of these eight issues, that would be a considerable achievement. But they also had the debut of Alpha Flight, the “death” of the X-Men, the flashback to Professor Xavier’s younger days, the team’s tussles with Arcade and Proteus, and the introduction of Kitty Pryde, with the entire freaking Dark Phoenix Saga playing out in the background. Grant Morrison and Joss Whedon have shaken things up in more recent years, and Claremont still had more widely-known stories up his sleeve, but I can’t think of a single run of X-Men comics that contains as many iconic, defining moments as this one. So considering all that, why did the fun have to end?

According to Byrne on his website, it was a mixture of wanting to know whether he’d remain successful even if he wasn’t drawing the X-Men and general dissatisfaction over his working relationship with Claremont. Byrne says that he was becoming more and more unhappy with the way Claremont was writing the characters, and how Claremont would apparently alter scenes they had plotted together simply because of how he was feeling at any given moment. There’s no way to know what really happened, though it’s shocking that of all things, Byrne would be upset with Claremont’s portrayal of the characters, given that it’s an element of the book which only continued to improve over the course of their run. Maybe things were even better in the planning stages. Again, we don’t know. In any case, it’s a shame that such a fruitful partnership had to end so contentiously.

Of course, it doesn’t really matter how it ended when they gave us more good superhero comics over a four-year span than most creators are able to give us in their entire careers. I’m so glad I finally decided to read their run, and that I shared my journey with you. Besides a brief moment of discontent, I experienced no real disappointment with the arc. It’s all it’s cracked up to be. This is the run that shaped how we think of the X-Men, and gave rise to its most famous members. I don’t know what level of greatness to expect from the rest of Claremont’s run, but it is my plan to continue reading it outside of this column. Clearly, after a full week’s delay, I need to give “Four-Color Flashback” a rest, at least for a little while. When it does return, it won’t be about the continuing adventures of the X-Men; I’ve got some more, non-superhero plans cooked up. So look forward to that, hopefully some time within the next century.

A final string of observations and quotes:

  •  #137, the final issue in the Dark Phoenix Saga, is nicely framed by opening and closing segments featuring the Watcher and his Recorder, cosmic observers whose duty it is to document everything that occurs in the universe, though they mustn’t actively interfere. Marvel seems to roll these two out when anything truly significant happens, and the demise of Dark Phoenix certainly qualifies.
  • Jean Grey was born in 1956 and died in 1980, making her 24 years old at the time of her death.
  • “Wolverine, call me ‘Professor,’ ‘Professor X,’ ‘Professor Xavier,’ or even, if you must, ‘Charles.’ But not ‘Charley.’ Is that understood?” “Sure, Chuck.”
  • Nightcrawler apparently serves lemonade at Professor X’s request. Kinky.
  • I’m not sure what prompted Wolverine’s costume change, but the new one is better than the old (and better than any costume he’s had since).
  • There’s a nice, albeit very brief, flashback to Logan talking with James Hudson and his wife shortly after receiving his adamantium skeleton.
  • Rachel from “Days of Future Past” is apparently the daughter of Scott and Jean, which must be the result of some retcon or other. At some point, she left her time to join the mainstream Marvel timeline.
  • Storm, newly in charge of the team, gets Wolverine to promise to unsnikt his claws. At least for a while.
  • Kitty’s first Danger Room experience is hilarious. The other X-Men all work strenuously, but a frightened Kitty walks straight through all of the obstacles in her phased state, causing the team to burst with laughter.
  • It was nice seeing Moira again, even without Sean.
  • Though the X-Men saved his life, Senator Kelly is still anti-mutant, and here sets plans in motion with Sebastian Shaw to construct a new series of Sentinels.

Well, that’s all for now, folks. Be seeing you!

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