X-Men #138 (1980, October)
Now that we’ve all had a few days to recover from the tragic finale of the Dark Phoenix Saga, let’s re-open the wound with the epilogue, “Elegy.”
This is a flashback issue. It starts with everyone gathered around Jean’s grave, as Scott thinks back on his words to Jean, about her being as important to him as the air he breathes, and about how, just a week ago, they were talking about marriage.
Then he goes through the history of the X-Men. I won’t review it in this post, because that’s what this whole blog is for. This feels like filler, to be honest. It’s too clinical a review, with only a few instances of Scott saying how he actually feels about any of what happened.
After he’s gone through it all, Jean’s father tries to comfort him. Lilandra gives Jean’s parents a holempathic matrix crystal, with not only an image of Jean, but also a feel of the essence of who Jean was as a person. It’s a rather sweet gift. The Scott says his goodbye to Xavier, who expected it. Scott has no idea where he’ll go, what he’ll do, or whether he’ll be back. But he doesn’t intend to crawl back into his shell.
It ends with a cab pulling up to the school, and Kitty getting out.
There’s little to say about the issue itself. So instead, I’ll talk about the events that led up to the Dark Phoenix Saga.
It all began, arguably, with X-Men #96, with the introduction of Dr. Lang. The next issue brought in Erik the Red, and Xavier’s odd space dreams. The next issue brings back the Sentinels. At this point, there’s nothing to indicate Claremont and Cockrum are doing anything more than a well-told X-Men story. In actuality, this is where the foundation was being laid for one of the most iconic stories of all time. The Sentinel arc leads to #101, the introduction of Phoenix, and the first indication that this will be very different from anything we’ve read before. Phoenix is a Thor-level character, something the X-Men never had. More, she’s a Thor-level character who’s concerned about all the power she has. She has the power of a god but the mind of a human, separating her from the other major powerhouse heroes, like Thor or the Silver Surfer.
Claremont and Cockrum also tell a gripping and compelling space opera, not exactly out of the ordinary for comics of the ’70s, but done much better than the others. When Byrne replaces Cockrum on art, things really take off. The space opera is gone, and the stories more grounded, and also more intimate. They start by reducing Jean’s power level, and then write her off the team entirely for a while, to explore Scott’s feelings for her. When they bring her back, Claremont and Byrne somewhat duplicate with Jean what Claremont and Cockrum did with Xavier – they give her odd, unexplained visions, that hint at something more. But where Xavier dreamed of aliens, Jean’s visions were even stranger, and the source was established very quickly, with Jason Wyngarde. But Wyngarde himself hints at something more.
The Hellfire Club arc, beginning in #129, continued the escalation, gradually growing bigger and bigger, and hinting that things were going to get even bigger still. And this was where it became, without question, the best book on the stands. Claremont and Byrne were telling a long-form story unlike any other. Other books had done long arcs, but seldom were they this expansive, and it was even rarer for them to combine such epic scale with such intimate characterization. No one was doing this. They were bringing to a head seats planted years earlier, building to a climax that could lead only to tragedy.
This was a book that excelled at being unexpected. Most books, you could more or less tell what each issue would bring. (Incredible Hulk was the worst for being formulaic and predictable, never allowing anything to actually change.) Even books that were based on change, like the Avengers, ultimately had very little of it. X-Men wasn’t afraid to make big changes, like turning Jean into Phoenix, scaling her powers back, and then letting her powers grow again, to the point where she went crazy and had to die. It was always hard to predict exactly where the story was going. And the places it went were different from where any other books were going. And there was a great intimacy to the writing. There was true tragedy in Jean’s turn to Dark Phoenix. And it was so different. Heroes never turned evil. They might be forced to become criminals temporarily, but they weren’t evil. Dark Phoenix was truly evil. She was horrifying, but you still felt sorry for Jean, because she wasn’t truly in control of her actions. She was drunk on the power. So were were afraid of her, and afraid for her.
Claremont, Cockrum and Byrne told one of the greatest stories in the history of comic books. If Claremont had stepped off the book after issue #137, his run still would’ve gone down in history, and people would still talk about it. Instead, he stayed on for another decade of great stories, to become the X-Men scribe. It’s a testament to the impact of the Phoenix and Dark Phoenix Saga that no matter what retcons and follow-ups are thrown in, it’s still regarded as one of the greatest comic stories ever told.
This month also saw the release of Avengers #200, plotted by Shooter, Perez, Layton and Michelinie, written by David Michelinie, and art by George Perez and Dan Green. This is the one where Ms. Marvel gives birth to Marcus. Where no one actually expresses any concern for how she must feel after giving birth to a child after only a few days of pregnancy. And then Marcus turns out to be the son of Immortus, who abducted Carol, attempted to woo her, admitted to using his father’s machines to make her love him, and then took her back to Limbo. Yeah, he raped her, and then the Avengers let him keep her. It was stupid.
There was also Captain America #250, by Stern and Byrne. A third party tried to draft Cap as a presidential candidate, and he had to think about whether he should run. His speech when he declined was pretty good. Very Cap.
Also worth noting, Marvel Two-In-One #68, written by Mark Gruenwald and Ralph Macchio, pencils by Ron Wilson. The Thing and the Angel get captured, and after a series of traps, they find Toad. Arcade helped him renovate the castle into a death trap. When Arcade calls and demands his money, Toad breaks down. Angel ends up offering to pay Toad’s debt, and turn the castle into Toadland, and amusement park.