31 May 2019

From The Vaults: WHAT IF? #27

While we spend a great deal of time engrossed in the current crop of comic books, let us not forget those fantastic tales from the past that still sit in amongst our collections and are always worth revisiting...

WHAT IF ? #27
Writer: Mary Jo Duffy
Art: Jerry Bingham, John Stuart & Carl Garford

Matt C: 'What If Phoenix Had Not Died?'

A somewhat ironic statement in hindsight considering the number of times Jean Grey has since experienced resurrection, but back in 1981, when this comic was published, the death of a major character was still raw and seemingly permanent, so cosmic baldy The Watcher providing a peek into how things could have turned out was one of the more hefty subjects tackled by this series.

This was actually my initial introduction to the Dark Phoenix Saga. I picked it up as a UK black and white reprint, as a source of bona fide American comic books had yet to reveal itself to me back in the early 1980s. Even though I had limited access to X-Men comics, their abiding coolness had made its impact on an impressionable young mind, and any opportunity to delve into their world was embraced with gusto. Here I got to see, from a slightly different angle, a majorly traumatic part of their history and, unaware as I was of Phoenix at the time (Jean Grey was still Marvel Girl to me at that stage), this issue ably underscored the sheer universe-threatening power the cosmic entity now bonded with Grey possessed.

A swifter reaction to danger in this alternate timeline saved Jean from her demise, and here we see the measures taken to contain the Phoenix Force in the aftermath, but, as before, attempts to shut it away turn out to be ultimately ineffective. Initially though, the re-emergence of Phoenix results in a win for the good guys as she takes on Galactus himself, forcing him to skip a particular planet feast, leaving the inhabitants forever grateful, a feeling that extends to those who'd previously sought to permanently neuter the threat she presents.

So, it's happily ever after, right? If Phoenix hadn't died way back when she would have eventually proven herself to be a cosmic force for good? Well, what do you think? If it was bad before, it's a lot worse this time around, the destruction Jean caused initially when consumed by the power at her command paling in comparison to what she wreaks during her second tour of the cosmos. And when her trail of destruction leads back to the X-Mansion, it results in a suitably devastating conclusion, the Watcher reassuring us in his observational manner that we're lucky it didn't go down like this in the prime reality (that's 616 to us nerds!).

It's obviously far swifter in getting to its destination than the Dark Phoenix Saga was as a whole, even within the double-size format, but it has a substantial impact due to the sheer bleakness of the resolution, as the X-Men are presented with a foe they don't stand a chance against. Mary Jo Duffy marshals the gradual descent into darkness and doom with a firm grasp of both the characters that take centre stage and the universe-altering events they find themselves in the midst of. The artistic team of Jerry Bingham, John Stuart and Carl Garford acquit themselves admirably in tackling the subject matter within the unavoidable shadow of John Byrne, Terry Austin and Glynis Wein's majestic work on Uncanny X-Men. The linework is solid and dynamic, the panels bursting with action and emotion.

I eventually got to see how the original storyline played out, and have been around during the various deaths and resurrections that followed, but this variation of the tale always stuck with me, possibly because the hopelessness is effectively realised, but perhaps because the bare bones of the story - the corrupting influence of power, the unstoppable nature of love - are so mythic, so resonant, that no matter what order they are fashioned in, they will always dig deep into universal, emotional truths. It's why the Claremont/Byrne run on Uncanny X-Men remains so legendary, and why an issue like this can piggy-back on its greatness to produce something that's nearly as memorable.

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