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...
Writer: Chris Claremont
Art: John Byrne, Terry Austin & Glynis Wein
Rob N: 'Phoenix Must Die!' screamed the sensational cover blurb of Uncanny X-Men #137 when it came out in 1980 as the concluding issue of the Dark Phoenix storyline. This had been a sequence of storytelling that had set fandom buzzing with excitement on a scale never seen before, and probably never seen again until Watchmen was serialised. A multi-part sequence that had its seeds sown in the equally epic Hellfire Club story arc, it inspired all manner of fan theories in the small press publications of the time and left us all on tenterhooks as each issue was devoured for clues, scraps of clues and, well, scraps. This was the very peak of the Claremont/Byrne partnership (not forgetting Terry Austin on inks – no one inked Byrne better than he did), pairing up great writing with exceptional art to deliver what is in retrospect a milestone of the late Bronze Age.
But of course we didn’t believe the cover blurb for a moment as we gazed at the cover. Yes, Marvel occasionally killed a supporting character for dramatic effect, but a central member of the X-Men who could trace her lineage all the way to the first issue? I mean – Jean Grey? No way. It was just the usual Marvel bombastic hyperbole that we came to expect on the covers.
That said, the Dark Phoenix Saga had already shocked us with the corruption of the fan favourite Jean Grey, turning her from a beloved heroine to some sort of cosmic firebird driven mad and bent on wholesale destruction. Again, not commonplace in the Silver and Bronze ages. But then, as we might expect, the X-Men brought her down and Professor Xavier seemed to save the day with a psychic block that served to disconnect her from the Phoenix force. A happy ending seemed to be on the cards with everything turning back to the status quo where Jean Grey could once again be a normal mutant and put her horrific ordeal behind her.
Or so we thought. But then at the climax of issue #136 we saw the Imperial Guard of the Shi’Ar Empire intervene, teleport Jean and the X-Men on board their heavily armoured space dreadnought to put her on trial for universal genocide. The stage would be set for the mother of all showdowns in the double-size issue #137. Breaths were indeed bated as we awaited the comic in our pull-lists, confident of course that the X-Men would ultimately prevail because, well, Marvel heroes did.
I think I had a sense that this wasn’t going to be the usual slug fest with a ‘good triumphs over evil’ happy ending when the opening sequence began with wise philosophical words from the Watcher, suggesting something momentous was indeed on the cards. As I turned the pages and saw the bewildered looking X-Men facing the combined might of the Kree, the Skrulls and the Shi’Ar empires, all of whom were charging Jean Grey with the deaths of five billion people, I realised this was on a whole different scale to the mistakes superheroes occasionally made, because Jean Grey had indeed killed five billion people just a few issues ago.
We all knew it wasn’t really her fault though. In much the same way you wouldn’t blame the young girl in The Exorcist for what the demon made her do, you couldn’t really say Jean was to blame for devouring a star system on her way home. The problem was the Shi’Ar didn’t see things quite that way. Potentially Phoenix could break through Xavier’s psychic block and do it all over again. The only way to guarantee that wouldn’t happen would be to kill Jean Grey.
Only the intervention by Charles Xavier issuing a formal trial by combat challenge under Shi’Ar law prevents the aliens from executing Jean there and then. The rules are simple – the X-Men will fight the Imperial Guard (Marvel’s version of the Legion of Superheroes) in the Blue Area of the Moon, traditionally home to the Watcher. If the X-Men win, Jean Grey, in theory, lives, but if they don’t, she pays the price for what she did as the Phoenix.
From the beginning the X-Men are outclassed, even more so as many of them wrestle with doubts the night before that what they are doing is actually sensible under the circumstances. They are fighting because Jean is their friend and she wasn’t responsible for what the Phoenix did, but as the Shi’Ar explain, the Phoenix force is only bottled up by Xavier’s force of will, and should it ever break free it could devour billions more people. With such high stakes, can the X-Men truly justify their defensive stance? Many of the team are wracked with doubt, though not Wolverine: “If push comes ta shove – if I haveta make a choice – I stand by Jeannie all the way,” he says while posing all hairy-like in just a small tea towel.
And so they fight on the surface of the Moon, paired off in small groups in the classic approach adopted in super team fights in the 1970s, with the X-Men scoring a few minor wins but gradually being whittled down to just Cyclops and Jean as they make their Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid style last stand against overwhelming odds, holding hands one last time as they run from cover to face the guns.
It’s round about here, or so the story goes, that there was going to be a happy ending. Jean was going to survive and the Phoenix force would have been destroyed, but when editor in chief Jim Shooter read the synopsis he told Chris Claremont that Jean Grey would have to die. Shooter was a very hands on editor and he had very strong opinions on certain subjects. One of those subjects involved superheroes committing genocide. There was no way in his mind that Jean Grey could kill five billion living creatures and not pay the ultimate price. And so, overriding Claremont and Byrne’s protests, he ordered the creative team to kill her off.
When fandom read those final pages and it dawned on us that this wasn’t a hoax, a dream or an imaginary story, and that Marvel had just killed off one of their founding characters, we were astonished. That sort of thing just didn’t happen back then. Nowadays of course the death of a major character is routine and commonplace, and of course they always come back after a year or two, but back then in the pages of Uncanny X-Men #137 it was genuinely shocking and, dare I say it, moving. Jean was dead, and it felt like the X-Men would never be quite the same again.
And in a way it wasn’t. Only a few issues of the Claremont/Byrne run followed before the creators split in mutual acrimony to go their separate ways. Although both would go on to create some great work individually, nothing would ever quite match the magic of their combined run on Uncanny X-Men, and the Hellfire Club/Dark Phoenix saga in particular. It was, in many ways, a watershed moment for the Bronze Age and one that left readers everywhere reeling. It was also the first of many changes that followed in the Marvel Universe as the 1980s progressed. With the death of Jean Grey it seemed nothing was now off limits.