X-Men Retrospective #2 - The Phoenix Saga
Uncanny X-Men #101 – 108
We last left the strangest teens of all in the wake of a crash in Jamaica Bay that kind-of-sort-of-but-not-really-because-comic-books claimed the life of Jean Grey before she emerged as Phoenix, life incarnate. This is a Big Deal. Seriously, this one event winds up being more influential to its series and the Marvel Universe as a whole than Gwen Stacy's death. In one page, X-Men architect Chris Claremont sets into motion events that affect entire story arcs for decades to come. Most comic books stories have to go through an entire company-wide crossover event to make that happen. Granted, there is more to the story of Phoenix, and it is likely that the conclusion of the Dark Phoenix Saga has just as much of a ripple throughout the continuity, but it all traces back to the end of Marvel Girl.
Naturally then, our uncanny heroes spend the next few issues taking a bit of a detour from the major story arc that Claremont is slowly and famously piecing together. This is the late 70's – we weren't sectioning arcs off into neatly sliced 6-issue paperbacks. This retrospective covers Uncanny X-Men #101 – 108 and the first three issues only feature Jean Grey / Phoenix on the peripheral if at all, and have our core group of new X-Men off in Ireland visiting Banshee's family castle, picking up a blink-and-you-miss-it plot point a few issues ago where a panicked man sent Banshee a letter. These three issues aren't bad by any stretch, but they have some uninspiring villains in Black Tom Cassidy and Juggernaut, and the team is saved in #103 by leprechauns. It's goofy and I'm not going to write anything else about it.
On the plus side, we get some great depth added to Storm. Up until now, Ororo Munroe has been largely the most powerful and capable mutant out of the new batch. Honestly, Storm is the best. To have such a prominent, powerful, and unique black female at this time is impressive. Ororo doesn't get reduced to stereotypes, and her backstory being fleshed out more with attention given to her recurring claustrophobia is a really strong storytelling beat. We also see that the dastardly Eric the Red from a few issues earlier has been not only orchestrating these events, but also working for a greater evil. He also reveals to the reader that there is another, more deadly foe waiting for them. AND HIS NAME IS JOHN CENA!
Just kidding, it's Magneto. In non-X-Men comics, the master of magnetism was turned into a baby before Eric the Red aged him back up to adulthood. In #104, he engages our mutant heroes in the first of a series of conflicts where the metal-boned Wolverine and metal-skinned Colossus inexplicably throw themselves into a fight with a man whose entire deal is that he controls metal things. But hey, it's going to make for some gruesome stuff about a decade down the line. This conflict also continues the trend of the new X-Men being absolutely stomped by their opponent and being compared to the original five. Also, Chris Claremont does his usual plant-a-seed-that-takes-forever-to-grow plotting when he reveals a glowing door labeled "Mutant X". This won't pay off until literally YEARS later. The frequency and effectiveness with which he makes this feel like an incredibly serialized epic is astounding. This issue also introduces the space pirate Corsair and his ragtag crew of Starjammers.
#105 is a pretty big deal. It gives closure to the strange, cosmic visions that Professor Xavier has been having and introduces an interesting and unusual character in the humanoid-but-kind-of-bird-like-alien Lilandra. She explains her plight as the wayward empress of the Shi'Ar Empire, which has fullen under the rule of the Mad Emperor D'Ken. D'Ken has disguised a lacky as Eric the Red and has been tormenting the X-Men for the past several months. Most recently, he has tricked Firelord, a former Herald of Galactus, to attack the heroes. Jean Grey, as Phoenix, wipes the floor with him. To clarify and add context: he is bestowed with a portion of Galactus' godlike cosmic power and loses to Jean Grey. He is far and away the most powerful foe that the X-Men have faced up to this point, and one of them manages to defeat him alone. Also, Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum have a funny and self-referential cameo.
The story takes a bit of a detour before the next major step. Instead of progressing to the space drama of the Shi'Ar Empire, #106 is largely a flashback to a time that Xavier subconsciously attacked the new X-Men with psychic incarnations of the old X-Men. It's largely forgettable and inconsequential, but it is one of the first times that Charles Xavier as a force of ultimate good is questioned. There is a dark side to the man, and that is something that the series will explore more than once, and with varying degrees of success. Where were we? Right, the M'Kraan Crystal. So the M'Kraan Crystal is a mysterious source of limitless power at the nexus of the universe. Also, Chris Claremont thinks apostrophes make something alien. The X-Men, who are still pretty new to the super hero game sans Cyclops and Banshee, are outmatched against D'Ken's warriors. The Starjammers, led by Corsair, who is actually and secretly Cyclops' father, arrive and turn the tide. X-Men is really at its best when it’s a soap opera. For the final issue of the saga, the heroes are taken inside the M'Kraan Crystal, where Jean uses her awesome and tremendous powers, with the aid of her comrades' life forces, to prevent it the crystal from destroying and rewriting the universe. This issue is particularly notable for having some beautiful and surreal art courtesy of John Byrne. One interesting way that Claremont really builds up the stakes of the issue is by showing other heroes from the Marvel Universe noticing how something major is going on and its on a cosmic scale.
That's more or less the Phoenix Saga in a nutshell. It isn't the end of Phoenix by a long shot, and we still have a largely overlooked arc in the space between these issues and the monumentally famous Dark Phoenix Saga. It's a wild ride, and definitely one worth picking up a subscription to Marvel Unlimited for. Over the course of the next decade, things just get better.