X-Men #137 “The Fate of the Phoenix”

Before we dive into this landmark issue, I feel a brief recap is in order for those of you who are unaware of this story’s background. The X-Men had been kidnapped and taken into space by a man named Stephen Lang, who had created the Sentinels. The X-Men escaped Lang’s space station, but the shuttle was damaged and only Jean Grey, using her telekinesis, could block the hole and pilot the craft back to Earth. Problem was, her powers couldn’t protect her from the deadly cosmic rays so she was as good as dead. The shuttle crashed in the Hudson River, and what came out was…

Jean was more powerful than ever, and continued to serve as an X-Man, but unknown to her and the team, the Hellfire Club had been acting against the group. Jason Wyngarde, employing a device provided to him by Emma Frost, the White Queen, could use his illusion powers to enter Jean’s mind, transmitting his fantasies directly into her brain.

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Jean was corrupted and turned into the Black Queen…

…but it didn’t stick. Jean broke free and the X-Men defeated the Hellfire Club, but all that mental manipulation didn’t go away; Jean had become Dark Phoenix. She defeated the X-Men and flew into space where she ate a sun and killed billions of people. She returned home and the X-Men confronted her again, only now Professor Xavier was prepared for her. In an epic mental struggle, Xavier defeated Dark Phoenix, restoring Jean to her old self, and it seemed there would be a happy ending. But as the X-Men would soon discover, there are consequences to certain horrific actions.

Now we find ourselves at issue #137, which opens with Uatu the Watcher providing a little exposition. I guess this kind of makes me a bit like an online Uatu? I’m bald, so at least I’ve got one qualification down. We find the X-Men have been teleported up to the flagship of the Sh’iar Empire.

Prof. Xavier’s girlfriend is Lilandra, Empress of the Shi’ar, and she has a sad duty today because that sun Dark Phoenix ate? It was Shi’ar property, and the billions of people living under it were her subjects. Gladiator, head of the Imperial Guard, breaks it down for the X-Men. The team is horrified when they hear what Jean did. Jean’s about to be taken into custody, but Charles has a plan and demands a “duel of honor”. It turns out he can pit the X-Men against the Imperial Guard for Jean’s life. Well, how hard could that be? There’s, what, eight X-Men on hand? That’s a pretty respectable team. How many Imperial Guardsmen could there be?

Ah… yeah. There are a lot of them.

Cockrum and Claremont based the Imperial Guard on DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes, paying homage to that group in part because Dave had been the artist on that series and had been instrumental in redesigning their costumes, and dragging them kicking and screaming into the ’70s. So that’s about, what, twenty Guardsmen? The X-Men had needed the space pirates known as the Starjammers to get out of that mess. This time, there are no Jammers in sight.

The Kree and Skrulls have sent representatives to see how this will play out; it seems they’re a little bit afraid of another Galactus-sized threat roaming space and want to nip it in the bud, so Lilandra can’t just accept Charles’ challenge. She puts in a conference call to the Kree and Skrulls.

Man, I always loved the Supreme Intelligence. He says the X-Men are gonna fight because that’s what humans do, while Rk’lll, the Skrull Empress, says she’s fine with it as long as the X-Men lose. The Skrull observer is more than a little upset that he’s gotta be in the same room as the Kree guy (who’s a colonel, if my knowledge of Kree uniform color designations is correct) but nobody really cares what he thinks.

Lilandra gives the team the news that the fight’s on, and Beast is a little upset that Xavier made the challenge without consulting the team. But it does buy them time, as well as giving them a chance to determine whether they want to fight for Jean. This is really interesting because earlier, Storm thought about how horrific Jean’s actions were and how part of her didn’t want to comfort Jean after she heard she was a mass murderer. The X-Men aren’t in lockstep in regards to how they feel about the situation, and their emotions are tremendously conflicted. I also like how Beast, who by this point is an Avenger, resents being treated like Xavier’s student again. Lilandra tells the gang they’ve got until dawn to prepare.

We find Jean all alone pondering what she did, and while she’s upset, it doesn’t seem to be crippling. I guess what Stalin said is true; a single death is a tragedy and a billion is just a statistic. A servant shows up with new clothes, because adventuring in space in a bath robe is just silly. Or British.

Elsewhere on the ship, Kurt/Nightcrawler is bounding around in the super-gym, and his thoughts are pretty much echoing what his teammates are thinking. Jean’s their friend, but she went crazy and murdered a lot of people, and now he can’t believe they’re supposed to defend her. Kurt decides to run down the wall, only to find it’s frictionless. He takes a fall but Warren/Angel catches him, and Warren even admits he’s not sure he can defend Jean. We get other opinions from the rest of the team: Wolverine thinks Jean and Dark Phoenix are two different people, Hank/Beast thinks Jean deserves her day in court, Colossus and Storm decide they’re sticking by their friend, and Scott/Cyclops is a little torn, but he feels if he were in Lilandra’s shoes maybe he’d err on the side of mercy. Then Jean shows up.

She’s gone all retro with her Marvel Girl outfit, and she and Scott have a heart to heart. Scott’s not going anywhere, no matter what. When you think about it, this relationship was one of the most important in comics history; it ranks right up there with Mary Jane Watson and Peter Parker, and Lois Lane and Clark Kent. Maybe looking at it in that light, I can understand why some writers and editors did what they did. But more on that later.

The team assembles on the teleportation deck and Warren tells the pair that the gang had a talk, and everyone’s on the same page: they’re going to fight for Jean. The team gets teleported down to the moon’s “Blue Area”, which has a complex history I won’t go into here; if you want to read about it, check out this link. The team is alone, but not for long, as Jean senses the arrival of the Imperial Guard. Angel takes to the skies but forgets they’re on the moon, and he flies right out of the life support field. Storm realizes the artificial environment is going to raise hell with her powers. So yeah, the X-Men are kinda screwed. More screwed, I mean. The team breaks up into two groups, with Cyclops, Jean, Angel, and Nightcrawler in team one, and Beast, Wolverine, Storm, and Colossus in team two. Cyke wants to do hit and run, but the Guard hits first.

Meanwhile, team two runs into trouble of their own, in the form of a binary being known as Warstar. Against just him, the team wouldn’t have much trouble, but Gladiator is also on hand. And Gladiator is one of Marvel’s numerous versions of Superman (I’m not kidding. There’s also Sentry, Blue Marvel, Gladiator, and a half dozen Hyperions. For a place known as the House of Ideas, they sure do love to plagiarize). Gladiator rips open the floor and Storm and Wolverine take a fall. The pair wind up on another level where they get attacked by Earthquake and Hussar, who like Warstar are non-Legion of Super-Hero type Guards. To be honest, I prefer these guys, because some of those original Guardsmen like Hobgoblin were kind of silly. Wolverine winds up falling through what looks like a wall of pure crystal, while Storm is defeated. First blood goes to the Guard.

Back to Cyclops’ team, which is holding their own, but barely. Then Oracle, the Imperial Guard’s telepath, messes with Angel’s head and Smasher tosses him down a well. Nightcrawler leaps down after him, hoping he can catch him in time. Meanwhile, Wolverine finds out he’s in the Watcher’s pad, and Uatu doesn’t take nicely to trespassers. He gives Wolvie the boot, but it’s okay, because Storm is on hand to comfort him.

Wait, what? Ah-ha! It ain’t Storm.

Wolverine is about to do what he does best, but the Kree observer blindsides him. The Skrull doesn’t take kindly to this and the two tussle. Elsewhere, Nightcrawler has lost Angel, but he’s found an Imperial Guardswoman wandering about. He prepares to ambush her, but unfortunately for him she’s got infrared vision and she spots him. Kurt gets blasted into unconsciousness and we see Angel is down for the count as well. Cut to Beast finding out the hard way that his opponent has electrical powers, and Gladiator decides it’s time to end the fight. He goes toe to toe with Colossus.

After they bring down the roof, only Gladiator stands. On board the ship, a bit of Charles dies every time he sees one of his X-Men fall. Lilandra wants to comfort him, but it’s her duty to remain his opponent in this horrific chess game. So now it’s just Scott and Jean against a legion of Imperial Guardsmen. The two prove they’re heroes as they face impossible odds.

They know there’s only one outcome now, but they don’t quit. It’s hopeless, they seem doomed. And that’s when it really hits the fan.

Jean is Phoenix again, and she plasters Lilandra’s ship. The Empress calls for Plan Omega (why they give it a Latin name remains a mystery), which is pretty much blow up everything. Xavier knows Jean has to be stopped at all costs before she becomes Dark Phoenix again, and he forces the X-Men awake and they attack. Scott blasts debris down on Jean while Storm whips up a hurricane around her spiritual sister. Meanwhile, in a case of role reversal, Wolverine takes advantage of the Moon’s lighter gravity to toss Peter at Jean.

But Peter pulls his punch at the last second, because he can’t kill his friend and teammate. Jean tells Scott and the others that they need to kill her, because as long as she’s alive, Dark Phoenix will always be there, ready to come out. Sure enough, Jean’s costume transforms from Phoenix Green to Dark Phoenix Red. Scott is held at bay by her telekinesis and Jean activates an ancient piece of weaponry.

Scott now realizes that without telling anyone, Jean picked the minds of the Skrull and Kree observer and found out about this weapon, and decided that if Lilandra’s people couldn’t kill her, she’d do the job herself.

Our story ends with Uatu speaking to an android known as the Recorder, who was created by beings on Rigel to observe events. It’s confused about what went down, and Uatu explains that Jean was human and unable to handle the power, but her human capacity for self-sacrifice allowed her to save the universe from the worst parts of herself. It’s a… ham-fisted way to go out, and I honestly think the story would have been more powerful if we had ended with Scott all alone in the dark on the prior page.

So this was the end of what was a 37-issue story arc, and yeah, it’s as epic as they come. It’s a tragic story delivered by top notch artists Dave Cockrum and John Byrne, and written by Chris Claremont with Byrne sharing the plotting credits. The end was heartbreaking but outstanding in its emotional impact. And yet, it almost didn’t go down that way. Originally, Byrne and Claremont wanted Jean to live, with Lilandra de-powering her. But editor Jim Shooter insisted that Jean’s horrific crimes could not be ignored; she had to die. In retrospect, Big Jim was right. Jean’s death was the better climax to this story, and things should have stayed that way.

But of course, they didn’t. Years later, we discovered that it hadn’t been Jean running around as Dark Phoenix, but the Phoenix Force that had taken her place. And that the real Jean had been in suspended animation at the bottom of the Hudson River.

Why Shooter agreed to this, I don’t know; probably because the bottom line was, it would make money.

Jean was brought back to become part of a new series X-Factor, which would unite the original five X-Men. What we were seeing at the time were multiple X-Men and Avengers titles, and a diluting of the brand. Jean’s noble sacrifice on the moon, and all her struggles were now a hollow joke. All that pathos and tragedy meant so much less now because that hadn’t been Jean; the team had laid their lives on the line for a stranger. Scott left Madeline Pryor to be with Jean again, Madeline was turned evil and died, and yeah, all in all, what came after does leave a bitter taste in my mouth.

Perhaps that’s why as much as I respect the Byrne/Claremont era for its groundbreaking writing and art, it isn’t until after X-Men #137 that I find any emotional connection with the series. Jean Grey’s return is for me quite possibly the most egregious of all comic retcons. (Bone Claw Wolverine runs a close second, in case you were wondering.) But tell me your thoughts and opinions in the comments section. Was this as horrible a creative decision as it seems to me? Or should I not let it hinder my appreciation for this era of comics?

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  • GreenLuthor

    I’d have to agree: they probably should have left Jean dead. I mean, I’m sure someone would have brought her back eventually anyway (unless they died as part of the hero’s origin/backstory, comic book characters never stay dead), but… this was back when readers could still believe dead characters were dead. (Hard to believe that this was one of Marvel’s most significant and important deaths, yet it only lasted about five years.)

    So… why did Shooter agree with bringing Jean back like that, when it was his edict she die in the first place? His reasoning for her having to die was that her crimes were too heinous for her to just get depowered and set free. When X-Factor was proposed, writer Bob Layton wanted to reunite the original X-Men, but Shooter insisted that the only way he would allow Jean to be brought back was if it somehow made Jean not culpable for all of Phoenix’s sins. Then-rookie writer Kurt Busiek (who, obviously, went on to have a pretty significant comics career of his own) came up with the “Phoenix was a cosmic entity pretending to be Jean, who’s really been comatose in Jamaica Bay since X-Men #101” idea, it got passed along to Layton, Roger Stern (then-current writer on Avengers) and John Byrne (then-current writer on Fantastic Four), who incorporated the idea. As it matched Shooter’s criteria of absolving Jean of Phoenix’s sins, Shooter went along with it as well. (The Avengers found Jean’s cocoon, and gave it to Reed Richards to examine, which is when Jean emerged, hence the inclusion of Stern and Byrne.) (Probably notable that Claremont wasn’t involved in any of this process…)

    After the Kree Colonel Bel-Dann saves the Skrull Raksor from Wolverine, the two start to fight. They’re subsequently not seen again in the rest of the issue. They, in fact, would not be seen again for another FOUR YEARS, until Fantastic Four Annual #18, where we find out they’ve spent the entire time tracking each other down in the Blue Area and fighting. (Even while and after the Inhumans moved their entire freakin’ city right on top of them!)

    The alien race that Phoenix exterminated were called the D’Bari. Prior to Dark Phoenix, they had actually appeared before. Once. In Avengers #4. And if you’re thinking “Avengers #4? Isn’t that the one where they find Captain America and he gets revived after being frozen since World War II?”, you’re correct. If you’re thinking “There were aliens in that?”… well, it was the second part of the issue, that no one really seems to remember quite as much. (But then, the first half was one of the most significant issues in the Marvel Universe.) Honestly, it wasn’t all that memorable, so it’s not surprising it gets forgotten while the first part has become an indelible part of every version of Captain America ever since. (Seriously, Avengers #4 gets really kind of frickin’ weird after they find Cap.) (The D’Bari weren’t even named in that first appearance, only being given that name when Phoenix killed them all in X-Men #135. I guess they wanted an established alien race to kill off, but not anyone major enough that anyone would ever want to use again.)

    Between Phoenix, Corsair, the Imperial Guard’s Oracle (the Saturn Girl knock-off), and his Ms. Marvel redesign… Dave Cockrum seemed to like sash belts. Don’t know why, but… he also designed a lot of truly great (and unique) costumes throughout his career. And also that thing he gave Element Lad. But a lot of great costume designs; that’s definitely something about him I miss.

    All in all, it really is a shame that X-Men #137 has been watered down so much with all the retconning over the years; it truly was a great, classic issue to end one of the biggest epic storylines in comics, and a perfect demonstration on why the X-Men were THE most popular comic book of the time.

  • I came into the X-Men after all this had happened, so it was always historical to me, with no real emotional punch. I did read the FF issue where Jean returned, but again, no real effect, besides wondering why this major X-Men event was happening in Fantastic Four. But X-Factor is where I started disliking Cyclops because he began acting like a jerk, bailing out on Madeleine and then getting obsessive enough about Jean/Phoenix that he nearly blew her head off with his optic blast (only stopped because Leech walked in).

  • Michael Weyer

    Some notes:

    * There is a special that reveals the original ending where the Shi’ar use a special process to siphon the Phoenix out of Jean, leaving her powerless. She and Scott would marry and leave the team to live happily ever after.

    But Byrne threw a wrench into things by having Jean wipe out a populated planet which wasn’t in the original plot. Shooter decided fans wouldn’t just forgive Jean for mass genocide so she had to die. Claremont was angry at the time (and it led to his wedge with Byrne) but later came to agree it made the ending more dramatic.

    * Claremont wanted to get Iceman in there as having the original X-Men together for this was good but just couldn’t make it happen.

    * It’s notable how this was the story that transformed Wolverine into the breakout star of the team. The best moment being when the X-Men are taken down by the Hellfire Club and Wolverine lost in a sewer. Then comes the classic panel of him rising up with claws and snarling “ya took yer best shot…now it’s MY turn!”

    * Agree on what a mess bringing Jean back was but Shooter was always a tough guy to get a handle on with his whims.

    Overall, still a true classic and no wonder most loved X-Men story ever.

  • Kradeiz

    I was never a fan of the Phoenix being retconned into some cosmic force. It’s far more interesting to have it be this manifestation of Jean’s dark side. (The Last Stand got that right at least.) Wasn’t big into Jean being resurrected either, not only does it dull this story but the writers never seem to come up with anything for her to do other than die and come back over and over again.

    I also agree with you on Bone Claw Wolverine. His claws and healing factor are fine as Weapon X additions, but retconning those as powers he was born with on top of his enhanced senses and reflexes makes him seem overpowered from the start.