X-Men #175 “Phoenix!”

I won’t deny that it’s tempting to spend the next six months recapping X-Men comics, seeing as this era is to my mind one of the greatest periods in comic book history. Of course, I’m biased, seeing as these were my young teen years, and everything was better in the ’80s. But honestly, these were some great stories, and Chris Claremont was largely at the top of his game. I was discussing this period with some people on a Facebook group and one guy said this issue, X-Men #175, was pretty much the end of an era; it’s all downhill from here. I thought he was being a little melodramatic, but then I thought about what was to come. And I realized he might have had a point.

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First of all, the artist who started with #176, John Romita Jr., never quite felt like a good fit to me on the series. Some people swear by him, but to me his work is hit or miss. I was never a fan of Rogue, I didn’t like how they broke up Kitty and Peter (and yes, I realize just how inappropriate a relationship between a fourteen and eighteen year old was. Now. Back then when I was fourteen or so it was, well, romantic), the plots didn’t appeal to me, and things got steadily worse. As for how bad things got, I’ll address that a little later. For now, let’s get into it!

Our story opens with the gang, sans Cyclops, cutting down a tree. Ooh, exciting! But these little character moments are part of what made the X-Men interesting. It wasn’t all super-fights and angst; this was a family doing family stuff and it was nice. Storm and Rogue look on.

Okay, a lot happened between here and issue #150. The X-Men went into space and fought aliens called the Brood, where Storm was hurt and lost her connection with the Earth, which led to some… lifestyle changes. I remember how Kitty reacted negatively to them, and even I thought at the time the girl was being immature about it. Seriously, your foster big sister went through a rough patch and decided on a new look; there’s no reason to be bitchy about it. Rogue—a member of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants led by Mystique—came to Professor Xavier to learn how to control her powers. Oh, and Scott began dating Madeline Pryor, a woman who looked exactly like Jean Grey, his former love interest. Considering how Jean Grey had become a psychotic sun-eating cosmic being, you’d think Professor X and the rest of the X-Men would have shown just a bit more skepticism over Scott meeting a woman who looked so much like their former friend and team mate.

And speaking of Scott, and Madeline, and Phoenix, a fiery bird appears in the sky, quickly followed by a falling form. Storm and Rogue fly up to investigate and discover the person is Scott, and he has some bad news: Dark Phoenix is back. The gang takes a minute to get their gear on…

…and we see Kitty’s got another new costume. Her fourth, as a matter of fact. This might sound a touch sexist, but this seems pretty normal for a fourteen year old girl. Still, you’d think one of the women on the team would’ve warned her about that head band. Or maybe they did, and Kitty didn’t listen because one’s a super-villain and the other’s sporting a mohawk.

Scott breaks it down and explains he’d been getting more and more paranoid about Madeline, and then last night he asked her up front if she was Jean reincarnated. Then Maddie fried him. And now he’s better. Storm suggests they call in some reinforcements, but Professor X is a little skeptical. Why would Jean turn Scott into Fryclops and then heal him? Why did he sense her death years ago, but not her coming back? Nope, it’s time to put on Cereboro and see if he can track Phoenix down first.

But then Professor X’s brains are cooked by the machine. Rogue rips the wires loose and Nightcrawler teleports Xavier to the infirmary ten meters away. Upstairs, Wolverine’s got some sneaking suspicions, and has Kitty take a gander at Cereboro. It turns out the safeties were disabled and somebody reversed the polarity; Xavier cooked his own brains. The question is, how did it happen? But before the gang can look any further, someone rises out of Cyclops, almost as if she had possessed him.

Just an aside; I didn’t appreciate the man at the time because I was such a fan of Dave Cockrum, but looking back, I realize how much I love artist Paul Smith’s work. One of the reasons X-Men was so successful at the time is they had a string of outstanding artists: John Byrne (with a tremendous assist by inker Terry Austin), Cockrum, then Smith. Comics are a visual medium first and foremost, and I feel the series benefited from steady and solid (if not outstanding) art. Case in point: this spectacular splash page.

But back to the action. Storm figures out Jean messed with Cereboro, and leads an attack but against her. Dark Phoenix turns Storm’s lightning back on her, electrocuting Ororo, then reaches out a hand and puts the squeeze on Colossus. Kitty decides she’ll phase through Phoenix, thinking maybe it’ll short-circuit her or something, but that doesn’t go according to plan.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention Kitty’s got a pet dragon now. Or the dragon has a pet Kitty. I don’t think anybody ever explained where the hell Lockheed came from; if you know, feel free to enlighten me.

Phoenix schools Kitty and her sidekick, then punks out Rogue. Wolverine figures he’ll just sit this one out, which goes to show how much character development he’d been through the past 75 issues. Dark Phoenix leaves, and Storm has Peter take Scott to the infirmary, which at this rate is going to be full soon. Meanwhile, Kitty puts in a call to Scott’s dad, who happens to be a space pirate.

And no, I’m not going to go into the history of the Starjammers here. But I will say it’s a shame we’re probably never going to see them on the big screen, because dammit, they are so cool. I mean, look at them.

Man, Cockrum really had a thing for thigh-highs. Kitty has trouble placing her call to Corsair, who I think named himself after his favorite airplane. If I were in his place, I’d call myself “Tomahawk”, but somebody would probably call me racist or something. Kitty finally gets through…

…and this is when I began thinking things were a little… fishy. Like, maybe things weren’t all they seemed? I mean, wiping out a half-dozen supporting characters without a second thought? It ain’t like this is Game of Thrones. The gang is understandably stunned by this turn of events and they figure it’s time to call the Avengers… and that’s when New York City gets Phoenix-nuked.

Yup, definitely some hijinks are ensuing. Like maybe Professor X has staged some sort of sick training routine, and he’s in another room messing with people’s heads. Speaking of Prof. X, Kurt and Storm head down to the infirmary, and Nightcrawler says Chuck will recover, but while Scott’s in perfect health, he’s slipping away. Sure enough, his spirit leaves his body and it looks like he’s headed for the pearly gates. He thinks he senses a familiar presence, and he’s sure it’s Jean.

Only, it’s not. This person kicks Scott out of paradise, saying it’s not time yet. Yeah, Scott, you gotta wait until 2016 or so before you get to take the trip. Even then, don’t take your shoes off; it’ll be a short visit.

Scott wakes up and he’s figured out his mom booted his butt back to Earth, and he knows what’s really going on. He knows Xavier had to be taken down first, because he would have seen through it, and the person responsible is messing with reality. Me, I had no idea who he was talking about; it was nobody who had shown up from issues #148-174 or the annuals. Scott runs into another room and is about to tell the gang he knows the scoop… but they think he’s Dark Phoenix. The gang attacks, and Storm uses winds to take Cyclops off his feet and Colossus delivers a nasty low clothesline that breaks ribs. But Scott’s very, very good at what he does. He proceeds to school the other X-Men…

…and then makes a break for it. Only Kitty’s on the job and phases through a wall, catching him and carrying them both down through the floor. The other X-Men quickly dash out in pursuit of the pair, thinking Kitty’s about to be roasted. She and Scott materialize in open air, and Scott gives her the Cyclops neck pinch, knocking her out. Then they fall onto a convenient giant airbag. Nightcrawler appears and tries to work a console, but he’s shocked into submission. It turns out Scott’s got a plan, and that airbag was courtesy of the Danger Room.

I’d like to think the writers of Star Trek: The Next Generation were X-Men fans, and maybe inspired a bit by Chris Claremont’s genius. I was wondering where the remote in Scott’s hand came from, but I went back and yeah, it was on his belt like a cell phone. So kudos to Chris and Paul for that little bit of continuity. Scott hides as the team looks for him, and on the face of it the odds are still 5-1, but with him controlling the Danger Room that evens things out.

Elsewhere, it turns out Madeline is actually here, and she’s dressed like Dark Phoenix and is as confused as hell. But there’s somebody on hand to explain it all…

Jason Wyngarde!

…Who? Yeah, the dude predates X-Men #148, the first issue I ever read. It turns out this guy is partly responsible for Dark Phoenix; he got inside Jean’s head on orders from the Hellfire Club. Only, Jean Grey didn’t appreciate it and made him one with the universe for a second, which kind of-sort of drove him nuts. Jason’s had to live with things mere mortals aren’t supposed to know, and now he’s going to get his revenge. He even wrecked Wolverine’s wedding to Mariko a few issues back. This is where I realized Mastermind had to actually dress Madeline in the Phoenix outfit. Ew.

Back in the Danger Room, Scott’s still showing the other X-Men why he’s the best. Colossus gets stuck in quicksand, Storm gets shot out of the sky, and Rogue gets sprayed with tranquilizing poppy dust. It seems Rogue is a crucial part of Scott’s master plan, and he carries her down to the infirmary, where he takes off her glove.

Rogue gets Xavier’s powers and naturally freaks, but Scott talks her down and uses techniques that Charles taught him to help her work out how to use his powers. Just then, the X-Men come bustin’ in and are ready to blow Scott away, but Rogue is able to use Chuck’s powers enough to back up Cyclops’ play.

And then Dark Phoenix shows up, but Scott’s immune to the illusion. However, he’s not immune to the bullet Mastermind puts in him. Wolverine realizes there’s a blind spot to his senses, and tells Storm that Cyclops is right: Mastermind is in the room. So Storm shows she’s no slouch either when it comes to plans by creating a room-sized hurricane. While Rogue holds down Professor X and Kitty bugs out, Mastermind proves he’s not nearly as tough as the rest of the X-Men.

Wolverine wants to perform some brain surgery with his claws, but Storm physically restrains Logan and tells him the X-Men don’t kill in cold blood. But this does make me wonder how they’re going to restrain a guy who can make you see anything he wants you to see. Kitty gets back with a first aid kit for Scott, but Summers sees somebody who needs more help: Madeline.

Later, we find Scott at Jean’s grave, wearing a white tux, and saying a final goodbye and giving himself some much needed closure on that chapter of his life. It’s a touching moment, which is followed by an even more powerful one as we discover we’re at Scott and Maddie’s wedding. And so, we end the issue on a wonderful, heartwarming note…

…that was completely destroyed through a series of poorly thought-out creative decisions.

While John Romita’s art didn’t help matters, things got even worse later on when Chris Claremont upped the angst factor; at one point, every single X-Man’s powers didn’t work right. There was also the problem of X-Factor, on which I won’t go into detail here, but Claremont had no control over that comic, and frankly it made zero sense, and I could feel his frustration come out in his writing whenever that organization was mentioned. But X-Factor and Scott and Madeline, as well as other storylines going on at that time will be addressed in a later article. I’ll end here by saying that yeah, I agree that this was the last time X-Men was truly good. The angst was offset by the joy, the plots made sense, the art was top notch, and Scott Summers was a bad-ass hero.

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  • GreenLuthor

    Yeah, I’d have to agree with the “X-Men 175 was the last time it was good” sentiment. I like Romita Jr. enough, but he always seemed more suited to Spider-Man than the X-Men. (Possibly because X-Men was where he really started to develop his own style away from his father’s. Which is fine, but… John Romita Sr. is a legend for a reason, y’know?) It’s also after this that Claremont really started to go all-in on some of his worse tendencies, like time travelers and overly complicated plot threads that never ended up going anywhere.

    But that 82-issue Cockrum-Byrne-Cockrum-Smith period… man, that was the stuff.

    (Although technically, this was Romita Jr.’s first issue; Paul Smith was never a fast artist, and with a double-sized issue, things were getting too close to the deadline, so Romita Jr. finished off the last nine pages of 175. It looks like a lot of the inking was done to make it look more like Smith’s, though.)

    When the X-Men were out in space fighting the Brood, Lockheed just kind of… showed up. Kitty was being chased by some Brood, Lockheed saved her, and then he just kind of hung around and secretly hitched a ride with the X-Men when they went back to Earth. (I’m sure someone at some point has gone more into his history before that point, but it was probably after I kind of drifted away from comics.)

    Did Corsair name himself after the airplane? Yeah, probably. Sure, the word “corsair” usually refers to a pirate, and the Starjammers are space pirates of a sort. But Christopher Summers was a pilot on Earth, so the idea that he took the name from the plane isn’t far-fetched. (Plus, Claremont named the dragon “Lockheed”, like the manufacturer of the SR-71 Blackbird that’s supposedly the X-Men’s jet, and the Starjammer’s medic is named “Sikorsky”, also the name of an aircraft manufacturer. So even if Corsair didn’t name himself for the plane, there’s a good chance Claremont did…)

    Yep, Mastermind predated X-Men #148. His first appearance was actually in X-Men #4, so he’s one of the X-Men’s oldest foes. (Though he usually came across as rather pathetic until Claremont used him in the Dark Phoenix story.)

    As for the Kitty/Colossus relationship… one person who also found it somewhat inappropriate was then-editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, who mandated the breakup. (And also wrote Secret Wars, which set up the story for Colossus to break up with Kitty.) Story mandates like that (Shooter was also the one who insisted that Jean die in X-Men #137, instead of losing her powers as was the original plan) are a big part of the reason opinions on Shooter are rather… mixed, to say the least. (See also: your write-up of Legends #5…)

    • Michael Weyer

      I am amazed Thomas hasn’t gotten to Dark Phoenix Saga yet given how it’s generally considered THE X-Men story.

      • maarvarq

        Which Fox seems on track to screw up cinematically for a second time.

      • Thomas Stockel

        Issue 137 is on the schedule.

  • Kradeiz

    Cyclops was my favourite X-Man as a kid so it’s nice to see stories where he was still a hero and decent guy before his character was completely assassinated.

    • Thomas Stockel

      This era’s Wolverine was my favorite, but Cyke and Kitty both ran a close second and third. Then Wolverine stabbed Rachel Summeres in the chest to prevent her from killing Selene and I really soured on Logan. I still liked Wolverine, just not as much. Then Cyclops…Well, we know how that shook out.

      That left Kitty. Then X-Men Gold happened where she proposed to Colossus, then left him at the altar. All my heroes are bastards now.

      • Kradeiz

        “Then Cyclops…Well, we know how that shook out.”

        Yeah, the fact that Marvel had to essentially reboot his character by bringing in a younger version of him from an alternate past kinda says something about how far he’d fallen.

  • Michael Weyer

    Read a lot of the set-up issues, damn good stuff (especially the two-parter in Japan where Storm gets her new look).

    I like how Claremont doesn’t spell it out but lets the reader realize how Mastermind crafts the illusions so well that it tricks the X-Men into thinking any pain they feel is real to incapaciate them. And how he slowly sets it up how it’s all fake like Cyclops “seeing” his body as charred and horrible from a fire blast when it’s perfectly fine and his piecing the clues together. The subtle approach worked well.

    Also it’s just how petty Mastermind’s revenge is: Trick the X-Men into killing an innocent woman and Scott’s love to boot “a mortal blow they will never recover from.” And just screwing with Wolverine before for kicks. There’s no grand world-conquering plot or anything, just Wyngrade trying to pull a second-hand revenge on Jean’s friends.

    It’s clear there was no plan then for Madelyne’s turn to evil with Mastermind noting her resemblence to Jean was just a coincidence that worked well into his plans. Too bad, the character really was good in the early going before being ruined thanks to Shooter’s pressing on things.

    Really, read the great “From the Ashes” collection of the set-up issues and I agree the Claremont-Smith era is seriously underrated in X-Men history.

  • Xander

    I really only got into comics in the ’90s, so I missed a lot of this era of the X-Men. By the time I was reading, it seems like Claremont was indulging the worst aspects of his style with more thought bubbles on the page than action or dialogue.

    • Thomas Stockel

      From what I understand at the end of his run Chris’ clout had evaporated. X-Factor was published without his input, and later on when the to-be Image artists came on board they were calling the shots in regards to plotting. Chris quit and went to DC for a little while.

  • Murry Chang

    ‘that was completely destroyed through a series of poorly thought-out creative decisions.’

    Sorry man but Inferno was friggen awesome.

    • Thomas Stockel

      I had quit by that point. I hated what they did to Alex and Maddie and got fed up. I was also never a fan of Chinese Psylocke. They should have you know, made a Chinese character?

      • Murry Chang

        Eh, to each their own.