In this month's #ComicBookLove, PHS Editor Corrina Lawson looks at the landmark Uncanny X-Men stories which stood the test of time and left a lasting legacy.
In the golden days of yore, before there were comic shops, the only way I could guarantee reading each issue of my favorite comic series was to have a mail order subscription.
One of those subscriptions started with Uncanny X-Men #121 (1979) with a script by Claremont & Byrne, pencils by Byrne, and inks by Terry Austin. I’d read some single issues previously (when it was still tilted All-New, All-Different X-Men) and loved them so much I never wanted to miss an issue again.
Sometimes, I still feel like it’s the early 1980's on-screen, because nearly every time Hollywood produces something X-Men related, it goes back to the characters and story-lines established way back when. “Dark Phoenix,” a story so iconic it was referenced in Buffy The Vampire Slayer and the basis for two movies? Check. How I haunted the mailbox waiting for that story’s finale in Uncanny X-Men #137!
“Days of Future Past,” where a time traveler from a dystopian future tries to prevent the disaster? Check. Wolverine as “the best he is at what he does and what he does isn’t very nice?” Check. Magneto as a Holocaust survivor and one-time best buddy of Charles Xavier? Check and check.
Even Legion, David Haller, whose television series just ended, was introduced by Claremont in New Mutants, a spin-off series due to the success of Uncanny X-Men.
It all kicked into high gear back then with the “Dark Phoenix” saga. I suppose my love of a good romance was strong back then because Scott and Jean were what we’d now call my OTP. They were the heart and soul of the team and, I’m calling it now, the retcon that brought Jean back and hand-waved some elements of that classic story aside should never have happened. (Sorry, OTP...) Sometimes even when stories end tragically, they’re the right ending.
Sometimes I ask myself why it’s these stories Hollywood wanted to tell us, some even twice. The base answer is that the Hollywood creators involved probably grew up on the same stories as I did. But I think it’s more than that.
That milestone run, from about Uncanny X-Men #120 to #200 (Byrne would leave the book at #143 but Claremont remained with a terrific group of artists), delved into themes which resonated then and perhaps resonate even more so now.
Jean and Scott (Phoenix and Cyclops) in those stories are a romance which stands the test of time. They were partners, equals, and when Jean grew more powerful than Scott, he didn’t care. He loved her. But Jean’s story is a story about ultimate corruption and what happens when that corruption moves you beyond humanity. What happened for Jean is she became someone she wouldn’t abide. Her love for Scott reminded her of that. She saved the universe by staying true to who she’d been and who she wanted to be.
Looking back, there are some problematic elements to Jean’s corruption in the original tale. In isolation, the story works, since Jean also has strong bonds to her female teammates, especially Storm, and she’s far more than Scott’s romantic interest. Viewed in the context of how men write women’s stories, however, the tale of the Dark Phoenix might be interpreted as a woman growing too powerful to live, who had to be taken down and that’s fair.
One would have hoped Hollywood, years later, might have addressed these problematic elements in their re-telling of the Dark Phoenix saga but, alas, no. Instead of killing herself, as in the comic, Jean has to make someone else kill her in X-Men: The Last Stand. In the more recent X-Men: Dark Phoenix, Jean is again possessed of the cosmic force, but instead of regaining her humanity on her own, through force of will and love of Scott and her team, she has to be reminded of it. She’s not quite dead but she’s not quite herself again either.
So, I have to ask myself: is this story of a woman who triumphs over corruption with love or is it the story of a woman who has to be stopped by others? Either way, people are drawn to Jean’s tale.
The popularity of “Days of Future Past” is easier to pinpoint. Who doesn’t wish to prevent future suffering by making a single change in the past? In the comic, the group has to stop an assassination. In the movie, it’s not so clear who should live and die. In the comic, it’s Kitty Pryde who goes back in time to save the timeline. In the movie, it’s Wolverine. While I love Hugh Jackman, again, it seems like the comics, even back then, were more feminist by using Kitty/Katherine Pryde as the focal point of saving the timeline, rather than the overly macho Wolverine.
Note: I’m a big fan of Jackman. Of Wolverine? Not so much. But when Hollywood draws upon his essential character, they tend to go straight back to these original stories too. Magneto and Xavier were opposites when originally introduced by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, with Magneto wanting to dominate the humans who hated them, and Xavier wanting to live in harmony with them. (Reportedly, Stan Lee intended the pair to be brothers.)
Claremont expanded on that difference in worldview, leaning into the eternal question of whether those who are repressed by the majority should try to obtain peace or to take up arms and create a world for you and yours. A question which resonates because we, as a society, are still struggling with the implications of people fearing those who are outwardly different from themselves.
Claremont/Byrne’s classic run leaned into all these themes, giving us vibrant, complicated, and amazing characters as well. It’s no wonder Hollywood keeps going back to the same well.
Though I still keep hoping, somehow, Jean finds a way to cast out the Phoenix force and have a happy ending with Scott in some retelling. That desire may have inspired a HEA in my book, Rise of the Firestarter, where I suspect the X-Men influence is, well, evident.
But I also suspect I’m not the only romance writer to draw some inspiration from the X-Men’s romantic pairings. (Rogue/Gambit, anyone?)
Do you have a favorite comic book storyline you feel was a landmark which has stood the test of time? Who are your OTP and have they ever inspired you to write your own version of their story? Join the discussion on our Social Media using #ComicBookLove
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