RETRO REVIEW: Phoenix – The Untold Story #1 (April 1984)

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When people joke about the impermanence of death in comics, they usually mention Jean Grey and the shenanigans regarding her heroic sacrifice and the various workarounds used to bring the character back from the great beyond.  But, would you be interested to know that her heroic sacrifice back in X-Men #137 wasn’t the ORIGINAL plan?

Your Major Spoilers (retro) review awaits!

SUMMARY

Pros
You have to love Byrne and Austin.
A fascinating look at what might have been.


Cons

A bit of a buzzkill.
Hard not to think this story would be better than what was printed…

Overall Rating: ★★★☆☆

READER RATING!

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (1 votes, average: 4.00 out of 5)


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PhoenixCoverPHOENIX – THE UNTOLD STORY #1
Writer: Chris Claremont/John Byrne
Artist: John Byrne
Inker: Terry Austin
Colorist: Glynis Wein
Letterer: Tom Orzechowski
Editor: Jim Salicrup
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Cover Price: $2.00
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $8.00

Previously in Phoenix – The Untold Story: Long ago, Professor Charles Xavier resolved to teach young mutants like himself how to coexist with regular humans, and to that end, started his School For Gifted Youngsters in upstate New York.  Among the first students was one Jean Grey, a mentat of considerable power who eventually became the founding X-Man known as Marvel Girl.  A strange accident in space seemingly unlocked unknown power within her mind, and young Marvel Girl was transformed into the Phoenix, whose power dwarfed all other mutants and made her the most powerful X-Man of all.  A complex series of events led to Phoenix losing control and becoming the corrupt Dark Phoenix, who destroyed a planet in her fury, and was eventually brought back to normal by her teammates and family.  Then, moments after Phoenix was depowered, the X-Men found themselves teleported onto the bridge of an alien starship, sent by the alien Shi’ar to make Jean pay for her crimes…

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It is very important to note that this book was released in 1984, long before any of the various clones, alien-energy-being retcons or other barnacles were added to the Phoenix story.  At the time of the writing, Jean Grey was just a powerful character who snapped and did some unspeakable things before being brought to heel by the power of love.  Faced with the prospect of losing his protegée only moments after having restored her sanity, Professor Xavier decides not to play fair…

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This portion of the story closely parallels the events of X-Men #137, the story that originally ended the Dark Phoenix Saga a few years earlier, with the Kree and Skrull empires allied with the Shi’ar agreeing to allow the X-Men their ritual battle against the Imperial Guard, with the winner taking custody of the former Phoenix.  Faced with the idea of possibly dying horribly in interstellar space, the X-Men all ruminate about their fate, in the first real deviation from X-Men #137 (where their thoughts were all about Jean Grey, befitting the different ending that story had.)

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For my money, Jean Grey’s mini-dress of power with spiky mask is one of the classic superhero costumes, and I’m really glad to see it anytime it shows up, especially since it means she isn’t wearing the peach monstrosity she wore in the 90s.  The Untold Story diverges further from the tale as originally presented here and there, but things are similar enough as the X-Men make it to the moon, and the out-of-practice Angel nearly dies in the vacuum of space…

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The heroes face off with the Imperial Guard (whose resemblance to a certain team from the 30th Century is in no way coincidental), and one by one, the X-Men are taken down.  Even their most powerful member, Colossus, has little chance against the powers of Blue Tom Welling Gladiator…

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I remember when I first read this issue, and how devastating it was to see the heroes falling one by one, especially since I hadn’t read the printed version of the story.  Equally heart-broken is Professor Xavier, forced to watch as his charges, his children are beaten down by aliens because of a decision he made…

Phoenix6You may be saying, “Hey, Matthew!  What’s the deal here?  How is this any different from the X-Men #137 we already know?”  And, with the exception of some differences in thought balloon thus far in the issue, you might be right.  But as the Legion Imperials attack, Marvel Girl and Cyclops are left the last men standing, surrounded and outnumbered.  Those of you who remember the story know what comes next…

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PHOENIX!!!

I SAID, PHOENIX!!!

Here’s where things are differentiated, as that last panel was followed in #137 with an image of the ship being detonated, blown to smithereens as Jean Grey once again lost herself in the power of the Phoenix.  That ending came by the editorial caveat of Marvel’s Editor-In-Chief Jim Shooter, who rightly recalled that Jean had murdered an entire planet full of Asparagus People in a throwaway panel during her first Dark Phoenix freakout months earlier.  What had been planned was a little less pyrotechnical, starting with a moment that still gives me chills…

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…as a defeated Marvel Girl is prepared for terrible medical experiments that will wipe out her powers entirely, thereby keeping Phoenix from ever erupting again.  Lilandra is, to her credit, uncomfortable with the actions she has to take, considering the X-Men to be friends and allies, and tries to explain that this is the only humane course of action.

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Having seen the original tale, wherein Jean blows herself to pieces with a bit of ancient machinery that the Watcher had lying about, you wouldn’t expect this to be the more brutal of the endings.

You would be wrong…

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Her mental powers are burned away, an inch at a time, and when the ordeal is over, Jean collapses silently into Cyclops’ waiting arms.  It’s hard to read, and Claremont & Byrne nail the emotional content visually and dialogue-wise, as Lilandra tries to offer her support, with Cyclops snarling in return, “Haven’t you done ENOUGH?”  With one of their own maimed on a genetic level, the X-Men gather themselves up and head for home, to deal with the fallout of all they’ve experienced…

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Also: Cyclops said “Hell.”  In a comic book from  the 1980s!  It’s fascinating to read this issue and see how powerful that original storyline ending could have been, and wonder if it would ever have carried the same sort of power as the Death Of Phoenix did.  After the multitude of revisions, revamps and relaunches, Jean’s story has become something of a facile punchline for those who like to tear apart fictions to find things to point and laugh at, but just take a moment to look at the prepared splash page for X-Men #138…

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Tell me that’s not just a little bit heart-breaking in it’s own way?  You can’t, unless you’re a robot, in which case I submit: 100111000110111100001.  *rimshot*  In either case, I remember now what drew me to this, one of the earliest X-Men stories I ever read (once again supporting my theory about “jumping-on points”, which is “Jump on, shut up and hang on.”)  As someone who remembers what it was like before Phoenix was revealed to be an external force (read: scapegoat) and how the dead Jean Grey was fodder for X-Men tragedy up to her resurrection in ’87, this ‘story-behind-the-story’ is fascinating, touching and well-constructed.  Phoenix – The Untold Story #1 serves now as an artifact of a simpler time in comic book history, and is hard to appreciate thanks to the twisted tributaries of the river known as “X-Men,” but is still a good read (especially the part in the back where the editorial team gets together and seemingly figures out how to resurrect Jean, something they’d do not long after) earning 3 out of 5 stars overall.  That psychic surgery sequence, however, is still a little shocking, even 30 years later…

Rating: ★★★☆☆