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Monday, June 3, 2019

To Better Know a Hero 2.0: The X-Men


This week sees the release of X-Men: Dark Phoenix, the final X-Men film from Fox (unless that New Mutants movie whose creation may or may not be a collective pop culture fever dream ever gets released). With the X-Men, however briefly, back in the zeitgeist for the moment, I figured it was a good excuse to give the X-Men a Phoenix-focused "To Better Know a Hero 2.0" treatment.

Top 5 Phoenix Hosts

5. Bald Phoenix


Professor Xavier's short-lived dalliance with the Phoenix Force in the little-remembered Spotlight on the Starjammers limited series gave us Bald Phoenix, a moniker the story itself can't seem to decide how seriously we're supposed to take, but is awesome.

4. Feron


Alan Davis added a ton of lore to the Phoenix Force that mostly got retconned out or ignored by later writers; let's pour one out for Feron, the Chosen One destined to host the Phoenix Force whose destiny was ultimately usurped, leaving him to wither on the vine alongside Alan Davis' other original Excalibur characters.

3. Hope Summers


Hope is a character who was imbued with a tremendous sense of importance literally from the moment of her birth, and while she featured in some decent stories along the way, it wasn't until she became a host of the Phoenix Force in Avengers vs. X-Men that her importance was realized, as she used the power of the Phoenix to bring back mutants, thereby putting to an end the ill-advised & long-running "the only mutants left in the world are the important ones who star in comic books" status quo once and for all.

2. Jean Grey


The character who first caught the attention of the Phoenix Force (publication-wise, at least), Jean has had an up-and-down relationship with it, with her more notable (and infamous) achievements using the power retconned to be the actions of a Force-created simulacrum, while the real Jean has alternately embraced and fought against the legacy of the Phoenix through the years. But whether she likes it or not, Jean is inextricably tied to the Phoenix Force and one of its most notable hosts.

1. Rachel Summers/Grey


Even without the retcon that cleaved Jean's actions as Phoenix/Dark Phoenix from the character, no character's identity has been as intricately tied to the Phoenix Force as Rachel Summers. For as much as her time as Phoenix was a high water mark for the character, Jean had a history before Phoenix, and a significant one after it, as well. Whereas Rachel has always been at her best while operating as Phoenix, to the point where all the various attempts to give Rachel a superhero identity independent of the Force (Mother Askani, Marvel Girl, Prestige) all feel temporary and/or ill-fitting. The Phoenix Force may have had many hosts, and its most notable actions may have come while operating as Jean Grey, but Rachel Summers never feels quite right unless she's Phoenix.

Top 5 X-Men Movie Castings

Kelsey Grammer - Beast


The Last Stand is a terrible garbage movie, but one thing (maybe the only thing) it got right was casting Kelsey Grammer as a stately, graduated-from-the-school Beast that immediately gave the character the necessary contrast between his erudite demeanor and bestial appearance.

Ryan Reynolds - Deadpool


I'm not as gaga over the Deadpool movies as everyone else (I think they're mostly fine, with a few standout sequences), but this is one of those bits of castings where the actor and the character seem like a perfect match (and Reynolds really is the best part of these movies). Of course, it helps that getting a comics-accurate (ie not what was in the first Wolverine solo film) Deadpool on screen was something of a passion project for Reynolds, and it absolutely paid off.

Michael Fassbender - Magneto


Ian McKellan is no slouch as the older Magneto, but Fassbender brings the character to a whole other level, especially in First Class, as he believably charts the character's journey from Nazi Hunter to superhero to supervillain and sells the character's bond with Xavier throughout. As with McKellan's version of the character, the film series would struggle with its inability to, however briefly, set aside the character (who thought it was a good idea to make Magneto one of the Horsemen of Apocalypse), but Fassbender always gives his all to portraying the tortured, principled Magneto.

Hugh Jackman - Wolverine


My wife and I were flipping channels the other day, and we stopped momentarily on Mission Impossible II (mostly to comment on how not good it is); I mentioned to her the story of how, if not for delays in the filming of that movie, we'd live in alternate universe where Dougray Scott would have been Wolverine instead of Hugh Jackman. And while that probably would have been better for Scott's career (I wonder what the Dougray Scott-hosted Oscars would have been like?), it would have denied the world the greatness of Jackman's Wolverine. I occasionally lament just how much Wolverine dominates the X-Men film universe, but it's understandable why that is, when the character is so deftly & indelibly portrayed (and, like, Ryan Reynolds, the actor seems to enjoy the character and genuinely be having fun playing him), to the point where most of us have probably forgotten by now that Jackman is way too tall to be playing the famously-short Wolverine.

Patrick Stewart - Professor X


Even moreso than Hugh Jackman & Wolverine, there is no better pairing of actor to character than Patrick Stewart & Professor X. I'm fairly certain every Wizard Casting Call for an X-Men movie never even bothered suggesting anyone else, for good reason. Realistic or not, there just always seemed to be an air of inevitably to this casting. And as much as James McAvoy does an admirable job playing a younger Xavier, and as much as I would like to see the inevitable MCU X-Men start over scratch, if there's any attempt to tell a traditional "X-Men are students taught by Professor X" story, I kinda hope Patrick Stewart is the one actor they keep around for it, as Stewart is just such a perfect fit for the stately & stentorian character.

Top 5 Jean Grey Costumes 

5. New X-Men


In general, I'm not a huge fan of the Grant Morrison "New X-Men" era uniforms (I like my superheroes to look like superheroes, with some uniform touches to highlight the team aspect), but Jean's long-sleeved ribbed shirt and trenchcoat look works better than most, and there's something fun in seeing the character in darker colors for a change.

4. Portacio X-Factor


An oft overlooked costume (in part because Jean & Cyclops are the only ones who consistently wore the uniform, in part because the uniforms only appeared in a handful of issues before X-Factor was reintegrated into the X-Men), Whilce Portacio's updatte of the classic blue-and-yellow original X-Men uniforms for the now-grown X-Factor is highly underrated.

3. Graduation Costume


The first "unique" (non-uniform) look for the character coming out of the Silver Age, Jean's green minidress remains iconic, if a little dated (the slightly more modern homage to it, worn by the time-tossed Teen Jean circa the Jeff Lemire "Extraordinary" era, is also pretty good).

2. Phoenix


There's a reason Dave Cockrum's costumes for the All New, All Different team remain the default/iconic look for most of the characters whose costumes he designed, as he excelled at costume design. Jean's classic green-and-yellow Phoenix attire is no exception, as it pairs nicely with the character's red hair while recalling her earlier Marvel Girl costume, exudes power through smooth lines and an elegant design, and gives her an iconic element in the Phoenix bird symbol on the chest, while the sash provides a bit of cape-like 70s flair without dating it too much.

1. Jim Lee '91 Relaunch


The notion that your first is your favorite is something of a cliche, but cliches are cliche for a reason, and sometimes, it's hard to avoid them. This is the look Jean had when I first encountered the character circa X-Men (vol. 2) #8, and while it's pretty nonsensical from both a functional (is she wearing boots/shoes, or just, like, pajama footies? Are those pouches running down her legs, and if so, why?) and design (what does this even say about her character? Why orange and blue?) perspective, I can't deny that it is principally how I imagine the character in my head by default.

Top 5 "X-Men in Space!" Stories

"X-Men in Space!" stories are some of the most divisive - many fans hate it when the X-Men are removed from their more grounded socio-political surroundings and tossed into stories with more explicitly sci-fi trappings like alien worlds and big spaceships and laser guns. Yet at the same time, some of the X-Men's most notable & beloved stories (like "Dark Phoenix Saga") can technically be considered "X-Men in Space!" stories. Thus, it's hard to argue that, as out-of-the-norm as some "X-Men in Space!" stories may feel (and, like all things, the quality can certainly vary), they aren't still a vital & viable part of the mythos.

With that in mind, here are five of my favorite "X-Men in Space!" stories, not counting "Dark Phoenix Saga" (because it would be #1 and that's just boring for everyone) or "X-Men in Asgard" stories (which, while Asgard is probably, technically, an alien world, those stories feel like a different beast entirely).

5. "Save Charley" - Uncanny X-Men #273-277


In a lot of ways, I consider this a sort of baseline/average "X-Men in Space!" story. The X-Men are in space, fighting in and around the Shi'ar empire, but there's nothing groundbreaking or particularly memorable about what happens during it. But at the same time, this story represents the sole outing for the post-X-Tinction Agenda, wearing-the-same-uniform era of the team (as the group will return to Earth after this story and get immediately dropped into the "Muir Island Saga" that sets up the '91 linewide reshuffling of the X-books, thus ending this brief era), and thereby represents one of the few instances where we get Jim Lee drawing a classically-assembled and clad group of X-Men in a Chris Claremont script, and that's not nothing.

4. "Unstoppable" - Astonishing X-Men #19-24 & Giant-Size Astonishing X-Men #1


The climax to Joss Whedon & John Cassaday's Astonishing X-Men run, this story serves as both a culmination of a number of the narrative seeds they planted throughout their run, as well as a classic "X-Men come to an alien world and shake up the status quo" story. It also contains at least one fist-pumping moment for pretty much every main character, culminating in a Giant-Size issue in which Cassaday gets to draw a sizeable chunk of Marvel Universe characters & Kitty Pryde, arguably the central character of the run, makes a heroic sacrifice (it also reads much better in one sitting, instead of spread out over months & months of delayed issues).

3. "Judgment War" - X-Factor #43-50


It's about two issues too long (one of which is a completely unrelated inventory story dropped in to ease the Dreaded Deadline Doom), but otherwise, this Louise Simonson/Paul Smith opus does a fantastic job of throwing the original X-Men onto a fully-realized alien world populated with compelling characters who are able to hold their own against the stars of the book as the team works to come together and defend a civilization from Celestial judgment. Though on a distant planet far removed from the series' usual settings & supporting cast, Simonson & Smith find ways to make the conflict between the Chosen, Rejects & Dualers resonate with the usual themes of human/mutant prejudice, while also developing the title characters along the way, making the story more than just an entertaining diversion. 

2. "The Phoenix Saga" X-Men #98-108


Technically, the first three and final two issues of this run constitute the "in space" portion of the story (though Phoenix does fight former herald of Galactus, Firelord, in one of those middle issues), but the whole run - representing Chris Claremont & Dave Cockrum finding their stride on the series, followed by the arrival of John Byrne for issue #108 - flows pretty tightly from issue-to-issue, starting with the events that lead to Jean Grey's transformation to Phoenix and culminating in the first truly epic "X-Men in space!" story, as the characters find themselves battling the Shi'ar Imperial Guard alongside intergalactic pirates the Starjammers, before Phoenix steps in and saves all of existence in a trippy, Kabbalahistic climax. If the "Dark Phoenix Saga" represents the fall of Jean Grey, this story is her rise - and without it, "Dark Phoenix" loses much of its impact (something the film adaptations seem to have yet to learn).

1. The Second Brood War - Uncanny X-Men #162-167


In the X-Men's first encounter with the parasitic Brood, they are functioning as mostly-Earthbound mercenaries in the employ of would-be Shi'ar empress Deathbird; for their return engagement, the X-Men are dropped onto their home turf for a star-spanning adventure that pushes their morality to the limit. Starting with a in media res Wolverine solo outing that does much to establish the narrative voice that will come to define the character, the story goes on to feature the transformation of Carol Danvers into Binary (continuing Chris Claremont's efforts to rescue one of his pet characters following her mishandling by David Michelinie & Jim Shooter in Avengers), the arrival of Paul Smith as new series artist, an all-time classic issue as the X-Men grapple with their impending deaths, a rip-roaring climax as they take the fight to the Brood once-and-for-all (seemingly), and then the ultimate denouement, as the team returns home to come face-to-face with the New Mutants for the first time and battle a Brood-infected Professor X. Much like "the Dark Phoenix Saga", this is a story in which all the different pieces - the art, scripting & plotting, the characterization, action & themes - are firing on all cylinders, resulting in an all-time classic X-Men story, set in space or otherwise.

13 comments:

  1. Good. Good that Rachel Summers as the centermost character in the whole X-lore is now acknowledged.

    I always knew this really was the "I love Rachel" club.

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    1. I don't know that I was going *that* far... :)

      That said, I did think of you as I placed Rachel in that #1 spot.

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    2. Truth to be told, I did whoop when I saw that Jean was the 2nd and Rachel hadn't been listed yet. :)

      That's my beloved cover of UNCANNY #199 right there.

      The fact that Rachel was only about in ten issues on the UNCANNY as Phoenix is hard-to-fathom ridiculousness on par with Spidey actually wearing the alien costume for only about six months of publication.

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  2. The '91 relaunch Jean Grey gets my vote for WORST Jean costume ever.

    Cockrums's is, of course the best.

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    1. Agreed and agreed.

      The first comic book that I can recall owning is Adjectiveless #1, which I think a relative got me because it was "going to be worth money some day." So, Jim Lee's Jean Grey is dialed into my brain as her "default" look and still, I have to say, it is a terrible design. John Byrne's Black Queen and Walt Simonson's post-FOTM red and gold outfit were both better. (Even Adam Kubert's "Revolution" red and gold design was better!) Glad to see Portacio on here, though. I really like his matching uniforms.

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  3. I am so happy to see the second Brood saga at the top of the space stories list. 1982 and 1983 are peak Claremont. It would deserve the top spot for that alone, and when combined with the debut of Paul Smith? Perfection.

    I love "Save Charley" but I would be sorely tempted to put Ed Brubaker's "Rise and Fall of the Shi'ar Empire" in there at #5. One of the too few great stories from the 00s.

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    1. Oh yes, the canned paranoia mid-arc downtime issue that is UXM #165.

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    2. YES. I have never sat down and made such a list, but if I ever did, Uncanny 165 would probably be on my list of the 10 greatest single issues of any X-book ever. Phenomenal stuff.

      Brood saga is a criminally underrated story. I mean, I know Dark Phoenix is single most famous X-Men story ever, but that we're getting _two_ Dark Phoenix movies and not a Brood movie -- or even a proper Sentinels movie! The '92 cartoon pilot had a better depiction of the Sentinels than the big screen DOFP with its $200 million budget! -- is just ... Bah. Screw Fox. I'm ready for the MCU mutants. In the meantime, I'm going to reread Uncanny 165.

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    3. I blather any amount about my very first X-issue #199 (and a third of #200) in June '87, but that fall they also put out for us a "Special" that printed #165-167, and so the latter part of the second Brood story is among my formative reads.

      The issues around ~#145-178 were initially skipped in my country as our publisher jumped into cooperation with their Dutch peer who was a couple of years ahead us. Our guys noticed soon enough that skipping Paul Smith era was insanity and fixed their act by publishing them on the side of our ongoing.

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    4. Oh, and I went to read the X-amination of #165, and the comments therewith. Matt... you did have quite a good grasp of what John Byrne would tell you. :D

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    5. @Michael I would be sorely tempted to put Ed Brubaker's "Rise and Fall of the Shi'ar Empire" in there at #5.

      I did consider it, and I'd probably need to re-read it, but I remember it being a bit over-long & needlessly drawn out. Plus, it featured Vulcan pretty heavily, and that was enough to drop it out of the top 5 without taking the time to reappraise it.

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  4. Yeah ok but as space stories go I kind of perversely like the one where the X-Men find a lot of Earth superheroes on a planet but turns out it's actually the Skrull homeworld right when Galactus comes a-callin'.

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    1. That was another one under consideration that needs a re-read for proper reappraisal.

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