Welcome back to History of X, the monthly column that looks back at X-Men publication history through the lens of modern continuity. I’m your columnist Micheal Foulk, a queer geriatric millennial who just can’t stop writing about Marvel’s Merry Mutants. Have you been reading along with us so far? Wonderful! Of course, you have. There are exactly three things to read on the internet and this is one of them. What are the other two? I’ll never tell. If somehow you’ve missed the previous entries in this series — I don’t know, maybe you were gestating in a cocoon at the bottom of Bodega Bay for several months — I don’t judge, but you can catch up on the goings on here!
For this foray into the annals of X, we’re looking at The Uncanny X-Men Omnibus Vol. 2, which includes Uncanny X-Men #132 to Uncanny X-Men #153 and a slew of other stuff from the era that we may not necessarily get around to digging into (we won’t) because there’s so much story in this book. This collection features The Dark Phoenix Saga, Days Of Future Past, the beginning of Magneto’s first face turn, and some foundational tales focusing on Kitty Pryde, Emma Frost, Dazzler, and the nefarious Hellfire Club.
She Looked At Me Like I Was Something Good To Eat
Uncanny X-Men #129 features the introduction of two of the most important characters in modern X-Men comics: Kitty Pryde and Emma Frost. Okay, I’m cheating a little bit here, but only because it makes sense. For some reason, Uncanny X-Men #129, #130, and #131 are included in the Omnibus Vol. 1, when honestly that volume should end with The Proteus Saga and these issues should be included here in Vol. 2 as part of The Dark Phoenix Saga. So I didn’t reference them in the previous History of X piece because they really make more sense here. Sue me!
Looking back at this first meeting between Pryde and Frost, it’s hard to imagine them becoming the stalwart allies that they have become in The Krakoa Era. In their initial meeting, Emma Frost is a decidedly different person from who she is today, as Conor Goldsmith references in the Emma Frost episode of Cerebro, she was on a lot of drugs back then — it was the ‘80s. Besides Magneto, who we will talk about later, no other character has undergone quite the face-turn that Emma has over her publication history. In this early appearance, Frost is a maniacal dominatrix who has yet to evolve into the more nuanced “once more for the children” dominatrix that we know today.
In Marauders, we see Kate Pryde and Emma Frost as friends who have embraced the other’s idiosyncrasies and come to respect each other both as peers and as family. As Emma has settled some of her more sadistic tendencies, Kate has grown to embrace her more chaotic nature, with the two women influencing each other and pairing together well. When Sebastion Shaw, Emma’s former paramour, murders Kate in Marauders #6 (it’s a whole thing and we’ll talk more about it in the next installment of Heroes of X) Emma makes it her mission to resurrect Kate and see that she is given the opportunity to exact vengeance upon the dirty old bastard. In Marauders #16 when Kate, Emma, and Storm brutally beat Shaw within an inch of his sorry little life, I felt a sense of catharsis that carried me for weeks.
Would you believe the Wicked Witch of the West?
Alright, we’re back on track — I did what needed to be done. The first six issues of this collection deal with the transformation of telepathic-girl-next-door Jean Grey from the Phoenix to the Black Queen of the Hellfire Club to Dark Phoenix and back again…before her suicide on the Blueside of the Moon. Drama mama! It’s not just superheroes, it’s also a soap opera.
Jean’s “corruption” and subsequent sacrifice are together one of the most elemental stories of the past century. That’s not hyperbole, it’s the truth, and the story’s resonance shows, ask any comics fan (or even non-comic book readers) and they’ll have some understanding of The Dark Phoenix Saga and how important it is. To get an in-depth breakdown of the whole story follow this link to listen to the Jay and Miles Xplain the X-Men episodes that cover this arc.
The “Saga,” as it were, actually begins back in Uncanny X-Men #122 when Jean Grey AKA Marvel Girl AKA the Phoenix first bumps into Jason Wyngarde AKA Mastermind (these folks have got a lot of names), a Lee-Kirby villain from the earliest days of the X-Men. What initially appears to be a chance meeting between Jean and Wyngarde, is actually the first step in a long, convoluted plot to corrupt the powerful telepath. Wyngarde as a “master of illusions” has transformed his previously withered appearance to that of a handsome and dashing be-mutton-chopped rogue, beginning his nefarious seduction of Jean in service of the evil Hellfire Club.
Playing in the background of over a year’s worth of comics, Wyngarde uses his mutant illusion-based power to place Jean in false memories of what appears to be a cruel and sadistic distant ancestor who hunts humans with and yes loves an ancestor of Wyngarde himself. Over the time that Mastermind’s plan works, Jean breaks bad, psychically manifests a black leather bondage ensemble (this look is fire, just gorgeous), and takes her place as the Black Queen of the Hellfire Club. When Cyclops is seemingly killed in a psychic duel with Mastermind, Jean shakes the programming and returns, as Wolverine puts it, to “the side of the angels.”
Jean confronts Mastermind and succumbs to the more violent nature of the Phoenix Force, retaliating and destroying his mind by showing him the full breadth of existence. Soon after Jean goes full Dark Phoenix and turns on her friends, the X-Men.
A pivotal scene in this arc comes in Uncanny X-Men #132 when Jean returns to her family home after consuming a star and inadvertently destroying a planet (this story is fucking wild) to confront or perhaps seek solace in the arms of her first family, her parents and sister.
In one of Claremont’s many “coming out” scenes, Jean is simultaneously Dark Phoenix and herself as she realizes that she is unable to stop her family’s thoughts from intruding into her mind. Jean wants both to be comforted by her kin and to violently push them away, disgusted by herself and their fear of her. “You fear me, all of you and with good reason,” Jean howls at her family while lashing out, “I am what I am. I was your daughter.” This scene is not quite universal but it’s close, queers especially — and anyone who has ever felt like a monster in their families’ eyes — knows this feeling. We change, and we don’t always know if those who are supposed to love us can deal with all that we’ve become. The pain of being an eldritch form of “other” can spin one’s anxiety and self-doubt to dizzying heights. (This is very melodramatic but also feels right.)
Looking at Jean now during The Krakoa Era — deep into her 30s, embracing a complicated sort of motherhood, in a poly relationship with her high school sweetheart and their feral Wolverine — it’s easy to forget how far she’s come from this period in the early 1980s. I mean, this girl ate a sun in her 20s, died, and lived to tell about it. A couple of times.
Jean’s death and her subsequent 1986 resurrection were both editorially mandated and to some degree both in and out of Claremont’s hands. Phoenix is revealed to in fact not be Jean, but instead the cosmic force piloting an approximation of Jean while her true form healed in a cocoon at the bottom of Bodega Bay. Later again, writer Grant Morrison skews this interpretation in their run on New X-Men by suggesting that Phoenix and Jean were in fact one entity during the Dark Phoenix Saga. Years and years and years of storylines blur the lines between the Phoenix and its hosts.
Many readers’ feelings about Jean as a character hinge on their interpretation of what Jean has or has not done and the degree to which she takes responsibility for her (and/or the Pheonix’s) actions. Jean is often depicted as a paragon in the X-Men universe, relatively virtuous and firmly on the side of “good,” while conversely Emma Frost is depicted as a shiftier, morally gray, telepath who does “good” but is perhaps less altruistic. This characterization can be frustrating for readers who find Jean to be perhaps fake or pretentious, while they view Emma to be more honest. Emma often gets a bad rap for her past villainous ways and her psychic affair with Cyclops, but at the same time, Jean or Phoenix depending on your interpretation of events has killed more living beings in one moment of passion than almost any other character in the Marvel universe.
I can easily identify with Jean Grey’s journey from an honor student, to a chaotic force riddled with intrusive thoughts, to an avoidant try-hard who can’t deal with responsibility, to a vindictive bitch, to a chilled-out mom. My own journey with mental health and queerness has kinda followed a similar track. Perhaps I’m a Jean apologist or maybe it’s a Libra thing (I’m convinced Jean is a Libra, leave me be) but that’s all to say after all she has been through it does seem like Jean is in the healthiest state of mind she’s ever been in, and I’m happy to say the same.
For What Point Is Vengeance Against An Unfeeling Machine
Days of Future Past is two fucking issues long and yet we have never been done with its narrative implications. Two issues? Two Issues! TWO ISSUES?! (To get the full effect of how wild I think this is, check out this clip of Sally Field freaking out in Mrs. Doubtfire but imagine she’s saying “Two Issues” instead of all the actual lines.)
DOFP (oof, rough acronym) is perhaps the second most remembered and referenced X-Story of all time. Scripted by Chris Claremont from a plot developed by artist and co-plotter John Bryne, Days launches the reader without any warning or preamble into the first of what would go on to be many dystopian futures the X-Men would encounter.
Looking at Days of Future Past with what we’ve learned in the Dawn Of X soft reboot of the X-Universe, it’s difficult to say what knowledge of Earth-811 (the designation given to the DOFP universe) or the multiverse at large Moira X, Xavier, or Magneto could have had. At this point in continuity, Magneto had yet to be pulled into Charles and Moira’s plans, but with Moira’s many lives, it’s easy to imagine that she may have encountered alternate futures and dimension-hopping shenanigans before.
Did Days of Future Past happen in Moira’s fourth life, the life that seems to most closely resemble life ten? We know that the Phoenix Force becomes entangled in the mutant race in earlier lives, but with how little we’ve seen of each iteration of the Moiraverse, it’s difficult to say what events repeat. Does Moira’s power of reincarnation and universe rebooting only affect the 616 Universe or does her death reboot the whole multiverse? Is it possible that each of Moira’s lives could still exist as their own alternate earth?
Days of Future Past is the first X-Men story to deal with the possibility of a machine apocalypse (little “a” as opposed to –[A]–) and its brief narrative is clearly the basis for much of the robotic shenanigans that would come after up to modern continuity. As Nimrod and Omega Sentinel make moves to secure a future of machine supremacy in current X-books, we have Bryne and Claremont to thank for the earliest roots of this narrative thread.
As A Boy, I Turned My Back On God Forever
The final story that I want to talk about from Uncanny Omnibus Vol 2 is the I, Magento arc around X-Men #150. While there are a lot of big, fun stories in this collection, it seemed important to whittle it down to a few key touchstones, lest these columns become epics in themselves.
Cyclops, on a post-Dark Phoenix soul-searching journey, and Captain Lee Forrester are shipwrecked in the Bermuda Triangle on a mysterious, seemingly deserted, island full of Cthulhu-esque statues. After some Swiss Family Robinson, ripped clothing survival stuff, the pair soon discover that the island is in fact not deserted at all, its sole inhabitant is Magneto, Master of Magnetism! Mags dresses Cyclops and Lee up in some octopus fetish wear and declares his plans for the evening: taking over the world!
In this arc Claremont and new artist duo Dave Cockrum and Josef Rubinstein, begin what will eventually be Magneto’s “face-turn.” When the X-Men convene on Island M to rescue Cyclops and Lee and attempt to stop Magneto’s latest swing at world domination, the fighting escalates to a fever pitch leading to the apparent death of young X-Men member Kitty Pryde. As Magneto cradles her body, shocked that he has perhaps killed a mutant child, he remembers his own family’s deaths in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. This is the first reference to Magneto being a holocaust survivor and a retcon that will change the character forever.
We know now that this is also the point in continuity at which Moira and Charles Xavier first bring Magneto into their larger plan. After X-Men #150, Magneto is informed of Moira’s many lives, and he makes the decision to join the duo in their mission to make the future safe for mutantkind. Magneto is aligned with Moira and Charles until the early ‘90s when he returns to his more villainous ways in the pages of adjectiveless X-Men. Modern stories inform us that this ‘90s split was due to Magneto’s growing distrust of Moira and Charles’s machinations and his belief that the pair had somehow compelled his cooperation through genetic experimentation and mind control.
Magneto returns to the fold 30 publication years later — or 5-10 in-universe years later (honestly this is all speculation, the timing on these things is difficult to nail down) — and becomes a founding member of Krakoa’s Quiet Council and a diplomatic ambassador to the fledgling mutant nation. In the pages of Kieron Gillan, Lucas Werneck, and David Curiel’s Immortal X-Men #1, Magneto splits from Charles once again after Moira’s fall in Inferno and X Deaths Of Wolverine and retires to a ridiculously large yet sparsely decorated palace on the Planet Arrako.
Magneto’s depth as a character blossomed when Claremont and company introduced his tragic backstory and further elaborated on the horror that Magneto had survived. As The Fisher King says in Immortal X-Men, “…I see you, my friend. You’ve a place in the broken land. You were somewhere too.” By allowing Magneto to be more than the silver age villain that he began as Claremont (and subsequent creators) developed the Master of Magnetism into one of the most multifaceted and nuanced characters in comic book history.
Wait, You Skipped My Favorite Stuff
I did! I skipped a lot of stuff like Alpha Flight, D’Spayre, and Stevie Hunter — I even skipped an amazing arc dealing with Dr. Doom’s disastrous attempt to hook up with Storm. Claremont, Bryne, and Cockrum produce some very dense comic books with dozens of plot threads and so many amazing side characters to keep track of. I love these side characters and one-off stories! It’s all really good and I truly believe that all of these comics are required reading for any new X-Men fan. There were a lot of bits I wanted to talk about more but I just didn’t have the time and space to give every moment its due. That said, I desperately want to live in a world full of X-Men analysis and in-depth comic book criticism. Please write your 2000-word essays about Stevie Hunter and Lee Forrester and send them my way, I can’t wait to read them.
Next time on Heroes of X: Marauders or What’d I Do To Piss You Off?
Micheal Foulk is a non-binary queer writer, comedian, and organizer thriving in Oakland, California. They are the co-host of I’m Not Busy — a weekly podcast with Vanessa Gonzalez — the co-creator of the LGBTQ+ storytelling show Greetings, from Queer Mountain and the curator of the film screening series Queer Film Theory 101, produced in collaboration with Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas. Their work has been published in Slate, Vice, Into, and TimeOut NY.
Micheal will make you a playlist if you ask nicely.