Welcome back to “The Pope’s Comics,” our regular column by award-winning novelist, poet, and Comic Watch contributor Bethany Pope! Bethany brings a wealth of knowledge on literature, LGBTQIA+ issues history, gender, comics, and so much more. We sincerely hope you enjoy!
To say that Uncanny X-Men #137 is one of the most influential comics ever written is stating the profoundly obvious. The suicide of Phoenix (an entity who, at the time, believed herself to be Jean Grey) in an attempt to save the world from the destruction she brings was almost certainly the first sacrifice of its kind depicted in comics.
The trope of the noble suicide (as opposed to the noble sacrifice) is under-explored outside of the boundaries of the horror genre — and in a way, it is arguable that the story of Phoenix (at least as Claremont wrote it) is horror at its finest. We are presented with a corrupting, world-destroying force, wrapped up in the body of a young and beautiful woman. This force feeds on life energy, and decimates entire planets. That is a vampire story. And I will almost certainly explore that side of things at a later date.
Today, I want to examine an aspect of Claremont’s storytelling which is often derided, but which (I feel) is an integral part of what makes this story so enduring: the thought bubbles.
Claremont’s expository, page-obscuring thought bubbles go against the modern comics (and poetic) ethos of “show, don’t tell,” and they have sharply fallen out of vogue, so that the weight of the narrative is now carried by organic, carefully plotted dialogue (good), visual action (great!), or massive, expository soliloquies (terrible. Bad, bad writers). But Claremont’s technique is incredibly valuable to his original run. This is how we get to know the characters: by hearing their thoughts and seeing them as they see themselves. The climax of this fantastic story would have considerably less weight without the insights that this technique grants.
As a side note, thought bubbles also allow characters to exhibit hypocrisy: lying to the people they’re interacting with, while cluing the readers into their deceit, as we’ll see Beast doing below.
Today I’m going to examine the seven key soliloquies that form the ethical, emotional, and philosophical heart of this book. I’ll look at them in chronological order, as they appear within the text, and analyze their effect on the story.
I’m referring to the character of Phoenix as Jean Grey — even though later retcons demolished that portrayal — because that’s who the character believes herself to be. We see her, lit by something resembling firelight, or the flame of a votive candle, remembering what she did to the people of D’Bari. What we see here, both throughout the structure of her thoughts, and portrayed via the dualistic tones of the color art, is a battle between opposites: light and shadow, life and death. All of the thematic elements of her story as phoenix are present, and heightened, as her story is brought to its fiery climax.
Contrasting Jean’s thoughtful, almost spiritual stillness (more on that, in a bit) is Nightcrawler’s dynamism. We see Kurt thinking on the move, bouncing from the odds of victory or defeat, to intimations of the faith he later becomes known for, to moralistic ruminations on right and wrong (flavored by his personal history) while his body hurtles through a series of hoops and chains which are suspended from the ceiling. In a single panel, we are shown much of what makes this character so endlessly fascinating. There’s a lot of substance here, given to us in measures pressed down and running over, but the deep concepts on display are balanced by the gorgeous, physicality of the art and the character’s own levity, even as his train of thought is interrupted first by gravity and then by Angel’s unnecessary rescue.
Byrne used Logan’s nudity to depict both his animal nature and his unusual (unprecedented, at this time) emotional vulnerability. The light in these panels, and Logan’s meditative stance, reflect and compliment Jean’s earlier soliloquy. His ruminations are empathetic, depicting a man who is aware of the conflict facing him, but who will ultimately side with the person for whom he feels the deepest spiritual and emotional connection. This is a samurai, sworn to a master — one whose flashing claws remind us that he can never be separated from his weapon. These panels are, in themselves, a work of art.
This is where the hypocrisy I mentioned in the introduction comes in. Beast, as he exists in the comics right now, is a creature of amoral ego and unlimited drive. This is a Beast of a very different color. This Beast is logically reasoning with himself, and applying that logic in a way that is both intellectually clear and morally sound. And he’s doing it while scrubbing his feet with a loofah. There’s a disconnect between action and thought, playfulness and seriousness, which was integral to the character at this time and which modern writers seem to have forgotten. The thought bubbles which enable him to have these thoughts allow for him to playfully flirt with his bath attendant, underlining the fact that his thoughts and actions are very different things. The only reason that we can enjoy such a delicious, frisson-producing level of complexity is that we have access to both the character’s spoken words and mismatched actions.
Colossus is also presented in his underwear— a sight that is meant to signal emotional vulnerability in the reader — and his thoughts are relatively straightforward. He decides, quickly, that if he is to be loyal to himself, he must be loyal to his friends, and is determined to fight for Jean. As he makes this decision, he switches from his human form to that of the Colossus, clothing himself in metal and cutting off all weakness and vulnerability, both physically and metaphorically. It’s a brilliant piece of storytelling, and it packs an amazing amount of character into a few brief panels.
Ororo also begins her vignette in the nude, expressing her discontent with the environment in which she finds herself and longing for an innocence she can never reclaim. She quickly clothes herself in layer after layer of stifling clothes, isolating herself physically, while expressing her desire for solitude, before ‘opening up’ (via the display of a microstorm) and expressing the deep love and kinship she feels for Jean Grey — a woman who she views as her spiritual sister.
Scott’s soliloquy is both the longest and the most conflicted. In his opening shot, he is depicted as standing within a transparent bubble of glass which juts out into the cold expanse of space — a visual metaphor for the extreme isolation of leadership, and the distance it has planted between him and everyone he loves. He is torn between two views, both of which he believes to be equally valid, and this conflict is driving him away from his friends, his mentor, and the woman he loves. The agreement between the vista and the hero’s internal monologue contrasts brilliantly with the interludes which have come before. It’s a startlingly effective piece of storytelling.
This is a brief examination of an utterly fascinating, emotive piece of storytelling. Hopefully this analysis will encourage you to approach it with new eyes, and foster a deeper appreciation for this brilliant collaborative work.
This article is dedicated to the memory of Grant Tarbard. He was a great poet, and a great friend.
Poet, novelist, fencer, pirate, Za-Za, and Comic Watch regular contributor Bethany Pope lives in China. They also hold an MA and PhD in creative writing. Their latest novel, The Hungry and the Lost, was released December 1, 2021 from Parthian Books. You can follow them on Twitter at @theMasqueWriter.
The Pope’s Comics: Intimations of Immortality in Uncanny X-Men #137
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