This is the second entry in Claire Napier’s column, Gutters Should Be Called Hedges, which focuses on the role nature and natural settings play in comics. You can read the introduction to the column here.
Divided between the ‘77 Phoenix Saga and 1980’s Dark Phoenix Saga, the rise and fall of the X-Men’s Phoenix is one of the most enduring of Marvel’s event stories.
Important in myriad ways, but not least to the development of one Scott Summers; Cyclops, founding member, perennial and leader of the X-Men. Sighing over each other since their middle teens, Scott and Jean, now known as Phoenix, had been lovers. So with the demise of Phoenix — necessary, and on her own terms, but tragic all the same — Scott finds himself in possession of one dead girlfriend and one damaged sense of purpose. Leaving the X-Men for the first time in his adult life in Uncanny X-Men #138, he vows not to squander the life that Jean, or Phoenix (this gets complicated but don’t worry about that now), helped him to appreciate.
Scott is absent for four issues. These issues show the continuing adventures of the X-Men he left behind. In Uncanny X-Men #143 the narrative returns to Scott; he meets a new woman who quickly becomes a love interest. Her name is Captain Aleytys “Lee” Forrester. Twenty-six issues after that, the X-Men return from another accidental trip to space — we see Scott take a bittersweet “last” dalliance with her, and are given to understand that he chooses life with the X-Men over life with her. In this same issue Scott begins a trip to see his new-found paternal grandparents… and unexpectedly meets the first woman he would marry.
This chained romancing is remarkable because it’s done with very great purpose and to solid, lasting emotional effect. It paints a wonderful picture of Scott Summers’ psyche, although ‘wonderful” is reserved for the creator, not his creation. Madelyn Pryor, whom Scott meets in X-Men #168 and marries in #175, is physically identical to Jean. Dead Jean. The love, or admiration, or fixation, or lust that Scott bore for Jean and Phoenix (first established, in bud, in 1963) remains a point of reference for X-Men comics well into the second decade of the twenty-first century. All other romances and attractions the character Cyclops explores are judged — and written, often — in comparison to the Grey-Summers union. Scott’s time spent with Lee, and the first bloom of his partnership with Maddy, must be understood as actively counterbalancing the drama, intensity and pain of Scott and Jean’s ever-stressful relationship. These relationships are all written by Chris Claremont, who wrote the X-Men and several surrounding titles for Marvel for a straight sixteen years, and drawn first by John Byrne (X-Men artist since issue #108), then various temp artists, and finally Paul Smith with Bob Wiacek.
Despite the upset of the initial artist leaving mid-arc, the Scott Summers Rebound Tour shows great craft. Its emotional events are echoed so beautifully in the backgrounds.
Jean Grey is of a character type that I would call “pioneer woman”; a Doctor Quinn style lady. On the front lines of what her society regards as progression, in danger. She’s tough, but feminine in a submissive mould, firm but acquiescent to propriety, able to tell a fella what-for and stand her ground against crowds — but only ever will in earnest defence of the weak. A modest personality, in a flamboyant double lifestyle: on the social edge due to her calling as a premier member of the X-Men, and directly in the middle of middle class sensibilities outside the ring. As Phoenix, the immense magnitude of her power and the gentleness with which she balanced it gave her an undeniable dignity; as Dark Phoenix that dignity faded into status. Jean became intimidating, commanding, a force to be reckoned with, instead of a being of great potential danger.
Lee and Madelyne, in their home environments, reflect various facets of that Jean’Kraan Crystal. It’s unmissable: Scott Summers is rebounding like a force-beam, trapped within the shiny glamour of his self-identity as Jean’s Guy. Jean Grey was compelled to die because she was one with the Phoenix Force. The Phoenix Force, as seen above, was “fire, and life incarnate.” Jeanix’ atmosphere registers as hot. Hot and dry and orange. She died in the cold “blue area of the moon,” in a dusty, dead landscape of ruins, columns, and pillars.
Lee and her landscape — seascape, actually — stand in direct opposition and comforting similarity to the final images of Jean impressed upon Scott, as her personality and place in authority structures differ diametrically from Jean’s. Lee is the Captain of her ship: similarly a pioneering woman, but in her own right, an absolute authority, and at the active head of a group of men. Jean never lead the X-Men; Cyclops, Scott, did. Jean was both his professional subordinate and his lover. When he and Lee come together, those table are turned. How freeing, at the same time as being so familiar! Lee is represented as a love interest by her chosen element: the sea is wet and cold, the opposite of fire. The sea is generally blue in opposition to the red of fire.
And contrary to the landscape of the blue area of the moon, Lee and Scott spend the bulk of their romance (her initial come-ons and their last romantic walk) on tropical beaches. Her oceans are invoked, but the blue area is more easily contradicted by warm sand substituted for the cold dust of the moon, lush palm trees and greenery instead of columns, walls or slabs. The air is warm and moist, and they were washed there, overboard and stranded, by a freak storm at sea. As Jean’s element was destructive and frightening so is Lee’s, but in this case it has been proven survivable.
Enter Madelyne Pryor.
Madelyne Pryor, upon appearance, is Jean’s perfect double framed by pristine, snowy peaks. Alaska: a cold place, a fairly lush place. Snow is both oppositional to fire, and a refined, controllable version of water. Madelyne flies her own plane as Lee commanded her boat (flies her own plane like Jean flew a broken space shuttle, marking the beginning of her synergy with Phoenix), but she is a chartered flight associate; she takes orders within her independence, and acts mostly to protect and coddle those on her plane. A pilot is a more obvious service job than a fishing boat captain. It’s a much more similar calling to Jean’s place within the X-Men, as an empathic psychic instead of a physical agent. The whiteness of snow says fresh start almost explicitly — Madelyne’s debut offers up a brand new Jean, a chance at reversion, to Scott. It’s obviously a traumatic option that could result in massive unhappiness and cruel assumptions, and it does; again, the joy of the familiar wrapped up tightly with the challenge of unavoidable collision with her innate difference. Scott and Jean’s first on-page date took place under snowy skies (Claremont/Cockrum, Uncanny X-Men 98).
The houses in which Scott and Madelyne spend the early days of their courtship reflect the columns/slabs of the blue area and the tropical beaches while also rejecting them; this romance takes place indoors, in large open-plan, cabin-aesthetic buildings. Big fireplaces allow the evocation of Phoenix apart from her Jean aspects, rugged lumber and bare brick motifs recall the pioneery feel of Jean’s character. Big windows and sparse backgrounds reinforce the vastness of snowfields and the vastness of hope. The bright, clear sparkle of sun on snow is refreshing and enlivening, and very neatly suggested.
Snow is Madelyne’s element. Like snow, the more you walk on her, the dirtier she gets. Force beams mean nothing to fire, and they part water, but snow compacts. Enter, eventually, the Goblyn Queen. But that’s a story for another day!
Claire Napier is the rock that drops on your head; she’s known for giving bad men bad looks. This is the first in a series of writings Loser City is sponsoring. If you like Claire’s writing, you can find more of it at Women Write About Comics, where she is the Features and Opinions Editor. Want to support Claire’s awesome writing? Check out her Patreon or get at her on Twitter at @illusclaire.