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IMO:
Death Be Not Loud
By John Byrne

02.27.03


The first time I saw someone die in a comicbook -- someone who was not a parent or mentor killed in an origin story -- it was the original Metallo, in Superman story.

Death is such a Big Deal in comics now, plastered all over the cover(s) and generally hyped out the whazoo in an effort to boost sales, that it will doubtless come as a surprise to some of you to know that Metallo's death was not only not a cover story, was not only not a Big Sales Ploy, but was so downplayed even in the story that it did not even happen on panel!

Nope, the villainous Metallo, having stomped into Lois Lane's apartment with the intent of doing her grievous bodily harm, keeled over and dropped dead because (without his knowing it) the lump of green kryptonite that was his "heart" had been replaced with a chunk of rock that just happened to glow green. The stomping in and the dropping dead were the last two panels of the story, which ended with Lois and Superman looking down at the (off panel) dead villain.

When was the last time you saw something like that in a funnybook?

Now, before I go much further, let me toss out a small "mea culpa" here. The fact that Death in comics has become a very different sort of animal, both in how it is presented in the stories, and how it is marketed to the fans, is in no small way my fault. But that's because of something I did accidentally.

Most of you are aware of the "Death of Phoenix" story that appeared in X-Men 137, and are equally aware that this was the culmination of "The Dark Phoenix Saga." What many of you -- fans and pros alike -- seem not to know any more is that the death of Phoenix was not planned, and the whole thing was never intended to be a "saga."


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Excuse me, now, while I do an extended retelling of those days, and that story. Apologies to those who already know this stuff.

Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum wanted to boost the power levels of Jean Grey, aka Marvel Girl. Dave had a fondness for the character, but she had been left out of the mix when the "new" X-Men were introduced in Giant-Sized X-Men #1. She drifted in and out of the title for a year or so, after that, but (let's face it) compared to Storm, or Colossus, or Wolverine, or Nightcrawler, Marvel Girl was pretty tame stuff. Still, she had been an important cornerstone of the original X-Men, and Cyclops without Jean seemed like only half a character. (Chris was not as aware of the character's history as Dave. When he first came to write X-Men he gave an interview to Roger Stern, then writing for F.O.O.M. magazine, in which he discussed his plans for the X-Men -- and kept mixing up Jean and Lorna Dane. When I came on as artist I quickly discovered that, even at that point, Chris' knowledge of the original X-Men more or less began and ended with the Roy Thomas/Neal Adams/Tom Palmer issues.)

So it was decided that Jean needed a boost in power, and it was likewise decided that borrowing a page from the Fantastic Four would be a good way to do that. So the X-Men took a ride in a space shuttle (writing this on February 2nd, 2003, I look back with some degree of amazement at the casual way we used to blow those things up, back then!) and Jean got zapped with Cosmic Rays, just as the FF had.

Now, this is an important point: originally, that was ALL that happened. Jean got zapped with Cosmic Rays, and her mutant powers got a bit of a boost (as well as a fancy special effect). She burst out of the waters of Jamaica Bay, in Queens, reborn as Phoenix.

Thing is, Chris likes writing "strong" women, so he kept on boosting Jean's power level. Most of Dave's concentration was going to Nightcrawler, his own creation, so he may not have noticed what Chris was doing, but when I came aboard one of the first things I noticed was that Chris was tossing stuff to Jean even when the "moment" was not really meant for her. He found ways to crank up the "volume" on Jean until -- despite my best efforts to prevent it -- the X-Men were well on their way to becoming fifth wheels in their own title. I groused about this (a lot), but I have to admit I also enjoyed drawing the full-powered Phoenix, so. . .

Well, eventually it really started to get out of balance. Jean was becoming unmanageable as a character. Her presence was making it hard to come up with interesting stories. (As Denny O'Neil once said of the infinitely powerful Superman he was writing at the time, "It's hard to come up with a challenge for a guy who can destroy an entire alien race by listening hard!") Chris and I did not know what to do. Chris did not want to down-power Jean, and I did not want to kill her.

Enter Steven Grant.

One day, Steve tossed out a suggestion for a way Jean could continue on her power arc, and not make the rest of the team utterly redundant in the book in which they were supposed to be the stars. Make her a villain.

Now, at the time this was a big f**king deal. Maybe the biggest. Marvel had a "tradition" of really cool villains somehow mutating into good guys -- but taking it the other way? Having a hero become a villain? That had never been done. I was not crazy about the idea, at first, but eventually Chris, Roger Stern, and Jim Shooter talked me into it.

But the question was, how do we do it?

Cue my own little brainwave: Mastermind. He was one of the few original X-Men villains who had not had much to do since the reboot of the title, and I suggested that his powers of hypnotic illusion might be just the thing we needed to "turn" Jean Grey. We could even get a neat bit of irony out of it, as the unleashed Jean would turn out to be more than Mastermind could handle. So we set that story in motion. Mastermind, masquerading as "Jason Wyngarde," would work his mutant magic and corrupt Jean Grey.

Then something happened.

As the storyline progressed, Chris started writing Phoenix as if she was something other than just a power-boosted Jean. As if, in fact, she was another entity entirely. And -- drumroll -- an evil entity. Using the Shi'ar, Chris established that the Phoenix Force was very old, and long feared in the Galaxy. He even gave the Empress Lillandra a line something like "I was afraid this was gonna happen."

So Jean/Phoenix was turned, she slagged a planet (mea culpa again), she was caught by the Imperial Guard, and -- well, yes, and. And what? Originally, Chris and I intended to have her psychically "lobotomized," so that she could "come back" at inconvenient times. That end to the story was written and drawn. Then Jim Shooter decided it was time to piss on it and make it his.

You know this part, I am sure. Although he had approved every step of the plotting, every panel of the story development, at the last minute Shooter decided lobotomization was not enough. Jean had to be punished. Shooter wanted her taken to a prison asteroid and (literally) tortured horribly for all eternity. Chris called to tell me this. "F**k that," I said. "I rather kill her!"

So we did.

Now, the important thing to keep in mind in all this, is that none of this was planned. The "Phoenix Saga" is one of the classic defining examples of just how comicbook stories get written. Chris and I did not know were were doing a "saga." We did not know we were working on the most important story in the history of comics, ever (to hear some people talk!). We just thought we were doing what we always did on Uncanny X-Men: trying to top our last story.

Heck, having been forced into the book at literally the eleventh hour, the Death of Phoenix was not even something Marvel was able to promote! X-Men #137 had been announced as a double-sized issue, which it was, and as far as the fans knew, that was all that was "special" about it. It boosted the sales of X-Men a bit, but nothing like you might expect from such an "event" -- and that boost lasted precisely one month. Next issue, sales went back to "normal." (In case you don't know, that mean hovering just above 100,000 units per month -- or just above cancellation level, in those days.)

But that's not how it is remembered. I have actually found myself in arguments with fans who insist Uncanny X-Men #137 was a huge "hit," a big seller for a book that was already Marvel's top seller. This even contributed to the "Byrne Doesn't Sell Anymore" myth, when I left X-Men for Fantastic Four, and my sales "dropped" to...200,000+. (FF sales, already higher than X-Men by about 90% went up another 20% when I came on board.)

So, in the way it seems so often to happen in comics, the myth of "The Dark Phoenix Saga" soon overwhelmed the reality of that little book with its little sales -- and pretty soon, people were trying to do their own "sagas" -- this time deliberately. And Death, of course, having been so "successful" for the X-Men, became the most popular tool for selling comics. Out of story ideas? Running on fumes? Kill somebody! Anybody! Just make sure it's plastered all over the cover as an event.

(Truth to tell, this had happened before "The Death of Phoenix," with the death of Gwen Stacy. That was, indeed, emblazoned on the cover "THIS ISSUE SOMEBODY DIES!" But, although that story had a long and ultimately disastrous effect on the Spider-Man mythos, it did not impact the whole line, the whole industry, as did our X-Men tale.)

Problem is -- when you start killing characters willy-nilly just for the sake of a quick boost in sales, death starts to lose its sting and, even worse, resurrection becomes the next Big Toy. Often without much choice, since the random slaughter occasionally offs characters who, it is later realized, are integral to the storyline. (Jean Grey, May Parker, Norman Osborn -- people like that!) And then they have to be brought back -- and while villains have always made a habit of coming back from the grave, that's sort of okay, since they are villains and we can expect them to lie even about their own deaths! But when the heroes -- and especially the "civilians" start coming back...?

Pretty soon, something that used to be a big f**king deal becomes a colossal yawn. Kill a character, and fans won't think "WoW! They killed FoneBoneMan!" They'll think "Three issues, tops, before FoneBoneMan comes back..."

Death as a sales ploy. Usually clumsy, unnecessary and ill-conceived. Which leads to other stories that are even more clumsy, unnecessary and ill-conceived. And more on top of that.

All because of a "saga" that was never meant to be a saga in the first place.

Mea culpa, mea culpa.

 

 
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