Welcome to Adventure(s) Time's seventy-sixth installment, a look at animated heroes of the past. This week, we're moving past the prelude and getting right to it. We're going to be examining the first appearance of the Phoenix outside of comics, along with the comics inspiration for the storyline.
Debuting on September 5, 1994, "Phoenix Saga - Part I: Sacrifice" comes from writer Michael Edens, responsible for some of X-Men: The Animated Series' strongest episodes. Inspiration comes from Uncanny X-Men #97 through 100 (February to August 1976). These are the earliest moments of the Chris Claremont/Dave Cockrum team, creators responsible for much of the material still being mined by the comics and films.
The episode opens with Professor Xavier, haunted by images of alien spaceships at war. This sequence is clearly inspired by the opening of Uncanny X-Men #97.
In the animated series, Xavier orders the X-Men sneak aboard the Eagle One space station. They’re soon attacked by Erik the Red, an emissary of the alien Shi’ar.
Actually, not all of the X-Men are here. Jubilee is ordered to stay at home with Storm (no space adventures for this teen), which is understandable. Rogue, however, is missing with only a vague explanation. If you think about it, she has to miss this part of the story. Rogue’s powers would totally eliminate Jean’s role in the climax of the episode. She's invulnerable and can absorb someone's psyche -- there's no justification for Jean's heroic sacrifice with Rogue around.
Amusingly, in the comics, Xavier's response to his nightmares is to take a vacation. The X-Men dutifully send him away at JFK airport, and this is what leads to the Erik the Red confrontation in the source material. And he's brought along a brainwashed Havok and Polaris!
How the X-Men end up in space in the comics is far more convoluted. It involves an anti-mutant conspiracy, the earliest incarnation of the Hellfire Club, the Sentinels, a S.H.I.E.L.D. orbiting platform, robot duplicates of the original team, and Xavier's friendship with recurring Claremont character, Peter Corbeau. Corbeau's also here in the animated adaptation. Watching the X-Men strongarm their way onto his spacecraft, the Eagle One, is pretty amusing.
As will become clear in coming weeks, the cartoon has the advantage of knowing where the story is going. Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum lacked any intricate plan; they were just coming up with a cool story for each specific issue. The animated adaptation, however, doesn't indulge any digressions. They know this arc is telling the story of Jean Grey's transformation, so that's what they're doing.
In the adaptation, the X-Men save Corbeau's team from Erik the Red. Eagle One is destroyed during their fight, however. They escape in a shuttle, as an alien aircraft emerges from a nearby wormhole. In order to shield the shuttle from radiation, Jean Grey surrounds the craft with a telekinetic field. She pilots the Starcore shuttle back to Earth. When the shield weakens, she screams out in pain.
The comics take four issues to accomplish what the cartoon does in twenty minutes. Given the bimonthly schedule of the book at this time, that's eight months before Jean is piloting the shuttle. Here, it's the battle against the robotic X-Men doppelgangers that destroys the spaceship. The X-Men escape with Corbeau in the shuttle...after Jean apparently murders anti-mutant bigot Stephen Lang.
It's important to remember there's a manic energy to these issues. If Claremont had more time to really think some of this through, it likely wouldn't have happened. In fact, Claremont touched up all of these issues when they were reprinted in the Classic X-Men series. Jean's less a killer in the reprinted sequence. (Dave Cockrum drew many of the added pages. In this issue however, it's James Sherman.)
Not that Lang gets off the hook...
So, how do the X-Men escape in the source material? Well, the autopilot's destroyed, and an approaching solar flare will kill the pilot with radiation. Against the team's objections, Jean volunteers herself to pilot the shuttle back to Earth. (Her telepathy gives her Corbeau's knowledge of how to pilot the craft, and she hopes her telekinesis will protect her from the radiation.)
What follows is a sequence that's been revisited, retconned, and reimagined countless times. Jean's bathed in radiation, symbolized by a "TAC, TAC" sound effect. As she apparently dies, she calls out Scott's name. Even after all of these years, all of the retcons, it remains a powerful sequence.