X-Men Forever annual #1, $4.99 US, published by Marvel Comics
Writer: Chris Claremont; Art & Colors: Sana Takeda
Rating 3.5 out of 5 stars
The opening scene of the first issue of X-Men Forever saw Jean Grey and Wolverine on a tropical beach, kissing passionately. However, turning the page, it was revealed that this moment was playing out in Jean’s head. Readers were left uncertain if it had actually occurred.
X-Men Forever annual #1 addresses that question, and the unconsummated romance between Jean and Logan that was revealed in X-Men Forever‘s first arc. In my review of those issues, I noted that this development in their relationship seemed to have occurred more or less out of nowhere. Now writer Chris Claremont is finally going back to explain just how it developed.
The annual is set within the gap between the end of the “Muir Island Saga” and “Mutant Genesis” by Claremont & Jim Lee. Nick Fury requests that the X-Men go on a reconnaissance mission on a vacation island. Jean and Logan volunteer, going undercover as a newlywed couple. This places them in a setting where their long-buried feelings for each other begin to surface. That is something Claremont never initially developed within Uncanny X-Men in the late 1970s, but delved into with the new “director’s cut” material he did with John Bolton and other artists in Classic X-Men a decade later. There, he wrote Jean and Logan as having this instant mutual attraction, one Jean never acted on because of her long-term relationship with Cyclops. And then she became Phoenix, turned evil, died, came back to life, and had all sorts of other complicated stuff occur. Whew! So, really, this is the first occasion in a very long time when Jean is alone with Logan for an extended period, allowing their feelings to be given expression.
The tropical resort, it turns out, is a base for the mystic ninja cult the Hand. I’ve never been overly fond of those guys. They did start out as a fairly credible menace when Frank Miller introduced them in the pages of Daredevil. But over the years they ended up devolving into cannon fodder, easily disposed of by Wolverine or the Punisher or whoever.
Claremont obviously wants to have the Hand viewed as a dangerous foe here, as they manage to capture both Wolverine and Jean Grey without any fuss. Strangely, this takes place off-panel (that’s one instance where the annual really could have used more pages). The Hand attempt to magically brainwash the pair of X-Men, reshaping them into demonically-powered assassins. This is something they previously tried during “Acts of Vengeance” with Psylocke and Logan.
This may be Claremont’s way of utilizing the plot he originally proposed back in 1991, wherein the Hand would kill Wolverine and revive him as an undead assassin. We see something like that here in an ultra-truncated form. That’s probably for the best, since Mark Millar ended up doing a storyline in 2004 with a similar premise. As a result, though, the X-Men Forever annual does feel somewhat rushed in dealing with Wolverine’s temporary corruption by the Hand. But there is something to be said for a done-in-one story. And, like I said before, the annual would definitely benefited from at least a dozen more pages to allow the story to breathe. I guess Claremont was working within the allotted page count, and made the best of it. But, really, a mere 27 pages for an annual is just ridiculous. I miss the days when Marvel annuals would give you at least 48 pages of story.
A digression: it was interesting to see Jean Grey refer to her transformation into Phoenix, death, and return. Claremont is taking the position that Jean Grey really was the Phoenix, and that they weren’t two separate entities. Actually, this fits in perfectly with the explanation from Classic X-Men #8. On the final page of the back-up story by Claremont & Bolton, Jean has merged with the Phoenix. She looks down, and is surprised to still see her human, radiation-ravaged body lying in front of her. And her dialogue reads…
“Is this… me? I didn’t think there’d be a body. And it’s still alive! Only a spark — but so bright — some stubborn piece of my soul, still fighting on its own terms, refusing the gift that was offered. Who knows, perhaps that’s the right choice? Or maybe — it’s a second chance. In case things go wrong. I don’t know — there’s so much I don’t know — will I have time to learn?! This is me — as much as I am, in this new form — I can’t abandon myself. I’ll enfold the body in a cocoon, that will sustain it while it heals. And when it does, what then?”
Basically, Jean’s soul split in half. The Jean Grey who became the Phoenix, got corrupted by Mastermind, became the Black Queen, turned into Dark Phoenix, committed genocide by destroying the asparagus people, and died on the Moon was the real Jean Grey. The Jean Grey who was in the cocoon that the Avengers found at the bottom of Jamaica Bay years later was also the real Jean Grey.
For those who might argue “Come on, how can a soul be split in half?!?” my reply is “It’s a freaking sci-fi superhero comic book, for crying out loud!!!”
Perhaps other people might interpret Classic X-Men #8 differently. But the way I see it, Claremont wrote a story that allowed the readers to have their cake and eat it too. As of that point in time, there existed two Jean Greys. One was just as real as the other. Jean Grey became the Phoenix and later died, and Jean Grey was in suspended animation in a cocoon at the same time. Later on, after reviving from the cocoon, the surviving Jean received the memories of her Phoenix-half during “Inferno.” So it all works out perfectly, as far as I’m concerned.
Okay, end of digression.
I enjoyed seeing Psylocke and Jubilee appear in the X-Men Forever annual, since they’ve been pretty well absent from the regular series. I believe that’s due to the editorial decree that Claremont keeps his cast small.
It was especially insightful to witness Psylocke brutally taking out her anger and bitterness on the Hand for their physical & mental manipulation of her. I don’t know if the trauma Betsy Braddock experienced was ever addressed to a satisfactory degree in the post-Claremont stories. And when it was broached, all that confusing stuff with Kwannon/Revanche was dragged into it. So now that Claremont is returning to a point in continuity soon after Psylocke’s forced transformation, when the wounds are fresh, he’s able to show the effect facing the Hand again has on Betsy. Now that X-Men Forever has been given the green light for a second year, hopefully Claremont will be able to give Psylocke more “screen time” in future issues, and delve further into the changes to her character.
My one major criticism of the story, aside from the page count, is that Claremont never actually explains what the Hand were up to on the island in the first place. Was it simply one of their secret hideouts, or were they planning some major operation? That’s left completely hanging.
Regarding the artwork, I’m generally not a fan of Manga-inspired material in American superhero comic books. It can come across as derivative, and often smacks of attempting to cash in on the immense popularity of actual Japanese comic books by imitation. But considering Sana Takeda is a genuine Manga artist from Japan, she has a legitimate claim to be working in that style for an American publication.
In any case, Takeda’s work is simply gorgeous. Her layout are dramatic, and her storytelling clear. She does some incredibly vibrant coloring on the book. Takeda also draws a very beautiful Jean Grey.
Takeda takes a stab at redesigning the Hand’s usual red pajama look. Her version of the Hand bear more than a passing resemblance to Emperor Palpatine’s imperial guard, but at least it’s somewhat more interesting than having several dozen nondescript ninjas standing around.
The one slip-up with the artwork is that we see Psylocke stabbing a bunch of ninja with a regular sword, when the dialogue makes it clear that it’s supposed to be a non-lethal “psychic blade.” Takeda either accidentally drew Psylocke with a normal sword, or forgot to color the blade with Psylocke’s usual purple psychic energy glow.
In the end, though not without flaws (some of which are undoubtedly due to that aforementioned ridiculously low page count), the X-Men Forever annual is an entertaining story that explores various characters personalities and relationships. It also sees Claremont finally begin to delve into the details of the somewhat altered events preceding X-Men Forever #1. He ought to reveal more of that backstory in the near future. I’d very much like to know exactly how the conflict on Muir Island with the Shadow King, as well as X-Factor’s final battle with Apocalypse on the Moon, played out in the “Forever-verse.”