Issue(s): Excalibur #52
Note that Xavier is walking, and also the composition of the X-Men. That's because the images are said to be based on Rachel's memories, including her time with the X-Men (which doesn't explain the younger images of Cyclops, though, not that we really need one). It turns out that Xavier has been mind-melding with Rachel for 10 hours. He finally snaps out of it when he tries to leave the "room" that he's been placed in.
This issue, as you can tell from the title, is really about delving into the history of the Phoenix, and really Rachel Summers. At first i bristled at the idea of that happening in Excalibur, but that's silly. It should of course happen in the book where Rachel Summers is a member of the team. And in any event it's not like Chris Claremont is around anymore, so we're not waiting for him anymore to finally go into whatever he intended (if anything) when Rachel took the Phoenix Force for herself. And i'd rather have Alan Davis do it than, say, Scott Lobdell. I do wish that Davis was drawing as well, but he seems to still be taking a break in that regard after the epic ending with issue #50. Davis is missing from the book entirely next issue, but he's back to story and art for issue #54.
So what do we learn about the Phoenix Force? First, that it's been here since the birth of the universe.
And it had no contact with anything until it was summoned by the original Feron and Necrom.
After that, it was "forever changed". We don't learn if it did anything else in the meantime, but it was eventually drawn back to Earth, where it found Jean Grey sacrificing her life by piloting the shuttle back to Earth. During the period after that, it's said that the Phoenix was lying to itself and more or less really believed that it was Jean Grey. The story then recaps Phoenix's corruption due to the manipulation of Mastermind. It's not explicitly said that Phoenix's initial contact with Necrom made her more susceptible to this kind of manipulation, which seems like a natural enough conclusion. It is implied that Phoenix's turn to Dark Phoenix while the X-Men were planning to fight the Shi'ar to save her was part of a deliberate calculation, which probably changes the meaning of the original Claremont/Byrne story a bit. If i understand the implication, it means that the Phoenix wasn't really "Dark" at this point, it was just trying to make the X-Men not fight to save it/her.
After the death of its mortal shell, the Phoenix Force "reflected on my folly", and it eventually decided that it would return the life force it took from Jean Grey. But on its way to do that, it found Rachel Summers floating in the sky.
We've left recap territory here, so you may want to perk up. This of course is not how Rachel became the Phoenix in Uncanny X-Men #199. This is actually sending her own mind back into the past after the events of Days of Future Past. She wanted to know why the changes that Kitty Pryde made to our present day didn't affect the future. We're told that Rachel's telepathy and telekenisis were "inherited from her mother", so their not her true mutant power, which is the ability to "project her astral self through time". So that is actually one of Rachel's powers, something that i was not aware of (and i almost missed it even when reading this, because it's buried in what does look like a pure recap portion of the issue).
Since, unlike Kitty, Rachel didn't have a body to inhabit in the present day, she appeared only as a floating astral projection. While Rachel was examining the world, the Phoenix found her and inspected her memories, learning about her time with Ahab and the Days of Future Past timeline. And it actually followed Rachel back into the future. It turns out that it was the Phoenix, at Kate Pryde's request, that sent Rachel back into the past for real, with a body.
She didn't send Rachel right away. It waited for Kate to say the trigger word, as she did when their plans to stop Project: Nimrod the next day went astray. We saw in the lead-up to issue #50 that Rachel recently re-remembered Kate saying those words. It's said here that the Phoenix was deliberately behind the suppression of Rachel's memories, again at Kate's request.
The explanation actually stops there. It doesn't specifically cover Rachel going to the holempathic matrix crystal in Uncanny X-Men #199 and claiming her (alternate-future) mother's legacy. It's actually said here that Rachel had been hosting the Phoenix all along since coming to our timeline.
With that story all told, the Phoenix itself manifests. It says that it's healed Rachel's body since the fight with Necrom, but after all of its experiences, it's afraid to mess with her mind. But the Phoenix and Rachel are "now and forever... irrevocably merged".
Well, not forever forever or we couldn't have Avengers vs. X-Men.
Anyway, the story ends with Phoenix taking Rachel and flying her into space.
I said i was ok with Alan Davis writing this origin for Phoenix and Rachel, but that doesn't mean i have to like all aspects of it. What we actually learn about the Phoenix itself is noteworthy in how little it really reveals. We don't know why the Phoenix was formed, and we don't know what it would have been like if not for Necrom. Davis does leave room for the Phoenix to have done other things between the original encounter with Necrom and replacing Jean Grey. I do still sort of bristle at the idea that everything about the Phoenix that we know was shaped by an encounter with a pretty obscure villain that's only appeared in one Excalibur story, even if he was the main villain for their 50th issue.
As for the Rachel part of the story, it seems fine to me (although note that people in the comments have problems with the depiction of the Phoenix in Rachel's timeline). I do feel that there's a thematic missed opportunitys. I really like the strength of the original story in UX #199, where Rachel grabs the Shi'ar crystal and becomes the Phoenix, almost as if the Phoenix Force was activated by contact with the replica of Jean's mind in the crystal. I like that Davis didn't mess with that, but i wonder if it should have been worked into the story somehow. Instead it's ignored completely, which is a bit odd.
The most concrete thing this story does is write Rachel out of the book for a while (for ten issues). With the Phoenix Force, Rachel is immensely powerful and it kind of unbalances the team dynamic. So having some time without her makes sense. I'm sure part of Davis' motivation was just making some room to explore the new characters that he's introduced: Kylun, Cerise, and Feron (who is not around this issue, which is pretty surprising considering his connection to the Phoenix Force).
This story does suffer from the usual problems that come with turning an entire issue into a history lesson. The humor and character that are normally a big part of this book have to be dialed back significantly. The fact that Davis is not on pencils is also probably a part of that.
A sub-plot sets up a Crazy Gang story for issue #54 (as noted, next issue is a fill-in by Scott Lobdell).
Quality Rating: C
Chronological Placement Considerations: As noted in last issue's entry, Professor X and Jean Grey shouldn't appear anywhere between last issue and this one, but more than ten hours have passed.
Continuity Insert? N
My Reprint: N/A
Inbound References (4): showAlistaire Stuart, Captain Britain, Executioner (616 Crazy Gang), Jean Grey, Jester (616 Crazy Gang), Knave (616 Crazy Gang), Meggan, Nightcrawler, Phoenix Force, Professor X, Rachel Summers, Red Queen (616 Crazy Gang), Shadowcat (Kitty Pryde), Tweedledope (616 Crazy Gang)
I always thought Marvel should've figured out a good way to fit Phoenix into its cosmology, and that it should be prominent. I was really disappointed about its use in Secret Wars. I mean, the whole story is about the end and rebirth of the Multiverse, and you barely include the Phoenix?
Posted by: Berend | March 3, 2016 3:32 PM
I don't think Phoenix really needs/needed an origin. I'm pretty okay with it being just another cosmic entity like Eternity or the Celestials.
Avengers vs. X-men doesn't acknowledge or pay much attention to any of the information in this issue. In hindsight, this makes it strange that the crossover pivoted on the new character Hope Summers instead of Rachel.
Posted by: Red Comet | March 3, 2016 3:45 PM
This story completely retcons Rachel's past- first it establishes that there was never a Phoenix in Rachel's world. Contrary to Rachel's memories in Uncanny 199, Jean was only Jean in her world. That made no sense. In Uncanny X-Men Annual 9, Hela says that Rachel's mother sent to her more souls than any who served her cause. In Excalibur 25, the Master Builder says that Rachel's mother "became Phoenix". In X-Men Annual 14, Rachel talks in front of Franklin about how her mother used the Phoenix Force to heal Sara and Franklin doesn't contradict her.
Posted by: Michael | March 3, 2016 8:32 PM
I thought the whole point of Rachel's alternate future was that Phoenix existed and didn't die. That was from one of the letter columns, I think.
Posted by: ChrisW | March 3, 2016 11:53 PM
I'd always assumed Rachel's future was the one following the "Jean lives" version of Uncanny X-men #137 from the Phoenix: The Untold Story one-shot, which I guess makes it semi-canon if you think about it.
Posted by: Red Comet | March 4, 2016 12:59 PM
That was my impression, too.
Posted by: BU | March 5, 2016 10:25 AM
My big complaint with the Phoenix stories from the late 80s and 90s is how awkwardly the Rachel stuff and the Madelyne stuff fits together. Any story that's interested in one basically ignores the other, and that requires a lot of No-Prizing. None of this is really Clairemont's, the Simonsons', or Davis's fault so much as it is just one of many symptoms of the chaotic management of Marvel at the time.
The Simonson/Clairemont story from Inferno about Maddie's origin tells us that, when Phoenix-as-Jean died on the moon, Phoenix attempts to return her "borrowed" life force to Jean prior to leaving earth, which agrees with what Davis says here. In Inferno, however, the Phoenix is described as mistaking Sinister's inactive clone of Jean for Jean, and bonding with her, thus creating Madelyne. Here the same mistake happens, but with Rachel's astral form being mistaken for Jean.
Multiversal explanations don't sit well for me here as a way to resolve it because Davis tells us that, like Galactus, only one Phoenix exists in the multiverse, and if there's anyone I feel like we should believe about the classic marvel multiverse it's Davis.
I'm more inclined to believe that the Phoenix, after it's death on the moon, was so out of sorts that it sort of splinted, like it eventually does in AvX. Confused, frightened, etc, it joins both with Maddy and with Rachel, and when Maddy dies, it bonds with Jean again, and does the thing where it merges Maddy's, Jean's, and it's own psyches, but until this point the fragment of the Phoenix which went to Maddy and the fragment that went to Rachel hadn't been reunited, because the fragment in Rachel hadn't gotten to that level of self-understanding yet (despite encountering adult Franklin and the Beyonder, both entities that could have helped it understand).
Really, in my many years of reading X-Men comics, one rule I've learned is that the Phoenix makes a lot of mistakes. It's a lot like Warlock -- a powerful but blundering alien entity that just happens to make friends with mutants. I actually prefer that reading than the benevolent but mysterious god of life interpretation.
Posted by: FF3 | March 7, 2016 3:11 PM
Personally, I'm okay with going with this story and assuming that the Phoenix bonded with Rachel forever forever and that X-Men vs Avengers never happened.
Posted by: Erik Beck | March 31, 2016 11:41 AM
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