This article was originally written for and featured by KungFuMagazine.com on June 6, 2019. It’s still available to be read there. I’ve included it here for archival purposes; plus this piece is one of my most autobiographical works to date. I’ve also added a couple of sidebars adding more of my own comic-book geekery.
It was The Phoenix that turned me into a true comic book collector. In summer of 1979, my sister, our friend and I took a casual bike ride to the local 7-11 right there on the corner of 2ndAve. and Broadway in suburban Brentwood New York, just across the strip-mall parking lot from Vinnie’s Pizzeria. Both are apparently still in business, but the sign over the pizza place now reads Vinardo’s Pizza & Restaurant, set in a sort of hand-crafted typeface similar to a font we’ve used in the magazine called Revue BT. But this isn’t an article on the early influences on my love of typography, rather it’s about my love of comics, in general, and the X-Men, in particular. You see, I learned how to read (and draw) from a box of hand-me-down comics rather than any children’s books.
Among the various issues of Batman Family, Detective Comics, Adventure Comics, Action Comics, All-Star Squadron and Spider-Man there was X-Men #77 (August 1972) which, unknown to me, was a reprint of a story originally published in X-men #29 (February 1967 a year and a month before I was even born). This comic and the characters therein left such an impression upon me that I would often name-check them during play in the school yard, clearly confusing my classmates who were much more accustomed to such heroes as Batman and Robin, Superman or the Six Million Dollar Man. It’s worth noting that this comic featured a mano-a-mano between X-Men rival The Mimic (who possessed the combined powers of the X-Men: Angel, Beast, Cyclops, Iceman & Marvel Girl) verses The Super-Adaptoid, a villain from the pages of The Avengers in possession of that team’s powers. With a bad guy saving the heroes from another bad guy and so many abilities on display it’s no wonder I received so many blank stares while attempting to… X-plain the X-men.
At the time, two dollars could buy you lunch at Vinnie’s with enough change for candy or comics or both. Like most boys of the time, I was rather casual about my comic buying. Sure, I would buy them any chance I got, usually at the Ha Cha Stationary near where my parents bought our post-church Sunday bread. Their newsstand was large enough to present a variety of interesting comic covers, plus you could buy comics with no covers for less than half price; it would be years before I figured out the nickel-and-dime scam that was being perpetrated with those ostensibly “returned” comics. Regardless, those comic books were purchased almost at random, the greatest determining factor being interesting cover art.
Such was the case with X-men #125. Its cover was drawn by the cantankerous Dave Cockrum with inking by Terry Austin and hand lettered cover blurbs by Gaspar Salandino, the most prominent of which read “THE DRAMATIC RETURN OF PHOENIX!” The cover design was classic, a woman in red silhouette engulfed by flaming bird not to dissimilar to the one on the hood of my brother’s bandmate’s car. In the negative space beneath each flaming bird wing a diverse cast of utterly unfamiliar X-men and X-women faced perils of their own. I had to buy it, and what I read irrevocably mutated my 11-year-old mind.
I had never read a comic like this before. The Phoenix, it turned out was a re-vamped Marvel Girl who played a secondary role in the comic despite her prominence on the cover. In fact, none of the X-Men could be said to have a primary role in this comic, it was mostly a story about half the team finding out the other half had not actually died in their last battle with perennial X-Men adversary Magneto. Adding an element of horror to the soap-opera was the escape of the mysterious Mutant X who functioned as a super-powered Michael Myers (HALLOWEEN 1978) by way of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978). By the comic’s end, stalwart X-Man Cyclops, the only character I recognized from previous X-comics, was about to talk long-distance with the girlfriend he thought had died only for the phone line to go dead. In a time before skype and text messaging, this made for a riveting cliff-hanger; I didn’t even know that was allowed. Over the subsequent weeks and months, I would return to that 7-11 hoping to find the next issue of that comic, accidentally buying other team books from Marvel Comics such as The Avengers or The Defenders whose cover art bore superficial similarities. Eventually I learned to remember the comic’s title as well as its numbering sequence and succeeded in buying every issue of the X-Men through to the gruesome conclusion of this story line X-Men in #128 (December 1979).
The worst was yet to come. Be it the winter holidays, moving from South-East Elementary school to East Junior High or some other nefarious plot; but no X-Men comics were to be found for what would amount to months. Then one day, home from school sick (or faking it) I accompanied my mother on an errand to the local pharmacy where I found X-Men #137 (September 1980) a special double sized issue which included the cover blurb “Phoenix Must Die!” penniless at the time, I asked for the 75¢ – that was the cover price for this issue – but was denied. “It’s too expensive,” mother decided, “Buy one of the cheaper ones.” I did, but upon reading the following issue’s story titled Elegy, on loan from the above-mentioned friend, I found myself to be obsessed with finding out what happened in what would later be called The Dark Phoenix Saga.
It was around this time that I discovered Long Island’s first comic shop The Batcave. Founded in 1977, it’s still operating today under the more copyright-friendly name of Long Island Comics. I even met X-Men artist Dave Cockrum at this store; he lambasted my artwork nearly crushing my dreams of becoming a famous comic book artist. More importantly, I purchased any X-Men back issues available, for prices well over one dollar. Three dollars for that issue 137 and a whopping $7 for issue 130: the first appearance of The Dazzler. Why so much? Well, this disco-themed heroine was Marvel’s first attempt at producing a movie-targeted character. The Dazzler was intended to be played by Bo Derek, straight out of her successful appropriation of corn-rows in the movie 10 (1979). Thirty-nine years later, Dazzler finally makes it onto the screen, now portrayed by Halston Sage. Alas, these expensive successes only fueled a growing obsession with completing this storyline.
Being the kid who lent out comics during lunch made friends (of a sort) and limited bullying. In one bizarre combination of irony and mockery, it converted a potential bully, one J. Lazarus (quite the name) into, not so much as a friend but a sort of protector. In the convoluted hierarchy of the cafeteria I could still be mocked, like anyone else, but the threat of violence was at least mitigated by association. Life in any middle school can be perilous, more so in an overcrowded public school, but ours was made famous for being one of only two schools in the nation to experience a school shooting in 1983. A stark contrast to 13 this year…so far.
It was in this environment I borrowed those remaining issues of The Dark Phoenix Saga from another comic-nerd. Under the influence of less ethical piers I, like Jean Grey, went to the dark side and kept those issues erroneously claiming to have returned them. It was not a planet-threatening act and clearly not newsworthy but it created drama in the school yard and bus platform. In retaliation, the aggrieved party stole a borrowed comic from out of a mutual friend’s book-bag to hold as a hostage for the return of his comics; it was What If? #27 (July 1981). It’s title: “What If the Phoenix Had Not Died?” The situation escalated when I brought this up with Lazarus, who had me cut class (for the first time) with him for the sake of a post-music class confrontation. His intimidation technique was a wonder to behold, his words, unforgettable “That comic belong to me, I like to keep it in a frame on the wall with my other favorites. I now have a blank space on that wall and it annoys me, I don’t like being annoyed. You won’t like me being annoyed. So how about you give it back? You got a week.” The comic was never returned, I purchased another copy at a convention some time later, but the lesson stayed with me, I didn’t even realize I had become the villain, just like the character in the story I was obsessed with.
The Last X-Men Movie (sort of)
Like a small-scale ENDGAME, DARK PHOENIX marks the end of the X-Men movie franchise in its current incarnation. For some this will be considered a mercy. It’s a franchise notable for its unevenness despite the devotion of one Simon Kingberg writer and producer of X-Men films and T.V. properties (X-media?) since the abysmal X-MEN: LAST STAND (2003) which was co-written by Zak Penn and very nearly killed the X-franchise.
However, like a phoenix, the franchise saw resurrection with X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (2011) under the direction Matt Vaughn, of the ultra-violent KICK-ASS (2010) and KINGSMAN (2014, 2017) franchises. Kinberg acted merely as producer for FIRST CLASS but surely the successful writing and producing of SHERLOCK HOLMES (2009) under the direction of former Vaughn collaborator Guy Richie lent him the cache to write and produce the much more ambitious X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST(2014) before stumbling hard on FANTASTIC FOUR (2015) then X-MEN: APOCOLYPSE (2016). The later of those two at least benefited from some casting coups; Olivia Munn as psychic-sword-hottie Psylocke and Queen of the North Sophie Turner as Jean Grey. Were it not for the surprise success of DEADPOOL(2016) his other production, the X-Movies might not have made it to this latest and most likely last installment.
As of March 2019, the $71.3 billion-dollar merger of 21st Century Fox with Disney brought the X-Men and their associated I.P. under the control of Marvel Studios. The result was the elimination of any character sharing provisions like what we covered in reviewing VENOM (2018). It was this exact sort of provision that allowed the character Quicksilver (played by Evan Peters) to have also appeared in AVENGER: AGE OF ULTRON (2015) played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. To date, only the producers of DEADPOOL 2 (2018) have been guaranteed a place in future Marvel Studio productions. X-Men spin-off THE NEW MUTANTS (2020) starring second Stark daughter Maisie Williams, has seen premier dates delayed tree times and has only recently been confirmed for a 2020 release. One can only hope that movie comes close to the psychedelic horror of the source material. For Simon Kinberg this end of an era heralded the opportunity to sit in the director’s seat for the first time.
L-R: Simon Kinberg (director), Michael Fassbender (Magneto).
Mutant Martial Arts
Coming in at a lean 113-minute run time, this film is a good hour and eight minutes shorter than AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019). Yet it feels even shorter, and smaller, in spite of the genocidal stakes which moves the plot along. While hinting that power corrupts, a theme that was central to the comic saga, this movie also has some opinions on gaslighting and the danger posed to women by men in power; a sort of meta-mea-culpa for the #metoo moments brought about by directors un-named here.
Unfortunately for martial arts aficionados Kinberg minimized the fist-a-cuffs, leaning into CGI power battles composed mostly of lightning-bolts, power-beams, and psionic energies. Added to that is a good amount of gunplay but it all results in the diminishing of the X-Movie’s longest standing femme fatale, Mystique; the role reprised by Jennifer Lawrence is a far cry from the character that went claw-to-claw against Wolverine in X-MEN (2000) and radiated menace and sex-appeal in X2 (2003). Instead she is nurturing, fully clothed and eager to be done with her contract obligations.
As a result, the hand-to-hand combat falls almost exclusively on Nicholas Hoult’s Beast – or more specifically Hoult’s stunt double Alex Kyshkovych, who also served as fight coordinator. Having worked on previous X-Movies, the Yalta-born Karate tricker clearly saw the most screen time behind the mask of Deadpool as Ryan Renold’s primary double. In DARK PHOENIX, he bounds about in blue face paint and wig (what is it with all the blue mutants?) slashing at opponents with wide swings of his taloned hands.
There is one other character who engages in mutant melee, Red Lotus. He first appeared in issue #5 of X-Treme X-Men (November, 2001) one of the less fortunate spin-off titles of the X-Men comic franchise. He was a fairly generic Kung Fu mutant with enhanced fighting ability and connections to the Triads of Australia, like I said; unfortunate. Had he been cast with a Lewis Tan and given free rein to kick real ass, the source material could be forgiven. Kinberg goes in a completely different direction; not bothering to name the character played by Andrew Stehlin. He is instead designed to look like one of the many generic punk-rock mutants who tend to gather around Magneto. Dressed in the leather vest and vambraces, he wields sentient dreadlocks to almost deadly effect. His hair whips around, entangles and lashes out sometimes acting like a whip-chain other times functioning like a rope dart. It made for a novel visual but its unlikely Winberg is aware that there actually is a tradition of weaponized hair in martial arts – the Kung Fu of the queue (辮子).
L-R: James McAvoy, Andrew Stehlin, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tye Sheridan, Nicholas Hoult, Kota Eberhardt and Michael Fassbender.
You’ve seen the hairstyle before, the shaved front with the long braid extending from the back of head. Dating back to the 11th century’s Jin Dynasty, this hairstyle was common among adult men, almost compulsory. In fact, over the next several hundred years, the Manchurian conquest of the Han led to the The Queue Order (Tì fālìng 剃发令) which made that hairstyle a requirement. One could be executed if they did not shave their heads up the temple every 10 days in a show of submission to Qing rule.
Beyond the political, or because of it, there was also a martial component to this look. Fighting men would braid wire into their hair, making it heavy and harder for use like a whip. Or one might conceal a blade or sharpened coin in the tip. There are a handful of old Shaw Brothers era movies like STRANGER FROM CANTON aka THE KARATE KILLER (1973) which included weaponized hair in their assortment of exotic weapons. There was even THE MAGIC BRAID(1986) which built a whole movie around it. More recently and surely more recognizable would be Yuen Woo-ping’s TAI CHI 2 (1996) staring Wu Jing in his movie debut opposite the Canadian Christy Chung of nearly 50 films including BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR 2 (1993) and THE MEDALLION (2003). In it there’s a great hair fight against the late Darren Shahlavi, once again playing an evil gwailo. Dark Phoenix possess none of that martial panache, but there’s glorious hair none-the-less, plus you won’t have to stay for all the credits.