Following in the footsteps of Fatal Attractions and Bloodties, The Phalanx Covenant is a huge, far-reaching storyline than ran through the X-Men books, and one that previous to me reading my way through the X-Men books, I knew very little about. I knew bits and pieces of it, mainly gleaned through reading the Gambit Guild articles on it in the early days of the Internet, but my preconceptions paled in comparison to the actual final product. I’d heard it was a story of the X-Men fighting aliens, and pictured the dry space battle and politics I talked about in Hard Promises (X-Men Unlimited # 5), but it’s actually the story of an alien invasion on Earth, which is a very different thing.
One thing to note, this book doesn’t get the best reviews of sites like Goodreads. I blame that on the fact that it’s hard to get into on it’s own — there’s so much back-story to tend with with the Phalanx, Cameron Hodge, and the New Mutants, that it’s almost impossible to read on its own. Still, just like Fatal Attractions, there are multiple ways to read this collection: and this massive, 552-page mammoth of a book is the second-best way to do so. The best being to just read every X-Men issue in order.
The buildup to the main story, which is only collected in this book, shows the X-Men’s early spats with the Phalanx race: like Cameron Hodge posing as Archangel’s deceased girlfriend Candy Southern and mocking his former schoolyard friend. All these early shots are great and build on the rich history of the X-Men, X-Factor, and New Mutants books from the last few years.
Meanwhile, while another contingent of the Phalanx attacks Storm and Yuiko, Bishop deals with a failure in the X-Mansion security resulting in Sabretooth on the loose. These all seem like one-off stories, but in actuality they are strategically setting up the desperate elements that will converge on each other and conspire against the X-Men. There’s this feeling that it’s all building to something, and it is… except we don’t even see what. Surprisingly, we’re kept in the dark as to how the Phalanx battle the X-Men, which is smart: it plays on that fact that the reader’s imagination is better than what the author could come up with. It also means that these early-hits are even more tense.
At the same time in Excalibur, a Phalanx-infected avatar of Doug Ramsey calling itself Douglock has returned and in inserting himself into the team. All these pieces are coming together, and the members of the different teams of X-Men aren’t communicating enough to see it. It’s gleefully tense.
We cut suddenly to Banshee in the bowels of the X-Mansion discussing business with Storm. There’s a bit of mis-characterization in Storm’s dialog here, as she makes a comment about being “naughty.”
Banshee then continues through the mansion and sees Psylocke coming out of the Professor’s ready room, a place where only he is allowed. Within the ready room he finds Bishop and Gambit, fixing Cerebro. He is then summarily told off by Archangel for answering a simple phone-call from Muir Island.
It’s about here that we get the impression that these are not mis-characterizations, but that there’s something more sinister going on. This is tremendous, tremendous storytelling on Lobdell’s part. To plant a slip so slyly like Storm’s “naughty” comment as out-of-place but not be SO out of place that it screams out at you, requires a mastery of storytelling, dialog, and individual character voices.
This is also incredible mystery plotting: we, the reader, figure out that something is up at virtually the same instant that Banshee does: a very difficult thing to do. And there are no cheats, no withholding or presenting of information in a ham-fisted manner. Just good, solid, suspenseful storytelling.
And Banshee’s suspicions prove to be correct: the X-Men have been replaced by the Phalanx — a race of Techno-Organic aliens that have been an auxiliary part of the X-Franchise for some time, building to this point.
In fact, ALL of the X-Men have been taken. The only residents who haven’t are the young student Jubilation Lee, the prisoner Sabretooth, and the patient the White Queen. Together the quartet escape the mansion and realize that the Phalanx’s next targets are the mutants from Xavier’s secret files that have not been tapped yet: the Next Generation of mutants, and set out to save them.
The dynamic is delightfully tense. Sabretooth is possibly the X-Men’s fiercest enemy, and the White Queen until this story was one of the leaders of the Hellfire Club, one of the X-Men’s most persistent foes.
Despite their best efforts, Husk, Skin, M, Blink, and John are kidnapped. They only manage to ‘save’ Synch.
I’m going to sidebar here to talk about theme. One thing that the X-Franchise and the Horror genre have always had in common are a theme of the “Other” or “Othering.” It goes all the way back to the name: they’re UNCANNY. They exist outside the normal.
What Generation Next does is take that “Other” role to the next extreme by moving it away from the now-familiar X-Men and onto the Phalanx, giving them a movie-monster Body-Snatcher vibe.
This “Other” motif is especially important in the scenes with the captured young mutants: one of them is visibly different than the others. But he’s not ugly, he’s too pretty. He actually evokes a Superman-like look, sporting the “S” curl and speaking very positively. Just the face that he’s different makes me, the reader, distrustful of him, though I cannot pinpoint why. Again, we discover as M does, that he is a Phalanx.
In the end, due to the actions of Banshee’s team and a heroic sacrifice on the part of Blink, the young mutants are saved. But surprisingly, the X-Men are not yet found.
So, much in the way that “Generation Next” took it upon itself to embrace and adopt horror movie cliches, “Life Signs” does its best top subvert and undo them. I believe this was a smart, deliberate choice, to make each pat of the trilogy that makes up the Phalanx Covenant as unique and whole as possible, while staying as true to the core concept of “othering” as possible.
This chapter also doesn’t contain the actual X-Men, and instead focuses on the combined efforts of the current three auxiliary teams: Excalibur, X-Factor, and X-Force. Specifically, we focus on two fronts: one plot-line involving Forge, and one involving the remnants of the old New Mutants team.
Actually this is very much a spiritual successor to the old New Mutants title, as Cannonball, Rahne, and Kitty unite around Douglock, an off-shoot of the Phalanx comprised of former New Mutants members Doug Ramsey and Warlock. This is the heart of the story, as each character responds to this representation in very different ways. Kitty is for the most part happy, Rahne (being the religious type) is enthralled, and Sam is angry and suspicious.
It’s hard to call this “realistic” as reactions to a resurrection are, by nature, fanciful. But they FEEL realistic, and in-keeping with each character’s previous voice and characterization.
Douglock himself is at the center of it all and even name-drops “The Phalanx Covenant,” which is the covenant of all living things: to live, spread, and reproduce.
To that end, “Life Signs” finds its theme in the philosophy of life. You see, until this point the Phalanx has been viewed as so “Other” that it hasn’t registered as a sentient life: that’s why they call it a Techno-Organic VIRUS. But in learning to accept Douglock as a form of life they must accept ALL the Phalanx as life, and this thus forms the crux of the ethical dilemma of exterminating a life-form simply for doing what life-forms do.
This dovetails nicely with Forge’s plot-line, in which he uses his power to “see” how technology works to “see” the fabric of life through Douglock, and then his grief as he does what’s necessary as a government representative to stop it, echoing his own tragic experiences in Vietnam.
In the end Douglock saves the day and proves himself not only worthy of trust, but also as a whole, living being, separate from Doug and Warlock. At the end of the tale the Phalanx is defeated, but the X-Men are still absent.
In the final section of the Phalanx Covenant, we get a special team of X-Men teaming up to do what needs to be done as assembled by Charles Xavier, cleaning up the loose ends left by the Phalanx.
This “special ops” team consists of Wolverine and Cable, marking the first time that Wolverine has been associated with the team since his injuries during Fatal Attractions. It also includes, by chance, Cyclops and Jean Grey, fresh from their miniseries The Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix.
As such these two issues have the most baggage, dealing with the consequences of many different story-lines. It is the least self-contained and the least thematic, being much more the standard action-movie far that both Logan and Cable are known for.
The biggest surprise is that the X-Men themselves are not seen / rescued until the last few pages of this epic storyline and even then only sparingly used. I didn’t realize this going into the story, and it makes The Phalanx Covenant a unique and special chapter of the X-Franchise. There’s power and unity in this realization that, even if all the X-Men fall, more WILL stand up.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“In the final section of the Phalanx Covenant, we get a special team of X-Men teaming up to do what needs to be done as assembled by Charles Xavier, cleaning up the loose ends left by the Phalanx.”