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X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga – 30th Anniversary Edition (Review/Retrospective)

With our month looking at Avengers comics officially over, we thought it might be fun to dig into that other iconic Marvel property, the X-Men. Join us for a month of X-Men related reviews and discussion.

Chris Claremont enjoyed the company of some of the most respected and renowned artists in comics while working on Uncanny X-Men. He had the pleasure of helping to establish talent like John Romita Jr., Marc Silvestri and Jim Lee, all modern giants working in the field. However, it’s hard to argue that Claremont ever worked in tighter synergy than he did with John Byrne. Byrne succeeded artist Dave Cockrum on the book, and helped Claremont helm several iconic and defining X-Men stories, delivering pay-off on years of set-up and radically reshaping notions of what a superhero comic could and could not do. Though the pair produced several genuine classics, The Dark Phoenix Saga stands as the artistic triumph of their run. One could make a compelling case that it’s Claremont’s finest X-Men story, or the finest X-Men story, or – if one weren’t feeling especially modest – perhaps the finest mainstream superhero story ever told.

Bird of prey…

Okay, hyperbole aside, I’m not quite sure I’d make such a claim. Although I think it does deserve to be considered among the true classics of the superhero genre, and one of very few classic stories told working within the confines of comic book continuity. Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns were allowed to stand apart as works of art, but The Dark Phoenix Saga manages to challenge the conventions of the genre while still fitting within the framework of Chris Claremont’s truly epic Uncanny X-Men saga.

Thanks to Claremont’s exposition, it is possible to pick up The Dark Phoenix Saga and enjoy it on its own terms. Whatever his faults, Claremont always wrote on the assumption that every comic book could be somebody’s first, and wrote in a time when the notion of collecting back runs of classic issues seemed highly unlikely. this does make it a bit awkward to read large volumes of the writer’s work at a time, as he’s always explaining who everybody is, even though we were only reintroduced to them about twenty-odd pages ago. You could hand this book to a newcomer to comics, and I think they’d get a lot out of it – provided they were willing to roll with the cheesy dialogue of seventies comic books and to make allowances for different narrative conventions. (Thought balloons, for example.)

Marvel-ous…

However, The Dark Phoenix Saga reads even better as part of Claremont’s extended run. It seems like the author has been building to this story since he took over the book, seeding hints and foreshadowing left, right and centre. Claremont structured his run like a book delivered in monthly installments. Each issue was a chapter, with its own ideas and developments, but playing towards some grander objective. I know that other writers at both companies did something similar, but very few did it as well as Claremont.

Read back over the books years before a key Claremont storyline, and you’ll find all manner of seeding and set-up peppered innocuously (although occasionally clumsily) through other storylines. In hindsight, these plot points suddenly become quite clear, and it’s obvious how careful Claremont has plotted. Of course, few of his ideas would be executed with as much skill as The Dark Phoenix Saga. Often, the reader will even find little traces of hints building up to a plot that never happened – victim of editorially meddling, or the demands of other books, or simply lack of time and interest. I think that the run leading up to The Dark Phoenix Saga stands as the most successful example of Claremont’s storytelling method, as everything seems to coalesce.

A Grey area…

However, while this explains the success of the arc in terms of Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men run, it doesn’t quite explain the story’s lasting appeal. After all, the adventure came to define both of its creators. John Byrne would even move the Inhumans to the “blue zone” of the moon that provided the setting for this story’s climax during his celebrated Fantastic Four run. Claremont would arguably return to the core themes of The Dark Phoenix Saga time and time again, most notably in stories like Inferno and Kitty Pryde & Wolverine. The story is pretty much the most influential story in the X-Men canon, one of the most iconic of the comic book properties. And I think there are a lot of reasons for that.

The most obvious, I think, is the fact that it dares to critically examine the core of the superhero myth in a way that no mainstream story had at that point in time. Stan Lee might have established Marvel as the home of the dysfunctional superhero, but the characters where all heroes – at least at that time. When a lead character found themselves with strange new powers and massive responsibilities, they were almost always immediately capable of using that power to the best of their abilities, with no real issues or qualms. The Dark Phoenix Saga is, at its core, a tragedy about a person who can’t handle the power she’s given.

Deader than disco…

Claremont’s afterword to the collection sums up the idea quite well. “One vulnerable human being who – because of a unique combination of genetic potential and circumstance – finds herself bound irrevocably to the Divine,” he explains. “How do you cope, how do you keep from being consumed; this is the most absolute of powers, how can you possibly keep from being absolutely corrupted?” It’s an interesting question, and it had never really been explored up until this point. Jean was a hero who – for the first time – was unable to cope with the power bestowed upon her.

She was only human, with all the flaws that implies. Claremont’s characters always seemed more three-dimensional than most of those published at the same time, and this plotline seems like the logical outcome of giving a member of Claremont’s cast unlimited power. The Surfer observes of Phoenix, “She is human, flawed — and that flaw bids fair to destroy her.” Jean isn’t evil – that’s not the problem. The problem is that sh has no idea how to act responsibly with her powers. She essentially wipes out a species not of malice, but simply “without a thought of the consequences of her actions.”

Making a splash…

Of course, Jean isn’t the only hero who fails spectacularly here. The Dark Phoenix Saga is populated with simple errors in judgment that seem to compound themselves, as heroes make very obvious and simple mistakes that escalate the situation. Scott Summers, for example, is just as fundamentally flawed as Jean in a way. I like that Claremont took the two most average members of the original team and made them so massively dysfunctional. Scott’s problem, appropriately enough given his code name, was a continued lack of perception.

We’re explicitly told at one point that Scott might have prevent things from escalating if he’d spotted one key detail. “Scott should have recognised the master of illusion,” we’re told as the villain Mastermind reveals himself. “But he was in hurry, with far more immediate worries on his mind. And so, he made a mistake.” It fits with Claremont’s take on Scott as a deconstruction of the “superhero as boy scout” type of protagonist, one so single-mindedly focused on the mission and the matter at hand that he misses the big picture.

A shi’ar masterpiece of comic book storytelling…

More than that, though, Scott is repeatedly and wilfully blind to the obvious changes in Jean, even trying to rationalise away his own concerns. “She did it again, changed from a costume to street clothes by telekinetically rearranging the molecules of her outfit,” he remarks, uneasy at how Jean so casually manipulated reality. And then he tries to shrug it off. “Why do I find that so disconcerting? Why shouldn’t Jean use her psi-powers to make her life easier?”

When Storm actually confronts Cyclops about Jean, scott shrugs off her legitimate concerns. It’s interesting, throughout his run, how Claremont repeatedly contrasts Scott’s clumsy leadership with Storm’s more astute technique. Scott tries to rationalise, “Yet… she hasn’t changed at all. Ah, maybe we’re just imagining things!” That seems like the equivalent of saying “ah sure, everything’ll be fine”, and illustrates how impaired and flawed Cyclops is as a leader of the team. Not that Charles Xavier is any better. Conversing with Warren, Professor X speaks of his resentment of Scott. “And that resentment caused me to make some terrible mistakes, Angel. I fear innocent people will suffer because of them.”

Here, Kitty, Kitty, Kitty…

While Claremont’s superheroes were never as flawless as some other teams, The Dark Phoenix Saga represents a massive overlap of superheroic ineptitude, making it feeling like a nuanced exploration of the genre, daring to ask what might happen if some mega crisis occurred and the people involved simply weren’t up to the task of properly dealing with it. There are any number of ways the story could have ended differently, had somebody caught the problem earlier.

Not only is that a clever subversion of the superhero set-up, it’s also inherently tragic. It could have been prevented, perhaps, but action would have had to have been taken long before the issues collected here. Jean Grey has access to the most powerful source of energy in the cosmos, and yet is completely helpless. She can’t do anything. In scenes with her family, it seems like Jean’s thoughts are at odds with her actions, and she’s literally unable to stop the violence inside herself from finding expression. More than that, though, there’s also the fact that – at the end of the story – Jean finally makes the only choice she can, the choice to die.

Fight of the Phoenix…

Of course, Claremont would have ended the story differently. His afterword is a bit wishy-washy on whether he prefers the published version to the one he had planned. However, I actually think that Jim Shooter’s decision to kill Jean lends the story a very rare poignancy. Superheroes had, of course, died before. Claremont had killed off an X-Man on their first mission together, after all. Still, there’s something so strangely tragic about the inevitability of Jean’s sacrifice that it’s hard to imagine the story ending any other way. It would have robbed the saga of its potency.

Which, I think, is another reason that the story is so well received. it is, for all intents and purposes, an ending. Of course, not literally. Indeed, Claremont is already seeding his next great story before this one concludes, as Senator Robert Kelly and Sebastian Shaw set the scene of Days of Future Past. However, it is an ending for Scott and Jean, two characters who have been around since Stan Lee and Jack Kirby originally produced X-Men #1. Of course, Jean wouldn’t stay dead and Scott would pop up time and time again, but it’s perfectly possible to imagine this would make a fitting last appearance for both Scott Summers and Jean Grey.

Exploding into the scene…

Indeed, the last issue collected here, Uncanny X-Men #138, feels very much like an extended epilogue. It isn’t just a way for Claremont to close out this story arc, but instead serves to draw a line under Cyclops’ time with the X-Men. Since Cyclops is (with the debatable exception of Professor Xavier, who was prone to appear and disappear) the only member of the team who has been consistently around since X-Men #1, the issue feels like an attempt to close a particular chapter in the life of the team.

As an aside, the issue – effective A Brief History of the Uncanny X-Men – also allows Claremont and Byrne to illustrate how incredibly silly and convoluted some early adventures were. Claremont seems to relish trotting out one embarrassing Magneto appearance after another, as if to illustrate how troubled the early years of the series were. It’s an interesting attempt to argue that all the issues to date were in fact one large story, retroactively contextualising Claremont’s All-New, All-Different! team within the complete history of series. Of course, coming from different writers over an extended period of time, it can’t really be one story, but Claremont makes a valiant effort, and it seems like The Dark Phoenix Saga is the climax of that one big story.

Holding it together…

If it isn’t an end for the team, it is an end for Jean and Scott, the two longest-serving X-Men at this point. After all, that ending lends a sort of a poignancy to their love affair, as Jean and Scott only manage to reconcile their feelings for one another just before this massive world-altering event goes down. The pair have a heart-to-heart on their way back from Scotland. “They spend the rest of the flight together — sometimes touching, sometimes kissing… but mostly just talking with an ease they’d never known before, their dialogue continuing even after Cyclops takes the Blackbird’s controls to begin the descent to the X-Men’s home/school/headquarters.” That almost demands that their happiness be completely destroyed. Similarly, Jean manages to vanquish her demon, only for Scott to propose – and then aliens appear and sentence her to death.

Indeed, Scott Summers and Jean Grey worked so well as a dysfunctional “will they”/“won’t they” romantic couple that it seems like nobody knew what to do with the pair of them once they actually did – when Jean returned to life and married Scott, it seemed anti-climactic. Grant Morrison’s New X-Men took great pleasure in gleefully subverting that notion of “happy ever after.” He knew that once you give Scott and Jean a”happy ever after”, there’s no real place for the story to go. Claremont seems to realise this, and so the relationship is all the more touching because it seems so relentlessly and so tragically doomed.

I am the Lord of Hellfire!

Still, despite all this, it does feel a bit strange that The Dark Phoenix Saga actually has relatively little to do with the iconic direction Claremont brought the franchise. On the surface level, it seems like the tragedy of Jean Grey has little resonance with the civil rights metaphor that Claremont so skilfully exploited in crafting his epic Uncanny X-Men run. I’ve always felt it so strange that Claremont so skilfully told iconic and influential stories that had little to do with what many would consider to be the franchise’s core themes.

Of course, the themes are still there, they are just buried quite deeply in the background. The Hellfire Club, for example, broaches notions of class in American society, with a wealthy elite dressing up like British high society while secretly controlling the world and holding kinky sex parties. Claremont rather pointedly acknowledged that within Jean’s visions of the past – the entire club being rooted in the past, with the members dressed in old outfits and borrowing the name from an old society. While Colossus, Cyclops and Nightcrawler get to be soldiers, Storm is unceremoniously Jean’s “slave.” Jean brazenly declares, “I own you!”

An X-Professor?

While it might not seem that essential to the story, I had a bit of a revelation about all this kinky pseudo-sexual imagery that Claremont inserts into his plots, with the dominatrix Black Queen and the mind control and submission that we frequently see. It’s all about power, control and trust – arguably like the relationship between any minority and any government in a position of power. Willing submission to authority must be based on trust, and it must be possible to recognise that authority without losing one’s identity. That is, I think, why Claremont so frequently returns to the notions of domination and submission and control as parts of his plots – consent and trust are an essential part of that dynamic, and his villains frequently subvert that.

The Dark Phoenix Saga continues to play into that pseudo-sexual imagery, as Jean finds herself torn between what might be termed “good sexuality” and “bad sexuality.” Much like Scott, Claremont seems to suggest that Jean was so easily corrupted because she is a repressed individual. “I’m merely giving her a taste of some of her innermost — forbidden — needs and desires,” Mastermind explains. “Within her angel’s soul — as in all our souls — lurks a devil, a yang counterpart to the surface yin.”Jean is so repressed that Mastermind is able to exploit her crude sexuality to control her.

It’s easy to see who the Mastermind of this scheme is…

Her sexuality is immediately dangerous to the decidedly conservative Marvel Girl. It doesn’t matter that Mastermind’s erotic scenario is remarkably tame – it seems almost like a Mills & Boon plot – it’s is so wicked and kinky that it can’t help but completely corrupt her. Jean has been so tightly-wound that even the slightest hint of a sexual fantasy is enough to distort her. “You gave what I secretly wanted — and used that to destroy me!” she tells Mastermind.

Claremont undeniably links Jean’s fall to her sexuality. On top of the somewhat revealing Black Queen outfit (complete with collar), there’s none-too-subtle innuendo. “Uh-oh,” Scott thinks at the very moment that he completely loses Jean, “Wyngarde’s taking Jean upstairs.” While a prisoner of the Hellfire Club, Scott acknowledges that Jean has become a far more sexual creature. “Jean’s flirting with them all,” Cyclops remarks. “Mastermind’s given her the instincts of a minx.”

Save the last dance…

Now, it might be tempted to attack this as a somewhat sexist idea – the notion that female sexuality is inherently evil, or something like that. However, I think Claremont is somewhat subverting that idea. Again, as with Scott, Jean serves as an interesting foil for Storm. While Jean is a typical middle-class young woman who has been brought up to feel a little prudish about sex, Claremont’s Storm is a liberated woman who is entirely comfortable in her own skin. Sure, the sequences earlier in the run with Storm wandering around naked felt a little exploitative, but they illustrated that Storm was far more confident in her own sexual identity than Jean ever was. Indeed, Claremont even points out that Storm is the logical foil for Jean. “Dark Phoenix is all I abhor,” Storm tells us, and it makes sense.

Claremont would repeat this type of story – a young woman having a psychotic break due to a man messing with her mind in a creepy pseudo-sexual manner – at least three more times in his run. There’s obviously Madelyne Pryor’s fall in Inferno. And Psylocke’s transformation into Lady Mandarin during Acts of Vengeance. And Kitty Pryde was possessed by Ogún in Kitty Pryde & Wolverine. While Pryor was ultimately vanquished and turned into a villain, both Betsy and Kitty clawed their way back from the experience in a way that Jean couldn’t. Psylocke arguably became stronger for it. Kitty definitely became stronger for it. And I think that the reason Jean couldn’t cope was because she was so repressed to begin with. I think that’s a fascinating attribute of Claremont’s run, the notion that the perfectly rounded and heroic “original” X-Men were just as damaged and flawed as the character who would subsequently join the team.

The Jean Genie…

And, of course, while there’s an element of sexual maturity about Jean’s transformation into the Black Queen and the Dark Phoenix, Claremont is extremely careful to clarify that not all sexuality is inherently harmful. Indeed, the shallow fetishism of the Hellfire Club is effectively contrasted with the more honest intimacy shared between Scott and Jean. Like Mastermind, Scott has access to Jean’s mind, but this intimacy is founded on consent. It’s a dynamic based on “total sharing, total intimacy, total… trust.” It’s suggested that this mutual trust is the best way for Jean to explore her sexuality, and this development of sexual identity is only dangerous because it isn’t predicated on mutual respect and affection.

Even after Jean transforms into Dark Phoenix, Claremont emphasises that the Phoenix’s power seems motivated by base urges rather than any deeper emotion. Storm observes of the creature, “There is no joy — no love — in Dark Phoenix. I sense pain, great sadness — and an awful, all-consuming lust.” Xavier himself describes it as “passion without love.”  It is interesting to read The Dark Phoenix Sagaas something of a very dark coming of age story, about Marvel Girl coming to terms with her own sexual identity.

Stars my destination…

I reckon that’s a large part of why Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men was able to attract such a large audience. Certainly, it was a lot more adult than of Marvel’s other comic books at the time. It was, after all, a book about growing up – even Lee and Kirby had set the earliest stories at a school. Developing a sexual identity is a logical and natural part of anybody’s teenage years, and Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men seems to speak to that. Everybody feels different when they’re a teenager, and dealing with big concepts like that are a natural part of it.

Claremont’s scripts always seemed a little bit edgier and cheekier than most of his contemporaries, having a certain exotic air about them that most readers wouldn’t find in The Avengers or Spider-Man. For example, the Hellfire Club, despite being described as “a group of wealthy industrialists who seek pre-eminant social, political and economical power in the world”, has a very clear sexual element to it, with the White Queen and the Black Queen wandering around in corsets and stockings.

Star-crossed lovers…

Even Warren Worthington, a member of the Club, seems to concede that there’s a very clear sexual element to their behaviour, more than simply being a bunch of supervillains running around in skimpy outfits. (Which, to be fair, isn’t exactly unusual in mainstream comic books.) “It’s an old, very stuffy — yet risqué — establishment club,” he explains to Cyclops.

In a way, The Dark Phoenix Saga feels like the Uncanny X-Men have all grown up and developed. It serves as something of a breakpoint in Claremont’s extended run on the title, the point at which the team members are well and truly and completely not just kids anymore. After all, the arc ends with Kitty Pryde enrolling in the school, and the promise of a new beginning with the next generation. The new team (and the hold-overs from the old team) have truly graduated.That even applies to the members of the classic team Claremont hasn’t been consistently writing. “Running a multi-million dollar business has been good for Angel,” Scott observes of his old friend as they crash at his place. “He’s grown up.” It seems like everybody has.

Out of this world…

Towards the start of the arc, Scott finds that Professor Xavier is unwilling to accept change. “Scott, notify Wolverine that his childish outburst will cost him ten demerits,” he tells his favourite student after Wolverine has enough of one training session. (Scott counters by rather effectively pointing out, “Wolverine’s a grown man, with years of experience and training in the use of his powers.”) Even after years of change, Xavier still expects the dynamic to work like it did the old team. “We can’t mesh into the same kind of team as the original X-Men, because we’re not the same kind of people,” Scott tells him, thinking to himself, “This is crazy! To him, I’m still the untried kid who’s allowed so much responsibility with the X-Men and no more!”

Wolverine knows how to make an entrance…

So The Dark Phoenix Saga is a watershed moment for the team. Jean Grey dies. Scott walks away. A new student enrolls. Things change. Even the team’s enemies seem to have grown up. Mastermind was once a gimmick villain, a sidekick to Magneto during the latter’s more cartoonish moments of villainy. He had a bit of a routine in those old stories – throw up a mental image of a bad guy and watch the team plow right through it. Even he seems to have matured. He’s no longer evil for evil’s sake. He doesn’t seem to watch global dominion, he’s modest enough to settle for Sebastian Shaw’s position.

And his methods have matured as well. Scott is shocked to find that Jason Wyngarde is behind the corruption of Jean Grey. He observes, shocked, “He casts sophisticated illusions, nothing more.”Of course, Emma Frost is helping him by providing the means to access Jean’s head, but it seems like Wyngarde’s plan is – at least mostly – his own. It’s a disturbing and unsettling application of a comic book super-power, but Mastermind’s use of it suggests a maturity and sophistication beyond most of his contemporaries.

Cyclops has some trouble with his bird…

Of course, beyond all these elements coalescing to form a classic X-Men story, it’s just clear that Byrne and Claremont are on fine form, bringing the best out of one another. I don’t think either was ever consistently better, whether as writer or artist. The story is so carefully structured to offer pay-off to years of story, while standing on its own. The art, as seen here, is truly beautiful – clear, detailed and expressive. I’m not sure I’d describe The Dark Phoenix Saga as my own personal favourite X-Men story, but it’s hard to think of a more technically impressive one.

It’s also worth noting that the adventure even allows Wolverine to break out from the cast. Despite the mutant’s almost ubiquitous nature these days, Wolverine actually wasn’t that popular when the early issues were originally published. While Claremont and Byrne had already firmly established the character as an anti-establishment loner, I think that The Dark Phoenix Saga all but officially engrained the character’s official status as team bad-ass, single-handedly freeing his team mates from the Hellfire Club.

Wolverine proves he can hack it as an X-Man…

You can see Claremont and Byrne’s influences at play here. While Miller and Claremont would establish Wolverine as a ronin, a masterless samurai, Claremont and Byrne are more focused on the cowboy archetype. Confronting an armed Hellfire goon, Claremont even poaches a line directly from Clint Eastwood. “Hey, bub, I know what you’re thinkin’,” Wolverine remarks while talking the henchman out of taking a shot.

That said, it’s not quite perfect. While Claremont’s dialogue here is remarkably restrained, and his character work is exemplary, some of the plot beats feel a little contrived at best. For example, the end of the saga, while feeling inevitable, relies on Jean using weaponry that wasn’t foreshadowed or suggested earlier in the story. Indeed, Cyclops actually has to explain what happened, rationalising how Jean did what she did.

Eyes wide shut…

“You must have picked the minds of the Kree and Skrull observers,” he suggests, “learned what ancient weapons were hidden here. Then, you used your fight with the X-Men to drain you of enough energy to make you vulnerable.” It might have been nice to set up that plot point, rather than having Jean use weapons that we didn’t really know were there. Still, it’s a relatively minor plot point, but it seems to come out of nowhere. Given how skilful Claremont was at foreshadowing and developing threads, it feels a bit out of place.

There’s also the issue of the hardcover itself. Like most of Marvel’s X-Men hardcovers, it’s lovingly and carefully put together. It collects just about anything to do with the event, including one-shots like Dark Phoenix: The Untold Story and even a What If…?, which Marvel are generally reluctant to collect. There’s plenty of extra features, including introductions and afterwords. All that is great, and it’s exactly what fans have come to expect from the company’s X-Men line, which puts a lot of attention into their collected editions.

End of an era…

However, it can’t help but feel a little bit expensive for what it is. Even at a steep discount, the collection feels ridiculously dear. It is one of the definitive comic book story arcs, and this is a lovely treatment of it, but it feels a bit much. The binding is glued, which isn’t an issue for opening a hardcover of this size, but might affect the longevity of an expensive collection like this. It seems especially ridiculous as we’re long overdue a second gigantic tome of Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men work that would include these issues anyway.

Of course, not that I’ve actually spent money on this hardcover, Marvel will probably announce the publication of the long-anticipated follow-up shortly. I should probably be more upset at the prospect of double-dipping than I am, but I’d actually just be happy to get another sizeable chunk of Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men in oversized hardcover. Given how much of the stuff following his run has been collected, it seems a little ridiculous there’s such a large chunk of his work yet to be collected. Just as long as the next tome combines God Loves, Man Kills and Days of Future Past, I’ll be happy. (Also, sidenote, how about a nice collection of he follow-up Days of Future Present to complement the recent collections of Evolutionary War and Atlantis Attacks? It’s not a classic by any stretch, but still…)

The X-Men’s original power couple…

The Dark Phoenix Saga is a modern comic book classic, and it’s nice to have it properly collected. The price point is a bit of stickler, but I’m just disappointed that this is as far as we’ve gotten into the early years of Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men run.

You might be interested in or reviews of some of the rest of Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men run (and other assorted mutant-related work):

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