The Dark Phoenix Saga (Part 1)

Donny reviews the greatest X-Men story ever told.

Dark Phoenix 1

Uncanny X-Men #’s 129-138
Chris Claremont (writer)
John Byrne (co-plotter and artist)

If I approached re-reading and reviewing Maus with trepidation, I approached the Dark Phoenix Saga with giddy exuberance. This is one of the best story arcs from one of the best comics from my favorite period of superhero books (Bronze Age Marvel). In fact, I had so much that I want to say about this really wonderful 10-issue arc that I’m going to turn this review into two-parts.

This story is kind of the second part of a duaology, so I have to summarize that first. The original Phoenix Saga ran in Uncanny X-Men 101-108 (1976-‘77). To save her fellow X-Men by piloting their damaged space shuttle back to earth, Jean Grey was exposed to fatal levels of radiation. Dying but determined to save Scott and her friends, Jean’s love pushed her to tap her full potential as a psychic, undoing the “psychic circuit breakers” Professor X had installed to hold her power in-check. The ship landed with the other X-Men unharmed, and Jean emerged more powerful than before and adopted the codename Phoenix. The X-Men then return to space to aid the alien Shi’ar. Emperor D’Ken of the Shi’ar attempted to use the legendary power of the M’Kraan Crystal. His sister Lilandra, rightly believing such an attempt would destroy the universe, enlisted the aid of the X-Men to stop him. With the help of the Starjammers, D’Ken was defeated, and the damaged Crystal was repaired by the ever-growing power of Phoenix and the universe was saved.

Three years later, the Dark Phoenix saga then came about thus: Legendary Marvel Editor-n-Chief Jim Shooter advised Claremont and Byrne to create an arch-villain for the X-Men. Magneto was around, but he wasn’t a big deal by 1980: he wasn’t half as powerful as he’d later become, and his whole back-story of being a holocaust survivor hadn’t yet been fleshed-out. Thus, Claremont and Byrne come up with the Hellfire Club, a super-villain team to be a worthy nemesis for the X-Men. The writers came up with the idea of having the Hellfire Club turn Jean Grey into a villain – who then slips her leash and becomes cosmically powerful. Jean becomes the Dark Phoenix, a being more powerful than even Galactus, and destroys an alien planet, killing 5 billion people. When Shooter saw this he became very concerned with the story, and ordered a change in the ending. We’ll come back to that later…

In real life, there have existed various “Hellfire Clubs”: private clubs for rich guys with fetishes trying not to be bored. The X-Men’s Hellfire Club was inspired by the British TV Avengers’ episode “A Touch of Brimstone” (1966) in which Ms. Peel and John Steed must infiltrate the Hellfire Club, a club of rich men who dress up in period costumes and engage in orgiastic rituals. It’s famous for Dianna Rigg’s Ms. Peel wearing a fetishy collar and corset costume as “the Queen of Sin.” Jean Grey’s Black Queen costume is directly patterned off this outfit. Sebastian Shaw is drawn to look like the villain in the Avengers episode, Jason Wyngarde (Mastermind) is based on actor Peter Wyngarde, and Emma Frost is another nod to Emma Peel. That very S/M-tinged Avengers episode climaxes with Emma Peel being flogged with a whip. When Jean is first literally unveiled as the Black Queen she is holding a whip in her hand, and later she uses it to flog Storm, her “slave,” who earlier in the story we saw bound in her underwear to a Saint Andrew’s cross.

There has long been speculation in the fan community about Chris Claremont’s kinky side. The X-Men have frequently had very fetishy and BDSM stuff crop-up (beginning with this story) and Claremont is known for writing very strong powerful women (also beginning with this story – or perhaps with Moira MacTaggert from the preceding story arc) who often dominate weaker, more sensitive or more dependent men (like Scott, Colossus and Banshee).

There’s a theme in this story about the awakening of adult feelings – especially lust and adult sexuality. The theme is brought out in Scott’s early clash with Professor Xavier. Xavier has been away for a while and he rejoins the group at the beginning of this story. He is aggressively questioning Scott’s leadership, and you can see Scott’s impossible need to please this man who took him in and raised him. But Scott is (wisely) beginning to treat his teammates like adults and not children. Up until now, Scott was depicted as this pushy jerk, but now it’s revealed that this wasn’t who he really is; he’s been playing a role taught to him by Xavier. Now he realizes that this isn’t the way to lead a team of grown-ups which, while the Prof was away, is what the X-Men have become. Scott is actually cool in the scene. One thing I like about this story is that this is that brief window when Scott is actually a cool character before he goes on to become this whinny bitch deadbeat dad. But we’ll get to that…

Xavier still insists on seeing the X-Men as adolescents, and he acts like a real dick here. “Notify Wolverine,” he blusters, “that his childish outburst will cost him 10 demerits!” Really? Demerits? What are you going to do, Chuck, put him in detention? Make him write lines? It’s hilarious how out-of-touch Xavier is. This is a more flawed and more interesting Charles Xavier than we got in the first three X-Men movies. The X-Men are struggling to enter adulthood because of how they’ve been raised, trained and manipulated by Xavier. He is the impossible-to-please father figure. He’s an egotistical man – just as much as his old friend Magneto.

Then you get the contrast between Dazzler and Kitty Pryde, who are both introduced in this story arc. Dazzler is very comfortable with her liberated sexuality and with her sexual power over others. Kitty is 13 ½ years-old, wide-eyed and innocent – very similar to how Jean was when she first came to Xavier’s school. When the X-Men go to recruit Kitty Pryde they take her out to a malt shop where there is this really funny and revealing scene with Wolverine. Wolverine is standing at the magazine rack looking at a Penthouse, and the manager comes over and is like, “You gonn’a buy that? This ain’t no library?” Wolverine literally grabs the guy by his collar and gets ready to beat the hell out of him before Colossus stops him. This should make it clear just how dangerous and ill-tempered Wolverine is: he’s ready to send some innocent restaurant manager to the hospital because the guy won’t let him ogle his porn without paying. Wolverine had only been around for five years at this point – he didn’t even have a name, Logan, yet or any back-story except that he was a former Canadian super-agent. I love how in these early days everyone on the team is just unnerved by him. He clearly doesn’t fit in. Introducing Kitty Pryde is a significant turning-point in the development of Wolverine’s character because this is where he starts to become that protective but gruff mentor-figure.

Now enter Jason (Mastermind) Wyngarde who seduces Jean by sending her these psychic visions where she thinks she’s slipped back in time and is living out, with Wyngarde, a bodice-ripper romance tinged with SM. There’s a lot of SM/fetish stuff at play here in addition to the whole Hellfire Club thing. The disco club where they find Dazzler is this really weird mix of punk and leather that also has a BDSM vibe about it. In the disco, Jean mentally scans the crowd’s thoughts and she’s like, “The images I’m picking up are so vile… but part of me almost finds those thoughts attractive.”

Let’s take just a moment to note what a dumb idea Dazzler was. The idea that they could make this “cool” superhero as a disco queen was pretty weird by 1980. John is more the pop music expert, but I think disco had already been (vehemently) out of fashion for two or three years by then. Plus, she’s only around for one issue and then she, herself, admits that she’s of no real use to the X-Men. In contrast, Kitty Pryde, on her first outing, on her own, before she’s joined the X-Men or received any training, rescues Colossus and Wolverine. That’s pretty good!

[John’s note: Actually disco died during the second half of 1979, and it fell off the charts very suddenly. Claremont was only slightly behind the times.]

Dark Phoenix 2

The very last panel of #132 is one of the most famous and reproduced panels in Marvel comics history. The X-Men invaded the Hellfire Club building and got their butts kicked. Jean goes over to the other side and becomes the Black Queen. Wolverine confronts Harry Leland who drops him though the floor into the sewer. The last panel shows the most bad-ass Wolverine yet, emerging from the sewer, claws extended, and he says, “Okay suckers – you’ve taken yer best shot! Now it’s my turn!” And the caption is, “Next: Wolverine alone! Nuff said!” This is the exact point where Wolverine goes from a third-tier character (Claremont had already toyed with the idea of killing him off) to being well on his way to becoming the star of the X-Men and a top-tier Marvel property. The next issue opens with him killing three Hellfire guards. I’m not sure that we’d actually seen Wolverine kill before now. Then he has his rematch with Leland, which he ends quickly and fatally.

(If you want another indication that comics were becoming a little bit more mature in the Bronze Age, #133 has a flashback that shows Scott and Jean in a post-coital moment. I think this is the first time that has been shown in a superhero comic book.)

The X-Men defeat the Hellfire Club’s Inner Circle in front of the Club’s general members who know nothing of Shaw, Frost, Wyngarde and their plans. All they witness is the X-Men attacking and Wolverine killing Leland before their eyes. One of the witnesses (another new character introduced here) is Senator Kelly. Kelly calls for someone to summon the Avengers or the Fantastic Four to pursue the X-Men. Shaw pulls Kelly aside and says, “There is, however, an alternative – albeit a long term one – that would deal most effectively with this mutant menace… Sentinels!” So much is introduced in this story arc: Kitty, Dazzler, the Hellfire Club, Shaw, Emma Frost, Senator Kelly… and now this is already setting-up the next year’s Days of Future Past story. But in the meantime the X-Men have a bigger problem on their hand…

Mastermind has awakened this dark sexuality that was repressed in Jean all along. Jean is basically a closeted fem-dom and sadist. She gets-off on controlling people, she gets-off on hurting people, and she’s beginning to realize this about herself just as Xavier’s psychic circuit breakers are failing. Given his psychic powers, Mastermind really doesn’t even “seduce” her so much as he rapes her… but the victim becomes the predator. The Dark Phoenix awakens. Her “I am the Dark Phoenix” moment echoes her “I am the Phoenix” moment in the first Phoenix arc. She takes her revenge upon Wyngarde before trashing the X-Men.

This is the first time we see a hero turn into a villain and do something really, really villainous. Phoenix flies into space and uses a wormhole she creates to cross the galaxy to the Shi’ar Empire. This is why I would recommend to a newbie to, if possible, read the original Phoenix saga first, because otherwise I would imagine this part would be so out-of-left-field, right? You’re reading about these superheroes in New York, and then suddenly you’re off in Star Wars territory.

Scott earlier observed: “Using her power is turning her on – acting as a physical and emotional stimulant.” Now, Phoenix feeds on the power of a sun, causing it to go nova and kill everyone on an orbiting planet. “She craves that ultimate sensation,” we are told. She is “in ecstasy.” Phoenix basically has sex with a star and completely ignores the repercussions of doing this.

Dark Phoenix returns to Earth where Jean temporarily regains control. But then the combined forces of the Shi-ar, the Kree and the Skrulls arrive with an ultimatum: we kill Jean Grey or we destroy your world. One of the themes of X-Men has always been that they are outcast. Issue 137 really brings that home emotionally. They are now all on their own against three galaxy-spanning empires. This feeling is underscored by having their final battle to save Jean take place on the moon: the X-Men are as isolated as can get, all alone against the universe. And that’s where we’ll have to leave them until next time…

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