Wednesday, July 4, 2012


Well, just like sometimes you just have to buy a tea-towel, there comes a time in any readers life where, one way or another he or she gets a copy of The Dark Phoenix Saga, also known as The Defining Moment Of Blah Blah Blah Superhero Comics Lost Innocence Blah Blah., or that time when X-Men cemented itself as one of the tastemakers in superhero comics after five years of dutifully building up its buzz, this was the flashpoint that took it from "cult hit" to "smash hit."

 Like Watchmen, the Dark Phoenix Saga has been collected in trade and kept in print what one can only term a mind-boggling amount of times (one of the more amusing bits of back-matter in my copy has a copy of every cover of every version, and man are they ever a lot. Also, like Watchmen, they're picking over the corpse and seeing if there's any more flesh on it this summer, so why not consider it?

 Anyways, I'm using the Marvel Masterworks trade, which is a bit like getting the Criterion version of the whole thing, as it contains X-Men #132-140, a Phoenix story from Bizarre Adventures (and never was a title more appropriate . . .) and the content of Phoenix: The Untold Story, perhaps the thing that really made me decide to write about this. We'll try to get to them all in turn, and, being that everyone knows the story pretty well, it shouldn't take long.

 Okay! So, Chris Claremont, that guarantor of female empowerment gave Jean Grey god-tier powers (not unlike how she was in Marvel Vs. Capcom 3) which had the notable side effect of making the X-Men in general somewhat superfluous and Cyclops even more useless than he is generally. Because she was the most empowered female to ever power the power, she soon gets the hoodoo put on her, turns evil, and loves it and put into bondage gear because ain't no fetish like a Claremont fetish ('cause a Claremont fetish don't stop)

 While all that's going on, the X-Men are fighting the Hellfire Club for the first time. Hey, did you know each of the Hellfire Club members are based on real actors? You'd never be able to tell, the way John Byrne does likenesses! This goes about as well as you'd expect--namely, the X-Men get the shit kicked out of them for two issues until Cyclops remembers that he's like, a good leader, and turns it around, stomping the Hellfire Club. In wrestling, they call this "Playing Ricky Morton."

 Then Phoenix turns evil and--you guessed it--kicks the shit out of them for two issues as well, then takes a break to go roast the planet of the asparagus people, who were having a bad year anyway and then goes to act possessed to her folks, which causes her father to say "I DENY YOU! I CAST YOU OUT!" which is . . .yeah. There are Asgardians in Thor comics who talk more natural than Jean Grey's father. The X-Men slow her down, then don't, then Professor X shows up to fix everything and nerfs her powers so she's solidly middle-tier (like she was in Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3).

 Only he doesn't really, it's a fakeout so the Shi'ar can teleport them to the moon and they can have a big fight with the Legion of Superheroes to determine what's gonna happen to Phoenix. Shockingly, this causes Jean to flip out and turn into Phoenix again, because the X-Men deal in two things, and two things only--angst and bad decisions.

  Phoenix, clearly the only one thinking here, zaps herself with a Plot Convenient Weapon and suicides herself. Cyclops then vomits of a bewildering amount of exposition when he's supposed to be crippled by grief because this is Chris Claremont, who was wronged by a letterer once and spent the rest of his career making every letterer everywhere suffer under the weight of Rapidiograph-annihilating verbiage.

 We take a break for a bit so Cyclops can recount the entire history of the X-Men up to this point (I have to be fair, this bit was pretty cool at the time, because you really didn't have easy access to that stuff back in the day) and leave to collapse into a mighty ball of angst.

 Things trail off for a bit after that--there's an X-Men Annual where The X-Men go to hell and Storm gets debased and turned into a snake (because of course she does) and it's all to do with Nightcrawler and his girlfriend and his girlfriend's mom and their ridiculous hats. We then close with a two-parter wherein Wolverine (wearing a new costume which is revealed thus: "Wolverine, are you wearing a new costume?" "Yes, yes I am.") and Nightcrawler go fight the Wendigo with half of Alpha Flight.

 When I was much younger, I thoughts these comics were awesome, and naturally enough, because I was like, six or seven, and for all I knew, this was how people really acted, and this kind of relentless melodramatic tragedy, since it wasn't all smiles and laughs, read to me like it must be grown-up stuff, because grown-ups were never happy and always seemed to be reading or watching stuff about people not being happy.

 Nowadays, I'm glad this happened, because I loved that issue of Crazy where Jim Owsley/Christopher Priest re-wrote all the dialogue and made it into this long piss-take on the whole thing wherein the X-Men were like the Maharaishis and Phoenix was singing Rod Stewart songs.

 I mean, I recognise that it's a major thing for its time, and no one was doing this kind of thing (though ultimately, everyone would soon be doing this exact same thing) and at the time, it was a major deal because very few characters got offed for real, even fewer committed suicide on-panel, and very few walked it through to such an extent that the reader was "sold" that this was The One That Would Stick.

 Ah, to be young and foolish again.

In any event, the whole thing has an added gravitas, because it wasn't supposed to happen at all. No, the plan was that Phoenix would get depowered and sit there as a ticking bomb until about issue #150, wherein we would be teased a little more, and heaven knows what woulda happened then. This is an interesting thing to learn in the Untold Story bits, because the traditional knock against Claremont was that he shot his bolt after Dark Phoenix, and everything after that was just glumly trying to keep the plates spinning. Now we know: No, he was always doing that.

 Anyways, in the one exception that proves the rule, Jim Shooter said, "No way, if she destroyed a whole planet, you can't pretend it didn't happen," and forced them on short notice to come up with an alternative to the original ending wherein the punishment fit the crime.

 And the revised ending is the better one, because the original is. . .geez, not good at all. For one thing, did Cyclops really need to crib the end of "City on the Edge of Forever" at the end of the book? It seems a bit. . .ehhh. The other reason it doesn't work is that WE SAW PROFESSOR X DO THE SAME DAMN THING THE ISSUE BEFORE. They basically. . .lock down her powers again, which is like when he locked them down only different in that this one will now work for 13 issues (supposedly) or whatever. We knew it wouldn't take the first time, and you did it again just to make sure we knew it was bullshit?

 It doesn't feel appropriately final. We're expected to react like Jean Grey is getting a lobotomy against her will, and the essence of who she is being sacrificed for the Greater Good, but 1) we've already seen that she can't be running around blowing up planets--Thanos and Galactus will be on her ass for gimmick infringement. and 2) It's OK when Professor X does it, but not OK when the Bird Aliens from Planet Shi'Ar do it, because of reasons.

 But the real reason the Phoenix: The Untold Story is worth it is the round-table interview they give where they try to chart the process by which they came to the decision, and the bit I kept zeroing in on was when terry Austin said he wasn't crazy about the story because Phoenix comes off like a victim in it, and. . .man, has he ever got a point there. Through the whole run-up to Phoenix going Dark, she's basically played for a sucker and manipulated at every turn, which kinda knocks hell out of the idea that she's some cosmically powerful mind-reader.

 Even after going evil, Phoenix is at the mercy of her own desires, further undercutting any agency she has. She's argued over like the MacGuffin that she is, until finally she's allowed one moment to call the shots, and that's to ray-beam herself.

 Female Empowerment the Chris Claremont Way.

 Which is why it comes as absolutely no surprise that the final story in the collection has Phoenix and her sister Sara get kidnapped by D-list Sub-Mariner bad guy Attuma and put in kinky slave-girl outfits. The John Buscema art is wonderful, but seeing Claremont's id run amuck and actually write a story about bondage and mind control with no blinkers is troubling. But thanks Marvel, for laying the book out in such a way as to make my point for me or something.

 So . . .yeah. That's the Dark Phoenix Saga in a nutshell--while it's Claremont's X-Men at the peak of his powers, it's also everything that would eventually make people turn on his work. It's calcified so much with distance that it's really kind of criticism-proof--much like Miller's Daredevil, it's bored so deep into the canon that it's above examination--but I thought it was worth having a look at and seeing what reaction I have to it now, given that I'm not six anymore.


C. Elam said...

I used to own that Untold Story book. In fact, I bought it off the spinner rack when it was new - very rare that Marvel put one of those Baxter reprints on the newsstand. The round table is the bit that sticks in my head the most, as it was ABSOLUTELY FASCINATING to me. It also inhabits nooks and crannies of my mind to this day, especially the incredulous "Roger Stern?"

I was a bit older than you at the time, and yes, there was much carrying on over the the way the Phoenix thing played out and it was one of those Moments in comics fandom where it all seemed so important. Then X-Factor happened, and suddenly, the "Moment" was kind of hollow.

It is amusing to look back on that level of melodrama and overwriting from those days, is it not? It all seemed so adult, and now it stands revealed as just as juvenile as anything else. Maybe a little more, when you think about it.

Kazekage said...

I never saw it. I think the only Baxter books we'd get on the stands about that time were the movie adaptations. And yeah, that roundtable explains A. Lot. Doesn't it?

I remember the X-Factor stuff and even I remember thinking "Yeah, that's kind of stupid" (wouldn't have been any better with Dazzler instead of Jean, but still . . .wow) My sister, though? HUGE Phoenix fan. So I think between the two of us, it still kinda "hit."

Oh it still seems pitched perfectly--for the people who SHOULD be reading comics. I mean, if the Golden Age is twelve years old like I always hear, I can see how this would go over crazy huge. The problem comes in when you have people in their forties writing for people in their thirties as if they were still twelve that you get into problems.