Jun 28, 2018

How the Dark Phoenix Saga Made Me the Kind of Fan I Am

I first read X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga in a trade paperback published in 1991, meaning I had just really started getting into comics. Trade paperbacks weren't common at the time, so they only collected the landmark issues with high demand. Dark Phoenix came out in 1980, meaning 11 years had passed and it was still in high demand.

How the Dark Phoenix Saga Shaped Me as a Fan
by Duy

First of all, I want to point out this beautiful cover by Bill Sienkiewicz.


Seriously, in the mid-90s, we loaned this comic out to a friend, who promptly lost it and only found it again 20 years later. I refused to buy a new copy of the book, because Bill's cover was no longer issued, and I refused to buy it with any other cover. I think it's that gorgeous.

Rereading it now made me realize how much this one particular story truly shaped me as a fan. There is so much in here, and most of it is gold. It's got the introduction of the Hellfire Club, including Emma "The White Queen" Frost. It's got the debut of Dazzler and Kitty Pryde. And it's got Wolverine and the sequence that's so famous as being his breakout moment.


Wolverine wasn't Wolverine yet, not yet the franchise player for Marvel that he'd later become, meaning that he could lose, he could be hurt, and it's really just that he didn't fear death.

But most of all, it had Jean Grey and Scott Summers, and their love for each other holding the story together.  When Jean is mind-controlled by Mastermind and becomes the Black Queen, flirting with the other members of the Hellfire Club, Scott manages to keep his cool and his patience, waiting for Jean to break out of it and save him.



When Jean finally loses control and takes down the X-Men, Scott shows up to reason with her. You can almost hear background music shifting from something fast and suspenseful to something soulful and emotional.



When Jean's life is in the hands of the Shi'ar for killing a whole solar system, the X-Men all go through internal debates as to whether or not they can fight for Jean. Scott never wavers.



And when Jean loses control of herself and becomes Dark Phoenix again, she saves Scott, and the universe, by sacrificing herself.



Yes, I know that this may constitute as fridging, the story of the woman who can't control power, and it's very possible that if I'd read it for the first time now, I'd feel differently. But back then, and still now, all I saw was a love story with life and death repercussions. And the entire ending sequence still gets to me, today, 27 years later. The fact that a bunch of this isn't shown from the characters' points of view, forcing you to fill in the blanks yourself, makes it more powerful. John Byrne tells a dynamic enough story with the rest of the details; Chris Claremont's prose brings it home.

Once upon a time, there was a woman named Jean grey, a man named Scott Summers.
They were young. They were in love.
They were heroes.
Today, they will prove it beyond all shadow of a doubt.
I loved it.

Soon after I read the Dark Phoenix Saga, I read X-Men: X-Tinction Agenda, published in 1992. The first scene had Jean Grey back. Not only that, it was explained that Phoenix was never Jean Grey at all, but a completely separate entity that thought it was Jean. In the interim, Cyclops had married Madelyne Pryor, a woman who looked exactly like Jean, had a child with her (he grew up to be Cable), and then she turned evil. Much later on, Jean would die again and Cyclops would get into a relationship with Emma Frost, and by the time I'd read Avengers: Children's Crusade in 2013, I thought, wow, Cyclops is a jerk.

Except none of that matters to me.

I get that because of these changes, some readers may think Dark Phoenix was cheapened. That it wasn't really Jean; that Scott isn't really a character to sympathize with. That it may as well not have really happened.

Except it didn't really happen. It's fiction. It's as real as you make it, as real as what you put into it. And in my book, Jean Grey died as Dark Phoenix, sacrificing herself to save the universe. In my book, Cyclops isn't an insufferable tool. Any stories I enjoy afterwards with them in it are bonuses. They're nice to have. And it's not hard to reconcile them in my head, because it's fiction. They fit together however you want it to. I guess I could have said they ruined the story and that I could never read The Dark Phoenix Saga again because of what happened, but I can, because I do genuinely love that story.

The Dark Phoenix Saga impacted my comics reading habits in many ways. It taught me that, yes, you can judge a book by its cover. It taught me the importance of character development, of establishing character dynamics so your readers can pick up on anything, any scene, with just the visual shorthand. It taught me that you didn't need to start a comic at the beginning in order for it to have an impact on you. But most of all, it taught me that stories can be powerful, and that the only person who can take that impact away from you is the person looking back at you in the mirror.


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