Reflections on the Dark Phoenix Saga, Part Three

The Uncanny X-Men #131: Run For Your Life!

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After the relative lull that was "Dazzler", Claremont and Byrne get The Dark Phoenix Saga back on track with "Run For Your Life," which serves as the capstone of a three-issue mini-arc that, in retrospect, is a foundational story in the modern history of the X-Men. This is the arc that introduces readers to Emma Frost and Kitty Pryde, both of whom would become Marvel mainstays over the next three decades. More importantly, it sets the stage for the beginning of the Saga proper by positioning all of the key pieces on the narrative chessboard.

While part one of the Saga introduced the key players and part two emphasized their entry into unknown territory, part three focuses on the scope of Jean Grey's expanding power. Throughout the issue, we see repeated occurrences of Jean pushing her powers beyond previously assumed physical and moral thresholds. Much of the Saga is a meditation on the corrupting nature of power, and it is here that the slow corruption truly begins.

We begin where we left off, with young Kitty Pryde on the run from the White Queen's goon squad. (It's worth noting that even within the context of a 1980s X-Men story, the goon squad looks utterly ridiculous.) Poor Kitty. She's been hunted by an evil telepath, pursued by a team of crash test dummies (who speak in an oddly old-fashioned vernacular - "What in heaven's name is that?!!"), and then witnesses a shocking display of the Phoenix's power before being whisked away by a blue-furred demon-looking man who climbs up walls. Going into hysterics is a completely justifiable response for a thirteen year-old girl in this situation.

As for the shocking display of power: Jean demolishes the car containing the crash test dummies (ooo, maybe that's why they looked that way) in an instant. When Cyclops confronts her about it, she expresses no regrets. "These animals… got no more than they deserved." It's hardly a heroic posture, and what's more, it's out of character for Jean, who has to date generally been portrayed as a compassionate individual.

(I do love Dazzler's inner monologue in reaction to Phoenix's power: "Wow! Cyclops said Phoenix's telekinetic powers were impressive, but I never dreamed… Compared to this, my mutant ability to create fancy lightshows is nothing!" Yes, Dazzler, your powers are laughable. We're glad you understand.)

Jean returns to normal just in time to provide much-needed comfort to Kitty, giving the young girl the chance to finally cry. It's a simple scene, but it's important for two reasons. First, it defines Kitty in a really wonderful way. She's not a super heroine; she's a scared teenage girl going through a life-changing event. It's very easy in comics to try to make everyone a badass, but Claremont and Byrne resist the temptation here. Over the coming years, she'll grow into a wonderful character, but at this stage, she's just a normal human being surrounded by things completely outside of her frame of reference, and I'm tickled that the creators characterized her in this way.

Second, it emphasizes the dichotomy at Jean's core. In one moment, she's the Phoenix, an awe-inspiring source of unspeakable power. In the next, she's Jean, a loving young woman that takes a complete stranger into her arms and gives her the strength she needs to survive the worst night of her life. It's that compassion that I referenced earlier, and it really comes through here. Maintaining this balance at this stage of the story is essential. If Jean were just a wonderful person who suddenly went dark a few issues from now, it would feel forced. If she were just a grim, humorless hero, then we wouldn't care. By characterizing her in this way, Claremont and Byrne ensure that when Jean does tip over the edge, we as readers feel like something has really been lost.

Moving on: Kitty fills the team in on what the White Queen's up to, Jean gets the remaining information by reading a crash test dummy's mind, and Nightcrawler feels sorry for himself ("I don't think the little fraulein likes me"). We get a brief flash of Jason Wyngarde as Jean recognizes the significance of the Hellfire Club. And then we get to the action, as the team breaks into Frost's secret compound to rescue Colossus, Storm, Xavier, and Wolverine.

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Poor Kitty. Even after the day she's endured, nothing could have prepared her for the shock of seeing the world's hairiest Canadian in his underwear.

The rescue is fairly run of the mill, with each team member using his or her ability to cut up various henchmen. (It's worth noting that we see Colossus and Kitty meet for the first time, setting up a relationship that will matter a great deal in the coming decades.) The real significant action occurs when Jean confronts the White Queen and we see the power of the Phoenix in action.

A few things here are worth mentioning. First, we see Jean and Emma portrayed as the inverse of one another - two psychics locked in the first stage of a decades-long battle. And just as Jean's fall forms the center of this arc, Emma's rise would be a major element in the X-Men's future. It's significant to see them in the same scene for the first time, and the parallels between them continue to play a role long after Emma has exited this particular arc. Second, Jean is characterized in this scene by the same darkness we saw at the beginning of the issue. Byrne even draws her like a villain here - all shadowy features and burning yellow eyes. Remove the dialog and the context, and it would be easy to mistake Emma for the heroine and Jean for the supervillain.

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Third, and maybe most interestingly, Xavier only appears after the battle is over. It's almost glossed over, in fact - he explains quickly that he was "holding back and playing observer," and then quickly moves on. Xavier is still working his way back into the X-Men's routine after his time off-world, and while it makes sense from his perspective, it must be noted that he, like Cyclops and Storm, ignore the sinister nature of Jean's growing abilities. It's not immediate enough for him to raise the issue, not important enough for him to put aside his own problems, even when the threat to the team is larger than anything they've faced from the White Queen. Once again, here is a character who could possibly have stopped what's going to happen, which makes it all the more tragic that he doesn't.

The team disposes of Emma Frost, returns Kitty home (after Jean manipulates the mind of her father to accept them - another moral line crossed), and says farewell to Dazzler. And then Cyclops and Storm finally show some urgency, some concern about Jean's abilities - before doing nothing about them. How heroic.

The mini-arc is concluded, but Wyngarde's manipulations still loom large (literally, in the case of the last panel). All of the pieces are in place for Dark Phoenix to emerge. The real Saga starts in the next issue - "And Hellfire Is Their Name!"