Reflections on The Dark Phoenix Saga, Part One

The Dark Phoenix Saga is simply one of the greatest stories ever told in the comic medium. It is a complex narrative with a simple question at its core: will Jean Grey live as a god or die a human? Chris Claremont and John Byrne magnificently executed it over nine issues, and while much has been written about this seminal arc, it is only because there is so much to explore. In this series of posts Reflections on the Dark Phoenix Saga, I will analyze each issue of the story, as published in The Uncanny X-Men, from issue #129 to #137. Although I have read my share of X-Men stories and am familiar with the details that lead up to this one, I've not read the issues immediately preceding or following The Dark Phoenix Saga. This isn't a review; it's an exploration of a narrative in an attempt to understand what makes it great.

The Uncanny X-Men #129: God Spare The Child…

The Dark Phoenix Saga begins with a farewell, as Sean Cassidy leaves the X-Men to recuperate from injuries sustained in a previous battle and comfort Moira MacTaggert, the woman he loves. The scene bookends the previous arc, wherein the team battled MacTaggert's reality-warping son, Proteus, who was killed in battle by team-member Colossus. In the aftermath, Cassidy (alias Banshee) is content to leave behind the hero's life and settle down with Moira. Three times in this scene, Scott Summers (Cyclops) extends invitation to join the X-Men, and three times he is refused. Cassidy refuses for the sake of love. Scott's brother Alex and his girlfriend Lorna, also known as Havok and Polaris, refuse for the sake of living "as normal a life as possible." Jamie Madrox, the Multiple Man, refuses because at heart, he's "still just a Kansas farm boy," not a superhero.

Madrox's refusal is the most interesting of the three because it proceeds not from desire, but rather from identity. Banshee, Havok, and Polaris each choose to embrace normal life, but for Madrox, there is no choice. For Madrox, the only life is a normal life, because despite his costume and powers, he is Jamie Madrox above all else. Although he only appears in three panels of a nearly two-hundred page story, Jamie Madrox establishes what will become the central theme of the whole narrative: the quest for and discovery of human identity beneath the extraordinary powers that define each of the team's members as X-Men. Their genetics make them mutants, but their souls keep them human.

After the prologue is complete, we are introduced to the current incarnation of the team, which includes Cyclops, Nightcrawler (Kurt Wagner), Colossus (Peter Rasputin), Wolverine (just Logan, for now), Storm (Ororo Munroe), and Phoenix (Jean Grey). We also see Colossus struggling in silence with the guilt of slaying Proteus, a moral dilemma that underlies his actions throughout the story and pays off in a major way in its climax.

Although each character gets his or her moment in the spotlight, The Dark Phoenix Saga is ultimately Jean's story, and while much of it is told through Scott's eyes, I believe that she has to be considered the protagonist. It is she who drives the plot, she who grows and changes, and she who ultimately must come to terms with who and what she is. At this moment, though, her identity is very much in doubt. She is reintegrating with the team after a long period during which they believed her dead, as well as coping with the immense power she possesses as Phoenix. She is also being manipulated psychically a mysterious stranger calling himself Jason Wyngarde.

Although Wyngarde has appeared before, we are introduced to him within the Saga proper on the opulent private jet of the Hellfire Club. Wyngarde is using his powers to exacerbate Jean's identity issues by convincing her that she is in fact her own ancestor, Lady Jean Grey, who lived more than two hundred years earlier. The illusions he erects within her mind - at the center of which is a romantic attraction to him - are disrupted only by Cyclops' intrusion and the emergence of his central narrative thread. While Jean is motivated by a need to affirm her identity, Cyclops is driven by a fear of loss - specifically, a fear of losing Jean.

“Every time I turned around, I was losing people I loved: my folks, my brother Alex, the few friends I made at the orphanage. Each time the loss hurt. Losing you was the loss I couldn't take.”

In the first five pages, Claremont and Byrne have introduced our primary cast, including our protagonist and antagonist; established the motivations of three of our six heroes; and introduced the themes around which the whole of the narrative will be structured. They've done so subtly and in a way that feels natural within the development of the story.

Still, there are two major players we haven't yet met. The first is the returning Charles Xavier, who had been journeying through space as the consort of Lilandra, Empress of the Shi'ar Empire. Xavier's return is significant for two reasons. First it hints at Jean's growing inability to control the power of the Phoenix. Jean herself notes this after reading Xavier's thoughts (and notably refers to her "ability to control Phoenix's powers" - the first of several instances in which she refers to this aspect of herself in the third person). Second, it sets up one of the central conflicts of the Saga - the growing rift between Xavier and Cyclops. Their father-son dynamic is challenged by Scott's assertion of his identity as the team leader during Xavier's absence. Xavier wastes no time in questioning Scott's leadership style, and for the moment, Scott allows it, perhaps for fear of losing this relationship. Xavier dispatches the team to find two newly-discovered mutants - one in Chicago, one in New York, thus setting into motion the events of the next few issues.

The second is the debuting Hellfire Club, represented here as a shadowy cabal of "the most powerful industrialists in America," and spoken for by the debuting White Queen, Emma Frost. Although she would later become a complex and integral member of the team, here Frost is a straight-forward villain and the literal and symbolic mirror of Jean Grey during her slide into madness. I'll explore this point much later in my analysis of issue #132, but for now we'll simply note Frost's introduction as the ending of this issue's first act.

The act structure of a comic book is an interesting subject, particularly in an extended narrative like the Saga. Rather than conforming to a traditional three-act structure, individual issues in a larger arc tend to contain only two acts, and end on a cliffhanger. Resolution is delayed in order to incentivize readers to buy the subsequent issue. It's a classical form of serialization, but when one reads the issues back to back, it can reveal the seams of a story. The fact that the acts and issues flow so seamlessly from one to the next in the Saga is a testament to how well Claremont and Byrne executed their creative vision.

Act Two begins with the introduction of another new character: Kitty Pryde. Like Frost, Kitty would eventually become an important character in the X-Men mythos and a fan favorite. Here, however, she is simply a guest star and a seed that Claremont would bring to flower later in his lengthy run on the comic. Kitty is a precocious girl, thirteen going on fourteen, undergoing a major change in her journey to womanhood - she is slowly realizing that she is a mutant. (I really don't need to comment on the symbolism here.) She is also being recruited for membership by some very exclusive schools - including one run by Ms. Frost.

Frost departs just as Xavier, Storm, Colossus, and Wolverine - all dressed as civilians - arrive. As Xavier meets with Kitty's parents, the rest of the team... takes her out for ice cream. Storm and Kitty enjoy a treat, while Colossus and Wolverine casually peruse copies of Hustler and Penthouse. Clearly, this is a book for children.

This is a bizarre scene in a number of respects. It lasts only six panels and is tonally radically different from any other in the story. It's easy to dismiss it as a quick transitional moment, moving the narrative from point A to B, but with the rest of the story as tight as it is, I think it's worth examining to understand why Claremont and Byrne included it. In retrospect, the purpose seems obvious. The friendship between Storm and Kitty Pryde would become increasingly important over time, so it's hard to see the scene as anything but seed-planting. But let's set that aside and view it in the context of The Dark Phoenix Saga.

The key to the scene is this: Storm not only confirms to Kitty that she and her friends are X-Men, but offers the information unsolicited. It is Storm, not Kitty, that raises the subject. While Storm hasn't always been carefully focused on maintaining her secret identity - her disguise consists of a cape, and not even a very good one - this is beyond the pale. What would Professor Xavier think of one of his most trusted students revealing the team's secrets in public to a thirteen year-old girl? (That's not rhetorical - what would he think? We've already established the leadership issues he and Cyclops are going to be wrestling with for the next several issues). It's uncharacteristic and definitely not standard X-Men protocol. So why do it?

From a character perspective, it establishes the connection between Storm and Kitty. This is the seed. But from a narrative perspective, it serves a much more important function: it establishes immediately that Storm trusts Kitty and that we as readers should do so as well. Over the next several issues, we will meet a host of new characters, both good and bad. It is crucially important to the narrative that readers trust Kitty at this stage. The reason why will become clear by the issue's end.

An end that we are rapidly approaching! Men in pink armor wielding golden staffs burst into the ice cream parlor and attack, leading to brief fight scene, wherein we learn that the villains weapons are calibrated to the X-Men's specific powers. We also see Kitty explicitly display her powers for the first time as she phases through the wall of the building. The White Queen appears, knocks the team unconscious, and loads them into a vehicle to take them to "A Massive Industrial Park on the Outskirts of Chicago" for some nefarious purpose. And as they speed away, Kitty phases through the hull, her powers under control, and realizes "I gotta help 'em, but how??? These guys have guns - and super powers. An' I'm… all alone." Kitty Pryde, the X-Men's only hope. End Act Two, and the issue. Next: "The Debut of Dazzler!"

It's the first installment in a long arc, but God Spare The Child establishes the major themes of identity, fear, leadership, and loss that will be crucial to the narrative. It introduces the key elements of the story while leaving room to grow, and sets the team and Jean Grey specifically on a collision course with tragedy.