Skip to main content

"My destiny lies in the stars:" The Dark Phoenix Saga


The book stared back at me from an aisle end cap in a local bookstore in upstate New York. It was 1984 but my memory is foggy on the exact time of year, so I was either eight or nine years old. The arresting cover hooked me immediately. Big bold block letters announced "The Uncanny X-Men." The gorgeously painted cover, by legendary artist Bill Sienkiewicz, featured characters I wasn't yet familiar with but who would quickly be among my favorites—Jean Grey (Phoenix), Wolverine, Kitty Pryde, Nightcrawler, and more. At this point I was already reading science fiction, fantasy, and comic books. This volume would be the spark that ignited my lifelong affinity for the Marvel mutants.

My mother saw the look in my eyes as I held the trade paperback in my small hands. To her eternal credit, she purchased the book for me that day. I would read it cover to cover, over and over again, for months. I didn't just read the story; I absorbed it directly into my system until I could hardly tell where I ended and it began. And oh, that story. It was and remains marvelous, epic in scope and full of heart. That story is "The Dark Phoenix Saga," still considered by most to be the preeminent X-Men story line and one of a small group of comic book stories that are consistently listed among the most seminal the medium has ever produced. Originally published in the pages of Uncanny X-Men in 1980, the story was only four years old when I stumbled upon it. I'd been too young for it in 1980, but now I had it, the entire arc in one fat book.

The double-page splash from Uncanny X-Men #137 is as iconic a shot of the classic team as you'll find.
As it turned out, I was the perfect age to discover the story. It had everything that a young kid could want: big action, thrilling adventure, fantastical space opera, heart-wrenching pathos, intense drama, and genuine humor. I would often stare in awe at the stunning art from Byrne and inker Terry Austin. I was addicted to Claremont's floridly purple prose and nakedly honest dialogue that revealed just how different—and how special—these X-Men really were. Young kids at that time hadn't seen characters like them before, not in comics or elsewhere. They were flawed yet earnest, just like us. "The Dark Phoenix Saga" contained within its pages multitudes, the best aspects of which I still find myself chasing in other works of fiction over the years, in an attempt to experience something similar to the overwhelming sense of wonder I feel whenever I reread it.

This scene never fails to choke me up.

Very few pop cultural artifacts elicit the same sort of wistful nostalgia in me as this edition of "The Dark Phoenix Saga." I only need to see the Sienkiewicz cover and I'm transported back to when I first saw it. Both the cosmic bombast and deeply personal story at the heart of the story were the ultimate expressions of everything Claremont and Byrne had been building towards during their epic four-year run on Uncanny X-Men. The boundaries and limits of creativity were forever altered in comics and beyond. Joss Whedon has discussed its influence over his work many times. This classic story is the reason Uncanny X-Men became the essential superhero book to watch in comics during the 1980s and 1990s. It's why the X-Men have been cinematic stars for a decade and a half now.

Dark Phoenix and her story remain incredibly popular with fans today.

To have discovered "The Dark Phoenix Saga" at such a young age was formative. It became the epic story by which I would judge all others, no matter the medium. Jean Grey, both the hero and the villain of the piece, is still the fictional character I hold closest to my heart. It remains one of the only works of pop culture that I'll genuinely contemplate repurchasing nearly every time Marvel repackages and republishes it. More often than not, I just repurchase it. I'm always excited to reread it. The atrociously wrong-headed film adaptation of the story in X-Men: The Last Stand still rankles me today as much as it did ten years ago. This obsession all began in 1984, in a local bookstore in upstate New York, when the first collected edition of "The Dark Phoenix Saga" caught my eye. It was over for me in an instant. There was no going back. I was caught in the X-Men's powerful sway, unable and unwilling to resist. The X-Men, and particularly "The Dark Phoenix Saga," showed children like me that fictional stories could have real and lasting impacts on our lives and imaginations. For that reason alone, I look forward to reading it with my children one day soon.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Misspent Youth: Morgan Fairchild

Looking back at the movies, music, television, and other pop culture mainstays of this Gen-Xer's gloriously misspent youth.

Once I decided that Morgan Fairchild would be the subject of the next installment in this series, I did what I usually do and researched online for a bit, just to refresh my memory on details that might've previously been lost to time.


Not that I needed much refresher when it came to Fairchild. Born Patsy Ann McClenny in Dallas, Texas, February 3, 1950, the American actress was everywhere during those oh-so-crucial formative years of my pop culture obsession. She loomed large in the growing ranks of proto-haughty glamour queens, a trope that was hot on prime time TV in the 1980s. The characters she was most well-known for were drop-dead gorgeous and didn't suffer fools lightly. Really, few ever did it better than Fairchild.



This led to an undeniable attraction for adolescent dorks like me: here was a woman who would tell me what to do and unlike when a t…

Misspent Youth: Tanya Roberts

Looking back at the pop culture mainstays of this Gen-Xer's gloriously misspent youth.

Some actors slide in and out of our periphery, costarring in one film or series after another, each of which briefly crossed our radars at some point. Bronx-born actress Tanya Roberts was one such performer for me.


I grew up on a steady diet of Charlie's Angels reruns, and no offense meant to Shelley Hack, but when Roberts took over for Hack in the fifth and final season, I definitely took notice. Not to focus on her looks, but geez, her gorgeous feathered hair and sultry bedroom eyes were impossible to ignore. Tanya Roberts had a look, and even all these years later, it basically defines the 1970s/early 1980s for me.


From The Love Boat to Fantasy Island to Silk Stalkings, she made the rounds on some serious preteen and teen television favorites. She also was a pleasant addition to many films I was discovering on cable or VHS during those years, including The Beastmaster (1982, Fingers (1978…

It Came From the '90s: My Secret Crush on The Nanny

This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.
For six seasons in the 1990s, The Nanny made many of us laugh. At times, it could be downright hilarious. At others, well, not so much. This isn't a review of a '90s sitcom staple, though. No. This is simply an excuse to come clean about something I've kept buried deep inside for over two decades now: I had a secret crush on The Nanny herself, Fran Drescher.



While The Nanny was sometimes quite funny, thanks largely to Drescher's spunky charisma and wholehearted commitment, the show was never considered hip. People my parents age seemed to love it, but my friends preferred, well, Friends.


I watched Friends with my friends, but I also thoroughly enjoyed The Nanny, too. Obviously, I'm aware that much of that was owed to my little crush on Drescher.


She was an effervescent presence at a time when most of my crushes were of the alternagirl, angst-ridden varie…

Blowing in the Wind: Marilyn Monroe and That Iconic White Dress

This month marks sixty-five years since one of the most iconic moments in twentieth-century popular culture: Marilyn Monroe’s angelic white dress being blown sky high by wind rushing up from a subway grate beneath her feet in the film The Seven Year Itch. Billy Wilder shot multiple takes, while Sam Shaw snapped photo after photo for what had to be the biggest publicity stunt ever staged at the time. Marilyn wore two pairs of underwear for the shot, yet, as noted in Lois Banner's critical biography Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox (2012), "a dark blotch of pubic hair" remained visible to the 100 male photographers and over 1,500 male spectators, all of whom crowded eagerly around the set to gawk and drool. Due to strict 1950s movie censorship laws, photos had to be doctored to white out the offending blotch, but those in attendance saw it, over and over, shot after shot. Marilyn's husband at the time, the extremely old fashioned Joe DiMaggio, stormed off the set i…

Scream Queens of Halloween: Linnea Quigley

Celebrating Scream Queens that make the Halloween season the most wonderful time of year.

In many ways, Linnea Quigley is the ultimate Scream Queen. A pint-sized bundle of pure punk rock spirit, Quigley has starred in countless horror and exploitation classics: The Return of the Living Dead: Silent Night, Deadly Night; Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama: Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers: Night of the Demons; Creepozoids; Nightmare Sisters...get the point?


Many of these cult classics are from the 1980s and early 1990s, when Quigley first shot to fame within the B-movie world. She was everywhere back then, at least if you were a horror-loving kid like myself. She seemed to pop up in every other splatter flick I watched on USA Up All Night or rented from the video store during those days. Whenever she joined host Rhonda Shear on set, it was like the horror gods had answered our heathen prayers.


Explosive sex appeal, hilariously deadpan Valley Girl-esque charm, and a willingness to rip…

Michelle Pfeiffer: Scarface

Revisiting—or in a few cases, watching for the first time—and celebrating the work of Michelle Pfeiffer, the best actress of my lifetime.

***** "Michelle Pfeiffer was a star from the moment she descended in that glass elevator in Scarface—although the automatic prejudice that assumes beautiful people can't act means it took a while for people to see she was also an actress." — Charles Taylor, in Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You *****
Like everyone and everything in Brian De Palma's wildly overstuffed, profane, and bloody morality tale of Tony Montana's (a gloriously over the top Al Pacino) dogged pursuit of the American dream, Pfeiffer's Elvira Hancock is not entirely what she seems at first glance. Certainly, she posses an otherworldly beauty, but she's also fiercely intelligent. Pfeiffer's masterful performance in Scarface (1983) upends our perceptions of the traditional, frigid ice queen trope—while Elvira is hardly impressed wit…

Misspent Youth: Superman III

Looking back at the pop culture mainstays of this Gen-Xer's gloriously misspent youth.

Superman III hit theaters June 17, 1983. Because I was a rabid eight year old fan of the first two movies in the franchise—both of which remain all-time favorites as well as two of the best superhero movies ever made—I walked into this one expecting more of the same brilliance. Instead, what I got was something else entirely. With a game Richard Pryor nobly bumbling his way through this mess (all along likely plotting to fire his agent), the brilliance of the first two movies was nowhere to be found. Remember, Lois Lane (my girl Margot Kidder) appears only briefly, as the film's action quickly moves from Metropolis to Smallville for Clark Kent's high school reunion, thus breaking the heart of this young Lois/Margot admirer. It was mostly downhill from there for that eight year old kid.

I won't rehash the plot except to say Clark/Superman (Christopher Reeve) reunites with his first lov…

Streetwise and Book Smart: Avenging Angel

"One more step and I'll blow your balls into outer space."


That immortal line is delivered with extreme chutzpah by our tough-talking protagonist Angel (real name, Molly Stewart), played with a disarmingly effective nonchalance by '80s dream girl Betsy Russell, in Avenging Angel (1985). I'm always on the lookout for memorable cult classic, and with this one, I've struck exploitation gold. I don't know where this movie has been all my life, but thank goodness we finally found each other.


First, some facts. Avenging Angel, directed and co-written by Robert Vincent O'Neill (who worked in the art department on Easy Rider), is the middle installment in the Angel trilogy of films. One day I'll have to run the series, but I can't imagine anything else being quite as entertaining as this one. The plot: a former Hollywood Boulevard prostitute turned law student goes back undercover as a prostitute—but steadfastly avoids schtupping any Johns, to the ch…

It Came From the '90s: Barb Wire

This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade. [This post may not be safe for work, thanks to a gif below.]

More than two decades since its release, the sci-fi comic book movie Barb Wire remains one of the essential documents of the 1990s for a few reasons. As written by Chuck Pfarrer and Ilene Chaiken, the film feels like both a time capsule of the American decade in which it was made, and uncanny foreshadowing of where we've ended up in America today, in 2019.

I'm serious. Hear me out before you sneer.


Maybe you had to be there in order to fully appreciate the absolute lunacy of peak Pamela Anderson media hype. When that infamous sex tape of her and then-hubby Tommy Lee was stolen in 1995, it was uploaded to the still-nascent and damn-near lawless internet for all the world to see—well, okay, for people who had the patience to sit through dial-up's excruciating wait times. Then in 1996 the star of Bayw…

Is Margot Robbie the Next Michelle Pfeiffer?

My short answer to that headline? No. I'm not slighting Margot Robbie, though. I happen to think she's extremely talented, unfairly underrated, and a fine actress. It's just that, as we all know, there is only one Michelle Pfeiffer. Libby Gelman Waxner (aka Paul Rudnick) said it best:
Michelle Pfeiffer is what God had in mind for humanity before the blueprints got all smudged in the glove compartment. So, when Nylon recently made a case for Margot Robbie being this generation's Michelle Pfeiffer, some folks on the internet screamed, "Hell no!" Read Hayden Manders's article, then come on back for my thoughts.

Some Twitter reactionaries seemed to think Nylon meant that Robbie was usurping Pfeiffer. That's not the message I took from it, though. By "this generation" I think they mean the millennial generation. Robbie is a millennial, after all. Pfeiffer is technically a Boomer, but her birth year (1958) falls towards the tail end of the spectr…