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

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 th

Misspent Youth: Joanne Whalley

Looking back at the pop culture mainstays of this Gen-Xer's gloriously misspent youth. One of the most famous and oft-quoted Seinfeld scenes involves Bobka and Jerry's discovery of the existence of Cinnamon Bobka. After Elaine scoffs at the notion of such a thing, even calling it a "lesser Bobka," Jerry unleashes one of the great defenses of a freshly ground spice ever delivered: People love cinnamon. It should be on tables at restaurants along with salt and pepper. Anytime anyone says, "Oh This is so good. What's in it?" The answer invariably comes back, Cinnamon. Cinnamon. Again and again.  Joanne Whalley is like Cinnamon. Yes, I just compulsively double-checked my DVD copy and it's the unrated version, thank you very much. Let me explain. You see, during the formative years of my misspent youth, if I stumbled on a movie featuring the doe-eyed, petite, beautiful English actress, invariably I'd feel like Jerry does about Cin

All I Want For Christmas: Phoebe Cates's Monologue in Gremlins

Joe Dante's 1980s classic Gremlins will always be a subversive Christmas favorite. From Spike exploding in the microwave to Mrs. Daigle's "stairlift to hell", the movie is packed with deliciously transgressive moments that turn the holly jolly season right on its ear. None are more memorable, though, than Phoebe Cates delivering her legendary "worst thing that ever happened to me on Christmas" monologue. It's a jaw-dropping, tour-de-force moment, a truly horrific story that's also one of the most darkly comic moments in Christmas movie history. Cates really shines during this scene. There's no denying just how seminal that scene of hers in Fast Times at Ridgemont High was for a generation of young people, but her speech in Gremlins is equally important and a wonderful showcase for her serious and comedic acting skills.  Here's the speech, in its entirety. No Christmas season is complete without at least one viewing

Misspent Youth: Randi Brooks

Looking back at the pop culture mainstays of this Gen-Xer's gloriously misspent youth. ***** A note on the series and this site: This might be the final post in the "Misspent Youth" series - at least here. Maybe it'll eventually move with me. Oh, right, I buried the lede: I've moved, and would love for you to come visit me at my new site, The Starfire Lounge ! Moving forward, this site will likely cease to be updated, but will remain around for posterity and your continued reading pleasure. I have a few more things to post here over the coming days or weeks as a sort of "everything must go" send-off to the old girl. I also plan to write a final farewell post to my main online home for the last five years. Stay tuned and, as always, thanks for reading. ***** It's no surprise that the talented but now mostly forgotten Randi Brooks would make an appearance in the Misspent Youth series. She may not be a household name, but her resume

"That girl looks just like Pat Benatar"

Linda, that girl looks just like Pat Benatar. I know. Wait, there are three girls here at Ridgemont who have cultivated the Pat Benatar look. I was just a kid when Fast Times at Ridgemont High opened in 1982. Still though, even at the tender young age of seven, I knew who Pat Benatar was, because a.) her music was all over the radio and even then I recognized the utter awesomeness of her vocal talent in songs like "Hit Me With Your Best Shot", and b.) some of the older girls around town were obviously cribbing their looks—clothes, hair, makeup, strut—from Benatar's own style. Benatar was ubiquitous. So, when I see or hear vintage-era Benatar now, I think of Fast Times , but mostly I remember that ubiquity—of both the performer and her legion of young imitators. I know it's not true, but when I recollect those years I swear every older girl looked like either Benatar, Juice Newton, or Joan Jett. It's easy to forget, years later, that

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. The unadulterated nineties-ness of this is practically blinding. And I love it. 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 . That smile! Those legs! That dress! It's all overloading my circuits. I watched Friends with my friends, but I also thoroughly enjoyed The Nanny , to

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. Morgan Fairchild was legitimately one of the most potent sex symbols of the 1970s and '80s. 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. The shirt do

It Came From the '90s: Kelly Bundy and the Alternative Family Ideal

This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade. Very few television series in the 1990s were as polarizing as Married...with Children . People either loved it or they loathed it. TV critics and good upstanding Catholic families like mine fell into the latter category. Soon after it debuted during my first year of junior high in 1987 (not quite the '90s, but on the brink), my parents made it clear that we would not be watching. I believe the words they used were "vulgar," "unfunny," and, one of their perennial favorites, "risque." Of course, this meant it immediately took on a prurient appeal for me. Parents can never win, honestly. Kelly Bundy—the talented Christina Applegate, who never gets enough credit for elevating the blonde airhead trope into an art form—only further piqued my interest. She was like the girls in school with the absurdly voluminous hair and ridiculously sh

Margot Kidder and the Childhood Crush That Will Never Die

"I dream about sex, flying, and being chased by Nazis." — Margot Kidder,  Rolling Stone , "The Education of Margot Kidder", 1981 ***** File that quote under, "Reasons why I love Margot Kidder." Last month, Margot hopped a one-way flight with old pal Chris Reeve off into the stars and beyond, where they could reenact their iconic moment from  Superman  (1978), for all eternity. I wrote a little about Margot, here and here , trying to explain why this particular actress meant so much to me as a kid growing up in the 1980s. I thought that would be enough. It wasn't.* Those posts were my fumbling attempts to sort out just how large an impact Margot had on my young life, and, to my present-day surprise, how much she still means to me now. Before news of her death, I hadn't thought of her in ages. I assumed the early childhood crush I harbored for my Lois Lane had dwindled and faded. Ha! I was a fool. My crush on Margot was very

My Favorite Death Dealer: Kate Beckinsale

"I dropped out of Oxford, and now I only speak Russian with the woman who gives me a bikini-wax. See what Hollywood does to you?" "Apparently, I'm very good at firing a gun without blinking, which is unusual. That's why so many action characters have to wear sunglasses during shoot-out scenes. That's my party trick." "Someone once said that you can make the choice between getting old and getting creepy, and I think getting old is the way to go." ***** Before I begin, here's a haiku that took me at least ten seconds to write: Ah, Kate Beckinsale.  We'd gladly live with you, in your Underworld Yeah, so, I'm a fan. I've always been a fan of Kate Beckinsale, especially as the vampire Death Dealer Selene in the action/horror franchise  Underworld  (five films and counting now) and as a young upwardly mobile publishing professional in Whit Stillman's masterpiece of earl