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. 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. While I don't have any tattoos, the only one I've ever seriously contemplated getting is the Phoenix logo (I still might do it one day, honest). 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

RIP Chris Cornell

He was Louder Than Love.
When we were younger and knew nothing, people like Chris Cornell were our mentors, leading us down some interesting paths. They didn't have answers and they made that clear; they just made incredible, invigorating, heartbreaking, and memorable music that helped us get through most anything. "My Wave" was like a mantra:  Don't come over here
Piss on my gate
Save it just keep it off my wave I used to scour liner notes back then and when I discovered Cornell's music publishing name was "You Make Me Sick I Make Music" I thought, that's perfect. Take your defiance, your anger, your disgust with how cruel the world can be and channel it into something. Music, art, your friends and family, anything productive.

His death is devastating. To me, my friends, the world. Every time someone of his stature dies, people ask "You didn't know him personally, why do you care?" And I feel anger and a fury inside well up because t…

Even walls fall down

Memories rushing in, like waves crashin' on the beach.
I'm a bad boy, 'cause I don't even miss her / I'm a bad boy, for breakin' her heart
Young and selfish, unhappy and escaping to a brighter, better place, self-preservation conquers regret, self-loathing replaced by a tentative confidence. A perfect song, this was on constant rotation during those years, both on MTV and inside my head.
I'll be the boy in the corduroy pants / you'll be the girl at the high school dance
Summer '95, outside, evening air, then-girlfriend, me, and 25,000 other voices, singing every word at the tops of our lungs, as if our very existence depended on it.
Sometimes you're happy / sometimes you cry / half of me is ocean / half of me is sky
'96, then-girlfriend is now ex-girlfriend, but hearing this then-new song helps me remember, and appreciate, a heart so big it could crush this town.
The waiting is the hardest part
Must've included this song on every mixtape I …

It Came From the '90s: The Shock and Awe of Divinyls

This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

Peeling out of the church parking lot after Sunday night religious ed class, Divinyls' "I Touch Myself" blasting from the car stereo. This makes the passengers giggle like the immature dorks we are, while the friend behind the wheel is grinning out the window at the religious education teachers. The rest of us, shy and non-confrontational, smile sheepishly from the backseat.

The teachers look extremely displeased. I think one shakes her head in disgust. Each generation looks at their successors this way at one point or another, it's unavoidable. The old timers, shocked and appalled, plus a little envious, when confronted with the temerity of youth.

While I'm just an accomplice in the car—I didn't know the driver was going to do that when he turned the ignition key and the song started playing on the radio—each of us has at least a little fun in…

It Came From the '90s: Not For You

This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

Generation X. Alternative Nation. Slackers. Kids in flannels.

In the early and mid 1990s, teens and young adults of a certain age were given all of those monikers, and several others too. Full disclosure, I was one of those kids. Every generation goes through a period like that—when they're the up-and-comers trying to break free of the previous generation, A period of endless media and societal fascination leading to unfair stereotyping and marginalization.

Pearl Jam's "Not For You," from 1994's seismic blast of an album Vitalogy, seemed to be directly addressing this divide between the members of Gen X and their elders. Vitalogy was the most anticipated album of the year. Kurt Cobain killed himself that spring, leaving Pearl Jam alone at the top of the rock mountain, whether they wanted to be there or not. They were the biggest band in the world d…

Michelle Pfeiffer: Frankie and Johnny

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

And then there was the time my two favorites starred in one of the most starkly honest and mature films about grownup relationships this viewer has ever seen. Frankie and Johnny (1991) is a beautifully melancholic tale, laced through with rich and sincere humor aimed at adults—people who've lived long enough to have loved and lost and felt real longing and despair.
Al Pacino is fantastic as Johnny, the new short-order cook at the diner where Michelle Pfeiffer's Frankie works. Johnny is a good man who truly believes that he and Frankie are meant to be together. Johnny is fully alive now to the realization that life is short, so he's resolved to cherish every minute of it moving forward. Frankie is the cynic, the beaten-down diner waitress who masks the pain of previous relationship failures with biting sarcasm and avoidance. She's the…

It Came From the '90s: For D’arcy (Sail on Silver Girl)

This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

Search any dorm room across campus, circa 1995, and you'd likely find a copy of Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits. Many copies would've been acquired through BMG's or Columbia House's music clubs ("12 Hot Hits for a Cool Penny"). "Cecilia" was always a hallway jam favorite, especially in the girls' dorms, but "Bridge over Troubled Water" was deep, man.

Sail on silver girl Sail on by Your time has come to shine All your dreams are on their way See how they shine Oh, if you need a friend I'm sailing right behind Like a bridge over troubled water I will ease your mind Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind
That image of "Silver Girl" was particularly evocative to me—of what, I wasn't quite sure, but it was all so lovely and damaged in its own twee way. Who was this Silver Girl? Was I s…

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 short ski…

Gonna make you, make you, make you notice: The musical constancy of the Pretenders

That's Chrissie Hynde's face staring back at you on this blog's header. I've written about Hynde and the Pretenders here on more than one occasion. So it was only a matter of time before I wrote at greater length about her music and influence. She's provided me with a lifetime of deeply personal music to which I can relate to and also be constantly surprised by. There are several other artists, writers, and musicians whose work I've been equally invested in over the years, but my affection for Hynde and the Pretenders goes back to my formative years and is so intertwined with my life that it's almost impossible to separate the two.

Their debut album, Pretenders, was one of the first rock albums I ever owned and, as I like telling anyone within ear shot, a stone-cold perfect album that I've been comparing other great records to ever since. It's a masterpiece and one of the most impressive debuts in rock history. It contains everything you need to kn…

It Came From the '90s: "I want to write her name in the sky"

This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

It wasn't just Tom Petty's words and music that imprinted on us, it was also his videos that resonated, their images forever stored inside us, helping guide us through life. They seemed to originate within us, as if Petty was simply reflecting back our own lives and experiences.


We were the MTV generation, and for a stretch during the '80s and '90s, words and pictures melded together in perfect harmony, a perfect pop cultural storm. None more perfect than Petty's videos.


"Free Fallin'", from 1989—when the earliest and bravest explorers of the uncharted '90s first started beaming back messages to the mother planet— is one of Petty's more straightforward video-stories, yet it's still packed tight with an unassuming yet sharply wrought commentary on contemporary Americana—Petty's stock and trade, after all.


Our teenage hero…

It Came From the '90s: Against the '70s

This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

"The kids of today should defend themselves against the '70s."

Fewer lyrics better encapsulate growing up in the '90s than those in Mike Watt's "Against the '70s" (shrewdly sung by Eddie Vedder). We teens and young adults of the decade were often subconsciously measuring ourselves against the mustard-yellow, shag-carpeted "Me Decade." We expended an awful lot of energy raging against and fetishizing the 1970s.

The '70s provided several underpinnings of the '90s, including of course the notion of authenticity. In the '90s it was enormously important that we be, above all else, authentic. As authentic as Bowie or Springsteen or Scorsese were in their '70s work that we idolized. We were utterly obsessive about not selling out, about keeping it real. Maybe it's because so many Gen Xers were born in the '7…