Well, if you’ve been waiting for my epic reread of the Uncanny X-Men to reach one of the most consequential and memorable stories in comic history, your waiting has paid off. It only took 26 blog posts, but we’ve arrived at the beginning of the Dark Phoenix Saga. This arc of the Dark Phoenix Saga, from issue #129 to #131 does some major things.
First, it introduces a mutant who will over the course of the coming decades become a very important X-Man and eventually one of the team leaders: Kitty Pryde. Second, it introduces a mutant who over than same time period will become an iconic X-Men rival and villain, and eventually an ally, teammate and leader herself: Emma Frost. Third, it deepens the corruption of Phoenix’ soul by Jason Wyngarde and Emma Frost.
The plot is very cloak and dagger. Remember in the X-Mansion invasion story in issue #110 that I didn’t cover because the art so turned me off (my X-Men post Part XX)? The invader was an employee of the Hellfire Club and put bugs on everything so the Hellfire Club would have all the data they wanted from Cerebro and the Danger Room training files. The Hellfire Club has been building up to making its move on the X-Men.
The first appearance of Emma Frost
So in #129, when Cerebro discovers two new mutants, Cyclops, Phoenix and Nightcrawler go to New York and the Professor accompanies Storm, Colossus and Wolverine to Chicago to meet the other, the Hellfire Club not only sets ambushes, but ambushes tailored to each X-man.
The very first appearance of Kitty Pryde!
The rest of the external plot is great superheroing adventure with half of the X-Men trying to rescue the other half. But the real story is the gradual changes in Phoenix.
We’ve not only seen her power level introduced at the level of a Galactus herald and seen her power a stargate (issue #105) as well as save the fabric of the universe itself (issue #108), we’ve seen a change in personality. She has enjoyed using her power and she’s been giving increasing hints of enjoying responding with a violence (issue #105 against Firelord, in #112 and #113 against Magneto and in #128 against Proteus).
At the same time, she’s been experiencing wholly immersive timeslips where she seems to be living the life of a colonial ancestor with passions and tastes and Jean Grey herself has never experienced or processed, including being married to the 1979 version of a hot guy who gives her the thrills.
This is of course the work of Jason Wyngarde using technology developed by Emma Frost to put not only illusions directly into Phoenix’ mind, but emotions too, but emotions that draw their strength from those places where people hide their dark thoughts.
It’s not that we don’t all have the occasional thoughts of wanting to punch some idiot or wish a bad fate on some bad person, but we live in a society of laws, with no more power than anyone else. Jean Grey has become Phoenix and Jason Wyngarde’s whispering amounts to “who’s going to stop you and why would you care if anyone didn’t like it?” It’s a very seductive message for someone who’s been given essentially infinite power and this is some messed up manipulation. Her time slips begin before the X-Men have even returned to the States, and Jean is scared of them and doesn’t tell Cyclops about them.
It gets worse when Phoenix, Cyclops and Nightcrawler go to a dive disco looking for the other mutant detected by Cerebro.
Aside from the fun of seeing both Jean and Scott as fish-out-of-water in a seedy disco, there are more hints of something changing in Phoenix’ mind and thoughts and wants. Phoenix is mind-scanning the disco as she searched for the mutant and she describes some of the thoughts she gets from some of the patrons as vile and perhaps a bit attractive.
And things then get more messed up. Jason Wyngarde is there, in person like he’d been in Scotland, and suddenly, Phoenix is back in time, at her wedding to Sir Jason. Her emotions are stirred up and she has appetites for her wedding night, but this isn’t a wedding in church.
This is a wedding in a desecrated church surrounded by members of a club with “Hellfire” in its name. And Jean the bride is not blushing in white, but proud and commanding in black leather, brandishing a whip as she is presented to the world not as the wife of Jason Wyngarde but as the Black Queen of the Hellfire Club.
This has got to hurt Scott, but there’s no time for anyone to sort out this tortured situation, because we get the first appearance of Dazzler, whose legacy does not loom as consequential as either Kitty Pryde or Emma Frost. However, she does become a regular member of the X-Men by the late 80s and stars in a mini-series with Beast around the mid-80s. From ’81-’86 she has her own series, but I don’t know that I ever took it very seriously as it featured a lot of low-cut outfits and lame or mismatched villains.
Phoenix’s continuing moral shifts continue in issue #130 when she rescues Kitty from some Hellfire Club goons by totally their car effortlessly. It’s a very Wolverine way of dealing with threats and not a very traditionally Jean Grey method.
Scott notices of course, but Phoenix is remorseless: “These… animals got no more than they deserved” (below).
I did quite like the Jean-Kitty moment below when Jean is looking to get Kitty’s trust. Part of what we’re tracking though is the ease with which she manipulates matter at the molecular level. This is something Phoenix is doing more and more for fun and to show off (Silver Age Jean was not a show-off) and this part of her power set is a lot closer to Molecule Man or the Silver Surfer than anything the X-Men had on the team before.
When Phoenix mind-scans the goons, she finds her two worlds colliding, as she finds out that the goons are part of the Hellfire Club, but she still doesn’t know how to admit to Scott that she’s been having these time slips, which are making her doubt her sanity.
But there’s still lots to Phoenix that disturbs Scott, like when Phoenix takes the car she totalled, fixes it by reorganizing all its molecules and then runs a dead or unconscious goon like a puppet with her telepathic and telekinetic powers so that not even the other goons know that he’s a marionette.
They penetrate the Hellfire Club base and Phoenix goes ahead to rescue Storm who’s about to be turned into a vegetable by Emma Frost. Phoenix is swaggering, threatening and trash talking and is obviously looking forward to putting the beats on Frost.
Storm gets to see the battle, both Phoenix power and savagery as well as how after a time, it turns out she’s just toying with Frost, one of the most powerful telepaths on the planet.
In the end, the contest between Phoenix and the White Queen is no contest at all, and as far as we know, Frost is dead in the rubble. There’s one last important character development point for Phoenix at the end of the story. Kitty’s parents are obviously beside themselves with worry and Phoenix just changes their memories to make the argument go away.
It’s not like Professor Xavier hasn’t done this before, but Jean hasn’t and it’s a further step down a path that Scott and Ororo notice Jean travelling.
We have now started the Dark Phoenix Saga. I think that this arc is so historic and important that I’ll take either 3 or 4 posts to cover the nine issues. Hopefully you’ll join me!
It’s important that I add that we’re following my read right now, but there are many interpretations to this story. Some modern readers (and even contemporaries of mine) who will struggle with Claremont’s Bronze Age prose. I’ve seen some amazing analyses from feminist perspectives, from anti-patriarchy viewpoints and so on, and all of them are right, even mine, because the final author of any story is the reader, who has to translate all the efforts of the creative team into a story in their own head. If you want different views, I encourage you to look some of them up.
If you’ve never read this arc, the Dark Phoenix Saga trade paperback is almost certainly available for cheap as an electronic edition, and I get Marvel Unlimited for about $70USD per year. If you want to catch up on any of my other posts about the X-Men:
- Part I: Introducing The Strangest Super-Team of All: Uncanny X-Men #1 (Nov 1963) to #20 (May 1966)
- Part II: Early Guest Appearances (1964-65), Uncanny X-Men #21-23 (1966), and X-Men: First Class Volume I (2006)
- Part III: X-Men: First Class, Volume II (2007) and First Class Finals
- Part IV: Uncanny X-Men #24-39: The Middle Years of the Original Team
- Part V: Uncanny X-Men #40-48: Death and Separation
- Part VI: Uncanny X-Men #49-53: Reunion and Family and Steranko
- Part VII: Uncanny X-Men #54-58 — Havok and Neal Adams
- Part VIII: Uncanny X-Men #59-66: The Savage Land and the End of the Silver Age X-Men
- Part IX: Filling in the Corners of the Original X-Men with Savage Hulk #1-4
- Part X: John Byrne’s The Hidden Years #1-4
- Part XI: Storm, the FF and Phoenix in John Byrne’s The Hidden Years
- Part XII: X-Men Guest Appearances in 1971-1972 and Hank gets Furry!
- Part XIII: Englehart’s Bronze Age Monster Horror – The Beast
- Part XIV: 1973 and 1974 – Magneto, the Hulk, Banshee and post-Watergate Captain America
- Part XV: 1974 and 1975 – The Last Tales of the Original X-Men
- Part XVI: Enter Wein, Claremont and Cockrum in 1975
- Part XVII: 1976 — Sentinels in Space and the Rise of Phoenix
- Part XVIII: Juggernaut and Magneto — For the Very First Time
- Part XIX: Phoenix, Firelord and the Imperial Guard
- Part XX: Iron Fist, Blame Canada and Some Strike-Outs
- Part XXI: Epic Magneto Triumph and more X-Men Death!
- Part XXII: 1978 — The Savage Land, Japan and Psionic Throwback Thursday!
- Part XXIII: 1979 — Chaos in Canada with Alpha Flight!
- Part XXIV: Arcade, Murderworld and their First King-Sized Annual
- Part XXV: The Proteus Saga!
Derek Künsken writes science fiction in Gatineau, Québec. His first novel, The Quantum Magician, a space opera heist, was a finalist for the Locus, Aurora and Chinese Nebula awards. Its sequel, The Quantum Garden was an Aurora finalist as well. His third novel, The House of Styx, got a starred review in Publishers’ Weekly and the Library Journal and is out in audio and ebook (order link); and the hardcover will release in April, 2021.