Wednesday, June 13, 2012

GN Review -- X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga / Chris Claremont and John Byrne

In a lot of ways, this read was a long time coming.  I've read about the Dark Phoenix Saga for years, and I knew all about it: the seduction of Jean Grey, the Hellfire Club's involvement in her corruption, Phoenix's fall to malice and power and destruction, and Jean's final sacrifice so that her friends, her universe would live.  I've even read small segments of it: Jean holding in Scott's optic blasts so she could see his face, establishment of their psychic rapport, even a few shots of Dark Phoenix's debut and assault on her former teammates.

If this story proves anything, it's that knowing about a story and reading it are two entirely different things.

Collecting Uncanny X-Men #129-137, this arc does way more than I realized it did before finally cracking open the source material to read.  Sure, Jean Grey is manipulated, falls from grace, becomes a force for evil, and sacrifices herself during her final period of clarity; we all know that.  But a lot of other classic events occur during this story arc.

Kitty Pryde and Dazzler are introduced and foreshadowed as potential teammates.  Emma Frost is introduced as the White Queen, who will plague the X-Men in future storylines and eventually become one of their most prominent members.  And Wolverine finally throws down on the Hellfire Club by himself in a classic moment that has become the basis for his establishment as Marvel's badass-in-residence.

One other noteworthy feature about this story is the sheer density of the material.  It took me much longer to read this volume than it takes me to read most modern comics.  Chris Claremont packs every single panel with paragraphs of narration, exposition, and literary exploration as he weaves his epic tale of tragedy.  By comparison, most of today's comics seem to be written for an audience with a much lower attention span.  While I admit it could be a little exhausting to get through at times, I came through with a much deeper understanding and enjoyment of the story than I have with many.

The denouement of the story is what makes it particularly tragic, as the X-Men are kidnapped by the Shi'ar Empire for Dark Phoenix's crimes, and it is revealed that, though Professor X was successful in shutting down the Dark Phoenix, the possibility of her recurrence was all too real.  Jean, who was in control of herself at the time, knew maintaining that control for the rest of her life would be impossible, and engineered her own demise in the duel to the death between the X-Men and the Imperial Guard, regardless of the outcome and despite Cyclops's own plea with her to find another way.  Her explanation of how difficult it would be to keep the Dark Phoenix at bay is particularly moving and revealing, as we see that her absolute power would not only corrupt her absolutely, but also plague her for the rest of her life.

Artistically, I have to give props to John Byrne's work, and the many faces he so adeptly gave Jean as she switched from pure to decadent, from helpless to all-powerful, from angelic to demonic.  His depictions of the characters is widely considered classic, and while it looks less hyper-realistic than some of the art styles widely seen in comics today, it is nevertheless an excellent rendering that allows for a wide range of expressions and dynamics.  Emotion, action, and drama are all convincingly conveyed, enhancing the narrative immeasurably.

Overall, this classic storyline is a must-read for any serious comic book or X-Men fan.  It not only contains one of the X-Men's most heart-rending trials, but is well-told and well-drawn.  Highly recommended.

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