For the second in the Official Marvel Graphic Novel Collection, attention turns to the band of mutants called the X-Men. Dark Phoenix is widely considered to be one of the all time classic stories. Originally published in 1980 and forming the basis of parts of the story of the X-Men movies, it concerns the absolute power and corruption of Jean Grey, one of the X-Men consumed by the Phoenix, a powerful cosmic entity.
The ‘Dark’ Phoenix element of the story refers to the conclusion of the long running saga that began nearly thirty issues earlier. I haven’t been exposed to this previous story, and only picked it up where Dark Phoenix begins. This particular run is often hailed as one of the best, if not the best run of comics – is it worthy of the hype?
Initially, on first reading, I really didn’t enjoy, or even particularly like Dark Phoenix. I find the older style of ‘see last issue’ or ‘see Issue #128’ a bit irritating. Yes, yes it is a symptom of the time and pops up in nearly every comic of the time. I just find with older comics that the progession of the story arc is slight in each issue. Yet, ironically, Dark Phoenix suffers, in my opinion, from underdevelopment in some quarters. The ideas are fired at you so fast that the story arc suffers and the ideas, which are fun, engaging and entertaining in equal measure, just don’t have the chance to breathe.
By far the most interesting thing in the story, the Hellfire Club (itself and it’s owner Jason Wyngarde a terrific in-joke and homage to The Avengers/Department S), is done and dusted with by halfway through the story. The interplay with Wyngarde attempting to seduce Jean Grey/Phoenix into becoming his Black Queen as the counterpart to Emma Frost’s White Queen is a very clever and interesting plot, that I think could have been a clever end to the story rather than the complex space battle on the Moon that we did have. The overly sexual nature of the club also makes it feel very sinister.
Wolverine: Alone, one of the middle issues in this collection is also apparently the first time that Wolverine is able to step out on his own. Contextually, readers seemed to have been waiting for this to happen. It is difficult for me to imagine, coming to this story at such a late stage what a unsaturated world for Wolverine would be like. It wasn’t until researching for this article I realised. At the time, I merely rolled my eyes and thought – here we go *again*. Shows how wrong you can be, I guess.
The moral questioning that the X-Men do before their battle with Liliana’s team is interesting – but ultimately does not come to anything – their loyalty to Jean and Cyclops holding out. This is a shame, because it provides some needed breathing space, the true feelings of the team are buried for the greater common good. A twist involving one of the X-Men could have provided a curveball that could have also propelled the next arc of stories.
I think Dark Phoenix is a story that you had to be there at the time for. Whilst it is a very entertaining story, and the ideas are very strong, the central themes have been watered down with the passage of time. Other comic series have aped this story; some have done it better. I also note that both Jean Grey and the Phoenix return at a later point in the series which like the return of any character considered ‘dead’ weakens the impact of the story in which they left. It is very difficult to contextualise in my head the impact that Dark Phoenix would have had at time in a pre-internet, pre-spoilers age. Being able to engage and discuss the story with fellow fans and speculate on the conclusion (which I presume many did not predict) I imagine was a major part of the Dark Phoenix experience.
I’ve found this a very difficult book to review. One hand, I can understand why it has attained it’s classic status. But on the other hand, the classic status is not timeless, the story and characters have dated. I think part of my resistance to like and enjoy superhero stories has something to do with my lack of enjoyment of the story as a whole as well. We will see if the other X-Men stories in the collection do anything more to engage me. Unfortunately, I thought that the sum of Dark Phoenix’s parts was ultimately less than it’s whole.
The Fiction Stroker gives The Uncanny X-Men – Dark Phoenix two strokes out of five: