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Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Uncanny X-Men: Dark Phoenix saga

Writer: Chris Claremont and John Byrne
Penciller: John Byrne
Inker: Terry Austin
Letterer: Tom Orzechowski
Colorist: Bob Sharen and Glynis Wein
Publisher: Marvel Comics

What's it about?
The X-Men are a team of mutants.  That is, their genetics give them superpowers - anything from a healing factor, to telekinesis, to angel wings, to the ability to phase through solid objects.  Professor Charles Xavier, a phenomenal telepath, is the head of the X-Men.  As a team they fight terrible threats from this earth and beyond, and struggle to gain acceptance from regular humans who sadly are taught to hate and fear them.

Jean Grey is also a telepath. She's incredibly powerful but too young to fully handle this power, so has blocks placed on her abilities (by Xavier) to ensure she doesn't harm herself or others.  The Dark Phoenix saga is the story of how these blocks are lifted, how she gains power beyond measure and threatens the entire universe, and how the X-Men (and others) save the world.

What’s good about it?
Read with a child or teenager’s eyes - i.e. who the book was written for - it’s a straightforward story of good and evil, redemption and responsibility, action and adventure.  It’s got a lot of charm to it – it’s not written knowingly dark or edgy or cynical.  There is a great cast of X-Men characters and it introduces fan favourites Kitty Pryde (Shadowcat), Emma Frost (The White Queen), and Alison Blaire (Dazzler).  You’ll find a lot of other characters from the films here too – Wolverine, Cyclops, the Blob, Beast, Nightcrawler, Colossus, Storm and more.  The dialogue is great and the voices for each character are distinct.  I admit I fell a little in love with Kitty in this story: she’s adorable.
When I said that this is a story of responsibility, I meant that it’s about characters taking responsibility for their own actions.  They may find themselves in dire places but they don’t complain and whinge - they get on with fixing the problem, even when they are scared.  Kitty and Jean are the best examples of this: they are very different characters, with very different power sets and different histories, but they both deal with the situation that's thrown at them.  That’s the sort of optimism and positivity I want to read about.

There is an equally strong emphasis on teamwork and love. I won’t go into the whys and wherefores as I don’t want to spoil it, but part of the thing that makes the X-Men so appealing for me, far beyond the Avengers, is that they really are a self-made family.  They are thrown together, and their common mutant bonds make them fierce and strong and unstoppable.  Cyclops' love for Jean, and Jean’s capability for great love and compassion, shines through in this book.

A lot of women have talked about how this story resonates with them and that they find it empowering.  Partly this is to do with the idea of Jean Grey, once the token girl on the team, becoming uber-powerful; and partly this is to do with the inclusion of characters like Kitty Pryde, Alison Blaire, Emma Frost, and Storm.  You don't really get to know Storm or Emma in this book, but the other two certainly do make an impact.
I love the multinational elements of the team – Nightcrawler is German and Colossus is Russian. They regularly speak in their mother tongues and their nationality is a core part of who they are.  As a comparison, this isn’t something you often get in DC’s superteams who tend to remain overwhelmingly American.

What’s bad about it?
The summary I gave makes it sound really creepy.  I only realised this when writing the synopsis, but as this book is such a commonly cited entry point into the X-Men franchise, and was used in the X-Men films, I have opted to cover it.

There are problems with the book.  Xavier, as an adult man, putting blocks on Jean Grey’s abilities when she’s a teenager is weird, and can easily be read as a warning against dangerous women: Beware, we must control and sedate them lest they be the death of all we hold dear.  I mean, honestly!  There’s also other bizarre stuff around how Jean gets the blocks lifted.  Essentially there’s an illusionist who, with the help of another telepath, takes control of Jean’s mind and convinces her she is shifting between the present and the 1800s.  In the 1800s she is made to fall in love with the illusionist, so with your adult eyes on you can see that this is a kind of rape. Great.  However, if you view it with a child’s eye then it’s not rape, it’s Jean being tricked into far more innocent dances and kisses.  What I’m trying to say is that I don’t think the writers intended it to come across quite so badly - and at any rate the villains do get their comeuppance.

This has been written about with more depth and expertise over on the Fantastic Fangirls site.  I recommend you read that article, although be warned: there are spoilers.

What’s the art like?
This is a book of its time.  The artwork looks dated and old fashioned but that doesn't mean it's not good.  The story is very much told through the narration and dialogue, not through the art.  Each panel aptly illustrates the action, but there isn’t much sense of movement or flow.  It’s like a snapshot of a scene.  However, the expressions are great and the characters are distinct.  Kitty Pryde is drawn with a child's body, which you might think should be the standard as she is a child, but it is not so common nowadays.  The colours are not so vivid as in more modern comics and there isn't much variance in shades, so it's up to the inker to provide depth to each piece.  Sometimes this means the panels look rather two dimensional but sometimes, like with this Wolverine image, you do get a real sense of depth:

For a criticism, Emma Frost - the White Queen -  isn’t given much agency; she looks kind of dead.  Also, the Black and White Queen outfits are eye rollingly awful.  They wear a corset, knickers, cape, boots and gloves.  That's it.  I am somewhat sick of the trope that evil women wear next to nothing.  Now in Emma's case, her White Queen outfit does (eventually) make sense as we learn that her sexuality is a big part of her personality (and is what has drawn her so many female fans), but the problem is that we don't know this during this book.  As for Jean wearing next to nothing - that's just straight up sexism.

Lastly, each new issue is heralded in with gorgeous spreads like these:
The page on the right is from the original issue, the page on the left was created for this trade (I believe).  There's a different character for each new issue.

Other information
The edition I have is currently out of print but is available secondhand for just a few pounds.  It collects Uncanny X-Men #129-137, from the 1980s.  There are a range of covers available.
The next book to read after this is X-Men: Days of Future Past.  It's an epilogue to Jean's story and it provides the basis for the upcoming 2014 X-Men: Days of Future Past film.
Both the Dark Phoenix Saga and Days of Future Past are available on Comixology.
As for other X-Men books, soon we'll have a list of recommended runs and titles to read.  If you simply can't wait, check out the Trade Reading Order website for the reading order.

Special thanks go to Caroline of Fantastic Fangirls, aka @madmarvelgirl, for her help and expertise with putting this post together.

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