“Jean Grey could have lived to become a god. But it was more important to her that she die…a human.”
This won’t surprise most of you, but I’d never picked up an X-Men comic before two weeks ago. I know. Feel free to shame me.
It didn’t happen for various reasons including lack of time, the fact that I have at least 1,138 other things to read, and the huge amount of history intimidated me. Something I’m learning (among many things) about superhero comics with decades of backstory is that there’s a way to present stories so that a newbie like me can jump in without feeling completely lost. It can’t be an easy task for storytellers to create issues that are welcoming enough for us new folks but still meaty enough for long time fans. The difficulty in doing so is evident in the number of issues I’ve read that lacked this, and it’s discouraging. Comics have to nail the right balance of providing the basics, hinting at the past, and not leaving too much out and not going too overboard including all the facts.
The Dark Phoenix Saga by Chris Claremont and John Byrne delivered on all counts.
When I was handed my stack of “research,” the Dark Phoenix Saga immediately caught my eye. Partially because I’ve seen the X-Men movies and liked Jean Grey, but mostly because a friend of mine has talked about Dark Phoenix and Jean Grey and Scott Summers and I couldn’t wait to read more. I was nervous about not starting from the beginning, but my impatience won out (it usually does) and I was rewarded. I fell in love with the story of Jean Grey’s fall from grace and sacrifice, and I was crazy impressed with the presentation. I was even more impressed after I put the book aside and learned that not only did the saga traverse an intense, emotional character arc, it also introduced new heroes and villains while doing so.
At no point in the Dark Phoenix Saga did I feel lost. I was familiar with some of the characters from the films or other comics (I may have cheered when the Beast showed up), but I know nothing about the history of the X-Men nor do I know origin stories or who made up the original team. It didn’t matter. I walked right into this group of mutants and it was easy to keep pace. It might seem like a little thing to those of you who have read All. The. Comics. but to someone like me diving into this vast superhero world, it’s a relief. I can usually tell early on if it’s going to be one of those stories, and I knew Dark Phoenix was different.
This part is key: Claremont doesn’t shy away about referencing the past. You can’t do that without doing a disservice to the book and characters, but it’s easy to take it to a point of too much backstory. He doesn’t emphasize the entire history so much though that newcomers feel like outsiders. For example, it was apparent that Xavier and Lilandra of the Shi’ar shared a past and they both had unresolved feelings for each other. Their connection was told with just a few lines, and that’s all I needed. Banshee is with Moira MacTaggert and obviously used to be part of the team but lost his powers. They were relevant to the story, and I grasped the basics of Banshee’s history without a flashback. All the important information is conveyed without overload and without making me feel dumb. Again, it’s simple but it doesn’t always happen.
Now, combine all that delicate weaving with new character introductions: Kitty Pryde, Emma Frost, Sebastian Shaw, and Dazzler. It also formally presents the Hellfire Club.
Finally, add in an incredibly powerful story of love and loss and sacrifice and power. Granted, I only know Jean Grey from this one book, but I can see the drastic changes and the hell she goes through. I get some of that directly from her, but I get most of it from the reactions to her behavior from Cyclops, Storm, Colossus, Nightcrawler, and even Wolverine. They are noticing her transformation and though they comment on it, they don’t beat you over the head with it. I know the progression towards Dark Phoenix started many issues before this final chapter, but even so, it wasn’t rushed. Her dark ending didn’t come out of nowhere. And I can’t discuss that or her and Scott Summers more without crying.
I think Dark Phoenix Saga is comics storytelling at its absolute finest. It will be a book I recommend to new readers to comics and specifically new readers of superhero comics. I’ll also be reading it again and again.
I know this is somewhat off-topic, but since it was mentioned briefly, I guess I don’t understand why people are intimidated with starting a comic in the middle somewhere. A fan asks about it in the letters page of the latest “Invincible” (issue #91) and editor Sina’s response was:
“You wanna know what my first issue of X-Men was? Some random issue on the three-hundreds…That’s kind of the fun about serialized superhero books: you can pick up at any point (especially in bold new eras), feel utterly lost, and be compelled to go back and find out who these intriguing side characters are.”
With Kirkman adding:
“My first X-Men…it was 276 with Wolverine stabbing Xavier on the cover and it had Gambit and Jubilee in space suits fighting the Shi’Ar inside… and I loved it… and I had no clue what was going on.
I wish more new comic readers were open to trying new things and just… going with the flow as people used to be.”
Which is pretty much how I’ve always felt when people mention comics with a past being too intimidating to start reading.
With regards to the Dark Phoenix Saga, absolutely, it was one of the best ever stories in comics, and few can write for the X-Men like Claremont.
For me, it’s just an intense feeling that I will miss something. That the past will be referenced so much that I feel lost. And I’ve encountered that in Spider-Man, Thor, and a few other titles. I should overcome that hesitation… but instead, sometimes I’d rather just pick up a one-shot or a self-contained graphic novel.
I’m getting better though thanks to books like the Dark Phoenix Saga!