40 Years of Dark Phoenix

The culmination of several years’ worth of serialized storytelling, Marvel’s Uncanny X-Men #137 hit newsstands and comic book shops forty years ago this summer. I didn’t read it until 1984, when it was collected in this then-newfangled thing called a graphic novel, which I begged my mother to buy for me from the local bookstore, all based on the stunningly evocative cover painting from Bill Sienkiewicz—“Who are these characters and why are they filled with such anguish?!?” Not sure I knew the word “anguish” yet but I understood it when I saw it. I was probably 8 at the time, and writer Chris Claremont and artists John Byrne and Terry Austin absolutely set the template for grand, epic, long-form storytelling in any medium for me. And if you loved Buffy The Vampire Slayer or Stranger Things or any number of similar shows or movies in the last few decades, just know they all owe a debt to Claremont and this book.

Obsessed, I read the entire Dark Phoenix Saga repeatedly back then, and I revisit it every few years still (I’ve also bought every damn hardcover, paperback, or omnibus collection of it they’ve published since—it’s a sickness, I know). The story of a woman stepping out of the shadows of her male counterparts and attaining the greatest powers in the known universe, and then confronting the consequences of all that power. Cosmic. All the themes I’ve been interested in since were established there, especially issues of identity, rebirth and renewal, and how the families we make can be the most fulfilling.

Those X-Men stories have never lost their ability to amaze, entertain, educate, and most of all inspire. It’s why people continue to write books and articles about them to this day, and why scholarly projects like The Claremont Run exist. And no, I don’t like the first movie adaptation of the Dark Phoenix Saga at all (it’s an abomination) and have zero interest in seeing the most recent and second stab at an adaptation either. If you didn’t read this story as a kid and live with it for decades, or if you never understood the magic that writers and artists working on strict monthly deadlines could conjure during those intoxicating, “anything goes” days of the ’70s and early ’80s comics industry, then maybe you wouldn’t get it, or why it holds such importance. I’m lucky, in that way, because I did, and always will.

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