Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Review # 128: "The Dark Phoenix Saga"

This is a write-up I have been looking forward to since I started this blog. With no reservations I can tell you that "The Dark Phoenix Saga" is my favourite comic book story of all time, one of my favourite stories of all time and my pick as the greatest in the history of its medium.

It is a mind-bogglingly perfect culmination of everything that preceded it from the moment Jean Grey walked through the doors of Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters to learning of the pining affection she had for Scott Summers (and vice-versa) to the team's commercial demise to the team's renewal to the brewing love triangle between Jean, Scott and Wolverine. The series of soliloquies from each member of the X-Men as they prepare for the final battle for Jean Grey's soul is the finest writing Chris Claremont ever produced, and he did more with this team than anyone before or since. For me, that's what separates it from the likes of "Watchmen," "Kingdom Come" or "The Dark Knight Returns:" these characters are all as they appear in continuity. No tweaks to the universe, no unique interpretations, nothing. Claremont, John Byrne and - in the greatest inking performance of all time - Terry Austin did NOT have the luxury of a blank slate. The likes of Alan Moore, Mark Waid and Frank Miller all did, known properties or not.

And it's with that thought that I say this: this book will never... never be properly adapted.

So many things have been written about "The Dark Phoenix Saga" that I wasn't sure what unique angle I could take in this piece. But then I thought of a friend who didn't take up an offer for me to lend this to him, saying he'd already seen one of its "recreations" and didn't come away all that impressed.

I was stunned. It was tragic.

See, he wasn't talking about X-Men 3 which we all know is terrible so I won't waste any more time on it. He was talking about the 90's cartoon, arguably the best superhero adaptation there's ever been. And, hot damn, did they ever do everything they could to do this story justice. While every other episode was loosely based on events mainly from Claremont's run, their version of TDPS was - at times - word for word. Hell, shot for shot. Many sequences - including when Jean snaps at Jason Wyngarde - were copied straight from Byrne's layouts and Austin's shading. Sebastian Shaw, Emma Frost, Harry Leland and Donald Pierce - who all debuted during this story as the Inner Circle of the Hellfire Club - are depicted perfectly.

But I can understand why it didn't resonate with my friend. Because of the constraints of the medium and its own character selection, the cartoon manages to leave out or compromise almost everything that makes it legendary.

There are three major differences in the story where the cartoon missed the mark. First, in the original piece, Jean Grey dies. Forget the retcons, forget the resurrections. As it was originally intended, Phoenix dies by her own hand. That bit at the end of the TV adaptation where the other X-Men give bits of their lifeforce to restore her is bullsh*t. It can't be resolved that easily and without consequence. Seriously, Phoenix had just killed billions of people.

Oh, right. There's the second big difference. In both the TV and movie adaptations, Jean exists only as a threat, not as an entity that has murdered an entire civilization, let alone additional alien military. The weight and conflict that adds to the final issue is immeasurable. As the X-Men fight for their friend, they are burdened with doubt. Wolverine tossing Colossus at Jean as she turns once again into Phoenix exemplifies all that. You have Logan throwing Peter because Wolverine couldn't kill Jean earlier when he had the chance, then Peter pulling his punch as he also can't pull the figurative trigger.

But that is far from the biggest moment for Logan. "The Dark Phoenix Saga" made Wolverine a star. After it appeared he had been killed by Leland, he goes on a violent revenge spree against the Hellfire Club's foot soldiers. His darker side had been hinted at, but this was the first time readers really got to see Logan eviscerate people. You could barely get away with showing some of this in a comic at the time, and on a cartoon years later it was still much more tame. Remember: this is the most popular character in Marvel history we're talking about here. The influence of that sequence is of tremendous measure.

(Also, his revenge against Leland... I never get tired of how it happens. SO great.)

Now, that's just the big three. There are so many other important differences. You have the debuts of Kitty Pryde and Dazzler, the Cyclops and Phoenix sequence on the mesa, Angel's return, Wyngarde using his illusions to depict the imprisoned X-Men as revolutionary soldiers and a turncoat slave, Jean's return to her childhood home in full and - my absolute favourite - the Avenger Beast on monitor duty seeing an alert about the X-Men and having a crisis of faith.

I'm sure there's more that I'm missing, but the most important thought I can parlay is that this is a perfect comic. Marvel has had 35 years now to top it. They haven't.

They won't.

Rating: 10/10

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