Ever to Ashes:

The Unadaptable Nature of the Dark Phoenix Saga

Dark Phoenix TPB Cover by Bill Sienkiewicz

INTRO

As Hollywood takes its second big stab at The Dark Phoenix Saga, the most popular X-Men storyline of all-time, certain age-old arguments about the adaptability of comics properties find new footing in our collective culture once again. There exists a narrative (perhaps a myth) that supposes comics should be easy to adapt to film – they are, as many have pointed out, basically storyboards.

The largest unaccounted for element in this theory however is continuity and, as it happens, The Dark Phoenix Saga was written by Chris Claremont (with John Byrne as artist and co-plotter), an author whose extensive use of complex, long-form continuity is the stuff of comics legend. As noted by Elle Collins in an essay for Comics Alliance, Claremont “not only defined the X-Men, pretty much forever, he changed comics with his emphasis on character development, melodrama, and long-game storytelling” (n.p.). Movies can do character development and melodrama easily enough. Long-continuity storytelling, is where they’re going to struggle to replicate Claremont’s most iconic story.

The average superhero film based on comics will deal with a 3-6 issue story arc, and even then may struggle to cram all of that material into a 2-3 hour run-time. When attempting to handle more than that – such as the case with Zach Snyder’s adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons 12-issue Watchmen series – the result is too often something close to a confused (and confusing) mess.

The Dark Phoenix Saga is, ultimately, the continuation of the broader Phoenix Saga, which begins as early as Uncanny X-Men #97, Claremont’s first issue as the sole credited writer on Uncanny X-Men. The broader Phoenix Saga does not finish until Uncanny X-Men #137, 4 years and 40 issues later. Perceiving the story in this light, as part of this greater continuity that Claremont is “the master of” (Collins n.p.), illuminates a story that is about more than just the dark side within every person (a clichéd trope that we’ve seen all too many times) and one that does not fall easily into certain, potentially offensive, simplistic readings of the text along lines of gender, sex, and character-related meaning. Taking Dark Phoenix out of the context of its original continuity, as any film adaptation is forced to do, creates a shallower final product that fails to reach the level of quality and complexity demonstrated by the original comics version.

GENDER

Reading the Dark Phoenix Saga from a gendered perspective is unavoidable. Claremont wears his politics on his sleeve: a commitment to increasing the volume and quality of representations of female characters in comics. Miles Booy, in Marvel’s Mutants, notes that “Claremont gained a reputation in the late 1970s for writing female characters that were as rounded and as competent in battle as their male counterparts” (Booy 37). Jason Powell, author of The Best There Is at What He Does, sees Phoenix as one such character, writing that “when it came to feminist sensibilities, Claremont was well ahead of his mainstream superhero-writing peers. Phoenix was an early example, wherein the author elevates Jean into a cosmic being, by far the most powerful member of the X-Men” (Powell 25).

Claremont’s commitment to female representation can be easily established through the application of the Bechdel test. In order to pass the Bechdel test, a work must simply have 1) more than one female character, and they must 2) have a conversation with each other 3) about something other than men. It is a very low bar, but one that comics routinely fail to surpass.

Claremont’s first solo-author run on Uncanny X-Men lasted 16 years and spans Uncanny X-Men #97-279 (he’s credited as a writer on issues 94, 95, and 96, but by all accounts these isssues were largely the product of Len Wein before he left the book). During this first run, Claremont’s issues pass the Bechdel test a whopping 85% of the time. For contrast, the only major sales competition that Claremont had once Uncanny X-Men took off was from Frank Miller’s work on Daredevil during two legendary arcs that centred around female characters: Elektra and Karen Page. In spite of having prominent female characters, not one of Miller’s issues from either run passes the Bechdel test. Similarly disappointing is the work of other Claremont contemporaries. Steve Englehart’s famous run on Avengers (1972-1976) only passes 13 out of 45 issues (28%), while Doug Moench’s run on Master of Kung Fu (1974-1983) comes in at 11 out of 88 issues (12.5%).

After his initial run, Claremont would return to Uncanny X-Men in the 2000s for a 9 issue stint, during which he passes the Bechdel test in 6 of the 9 issues (67%). He would then return again for a more substantial 30 issue stint a few years later, during which he passes the Bechdel 86% of the time. All in toll, in the first 500 issues of Uncanny X-Men, spanning 1963-2008, the issues outside of Claremont’s runs pass the Bechdel test a pitiful 33% of the time, with only 4 passes out of 66 issues in the entire pre-Claremont run. To anyone familiar with Marvel comics in the 1970s, the fact that Claremont represented women more prominently and effectively during that era will come as no surprise, but the extent to which he did so, as reflected in the numbers above, is downright staggering. Thus, the gendered reading of Dark Phoenix isn’t just allowable, but perhaps necessary within the context of its author’s politics.

The problem is, again, continuity. Reading The Dark Phoenix Saga in isolation can create a noteworthy conflict with Claremont’s politics, as well as his overall vision for his entire X-Men career. Carolyn Cocca accounts for this potential reading in her Superwomen: Gender, Power and Representation, in which she validates a common fan concern about how the Dark Phoenix Saga can be read as a story in which the powerful female had to be shut down for transgressing gender norms, noting that a male character with the power of the Phoenix would typically not have suffered the same fate (130). Ramzi Fawaz’ seminal reading of The Dark Phoenix Saga, from The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics, likewise supports such an interpretation:

Jean internalizes Phoenix’s actions as her own, interpreting her consumptive desires as an effect of a flaw in her moral character, consequently absolving the institutional forces that corrupted her mind and body. This final desperate action solidifies Jean as the paragon of the neoliberal subject, forced to take personal responsibility for the institutional consequences of market rationality (224).

In this reading, Dark Phoenix becomes a story of a woman being denied power by society, a misogynistic portrayal that is rendered even more problematic by the fact that Jean Grey internalizes the necessity of this denial, and destroys herself for the good of the (patriarchal) society.

For Fawaz, this ending is an undermining of the earlier accomplishments of the broader Phoenix Saga, which establishes Jean Grey’s transformation into Phoenix, a transformation that “illustrates her liberation from the constraints of traditional American womanhood” (152) and later establishes her as a symbol of “a vital lattice of social bonds” that exists beyond the segregationist hierarchies of sex, gender, sexuality, race, class and generation (158). For my part, I don’t see The Dark Phoenix Saga as a betrayal of the earlier symbolism that Claremont establishes. Indeed, I think it’s the development and deployment of that earlier symbolism which offers a credible (even desirable) escape from the misogynistic reading of the Dark Phoenix Saga as a story of a woman who can’t handle power.

As Carol Cooper notes in her essay “Leading by Example” from The Unauthorized X-Men, “Jean didn’t turn amoral and homicidal just because she’d been ‘possessed’ by the seed-energy of the Tree of Life. She was only vulnerable to being destabilized and destroyed by this cosmic Phoenix Force because her normal human psyche was too conflicted, too weak, and too structurally immature to control it under her own individual will” (Cooper 192). Thus the question is simply whether her weakness is portrayed as the product of being a woman.

Isolating the Dark Phoenix Saga itself, the answer can be yes. Within the confines of that story, Jean is shown to be easily manipulated, is defeated by a male rival (in a mental duel with Professor X) and is jockeyed over by multiple men who profess to be in love with her. The broader continuity, however, paints a very different picture.

In Uncanny X-Men #100, Jean first becomes Phoenix when she disobeys Cyclops’ orders (orders that are motivated more by love than practicality), knocks him out cold, martyrs herself to save the X-Men, and then completes the traditional archetypal hero’s return from death itself. She comes back wildly powerful. In fact, she is so powerful that it made Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter downright uncomfortable. When asked why Shooter wanted to get rid of Phoenix, her original visual designer, Dave Cockrum, responded that “Shooter hated strong female characters. When we first introduced Phoenix, we wanted her to fight Thor or the Silver Surfer, but Shooter wouldn’t allow it. He said no female is going to beat Thor or the Silver Surfer” (91). Cockrum notes that in order to subvert Shooter’s mandate Phoenix did, however, win a battle against Firelord, a former herald of Galactus and a character who had previously beaten both Thor and the Silver Surfer.

Jean Knocks Out Cyclops to Save the X-Men (Uncanny X-Men #100)

Phoenix’s victories throughout and beyond the Phoenix Saga clearly illustrate her competency with her own power, a portrayal that culminates with the conclusion of the original Phoenix Saga, during which Phoenix (with the assistance of her comrades) quite literally stitches the entire universe back together within the M’Kraan crystal.

In continuity, Phoenix also achieves new levels of power through Claremont’s prose itself. Most notably, shedding her earlier code-name “Marvel Girl,” which infantilized her, but also through some of the language choices that Claremont makes surrounding her. As Miles Booy notes “There is an idealism in the language here. No other Claremont addict reaches for such intangibles as glory and song. They crave pleasure, energy, or power – sensations to titillate the physical self or forces to manipulate the material world. Jean alone is reaching for something as immaterial as music and as transcendent as glory” (Booy 39). Thus Claremont creates a Phoenix-specific vocabulary to show her operating outside of the traditional power-mad clichés that frequently populate stories of the corrupted hero or heroine.

This linguistic emphasis on what Booy describes as transcendent and immaterial is perfectly in-keeping with the religious symbolism that Claremont imbues this character with, comparing her to the tiferet from the famous Tree of Life in the Kabbalah faith, a symbol of harmony and communion with the divine. “And the heart of the tree, the catalyst that binds these wayward souls together, is Phoenix. Tiphareth. Child of the sun, child of life, the vision of the harmony of things” (Uncanny X-Men #108, 17). This symbolism elevates Phoenix to the level of divinity.

Jean Repairs the M’Kraan Crystal (Uncanny X-Men #108)

Simply put, Phoenix isn’t an allegory for a woman who cannot handle power. Reading her in that light can only be done when ignoring the extensive and expansive continuity that Claremont builds ahead of her corruption in The Dark Phoenix Saga. Even more simply put, through continuity Claremont affords for Jean Grey a possible post-feminist interpretation of her destruction. This isn’t a woman acknowledging her unbelonging. As Mark D. White notes in his essay from X-Men and Philosophy, Jean’s death is not an expression of conformity to a patriarchal system but rather an expression of autonomy (35). This is a hero making the ultimate sacrifice to retain their sense of agency as well as their sense of humanity, and that becomes clearer and clearer the more issues of Uncanny X-Men that one reads.

Within the X-Men cinematic universe, we haven’t seen Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey do anything on this scale, and if the trailer is to be trusted, what we’ll be getting instead is a group of powerful men arguing over what to do about their Phoenix problem. In that sense, there’s a real risk of creating an adaptation that supports the more misogynistic interpretation of this iconic story. Without time to establish Phoenix as the ground-breaking, powerful heroine that she is, it is difficult for the character to transcend an innately patriarchal interpretation of her ultimate destruction.

SEX

Another prominent reading of the Dark Phoenix Saga sees it as a story of a woman’s unchecked sexual awakening, which results in her ultimate destruction. Thus the story can be seen to reinforce the cultural policing of feminine sexuality. In X-Men and the Mutant Metaphor, Joseph Darowksi acknowledges the possibility of this reading, pointing out that here a woman’s sexual awakening results in outright genocide (83). Obviously, this reading intersects quite strongly with the gendered reading of the story as well. Once again, however, this sexual metaphor can work in isolation, but continuity discounts it altogether.

The sexual symbolism in The Dark Phoenix Saga is actually quite extensive. Joseph Darowski (81) and Miles Booy both note that the language used by Phoenix as well as the language used about Phoenix is very much the “language of sexual desire” (Booy 43). Claremont describes things in terms of “ecstasy” and “hunger” and “satisfaction.” He notes in interview that even something as horrific as the destruction of an inhabited planet is a sexual act for Phoenix. “To use a somewhat gross term, it was the quest for the cosmic orgasm. Her feeding…on the star was an act of love, of self-love, of masturbation probably” (qtd in Booy 43). Claremont establishes a consistent parallel between Phoenix’s desire for power and physical lust at the level of the language itself.

The Dark Phoenix Saga also features extensive sexual symbolism through the BDSM-themed attire of the Hellfire Club, and through the consummation of Jean Grey’s relationship with Cyclops, a scene that Powell describes as showing a transition of Jean Grey from “angel in the sky to devil in the murk” (Powell 46). Beyond this, Mastermind’s corruption of Phoenix is very much portrayed as a seduction in itself.

In this light, and perhaps in keeping with the above-mentioned gender reading of the story, it’s again possible to read Dark Phoenix as a story that reifies culturally-founded restrictions on the expression of female sexuality, which here takes the innocent and chaste Jean Grey and sets her on the path of destruction. In isolation, The Dark Phoenix Saga can become a story of a woman whose sins of lust are her undoing.

As noted, however, this reading doesn’t work in the broader continuity that Claremont establishes. Jean’s long-simmering relationship with Cyclops is committed, monogamous, and heteronormative. It might be the single most sexually normative relationship in the history of Claremont’s writing. Jean is also entirely in control of the relationship. In Uncanny X-Men #132 Jean interrupts a strategy meeting between Cyclops and Angel (picnic basket in hand), drives Angel off, uses her powers to hold back Cyclops’ optic blasts (despite his protests) and orders him to “Open your eyes, Scott. Nothing will happen. I’m telekinetically keeping your optic blasts in check. I… wanted to see your face, that’s all.” As Cyclops starts to protest with a meek “Jean…” she interrupts and shushes him. “Hush. No questions now, my love. No words.” They embrace as the sun goes down behind them. This scene clearly indicates Jean’s sexual agency. More than that, the context surrounding the scene is entirely positive; their embrace isn’t a symptom of her sexual dysfunction, but the culmination of an extended romantic arc, an act of love, to put it in a somewhat cliché way.

Jean in Control (Uncanny X-Men #132)

Within the broader continuity of X-Men comics, and the decade-long will they or won’t they relationship built through multiple creators, as well as Claremont, this scene simply cannot be read as part of a negative commentary on female sexuality, nor would such an interpretation be consistent with later Claremont work in the series. This scene, along with other positive scenes of female sexual agency surrounding both Phoenix and other characters, creates an overarching friction with the interpretation of The Dark Phoenix Saga as a moralizing epic on female sexuality run amok. The reader can interpret the story that way if they want to, but within broader continuity the consistency of that metaphor breaks down entirely.

Can a film create the same elements by which a similar friction can nullify the sexual interpretation of the story? Probably not. The romance between Scott and Jean took a very long time to build (over 100 issues).

CHARACTER

Though the Jean/Scott romance is perhaps the most apparent example of character dynamics within long-continuity, there are many others to account for, that also add a richness and nuance to the meaning of Dark Phoenix Saga.

As an ensemble, X-Men comics are largely about a chosen family. Former X-Men writer Roy Thomas notes that “once Chris developed it with Byrne and other artists, the X-Men had these family dynamics that were taking the Fantastic Four kind of family dynamics one step further” (35). On the other side of this, the X-Men are a story about moral authority – of doing the right thing even when it’s not in your best interest. Stan Lee himself describes this as the core of the book in interview (11). That’s what makes the choices in the Dark Phoenix Saga so emotionally affecting: these are heroes that you’ve watched stitch themselves very slowly together (despite some incongruous parts), and now their loyalty to a family member is put at odds with the moral authority they sought, with the very dream that the X-Men have stood for. Dark Phoenix is dangerous, and in fighting to protect her (as the X-Men do) they are morally in the wrong. Never before in the series have their ideals come into such conflict with each other, and the depth and range of continuity expands the magnitude of that conflict in direct proportion to the sheer number of years, issues, and panels, spent building those ideals up.

Increasing the complexity of our analysis, we see specific relationships also affecting the meaning and depth of the Dark Phoenix Saga, as established in previous continuity. For example, scholars such as Carolyn Cocca (126) and Ramzi Fawaz (152) praise the Storm/Jean relationship as a rare example of a strong sororal friendship in comics. From the Dark Phoenix trailer, we have a scene of a woman (Mystique) reaching out to Phoenix with an offer of support (very much like what Storm offers Jean as she stitches together the M’Kraan crystal in the original Phoenix Saga). The difference here is that instead of accepting this act of sororal generosity, Phoenix kills Mystique in the trailer (and thus presumably in the film).

Storm Supports Phoenix (Uncanny X-Men #108)

Also of note in the Storm/Jean relationship is an intriguing character parallel. Storm is presented in earlier issues as a character who is at odds with her own power, even as it continues to escalate to new scales. Thus from Storm’s perspective, Phoenix isn’t just a dear friend, but also a canary in a coal mine, so to speak – an early warning of the fate that Storm herself might come to share. Indeed, many later issues of X-Men will explore this parallel quite directly, with Storm cast in the Phoenix role.

Similarly, the established character relationship, arcs, and mechanics establish important stakes for each X-Men character. Jean’s fate affects each of them in unique ways. Nightcrawler, for example, is established from the start of Claremont’s run as a character whose light-hearted nature is in conflict with the severity of the world the X-Men occupy and the mission that they undertake. As Jean (who was often characterized as light-hearted herself prior to her transformation) becomes the severe Dark Phoenix, that contrast forces Nightcrawler to reconsider his nature. Cyclops, in addition to the relationship aspect discussed above, is established as a control-obsessed, type-A personality, but the thing that he needs the most in the world is too powerful to control, and he is unable to save her. Wolverine is established as a repentant killer trying to tamp down his most primal urges, thus suffering from the same temptation issues that Jean goes through. Colossus is established as a fish out of water character, who struggles to reconcile the contrast between his humble origins and the excesses of life amongst the X-Men. In this, he too mirrors Jean, through her own anxiety regarding a massive increase in power and importance.

On a more complex level, both Powell and Booy read Cyclops and Wolverine as the ego and id, respectively, of Jean Grey herself. Cyclops is the good boy, who represents the rational side of Jean Grey while Wolverine speaks to her primal desires (including her sexual desires). This metaphor is remarkably complex in how it unfolds with key intersections into the gender and sexual symbolism described earlier, but the greater point here is that within The Phoenix Saga, the two most iconic X-Men characters in history are functioning as symbols in support of Jean Grey’s story. She is the star of the story, not some trophy to be fought over her. Furthermore, in previous issues, when Jean believes that both Cyclops and Wolverine are dead, instead of pining forever, Claremont actually allows her to move on with her life (after an appropriate grieving period).

If the love of Jean Grey is not the most important relationship in the history of X-Men comics (love from the perspective of both Cyclops and Wolverine) then the animosity and tension between Cyclops and Wolverine is. Either way, Jean Grey is the centerpiece character and all the continuity surrounding the development of these relationships thus comes to a head in The Dark Phoenix Saga, a series that features, on the one hand, the rise of Wolverine to a position of great prominence in the series (and in the broader Marvel universe) as well as the eventual departure and retirement of Cyclops from the X-Men. Predictably, this adds a wealth of depth and nuance to the story that a film adaptation is going to struggle to recreate…especially when Wolverine isn’t even in it.

In all of these instances, we see the complex, well-established melodrama of X-Men continuity lending weight and meaning to the actions of the plot itself.

CONCLUSION

From 1975-1991, Chris Claremont wrote Uncanny X-Men, marking the longest stint of any mainstream superhero writer on a single title. He was early in his run at the time that he and John Byrne created the Dark Phoenix Saga, yet even so he had already created a complex and dynamic character melodrama that eludes the kind of necessary down-scaling that a 113 minute film demands. There’s no question that Dark Phoenix is a worthwhile story to tell, but it’s a story whose worth is greatly enhanced when drawing from the extensive comics continuity that precedes it. Indeed, it might be unadaptable, in the truest sense, without said continuity. This is not, of course, to say that Dark Phoenix can’t be a good movie. It just can’t be The Dark Phoenix Saga. Understanding this affords us new opportunities to study and consider the role of long-form continuity in comics storytelling and, more particularly, the effect of continuity on the transmediation of comics properties.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

J. Andrew Deman (@DemanAndrew) is a faculty lecturer at the University of Waterloo, St. Jerome's campus. He is the Past President of the Canadian Society for the Study of Comics, the author of "The Margins of Comics" (available on Amazon or from Nuada Press) and the Project Lead for "The Claremont Run," the largest academic study of Chris Claremont's famous X-Men run from 1975-1991. www.claremontrun.com.

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2 Comments

  1. James Kelly says:

    Not to be too glib in this brilliant piece. But I do think that the Dark Phoenix Saga can be translated to another medium. Serialized Television. That would preserve the continuity and the longer development of the characters. Understandably that was not feasible when the X-Men movies began, but now it is, and it has always been an option in the criminally underrated medium of animation. (I know that X-Men: The Animated Series adapted the Phoenix Saga) Television is where X-Men belongs, not film.

  2. Thanks very much! I 100% agree with you. I think the 90s X-men animated was the best adaptation, though I do think it suffered a little from the fact that Scott and Jean weren’t the best-written characters in that series. For the future, I would very much love to see a prestige television adaptation. I wrote a different article this year for Salon about how Claremont’s techniques influenced modern binge-worthy TV.

    https://www.salon.com/2019/02/24/how-an-x-men-writer-inspired-binge-worthy-character-driven-tv-from-buffy-to-game-of-thrones_partner/

    It would be great to see that come full circle with a high-budget X-men serial. Hopefully Kevin Feige is considering that for the Disney streaming service.

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