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DOES X-MEN’S ‘DARK PHOENIX SAGA’ STILL HOLD UP? | COMIC BOOK SPOTLIGHT

The Dark Phoenix Saga is often considered to be one of the best and most influential storylines in not just the X-Men franchise, but in the entire comic book medium. Since it was first released in the early 80s the storyline has influenced countless other X-Men stories and has had an effect on its characters and history to this day. It has been adapted into two different live action films, as well as, two story arcs for two different X-Men animated series. And with the latest live-action X-Men film taking another crack at the story, what better time could there be to ask questions about the source material. Mainly this: Does the original Dark Phoenix Saga still hold up?

For those of you who may not be aware, the Dark Phoenix Saga was an extended X-Men storyline that ran in the Uncanny X-Men #129-138 throughout 1980 by the X-Men powerhouse creative team that was Chris Claremont and John Byrne. The storyline itself was more or less a continuation of the original Phoenix Saga which was also told in the Uncanny X-Men series, running from Issues #101-108. In that story, iconic X-Men member Jean Grey merged with a cosmic being known as The Phoenix and together the two saved the universe with the process apparently killing the two. Later on, however, Jean resurrected, taking up the new name, Phoenix and rejoined the X-Men. And this is where the Dark Phoenix Saga really started.

The storyline itself focuses on Jean and the other X-Men as they search for new mutants after Professor X returns to the X-Men from an extended absence. At the same time, the higherups of a secret, Illuminate-like organization known as The Hellfire Club began to hatch a scheme to manipulate Jean to become one of their members while planning to rid the world of the X-Men once and for all. Unfortunately, their plans have unintended side effects which allow Jean to access the full range of her Phoenix abilities, endangering not only those around her but the entire universe as well. And to answer the question from earlier, yes. The story absolutely does hold up and it’s easy to see why the book is considered to be such a classic. And yet, at the same time, it doesn’t.

You see, the actual plot of The Dark Phoenix Saga is otherwise solid. It mainly concerns the version factions within the X-Men corner of the Marvel Universe battling for control of Jean Grey and the Phoenix Force. The X-Men themselves are just trying to protect their friend. The Hellfire Club wants her to expand their own power. Jean herself eventually decides what she wants is at odds with everyone else and an additional faction comes into play with motivations of their own. And pretty much all of this is about as good as you would expect from a comic by Chris Clairmont in the early 80s. The challenges that the X-Men face within the book itself never stop being fun. The antagonists’ powers and strategies have a nice variety to them. The actual issues keep the reader engaged with plenty of action and constantly escalates the stakes. But, above all else, it knows how to invest the reader into the characters and their fates. And that’s where the story comes in and where things get a bit…debatable.

The actual story revolves around what is essentially the corruption and fall of Jean Grey. And this, unfortunately, is where the book gets into the eye-raising territory in terms of its themes and execution. Essentially Jean’s arc in The Dark Phoenix Saga can be summed up by calling it a good girl goes bad story and that would be fairly accurate. Before the events of the Phoenix Saga, the character of Jean Grey was about as milk toast as you could possibly get. She was the standard issue good girl character that writers love to use in love triangles or as a means of developing an otherwise loose cannon male character but are seldom interesting on their own terms. But then Jean gets her Phoenix powers and suddenly she’s not quite the wonder bread good girl she was in previous stories. This manifests in two way throughout the book. Jean has more power and seems to get more agency as a character than she otherwise had before. The second is that she seems to be more sexually adventurous than she was in previous books. The problem is that the creative team seems to view this as an absolute negative and this is where it gets a bit cringeworthy.

As the story goes on, Jean essentially becomes the most powerful member of the X-Men. She’s ultimately the one who defeats Emma Frost in the first act of the story and the X-Men can’t even come close to defeating her when the Hellfire Club turns her against them. In addition, this expansion of her power is signified by not so subtle ques of her…well essentially allowing her freak flag to fly. Early on in the story she ends up at a night club with Cyclops and keeps reading everyone’s minds, discovers that they all have sex on their minds and she’s kind of into it. Right after this, she materializes her and Scott’s uniforms out of thin air much to Scott’s shock and concern and her storyline goes on like that. It directly connects Jeans increasing power to her increasing sexual desires before they drop all subtlety and just turn her into a straight up dominatrix midway through the story.

Later on, they drive the point completely home in the last two issues of the Saga. In it they completely manage to suppress the Phoenix side of her, essentially reverting her to the character she was before she obtained the Phoenix force. It’s at this point that the X-Men are once again fully ready to fight and die for her once again. Not the powerful sexually driven Phoenix, but the milk toast Jean Grey that everyone loves. They even give her her old Marvel Girl outfit from the older X-Men comics just to make sure nobody missed the metaphor and the whole thing is very weird and uncomfortable.

Now, to be clear, it’s highly unlikely that Chris Claremont and John Byrne are or were sexist. One only need look at all the female characters the two created and the way they two wrote them to form a solid argument against that. It’s also worth noting that they try to get ahead of this with Professor X saying that the absolute power of the Phoenix will corrupt absolutely and do briefly dig into this idea. But the Dark Phoenix Saga does contain a lot of tropes that, if used in a modern story, would absolutely be considered sexist. It’s basically a storyline about a woman who gets power, discovers that she likes sex and is into less vanilla stuff before going nuts. But the weird thing about it though is that it never quite crosses into a full-blown sexist territory and still, on the whole, works as a story.

The storyline itself, of course, mainly centers on Jean and her transformation and it’s very debatable as to how well all of that stuff holds up. However, a good chunk of the story also revolves around the supporting characters as well and this is where the book is just flat out great. Cyclops’ reactions to all of this helps to cement him as the team’s biggest prick, (he’s the only one who seems to object to Jean becoming more powerful and more aggressive), but for the other characters, it’s a bit more complicated. Essentially, they’re watching one of their oldest friends turn into an unstoppable force of nature and the story is also about them trying to figure out how to deal with it. Wolverine still has feelings for Jean and isn’t sure that he’ll be able to do what needs to be done for perhaps the first time in his life. Storm views her as a sister and even Professor X feels like he’s failed one of his children by not preventing this from happening. And even if the means to get there are a bit cringeworthy, the actual drama surrounding these characters and how they deal with having to fight a surrogate sister is possibly the most compelling part of this entire endeavor.

There are, however, some aspects of the book that just flat out don’t work and/or don’t hold up. There are a lot of character moments that are done in a single thought bubble and rarely seem to be the focus of the panel often feeling like background noise. It has a weird tendency to explain what is going on in the panels even though the artwork clearly conveys what is going on. It also contains constant massive dumps of exposition that turns it into a bit of a slog to read. It’s not a deal breaker, but the style will undoubtedly cause some whiplash if say you’re coming from reading the latest X-Men story from Jonathan Hickman, and really shows how much the medium has changed over the past forty years. But if you can get past this initial hurdle it is absolutely worth checking out.

This, of course, leads us back to that initial question. Does the Dark Phoenix Saga still hold up? And, once again, the answer is yes and no. It’s kind of hard to look at Jean’s arc in the story and not see a “women shouldn’t have power” message or “women who are sexually empowered are bad” ideology behind it. And in today’s political climate, the #metoo movement, and the general rise of more left-oriented ideologies in mass-marketed fiction, it’s kind of hard not to see the Dark Phoenix Saga as part of the problem. But the actual plot itself and the drama the characters go through is still solid stuff and it’s easy to see why the book has remained an influential storyline for so long. It’ll be interesting to see just how future generations look at and interpret the book but the question of whether or not The Dark Phoenix Saga still holds up is one that is going to result in a very long and complicated answer.

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‘Captain Marvel: In Pursuit Of Flight’ | Comic Book Spotlight

Well, everyone, Captain Marvel has been out for well a good while now and its yet another massive hit from the studio that just can’t seem to do anything wrong. And once again, after a long hiatus, The Nerd Hub is back giving our takes on the comics that helped inspire them. And as you might have guessed from the title, we’re here to discuss the Captain Marvel storyline that apparently had the most influence on the film, Captain Marvel: In Pursuit of Flight.

Published from September of 2012 through February of 2013, this story arc was the first in a relatively short series run for the character. Written by Kelly Sue DeConnick with artwork by Dexter Soy the series followed Carol Danvers not long after changing her costume and making the decision to take the name of Captain Marvel from her predecessor. Not long after an old friend of her dies in a fire leaving her an old plane in her will. After attempting a flight record in said plane Captain Marvel is transported to the past giving her an opportunity to changes things for herself while going on an action-packed adventure. And the story is just…well fine. Not good. Not bad. Just fine.
This is the problem with many of Marvel’s series. With a few rare acceptations, the vast majority of them are not outright fantastic or straight up bad. Most simply fall into this middle section of being okay and readable but nothing to recommend outside of that. In Pursuit of Flight happens to be very much an embodiment of this. Its action is decent. It has a fun little time travel storyline. The artwork is competent. But it just doesn’t contain anything to really keep a reader hooked unless they were already a fan of the character.

The time travel plot is fine and it had a decent little twist to it but it doesn’t contain anything that will make it memorable in the long term. It’s nothing that we haven’t seen a million times before or since. Likewise, we have Carol’s actual arc in the book itself. The story is clearly meant to be that Carol is regretting that she has her powers and possibly wants to become human again so she can compete in more traditional activities. And once again this is something, we’ve seen a million times before and since. And once again we’ve seen it done a lot better before and since.

In the end that’s really all there is to say about this one. It’s a perfectly fine book that doesn’t offend but doesn’t really ascend either. If you’re looking for a good place to start there are certainly worse but there are also significantly better.

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RELATED: New 52 Supergirl Volume 1: Last Daughter of Krypton | Comic Book Spotlight

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Daredevil: Born Again | Comic Book Spotlight

When it comes to the character of Daredevil it’s hard to imagine a writer who has helped shaped the character more than Frank Miller. In his time on the character, Frank Miller would go on to writer dozens, if not hundreds, of Daredevil stories that would fully redefine the character, the nature of the stories and the direction that they would take for all time. Between his retelling of Matt Murdock’s origins to the introduction and death of Elektra, Frank Miller has left a mark on the character that no other creative team has come even close to matching. And today we are here to talk about the storyline that is considered to be not only the greatest Daredevil story of all time but one of the greatest Marvel story arcs ever written. This is comic book spotlight shining a light on Daredevil: Born Again.

Running from Daredevil #226-233, the story follows Matt Murdock/Daredevil at his lowest point imaginable. In the book his former lover, Karen Page, sold his secret identity for a heroin fix and the information found its way into the hands of Wilson Fisk, The Kingpin of Crime. Fisk then uses his power and influence to destroy Murdock’s life, planting and forging evidence of corruption that results in him being disbarred and his money frozen by the IRS. Luckily for Matt Murdock, Fisk takes his plans one step too far, allowing him to guess who is destroying his life and begins to pick up the pieces while Fisk plans his final killing blow.

This unfortunately is one of those stories that is a little difficult for a modern reader to analyze and review. On one hand, the individual issues of the story arc are great. They’re fantastically paced. They feature great artwork. The characters are all well defined and developed and you are never bored while reading it. The problem, however, is that the overall story isn’t entirely satisfying and doesn’t really feel like a complete story.

The entire setup, for example, is summed up in the first issue of the story arc. In 24 pages the book almost seems to rush through Daredevil’s disbarment, his problems with the IRS, Karen’s new status quo as a drug addict, the Kingpin’s activities and the start of a romantic relationship between Foggy and Daredevil supporting character Gloria. The issue itself, however, is very well written, satisfying to read, and is, in of itself, a very good read. If you were a kid grabbing this comic off of a shelf back in the 80s you would have gotten your money’s worth out of it. The problem is that it feels like we’re seeing a montage of events over a long period of time as opposed to seeing these actions happen to the characters in the present. And while the issue itself is a very good one it feels like the story might have been better served if the destruction of Matt’s life had taken place over a handful of issues that gradually revealed what was going on before Murdock realized what was going on.

This, unfortunately, is something of a reoccurring issue in the story arc. We have individual issues that are incredibly well written and drawn but a story where the whole never seems to match the sum of its parts. One of the middle issues, for example, features a plot by the Kingpin to frame Daredevil for the murder of both Foggy and Gloria. It’s creepy and suspenseful and makes for a nice read but it doesn’t really affect the plot overall and could have easily been cut out. But when the book works it hits the right notes and it hits them hard.

The second and third issues, for example, really put us into Matt Murdock’s headset and we really feel that he feels that he has lost everything. He gets into violent and deadly brawls over nothing. He makes stupid decisions regarding his enemies and almost gets himself killed multiple times, giving us a sense that he just doesn’t care about anything anymore. In addition, the book cleverly makes his eventual rise out of this state a gradual one with small steps and not a big triumphant return the way similar stories are apt to do. It’s not exactly on par with Bruce Wayne returning as Batman in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns but it’s a lice little arc that keeps us invested in his fate.

What really makes this book work, however, is its villain. The Kingpin had been a reoccurring antagonist for Daredevil in Frank Miller’s run but this is where the character reached his high point. This is the story where we really get to see how powerful the Kingpin actually is and what lengths he will go to destroy his enemies. It’s made clear in every panel that features the character that he is the man in charge. Every conversation he dominates and will tolerate no insubordination and everyone else knows it. Those who do not know it feel his full wrath from outright executions to broken bones. Towards the end of the book his power levels get a little over the top but it’s clear that his schemes and power are the reason that this book is so well remembered.

The big point, however, that may make or break the book for a lot of people will be how they approach Karen’s drug addiction. Serious issues like this are rarely handled well in fiction and are almost never handled well in comics without a certain degree if inaccuracy or poor taste. Sadly, the nature of Karen Page’s heroin addiction is no exception to this. It does a decent enough job of showing how desperate people with addictions are and can get. In fact, when the story uses this angle it appears, on the surface at least, to be a rather accurate depiction of how far drug addicts will go and the people they hurt to get a fix. The problem comes in when it is time for Karen’s inevitable redemption arc.

Some spoilers will follow but when reading the last few issues of Born Again it becomes very clear that Frank Miller and his editor did not understand the drug recovery process at all. Karen just kind of gets over her addiction the moment she is reunited with Matt and it’s never brought up again. Matt immediately forgives her of what she did and seems cured for a lack of better words. In other words, it’s a typical Frank Miller move. In this particular case, his cure for a woman’s addiction is the company of a man. More specifically the cure to all her problems is Daredevil Dick and is not something that would fly in our current environment.

In the end Daredevil: Born Again is kind of a relic of its time but is still an overall enjoyable read. It doesn’t entirely work as its own complete story act but the individual issues are so well written and drawn that its impossible not to enjoy. There are more than a few cringeworthy elements to it and its by no means Frank  Miller’s best work. But if you’re a fan of Daredevil and are curious as to where the next season’s inspirations come from then it is worth a look.

 

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