In the days prior to the internet, I remember being so excited by one comics story in particular that I began transcribing the entire script to a non-comics-fan friend of mine, in the hope that, when I posted it to him, he would get as interested as I was in the world of comics. That story was part of the X-Men’s ‘Dark Phoenix’ saga. It was a story that, I realised later, drew much from an episode of the British television series The Avengers (not to be confused with the Marvel super-heroes of the same name), called ‘A Touch of Brimstone’, starring Jason Wyngarde.
The background was that Jean Grey, possessed of telepathic and telekinetic powers as one of the original X-Men, and known as Marvel Girl, is exposed while returning from space to the deadly radiation of a solar flare, and briefly becomes a being of pure thought. She decides to re-invent herself with a new costume, identity and power of ‘Phoenix’. When a cosmic crystal is broken, threatening the whole of existence, Jean is able to repair it using her enhanced powers but has to suppress them within herself to try to keep control of them.
Meanwhile, the long-time super-villain Mastermind, using his own psychic abilities, attempts to seduce Jean. He disguises himself as ‘Jason Wyngarde’ and with the help of a mind-tap device created by the Club's White Queen, Emma Frost, (whose name was perhaps also inspired by the ‘Emma Peel’ of the British Avengers) Mastermind projects his illusions directly into Jean's mind, causing her to believe that she is reliving the memories of an ancestor, Lady Grey. Through a series of temptations, Jean eventually accepts the Black Queen as her actual identity, which unleashes a darker side to her personality. This in turn undermines her previous controls over her enhanced mental powers.
The scenes in which Jean is presented by Mastermind as the Hellfire Club’s ‘Black Queen’ are stolen directly from the Avengers episode, but that doesn’t remove from their power. Part of the drama is that Wolverine, still a relatively new character at this point in Marvel’s history, is left alone at one point to take on the bad guys in an all-out battle. (It was at this point that I decided that this story needed to be transcribed and posted! My painstaking transcription didn’t last long - I was to keen to get back to the story.)
Unfortunately for Mastermind, though, he ‘kills’ Cyclops psychic image in a duel and the shock of losing her lover Scott Summers (Cyclops) frees Jean from Mastermind’s hold over her. Suddenly overwhelmed by vast, unleashed powers within herself, she uses a telepathic illusion to make Mastermind experience godhood, driving him insane, before striking down her former friends, the X-Men, and leaving Earth.
The pace and scope of this was breathtaking - readers were pulled from mental duels to cosmic space travel in the space of a few panels, while experiencing the emotions of overpowering temptation, lost love, sudden personality changes and more. The viewpoint shifts were therefore spatial as well as emotional, making for tremendous narrative energy; the writer, Chris Claremont, was making the most of the comic book medium’s magical ability to transport readers rapidly from scene to scene and viewpoint to viewpoint. And it was just beginning.
Jean’s power as the ‘Dark Pheonix’ starts to run out as she makes an intergalactic journey, so she decides to explode a star and consume its energy. However, the resulting supernova kills the entire population of the only civilized planet orbiting the star. A vessel belonging to the Shi'ar Empire tries to stop her; Jean easily destroys it, but not before the Shi'ar Empress Lilandra is notified. A hastily-convened intergalactic council concludes that Dark Phoenix is an even more serious threat than the planet-consuming Galactus and must be destroyed.
Jean returns to Earth and we see that she is in conflict between her new god-like powers and her more human affections when she briefly visits her family's home. The X-Men attack her but are easily defeated. Charles Xavier, one of the most powerful psychics on Earth, and Jean’s former mentor, then manages to install a new set of psychic barriers which reduce her to her original Marvel Girl powers. She appears to be back to normal.
And normality being restored, the comic book reader pauses at this point to breathe after an incredible journey which has spanned vast regions of space and a wide scope of emotions in only a few pages. But there’s more.
The intergalactic Shi'ar suddenly capture the X-Men, inform them of Dark Phoenix's casual genocide, and declare that she must be executed for her crime. Luckily Xavier knows something about Shi’ar law and challenges Lilandra to ‘Arin'n Haelar', a Shi'ar duel of honour that cannot be refused. This is agreed to, with the X-Men acting as Jean’s champions versus the Shi’ar Imperial Guard. At this point, there is a brief pause for the story’s parameters to re-adjust yet again: what we thought was the end of the tale turns out to be just the middle. Characters as well as readers are given a few panels to re-orientate themselves before the next round of action.
The X-Men and the Shi'ar Imperial Guard are teleported to the mysterious Blue Area of the Moon to do battle, with the victors deciding Jean’s fate. Cyclops and Phoenix, Scott Summers and the woman he has loved ever since he met her in the early X-Men issues, are left alone to make a final stand. Cyclops is seemingly killed, and, just as before, the shock causes Jean to override Xavier's psychic restraints and become Dark Phoenix again. Empress Lilandra seeks to eliminate her, and Jean runs inside one of the Blue Area's ruins, struggling to keep control of herself. After an emotional farewell to Scott, Jean activates an ancient Kree weapon which disintegrates her. Scott works out that Jean had planned her sacrifice from the moment they had landed on the moon.
We collapse in our chairs, exhausted.
Another, more placid, cosmic being, Uatu the Watcher, ends the tale, reflecting that ‘Jean Grey could have lived to become a god. But it was more important to her that she die...a human.’
Though much of this was retroactively revised later (including Jean being found alive) this tale retains its fantastic energy and scope and remains, in my mind, as a key moment in comic book history.