Reading Comics: Christopher Lirette on the Dark Phoenix Saga

Posted by @ 10:43 am on September 29th, 2011

Welcome to the second installment of my new series: Reading Comics. I’m excited to report that I’ve got a bunch of great contributors lined up, and am myself working on a few entries. If you haven’t contacted me yet, but would like to participate, email me and let me know! Without further ado….here’s Christopher Lirette…

“The Libertine Adventures of Scott and Jean, or Genocidal Orgasm and Mystical Unions in the Dark Phoenix Saga”

Over the last few weeks, my students and I read Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s 1980 Marvel comics classic “Dark Phoenix Saga,” the most popular story in Uncanny X-Men. I’m teaching a class focusing on superheroines and depictions of women kicking ass under the rubric of gender and sexuality. So far, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to teach that there’s more to studying gender in literature than pointing out moments of sexism—a harder task than I thought it would be, perhaps because our primary texts feature scantily clad women beating up villains and forming romance with dudes whose clothes get caught in their muscle striations. Although William Marston Moulton created Wonder Woman in 1942 to combat “the blood-curdling masculinity” he found plaguing titles such as Batman and Superman, it’s not until “Dark Phoenix Saga” that we get a comic book that truly addresses the problem of the deuxième sexe superheroique: a story that revels in the messiness of desire, one whose heroine’s problems, while mythic, symbolize the contradictory messages real people receive about gender.

Before the story takes place, Jean Grey, a mutant telepath known as Marvel Girl, saves the universe in an act of redemptive sacrifice. After her death, she is reborn as an incarnation of the Phoenix Force, a sort of omnipotent cosmic spirit that functions as both the creative and destructive force in Marvel’s cosmology. Another mutant, Jason Wyngarde, begins to corrupt Jean on the behalf of the Hellfire Club.

Already in these first pages where Wyngarde first appears, there’s a wealth of significant allusions. The Hellfire Club was a “real life” libertine club in 18th century England. Its members met at West Wycombe to supposedly partake in all manner of debauchery—from heresy to orgy—under the aegis “Fais ce que tu voudras” (Do what thou wilt—a famous maxim for fans of Aleister Crowley, François Rabelais, and St. Augustine). When the Hellfire Club shut its doors, a new libertine club sprung up, unsurprisingly called The Phoenix Society. These allusions carry over in the visual representation of Marvel’s Hellfire Club and its members. Their meeting locations hint of baroque European interior decorating and secret societies. Jason Wyngarde sports a mutton chop, a greatcoat, and Hessian boots. He is a straight-up dandy, and so is the leader Sebastian Shaw. The club’s most famous member, Emma Frost, wears a white corset, white panties, white thigh high boots, and a furred white cape, and despite her anachronistic ensemble, exudes the kind of dungeon decadence the original club strove for. This marriage of 18th century libertinage and a 1980s four color comic isn’t just for laughs: it forms the teeming subtext that sexualizes the Dark Phoenix tragedy.

Wyngarde’s great idea about how to defeat the X-Men wasn’t to engage them in battle, it was to slowly turn Jean, the most powerful member of the group, evil. Or at least, that’s the children’s version. What he actually says is “I’m merely giving her a taste of her innermost—forbidden—needs and desires… All I’m doing is freeing that negative part of her ‘self’ from its moral cage.” What he actually does (besides call into question the concept of the self through scare quotes) is form an illusion (it’s his mutant power to do so) that she’s on a boat in the 18th century on the way to marry Wyngarde in a pseudo-Christian ceremony at some ruins. Pretty tame for her most forbidden needs, no? But the visuals hint at some taboo sexual encounter: at her wedding, Jean dresses like Emma Frost—corset, panties, boots, cape—but all in black, and she holds a whip in her hand as the attendants, all Hellfire Club members, shout “Long reign the Black Queen.” Clearly, Jean has some fantasies of domination. Soon, this illusion replaces “reality,” and she attacks her boyfriend Scott Summers (a.k.a. Cyclops) and the rest of the X-Men, whom she sees as buccaneers and slaves. She lives the scene, goes 24/7, but unfortunately for all involved, this is no mere scene, there’s no safe word, and worst of all, this illusion whets the lust of the Phoenix.

In 1980, we knew a lot more about female desire than they did in the 1800s, when it was unspoken of and science thought a “congestion of the womb” caused hysteria, needing the manipulative hands of a doctor to “release” it lest the woman go crazy. But despite the sexual liberation of the 1960s and 70s, popular media still depicts female desire as dangerous, and the Phoenix Force is a clear metaphor for such desire. When it’s “good” it nurtures, protects, uplifts, and sacrifices for others. One might even say it’s motherly. But once it knows the possibility of erotic possibility, it’s unstoppable, absolute in its insanity and destruction. Jean immediately squashes not only the X-Men, but her new gang as well, downloading all of her godly knowledge into Wyngarde, leaving him mad and drooling. Ah, the dangers of love!

Before she flies off, Storm, the other female member of this incarnation of the X-Men, reflects that Jean is driven by “an all-consuming lust,” and Cyclops, with whom she shares a psychic rapport, senses “Jean’s enjoying this. Using her powers is turning her on—acting like the ultimate physical/emotional stimulant.” Using the language of the erotic, they are directly tying Jean’s acts of violence to her sexual urges, following a long history of matching women’s power with her sexuality, and more sinisterly, matching her sexual impulses with insanity.

And then, in her furious lust, Jean eats a star and destroys, like, 5 billion humanoid aliens.

The editorial decision at Marvel was that they could not let Jean survive after that. With the help of her pre-Phoenix identity, Professor Charles Xavier, and Mr. Personification of the Destructive Power of the Male Gaze himself, Cyclops (his mutant power is that he shoots these destructive beams out of his eyes, but can’t control it—we’ll get to that in a second), Jean turns back to being a good gal. There was no way that she could be rehabilitated after such genocide, editor Jim Shooter reasoned. And so Jean, at her trial for letting her lust get out of hand, decides to kill herself for the good of all.

In the end, this tale of love and sacrifice can come off pretty conservatively in terms of sexual and gender politics. Is it necessary to have another story where a woman’s newfound sexual liberation leads to destruction or suicide? And I’m not letting Claremont and Byrne off on that point. But overall, when looking at the way that different characters perform their genders, as well as some of the other referential devices at play, the story becomes much more complicated.

Take, for instance, that the most powerful mutant around is the sweet-natured Jean Grey, who had hitherto been seen as a love interest for several male characters (Cyclops, Angel, and Wolverine). By the end of the story arc, she holds the power of God. Many Medieval mystics, such as St. John of the Cross and St. Catherine of Siena, felt they had entered into a union with God, a particular union termed “Mystical Marriage.” Taking into account the conception of God as masculine, the mystic’s soul had to become feminine for the wedding to take place. For female mystics, this was not a problem, and femaleness essentially allows her to become filled with the god-like Phoenix Force. The male characters are so cocksure that they could never become apotheosized. Likewise, female mystics (and male ones too) were routinely ostracized, tortured, and put to death for what was perceived as erotic frenzy and theatricality. Again, we see a parallel to Jean’s plight: once empowered with the Phoenix Force, her buddies characterize her behavior as lewd and wanton.

Another possible reading would be that the world of 1980 would not have allowed true liberation. We cannot deny that with sexual liberation, a host of dangers enter the game: AIDs, other STDs, unwanted pregnancies—to say nothing of emotional issues. And not all experiments turn out for the best. Jean is able to suppress her erotic/godlike persona in the end (which may be the most impressive thing of all, to suppress a god), manipulating her friends, enemies, and technologies to kill herself. Not because she turns evil, but because the world was incapable of dealing with her as liberation incarnate, that she had become something outside the world. It’s an ultimate act of self-control, of learning from one’s mistakes, of recognizing the failings of the world around her. I think it would have been better for her to live, but it’s supposed to make her the ultimate hero, the haunting X-Men messiah, despite the unsavory insinuation that female desire is destructive. And keep in mind that Jean, more often than most comic book characters, resurrects over and over, trying out each new period in X-history.

The fact of the matter here is that sexual desire is always potentially destructive. You risk not only infecting your partner with all manner of germs, but you also risk objectifying him and reducing him to a masturbatory aid. As I alluded to earlier, Cyclops’s power is an easy metaphor for the violence of the male gaze. He cannot look at someone without protection, meaning that he cannot look into the eyes of his lovers—Jean Grey here and later Emma Frost—without killing them, leading to much chivalry, brooding, and sexual tension. At a climactic scene in Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men arc, Emma Frost, a telepath like Jean who becomes one of the good guys, removes Cyclops’s inability to control his power, something Jean would do. At first, it’s presented as if he lost his power, i.e. lost his destructive virility and usefulness to the team, but then, in the biggest evolution of his character in 50 years, he controls his eye beams himself, showing that it is possible to overcome the sexist stereotypes society encourages.

And even if you don’t destroy your lover, you risk (or aim for, depending on how mystical your love life is) losing yourself in each other, dissolving the boundaries between self and self. Something that clearly happens when Jean merges with Phoenix.

Ultimately, the Dark Phoenix story arc offers a layered exploration of our own identities. Superheroes, after all, are supposed to represent us. They’re the vehicle; we’re the tenor. And though this story was written 31 years ago, the stereotypes and subversions are still relevant. Listen to Fox News or watch movies: women’s sexual desire is still considered something to fear and suppress. Movies and television shows still linger on tits and asses regardless of their relationship to the plot. And we still grow up, negotiating our own desires in a world that can’t handle them, becoming confused, sure of ourselves, and confused again. There’s a lot of this story that’s dated: the storytelling, the art, the dialogue. But it still offers a good lens with which to analyze ourselves, even if that lens is full of spandex and kaboom.

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Christopher Lirette, originally from Chauvin, Louisiana, lives with his wife, Linda, in Newark, New Jersey. This fall, you can read his in The Southern Review, PANK, and Hayden’s Ferry Review. In addition to writing, he has worked as an offshore roustabout, an archery instructor, and a personal chef. During the school year, he commutes to Ithaca, NY to teach courses on poetry, superheroines, and hip-hop. You can find him at twitter.com/CLImagiste