As a young lad during the 1980s, I liked music, I liked heroes in colorful costumes, I liked loud, zany, high-flying adventures. As the 1980s came to a close, I got interested in superhero comics and loved the many wild, outlandish characters. One struck me in particular, especially when I saw her in the famous X-Men arcade game and the pilot cartoon “Pride of the X-Men.” She was cool, she had wit, she had style, and she was a superhero music star. I’m talking about… Alison Blaire, the Dazzler!
This hero had an interesting creation behind the scenes. In the 1970s, Casablanca Records wanted to do a cross-promotion gimmick with Marvel Comics. Casablanca would set up a wild looking new disco singer with a distinctive look, and Marvel would feature her as a superhero in her own adventures while the real life singer toured. If all went well, Filmworks would get in on the action by producing a tie-in movie. The hired singer would use the stage name Dazzler.
Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter wrote a treatment for the general project and put together a small committee at Marvel to figure out Dazzler’s nature, background and personality. Writer Tom DeFalco was the lead writer behind her creation while artist John Romita Jr. designed her, initially taking inspiration from actor/singer/model Grace Jones.
In an interview with SyFy Wire, Romita explained: “Tom DeFalco came up to me and said we have to create a character that goes to clubs… I said Grace Jones. That’s the first thing I thought of. Her hair was buzzed, she was stunningly beautiful, statuesque, wore this skintight lame outfit, she was on skates. I said, that’s the character.”
Despite how great it would’ve been to have a new and prominent (if all went according to plan) Marvel hero also be a woman of color, Filmworks then said they wanted the character to look like actor/model Bo Derek, who was on contract with them and had recently become popular due to her role in the romcom movie 10 starring Dudley Moore and Julie Andrews. So, John Romita Jr. changed the design.
I still can’t help but wonder what would have happened if things had gone according to plan. Would the woman chosen to be Dazzler have enjoyed such a career, playing the role of a superhero singer, and benefited from it or felt locked into it after a while? What if Dazzler had remained black? How would that have altered the course of her character, fanbase and stories?
In any event, things fell through on the side of Casablanca and Filmworks, so there was no new singing sensation going on tour nor a movie. But Marvel decided to continue forward with Dazzler, introducing her in the pages of Uncanny X-Men Vol. 1 #130 in 1980. The story, which was part of the larger “Dark Phoenix Saga” that is now famous among X-Men fans, was presented by writer Chris Claremont and writer/artist John Byrne, using the character notes and design from DeFalco and Romita.
With this issue came the first published ideas about just how Alison was and what the deal was with her powers. Like the members of the X-Men, we learned that Alison Blaire AKA Dazzler was a mutant, a human being born with a “genetic X-factor” or “X-gene” in her DNA. In her case, this resulted in the superhuman ability to convert nearby sound into energy and light. On stage, she often used her powers to create fantastic light shows for the audience, and the folks thought this was just an expensive special effects display.
Circumstances led to Dazzler fighting alongside the X-Men, and it became clear how powerful she could be in a fight, using sound from a variety of sources (music, her own signing, the cries of a victim, the threats of an enemy) to create blinding strobe flares, concussive energy blasts, and high powered lasers from her hands. When X-Men field leader Cyclops asked Dazzler if she had ever wondered where her powers came from, she glibly remarked, “Nope.”
Later stories would reveal that Alison was just being funny. She’d spent years wondering about her abilities and hiding them from her family for fear that it would only widen the gap between them. Her father already didn’t understand her desire to be an artist and performer, how much more would it confuse him to learn his daughter was a mutant? She had suspected, but not confirmed that the mutant X-gene was the source of her power until Cyclops flat out told her.
Once the battle is over, the X-Men attempt to recruit Dazzler to their ranks, but to the surprise of many, the lady says she’s not interested in fighting against evil and terrorism. She supports that, sure, but she wants to live her own life as a singer.
I love the idea of a singer literally empowered by the act of signing, and indeed by sound itself. The amplified sound of her own voice, coupled with the music of the instruments around her, all provided fuel for her to convert into light and energy. It makes her a kind of elemental force, literally creating light from harmony and melody. That power set coupled with her nature as a singer works wonderfully with her desire to inspire others and change the world, even a little bit, through music and light rather than violence. In a pin-up from Marvel Holiday Special, we see Dazzler using her powers to turn the sounds of people, traffic and carolers into a giant, gorgeous peace sign that lights the sky for all to see. Such a simple act, but it was also so pretty and I had to wonder what it might’ve meant for some people living in that fictional city on that night, folks who were perhaps not having a great holiday season or feeling particularly alone during that time. Alison Blaire literally brings light and music to darkness.
The X-Men more than once asked, “Have you decided to reconsider our offer to join the X-Men, and give up singing?” The wording implies that she couldn’t be a part-time member or a agree to a “reservist” status like the Avengers have often used for those who can’t commit full-time. It was either be a fighter on the team or don’t join at all. That wasn’t Alison’s calling, and that was refreshing to see in the world of Marvel Comics. With the sheer number of mutants and super-powered humans of different origins and backgrounds that exist in the Marvel Universe, would each and every one of them truly pick a life of violence (for good, evil or personal gain) and not even consider pursuing other goals or their own lives? Alison found great strength and power in reaching people through her art, literally being a light for them. Isn’t it great to see a few more heroes who challenge themselves not to be better at fighting but rather to inspire joy and goodness in others?
“This is what I was born to do! The Avengers and the X-Men may get off on saving the world from super menaces… but they’ll never know the satisfaction of making a hall full of people feel just a little bit better about life.”
Along with this all this grounded maturity and inspirational metaphor surrounding Alison Balire, there’s also a fun comic book absurdity to her. I mean, not only is she called Dazzler, she dresses like some magical spirit of disco itself, rocking out not only roller skates even in battle but also a disco ball necklace that she was able to actually weaponize at times with her powers. How hilarious is that? Weaponized disco ball necklace! If there had indeed been a Dazzler movie, you can imagine it as a superhero rock musical where Dazzle faces a small army of baddies, tells her band or a DJ “Hit it,” then erupts into a display of fighting movies and energy attacks (roller skates included) as she simultaneously launches into a musical number.
After making appearances in Avengers, Fantastic Four and the crossover series Contest of Champions, Dazzler got her own series starting in 1981, written by Tom DeFalco and with John Romita Jr. on art duties initially. It focused on her dealing with the responsibilities of her singing career sometimes involves (marketing, contract negotiation, media management), while occasionally getting involved in battles with villains, despite her reluctance to be a superhero. She never went looking for a fight, but that didn’t mean she was going to stand by and watch people be hurt if she could help it. Even when she was afraid and sure she would get hurt, she’d put on a brave front, keep her cool, and stand up to the danger. That’s a great example of bravery to see in stories.
This is a perspective that Marvel (and superhero comic books in general) don’t explore often enough for my tastes. It’s there from her first appearance and makes Alison more grounded than many of the other X-Men she met in her debut story. When Professor X had asked each of them to join his team, they had all accepted the life of a mutant counter-terrorist within moments or minutes. But Dazzler not only didn’t want that life, she hadn’t really pushed herself to find out for sure if she were a mutant. She had feared confirming what she might be, feared what that knowledge would mean for her and what the consequences would be if it also meant she’d then have to “come out.” A lot of us, even without the X-gene, can certainly relate to similar anxieties.
The character of Alison Blaire was good and I stand by that. But her ongoing comic book series was definitely a mixed bag, and parts of it don’t hold up in the years since. None the less, I still really appreciate Dazzler for how different she was and remains from other Marvel heroes, and how interesting it was for her to deal not with “how much of me is Clark and how much is Superman?” but with a perhaps more grounded situation of having a career where she was in the public eye, yet still wanting some privacy for herself. She was powerful, she was flirty, she was witty, but she also struggled with bills and dating, considered the possibility that her career goals were a pipe dream, missed her family, suffered impostor syndrome, and worried that she was being selfish for not becoming a superhero.
Regarding Dazzler’s drama with family, we later met her half-sister Lois London whose mutant ability was to cause death with a touch (which led to her later being called Mortis). She also had a short-lived romance with the hero Hank McCoy AKA Beast, and discovered her own trusted producer was drugging her to make her more open to career suggestions. Eventually, the comic had Dazzler move to Los Angeles and pursue an acting career for a while.
In 1984, the graphic novel Dazzler: The Movie presented a story with strong ideas and potential, but some poor execution. Frustrated with her career and still frightened of becoming a target if she were outed, Alison winds up entering a movie deal with the wealthy musician Roman Nekoboh. Despite the fact that the guy lies and manipulates her just to prove that she cares about him, she also winds up dating the guy. Alison finds security with him, becoming used to indulgences she hadn’t bothered with before.
Just as she’s becoming concerned that she’s getting out of shape and becoming a bit decadent, Roman outs her as a mutant to the press in the hopes that this will create publicity for their movie. Alison is shocked that she wasn’t consulted about this, but decides to forgive Roman for the moment and goes along with a public demonstration of her powers. Unfortunately, the crowd becomes fearful when they see just how powerful she is, and by the end of the graphic novel she leaves behind Roman and a now ruined career.
After this, Dazzler would bounce around comics, vanish for a while, bounce around comics, then vanish for a while, and so on. She became an official member of the X-Men for years, worked as a musician for intergalactic singer Lila Cheney, had a romance with the hero Longshot, suffered a miscarriage, spent some time traveling through outer space and other dimensions, returned to Earth and the X-Men, then went off on her own again. And that’s not even considering all her costume changes along the way.
Despite her increased spotlight due to X-Men video games and some cartoon episodes, lots of creators seem unsure what to do with her, and so she has often been made as just another generic superhero in the background. But every now and then, you see stories that truly understand how great she can be and how she fulfills a role different from most other X-Men. She proved she had untapped power and potential in stories such as the crossover event Age of Apocalypse.
Years later, she also got to return to her disco costume roots in a one-shot special comic in 2010 that featured several enemies from her past. She then shined again during the mini-series Secret Wars: A-Force, a book featuring most of Marvel’s women heroes as a big army living together within a warped version of the Marvel Universe.
Recently, she had a great redesign in the ongoing series A-Force, where she now wore roller skates not as a disco queen but as a punk rock roller derby warrior also known as “Ali-Stun” Blaire of the Elm Street Nightmares. Joining the A-Force team, she made new friendships and confronted the fact that she has often avoided thinking about various traumas in her life rather than confronting and processing them. The series also dealt with Alison facing health issues and wondering just how much time she had left in this life.
In one memorable A-Force story, readers met “Dazzler Thor,” an Alison of a parallel universe who wielded the godly power of Lightbringer, a mystical mallet not unlike Thor’s hammer Mjolnir. Alison found herself confiding in her parallel universe counterpart in a way she normally didn’t with others, and for a few moments she even wielded the power of Lightbringer herself.
Following A-Force‘s cancellation, Dazzler starred in a 2018 one-shot where she’s once again on the concert tour scene, once again determined to be a performer rather than a superhero. But now she’s while singing she’s also playing the role an activist, declaring that there is no tolerance for violence, bigotry and close-mindedness at her shows. Human, mutant, inhuman, alien, whatever… you’re all welcome at one of Dazzler’s concerts. Because she believes in you and your ability to shine.
In these times when we need more and more attention to tolerance and inclusivity, I hope Marvel gives Dazzler more platforms so she will continue this activist role and find new ways to shine. It’s a great path for the character, that of artist and activist, and further proof that Alison works wonderfully when she tries to inspire rather than only fight. She’s a friend who hears our doubts, understands them, and tells us, “Go for it!”
This was originally published October 1, 2018
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