The Uncanny X-Men #128-138
Writer(s): Chris Claremont and John Byrne (co-plot)
Artist(s): John Byrne (pencils) and Terry Austin (inks)
Although John Byrne and Chris Claremont had been collaborating for over two years on The Uncanny X-Men, they reached their creative peak with the Dark Phoenix Saga. The Uncanny X-Men became Marvel’s flagship title in the mid-1980s and its success spawned a rather bulky family of titles that still manages to keep Marvel Comics afloat financially.
However, there was a time when an X-Men story could be told without a twelve-part crossover involving dozens of mutants making cameo appearances simply to promote their own titles. Also, this story line is uncluttered with the multiple and obscure plot threads which tend to drag down the current X-Men titles.
The Dark Phoenix Saga didn’t bring much attention to itself: no cover captions, no in-house ads, no gimmicks. Despite the lack of hype, solid story telling, compelling characters, and beautiful art ensured this story line’s legendary status.
In X-Men #101, Jean Grey (Marvel Girl), an original X-Man, sacrificed herself to ensure the safety of her teammates. However, she was resurrected and was given new powers that allowed her to tap into a cosmic source called the Phoenix force. Unfortunately, one of the X-Men’s oldest foes, Mastermind tampered with Jean’s mind and upset her control of the Phoenix force. The power corrupted Jean and she was transformed into the Dark Phoenix. Jean became a cosmic threat and its up to the people who care about her the most, the X-Men, to stop her.
The return of the Angel and Beast to the X-Men’s ranks for this story line was a nice touch, especially when you consider their close relationship to Jean. It was unfortunate, that Ice Man, the only other original X-Man, wasn’t brought back to participate. The Dark Phoenix Saga also introduces several key characters like Kitty Pryde, who would later join the X-Men, Dazzler, who would earn her own regular series, and the Hellfire Club’s Inner Circle, a group of powerful and wealthy mutants who would plague the X-Men in years to come.
Scott Summers, alias Cyclops, had fallen in love with Jean the moment he first set eyes on her. Claremont and Byrne leverage this emotional tie and at several points along the story line there seems to be moments where love will conquer all. However, that’s where the tragedy comes in and makes Jean’s suicide and sacrifice that much more poignant.
A couple of years after this story line was published, the original ending to the Dark Phoenix Saga surfaced in Phoenix: The Untold Story one-shot. This ending had Jean Grey survive the Dark Phoenix ordeal, but she was exorcised of her connection to the Phoenix and stripped of her mental powers. This issue also included an insightful interview with the Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter and the creative team, and brought to light the fact that there was a bit of a dispute over where the story was going. As the story goes, Jean’s destruction of an inhabited star system, in issue #134, caught Jim Shooter’s attention and he felt strongly that the Phoenix hadn’t been held accountable for her actions.
Shooter spoke with Claremont and asked him to change the story. He felt that “Marvel really does treat these characters as if they were alive. And, that there will be consequences and there will be logical ramification for whatever happens, and that there is no limit to what may happen to our characters”. Byrne, however, “thought of the Dark Phoenix as a tenant” and he was satisfied with the first version.
Claremont didn’t see it that way, and backed the theme that power corrupts. However, in an interview with Comic Book Profiles, looked back at the decision in a different light: “Without meaning to, we stumbled into the right ending for the story; an ending which defined the X-Men better than anything did at the time. It gave the book a weight it hadn’t had before and that no other book had achieved.
The Dark Phoenix Saga is a story line that is worthy of being called an epic. It’s a defining moment in the history of the X-Men and a fabulous example of a well-told story that modern X-Men writers and editors have clearly forgotten.