When it comes to reading superhero comics, it’s sometimes difficult to know where to start. There are just so many of them, with a large percentage having publication histories that stretch back decades, running through hundreds and hundreds of issues of wildly varying quality.
In the X-Men universe, the first truly epic tale is “The Dark Phoenix Saga.” Not only was it wildly popular with the X-men’s rapidly expanding readership when it was first released, but shortly after its publication, Marvel’s then-Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter called it “the biggest event in comics in the last decade.”
The story focuses on Jean Grey, a founding member of the X-Men, who was given a makeover and greatly enhanced abilities by series writer Chris Claremont shortly after the title was revived in the mid-70s. The intention had been to give the X-Men a powerful heavy-hitter on a level with Thor in the Avengers.
The results were mixed – Jean was suddenly far more powerful than anyone else on the team, as well as most of the enemies the X-Men fought. Around this time, Claremont also started seeding his run with hints that Jean’s growing power might be corrupting her, or at least that she was falling under the influence of some malevolent entity. “The Dark Phoenix Saga” chronicles that fall and ends, unusually for the time it was produced, with Jean’s death.
But it wasn’t just the shock ending that appealed to fans. The story also came towards the end of a popular and critically acclaimed collaboration between Claremont and artist/writer John Byrne. The pair had worked together across a number of Marvel titles prior to this creative partnership, but on “Uncanny X-Men” their combined work reached a new level. This was helped in no small part to Byrne’s active involvement in the writing process, serving as co-plotter on the series from issue #114 onwards.
The engagement of both parties in this creative endeavor is evident on pretty much every page, with Byrne consistently adding an incredible amount of detail to his panels. Just look at the clutter in Kitty’s room in “Uncanny X-Men” #129 – there are all the furnishings you might expect to see in a middle-class home of the time, but there are also plenty of plants and magazines strewn all over, cosmetics out on the dresser, old toys put away but not quite abandoned. You can even see the power outlets that Kitty’s record player and lamp are plugged into. It all adds up to give the whole room, and Kitty’s place in it, a greater sense of reality.
Claremont and Byrne’s shared commitment to the title is also evident in the length of the story arc – nine issues with an extra-large concluding chapter, and unlike modern “event” storylines, while there are cameos from other heroes, there are no crossover tie-ins and no contributions from other writers and artists. Aside from some foreshadowing that crops up earlier in their run that is ultimately not essential to the plot, the whole tale is neatly contained in those nine issues.
The storyline also featured some notable departures, returns and introductions. The injured X-Man Banshee leaves the team in the opening chapter, a move that resonates with Jean’s final departure in the last installment. In addition to Jean and her love interest, X-Men leader Scott Summers (aka Cyclops), two more of the X-Men’s founding members, the Beast and Angel, both rejoin the team during as the tale unfolds.
There are also the debuts of not only three future X-Men in Kitty Pryde/Shadowcat, Alison Blair/the Dazzler and Emma Frost/the White Queen, but the anti-mutant politician Senator Robert Kelly arrives, along with the Hellfire Club, described by Angel as a “stuffy – yet risqué – establishment club” that has many unscrupulous mutants among its ranks (including the aforementioned Emma Frost, who would regularly serve as an antagonist before fully joining the X-Men some 21 years later).
The Hellfire Club is particularly striking due to the dress code it imposes on its members and staff. It really grabs the fetish subtext of super-powered couture and firmly embraces it in all its kinky glory. Even the Club’s private security forces dress in skintight costumes, complete with gimp-like face masks.
Aside from the standard-issue superhero fights, the passions unleashed at the Hellfire Club play a surprisingly significant role in the story’s events. There is a strong sexual undercurrent, albeit one that would likely have sailed right above the heads of many of its readers at the time. The central villain, Mastermind, is running a whole “Gone With the Wind”-style BDSM scene, complete with period costumes, that seems designed to awakens Jean’s inner Domme and her interest in men other than her boyfriend, Scott. Of course this all plays out, in the style of a 1980s horror movie, as Jean’s libido being a bad thing that ultimately awakens the dangerous passions of the Dark Phoenix, a force that possesses Jean and compels her on to the planet-incinerating antics that follow.
The Scott and Jean relationship is central to the drama here, and the storyline sets up literally decades of angst for poor old Scott, who would seem to have very little life outside of the X-Men. Indeed, one of the funnier moments in the story comes when Scott and Jean, out on a mission to track down a new mutant, stumble into one of New York’s sleazier night clubs. Scott’s complete incomprehension as to the appeal of such a place emphasises just how square he actually is.
Jean’s death at the end of the story throws Scott into turmoil. He takes a temporary leave of absence to mourn, only to rejoin soon after — again, he has no life outside of the X-Men. He remains haunted by his ex for a long time, and then goes on to fall for, and marry, Madelyne Pryor, a woman who bears a remarkable likeness to Jean, in what turns out to be an incredibly ill-starred relationship. When Jean is later found alive and well in a life pod at the bottom of Jamaica Bay, New York, Scott promptly dumps Madelyne and their newborn son to be with his resurrected girlfriend. “Fortunately,” Madelyne is eventually revealed to be both Jean’s clone and, ultimately, somewhat evil. Their child, on the other hand, is infected with a techno-organic virus and sent into the future to be cured. He would eventually return as Cable, an old soldier from the future, so that’s all ok, then… right?
The explanation for Jean’s post-“Dark Phoenix Saga” return is eventually attributed to an entity calling itself the Phoenix Force, which borrowed Jean’s likeness, genetics and memories, and passed itself off as her for roughly 20 issues before the Dark Phoenix storyline began. If all of this comes across as a confusing and improbable melodrama, you may well be homing in on some of the central appeal of 1980s X-Men comics.
Claremont tied X-Men continuity up in knots to justify Jean Grey’s return in a way that didn’t invalidate the events of “The Dark Phoenix Saga.” It’s a feat he just about managed to pull off, much to the detriment of poor old Scott. Shortly after Claremont ceased his initial 15-year run with the X-Men, Scott and Jean finally got married… but after a few years, Scott discovered that he much prefers Emma Frost anyway. Then, Jean died again, which kind of makes you wonder how much of the X-Men’s history might have turned out differently if Scott and Jean had both just realized that they weren’t really all that into each other anyway when they first visited the Hellfire Club. It may have saved everyone a lot of emotional stress and made X-continuity a lot simpler to follow, although it probably still wouldn’t have prevented the birth of Rachel Summers, their offspring from an alternate future timeline…
Thankfully, the storyline also provided the opportunity for some character growth for other X-Men team members – Wolverine gets a whole issue pretty much to himself in the middle of the storyline, proving once again why he’s the best there is at what he does. Meanwhile, during Scott’s brief absence in the wake of Jean’s apparent demise, Storm went on to become one of the first female characters to lead a super-team in her own right. She swiftly showed herself to be more capable and more committed to the team than Scott ever was, earning even Wolverines’ respect.
But “The Dark Phoenix Saga’s” landmark moment might be in its rewritten conclusion, in “Uncanny X-Men” #137. In the published issue, Jean’s Dark Phoenix, having been found guilty of a genocide on an intergalactic scale for thoughtlessly wiping out an entire planetary system in a moment of passionate exuberance, is sentenced to trial by combat. She and her fellow X-Men face representatives from the Shi’ar, Kree and Skull empires, with our heroes defeated one by one. Ultimately, with her control over the Dark Phoenix slipping, Jean chooses to commit suicide rather than allow it to destroy any more worlds.
But this was not the ending Claremont and Byrne originally envisioned.
In fact, the original ending, in which the Shi’ar merely removed Jean’s powers, had been drawn, lettered and was ready to go to the printers when Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter pointed out that merely taking away Jean’s powers seemed like a slap on the wrist compared to the enormity of her crimes, laying waste to civilizations and starships alike. He urged Claremont to think again, and think quickly, as he had just a day to come up with an alternative ending. Claremont revised the last five pages and added a new one in the process. Meanwhile, Byrne was given just three days to pencil the replacement art in order to get it ready for publication.
That Marvel went out of its way to republish the whole of “Uncanny X-Men” #137, complete with the original ending and an extensive round-table interview with everyone who worked on the comic as “Phoenix: The Untold Story” in 1984, serves to underline the storyline’s importance. But the extensive plot lines that flow from it, including the Current Young Jean Grey solo title, and the fan excitement for Fox’s recently revealed plans to revisit its key points in the upcoming film “X-Men: Dark Phoenix,” serves as a testament to its remaining enduring appeal.