By Luis Toscano
This article is designed as a third take on the discussion inside of the Panel x Panel audio episodes. It gives more details in areas Geirge and I couldn’t go and adds more depth for your enjoyment. ~ Epic Boss McFall – The Dark Phoenix audio post
The Dark Phoenix Saga. Just the name indicates that we are about to deal with an epic story, one that will be entertaining from beginning to end.
When comic-book fans talk about classic, defining story lines for the X-Men, this is the one that always comes to the very top of the list.
And there are a lot of reasons for that. Writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne were at their top of their game during this time. Together, they made the X-Men into one of Marvel’s most popular books at the time, rivaling the Teen Titans of George Pérez and Marv Wolfman.
The storyline first started back in the Phoenix Saga (Uncanny X-Men#101-108). While the X-Men are returning from a mission in space, Jean Grey absorbs the radiation of a solar flare. After they crash land in the Jamaica Bay, Jean emerges from the depths with a new green and gold costume, calling herself Phoenix.
Jean’s powers were boosted to an incredible degree, even allowing her to repair the damage of the Shi’ar’s M’Kraan crystal, which contained a neutron galaxy that could destroy the universe.
I know it sounds like you have a lot of reading to do before even starting with this story, but all you need to know is this: Jean Grey has attained power on a cosmic scale.
At this time, the X-Men were in a string of other defining story lines. Between the Phoenix and Dark Phoenix Saga, they faced other villains such as Magneto, Sauron, Arcade, and Proteus. Those adventures also helped define the X-Men’s identity for years to come, so you should read them if you like this one.
Back to the Dark Phoenix Saga (Uncanny X-Men #129-138): The villain Mastermind, capable of creating illusions, uses a psychic device created by the White Queen, Emma Frost, to project his illusions inside Jean Grey’s mind.
Disguising himself as the noble Jason Wyngarde, Mastermind then tricks Jean into a Revolutionary Era romantic fantasy, not unlike those supermarket novels with Fabio in the cover. Jean thinks her power is allowing her to reach into the past life of an ancestor, which also explains her attraction to Wyngarde.
Confused by the illusions, she doesn’t tell Cyclops about them, who still feels there’s something wrong. But they’ve barely returned from their latest adventure, when Professor Xavier sends the X-Men to recruit two new powerful mutants.
Unfortunately, the Hellfire Club is also after those same mutants. The club is made of rich and powerful individuals who desire more power, and is based on a real life gentlemen club from 18th century England.
Their Inner Circle is made up by Emma Frost, Harry Leland, Donald Pierce and Sebastian Shaw. They rank themselves by way of chess pieces: Shaw is their Black King, Frost is the White Queen, Pierce and Leland are the White and Black Bishops, while Wyngarde was on probation to become a Rook.
Storm, Colossus, Wolverine and Professor Xavier go to Chicago, to try and enroll young Kitty Pryde in their school. Cyclops, Phoenix and Nightcrawler go to New York, to the place where Disco music goes to die, to recruit Alison Blaire, known as Dazzler.
Both X-men teams face with the Hellfire Club troops. Storm’s team gets captured, while Cyclops’s gets help from Dazzler to win. Getting a call from Kitty, the remaining X-Men go rescue their friends.
Peppered until now, there are some moments that start to hint at Jean’s powers getting out of hand: her casually transforming hers and Cyclops clothes into their uniforms, mind controlling the Hellfire goons, and a rather sinister moment when she faces the White Queen.
Not to mention that, once the X-Men take Kitty back to her worried and angry parents, Jean erases their memories to not waste time explaining things to them.
The X-Men decide to go into the Hellfire Club’s New York headquarters (just four blocks away from the Avengers Mansion), and try to find out more about their new enemies, thanks to their teammate Angel’s connections.
But their mission quickly goes awry, when they face Sebastian Shaw and his inner circle. All of them get captured, except for Wolverine, who they leave for dead. Meanwhile, Jean has fallen fully under Wyngarde’s spell, becoming the Black Queen.
Remember when I said this was a defining story? Well, this right here is one of Wolverine’s most badass moments. Using all his cunning, he manages to overpower the Hellfire mercenaries sent to hunt him.
Meanwhile, Wyngarde is trying to make sure his hold over Jean is absolute, and has a psychic duel with Cyclops, who ends up almost dying.
Wolverine finds the other X-Men, but Jean has come to her senses, and helps them escape. They fight Shaw and his inner circle again, but this time the result is very different.
Unfortunately for Wyngarde, Jean is pretty angry at his manipulations. She gives him the power he wanted, but his mind is too small to contain the cosmic knowledge.
Jean does have good motives to be angry. Her mind and feelings were manipulated, her friends attacked, her lover almost killed. But one gets the impression that her revenge might be too much, that she´s letting herself loose in a way she wouldn’t have in the past.
After they trounce the Hellfire Club’s inner circle, the X-Men leave the scene, with some help from former X-Men and now Avenger Beast, but they don’t get far before Jean’s power gets out of control.
Jean Grey is no more. There’s only the Dark Phoenix.
Phoenix trounces the X-Men with ease, and then leaves for outer space. She’s been using incredible amounts of energy, and she must replenish her strength.
The D’Bari star system was home to a humanoid plant race of the same name. Some of their members had appeared elsewhere, alongside Captain America and Rocket Raccoon.
Their planet, along with the entire system, was destroyed when Phoenix forced their sun to go nova, consuming its energies. This also alerts the Shi’ar, an alien race that the X-Men met during The Phoenix Saga, to her new and terrible potential.
Was Jean in her right mind when she consumed the star? It could be said that being overwhelmed by the Phoenix power, she was not herself. But she killed 5 billion people because of that.
Phoenix goes back to Earth, and the X-Men fight her once more. They don’t stand a chance, and while an emotional appeal from Cyclops seems to be working, Professor Xavier has to fight her, using his mental powers to contain the menace.
For a brief moment, it seems like the X-Men can breathe easily again. Cyclops even proposes to her, and she says yes.
But at that moment they’re abducted by the Shi’ar and their allies, who want to kill Jean to make sure the Dark Phoenix never returns. All seems lost, until Professor Xavier demands a trial by combat: the X-Men against the Shi’ar Imperial Guard.
We get to see the X-Men reflecting on their trials, and about Jean’s change. Despite their doubts, they all arrive at the same conclusion: they will fight for her life.
The arena for this epic battle will be a place that will be key for later Marvel stories, and perhaps for the Cinematic Universe: the Blue Area of the Moon. Here, among ruins of an alien civilization, there’s a breathable atmosphere, and gravity almost like the Earth’s.
It will be in this place where, during John Byrne’s Fantastic Four run, that the Inhumans will relocate their hidden city, Attilan.
And since a battle with such great stakes for the universe is happening so close to his home, Uatu the Watcher will keep a close look on the events that will unfold.
The X-Men and the Imperial Guard are teleported to the Blue Area. The X-Men know they are outgunned by the Guard, so they split in two teams.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter in the long run. Even if the Guard wasn’t headed up by the Gladiator, with almost Superman-like powers, the rest of their enemies are pretty powerful on their own.
One by one, the X-Men fall, until the last ones standing are Cyclops and Jean, now wearing her Marvel Girl costume. They try to fight valiantly, but they’re doomed.
The pressure of the battle proves too much for Jean’s psychic restrictions. Her Phoenix powers come back. And she starts turning again into Dark Phoenix.
The X-Men then start attacking her, along with the Imperial Guard. They only have moments before she regains her full power.
An attack by Colossus helps her to clear her thoughts. Jean knows she only has moments before she loses control of her power again. She runs inside the ruins, with Cyclops following her.
Jean makes a decision. As long as she lives, the universe will be at the mercy of the Phoenix. Cyclops can’t don nothing else but watch as she uses her telekinetic powers to activate a hidden weapon, turning herself into ashes.
And it was because of this page that the creative team of Claremont and Byrne broke up. Claremont had written in the script that Jean would let herself be consumed by the Phoenix power, whereas Byrne ended up drawing it as a suicide by alien gun. Neither was too happy that the other didn’t consult him first.
Claremont would keep on writing the X-Men for another 12 years. Byrne moved onto his own great run with the Fantastic Four and a stint with Alpha Flight.
There’s more about this ending. Originally, Jean was to be depowered, and be allowed to keep on living, but Editor in Chief Jim Shooter disagreed with this ending. He reasoned that someone responsible for the death of an entire world deserved a much greater punishment.
This ending was printed in Phoenix: The Untold Story. Also, the splash page for the next issue, had Jean lived, depicted her looking at a beautiful flower, along with Cyclops.
But the next issue opened up with her funeral, and while now it might seem overplayed for the X-Men to feel sad every time Jean dies, that was the first time that it happened, and looked like it would stick.
At least, until the X-Men/Teen Titans crossover. But I’ve been ranting long enough, and you must be itching to go read the story yourself, at least to see the disservice done to it by the X-Men: The Last Stand movie.