Chris Claremont, writer,
John Byrne, artist
(Marvel Comics, 1984;
reprinting The Uncanny X-Men 129-137, 1980)
The Dark Phoenix Saga was one of the most significant plotlines in the ongoing story of the X-Men. Through the course of nine chapters, the Marvel Universe was introduced to Kitty Pryde, Dazzler and the Hellfire Club -- including Emma Frost, the White Queen, whose dominatrix-influenced attire paved the path for a plethora of scantily clad women in comics today. Longtime X-Men writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne had made X-Men Marvel's No. 1 title for years. With this saga, they crafted a story that completely surprised and shocked readers, demonstrating the imagination and conflict for which the mutant heroes are so well known.
Besides being packed with action, Claremont and Byrne show us an emotional side of the team -- the love Scott "Cyclops" Summers feels towards Jean "Phoenix" Grey. We also see the X-Men through newcomer Kitty Pryde, feeling the complexity of her wonder, discovery, confusion and fear.
While there are many intriguing subplots to this tale, the evolution of Jean Grey from Phoenix to Dark Phoenix is the element binding these events together. Jean, while searching for two new mutants, Kitty "Shadowcat" Pryde and the Dazzler, suffers from hallucinations relating to the Hellfire Club and the mysterious Jason Wyngarde. In a battle with Hellfire Club troops, Jean becomes more aggressive in her Phoenix persona -- and she later uses her telepathic abilities to alter moods around her. Scott and the other X-Men notice these flagrant abuses of her powers and begin to fear her lack of self-control.
With the aid of former teammate Warren "Angel" Worthington, the X-Men go undercover to infiltrate the Hellfire Club in New York City, where Wyngarde is revealed as the sleazy mutant villain Mastermind. He is a member of the Inner Circle of the Hellfire Club, a group of mutants using their powers and financial influence to further their own goals, and he is using hallucinations to lure and capture the power of the Phoenix as the Black Queen of their Inner Circle.
It works, and Jean helps the Inner Circle defeat the X-Men. During the ensuing battle, which includes Wolverine at his ass-kicking best, Jean regains some of her control -- enough to telepathically lobotomizes Mastermind. But as the X-Men escape from the Hellfire Club, she transforms into the Dark Phoenix, destroying their aircraft and nearly killing her friends. Now with near-infinite power, the Dark Phoenix heads into space in search of sustenance, leaving a trail of destruction and attracting the attention and enmity of the Shi'Ar, led by Lilandra (Professor Xavier's alien lover).
The X-Men find themselves unprepared for the Dark Phoenix's return to Earth, but she is defeated by Xavier's telepathic abilities. Then the Shi'Ar arrive, demanding retribution, and the X-Men must battle their Imperial Guard on the moon to save Jean from their vengeance.
Jean's efforts to bury her Phoenix powers in her former alter-ego, Marvel Girl, fail when the X-Men are beaten by the Shi'Ar. Then, realizing she can no longer control her dark nature, she commits suicide as Scott looks helplessly on.
Marvel dared to do something none of its rivals had yet to contemplate: the death of a popular female hero. (Gwen Stacy, who died many years earlier in the pages of Spider-Man, was not a hero -- only a supporting character.) As Phoenix, Jean Grey was one of the powerhouses in the Marvel Universe and a favorite among readers. While her transformation to Phoenix was only a few years past, the character of Jean Grey had been with X-Men since its inception in 1963.
Unlike many recent "deaths" of popular characters, The Dark Phoenix Saga was intended to show the corruption and sacrifice of a major character. As a stand-alone story, it is one of the most gripping sagas in the history of comics. The various elements of the plot are intriguingly tied together to weave a consistent and exciting story. In re-reading the saga, Claremont has inserted clues and foreshadowing aspects that lead to no other conclusion than Phoenix's demise.
The only downside is Marvel's ultimate decision to undermine its greatness and, almost a decade later, resurrect Jean Grey to reunite the original X-Men in the mediocre title X-Factor. While her resurrection is metaphorically true to the name of Phoenix, Marvel's choice to bring back Jean Grey diminishes the audacity and boldness of The Dark Phoenix Saga.