Almost every major comic book decision can be traced back to X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga.
It brought Wolverine to the forefront of the X-Men while introducing Emma Frost and Kitty Pryde, two of the X-Franchise’s most prominent women (plus the Dazzler). While she wasn’t the first superhero to die, the circumstances behind Jean Grey’s death elevated it into the epitome of the superhero death story. Her revival (which I’ll cover soon as well) helped open the floodgates of constant rebirths in comics. The effects don’t end at the Marvel Universe, either. The title’s popularity led to the revival of DC’s own young heroes as The New Teen Titans, which in turn gave Marv Wolfman and George Perez the cache to create Crisis on Infinite Earths.
I won’t hide spoilers this time around, because The Dark Phoenix Saga is a book where, one way or another, you probably already know what happens. Thanks to pop cultural osmosis, Jean Grey’s constant death and rebirth has become a running gag of sorts, and elements of it have made their way into animation and (barely) film adaptations. At its core, Saga is about Jean’s slide into mental disarray and Cyclops’ attempt to bring her back. This is a little hard at first, because the book starts right at the end of the Proteus saga, in which X-Men ally Moira MacTaggart’s possession-powered son ran amok. A lot occurred during that story, including the use of characters who are then ushered away for the rest of Saga.
After a long time away in space, Professor X is back and is helping lead the team once more. This leads to new complications: not only does he help find two new mutants, but he also comes into conflict with Cyclops and Wolverine, having not realized that they have grown as warriors without him. Even though the Dazzler is given her big debut here, she is quickly dropped from the story; even back then, Marvel editorial knew that the fad was going to end.
Amidst the changes, Jean Grey keeps experiencing shifts in reality, believing herself to be inhabiting the body of an ancestor during time slips. In fact, these are intricate illusions created by Mastermind, who has disguised his internal and external ugliness as Jason Wyngarde, Jean’s dashing love interest in her visions. When you read The Dark Phoenix Saga, take a look at the hollow-eyed Wyngarde and you’d never believe that he has at least two daughters (three depending on Pixie’s origin). His manipulations are tantamount to rape, controlling Jean’s mind, powers and body. In the Dark Phoenix’s one relatively good deed, he gets to experience his place in the universe for a moment, breaking him in a way similar to the Total Perspective Vortex from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Dark Phoenix is one of Marvel’s most terrifying villains; as the Shi’ar point out, while Galactus eats planets, the Dark Phoenix eats suns. Consuming one planet leads to the death of five billion D’Bari thanks to a supernova. Sometimes, with powerful villains, the grand schemes aren’t as intimidating as their spur-of-the-moment actions. It’s reminiscent of Thanos’ Earth-wrecking temper tantrum in Infinity Gauntlet, and I think Starlin did that intentionally. It’s tragic, even if later retcons changed it so that this wasn’t actually Jean. Instead of a long-standing character losing her way, it’s a being that never had a chance.
I should also mention that the Phoenix and Dark Phoenix costumes are some of the best designs in comic book history, using the gold highlights perfectly. I really like the tiny phoenix belt buckle on the sash, a detail sometimes left out of other depictions.
The same can’t be said about the other villains, the Hellfire Club. Wyngarde, Sebastian Shaw, Harry Leland, Donald Pierce and the other Hellfire Club members just look entirely too silly (I’ll make an exception for the White Queen, as Frost was able to own her sexuality and use her skimpy costume to define herself). The Revolutionary War-era costumes work for the Royalist Society of America, whose stories in Jack Kirby’s Captain America and the Falcon were already a bit goofy. Claremont is striving for too much realism to get away with them. Their plan is also uninspired until they hook up with Robert Kelly at the end and sow the seeds for Project: Wideawake and other plots to come.
The Hellfire Club also has some silly-looking henchmen, whose faceplates seem to be constantly grimacing in terror. Maybe this is a side effect of the book’s famous scene wherein Wolverine threatens one of them and he starts quivering. After that, it’s hard not to see the others as quivering.
Claremont tends to over-describe in his writing, which has its positives and negatives. It gets grating during a collected edition because you sometimes read the same thing four issues in a row, but it also means that you can jump right in and have the backstory told to you. Again, compare this to Infinity Gauntlet, where I felt so out of the story that I had to wait for Silver Surfer: Rebirth of Thanos to come out in paperback in order to continue reading it. John Byrne’s storytelling skills are superb, often using clever fades to transition from one panel to another. For instance, in one panel, we see the team suited up, and the panel below it has the team in their street clothes in the same positions.
Without a doubt, The Dark Phoenix Saga is still a cornerstone of Marvel Comics and superhero comics in general. There are quite a few versions in print; mine includes a copy of a page from when Jean was going to live, along with the gorgeous covers from the Classic X-Men reprints. It shouldn’t be hard to find a copy, and if you’re interested in Marvel at all, then it should be on your shelf.