In the 80s, a bunch of crazy &*^% happened to the X-Men. Arguably the most famous story arc, “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” took place between issues #129 and #137 of The Uncanny X-Men. Chris Claremont and John Byrne teamed up to tell the legendary tale of Jean Grey’s rise to the form of Dark Phoenix, and her eventual demise.
For years, I’d heard about this story. Probably the earliest time was when I watched the X-Men animated series as a child, where they abridged this plotline. I decided last week to finally pick it up and see if the comic still held water thirty-five years later. I was, ultimately, impressed with what I found.
After a series of team victories, the X-Men return to their headquarters. Professor X, after leaving the team for a time, sees how Cyclops has molded the new X-Men, and berates his former pupil for their slipshod teamwork. This argument must be abandoned, however, as strange events begin to occur, namely that Jean Grey, now Phoenix, continues to have visions of herself in the 18th century where she is betrothed to a man named Jason Wyngarde.
In reality, Wyngarde is a member of the Hellfire Club, an elite social organization that is a front for a group of power-hungry mutants including Sebastian Shaw and The White Queen (Emma Frost). The club’s current mission? Manipulate Phoenix into becoming their ally so that they can crush the X-Men and rule the world! Of course, a power like that of Phoenix cannot be easily caged.
Something that I feel gets overlooked is that “The Dark Phoenix Saga” introduced Kitty Pryde, one of my favorite X-Men, and Dazzler, one who is…probably best left forgotten, at least in her initial incarnation. An early issue of the story sees Professor X dispatch two teams of X-Men to check out two new mutants in Chicago (Kitty) and New York City (Dazzler). The Hellfire Club takes an interest in both mutants, but the X-Men are able to bring both to their side, though only Kitty ends up joining the team, after working to free Storm, Colossus, and Wolverine from the White Queen’s clutches.
Later, the X-Men infiltrate a Hellfire Club party. Ousted quickly, the two groups battle, only for Wyngarde to play his trump card and turn Jean to Hellfire’s side, leading to an apparent victory for the evil organization. Wolverine, however, is not defeated and returns to free his comrades. Jean then breaks her bonds and turns on the Club, rejoining the X-Men.
Even as the Hellfire Club is defeated, however, Phoenix’s power spirals out of control and she becomes Dark Phoenix. She flies into space where she consumes a star and destroys an entire planet, before returning to Earth to finish off the X-Men. After a wild brawl, Professor X manages to place dampeners in Jean’s mind and lock the Phoenix away, but the Shi’ar Empire still demands recompense for the planet’s destruction. The only hope of saving Jean involves the X-Men winning a duel of honor against the Shi’ar’s elite guard.
I love the X-Men, but feel many writers fail to capture the spark that makes the team so compelling. Claremont succeeds in writing some of the best examples of Storm, Wolverine, Cyclops, Colossus, Nightcrawler, Jean Grey, and the rest. He gives each character a unique voice and, while at times their dialogue seems a tad dated (or even borderline stereotypical, tsovarisch), Claremont still manages to write intriguing characters, and place them into interesting situations.
Furthermore, the buildup and plotting of “The Dark Phoenix Saga” is executed extremely well. Though only comprising nine issues, it’s clear a lot of thought was put into the story, and events that occur in earlier issues, even ones before the story began, pay off. In fact, even without reading earlier issues it’s still easy to follow along, as previous events are summarized in a way that catches up new or lapsed readers, but doesn’t alienate those that have been along for the entire ride.
The artwork for “The Dark Phoenix Saga” is mostly solid. All of the action is presented in an exceptional manner, and Byrne’s visual storytelling is top notch. Character designs involve classic costumes for most characters, and thus feel welcome for this older story. The Hellfire Club designs are also on point, and instantly give them an air of insidious aristocracy.
One definite downside of “The Dark Phoenix Saga” is the obvious presence of rewrites. The ending of the story was changed from the initial conception, and this comes out in the structure of the final act. Furthermore, there are some scenes in earlier issues where characters mention something happening off-panel, most notably Professor X escaping captivity; I feel these moments were less “we have to fit the plot into a limited number of pages” and more so “oh crap, we forgot we needed to deal with this character.”
Another area I feel the comic suffers is Byrne’s work on the female characters. Outfits and posing aside, Byrne uses the same face for the majority of women in this comic. Though this may simply be a stylistic choice or speak to Byrne’s challenges at drawing female faces, it was still blatantly obvious in each and every scene in which multiple female characters appeared.
Even with its flaws, “The Dark Phoenix Saga” is a must-read, not only because of its solid plot and artwork, but also because of the place it holds in comic book history. It’s amazing how much story is told in such a short space of issues, which makes this plotline all the more worthy of your time and attention.
-exceptional character work
-great character designs and visual storytelling
-well developed plot
-rewrites are sometimes obvious
-the faces of Byrne’s women all look the same
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