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Off The Page: The Dark Phoenix Saga

By Patrick McNair Mar 7, 2017 - 7:51 PM print

The X-Men are one of the most prolific and well-known superhero teams in comics’ history. The X-Men are mutants, an offshoot of humanity, born with superhuman abilities that within the fictional world, has created a great deal of tension and discrimination against them. Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the team first appeared in The X-Men #1 in 1963 and consisted of five main members: Cyclops, Marvel Girl (Jean Grey), Angel, Iceman and Beast. The team is led by Prof Charles Xavier, the founder of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, a school which offers a place for mutants to understand their powers and gain acceptance, in addition to serving as the X-Men headquarters. Following a reboot in the mid-70s with Giant Size X-Men #1 , Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum were handed the reins to the title (beginning with Uncanny X-Men #94 ) and set about revamping the team's sole female member, Jean Grey. Introduced as Marvel Girl, Grey was originally a telekinetic, before being given telepathic abilities and was the main romantic interest for Cyclops, occasionally harbouring an attraction towards Wolverine as well. Beyond those points, there wasn't too much to the character and was she generally regarded as the weakest X-Men member. However, under the authorship of Claremont, Jean Grey was about to undergo a significant transformation, one that would leave her as one of the most powerful and destructive characters in all the Marvel Universe.

The Setup:

After returning from a space mission, Jean Grey is exposed to solar radiation, transforming into the Phoenix, a being of immense power. It isn't long before Phoenix’s abilities gain the attention of the Hellfire Club, who wish to recruit her to their side. Little does anyone know, however, the danger Phoenix's presence creates, leading to a deadly new enemy, with Jean’s soul hanging in the balance.


The Breakdown:

The Dark Phoenix Saga is usually divided into two different parts, with Jean Grey's transformation into the Phoenix ("The Phoenix Saga") taking place between Uncanny X-Men #101-108 and the corruption and fall of the Phoenix ("The Dark Phoenix Saga") being between issues #129-138 . The initial reason for Jean Grey's transformation into the Phoenix was that Claremont wanted her to become the first cosmic female hero and integrate her as a part of the X-Men. The problem came when Phoenix became too powerful and was in danger of becoming the focus of Uncanny X-Men . Thus, the editorial team worked to remove the Phoenix character by the end of the storyline.

When the X-Men return from a mission in space, Jean Grey is exposed to a deadly amount of radiation from a solar flare. However, instead of killing her, her powers become supercharged as she reaches her ultimate potential as a telepath and telekinetic, gaining a new costume and identity as "Phoenix." Her power and abilities make her subject to the machinations of the Hellfire Club, specifically Jason Wyngarde (a.k.a. Mastermind), who projects mental illusions into Phoenix’ mind. The illusions make her believe that she is reliving the memories of Lady Grey, an ancestor and in the illusions was the Hellfire Club's Black Queen. Using the psychic projections, Mastermind succeeds in seducing Phoenix, who accepts the Black Queen as her identity. Phoenix aids the Hellfire Club in capturing the X-Men, where Cyclops fights for Jean’s honour against Mastermind in a psychic duel. Mastermind kills Cyclops’ psychic image, causing Phoenix great emotional distress, as her mental barriers break down. She is consumed by overwhelming power and becomes the Dark Phoenix. Dark Phoenix breaks away from the X-Men and leaves for a distant galaxy, in the process devouring a star and inadvertently causing a supernova, destroying a nearby planet, killing its inhabitants. This action brings the ire of the Shi’ar Empire, who in a council consisting of the Kree and Skrull empires agree that the Dark Phoenix is even more dangerous than the planet consuming Galactus and must be destroyed. Dark Phoenix returns to Earth, fighting her conflicted feelings for her friends as Jean Grey and her destructive impulses as Dark Phoenix. During an intense psychic battle, Charles Xavier succeeds in creating a new set of psychic "circuit breakers" that reduces Dark Phoenix’ power to that of the original Marvel Girl, reasserting Jean's personality in the process.

The Shi’ar Empire arrives, demanding that Phoenix must be put to death for her genocidal crimes, however, Xavier challenges Shi’ar Empress Lilandra to a ritualistic duel of honour (Arin'n Haelar), which is accepted. The X-Men engage in battle with the Shi’ar Imperial Guard, with the fate of Phoenix in the balance. The Imperial Guard defeat most of the X-Men, leaving Cyclops and Phoenix alone. After Cyclops supposedly dies, Phoenix panics and overrides Xavier’s circuit breakers, unleashing the Dark Phoenix once more. Xavier orders the X-Men to restrain Phoenix, battling her until she regains her senses. Struggling to keep control, Jean activates a Kree weapon, which disintegrates her after a final goodbye to her love, Cyclops. The story ends with a final comment from Utau the Watcher, who states that Jean Grey could have lived to have become a god, but it was more important that she die a human.


The Dark Phoenix Saga is one of the most well-known and popular storylines in comic books and is considered a classic. The story has been adapted numerous times in media, including the X-Men animated series and the films, X-Men: The Last Stand and the upcoming X-Men: Supernova . The ending of The Dark Phoenix Saga was one of great controversy amongst the editorial staff since the original ending had the Shi’ar permanently depower Jean and released into the custody of the X-Men. Furthermore, there was some confusion as to whether Jean was actually possessed by the Phoenix or whether the Phoenix was a part of Jean all along (even Claremont was unsure whether Jean was possessed or her actions as the Dark Phoenix were her own). The Dark Phoenix’ casual genocide of a planet was a matter of consternation for then editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, reasoning that it would be out of character for the X-Men to take in an individual who had caused such devastation. It was eventually decided that Jean would sacrifice herself to atone for her sins since it appeared from the readers’ perspective that Jean was in full control of her actions the whole time and wishing to avoid further controversy, it would be easier to write of the character for the time being. A follow-up story, "From the Ashes" was published in 1983 ( Uncanny X-Men #174-175 ), featuring Madelyne Pryor (a clone of Jean Grey) and saw the "return" of the Dark Phoenix (although this was only an illusion created by Mastermind). The Dark Phoenix Saga is a classic X-Men tale and one of the many stories created by Chris Claremont, who single-handedly saved the X-Men during a creatively stagnant period when Marvel's most prominent superhero team was in danger of being forgotten entirely.

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