I got hooked on comics back when I was 14. I was on vacation, visiting family where we used to live in Kansas, and spending some time with my best friend from elementary school. There were two life-changing hobbies he introduced me to. Dungeons and Dragons, and comics. He gave me a bunch of his X-Men comics to read. The issues I remember the most were the lead up to, and conclusion of The Dark Phoenix Saga. These were the books that got me hooked, and ultimately had me going to the local drug store to get some X-Men books of my own off the metal spinner rack. So, when I saw that Chris Claremont was going to be at C2E2 this year I picked up a copy of The Dark Phoenix trade and stopped by his table. Great guy. He apologized for getting me hooked on comics (funny too), and complimented my beard and kilt. Flattery, in no way, influenced this review by the way.
For those who have been living under a rock, and have missed all the adaptations of this story, The Dark Phoenix saga is about the aftermath of Jean Grey obtaining the power of the Phoenix Force, a plot by the Hellfire Club and Mastermind, and ultimately the Phoenix Force taking over Jean and consuming a planet. Not every adaptation has touched on all of that, and pretty much every one of them has fallen short of the story contained in Uncanny X-Men issues 129-137. They’re arguably the most iconic and pivotal 8 issues of Marvel comics you can read. The story explores the darkness within people. We see how a family made up of people from different backgrounds and beliefs, but bound by love and sacrifice, stand by each other. It is a story of adversity, faith, doubt, self-reflection, and hope. That, ultimately, is what the X-Men were always about.
Claremont’s writing is great, of course. You don’t really need a review to know that. Going back to these older comics is a treat, and a shock. There’s much more text, more exposition, thought bubbles, and segue text. If anyone remembers the old “Meanwhile…at the Hall of Justice” sort of thing, that’s what I mean. Open any comic made before the 90’s and you’ll see it right away. Today, it might be considered bad writing, but it’s part of what makes the older comics fun to experience in my opinion. And you’re getting more than your money’s worth. The cover price on Uncanny X-Men 129 was 40 cents, and you’re getting far more word count than anything you’re paying 4 bucks for today. I’m not saying every comic needs to be this way, but I got more reading time out of this trade, than any of the modern ones I’ve picked up recently.
The story itself is dark in places, compelling, and thought-provoking. What would you do if a loved one obliterated a planet while under the sway of a galactic entity? Jean wasn’t completely to blame for her actions, but she did it. In a current culture of cancelling anyone for simply having an opinion you don’t like, one wonders if this story would be cancelled if it were published today. We see a power struggle between the X-Men and the Hellfire Club, in which Jean is almost lost to her family under the sway of Mastermind. Then, when she escapes, the Phoenix takes over and ends with the loss of billions when she causes a star to go super nova. At the end, the X-Men must struggle with the idea of defending their teammate when the Shi’ar come to pass judgement over Grey for her actions. How responsible is Jean? Can you really throw someone you love to the wolves because of what they might do? Will the Phoenix Force take over again? Should she be sacrificed on the chance that it might gain control and commit mass genocide in the future?
Finally, Jean makes the choice for them, and herself. A choice that will cause shock waves through X-Men stories for years to come. Her family cannot make that choice for her, and ultimately that’s the sacrifice a hero makes. It is the redemption of Jean for the actions of a force she had very little control over. She saved the universe (for now) and saved her friends from having to make that decision for her. She also went out on her terms, rather than let strangers (the Shi’ar) level their own judgement. Unfortunately that sacrifice, like all the ones in major comics, becomes meaningless when Jean is resurrected/reincarnated/rebooted over and over again, but this story remains a fantastic arc when pulled out of the major stream of characters who never really die.
Of course John Byrne’s art is iconic, but did you know we have him to thank for keeping Wolverine around? He also co-plotted most of the books he worked on Claremont with, beginning with issue 114 of Uncanny. Most likely, if you’re picturing the X-Men at their peak, you’re seeing depictions done by Byrne. His style lends itself well to action scenes. Movement, fight scenes, and tension all come through in each panel. I didn’t see any unnecessary lines, or garbled details. It would be many years before splash pages became common in comics, but for his time Byrne was starting to set the bar with some of the larger panels like the Phoenix revealing itself to the X-Men after the fight in the Hellfire Club. In a way the team of Claremont and Byrne will always be what other writers and artists are compared to, especially on the X-Men books.
So, you’ve probably read this story already. If you haven’t, you should. If you enjoy old comics, or are new to comics entirely, this is a great piece of comic history that you should experience. It epitomizes the idea of super heroes being modern mythology. Titans fighting to save the world from demons. God-like beings putting their lives on the line for those who are not as strong. This is the kind of story that gets people hooked. It’s the kind that delves deep into the dark places of human nature, and exposes both the good and bad. Give it a shot, even go back and read it again if it’s been awhile, you might find something you missed the first time.