Comic Book Review: The Uncanny X-Men – “The Dark Phoenix Saga” (1979-80)

Hear me X-Men! No longer am I the woman you knew! I am fire! And LIFE INCARNATE! Now and forever -- I AM PHOENIX!

The Uncanny X-Men – “The Dark Phoenix Saga” (1979-80)

Collects The Uncanny X-Men issues 129-137. Writers: Chris Claremont and John Byrne, Penciller: John Byrne, Inker: Terry Austin, Colourists: Bob Sharen and Glynis Wein, Letterist: Tom Orzechowski. Published by Marvel Comics in 1979-80.

In a perfect world, I’d be able to make this review more timely by telling people that if they were intrigued by how the Dark Phoenix story played out in X-Men: The Last Stand, then they should consider checking out the original story as written over 25 years ago in the comics. Unfortunately, that movie had nothing to do with The Dark Phoenix Saga as it was originally presented. In fact, it had little to do with Dark Phoenix at all (other than resurrecting Jean Grey, having her block Cyclops’ blasts in a scene, do battle with the X-Men in her old house, and her ultimate fate), and instead gave us a “Super Jean Grey” sub-plot, and called her Phoenix. Which leaves the sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as the best interpretation of this story to appear outside the comics.

Instead, I guess you could check this out to see why so many fans were so bothered by the movie and what they keep going on about with this Dark Phoenix stuff. Or, you could just check out because it is the greatest X-Men story of all-time. The Dark Phoenix Saga isn’t just AN X-Men story, it is THE X-Men story, and if the producers of the movie couldn’t do it justice, then they should have just left it alone. I know some defenders will say that comic book fans are too hard to please, that elements of this story would be too hard to portray in a movie. I agree that the space elements of the story would need to be left out; I’d even allow for the movie to replace the Hellfire Club with Magneto’s Brotherhood for expediency’s sake (although a Jason Wyngarde/Mastermind-type character is a necessary edition to the story). Many changes were made to God Loves, Man Kills to adapt it for X2, but they worked. Because the makers of that film respected the story. Every comic book movie that’s not named Sin City has made significant changes from the books, and comic book fans have accepted many of them because they got the feel of the characters and story right.

The feel of The Dark Phoenix Saga is epic, a tale about the danger of power and its seductive nature, a story of love and loss, with drama and adventure of Shakespearean proportions. It continues to resonate with fans to this day, decades after its printing, even after most of the events of the story have since been undone by later events. It is widely regarded by fans as one of the best stories in the history of comics, but unlike other stories that rank highly (Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, Maus), it didn’t have to reinvent comics to do it. This is superhero comics at their best, proving that you can still have all the fun battles and bright costumes without looking down on them as funny books.

For modern readers, it might be surprising to learn that when these issues were written, they weren’t written as a huge event. Chris Claremont and John Byrne created the greatest tale in the history of the book one issue at a time, without trying to create a company wide event crossover, without promoting big changes to the book, without bringing in an outside creator to generate buzz. The issues weren’t even titled or advertised as The Dark Phoenix Saga, which was a distinction given to these nine issues after the fact, when Marvel wisely chose to collect them in trade paperback form in 1984 (since reprinted in several different editions). Claremont and Byrne were merely interested in telling the best, most interesting, most entertaining stories they could for monthly readers of the book, something we don’t generally see anymore in today’s comic book climate.

The story features what I believe to be the greatest X-Men roster of all-time (Cyclops, Wolverine, Storm, Colossus, Nightcrawler, Phoenix, with Professor X supporting them, and Banshee recently departed and featured in a sub-plot), along with guest appearances by original X-Men Beast and Angel. The series features the first appearances of Kitty Pride, Dazzler, and the Hellfire Club (including Emma Frost). It follows the team from England to Westchester, to New York, Chicago, Denver, and back, from the far side of the universe to the dark side of the moon.

Primarily, it is a showcase for the character of Jean Grey, as her telepathic powers reach god-like levels (following the events of issues 101-108), and her grip over them grows more and more tenuous under the manipulations of the mysterious Jason Wyngarde (which had been teased for months). The pure sister-figure that was Marvel Girl is slowly chipped away, replaced with the malevolent force of nature known as Dark Phoenix, a being of seemingly unlimited power, who threatens all life in the universe in an attempt to quench her insatiable thirst for power. It is a classic example of the old adage “absolute power corrupts absolutely”, and the X-Men’s finest hour. The level of adventure is huge, as the team is forced to do battle with a being they have no hope to stop, and a dear friend and lover they all hold close to their hearts. It’s a formula many comics have since borrowed, with a former teammate and friend becoming the enemy, but never with the same effect and pathos as Claremont and Byrne captured here, or with as huge and shocking results.

Besides Phoenix’s plight, the book showcases each of its characters in their classic characterisations. Cyclops, the often stoic leader, is forced to battle with the love of his life, forcing him to choose between doing what he wants and what is right. Storm plays both den mother to Kitty Pride and sister to Phoenix, reaching out to Jean, unable to see her as the evil Dark Phoenix. Colossus is the torn artist, the youngest X-Man having to deal with the fallout of the previous story involving Proteus (not featured in this collection), and how a similar situation with Phoenix is forcing him into the same terrible choice. Nightcrawler provides comic relief, Kitty Pride is a breath of fresh air, and Professor Xavier is kind of a jerk (but ultimately proves that he’ll do anything for his students). Finally, Wolverine, the most popular X-Man of all-time, gets to shine in one of the best single issue stories in his history (#130), forced to take on the Hellfire Club on his own, at a time before he was featured in 20 comics every month.

If you’ve ever wanted to check out X-Men comics, but are too intimidated by their incredibly convoluted and seemingly limitless continuity, then this is the series to pick up. Presented by the greatest writer/artist duo in series history (Claremont-Byrne), featuring the team’s greatest line-up, in the most epic tale in the 43 years of X-Men history, the book features everything that makes the X-Men great. I not only consider it to be the best story in the history of the X-Men, but also the greatest story in the history of Marvel Comics, and the greatest superhero team story in the history of the medium.

Top 5 X-Men
X-Men: Phoenix – Endsong
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

2 thoughts on “Comic Book Review: The Uncanny X-Men – “The Dark Phoenix Saga” (1979-80)

  1. Pingback: Top 5 Reasons Why I Probably Won’t Go See X-Men Origins: Wolverine « Critically Speaking

  2. I love sci-fi, so have seen the movies – but never got into comic books. I love the Phoenix character and just researched her for a blog I wrote. Now I’m thinking of diving into the comic book realm.

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