Making Him the Best There Is

When you look at today’s Marvel comics with Wolverine practically a required member of every superhero team in existence, it’s hard to believe there was a time when Marvel was getting along just fine without Wolverine. Even in the pages of UNCANNY X-MEN during the early days of its return in the 1970s, it was clear that Wolverine’s intended role was that of a supporting player, a co-star at best, and not at all the heart of the team and the pillar of the book’s popularity.

What changed all that? “The Dark Phoenix Saga.”

Back in 1979, UNCANNY X-MEN was really starting to pick up steam as one of Marvel’s most popular series. Under the stewardship of writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne, along with steady support from inker Terry Austin and letterer Tom Orzechowski, UNCANNY X-MEN was combining tense, action-packed drama with Claremont’s keen characterization, illustrated with heart and flair by Byrne, who was providing some of the best art of his career (work which I still think goes unmatched today by Byrne).

As the story opens, the X-Men return home from an adventure in Scotland with troubled hearts. Particularly team leader Scott “Cyclops” Summers and Jean “Phoenix” Grey, who find themselves gingerly trying to rebuild their romantic relationship, after a lengthy separation when Scott believed Jean dead. Complicating matters is Scott’s concern over the recent upsurge in Jean’s powers since she first became the Phoenix some months before, and Jean’s own worries about a series of amazingly vivid hallucinations she’s been having, in which she’s transported back to the 18th century and in love with the mysterious nobleman Jason Wyngarde.

While Scott struggles with both his worries for Jean and conflicts with Professor Xavier over leadership of the team, the emergence of two extremely powerful mutants spurs Xavier to split the team, with Scott, Jean and Nightcrawler heading to New York to attempt to contact one of the mutants, while Professor Xavier embarks on a rare field mission to Chicago with Colossus, Storm and Wolverine in an attempt to recruit the other mutant.

The Chicago mutant, it turns out, is 13-year-old Katherine “Kitty” Pryde, a young dance student whose parents are splitting up and who, as luck would have it, is about to be sent away to boarding school. Kitty has been suffering from frequent, crippling headaches, but has no idea that she might have any sort of mutant power. As Xavier and company arrive at the Pryde home in Chicago, they briefly cross paths with Emma Frost, a statuesque blonde from the Massachusetts Academy, another prestigious boarding school that’s attempting to recruit Kitty. What the X-Men don’t know is that Frost is in reality the White Queen, a member of the Inner Circle of the Hellfire Club, a secret council of mutant industrialists with designs on world conquest.

While Xavier talks with Kitty’s parents, Storm, Colossus and Wolverine take Kitty to the local ice cream parlor, where Storm confides in Kitty that they are actually the X-Men. Just as Kitty and Storm begin to bond, the X-Men are attacked by a trio of heavily armored foes, which the X-Men make short work of. Before they can attempt to question their attackers, all three are mindblasted into unconsciousness by the White Queen, an enormously powerful psychic. As the White Queen and her goons head off to capture Xavier, little do they know that there’s a stowaway on board: young Kitty, who had in the melee at the ice cream parlor learned to use her heretofore unknown mutant power: the ability to “phase,” or walk through solid objects.

Kitty manages to awaken the psychically subdued Storm, who gives her the contact number for the rest of the X-Men, and tells her to get help. Becoming more adept with her newfound powers, Kitty manages to escape.

While Kitty struggles to get away, Scott, Jean and Nightcrawler find some success in locating the other new mutant, tracking her to a grungy Manhattan disco. Unbeknownst to them, their movements are being followed as well, once more by mercenaries in the employ of the Hellfire Club. Meanwhile the mysterious Jason Wyngarde makes an appearance for the first time in person, locking lips with Jean while setting off another 18th-century hallucination, in which the two are married, and Jean is given the mysterious title of the Black Queen. Before Jean can attempt to explain to Scott, the mutant they’re looking for is at last discovered: the Dazzler, performing center stage and transforming sound to a brilliant lightshow.

Before Cyclops can introduce himself, more of the Hellfire Club’s armored thugs attack, and just as in Chicago, the X-Men defeat them without too much trouble. Having received Kitty Pryde’s desperate call for help, Scott, Jean, Nightcrawler and a somewhat confused Dazzler head for Chicago.

In the Windy City, the X-Men make contact with Kitty, still on the run, and thanks to Phoenix’s mindscan of Kitty’s pursuers, are able to discern where their teammates are being held: Emma Frost’s corporate headquarters. While Kitty sneaks back in to free Wolverine, Scott, Jean, Nightcrawler and Dazzler poses as captives and enter through the front gates. Kitty manages to free the others, but is blasted in the process, to which Wolverine doesn’t take too kindly.

As the team regroups, Kitty and Peter “Colossus” Rasputin have their first meeting, foreshadowing the long-simmering attraction and eventual relationship that will merge between the two. At the same time, Phoenix is engaging in a psychic duel with Emma Frost, one that’s looking more and more one-sided, until a desperate Frost brings down the building on both of them. Even this isn’t enough to hurt the increasingly powerful Jean:

Looking to regroup in a safe place, and fearing the Mansion is no longer secure, Cyclops orders the X-Men to the New Mexico home of former X-Man Warren Worthington, a.k.a. the Angel. Scott confers with his old friend their recent troubles with the Hellfire Club, before being interrupted by Jean, and the two share a brief, and rare, romantic moment:

In an uncharacteristically proactive move, the X-Men infiltrate the Hellfire Club, hoping to get some more answers, thanks to forged invitations courtesy of the Angel, who inherited membership in the society club from his parents. While Cyclops, Jean, Colossus and Storm enter through the front door dressed to the nines, Wolverine and Nightcrawler attempt to sneak in through the sewers. Unfortunately, the Hellfire Club’s Inner Circle is aware of their arrival, and soon Jason Wyngarde is once more taking Jean in his arms and manipulating her mind. This time, Wyngarde reveals his true visage to Cyclops, who’s shocked to see the X-Men’s old enemy Mastermind behind Wyngarde’s handsome facade.

As Cyclops races to intervene, Jean, now completely brainwashed into her new identity as the Black Queen, puts him down effortlessly. Colossus and Storm arrive to help, but are bested by another member of the Inner Circle: Sebastian Shaw, whose mutant ability is to absorb the kinetic energy of any blow and channel it into his own strength.

And in the subterranean levels of the building, Nightcrawler and Wolverine are met by the remaining members of the Inner Circle: the cyborg Donald Pierce and mutant Harry Leland, who can increase the mass of any object. Taken by surprise, Nightcrawler is captured and Wolverine is swept away into the sewer current and presumed drowned.

Never a safe assumption to make, and soon Wolverine is carving his way through the Hellfire Club’s armed guards, making his way back to the Inner Circle. While Wolverine heads back, Mastermind engages in a psychic duel with Cyclops inside the mind of Jean Grey, in an attempt to sever her connection with the X-Men for good.

Instead, seeing her lover slain before her eyes snapped Jean back to reality, and she soon frees the X-Men. Back on their feet, the X-Men do much better in their second engagement with the Hellfire Club, ending with Shaw and a severely damaged Pierce retreating, while Wolverine mortally wounds Leland and an enraged Jean Grey psychically lobotomizes Mastermind.

As the X-Men make their escape before the police arrive, the combination of Jean’s mental manipulation and her ever-increasing power takes its toll, as Jean becomes the entity known as Dark Phoenix, and blows up the X-Men’s skycraft in midair.

Now completely seduced by her own power, Jean attacks the X-Men, effortlessly subduing them and symbolically cutting her ties with her old life, and leaves the planet for a new sinister destiny in space. Arriving on the scene in response to an Avengers call is former X-Man Henry “Beast” McCoy, who helps the X-Men recover and ferries the team back to the Mansion to figure out what to do next.

While the X-Men lick their wounds, Dark Phoenix searches the cosmos for sustenance, devouring a star for its energy, and creating a supernova in the process that destroys a populated world.

Now temporarily sated, Dark Phoenix makes her way back to Earth, a move detected by Scott though the psychic link he and Jean once shared. Thanks to the Beast’s scientific knowhow, they X-Men manage to create a psychic damper which they hope will slow down Jean enough for them to knock her out. When Jean returns to her parents’ home, struggling to balance her humanity with the immeasurable power she now contains, the X-Men attack, and thanks to the psychic damper, have a brief window of opportunity in which they could have defeated her. But even Wolverine, the X-Men’s most callous pragmatist, is unable to do what must be done:

The lives of the X-Men once more at her fingertips, Jean is almost talked back from the brink by Cyclops, before the timely arrival of the Angel and Professor Xavier.

Xavier and the Dark Phoenix engage in a psychic duel like no other, and with the assistance of Jean fighting her “Phoenix-self,” Xavier manages to create psionic “circuit-breakers” in Jean’s mind, imprisoning Phoenix forever. Just as the X-Men relax and breathe a sign of relief, with Scott even proposing marriage and Jean accepting, the assembled team vanishes in a flash of light before the confused eyes of Jean Grey’s family.

The X-Men reappear on the deck of a starship operated by the Shi’ar, an intergalactic empire that the X-Men had previously encountered, and whose Empress, Lilandra, was currently involved in a long-distance romantic relationship with none other than Professor Xavier. This reunion, however, was far from a happy one, as Lilandra seeks justice for the billions of souls slaughtered by Dark Phoenix when she consumed the star, and demands that Jean Grey be turned over for capital punishment. The X-Men’s protests that Dark Phoenix no longer exists fall on deaf ears, and Xavier is forced to invoke an ancient Shi’ar tradition of a duel of honor to settle the matter. The X-Men will face Lilandra’s Imperial Guard in combat, and if they win, they (and Jean) may go free.

Before the next day’s battle, we see each of the X-Men making their decision whether they want to fight for Jean, knowing now the horrible crime that she as Dark Phoenix committed. Each comes to their decision in their own way, that fighting for Jean is the only option.

The battle will take place on the mysterious “Blue Area” of the moon, a mysterious crater first discovered by the Fantastic Four in which an oxygen atmosphere exists, allowing the combatants to breathe normally, albeit in lighter gravity.

Despite their best efforts, the outnumbered, outpowered X-Men fall before the superior power of the Imperial Guard, until finally only Scott and Jean are left still in action. When finally Scott is cut down, the shock and grief Jean feels shatters all of Xavier’s psychic barriers, and she becomes Phoenix once more.

Xavier revives the rest of the fallen X-Men, and they try to contain Phoenix’s power, but again find themselves unable to kill one of their own.

Realizing this, and now knowing that a return to Dark Phoenix was inevitable, Jean telekinetically paralyzes Scott to prevent him from trying to stop her, bids him goodbye, and activates the long-forgotten weapons hidden in the ruins.

This was a breakthrough story in a lot of ways for Marvel. Aside from its mature handling of such issues as Scott and Jean’s romance and Wolverine’s lethal tendencies, there hadn’t really been a series that killed off one of its main characters permanently (at least it was expected to be permanent, and was treated as such for a decade or so), and this monumental, now-classic turn of events almost didn’t happen. As the story goes, the creators’ original intention was never to kill Jean off, but instead to psychically neuter her, rendering her completely powerless. However, when penciller Byrne drew the sequence of Phoenix consuming the star, he included the scenes of the planet of the “asparagus people,” as he later called them, being destroyed in the process. When then-Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter saw this, he insisted that the character be killed off as a consequence of her actions, as he refused to publish a series featuring a genocidal mass-murderer as a hero. Under heavy editorial pressure from above, Claremont and Byrne reluctantly altered the finale of their story, with its new ending of a remorseful Jean committing suicide to save the planet from herself.

The Scott Summers-Jean Grey romance hit a climax here that it never quite reached again, even after Jean was resurrected and the characters were married in the mid-1990s. Claremont does a remarkable job at bringing Scott’s emotions to the forefront here (primarily through his concern for Jean’s welfare), and the few moments of peace and happiness Scott and Jean manage to claim for themselves seem all the sweeter due to Scott’s near-constant worry over Jean’s rapidly developing powers. It’s a tough thing to really sell a romance as believable on the comic-book page; between Claremont’s words and Byrne’s renderings, they manage to more than pull it off, making Scott’s grief all the more palpable.

There’s a lot here to admire besides the Jean Grey storyline. The introduction of Kitty Pryde, while helping to fill the void that was about to be created with the loss of Jean, also helped reconnect the book with its original school-based concept, injecting a much-needed dose of youth and vitality into a school paradoxically almost entirely populated by adults.

As for Kitty herself, thanks to Claremont’s charming characterization and Byrne’s appealing design, Miss Pryde would become one of the series’ most popular characters, and remain a mainstay of the book for the next 15 years or so.

While not yet remotely the breakout star of the book he would eventually become, Wolverine really comes into the forefront for the first time here, exhibiting more and more of the lethal ferocity that the character would eventually be famous for. In a clever tip of the hat to the famous “Do you feel lucky?” speech from DIRTY HARRY, Wolverine psyches out a Hellfire Club guard by explaining just who he is and what he can do:

The introduction of the Hellfire Club also added a steady stream of new stories and adversaries to the title, while the suggestive S&M-influenced attire on Emma Frost and the Black Queen added a hint of sexiness to the series without crossing the line to something inappropriate for an all-ages book.

As for the art, Byrne here is at the height of his skills, making use of clever visual parallels to instill a sense of transition not far removed from a dissolve in film, such as this moment from the end of the X-Men’s confrontation with the White Queen:

Byrne even manages to make plot synopsis visually interesting, as he recaps what’s come so far in the midst of the X-Men’s capture by the Hellfire Club:

This was the first X-Men story I ever read as a kid, and it really set the bar for what I expected of the characters. Claremont gets a bum rap from today’s critical crowd for his tendency toward purple prose and an overreliance on a third-person narrator’s voice, but in his prime, his comics were leagues above anything else on the market. More so than any other comic at the time, the X-Men felt like people first and superheroes second, and thanks to Claremont’s first-rate work on the characterizations and dialogue, THE DARK PHOENIX SAGA created a bond with those characters for me that still exists to this day.

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