Review by Frank Plowright
The Dark Phoenix Saga was an era-defining story that finally propelled the cult popularity of the X-Men into mainstream sales success. It’s very ambitious, stretching over nine chapters, and over three decades later remains extremely readable even for those aware of the conclusion.
The story’s roots extend back to earlier material in which Jean Grey uses her telekinetic abilities to guide a spacecraft back to Earth. It catches fire as it enters the atmosphere, and in saving her team-mates Jean’s fate appears to be a premature grave. Instead a cosmic power source known as the Phoenix bonds with her, enabling not only survival, but a vast increase in her abilities. Such was the extent of her new power in conjunction with her ability to cope with it, she instinctively and unknowingly applied mental blocks to diminish it.
As the story starts Jean has met the mysterious Jason Wyngarde. Clues to his true identity are rather blatant, but proximity to Jean enables him to exert increasing amounts of control. She experiences odd mental slips, imagining them as a wealthy 18th century couple with rather outré tastes. Simultaneously the previously unknown Hellfire Club comes to the notice of the X-Men, an organisation promoted as a place where wealthy libertines can indulge themselves, but where the inner circle have an altogether different agenda.
What Wyngarde doesn’t realise is that his mental tampering is gradually eroding the safeguards applied, and when the true power of the Phoenix is unleashed it’s might beyond comprehension or restraint. Where the story progresses from there is page-turning tragedy.
Chris Claremont plotted in tandem with artist John Byrne, and their collaboration fired creative inspiration. While Phoenix takes the spotlight, there are fine moments for most of the remaining team members, the temporary re-introduction of departed X-Men, the debuts of Dazzler, Kitty Pryde and Emma Frost, and a spectacular extended conclusion. As inked by Terry Austin, Byrne’s pencils are dynamic and exceptionally well choreographed, so also providing a visual treat.
Minor elements date the material: the frequent use of expository thought balloons now appears clumsy, some characters succumb to threats that their later incarnations would instantly dispose of, and there’s a cheap conclusion to one chapter instantly reversed in the next. These, though, are petty caveats given the thrills on offer.
The Dark Phoenix Saga has been repackaged in bewildering quantity. Several standalone paperback versions reprint the core nine chapter story, the 1980s printing to be avoided due to the vivid colouring. An outrageously overpriced hardback adds the following eulogy story, the conclusion as originally intended before editorial changes, a What If? variation, and a short solo story featuring Jean Grey. All but the What If? tale are also found as the issues are split across Marvel Masterworks: Uncanny X-Men volumes 4 and 5, together with eleven additional issues, and so far better value for money. It’s also split at roughly the halfway point across Uncanny X-Men Omnibus volumes 1 and 2, again far better value for money than the overpriced hardback version of this story alone. For those unconcerned with colour or paper stock Essential X-Men volume two packages the story in its entirety with much more besides. In the UK it’s available as part of Hachette’s series of the Ultimate Graphic Novels Collection in hardcover.