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"Gathered together by Professor Charles Xavier to protect a world that fears and hates them, the X-Men had fought many battles, been on adventures that spanned galaxies, grappled enemies of limitless might, but none of this could prepare them for the most shocking struggle they would ever face. One of their own members, Jean Grey, has gained power beyond all comprehension, and that power has corrupted her absolutely! Now they must decide if the life of the woman they cherish is worth the existence of the entire universe!" X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga is a classic early 1980s Marvel comic arc by Chris Claremont with art by John Byrne that collects together X-Men #129-137. The mutant superhero team X-Men - led of course by the wise and kind hearted Professor Charles Xavier - is in very big trouble. The biggest trouble they've ever been in or are ever likely to be in. Children of the atom, they are feared and hated by the world they have sworn to protect and the strangest of heroes. Cyclops, Wolverine, Storm, Night Crawler and Colossus face their greatest ever challenge when their own Marvel Girl aka Jean Grey is overwhelmed by the immense psychic and telekinetic powers she first developed in the "Phoenix Saga" (it's a long story). Manipulated by the evil mutant "Mastermind" from the mysterious Hellfire Club, her powers are now on a cosmic level and she's practically become a God who can destroy worlds and consume stars. Can her friends get through to the conscience of Jean Grey that still resides somewhere within the destructive and emotionless psionic cosmic entity Dark Phoenix? "Hear me X-Men! No longer am I the woman you knew! I am fire and life incarnate! Now and forever I am Phoenix!" This is one of the greatest Marvel comic arcs ever published and fully deserving of its popular and mythic status. The story is a huge sprawling epic that eventually takes us into the farthest reaches of space as the terrible power of Phoenix is unleashed.
The art is fantastic (very retro Flash Gordon) and the story is an unusually strong and thoughtful one for a Marvel weekly. Jean Grey has lost control and become Phoenix but is Phoenix Jean Grey? Can Jean Grey be held responsible for the actions of Phoenix? That is ultimately the big question here. The story is set in motion by the illusionist Mastermind who seeks to use Jean Grey to enhance his standing at the mysterious Hellfire Club (this is a shadowy supervillain establishment and was inspired by a 1960s episode of The Avengers). Mastermind by the way is drawn to look like Jason King with an urbane manner, tache and comedy seventies clothes and the name of his alter ego - Jason Wyngarde - is a direct doff of the cap to the lead actor and character of that cult campy classic. Mastermind directs his illusions into Jean Grey's mind and makes her relive the memories of her ancestor Lady Grey. Phoenix becomes subverted into joining the Hellfire Club as their Black Queen and the stage is set for conflict between the club and the X-Men. There is a lot of mystical mumbo jumbo in the Hellfire Club scenes but they are great fun and serve to trigger the birth of Dark Phoenix. Some great characters in the club and it's fun to see them interacting with the X-Men as the two groups finally have to cross swords. I sometimes find later X-Men comics a struggle at times because it was a comic that often took itself quite seriously and was sometimes rather impenetrable. If you just picked up a random X-Men comic and started reading you probably wouldn't have the faintest idea what was going on or who half the characters were but this is the original classic X-Men team and we get a real sense here of what they mean to each other and the different relationships between them. I love the melodramatic narrative captions too. Something that can be annoying in the wrong hands but works here.
Scott Summers aka Cyclops (more or less the leader of the team, fires optic blasts from his eye visor, etc) is the lover of Jean Grey so feels the Phoenix saga even more emotionally than the others. "You're Dark Phoenix, power incarnate. No force in existence can stand against you. But you're also still Jean Grey. No matter how hard you try you can't exorcise that pat of yourself. It's too fundamental. You can't kill us because you love us. And we love you." There is also a romantic attraction between Wolverine and Jean Grey so he is equally determined to rescue her. Although this is a very ambitious story arc with major ramifications it never feels too pretentious and is an action packed breezy read with colourful art and plenty of good character moments for the individual X-Men. I love the panels where Phoenix destroys the jet they are in and the X-Men are all suddenly in free fall as she seeks to eliminate them. "She strikes like the angel of death. Terrible in her unhuman beauty. As elemental, as majestic, as the stars in the heavens..." This takes place during a rain lashed night and the art is really good with excellent detail of the park below. Storm must rescue the non flying members of the team although Nightcrawler has to teleport himself to the ground in bumpy fashion. I love the sound bubble they use whenever Nightcrawler teleports. BAMF! The X-Men are no match for Dark Phoenix though and their futile struggles against her make for some great sequences. They are confused too because this is their friend Jean Grey and they don't understand what has happened to her. The panels where Phoenix takes to the far reaches of space and consumes a star are fantastically done by John Byrne.
There is a great scene too where Phoenix goes home to see her parents and becomes Jean Grey again just for the briefest time despite the fact that she has just killed millions of innocents on a planet by consuming the star that gave them life. This contrast highlights the fact that this is ultimately a very human story. The original ending of The Dark Phoenix saga was changed after a moral intervention by the head of Marvel and I think he made the right choice. They did though tend to undo some of the effect of this arc years later with a Patrick Duffy stepping out the shower type device that was rather misjudged. I suppose in the world of comics anything can be undone or changed. The story gets even better when the X-Men are teleported onto a Shi'Ar battleship where Jean Grey is to be held accountable for her crimes as Dark Phoenix. Xavier proposes a physic duel to save her life and the X-Men are transported to the "Blue Area" of the Moon to make their last stand where they remember the good old days. "They were young. They were in love. They were heroes." There are some fantastic panels on the Shi'Ar battleship where each of the X-Men are alone in their quarters and reflect on their relationship with Jean Grey and how culpable she is for the crimes of Dark Phoenix. Would they have been the same in that situation? This is a great X-Men story and not only poignant but intelligent and always entertaining with wonderful art. If you only ever buy one X-Men collection this is probably the one to go for. X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga is classic Marvel and at the time of writing available to buy for around a tenner.