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The Dark Phoenix Saga is an extended X-Men storyline in the fictional Marvel Comics Universe, focusing on Jean Grey and the Phoenix Force, ending in Grey's apparent death. It was written by Chris Claremont with art by Dave Cockrum and John Byrne.

It is sometimes divided into two parts, with the Phoenix Saga (X-Men [Vol. 1] #101–108, 1976–1977) referring to Grey's seeming assumption of the power and repair of the M'Kraan Crystal, and the Dark Phoenix Saga (X-Men Vol. 1 #129–138, 1980) to her corruption and fall. It is one of the most well-known and heavily referenced stories in mainstream American superhero comics, and widely considered a classic.

It was adapted for the X-Men animated series, and alluded to in the movie X2: X-Men United. A third movie, X-Men: The Last Stand, released in 2006, contains further elements from the saga.

Contents

Synopsis

In comic books today, readers know the Phoenix as a psionic cosmic entity linked to Jean Grey. However, this was not how the character was written in the original story—there, the Phoenix actually was Jean, at the very peak of her power. Returning from a mission in space, the story told of Jean being exposed to the deadly radiation of a solar flare, and briefly attaining her ultimate potential as a telepath and telekinetic. In this moment, Jean became a being of pure thought, and then reformed herself upon return to Earth with the new costume, identity and power of "Phoenix." It was with this incredible power that Jean repaired the fractured M'Kraan Crystal, but voluntarily restrained her powers afterward in order to keep them under control.

Her vast potential made her a target for the illusionist Mastermind, who was attempting to prove himself in order to join the prestigious Inner Circle of the Hellfire Club. With the help of a mind-tap device created by the White Queen, Emma Frost, Mastermind (using the alias Jason Wyngarde) was able to project his illusions directly into Phoenix's mind. These illusions caused her to believe that she was reliving the memories of her ancestor, Lady Grey, who in Mastermind's illusions, was Wyngarde's lover. Phoenix was subverted into joining the Hellfire Club as their Black Queen, a decadent role that would allow her to relish the extremes of human emotion and began to break down the barriers that she had erected.

When the X-Men came to her rescue, they were captured by the Inner Circle, and Jean's true love Cyclops faced Mastermind in a psychic duel. When Mastermind killed Cyclops' psychic image, it served to break his hold over Jean's psyche and shattered the final barriers on her power. Experiencing this power in its totality, along with the decadent role she had just played, overwhelmed Jean entirely, and she renamed herself the "Dark Phoenix." The X-Men battled her, but were easily defeated by her power before she departed for the heavens. Intent on satiating her hunger, Dark Phoenix created a wormhole and transported herself to a distant galaxy. Without a thought of the consequences, she dove into the heart of the D'Bari star and devoured its energy, causing the star to go nova; killing billions of innocent aliens in the process. Dark Phoenix was then attacked by a Shi'ar vessel to prevent her from destroying other stars. Dark Phoenix easily defeated her foes, but not before they were able to alert the Shi'ar Empress Lilandra. Gathering a host of intergalactic associates, including the Kree and Skrull empires, the council concluded that Dark Phoenix was an even more serious threat than the planet-consuming Galactus and must be destroyed because she had the power to destroy the entire Universe.

On Earth, the X-Men were greeted by Avengers member (and former X-Man) Beast. He had designed a device which would neutralize Phoenix's powers long enough for them to defeat her. Dark Phoenix returned to Earth, to her family's home, and was subsequently attacked by the X-Men. During a vicious psionic battle with her mentor, Charles Xavier, he was able to rebuild the psychic "circuit-breakers" in her mind which reduced Dark Phoenix's powers to more reasonable levels and allowed Jean's personality to reassert control, curtailing the destructive impulses of Dark Phoenix.

The Shi'ar then abducted the X-Men, told them of Dark Phoenix's casual genocide, and indicated that she must be put to death because of it. Xavier, who was romantically involved with the Shi'ar Empress, challenged Lilandra to Arin'n Haelar, a Shi'ar duel of honor that cannot be refused. After conferring with her allies, who insisted the contest be staged to ensure a guaranteed victory on their part, Lilandra ceded to Xavier's demand.

The next day, the X-Men and the Shi'ar Imperial Guard were teleported to the Blue Area of the moon where they would do battle, with the victors deciding the fate of Phoenix. The Imperial Guard, led by Gladiator, was able to defeat all of the X-Men, leaving Cyclops and Phoenix alone to make a final stand against them. When a stray bolt of energy hit Cyclops, Jean Grey's panic overrode the psychic circuit-breakers Xavier had placed within her mind and the full might of Phoenix's powers was once more unleashed. At this point, Lilandra abandoned the delicate approach and ordered Plan Omega, which would consist of destroying the whole solar system in hopes of eliminating Dark Phoenix in the process.

With events spiralling out of control, Xavier ordered the X-Men to subdue Jean to preempt Lilandra's emergency measure. The team battled her until she regained her senses. Running to a back alley on the moon, Jean, struggling to keep control, activated a Kree weapon and disintegrated herself after an emotional good-bye to Cyclops. He later deduced that Jean had planned her sacrifice from the moment they had landed on the moon.

This pivotal story ends with Uatu the Watcher commenting that "Jean Grey could have lived to become a god, but it was more important to her that she died as a human."

Editorial controversy

Cover to Uncanny X-Men #136. Art by John Byrne.
Cover to Uncanny X-Men #136. Art by John Byrne.

The ending of the story was a matter of intense controversy with the editorial staff. Claremont and Byrne originally wanted Jean to be depowered by Lilandra's alliance to prevent any recurrence of Dark Phoenix's havoc, so that they could bring Jean (and her evil Dark Phoenix alter ego) back for future stories. Their editor, Louise Simonson, agreed to this ending. But problems surfaced when then Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter objected, weeks before Uncanny X-Men #137 was published. After learning of the plot point, he expressed to Claremont and Byrne his feelings that such a light punishment was wholly disproportionate to the magnitude of her crime, which was essentially genocide. Shooter ordered the original ending scrapped and a new ending produced, which would have Jean pay the supreme penalty for her crimes.

Shooter suggested a scenario where Jean would be banished to a radioactive asteroid, where she would be forever burning from cosmic radiation, but was open to alternate suggestions from Claremont and Byrne. Ultimately, it was decided by Byrne and Claremont to have Jean commit suicide after her Dark Phoenix persona resurfaces at the climax of the fight against the Imperial Guard. The original ending ultimately saw print in 1983 in a special edition reprint of Uncanny X-Men #137 called Phoenix: The Untold Story. Besides reprinting Byrne and Claremont's original version of Uncanny X-Men #137, it featured a transcript of a roundtable discussion between Claremont, Byrne, and Shooter discussing the story behind the original ending and why it was changed. The interview is also important for an exchange which shows how early Byrne had hatched plans to resurrect Jean.

Jean Grey and Phoenix as separate entities

Shortly before the publication of Uncanny X-Men #137, future freelance writer Kurt Busiek, then still a college student, heard about the upcoming events through the fan grapevine, as did fellow future comics pros Carol Kalish (who would go on to head up Marvel's Direct Sales Department for years) and Richard Howell (artist of the Vision and The Scarlet Witch 12-issue limited series, among others). The three of them also heard that Jim Shooter had declared that Jean Grey could not be revived unless it was done in such a way as to render her guiltless of Dark Phoenix's crimes. Taking this as a creative challenge, all three then-fans decided to come up with their own resurrection scenario. Busiek's involved the discovery that Jean Grey was still on the bottom of Jamaica Bay in suspended animation after, and the Phoenix entity had used her body and mind as a lens, creating an immensely powerful duplicate of Jean, but a duplicate which grew more corrupted and distorted the longer it remained separate from the true Jean.

In 1982, Dark Phoenix resurfaced in a special DC Comics/Marvel Comics crossover special featuring the X-Men and the New Teen Titans. The story (which is not part of DC or Marvel canon) has the cosmic villain Darkseid resurrect Jean Grey in her Dark Phoenix persona as part of his quest to discover the secret of the Anti-Life Equation. In the end, Dark Phoenix is betrayed by Darkseid and sacrifices her life yet again to stop Darkseid.

In 1983, Chris Claremont introduced Madelyne Pryor into the X-Men. Madelyne was a commercial airline pilot who survived with no injuries from an airliner crash that happened on the same day Jean Grey died, and who was the mirror image of Jean Grey. Madelyne met Cyclops when he went to visit his grandparents in Alaska and found himself drawn to Madelyne. The villainous Mastermind, seeking revenge against the X-Men for being driven mad by Dark Phoenix, manipulated the team into thinking Madelyne was Dark Phoenix reincarnated. Ultimately, Mastermind's scheme was defeated and Cyclops and Madelyne were married and soon had a son, Nathan Christopher Summers.

Also in 1983, after beginning a career as a freelance writer the previous year, Kurt Busiek attended a comics convention in Ithaca, New York, staying at the home of Marvel writer Roger Stern. In conversation, both writers' longtime interest in the X-Men came up, and Stern expressed regret that there was no way to bring Jean back, not while satisfying Shooter's edict. Busiek told Stern his idea, not expecting it to amount to more than idle conversation. Later, Stern told the idea to John Byrne, then writer/artist of Fantastic Four.

In 1985, Jim Shooter greenlighted a new series that would reunite the original X-Men into a new team called X-Factor, to be written by longtime freelancer Bob Layton. Hearing of this, Byrne called Layton and suggested Busiek's idea as a means of raising Jean Grey from the dead while satisfying Jim Shooter's demands for total absolution for Jean.

A three-part crossover was planned to launch X-Factor, involving the Avengers, Fantastic Four, and the debut issue of X-Factor, thus involving Avengers writer Roger Stern, Fantastic Four writer John Byrne and X-Factor writer Bob Layton. Busiek, by that time, was working at Marvel as a freelance assistant editor on Marvel Age Magazine. He was paid and credited (in Fantastic Four #286, where his name was misspelled "Busek") for the idea, and edited a series of interviews for Marvel Age, promoting the new series. Ironically, everything in the interviews pertaining to Jean's resurrection was marked out with black tape to create an air of mystery about the revelations that the crossover would involve, and Busiek thus found himself taping over each of the writers giving him credit for the idea.

Sequels, aborted sequels, and the "What is the Phoenix Force?" debate

Over the years, writers have attempted to do sequels to the "Dark Phoenix Saga" as well as attempt to further explain the true nature of the Phoenix Force.

During the Inferno crossover, Madelyne Pryor was revealed to be a clone created by the X-Men villain Mr. Sinister to serve as a replacement for Jean Grey in Mr. Sinister's scheme to produce a mutant child to destroy Apocalypse. Furthermore, it was revealed that when Dark Phoenix died, the Phoenix Force visited Jean Grey and sought to free her from her cocoon prison/healing pod. The Phoenix Force even offered to give Jean the memories it had acquired while posing as Jean as a means to make amends for impersonating her, but upon realizing that the Phoenix Force had committed genocide in her name, Jean rejected the Phoenix Force. The Phoenix Force circled the globe to find something to make amends for the problems it had caused and in the process, merged with the then-mindless Madelyne Pryor. The merging caused Madelyne to come to life, though the Phoenix Force remained buried within her until several years later, when the evil demon S'ym activated Madelyne's latent telepathic and telekinetic powers after tricking Madelyne into entering into a contract to aid S'ym in exchange for revenge on her estranged husband Cyclops, who had abandoned her and their son for Jean when he discovered she was really alive.

In the end, Madelyne (calling herself the Goblyn Queen) and Jean Grey fought during the Inferno and revealed that her powers and existence was brought about as a result of Jean rejecting the Phoenix Force. Becoming suicidal upon the discovery of being a clone, and in a desperate attempt to take her counterpart with her, Madelyne telepathically linked her mind to Jean's mind and then killed herself. As Jean lay at death's door, the Phoenix Force reappeared and told her that the only way for Jean to live would be if she accepted the Phoenix Force and the memories of what the Phoenix did while pretending to be her. Jean agreed and gained in the process not only the memories of Phoenix/Dark Phoenix, but Madelyne Pryor's memories too. Sadly, these memories began manifesting themselves as actual personalities inside Jean's head. This happened shortly after the Inferno and at the worst possible time, as X-Factor and their spaceship headquarters were kidnapped into outer space by their ship's creators, the Celestials. In the end, Jean purged herself of these alternate personalities when she used her remaining Phoenix Force powers to battle a member of the Celestials.

In 1988, Marvel Comics launched a new X-Men spin-off book called Excalibur, which featured Rachel Summers. Claremont established that Rachel Summers could channel the energies of the Phoenix Force to boost her own mutant powers of telekinesis and telepathy.

In 1992, Alan Davis took over the book as head writer and brought the Phoenix Force back to the forefront. Under Alan Davis, the Phoenix Force's nature was revealed to be that of the embodiment of all life in the universe and that the Phoenix Force was given the form of a "Phoenix" by the magicians Merlyn, Fero, and Necrom. Merlyn used the Phoenix Force for his own personal power source and created a tower across an infinite number of Earths to help him harness the energy of this artificial linkage, but then Necrom revealed his own mad plan for power. In the resulting battle a portion of the Phoenix Force was ripped away, which Necrom then placed in a corpse so he could access it later. As part of his plans to defeat Necrom, Merlyn faked his death and arranged for the founding of Excalibur, after convincing his daughter Roma (while in disguise) that Rachel Summers had to be destroyed before she could harness the Phoenix Force and destroy the universe. The goal of this charade was to place Rachel and Merlyn's longtime pawn Captain Britain into his lighthouse home, oblivious to the fact that the lighthouse secretly was the tower Merlyn created to harness the Phoenix Force. It was said that Rachel was irrevocably and forever the host to the Phoenix Force.

In the end, Necron arrived on Earth, and, after draining the corpse containing a fragment of the Phoenix Force, ordered Rachel to turn herself over to him so he could kill her and become the only one who could harness the Phoenix Force's power. Rachel turned herself over, but instead, fought Necron in a battle that featured Rachel becoming the new avatar of the Phoenix Force just so she could trick Necron into stealing the full power of the Phoenix, knowing full well that Necron would die trying in vain to contain its vast powers. The process left Rachel in a coma and—after destroying his lighthouse home, so as to cut Merlyn off from accessing the Phoenix Force—Captain Britain contacted Professor Xavier to try to reach Rachel. Xavier made contact with the Phoenix Force and agreed to let the Phoenix Force take Rachel into space so that it could heal Rachel. Rachel/Phoenix was confronted by Galactus, who warned her to reject the Phoenix Force for the sake of all living beings; according to Galactus, each time the Phoenix Force was used by Rachel, the universe's collective life force was drained. Rachel agreed and returned to Earth where she rejected the Phoenix Force powers once and for all, before allowing herself to be transported to the future in order to free a time-trapped Captain Britain.

Years later, in the mini-series, The Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix , Jean Grey and Scott Summers were telepathically teleported to the future by Rachel Summers. Dying, Rachel asked her mother to reclaim the Phoenix name in her honor before sending the two back to their proper time. However, Rachel would later return after the death of Apocalypse eradicated the future timeline from which she originated, thus casting her adrift in the timestream. She was soon rescued and returned to the present by Cable.

In 1998, Uncanny X-Men writer Steve Seagle sought to do a sequel to "The Dark Phoenix Saga" where Jean would begin to manifest powers similar to those of the Phoenix Force. An armada of aliens that had been secretly monitoring the Earth precisely to forestall such a possibility would thus be forced into action. Yet this storyline was nixed at the last minute by Marvel editors Bob Harras and Mark Powers, who instead demanded that Seagle and Joe Kelly, the writer of X-Men, remove Jean from their books entirely and substitute in a Magneto storyline they had cobbled together without Kelly and Seagle's knowledge. When Seagle argued to at least keep Jean on the book's roster, he was denied this and ordered to replace her with Gambit.

Seagle, along with Kelly, both quit their respective X-Men books after this demand, though Seagle's plot had already begun. Jean Grey began wearing the green and gold Phoenix costume and began manifesting the signature fire "Phoenix Effect" when she used her powers. Alan Davis, who took over the position as writer for the two X-Men books, sought to resolve the issue in Uncanny X-Men #375 with Xavier and Jean Grey playing a gambit where Xavier accused Jean of becoming Dark Phoenix again, attempting to weed out any possible alien Skrulls who might have infiltrated the team. A fight broke out between the X-Men as a result, concluding with Gambit confronting Jean Grey, who morphed into Dark Phoenix and threatened to kill Gambit before stopping when she realized that Gambit wasn't a Skrull. At the end of the issue, it was revealed that the fight had not, in fact, taken place—the combined telepathy of Xavier and Jean Grey had created the battle in the minds of the other X-Men.

Later, Grant Morrison took control of writing New X-Men , and began planting the seeds for a proper return of Phoenix. In this series, Jean Grey and Scott Summers had both returned to the X-Men following a period in which Cyclops had been merged with Apocalypse (The Twelve and Search for Cyclops). Jean Grey (who had at this point given her telekinesis to Psylocke and gained enhanced telepathy) had managed to telepathically separate her husband from Apocalypse, at which point Apocalypse was "killed" by Cyclops' son, Cable.

When the couple returned to Xavier's mansion, Cyclops began distancing himself from Jean, explaining that his time with Apocalypse had changed him. The growing rift between her and Scott and the stress of becoming deputy headmistress of the school had begun to tax heavily on Jean. When the school was attacked by a group calling themselves the U-Men, Jean, whose telekinesis was returning, manifested the Phoenix effect as she single-handedly defeated them.

Although Jean seemed to have complete control of her abilities, the rest of the X-Men began to show concern for her, afraid that they were looking at the start of another Dark Phoenix incident. While traveling on a world tour, Jean and Xavier began to investigate the remanifestation of Phoenix. Xavier managed to communicate with the Phoenix Force directly, who informed him that there was a great and terrible event coming, and that the Phoenix was there to keep it from occurring. Meanwhile, Cyclops used Jean's increased abilities as justification to further distance himself from Jean and instead turned to Emma Frost, and the two began a telepathic affair. Jean found out about the affair from Emma's students, and hurt and humiliated by this she unleashed the full fury of her powers on Emma in the astral plane, forcing her to tell Jean the truth about the affair as well as admit WHY she always seemed intent on hurting other people. This "psionic catfight" left Emma deeply humiliated and shattered, causing Cyclops to leave the X-Men for a while to choose who he wanted: Jean or Emma. (It was later revealed that Scott initially chose Jean. However, Jean later used her powers as Phoenix to convince him to instead chose Emma so as to avoid an apocalyptic future.)

The terrible event that the Phoenix spoke to Xavier about turned out to be the return of Magneto (later haphazardly retconned to being Xorn posing as Magneto posing as Xorn). After destroying the school, Magneto attempted to take over Manhattan. The X-Men managed to defeat him, but Jean was killed by an electromagnetic pulse from Magneto. Although she died in Cyclops' arms, everyone expected Jean to return sooner or later. Originally, Scott quit the X-Men after Jean's death. However, after the X-books took a 150-year leap into a dismal future, Jean hatched from a Phoenix egg and regained her memories with the help of Wolverine. As the White Phoenix of the Crown, she erased that future and told Scott to "live," thereby setting the universe straight once more, as Scott chose to stay with Emma Frost and the X-Men.

There are constant hints in Astonishing X-Men that Jean Grey could return. Several times she has already been mentioned by Emma Frost. However, these have often been used by (writer) Joss Whedon as false hints, used to distract from the actual plot twist.

Phoenix: Endsong & Warsong

X-Men: Phoenix - Endsong

In 2005, the story arc Phoenix: Endsong began publication. During the course of this storyline, it was revealed that the Phoenix Force had once more survived the death of its host, and had gone on. Forced into a premature and incomplete rebirth by a rogue Shi'ar Empire crew and then attacked using an Eleka'an event horizon, the Phoenix was nearly destroyed. A remnant escaped and, harnessing the solar power of Cyclops' optic blasts, forced the dead Jean Grey back into life.

Immediately realizing that the Phoenix Force was not complete and thus a danger, Jean tried to prevent the Force from remembering what it had been looking for: Scott. As Jean spoke with Wolverine, she manifested the Dark Phoenix and blasted him. As Jean struggled for control, she forced a conflict with her former teammates, attempting to make them (specifically Wolverine) kill her before she was once more too powerful to stop. Seeking to prevent committing another act of genocide, Jean enlisted Wolverine's aid in weakening her in an arctic wasteland. Breaking open the ice with her telekinesis, Jean attempted to stop the Phoenix Force by encasing herself in the ice.

Abandoning Jean's body, the Phoenix Force manifested a semi-physical form and attempted to force Cyclops to use his powers—his optic blasts fed the Phoenix Force—only to be intercepted by Emma Frost, who offered herself as a new host. Emma quickly found herself being used up from the inside out, as her willpower was too weak to contain the overwhelming hunger of the Phoenix. Turning on her friends, Emma sought nothing but destruction and freedom.

Cyclops blasted the ice encasing Jean, and she burst forth. Once more, Jean sacrificed her own peace for the sake of her friends and the world. She ripped the Phoenix Force from Emma and proclaimed them the same being. Manifesting as Dark Phoenix, Jean struggled to control the cosmic force of the Phoenix, aided by the moral support of her friends, as Emma had had her Stepford Cuckoos telepathically reach out to past and present X-Men and students at the Xavier Institute whose lives Jean had touched.

Manifesting the white and gold costume of the "White Phoenix of the Crown," Jean held back the event horizon of the Eleka'an by sheer force of will, saying a tearful goodbye to Scott once again, before Scott symbolically removed his visor for her, as he had done during the Dark Phoenix Saga. Jean then neutralized the event horizon and returned to the White Hot Room to restore herself and the Phoenix Force to full strength and to find their missing pieces.

At then end of Phoenix: Endsong, a piece of the Phoenix was seen approaching the Stepford Cuckoos. This storyline will be addressed in the mini-series Phoenix: Warsong. Greg Pak had this to say in an interview with Newsarama: "X-Men: Phoenix—Warsong is not a Jean Grey resurrection story. It's far too early to bring Jean back, both in terms of her own emotional storyline and the Marvel Universe as a whole. But we're doing our best to tell a story with Warsong that respects and deepens the Jean Grey/Phoenix mythos by exploring surprising new revelations and characters, pushing our heroes and themes to the next level, and laying the groundwork for the future."*, Newsarama, June 2, 2006*

Collected editions

The story has been collected into a number of trade paperbacks:

  • X-Men Legends Volume 2: Dark Phoenix Saga (192 pages, August 1990, Marvel)
  • X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga (200 pages, April 2006, Panini Comics, Marvel, )
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