My first exposure to X-Men comics was the Dark Phoenix saga, which many consider to be the greatest X-Men story ever told, even to this day. It was like saying, “Oh, you have a passing interest in trying some really light, social drug? Here, try this crack.” Before this story I would read comics occasionally. Really just whenever I would happen to get some. I never actively sought them out. After this story I wanted everything X-Men I could get my grubby little hands on.
I’m not going to get into too much detail on what came before, since a lot of that has been changed retroactively. But essentially Jean Grey aka Marvel Girl, one of the original X-Men, is imbued with the powers of the Phoenix, a cosmic entity capable of great and terrible things. For a while, Jean seemed ok. Her powers of telepathy and telekinesis were raised to an unprecedented degree, but other than that she was still just Jean.
All of that began to change due to the influence of one Jason Wyngarde, aka Mastermind. One of the former members of Magneto’s Brotherhood of Mutants, and a long-time foe of the X-Men, Wyngarde was now spending his time in the company of the inner circle of an organization called the Hellfire Club. Essentially the Hellfire Club is a group of incredibly wealthy individuals from all over the world. It includes members like Tony Stark, Norman Osborn, Warren Worthington… essentially every influential business man or woman in the world is a member. What they don’t know is that the inner circle is comprised mostly of mutants, and entirely of bastards. Led by Sebastian Shaw, the club’s Black King, the Hellfire Club is determined to bring the power of the Phoenix to their side. Shaw has Mastermind manipulate the mind of Jean Grey, causing her to enter waking dream-like states in which he has her living in colonial times under the guise of it being a previous life, and he projects himself into them as the love of her life, slowly manipulating Jean’s subconscious and gaining more and more access.
Other members of the club include Emma Frost, the club’s White Queen, Donald Pierce, a cyborg with a serious hatred for most mutants, and Henry LeLand, a mutant with the ability to increase and decrease the gravity of objects and people.
While this is going on the X-Men return home from their latest insane battle. The roster for this story includes Cyclops, Professor X, Colossus, Phoenix, Wolverine, Storm, and Nightcrawler. It also brings back the Beast and Angel after lengthy sabbaticals from the title, and introduces X-Men mainstays the Dazzler and Shadowcat.
The X-Men’s mutant detection unit, Cerebro, picks up the signals of two new mutants: Dazzler and Shadowcat. The team splits up to find both mutants as quickly as possible, with Wolverine, Colossus and Storm accompanying Xavier to meet Shadowcat, and Cyclops, Phoenix and Nightcrawler going after Dazzler.
When we first meet Shadowcat she seems kind of helpless. She has zero control over her powers, which are to become intangible, and isn’t dealing with the fact that she’s a mutant very well. She’s pretty pleased to see Colossus, and pretty much immediately develops a crush on him, although her parents were more impressed with Ms. Frost and her academy (basically a recruiting ground for the Inner Circle). While out with the X-Men they are attacked and taken captive by Emma Frost and some Hellfire Club goons.
Cyclops and Phoenix go into a disco club to find Dazzler, who is up on stage, using her powers to turn sound into light and lasers to enhance her performance. Everything seems fine until Jean runs into Mastermind, and slips into her dreamstate. Here he proposes marriage, and she readily accepts, and embraces him, which is when we cut back to reality and a stunned Cyclops watching his long-time girlfriend making out with some stranger. Before he can respond, or she can try to explain, they are attacked by Hellfire Club goons. Thanks to the Phoenix they are triumphant, and able to save Dazzler.
Right about then Shadowcat is able to get a distress call out to the X-Men, and they rush to her and the other X-Men’s rescue. They overpower the Hellfire Club presence there, and Phoenix engages the White Queen, a very powerful telepath, in combat. Frost is no match for Jean Grey under normal circumstances, but with the power of the Phoenix at her disposal Grey is like a supernova to Frost’s book of matches. She easily overpowers the White Queen, and completely shatters her psyche. It seems Mastermind’s messing with her head is starting to bring out some really dark behavior in Jean…
The X-Men decide have been attacked all over the place, so Cyclops decides they’re going to lie low. They travel out to Angel’s place in the mountains for some downtime and to figure out their next move. It is here that Cyclops and Phoenix establish their psychic rapport, which links them more completely than pretty much anyone on the planet. They will always be able to tell when the other is near, or under stress, and can communicate over longer distances than telepathy would normally allow. To do this requires an incredible amount of power, and is something that not even Charles Xavier can do. Not only is Phoenix strong enough to do this, but she and Scott (Cyclops) go out on top of a mesa for a picnic and some alone time, and she decides that this time she wants to see his eyes. Well, if you know anything about Scott Summers, you know that without his glasses he can destroy entire mountains, vaporize even adamantium, and kill damn near anyone in his path. Basically, he has a nuke behind his eyes. But it’s like it’s nothing to Phoenix, who uses her telekinesis to hold his blasts back while they’re… busy.
This ends up being the last down time that any X-Men have for like the next 8 years, and it’s nice to see them spending it well. Cyclops decides that their next move will be to pay the Hellfire Club a visit, so the X-Men make a trip to New York. Everything seems to be going pretty much according to plan until Cyclops chases after Mastermind, who he now recognizes, and has the living shit blasted out of him by Jean Grey!! Holy hell!
Mastermind’s psychic seduction of Jean complete, he is now nearly in complete control of her and makes her the Hellfire Club’s new Black Queen. She turns her powers against her teammates, and they are quickly captured by her and the inner circle, except for Wolverine, who Leland throws ten stories down through floors and into the sewer. This is before every character in the whole dang Marvel universe knew who Wolverine was, so the Hellfire Club thinks he’s dead.
Wolverine fights and sneaks his way up the building to his teammates before he, too, is taken out by the Black Queen. Or so it appears. While Wolverine was slicing and dicing his way up the building, Cyclops is enraged and panicked and grief-stricken over the events with his girlfriend. He insults and antagonizes Wyngarde until he meets Cyclops of the psychic plane for a fight. Unfortunately for Cyclops, Mastermind is a…. well, master in the psychic realm. Cyclops is no slouch, having been raised by the strongest telepath in the world, and having shared a bed with the most powerful telepath in the universe, but he’s no match for Wyngarde, and is stabbed through the heart. In the psychic world he screams out and disappears, and in the physical world he crumples, apparently dead.
The psychic trauma of seeing the love of her life murdered in front of her (seemingly. Scott Summers is harder to kill than a cockroach version of Keith Richards. Just ask Magneto, Apocalypse, Stryfe, Mr. Sinister, the Juggernaut, Bastion, Norman Osborn, or about a thousand Sentinels) is too strong for Wyngarde’s conditioning to overcome, and Jean regains a bit of control. Under the guise of attacking the newly arrived Wolverine, she removes the shield from around Cyclops’ visor so he can free the other X-Men and beat some Hellfire Club ass, which they indeed do.
Jean makes certain that she confronts Mastermind, and after warning him that he has no idea what nightmare he has unleashed (oooohhh….) she says that since he clearly wants to mess around with Godhood, she will show him what that entails, and uses her psychic ability to show him everything at once. Everything. His brain is in no way capable of processing what he’s seen, and he shuts down entirely, like someone just flipped a switch and turned his brain off. Jean calmly leaves with the X-Men, but refuses to respond to any of Cyclops’ questions over their psychic rapport. Red flag much? While the X-Men are flying away Jean starts to freak out, and suddenly she explodes with telekinetic energy, destroying their ship in mid-air and claiming that Phoenix is gone, and she’s now Dark Phoenix.
Dark Phoenix quickly takes out the X-Men like they’re nothing and flies off into outer space. The Beast, who received the X-Men’s distress call, comes to their aid just as she is leaving, and offers to stay with them for the duration of this madness. Angel joins them, too, once they’ve contacted him and explained what happened. The X-Men are heartbroken, none more-so than Wolverine and Cyclops. Wolverine has carried a torch for Jean for years, and has become the posterboy for unrequited love. Cyclops is a guy that is used to loss, but doesn’t deal with it well. His parents were abducted by aliens and were thought dead (his dad wasn’t), he and his brother were separated when his brother was adopted when they were kids, and now the love of his life has turned into an evil psychic powerhouse and flown off into space. There’s not exactly a break-up song that covers that one.
The X-Men sit around and plan for when she comes back, which is sooner than they’d like. Beast has prepared a device that should temporarily short out her powers, but what do they do then? Do they kill her? There isn’t a member of the X-Men that doesn’t consider her, at the very least, one of their very best friends. If they don’t kill her, then what?
She makes planetfall at her parents’ house, whom she promptly scares the hell out of, then threatens. The X-Men show up and start to fight her. They take a beating, but are able to get the device on her head. Wolverine tackles her, but when she regains control and begs him to kill her, he can’t do it. Dark Phoenix takes back over and ruins the rest of the X-Men, save for Cyclops, who refuses to fight her. He talks her down, and is about to get her all the way down when Xavier attacks! The Professor battles her on the psychic plane, and is finally able to shut the Phoenix force down with some help from Jean. Cyclops proposes to Jean, who quickly accepts. It seems everything’s going to end well for a change, but then they get teleported across the universe by the freaking Shi’Ar!
It seems that when Dark Phoenix was riding around in space, she decided to destroy a star and steal its energy. When she does so it causes the destruction of a number of planets, one of which had billions of sentient life-forms on it! The Shi’Ar demand that the Phoenix be put to death. Xavier, common-law husband (sort of) to the Empress of the empire, invokes a trial by combat, knowing it’s their only chance to save Jean’s life.
The X-Men that decide to fight for Jean Grey’s life will have to face the might of the Imperial Guard, which is no small feat. The guard is full of badasses, most notably Gladiator, who is seriously unstoppable. The only way he can be hurt is if he allows himself to believe he can be hurt. Despite this, every single X-Man shows up to fight. The combatants are teleported to the dark side of Earth’s moon to fight.
Wolverine is the first to be taken out when he is thrown into the Watcher’s house. The Watcher throws him out, but he is then attacked by the delegates from the Kree and Skrull empires that have been sent to watch the trial, and taken out. Then, without Wolverine as backup, Storm is taken out when she has to fight multiple members of the Imperial Guard at once.
Next, Angel is hit with some kind of neural disruptor, and unconscious, thrown down a giant shaft. Nightcrawler follows to save him, but he is taken out by an energy blast from the Guardsman Manta. Colossus tries to fight Gladiator, but is no match. He falls, too. All of this has been happening under the Shi’Ar’s supervision, which means that they’re watching, including Xavier, who has just seen his students beaten and battered, and has to watch as his favorite students, the last two standing, Cyclops and Phoenix, battle the entire Imperial Guard.
They do what they can, but they are so overmatched. When Cyclops is hurt Jean loses it, and becomes Phoenix again. She is completely out of control now, so the X-Men do what they can to stop her. Wolverine throws Colossus at her, who smacks her in the jaw, giving her control for a few seconds. She runs away, with Cyclops in close pursuit. She puts him in a telekinetic hold so he can’t move, tells him that she will always love him, and then uses her powers to activate one of the weapons lying around, and vaporizes herself in front of him.
This story rocked the X-Men for years and years. It gave the title credibility, and turned it from a cult favorite to one of Marvel’s biggest titles. Every time after this that it looked like they were going to kill a character, people believed it, and that made the book sooooo much cooler. It raised the stakes.
After this Cyclops leaves the X-Men a broken man. Wolverine switches to his brown costume, presumably out of mourning. Storm would fall into a bit of a depression, finally coming out of it when she gets back from Japan, fresh with leather clothes and a badass mohawk. Shadowcat joined the team, and Angel returned to help fill the void left by Scott and Jean. To this day, this story effects Scott Summers in pretty major ways. Also, with this spring/summer Marvel event, the Avengers vs the X-Men, being based on the Phoenix force returning to Earth, I have a feeling this will carry extra weight in the coming months.
I seriously cannot recommend this story enough. I have probably read it thirty times or more and I never get tired of it.