HEAT VISION

How 'Dark Phoenix' Comic Nearly Broke a Marvel Writer

The new 'X-Men' movie is based on a storyline with a complicated (and controversial) history.
John Byrne/Marvel Entertainment
The new 'X-Men' movie is based on a storyline with a complicated (and controversial) history.

The new Dark Phoenix movie draws on the original “Dark Phoenix Saga” comic book storyline, which unfolded slowly in the pages of the Uncanny X-Men series from 1976 through 1980. But, while the movie brings matters to an appropriate conclusion, things weren't quite that straightforward in the comic book version of the story.

The original “Dark Phoenix Saga” is one of the, if not the, most iconic and beloved of Marvel’s X-Men comic book storylines, in part because it subjects one of the original members of the team to a very simple, very epic, arc: Jean Grey gains almost godlike power, and ends up becoming corrupted by it, to the point where she not only turns on her loved ones, but also commits genocide, murdering the entire population of an alien planet when she causes a sun to go supernova. In the end, it’s only Jean’s innate humanity that saves the day, resurfacing enough to allow her to die by suicide before she succumbs to a more primal, destructive self that could destroy the universe.

The story offered the chance for fans to watch a favorite character illustrate the “absolute power corrupts absolutely” maxim, before paying the ultimate price as a result — in one of the first deaths of a major character at either Marvel or DC. How could anyone resist?

That wasn’t originally the plan, however; writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne, who at the time of the “Dark Phoenix Saga” were co-plotting the X-Men comic book series, had a far more benign ending in mind, at first; Jean Grey would be de-powered by aliens but left alive, with the thinking being that it left the door open for a future Dark Phoenix reprise if necessary. Then-Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter wasn’t a fan of the idea, when he found out — he has referred to it as being “like taking the German army away from Hitler and letting him go back to governing Germany” — and demanded a rewrite, which is where the notion of Jean’s death as ultimate punishment came from.

It was an ending that was intended to stick, although Claremont — who stayed as X-Men writer for a further decade, teaming with a number of artists following Byrne’s departure from the series a handful of months after the end of the Phoenix storyline — would gleefully tease the return of Phoenix on a couple of occasions, just to raise the blood pressure of fans. (Jean Grey died in Uncanny X-Men No. 137, but her return is the focus of the cover of both Nos. 157 and 175; in both cases, it’s someone in disguise.)

That it didn’t stick was, oddly enough, partly the work of one of the architects of her death. In 1985, Uncanny X-Men was such a hit for Marvel that the prospect of adding a new spinoff title to the schedule was hard to resist, especially when the four surviving original members of the team weren’t active X-Men anymore. Plans were hatched for a new comic called X-Factor that would feature the original team (Beast, Cyclops, Iceman, Angel) reunited, with Dazzler — another mutant superhero, ironically one introduced during the initial episode of the “Dark Phoenix Saga” — taking the place of the deceased Jean Grey.

John Byrne, however, had a better idea: Why not just bring Jean Grey back from the dead and properly reunite the original team? It wasn’t, strictly speaking, his idea; the mechanism for bringing Jean back actually originated from writer Kurt Busiek when he was a college student, and was then shared with writer Roger Stern, who shared it with Byrne. Together, Byrne — then the writer and artist of Fantastic Four — and Avengers writer Stern pitched it to Jim Shooter, who approved, and X-Factor was put on the schedule with an ambitious launch structure that would see a story run through all three series to properly explain how Jean Grey could be alive and well five years after everyone saw her die.

Ahead of publication, Shooter told official fan magazine Marvel Age that the storyline “is going to be a real milestone in Marvel history. I think it will be remembered as a significant event in the same way that the issue of Daredevil that had the death of Elektra was a significant event, in the same way the death of Phoenix was a significant event.”

That Uncanny X-Men wasn’t part of X-Factor’s plans was no accident; Jean Grey’s return didn’t just undo the climax of the “Dark Phoenix Saga,” it actually undid the entire Phoenix storyline as it had originally been published. It argued that the Phoenix that everyone had read about was never actually Jean Grey at all, but a clone of Grey created by the Phoenix Force itself; the “real” Jean Grey had been kept in suspended animation all along, until her discovery at the hands of the Avengers and the Fantastic Four. All of this was decided without the input — or, indeed, knowledge — of Uncanny X-Men writer Chris Claremont.

When Claremont found out, his first impulse was to quit in protest. (Only his inability to remember the phone number of Jim Shooter’s direct line prevented this, he’s since claimed.) Instead, he came up with alternate proposals — including giving Jean Grey’s rarely seen sister powers, to take the place of a resurrected Jean — that were all rejected in favor of the powerful lure of nostalgia. Jean Grey would be part of the team, and the fan-favorite “Dark Phoenix Saga” would be retconned as a result.

It wasn’t just Jean Grey’s history that would end up rewritten as a result of the decision to publish X-Factor, however. The series launched in October 1985, one month after Claremont had written Scott Summers, aka Cyclops, out of Uncanny X-Men in that title’s 201st issue; he’d left the team to go into superhero retirement along with his wife, Madelyne Pryor — who just so happened to look a lot like Jean Grey — and his newborn son. In X-Factor No. 1, Summers abandons his wife and child when he discovers that Jean Grey is still alive, and that…was a problem.

Maybe no one at Marvel had realized that readers would find it hard to consider a man who’d abandon his family a particularly heroic figure, especially when X-Factor showed little interest in allowing either Madelyne or son Nathan Christopher in the comic, preferring instead panels of a self-pitying Scott Summers saying things like, “Madelyne and the baby are constantly on my mind, but my life’s been turned upside down. Jean’s back. She’s alive and…I don’t know what to do….” Perhaps no one at Marvel thought it could be a problem until they saw the reaction from fans. Either way, something had to be done to redeem Scott Summers. The solution was, shall we say, unexpected.

Madelyne would eventually show up in the pages of Uncanny X-Men, just as Scott Summers decided to try to return to his family, only to find them missing. (The two teams weren’t talking at the time.) This was the start of a shared storyline that would result more than a year later with the revelation that Madelyne Pryor was, despite evidence to the (ahem) prior having been presented, actually a clone of Jean Grey created by the evil Mister Sinister. Worse still, she was a clone who had done a deal with a demon, and was now looking to sacrifice her son as a result, along with lots of other children, in the pursuit of power.

It was a retcon that attempted to save Summers’ reputation — surely it’s fine to walk out on a demonic clone, right? — and make sense of the increasingly complicated continuity of the X-Men comics and related series of the time. Did it work? Well, the resolution involved Jean Grey absorbing the memories of both her evil clone and the Phoenix Force’s Pretend Jean Grey and set in motion a chain of events that would end with Summers’ baby being sent into a distant future so that he’d become Cable, so let’s just say that the jury is still out on that one.

Dark Phoenix is, of course, the final movie in the current cycle of X-Men. Given the possibilities of what could have happened had the series continued, perhaps that might be a blessing in disguise.

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