New To You Comics: Revisiting An All-Time Classic In ‘X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga’

by Tony Thornley

With the comics industry slowly returning from the pandemic, Brendan Allen and I are taking the opportunity to introduce each other to comics that the other might not have read. I’m more of a capes, laser guns and swords guy, while Brendan loves dark magic, criminals and things that go bump in the night. This time around we take a look at one of the greatest superhero sagas of all time.

In 1980, Uncanny X-Men was at the very top of the comics world. Just a few short years before, Chris Claremont had revitalized the floundering Marvel franchise, and would be joined soon after by John Byrne. Together with Terry Austen, Glynnis Wein, Bob Sharen, and Tom Orzechowski, they became one of the most legendary creative teams in comics history. Which led to this story, arguably the high point of their run, and one of the greatest stories in comics history- the Dark Phoenix Saga.

After Jean Grey finds herself merged with the Phoenix, a being of incredible cosmic power, she is acclimating to her new reality. However, an encounter with the Hellfire Club maybe changes things for Jean forever, as the manipulations of Mastermind unleash a terrifying force on the world. Nothing is prepared for THE DARK PHOENIX!

Tony Thornley: So I’ve been holding back on this one a little while. I absolutely adore the Dark Phoenix Saga. This is classic X-Men at its absolute best, and Claremont/Byrne at its peak. It’s not without its flaws by any means, but I love this despite them. What did you think?

Brendan Allen: You know, it’s funny. Everything from the visuals to the dialogue is very dated. It’s a great story, and I see the value, but I couldn’t really invest. 

TT: I definitely get that. So I’ll get this out of the way early. I do struggle with a lot of Claremont stuff. I think he did amazing comics, but the guy never met a sentence that he couldn’t turn into a paragraph. He’s perhaps the most purple writer in comics history.

BA: If you didn’t bring it up, I was going to. It’s like there’s a thing that needs doing, so… They think about the thing, then they talk about the thing, then they think about the thing some more, then they do the thing, then the narrator tells us why they did the thing, then they monologue about having done the thing. There’s a lot of redundancy. Almost made me wonder why they hated the letterer.

TT: Tom got paid by the letter! Claremont was doing him a favor! (Kidding! But that would explain a lot about Claremont!) Regardless, Orzechowski was an absolute KING of lettering, and he did a phenomenal job dealing with ALL the scripting. The guy is a lettering legend.

Really though, outside of the sometimes VERY verbose script, this is great comics. We get the introduction of Kitty Pryde, the X-Men meeting Dazzler, the first conflict with the Hellfire Club, and that’s all as this slow burn is happening in Jean’s psyche. The Hellfire Club story could stand on its own as a great story (including probably the single greatest panel in Marvel Comics history, if not all of comics). But then Jean snaps and it all goes to hell.

It all hinges on the emotional core to these characters too. If you’d been reading X-Men for a while, you’d be right alongside these people caring about each other and Jean specifically. But even picking this up without those years, I think you can feel that bond really well and get drawn in by it.

BA: That’s the whole reason for this book, isn’t it? From the first pages to the last, this is a Jean Grey story. Her character was the core of the whole thing. Some cool stuff happened along the way for everyone else, but it was all secondary to the main thread. And I get what you’re saying about the bond. If you’re an X-Men reader, this is nostalgic gold. 

TT: Yeah, it really is. There’s a reason why so many writers have gone back to the Phoenix when writing Jean. This is just an incredible story for her. And outside of the flaw we pointed out? It lives up to the hype.

We’ve been rambling about the story for a bit, but the art really is some fantastic stuff. It’s really tough to know that Byrne is such a terrible human being because his work here with Austin is really incredible.

BA: I don’t ramble. I elucidate. But yeah, the art is very clean. Classic X-Men. I think if you were trying to explain 80’s X-Men to a new reader, this is just about the perfect example of the era. The yellow/black classic unis, knee high boots, and oversold punches. This is the stuff, right here. 

TT: And a clean expressive style. It’s very easy to see why so many comic artists were inspired by Byrne and why he was given so many plum projects after he left X-Men. Byrne’s characters EMOTE, but in a realistic and grounded way. It’s heightened and fantastic while feeling like real human beings. Again, it’s miserable to read this and know how terrible of a human being he is. Plus Wein and Sharen’s colors? They’re fantastic stuff, especially for the era.

TT: So in the end, what did you think? I can tell it’s not your favorite we’ve looked at, but you didn’t hate it?

BA: I didn’t dislike it. It just isn’t quite my style. It’s very dated, and falls squarely into so many of the superhero tropes I tend to avoid. I do appreciate you sharing it with me. I’ve been kind of on the fence about seeing the film. I think I might watch it, now that I have a little context. I think I told you about halfway through that I think this one could be amazing with a modern rewrite of the dialogue. 

TT: Oh there may be some X-Fans who want to arrest you for blasphemy for that one! (But I don’t think you’re entirely wrong.) So what do we have next?

BA: We’ll be checking out a funky little Samurai Fantasy Spaghetti Western with Image Comics’ The Last Siege, by Landry Q Walker and Justin Greenwood.

Uncanny X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga is available now in various editions and formats from Marvel Comics.

We’d like to ask, on behalf of our friends and colleagues that own and are employed by comic shops, that you first try to get these books at your local shop. This is a very uncertain time for owners, employees, and their families. Show some love for your community and friends by buying from your regular shop when possible and safe.

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