“The Dark Phoenix Saga” gets a lot of attention for two main reasons—it killed a major character at a time when that was seldom done, and it’s pretty darn good. This story climaxes in a death that feels organic and earned, not the result of an editor’s desire to shock readers. It’s the tragic consequence of an X-Man being unable to control her growing power, and it’s a death driven by character.
The extra-sized issue #137 is a great read throughout, with the X-Men fighting the Shi’ar’s Imperial Guard for Jean Grey’s life. This subverts the usual superheroic operating mode, in that the X-Men aren’t fighting to save the world—they’re fighting to save a loved one who actually is the real threat, thereby creating more shades of gray than typically seen in a comic book battle royale.
Though Jean Grey is the central figure, Chris Claremont and John Byrne neglect none of the other X-Men, giving each a turn in the spotlight and plenty to do. It’s an exceptionally well-crafted battle scene bolstered by the emotional stakes, with each X-Man motivated by their love of their friend.
It’s so well done that it’s easy to forget that the Imperial Guard was created as Marvel’s analogues for DC Comics’ Legion of Superheroes. This battle is basically the closest thing to an X-Men vs. Legion fight (even though the Imperial Guard begins to diverge into its own identity at this point).
In any case, this book deserves its status as a classic. No question.
Writer: Chris Claremont
Penciler/Co-Plotter: John Byrne
Inker: Terry Austin
Publisher: Marvel Comics
How to Read It: back issues; Marvel Unlimited; Comixology; X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga (TPB); The Essential X-Men vol. 2 (TPB)
Appropriate For: ages 10 and up