In a Nutshell
It's all right there in the title.
Writer/Co-Plotter: Chris Claremont
Artist/Co-Plotter: John Byrne
Inker: Terry Austin
Letterer: Tom Orzechowski
Colorist: Glynis Wein
Editor: Jim Salicrup & Louise Jones
Editor-in-Chief: Jim Shooter
The X-Men suddenly find themselves on the cargo deck of a Shi'ar Imperial Dreadnought. Lilandra confronts them and explains that for her destruction of a Shi'ar warship and the planet D'bari, Phoenix must be destroyed. Cyclops insists that the power of Phoenix has been contained by Professor X, but Lilandra believes the risk too great. In response, Profess X issues an Arin'nn Haeler, a Shi'ar duel of honor, between the X-Men and the Imperial Guard for the life of Phoenix. Impressed with the knowledge of her culture he learned while living in Shi'ar space, Lilandra leaves to confer with her Kree and Skrull allies, and all agree that the X-Men will abide by the result of the duel, and to let it occur. That night, aboard the ship, each of the X-Men prepare for the coming battle in their own way, contemplating Jean's actions as Dark Phoenix. At dawn, Jean, dressed as Marvel Girl once more, approaches a brooding Cyclops. He insists that she is not evil, and that he loves her, and will stand by her, no matter what.
The X-Men are teleported down to the Blue Area of the moon, a place filled with the ruins of ancient civilizations, with an Earth-normal atmosphere. The X-Men break into two groups and split up, determined to use hit and run tactics against the numerically-superior Imperial Guard to keep them off balance. Each group quickly comes under fire, with Storm the first to be taken out of the fight. Nightcrawler, fighting alongside Angel, Cyclops and Marvel Girl, notes the X-Men are holding their own, but just barely. In the course of the fight, Wolverine is knocked into the home of the Watcher, a cosmic being tasked with observing events on Earth. Wolverine is transported through various periods of Earth history, a trip which leaves him disorientated, and he is taken out of the fight by the Kree and Skrull observers. One by one, the X-Men fall, as a heartbroken Xavier watches from aboard the Shi'ar ship, until only Cyclops and Marvel Girl remain. Hand in hand, they make their final stand, though they too are quickly overwhelmed. As Cyclops is cut down, the shock and grief of it shatters the psychic restraints Professor X placed in Jean's mind, and Phoenix emerges once more.
Realizing things have gone too far, Xavier telepathically awakens the unconscious X-Men and orders them to attack Phoenix now, while her power is still comparatively weak. The X-Men do their best to wear her down, and Wolverine, taking advantage of the lighter gravity, is able to hurl Colossus at Phoenix, but at the last second, Colossus, unable to kill Jean, pulls his punch. Explaining she has realized that as long as she lives the Phoenix will manifest through her, running the risk of transforming her into Dark Phoenix, Jean runs from the X-Men. Cyclops follows her but she freezes him in place. Raising a nearby energy weapon, she explains that she can't live her life constantly fighting to contain her power, knowing that if she slipped for even an instant, countless lives would be at risk. Unwilling to allow even one more person to die at her hands, Jean declares her love for Scott, and tells him a part of her will always be with him. Then she fires the weapon, obliterating herself. A heartbroken Cyclops realizes Jean had planned this outcome all along, should the Imperial Guard fail in destroying her, having read the minds of the Kree and Skrull observers and learned of the ancient weapons on hand, then fought the X-Men to weaken her power enough to make her vulnerable.
Nearby, the Watcher observes these events and muses on humanity's virtually unique ability to overcome great obstacles. He declares that though the X-Men may never realize or accept it, they have just won perhaps the greatest victory of their lives, and though Jean Grey could have become a god, it was more important to her to die a human.
Firsts and Other Notables
This issue is, of course, the death of Jean Grey, though later stories (orchestrated, in part, by John Byrne, independent of Claremont) have retroactively made it more particularly the death of Phoenix, the cosmic entity which copied Jean Grey's form and consciousness and was driven to kill itself by her innate humanity. Either way, it's the big climax to "The Dark Phoenix Saga" and is generally considered the "death of Jean Grey" issue.
The Imperial Guard make a return appearance, and have added a few members which make their first appearance here: Warstar, Hussar, Manta and Earthquake. I'm not sure if they continue the trend of being Legion of Superhero analogs, but they don't seem familiar to me (is there a goat-legged Legionnaire with a whip?).
Both the Kree and the Skrull, Marvel's two major alien races and longtime foes of the Avengers and the Fantastic Four, are mentioned in X-Men for the first time, and are represented by two observers aboard the Shi'ar flagship as well as by their respective leaders, who make cameo appearances while conferring with Lilandra.
The Watcher, a cosmic being who lives on the moon, with a sworn duty to observe the events of Earth but to never interfere (though he often does), makes his first appearance in X-Men, as does the Blue Area of the moon, an ancient underground city with an Earth-normal atmosphere. Both made their first appearances back in Fantastic Four #13. The Watcher tends to pop up in stories as a signal that the events to follow will have great significance on the Marvel Universe. Here, he acts as a Greek Chorus (he's even wearing a toga!), opening and closing the issue while speaking on the fate of Jean Grey.
Similarly, in the final page, the Watcher is joined by the Recorder, a robot created by the Rigellians (another Marvel Universe alien species) with a function similar to the Watcher. He provides the Watcher a forum in which to speak highly on the innate traits of humanity.
As I'm sure you figured out from the extra long plot summary, this issue is double-sized, the first double-sized regular (non-Annual, non-Giant Size) issue of the comic.
Behind the scenes, Louise Jones (soon to be Simonson) shares editing credit with Jim Salicrup, making this her first issue of X-Men. She will become the full-fledged editor next issue, and remain significantly involved with the X-Men universe, as an editor and a writer, right alongside Claremont, until his departure in 1991.
The Classic X-Men backup story following this issue continues to bridge the gap between this story and the then-contemporaneous "Inferno" storyline, and elaborates on the idea of the Phoenix as the embodiment of life, a force which manipulated various comings and goings within the X-Men in order to ensure the survival of existence, and the notion that sensitivity to the Phoenix force is something Jean Grey possess and can pass on to her descendants. This is also the last Classic X-Men to feature an original backup story (the reprint series continues for some time, but the backups end here, so you won't have to hear me blather on about them anymore).
A Work in Progress
It has been alluded to in quotes from the creators in previous issues, but it was not Claremont and Byrne's original plan to kill Jean, but rather have her suffer a psychic lobotomy at the hands of the Shi'ar which would rob her of her powers. We'll discuss their original plans, both for this issue and the issues following it, in a couple weeks.
In many ways, this issue is a mirror version of issue #107, with the X-Men battling the Imperial Guard for the fate of the universe; the two issues open with near-identical narration: "a moment ago, they had been on Earth..."
John Byrne, a self-professed fan of the original X-Men, strove throughout his run on the book to integrate as much of the original team as he could. He gets as close as he ever will with this issue; only Iceman, reportedly off limits due to a different project that never saw publication, is missing from this issue.
It is worth noting however, that in the closing moments of the issue, as Jean transforms back into Phoenix, it is only the new X-Men who confront her for the final time.
Professor X's time in Shi'ar space further pays off, as his knowledge of their culture allows him to issue the challenge that grants the X-Men a temporary reprieve and sets up the duel for Jean's life. Subsequently, this is the first mention of the Arin'nn Haelar challenge. (and one of the highlights of the animated series adaptation of this story was hearing that phrase spoken aloud...).
Jean participates in the duel in her old Marvel Girl costume.
This issue marks the first appearance of Lilandra's "I mean business" armor, worn whenever she means business.
Storm is once again pulling X-Men out of the sky (this time, Angel and Wolverine) and even comments on the frequency of it.
Nightcrawler compares the tunnels of the Blue Area to Arcade's Murderworld, while Wolverine compares his experiences inside the Watcher's house to his encounter with Proteus, making the events of the issue feel even more like the culmination of Claremont and Byrne's entire run up to this point.
Wolverine and Colossus do a reverse fastball special, with Wolverine hurling Colossus at Dark Phoenix.
Colossus says that he's never killed anyone before, though technically, he killed Proteus in issue #128.
As she blasts herself, Jean cries out "Scott!", a deliberate echo of the end of issue #100, in which she cried out his name as the radiation from the solar flare pierced her shields, bringing the entire story full circle.
I Love the 80s
Earthquake is a member of the Imperial Guard who can cause earthquakes. Except, he's an alien, so shouldn't he be called "Whatever-the-name-of-his-planet-is quake?" Or should we just assume whatever mechanism (which goes unmentioned) that allows the X-Men to communicate with the Guard is translating his name to "Earthquake"?
In the time before the battle, Claremont gives each member of the team a scene that explores their thoughts on the events at hand and deepens their character: Beast is frustrated by the absence of law in the Shi'ar's proceedings, Storm struggles with her love for Jean and the appalling acts she committed as Phoenix, Wolverine determines to stand by Jean, no matter what, etc.
This issue features another iconic cover, with Scott and Jean, disheveled, their backs against the wall, making their last stand, desperately hoping to win that $2500.
This issue features the 500th page of X-Men drawn by John Byrne, noted by him in this panel.
The three panel sequence of Jean's death has become one of the most iconic and oft-reprinted sequences in X-Men history.
Secondary to the sorrow of the Scott/Jean romance, there are a number of sad moments between Xavier and Lilandra throughout the issue, as Lilandra senses his anguish over the fate of his students but is unable to comfort him.
Wolverine tells Colossus that he loved Jean, and as a result, knows he'd again hesitate to kill her.
Scott and Jean emerging to make their last stand against the Imperial Guard, hand in hand, is one of the series' romantic high points, and Claremont really sells it with some of his most effective narration yet.
Jim Shooter on the death of Phoenix
"The [original] plot indicated that Phoenix would somehow be mind-wiped and let go. Back to living at the Mansion, hanging around with Storm and company, sitting at the same table for lunch, etc. That, to me, would be like taking the German army away from Hitler and letting him go back to governing Germany. Did I have a 'moral' issue with that? Yes. More than that, it was a character issue. Would Storm sit comfortably at a dinner table with someone who had killed billions as if nothing had ever happened? Nah. I don't know if most people grok this idea but the editor-in-chief is charged with governing, managing, and protecting all of the characters. It was my job to make sure the characters were in character, and I was the final on what 'in character' was. Not Chris, not John, not any freelancer. The company relied on me to manage and protect the company's intellectual properties. I told Chris that the ending proposed in his plot didn't work. It wasn't workable with the characters, and in fact was a totally lame cop-out, story-wise. I demanded a different ending...The next morning, Chris stormed into my office and said that there was only one answer - they'd have to kill Phoenix. I said fine. I don't think he expected me to say that, since killing characters just wasn't done in those days. Chris waffled a bit, but then I became insistent! She's dying. That's it."
Nickerson, Al. "Claremont and Byrne: The Team that Made the X-Men Uncanny." Back Issue August 2008: p9.
Claremont on redoing the ending of issue #137
"John and I both decide that at that point we're both thinking in terms of going to Jim's [Shooter] office and saying, 'Listen, you have someone write #137 and #138, we'll abide by whatever you do, we wash our hands of it.' Because at that point we were not at fault. I had cleared every plot. Every plot had been cleared by Salicrup. Every script had cleared by Salicrup, and I assumed by Shooter. I was sitting in Shooter's office saying, 'I told you this!' But he didn't remember. 'Didn't Jim [Salicrup] show you the plots?' No. 'Didn't Jim show you the scripts?' No. And Jim [Shooter]'s saying, well, he understands that it's not our fault, that we did everything we were supposed to do, but he feels that it is his responsibility as Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics to see that nothing goes out of the office that reflects a moral position that he does not think Marvel should take, and he felt that this story made a moral statement, that Marvel should not stand behind.
...So I'm tossing a number of ideas around in my head. It's still Thursday afternoon. I try a couple out on Louise. She says they sound fine. I go to Jim [Shooter], I try them on him. He says 'Sounds good to me,' but evidently the only one he heard, or the only that stayed in his mind, is that Jean dies. So I told Louise I was going home, went home, watched Buck Rogers, I slid back some bourbon, and then Friday I came in...it was awkward because as soon as Jim [Shooter] heard 'Oh, she's going to die,' Jim spoke to John, John liked it, John thought that was fine, so I was really kind of left out on the edge of the limb. I could quit. The only option I had was not to the finish the story and quit, and I wasn't willing to do that. So we made the best of it. And if there's a lesson to be learned, it is that all facets of comic books are mutable."
Sanderson, Peter. The X-Men Companion. Stamford: Fantagraphics Books, 1982. p109, 112
Chris Claremont on the death of Phoenix
"Jean's death actually gave us credibility. We had been backed into the gift that separated X-Men significantly from every other book. Sure, Gwen Stacy died in Spider-Man, but it wasn't like killing Sue Storm or Ben Grimm. We killed off half of the second oldest romantic relationship on the Marvel Universe. We killed off a major franchise character and we said it was for real. The credibility gained from that event was just fantastic and then we topped it with 'Days of Future Past'. John and I were on such a roll in those last six months. The stuff was just so good. It was powerful and it was fun. What we were cramming into two issues would take three years these days! And the proof of the pudding is here we are, twenty-five bloody years later, and Marvel is still evolving stories off of what we did. Whether it's 'Days of Future Past' or 'Dark Phoenix' or the relationship with Magneto - Marvel is still living off the seeds we planted."
DeFalco, Tom. Comic Creators on X-Men. London: Titan Books, 2006. p67
"Once upon a time, there was a woman named Jean Grey, a man named Scott Summers.
They were young. They were in love.
They were heroes.
Today, they will prove it -- beyond all shadow of a doubt."
"Jean Grey could have lived to become a god, but it was more important to her that she die...a human."
I've read this issue, both as the conclusion to "The Dark Phoenix Saga" and on its own, countless times, and every damned time those two passages still get me misty-eyed. This issue is, without a doubt, one of my favorite single issues of a comic book, and Claremont and Byrne's magnum opus. In it, they take everything they accomplished in the last issue, the flawless synthesis of plot, action and characterization, and add one final element that puts it over the top and into the realm of greatness: tragedy. "The Dark Phoenix Saga" is considered by most to be one of the best X-Men stories of all time, and by many to be the best, yet in the end of their landmark story, the X-Men don't win. They are defeated, soundly, and though the day is ultimately saved, it is not without a terrible cost.
Death had been a part of superhero comics prior to this issue, of course, but for the most part, it was limited to supporting characters whose deaths motivated the hero (Spider-Man's Uncle Ben) or occurred off panel (Captain America's sidekick Bucky). Even Professor X's ultimately-retconned death in this title was devised as a means to shake-up the team (and hopefully increase sales), with little more than lip service paid to how it affected the characters in the book. Prior to Jean, the most significant character death at Marvel had been that of Spider-Man's girlfriend Gwen Stacy, an event which many point to as marking the end of the Silver Age of comics. But what Claremont and Byrne do here goes even further: Jean Grey was an active member of the team, the romantic lead and female star of the book, and one of the few founding females of modern Marvel comics. A death of that magnitude was simply unheard of at the time, and it reverberated throughout the industry in ways that are still being felt today.
This is simply revolutionary, groundbreaking stuff, and the impact of this issue and the entire story cannot be overstated. With "The Dark Phoenix Saga", Claremont and Byrne elevated the superhero comic book story to its highest level. It is a story which continues to hang over X-Men specifically and superhero comics in general to this day. For good and bad, it changed the way fans viewed the stories, the way creators approached them, the way companies marketed them. No other story (with the possible exception of the upcoming "Days of Future Past") has had a greater impact on the narrative of the X-Men, with so much of the next 30 plus years of stories being informed by these events. Though it wasn't their original intent (and though later stories would, arguably, undercut it), much of that resonance comes from the fact that, in the end, Claremont and Byrne ended the crowning achievement of their run by having Jean Grey make the ultimate sacrifice, to eschew godhood, to save the universe, by dying a human.
An elegy for Jean Grey.
And in two weeks, a look at Phoenix: The Untold Story.