The Dark Phoenix Saga isn't merely the most popular X-Men story ever told. It's among the most significant, influential and, perhaps most important, heartbreaking epics ever told in the pages of a comic book the story of a woman, Jean Grey, so battered and betrayed she becomes the most dangerous force in the universe until she sacrifices herself to save it.
Spread over nine issues 40 years ago, from The Uncanny X-Men Nos. 129-137, this is the story Hollywood tried to make (and remake) for the big-screen without success. Even an animated X-Men TV series could not do justice to the story told on paper by writer Chris Claremont, because his was a rich, thrilling and poignant marathon spread over 17 years. Jean Grey's transformation from Marvel Girl to Phoenix to Black Queen to Dark Phoenix consumed a few unforgettable chapters of that illustrious legend.
In March Claremont began offering from his private collection original pages from The Dark Phoenix Saga, each illustrated by his co-plotter John Byrne and inked by Terry Austin. This fall come two more: Page 27 from The Uncanny X-Men No. 134 and Page 38 from The Uncanny X-Men No. 137 will be offered in Heritage Auctions
' Nov. 19-22 Comics & Comic Art event, for which bidding is now open.
Claremont, with a laugh, is quick to point out: "Visually, they pages are not the most 'Look at all these X-Men doing X-Men stuff.' But from a thematic and structural point of view, they're two of the most seminal pages in John and my canon."
The page from Issue 134 takes place shortly after the X-Men free themselves from the clutches of the Hellfire Club, and Jean renders her telepathic kidnapper Mastermind a broken, empty husk after showing him "all the myriad, absolute contradictory truths of existence." The team Wolverine, Nightcrawler, Storm, Colossus and Cyclops, Jean's helpless love are preparing to fly back to Professor Xavier when they hear a voice warn of pending doom:
"Against an army, Wolverine, you would have at least a hope of survival," says someone heard but not seen. "Against me, you have none."
"That page is the set-up for the first appearance of Dark Phoenix," Claremont says, "as the very next page is Jean saying, 'I am fire! And life incarnate! Now and forever, I am Phoenix!' And the audience is left wondering, 'How do we get out of this mess?'"
The page from Issue 137 is among the most intimate and epic contained in the entire saga, as Cyclops and Jean (as Marvel Girl again, only for a moment) battle the Shi'ar Imperial Guard while recalling all that has happened since their first meeting long ago, the "good times and bad."
"Once upon a time, there was a woman named Jean Grey, and a man named Scott Summers," Claremont writes over scenes of action unfolding in the space over the Blue Area of the moon. "They were young. They were in love. They were heroes. Today, they will prove it beyond all shadow of a doubt."
In the pages that follow, Jean again becomes Dark Phoenix. And then, she sacrifices herself to save her lover, her friends, her universe.
"Jean Grey could have lived to become a god," says The Watcher at saga's end. "But it was more important to her that she die ... a human."
Says Claremont, "The whole point of that issue is to defend Jean and prevent the reappearance of Dark Phoenix, yet in that very action they trigger the transformation that would have had her return -- except Jean decided it's better to die than risk that happening again."
For four decades, Claremont has held on to these original pages, along with much of the artwork spanning his title-saving 17-year run as the X-Men's writer and protector. Only now, upon the occasion of the Dark Phoenix Saga's 40th anniversary, does he feel compelled to share a few essential pieces with collectors.
Heritage Auctions is privileged that Claremont has chosen the Dallas-based house to present these historic pages to collectors.
"It's quite an honor to count Chris Claremont not only as a client but as a friend," said Nadia and Joe Mannarino, who head Heritage Auctions' East Coast Comic Books and Original Comic Art category. "We have dealt with Chris for more than 30 years, and he is always the personable and engaging fellow you meet at conventions. To be able to offer these two Uncanny X-Men pages is great point of pride and the John Byrne-Terry Austin combination is likewise redoubtable."
Claremont says he only hopes these pages "will go to someone who will appreciate them and love them for another 40, 50 years," as he has. They are not easy pieces with which to part, he acknowledges, and he will hold on to other original X-Men pages for the time being. But parting with the past, he says, makes it somehow easier to look ahead.
"It's a weird thing," he says. "It never occurred to me that I would be in this industry for 50 years. It never occurred to me I would achieve anything like the stature people apply to me within this industry." He laughs. "For me, I look on it as: I am just a working writer. And I have this aggressive desire to want to do more and to try and prove to the world that I am better than I was. By letting go of some of these pieces, it's giving pleasure to other people and, in a sense, it's goading me on: Yeah, if you're so hot, come up with something better."
And, again, Claremont laughs.