X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga, released in 1980 by Chris Claremont and John Byrne, is widely regarded as one of the crowning achievements of the X-Men mythos and one of the most famous stories in all of comics. It was a conclusion to a romance that spanned decades and a seminal moment for the entire X-Men team. But the classic story fans received was not the original draft. It was not until four years after the release of “The Dark Phoenix Saga” that Marvel gave readers the original telling of the tale, albeit in a form that never officially existed.
The events of “The Dark Phoenix Saga” that fans received were as follows: returning from a mission in space, Jean Gray was exposed to radiation from a solar flare, thus imbuing her with the power of the Phoenix Force. Unable to control the vast cosmic power, the Phoenix Force corrupted Jean and transformed her into the Dark Phoenix. The malevolent force consumed a distant star for energy, destroying a nearby civilized planet. A Shi’ar spaceship approached Dark Phoenix and was destroyed as well. This caused Lilandra, Empress of the Shi’ar Empire, to take the X-Men into custody for the crimes Jean Gray committed. The story ended with the X-Men losing to the Shi’ar Imperial Guard in combat. Jean then sacrificed herself and the X-Men and readers alike believed her to be truly dead.
In 1984’s Phoenix: The Untold Story # 1, then X-Men editor Jim Salicrup explained the history behind the classic story. The original draft of the story was largely the same as what was officially published except for one major difference: Jean does not sacrifice herself. Instead, Lilandra performed a lobotomy of sorts on Jean, neutralizing the portion of her brain that contained the connection to the Phoenix Force, ie, the portion of her brain that makes her a mutant. Jean became a regular human and the X-Men were devastated at losing one of their own.
Why was this original story scrapped? As Jim Salicrup explained, then Editor-In-Chief Jim Shooter asked why Jean was able to walk away from the Shi’ar. Hadn’t she destroyed an entire solar system and a Shi’ar spacecraft? How could she possibly walk away from such heinous crimes? Jim Salicrup admitted that he very simply forgot. A round table meeting was then held between Jim Shooter, Jim Salicrup, Chris Claremont, and John Byrne regarding how the story could be changed. The result was the story that was published and sent to magazine racks the world over.
What makes this particular rewrite so unique is that it officially never happened at all, in any capacity. Phoenix: The Untold Story # 1 is not considered to be a What If…? tale so there is no alternate universe or timeline where this original event happened. As far as Marvel is concerned, the official and only timeline regarding “The Dark Phoenix Saga” is what was published. Still, Phoenix: The Untold Story # 1 offered a fantastic look into a nebulous alternate future, one that could have changed the entirety of Marvel Comics.
If Jean Gray had lived then there would never have been Cyclops meeting Madelyne Pryor. If Scott had never met Madelyne Pryor then there would never have been the story arc of Mister Sinister revealing that he had created Madelyne as a clone of Jean so that he could steal Scott and Madelyne’s baby – a being he believed would be the ultimate mutant – in order to defeat Apocalypse. Madelyne would never have become evil and then became the Goblin Queen, thus preventing the “Inferno” event from happening. The ripples from this singular event would have reshaped vast portions of Marvel Comics throughout the entire 90s, a decade that produced stories that are still referenced today.
While the original fate of Jean Gray was tragic, and the subsequent treatment of Madelyne Pryor equally terrible, the ending that fans received for “The Dark Phoenix Saga” is still a masterpiece. It was a crushing defeat that rattled the entirety of the X-Men to their cores and a grim example of how even the greatest heroes may still lose. As a unique one-shot that will never be folded into any kind of proper continuity, Phoenix: The Untold Story # 1 is a fascinating read for fans of the X-Men, offering them the chance to speculate what may have happened in a future that does not exist.
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