One of the great comic book stories of all time is known as the Dark Phoenix saga, which appeared in the Uncanny X-Men comic #129-138 in 1980, ending with the apparent suicide of Jean Grey, who had been corrupted by her assumption of the Phoenix force in issue #101 (1976), soon after the reboot of the X-Men series (#94).
Issue #101: Returning from a mission in space, Jean Grey is exposed to the deadly radiation of a solar flare, and briefly attains her ultimate potential as a telepath and telekinetic. Before the crash of the space shuttle she was piloting into Jamaica Bay, Jean becomes a being of pure thought, and then reforms herself upon the crash, rising from the Bay with the new costume, identity and power – the Phoenix.
Issue #138: Corrupted by the Hellfire Club, Jean’s persona as the Phoenix became the Dark Phoenix. Eventually, she takes out an entire planet including the genocide of billions of lives. Although a dramatic plot point, the story element ended with the editorial decision that the character needed to pay for this transgression. During a final battle during a cosmic trial, the original Jean Grey persona resurfaces long enough to take her own life rather than fight the un-winnable battle with the Phoenix force. The death of one of the founding X-Men from the start of the Marvel Age was an unexpected and shocking turn of events for the readership. The powers-that-be declared that Jean Grey needed to stay dead.
In 1986, the company retconned history in a way that allowed the character to return. Jean Grey was never the Phoenix. She was still on the bottom of Jamaica Bay in suspended animation following the original shuttle crash. The Phoenix entity had used her body and mind as a lens, creating an immensely powerful duplicate of Jean, but one which grew more corrupted and distorted the longer it remained separate from the true Jean. The return of Jean Grey happened in Fantastic Four #286 (January 1986), written and drawn by the same team that wrote the original Dark Phoenix Saga in 1980.
On page 15 (above), the newly revised Jean, still in the dress she was wearing when she went into space in issue #101, recounts the events of that evening. At first, no one connects Jean with her history as the Phoenix.
On page 21 (below), Captain America adds two-plus-two, and calls up a report on the life of Jean Grey from the Avengers archives – a report made by another of the original X-Men, also an Avenger: Hank McCoy, the Beast.
X-Men pages by Byrne and Austin from the Dark Phoenix era are some of the most expensive and difficult to get pages this side of 1960s Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko pages. I was surprised when both of these pages from FF #286 were still available at their nominal prices from the dealer who represents Byrne, a number of years after 1986. Page 21, in particular, has the original X-Men team in the center, and then three iconic panels below: Phoenix, first rising from Jamaica Bay in issue 101, Dark Phoenix, in her eeeevil glory, and the suicide moment from issue 138.
One of our universe’s original cosmic entities, the Phoenix has an affinity for Jean Grey as a host – she was an avatar of the Phoenix because her “spirit” was “most closely carved” from the Phoenix. Her perceptions and imagination had influenced the Phoenix and that it belonged to her by right and would one day come to her children.
In New X-Men #150 (February 2004), Jean bonds with the Phoenix force (the merged entity being know at The White Phoenix) as she is in another life and death return from outer space, and she is killed (for the first time) by arch-enemy Magneto. The Phoenix force eventually resurrects Jean (Phoenix Endsong, 2005), and Jean and the Phoenix have played in the background ever since.
In 2012, the original X-Men, as teens from their earliest years, are time-displaced into the present, and a young Jean Grey is once again in the contemporary Marvel Universe. The Phoenix has been looming in the background of this character, and even the ghost of the real Jean Grey started popping up in 2017. In December 2017, the Phoenix is scheduled to return, along with the (adult) Jean Grey.