It is a truism among comics fans that comic book deaths are rarely permanent. “If you don't see the body, he's not really dead” is the usual rule of thumb. Fans used to say that the only characters you could be really sure were permanently dead were Bucky and Uncle Ben Parker, and even Bucky wound up coming back.
Which isn't to say that there haven't been dramatic and truly moving deaths in the comics. There have; and sometimes, as in the case of Supergirl and the Flash in CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, the Companies wait a decent interval before undoing them. For X-MEN fans during the Claremont/Byrne Era, one of the most momentous deaths would have to be that of Jean Grey, in the Dark Phoenix Saga. That particular storyline was notable for introducing Kitty Pryde, the Wesley Crusher of the Mutant set; as well as the scantily-clad White Queen, Emma Frost, who is on the side of the good guys these days. It also introduced Dazzler, created to capitalize on the disco craze, who once again demonstrated that when a comic book jumps on a fad, the fad is on the way out. But more significant than any of these was the death of Jean Grey, whose fate was sealed by the doom which befell the Carrot People.
As Marvel Girl, Jean Grey was one of the founding members of the X-Men. She possessed the same powers as Professor Xavier, telepathy and telekinesis, but at a lower level; and like Sue Storm of the Fantastic Four, her characterization tended to be subdued, and she often seemed to fall back into the role of The Chick in the X-Men's Five-Man-Band. By the late '70s, the team had broken up and gone in separate directions, but a new team, the “All-New, All-Different” X-Men, had been formed under the leadership of Scott “Cyclops” Summers and Jean. This was the era which saw the introduction of such characters as Storm, Nightcrawler, Colossus, and everybody's favorite Canadian mutant, Wolverine.
On a mission into space, the X-Men had encountered a strange source of cosmic energy called the Phoenix Force. Jean became imbued with (or possessed by, depending on your point of view) the energy of the Phoenix, making her dang near omnipotent. Using this power, she was able to save the Universe from destruction; but because it was too vast to be handled responsibly by a mortal human, she blocked off the better part of the Phoenix Force behind a series of firewalls in her mind. She had it under control.
Or so she thought.
Some time later, Jean begins to have these strange experiences, like waking dreams. She thinks of them as “timeslips”. She seems to be living the life of an ancestor of hers in the 18th Century and affianced to a dashing gentleman rogue named Jason Wyngarde, who introduces her into an exciting world of tight corsets and Regency-Era depravity. Is she actually traveling back in time? Or is she mentally experiencing a past life? Or has she simply been reading too many historical romances?
None of the above. Wyngarde is actually a villain named Mastermind who is trying to corrupt Jean by undermining her grip on reality and cultivating the Dark Side of her psyche, so as to unlock her Phoenix powers. As “Jason”, he introduces her to the decadent Hellfire Club, where she is welcomed as its Black Queen.
There were a number of historical “Hellfire Clubs” in England in the 18th and early 19th Centuries; gentlemen's clubs for hedonistic young aristocrats where they could flout conventional mores and indulge in socially-disparaged immoralities. Writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne based their version in part on these historical clubs, but also on an episode of the TV series THE AVENGERS (the one with Patrick Macnee, not the one with Tony Stark), which featured a latter-day Hellfire Club in which the men dressed as Regency rakes in tight breeches and ruffled shirts and the women dressed in kinky Edwardian Era lingerie. Yes, I know; the Prince Regent lived a century earlier than King Edward, but these are rake-hells, and respect neither the laws of God, nor of Men, nor of Historical Accuracy. Besides, Diana Rigg in sexy undergarments; need I say more?
Like the club depicted in the TV series, Claremont and Byrne's Hellfire Club is ostensibly a social club for wealthy businessmen, but has an Inner Circle bent on world domination. Which is why they've had Mastermind recruit Jean Grey into their number, thinking he can control her and her Phoenix Force.
And it sort of works. He does unlock her Phoenix powers, and he does lure her over to the Dark Side; she is now an omnipotent god-being, free of all moral and ethical restraints. But she's also free of Mastermind's control, and she returns the favor by blasting his mind into tapioca. She declares that she is now DARK PHOENIX !!!! (“Bwa-hah-ha!”) and flies off into space.
Y'see, that's the problem with Cosmic Powers. Not only do they give you delusions of godhood and make you regard your former teammates as ants beneath your go-go boots; but it makes you cosmically hungry. Just ask Galactus. Jean's apotheosis has left her with a case of the munchies that only an exploding sun can satisfy.
She flies off to a distant star and destroys it, causing it to go nova and obliterating all the planets orbiting it. And here comes the significant part.
In drawing this sequence, John Byrne included a panel showing the terrified natives of one of these planets cowering before the blinding flash which once was their sun and now has consumed the entire sky. Byrne later called these aliens “the Carrot People”, and although their presence had not been specified in the page breakdowns, Claremont ran with it, playing their fate for all the pathos he could manage:
“Many who see this light – the last thing they will ever see – are confused, frightened. A very few – who realize at once what has happened – have time to curse cruel fate or make their peace with their god. Then, they all die
Following that light – at a comparative snail's pace – comes the HEAT FLARE. The instant it hits, the atmosphere and oceans on the dayside boil away. The steam and superheated air wirling around the globe in a flaming shock-wave that obliterates all in its path.
Those few awake on the nightside are treated to a SPECTACULAR, once in a lifetime AURORA BOREALIS, before death claims them.
But half the world dies in its sleep. They are the LUCKY ones.”
Remember this sequence.
The Dark Phoenix returns to earth. Or is it Jean? Without thinking, she goes to the home of her parents. In their minds she can read love and concern and a desire to help her; but underneath it all she can read the fear the have of her. She lashes out at them, and against her teammates, who show up trying to help, and even against Scott, her beloved. The X-Men are no match for her Phoenix powers. Ultimately, it all comes down to a brain-wrestling match between her and Professor X, one which the Professor only wins because a part of Jean recoils from all this Dark Stuff and wants the Phoenix contained. Once again, the Phoenix is back in its bottle. For now. But now it's too late.
At this point, the Shi'ar show up; an alien imperial race whom the X-Men have met previously; (and whose Empress is sweet on Xavier). While Dark Phoenix was out on her munchie run earlier, she had encountered and obliterated a Shi'ar battleship. The Empress had known about Jean and the Phoenix Force, because she had been in the middle of the first Phoenix Saga; but at the time it looked like Jean had the Phoenix under control. Now the power of the Phoenix is most definitely out of control, and the Empress feels that something must be done.
The Shi'ar Empress agrees to a trial by combat, in which Jean's friends fight against the Shi'ar Imperial Guard for her life. (The Imperial Guard had been designed by Dave Cockrum, the artist who drew X-MEN prior to John Byrne and who had designed the look of most of the newer team members; he had also designed several characters from DC's LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES, and the Imperial Guardsmen were pastiches of the LSH members) Although fighting valiantly, the X-men are defeated, one by one.
At this point, Claremont and Byrne's original plan was that the Shi'ar would use a techno-gadget which would exorcise the Phoenix force from Jean and she would be restored to how she was before. But Marvel's then Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter objected. By exterminating the Carrot People, Jean had committed an unspeakable act of genocide which could not simply be brushed away by a simple plot device. She had Crossed the Moral Event Horizon. And she had to pay the price. As Shooter later said:
“I personally think, and I've said this many times, that having a character destroy and inhabited world with billions of people, wipe out a starship and then – well, you know, having the powers removed and being let go on Earth. It seems to me that that's the same as capturing Hitler alive and letting him go live on Long Island. Now, I don't think the story would end there. I think a lot of people would come to his door with machine guns.”
The crux of the issue was the matter of responsibility: were the crimes committed by the Dark Phoenix the fault of the Phoenix Force possessing Jean, or was it her own darker, suppressed impulses? There are lines in the comic to support both views. Mastermind's whole bodice-ripper fantasy was intended to exercise Jean's repressed desires, after all; and in a number of places, Jean confesses to Scott that a part of her revels in the destructive nature of the Phoenix and embraces it. Claremont felt the situation was more akin to demonic possession, and that Jean wasn't really responsible for what the Phoenix did. Shooter felt otherwise.
Under Shooter's edict, Claremont and Byrne re-tooled their ending. Jean comes to realize that the Phoenix Force cannot be controlled. “So long as I live, the Phoenix will manifest itself through me. And so long as that happens, I'll eventually, inevitably become DARK PHOENIX.” She's not begging her friends to kill her; they've tried, and have been unable to bring themselves to do it. So she deliberately sacrifices her life so that the Phoenix Force will return to the cosmic void where it belongs.
Uatu the Watcher, whose home on the far side of the Moon happens to be next to where the final battle took place, delivers Jean's eulogy: “Jean Grey could have lived to become a god. But it was more important to her that she die … a HUMAN.”