The X-Men have been around for a long time, and in that time they’ve had some amazing stories. One of the most memorable—and now a summer blockbuster—is the Dark Phoenix Saga by Chris Claremont with art by John Byrne. Like many Claremont stories, there’s a lot of ideas here and a gut-wrenching ending. We’ll see if the movie lives up to all of Claremont’s ideas, or at least gets the spirit of the story right. However, there’s more to the X-Men than The Dark Phoenix Saga. In fact, there are some stories that are even greater.
So, in order of their release years (because ranking great X-Men stories is like ranking your favorite kids—I’m guessing. I don’t have kids), here are twelve stories beside The Dark Phoenix Saga that are just as epic.
1. Days of Future Past (1981)
This story is one of the oldest classic X-Men stories…and still one of the most relevant today. In just two issues, Chris Claremont and John Byrne tell a powerful story of fear and consequences. In fact, there is more intensity here than almost the entire Dark Phoenix Saga. It also presented a vision of the future of the Marvel Universe that was horrifying. Comics experimenting with darkness is nothing new, but it’s important to remember that this story is five years before Alan Moore’s “revolutionary” Watchmen series.
When Heroes Fail
Days of Future Past is the first memorable superhero story that tells us the heroes will lose. Everyone will lose. The world is going to be a terrible place and it’s all our fault. This story is also the most influential in all the stories afterward. There’s hardly a story where Days of Future Past isn’t either directly referenced, or lingering in the background. For example, this double-page spread from the 2010 crossover Second Coming:
No wonder this gave us the best X-Men film…so far.
2. God Loves, Man Kills (1982)
The second best (or first depending on who you’re asking) X-Men movie, X2: X-Men United (it was also one of the worst titles) was also based on a fairly short but powerful Chris Claremont story, this time with artist Brent Anderson. God Loves, Man Kills was one of the rare original graphic novels of that day. It was meant for a more mature audience, and Claremont ran with that (maybe a bit too far).
Pulls No Optic Blasts
But just as he did with Days of Future Past, Claremont punches us in the gut here. While he’s demonizing fundamental Christianity and putting millions of lives at risk by turning Professor X into a weapon, it’s the ending that is truly devasting. After the horrific experience at William Stryker’s hand, Xavier gives up and agrees with Magneto. Xavier, the rock of all mutantkind, the man with an unwavering cause…wavers. Cyclops snaps him back to the good side, but we see, beyond subtle hints, that Xavier might not be the hero we always thought him to be.
3. Mutant Massacre (1986)
Many great X-Men stories are the result of crossovers, and that long tradition started here with Mutant Massacre. This connected Uncanny X-Men, New Mutants, X-Factor, Thor, Daredevil, and, of all titles, Power Pack—and this is one brutal story (the word “massacre” is in the title, so what should we expect?). Sinister and his Marauders try to commit genocide against the Morlocks—mutants living in the sewers of New York and away from the surface world (it would later be revealed that the Morlocks were experiments of Dark Beast and Sinister wanted to get rid of them).
The crossover gave us a number of X-Men developments that would last for decades. It’s here, after Psylocke faces off with Sabretooth, that she becomes a full-fledged X-Man. Speaking of Sabretooth, he and Wolverine have one of their most epic battles. But the character who was affected the most? Angel—this is the beginning of his journey to Archangel, when his wings are brutalized so badly that they eventually need to be removed. More on that in a moment.
4. Fall of the Mutants (1988)
If that title, following Mutant Massacre feels like Chris Claremont and the gang just loved putting the X-Men through absolute hell, well, you might be right—after all, the next event is called Inferno. Nine X-Men sacrifice themselves (don’t worry, the goddess Roma brings them back), and the New Mutants lose one of their own. But the biggest result from this “crossover” (the three titles don’t actually intersect) is that Angel joins Apocalypse and becomes Death, getting his metal wings and blue skin. In the 30 years since this event, this one moment became the core to Warren Worthington’s entire being.
5. Inferno (1989)
This crossover went beyond the X-Men titles, bringing in most of the Marvel Universe at the time. Demons take siege of Manhattan, bringing the Avengers, Daredevil, Spider-Man, Power Pack, Cloak and Dagger, and the Fantastic Four into the battle. It’s here that we learn that Madeline Pryor is the clone of Jean Grey, and after Cyclops ditching her when the real Jean returns, she has a bit of a grudge against him, leading her to become the Goblin Queen.
Sinister is pulling everyone’s strings in this, leading to a drastically violent fight with Cyclops. But it’s Illyana Rasputin, Colossus’s little sister and the New Mutant Magik, who changes forever, becoming the Darkchild. The sweet little sister of the entire X-Men universe turns demonic. Just like Archangel in Fall of the Mutants, she will never truly recover from this.
6. X-tinction Agenda (1992)
For a few years before this (with some great X-Men stories along the way), the X-Men were a bit scattered and leaderless. This is where they come back together. Nothing unites people like a totalitarian human government wanting to experiment and imprison their friends. Cameron Hodge, now an immortal cyborg after the events in Inferno, and his Genoshan magistrates kidnap several X-Men and New Mutants. Marvel’s not-so-merry mutants don’t take kindly to that, and retaliate. Though the beloved character Warlock dies here, X-Tinction Agenda reunited the X-Men into an official team again for the first time since Fall of the Mutants.
7. Age of Apocalypse (1995)
Yes, there are other great X-Men stories in the 90’s—and most will say it’s blasphemous to leave X-Cutioner’s Song and Fatal Attractions off this list, but many of those stories just don’t live up to the Dark Phoenix Saga, which is why we’re here. Age of Apocalypse, however, might just trump them all. In the age of the internet, an event like this would never happen. All the X-Men titles just ended, and the next month they were replaced with an alternate reality where Apocalypse ruled the world and the X-Men we knew and loved were much, much different.
Cyclops and Havok are minions of Apocalypse and Sinister. Beast is just all kinds of psychopathic and is known as Dark Beast (who would go on to be a villain for years to come). Magneto was the leader of the X-Men, Wolverine and Jean were together—but Wolverine was missing a hand. It was the nightmare version of the X-Men’s universe, and no one was prepared for it. Also, it gave us Blink, so this event is just perfect.
8. E is for Extinction (2001)
Remember Genosha? That place where mutants were once tortured and experimented on? Well, now it’s a mutant nation ruled by Magneto…or at least it was. In Grant Morrison’s first story in his legendary run, Master Mold and the Sentinels return, a result of Xavier’s evil twin sister Cassandra Nova (Xavier thought he killed her in the womb…yeah, it’s kind of crazy). The sentinels kill nearly everyone in Genosha. Millions die, but one remains—Emma Frost, once the X-Men’s enemy and the White Queen. Here, she gets her secondary mutation, the ability to turn into a diamond form. She also watches all of her students die, but joins the X-Men. Morrison’s run includes several great X-Men stories; E is for Extinction is just the beginning.
9. Gifted (2004)
Speaking of a single run of great X-Men stories, Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men definitely belongs to that group, starting with this one, Gifted. This was the main inspiration for X-Men: The Last Stand, but don’t hold that against the story. Whedon introduces the “mutant cure,” which is a very tempting notion for Beast—if only it wasn’t the result of illegal experimentation on mutants.
Return of a Favorite
Whedon also brought back Colossus, who sacrificed himself a few years earlier to cure the legacy virus. Whedon also builds off of Morrison’s run, which started developing Cyclops in ways that would have long-lasting effects. No longer was he the boy scout ever dutiful to Professor X. Here, we truly see him become a tactical leader with confidence in himself, something we’ll see in full swing when we get to Messiah CompleX.
10. Rise and Fall of the Shi’ar Empire (2007)
There are many great X-Men in space stories, but this one tops them all. Rise and Fall of the Shi’ar Empire was the centerpiece of Ed Brubaker’s run on Uncanny X-Men, spanning 12 issues. Vulcan, the mad third Summers brother (and by far the most powerful) decides that he wants to rule a galactic empire. The Shiar, Starjammers, and the X-Men all try to stop him, but it doesn’t go very well, leaving several X-Men (such as Havok and Polaris) stuck in space, forming a new Starjammers after Vulcan kills his father, Corsair. Rise and Fall of the Shi’ar Empire went on to impact nearly a decade of the cosmic side of the Marvel Universe, and is one hell of a space opera.
11. Messiah CompleX (2008)
One of the worst Marvel Comics stories led to one of the X-Men’s greatest. In House of M, Wanda Maximoff took away the powers of 98% of the world’s mutant population (somehow, 98% of the X-Men were spared), making mutants an endangered species. Cyclops went from leading the X-Men to having to lead what’s left of his species, and things just got worse for the X-Men. But in Messiah CompleX, they’re given Hope—with a capital H. Hope Summers, though she wasn’t named that yet.
Two and a Half Mutants
When a mutant baby is born in Alaska, the Purifiers and the Marauders destroy and massacre an entire town trying to either kill it or claim it, only for them both to fail as Cable. The X-Men arrive last. From there, all three groups start chasing Cable and the baby, along with a giant mutant-eating monster, and Bishop, who turns villain and blames the baby for the dystopian future he came from.
The X-Men’s Savior was Messiah
This story gave the X-Men titles direction and led to several great stories. To get the full scope of the Hope Summers saga, read Endangered Species before this, then Duane Swierczynski’s Cable run (we get to see Hope grow up and Cable change diapers) along with Craig Kyle and Chris Yost’s X-Force, and the events Messiah War and Second Comings. All of this leads to the massive crossover Avengers Vs X-Men, where Hope Summers is yet again trying to be taken or controlled by two different groups. Just this time, it’s two teams of heroes.
12. Dark Angel Saga (2011)
So, technically, this is one of X-Force’s greatest stories, not the X-Men. But hey, it’s all part of the same family, right? As you see, this borrows its name from The Dark Phoenix Saga, but the story is much, much better and has a lot more emotional impact. Poor Warren Worthington III. He almost purged himself completely of the Archangel personality, only to have it visciously return in Angels and Demons, the first story in Kyle and Yost’s X-Force run.
Apocalypse Again For the Very First Time
But in Rick Remender’s Uncanny X-Force, he becomes the new Apocalypse (the team killed a child version of Apocalypse in the first arc, The Apocalypse Solution, another great X-Men…er…X-Force story). The rest of X-Force have to travel to the Age of Apocalypse to get the “life seed” so they can cure Warren of the “death seed” turning him into a genocidal maniac. It’s dark, emotional, and the art is fantastic.
Sadly, since the Avengers Vs X-Men, the franchise has been a bit meh. We haven’t had any truly great X-Men stories in nearly a decade now, let alone one that equals or surpasses The Dark Phoenix Saga. But all that might change as Jonathan Hickman, who delivered one of the best Avengers runs AND one of the best Fantastic Four runs, takes over the franchise with the upcoming House of X and Power of X. Like Age of Apocalypse, Marvel is canceling all other X-Men titles, and so far, we have no idea what will follow. It might be the most exciting time to be an X-Men fan since the Messiah CompleX era.
In the meantime, we have Dark Phoenix (hopefully) getting the screen treatment she deserves.
Roman Colombo finished his MFA in 2010 and now teaches writing and graphic novel literature at various Philadelphia colleges. His first novel, Trading Saints for Sinners, was published in 2014. He's currently working on his next novel and hoping to find an agent soon.