When the X-Men first began their (less than popular) run in 1963, the team only had one woman in it – and sure enough, she had ‘girl’ in her name. Jean Grey, AKA Marvel Girl, followed in the early comics superteam tradition of being the token female character whose powers were frankly lesser than all the men (or at least, they were written that way) and whose main character arc was to be the girlfriend/wife of one of her teammates.
But like Wasp of the Avengers, and Invisible Girl/Woman of the Fantastic Four, Jean Grey’s character developed significantly over the years, and her powers expanded to match. In fact, the expansion of her power became a vital element of her character arc, culminating in her transformation away from her old Marvel Girl identity into Phoenix, then Dark Phoenix, and beyond.
In the recent re-release of the epic Dark Phoenix story arc from 1980, writer Chris Claremont said that giving Jean the Phoenix powers in the first place was part of an attempt to release her from the legacy of being “a Stan Lee girl,” but neither he nor artist John Byrne foresaw quite where Jean’s expanding powers would take her – how high she would rise, or how far she would fall.
Because yeah, spoilers, Jean Grey dies. Actually, she dies a lot. The ‘phoenix’ name comes to be of great significance, as death and rebirth is a vital element of Jean’s storyline from 1980 all the way through to the present day. (She’s been dead for a while in the Marvel universe but guess what, she’s coming baaaack later this year)
I’ve always regarded Jean’s Dark Phoenix storyline with some skepticism, as it sounded very much like the trope we have in so many stories of a powerful women being punished, or indeed a woman being depicted as unable to handle great power. It wasn’t helped that this was a central element of the widely-panned third X-Men movie – while I objected far less at the time to Jean’s sacrifice than I did to Rogue giving up her power willingly, or the idea that young Jean had to be “protected” from her own power by Professor X, it’s hard to deny that her death is in fact entirely there to serve Wolverine’s character arc and not her own.
But on reading the original Dark Phoenix issues in the trade, I was actually impressed at how well it was written, and how much this was Jean’s own story. There’s a big difference between a female character who sacrifices herself as part of her own narrative, and one who does so to serve the narratives of the men around her.
I missed the original death and return of Jean Grey and the Phoenix storyline, but read with great interest the development of Dark Phoenix – while later there is much development of the idea that the ‘phoenix force’ is a parasitic entity, here it is very much an identity that comes from Jean and could be looked at as an exploration of mental illness.
I was a little irritated that the people around Jean, especially her close friend Storm and her earnest but dull boyfriend Scott/Cyclops, kept banging on about what a worry it was that Jean was so powerful now that she was Phoenix. Sure, she suddenly had massively increased powers, but this was obviously an attempt to telegraph the coming plot rather than based on any idea that Jean was bad at handling power.
Actually Jean was handling the extra Phoenix power just fine, but unfortunately had become a tasty target because of it. A villain called Mastermind took on the alarmingly moustached persona Jason Wyndgarde (why yes he did look exactly like actor Peter Wyndgarde who played TV character Jason King) and set about using telepathic technology (borrowed from Emma Frost) to unsettle Jean’s sense of time, place and identity through historical flashbacks and some heavy breathing romance.
Through these visions, he convinced Jean of her past life as his bride and the ‘Black Queen’ of The Hellfire Club, and slowly manipulated her into accepting that identity and turning against her friends the X-Men. While at first this appeared to be an excuse to lead the X-Men’s sweetest “good girl” down a path of saucy debauchery and dominatrix action, it was actually a far more serious story. The X-Men and Cyclops in particular were unwilling to release Jean to this weird, kinky mob, and the situation led to a massive showdown on the physical as well as mental plane. Cyclops sacrificed himself (nice when boys do this too) to shock Jean into remembering who she was. Luckily deaths on the mental plane apparently don’t count, Cyclops was fine, and Jean succeeded in breaking her conditioning and regain her real identity…
But Jean was angry at how she had been used. She turned her power on Jason/Mastermind and tortured him by opening his mind up to the universe. Though she concealed the extent of what she had done from her friends, it was very much this action of revenge that broke Jean, and opened her up to her Dark Phoenix identity. Swallowed up by what appeared to be a total and sudden psychotic breakdown and flooded by godly powers, she attacked her friends and went on a destructive grand tour of the universe. Among other things, she casually consumed the energy of an entire star (which had the unfortunate side effect of killing the billions of aliens who lived in the worlds nearby) and destroyed an alien ship attempting to stop her rampage.
Finally sated, Jean returned to her childhood home and tried to connect to whom she had been before. The X-Men were able finally to subdue her, and through a psychic battle with her mentor Professor X, Dark Phoenix was conquered and Jean Grey became herself again, completely under control.
The story could have ended there, but a bunch of galactic forces promptly turned up to take Jean into custody. They were understandably miffed about the genocide of billions, and not inclined to accept the testimony of the X-Men that she was fine now, and it was all cool. The ethical issues were discussed at length by Jean and her closest friends in between a duel to the death. Sadly, the stress of the situation broke the psychic barriers once more and let Phoenix out to play.
Jean’s sacrifice of her life was a conscious choice on her part, not only because she had become aware of how dangerous and uncontrolled she was as Phoenix, but also because she felt there was no other way to atone for the awful crime she had committed. There is a quite touching moment where she takes on her Marvel Girl costume once again for her final battle, accepting her entire history. And she dies, leaving her friends miserable and Cyclops distraught. Don’t be too sad for him; he’ll get used to this.
The death of Jean Grey was an editorial mandate. Original writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne wanted the story to be one of redemption, but the casual destruction of billions was seen as something that could not be ignored, and so they were given two choices – let her count as a villain from now on, or kill her off. The plan being of course that, while superhero deaths were never ever permanent, this one would be.
Except for the part that… well. You know what phoenixes do, right?
Whether alive or dead, returning or “gone for good,” Jean Grey has continued to be vital and iconic part of the X-Men story. Likewise the Phoenix Force, now portrayed as a separate creature and one which can be ‘hosted’ by others, is an essential part of their history and legacy.
In the 90’s, during one of her returns, she began to be identified purely by her name, Jean Grey, because ‘Phoenix’ had come to have specific connotations, and she had long outgrown ‘Marvel Girl.’ This was the case in other media, not just the comics themselves, and is a rare case of a human superhero whose real name is better known than any codename or alternative identity.
In the various animated series that have reinvented and rebooted the X-Men for several new generations, Cyclops and Jean are always there as the sweet if slightly dull couple who serve as responsible role models at the core their team, the Head Boy and Head Girl of Professor Xavier’s school, and the perfect examples of his students. And, inevitably, their sweetness and normality doesn’t quite last – cracks start showing, either in their relationship or through the appearance of the Phoenix plot, to mess everything up for them.
Meanwhile, in the comics, Scott and Jean have had children in alternate timelines, have been married and broken up, have lived in the future, and have both been at least partly unfaithful thanks to the sexy temptations offered by Wolverine, Psylocke and Emma Frost (a rival telepath who began as the White Queen of the same Hellfire Club that messed Jean up in the first place). For a long time now, Jean has been dead all over again, while Cyclops moves on romantically with Emma, the two of them running Professor X’s school together.
‘My’ Jean Grey was the heroine of the 90’s TV series of X-Men, of course, though I also liked her a lot in X-Men Evolution (in which she is literally the Head Girl as well as a soccer player and all around stern good girl) and in the movies, as played by Famke Janssen. The movie version is notable because she is portrayed as a mature, educated woman (and a medical doctor) rather than starting her yet again as a teenager. [In the comics she has managed to acquire a degree in psychology and even attained her Masters, which is quite impressive for someone who has to spend a significant portion of every decade dead] Of course, it all goes to hell in the third movie, but the first two and the second film in particular provided some wonderful character moments for Jean and for the men in her life.
I was less impressed by the otherwise excellent Wolverine & the X-Men animated series which generally portrayed Jean as an object rather than a protagonist, and I really disliked the portrayal of Jean as a quirky magical punk pixie girl in the Ultimate X-Men comics, because I didn’t buy her as the character.
I recently read Jean’s ‘origin’ story in the X-Men Origins series of trades. Origin stories drawn and written decades after the actual origin can be quite patchy, but this one written by Sean McKeever had its moments. I particularly liked the scene in which Jean uses her telekinetic powers to prevent a catastrophe and proudly declared that she was a normal teenage girl. Again, Jean’s relationship to her developing mental powers were depicted as if she was dealing with a mental/brain chemical disorder, and in this case it was done so with reasonable sensitivity if a bit too heavy on the angst. But frankly any reference at all to the way Professor X wormed himself inside her brain tends towards the creepy, even if her parents gave permission, especially as the old comics used to have Professor X secretly crushing on Jean. Ew, inappropriate!
Jean Grey is coming back. Which is interesting, because Jean Grey not coming back has been a major emphasis of the last decade of X-Men comics – in Joss Whedon and John Cassaday’s run of Astonishing X-Men for example, he teased out the idea that Jean might return, and that the characters are all half waiting for her to do so, but pulled a whammy by resurrecting a completely different classic character instead.
In this case, it has been announced that Jean upcoming return will not be another resurrection, but part of a timeslip comic in which the original 1963 X-Men team appear in the present day, and have to deal with the discovery of what their future selves have been getting up to.
Part of me hopes that She-Hulk turns up at some point to lead them to the archive of Marvel Comics Continuity because, seriously. Surely the first question they’re going to ask is “why has no one aged significantly in the last forty years?” and maybe “Explain Twitter.”
So it’s not just Jean Grey making her return, it’s Marvel Girl, 60’s style. While I do get irritated by the regular youthening of female superheroes, in this case I think the concept is pretty exciting, especially as Jean is bringing her own straitlaced, earnest and baby-faced version of Cyclops along for the ride.
Stripped of the Marvel Girl or Phoenix identities, and regardless of some bizarrely varied costume changes over the years, Jean Grey remains an iconic and central character in the Marvel universe. Her powers are often depicted as second only to those of Professor X, with the possibility that she could eclipse him always there. Whether she is destroying galaxies, catching trains in mid-crash or psychically altering the minds of her fellow humans, Jean Grey’s powers and her storylines raise fascinating issues to do with superpowers, ethics and responsibility.
I don’t think her story is done. If I could wish one thing, it would be that the returning Jean Grey be given massive stories that don’t always rely on her relationships with Cyclops, Wolverine or Professor X, but with some of her fellow super heroines and particularly with her time-displaced daughter Rachel Summers, who has her own Phoenix issues.
But mostly, now that I know so much more about both characters, I want to see her and Emma Frost trapped in an elevator together until they can talk out their issues.
If you want to read some great essays about Jean Grey and Emma Frost (as well as Kitty Pryde and many others) by readers who are far more experienced and well-read about those characters than I am, go grab a copy of Chicks Dig Comics. It’s a great book all around, but I was particularly inspired to learn more about those three Marvel women thanks to the enthusiastic and powerful essays about them.
Where the Wonder Women Are:
1: Black Canary
4: Black Widow
5: Wonder Girl
6: Captain Marvel
8: Abigail Brand.