Monday, July 11, 2005

The third coming of Jean Grey

Avengers 263
Fantastic Four 286
X-Factor 1

There was a time when Jean Grey was truly dead. The first death of Marvel's habitual lazarus saw Marvel Girl, personality-free good girl and all-round heartthrob, reborn as Phoenix. This at first was little more than an excellent costume change and a power upgrade for Jean, whose remarkable ability to move small objects a bit was making her a bit of a liability in the superhero arms race of the late seventies. As the months progressed, she got more powerful, until...well, if you don't know, I suggest you stop reading right now and get hold of the TPB of Uncanny X-Men 129-137. It is an absolute must-read for, for pretty much everyone, actually.

The thing about well written deaths is that they hold a promise of finality. This death was the best written death in Marvel's history. No, the second best death, after "The Death of Captain Marvel". If they've killed the character off in slapdash way (ie Hawkeye), then no-one is going to be at all surprised when they turn up again. But if the death was so well enacted, then not only will a resurrection cheapen and damage the original story, but the reborn character will be weakened as well.

Pulling in the other direction is that an exciting death enhances a character's popularity. Having provided so much entertainment in dying, people naturally want to see more. Following her elevation to Dark Phoenix, her annihilation of an entire planet and her suicide, Jean Grey was an important, albeit deceased, figure.

There is a story that John Byrne, the artist, had wanted Dark Phoenix's powers to be removed from Jean Grey at the end of #137, leaving Jean back as Marvel Girl. This was apparently vetoed on the justified grounds that Jean had killed several billion people, and it would be morally outrageous if she could have gone back to normal after that. Chris Claremont had his way, and Jean was gone.

A couple of issues later so was John Byrne, and rumours of ill-feeling between him and Claremont flew around for years.

Which brings us to Jean's resurrection, spread over individual issues of the Avengers, Fantastic Four and X-Factor. In Avengers 263, the Avengers find a cocoon at the bottom of the sea. A group called the Enclave get involved; they had a previous history of creating characters in cocoons (Adam Warlock). This turns out to a pointless red herring, presumably to pad the story out. The cocoon is fished out of the bay, and delivered to the Fantastic Four. In FF #286, the cocoon is opened to reveal Jean Grey. Wearing, for those with sharp eyes and long memories, the tattered remains of the dress she wore before her first death. She's back. But not Phoenix. In a monster retcon, it transpires that Jean, when dying the first time, did not use the Phoenix power to save herself. Rather, the Phoenix was an alien creature which offered to help Jean. It wrapped her up in the cocoon, where she would stay for a long time. Meanwhile the Phoenix took Jean's place, believing it was Jean, and it was this which committed suicide in #137. The Jean Grey from #98 to #137 was an imposter.

If bringing back Jean Grey was so important, then you have to admire Byrne's footwork. Jean is back as Marvel Girl and exonerated on the charge of genocide. If you were someone who thought the Dark Phoenix stories some of the best ever written, admiration probably wasn't uppermost in your mind.

What was Jean going to do now? Marvel had decided to bring back the original X-Men, though for the life of me I can't understand why - the lacklustre original members had been sidelined by others for good reasons. The Defenders, which had been canned to make way for X-Factor, had three of the original team (Angel, Iceman and Beast), and had hardly flourished because of them.

And Marvel had come up with a new mutant concept: X-Factor. X-Factor was to be these X-Men dressing up like Bill Murray in Ghostbusters, pretending to be mutant-hunters. They would present themselves as an anti-mutant organisation, take out problem mutants, get them home and then tutor them, Xavier-style. It just didn't make sense. Why do you need to pretend to be mutant hunters in order to find them, stoking up anti-mutant hatred? Surely the people with the biggest awareness of a mutant problem are those who are mutants themselves, and they're not going to volunteer themselves to mutant hunters. Couldn't you just publicise yourself as an organisation which helps mutants?

Having Jean contact the other three wasn't difficult, but that left Scott, Jean's fiance. Or rather her ex-fiance, since he had married Madelyne Pryor in the years after her death. Or rather not even her ex-fiance, since we now knew he had been engaged to an imposter. Ever get the feeling you've been cheated? Scott was living in Alaska with Madelyne and their son (Cable, but let's not get into that). In a simply despicable act, Scott is told Jean is alive, and walks out on his marriage and his son. And this is from the most responsible of all the X-Men.

And with Scott in, we're hot to trot. The five meet up, decide to form X-Factor and rescue Rusty Collins from an unfortunate first sexual encounter. No-one thinks to phone up the X-Men as say, "Good news, Jean's back and she's not Dark Phoenix". That reunion is going to take a good while longer, and it's going to be contrived. X-Factor is off and running. "Off and limping" might be more accurate.

Rushed and confused, this is above all a transitionary story. There no real attempt to make it entertaining, just an urgent need to get from where we were (Jean dead, Scott married) to where we apparently want to be (original X-Men reunited as X-Factor).

One common interpretation of these stories is that it was all John Byrne's fault. He had wanted Marvel Girl back, and that's what happened. This whole mess could be seen as Byrne sticking two fingers up at Claremont, wilfully destroying the legacy of Uncanny X-Men #137, which Byrne himself had helped create. There was a rumour that Byrne had it in his contract that he could do whatever he wanted in the Fantastic Four, and Marvel couldn't stop him. I doubt this is true. There are three different writers involved in this story - Roger Stern, John Byrne and Bob Layton, plus three editors, Mark Gruenwald, Michael Carlin and Michael Higgins and Jim Shooter, editor in chief. The long term beneficiaries of this story were Bob Layton and Jackson Guice, the creators of X-Factor, and not John Byrne, who to my knowledge never against wrote another story about Jean Grey. How could Byrne, without editorial help, have forced Stern (on the big assumption that Stern didn't think this was all a mistake) to write something he didn't want? And Shooter must have given the go ahead for X-Factor. No, I think this story is a bad collaborative effort, not an act of individual malice by Byrne.

Compared with the Dark Phoenix stories, this story is terrible. We end up with three damaged characters - Jean, the treacherous Scott, and Madelyne, an excellent character whose long decline starts here. The X-Factor conceit doesn't last long before its illogic becomes clear and the originals are replaced by others. Jean's continual resurrections make her a symbol of Marvel's inability to let the dead stay dead. Even the X-Men don't believe it when she dies. Scott's reputation undeservedly recovers, eventually. Though I can't be the only one who failed to celebrate when Scott and Jean married a few years later (X-Men #30).

We might also add a fourth damaged character - John Byrne. Whether or not he was to blame for this mess, it caused lasting resentment against him.


Blogger Tim O'Neil said...

It was Jim Shooter who demanded Jean's blood - I'd reccomend tracking down the rare "Phoenix: The Untold Story" one-shot for a surprisingly canded account of the episode.

2:12 pm  
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