Jean Grey has to be one of my favorite X-Men. It didn’t always start that way. After all, my introductory team didn’t even feature Jean. She was off in the first incarnation of X-Factor, while I got introduced to the X-Men roster that boasted everyone from Longshot to Dazzler to Havok. Over the years and especially throughout the 1990s, creators obsessed themselves with telling us about the Jean Grey we didn’t know. Everything from being inside the head of her dying childhood friend to placing mental blocks on her powers. There was a lot of repressed feminine rage in the subtext, but it was never publically commented on. Why’s that?
Well, it’s because the above image summarizes who Jean Grey had become in that time period where comic fandom seemingly peaked. Marvel and its comic publisher brothers are slowly getting back to that point, but we’re not there yet. While the comics were trying to say that Jean Grey was a roaring independent woman, they were doing it in the trappings of the 90s FOX Kids X-Men cartoon. It’s hard to have a character forge her own identity, get married and become independent of the Xavier School if she’s shown as a weak damsel with occasional powerful mood swings on a Saturday morning show. The conflicted message damaged the character for a lot of potential fans who spent the next two decades in a Wolverine/Deadpool stupor.
When Jean Grey is introduced to the X-Men in the proper history, she’s either an object of attraction or a curiousity. Kirby, Lee, Thomas, Roth and others always presented her as the weakest member of the team, but it’s spiritual heart. This would change with the arrival of the Claremont era, as he sought to create a team that made sense in the world of the mid to late 1970s. Women were going to take far more prominent role and he had the idea to make Jean Grey into one of the most powerful figures in Marvel Comics. All he had to do was get her into space.
The Phoenix is always treated with such utter reverence, that most creators miss the potential with the character. The Phoenix Force was introduced as Jean Grey tries to steer her friends from a damaged space station and back to New York. They crash land near the United Nations, where they nearly drown. That’s when one of the greatest comic costumes ever is debuted, as the X-Men freak out about the Ginger Space God that used to be their friend. While unconscious she telekinetically rearranges the molecules of her costume to make herself new clothes. After the X-Men dump her at the hospital, they venture off to Ireland to hang out with Leprechauns. I shit you not.
Over the Claremont/Byrne run, we’d get to see Jean Grey spend most of her time away from The X-Men. Sure, there’s the first introduction of the M’Krann Crystal, Mesmero & Magneto doing their hypnotic carnival thing and Proteus; but that was about it for nearly 30 issues. In the time and thanks to the John Bolton back stories from Classic X-Men, we learned that Jean started to find herself as the Phoenix. Sure, Marvel kept trying to say that the Phoenix was a separate identity from Jean Grey, but most of that has been retconned. If anything, becoming one with a primal universal force allowed Jean to evolve in a way that mirrors her development from Marvel Girl to Phoenix to Jean Grey to the White Phoenix of the Crown. That level of progress makes the journey of every mutant seem pedestrian. While they’re Homo Superior, she’s Homo Superior realized as a God.
When the time came for the Phoenix to die the first time, it raised a lot of questions. Hell, I still remember pouring over the story as an 11 year old clutching a dated trade paperback. How could they kill off one of the most interesting people in the X-Men? Sure, she came back as part of X-Factor and she got caught up in all of the Madelyne Pryor bullshit. But, Jean came through everything smelling like roses. How many other characters get that sort of treatment? Sure, the other media representations bungled her use, but that’s a drop in the bucket. What we have is Marvel’s first truly realized female character who is still growing even in death!
Hell, the last five years has presented us with Hope Summers and the teen Jean Grey from All-New X-Men. Both characters are struggling to fill a void about a character who keeps coming up at every damn turn in the X-Universe. The only solution is to bring Jean back. But, to bring her back as the Mutant Messiah that she became when she went into the White Hot Room at the end of Morrison’s run. Marvel got death threats of the introduction of a Tuskegee style African American Captain America, so I can only imagine the hell they would catch for a Ginger Telepathic Female Jesus figure leading a band of mutants. But, it only makes sense. Any attempt to strip of authority or title smacks of editorial demands to force a woman to submit. She’s a leader and quite possibly the strongest mutant in history.
Grant Morrison came the closest to fully realizing Jean Grey/The Phoenix in his New X-Men run. However, most of his time was spent making an homage to the Claremont/Byrne run in the modern era. While a lot of fans decry his move to tie her back into the Phoenix, it makes sense. I buy his argument that the Phoenix never left when Jean/Phoenix died on the Blue Area of the Moon. In fact, the level of power that the Phoenix possessed evolved Jean past mutants as mutants had surpassed humanity. Jean died on the moon. Jean died on the space shuttle. Jean died when she made Wolverine run her through on Asteroid M. Jean died when Xorn killed her. They’re all legit and they all go to show the level of power that Jean possesses now.
What is a telekinetic, if not a solid mind that can rebuild any broken fragment? She can pick locks with a thought, escape confinement and hold together anything. What is death, but a puzzle to be unconsciously solved? Grant Morrison, Greg Pak and later writers set up Jean Grey to become something that Marvel has been building to since 1961, but has never touched upon. How does a world function when a Godlike figure can be waiting in line for Starbucks? What if you hit on the pretty redhead that could mentally snap your neck with a thought? In a world where Galactus pays annual visits and Skrulls slip into society, anything is possible.
Still, there’s the whole issue with Jean’s close ties to Scott Summers. Everyone now knows that I believe Cyclops to be an unhinged personality doing his best to be pretend to be straight-laced. Every aspect of his leadership comes from the desire to be perceived as normal by others. Anchoring Jean Grey to Cyclops for so long has felt like you another power dampening maneuver. Does that mean that Jean Grey can’t be loved? Not at all. What it means is that she should be with a man that is her equal. Someone like Wolverine. But, that’s for another time.