Her name is Jean Grey. She’s probably the most important woman in the X-Men – a beautiful, powerful, independent woman who wields tremendous power. But behind the scenes, Jean’s been the centre of a lot of controversy among the X-writers and artists! Today, I’m going to go behind the printed page and reveal the secrets of the Phoenix!
Jean Grey, love interest
The sad truth is that Jean Grey was originally the member of the X-Men who was something of an afterthought, a character Stan Lee tended to forget about as anything but a love interest for the boys. This peaked early, in X-Men #3…
It’s not just the other guys who keep raving about Jean; even Professor Xavier has something of a thing for her! Roy Thomas observed, “When I asked Stan about that a little later, he said, “I don’t know, it just seemed like something that made sense. I tossed it in to complicate things.” And the thing is that sometimes these things were best forgotten.”
It was hardly a popular idea; decades later, during the Onslaught saga, this would become one of the repressed secrets of Charles Xavier. Scott Lobdell, who worked as one of the writers on the crossover, really didn’t like it. “The idea that Xavier would bury his yearning for a young Jean Grey? Way too creepy for me!”
Chris Claremont has always written strong women, and when he started writing Jean Grey he decided to amp her power levels considerably. Claremont explained it like this:
“Our intent was to create an X-Men analog, if you will, to Thor – someone who was essentially the first female cosmic hero. We thought at the time we could integrate her into the book as well as Thor had been integrated into the Avengers.”
Interestingly, Dave Cockrum went through a number of designs before settling on this look. His initial designs were very, very different…
As you can see, Cockrum originally wanted the Phoenix costume to be white, not green, but unfortunately paper quality and the printing process wouldn’t have allowed that – the text or images on the other side would have shown through. Here’s a seriously cool image of how Cockrum envisioned Phoenix!
And just for fun, here’s a cool ‘how to draw’ of the finished Cockrum design:
John Byrne wasn’t a fan of Phoenix, though. When he joined the book, he reacted strongly against her, and pressed to get rid of the character as he felt she made the rest of the X-Men “fifth wheels”.
The Dark Phoenix Saga
Perhaps the most shocking moment in Jean Grey’s history is found in the Dark Phoenix Saga. In this incredible and iconic storyline, the titular character descends into madness; her powers flare in ever more devastating ways, and an entire world is destroyed. At the very end, in a moment that transformed comic book history, Jean Grey sacrifices her life to contain the power of the Phoenix.
Curiously enough, that wasn’t how the story was originally planned to pan out. Chris Claremont and John Byrne were working on the story with the plan of Jean being stripped of her powers by the Shi’ar (you can read this alternate ending to the Dark Phoenix Saga in ‘Phoenix: The Untold Story’).
The responsibility for the saga truly lies with series editor Jim Shooter. He’d signed off on the storyline, but hadn’t really kept a close eye on it. And when he read the issue where Dark Phoenix destroys an entire world, he kind of flipped. Arguments raged – for a while the idea of Jean being consigned to a galactic prison was bounced around, but Chris Claremont refused as he believed the X-Men would just endlessly try to rescue her – and eventually it turned into the idea of killing her.
Claremont had other plans, of course. He’d imagined Jean returning to Earth stripped of her powers, and had a long-running arc in mind.
“I had a rough idea of where I wanted to take it, which was over the next year have her deal with what happened with what she did. From my point of view, I saw it as coming to terms with the fact that she killed 5 billion people –that she committed a crime for which she can never atone, and yet she’s still alive. The easy way out would be to just jump off a cliff, but she can’t. She has to somehow put things right with herself, within herself. The ultimate end of it all leading up to issue #150, would be that Magneto, having found out about this, would come in, kidnapping her, and offering her the power again, on the false assumption that he could control her. And the X-Men would come to her rescue. They’d be battling Magneto on one section of the asteroid M and she’d be in a room all by herself with Phoenix, in effect, the power, coming back, forced to make the choice – could I become a god again with all the power of a god, aware that in the process I may destroy living beings and planets, planetary systems, whatever, in order to survive? Or do I deny it, and remain this kind of, what is for her, shadow of a being?”
Jean Grey resurrected
Jim Shooter declared that Jean Grey should not be resurrected – unless it could be done in such a way as to render her guiltless of Dark Phoenix’s crimes. Well, the minute you come up with an ultimatum like that, you give writers a real challenge! Future freelance writer Kurt Busiek, a college student at the time, heard the rumour and worked with some other fans – Carol Kalish, future head of Marvel’s Direct Sales department, and Richard Howell, a future comics artist – to come up with a solution.
The idea was simple: it wasn’t Jean. Instead of being the Phoenix, Jean had been replaced by the Phoenix, and so was guiltless of her crimes (although a wonderful element of ‘morally grey’ remained, in that it was always unclear how much of Jean was in the Phoenix). This bounced around for a few years, until the launch of X-Factor with the original X-Men, when it finally happened. Jean Grey returned. Interestingly enough, the fifth character intended to be a member of X-Factor had actually been Dazzler.
Now here’s the disturbing part of this: as part of the X-Factor theme, Cyclops would walk out on his wife Madelyne and join this new super-team. Chris Claremont is on quote as being seething, and possibly the only reason he didn’t quit was because he lost track of Jim Shooter’s phone number!
“I spent the weekend coming up with a whole new set of characters that they could use for X-Factor. I came in Monday morning and pitched the idea of using Jean’s sister Sara and making her a living Cerebro. She not only senses mutants, but has the power to work out what they’ll become. Shooter sat there and said, “That’s a great concept. I think it’s wonderful. If you want to go with it, go with it, but we’re bringing back Jean Grey.”
If I had actually gone in to see Shooter on Friday night, I would have quit. I was so pissed off. I couldn’t believe what they did to Cyclops (Scott Summers). He was supposed to be a hero and they had him walking out on his wife and newborn child and not even thinking twice about it.”
Madelyne’s fate was sealed, and from this point on her arc was destined for the Inferno.
The non-return of the Phoenix
In the 1990s, Steve Seagle had big plans for Jean. In Uncanny X-Men #353, he has Scott and Jean head off to recuperate from the events of Operation: Zero Tolerance, and suddenly drops a bombshell:
Over the next few issues, Jean took to wearing the old Phoenix costume, and Seagle writes Scott as getting ever more concerned.
The Comic Book Legends Revealed column asked Steve Seagle about this and he helpfully replied:
“Joe Kelly and I engineered a lot of cool stories that were approved but then got the boot based on the various regime chages and edicts that were happening almost daily at Marvel back then. It was a frustrating time.
One of my main never-to-be-completed story arcs (started in Uncanny 353) was that Jean Grey – who – after all the convoluted ret-cons inflicted on her over the years following the Dark Phoenix story – had techincally never been Dark Phoenix – would get the Phoenix powers. I wanted to look at whether the actual Jean Grey would have succumbed to the dark side the way the “coocoon-not-Jean-Grey-thing” did. Scott, having lived through this scenario once, was in a very different starting position and would have gone against Jean’s wishes to embrace this power as Jean became more and more influenced by the Phoenix. With a wedge between them and an X-Men team looking at a history they didn’t want to repeat, Jean and love would have prevailed – barely – because I like a (somewhat) happy ending – and because I see Jean Grey as strong enough to overcome the temptation.”
The Grant Morrison era
Before Morrison and Frank Quitely redesigned the X-Men in light of the movies, Marvel had Alex Ross make an attempt. You can see the full details at Project: Rooftop (they are seriously cool), but Jean’s stands out rather well…
The last writer to pen the continuing story of Jean Grey (let’s not count timey-wimey misadventures for the purposes of this blog!), Grant Morrison saw Jean quite simply: “Tries so hard to be good she sometimes forgets to be human.” Interviews with Morrison seem oddly dismissive of the X-Men – in his view there are only something like three X-Men stories to be told, such is the nature of the franchise – and so his run revisited everything iconic about the X-Men. Magneto, Weapon X, the Sentinels, the Phoenix Force, it’s all there in the Morrison run.
Morrison, of course, tore Scott and Jean apart – writing a story in which Scott has an affair with Emma Frost. Morrison explained it like this:
“The way I saw it was that Jean and Scott had become remote. For me, the great emotional moment for Scott and Jean was when they ran out to die together on the moon during the Phoenix Saga. After Jean died, Scott ended up with a lot of other women. Scott was very attractive to women even though he didn’t know it and I wanted to play around with that. Since he was becoming emotionally remote from Jean, because she was becoming more and more godlike, it just seemed he would naturally fall into the arms of someone more emotionally connected, which Emma actually was. Yes, it was a kind of adultery, but at the same time Jean wasn’t being his wife anymore. I just felt that the spark between them had died out and it was time to give Scott someone else.”
Ultimately, of course, Jean didn’t make it out of the Morrison era alive.