From the Ashes: The Life, Deaths, and Return of Jean Grey

2018 is set to be a banner year for the mutant known as Jean Grey. Not only will she have a starring role in the upcoming film X-Men: Dark Phoenix, but the original Jean is set to return to comics in the all-new Phoenix Resurrection mini-series, followed by a new team series X-Men: Red. These are in addition to the current series X-Men: Blue and the aptly-named Jean Grey, both of which feature a younger, time-displaced version of the popular mutant. Because, y’know…comics.

Art by Greg Land (All images courtesy of Marvel Entertainment)

So what’s so significant about this character? People in comics die and come back all the time. The status quo of the Marvel Universe is ever-changing and has resulted in life and death being little more than a revolving door. In fact, Jean is only the latest in a line of recent resurrections that also include Wolverine and Professor Xavier. Jean’s return has been rumored and teased for years but the character has remained mostly dormant since her most recent death well over a decade ago. To understand why Jean’s return is a big deal, we’ll look at her past history and the current state of the X-Men to decide once and for all what her return may mean. And if she even needs to return at all.

Marvel Girl
Jean debuted in the very first issue of the classic X-Men in 1963. Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Jean went by the moniker of Marvel Girl and was the sole member of the merry mutants’ original lineup, along with Angel, Beast, Iceman, and eventual love interest Scott Summers, aka Cyclops. Originally her only power was telekinesis, but she would soon develop telepathic powers similar to her mentor Professor Xavier. A later retcon would establish that Jean already possessed powerful telepathic abilities when her mutation first manifested. Xavier, however, used mental blocks to suppress these abilities until such time that he believed Jean could control them. These powers would eventually surpass Xavier’s own.

The Phoenix Force
Silly as it may seem, the X-Men would enjoy many an adventure in space.  Returning home from one such adventure, the team’s shuttle is damaged and Jean nearly sacrifices herself to pilot them home, exposing herself to fatal levels of radiation. Jean is saved from the brink of death by a cosmic entity known as the Phoenix Force and becomes a being of pure thought as the shuttle crashes into the Jamaica Bay. While the other X-Men are unharmed, Jean emerges from the water and announces that she is “fire…and life incarnate…now and forever”. Now going by the name Phoenix, she resumes a life less ordinary with her fellow mutants, with new cosmic abilities that allow her to control time, space, and even reality itself. Fearing what she may be capable of, Jean voluntarily restrained these abilities. But someone else had other plans…

Child of Light and Darkness
Eventually these newfound powers would attract the attention of fellow mutant psychic Mastermind, who began to telepathically seduce Jean to the Dark Side, systematically removing the mental barriers she had erected herself. Consumed by power and destructive impulses, Jean, now calling herself “Dark Phoenix” departs for outer space and devours the energy of a star, causing a supernova that destroys every inhabitant of a nearby planet. After being found guilty of genocide by the intergalactic Shi’ar empire, Jean is able to regain control over the Phoenix force and uses a Kree weapon to commit suicide rather than allow her powers to grow further out of control.

Art by Dave Cockrum and John Byrne

At the time of publication, Jean’s death during The Dark Phoenix Saga (written by Chris Claremont, with art by Dave Cockrum and John Byrne) was intended to be permanent. Her demise was a natural conclusion to her story, given her involvement in the death of billions and gave us an emotional farewell to a longtime character. It was a powerful, pivotal moment for the once-merry mutants. Her death would also be the catalyst for Cyclops’ own denouement. Writer Claremont intended for Scott to leave the X-Men and introduced a new character named Madelyne Pryor, a woman who looked nearly identical to the dearly departed Miss Grey, and would eventually steal Scott’s heart.

Jean’s Resurrection
Despite Scott and Madelyne walking off into the sunset and having a child together, another retcon would absolve much of what had happened prior (pun intended). As it turns out the Phoenix Force created a duplicate Jean in order to house her psyche, while her dying body was placed in a cocoon at the bottom of the ocean. Still with me so far? So it turns out the Dark Phoenix wasn’t really Jean at all and when she committed suicide, the Phoenix separated into fragments, once of which eventually located and attempted to bond with the real Jean, who rejected it after sensing the death and destruction it had caused. Not long after, the cocoon was found and Jean officially returned, original powers intact and no longer complicit with the intergalactic genocide caused by Dark Phoenix. Learning of his beloved’s return, Scott abandoned his new family and resumed his romance with Jean.  Happily ever after, right?

While the story had an ultimately happy ending (something that’s quite rare for the X-Men), the consequences made it bittersweet indeed. Scott’s character was tarnished; originally a veritable boy-scout, Scott leaving Madelyne and their son forever made him a deadbeat husband/dad and went on to influence his later adulterous behavior. Meanwhile, Jean’s sacrifice is completely undone, with her revival all but removing any emotional gravitas the original story once held. As for Madelyne, well it turns out she was actually a lifeless Jean Grey clone created by Mr. Sinister and powered by the rejected Phoenix fragment, who later become the demonic Goblyn Queen. So I guess technically Scott dodged a bullet, but still. What a dick.

Return of the Phoenix

Art by Frank Quitely

With the Phoenix Force effectively put to rest, Jean was able to resume a relatively cosmic-free existence, dismissing all prior code-names and even married longtime beau Scott Summers. Their wedded bliss would be challenged by the Age of Apocalypse, the rise of Onslaught and even Scott’s own death but would remain strong until the emergence of their greatest foe: Grant Morrison.

Following Scott’s resurrection (see the crossover Apocalypse: The Twelve, true believers!), the premiere mutant couple faced a serious crisis: infidelity. Jean acted on a suppressed instinct and made out with fellow X-Man Wolverine, while her increasingly distant husband found solace in new teammate, the former villainess Emma Frost, aka the White Queen and the two engaged in a psychic affair. While their marriage dissolved, Jean discovered her latent abilities by tapping once again into the Phoenix Force. Jean meets her death  during Morrison’s Planet X storyline, when she is fatally wounded during an attack by an imposter Magneto (don’t ask). Although she ultimately was able to assume full control over the Phoenix, Jean succumbed to her wounds during the final pages. While the mythology of the Phoenix Force would be explored more during the Phoenix: Endsong and Warsong mini-series, the real Jean has remained dead for much of the last two decades.

Marvel Now!, ResurrXion and Beyond
Despite her death, Jean has had a continued presence throughout the Marvel Universe in both comics and films. In the pages of All-New X-Men, the original Marvel Girl was transported into modern times along with her fellow novice X-Men, where they inexplicably remain to this day. Following the most recent Marvel re-branding, this teenaged doppelgänger currently stars in X-Men: Blue and her own self-titled series, which is set to end in early 2018. Teen Jean has quite a chip on her shoulder and has had to deal with having to face the same fate as her future self.  Indeed, her current series has explored her own confrontation with the cosmic entity and has recently set up the eventual return of the one true Jean Grey, an event that will debut this very week in the pages of Phoenix Resurrection.

Meanwhile Jean will once again face the Phoenix for the first time in the next installment of the X-Men film franchise, Dark Phoenix. While Jean’s death and return was featured in the original X-Men Trilogy, this will likely be ignored in favor of the new timeline established in recent films Days of Future Past and Apocalypse. This film will also serve as a more respectable adaptation, including sending the X-Men into space and will hopefully not anger fans by killing Cyclops off-screen.

Sophie Turner as Jean Grey in X-Men: Dark Phoenix

With Jean’s increasingly important role in the film franchise, what does this mean for her comic counterpart? While Marvel tends to market and re-brand their many of their comics to appeal to movie-goers, the X-Men typically get to do their own thing. It still seems coincidental that the original Jean would return after all these years, though as stated earlier, it’s been teased off and on for a long time. During 2013’s Battle of the Atom crossover, the young Jean was confronted by Xorn, a mutant from the future who revealed herself to be an older Jean Grey. While alternate realities are nothing new, it leads one to wonder if this was a future version of Teen Jean or the real Jean.

The real question here, however, is: do we really need another Jean? While many of the X-Men stories are hit and miss, Morrison’s New X-Men run remains a hit and bringing her back after yet another noble sacrifice seems unnecessary. There are no shortage of telepathic mutants, especially now with the return of Professor X during Charle’s Soule’s first arc of Astonishing X-Men. I mean, does anyone really miss her? I, for one, am a big fan of the character and ached for her return after she was killed but in the years since…I’ve moved on. I’ve enjoyed seeing where the other characters, particularly those most impacted by her death, have gone. Granted, both Logan and Scott have died, but they both went on to become far more interesting in the wake of Jean’s death, although some of their choices tend to polarize longtime fans.

The truth is, the Phoenix Force has been done to death (pun not intended but it works). It was the catalyst for the much-maligned Avengers vs X-Men event and has been the subject of various other storylines. However this upcoming mini-series plays out, I think the best thing is to kill the fiery space-bird for good. I want to see Jean separated from the Phoenix Force entirely, and become her own character again. Exploring who she is and how she fits into this new world is a concept that I want to see, as well as what her return means for everyone else. Her return may very well mark the end of her teen version, and with that the other time-displaced X-Men, a move that many consider to be long overdue. The X-Men franchise has suffered from an endless barrage of event tie-ins, crossovers, and status-quo shake-ups so hopefully this latest event will finally bring some sense of consistency to the line. While I have reservations, I just hope that Jean’s return means that the X-Men line will rise from the ashes of mediocrity and soar to new heights. Time will soon tell…

Phoenix Resurrection: The Return of Jean Grey by Matt Rosenberg, with art by Leinil Francis Yu is being published weekly, while X-Men: Red by Tom Taylor, with art by Mahmud Asrar is scheduled for release in February. Both are published by Marvel Comics.

Cameron Kieffer wears many hats. He is a freelance writer and artist, creator of the webcomic "Geek Theory" and is co-host of the Nerd Dump podcast. He lives in Topeka with his wife and increasingly growing comic book collection.

Cameron Kieffer

Cameron Kieffer wears many hats. He is a freelance writer and artist, creator of the webcomic "Geek Theory" and is co-host of the Nerd Dump podcast. He lives in Topeka with his wife and increasingly growing comic book collection.

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