Jean Grey is one of those comic book characters that people either unabashedly love or despise with a burning passion. She’s been the focal point of some of Marvel’s most convoluted, retcon-packed storylines, and after over 50 years of saving the world, she’s finally getting a chance to be a three-dimensional person in her own solo series.
Despite being one of the founding members of the X-Men and one of the most powerful characters in the entire Marvel universe, Jean’s always seemingly suffered from writers not understanding what to do with her. Whenever she pops up on the page she’s either: Jean, Cyclops’ wife; Jean, the woman Wolverine pines for; or, Jean, avatar of the Phoenix. None of these characteristics are bad, per se, but it’s always felt as if Jean never got the chance to just be a person living for herself.
But that’s exactly what Dennis Hopeless and Victor Ibañez give her a chance to do in Jean Grey #1. This new Jean, who’s actually the original Jean from the ’70s who’s been displaced through time, still knows all of the things that are supposed to happen to her. But rather than live in fear of a destiny that’s been explained to her, she’s taking time for herself away from the team to actually reflect on who she wants to become.
In the past, Jean’s vacillated between two polar opposites for various X-Teams in different capacities. She’s either the emotional core of the group, taking a backseat when it comes to actually leading, or she’s the world-ending threat that everyone bands together to fight. There are some moments in between her encounters with the Phoenix that afford her time to be a relatively normal superhero but, usually, we all know that it’s only a matter of time before Jean goes dark. Again.
It’s easy to understand why writers are fans of plots that riff on the Dark Phoenix Saga. The original storyline that saw Jean turn on her loved ones and become an intergalactic mass murderer was one of the most dramatic and gripping for Marvel at the time. But in the years since, each time that Jean’s shown signs of going dark again has had increasingly diminishing returns. Writer Greg Pak went out of his way to stress that 2005’s Phoenix: Warsong wouldn’t be a Jean resurrection story specifically because that’s what Phoenix: Endsong, a series he’d written earlier that year, had been.
Rather than worry about Phoenix fatigue, Hopeless leans into the fact that Jean and the Phoenix are eternally bound to one another, but emphasises the idea that Jean’s perfectly capable of making informed decisions about what kind of Phoenix she’ll be. That doesn’t sound like the most novel premise, but considering how many other Phoenix hosts we’ve seen who haven’t treated the power like a curse (see: Quentin Quire, Rachel Grey, Hope Summers), it’s refreshing to see Jean finally have the same opportunity.
Ibañez’s recreations of iconic moments in the other Jean’s life evoke the sense that this new Jean is operating with a distinct advantage over her other self. In knowing the worst that could happen, she has an air of (uneasy) confidence about how she’s a different person, which gives me hope that when Jean inevitably encounters the Phoenix again, their relationship will be different.
Rather than reheating that same old story about how utterly destructive the Phoenix is, Jean Grey has the potential to riff on the entity in the same way that Al Ewing’s run of The Ultimates did for Galactus. Like the Phoenix, Galactus has always functioned as a force of necessary destruction throughout the galaxy, but Ewing updated the being by transforming the eater of worlds into a bringer of life. It was a simple changed that solved the team’s Galactus problem and brought a new, novel take on the character into existence.
If you go back and read some of the things that have been written about the Phoenix, you can see that this same kind of duality has always been implied about it, but seldom actually seen in relationship to Jean Grey. As much time as the Phoenix spends eating stars and bringing death to civilisations, it’s also responsible for creating life and acting as a catalyst for evolution — something mutants are desperately in need of right now.
Eventually, the Phoenix and Jean will reunite; they’re a part of each other. But this time around, when they become one, hopefully we’ll be able to see a different side of the firebird — one in which Jean’s able to make more decisions for herself and finally manifest all of her true potential.