Jean Grey as Phoenix by Stanley Lau,
Jean Grey as Phoenix by Stanley Lau,

‘Dark Phoenix’ and the persistence of Jean Grey

Temptation, manipulation and gaslighting can’t keep Marvel’s mutant goddess down.

She’s a goddess of fire and destruction, dangerous and beautiful, the chosen vessel of an inextinguishable, wildly powerful cosmic life force.

But, no mere puppet on a string, she wields that power with purpose and intention, even as her fallible human heart seethes with passion, drama and that classic Marvel angst.

Who is Jean Grey?

Sophie Turner — who won fame and admiration in the role of “Game of Thrones” heroine Sansa Stark — gave us a thrilling hint in 2016’s “X-Men: Apocalypse” of what her answer to that question might have been, with her explosively scene-stealing shutdown of that film’s titular villain.

“I just don’t want it to be the only thing people know about her”: Elana Levin on Jean Grey

But despite Turner’s acting achievements and talents, the film-buff buzz is that her star turn in this year’s “Dark Phoenix” film was undermined by a lousy script that failed to bring to life the character’s vitality, intrigue and complex history.

If so, that’s a pity indeed. Jean Grey is a singular persona in the literature of comics, one who often suffers more at the hands of her writers than from the depredations of the supervillain of the moment.

“The Dark Phoenix Saga being Jean’s most iconic story is a mixed bag,” Elana Levin, host of the Graphic Policy podcast, told me. “I just don’t want it to be the only thing people know about her.”

Avatars and incarnations

In her long career as a central member of the X-Men, Jean Grey has been a heroine, a villain, a tragic romantic lead, a steely-eyed leader and a bookish intellectual.

Marc Basile tributes Jack Kirby’s Marvel Girl.

She’s a “good girl” grown up, complex and autonomous. She’s something of a loner in the vein of her paramour Wolverine, isolated by and quite unmatched in her prodigious gifts.

She’s even a mother — of a roster of mega-powered Marvel mutant heroes and villains that could round out any completist’s trading-card deck.

Read between the lines, in the subliminal text of the heroine in the skin-tight flight suit, and the many facets of Jean Grey also reveal a fascinating and sometimes conflicting set of fantasies about feminine archetypes and stereotypes.

Jean is a great girlfriend, and a swooningly passionate lover. She’s sought-after, yet full of need. Never on full display in the PG-13 world of mass-market comics, her sexuality is implicit and seething. She is ultimately consumed by unbridled appetite — but in her fulfillment she is a fiery revelation of unapologetic female desire that, actually, doesn’t need a man to get there.

It is tempting to say that this is why they keep killing her off — not just because the story of her sacrifice and rebirth is necessary and compelling, but because, all too often, the (male) writer of the moment just doesn’t know what to do with a woman that powerful and self-sufficient.

Movies and the monstrous feminine

Artist John Byrne’s vision of Dark Phoenix makes her debut.

Lenise Prater, an academic at Monash University, wrote that Jean Grey’s story is explicitly gendered along traditional psychosexual fault lines, but that the cinematic takes on the X-Men went even further to excise the most socially progressive aspects of the original comics’ ethics about gender.

Using the famously panned “Last Stand” as her primary example, Prater says the male characters with invasive and “phallic” powers — the penetrating claws of Wolverine, the “destructive male gaze” of Cyclops — are not generally depicted as struggling with and losing control of their powers.

The powers the leading female characters, however — in particular Jean’s Phoenix avatar and the power-absorbing Rogue — are too frequently depicted as stereotypically feminine. They co-opt, devour, they’re “monstrous,” out of control and purely destructive.

In “Last Stand” movie, the first cinematic attempt to tell the Phoenix story, Prater says that Jean actually “castrates” Cyclops — by removing his ability to project his famous eye beams, before killing him in what is, at least initially, a romantic embrace.

Later, after regaining control over the devastating power of the Phoenix, she ends the threat of her power by self-sacrificing in the most submissively feminine manner possible — by laying back and telling Wolverine to impale her on his claws.

When looking back at the origins of Jean Grey as mild-mannered Marvel Girl, differing male visions of the character are in fact baked into her four-color, comic-book DNA.

Mansplaining Jean Grey: A brief history

Once upon a time Jean Grey was just Marvel Girl — the second-fiddle telekinetic girlfriend to Scott Summers, a.k.a. Cyclops, the X-Men’s photogenic all-American frontman with the ruby-quartz sunglasses and the pyrokinetic laser eyes. As Scott’s girlfriend — and as the mentee of Professor X — she had a bit of spunk, but she needed to be led.

At least that’s how Stan Lee wrote her.

But that’s not necessarily how Jack “King” Kirby — one of the most dynamic and vivid comics artist of all time, and co-creator of just about every major figure in the Marvel Universe — drew her.

“There’s an amazing blog called Kirby Without Words,” says Levin, in which the website’s proprietor, the graphic artist Kate Willard, “goes through original Jack Kirby-Stan Lee comics and deletes Stan Lee’s text bubbles, so you can just read with the pictures that Jack Kirby drew … In case anybody doesn’t know, no, Stan Lee did not invent the Marvel Universe.”

Instead, Lee would add dialogue to art and layouts already executed by his roster of artists, a technique known as the Marvel Method. Plot outlines were generally sorted out in advance, but in the Marvel bullpen, the specifics of the storytelling always started with the art.  

Levin says that one sequence in X-Men No. 3, first published in 1964, is particularly telling  when viewed without Lee’s text.

The setup is simple enough — our heroes have been captured (in this case by a crime circus), and have to be rescued.

“So in this comic, you can see the scene of Jean Grey listening to telepathic commands from Professor X telling her how to free herself from being blindfolded,” she says. “You know — move this knife off the table, cut her ropes, and then cut the ropes of the other X-Men to free them. And you just sort of read this, and you’re like, ‘oh my gosh, what an idiot. Why does Professor X have to tell her what to do?’ [It’s] like she’s an automaton.”

Now view the sequence on Kirby Without Words.

“Once you remove all those thought bubbles,” Levin says, “what Jack Kirby drew is literally just a comic of Jean rescuing herself … Professor X is not depicted in this entire sequence. It’s just a sequence where you see Jean Grey using her powers to free herself and free her teammates. So what we had in Jack Kirby’s art was a reasonably feminist story of a team of superheroes getting kidnapped and the female member of the team using her powers to free everyone. Hooray! And then Stan Lee, was like: ‘That can’t possibly be true. I’m gonna go and explain how Professor X is going to narrate to her how she’s using her powers to get free.’”

The truth about the temptation

More than ten years later, in 1975, new X-Men writer Chris Claremont lets the literal genie out of the bottle, by using Jean Grey’s death and resurrection as Phoenix to turn the classic Marvel trope of “with great power comes great responsibility” into one of comics’ most memorable parables of power, temptation, sacrifice and second chances.

The short version: Radiation exposure during a mission in outer space costs Jean her life. Except that she survives — or anyway is reborn in fire as a swooningly gorgeous, flamboyantly empowered goddess, thanks to the intervention of an unquenchable cosmic entity known as the Phoenix Force.

Jean is generally strong enough to hold that force and work with it, and enjoys a solid five-year run in the comics as Phoenix, from 1976-1980, before she succumbs to the temptations of godlike power and takes the form of Dark Phoenix.  

Dark Phoenix cover art by John Byrne

But temptation is a funny thing. Jean Grey only succumbs to her dark side, says Levin, after a sustained and determined period of psychological manipulation by the villainous telepath Mastermind.

“There’s a really bad trope about women getting too powerful, they can’t handle it,” says Levin. “You know, bitches be crazy, and they go and blow things up. [But] the whole thing is precipitated by … the fact that she’d been getting literally gaslit and manipulated by Mastermind and mindfucked for weeks and weeks on end. Someone was messing with her head deliberately, trying to make her mess up, and then she messed up. That’s not the same as saying oh you’re too powerful, you know, women can’t be trusted with power.”

Seeing ourselves in a bird of fire

No less than Chris Claremont himself, the man who transformed Jean into Phoenix, acknowledges that the stereotyping around women was a real factor at the time of the character’s creation, and while he was writing the book.

But, in an interview with the Portland Mercury, Claremont — who in his Instagram feed praised the current “Dark Phoenix” movie — also notes there’s more than gender roles at work.

“It’s also about a human with the power of a god,” he told the newspaper. “Jean Grey, the human being, is the moral center of Phoenix. If you’d taken her a billion years down the evolutionary line, all would have been well.”

The capacity for both good and evil inherent in all people is at the heart of the Jean Grey story.

As Phoenix, she is the archetypal embodiment of passion unleashed — and as Dark Phoenix, that passion is without judgment or restraint. In that light, Dark Phoenix isn’t so much evil as deeply amoral — by turns ravenous and unapologetic, or struggling to control herself.

This makes her so relatably human that she even has become a queer icon, despite her character’s romantic entanglements being ostensibly heterosexual.

In a conversation on Syfy about Jean Grey’s queer fan base, the comics bloggers and writers Sara Century, Nola Pfau, Ruben Love and Anthony Oliviera said they personally identified with the character for her struggles with identity and the need to control how she is perceived by a world that fears her, and doesn’t want to understand who and what she is.

“Jean Grey is too much love, and too much care and that … scares people away in a way that queer and trans people can relate to,” Love says in the interview. “Jean is so much, and yet her sexuality is muted in the way that a lot of queer people have to because being queer is already too much … she becomes the Phoenix and she becomes more powerful and that reflects coming out, but unfortunately also the dangers of coming out, in that we become too much for people and they see nothing else to do but to murder us. That’s what happened with Jeannie.”

Phoenix Resurrection No. 1, cover art by Arthur Adams

If so, perhaps there something larger and more noble in the reliable tragedy of Jean Grey’s death — and the eucatastrophe of her inevitable return.  

It’s rare that a major comics character stays dead forever, but the cycle of death and rebirth Jean goes through is unique in comics as literature, and a testament to the power and persistence of the feminine archetypes she represents.

Yes, Jean dies. Over and over again. She even self-sacrifices on more than one occasion. But she always comes back for more — reborn, reincarnated, retconned, duplicated in alternate timelines, cloned, and otherwise sent back into action.

And she makes a spectacular comeback every time, in a new iteration but with the same old soul.

She is passionate, committed, and enormously powerful as a person — not merely as a hero and a wielder of power, but as a moral force for human actualization.

Jean Grey demands to be. To exist. And she does. To coin a phrase: Nevertheless, she persists.

We haven’t seen the last of her.

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Josh Wilson

Josh Wilson

Josh Wilson is the editor and publisher of The Fabulist Words & Art.

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