As a comics expert, host of the Graphic Policy podcaster and all-around fan of sequential graphic narrative, Elana Levin brings high-level feminist discourse and deep comics knowledge to the table in this conversation about one the most powerful women to ever soar out of the four-color medium and into our imagination — Jean Grey, aka Marvel Girl, Phoenix and Dark Phoenix.
Elana works by day as a community organizer, tweets prolifically as @Elana_Brooklyn, and freelances for magazines such as Wired and The Daily Beast on comics (check out her great item on the unnerving parallels between Donald Trump and Jack Kirby’s Glorious Godfrey, the gilded and glamorous preacher man peddling Darkseid’s insidious Anti-Life Equation to the gullible masses). Her work at Graphic Policy examines comics-geek culture through the lenses of queer theory, antiracism and political analysis.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. You can listen to the Graphic Policy podcast version on Blog Talk Radio and Spotify. Some of Elana’s quotes anchor The Fabulist’s recent essay on the persistence of Jean Grey.
- Bucking the Smurfette Syndrome
- Mansplaining Jean Grey & the Truth about Dark Phoenix
- The Claremont Years
- Grant Morrison & Jean Grey’s writers
- Jean’s Style
- Comics Movies and What We Want from Them
- The Rape of Carol Davers
Josh Wilson: Maybe we can just open up the terrain completely and ask if you have any succinct, or even nonsuccinct, feminist takes on the character of Jean Grey.
Elana Levin: You know it’s interesting, because Jean Grey began as a female superhero for whom her being female was like basically the only characteristic that she had. It’s what we used to call the Smurfette Syndrome, where there’s there’s one woman on a team of men and her personality is — she’s the woman.
And yet despite that, and partially because there was room made for it in terms of the way comics are created — with different creative teams over time — but also because her initial power set itself was so powerful, creators have been able to do really interesting, powerful things with her as a character.
She’s really, I think, a fan favorite in a way that some of the other leaders of the X-Men sometimes aren’t recognized to be. People like Jean more than they like Scott [Summers, aka Cyclops]. And I like Scott. I’m just I’m just like looking at the popularity grid as I see it.
… I never liked the Smurfette characters in groups. I just always resented them and I never really related to them very much, because my personal characteristics were 100 percent not being a girl. So if a character’s personality was being a girl — that was not relatable to me whatsoever, I was much more likely to relate to the snarky one in the group.
I think the first time that I read Jean Grey in a comic and I said, OK she could be like a top-tier favorite character for me — I was interested in her a bit in the kids cartoon, which was my introduction to the X-Men …
JW: I’m embarrassed to say I never saw the X-Men cartoon.
EL: You never watched the cartoon?
EL: That’s wild. Well I mean that’s my general — I was a little bit old to watch the cartoon but I love that shit. OK. So it’s an X-Men No. 28 — and this is X-Men rather than Uncanny X-Men. This is an early ’90s comic, the issue is called “Devil in the House.” Andy Kubrick does the art, and Fabian Nicieza is the writer.
So, Sabertooth — big scary villain — is being held captive at the X-Men mansion and everybody is just freaking out, afraid to deal with him … Jubilee [is] having nightmares about confronting him … He gets high off of psychic energy. He’d had a girlfriend he’d been abusing to get her psychic buzz. And he’s been insulting various other psychics — it’s mostly been Psylocke who’s been working with him.
And he’s like: “No, you’re not good. I just want to have Jean.” And Jean comes and is like — “Oh, you want me? OK.” And she just beats the fucking crap out of him. So this character who literally everybody in the entire team is afraid of — she just terrifies him.
JW: And that says a lot about Jean as a character, and her raw power.
EL: Yeah … and he tries the pull, like “Oh, you’ve got a crush on Wolverine” — I love her relationship with him … but she’s just completely not intimidated at all by one of the scary bad guys. And then after she leaves, Jubilee, who’d been having nightmares about Sabertooth, the next day has enough self-confidence to go in and face him [when] bringing him his food.
So it’s not just that she can take him on without fear — it’s that her confidence in doing this inspires younger women to recognize that they can also approach these scary monsters themselves.
JW: Through action and behavior she represents, I suppose, a feminist ideal of the female superhero.
EL: Definitely. She’s a character whom you’ve known ever since the Claremont era in the ’80s, has really been groomed as a leader of the team, and is one of the most powerful characters in the entire universe. And that’s what makes it so complex — that the story that people keep wanting to tell about her in the Dark Phoenix saga is: “Oh, this woman superhero, her powers get too powerful, she loses control, she starts killing people, she goes bad, she’s bad, she has to go die and sacrifice herself.”
And of course then she gets to be reborn because she’s Phoenix, right? Phoenixes get burned and then reborn.
If anybody doesn’t listen to the “Jay & Miles X-plain the X-Men” podcast, and cares about X-Men, drop everything and go and listen to it. Their coverage of the Dark Phoenix Saga is just the greatest thing ever. They have amazing coverage, including interviews with Kurt Busiek, who worked as an editorial assistant on the Dark Phoenix saga, and had some really interesting insight into how that went down, with the politics of having one of your big heroes go crazy and kill the whole planet.
EL: And then the decision to bring her back was controversial, etcetera. But the Dark Phoenix Saga being Jean’s most iconic story is a mixed bag. … I just don’t want it to be the only thing people know about her. That’s the problem. So having that be a big story about her was incredibly important and interesting and was something that a lot of people related to.
There was a really cool article that Sara Century just ran for Syfy’s website, about why so many queer fans identify with Jean Grey.
JW: I saw that, it was great.
EL: Yes, so go read that too, folks …
MANSPLAINING JEAN GREY & THE TRUTH ABOUT DARK PHOENIX
EL: I don’t want it to be where the Dark Phoenix saga is the only thing people know about Jean. But it is legitimately a great story.
The thing that gets lost, when people act like it’s the only thing about Jean, is that there’s a really bad trope about women getting too powerful. They can’t handle it, bitches be crazy, and they go and blow things up.
But the whole [Dark Phoenix] thing is precipitated by two things men have been doing to her.
First, the fact that she’d been getting literally gaslit and manipulated by Mastermind, and mindfucked for weeks and weeks on end before she before this happens. Deliberately. And challenging her autonomy. And that was always so important for her.
So this isn’t just, “oh, she was too powerful, and because she was too powerful she lost her mind.” No. 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 “You’re too powerful, women can’t be trusted with power.”
EL: And then the other piece is that — I didn’t remember this at first — in the beginning of the series, in the Kirby-Lee comics, they introduced Jean Gray as telekinetic, and not having telepathy, predominantly because they wanted each character to have a distinct set of powers.
And if Professor X’s got telepathy, then let’s just have her be telekinetic. But later in the comic they decide, actually, no, she has both.
And then at some point it was written [that] actually Professor X had been suppressing her telepathic power, because he didn’t want her to be too powerful, because he feared that she wasn’t “ready for it,” or couldn’t control it. Because she was a teenager.
So she’d already had her powers limited and manipulated even by her mentor. Had she been able to have more of a full life-cycle of learning and adjusting to her powers, that would have been different.
But instead this man was preventing her from even having the choice of using her powers or truly learning the fullness of her powers.
And I think those are two pieces that really color what happened to her, and make the story particularly interesting and relatable.
JW: Do we feel okay about getting a little meta-perspective on the male writers and artists?
EL: Oh yes. Very much. There’s an amazing website blog called Kirby Without Words. It’s created by Kate Willaert, who’s an amazing graphic artist, and she’s done this project where she 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 were.
In case anybody doesn’t know, no, Stan Lee did not invent the Marvel Universe. There were a million writers working on it and the most important among those was Jack Kirby, and then after him Steve Ditko, and then John Romita Sr. … The characters you know and love did not spring out of Stan Lee’s head. They came from these artists. The list of people who were not created by Jack Kirby is shorter than the list of were created by him. So I just say other than Spider-Man and Dr. Strange everybody else was created by Jack Kirby; and I guess Wolverine, but he’s from the ’80s, that’s obviously a different story.
So in this comic, it is issue like Uncanny X-Men No. 3, and if you’re looking at these images, you can see the scene of Jean Grey listening to telepathic commands from Professor X telling her how to free herself from being blindfolded. You know — move a knife off of this (they’re at a circus, there’s so many crime circuses in comics, it’s hilarious) 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. Like, why does Professor X have to tell her what to do, like she’s an automaton.”
And then you realize — once you’re looking at Kirby Without Words — once you remove all those thought bubbles, what Jack Kirby drew is literally just a comic of Jean rescuing herself and them.
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. Professor X isn’t even in this.
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.”
JW: Mansplaining it.
EL: And there’s two things going on there. One, there’s Stan Lee not trusting the readers to be able to follow the art, which is insane, because the art is incredibly clear, because Jack Kirby is the greatest comics artist of all time, and two, Stan Lee not understanding that it makes sense that Jean would just figure this out herself.
It’s not you know requiring specialized knowledge to problem-solve her way out of this problem. There’s no reason for it.
So if you look at the art in these comics, even though Jean is written very much as the Smurfette — as the girl in the group — that’s not necessarily all just baked into the [comic]. This is kind of coming from the mind of Stan Lee.
I don’t want to give the perception that … all of the sexism of the initial characterization falls on Stan. But, from what I’ve seen, that’s largely so. So bear that in mind. I mean, there never should’ve been a team with only one woman on it in the first place, right?
But you know, as soon as Chris Claremont took over he increased the number of women, and brought everything together, and — women love X-Men because X-Men are full of women, and it’s just a big piece of it.
THE CLAREMONT YEARS
But … it also helps that she’s a character who’s there in the team from the start. You can’t have the X-Men without having her. You can’t be like, “Oh, that’s a diversity hire,” or whatever. She was there from the start.
And her relationship with Scott: I like that it’s sort of them both pining for each other rather than … Just assuming that men desire women and that women have no desires. We don’t know that Jean likes Scott from the beginning, but pretty early she’s considering Scott. She’s considering Angel. You know she’s asking these questions of herself. She has some interiority — her interiority is driven by this romantic bullshit.
But Jean really didn’t hit her stride until the Claremont run. I think everybody would say that. And [that part of the] Claremont run is something starting from the ’70s, but the fact that they did create a character in the ’60s who was a woman, who had those really powerful powers, is pretty awesome.
But I find the telepathy is sort of gendered female a lot in comics, there’s definitely male characters that are telepathic, but not as many. Or look on Star Trek: Who are the empaths on Star Trek? They’re women.
JW: Yeah, Troi.
EL: Yeah. Telekinesis you know, these are super-powerful powers, but they are kind of gendered as feminine. But they’re sort of the most powerful powers you could have anyway. I dunno.
JW: This Kirby Without Words blog post is an amazing thing to look at. Kirby’s art depicting this woman completely taking care of her own business, and then, I was astonished when you when you sent that link, and I looked at it. She’s incredibly deferential when the words are added. She says, “Yes sir, I will not let you down, sir.” Really a male writer imposing himself on the character.
And in terms of her romantic interiority, the more I think about this and the more I look at it, Chris Claremont brought a lot of — I don’t know if progressive vision is the right turn of phrase, but Jean’s passion and desire it was right up there with Scott Summers’. She was not, you know, somebody he pursued. They wanted each other and they’re they are passionate embraces were quite mutual. She was not in any way a shrinking violet, and Claremont made her a leader.
JW: Now I sort of cut you off halfway when you were talking about the queer theory article; is there anything you wanted to say about that in particular?
EL: I do think that her being really dramatic is something a lot of folks relate to, but also — does she need to repress her passion and her true feelings in order to be functional in the world? [That is] really relatable for queer readers.
And I also always appreciate that of the main X-Men, the three characters who talked about politics, including real-world politics the most, really were Jean, Storm and Beast. Those were the three X-Men who you knew read the New York Times every day, probably watched McLaughlin Group. I didn’t really read any of them as being hardcore lefties like me, per se, but these these are people who were informed about politics, and were the people who would go with Professor X and help him figure out with the mutant political agenda looked like.
JW: Totally. Whereas Scott Summers is reading Sports Illustrated, Wolverine was reading Guns & Ammo magazine, or Field & Stream, if you’ll forgive me.
EL: Yeah, exactly. And also I’ve always read Jean as a character who had really strong political beliefs, and thought about that stuff a lot, and that also is a cool thing to have is a defining characteristic for your woman leads.
JW: I’m glad that you brought that in there — as as her not merely being political by her nature as a mutant, but as a character, being intellectually curious and having that level of sophisticated opinion. Beast is always the one who is presented as sort of the brainiac in a monster’s body, but I think that perspective on Jean adds a lot of depth to the interpretation of the character.
I don’t know if you want to hazard this, but, could we, in terms of depth and complexity, could we take a look at Carol Danvers and Jean Grey as the two mega-powered female superheroines of the Marvel Universe? And you know, my familiarity with Captain Marvel, I have to say, came through with the movie — and she’s got struggle, and she’s got identity issues in the movie. I don’t know her much in the comics.
She’s an interesting character, and certainly it’s a thrill to see her when she pops the cork, and is tearing through the Kree Accuser fleet at the end of the movie, just a thrill — but Jean is seems to me like more of a complex and interesting character. Is there any comparison you want to offer there?
EL: Chris Claremont did something amazing. When he had Carol Danvers in his hands, he did some really amazing things with her. And obviously Kelly Sue DuConnick and the modern writers of Carol Danvers as well. I could really talk at length about Carol …
I don’t really know that I’d compare them to each other as one being more complex than the other. I mean I think that they have very different personal stories.
I think Carol — this is the original story, but I think it’s also still cannon — joined the military because her dad wouldn’t pay for her to go to college, and was someone who excelled in the military in the ’70s before that was really a thing that women had as much success for; the whole, “oh, she just really wants to fly a plane” thing … was a later part in her story.
Jean is definitely someone who is sort of predominantly framed as an intellectual with really really hardcore powers.
And I think in a certain way, Carol is more of a — a brawler. And Jean will destroy you, but you don’t get the sense that Jean spends her spare time sparring for fun in the gym. And Carol is like “yeah let’s, spar.”
I really think they’re very different characters, which is really cool because they’re both “good girl” type female characters. They’re both really powerful leaders. They’re both heroes not antiheroes. It would be so easy for them to be really similar. And I don’t think they are at all, and that’s really cool.
But I don’t think that I would say Jean is more powerful and more complex. I think that there’s a lot of stuff, I mean, Carol’s writing has pivoted a lot, as has Jean’s.
GRANT MORRISON & JEAN GREY’S WRITERS
EL: A lot of writers don’t know what to do with Jean. I think that more women need to be given the reins with Jean.
I am not an X-Men completist. So there is plenty of Jean that I have not read. I think like the two men who’ve done the best job writing her are Claremont and Grant Morrison, actually; man, the Grant Morrison New Mutants series!
The moment that just knocked my socks off with her power in a way nothing had before is, the U-Men are invading the mansion — the U-Men are a group of humans who steal body parts from mutants that try to augment their own powers. These are not just evil — but these are literally deadly appropriators of mutanthood.
Jean makes them throw up and shit themselves simultaneously to de-capacitate them all en masse. And I just thought to myself, “I love you. I love you so much, Jean.”
JW: Grant Morrison, man.
EL: I mean obviously, it’s Grant Morrison, and Frank Quitely on art there.
JW: But it’s Jean.
EL: What a brilliant way to use her powers, and why don’t people just do that all the time. Mind-wiping people and things like that, I think that’s more messed up than just having them be completely physically de-capacitated and grossed out. I want a nonviolent resolution, but if you’re going to have a violent resolution, that’s kind of the way to go. No long-lasting physical damage. Sure as hell nobody’s gonna be firing at you at that point.
It’s just a great way to incapacitate people, and they should do it all the time. Jean should just be going around making bad guys shit themselves and vomit simultaneously as soon as they refuse to put down their weapons. That’s just it. Let her do that. She’s a human LRAD. It’s fine.
Because I do think that fucking with people’s heads is, you know, is really a violation and in a very different kind of way. Being like “You’re no longer angry. You don’t hate mutants anymore.” Or whatever. …
In D.C. there’s Zatanna, not through her own volition as much, goes on a mind-wiping-villains kick thanks to a really shoddy storyline call Identity Crisis, the less said about the better. …
Dr. Strange mind-wipes everybody all the time. X-Men doesn’t have as much of a tendency towards that, but there’s some there-there for sure. I just would really like them to solve their problems this way instead of mind wiping people as much as possible.
I also love [that] Grant Morrison … finally got Jean and Logan together. …. I find the dynamic of the complexity of the relationship between Jean and Scott and Emma [Frost] and Wolverine much more interesting than any particular individual pairing off of those characters.
You know I don’t I don’t ‘ship any of them as couples. I ‘ship the drama, right. And I really appreciated Grant Morrison being the first one to really bite the bullet and be, like “Yep, they’re gonna kiss now.”
And you know that she’s been with him since they were teenagers. More or less. He’s been with other people because she was dead and she never really had any other opportunity. And it’s complicated and she deserves to have the opportunity to explore that.
And as a reader … I would be perfectly happy for an unending love rectangle to proceed, and Emma and Jean can have a relationship too, like just have that whole mess there be a thing.
EL: Too many people I think were only interested in her in terms of her relationship with Scott, which I think is really weird. I think it’s much more interesting for there to be more drama. More drama please. Do you have feelings about those pairings yourself?
JW: [Like Wolverine/Cyclops slash fiction?] You know I kind of I did lose the thread for the Grant Morrison run, my own personal life went off on a different jag and went away from comics for the duration of Grant’s run, so, I actually get to go back and reread all that stuff and go experience that, which I’m going to do now, because I love Grant’s work.
EL: It’s really good. I haven’t revisited the whole thing recently, but the bits of it that I have looked at again recently was like, “Yep, lives up, still there.”
JW: Like you said, often the male writers don’t know what to do with her, she keeps getting killed off. She’s cloned, she’s replicated, she’s brought back to life, they kill her off again. They had a teenage Jean Grey, she ends up sacrificing herself, because Phoenix and all this stuff — and I just wonder, maybe I’m reaching here, but in this “nevertheless she persisted” era, you can’t keep Jean down.
JW: She keeps coming back from more and people they don’t really know what to do with her; she speaks through writers, and maybe they’re not always good enough. You said you want to see more women writers taking a swing at her.
EL: Oh yeah.
JW: Who should who do you think should be should be writing Jean Grey these days, and channeling her?
EL: Leah Williams is just an unstoppable force of X-Men brilliance, and she’s written a lot of Emma Frost, and the Emma Frost one-shot shot she wrote is just — an absolute definitive take on the character. I would love to have Leah Williams write Jean. I think she would be an amazing person to have on that book. And she would definitely just do it at the drop of a hat. There’s a lot of other people I could name too, but she just would be the perfect person on it.
EL: It’s interesting, in the ’70s … When they relaunched the X-Men with Claremont and you know the artists who sort of did the the new the new costumes, the new look for the new team, basically Dave Cockrum, I think like he did like a style guide of her, and it was really smart — he was, like “I think she’d wear a lot of those sort of long flowy pants that they have in Vogue these days, and these sashes,” and I was like, “Yep, sounds right.”
So this whole lookbook he did for her about her casual wear — and I was just like, “Yeah, I know that it’s totally nailing it,” she’s not a counterculture person but she’s not a square. She’s just sort of you know young and fashionable but not [a] fashion-plate-type person. It just thread that needle of exactly what I thought she would have been wearing. …
Since then, the fashion decisions for her have kind of all been downhill — Marc Silvestri had his moments, but a lot of the time I think people have put her in clothing that I don’t think makes any sense for a woman in her particular life with her particular position in life and interests.
So, I would love to see some artists who really understand fashion give her a look. I enjoyed the looks that that they gave for young Jean — I think that Jamie McKelvie worked on those and everything Jamie McKelvie does is amazing, those totally worked for me … But I would love to have some some some artists take on giving her like a new wardrobe, and understanding her look and her fashion and stuff like that.
JW: In terms of costumes I mostly knew the Claremont/Byrne run of the X-Men. Most that stuff was pretty much superhero-skin-tight standard issue, with a little bit of daring, Hellfire Club and bondage and all that stuff …
EL: Jean Grey’s had some wonderful costumes, like the green dress with this yellow sash, and when it goes red, and the whole thing with the sash, and her having the cat’s-eyeglasses styled mask, I think she was the first character to really have that style, which then got carried on a number of different characters. That look is just — the cat’s eye mask is a quintessential late-’60s awesome style that was just brilliant and iconic and everybody borrowed.
JW: I am the least style-informed person you could be talking to about this so I want to make planet maybe suggest — maybe you should do a blog on the styles of Jean Grey.
EL: I don’t really have the bandwidth but … I love covering fashion in comics, because it can be great. It could be amazing. And usually it’s bad. And so there’s so much to sort of tear your hair out over those missed opportunities, because, you know clothing are a part of characterisation.
COMICS MOVIES & WHAT WE WANT FROM THEM
JW: So what kind of brought me to this topic — to revisit Dark Phoenix — is that they have a movie. And it just came out and I haven’t seen it yet. It apparently is going to be a real stinker, but I’m gonna go see it. I know that the buzz has been incredibly negative. A pal of mine was relentlessly putting down all the trailers and saying it looked terrible.
You know, I don’t go into comics movies expecting Kenneth Branagh or Helen Mirren doing Shakespeare. I expect a comic book movie, and you can achieve a lot of complicated and sophisticated stuff with comic books, but they’re still as a medium not very complex. They’re brash, they’re spectacular. You throw in an antihero and that’s your sophistication, and there you go.
Do you plan on seeing Dark Phoenix, do we have any hope for Sophie Turner elevating the character?
EL: No, I’m not going to bother seeing it. I basically said, if people came out of it telling me, “Oh my God, it’s amazing,” I would. But life is too short to watch a mediocre superhero movies, especially when there’s lots of really good ones. I’m going to be spending my weekend watching the new Brian De Palma movie …
I absolutely think that superhero movies should be held to — my time is too valuable. I’m not going to see a superhero movie looking for the same things that I’m looking for in [an] auteur-led film, but it needs to be as enjoyable to me as that. I can say, Black Panther or Thor: Ragnarok, those movies are frickin’ great. I will defend those movies. There’s a lot of things I really liked in Captain Marvel. Life is too short to watch bad superhero movies. It really is.
JW: Could be a motto.
EL: Even with the performances. And at least when they were bad in the past there was a sort of campiness to it.
JW: Which they captured with Shazam!, I don’t know if you saw Shazam!.
EL: Yeah, I liked Shazam! … Shazam! was enjoyable.
JW: The camp comes through, in a good way, like John Waters would appreciate the camp, I think in Shazam! They didn’t hide that part of it.
EL: No, it was right in there.
JW: And they made the most of it.
EL: And here they had this cast that includes some really excellent performers. But I just I never trusted these filmmakers to do a good job [with] a movie where a woman gets too powerful and loses her shit. I don’t trust the story with any of you guys. And then it’s not even very good.
JW: I was incredibly disappointed by Bryan Singer’s take on on Phoenix and Jean Grey …. And there have been some great moments in X-Men movies, but now it’s part of the Mouse Empire. Disney bought Fox Films; any thoughts on how that’s going to work with the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
EL: Well, I’m really concerned about media monopolies, and that ship has sailed. I do think that the desire to hold back on making more [and] spending more on the movies until the merger is done — I think that there was a deliberate lack of care worked in there.
JW: Which is too bad given the quality of the actors going in there. Sophie Turner, what an opportunity for her.
EL: Yeah exactly, this cast deserves better.
JW: Yeah. Well.
EL: So I would definitely say, if people are missing Jean, and they want some Jean Grey this weekend, you watch the old cartoon, “Night of the Sentinels.” … and listen to the “Jay and Miles X-plain the X-Men” podcast, and read your comics. … I saw only bits of the last movie, and it didn’t seem bad, it just didn’t seem great. So maybe that is worth seeing, but I’m not even really making an effort there.
JW: I assume you’re referring to the one with Oscar Isaac as Apocalypse. It was, I think, largely forgettable as a movie, except for Jean Grey blowing up Apocalypse, which thrilled me to my toes. I was so happy to see that.
EL: Oh good. So you thought you thought it worked on certain levels but mostly just on that level.
JW: Her coming into her power. There have been no repeat viewings [for me], so I don’t have more of a critical perspective on that. But now I’m gonna go find “Night of the Sentinels” from the old X-Men cartoon.
EL: Yeah, the cartoon [has] really bad animation-production values. But it has a strong sense of each of the characters, and it does an amazing job of condensing the best X-Men storylines throughout history into a manageable sequential story. It’s like quite an achievement there.
And also, the women are great and it’s not sexist and that’s kind of awesome.
JW: And the Sentinels are certainly a fascinating and terrifying set of characters representing the fascistic desire to exterminate “the other” and putting tht desire into the body of robots. I guess they all pre-Terminator, in terms of killer robots?
EL: Well, I mean the Sentinels date back to Jack Kirby and Stan Lee in the ’60s.
JW: Oh really?
EL: Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s very early in the series as well — the world that hates and fears them. There’s an amazing essay by Steven Atwell, he’s a historian, over at Graphicpolicy.com about the X-Men, and the politics of X-Men comics going way back to the beginning of the series … he actually really goes into the whole Atomic Age/paranoia setting. It’s well worth your time.
JW: Do you want to wrap up with any any final comments or thoughts?
EL: I definitely think if folks don’t really know the character [of Jean Grey], the Dark Phoenix saga is really that good. But definitely Grant Morrison’s run on New X-Men, I think, for me [is] the quintessential period. There’s been some good Jean in the recent series but my reading has been sort of patchy.
JW: Yeah. To go dig that up, there’s so much story and so much read, and so many alternative takes on Jean Grey. One could one could write a master’s thesis on a thesis on it … We covered a lot of territory, and you really opened up the character for me in ways that I missed out on: The Grant Morrison run, the cartoons. Also giving me a little insight know Carol Danvers and Chris Claremont. I love the thought of Carol as a brawler.
THE RAPE OF CAROL DANVERS
EL: If you want to read good Captain Marvel … there’s two things. There’s an X-Men annual by Claremont where Carrol first joins the team, [and it’s] this amazing feminist corrective to a really fucked-up story from the Avengers.
In the Avengers comic, Carol gets raped and everybody acts like it’s totally normal and nothing’s wrong. Because Carol acts that way, because Carol is being mind-controlled, and there never was any reckoning around it.
And fans had complained about this. And when Chris Claremont was taking over the title he was like, “Hey can I have Carol Danvers?” And editorial was like, “Yeah, sure.”
He literally wrote an issue of X-Men where she addresses her old friends in the Avengers: “Hey I was raped and you guys didn’t do anything to help me. What’s up with that? I’m going to leave you guys and hang out with the X-Men now. Goodbye.”
And then Carol Danvers was at the X-Men for at least a year, maybe a couple of years.
JW: Oh really.
EL: Yeah. And I love it as an example of fans sort of being, “Hey, this thing is sexist,” of a man who’s a writer, who’s a feminist being, “Oh, I hear you. I see what you mean. I’m going to do something about this.”
And then literally doing it. And that’s how you ended up with Carol Danvers in the X-Men for a while, which led to some interesting and complex stories.
JW: So this was a fan driven prompt that got Claremont thing thinking more deeply about it.
EL: Yeah exactly. And really changed the character for the better, because he helped develop Carol Danvers’ personality and character farther. And then, obviously, the recent runs, largely written by Kelly Sue DeConnick, with a number of different artists on it, have been really good. Really good.
JW: You know as we discuss that, we sort of open up another little bit of terrain we could tromp around, which is the female comic character as male fantasy, Jean Grey as male fantasy, and it’s an interesting and complicated one, because she’s sort of a good girl, but she’s kind of a live wire as well, and dangerous.
EL: Yeah, she really defies those categories, I think. I’m glad you brought this up. I think that’s one of the reasons why Jean is great is she definitely does not fall into the good girl or bad girl camp. I think that a lot of characters regard her as one or the other, but that’s not true. And that tension is sort of a key part of her interactions with other people.
JW: Yeah sort of walking this line between the female stereotype and the female archetype. You know an archetype of female power and personality, which gets imposed on this character. We saw it happen in that Kirby Without Words post, where Kirby draws her as self-empowered and taking care of business, and Stan the Man makes it all about, “Yes sir, I will not fail you, sir.”
EL: Which is crazy. You know the characterization of her as being like bookish is legit and lasts and makes sense, but that doesn’t mean she’s like obsequious, you know. Come on.