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Phoenix Resurrection: the Return of Jean Grey

As we approach the release of a new movie trying to tell the story of Jean Grey and the Dark Phoenix, and we desperately hope that it will not suck, I went back to reading Marvel comic books only to find out that Jean Grey is alive again. Now, people never stay dead for long […]

As we approach the release of a new movie trying to tell the story of Jean Grey and the Dark Phoenix, and we desperately hope that it will not suck, I went back to reading Marvel comic books only to find out that Jean Grey is alive again.

Jean as the White Phoenix, illustrated by Greg Land in the beautiful Phoenix Endsong.
Jean as the White Phoenix, illustrated by Greg Land in the beautiful Phoenix Endsong.

Now, people never stay dead for long in comic books and I remember Peter David telling a beautiful story centered on Syren and the loss of her father Banshee: it was a story on grief and the denial stage and it lept at the chance to explore how things go with grief when there’s no certainty of the death, which can be relevant for these fiction character but it takes a very short logic leap to understand how that’s a story relevant in lots of real-life scenarios as well.

Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is that for Jean Grey resurrection is a trademark.

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The character is one of the oldest in the X-men franchise, created by Stan Lee back in 1963 and, since then, she has died something between 15 and 20 times, depending on who you ask and how you define “dead”. She actually meets the Phoenix cosmic force during the first of these deaths, in Uncanny X-Men #100, where she is apparently burned up in a space station and sacrifices herself to get her companions back to safety. During the story arc of her first rebirth, commonly referred to as the Phoenix SagaChris Claremont worked to transform her from one of the weakest characters to the most powerful, hoping she would become a cosmic hero just as much as Thor was becoming for the Avengers. It was the first attempt to create a Captain Marvel, if you may.
Things went differently: the Dark Phoenix saga saw Jean Grey destroying the inhabited D’Bari system and that was something Marvel couldn’t forgive. She had to die. And that she did. Again.
Of course she came back, initially as a clone, and then was killed again and again, by both good and bad writers. One time she was even killed by Thanos, during the now famous snap of the Infinity Gauntlet saga. She keeps dying and jumping in and out other people’s consciousness (Emma Frost being one, in Uncanny X-Men #281, while Jean’s body was being killed by sentinels).
You also have to count the many times she asks Wolverine to kill her, and he does that, which of course is very nice of him considering she is the unrequited love of his live (and the bitch knows that). Well done, Jean.

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In virtue of all these deaths, she’s a character about transformation, rebirth. She’s also something like a fairy tale character on the duality of human nature and, specifically, of the female nature. She’s like an Indian goddess of both life and death, creation and destruction. And, of course, she is a mother in a different universe, she has children but they’re not her own.

The last time she was killed, it was by Magneto during the horrible stories written by Grant Morrison during his attempt to trash everything other writers have been working on. The master of magnetism gave Jean a magnetic stroke, for no apparent reason than “all my power had to go somewhere” and Jean stayed dead until Phoenix Endsong, in which she is resurrected by people who wants to kill the Phoenix and asks Logan to kill her over and over again in order to regain control over herself. After that, her whereabouts have been controversial: the story ends with her becoming the neutral White Phoenix and going away to look for herself, while freezing her body.

And here we are: December 27, 2017. Jean Grey is back.

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Phoenix Resurrection: The Return of Jean Grey is a story in 5 chapters, written by Matthew Rosenberg and illustrated by Leinil Francis Yu, Carlos Pacheco, Joe Bennett and Ramon Rosanas.

Matthew Rosenberg is an author who knows his business. He started off as an independent, with a couple of interesting titles such as 4 Kids Walk Into a Bank12 Reasons to Die and We Can Never go Home. He signed an exclusive contract with Marvel in September 2017 and since then has authored tiles like Uncanny X-men (with Greg Land) and The Punisher. Unfortunately he’s also the guy who recently brought Cyclops back. I know. It’s depressing. Personally, I’m depressed.
Anyway, if you want to read some of his earlier works, I definitely recommend 12 Reasons to Die: it’s a noir, and it’s also a concept album, a Rap opera by Ghostface Killah, Adrian Younge and Robert Fitzgerald Diggs. Weird stuff.

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He chooses to treat this story like a science fiction / horror story, with a heavy American touch: you have your regular manifestation of weirdness, starting at Annandale-on-Hudson which of course fans will remember as being Jean Grey’s birthplace, and the X-men go investigating. Other signals follow, located in the former Hellfire Club headquarters, at Mont Saint Francis and near the North Pole (you should see how Psylocke is dressed up for the expedition) and then again Jamaica Bay, the ruins of Genosha, the city sewers in Manhattan, the Savage Land in Antarctica. They end up fighting against projections, flash-backs, memories. It’s usual stuff, nothing particularly interesting, even if it’s worth noting that they end up fighting people who killed Jean in the past and visiting places where she was killed and reborn.

What’s interesting, though, is that we meet Jean in a perfect American horror story: she’s the waitress in a diner. She lives a regular life with her mom and dad, a boyfriend named Scott with a knack for wearing red sunglasses even in the evening. Her conversation with a customer named Erik, while a projection of Magneto is fighting the X-men, takes up all issue #2 and brings the story back to a decent level.

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From then on, the story keeps a high pace. Is Jean living in a false quiet reality? Is she just having hallucinations in a perfectly normal place? Everyday characters impersonated by Magneto, Wolverine and Cyclops would suggest the first, but her nightmares and random manifestations of power would suggest the latter. At the end, everything gets a Stephen Kingesque twist, as Jean walks as the boundary between two realities: the quiet town in New Mexico and a world on fire, destroyed, devoured by the Phoenix.

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The town is placed under a dome and the X-men arrive, following a suggestion given by Emma Frost and her insights into the mind of Jean, only to find that reality is not the pleasant place and the world on fire is not in Jean’s mind: it’s the other way around. Once again, the Phoenix reveals herself to be a power of destruction and only false rebirth. So is Jean even still alive or is she constructed by the Phoenix? It wouldn’t be the first time. According to Hank, the bubble is an incubator in which the Phoenix is trying to prepare Jean to host her once again. Her travels around the universe to find herself must have gone really really bad. The signals around the world, picked up by the X-men, all the omens, reveal to be a call for help by Jean herself.

We were better off dead.

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So of course it has to be Logan, once again, to walk into the diner and see what needs to be done: talk to the woman he loves, who doesn’t see him. Nothing new.
But of course you don’t send Logan if you want something to be handled with care: things go bananas, Jean merges with the Phoenix. Or does she? The obvious fight (the X-men against the Darkest Phoenix) is avoided by turning it into a fight between Jean and her memories, the illusions offered by the Phoenix in exchange for being hosted once again. It’s not even a fight. It’s a conversation. A rare thing in comics that sometimes get mistaken for being only SBAM and CRASH. The Phoenix getting smaller and smaller, taking Jean through her costumes and identities back in time to Marvel Girl, and Jean taking off her iconic mask only to let it fall at her feet, it’s beautiful storytelling from an author that seems to have been born into the Marvel Universe (and in reality just did his homework).

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And at the end, Jean taking a small and shivering Phoenix in her hands, saying goodbye and falling down crying, is what I want to believe is a beautiful ending for their relationship.
But then again, nothing ever stays dead, in the Marvel Universe.
Especially not the Phoenix.

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