Monday, November 21, 2011

"From Her Ashes Risen"

While she's been part of the X-Men books from the beginning, she rarely gets stories or treatment in general to match her teammates. She doesn't make an easy metaphor for male adolescent aggression, or struggles with relinquishing a sense of control. In fact, for most of her history she's been relegated to facilitating those metaphors. There's really only one big story she's known for, granted it's one of the two or three most important storylines in the history of the series. Still, Jean Grey, or Marvel Girl, or Phoenix is mostly known for being the rope in a romantic tug of war. Like most Marvel heroines of the Silver Age she was subjected to unfortunate moments like this:

Note that Professor X has his hands in the pimpin' formation. 

I think it's fair to say that Jean probably get's it the worst in terms of Silver Age sexual harassment.  Professor X's tacit approval of the boys behavior is the icing on the fucked up cake. Of course, we all know what he thought of Jean at the time, at least we do if we read my essay on the Prof.

So, if you wanted to read the X-males behavior as the manifestation of Professor X's own repressed desires, well you'd have grounds for it. Luckily Jean's a bit more assertive than the Invisible Girl or the Wasp, so she does get the occasional scene like this.

The rest of the team's behavior improves as the sixties wear on, though Cyclops's wasn't as bad to begin with. The point is that before she was linked to primordial cosmic power, Jean was mostly defined by the men whose attraction to her generated conflict. She's still pretty ill defined, if you ask me. The fact that they can never settle on a good superhero name for her is evidence of that, from Marvel Girl to Phoenix to just her civilian name. However, I think there is another way to look at her, and the nature of her changing names and costumes. Mutatis mutandis is often given as the school motto of the Xavier Institute, and with her ever changing nature Jean Grey is best positioned to personify that motto. She died as part of Marvel's red head purge of the aughts, but given she's been the Phoenix (And that this is a superhero comic.) her return is all, but inevitable.

If we are to take Jean as a sort of personification of change, it makes sense that she should be a character who's completely at ease with her powers and their occasional fluctuations. Cyclops and Wolverine may stress about keeping their eyes covered or their rage sheathed, but having died and returned two times, it makes sense that when Jean gets back she should have a lack of fear regarding her powers, or much of anything, and a desire to further explore them. I wrote in their respective profiles about how Professor Xavier is someone with great power over the invisible, while Magneto has great power over the material, but Jean has the best of both. Telepathy to know peoples hearts and minds, and telekinesis to rearrange the world around her. Jean's powers mean that she has the potential to change everything around her. She has the potential to create the worlds that Magneto and Xavier can only dream about. At the same time her powers should be at least little bit creepy, as should most mutant powers in my opinion. Maybe in the morning Jean could take the occasional early stroll through her friends and teammates dream lives. Her deaths and resurrections could have left her with a slightly off sense of other people's personal psychic space. Jean is often written in a way where her powers seem to be growing, and she worries about going the way of the Dark Phoenix. I would like to see a version of Jean who has overcome that sort of self-limitation. One that enjoys using her powers just for the enjoyment of using them. Even to the point of making her teammates a bit uncomfortable about the other wise good news of her return to physical life.

There's one role that this re-positioning of Jean as a changer and personification of change makes her perfect for, teacher. During Grant Morrison's run on New X-Men, he had a way of making Jean sort of a mama bear super teacher. As a teacher Jean can express her potential to change the world in the most useful place, possible, in the minds of those to come. It's cliche to have the most prominent female character as the "heart" of a super-team, but I think that in this case it's warranted, because Jeans powers make her one of the few people on earth suitable to the task. Jean isn't just the heart of the X-Men, she's the core. She doesn't hold the team together because she has stereotypical female qualities (compassion, empathy, etc...) that the guys lack, it's because she more than anyone is like Professor X in personality and ability. She much more than, say, Cyclops, is the protege come into their own. Frank Quitely's depiction of Jean during Morrison's run even gives her a look that, to me, greatly resembles another teacher featured in popular art back at the turn of the century.

It's not that Quitely's Jean and Olivia Williams look like each other exactly. The resemblance is more in the way they carry themselves. It could even just be because I think Williams seems like an interesting point of departure for Jean's general look and body language. 

Jean Grey's, or her duplicate's or whoever it was's, experience as the Phoenix is the subject of the best remembered (Only remembered?) story focusing on Jean. Unfortunately, what began as an attempt to vitalize the character ended in her turn to the dark side.

Notice boyfriend Cyclops's symbolic positioning?
Ultimately she goes mad with power, kills an entire inhabited planet and dies by editorial mandate. Chris Claremont is remembered as one of the more progressive writers of the eighties when it comes to gender politics, but this is a story that could be uncharitably boiled down to a woman achieving a power boost, going mad with it, and turning into the biggest bitch in the galaxy. Dark Phoenix's visual elements even echo those of the other great female symbol of telekinetic menstrual fury from the same era. 

I do like the Phoenix force as a concept though. I like the idea that it had been waiting for Jean for its entire existence. That it needed an individual with potential to master the invisible and visible worlds as Jean does. It could be somewhat like a lwa from vodu. A spiritual representative of the heart, or core, of creation that rides Jean at times when cosmic business needs attending to. Unlike Jean, this force might have a complete lack of, or a completely alien, moral compass. The Phoenix force also brings a fire motif to Jean, well suited for a personification of change which fire, as a classical element, often represents. The Phoenix should be identifiable as a separate entity from Jean, somewhat like Spider-Man and Eddie Brock's relationships to the Venom Symbiote. It should be an almost overpowering force that promotes renewal and change in the universe, while burning away the stagnant possibly cosmically infectious or cancerous bits. In fact the Phoenix Force played up as a cosmic immune system just makes too much sense to me. 

In some ways this points to a version of Jean who is more or less overall leader of the X-Men, a position I think she's a better pick for than, say, Cyclops, who's always been better as a field commander anyway. (Pretty much the role she played during Morrison's run, really.) When Jean comes back I would love to see her both crackling with power, and filled with the confidence to keep her power in her service, rather than her being in service to it. A few solo stories where she and the Phoenix force tackle cosmic issues would be nice. Whatever they do, I would beg them not to give her back the nineties costume, which has to be one of the blandest designs ever.

Instead, I'd hope they would hark back to the designs of the late sixties through the eighties that use green and yellow, perhaps some red, colors that suggest rebirth and vitality. After dying twice, Jean should erupt back into life as the mutant most celebratory of vitality, perhaps even on the verge of hedonism. With a wry disposition and an unbreakable bond to her teammates and students, Jean's the most mutable mutant and plans to be out and proud about it. Marvel will naturally want to make a big deal out of her return, probably an entire event, but I think the moment would be best underplayed. Like, for example, sundry X-Men are hanging out in Manhattan, they turn a corner and find Jean there, right at the spot she died on at the end of Planet X, with little to no initial explanation. Whatever caused it could take up a story arc later. The important part is that Jean has returned, but seems changed by whatever happened, and how the X-Men react to this, which forces them to change in turn. If X-Men is the story of learning to embrace the future and the changes it brings, Jean should be the vital and occasionally terrifying harbinger of that future. The Mutant Woman who teaches how to face death, embrace the fire, and lift oneself from the ashes stronger for it.

Next: The history of the Bat-logo. 


  1. God damn. That's all I have to say...

  2. Is that a good "God damn" or a bad "God damn"?

    If you wouldn't mind elaborating? My intention with these things is that they be a jumping off point for discourse.

  3. It was a good one. The depth of your writing always astounds me.