Phoenix Rising: Kayleigh Hearn on X-Men’s Jean Grey

Jean Grey manifests her fiery powers

Redheads have a special place in our hearts here at WWAC, and one redhead in particular is the favourite of our favourite Reviews Editor, Kayleigh Hearn. Leading up to the latest X-Men film, Dark Phoenix, starring Sophie Turner as the titular character, Kayleigh has some thoughts to share on the rise and fall and rise and fall and rise and fall and rise of Jean Grey. 

What is Jean’s current status in comics canon?

After defeating Cassandra Nova in X-Men: Red, Jean and the X-Men were pulled into the “Age of X-Man” alternate reality by her AU petri dish son, Nate Grey.

How did you first meet this character and what have they come to mean to you?

I was introduced to Jean through the ‘90s X-Men animated series. The show was infamous for making Jean, well, you’ve seen the YouTube clips, useless, but I loved its adaptations of “The Phoenix Saga” and “The Dark Phoenix Saga.” Even as a young kid I had gleaned from pop culture that the heroes who “saved the universe” were always boys like Luke Skywalker, so seeing Jean Grey as the cosmically-powered savior who had to fight temptation from the dark side was huge.

But that was me as a kid. As an adult, Jean Grey means a lot to me as a symbol of rebirth, resurrection, reinvention. In college, I did a major deep dive into Chris Claremont’s classic X-Men run, and shortly thereafter I had the first in a series of deep, dangerous depressive episodes that would mar my 20s. Fangirling Jean may seem a touch morbid given that she did, ah, commit suicide that one time, but she was the Phoenix rising from the ashes. She had her dark, all-black wardrobe periods (“So. You killed an entire planet full of broccoli people. Now what?”) but always recovered. Try to put her in the ground, and she will come back, every time. That is how much she loves life, and that resilience spoke to me.

What is your ideal vision for this character?

My ideal vision of Jean Grey is that she is the heart of the X-Men, the source of their compassion and strength. She’s the ideal carrier of Xavier’s dream because she sees a picture bigger than “which supervillain do we beat up this week?” and tries to build a better future. She loves life, intensely, and that love is a huge binding force for the X-Men and part of what makes them a family. (This may also lead her enemies to underestimate her, but she also has a temper that, mixed with her power, makes one potent and dangerous cocktail.) Jean is also, ideally, intrinsically linked to the Phoenix and ascends to the role of White Phoenix of the Crown, though I acknowledge that all that cosmic power is a mite untenable for a team superhero book. Everything else stands, though.

Have there been any moments in this character’s existence that have met or come close to these ideals?

Uncanny X-Men #107-108, where Phoenix repairs the universe while linking her life force with her friends’  was a great love letter (and, at the time, epilogue) to the character. I adore X-Men: Red and would put those issues in the hands of anyone who says Jean is boring without the Phoenix and the love triangle with Scott and Logan because they show why she is a vital and important character all on her own.

Dark Phoenix points menacingly, flames rise around her.Jean’s resurrections have become a bit of a joke. You like Red, but was there a time when you wished she could actually rest in peace?

Actually, no! My first exposure to “The Dark Phoenix Saga” was a version in which she lived, and Jean had already been resurrected the first time when I found the comics. If any Marvel character gets her hand stamped to go back to the world of the living, it has to be Phoenix, right? Maybe I would feel differently if I had been around to read Uncanny X-Men #137 when it was first published, as her death scene there is incredibly powerful and moving.

… Her death in New X-Men, however, I hated. Hated how it happened, hated her last words to Scott, hated him making out with his mistress over her grave. It was unnecessary and done for shallow, sexist reasons, i.e., clearing the board for Scott to get with Emma, consequence-free. I carried that salt with me for 14 years! Honestly, it’s telling that neither Scott nor Logan stayed dead for half as long.

Then she returned and starred in X-Men: Red, and it was a fantastic book!

x-men red

As we’re also seeing with the Spider-Gwen renaissance, it turns out female characters are actually more interesting when they’re alive and agents of their own destiny, instead of idealized ghosts haunting the men who couldn’t save them.

She is finally free from her role as love interest, but what about the other relationships that have factored prominently in her life? Let’s talk about the Phoenix first. Where do they stand now? What would you have liked to see from this relationship? Has it ever been well written, keeping the “monstrous women” trope in mind?

At the end of Phoenix Resurrection, Jean told the Phoenix “we are never, ever, getting back together” and the Phoenix was like, “Peace.” I don’t have a problem with a newly-resurrected Jean choosing to live as a human being (she did, after all, choose to die as one), but for me, that story missed what is so unique about her connection to the Phoenix. Phoenix was created to be the first cosmic female superhero, and the Phoenix Force is more interesting when it’s an extension of Jean’s will and personality.

Now everyone has to tell their own Phoenix story. It was a cavewoman, it fucked Odin, it possessed *long inhalation of breath* Quentin Quire, the Stepford Cuckoos, that one Shi’ar guy’s Final Fantasy sword, Cyclops, Emma Frost, Magik, Colossus, Namor, Hope Summers, and Wolverine. Now it’s incredibly overdone. The Phoenix doesn’t just like redheads, it shouldn’t be treated as a power up for the favorite character of the week. It belongs to Jean.

Jean Grey rises from the water as the Phoenix
Uncanny X-Men #101 (Marvel Comics, 1976)

As for the “Monstrous Women” trope, well, I don’t consider the Phoenix to be the real monster in “The Dark Phoenix Saga.” Mastermind is. It irks me whenever anyone summarizes it as, “Jean Grey couldn’t control her power and turned evil.” It ignores that this catastrophe happened because a man tried to control a woman and use her power for his own ends. There’s a lot of implied psychic sexual violence in Mastermind turning Jean into the Black Queen, and the explosion of furious power that made Dark Phoenix is a result of that. That’s not to absolve what Dark Phoenix did, but at this particular #MeToo cultural moment, we need to have a more complex understanding of this story than “women are crazy” or “women are monstrous.”

What about Madelyne Pryor? The character has gotten the short end of the stick and her recent returns to the X-universe haven’t worked out well for her, having been eventually dumped from the storylines. Do you feel that her status as a clone of Jean was addressed as well as it could be? How do you feel about the showdown between her and Jean during Inferno?

My “Inferno” hot take (woo!) is that Madelyne didn’t become interesting until she became the Goblin Queen. Fans justifiably blame editorial for screwing the character over, but I think she was doomed from conception—there was always going to be something suspicious, something off, about Scott rushing to marry the exact double of his dead girlfriend. Claremont was trying to staple a happy ending to Vertigo, and it just rings false. So the reveal—she’s a clone, her life is a lie—is the only way the story could end.

The Goblin Queen lies dead before Jean Grey, who kneels, mourning her death after defeating her in battle
Uncanny X-Men #243 (Marvel Comics, 1989)

As a villain, though, Madelyne is fascinating because her hatred for our “hero” Cyclops is completely justified. Jean and Madelyne’s relationship is a perfect tragedy because from both their points of view, the other woman stole the life she should have had. To Jean, Madelyne stole the future that would have been hers (marriage and a baby with Scott) if not for the Phoenix, and to Madelyne, Jean stole those things back. Part of me wishes “Inferno” had ended with them teaming up against Mr. Sinister, who fathered that whole horrorshow, but I love that storyline as it is. “Creation wasn’t big enough for the both of them” is such a killer line.

What about her relationship with the other women in her life, such as Storm and Emma. Do you feel that these relationships have been appropriately explored and represented?

I think the ultimate Jean and Emma story has yet to be written. They could be fascinating rivals: Black Queen vs. White Queen, fire vs. ice, etc. But now their relationship is doomed to be defined by Scott. On my last re-read of New X-Men, I was depressed to realize there were only two women on the team, and their relationship was, at its core, that old Betty and Veronica battle over a man. They deserve a more interesting story. Though, as I’m typing this, Jean and Emma are both alive and neither one is involved with Scott. Dare I hope …?

Jean’s friendship with Ororo is really great, and I’m happy every time we get a scene where they grab a cup of coffee and talk about coming back from the dead. We don’t talk a lot about Claremont’s very often, but there’s a fantastic scene in #18 where Jean makes contact with Ororo on the astral plane and Ororo uses that bridge between life and death to introduce Jean to the spirits of her parents. It’s this very touching moment in the middle of this big fantasy sequence that really shows how important they are to each other. And I just read Sara Century’s article about X-Men Unlimited #7, which is a Storm & Jean-centric comic I’ve never read before, so it’s exciting that there are more stories about them out there for me to discover.

Jean and Ororo reunite on the astral plane
X-Treme X-Men (Marvel Comics, 2002)

Jean has never had her own children in her own timeline, though motherhood has been foisted upon her in many different ways, such as being flung into the future on her honeymoon to raise Nathan Dayspring. But she’s never been permitted to have what Maddie briefly had. How do you think she feels about motherhood?

Well, Jean raised Cable and very much considers him her son. She’s talked about having kids in the more conventional, no clones or time travel or alternate timelines route, but we haven’t really seen Jean—the older version or the younger one—deal with the fact that her extended family was murdered simply because they were related to her. How has that affected her thoughts on motherhood? Is it enough to know that her adopted and alternate universe kids (and in Hope’s case, grandkid) are all out there? I would love a comic that explores this.

When Chris Claremont took over the X-Men, the original members left the team with the exception of Scott Summers. She was drawn back into the superhero life not long after. Imagine she had stayed away. Where do you think her life would be now?

She would have still been involved in advancing mutant rights, just in a different way. There are some great scenes—like in, of all things, the first X-Men movie—where we see her address world leaders and school some bigots. Hopefully she would have kept that fantastic loft apartment she shared with Misty Knight!

What if Jean had been the one groomed by Professor Xavier to lead the X-Men? What do you think the team would be like?

I think Jean would have worked to make the X-Men expand outward, instead of retreating into their Westchester enclave. She might have established more schools, or something global like Xavier’s X-Corporation. Jean was never the good little soldier Scott was raised to be, so we’d have X-Men that still fought the baddies but looked less like a paramilitary organization. I swear on my “Dark Phoenix Saga” hardcover that Tom Taylor isn’t paying me, but X-Men: Red has Jean asking, how do the X-Men stop bigotry on a worldwide scale? Can they build a lasting sanctuary for mutants? Can they solve problems without big scary superhero stomping matches?

How do you feel about her portrayal in the X-Men movies?

The X-Men movies are like relics from the dark ages these days, but I still have a lot of affection for them. Famke Janssen’s Jean has the necessary warmth and power, and her character in the first two movies isn’t as underdeveloped or wholly reimagined as the other X-Women. Jean having to save a brainwashed Cyclops in X2 is a welcome change of pace. X-Men: The Last Stand was a goddamn waste, but we all know that. My friend Annie can testify that there were fistbumps at the final surprise in X-Men: Days of Future Past—if nothing else, I’m an expert at patiently waiting until someone undoes an unnecessary Jean death scene.

Sophie Turner has a lot of potential as Jean, but I think even the few remaining die-hards are looking at Dark Phoenix with weariness. Will it do what The Last Stand couldn’t? Does it want to do the character justice, or does it just want to skip to the explosions and the dying and the bitches be crazy? At least there was a fiery, glorious moment at the end of X-Men: Apocalypse where Jean Grey was able to truly break free.

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Wendy Browne

Wendy Browne

Publisher, mother, geek, executive assistant sith, gamer, writer, lazy succubus, blogger, bibliophile. Not necessarily in that order.