X-Men Book Club: Justice for Madelyne Pryor

Madelyne Pryor first appeared in Uncanny X-Men #168 as a seemingly normal woman who bore an uncanny (ha) resemblance to the dead X-Man Jean Grey. Jean’s lover Cyclops rushed to marry Madelyne and had a child with her, but abandoned them both when Jean returned from the dead. Madelyne allied herself with the X-Men for a time and even had an affair with Cyclops’ brother (and past X-Men Book Club subject) Havok, but discovered that she was actually a clone of Jean Grey created by Mr. Sinister. Distraught and transformed into the demonic Goblin Queen (long story), Madelyne raised hell in New York City and committed psychic suicide in a final fight with Jean. She’s re-appeared since as a villain, even after her son became the heroic X-Man Cable, her spirit never truly finding peace.

What indeed. Uncanny X-Men #173 (Marvel Comics, September 1983)

Nola Pfau: Clone stories feel so dated these days, but I always really appreciated Maddie’s. I think it’s the slow burn of it–she got literal years before Jean returned! I mean part of that is that she and Scott were originally supposed to retire, but still. Another part of that, one that really works for me, is the happy accident of a creative team changeup between the time of Jean’s death and Maddie’s first appearance. We’re told by the story that they look alike, but Paul Smith’s Maddie is distinct enough from John Byrne’s Jean that it’s easy to write it off as “two redheads who look similar.” For me that heightened the mystery of it, the believability that; though the X-Men might have initial suspicions, they’d set them aside.

Claire Napier: Madelyne’s benefit of years (she got five, at four and a half, from intro to death) was further supported by the fact that she wasn’t supposed to be a clone in the first place. For years she was written, by her original creator, to be her own, unique, definite person. She’s similar to Jean in that she’s a basically kind woman who’s in love with Scott Summers, but beyond that they’re really not terribly reminiscent of each other. I like Jean fine, I respect her character’s place in the long long story, but Madelyne is one of my favourite X-Men characters. She’s reserved, a feminine sort of deadpan, pretty flexible honestly (see the panels above, where she asks what Scott’s gotten her into—there’s a DRAGON in that bag on her lap, that she thought was a cat when she accepted its care) and absolutely full to the brim with romantic hope. She has a one-page, perfectly capable appearance in her debut, and the next time she appears it’s well into an intimate dalliance with Scott—at which point, after a few pages of their budding romance is laid out well enough to convince the most skeptical reader that there’s something to be invested in here, he tells her she’s physically identical to his dead girlfriend. He shows her a picture he has in his wallet. She leaves in shock… and immediately returns! She’s ride or die, and that’s… my kind of gal.

Nola: It’s always interesting to me too that she wasn’t originally intended to be a clone, because her origin is a direct inversion of Jean’s (first [pseudo]) death! Jean goes down in a crash in Jamaica Bay, and Madelyne survives a plane crash that very same day. It’s of course really just Claremont’s love of putting his characters through the emotional ringer, but it’s also easy to see how the seeds of her eventual arc were planted.

Wendy Browne: So she was a fully fleshed out character who happened to look like Jean, but alas. When did she stop being written as Maddie and start being written Jean’s Clone? Was it purely related to Inferno and taking her down the path to her eventual doom?

Claire: Yes. In the direct lead-up to Inferno, Madelyne was in Uncanny X-Men and Jean and Scott were in X-Factor. The former was written by Claremont, and the latter had been taken over by Louise Simonson after Bob Layton launched the series. Reading Inferno as an event, rather than as something happening in the books you’re reading—that is, reading each involved issue in story-defined order—there’s an obvious split regarding her characterisation. In the issues that Claremont wrote, Madelyne was a sad, sad woman whose husband has left her and vanished, who’s been attacked by a gang and hospitalised, who’s had her baby stolen by that same gang. All the way up to and during Inferno, she’s consistent with the character she’s been previously. The initial deal with the figurativeish devil is undertaken after she’s been electrocuted in the immediate aftermath of seeing an X-Factor news item that reveals Scott has been with Jean (whom both previously believed was dead forever) since he left her—effectively, she says “yes, demon me up” during an episode she thinks is a dream, having been under extreme duress. From there she becomes more wicked and more purposefully chaotic, seducing Alex, having some Ghostbusters get eaten by a lift, but it’s completely acceptable and believable as a progression of the established psyche in the new, and sum, circumstances. In X-Factor on the other hand the characterisation in absentia is driven by Scott and Jean’s perceptions of her, Jean’s especially. And Jean thinks that Maddie is a face-stealing boyfriend-snatching bad mother mad bitch who vanished and left a baby somewhere in New York without telling anyone where it was just out of pique, and who should vanish so she can get her own life back on track.

Simonson writes the climactic Jean-Madelyne fight (with that classic, excellent cover), which is also weirdly weighted in favour of the ability to write off the character—she has a monologue that retcons her entire on-page history. I can’t parse this as anything other than “She’s upset, so she’s lying to upset people too,” but I don’t think that’s how it’s written to be read.

The Goblin Queen and Jean Grey face off in a psionic battle
Just stay down, Scott. X-Factor #38 (Marvel Comics, March 1989)

Nola: I agree–it’s definitely written as a deliberate retcon, but there’s a part of me that always wants it to be Maddie, in full spiral, doing something to the effect of “you all think the worst of me anyway, I might as well lean into it.” I think that really reads true to her at this point, for all the reasons you mentioned about the trauma she’s been undergoing recently.

Claire: Honestly, in my opinion, the X-Factor half of the Madelyne Inferno narrative breaks the whole by saying that things we saw happen, didn’t, and that a character we saw be evoked with integrity was actually nothing more than a paper-thin villain, constantly machinating. Silvestri’s body language is too good for that! Don’t take away his tender victories! That last issue turns its own history inside out, and not in a challenging-yet-rewarding way. Do you want to re-read Scott and Storm’s 1986 fight for leadership of the X-Men and say to yourself “oh, of course, Madelyne was actually tele-omnipotent at this point, and subtly ~influenced the fight, so that Scott would lose and HAVE to go and be a dad instead of a blue and yellow commando.” No! Storm won because that’s how you make a good story and a ripe range of characterisation! Do you want to say “Wait, I read the issue where she found the clip of Scott and Jean, and what we’re being told here maybe four issues later… just didn’t happen. Like that is not… what… happened?” No! It’s harder to read a story that disabuses itself of internal consistency than one that does not.

For me the enclonening of Madelyne—not the revelation that she was a clone, but the decision to present her as someone who was never anything but “an evil Jean Grey clone intended for nefarious purposes”—is one of the biggest mistakes going, and something that makes subsequent appearances of the character nothing I can credit. Five vibrant years and a shitty death are enough.

The clone of Jean Grey is seemingly struck by lighting and wakes from her slumber. She's caught in the arms of Mr. Sinister
The mutant (?) awakes. Uncanny X-Men #241 (Marvel Comics, February 1989)

Wendy: As a mother, Madelyne gets to bear the burden of just about all the negative mother archetypes and tropes, including monstrous mother and invisible mother, while Jean has gone on to fulfill the more positive goddess mother archetype. Jean’s clone and crazy mom seem to be her forever lots in life now, with few stories ever releasing her from those bonds. Like the recent Danaerys Targaryen saga in Game of Thrones, Maddie was reduced to the mad queen trope. The evil Goblin Queen will be her legacy, not the myriad of totally justifiable reasons for her rage as a mother over the loss of a child and of her own life pursuits. The treatment of mothers and motherhood in comics and entertainment is a subject that’s pretty close to my heart. It’s frustrating to see comics in particular continually use tropes like the mad mother queen, without ever exploring it fully. In the end, Maddie is just another villain. She doesn’t get a chance at redemption like other villains have, never losing the title of evil mom, while Jean gets to flaunt her Best Mom coffee mug forever.

Nola: That’s actually super frustrating to me, too, because there was some early tension with Jean and Rachel for instance, that sort of fizzled. I think there’s so much meat in Jean not really being Nathan and Rachel’s parent, but having Madelyne’s memories within her. It makes Claremont’s departure from the book all the sadder because it never really gets addressed with the kind of skill that he brings. Remember the scenes where the Carol persona takes over Rogue’s body? Now imagine a more subtle version–Jean subconsciously mimicking one of Maddie’s tics, in front of Scott, or gosh, the relief that would flood her every time she saw “her” baby Nathan alive and well. It’s wild that we have no less than three adult Summers/Grey children running around and none of them are actually the children of the main Jean. But I digress, and I’m talking about the wrong redhead.

Wendy: Ha, that’s okay, Kayleigh has that redhead covered elsewhere!

Claire: She does, but let’s pause for a relevant mixer: X-Factor does actually deliver on that Jean-mimics-Maddie front… in a fashion opposite to what Nola describes, which makes it especially relevant to this discussion. After Inferno when Madelyne suddenly dies (it’s later referred to as a psychic suicide but on the page—actually, between pages—she just suddenly dies), there’s a mindscape interlude where Evil Madelyne is “still alive” in Jean’s mind; a psychic sort of ghost. During this issue, or nearabouts, it’s also proposed that the Phoenix entity that had been living, and committed suicide, as Jean (between the events of Uncanny X-Men 101 & Uncanny X-Men 138) sent all of its Jean-period memories back to the cocooned Original Jean when it-as-she died on the moon.

That Original Jean rejected the Phoenix’s “shard of experiences,” let’s call it, and so it whooshed over to the clone in the tube that awoke as Madelyne. Therefore, when the Goblin Queen is telepathically absorbed by Jean—and frankly this is not a great bit of storytelling; it sounds goofy because it is, because Simonson doesn’t appear to value powers-as-metaphor or powers-as-narratively-informative, only powers-as-powers; so Madelyne, who is not psychic, is suddenly psychic rather than demonic, and Jean, who was no longer telepathic, is engaging in telepathic events without that registering as textually notable, and so forth—Jean not only ends up containing the ghost or remnants of Evil Madelyne but also the ghost or remnants of Jean-Phoenix.

Nola: People talk about Parker luck, but Peter Parker never had to put up with this kind of stuff, even when he was having clone shenanigans.

Claire: Following Inferno there’s a two-parter where X-Factor go to England to fight trolls and then a very long arc called The Judgement War, and during these Jean is assumed by literally every character, including herself, to be the mother of this baby, Scott’s baby, that they have obtained. There is no textual acknowledgement of this being unusual, or bonkers—the only note on that front is Jean’s parents cheerily remarking that, as Madelyne was a clone of their daughter, Christopher (the baby’s forename, Nathan, is dumped by Scott, et al, presumably, though again, not as far as I’ve read textually, as Madelyne’s sinister [get it] influence) must be their grandchild. Sure, whatever, that’s not stressful at all!

Jean manifests Maddie
Knock, knock. Who’s there? X-Factor #46 (Marvel Comics, November 1989)

During Judgement War, Jean is unconscious for six issues and when she wakes up it’s “as Madelyne,” which means she’s mean and smirks a lot, and she hates Scott and the baby hates her. As a reader it’s a fairly wrenching loss—I can see the potentiality of the story that Nola suggests above, I can see how this could all make sense for Jean’s psychology! I can see why a woman who sacrificed her life at about twenty-two and woke up six years later to find all her friends and her lover had grown up, that he’d had two serious relationships with women who looked like her, that he’d married and had a baby, that he’d abandoned his family to be with the refreshed, rebooted real her, that he assumes she’ll look after his baby for him, would have an identity crisis. I can see why there’d be psychic release in exploring who she is, or could be, or isn’t. But the story is that innocent Jean is literally ridden by these actual wicked entities, which after a while get blasted out of her and she’s fine.

Reading this made me value Morrison’s New X-Men anew, because the Jean/Scott/Emma triangle is a really strong story which grows in soil made fertile by the summation of events past (New X-Men#142 is a fair example to dip into, though not my favourite part of the story)—soil that’s left frustratingly fallow here. Jean pretending to be Madelyne would be a great story, but evil, paper Madelyne taking over Jean to no solid effect, and Madelyne being hated by her son to no effect other than further sanctifying Jean by the additional desecration of Madelyne-as-a-person… as it’s written, the last two issues of Judgement War are technically “a Madelyne story” as much as a Jean story, but it doesn’t provide anything. It doesn’t make anything of it except filled pages. Simonson’s X-Factor contains adventures and is very interesting in its unusual preoccupation with parenthood—nevertheless, especially in relation to Jean and Madelyne’s twin arcs, I find it a hard read for the sake of what it isn’t.

Wendy: Back to the kids — how does grown-up Nathan deal with his mother? Being reunited with her, the reality of her existence? Do they ever get a nice mother and son moment, or is she forever just an evil mom trying to manipulate her kid against her shitty ex and the woman who stole Maddie’s life?

Nola: Well…which Nathan? See, her son, Nathan Summers, there’s not much relationship at all. Not only did Jean absorb her psyche at the end of Inferno, but then she body-swapped her way to the future and raised Nathan from childhood (which, I mean, good for the kid, I guess? But kinda adding insult to injury). Maddie does have sort of a relationship with Nate Grey on the other hand, who is actually Jean’s son, albeit from a different Earth.

Wendy: Oh, you mean the Nate Grey that Madelyne kisses because of course she does?

Nate and Madelyne share a pseudo-incestuous kiss
It’s not incest if you’re from an alternate universe. X-Man #25 (Marvel Comics, March 1997)

Wendy: Apparently this resurrection of Maddie was recreated psionically by Nate Grey, but instead of using this as an opportunity for Maddie to have a positive relationship with him, the writers go with some pseudo incest instead and she becomes the Red Queen and sports a series of hideously designed outfits as part of the Hellfire Club. She spends the time trying to find a proper body for herself, and when Scott realizes that she’s trying to use Jean’s again-dead body, he tricks her and Maddie ends up disintegrating, because Scott remains the best ex-husband ever.

But back to the different Earths thing, for the purpose of this discussion, I read the Mutant X collection. I have so many regrets. It’s about Alex Summers popping off and replacing himself in an alternate universe where he is leader of The Six and is married to Maddie (after dating the now dead Jean), and they have a son named Scotty, after his brother who didn’t survive the jump from the plane. So basically, Alex’s dream come true, where he gets to ruin lives and be the hero and be the better Summers brother, without technically having had to deal with Scott’s existence. In Mutant X, Maddie is Marvel Woman, having manifested her powers after making a deal with a demon to save her son and Magneto’s X-Men. This leaves her open to possession by an entity known as the Goblin Force which eventually takes her over completely and her own son, in horrible irony, is forced to fight her.

The Goblin Queen manifests her powers
Just stay down, Alex. Mutant X: The Complete Collection Vol. 1 (Marvel Comics, November 2018)

I went into this series sincerely hoping that Maddie got to be so much more. She gets to have the whole family that she’s fought for, and she even leads the Six from time to time when Alex is trying to get his shit together. But, we discover, this isn’t really Maddie. The Goblin Force has taken her over and makes her do bad things. Alex, taking on phenomenal cosmic powers, manages to defeat the entity, separating it from Maddie and leaving her safely in a void or something.

Nowhere along the way do we really get to see Maddie deal with this issue, because the entity has already erased her. She doesn’t get moments like Jean to fight the entity herself. This is Alex’s story, and she’s just a tool that allows Alex to have his big hero moments before returning to our regularly scheduled 616 to be an idiot, leaving Maddie to float in her empty space, forgotten, because by the end, Alex has developed feelings for Elektra, who is Scotty’s nanny (just… don’t ask).

As Nola said, it’s sad that Claremont didn’t get to follow through with the Madelyne’s development, because then she would have had actual development. He understood that, despite her status as a clone, she is meant to be a fully fleshed out character herself, and not just a scorned woman or mad queen archetype, to be destroyed by those who claim to love her and writers who find her inconvenient. In the end, specifically, X-Men: The End, Claremont returns to give us the Maddie he intended that the canon never got to see. Here, she has returned and is working for the bad guys, but she is not intrinsically evil or bound to the fury of a woman scorned narrative. Like so many other villains, she does get the chance to show that she is a good person and that she can work past her pain to reconcile with Scott and Jean, and with herself. She even gets a genuine apology from her ex.

Maddie uses her Phoenix powers to revive Scott and Jean
In the end, it doesn’t even matter. X-Men: The End #6 (Marvel Comics, February 2005)

But The End isn’t canon and now we have Jonathan Hickman’s new age of X-Men from which Madelyne Pryor is conspicuously absent, despite the introduction of resurrections for all. Hickman has made a point of burying a lot of hatchets, particularly where it comes to Scott and Jean. In X-Men #1, Scott even gets a moment to talk about the painful life his son lived through and how Krakoa is changing all of that suffering for mutantkind, but Madelyne Pryor doesn’t get a mention at all.

Nola: Well, not in X-Men #1, it’s true. There was that little tidbit from Powers of X #4, though…I suspect we haven’t seen the last of Ms. Pryor.

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Kayleigh Hearn

Kayleigh Hearn

Still waiting for her Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters acceptance letter. Bylines also at Deadshirt, Ms-En-Scene, The MNT, PanelxPanel, and Talk Film Society.

One thought on “X-Men Book Club: Justice for Madelyne Pryor

  1. Thanks for this review of Madelyn Pryor. I agree with everything said here. The build-up of Madelyn as a good person and than to tear her down the way that Marvel did, such that those who don’t know her character better always refer to her as the evil Goblin Queen, and now assume Jean Grey to be the mother of Cable — it’s all a misogynistic (and wife-bashing) turn (and I’m speaking as a male) that Marvel has never owned up to.

    At least there was lovely story in last years X-Men: The Exterminated #1 where Chris Claremont gets to pen a lovely story of Cyclops and Maddy in a loving marriage with a new born son.

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