Warning: this article contains spoilers for Phoenix Resurrection: The Return of Jean Grey #1!
No major superhero character stays dead forever, but Jean Grey sure knows how to cling to the afterlife longer than most. 14 years after being killed by Fake Magneto (long story) in New X-Men #150, Jean is finally making her return in the miniseries Phoenix Resurrection: The Return of Jean Grey. That book is set to pave the way for a new ongoing series called X-Men Red in February, with Jean leading a brand new team. Clearly, Jean’s return is a big deal for the X-Men franchise, as well it should be. She couldn’t be coming back to life at a better time. After a year where Marvel has tried and failed to reinvigorate the struggling X-Men comics, Jean Grey’s return may be just the thing to finally put the franchise back on track.
2017 was a big year for the X-Men. The Inhumans vs. X-Men crossover wrapped up the long-running conflict between the two teams, and the ResurrXion relaunch that followed ushered in a new wave of books and mutant teams. But “big” didn’t exactly equate to “successful” in this case. IvX did little more than prove that the “hero vs. hero” formula had played itself out, while ResurrXion has failed to build a compelling status quo for the X-Men. ResurrXion taps into the lingering nostalgia fans have for the franchise’s golden age (the ’80s and early ’90s) but has done little to build on that nostalgic platform. The X-Men comics that do succeed, creatively, are the ones that are the least changed by ResurrXion – All-New Wolverine and X-Men Blue (which is basically All-New X-Men by another name). Looking at the sluggish sales figures and the impending cancellations of Generation X and Iceman, it’s clear that the X-Men franchise still isn’t clicking with readers the way it once did.
There’s been something vital missing from the X-Men comics for years now. Part of that simply boils down fact that so many of the most popular X-Men are MIA. Prior to the start of Marvel Legacy, Jean, Wolverine, Cyclops and Professor X were all dead. Marvel has clearly been looking to rectify this problem. Wolverine and Xavier are already among the living (the latter now dwelling inside the head of Fantomex). Jean is in the process of returning, and even Cyclops may be due for a resurrection, if the final page of Phoenix Resurrection #1 is to be believed. Simply having these four mutant heavy-hitters back in action may be enough to appeal to readers who have been struggling to connect with the franchise lately.
That said, Jean’s return is by far the most significant. She’s been dead longer than the other three characters put together. And in that time, a great deal has changed for the X-Men. Xavier retired as headmaster of his school. Cyclops took his place and began a long-term relationship with the mutant homewrecker Emma Frost. The mutant race was nearly destroyed thanks to House of M. Cyclops and Wolverine had a huge falling out and opened rival schools. Cyclops became a fugitive and mutant revolutionary. The original teenage X-Men were dragged into the present by Beast. And so on.
There’s a compelling story to be told in how Jean reacts to these many changes. In that way, she’s not so different from her younger self, who’s been facing some hard truths about the woman she’ll one day become. The older Jean will return to the X-Men to find herself literally caught between her past and future, encountering her younger, more idealistic self and coming to terms with the shocking direction her team has taken since her death. Jean’s struggle as she returns to life embodies the struggles this franchise has been facing for a while now. Have the X-Men strayed too far from their original path? Is there a way to both honor the appeal of the classic X-Men adventures while still pushing the franchise in new and unexpected directions? Can two versions of Jean coexist together, or is it time to finally send the original X-Men home? Jean starts to seem like the ideal face of the X-Men franchise as Marvel charts a new course in 2018.
As much as I adore Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run, part of me has always wished that story didn’t culminate with Jean’s death. Morrison did so much to elevate Jean as a character and define her outside of her relationship to Cyclops. Frankly, Morrison’s decision to break up their marriage is the best thing that happened to either character. Jean’s return, belated though it may be, allows new writers the opportunity to continue building a developing Jean’s story. At one point in New X-Men, Xavier tells Jean that he intends to pass his school on to her. In his mind, Jean, not Cyclops or Wolverine or Beast, is the X-Man most qualified to guide the next generation of mutantkind. And why not? Jean is the clearest success story Xavier has. She’s a mutant burdened with overwhelming power who learned to control that power and use it for the betterment of the world. She’s a strong, confident person despite playing host to one of the most destructive and unstable forces in the Marvel Universe.
14 years later, writers can now finally take that next step and explore what happens when Jean embraces the responsibility Xavier laid out for her. We’ve seen what happens when Cyclops, Wolverine, Storm and even Kitty Pryde try to lead the X-Men. None of them have been able to realize Xavier’s dream of a thriving mutant race that coexists peacefully with humanity. Xavier’s recent return in Astonishing X-Men suggests that the founding X-Man could be returning to his old role. But that would be a mistake. As much as the franchise has fallen victim to backwards-facing nostalgia lately, the last thing we need is for the X-Men to further regress to the old, familiar status quo. Casting Jean as the face of the franchise opens up new storytelling avenues that Xavier doesn’t.
It’s also worth noting that when you have a character that powerful at the forefront of the team, the threats and villains facing the X-Men have to increase accordingly. The X-Men line has mostly cycled through the supervillain greatest hits during the course of ResurrXion – Sentinels, Mojo, Omega Red, Reverend Stryker, etc. Jean’s return can and should be the catalyst for all-new challenges. When the X-Men have the power of the Phoenix at their disposal, bringing back the X-Cutioner doesn’t cut it.
Jean’s return allows Marvel to both put the spotlight on a fan-favorite character and use her to propel the team into a new and uncertain future. A Jean Grey-led X-Men team is going to be very different from the ones we’ve been reading, and that’s exactly what the franchise needs right now.
“Between the Panels” is a bi-weekly column from Jesse Schedeen that focuses on the world of comics. You can see more of his thoughts on comics and pop culture by following @jschedeen on Twitter, or Kicksplode on MyIGN.