Thursday, August 1, 2013
X-amining Avengers #263 & Fantastic Four #286
In a Nutshell
Jean Grey returns from the dead.
Writer: Roger Stern
Breakdowns: John Buscema
Finishes: Tom Palmer,
Letterer: Jim Novak
Colorist: Christie Scheele
Editor: Mark Gruenwald
Editor-in-Chief: Jim Shooter
Fantastic Four #286
Writer/Penciller: You Know Who
Guest Inker: Terry Austin
Colorist: Glynis Oliver
Letterer: John Workman
Editor: Michael Carlin
Editor-in-Chief: Jim Shooter
With Special Thanks to R. Stern and K. Busek
Avengers #263: Investigating a crash at JFK airport, the Avengers discover a large cocoon-like object at the bottom of Jamaica Bay. Though the cocoon initially rebuffs their efforts to approach it via some kind of psychic force, they are eventually able to retrieve it from the bay and bring it back to Avengers Mansion. Left alone, the surface of the cocoon becomes transparent for a moment, revealing a redheaded woman inside. Fantastic Four #286: Returning from space, the Fantastic Four are told about the cocoon retrieved by the Avengers. Reed Richards proceeds to conduct some tests on it, and when Invisible Woman uses her power to make the interior of the cocoon visible, they discover the woman inside. Reed attempts to open the pod, and when he bombards it with bio-radiant stimulation, it opens, revealing Jean Grey.
Believing herself to still be under attack by Stephen Lang's Sentinels, she attacks the Avengers and Fantastic Four until they are able to convince her they are not robotic duplicates. Unable to remember anything past her battle with the Sentinels, the Avengers and Fantastic Four take Jean to her parents' home while Captain America remains behind. There, Jean discovers the holoempathic matrix and when she touches it, her memories come flooding back: how she was dying while piloting a shuttle home from Lang's space station and was contacted by the Phoenix Force, which agreed to heal her in exchange for copying her form and memories to become human. As Jean wonders if she's real or just another copy, Captain America arrives, having read the Avengers' files and learned the fate of Phoenix. He explains how Jean's humanity, even as a copy, was strong enough to eventually lead Phoenix to kill herself rather than endanger all existence. The following day, Jean ponders what to do next with her life, and Reed, having an idea, picks up the phone to make a call.
Firsts and Other Notables
Combined, these two issues unfold the retcon that Jean Grey didn't die on the moon at the culmination of "The Dark Phoenix Saga", and that all the actions of the character we believed to be Jean Grey following X-Men #100 were actually performed by the Phoenix Force itself, while Jean was left in a cocoon to heal at the bottom of Jamaica Bay, where the X-Men's shuttle crashed (and Phoenix first emerged) in X-Men #101. As flashbacks in Fantastic Four #286 depict, the Phoenix Force, responding to Jean's distress while piloting the X-Men's shuttle home, took Jean's physical and mental form in exchange for healing her, and from that point forward acted as and believed herself to be Jean Grey, even killing herself after going mad with power, acting on the humanity copied from Jean.
This idea was actually put forth by Kurt Busiek, these days an accomplished and well known comic writer (he wrote Marvels, created Astro City, and had acclaimed runs on several different titles, including Avengers) who came up with the idea as a young fan and shared it with Roger Stern at a covention. Stern, in turn, shared it with John Byrne, and when Byrne heard of Marvel's desire to reunite the original X-Men in X-Factor, offered it up as a way to bring Jean back for the title as well. When Jim Shooter approved the idea, Stern and Byrne built a story around it to unfold in the two titles they were currently writing, with a special thanks to Busiek (spelled "Busek") appearing in Fantastic Four #286.
However, in a point of much contention, several pages of Fantastic Four #286 were, at Jim Shooter's allowance, rewritten by Chris Claremont and redrawn by Jackson Guice (X-Factor's penciller) in order to subtlety alter the relationship between Phoenix and Jean (Claremont, Byrne believes, lessened the impact of Phoenix being driven to sacrifice herself by Jean's copied humanity - in Byrne's original, Phoenix was more malevolent and Jean's humanity was more active in opposing it and asserting the control that ultimately led to its downfall). Some contend that Claremont was allowed to put his own stamp on the details of the retcon in order to placate him over Jean's return, while Byrne contends that Shooter allowed Claremont to rewrite the scene (after approving the original) in order to get back at Byrne for his plans to leave Marvel and relaunch Superman for DC. Either way, Byrne had his name removed from the credits of the issue as a result.
Claremont would later further embellish the Jean/Phoenix interaction in the backup story to Classic X-Men #8.
The end of Fantastic Four #286 leads directly into X-Factor #1. It is also a "collectors edition", featuring thirty pages with no ads.
A Work in Progress
At this time in their history, the Fantastic Four are living at Avengers Mansion (I believe the Baxter Building had recently been destroyed, but I'm not rote on my FF history), while former Avenger She-Hulk is a member of the team, having replaced the Thing after the first Secret Wars.
Due to the initial involvement of the Enclave in the crash at the airport, the Avengers spend most of Avengers #263 believing the cocoon to contain their old ally Adam Warlock, who was first created by the Enclave an emerged from a cocoon similar in appearance to the one containing Jean.
In Avengers #263, Captain America vaguely recalls a shuttle crashing into Jamaica Bay, and decides to contact NASA about it, a reference to the crash in X-Men #101.
When Jean emerges from the cocoon, she is wearing the same tattered black dress she wore in X-Men #100, and believes herself to still be fighting Stephen Lang (she assumes the gathered Avengers and Fantastic Four to be Sentinels, in the vein of the X-Sentinels Lang pitted agains the X-Men in that issue).
Captain America tells Jean that the X-Men have been seen working with Magneto, much to her horror. He specifically cites the first Secret Wars, though they've presumably been seen together since as well (in Secret Wars II, if nowhere else).
Something that was never really made clear during "The Dark Phoenix Saga" that is made clear here: most other superheroes, at least, in this case, the Avengers and Fantastic Four, were largely unaware of the events of that story and Jean's ultimate apparent sacrifice. Captain America doesn't learn about until he watches a report filed by Beast (who was an Avenger at the time but present for the death of Phoenix).
Jean emerges from the cocoon bereft of her telepathic abilities (though she still has her telekinetic abilities), restoring her to a condition similar to her earliest appearances, a contrivance necessary for certain plot elements of X-Factor.
I Love the 80s
Having decided to visit her parents, members of the Avengers and the FF go with Jean to her childhood home, yet no one apparently offered to give Jean a change of clothes, as she arrives in the same black dress she'd emerged from the cocoon wearing.
In the course of the various flashbacks in Fantastic Four #286, Byrne essentially redraws several panels from X-Men #98-100, giving us a brief glimpse into what the Claremont/Byrne run might have looked like had it started sooner.
Briefly revealing herself at the end of Avengers #263, Jean telepathically calls out for Scott.
Like a Phoenix, From the Ashes
In Fantastic Four #286, Jean is ultimately awakened when Reed Richards bombards the cocoon with "bio-radiant stimulation", suggesting the energy blast from the moon which occurred at the end of Uncanny X-Men #201 didn't play a role in reviving Jean. At the same time, while not made explicit, there's nothing that says that blast couldn't have played a role in reviving her.
Later, Jean learns the truth about her interaction with Phoenix by holding the Shi'ar holo-empathic crystal that contains the essence of Phoenix' personality. Jean also senses another presence in the crystal, likely a reference to Rachel, who placed a bit of her own personality into the crystal in issue #201.
Kurt Busiek on the Phoenix retcon
"Richard Howell and Carol Kalish, another couple of fans who would go on to be pros, were friends of mine. And we'd get together when I was home from college to talk comics and whatever else… We were all fans of the original X-Men, and didn't like the idea that one of the original five would be killed and killed as a result of an editorial/creative foul-up, it seemed to us … [the friends] had a fine, fannish evening discussing the matter, griping about the event, and the miscommunication that had resulted in the state of affairs - but more, we were challenged by the idea of Jim's 'no resurrection without absolution' rule, and spent a lot of the evening talking over ways to satisfy that requirement."
Lamken, Brian Saner. "The Phoenix Effect: 25 Years of the All New Uncanny X-Men." Comicology Fall 2000: 36-37.
John Byrne on the return of Jean Grey
"The sequence went something like this: After the Phoenix Saga -- and long before it developed this retroactive titling -- Chris would simply Not Let Go. Not an issue of X-Men passed without SOME reference to Phoenix. (I still remember being annoyed when he wrote the Wendigo-eye-view scene with Nightcrawler in the second Alpha Flight appearance as if it was a sunset (I'd asked Glynis for red tones in my margin notes) and had NC launch into a whole schpiel about how the colors reminded him of Jean, etc, etc. He, of course, should not have been Seeing those colors! Thus the effect of the scene was lost.) Sideways from this, an annoying little eager-beaver fanboy named Kurt Busiek had come up with the idea that Phoenix was not, in fact, Jean, but a precise duplicate created by the Phoenix Force as a "housing" for itself, and the REAL Jean was in suspended animation at the bottom of Jamaica Bay, where the shuttle crashed. When [Bob] Layton came up with the idea for X-Factor, I was reminded of this notion and suggested it would be a way to put Jean back into the group. Shooter agreed, and Roger Stern and I concocted a two part crossover between The Avengers and Fantastic Four to accomplish just this end.
(Secrets behind the comics: It was at this time that I announced to Marvel, through a letter to boss Mike Hobson, Shooter, and FF editor Mike Carlin -- ah, the days before E-mail!! -- that I had accepted the Superman assignment at DC. The two Mikes wished me luck, which is what you would expect from professionals. Shooter's response was to suddenly realize that the FF story he had approved at every step, from plot, to pencils, to script -- after all, he had to have all his fingers in this very important pie -- was horribly flawed, and that a good third of it had to be redrawn by Jackson Guice and rewritten by Chris Claremont. Ah, well!! C'est la guerre!)"
Byrne, John. "What's the story behind the return of Jean Grey?" Byrne Robotics,8/1/2013 http://www.byrnerobotics.com/FAQ/listing.asp?ID=2&T1=Questions+about+Comic+Book+Projects#47
"As to whether she should have stayed dead…I thought Kurt Busiek's solution for bringing Jean back was brilliant, which is why Roger and I used it. I think Phoenix should have stayed dead, though."
Nickerson, Al. "Claremont and Byrne: The Team that Made the X-Men Uncanny." Back Issue August 2008: p10.
"My contribution was reminding everybody about Kurt Busiek's idea that the real Jean was lying in a pod at the bottom of Jamaica Bay, and that Phoenix wasn't really Jean. That allowed Jean to return and be in X-Factor … They thought X-Factor negated the death of Phoenix. Well, I maintain that Phoenix was a copy of Jean – and a copy of Jean committed suicide to save humanity – that makes the story even better. Because it means that the human spirit is so powerful that even a copy will make the ultimate sacrifice to save humanity. I think that's great. Very old-time marvel. Very Stan Lee."
DeFalco, Tom. Comic Creators on X-Men. London: Titan Books, 2006. p119
Chris Claremont on the possibility of Jean returning
“Anything is possible.”
Sanderson, Peter. The X-Men Companion II. Stamford: Fantagraphics Books, 1982. p41
Claremont on the return of Jean Grey
"It was a Friday night and Ann took us out to dinner and didn't tell us about a X-Factor until it was, like, 6:30-7:00 at night and the office switchboard was already closed. I wanted to call Shooter, but I couldn't remember his direct line. Ann knew his number, but she wouldn't tell me. She told me to just sit down, have another drink and relax. I mean, she played me beautifully. Since it was a Friday, I had the whole weekend to go berserk. I spent the weekend coming up with a whole new set of characters that they could use for X-Factor. I came in Monday morning and pitched the idea of using Jean's sister Sarah and making her a living Cerebro. She not only senses mutants, but has the power to work out what they'll become. Shooter sat there and said 'that's a great concept. I think it's wonderful. If you want to go with it, go with it, but we're bringing back Jean Grey.' He felt the marketing oomph for the resurrection of Jean and the reformation of the original team sufficiently outweighed any objections and alternatives. The fact is, Ann did the smart thing. If I actually gone in to see Shooter on Friday night, I would've quit. I was so pissed off. I couldn't believe what they did to Cyclops. He was supposed to be a hero and they had him walking out on his wife and newborn child and not even thinking twice about it. No one was connecting the dots. It wasn't until Louise and Walter Simonson were on the book that we actually managed to massage the characters back to the way they should've been."
DeFalco, Tom. Comic Creators on X-Men. London: Titan Books, 2006. p71
And there it is: arguably one of the most significant retcons in superhero comics, and undoubtedly one of the most divisive. As retcons go, its certainly not as outrageous or clunky as some future retcons will be, as it manages to both conform to Jim Shooter's original edict that Jean Grey not get off easy for murder while also doing its best to not invalidate the ending of "The Dark Phoenix Saga" by making it clear that it was still Jean, in a way, who made the heroic sacrifice: it was her humanity which prevailed, her agency still driving the story. It is, perhaps and likely, the best possible retcon we could have gotten that would have brought Jean Grey back.
That of course begs the question of whether or not Jean should have been brought back, and objectively, the answer is no. "The Dark Phoenix Saga" is one of the seminal stories, not just for the X-Men but for superhero comics, and while these issues and the return of Jean don't absolutely destroy that story (as some critics argue) it does diminish it slightly, no matter how effective the retcon. We get plenty of good Jean Grey stories moving forward (well, plenty of good stories in which Jean Grey particpates, at the very least), but few if any are as well-crafted, impactful or significant as "Dark Phoenix" (and very few would suffer from an absence of Jean Grey).
"Dark Phoenix" works because it's the tale of a heroic woman who lost control of tremendous power, then sacrificed herself for the greater good, and it left its mark in part because the woman in question was one of Marvel's original Silver Age characters. Changing it so that the character was actually a cosmic force pretending to be human, and not one of Marvel's foundational characters, undeniably takes something away from one of superhero comics' finest stories.
But all that said, I've honestly never gotten too riled up about this retcon. It is divisive, and for the most part, that divide forms between people who first read "Dark Phoenix" before this story was published, and those who first read it after. Objectively, I know "Dark Phoenix" is a better story if it stars Jean and not the Phoenix Force, and that this retcon is, ultimately, kinda pointless. But at the same time, for as long as I've been reading comics, Jean Grey has been alive, her seeming death and subsequent return as much a part of the ongoing narrative as anything else. I've only ever read "Dark Phoenix" with the knowledge that the central character is not technically Jean Grey (and it's a testament to how well crafted it is that I've been able to read it while pretending otherwise with ease), and while the thought of that might send certain fans into fits of rage, sadness or both, for others, like myself, for better or worse, that's just the way it is, and always has been.
The X-Men head west in Uncanny X-Men #202, followed by more fun with the Beyonder in New Mutants #37, while the original band gets back together in X-Factor #1.