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Jean Grey and the Irrelevance of Death in Comics

Marvel has announced that they’re bringing back the original Jean Grey from the dead. Which…I am having trouble getting excited about.

It’s been publicly known that Marvel is having trouble sales-wise of late. Their control of the comics marketshare is wavering, they’re alienating longtime fans, failing to attract new ones, and have been in a cycle of publicity stunts and big events since, I don’t know, 2004’s Avengers Disassembled. So this December’s big push is that the dead-again, alive-again Jean Grey is coming back once more, and…honestly, does this really matter? Do we have a mass of Jean Grey fans waiting for her to come back? Does anyone honestly think that this is the storyline which brings Marvel back from its current morass of mediocrity?

Part of the problem with this kind of event is that this isn’t exactly the first time we’ve had a Jean Grey or a Phoenix come back from the dead. To recap: Jean is one of the founding X-Men and has a history with Marvel going back to 1963 or so. In 1976, Jean was badly injured saving the X-Men from being killed, but inexplicably reappeared as the Phoenix in Uncanny X-Men #101, an incarnation which significantly amped up her powers. Jean’s new cosmic level of abilities led to a gradual darkening of her personality, which climaxed in the infamous 1980 “Dark Phoenix Saga” which ended with Jean’s self-sacrifice to prevent herself from running out of control. Jean’s death was one of the first major deaths of an original Marvel character, and she sort of became reputable as the original member who died in battle.

Not that this stuck. By 1985, Marvel decided to revive the original X-Men in a new team, X-Factor, and precipitated this with the revelation that “Jean” hadn’t actually died in the Dark Phoenix saga. The Avengers and Fantastic Four discovered Jean in a healing cocoon, and it turned out that the Phoenix entity had actually taken her place and identity.

Jean had a rough go of things for the next, oh, forever of comics publication. She had to deal with the fact that a chunk of her life was missing and that the X-Men had carried on in her absence, to include Cyclops marrying her clone (comics!) and a duplicate version of her having committed genocide. Jean kind of eventually recovered, but the specter of what the other-her had done was always out there, and Marvel also tended to waffle on whether the Phoenix duplicate wasn’t actually Jean after all.

And then Jean died again during Grant Morrison’s “Planet X” story in another self-sacrificial death…not that this mattered either, since Jean was actually healing and resurrected again in an alternate future. And even though past-Jean was dead, she came back again during the “Endsong” story and eventually settled on her being in the “White Hot Room,” healing for some unspecified event to come.

There’s also been on-again, off-again reappearances of Jean or Jean-like events, to include “Messiah Complex” (was Hope Summers supposed to be a young Jean?), Avengers vs. X-Men, the Original Five saga with a time-traveling young Jean…and now this.

To a newer reader, sure, the prospect of a long-“dead” character who dates back to the 60s might be exciting. Might. To a longtime reader, though, it’s possible that a change in Jean’s life status is like asking what the weather is today. It depends, and it flips, and it tends not to be particularly significant anymore.

Mainstream superhero comics have had a longstanding problem with death, in that it doesn’t stick and therefore becomes meaningless. A character can die, sure, and it’s often a heraldic event with lots of media coverage and wailing and gnashing of teeth. This is followed by the inevitable resurrection, which…is also met with media coverage and maybe less wailing and gnashing of teeth, because the status quo has been restored, although the drama of the last several years of death has been undone. So in the last plenty of years, many characters have suffered prominent deaths which just sort of don’t last. Off the top of my head, this has included Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Hal Jordan, Captain America, Spider-Man, the Hulk, the Human Torch, Aquaman, and probably others. If you like a mainstream superhero, odds are they’ve died and come back somewhere in the last 20 years.

I’m loathe to try to calculate how long death sticks in comics, but off the top of my head, I’d estimate “not very long.” Storylines seem to be on a two-to-three year cycle now, and death lasts maybe as long. If Captain America dies (or is changed into a Hydra agent) in 2016, you can reasonably wager that he’ll be back by 2017, which is more-or-less how things actually went. Whatever impact death has in comics will eventually be undone—or in the case of stories like, say, 2011’s Fear Itself, it could be undone as soon as the next month, as what really happened with Thor and Bucky’s deaths in that storyline.

Thing is, in comics, death used to mean something. I realize that this sounds like it’s pining for something that never was—remember, Jean’s original death was undone in five years—but no, there was at least a period where this stuck. Certain inviolable deaths have stayed dead, like Uncle Ben and Gwen Stacy, but these have become fewer and far-betweener in recent years. Heck, Jor-El’s death was apparently undone last week (though let’s not be too hasty—this could still be a mammoth fakeout). In comics, death typically represented either failure (Uncle Ben) or tremendous sacrifice (the Flash and Supergirl). These are things that made you remember that the stakes were high and the consequences “real,” because when failure happened, it left an impact.

For the most part, I grew up with a dead Barry Allen, and Wally West was the Flash I knew. Barry was heroic, sure, but he’d died saving the universe in Crisis on Infinite Earths and went out in a way that mattered. Barry represented the long-lasting tragic reminder that things could get badly real for our heroes. Barry was dead, but he was inspirationally dead, and it made his impact tangible.

And I get that people missed Barry, but there were ways to bring him and other dead heroes back without permanently violating the final tragedy of their ends. Time travel permitted them to come back before they even died. Alternate universe alterations allowed echoes of who they were to momentarily return. (Classic Barry notably returned in JLA/Avengers, where he had to help restore the universe to one in which he died.) Flashback stories allowed a look back to a time when they were still around. Ghostly reappearances reminded us that the dead were still out there in a shadowy afterlife. But life on Earth, with all its tragedies, still continued.

My point is that resurrections in comics cheapen everything that came before and diminish the ability of characters to surprise us. The companies will say that those original stories still exist and still matter, but I really can’t get behind that. Yeah, I can still reread Barry’s tragic death in Crisis or Jean’s sacrifice in “Dark Phoenix,” but in the back of my mind, I know that it’s all undone somewhere in the future. I’m also a cynic about where things are going. Jean may be alive now, but I’ve got little reason to doubt that Jean won’t die again at some point, and come back at some point, and so forth.

I hate to say this, but the most interesting thing Jean Grey ever did was to get killed. It’d be nice if Marvel could come up with something more creative than bringing her back again.

About Adam Frey (337 Articles)
Adam Frey is still trying to figure out what he wants to be when he grows up. In the meantime, he's an attorney and moonlights as an Emergency Medical Technician in Maryland. A comic reader for over 30 years, he's gradually introducing his daughter to the hobby, much to the chagrin of his wife and their bank account.

1 Comment on Jean Grey and the Irrelevance of Death in Comics

  1. I was there when Jean Grey “died” the first time. To me, she’s remained dead ever since. I fell out of the continuity soon after and never read about her resurrection.

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