Before the Ashes
When she’s not dying, coming back from the dead, or being on the wrong end of a love triangle, Jean Grey is one of those characters whose story often gets defined by others. This is understandable because in many respects, she’s the heart and soul of the X-men. She embodies the hope, drive, and passion that guides them. She makes such strong connections to those around her, be they teammates or rivals, that it’s hard for her to exist in isolation. From the famous Phoenix Saga to her most recent death in Planet X, she serves as an emotional catalyst for the X-men as a whole.
While this benefits the X-men, it also means she rarely gets a chance to grow on her own. Her story is often too tied to those of her teammates such that she just can’t forge her own path. Even after she and the original five X-men come to the future in All-New X-men, she continues to follow the path of her team.
It almost seems like a gross oversight that Jean Grey has never gotten her own solo series. Other characters such as Doop, Pixie, and even her arch-rival Emma Frost got a solo series at one point. Overdue or not, Dennis Hopeless and Victor Ibanez use Jean Grey #1 to finally give her a chance to tell her story.
It’s a story that emerges out of unfamiliar circumstances for Jean. She isn’t just a teammate and guiding force anymore. She’s the leader of a team that’s taking guidance from Magneto, of all people. By X-men standards, these circumstances couldn’t be more unfamiliar without the influence of the Cosmic Cube.
Even so, Jean’s personal agenda is the same as it was in the early issues of All-New X-men. She seeks to avoid a future where she ends up dead, resurrected, dead again, and a topic of awkward conversation between Wolverine and Cyclops. Hopeless makes the story personal by exploring Jean’s mentality and personal sentiments. There have been plenty of scenes with Jean lamenting, fighting, and complaining about her situation. The idea of her just taking a moment to process feels both novel and overdue.
That’s not to say she’s able to process everything. She’s still a time-displaced teenage girl who learns that she dies multiple times, may or may not have destroyed a planet, and has at least one evil clone. Not even the mental fortitude of Reed Richards can process something like that. But that helps mold the overall tone of the story. Jean Grey, despite all her overwhelming burdens, is all too human when it comes to matters of life, death, rebirth, and evil clones.
From the beginning, Jean Grey #1 emphasizes Jean’s humanity. Those not familiar with her humanity or the many obstacles, cosmic and non-cosmic alike, that strain it, get a few major highlights of her story. The ones that stick out most for Jean, as a character, are those surrounding her multiple deaths and various resurrections. This is where Hopeless establishes a critical theme for her and the series, as a whole.
Jean Grey doesn’t just want to avoid becoming the woman who ends up dying multiple times and inspiring multiple retcons. She actively hates that person. She doesn’t see her future self as someone she aspires to be. She sees her as a painful reminder, one that actually gives her nightmares. Granted, it’s a bit melodramatic in that it overlooks a lot of the good her future self did, but she’s a brooding teenager so it’s perfectly appropriate.
On top of these musings and dreads, Jean gets a chance to be a typical hero. Whether by coincidence or cosmic karma, she’s having lunch in Kyoto just as the Wrecking Crew is doing a heist. It’s admittedly contrived. Even those involved admit that. It also gives Jean a chance to show just how powerful she has become. It emphasizes that, despite how much she hates her future self, she’s still a hero at heart.
The perspective and style in Jean Grey #1 feels very personal. Even if the action is predictable, Ibanez’s art makes it flashy. It also sets the stage for the over-arching narrative that puts Jean on a collision course with the Phoenix Force. Given the status of the Phoenix Saga as one of the greatest X-men stories ever told, it raises both the stakes and the risks.
It’s an unfortunate byproduct of such a dramatic and iconic story. Any effort to expand or explore that story tends to undermine, complicate, or convolute it to some degree. Sometimes it’s for the better, as Chris Claremont proved with Inferno. Sometimes, it just comes off feeling too forced, as proven in Avengers vs. X-men. However, in the case of Jean Grey, it’s a story that cannot and should not be avoided.
The foundation is already in place. The events of The Trial of Jean Grey proved that what the Phoenix did and what it can potentially do is still relevant. Jean, despite her best efforts, cannot avoid this part of her past and future. During the battle with the Wrecking Crew, she gets a harsh, but overdue reminder that her story and that of the Phoenix Force is inextricably linked.
While some details of the narrative in Jean Grey #1 are still contrived, the underlying themes and overall tones remain strong. They carry the necessary dramatic weight that is so critical to any story involving Jean Grey and the Phoenix Force. Hopeless crafts a story that makes it easy to sympathize with Jean. He makes it easy to root for her. For a character who is often the victim of so many dramatic tragedies and insipid love triangles, it’s a welcome and overdue change.
The series still has a lot to prove. The prospect of more complications with the Phoenix Force and even more teenage melodrama ensures Jean Grey has many opportunities to falter. Whether or not Hopeless and Ibanez can avoid that cosmic trap remains to be seen, but they still succeed in reminding everyone why Jean Grey is the heart of the X-men.