When a hero dies and comes back to life, it tends to cause varying degrees of upheaval. For some characters, namely, villains like the Joker or icons like Thor, the extent of that upheaval is limited because it’s assumed rather than expected that they’ll return. The only real upheaval involves how team lineups get reshuffled and how much it’ll frustrate heroes like Batman. Heroes returning from the dead is so routine, at this point, that the dramatic impact is almost muted.
Routine or not, the return of Jean Grey after a 14-year death sentence warrants an exception. Few characters affect the entire X-men narrative with their presence or lack thereof. It’s impossible to make sense of the major events surrounding the X-men over the past decade-and-a-half without understanding the influence of Jean Grey. Her death and subsequent absence affected the X-men in ways that went beyond any death, resurrection, clone, shape-shifting alien, or time traveler could.
As such, her return carries with it the kind of upheaval that’s rare in an era when everyone not named Uncle Ben is a candidate for resurrection. That upheaval is still unfolding. With the conclusion of Phoenix Resurrection, there are no more teases or jokes. Jean Grey is back, and she’s returning to a world that’s so different from the one she left that it’s difficult to imagine her finding a place in it. After 14 years of functioning without her, a couple of superhero civil wars notwithstanding, Jean faces the prospect of finding a new place in this world.X-men: Red #1 marks Jean’s first steps into re-entering a world that has left her behind but has still struggled in her absence. The state of the X-men is mixed at best and messy at worst, a common byproduct of having too many time travelers and clones. In a sense, the time is right for someone like Jean to come along and get the X-men back on track.
Tom Taylor and Mahmud Asrar set the stage for that effort, establishing a new narrative for her with a new team. The core mission of that narrative is pretty familiar for an X-men comic. It’s very much a back-to-basics approach, focusing on the true underpinnings of Charles Xavier’s dream of peaceful coexistence. That dream may seem even more remote these days with mutants fighting Inhumans and X-men fighting Avengers. However, that’s why Jean’s approach is so refreshing.
She doesn’t try to reinvent what it means to be an X-man. From the very beginning, she does what the X-men have been doing for 50 years, helping innocent mutants who are victims of hate and injustice. Like Charles Xavier before her, she doesn’t just stop at saving the day and humiliating anti-mutant lynch mobs. She goes out of her way to show compassion and understanding to both scared young mutants and their parents. It’s the kind of love and heart that even Charles Xavier couldn’t always convey, even when portrayed by Patrick Stewart’s uncanny charm.
That personal touch, going out of her way to show an extra bit of compassion, is an element of Xavier’s dream that has been notably lacking during Jean’s 14-year absence. That’s not to say it was completely gone, but there’s only so much heart and compassion the X-men can manage when Emma Frost is the lead telepath. X-men Red #1 effectively reaffirms Jean’s place as the heart and soul of the X-men. She plays that part well, but that’s still only part of the underlying narrative.
In returning from the dead after such a long absence, Jean Grey is in a unique position to assess the X-men and their efforts at human/mutant peace. By not being around during M-Day, Avengers vs. X-men, or the conflict with the Inhumans, she can be more objective than most in judging the effectiveness of their efforts or lack thereof.
Beyond just saving a couple of innocent mutants, Jean acknowledges the no-win situation that mutants often find themselves in when attempting to better their situation. When they ban together and create mutant havens like Utopia, they become bigger targets. When they try to live their lives as individuals, they just become easier targets for hate-fueled lynch mobs. In either situation, they’re targets, and there seems to be no way around it.
When she’s not saving innocent mutants, Jean attempts to forge a new path that’s somewhere in the middle. It’s not enough to just help mutants one at a time. Like Cyclops and Charles Xavier before her, she attempts to give mutants a larger voice on the international stage. While that makes her a target too, it can’t be any less nerve-wracking than being dead for 14 years so there’s little doubt that Jean can handle it.
It’s her ability to forge a new team of X-men who can help her pursue this vision that brings out the true strength of the narrative. In the same way, she injects a little heart into saving innocent mutants, she does the same in recruiting other mutants like Nightcrawler and Namor to her cause. She doesn’t approach it like a diplomat or the leader of a mutant army. She just presents her hopes and dreams for a better future for mutants, never talking down to them or acting as though she’s right by default. That ends up being more effective, much to the chagrin of every Magneto fan.
That element of heart is a big part of what gives X-men Red #1 so much appeal. It’s not just about Jean Grey being alive again and having a chance to contribute to the X-men. It’s about infusing elements into the greater X-men narrative that have been missing during her long absence. Even though these are familiar elements to anyone who saw an X-men movie other than X-Men Origins: Wolverine, they still resonate on a personal level that gives the story dramatic weight.
That weight ends up being important, especially at the end, when Jean’s approach gets tested in a big, brutal way. Heart or no heart, X-men Red #1 still exists in a world of killer robots, evil clones, and potential Skrull agents. There will always be powerful forces looking to strain, wound, or even break the hearts of someone like Jean Grey. The end reveals a threat that is in a position to strain her more than most, but that only makes her efforts more critical.
X-men Red #1 presents a flawed world in which Jean Grey is in a unique position to help. More than anything else, it shows that she has plenty to contribute, despite her long absence. In fact, that same absence puts her in a better position than most. If there’s a shortcoming to that concept, it’s that the scope of the story too limited.
The story skips some critical elements, like showing Jean adjusting to a world she hasn’t been part of for over a decade. Her place in the over-arching narrative of X-men isn’t established and, except for a couple of characters, she doesn’t get a chance to deepen her personal connections to her new team. Some just end up going along with her because she’s Jean Grey. Granted, that’s not a bad reason to follow her, given her history, but it can’t be the only reason.
This doesn’t detract from the core of the story, though. If the goal of X-men Red #1 is to re-establish Jean Grey’s place in the X-men, then it succeeds. If part of that goal involves reminding everyone what the X-men stand for and why a little compassion goes a long way, even in the face of hate, then it succeeds in that effort too. Taylor and Asrar do plenty to forge a narrative that reminds everybody why Jean Grey was sorely missed. Hopefully, she gets a chance to explore to pursue that narrative without cosmic forces trying to kill her.