Comics

Jean Grey #8: Conflict Between Two of the Most Powerful Psychics in the Marvel Universe

Marvel (via Amazon)

Jean Grey and Emma Frost aren't just two characters who occasionally disagree with how to conduct themselves as superheroes.

In a perfect world, a friendly rivalry brings out the best and worst of two characters. Since no world is perfect, especially one that has Loki and shape-shifting aliens in it, that kind of friendliness is next to impossible. In the Marvel universe, rivalries between heroes and villains are widespread, common, and a vital part of its mythos. There isn't too much complexity in the sense that the dynamics are fairly clear-cut. The two characters are on opposing sides. They hate each other and want their side to triumph. Anyone who watches professional wrestling can understand that.



Jean Grey #8

Dennis Hopeless (writer), Victor Ibanez (artist)

(Marvel Comics)

25 Oct 2017

It's only when two heroes develop a rivalry that the narrative gains a layer of dynamics that can't be fleshed out by seeing Captain America fight the Red Skull for the billionth time. These rivalries often pit two characters who are on the same side against each other, sometime to the point where they undermine their own heroic efforts. For Jean Grey and Emma Frost, that point is far behind them and they've long since entered uncharted territory of bitterness.

These aren't just two characters who occasionally disagree with how to conduct themselves as superheroes. These are two characters who have actually hurt each other, physically and emotionally, on multiple levels. Going back to the early days of the Phoenix Saga during Chris Claremont's run on Uncanny X-men to Grant Morrison's run on New X-men, these two have a long and varied list of reasons to hate each other.

Even though Jean Grey ends up dead, there's a sense that these two are destined to clash again. With Jean Grey #8, the beginning of the Psych War arc, the wait is finally over. Dennis Hopeless pits a teenage, time-displaced Jean Grey against Emma Frost at a time when she shows little hesitation in sparking wars between the X-men and Inhumans. It may not involve the same dramatic elements that Morrison or Claremont utilized, but the stakes feel every bit as high.

From the beginning, Jean Grey #8 follows similar themes that Hopeless has established in previous issues. The time-displaced Jean Grey, in her effort to prepare for the Phoenix Force, finds herself in a situation she's completely unprepared to handle. Her being a teenager gives her a pass to some extent, but that only goes so far when the stakes are cosmic and the egos involved include Emma Frost. There's really no amount of preparation that can prepare anyone for that kind of struggle, regardless of how much time travel is involved.

In a sense, Jean is in a unique position to offer commentary on the events that led to her most recent death. Her venture into the mind of Emma Frost, her future rival, sends her on an abridged journey through those moments, eventually culminating in a direct encounter with the former White Queen during a lurid, yet familiar situation. It's the context of that encounter, though, that establishes the stakes and the drama for the Psyche War arc.

It's a rare, but increasingly common theme throughout her solo series. The time-displaced Jean ventures into a world that's destined to kill her, but with a different set of perceptions, compared to her older self. While being an immature teenager does plenty to skew anyone's perceptions, it still has the advantage of lacking the baggage of the older Jean Grey, who perished. That's an important factor for the Morrison-era X-men because that same baggage played a significant role in causing her death.

Hopeless doesn't ignore those factors as the time-displaced Jean traverses Emma's mind and the memorable moments from the world of New X-men. In a sense, that baggage takes form and substance with the ghost of the older Jean Grey. The previous issue establishes her presence with the teenage Jean and not in a very friendly way either. The two Jean Greys from two different eras are constantly at odds, arguing and yelling at one another in various moments that would strain anyone's mental health.

That constant clash, which becomes a lot more heated as they fight through Emma Frost's mind, establishes an important distinction for Psyche War and for Jean Grey's ongoing story, as a whole. The Jean Grey of the past is still very much at odds with the Jean Grey of the future and not just because she ends up dead. Even though both Jean Greys share the same goal in avoiding the fate of the Phoenix Force, they're not on the same page in terms of methods. If anything, they trip over one another in their conflicting efforts.



It raises the stakes in the ongoing struggle while also revealing how ill-prepared Jean Grey is for the challenge before her. It gives the impression that she has never had a true grasp of the Phoenix, despite her being its most iconic host, going back to the Claremont era. It also makes the role Emma Frost plays feel more personal, especially as it sets the stage for a more heated battle that won't just involve psychic attacks.

The situation, context, and tensions are all there for Jean Grey and Emma Frost. The journey to their clash never gets derailed or subverted. However, even with so many critical ingredients, the lack of heated drama leaves the overall story in Jean Grey #8 feeling muted. While it doesn't try to fight the entire battle between these intensely passionate characters all at once, it stops short of probing the open wounds between them.

They never berate each other over past failures. There's no heated exchange on how Emma affected Jean's marriage to Cyclops. There are all sorts of emotional sub-plots that didn't find their way into the conflict. While the door is left open for these sub-plots, the story still lacks the connecting emotions that give all its potent ingredients the necessary impact.

Psych War still has plenty of potential to make this latest clash between Jean Grey and Emma Frost as dramatic as it deserves to be. Jean Grey #8 is just the first step in that effort. These are two of the most powerful psychics in the Marvel universe and they just happen to have a long list of reasons to resent each other. Anything less than an omega-level clash just won't cut it.

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

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8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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