Monday, 1 September 2008

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #6: Red

I was never under any illusion that a piece on Jean Grey was going to be easy. Not because I can’t get a handle on the female mindset (just subtract logic and add ponies, right?), but because it’s often hard to pin down who exactly Jean Grey is. Whilst reading up on the red-haired telepath, I came across one person whose view was that Jean is a blank slate of a woman, existing for no reason but to give the men in her life someone to fight over. It’s an oversimplification, but it certainly isn’t without a kernel of truth.

Part of the difficulty of analysing Jean/Marvel Girl/Phoenix can be attributed to her beginnings. Like so many other comic book heroines of the time, Jean fell afoul of that particular brand of well-meant but patronising sexism that seemed to help define the Sixties. Everyone in the X-Men was desperate to stress that she was an equal member of the team, but somehow it was always Jean who had to be defended from the latest super-villain trashing New York. She ended up in charge of the team’s fashion choices, for the love of Pete. But whilst you could certainly write an entire essay on Sixties super heroine gender politics, that’s not really my bag. Certainly, defining Jean is tricky for reasons beyond her initial appearances. After all, Polaris was introduced in those halcyon days of mini-skirts and hippies too, and her character ultimately became more defined as time went on. True, that definition was erratic and self-contradictory, and more than any other X-Man her development has been enraging in its heartless cynicism, but she did grow. She evolved past the point where she was just an excuse for men to act heroically and protectively whilst she did the ironing. I’m not sure Jean ever really did.

To understand the depth of this problem, try the following exercise. Assuming you can think of any, write down what you think the top five moments in Jean Grey’s history are. Emotionally powerful, kick-ass awesome, whatever floats your particular boat. Stuff that knocked your socks off, basically.

Now cross off every one of them including the words Cyclops, Xavier, Wolverine or Phoenix.
Got anything left?

My point is that, even as comics progressed into the eighties and nineties, and into an era that was at least in theory somewhat more enlightened (biology- and gravity-defying "attributes" aside, naturally), Jean Grey remained defined by others, rather than becoming a character in herself. She’s defined by her love affair with Scott, her friendship-and-maybe-more with Wolverine, her devotion to Professor X, and her ever-more complex and baffling symbiosis with the endless destructive energy of the Phoenix Force.

Let’s start at the beginning (though technically this is a ret-con, so I get to side-step the Sixties mentality I mentioned earlier). Jean’s powers first materialise the day her best friend Annie dies. Annie had been hit by a car, and as the ten year old Jean holds her friend’s shattered body, she suddenly finds herself able to experience Annie’s agony as she begins to fade. Holding her friend’s spirit as it slips away costs Jean in more ways than one. In the immediate sense, of course, she has lost her best friend. Jean becomes quiet and withdrawn, losing the joy of life that had defined her up until that moment. After various fruitless attempts to help their child, John and Elaine Grey turn to Professor Charles Xavier. Quickly realising Jean is a mutant, Xavier places blocks within her psyche, to ensure that her mutant power does not overwhelm her until she is old enough to handle it adequately. For all I know, this was the only course of action available to him. Certainly, I don’t feel comfortable engaging in armchair telepathy. What is clear, however, is that it ties Jean to Xavier right from the beginning. From time to time he releases the blocks to allow her to experiment with her power. Think about that for a moment. He allows her. Now, again, maybe the blocks were genuinely a necessity, but notice how this was a solution never suggested to help control Scott’s optic blasts or Rogue’s transferal powers. This has been noted by others before me, and the standard Marvel reply is that both Scott and Rogue are determined to solve their problems themselves rather than fall back on the Professor (there’s admittedly also the fact that it would likely be inconvenient constantly having Xavier switch their powers off and on whenever necessary). That answer though fails to address the fact that Jean apparently was happy with relying entirely on the Professor. Perhaps the difference is simply her age, but then this arrangement lasted until well into her teens. On the other hand, perhaps it taps into something else regarding Jean’s character. For years before we meet her in UXM 1 and for quite some time after, Jean seems completely content with having Xavier make these decisions for her, in the process becoming defined by Xavier’s choices as to how fast she can develop. I’m certainly not arguing that her faith in Xavier was a mistake [1], but it’s just interesting to me that a teenager would agree to having her natural abilities deliberately repressed by any authority figure. There’s no hint of rebellion, or even an acknowledgement that she is unhappy with the situation, as necessary as she believes it to be. Even before the beginnings of the great love affair with Scott Summers that would define Grey’s entire adult life, her devotion to Xavier means that she simply acts as a foil for his desire to do good.
Having Warren and Scott fight over her hardly helps, either. She has her own opinions on their conflict, of course, but she never actually states them, she simply sits there while they lock horns. As readers we know she would rather Scott win the mating ritual, but her total passivity in the process rankles somewhat, giving as it does the distinct impression that she is a prize to be won (of course, this contest comes from the original Sixties comics, and we’ve already gone over the problem there). Jean’s importance as a character is expressed in Xavier’s efforts to help her, and the two rivals efforts to have her. Throughout all this, though, we learn precious little about exactly what kind of person she is within herself.

Right; let’s slap Russell T Davies around for a bit. One of the biggest problems suffered by the first two seasons of the new iteration of Doctor Who was that we were constantly told by any character with air in their lungs that Rose was the bestest companion EVER, covering the space-time continuum with rainbows and lollipops and kittens. It never seemed to occur to Davies that this was an opinion to be backed up with anything as tawdry as evidence, the dyed-blonde whinging egomaniac just flounced her way through every episode and then demanded tribute [2]. It was Mary-Sue by propaganda.

Jean Grey suffers from a (substantially less advanced) case of the same problem. Every time we’re expected to care about Jean its because one of the mirrors we view her through has become distorted, or broken. The endless trials of her life with Cyclops, for example. After Warren gives up on her, having realised which way the wind is blowing, the way is open for them to begin dating, but Scott is just too tightly buttoned to confess to his feelings. Eventually Jean is forced to tell him he knows what he wants to say, even if he can’t say it [3]. When she is found alive in a cocoon years after her supposed death, she discovers Scott has had a marriage and a child in the intervening months, facts he initially tries to keep from her (partially because said wife, Madelyne Pryor, looks exactly like her,and Scott is finding it harder and harder to view Jean, Madelyne and the Phoenix as separate entities). Then, years later, Cyclops’ apparent death following his forced bonding with Apocalypse leads to a long period of alternating moping and hollow defiance, until eventually Scott returns, and Jean’s life begins to revolve around his new coldness, and the possibility that he may be having an affair with Emma Frost.
If it's not Scott, then it's Logan. If I had to pick my favourite Jean Grey moment, it would have to be at the conclusion of Grant Morrison's run on X-Men (or New X-Men as it was known at the time). Jean and Wolverine have been duped into investigating what turns out to be the wreckage of Asteroid M (the space station once used as a base by Magneto), which then begins to fall into the Sun. Wolverine's healing factor keeps him going for a while, but Jean quickly begins to suffer from the heat. Ultimately, Wolverine realises he has no choice but to kill the woman he loves, and he does so.
"God", he whispers as he holds her dead body to him. "Ah, God".

That is easily one of my favourite scenes in X-Men history. Frankly I thought Morrison's run contained a lot of crap, but every now and then he'd pull a rabbit out of a hat. But let's not kid ourselves, that was Wolverine's moment, not Jean's. [4]

So that's Xavier, Cyclops, and Wolverine. By far the biggest factor in Jean's life, however, was the Phoenix.

I mentioned earlier that Annie’s death incurred more than one cost. One of these would not be felt until years later. The Phoenix Force observes Jean as she comforts her friend in her last moments, and realises that this simple human, uniquely amongst the sentient creatures the Force has encountered, shares its love for life and for creation. It is at this moment that the Phoenix chooses its next form (though it decides to wait until her powers are more fully realised), with repercussions for the entire Marvel universe. On one level this speaks to her obvious devotion to those she loves. Jean simply bleeds love over everyone and everything. How else can we explain her decision to leave the X-Men after the Krakoa incident (in Giant-Sized X-Men) due to her attraction to Wolverine (a man who quite frankly got stuffed in the looks department, and at the time they met was a total dick to everyone and everything into the bargain) [5]. She can't stay for fear the attraction is too powerful, and she can't give in because of how much she loves Scott. On this first occasion, though, it is the Phoenix’s mirror through which we view Jean.

I could go on for quite some time about the alien entity known as the Phoenix, though I'm not sure that's really necessary. After all, although everyone thought at the time that Jean Grey and the Phoenix were one and the same (after it apparently possessed her in UXM 100), we eventually learn it merely mimicked her form, sending the true Jean Grey to the bottom of Jamaica Bay inside a cocoon. Anything the Phoenix then did whilst in Jean Grey's "body" is thus hard to attach a value to, at least in terms of how much it tells us about John and Elaine's elder daughter. Having said that, though, the Phoenix Force found it so hard to cope with Jean's overwhelming sense of life and love that it forced itself to believe it was her. So perhaps there is something of Jean in every action the Phoenix takes. Maybe the increased use of power it displayed (dampening Scott's powers so she could look him in the eye, "persuading" Kitty Pryde's parents to allow their daughter to enrol at Xavier's "school") was an expression of Jean's darker side. Maybe the manifestation of the Dark Phoenix [6], slaughterer of the five billion inhabitants of the D'Bari system, was a part of Jean Grey too. Certainly, the fact that the Dark Phoenix was only eventually defeated by its own love of life (reflection and complement to Jean as it is) resurfacing and choosing to immolate itself implies some link to the template personality.

I had a friend once who told me he was convinced that a person’s capacity for love was invariably equal to their capacity for hate. A few months later he beat the shit out of me [6], so I guess he knew what he was talking about. If Jean really does embody love and life to the extent we're apparently supposed to believe she does, then the levels of destruction the Dark Phoenix reached might in fact simply be quantitatively different to anything Jean might attempt, rather than qualitatively. The Phoenix is still the mirror through which we view Jean, but either the mirror has become cracked, or Jean herself has.

In the end, it is not until after her actual death that Jean shakes off the curse of simply reflecting others. After the resolution of the "Magneto" crisis, Jean finds herself resurrected 150 years in the future by the sentient virus Sublime. Ultimately she chooses to stop being a mirror for her loved ones in the only way she still can; by using the power of the Phoenix Force to reach through time and nudge Cyclops into choosing a future with Emma and with the Xavier Institute over wallowing in his misery. In effect, she echoes her final words to him, that he should live, and leave Jean in the past. He will have to study his reflection somewhere else.

Of course, whilst this highlights one final time her devotion to her husband, and the strength of her love for others, it still might not have been the best idea in the world.

After all, sooner or later, one way or another, she’ll be back.

We’ll be taking a break from SpaceSquid vs. the X-Men for a little while, since during my exile I’ll be separated from my reference books (which by now have pretty much covered the carpet in our living room, I half expect to return from Slovenia to find Big G has crafted them into a fort). When we reconvene, though, we shall investigate the strange case of the man who became a superhero through blackmail, and discuss how hard it is to locate a common thread in the actions of a character that re-appears almost constantly, but never stays long enough for anyone to bother deciding who what actually makes him tick.

[1] It would be a mistake to equate Jean’s brand of loyalty with Scott’s, although they do share some similarities. Ultimately, though, they come from different directions. Scott respects the man for his dream, and Jean respects the dream because of the man it came from. Of course, they both love both Xavier and his vision, they’ve just arrived at that situation through exactly opposite routes.

It's also worth mentioning how different they're loyalties manifest themselves during the Age of Apocalypse. Cyclops remains loyal to Sinister right up until the Horseman abandons his tower, even though Scott realises how badly the empire of Apocalypse and his cronies have dealt with America. Jean, on the other hand, abandons Logan, the man she loves, the very instant he agrees to a nuclear strike against Apocalypse, because she immediately knows it iswrong. She still offers Logan the chance to stop her by cutting her throat, of course. "If you've ever truly loved me, make it quick". I'd put that on the awesome list too.

[2] In Davies’ defence, Buffy Summers suffered from a similar disconnect between her behaviour and the regard in which others held her. Considering Davies essentially just re-writes Whedon scripts in the dark with a blunt wax crayon whilst watching the Eastenders omnibus, it’s probably not surprising he ran into the same problem.

[3] While we’re on the subject of a character that exists only as a reflection of others, I always found it faintly amusing that an attractive, smart, caring woman would not only fall for the silent, charmless guy that no-one else notices, but tell him how she feels without prompting. In a lot of ways, Jean could be considered a fantasy woman for those with low self-esteem. Which is interesting, since though I’m not claiming a perfect correlation, “low self-esteem” and “comic fan” really aren’t labels with a null intersection in their Venn diagram.

[4] It really annoyed me that having had such a horribly miserable end, Jean was then immediately resurrected only so she could die on Earth two issues later. She got to say goodbye to Scott that way, I guess, but dying in Logan's arms just seems so much more powerful. "Where's my wife?" "I stabbed her to death in space."
[5] Naturally she does this hoping Scott will follow her, but he chooses to stay with the Professor. Scott’s devotion to his principles has always been less considered and nuanced than his wife’s.

[6] An alternate personality that took control after "Jean" was almost fooled by Mastermind's illusions into joining the Hellfire Club and killing her fellow X-Men. Once she snapped out of it she messed up Mastermind to a fairly epic extent, which was good for a chuckle.

[7] He was my mate, he Pearl Harboured me, and he was fairly able at Jeet Kune Do, so my pride can handle the fact that I didn‘t really do to well in the fracas. I didn‘t fall over or pass out, at least. Plus, his fist got infected from punching my face, so I guess I had my revenge.


Anonymous said...

As a woman with a huge girl crush on jean grey, I have been fuming for decades(i am a robust 27) over the bullshit plots the writers have put her in. Thank you for giving me a nudge of courage to stand up and debate marvel for all of the disgusting inconsistencies. Hopefully they will give me a year to correct a lifetime of nonsense.

SpaceSquid said...

Always delighted to help people call others on their bullshit.

Anonymous said...

Hi me again. All I gotta say is that the whole love triangle died in x-men 30 (the wedding issue & one of my favourite comics of all-time), only to be brought back by hacks like Morrison later... that's sad but MY favourite Jean moment is where she beat the tar out of Sabretooth, alone for threatening her friends. You know, if I'm wrong to love the Nicieza/Lobdell/Simonson/EVO cartoon version of the character then by God I don't want to be right. As much as you seem to hate her, you gotta admit that in retrospect the gal is pretty badass!