Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Return of... Marvel Girl!?

It only took a little over five years after the fact for Marvel to raise from the dead one of its classic characters--Jean Grey, a/k/a Marvel Girl, whose life had been brought to an end both heroically and memorably. In comics terms, five years isn't a great deal of time to allow the dust to settle before planning the details of the character's resurrection--and in Jean's case, there was also the matter of coming up with a reason for bringing her back (or, perhaps better put, a reason for not leaving her dead) beyond folding her into a reboot of the original X-Men. With her more dynamic identity as Phoenix at an end, what could Jean Grey bring to the table as far as reader interest that she couldn't manage to ignite in the many years since her 1963 debut?

One could ask the same of the first X-Men team, who couldn't make a success of their first title and quickly fell by the wayside when their 1975 replacements made the scene--but who were now counting on a bump from the popularity of their successors for their relaunch. Jean, in a way, seemed to be relying on her own popularity and momentum as Phoenix to bring her old readers along for her rebirth--an appropriate word for her reappearance, under the circumstances. Few characters could embody so well the commonly used phrase "like a phoenix from the ashes...", describing the mythological bird that perishes in flames of its own making only to be reborn from its ashes.

Given the interest that Jean's return would likely generate, it seems strange that the story behind it wouldn't take place exclusively in the new title in order to benefit its launch, perhaps even taking two or three issues to solve the "mystery" of it. Perhaps the decision was made to instead have the X-Men regarded as a whole, rather than banking on one of their characters to sell their concept, a more meritorious approach that lets all five characters present themselves to new readers and conveys a vote of confidence in the book.

That's not to say that Jean's reappearance wasn't milked for all it was worth and used to build interest in her new title. First, indirectly, in an issue of The Avengers that featured the return of the Enclave and inadvertently led to the discovery of an energy-emitting pod beneath Jamaica Bay--and then followed up on in the pages of Fantastic Four, giving artist/writer John Byrne (along with inker Terry Austin--how awesome is that?) a crack at the sequence of events which began with the death of Marvel Girl during a fateful space shuttle flight and leading to the as-yet undisclosed details of the introduction of the Phoenix force. The issue of X-Men which heralds the aftermath paints an ominous picture of the shuttle's final moments before it crashes into the bay:

...but what happened during its flight? And what happened to Jean Grey?

Until now, the details of Jean's experience within the shuttle have been limited to the events following the X-Men's escape from the orbital base that Steven Lang had been using to once more unleash the Sentinels against mutants in his mad plan to exterminate them. With the base on the verge of self-destruction, the team was forced to evacuate in a damaged shuttle and make its way to Earth by flying through a deadly solar flare, with only Jean possessing the power to survive the radiation of the flare while remaining in the cockpit. (Beats me how telekinesis can screen out solar radiation, but what do I know.) Beyond that, we have only fragments of information. Jean's TK screen began to fail, and the radiation began to flood the compartment. When the shuttle crashes into Jamaica Bay, the rest of the X-Men make it to the surface and then find that Jean has survived, as she emerges in a new form--Phoenix.

After Phoenix takes her own life on the moon in a later story, we fast-forward to the plans of the Enclave, which derail along with their jet when it taxis off the runway and crashes into Jamaica Bay--but first responders are shocked to see a strange force erupting from beneath the water at the site of the crash. The Avengers are called to investigate, and discover a mysterious object that resembles the same cocoon that the Enclave had once used to incubate their creation known as Him--an object that resists their attempts to approach it. Eventually, the Avengers discover that the capsule's origin, while still unknown, was unrelated to either the plane incident or the Enclave, and they manage to return with it to their lab.

The investigation is then handed off to the Fantastic Four, who are temporarily staying at Avengers Mansion. The Avengers story has already teased us behind the scenes as to the identity of the capsule's occupant--and thanks to the power of the Invisible Woman, both the Avengers and the FF learn that the object holds a young woman, whose origin is still unknown.

Pulling an all-nighter, Reed devises a way to initiate contact with the woman--but in bringing her to consciousness, the resulting chaos makes it evident that her memories end at the point where she and her friends were fighting in a battle for their lives, a conflict that rings familiar for the rest of us. And given the nature of her power, Reed plays a hunch and deduces that this woman is Marvel Girl.

Jean makes an effort to reconstruct her last memories, but her recollections end with the defeat of Lang's plans. It seems a dead end as far as how to proceed from here. Jean's first thought is to return and have the X-Men's telepathic leader restore her memories, but is astonished to learn that the team is now aligned with Magneto--while Reed advises against her seeking out her parents, given their belief that Jean is dead and the sudden shock that would likely result. Yet Sue, seeing that Jean is hanging on by a thread, insists that they pursue it.

Soon enough, everyone arrives at the Grey residence (man, you'd think these people would have given her a change of clothes by now!)--and after Hercules finds himself on the receiving end of a stern reprimand by Jean for his method of entrance, they all make their way inside, where they come across what may be the key to Jean regaining her memories.

Back at Avengers Mansion, something is nagging at Cap that has to do with a file on Marvel Girl left by a former Avenger (and X-Man), the Beast. The information in the file doesn't quite fill in the missing pieces--but it does provide disturbing context to the circumstances of Jean's shuttle crash.

Meanwhile, Jean has summoned up the courage to take hold of the crystal orb--and through her contact with it, the remnants of her telepathic powers are able to let Sue, Reed, and Hercules see what she sees as her memories of the events within the shuttle return. They learn of scientist Peter Corbeau, whose knowledge of piloting the shuttle is absorbed by Jean, allowing her to remain in the cockpit while he and the X-Men must retreat to a shielded compartment; and during the flight through the flare, they see Jean beginning to die from the radiation bombardment. It's then that everyone aboard, as well as the rest of us, learn that the situation takes a new turn when the shuttle is... boarded.

Granted that the X-Men story left the door wide open as far as what really happened on the shuttle between the time Jean took the controls and when it crashed--and this scene is virtually a blank slate on which Byrne can create new material. Yet you may notice during this sequence where Jean learns the truth that he makes one or two unusual choices that seem geared to make this new twist to the appearance of Phoenix believable. The first involves the entity's claim--made, conspicuously, twice--that Jean called for some sort of aid or help for her predicament, a call the entity responded to... but a cry for help that never occurred in either the X-Men tale or in these flashbacks. We're left to presume that it instead took the form of Jean's wish to remain alive--a desire that somehow attracted the Phoenix, a universal force that apparently singled out Jean from all the other people in the universe who might have been fighting for their lives at the same time.

From there, the remaining moments of Jean's encounter make reasonable sense--and Reed is able to fill in the missing pieces of Jean ending up in suspended animation at the site of the shuttle crash.

(Good old Reed--Jean can collapse to the floor, but the priority is to catch the crystal.)

The other tweak that Byrne makes involves the information that Captain America arrives with concerning the Phoenix--specifically, the circumstances of its turn to evil. The original story leads us to believe that it was the influence of Mastermind (with an assist from the White Queen) that was the cause of the Phoenix's corruption and paved the way for Dark Phoenix; indeed, the fact that Dark Phoenix appears almost immediately after Jean breaks Mastermind's hold on her seems to bear that out. But if that's true, Cap appears to have been misinformed.

The discrepancy might simply be that the Beast never got the whole story; in fact, maybe even Cyclops never realized the extent that Mastermind's influence had on Jean (er, Phoenix) as far as making her adopt an evil nature. At the time, Cyclops seemed as bewildered by Jean's change as anyone: "Images--hitting me through the psychic rapport I share with Jean--black flames consuming her soul! Mystical allusions--I don't understand--lost...drowning...alone..." But others seemed to think that the change was a strong possibility, perhaps even inevitable. Moira MacTaggert feared Jean's ability to handle the incredible levels of power that she wielded... Xavier tended to agree, likening Jean's change to Dark Phoenix to the well-known opinion from historian and moralist Lord Acton: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." As Xavier expands on the thought, "Too much power, I fear, too soon." Perhaps Byrne is simply discounting the Mastermind angle so as not to overly complicate the new events we've seen here. The flip side, however, is that the Phoenix is now seen as "pure evil," as Cap puts it, and was driven to act on that evil in trying to reject the goodness that Jean's nature brought to it. That seems considerably more complicated than simply punting the blame to Mastermind.

Regardless, the story's main goal--establishing the specifics of Jean's reappearance--is accomplished, and Reed facilitates her transition to X-Factor with a simple phone call. The story's step-by-step investigative aspect is a successful approach which works from beginning to end, a style of storytelling that Byrne has proven able to handle quite well. Even the story's title, "Like A Phoenix!", offers a clue in how the story will unfold--indulging in a bit of misdirection vis-à-vis the bird of mythology, but instead coming to reflect the fact that Jean Grey was not Phoenix but for a time was thought to be. It would take awhile for it all to sink in with readers who, for a time, had thought Jean Grey had finally reached her potential as a character--if only by dying a hero's death.

Fantastic Four #286

Script and Pencils: John Byrne
Inks: Terry Austin
Letterer: John Workman


Factory Yoyo said...

At least when they thawed out Bucky his new Winter Soldier persona was a drastic improvement.


Not so much


Anonymous said...

Man, I've read some whacky, convoluted, bizarre explanations offered for bringing dead characters back, but...sheesh.