Pop Morality: Jean Grey Edition

by Sonny Bunch on October 16, 2012

(Warning: We’re about to get a little nerdy. Well, nerdier. That Cabin in the Woods thread was pretty nerdy.)

One of my favorite bits of Marvel Comics arcana is the fact that Jean Grey—also known as a genocidaire by the name of the Dark Phoenix—was originally allowed to live.

Wait. Let’s back up a little.

So, Jean Grey: Originally kind of a nothingburger of a X-Man—a love interest for Cyclops and a damsel in distress much of the rest of the time—Jean Grey was imbued with a huge amount of power in the late-1970s after tapping into the “Phoenix Force.” Like, world-ending power, if she went a little crazy. Which she did! At the end of Uncanny X-Men #135 she consumed a sun—killing billions of sentient lifeforms in the process—and destroyed a spaceship full of aliens (the Shi’ar) friendly to the X-Men. These events came to a head a couple of issues later, as recounted in the new book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story:

In the pages of #136, ready to ship, Dark Phoenix returned to earth, and fought the X-Men, until Jean Grey returned to her senses—just in time for Lilandra and the Shi’ar to summon them so that Grey would stand trial for her crimes. In #137, Xavier demanded a “duel of honor,” and the X-Men battled the Shi’ar’s Imperial Guard on the moon. The X-Men lost, and Jean Grey was given a kind of partial lobotomy, preventing her from accessing the Phoenix force ever again. Depowered and slightly meek, she returned to earth with the rest of the X-Men.

The X-Men #137 was a double-sized issue, one of Marvel’s first big-splash publications since its decision to focus on the hard-core fans in the direct market, where advance orders had already reached a tremendous one hundred thousand. But the story’s resolution, Shooter told Salicrup, wasn’t good enough. “Having a character destroy an inhabited world with billions of people, wipe out a starship and then—well, you know, having the powers removed and being let go on Earth . . . it seems to me that that’s the same as capturing Hitler alive at the end of World War II, taking the German army away from him and letting him go to live on Long Island.”

Jean Grey had to pay for her crimes, insisted Shooter. She had to die.

Now, to me, Shooter’s decision is a no-brainer. I’ve thought that ever since I originally heard this story. But it’s extremely interesting that the original author, Chris Claremont, thought she deserved a slap on the wrist for the murder of billions:

Claremont acknowledged that Shooter’s mandates had improved the story, even if he felt that the long-term result—Jean Grey’s death—was the wrong one. “Unfortunately,” he said diplomatically, “you come to a situation where different attitudes and different books reflect the different moral and philosophical attitudes of the different writers and artists.”

What ended up being one of the most profoundly moving pieces of comics lore* almost didn’t happen—and it only did because Shooter forced Claremont to make the more moral choice.

*Trust me: This was a big deal. Like “Chris Claremont getting death threats” big deal.

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