Thursday, January 04, 2007

X-Factor and the Catastrophic Rebirth of Jean Grey

During my eight month readthrough Chris Claremont's original X-Men run, I bought Essential X-Factor. Now, I'd read some of the early X-Factor issues, and knew they weren't very good, but having so much new X-material at such a low price was too sweet an offer to resist. I didn't actually start reading the book until a couple of days ago, and it lives down to my expectations. Rarely have so many quality stories been rendered completely nonsensical in the service of setting up a book. Let us delve deeper.

The book begins with two issues that give us the retcon that allowed Jean Grey to return to life. Retconning is always tricky territory, for every William the bloody awful poet, a retcon that fit perfectly with what came before and brought a lot more depth to the character, you're going to get five nonsensical, story killing developments. Bringing Jean back was a bad idea from the start, the power of the Dark Phoenix, the reason it stands out so much in comic book history, was largely the ending, where a hero had to face up to the consequences of her actions, not just forget about them and do something new next month.

So, the retcon was destined to fail from the start, bringing Jean back, no matter what Marvel's party line would tell you, does numb a lot of the power of the original story. The primary theme of the Phoenix storyline is that power corrupts, infused with this cosmic spirit, Jean gradually loses touch with humanity and responsibility, she indulges in all her personal fantasies, with Jason Wyngarde, and then proceeds to treat the universe like a toy. Given such power, we see that anyone could give in to these impulses and become a monster. So, the Phoenix force is a neutral power, it takes its emotion from Jean. When that emotion is love, as in the initial crystal universe saving storyline, it can be a powerful force for good.

When she becomes corrupted however, the Phoenix force becomes too dangerous to exist. Jean herself is caught between the pleasure she gets from enacting her new power and the morality she held before. Her personality has been warped, but part of the original her is still in there, and she gains control for long enough to aim the laser at herself and die on the moon.

The retcon alters things so that the real Jean was locked in a cocoon under the ocean while the Phoenix moved around in an exact duplicate of her body. Now, they claim that the Phoenix was pure evil, but some of Jean's goodness fought through and caused the entity to destroy itself. This just makes no sense, why would the Phoenix fuse the M'Kraan Crystal and save the world if its nature was evil? And, it utterly invalidates the original story's point about the corruption of power, replacing it with the maudlin idea that Jean's goodness somehow shown through and forced the Phoenix to kill itself.

One of the problems with this ressurection of Jean is that she's not a particularly interesting character on her own. Like Scott, she has no edge, she's just someone who wants to do good. This is boring, Scott's most interesting time under Claremont was when he was getting into the relationship with Maddy Pryor. He knows he only likes her because she looks like Jean, but that doesn't stop him from going forward with the relationship. So, Scott at least has a little edge, Jean now returns to a boring, pre-developed state.

The major problem with X-Factor is that the original X-Men were generally boring characters. Claremont made X-Men the success it was, and he did so with his people, not these five. So, we've got a bunch of rather boring superheroes lumped onto a team with an absoultely ridiculous premise. The idea of them as undercover mutant hunters seems like it would only feed into prejudice, by making mutants seem devious and secretive. Now, I believe later in the series, they acknowledge that it was all a scheme by Cameron Hodge to undermine them, but at the time, it was clearly meant to be seen as a good thing. It is weird to see Cameron Hodge here, with a human body, not a giant spider thing.

The Jean rebirth was pretty poorly handled, but I think the greater crime of X-Factor #1 is what it does to Scott and Maddy's relationship. What happens here is that Scott finds out Jean is alive, promptly leaves his wife and son without any explanation and apparently has no plans to return to them, instead returning to superheroics. Now, there are some hints that Scott is uneasy about what he's doing to Madelyn, but the fact that he leaves his wife in that manner is pretty much unforgivable.

The book tries to makes us believe that it makes more sense for him to lead this team because he can do more good than he can as a husband, but that just doesn't click. He could be a superhero, and still have his wife and child with him, the real reason he goes to New York and joins the team is because he's still in love with Jean. There's something a bit creepy about Scott, who's been through so much, trying to restart a relationship with Jean, who's living in such a different world than him. I know the passage of time is screwy in the comics world, but emotionally, Scott has grown so much, beyond the sort of childish love that he and Jean once had. He may be able to have a relationship with her in the future, but it's wrong to try to be with her right out of the cocoon.

If you're positioning Scott as the hero of the book, it's a critical mistake to make him such a bastard right from the start. Now, I always have been a huge fan of Madelyn, her story is so sad, she'll always be second best to Jean in Scott's eyes. One of the best moments in Claremont's entire run is during Fall of the Mutants, right before Maddy is going to sacrifice herself to save the world, she tells Scott she still loves him. She took all the awfulness that was heaped on her, and still was ready to let herself die in service of a cause. What happened to her afterwards, in Inferno, was all justification to get Scott and Jean together without guilt.

Reading X-Factor, and the two other issues, made me appreciate just how far ahead of everyone else Claremont was. His emphasis on character growth and continual evolution was unlike anyone else, and a stark contrast to the conservatism inherent in the premise of X-Factor. His run on X-Men is one of the great achievements in serial storytelling, no matter how much Marvel screws with it through retcons like this.

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