Phoenix Resurrection – “From a Flawed Beginning Rises a Definitive Conclusion”

PHOENIX RESSURECTION 1-5/ Writer: Matthew Rosenberg / Pencillers: Leinil Francis Yu; Carlos Pacheco; Joe Bennett; Ramon Rosanos; Leinil Francis Yu & Joe Bennett / Inkers: Gerry Alanguilan; Rafael Fonteriz; Loreno Ruggiero; Ramon Rosanas; Gerry Alanguilan & Belardino Brabo / Colorist: Rachelle Rosenberg / Letterer: Travis Lanham / Publisher Marvel Comics

Jean Grey is not a character one thinks of as weak—nor the Phoenix force, a cosmic entity to which Jean has been bonded for almost forty years. They have wielded the power of life and death, and if the promise of Phoenix Resurrection is fulfilled they will again be the embodiment of rebirth. For all that raw power, though, the pair has long since lost the strength that comes from independence—even if they could once more exist apart, does either one have the strength to do so?

Phoenix Resurrection: The Return of Jean Grey is probably one of the least subtle titles I’ve ever encountered in comics. On top of the advertising campaign for X-Men Red, the new series featuring a team commanded by Jean Grey, little was left to the reader’s imagination of how this five issue mini-series would turn out. I went in with low expectations since the most creative idea anyone has had for Jean this century was killing her.

phoenix resurrection

Chris Claremont’s original Phoenix story in Uncanny X-Men was a radical change to Jean Grey. It began with a sacrifice that birthed a more powerful character—one that ultimately saved the universe. Great joy can seldom exist without great tragedy, though, and ultimately Jean Grey/Phoenix fell victim to lust beyond mortal control leading Dark Phoenix to exterminate a solar system. Editor Jim Shooter decreed that as a punishment for committing genocide Jean Grey had to die. And so she did in Uncanny X-Men 138 in 1980.

Jean Grey was missed, but without a way to circumvent guilt for her biggest crime Jim Shooter wouldn’t allow her resurrection. Finally, in 1985, as set up for new series X-Factor, Jean returned to life thanks to an idea Kurt Busiek had had right before she died. Busiek suggested that Jean Grey hadn’t left the bottom of Jamaica Bay and that the Phoenix had instead used her as a “lens” to create an immensely powerful duplicate. This absolved Jean of all guilt for Dark Phoenix’s crime, satisfying Shooter’s conditions.

phoenix resurrection

Stories told since 1985 haven’t quite contravened the “duplicate” explanation but have suggested a stronger link between woman and entity—the most notable being Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run where Wolverine killed Jean Grey, releasing the Phoenix power that saved Wolverine from certain death and allowed him to kill Magneto. In addition to suggesting that Phoenix could be subject to Jean’s will, Morrison introduced the Phoenix egg which held within it an entity identical to Jean and which was waiting to hatch. The egg established a connection between the two thus leaving open Jean’s eventual return since the Phoenix itself is immortal.

By the time the first issue of Phoenix Resurrection hit stands Marvel’s advertising had already made clear that Jean Grey was back. Was Matthew Rosenberg’s script for the mini-series just going to be five issues of filler—especially since he wasn’t the writer for X-Men Red? Frankly, for the first three issues, that was my opinion of what I was reading.

The mini-series begins with Cerebro detecting something unknown. Upon investigation Rachel Grey, the only telepath on the team in proximity, is incapacitated. This is followed up by more unknown readings. The team splits up to investigate and in each instance end up fighting dead enemies and X-Men. These battles are followed up by the reappearance in space of the Phoenix. Cable, the only telepath left standing, attempts to use Cerebro only to have it overload but not before supplying still more coordinates. The team again divides to investigate but this time encounter nothing. This leads them to recombine and exhume Jean’s coffin which turns out to be empty. Finally they travel to see Emma Frost (apparently the only telepath still up and about) who points the X-Men to a plateau in New Mexico.

Meanwhile, as the X-Men chase down leads, Jean is alive and well in a small town populated by dead X-Men who she knows as friends and neighbors. Life in her town is growing progressively more bizarre: unexplained fires, moments of confusion, destruction in her house, lost time. Jean’s story collides with the X-Men’s when they find a hidden bubble in New Mexico and are permitted entrance. By that time Jean’s world is ablaze (though she doesn’t realize it) and the Phoenix has arrived. The X-Men theorize the Phoenix has brought them to Jean in order to have Jean confront and destroy them, finally “hatching” as the perfect host for it. Instead Logan approaches Jean solo and ignites her memory setting the stage for the series’ real conflict: Jean Grey and the Phoenix.

The first three issues rely heavily on the X-Men’s real world investigation and are poorly paced. By far the more interesting story is the mystery of Jean’s deteriorating life. No doubt these scenes capture interest precisely because they are so spare thus preserving the mystery until issue four when the X-Men arrive and theorize it away.

Issue four sees a jump in tension and energy. Where the first three issues were uneventful to the point of lethargy despite being nothing but rising action, issue four is all climax. All the characters are in place. Jean and the Phoenix are back. The mini-series can only end in a conflict that issue five is certain to deliver. Except it doesn’t. Rosenberg plays at a big concluding battle before taking the issue in another direction entirely.

Jean Grey began her journey with the X-Men as a young woman with basic telekinesis. Along the way she became a god. And that’s been the problem all along. Godhood wasn’t the end of her journey. She saved her friends when she crashed in Jamaica Bay. She saved the universe when she entered the M’Kraan Crystal. She succumbed to a very mortal lust for pleasure and power, destroying a civilization. She sacrificed herself to save Wolverine in a way no mortal could. Jean knows she’s seen and done more than she should have—more than anyone should have. She’s lost too much of what it feels like to be an ordinary human. The only way for her to get that back is to give up the ultimate power the Phoenix offers and become mortal once more. She and the Phoenix, after a conversation of all things, go their separate ways.

phoenix resurrection

Told in an almost weekly format, Phoenix Resurrection benefits from surprisingly consistent art. If there is an exception it is Leinil Francis Yu’s pencils. Yu’s art is more distinctive than the rest. His lines are rougher—his facial expressions not as soft. Fortunately after Yu’s work in the first issue, the series coheres style-wise in issues two through four. When Yu returns for the first half of issue five, the scenes he draws work well for his style, and the transition from Yu to Bennett occurs at the best possible time for an art change.

Phoenix Resurrection’s glaring flaw is the pacing of issues one through three. This idea never possessed enough story to justify five issues. Nor could the events in issues four and five have been decompressed and spread out across the series while maintaining the same emotional impact. It’s impossible to know how much of this series was crafted by Marvel editorial versus Matthew Rosenberg, but the obvious solution of shortening the series was either not considered or ignored when brought up. As a result the mini-series’ first three issues have very little to say for themselves, a condition made worse by the fact that the passage of time is unclear. Are the X-Men conducting this search over hours, days, weeks? A great deal of travel time is implied which only dilutes the sense of urgency Rosenberg sought to achieve when the first issue began. I found myself—and not for the first time when reading a Marvel mini-series—longing for the days of single shot graphic novels that don’t have to balance the needs of individual comic books against long story arcs. Slightly compressed but with no need to engineer issue cliffhangers I think Rosenberg could have told a story far more worthy of the idea behind it.

Problems aside I believe Matthew Rosenberg has delivered the definitive Phoenix story. And I say that as a fan with reverence for Chris Claremont’s original. Rosenberg has managed to reconcile disparate threads from decades’ worth of Phoenix stories by reducing the scope of his to one of mere humanity. He’s also completed the journey Morrison only hinted at and folded Dark Phoenix in as a true part of Jean Grey’s experiences.

phoenix resurrection

As a representation of life, death, and rebirth the Phoenix is the key to incomprehensible power. For whatever reason—Rosenberg is wise not to explore it—the Phoenix decided Jean Grey was best suited to turn that key. They’ve been inextricable ever since. Rosenberg’s contribution to the Phoenix epic is that the connection was as necessary and emotional for Phoenix as for Jean. The Phoenix becomes a sympathetic character in the final issue, and the reader is left to consider whether the Phoenix has ever faced the decision that Jean now makes: to willingly walk alone toward the unseen horizon and gain strength from the journey. What is certain by the final page is that the Jean Grey who’s returned is a Jean Grey readers haven’t seen in almost forty years and perhaps more the stronger: a Jean choosing to stand on her own with no idea of what comes next.

Theron Couch is a collection of 1000 monkeys on 1000 typewriters trying to produce Hamlet. From time to time he accidentally types comic book reviews. Theron’s first novel, The Loyalty of Pawns, is available on Amazon and he's published assorted short stories. Theron maintains a blog with additional comic and book reviews as well as posts on his personal struggle with mental health.

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