Welcome to the X-Roulette! Shelfdust’s Patreon backers are asked to pick a number at random – and now I’m going to write about whichever corresponding issue of “X-Men/Uncanny X-Men” they chose! This issue was picked by Patreon backer Christoph Staffl, who chose number 137 for the roulette – I think they knew exactly what they were doing with that choice. It’s the death of Jean Grey.
Uncanny X-Men #137 is a hard issue to write about, because it’s definitively the most important issue of the series. It’s the issue where the X-Men are summoned to the Moon, and told that Jean Grey is to be executed because the Phoenix Force – which returned to her in recent issues – is responsible for destroying a star system, and the 5 billion lives which lived in it. As they grapple with the morality of defending her, Xavier challenges the accusers to combat, which results in a tense, drawn-out battle where the X-Men fight for the life of their friend.
They lose, and Jean dies. But it’s not quite as simple as that.
The issue is focused on how other people consider Jean, without her opinion really mattering. Upon being told she must be executed, Jean says “no… no…” but nothing more. By contrast, Angel, Storm, Cyclops and Beast all get to have thought bubbles and dialogue where they discuss Jean’s right to life, and what this means to them. They all react to Jean, and their thought process is clear and telegraphed directly for the reader.
Jean is almost mute. Given a night to rest and prepare for the combat, the issue spends time with each one of the other X-Men, as they think about what this battle means. Several of them don’t think they can even bear to defend Jean, given the enormity of what Phoenix has done.
Nightcrawler, in particular, is the first X-Men we get to really hear from. As he trains for the battle, he tries to consider if he thinks Jean can be saved, or if he should be the one to try and save her. Seeing this lack of faith from the most devout and loyal member of the team is a crushing scene for readers, and it ends with Nightcrawler losing his grip on a surface and falling – only to be caught by Angel. When Kurt makes a mistake, one of his compatriots is there to save him. Jean, on the other hand, gets no such safety net. The same thing happens later in the issue when Angel almost kills himself by accident as soon as the combat begins, but he’s again rescued by one of his teammates.
Jean gets two panels where she doesn’t really explain any of her thought process, whereas characters like Wolverine and Beast get half a page each to explain their stances. It’s huge character development for most of them – Wolverine’s cynical worldview means he sympathises with Jean; in Colossus’ case he is – as ever – totally loyal to his friend, and essentially a moral compass for the team. Cyclops wavers, unexpectedly, but it’s because he sees all the pieces here, and so has more reason to worry and fret about how they each fit together. When it comes to it, though, every one of the characters stands alongside Jean as they make their way to the combat.
All this, and we still don’t have a real sense of what Jean Grey thinks. At first, it feels like a strange choice… but by the end of the issue we see exactly why. Ultimately none of this matters, because at the end of the issue Jean makes the choice to kill herself, rather than allow the Phoenix to take over her. And it’s here that the issue completely rewrites everything we’ve seen before. It happens with a literal writing of history.
The final page of the issue doesn’t show Jean, or any of the other X-Men, and it doesn’t tease anything that might happen as the series moves forwards. Instead it shows The Recorder, a robot which is designed to record history, for posterity. As a robot, the Recorder isn’t able to comprehend why Jean/Phoenix was seen as a threat, reckoning that she had been a force for good, and saved the universe. Instead of a person, it sees a set of data which – when coldly extrapolated by a machine – sees clearly that Jean Grey did far more good than bad, and as such wasn’t a threat to the universe. In turn, the Watcher provides him with an answer, and in doing so he provides Jean with a legacy.
Giving this speech to the Watcher is an incredibly smart creative decision, as Uatu doesn’t see things from a human perspective, or for the short-term. He represents a lived history for the Marvel Universe, and as such he also represents the definitive story. He doesn’t view humans as equals, and he also has a slight level of dispassion which allows him to clearly see their flaws. As he talks about Jean he doesn’t present a bias, but instead offers what could be best described as an “objective” history, to the extent that’s possible. He can see that Jean may be a strong character, but he’s also very clear that the Phoenix would have completely overwhelmed her over time. She would be gone forever, and Phoenix would be all that anybody would ever remember from her short time in the Universe.
The Watcher explains that there are two sides to existence: reason, and passion. Reason is what allows creatures to make choices, which progress them forward. Passion is what provides instinct and action. Together, the two concepts are create free will – and that’s where Jean Grey stepped forward, and away from the Phoenix.
“Jean Grey could have lived to become a God. But it was more important to her that she die… a human”.
In writing that epitaph, he restores Jean’s agency to her. He remembers her not as the Dark Phoenix, or as a source of infinite godlike power, but as Jean Grey. He names her. We’ve seen Jean be overwhelmed by the Phoenix just two pages earlier, as John Byrne switches her classic “Marvel Girl” outfit for the Dark Phoenix costume once more – a subtextual sign that she is losing her own free will even as she races to make her final choice. If she had let herself live for a moment longer, it’s clear that she would have been taken over completely by the Phoenix, and the Universe would have suffered. Instead, she grabs hold of her own agency and makes the choice to kill herself. The Phoenix is destroyed, and Jean’s legacy is the one which prevails.
The entire issue changes in hindsight, as well. Previously we’d seen the X-Men in a one-sided, losing battle, where beloved characters like Storm and Nightcrawler are quickly defeated in resounding fashion. Strong hearts like Colossus ultimately fall to higher powers. The X-Men aren’t strong enough – they aren’t united enough – to save Jean Grey from the overwhelming oppressive force which is willing her to die, for the sake of the greater universe.
But at the very end we see that Jean never intended for the battle to decide her fate – the whole time, she’s had a different plan in mind, which reverses the entire story. This isn’t a battle where her friends and loved ones are unable to help her, but instead it’s a long-term plan by Jean which ensures she is exactly where she needs to be, at exactly the right time. She puts herself in the way of a gun, and pulls the trigger herself. Her sense of reason allowed her to arrange everything to make she sure achieved the ultimate goal she was looking for, whilst her passion allowed her to make that final choice. She was in complete control of her decision, and in doing so she makes sure that when the history books are written by characters like The Recorder and The Watcher, those books will speak her name.
As Uatu states: this isn’t a loss for the X-Men – it’s a victory for Jean Grey.
Uncanny X-Men #137: The Fate of the Phoenix!
Writer/Co-Plotter: Chris Claremont
Artist/Co-Plotter: John Byrne
Inker: Terry Austin
Colourist: Glynis Wein
Letterer: Tom Orzechowski
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