When it comes to two genres that are often associated with one another, romance and tragedy are the literary equivalent of peanut butter and jelly. When you think of one, it’s not long before you associate it with another. Romance without tragedy is like fries without ketchup. Both are still good on their own, but it’s only when they’re together that they maximize their potential.
In that same spirit that the likes of Shakespeare and “Titanic,” superheroes often follow that narrative, but with more spectacle than old playwrights and even James Cameron could ever imagine. Being such a huge fan of superhero movies and comic books, I’m more familiar with their take on romance and tragedy than most aspiring erotica/romance writers.
As such, when an amazing, uncanny, astonishing, or whatever other adjective that a comic book puts before their title tells a story that truly embodies those ideas, I take notice. Seeing as how I’m also an unapologetic romance fan on top of being a comic book fan, those kinds of stories resonate especially well for me. They don’t come around too often, but when they do, they’re worth appreciating.
This particular story involves the X-men, which should surprise nobody who has followed this blog over the past couple years. It also involves the romance/tragedy of Cyclops and Jean Grey, which should also not surprise anyone. I’ve mentioned them before when talking about balanced romances and insufferable love triangles. This might end up being the most heart-wrenching, albeit for all the right reasons.
The name of the story is called Phoenix Resurrection: The Return of Jean Grey by Matthew Rosenberg. Now, if you don’t want to be spoiled, I strongly encourage everyone to read it. Either buy it at a comic shop or buy the digital version. Even if you’re not a comic book fan, it’s a great story that will still evoke all the right emotions.
That’s because this story does something that’s very rare and very difficult to do. It’s something that everyone form Shakespeare to Tolken to Stan “The Man” Lee struggled with at some point in their creative endeavors. It gets the balance between romance and tragedy right. It gets it so right, in fact, that I intend to judge all future romance/tragedies by this comic. That includes any I write.
To understand how I came to this conclusion, it’s important to understand the context of the story and why it had such a powerful impact. To do that, it’s necessary to point out the circumstances of this story. When it was announced last year, it’s stated goal was to bring Jean Grey back from the dead. Anyone who has even a passing familiarity with comics knows that’s not all that groundbreaking.
Superheroes have been dying and coming back to life for decades. While “The Death of Superman” might have been the most high-profile, the initial death of Jean Grey in the original Phoenix Saga is probably the most iconic. That story established Jean Grey as a character who would be defined by death, rebirth, and everything in between. That’s part of the reason it’s the foundation of the “X-men: Dark Phoenix” movie.
That original story had a lot of romantic elements in it, but it was largely defined by its tragic ending. In that original story, Jean Grey willingly sacrificed herself in front of Cyclops and her friends to stop herself from becoming corrupted by the cosmic power of the Phoenix Force.
It was a truly gut-wrenching moment. It’s because of that moment, though, that it’s often singled out as one of the best X-men stories of all time. It was the culmination of Jean Grey’s struggle to deal with the immense power with which she’d been imbued. Moreover, she reached out to that power in order to do the impossible to protect those she loved, even if it corrupted her.
That’s an important detail to note because that’s a theme that would go onto play out on many occasions for Jean, eventually culminating in her second death in 2004. Her constant struggle to manage the immense power granted by the Phoenix Force and the corruption that often came with it is one of the primary driving forces behind Jean’s character. It’s also a big part of her appeal.
Rosenberg uses those same themes, as well as the immense power afforded by the Phoenix Force, to build the tragedy and romance that plays out in Phoenix Resurrection: The Return of Jean Grey. It’s a story that has more drama going for it than most because, despite the presence of time travelers, Jean Grey has been dead since 2004. Her coming back after such a long absence is a big deal for X-men fans and for her character.
The challenge Rosenberg faced was making that resurrection feel more compelling than overdue in an era where dead characters come back all the time. On top of that, Jean’s association with a cosmic force known for death and resurrection means her character basically has a built-in cheat code for bringing her back. How can that be so compelling, let alone raise the bar for romance and tragedy?
This is where the spoilers come in so again, please take the time to read the comic if you can. That’s because the way Jean comes back in this story has less to do with tragedy and more to do with agency. Way back in the original Phoenix Saga, Jean reached out to Phoenix Force in an act to save her friends. It was a choice of desperation.
Well, since that fateful choice, the Phoenix Force has been like a clingy ex, wanting desperately to stay bonded to her, even thought it often corrupts her. I’ve argued before how the context of that corruption might be more complicated than it seems, but on the basis of history alone, Jean Grey has many reasons to regret that choice.
The Phoenix only gives her another in this series. After having bonded with plenty of other hosts since her death, it goes to great lengths to bond with Jean again. It goes so far as to resurrect both her and everyone she ever cared about, creating this own little world in which Jean never experiences the many tragedies that befell her. It’s like the Matrix, but with a volatile cosmic bird running the show.
As part of that fantasy world, Jean Grey’s long-time love, Cyclops, is alive and well. That’s critical because, at least for the time being, he’s also dead. The Phoenix Force basically gives her everything to be happy, content, and loved. Keep in mind, though, it’s not doing this out of pure altruism. It wants to bond with Jean again. That’s the goal and the fantasy world is just a means to an end.
That makes the tragedy inevitable. As is often the case with fantasy worlds, even those created by a cosmic power, they tend to crumble under the harsh weight of reality. The way in which this happens is best revealed through the story. However, the part of the story that really balances out that tragedy occurs in the final issue.
In that issue, the fantasy world crumbles, thanks largely to the efforts of Jean’s fellow X-men. Naturally, the Phoenix Force fights this and tries to tempt Jean into bonding with it again, saying its power can give her everything she desires. It can even bring back those she loves.
As part of a last-ditch effort, it demonstrates this by bringing Cyclops back to life. He’s not a clone. He’s not a time traveler. He’s not some illusion either. He’s the real, flesh-and-blood Cyclops, complete with the thoughts, feelings, and passions of the man she married.
It’s a dick move on the part of the Phoenix Force, to say the least. It’s also the moment where the romance balances the tragedy in an important way. That’s because in that moment, Jean makes another fateful choice, one every bit as dire as the one she made in the original Phoenix Saga. This time, though, she lays her heart on the line, knowing damn well it’ll be broken.
Rather than just reject this tactic as another attempt by the Phoenix to lure her in, she embraces it for a brief moment. In that moment, she gets to say goodbye to her husband. She and Cyclops even go out of their way to make clear how much they love each other, both in life and in death. Even if you’re not a big romance fan, this is a moment of pure, unadulterated heart.
We still know the tragedy is coming. We know it’s a moment that’s going to end with tears and sorrow. Anyone that ever had to read “Romeo and Juliet” in high school English class knows it’s coming and is might think they’re numb to it, especially if they flunked the test.
That’s why it was so important for the story to reaffirm that sentiment. Rosenberg did something critical when he had Cyclops and Jean Grey remind each other just how deep their love went. He gave even greater weight to the loss.
At least with “Romeo and Juliet,” the characters involved had just met. They barely knew each other. Cyclops and Jean Grey’s love story spans 50 years of X-men comics, complete with weddings, clones, and raising a child together in the future. To know the extent of their love is to know just how much that tragedy hurts.
That, more than anything, is what puts Phoenix Resurrection: The Return of Jean Grey in a league of its own in terms of romance and tragedy. Instead of the tragedy defining the romance, it’s the other way around. It’s the romance that gives that tragedy such immense weight.
In too many stories, both in comics and in other mediums, tragedy relies too heavily on its own weight to make an impact. Making a love story dependent on that tragedy gives the impression that the love needed it in order to have depth. That’s why, when the tragedy eventually occurs, it doesn’t always hit all the emotional chords.
Rosenberg left no emotional chords unstruck with this story. It’s because Jean shared that special moment with the man she loved that her decision to reject the Phoenix Force carries so much weight. That decision comes with so much pain, anguish, and sorrow. It’s one thing to just depict it. It’s quite another to truly convey it.
That’s what truly makes Phoenix Resurrection: The Return of Jean Grey so special. It conveys both the breadth of the romance and the extent of the tragedy. Moreover, it does that in a way where one complements the other. For a romance built heavily around two characters operating as equals, I can’t think of anything more fitting.
Again, if you’re fan of romance, tragedy, or both, check out Phoenix Resurrection: The Return of Jean Grey. Even if you hate comics and the X-men, this one will evoke all the right emotions. You’ll shed tears of sorrow and joy at the same time. It’ll feel so weird, but so right.