The following is a review I wrote for PopMatters for X-men Blue #35. Enjoy!
What is more emotionally satisfying than seeing someone you care about find happiness? Whether it’s a friend, a sibling, or even a celebrity you admire, don’t you feel a twinge of joy when you see them achieve something special? Unless you’re a cynic or a sociopath, you’ve probably had those feelings at least once in your life.
With those warm and fuzzy feelings inside, why shouldn’t that also extend to the iconic superheroes we know and love? When our favorite heroes finally get around to marrying the love of their life, it’s natural to want to cheer them on the same way we would cheer for our best friend as he and his bride do karaoke at the reception.
However, those tasked with building the canon seem to have an aversion to married superheroes. Just this past summer, that aversion was on full display. Two major superhero weddings were set up, one involving Kitty Pryde and Colossus in X-men Gold #30 and the other involving Batman and Catwoman in Batman #50.
Sadly, both events ended without tearful vows and a drunken toast, although one salvaged a matrimonial quickie at the last second. I’ve already broken down how one wedding just prolonged an already drawn out romance while the other denigrated the entire concept of romance, as a whole. Rather than bemoan those romantic misfirings, I’d like to step back and look at the bigger picture of married superheroes.
This is actually a controversial issue among fans of superhero comics and those who create them. I’ve been browsing comic book message boards for years. I can attest to just how much fans care when their favorite characters get married. They continue caring long after the wedding reception.
On the other side of the controversy, though, there are the creators that work for Marvel, DC, and their corporate overlords. They have a slightly different view of married superheroes and one that’s not nearly as sentimental. To say their views are complex is like saying a plumber has mixed opinions on food poisoning.
While many of those writing, editing, and producing superhero media are fans themselves, they often have to leave their fandom at the door. Companies like Marvel and DC Comics don’t pay them to write fan fiction. They pay them to tell stories that will sell, increase the value of their brand, and improve market share.
A writer or editor’s ability to do this is prone to many challenges. Fans, especially comic book fans, are notoriously fickle with their passions. If they see something they don’t like happening to a character they love, they’re pretty vocal about it. Just ask fans of Captain America, the Fantastic Four, or Cyclops of the X-men.
In that respect, I have some sympathy for the people responsible for handling beloved characters. They’re basically playing with someone else’s toys and getting paid for it. However, if they break those toys or damage them in any way, there can be hell to pay. Just look at the current situation with Star Wars.
That sympathy, though, only goes so far and I can’t extended to how some at Marvel and DC have approached marriage. DC Comics editor, Dan Dido, once went on record as saying that superheroes should not get married. Long-time Marvel editor and COO, Joe Quesda, even had to justify breaking up Spider-Man’s marriage to Mary Jane Watson by claiming that it “stabilized” Spider-Man too much.
Now in general, I try to be understanding and respectful when people hold positions that I disagree with. I’ve even tried to do that with hot-button issues like abortion, feminism, and organized religion. In this case though, I just have to call bullshit.
Claiming marriage does too much to stabilize a superhero is like saying ketchup makes food too red. It gives the impression that stability is somehow a liability with superheroes, as though they can only be interesting when their world is falling apart and they’re one stubbed toe away from a nervous breakdown.
It’s true that we superhero fans love seeing our favorite heroes fight back invading aliens, punch Nazis, and even take on renegade alien gods. However, it’s also true that we don’t expect or want that to be the only story that superheroes tell. We’re also interested in the lives they live outside their flashy costumes. It doesn’t just humanize them. It gives us more reasons to root for them.
Both Mr. Quesada and Mr. Dido try to make the case that part of being a hero involves sacrificing parts of their personal life in order to serve the greater good. There’s little doubt that being a hero comes at a price, as many of Batman’s former lovers can attest, but that doesn’t have to involve outright isolation.
It also doesn’t mean being a superhero makes a functioning marriage impossible, either. Yes, it’s a lot harder to be a loving spouse and a superhero, but I wouldn’t say it’s as daunting as battling planet-eating space gods or surviving a team-up with Deadpool. In fact, it can enhance their heroics in ways that go beyond romance.
I’m not the only one to make that point either. In wake of the recent wedding debacles by Marvel and DC, Comic Books Resources asked why publishers are so afraid of married superheroes. They cited the same excuses I did about heroes needing to sacrifice, but they also pointed out how these kinds of real-life, mundane events help people connect with these characters.
What the article didn’t get into is why this matters. Superman is a hero with god-like power who can move planets and create diamonds with his bare hands. He’s also married to Lois Lane and still has to put in the effort to make that marrage work, even when it becomes prone to complications.
Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four is among the smartest beings in the entire Marvel Universe. He creates thought projectors, flying cars, and personal robots without breaking a sweat. He too has to work hard to keep his marriage and family functioning, especially when a handsome Atlantean king keeps trying to sleep with his wife.
Then, there’s Spider-Man. I know I’ve brought him up a number of times and not always in a positive light, but what happened to him and his marriage is still one of the most controversial things that have ever happened in comics. In many ways, he embodies the ultimate flaw in the excuses to undercut married superheroes.
In the infamous story, One More Day, Spider-Man’s marriage to Mary Jane Watson wasn’t just undone. He actually made a deal with Mephisto, Marvel’s stand-in for the devil, to sacrifice his marriage in exchange for saving his Aunt May’s life. Considering his Aunt had told him just a few issues ago that she didn’t want to be saved, Spider-Man still went through with it.
To say fans were upset by that decision would be like saying the Hulk has a slight anger management problem. This act didn’t just undercut an iconic superhero romance. It essentially reverted Spider-Man back to the state of an immature loser who had barely grown up since high school.
Again, Marvel made plenty of excuses. Long-time Spider-Man writer, Dan Slott, claimed that Spider-Man has to remain within a particular status quo. He has to keep being this lovable loser who is always struggling to hold down a job, keep a girlfriend, and still be a hero. In order to keep that unique appeal he has, and all the merchendising money it makes, he can’t be married.
I understand that logic, but I still call bullshit. You know what happens to characters who never change, grow up, or evolve over time? It’s the same thing that happens to real people. They become boring and unlikable. In Spider-Man’s case, he becomes something worse. He becomes the guy who sold his marriage to the devil to save someone who didn’t even want to be saved. That’s not heroic. That’s just plain selfish.
That’s the price a superhero pays for remaining in a prepetually regressed state. I contend that price is far higher than any associated with the inherent difficulty of writing married characters. With Spider-Man, One More Day established that no matter what he did in his personal or heroic life, he would never change. He’d always end up sleeping on his Aunt May’s couch.
It doesn’t matter if he pursues a new romance. It doesn’t matter if he becomes a billionaire and runs his own company. A reader can just assume he’ll screw it all up somehow and end up right back where he started. It’s just hard to root for any character that keeps regressing like that.
It’s like rooting for a sports team that never wins. Even terrible teams can turn it around at some point. Yes, that includes the Cleveland Browns. If that team never wins, though, why even root in the first place?
This is why marriage is so vital to the growth and evolution of superheroes. When a hero gets married, it’s not just an excuse to have a big event full of superhero-themed cakes. It’s a culmination of a much larger story about love, growth, and strength. It takes a lot to make a marriage work and not all of it can be done with superpowers.
Therein lies the ultimate appeal, though. When a superhero gets married, they go from simply pursuing a relationship to actually making it work. They have to learn how to build a life with another person and become part of a larger family, something that cannot and should not be exclusive to the Fantastic Four.
It fundementally changes how superheroes approach their lives, in and out of costume. It adds new layers of complexity and intrigue. Yes, it’s considerably harder than telling stories about Superman rescuing Lois Lane from Lex Luthor’s evil clutches. That’s exactly what makes it more compelling.
I don’t doubt that Marvel and DC will continue making excuses about married superheroes. Whether or not their approach to the issue evolves remains to be seen. However, since they’re in the business of keeping their characters relevant, they will have an incentive to adapt these characters for changing times and maturing audiences.
Being the romantic I am, I believe love will eventually win out in the end because love is part of why we root for superheroes in the first place. Love isn’t just about being unselfish. It’s also about achieving something special after so much sacrifice. Fans of superheroes want to see them achieve the things they struggle for. It affirms that all those heroics have meaning and purpose.
Marriage doesn’t have to be the ultimate achievement for a superhero. It can be part of it, though. It doesn’t have to be an end. It can be a beginning, as well. Until Marvel and DC lets its heroes get to that point, though, those stories won’t get told and hearts will keep getting broken for all the wrong reasons.
Who doesn’t enjoy a good revenge story? That’s not a rhetorical question. I’m dead serious. Is there anyone out there who isn’t enamored with a story about sweet, bloody revenge? I know the success of movies like “John Wick” and the iconic status of Batman do plenty to answer that question.
The question is still worth asking because the answer says just as much about the appeal of stories about forgiveness. To some extent, it shows that forgiveness isn’t as sexy as revenge. A revenge story can be bloody, action-packed, exciting, and cathartic. Almost every moment in “John Wick” and every issue of the Punisher is like that. It’s not hard to see why that is the basis of so many movies, TV shows, comics, and video games.
That’s not to say that a story about forgiveness can’t have appeal as well. It most certainly can. Forgiveness may not offer the same spectacle as revenge, but it can incur a uniquely powerful emotional impact. There’s a reason why forgiveness has been shown to have therapeutic effects and was the basis of a major religion.
This brings me to a very special comic book entitled “X-men Red Annual #1.” Yes, I am going to tie this powerful human experience to a comic book. No, I’m not going to apologize for it. If you’ve had a chance to read this comic, you’ll understand why.
It’s been a while since I singled out a specific comic that I believe conveys a much larger message, but sometimes a comic comes along at just the right time and strikes just the right emotional chords. This one does all that and so much more, especially for a die-hard X-men fan like me. However, it’s the forgiveness themes I want to focus on here.
Without spoiling too much about the comic itself, which I encourage everyone to go out and buy, it’s important to establish the circumstances that make those themes work here. Those circumstances revolve around Jean Grey, a character who is no stranger to death, resurrection, love triangles, and clones. Even by superhero standards, she deals with a lot of emotional baggage.
Until recently, though, she didn’t have to deal with any, largely because she was dead. From 2004 until earlier this year, Jean was among the numerous superheroes who were “officially dead.” I put that in quotes because “dead” in the world of comics tends to have a pretty loose meaning, well past the point of absurdity. The fact that Jean Grey stayed dead for that long is, in and of itself, pretty remarkable.
However, it was never a matter of if she would return from the dead or even whether Marvel would resort to time travel to replace her. It was only ever a matter of when. Her return was bound to have a huge impact on the X-men and the entire world of Marvel comics. “X-men Red Annual #1” simply built a story around it and it’s a damn good one.
It unfolds mere moments after Jean officially comes back to life again on the final page of “Phoenix Resurrection #5.” That moment, in and of itself, is full of emotions that writer, Tom Taylor, captures beautifully. It provides insights into Jean’s thoughts, feelings, and emotions at that moment. It’s a lot to take in, but in addition to the joy, there’s also a heavy bit of sorrow thrown in.
In a sense, Jean Grey picked a lousy time to come back to life. She’s coming into a world where her mentor, Charles Xavier, is dead. Her best friend and occasional love interest, Wolverine, is also dead, although that’s already changing. Most painful, though, is that her husband, Cyclops, is dead due to the events that unfolded in a series aptly named Death of X.
These are people near and dear to Jean Grey. She’s not the kind of character who just brushes off that kind of loss, hardens her heart, and moves forward. She’s someone who wears her emotions on her sleeve and does it with pride. It’s part of what makes her such a lovable, endearing character. Sure, those passions attract destructive cosmic forces every now and then, but she makes it one of her strengths.
As she reconnects with those who’ve sorely missed her, she has an opportunity to confront the one most responsible for her husband’s death, namely Black Bolt of the Inhuman royal family. While Cyclops’ death was largely an accident, he’s still the one whose decisions ended up killing him and many other innocent mutants. For that, Jean has many reasons to hunt Black Bolt down and make him pay.
Had she gone that route, I don’t think anyone would’ve blamed her. Hell, some within the X-men would’ve gladly fought by her side, including a few who hate her guts. Accident or not, Black Bolt killed her husband by doing what he did. There’s no way around that. She has every possible excuse to channel her inner John Wick.
However, that’s not what happens. Yes, she still assembles a team of X-men to confront Black Bolt and the Inhumans. Yes, she has a very tense exchange with Black Bolt. What she doesn’t do, though, is seek vengeance for her husband’s death. Instead, she seeks forgiveness and that ends up being far more powerful.
Think about the mentality it takes to forgive someone like that. Imagine you knew there was someone responsible for the death of a loved one. Even if it was an accident or unintentional, chances are your first inclination wouldn’t be to forgive them. More than likely, you would rather see them suffer and pay for their crime.
Even if that person ends up going to jail or is held legally liable for your loved one’s death, you’re still going to resent them. They took the life of someone you loved and, assuming you’re not in a world where people regularly come back from the dead, you can never get back what you’ve lost.
That feeling would be even more intense if the person responsible never faces consequences for what they did. In the case of Black Blot, he didn’t face any repercussions for killing Cyclops. He wasn’t charged with murder or even for involuntary manslaughter. In fact, Cyclops becomes vilified for a while.
If anyone would be motivated to pursue retributive justice, it’s Jean Grey. She even has the perfect opportunity to do so when she fights her way towards Black Blot. At one point, she uses her telepathy to show him just how much she loved Cyclops and how much losing him hurt. She even admits she could make him feel some of that pain, if only to let him know why he deserves punishment.
She doesn’t do that, though. She doesn’t attempt to impart her pain onto him. What she ends up doing is much more heartfelt and meaningful. She gives Black Bolt a chance to offer genuine, sincere remorse for his role in Cyclops’ death. He ends up taking that chance. He apologizes for what he did and, more importantly, Jean accepts it.
For a woman confronting a man responsible for her husband’s death, even if she is a comic book character, it’s a pretty powerful moment. It’s one that carries a unique emotional weight that you wouldn’t otherwise get if Jean had just shot him in the head with a 44 magnum. It very much reflects the power of forgiveness.
It’s the kind of heart that is exceedingly rare outside of Superman comics. At a time when we expect our superheroes to be edgy and tough, Jean Grey offers a very different approach in “X-men Red Annual #1.” It’s one that Tom Taylor uses to full effect, reaffirming Jean’s incredible capacity for love and compassion. It’s an approach that feels refreshing in an era of superhero civil wars.
It also reminds us that while vengeance may still be more appealing to our most basic instincts, it’s also incomplete at times. No matter how many criminals the Punisher kills or how many villains that Batman beats up, their loved ones are still dead. The pain continues and so too does the struggle. Forgiveness, on the other hand, offers a way forward.
Jean Grey feels the pain of loss like anyone else. She also has the choice to seek retribution or forgiveness. Forgiveness is, by far, a much harder recourse because it means accepting painful circumstances and even a certain level of injustice. Given how most of us are wired with an innate sense of justice, such acceptance seems untenable.
That’s what makes forgiveness so hard, but that’s also what makes it more impactful. Rather than focus on making Black Bolt pay for her husband’s death, Jean chooses to channel that pain into something positive. The very end of “X-men Red Annual #1” has her acknowledging how much it hurts losing her husband, but it also shows how this pain has inspired her.
Jean Grey is, essentially, doing the most heroic thing a superhero can do and it doesn’t even involve her powers. She decides to forgive the transgression that killed her husband and chooses to use that pain as motivation to make the world around her better. It’s still not as big a spectacle as watching John Wick kill 77 people over a dog, but it’s more dramatic for all the right reasons.
I normally try not to report the news too much on this blog, unless it’s extremely urgent or extremely sexy. Sadly, this is more in line with the former rather than the latter.
Just this morning, Entertainment Weekly reported that “X-Men: Dark Phoenix” is being delayed until 2019. It had been originally scheduled for release this coming November, just in time for the holidays, no less. I even went out of my way to explain why I’m more excited for this movie than I am “Avengers: Infinity War.” It now seems I’ll have to temper that excitement.
Thankfully, unlike a few other movies that keep getting delayed, this change doesn’t seem to have much to do with the movie itself and has more to do with Fox’s scheduling. “X-Men: Dark Phoenix” is just one of several Fox movies getting delayed or pushed up, some of which aren’t related to superhero movies, including the upcoming biopic on Freddy Mercury, “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
While it’s still only minor comfort for me, as a comic book fan and an X-men fan desperate to erase memories of “X3,” I’m willing to be patient for this movie. To see Sophie Turner do justice to one of the greatest X-men stories of all time is definitely worth waiting for.
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.