When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created Jean Grey to be the X-Men’s token female character, they could scarcely have predicted that she’d go on to star in one of the most culturally significant comic-book storylines ever.
Indeed, nor would they have suspected that the Phoenix Saga (as it came to be known) would then form the basis of not one but two movies, including the latest and final X-Men outing of the Fox era, X-Men: Dark Phoenix.
But who is Jean Grey, and how does she relate to the Phoenix? Here are the comic issues you need to read to understand what the story is there…
1. Uncanny X-Men #101 (1976)
Arguably one of the most important X-Men comics ever, incoming writer Chris Claremont and legendary artist Dave Cockrum managed to kick off the storyline that would redefine the X-Men forever. In this story, Jean saves a rookie X-Men team from otherwise-certain death by manifesting for the first time the power of the Phoenix.
In doing so, Jean graduates from being a fairly typical 1960s love interest/damsel-in-distress figure into one of the most powerful and complex members of the X-Men. And, hey, let’s not forget that we get the debut of her iconic costume, oft-tweaked but never bettered.
2. Uncanny X-Men #137 (1980)
Following her transformation into the Phoenix, Jean’s power grows – but when she’s corrupted by the Hellfire Club’s psychic manipulations, she becomes impossible to control or reason with. This culminates in the ‘Dark Phoenix’ heading into space and feeding on a star, killing an entire planet full of living creatures in the process. Naturally, the space-authorities of the Shi’ar empire show up somewhat disturbed by this.
And here, in the thrilling conclusion of the Dark Phoenix saga, by Chris Claremont and John Byrne, the X-Men fight a trial by combat to prevent her execution. Jean – who has briefly regained control over the corrupt Phoenix – ultimately bids her friends goodbye and sacrifices her life to prevent it from killing again. The death of an original X-Man was a huge moment and true comic-book landmark at a time when resurrections were far from guaranteed – even for a phoenix.
3. New X-Men #150 (2004)
In the interim period Jean Grey came back to life, dispatched her evil clone, and married her love interest only to later find him engaged in a psychic affair with Emma Frost, an X-Man formerly of the Hellfire Club. If that sounds like a lot of drama, well, you have no idea – we just gave you an extremely abbreviated version.
However, as Jean grows more confident and powerful her Phoenix powers and personality begin to creep around the edges of her being. And the apex of Grant Morrison’s run on the X-Men, Jean and the newly re-awakened Phoenix have a final, fatal battle with Magneto. As usual, though, death turns out not to be the end for Jean as, having passed on once again, she immediately finds herself given the small task of repairing the entire future and creating a new reality where the X-Men have a chance to achieve their dream.
4. Phoenix Endsong #5 (2005)
Following an encounter with the Shi’ar, a weakened version of the Phoenix force arrives on Earth hoping to resurrect Jean Grey. Naturally, the X-Men aren’t keen to see their friend manipulated or the Phoenix return.
In this issue, Jean finally accepts that she and the Phoenix will be forever linked. After saying a final farewell to her friends, she becomes a White Phoenix of the Crown and ascends from our reality into one populated by beings as powerful as her. For a time, it seemed that Jean Grey’s story had ended. And if you believed that, we have an 80-foot tall mutant-hunting robot we’d like to sell you.
5. Phoenix Resurrection #5 (2018)
Although Jean made a few cameos over the years, mostly to give people a nudge in the right direction when she lost her way, it took a staggering 13 years for Marvel to actually pull the trigger on bringing Jean Grey back to life. In this story, the Phoenix returns to convince Jean Grey to return to our plane of existence and join with it forever. Sadly for it, Jean takes up the first offer but not the second, and the two fall out in a big way. This recent release sets up her current status quo as leader of an X-Men team, though lacking her Phoenix abilities. For now.
Still, it’s fair to say that after more than 40 years, the link between Jean Grey and the Phoenix will persist as long as the X-Men do – and one way or another, you can fully expect to see this storyline hit the movies a third time when Marvel Studios finally decide to start using the X-Men. Third time’s the charm, hey?