Why is the concept of Jean Grey as Phoenix still relevant after thirty-seven years? The classic and controversial “Dark Phoenix Saga,” written by famed X-Men writer Chris Claremont and published by Marvel in 1980, continues to impact not only X-Men movies and X-Men comics but most Marvel comics hitting the stands.

A History of “Dark Phoenix Saga” for Noobs

The original five X-Men consisted of Cyclops, Iceman, Beast, Angel, and Jean Grey. Similar to the Invisible Girl in FANTASTIC FOUR at the time, Jean’s weak power set rendered her inconsequential to the team. The X-Men, including Jean Grey herself, considered this an indisputable truth.

Jean played the role of nothing more than a token female in early X-Men comics but at least she appeared in X-Men comics at all. The 1950’s and 1960’s weren’t so long ago. Clearly, women were repressed in a man’s society.

The first X-Men comics released less than thirty-five years after women became eligible to vote. A woman’s place included marriage by thirty (or face social abandonment), total devotion to her husband above her own needs and wants, and financial servitude. I remember seeing what my mother wrote in her 1959 yearbook when someone asked her what she wanted to do with her life. I asked her why she wrote “secretary.” She responded, “what else could I have been back then?”

My mother’s response heartbreakingly spoke to the challenges women faced and continue to face in our society. To put things more in perspective, the American Equal Pay Act passed by Congress in 1963 stated women should be paid equal to men. X-Men comics premiered in the same year the Act passed.

In the 1960’s, X-Men comics failed to deliver good numbers. For a while, Marvel sold only reprints of older issues. Then, Len Wein and others created a new international team of X-Men consisting of Storm, Wolverine, Thunderbird, Sunfire, Nightcrawler, and Colossus. The new team of X-Men replaced the original characters, except for Cyclops who remained. However, Jean Grey soon returned to the X-Men.

“Dark Phoenix Saga:” A Sign of Changing Times

Some say "Dark Phoenix Saga" was a response to second-wave feminism which Gloria Steinem (pictured) embraced.
Some say “Dark Phoenix Saga” was a response to second-wave feminism which Gloria Steinem (pictured) embraced.

The Normal Rockwell culture of the American 1950’s (among many other things) gave rise to feminism. As second-wave feminism spread throughout the western world, women characters like Jean Grey seemed to purport stereotypes rife in popular culture damaging to women. New X-MEN writer Chris Claremont developed a response to second-wave feminist criticisms of the portrayals of women in pop culture. Thus, Jean Grey became the Phoenix.

Powered Up: Journey from Phoenix to Dark Phoenix

This new international team of X-Men exploded onto the scene and revived the failing series paving the way for Jean’s evolution. When asked if his plan all along was for the mantle of Phoenix to go to Jean Grey, in an interview on the ComicsVerse Podcast, Chris Claremont responded: “It was always the redhead.” In the same podcast interview, he further describes Jean as “fiery.”

The Original Members of the X-Men.
The Original Members of the X-Men. Art by John Romita. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

The relevance of Claremont’s plan for Jean Grey heightens when considering how flawlessly it all played out. From “The Phoenix Saga” to “Dark Phoenix Saga,” Claremont and the creative team effortlessly hit every mark needed for a story of such epic magnitude. Scenes built on top of each other beautifully, weaving a story over time culminating in the greatest possible emotional gut punch. After all, what made “Dark Phoenix Saga” successful wasn’t the Phoenix itself. The success of “Dark Phoenix Saga” lies in the heartbreak of Jean Grey’s fall from grace — her seduction of innocence, if you will.

Rise of the Phoenix

Jean Grey’s death seems imminent in the pages of ALL-NEW, ALL-DIFFERENT X-MEN #100. The X-Men need to travel home from space. The spaceship they travel with sustained damage to the autopilot system. Deadly levels of radiation caused by a solar flare loom towards the spacecraft, threatening all their lives.

Jean thinks she can fly the ship back to Earth while the other X-Men wait safely in a containment unit that blocks radiation. She believes she can use her telekinesis as a shield against the radiation and survive. She absorbed the pilot’s knowledge of how to fly the spaceship telepathically. The X-Men fear for her life. Most notably, Cyclops cannot contain his fear and grief at the idea of losing Jean. Jean Grey telepathically renders Cyclops unconscious. Thus, he does not stop her from flying the ship. The other X-Men lock themselves in a containment unit.

Jean’s courage and selflessness in this issue make up an example of what makes her so inspiring. As a child reading, I loved seeing a woman take charge of the situation and make the executive decision to subdue her boyfriend so that she could achieve the greater good — getting her friends to safety.

Jean Grey makes a decision that will later turn her into Phoenix and then Dark Phoenix in Uncanny X-Men #100.
Jean Grey makes a decision that will later turn her into Phoenix and then Dark Phoenix in UNCANNY X-MEN #100. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

A Strong Start Later Muddled by Retcons?

Countless retcons and re-retcons convolute exactly what happenedIt’s up to another article to explore the precise nature of the Phoenix and Jean Grey. Here, we’ll go with the original intention of the creators.

Jean manages to fly the plane to Earth. The plane crashes in the middle of the Jamaica Bay in Queens, New York. The X-Men rise to the top of the water one by one. Everyone assumes Jean died. In a fit of rage and denial, Cyclops frantically searches for her. Finally, the water bubbles. Jean emerges from the water reborn as Phoenix.

Later, the creative team behind the newly retitled UNCANNY X-MEN explain Professor Xavier telepathically tampered with Jean’s mind during her youth. He placed psychic barriers in Jean’s mind that dampened her immense power as a safety measure from Jean losing control. Jean pushing her abilities to the limit flying the ship broke through the psychic barriers. Newly powered up, Jean Grey is no longer Marvel Girl. She now calls herself Phoenix.

Upon further inspection, Jean breaking through Xavier’s barriers in her mind resonates. An older man “who knows best” prevents a woman from attaining her potential as a human being. Jean’s freedom from Xavier’s barriers mirrors the feminism happening in the outside world. Women all across the United States broke free from the shackles placed on their potential to be whoever it is they want by the patriarchy. They, like Jean, started to break free from years of repression.

Jean’s New Powers

Jean Grey first appears as the Phoenix in UNCANNY X-MEN #101 page 5 before becoming Dark Phoenix.
Jean Grey first appears as the Phoenix in UNCANNY X-MEN #101 page 5 before becoming Dark Phoenix. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

Jean’s powers infinitely augmented to the degree that she controls matter telekinetically at the subatomic level. She can rearrange molecules and transmute one thing into something else simply by willing it to occur. Her telepathic powers also reached cosmic levels. Her role on the team now the opposite of how she started, Jean Grey as Phoenix became the most powerful member of the X-Men in an instant.

As Phoenix, Jean Grey won battles against everyone from the Shi’Ar’s Gladiator to heralds of Galactus.

Several factors contributed to Jean’s role as Phoenix correlating to the most popular time in X-Men history. First, as the powerhouse of the X-Men team, no one tired of watching Jean kick serious ass. Additionally, certain male characters reacted to Jean’s new powers in similar ways men reacted to women’s liberation. To put it mildly, they were scared. They didn’t know what to do with themselves. At times, Cyclops seemed like he lost his very identity. Decades later, we finally learn just how emasculated he feels as the arm candy to the most powerful cosmic force in the universe.

How to Seduce the Phoenix

In not quite FATAL ATTRACTION style, we learn what happens when a man tampers with the mental wellness of Jean Grey in the “Dark Phoenix Saga.” The Hellfire Club, led by Sebastian Shaw, Harry Leland, Donald Pierce, Emma Frost and Jason Wyngarde, plans to rule the world by gradually amassing power as a secret society. The goals of the Hellfire Club carefully contrast with Magneto’s ideology. The Hellfire Club concerns itself with world domination while at this point, Magneto seems like another victim of humanity’s ugliness. He constantly attempts preemptive strikes against his former oppressors.

Mastermind aka Jason Wyndarge seduces Jean Grey, transforming her into the Black Queen of the Hellfire Club before becoming Dark Phoenix in the Dark Phoenix Saga.
Mastermind aka Jason Wyngarde seduces Jean Grey, transforming her into the Black Queen of the Hellfire Club. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.
Lady Grey, the Black Queen of the Hellfire Club

The Hellfire Club realizes their plan for world domination could be much simpler if only they had the power of the Phoenix on their side. Jason Wyngarde (as Mastermind) concocts a plan. With the help of Emma Frost and her telepathy, Mastermind would feed into Jean’s mind implanted memories of a past life she fictitiously lived. Memories of the past life designed to open Jean to the “dark side of the [Phoenix] force” include a time when she and Jason lived as a married couple in the 1700’s or early 1800’s. Jean, as Lady Grey of the 1800’s, thought the other X-Men her servants and Storm her slave (whom she slaps across the face for speaking out of turn).

Mastermind’s plan attains success after entering Jean Grey’s mind and implanting enough memories of her fictitious past life that Jean believes it to be her reality. The romance they share in her false memories somehow gave her a taste of how good selfishness and meanness feel. Jean subsequently surrenders to the illusion completely. She loses touch with reality and thinks she’s the Black Queen of the Hellfire Club.

Dark Phoenix Rising

Upon a later attempt to use Jean’s powers as a weapon, Jean catches onto the Hellfire Club’s plan. To say Jean feels angry would constitute an understatement of epic proportions. Mastermind’s plan backfires in a huge way when it drives Jean a little too crazy. She breaks through his illusion as a charming and handsome man, subsequently revealing him as older, unattractive, and frail.

Jean’s response to Mastermind’s violation of her mental safety is met with Medea-esque consequences. Jason didn’t only violate the sanctity of her private thoughts. He used them against her to put her in harm’s way. Mastermind physically seducing Jean by confusing her more than just connotes rape.

His arrogant thinking of Jean as a plaything, once she appears subdued, causes his downfall. Instead of killing Mastermind, UNCANNY X-MEN overlaps with SANDMAN: DREAM COUNTRY. Jean gives him what he wants. She bestows near limitless power onto him by connecting his mind to the entire universe. However, Jean knows Jason cannot handle the immense power Jean gave to him. He is swiftly driven insane by the psychic overload and becomes catatonic.

Uncanny X-Men The Dark Phoenix Saga page 109
Dressed as the Black Queen of the Hellfire Club. Jean turns Mastermind mad in UNCANNY X-MEN: THE DARK PHOENIX SAGA page 109. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

The Dark Phoenix as a 1980’s Medea

In what would later become a pattern of behavior, some view Jean’s response to Mastermind as harsh or an overreaction. I can’t imagine anything less true. As a man, I cannot begin to understand the pitfalls women face now, let alone before the feminist movement. That’s why I see a clear connection to Medea’s reaction in her eponymous play and Jean’s response in “Dark Phoenix Saga.” Medea’s anger stems from her treatment as a foreign woman as deemed necessary by social convention. Jean’s anger appears no different.

Dark Phoenix Saga is a modern Medea.
Medea about to murder her children out of vengeance against her lover. Oil on canvas by Eugene Delacroix.

Jean embracing her rage and becoming Dark Phoenix isn’t merely about the mental and physical rape Mastermind caused. Jean’s reaction is the reaction of many women finally free to respond however they want. Her anger far outreaches the deeds of the Hellfire Club. Jean is angry about having her mind tampered and violated, yet, another time. She is angry regarding her marginalization as a member of the X-Men. She is angry about the twenty-four years she’s been alive up until this point and not had the freedom to reach her potential. The Hellfire Club represents the shadow government of the patriarchy. Mastermind represents the face of the Hellfire Club. At that moment, Jean reacts with the ferocity I can only imagine some women felt by their oppression before the women’s movement.

“The Dark Phoenix Saga:” Jean Unchained

In no uncertain terms, Dark Phoenix consumes Jean Grey’s personality. As the famous saying goes: “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” As Dark Phoenix, Jean destroys an entire solar system with billions of inhabitants. Next, Jean takes on the whole team of X-Men in addition to Beast and Angel. She effortlessly defeats them. In a final plea, Cyclops tells Jean she cannot and will not kill the X-Men because she loves them.

Jean Grey becomes Dark Phoenix. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

Scott’s speech awakens Jean within the Dark Phoenix. It appears pre-Hellfire Club Jean still exists beneath the absolute power of the Dark Phoenix, now considered a separate entity from Jean. Jean begs Scott to help her. As Jean remains in control, Xavier utilizes the moment to strike her with a mind blast. Jean awakens as Dark Phoenix. She and Professor Xavier engage in psychic battle. Xavier appears the victor. He places psychic barriers in Jean’s mind once again similar to how he did when she was a teenager. For the moment, Jean appears to be in control and the Dark Phoenix persona suppressed.

The Shi’Ar Empire as Another Wave of Patriarchal Influence on Jean as the Dark Phoenix

Just as it seems Xavier saved Jean and restored hope, Xavier’s girlfriend Lilandra teleports Jean and the X-Men to the Shi’Ar Empire. The Shi’Ar want to kill Jean by means of capital punishment. Lilandra, the Empress of the Shi’Ar Empire, deems Jean too dangerous to live after she destroyed a star in a solar system.

The Shi’Ar teleports the X-Men to their homeworld moments after Jean and Xavier get Dark Phoenix under control. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

Dark Phoenix nor Jean were aware (or didn’t care to know) one of the planets in the star’s solar system was inhabited by billions. Professor Xavier invokes a Shi’Ar law akin to trial by combat. The X-Men don’t even question their decision. They mean to protect Jean with their lives, even if it means losing theirs.

After an epic battle between the Shi’Ar’s high guard and the X-Men, the royal guard harms Cyclops. Jean gradually begins to lose control. Before she becomes Dark Phoenix again, she commits suicide to prevent herself as Dark Phoenix from destroying the universe, a backup plan she had all along. This fact only makes Cyclops grieve that much more.

The end.

There you have it! Though, don’t get confused. No experience of reading a summary can supplant the awesome experience of reading the actual comic book.

Unpacking the “Dark Phoenix Saga” and the Psyche of Jean Grey

Various interpretations of the “Dark Phoenix Saga” can be deduced by Jean’s behavior and Chris Claremont’s excellent writing. I may have read the “Dark Phoenix Saga” more than any other comic book arc in my lifetime. The lenses with which I look through “Dark Phoenix Saga” evolve frequently. Finally, I have come to certain conclusions in my personal interpretation of the work.

A Positive Spin on Negative Behavior?

Perhaps at first glance, Jean’s inability to deal with the power of Phoenix might convey a common misconception that women’s minds are somehow weak. It might appear to some the text infers Jean Grey can’t handle the power of the Phoenix, but a man could. Indeed, this interpretation contains validity. After all, we interpret the world as we see it, and each human being sees the world differently.

However, I ask if another interpretation may enter the arena. In regards to Jean as Dark Phoenix consuming a star for energy that destroys billions of one of its planets inhabitants, I look to Medea once more. When a person or persons starve and subsequently are presented with all the food imaginable. It can be reasonable to suggest the starved person, who once had all the time in the world to previously contemplate their famine and appreciate a meal, might gorge themselves. Their overstuffing a likely result of a primary fear or anxiety they might never eat again.

X-Men Dark Phoenix Saga page 126 panel.
As Dark Phoenix, Jean Grey absorbs the energy of a star that destroys billions of lives on a nearby planet. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

Much like these starved individuals, women also endured starvation. After Hillary Clinton’s Presidential Election loss in 2016, plenty of arguments exist that the title of last most powerful woman in the world belonged to Ancient Roman Regent Empress and mother of Emperor Nero — Agrippina, the Younger. Could you fathom not only lifelong oppression but human history long oppression? To this day, and certainly in the days “Dark Phoenix Saga” premiered, women rightfully felt starved. Like Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, some women felt like nothing more than slaves to a patriarchal system where they never stood a chance for any opportunity to follow their bliss.

Dark Phoenix as a Representation of Collective Suppressed Anger in Women

Again, Dark Phoenix is the summation of the absolute rage one can only imagine women as a whole might’ve felt. For the first time in human history, women had the opportunity to eat the food only men allowed each other to eat. Women were understandably ravenous. Using Jean Grey as Dark Phoenix as both a metaphor and lens for this rage, it makes sense only a star could quench the thirst in Dark Phoenix’s parched throat.

Like Medea, when pushed to the brink of survival — actually, like anyone or anything pushed the brink of survival, Jean ensures her own. In Jean’s case, she makes her anger heard by her desperation to stay alive eclipsing the realization of her action’s consequences. In no way am I suggesting women would choose rage over their own morality. By contrast, my statements regard the metaphor of Dark Phoenix. Her actions illustrate how angry some women might feel subconsciously. In no way would they do anything similar.

Under the Thumbs of the Hellfire Club, Shi’Ar Empire, and Charles Xavier

The Shi’Ar strips Jean Grey of her agency like the Hellfire Club did before them. Both institutions subscribe to vastly different ideologies. However, both institutions, like the patriarchy, intend on imposing their will onto Jean. Professor Xavier, the Hellfire Club, and the Shi’Ar Empire want the world to reflect their desires. They believe they know best how the world should be. This robs Jean of choice much like the patriarchy robbed most women throughout human history.

Jean’s final action before death is something many women never have the opportunity to do — choose. Rather than any other outcome occurs outside of her control, Jean makes a choice to end her life. Jean knew she might die. If she had to, she wanted the decision to belong to her and only her.

Jean Grey’s Choice: Why Jean’s Decision to Kill Herself  can be Interpreted as Feminist

A slew of arguments interprets Jean Grey’s suicide as her near-infinite power killing her. However, other interpretations can also be validated when considering Jean Grey’s particular circumstance. First, Chris Claremont chose Jean to become the Phoenix. That choice, in itself, speaks volumes. The turning tides of the times influenced Claremont. He welcomed the change with arms wide open.

Jean Grey, as Dark Phoenix, kills herself at the end of "Dark Phoenix Saga."
Jean Grey, as Dark Phoenix, kills herself at the end of “Dark Phoenix Saga.” Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

I ask you to consider Jean’s inability to cope with the power inside her from a different perspective. While the power of the Phoenix overwhelmed Jean, Jean fought back and won twice. Rather than thinking the Phoenix Force overwhelmed Jean, think of the strength necessary to fight back against one of the cosmic forces of creation itself. Jean Grey, an ordinary woman from Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, had the constitution of character required to subdue and, even, overcome a cosmic force. That’s no easy feat.

Jean Grey Succeeds Where Others Might Have Failed

Numerous alternate dimension stories, some contained in WHAT IF? comics, tell tales of what might have happened if other characters (in particular men) contended with the Phoenix Force. Each story ends in utter and complete disaster.

In addition to Nightcrawler, Vulcan becomes the Dark Phoenix in a WHAT IF? comic.
In addition to Nightcrawler, Vulcan becomes the Dark Phoenix in a WHAT IF? comic. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

The “Dark Phoenix Saga” is not a story about what happens to Jean Grey after she is corrupted by power. Rather, “Dark Phoenix Saga” is the story of Jean Grey, a woman powerful enough to overcome the barriers placed on her by men with their own agendas. It is the story of a woman victimized by men and the patriarchy they represent and how she crawled her way out of the psychological consequences of its crushing hold only to embody the antithesis of her oppressors. The acts of Jean Grey are kindness, selflessness, and generosity. Particularly as she sacrifices her life in spite of the opportunity to rule over her oppressors as a Vengeful Goddess.

In effect, Jean Grey displays selflessness on a mythical scale. Like Jesus Christ, an argument exists Jean dies for the sins of the patriarchy. She dies from the consequences of the subconscious and taboo wish fulfillment some women might feel to provide the slightest relief from the painful knowledge ceilings exist on a woman’s journey towards greatness that do not exist for most men.

Jean Grey and the “Dark Phoenix Saga” Outside the Feminist Lens

Oppression is ubiquitous in our world. Therefore, in addition to women, other oppressed peoples emotionally connect with X-Men comics. However, the LGBTQA+ community identifies with many of Jean Grey’s struggles as a result of Dark Phoenix.

The Power to Change the World

As Phoenix, Jean exhibited subatomic particle control. She often used this power to rearrange her clothes and don her X-Men uniform. While threatening her parents in a display of power, she transmutes a plant — a living thing — into something entirely crystalline.

X-Men "The Dark Phoenix Saga"
Jean Grey as Dark Phoenix turns a plant into crystal. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

While the patriarchy forced some women to disinherit their goals, it also questioned the humanity of LGBTQA+ people and women who dared stray for their predestined path. In an equally horrifying scenario, one can imagine how terrified LGBTQA+ people must have felt. To imagine any display of your benign desire to love another person met with ridicule and violence ingrains in that person a sense a shame. To simply be who you are, to take off the mask of the public persona for a quick second puts LGBTQA+ people in danger for centuries.

Not until Marvel’s ALPHA FLIGHT in 1992 did there exist a gay character in mainstream comics. Northstar admitted his homosexuality in a fight during issue #106. Shortly after, the character was benched until the 2000’s. Therefore, the LGBTQA+ community lacked a character of their same makeup with whom they could identify.

Storm versus Jean Grey and the Dark Phoenix as LGBTQA+ Icons

While many consider X-Men’s Storm a gay icon, the LGBTQA+ community also finds common ground with Jean Grey. Like women, the gay community has much to be angry about. Consensual homosexual intercourse wasn’t legalized until the 2000’s in the United States. Many gay men and women endured sexual harassment, hate crimes, and sexual abuse from heterosexuals. To consider one might imagine having fantastical powers able to fight off their oppressors is no stretch of the imagination. The more psychologically injured a person feels, the more power they might require to fight back. Enter Jean Grey as the Phoenix, a woman with infinite power and the ability to warp reality at her will.

As Phoenix, no prison can contain Jean. She can escape or fly away on an interstellar scale. In a world that hates and fears you simply for being who you are, wouldn’t it be amazing to change it? Who wouldn’t want to feel safe to be themselves both in their own homes and out in the world? The power of the Phoenix would easily grant its host these opportunities.

Gay Rage?

Anger emerges as the result of oppression and violence. As the world becomes slightly more accepting of non-heteronormative lifestyles, members of the LGBTQA+ community feel the freedom to finally express their rage. They feel vengeful like Medea, enslaved like Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, and an overwhelming sense of rage like Dark Phoenix. They find Jean Grey struggling to break free from her anger and manage it a noble war. After all, adopting the same kind of violence that caused one’s rage drags them down to their oppressor’s level.

Like the X-Men, the LGBTQA+ community lives in a world that hates and fears them. However, instead of striking preemptively like Magneto, they choose non-violence or opt for self-preservation and protection. The power of Phoenix or Dark Phoenix means having the ability to defend one’s self against others who try to harm them simply for leading their lives. Thus, as to all those who ever felt “othered,” the LGBTQA+ community finds a soulmate in Jean Grey.

X-MEN: THE DARK PHOENIX SAGA: Creation versus (Self-)Destruction

We live in a Judeo-Christian paradigm. The fact is indisputable. Mankind’s obsession with light and dark and good and evil traces back to our beginnings in Mesopotamia. Since medieval times, the Western World predominantly dealt with three religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These three religions make up what people call the Abrahamic religions. However, prior to the ubiquity of Abrahamic religions, what we now call pagan, an umbrella term for earth-based religions, maintained a different perspective.

The Hellenes and the Romans of Ancient Greece and Rome, while aware of concepts of good and evil, were not as preoccupied with the good/evil binary. The ancients never considered goddesses like Hero, Athena, and Aphrodite good or evil. Rather, in their anthropomorphism of nature, goddesses (and gods) resembled people in ways the Abrahamic God did not.

Amongst the Landscapes of Meta-Paradigmal Morality, Ancient Goddesses Exist Between the Categories of Good and Evil

Ancient women left offerings for Hera for protection and strength. Hera could display enormous compassion. On the other hand, Hera also displayed jealousy, vengefulness, and anger. The same women she oversaw the protection of, also considered her acts against Zeus and his many extramarital lovers vindictive or, even, malicious.

The Dark Phoenix has more things in common with Ancient Greek and Roman Goddesses.
The Dark Phoenix has more things in common with Ancient Greek and Roman Goddesses like Aphrodite who exhibits kindness towards Pygmalion. Painting by Jean-Léon_Gérôme circa 1890.

The ancients saw the goddess Aphrodite every bit as three-dimensional as Hera. A man named Pygmalion falls in love with a statue he created. Aphrodite takes pity on him and uses her divine powers to make the statue come alive, thus providing Pygmalion a life with his beloved. Alternatively, Aphrodite routinely engages in romances outside of her marriage to Hephaestus. Ares is Aphrodite’s primary lover, however, Aphrodite also looks outside her relationship with Ares. Subsequently, she begins a romance with Adonis who Ares later murders out of jealousy. Like humans, Aphrodite has difficulty controlling her impulses and desires.

The Dark Phoenix as a Modern and Vengeful Ancient Goddess

In “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” Jean as Dark Phoenix has the power of a goddess. Due to no goddesses existing in the Abrahamic religious paradigm, the only way to examine Dark Phoenix’s popularity and role as a goddess lies in returning to the past and the ancient goddesses of Greece and Rome. Goddesses Hera and Aphrodite exhibited a range of emotional traits. They neither embodied good nor evil but, rather, they embodied the landscape between good and evil. Dark Phoenix also exists in the in-between of good and evil. Make no mistake, extremes of Jean’s awareness of her pre-Phoenix persona absolutely battle the Dark Phoenix as a pure creature of rage. The important distinction is the Dark Phoenix was full of rage, not evil.

In some cases, rage subsequently follows pain as the initial emotion. Under the lens used to discuss Dark Phoenix here, Jean Grey rightfully feels rage. However, if we peel back a layer or two, we can easily deduce Jean Grey and Dark Phoenix’s rage resulted from pain followed by resentment.

Jean Grey’s Childhood Trauma

Jean’s powers of telepathy manifested when Jean’s friend, Annie Richards, got accidentally hit by a car just outside of Jean’s home during their childhood. Jean psychically connected to Annie so strongly, when Annie died a part of Jean died too — literally. As a result, Jean suffers a fate imposed on her by the patriarchy for the first time. As a child, Jean Grey spends years of her life in a mental institution as a result of the trauma she experienced when Annie died.

Perhaps no one had ill intentions. Still, the fact never changes that the world considers Jean mentally unstable. The world rewards Jean Grey for her metaphorical empathy and her taboo display of naked emotion by utterly misunderstanding her, exiling her, and forever condemning her to a life of ostracization.

X-Men Origins Jean Grey #1 pages 4-5, before Jean Grey becomes Dark Phoenix.
Professor Xavier helps Jean Grey deal with the trauma of her friend’s death telepathically. Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

Jean Grey Origins: Planting the Seeds of Pain and Resentment

Jean’s parents and sister always remained supportive and loved Jean throughout her struggles. However, Jean’s powers manifested in her youth. A child has no reasonable expectation the world contains as much danger and unpredictability as it does. Jean grew up in a middle-class home in Rockland County, New York. Her tiny world consisted of only her loving parents and older sister. Jean’s first contact with reality ends with her institutionalized for living her life and selflessly displaying empathy.

One can imagine the inconsolable hurt a young Jean Grey might’ve felt. The world separated her from her parents and sister. They treated her for a mental illness, much like LGBTQA+ people were, and her savior, Professor Charles Xavier, was another man, albeit a kid one. When Jean Grey finally joined the X-Men, Xavier and Cyclops marginalized her due to her weaker powers. For many, the combination of all this could easily lead to resentment.

Jean Grey versus Dark Phoenix and Me versus Me

People often struggle with addictions, intrusive thoughts, self-repression, external oppression, and anxiety. An estimated 25% of the population suffers from anxiety. Furthermore, issues surrounding mental health are often stigmatized, even in the most developed nations where studies are easily accessible to the public. In my experience, some of the most progressive and liberal people I’ve met scoff at the idea of receiving treatment for mental health issues. Even the words “mental health” connote something shameful in most people’s minds. Due to the inability of various cultures to treat mental health with the same seriousness and urgency as physical health, those who suffer from psychological afflictions may feel shame, embarrassment, confusion, or guilt.

Humanity’s rejection of mental wellness causes dissonance in those who endure its pitfalls. Most mental health issues go undiagnosed and untreated. People are left to fend for themselves. Due to forced use of their own coping mechanisms, Jean Grey struggling to break free from her Dark Phoenix persona mirrors peoples’ own battles with mental health.

In X-Men: Dark Phoenix Saga. Jean struggles with the Dark Phoenix Persona.
Jean’s superego struggles to break free from the Dark Phoenix persona in “Dark Phoenix Saga.” Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

Some people inaccurately categorize those suffering from addiction as weak. They believe the addicted individual needs more willpower. People afflicted know overcoming addiction has little to do with willpower. Moreover, they understand how society looks down on them for their disease.

Jean Grey’s War with her Inner Self Mirrors Our Own

In “Dark Phoenix Saga,” Jean expresses her difficulty living with a hunger for “a joy, a rapture beyond all comprehension.” These might not be the exact same words someone suffering from addiction might use, however, the metaphor applies nonetheless.

Anyone who feels rageful, overly angry, suffers from addiction, or obsessive-compulsive disorder easily identifies with Jean breaking through her Dark Phoenix persona. While feeling consumed by one’s affliction, moments of alternative thoughts creep into the mind. As someone who deals with some of the same issues I’m discussing, I wish I had more moments where my essential self broke through the moments my addictions consumed me. Those opportunities afford a check-in with one’s behavior. Sometimes, when you catch yourself acting out of anxiety, fear, or anger, you can interrupt the pattern and calm yourself.

Jean Grey’s Inner War with the Dark Phoenix Makes Her the Everywoman

All of this isn’t only true for those suffering from a mental health problem. Anyone can relate to not having the skills to stop thinking harmful thoughts or feeling self-sabotaging negativity. “The Dark Phoenix Saga” serves as a beacon to all those who relate. Kitty Pryde is often considered the everywoman. However in “Dark Phoenix Saga,” Jean’s battle with her darker instincts primally tell the story of almost every person alive or dead. It might be one of the reasons the X-MEN: DARK PHOENIX SAGA trade will forever remain a classic in the same way as Medea and A Doll’s House. “Dark Phoenix Saga” strikes a primal chord deep within the souls of its readers.

The war waged in our minds will never cease. We’ll always look to characters and works of art to provide the sanctuary of knowing we do not stand alone in the battle against ourselves. Jean Grey overcoming her darkness and using her will to selflessly save the universe at the cost of her own life sets a beautiful example for the rest of us to follow. Now, it’s up to us to follow it.


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