Neither X-Men: Blue nor X-Men: Gold do it for me. Do they have their moments? Sure. But overall, they’re not titles I care to keep up on, even when I have enough time to read regularly. Red, though? I think that’s far more worth the time and cost, because of how it treats Jean.
Jean Grey is an awesome character with a lot of potential. She was the first female X-Man, and she’s taught so many of those that came after. She’s one of the most powerful characters in the Marvel universe. She has deep and nuanced relationships with her friends and family. But X-Men: Red is the first time in a long time that she’s actually gotten to be in control of her life and her choices.
For so long, Jean got no autonomy. She was the weakest member of the team whose power wasn’t hers. When she got stronger, she was manipulated into losing control of her powers, in a plotline that is remembered as “woman that can’t handle power” where the originally planned outcome was her losing those powers she couldn’t control and being retired as a character and the outcome that was used was her dying. She’s died and come back fewer times than several other characters, but she’s the one that’s the punchline of the joke about comic book death. And Phoenix, which started off as her growing up and coming into her own as an adult with plenty of her own power, wound up more as an albatross around her neck when it became an external force.
Despite being a grown woman and the Team Mom, Jean is often written in a kind of patronizing way. Jean doesn’t get ownership of any of her decisions. When she’s fighting for good, it’s taken as a given, because that’s what Xavier taught her. When she’s angry, it’s because of the Phoenix Force. When she came back from the dead, everything that happened before got retconned as being not her, because of course, she’s Jean and has to be everyone’s moral compass and doesn’t get to ever make mistakes or be a flawed human. She’s just absolved of all responsibility.
So many comics characters have done awful things while perfectly in their right mind. They got to move on from it, while still having it a thing they did. Take Wolverine. His kill count is off the charts. It’s acknowledged as something he’s done of his own volition. But he doesn’t have to atone for that. He’s not even written as an antihero anymore, he’s just portrayed as a straight hero – which is laughable, because he hardly ever demonstrates any guilt, let alone need to atone for what he’s done. Why can’t Jean get that treatment for something she was manipulated into?
The comparison that has to be brought up is with Emma. Not because they’re both women or because I like one more than the other, but because they are better foils for each other than just about any other characters, even though many writers don’t give either of them the nuance they deserve. It’s the way they’re usually portrayed as different sides of the Madonna Whore dichotomy. While Jean is depicted as a maternal figure both to her children and to the younger X-Men, as the best of all of them, so good and so pure, Emma is oftentimes the opposite.
By contrast to Jean, Emma has always owned her power and her choices. Both her good choices and her bad are hers. She decides what she’s going to do. It’s not her being manipulated by someone else. She’s not concerned about being sweet or gentle, she’s too focused on getting the job done. She cares for her students just as much as Jean does, but if Jean is kindness and gentle encouragement, Emma is tough love.
I wrote a post a while back about films noirs. In it, I brought up the idea of the femme fatale and how it’s kind of sexist, but at the time where film noir was most popular, it was the archetype of female character that usually got the most agency. You can see a modern reflection of that through the contrast between Emma and Jean. Emma is a pretty classic example of a femme fatale – one that’s been written both well and terribly. She has her own agenda. She’s sexually independent. She’s oftentimes morally ambiguous. She’s sympathetic and multifaceted. As much as I adore Jean, even in runs I like, she doesn’t often get afforded the same amount of humanity – except in X-Men: Red.
Red is the first time in a long time that Jean Grey’s story has nothing to do with the Phoenix Force and everything to do with Jean Grey. It’s about her choices. She doesn’t need the Phoenix Force to be a hero. She doesn’t need be the conscience for male characters. She just needs to be Jean.
The preview for issue 10 delighted me, because for the first time I can remember, Jean actually gets to be angry. She’s not being portrayed as bad or wrong or crazy – her anger is being presented in a human, empathetic way, because she’s a person that’s tired of people like her being hunted and persecuted.
Now, this panel is probably a fakeout. It’s much more likely than not that context will turn this from Jean being frustrated and sick of the endless battle to some kind of trick or something. But you know what? Red has been good enough – when it comes to its treatment of Jean, at least – that I can imagine it being played straight, and that alone is something. I’m just hoping that one day, it will be. Jean deserves this anger.