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Death and the Return of Characters: Jean Grey

We often see big eventful deaths with comic book characters but does their return diminish the death story?

When it comes to comic books, Jean Grey is a character with a reputation. Her reputation is she dies…and then comes back. The death of characters occurs often these days in comics. It's gotten to the point that as soon as a character dies, we start counting down the days or issues until they return. It wasn't always this way.

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In the 80s, death wasn't an overused plot device. When used properly and sparingly, we get to see a grand story about the danger and sacrifice superheroes may have to face. The death of Jean Grey in the Dark Phoenix Saga was one of these. Some would argue (especially if you listened to this week's podcast) that the return of Jean Grey ruined one of the best stories in comics.

The death and return of Jean Grey actually goes back to the 70s. After fighting Dr. Steven Lang and some new Sentinels in a space station, the X-Men and Peter Corbeau found themselves in a sticky situation when trying to return to Earth. Their shuttle had been damaged and the only way back was through a deadly solar flare. Jean made the decision to 'borrow' Corbeau's knowledge on flying the craft and figured her telekinetic powers could screen out the radiation of the solar flare while the others went into the shuttle's 'life-cells.'

Attempting to land at Kennedy Airport, the shuttle crash-landed and ended up in the Jamaica Bay. As the X-Men reached the surface of the water, they wondered where Jean was. They were surprised to witness the birth of Phoenix, Jean Grey's new form.

What resulted from this was Jean's struggle to contain the power of the Phoenix Force. Eventually when confronting the Hellfire Club, some manipulation by Mastermind caused Jean's mind to struggle even further with the power. Jean eventually became Dark Phoenix and the destruction she caused was catastrophic. Destroying a star in an inhabited system resulted in the death of the planet and the five billion inhabitants.

Even though Jean was able to regain control, she was still held responsible by the Shi'ar. The X-Men fought by her side to defend her but the result was still the death of Jean.

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Jean sacrificed herself for the good of the universe. She allowed herself to fight to drain some of her power and set herself up to be taken out. It was a noble sacrifice and her death was felt for years.

Years later in THE AVENGERS #263, the team found a strange cocoon underwater with a strange energy source emanating from it. When they finally managed to retrieve it, Reed Richards was on hand to help analyze the strange object. This was when they discovered it was Jean Grey inside.

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The story was, Jean was never actually Phoenix. The Phoenix Force essentially took her place and was so convinced it was Jean, it even had taken on her sense of morals when it came to sacrificing her life. With Jean having been in the cocoon ever since the shuttle crashed, all the stories between UNCANNY X-MEN #101-137 were essentially wiped out. The Dark Phoenix Saga lost some of its importance. It wasn't Jean Grey, the character many grew up with since the first issue of X-MEN. This was a cosmic entity pretending to be her. It wasn't Jean that died on the Moon. She didn't even die in the shuttle crash.

At least John Byrne was involved with both stories. He was the co-plotter during Phoenix's death and wrote the FF issue with her full return. While this may have diminished the importance of Jean/Phoenix's death, it did absolve her from killing billions. It also gave a semi-plausible way for her character to return from the dead.

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This is the problem with comic book deaths. We often get grand, epic and heroic tales with a hero meeting a noble death. We see the other characters mourn over the loss. Then eventually the character manages to return and life goes on. The original story still exists. It just doesn't have that final powerful impact that it originally had.

The question remains if the Death of Phoenix is meaningless with Jean having returned. There were other stories that resulted from this. When is it okay for a character to return from the dead?

Let us know how you feel about the death and return of Jean Grey. Did you originally read the story when it first came out. Would you like to see discussion on other characters that died and returned?