Re-reading the Fantastic Four comics from the start. Issue #286 finds a big X-Men crossover getting in the way of our FF action, something that’s probably going to happen a lot once the ‘80s start becoming the ‘90s.
We begin with the FF in space, returning to the Earth after several weeks away. We’re not told why they went to space, only the detail that they’ve had some unexpected detours on the way home. (A lot of Marvel fans have scoured the comics to try to find what issues these space adventures have occurred in, with no luck. I for one like the idea that these unseen stories are just another day in the office for our heroes.) There’s an entire page of dialogue devoted on whether to land the spaceship at JFK airport or LaGuardia airport. The FF must land a LaGuardia because the Avengers have JFK on lockdown due to a crisis. The FF land and take a NYC cab (!) to Avengers Mansion.
Captain America and Hercules are the only Avengers present, and they fill the FF in on what just went down in Avengers #263, where, after preventing a plane crash, they recovered a mysterious pod from the bottom of the ocean. The pod is impenetrable, but Sue turns it invisible to reveal a human redheaded woman inside. Later that night, while Reed, Cap and Hercules stay up late to research the pod, freaky stuff starts happening with objects and then people floating around in the air. The pod breaks open, and the woman inside unleashes telekinetic fury on everyone, spouting angry gibberish about “X-sentinels” and a S.H.I.E.L.D. Even though it takes the characters some time to figure it out, I’ll spill it right now: This is Jean Grey, back from the dead.
A short-ish history: Jean Grey, formerly Marvel Girl of the X-Men, once saved her teammates by crash landing a space shuttle into the ocean in Uncanny X-Men #100. This event transformed her into the all-powerful Phoenix. The power corrupted her, though, turning her into the mass-murdering Dark Phoenix. Jean purged the evil from her system, and then sacrificed her life so that Dark Phoenix would never again endanger the universe. The death of Jean Grey in Uncanny X-Men #137 is considered by many to be one of the greatest, and most tragic, comic books ever produced. And now Jean is back.
Jean freaks out with confusion, fighting Reed, Cap and Hercules. Sue stops the fight because Jean’s telekinesis has no effect on Sue’s force fields. (!) It finally dawns on the heroes that this is Jean, who hasn’t been seen or heard from in years. Jean offers a flashback to the space shuttle crash, saying she doesn’t remember anything that happened afterward. Reed wants to call the X-Men, but Cap cautions against that, because at this time Magneto was serving as headmaster of Xavier’s school. Jean does not like this information (Cap’s not thrilled about it, either) and refuses contact with the X-Men. She asks to visit her parents’ home. It takes some convincing, but the heroes agree to it.
The FF and Jean arrive at the Grey house, and no one is at home. (Jean is still wearing her torn-up evening gown from the shuttle crash, because of ‘80s-era comic book sexiness.) Inside, they find a Shi’ar crystal where Jean, as Phoenix, left behind some of her psychic essence. Reed says this could unlock Jean’s missing memories, but Jean is too nervous to try it. We get a scene of Captain American talking to the Beast on the phone, so Beast call tell him (and the readers) about the whole Dark Phoenix/death of Jean story. Back at the house, Jean tries out the crystal, and all her memories come flooding back.
We then get the full story of what happened during the space shuttle crash in Uncanny X-Men #100. At the last second, an alien called the Phoenix stepped in and took over Jean’s life, with the real Jean sealed in a pod, ending up in the ocean. Note that the alien wasn’t merely impersonating Jean, it became her, fully and completely. Jean is distraught to learn all this, but then Captain America shows up and gives her a pep talk. He says that when Jean/Phoenix died in noble sacrifice that was the influence of the real Jean’s goodness and humanity and whatnot.
Back at Avengers Mansion, there’s a brief mention of how Jean is now only telekinetic and no longer telepathic (this breezed over pretty quick, but would go on to be a big deal with the X-books). Jean says she doesn’t want to contact her friends or family yet until she sorts out what’s become of her. Reed says he knows just the right person to call, and that’s the issue’s cliffhanger. (I’ll spoil it: He calls the Defenders, who get the next chapter in this crossover. It all leads up to Jean reuniting with the original X-Men in the historic X-Factor #1.)
Unstable molecule: Check out the cool watch built into Reed’s glove!
Fade out: After having gone through hell and back in the last 20 issues or so, Sue is more or less back to her old self, being flirty with Reed and awesome in a fight. She does stand up for Jean, though, by reminding all the men that she too had just gone through some traumatic experiences.
Flame on: Johnny makes a joke about not telling comic publishers about the FF’s space adventures, saying the publishers told him “Cosmic doesn’t sell.” This has got to be a meta thing, right?
Fantastic fifth wheel: She-Hulk is really, really flirty with Hercules, but she says it’s just flirting and that she and Wyatt Wingfoot are still a couple. Her solo comics hinted for years about a possible relationship with Herc. They eventually got together, but only for a short while, with She-Hulk deciding that the fantasy of being with Herc was better than the real thing.
Commercial break: This was a deluxe 30-page comic… with no ads!
Trivia time: Yes, this sets the stage for X-Factor, which was the hottest, most-talked-about Marvel comic when it debuted, and again a few months later under writer Chris Claremont and artist Walt Simonson, who delivered big action and big, big soap opera drama.
Speaking of soap operas, this issue’s writing credit is, “You know who.” There’s a whole lot of he-said-she-said going on about how this story came about behind the scenes. The gist of seems to be that Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter wanted to bring Jean back and reunite the original X-Men. John Byrne and Claremont were against this, but Shooter was the boss. The issue was written, allegedly with help by up-and-coming writer Kurt Busiek, as a way to bring Jean back but not have to deal with all the people she murdered as Dark Phoenix. Some sources say writer Bob Layton also allegedly had a hand in writing this issue as well. Whew.
Fantastic or frightful? Does this lessen the impact of Jean’s death in Uncanny X-Men #137? Maybe a little. But dying and coming back has since become a big part of Jean’s identity, what with the whole “Phoenix” name getting thrown about. Sure, every comic book character comes back from the dead, but for Jean it’s a bona fide character trait. This issue is one of those big ones where everything in the Marvel universe changed, so it’s worth reading for that alone.
Next week: Not so invincible.
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