Though the X-Men’s more bombastic melodramatics have often pulled focus in Marvel’s recent comics—like the mutants declaring themselves the new rulers of Mars—there have been other, smaller details suggesting important developments that have yet to fully play out on the page. Take, for example, Jean Grey’s return to using her own Marvel Girl code name and costume that she first began wearing back in the late ‘60s.
With all that Charles Xavier and his X-Men have been getting up to as of late—espionage, throwing a gala (where Wanda Maximoff died), terraforming Mars, and so on—no one’s had the bandwidth to consider the immediate oddness and potential implications of Jean shifting back into her Marvel Girl persona. Perhaps because the X-Men are all trying to get a little down time in X-Men #4, from writer Gerry Duggan, artist Javier Pina, colorist Erick Arciniega, and letterer Clayton Cowles, Jean’s newfound fondness for vintage comes up in a story that explores some of the deepest fears that lurk in the mutant heroes’ subconsciousnesses.
Though not quite as a direct connection as what recently brought the Avengers to Krakoa, the events that play out in X-Men #4 are also tied to what’s been happening with the Avengers lately. At the end of the first issue of Death of Doctor Strange, the present day Sorcerer Supreme was, well, dead on the floor after having been suddenly attacked in a manner very similar to the Scarlet Witch.
While another version of Stephen Strange from the past stepped into the picture within moments of the other’s demise, the brief time in which the Earth no longer had a proper Sorcerer Supreme was enough for many of the magical barriers between Earth and other dimensions to come crumbling down. As a result of those barriers breaking, it became much easier for beings like Nightmare of the Fear Lords to cross over into the Earthly plane, and after manifesting himself in New York City on Halloween eve, Nightmare pays the sleeping X-Men a little nighttime visit.
As a powerful demon who draws power from people’s fears, and has a particular knack for manipulating the dreams of sleeping individuals, Nightmare delights in having the freedom to prance about town without the fear of Doctor Strange rushing out to put him back in his place. Though the X-Men’s Treehouse is full of people whose psyches are ripe for terrorizing, Nightmare’s especially drawn to Scott Summers and Jean Grey’s bed, and it’s unclear how much of what he sees there is a result of his influence as opposed to simply being what’s in the mutants’ minds.
While browsing through Cyclops’ night terrors, which Nightmare finds quite stale generally speaking, he witnesses various scenarios in which the frequent X-Men leader’s apologizing to those who love and rely on him. Despite the cordial working relationship he now maintains with Emma Frost, and the... somewhat stable romantic relationship he’s established with Jean, Scott still carries anxiety and regret over his previous entanglements with both women. On some level, Scott’s also still grappling with the fear that he might somehow disappoint Xavier and Magneto, even though he’s found himself decidedly at odds with both men in the waking world as of late.
Everything about Cyclops’ dreams—especially the vision of himself in a coffin with a “Cyclops Was Wrong” sign hanging around his neck—comes across as very on-brand for Scott when you consider what sort of person he’s always been. It’s Jeans dreams, though, that really catch Nightmare’s attention, potentially because of how her psychic mindscape is naturally more robust and well-produced than Scott’s. It stands to reason that even in the deadest of sleeps, Jean would never be as explicit as Scott about what’s concerning her because of the years she’s spent building up her psychic defenses against attack. In Jean’s dreams, Nightmare first sees her coming to a mutant school in her original X-Men costume that matched Xavier’s other early students. As Jean moves through the school and encounters Emma, her costume suddenly transforms through the magic of dream logic into the classic Marvel Girl getup she’s been wearing since her resurrection in House of X.
Even though the exchange between Emma and Jean takes place in her mind, and this Emma’s more of Jean’s idea of a snob rather than the real thing, her assertion that the Marvel Girl costume isn’t for Jean feels especially significant given the costume’s history, and what’s been going on with the Phoenix in Marvel’s comics lately.
Jean first started wearing her iconic, but rather impractical dress/mask/gloves ensemble back in X-Men #39, after she’d recently returned to the X-Men’s school in upstate New York from a brief stint at Metro College in New Jersey. Jean’s new costume was introduced at a time when the original X-Men had all technically graduated from Xavier’s school, and were transitioning into a new, more mature phase in their lives when their identities becoming even more solidified. The green dress and Jean’s Marvel Girl codename continued to be her signatures right up until X-Men #100, the issue in which Jean sacrificed her life in order to save the rest of the X-Men during an emergency crash landing from space. By X-Men #101, the beginning of “The Phoenix Saga,” the green dress was gone, and Jean’s life as Marvel Girl really came to an end in a metanarrative sense, as that arc went on to fundamentally change the character’s trajectory in Marvel’s history.
In one light, Jean’s donning of her old Marvel Girl duds in the X-Men’s current era has sometimes felt like her attempt at taking ownership of an old identity, in order to re-establish who she was as a person before the world ever knew her as an avatar of the Phoenix. But at the same time, Jean opting for an identity she first constructed back when she was fresh out of childhood has been somewhat suspicious, not because of anything specific that Jean herself has done, but because of Charles Xavier’s propensity for, and history of, manipulating his students. There’s been something rather off-putting about Jean, a grown woman who’s been fighting to redefine herself and her own her autonomy, dressing up as her teenage self while so many of the other X-Men have been comfortably living in their adulthood. This would be weird enough even if the literal teen Jean hadn’t recently decided to return to her own past, but it’s made all the more dubious by the fact that the Phoenix has been hanging out with a new host following Marvel’s recent Enter the Phoenix event.
When last Jean and the Phoenix were on speaking terms, Jean tearfully told the fiery burning that the two weren’t healthy for one another, and it would be for the best if they parted ways permanently. In bonding with Maya Lopez, the vigilante known as Echo, the Phoenix seemed to be moving on from its breakup with Jean and getting back to its roots by bonding with another fist-fighter somewhat similar to the ancient Iron Fist it who once wielded it. Much as everyone’s grown weary of the Jean and Phoenix’s theatrics, the Phoenix entering Echo’s life has been a rather curious development, given the Phoenix’s history of tending to empower only those who can naturally sustain its vast energies.
In the past, most other Phoenix Force hosts who’ve been able to properly use its powers have been psychics—like Jean, Quentin Quire, and Emma Frost—while non-psychics like the Phoenix Five could only maintain its might for relatively short periods. In the time after Marvel split Jean and the Phoenix, the publisher put some effort into making clear that her own innate, omega level psionic ability is what always made her and the flaming bird such good fits for one another, and even without the Phoenix’s help, Jean’s a force in her own right. X-Men #4 emphasizes this idea as Jean, now quite awake, finds Nightmare rifling around in Laura Kinney’s mind, and easily drags him out into the open to let him know that he picked the wrong people to mess with.
What feels telling about Jean’s fight with Nightmare, as she bandies him about before flinging him off into the distance, is how intent she seems on pontificating to him in her best “mutant and proud” PR voice. There’s an earnest honesty in Jean’s words as she projects the night of the Hellfire Gala into Nightmare’s mind to show him how she opened up her head to the party’s guests about her sincere desire to atone for the Phoenix’s actions. Even though Nightmare might be considered one of the lesser demonic entities Marvel’s magic users have faced, the way Jean easily trips the conceptual fear monger up is an impressive display of the very same powers that first attracted the Phoenix to her.
As Jean settles back down to the Treehouse after disposing of Nightmare, all seems right with the world once again, but the fact the one one else seems to have been stirred by the psychic commotion, and the way that Jean psionically encourages everyone into deeper sleep cycles is interesting to consider. The Emma we see may have only been a projection of Jean’s mind expressing an anxiety about her fashion choices, but there’s also the possibility that the subtext of Jean’s dream should be taken more seriously. Jean might no longer be the official or technical Phoenix running around Marvel’s comics, but some part of her doesn’t feel quite right about the return of Marvel Girl either, and the question now is whether that part of her is something that Jean’s going to be able to keep shutting up inside.
X-Men #4 is in stores now.
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