27 May 2019

From The Vaults: UNCANNY X-MEN #98

While we spend a great deal of time engrossed in the current crop of comic books, let us not forget those fantastic tales from the past that still sit in amongst our collections and are always worth revisiting...

Writer: Chris Claremont
Art: Dave Cockrum, Sam Grainger & Janice Cohen

Andrew B: At the beginning, she was something of a cliché. In 1963’s launch issue of The X-Men, Jean Grey may have been introduced as the newest student at the Xavier School, but we’d pretty much seen her type before.

“A most attractive young lady,” according to Professor X himself. “A real living doll,” according to Cyclops. And in the high-flying (and permanently leering) Angel’s words, “a redhead. Look at that face… and the rest of her.” More like Objectified Girl than Marvel Girl, perhaps, but there she was. In essence, a token female and potential love interest. A little predictable. A little dull. A little, well, grey.

To be fair, Jean is allowed to hint at her own hidden potential: “You’ll learn more about me, boys, in time!”

The time turned out to be about twelve years.

When issue #98 of the now ‘all-new, all-different X-Men’ hit the stands around Christmas 1975, an equally all-new and all-different creative team was beginning to make its mark, not only on our merry if misunderstood mutants but on the increasingly admiring ranks of fandom assembled.

Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum (the latter gloriously succeeded in time by John Byrne) were commencing a definitive run on the book that would utterly transform its fortunes (a single X-book only back then – and bi-monthly to boot!?!) and send its reputation into the stratosphere.

Jean Grey was at the heart of their plans.

The Jean we meet, for the first meaningful time in Claremont’s run, in a snow-sprinkled Rockefeller Centre in #98, is a much more independent and mature young lady than her 1960s predecessor. A woman, not a girl. And she knows it. She takes the lead in her relationship with Cyclops and is snogging him before we’ve barely turned to page three (and in front of an amusing Stan and Jack cameo as well: “Hey, Stan… I tell you, they never used to do that when we had the book.”) She wears a slinky black evening gown. When a brace of party-pooping Sentinels turns up, she declares that her “telekinetic power’s a lot stronger than it was” when last they fought, and colourist Janice Cohen pulls out all the psychedelic stops to prove it. Claremont came to be renowned for creating and advancing strong, emancipated female characters, and we can see that this remodelled, revitalised Jean Grey is going to be one of them.

Okay, so the Sentinels capture her (along with Banshee, Wolverine and a comatose Professor X), but they don’t subdue her. Jean gives the main Bad Guy Dr Steven Lang plenty of verbal, including an always to be appreciated gratuitous Nazi reference, “where’s your swastika, Lang? You don’t look dressed without it” and “you sad, pathetic, screwed up little man.” She doesn’t wait to be rescued by her fellow X-Men but is an equal partner as she, Banshee and Wolverine mount their own escape. In fact, the full-on face-off between Jean and Wolverine (who calls her Red three times in three successive panels – no Jeannie yet) crackles with sexual tension, not least when the yet-to-be-named Logan tears off much of Jean’s aforementioned evening gown to facilitate her flight (they never did that in the Sixties, either).

In short, Claremont and Cockrum’s Jean Grey sparkles with frankly unexpected potential in this issue. She demonstrates as many leadership qualities as Cyclops. She’s as resourceful and single-minded as Wolverine. As a reader, you’re wanting to see more of her. As a reader, you’re wondering where this Marvel Girl has been all your life.

The Jean Grey of #98 springs to life like a phoenix from the…

Yeah, Claremont knew what he was doing. It’s not until the cliffhanger ending of Uncanny X-Men #100 that we see Jean apparently doomed to a fiery death, the cover of #101 that we see her reborn in her Phoenix costume, and not until the cataclysmic #137 that we witness all of Claremont’s plotting and purpose come to its pulverising, emotionally devastating conclusion.

It’s a run of issues as seminal as any other in the history of comics. And yes, it has many elements to recommend it.

But for this reader at least, the wonderment truly begins in #98, and central to it throughout is the fearsome fate of a single girl, who thanks to Chris and Dave lights up the comic book firmament from this moment on. There was no going back for the character.

Marvel’s very own Jeannie was well and truly out of the bottle.

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