If we peer back to the early 1960’s comic industry, the climate for Marvel was just warming up. With the publishing of the Fantastic Four in November 1961, The Amazing Spider-Man and X-Men in March 1963, and subsequently The Avengers in September of the same year, Marvel had already laid the cornerstones of a publishing juggernaut that still is going strong today, over 50 years later.
The success of these titles brought forth many classic characters, both hero and villain alike. The Fantastic Four’s main core group of Reed Richards, Ben Grimm, and brother-sister combo Johnny and Susan Storm became known widely to scores of children who read to see what these marvelous heroes would face each and every issue. As was also the case with The Amazing Spider-Man, perhaps Marvel’s most relatable character in the early days, and since a worldwide favorite.
As a result, it was an unforeseeable happiness that the X-Men might in fact have had the most influential impact in the golden age, as the book was unique in that it was a story of misfit superheroes. It spoke to the prejudices and inequality of the times.
With this is mind, and an understanding of how the naming of things takes an important place in the history of whatever is being named, whether it be a country, or a company, and yes, even a comic book character (perhaps even especially so) we can move forward with this exploration of the name Jean Grey.
As character names go, there is rampant alliteration replete in the comic industry. Looking no further than the four books mentioned above we can draw out Peter Parker, J Jonah Jameson, Reed Richards, Bruce Banner, Scott Summers, just to name a few of the most notable ones. With a comic universe full of men, naming one of the only two predominant women in the early going of the Golden Age of Marvel might not have seemed as significant as that of Charles Xavier, from whom the X-Men take their group name.
Nonetheless, the role of the timid and beautiful young redhead who is introduced to an already established group of young men in X-Men #1 is crucial to the make-up of not just the book itself, but to the founding of the female aspect of superheroes throughout a genre. At this time, very few females where portrayed as superheroes, without being in a role of subservience to a male hero.
As much as there where strong women portrayed in comics from the earliest days in the late 1930’s, Jean Grey along with Susan Storm were prototypes of heroic women, strong in character as well as in body. With the power set of telepathy and telekinesis, much akin to that of her mentor Professor Xavier, Jean Grey was instantly linked to him. It was as if she was his avatar within the group. Now understanding the role of Jean Grey, and the central placing of her within the Marvel universe, we can break down the name: Jean Grey
The first name of “Jean” is as blatantly a reference as one can find. That X-Men is about a group of humans, homo superior, most commonly called mutant, who are differentiated by the fact their genetic code is different than normal homo sapiens. As explained in the comics, they have a gene, dubbed the x-gene that gives them their magnificent and sometimes horrifying powers.
The relationship between the name Jean and the biological component gene; cannot be overlooked. Whether done intentionally or a happenstance, the fact remains that Jean the character, from the very inception of the book was a central player within the Marvel universe. She has intrinsically been made the mascot of a whole species. Beyond just her first name, the superhero identity she is given, Marvel Girl, only strengthens her position as not just the face of the X-Men, but also the soul of Marvel itself.
As would unfurl along the course of the characters story, she becomes an essential part of the many storylines that are deeply rooted in the not just the X-Men books, but in major crossover events that involve all the major players across all titles. Perhaps the more interesting aspect of the name Jean Grey isn’t the name Jean at all, but the foreshadowing that the surname Grey would come to reveal over the course of the publication of the various X-Men related titles.
Grey, the English spelling of the shade that is both black and white gives us an expanded view of what the character would evolve into, and also out of. Grey being a shade in various amounts of lightness and darkness is as apt a descriptor of Jean Grey as can be found. For almost no character in the Marvel universe has experienced as wide an arch in their personality as that of Jean Grey. When we meet her she is the symbol of pureness and as honorable as a hero can hope to be. She is as far into the lighter side of grey as one can be without being white entirely.
As she matures and gets older though, her hue changes into a more traditional view of the shade. No longer as innocent, a little more weary of the world and universe she lives in, but in return more confident and less hesitant in her actions; more masterful of her remarkable powers. Finally, she has become consumed by the blackness of her despair and the evil that lurks inside her. The sweet Jean Grey has been burned away by the smoldering embers of anger and power, and all that remains is a wounded creature, desperate to lash out at those who have done her wrong. But, as a shade of grey is, a tinge of lightness still remains. Those who care for Jean the deepest seize on that fragment, and pull her back, but the creature still lingers, until Jean has been removed from the equation.
Throughout all the various permutations of Jean Grey in all the universes in Marvel’s long history, these aspects of the character have remained true. As a symbol of female empowerment, the innocent teenager, the object of affection lusted after by many, and in the end feared as embodied by the Dark Phoenix saga. Even after death, Jean Grey was as influential a character as any, having being cloned in the person of Madelyne Pryor.
The lingering attachment many X-Men have to Jean is as palpable now as ever. Cyclops has never been whole since her death, Wolverine carries the grief of the loss of the love of his life, Rachel Grey and Nathan Summers are without a mother, and Xavier is without his prized pupil. She is honored in ways such as a memorial statue, on the grounds at the recently renamed Jean Grey School for Gifted Youngsters.
Even in recent events her younger self has been pulled into the present, and though not as formidable as Jean Grey at her peak, she still has the gravitas and a certain unascertainable quality that draws all those around her into a type of calmness.
Jean Grey is a more than a name; it is a symbolic stamp of emphasis on the central meaning of the character and the core ideals of the X-Men. A metaphor of all that Marvel stands for. An image reborn each and every time an artist or writer puts pen to paper; a true Phoenix.