As any comic book fan can attest, the best comics aren't usually the "event" issues. More often than not, the most special comics are the single issues favorite characters are given new depths; where heroes come face to face with their own weaknesses and truly prove their heroism. In previous articles, I've explored classic issues like Uncanny X-Men #303, which wrestles with grief and tragedy, and Green Lanterns #15, a poignant issue focused on what it means to live with anxiety. This time round, I want to take a look at a recent character study: Jean Grey #3, by Dennis Hopeless and Victor Ibáñez.
An Intriguing Ongoing Arc
First, some background. Back in 2012, Brian Bendis brought Cyclops, Iceman, Marvel Girl, Beast, and Angel into the present-day. Unable to return to their own time, these All-New X-Men are building new lives in the modern #Marvel Universe.
For Jean Grey, the whole experience has been absolutely terrifying. Being launched into the present day unlocked the powerset Professor Xavier had suppressed, enhancing her telepathic and telekinetic skills to a level she was barely able to control. Worse, she found herself living in the shadow of her future self. In one arc, the Shi'ar attempted to put her on trial for the actions of Dark Phoenix, and Jean learned that she was tied to an actual act of genocide. She's been living in fear of the Phoenix Force ever since — and, in the ongoing Jean Grey series, Dennis Hopeless has given Jean a vision that the Phoenix is coming for her. She's currently on a quest to discover all those previous Phoenix Hosts, desperate to avert this terrible destiny.
Jean Grey #3 sees her head to the ocean depths, in pursuit of Namor the Sub-Mariner.
A Powerful Sense Of Horror
What follows is a wonderful issue, opening with more than a touch of horror. The issue starts with Jean deep in the ocean depths, telepathically sensing that someone is stalking her. Hopeless's word-choice is deliberate and disturbing, stressing a malevolent force that's out to get Jean. It doesn't take long for the monster to be unveiled, and Ibáñez carefully ensures our first glimpse is out-of-perspective so the splash page — as the Kraken sweeps in at Jean — is tremendously effective.
Namor, King of Atlantis, comes to the rescue; but soon the plot takes a twist, as Namor is paralyzed by the Kraken's venom. Jean rescues him from the monster, and they hide; but both know that the Kraken has their scent, and is coming for Namor as inevitably as the Phoenix is coming for Jean. Namor is resigned, unable to defend himself, and it will fall to Jean to stand in his defence.
A Wonderful Character Study
With only two characters in the issue, Jean Grey #3 is a masterclass in characterization. Hopeless plays Jean and Namor against one another, beginning by showing us Namor from Jean's point of view, and gives us both a fresh insight into the Atlantean monarch and a reminder that this Jean Grey is actually a teenage girl.
"The blustery sea king thing wouldn't normally do it for me. Cool. He swims real fast and talks to the fishes. But, like, this whole underwater Conan the Destroyer vibe... it is working."
The issue strips through Namor's facade, though, as Namor — who believes his death is imminent — allows Jean to step into his mind. She's staggered at what she learns, as she realizes that the Phoenix fire burned Namor as badly as it did all the other Phoenix Hosts. He simply hides that fact better than most.
It's a wonderful touch, and it subtly reinterprets Namor's entire character arc ever since 2012's Avengers vs. X-Men. As a former Phoenix Host, he's struggled to regain his self-control, and the entire world has suffered as a result, as he unwisely launched Atlantis into a war with Wakanda and even briefly allied with Thanos. No wonder he's been acting rashly, making impulsive decisions; his mind is still scarred, and he's desperately trying to hide the psychic burn of the Phoenix. This detail subtly retcons the last five years' worth of comics, and it works perfectly.
Namor's paralysis forces Jean to grow as a character, and to step forward in Namor's defence, refusing to let him be killed by the Kraken. Jean Grey #3 reminds us that this hero is no wilting female, desperate for a man's defence; she's a powerhouse in her own right. Hopeless gives us a Jean Grey who doesn't strain and groan at the mildest telekinetic exercise, but who throws telekinesis into powerful punches that can even stagger a Kraken. Even Namor is left stunned by the teenager's power and bravery.
A Single Issue That's A Subtle Metaphor For A Character Arc
One of the reasons this issue is so effective is that the overarching narrative elegantly parallels Jean's own experience. As Hopeless carefully signposts on the very first page, Jean is no stranger to the idea of being stalked by a monster. That's how she perceives the Phoenix Force; a monster, coming to consume her, to burn her very soul. In standing against the Kraken, she proves that no mere monster can leave her cowering in a corner.
Namor is left staggered at what he's seen, and his words are clearly launching Jean on the next step of her character arc. Describing Jean as a natural born warrior, he notes:
"If you let that flame anywhere near your soft little brain, it will burn it to a crisp. But what if you don't allow it? What if instead you fight to the bitter end? What if you snuff that wretched bird's flame with your bare hands -- and live to tell the tale?"
The issue closes with Ibáñez giving us a shocked Jean, clearly struck by Namor's words — and still wielding his trident. It's a beautiful, symbolic moment; the unwilling warrior, forced to step forward and go to battle against the monster, emerges triumphant.
In that moment, we truly believe that this Jean Grey — a teenager who has no idea of her own power — may well be able to take on the Phoenix Force, and win.
If the best comics are the character-driven ones, then Jean Grey #3 is a masterclass. It's a story of two heroes, one wounded but bold, the other fearful but triumphant. It's the story of a teenage girl who won't wait for a man to rescue her, but instead steps forward to face the darkness herself — and triumphs. This one issue is, frankly, unmissable.