Phoenix, What Could Have Been
Over on our Facebook Page, We’ve been sharing the covers of the original What If? comic series, and among those was What If? #27, which is What If Phoenix had not died? within the comics, we get one story, but another unfolded in Phoenix: The Untold Story. The reason for the change is the role that Dark Phoenix played as a genocidal villain. In feeding her hunger, she consumed the star for the D’Bari causing it to go nova and destroy the planet. Marvel Editor-In-Chief Jim Shooter recounts that when he saw that scene he asked to see the ending and demanded that it change. Chris Claremont and John Byrne then changed the ending to the one that was published with Jean Grey committing suicide rather than kill billions again.
At the end of Uncanny X-Men #137, Jean Grey would have been alive, but stripped of her powers. Jim Shooter had a problem with this because it let a mass murderer go unpunished. He demanded that the ending be changed, although his suggested solution was to have her imprisoned, which the creators of the story thought would not go well, as the X-Men would constantly try to rescue her, so a powerful conclusion was reached where Jean kills herself rather than kill more people. In his Byrne Robotics Forum, John Byrne gives a slightly different take on the process, and disputes some of Shooter’s assertions, but the facts remain that Jim Shooter objected and demanded the story be changed, which resulted in the Death of Jean Grey.
But what if the original story had been let go its original course? John Byrne mentioned in his forum that eventually someone would have caused the reemergence of Phoenix in Jean Grey, and most likely, that person would have been Magneto. Chris Claremont’s original plans for Uncanny X-Men #150 had Magneto attempt to bring back Jean Grey’s powers, and given how that story developed with Magneto’s humanity being restored by harm befalling the X-Men’s fourteen year-old member Kitty Pryde, something similar may have occurred, but with Jean Grey.
In What If? Vol. 1 #27, Jo Duffy crafted a story where Phoenix reemerges on her own in response to the X-Men being asked by the Shi’ar to save them from Galactus. In classic What If? fashion, the story ends with Dark Phoenix destroying the Earth, after casually killing the X-Men, one by one. Events happened the way that they did because if they hadn’t, everyone would have died. It became such a cliché in What If? stories that some of the issues are incredibly difficult to enjoy.
Marvel has also essentially surmised that the Days of Future Past timeline didn’t diverge with the failed assassination attempt on Senator Kelly in Uncanny X-Men #142, but with the survival of Jean Grey. What If?‘s second visiting of this story explores it with the context of all of the X-Men stories that Claremont wrote since the death of Phoenix, including the inclusion of Phoenix as an outside force that took the form of Jean Grey. In the stories exploring the origins of Rachel Summers, these events were essentially spawned from the survival of Phoenix, and thus the reason that Rachel and Kate Pryde’s efforts to change their timeline was not successful, since they were changing events that happened after the divergence of their timeline, essentially travelling into the past of a parallel universe.
But those are the official explorations of an alternate reality where Phoenix survived. I prefer those that derive from Phoenix being Jean Grey and not a separate, cosmic entity that assumed her form. Many scenarios were explored by Claremont and Byrne including one that appears to have been the genesis of the New Mutants. Horrified by the actions Professor X has taken to destroy Phoenix, the X-Men disband and Professor X forms a new team of younger mutants wearing the original X-Men costumes, a team that would have Kitty Pryde as its first member. At some point in the future, the X-Men would return at some point, but the new students would remain. Again, Chris Claremont would use this idea later with the creation of the New Mutants.
One other option that Editor In Chief Jim Shooter is said to have mentioned was to have Dark Phoenix remain a villain. It seems plausible, as Jean had almost reveled in the illusions Mastermind had used on her, and her transition was nearly complete into Dark Phoenix, but Claremont initially wanted the Dark Phoenix story to be about forgiveness and mercy, and Dark Phoenix remaining a constant, cosmic force for destruction, akin to Galactus, but with malice, might have been too much for the X-Men to continue on with as a lesson in how their methods are sometimes for naught, especially with the most powerful among them. Today, that type of story might be easier to tell, but in the early 1980s, it would have been harder to get across, and stories where the bad guys win and go unpunished were almost unheard of.
Ultimately, the events that have transpired since have made the Dark Phoenix Saga a moot point. Jean Grey came back, Phoenix was just a cosmic force that kept coming back. It almost became a joke how many time Jean Grey died, came back, sliding up and down on the power scale. My preference would have been for the original version with Jean severely handicapped by the loss of her powers and that for her relationship with Scott Summers to be rocky, requiring work, but ultimately ending with them having a relationship that could exist without either of them needing to be associated with the X-Men. Scott Summers had family in Alaska, almost as far as you could go on Earth and get away from the X-Men. Unfortunately, American super-hero comics do not allow for characters to go away. Almost everyone comes back and a status quo is almost always maintained. Too many writers followed Chris Claremont for someone not to think that they had a better idea for handling Jean Grey with the powers of Phoenix, and thus, what might have been is relegated to an alternate reality all of its own where we got to read a much more mature X-Men comic.
Resources used in the text:
Jeff Willemsen’s “Chris Claremont: Mind Control” blog.
Peter Sanderson, “The Many Alternate Fates of the Phoenix”. Comics Feature #4 (July-August, 1980)
Byrne Robotics: John Byrne Forum. Topic: Jim Shooter: The Origin of the Dark Phoenix Saga
Jim Shooter, jimshooter.com. The Origin of the Phoenix Saga (June 2, 2011)