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Comics of 1986 #30: X-Factor
© Shane Ivey
September 12, 2006

In comics, 1986 was a year for starting over. It was a year for taking old characters back to their roots and shedding the weight of decades of continuity, or placing them in a new light altogether. DC jump-started their entire line-up with Crisis on Infinite Earths. Frank Miller made Batman relevant to the masses in The Dark Knight Returns. John Byrne reinvented Superman in the miniseries The Man of Steel. Alan Moore turned the very concept of superhero comics on its head in Watchmen.

But DC didn’t have all the fun. John Byrne did double duty in retroactive continuity that year: Before leaving Marvel he nullified his own classic Uncanny X-Men “Dark Phoenix” storyline with the return of Jean Grey.

The Phoenix Farce

In the Dark Phoenix story, written by Chris Claremont and illustrated by Byrne, telepath Jean Grey had psychically tapped into a source of tremendous cosmic power when the X-Men were crashing to earth in a space ship. As the Phoenix her newfound power saved all their lives, but she fell for the manipulations of the debaucherous Hellfire Club’s illusion-spinning mutant Mastermind, who tapped into her secret dreams of abandoning her goody two-shoes lifestyle for, well, dominatrix outfits and a sneer.

Just kidding!
Grey soon figured out that Mastermind was pulling all her strings, so she blew his mind by forcing him to comprehend the full scope of the universe all at once. Then she flew out into space, destroyed a whole alien civilization by forcing its sun to go supernova as a snack, and got chased down by the X-Men and a Legion of Superheroes-inspired team of alien superheroes.

Grey eventually came to her senses, but the rest of the X-Men got their asses handed to them twice in a row — first by Dark Phoenix herself, until her boyfriend Cyclops and mentor Charles Xavier convinced her to settle down, and then by the aliens. Grey used an alien weapon to disintegrate herself rather than be a threat to the universe. Everybody cried. The fans went nuts.

In 1984, Claremont revisited the story with Mastermind’s return. He tried to get revenge on the X-Men, especially Cyclops, by trapping them in the X-Mansion and fooling them into thinking Dark Phoenix had returned and was destroying the world. Cyclops figured it out and thwarted the plot — in the process finally coming to grips with the fact that Jean Grey was really and truly dead and he had to move on. He married his new sweetheart — who looked JUST LIKE JEAN, but let’s not ask for too much sanity here — and everybody cried.

Yeah, like that was gonna last.

The Jean Grey/Phoenix retcon was introduced by future hotshot Kurt Busiek, who suggested it to Marvel writer Roger Stern, who passed it along to his buddy Byrne. Byrne wrote Busiek’s twist into Fantastic Four #285.

It turns out Jean Grey did NOT actually become the Phoenix, and did NOT actually kill herself on the Moon. The Fantastic Four found the real Jean Grey in stasis in New York City’s Jamaica Bay. What we THOUGHT was Jean Grey was a sentient energy field thingy called the Phoenix Force, which took her form and memories and everything else. So none of that earlier stuff counted. Except the dead aliens, but nobody ever mentioned them again.


The whole Phoenix retcon was set up to introduce the first issue of X-Factor, which reunited the five original X-Men: Cyclops, Iceman, Beast, Angel and, of course, Jean Grey.

To get the band back together not only did Jean return from being disintegrated on the Moon, but Iceman, Beast and Angel quit the Defenders (Marvel cancelled that book to pave the way for X-Factor), and Cyclops left both the X-Men AND his wife and baby. Way to put the “deadbeat dad” back in “superhero,” Cyke!

Later Marvel retconned Cyclops’ new wife, Madelyne Pryor, by saying she was really some kind of evil Goblyn Queen clone of Jean Grey with some kind of evil Goblyn Plan to sacrifice the baby, and then she killed herself after the X-Teams rescued the baby, so it was all OK.

X-Factor was written and drawn by Bob Layton and Jackson Guice for the first few issues. The team set up shop as professional mutant hunters, tracking down stray muties so they could train them to control their powers before they could be found by the real X-Men, who were now being led by arch-enemy Magneto because Xavier was off in outer space or something.

Walt and Louise Simonson took over about mid-way through the first year. They introduced recurring X-Men nemesis Apocalypse, a 4,000-year-old übermutant who was worshipped in ancient Egypt as a god but for some reason was obsessed enough with the biblical book of Revelations to recruit his own supervillain group of “Four Horsemen.” Angel got his wings cut off by evil mutants and went nuts, joining Apocalypse as the Angel of Death with new robot wings that threw knives.

See how cancelling the Dark Phoenix story made everything better?

Where Are They Now?

John Byrne made history with The Man of Steel.

Roger Stern was so inspired by the Phoenix fiasco that he helped work up another classic piece of comics retconning, The (very brief) Death of Superman.

Kurt Busiek went on to come up with less-crappy storylines in Astro City, Avengers, Conan and Aquaman.

Bob Layton went on to make scads of money as the head honcho of Valiant Comics before ditching comics for Hollywood.

Jackson Guice is still drawing comics.

Madelyne Pryor is still dead.

Jean Grey is . . . I don't know. What happened in comics this week?

Click here to return to the Comics of 1986.

RevSF managing editor Shane Ivey still remembers Uncanny X-Men #175 -- the one where Cyclops was cool.

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