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.
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
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
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?
here to return to the Comics of 1986.