Generations is a weird series of comics. Perhaps that’s clear in the fact that the first accurate term I could devise for it was ‘series of comics’. Despite this, the premise is fairly simple: what would happen if the modern holders of important Marvel legacies could meet the classic version? It’s an idea that is as obvious as it has been omnipresent in fan fiction. But it is undeniably potent. And this is not the first time we’ve seen Marvel call upon it. And it was not so long ago, either.
What would the original version of a character think of the current iteration? That is very much the premise of Brian Michael Bendis’ All-New X-Men. Buoyed powerfully by the strength of that concept, All-New X-Men was a hit and, to this day, the original five X-Men remain in the modern day.
But the difference is that now it’s not just the originals visiting the modern day, but the other way round as well, and Cullen Bunn has had some obvious fun with that wrinkle.
If we are to be honest, it seems far less likely that Generations: The Phoenix would exist if not for the presence of Jean Grey vol. 1 on Marvel’s logs, but one can’t really blame them for wanting to support and take advantage of the new series. It is a bit odd that Cullen Bunn, Jean’s writer in X-Men: Blue, is behind the wheel here, rather than her solo writer, Dennis Hopeless, but, perhaps because of that, Bunn seems to jump at the opportunity to devote thirty pages to the once and future Phoenix.
A big part of the fun of this issue is fact that it is slightly redundant of All-New X-Men. Obviously the main continuity Jean’s death disallowed a proper meeting between Young Jean and her counterpart, but it also allows them to meet at a point where they both feel like the elder Jean. That dynamic is unique and interesting and it allows Bunn to do some subtle work with the two psychics that tells us more than we could have otherwise known.
It’s also lovely to see this meeting after so long precisely because it is Jean Grey. Jean’s memory is powerful in her own right and, for a multitude of reasons, is different from and almost more important than her actual character at this point. The expectation of Jean Grey, the Jean Grey, Jean Grey at her most iconic, is obviously huge for her time-displaced self and Bunn eagerly takes the opportunity to dive into how our memories of Jean have warped with time.
Though the attempts to depict the original Jean as self-medicating in the aftermath of the X-Men’s apparent death are questionable at times, Bunn does an excellent job of portraying Phoenix as a full individual, fractured in her human totality. She is joyful and yet hurt, thoughtful and yet flighty, dedicated and yet welcoming. Bunn remembers that this Jean was a driven, studious advocate for Mutant rights, but also a model with a taste for fashion design that found expression through the Phoenix Force.
There has been some comics shock and outrage over a perceived retcon of a retcon of a shocking twist, but, without wading into all of that, I have to say that I love how Bunn writes The Phoenix Force through Jean. Even with special dialogue balloons theoretically slapping you in the face with its presence, it feels ambiguous which being to call itself the Phoenix is talking and it actually deepens the story either way.
Bunn also does a fine job of presenting the younger Jean’s perspective. Though Stan Lee is partly to blame for it, telepathy rarely feels as thought out as it should in stories. Bunn might not reinvent the wheel, but the little details of Jean’s mental state, that this is a teenaged girl who immediately worries about the effects of psychic connection with an elder being when placed in an unfamiliar situation for example, help to make Jean someone you identify with rather than merely watch in awe.
The issue is wildly ambitious, including significant internal monologue, a major action scene, and that girl’s night out at the club scene that seems to happen every time comics want you to know that a female character is relatable but cool these days. This concept easily could have supported a short miniseries and it’s impressive that Bunn manages to make it all fit. Admittedly, this results in a number of somewhat harried moments and, in fact, there is a degree to which one could argue if anything meaningful is truly said between the two Jeans.
Marvel Girl Jean is obsessed with learning more about the Phoenix and Phoenix Jean is torn between shutting out her sadness over the loss of the X-Men and savoring the blissful freedom that the Phoenix Force provides a young woman who’s always had to stay quiet and think practically. It’s not necessarily surprising that they don’t actually have much to say to each other at this moment in their lives, but, though the pacing manages to keep you eagerly reading along, it is a bit of a bummer.
All of that said, it is hard to argue with the sheer amount of classic Marvel that Bunn crams into the last twelve pages. It’s so huge and so familiar and so very one-and-done madcap creativity that it can be hard not to get swept up in Jean’s, that is Phoenix Jean’s, enthusiasm.
The art delivers what is needed, prioritizing the majesty of the Phoenix and the interaction between the two Jeans. R.B. Silva successfully puts a human face on a character for whom ‘being a fiery, omnipotent goddess of the tooth’ is not even the number one reason that readers find her hard to relate to, and, effectively, he does it twice.
Both layouts and costumes have an air of cool about them that helps keep the story feeling modern as well as wondrous to the degree that Jean’s incredible, inescapable(?) powers demand. Silva isn’t afraid to deliver big compositions or to zoom in for emphasis, but even when he doesn’t he makes sure to give you something a little intimate, something that, realistically, you wouldn’t see at a distance.
While this gives a feeling of vitality to the book, there are many places where it becomes clear that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and its those parts where things become awkward. Anatomy can quickly get weird and, notably, young Jean’s face and look change rapidly from panel to panel. As for Phoenix Jean, well, she’s a bit too consistent. While some will argue, not incorrectly, that it is not fair to single out this issue when such things are industry standard or required by the precedent that Claremont and Byrne set, but Phoenix Jean can get eerily generic in her attractiveness and the attention paid to her ribs rubs me the wrong way.
Regardless, the final pages really bring out Silva’s strengths. The sheer scale, force, and Marvel charm of the final scenes is pretty undeniable and a lot of that comes down to Silva’s depictions.
In the end, Generations: The Phoenix’s value is to the reader. If you’re loving Jean Grey or you’re looking for a nostalgia trip back to the days of the Uncanny X-Men, this book offers character and spectacle that you’ve been waiting for. It makes good on the promises of Generations, even if you can feel the limitations of its place outside of the normal publishing line. It’s a bit of an unnecessary issue, but a satisfying one just the same.