They say the only three certain things in life are birth, death, and change. When it comes to comic books those things are also certain as they come in the form of retcons, reboots, and resurrections.
For our purposes retcons are elements that are retroactively added into a character’s history after the fact, reboots are either big full change revivals of a character/title or are extensive changes to their canon, and resurrections are characters making the return from death or character limbo.
Each week we’ll explore the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to Retcons, Reboots, and Resurrections.
Once upon a time, the X-Men were going through a number of changes as they continued on with their Giant-Size X-Men #1 initiated second life. One of those big changes came with the very well-known ‘Phoenix Saga’ and ‘Dark Phoenix Saga’. Which saw Jean Grey given fantastical cosmic boosted abilities that eventually led to what was believed to be her death on the moon.
As with most deaths in comics and the X-Men in particular, this was only the beginning of the story.
What Was It?
After sacrificing herself to save the others in space, Jean Grey seemingly became bonded and saved by the cosmic being known as the Phoenix Force. Uber powerful, she served alongside the other X-Men for a while before slowly over time she began to be corrupted by the power and emotions and some mental manipulations by Mastermind. Long story short, the Shi’ar came for her after she murdered billions by destroying a solar system, the X-Men fought on her behalf, and Jean sacrificed herself again in the end.
Except, that wasn’t the original plan. Chris Claremont originally envisioned the ‘Dark Phoenix Saga’ as essentially the middle entry of a trilogy. In 1984 Claremont, John Byrne, Jim Shooter, Louise Jones, and Jim Salicrup came together for a candid behind-the-scenes talk about the story that was titled ‘The Dark Phoenix Tapes’ that was printed in transcript form in Phoenix: The Untold Story. That issue also featured the original ending plan for X-Men #137 that saw the Phoenix abilities and mutant abilities stripped from Jean Grey who was sent back home with the X-Men.
Essentially Claremont planned for the guilt to weigh on Jean over the issues, her being fully depowered now, till Uncanny X-Men #150 where Magneto (who got wind of the whole saga) kidnaps her and tries to tempt her with the idea of being uber powered again. As the X-Men fought Magneto elsewhere, she would have been confronted by the Phoenix again but this time would triumph and deny it and remain true to herself. Then Jean and Scott Summers would have gotten married and gone off for their happily ever after.
This of course didn’t happen and Jean died, with Shooter saying she had to stay dead unless someone could come up with a way to divorce her from the genocidal crimes she committed. Not to be too detracted from his plans, three years after the death and Scott Summers having left the X-Men Claremont introduced the red-headed pilot known as Madelyne Pryor in Uncanny X-Men #168.
Maddie’s similarities to Jean were a bit of contention in the following issues, but under the original plan were just meant to be total coincidences. Eventually, the duo was married, Scott fully retired from the X-Men (after losing a battle to Storm for leadership in Uncanny X-Men #201), and eventually, they brought their young won Nathan Christopher Summers into the world. The happily ever after that was denied to Jean and Scott instead was found for Maddie and Scott.
One of the things with comic books though is that the best-laid plans don’t always pan out with a forever ongoing shared universe that has other creators and editors with other ideas. Shooter’s rule about Jean Grey was seen as somewhat of a challenge for some creators and in came Kurt Busiek. Having written a scenario that could return Jean with a retcon years before he got his shot at Marvel, Busiek shared it with writer Roger Stern who shared it with Byrne who eventually shared it with writer Bob Layton who had been tapped by Shooter in 1985 to write the X-Factor series that would reunite the original X-Men.
This retcon had the Avengers find a cocoon under Jamaica Bay (in Avengers #263) which they turn over to the Fantastic Four (in Fantastic Four #286), who was currently based in Avengers Mansion. Turns out the occupant of this status cocoon was Jean Grey, the real Jean Grey. From here the story reveals that the Phoenix’s actual deal with Jean was to put her in stasis to be healed while the Phoenix took on her full form in the meantime. This served to make the two beings fully separate and all of the crimes on the Phoenix alone.
Claremont was of course not happy with this, reportedly almost quitting, especially since Jean was put into X-Factor alongside Scott after running out on his family upon hearing about her return. Thus began the next phase of the retcon which altered Maddie Pryor forever and cemented this as one of the worst relationship actions Scott Summers has taken over the decades (the other big one involved one Emma Frost a few decades later).
Slowly Claremont began to reveal that just as Scott briefly thought in the past, Madelyne was a version of Jean. Not a resurrected version, no Maddie was revealed to have been a clone created by the machinations of Mister Sinister who had an unhealthy obsession with the Summers and their genetic line. This retcon took many years as the Marauders came for Maddie at one point and took Nathan, she lost some memory and assumed Scott took the baby as he left her, began to have flares of latent powers, had her identity erased, found comfort in the arms of Alex Summers, “died” with the X-Men in Dallas, and was part of the hidden Australia team when those X-Men were returned by Roma.
Eventually the demon S’ym began to visit Maddie in her dreams and twisted her till a dark personality began to emerge helped by her learning the reason Scott had left her (after having lost that memory). After sleeping with Alex following events on Genosha, Maddie forged a deal with the demon S’ym and N’astirh to help them build a bridge between Earth and their extra-dimensional world if they helped her find the Marauders and Nathan.
This brought about the event known as ‘Inferno’.
Within this event, there were demon incursions into New York, tons of revelations, the X-Men vs X-Factor, and much more. It is here that Maddie became the Goblin Queen as she embraced her power and personality change following a confrontation with Mister Sinister and rescuing Nathan, and eventually convinced Alex to be her Goblin Prince. Long story short, Maddie fully embraced her rage and turned on everyone, and even tried to sacrifice Nathan before she lashed out and brought about her own demise. As Maddie tried to take Jean with her, they were connected and the Phoenix Force shard that put part of Jean’s soul in Maddie returned to Jean and she absorbed everything about Maddie.
Maddie eventually returned, most recently in the current Hellions series, but has been painted as a mad villain pretty much every time. With editorial and creative choices, the happiness that two characters could have had turned into misery for many but especially for Maddie.
Was It Good?
Overall, not one bit.
What might have been an interesting story, either the original plans for Jean and Scott or the ones we got with Maddie and Scott, became something that leaves a sour taste in the end. While Marvel was always touted as the universe with heroes with flaws, Scott Summers ditching his family for his thought dead ex-girlfriend is the lowest of low and is rightfully a sin that has never been shaken (only for that to be a well that was returned, with mixed results). Madelyne Pryor had such potential as a character, some of it recognized in her years with the X-Men, but most was thrown out once she was reduced to a rage-filled Jean Grey clone.
Currently, the character has been denied another chance to potentially turn things around, a chance swiftly given to other villainous characters in this new X-Men era, because of her clone status. That thread looks to be explored again before the year is out, but the overall sting of this retcon still remains. Perhaps tied in some way to the outcome of the second Inferno centered around Mystique, also looking to unleash some righteous rage upon those that wronged her.
Next Week: A defining father and son relationship that wasn’t actually in the cards