While Uncanny X-Men: From The Ashes addressed the short-term effects of the Dark Phoenix Saga, this unusual trade introduces what may be the most important retcon in comic book history. Jean Grey returning to life changed comics forever. For those who call death in comics a “revolving door,” this book is the push that keeps the door going despite all attempts to stop it. It’s a revision so intricate that it required two unrelated books to pull it off and a new title to keep it going. X-Men: Phoenix Rising was the brainchild of Kurt Busiek, and it helped put him on the map as one of the best -- and most underrated -- comic book writers.
Yet apart from the idea, and a misspelled “thank you” credit, Busiek had nothing to do with X-Men: Phoenix Rising. He had merely pitched the idea of Jean Grey’s resurrection to Roger Stern, and it spread like wildfire, reaching John Byrne and eventually Jim Shooter, the EIC. Shooter had one caveat: if Jean were to return, she had to be innocent of the slaughter of the D’Bari in Dark Phoenix Saga. Busiek did this by retroactively making the Phoenix a being separate from Jean Grey. As shown in the middle of this trade, Fantastic Four #286, the Phoenix took on Jean’s physical form and basic structure, but its own hunger eventually won out over Jean’s humanity.
The first issue, Avengers #263, is relatively irrelevant, mostly existing to demonstrate Namor’s Avengers debut while the team searches for an unknown artifact at the bottom of Jamaica Bay. It had to be collected here, of course, but if I had been reading Avengers at the time, I would’ve been disappointed. The continuation of the story through the issue of Fantastic Four, on the other hand, is much stronger, coinciding with the team’s return to Earth after a long trip through space. Walt Simonson makes a few little jabs at fans complaining about the space stories; apparently readers were tired of “cosmic” stories at the time. These people were politely shut up a few years later by Infinity Gauntlet.
The third act, the first issue of X-Factor, is where the real change begins, starting with three of the original five set to retire, Iceman working as an accountant, and Cyclops as a father in Alaska. Around this time, anti-mutant hatred was really ramping up, and the five X-Men decide to masquerade as mutant hunters in order to rescue threatened mutants. In this first issue, they save Rusty Collins, whose fire powers flare up mid-kiss. People are too afraid by him and repulsed by his mutant nature to help or listen to him, but the disguised X-Factor pull it off; Rusty became a major character in the book and a fairly memorable mutant in general. Another major character introduced is Cameron Hodge, who seems to be Angel’s friend and assistant but who eventually becomes one of Marvel’s biggest bigots.
I’ll make my art notes first. The artwork is from John Buscema, Tom Palmer, Walt Simonson and Jackson “Butch” Guice, making it a solidly drawn book. Simonson’s writer/artist work is always amazing. Invisible Woman has some very unfortunate '80s hair, but otherwise, the art doesn’t stand out. Sue Storm had only been Invisible Woman for a short time, and Jean Grey initially thinks she’s an X-Sentinel (a robot disguised as a mutant) because she doesn’t call herself “Invisible Girl.” Jean herself stays in her half-ripped captive uniform from Uncanny X-Men #125. This is a bit odd; no one thought to give the mentally-damaged woman a pair of pants until the first issue of X-Factor?
So the writing ... I have issues with the writing. Some of the following issues may have been addressed in later stories. If they are, please let me know in the comments; I can only go so far with the Official Handbook. My problems have nothing to do with the central concept; Busiek found a genuinely clever way to bring Jean Grey back and not have her be guilty of genocide. If it feels a little hollow today, it’s because many other comics have done similarly large retcons without as much thought put into them.
The problem is that it makes a huge mess of who was doing what during the Dark Phoenix Saga. What, exactly, was the Phoenix? Technically, it was a replica of Jean Grey, but was it simply a vessel for the Phoenix Force or did it have a mind of its own? You feel a lot of pity for the Phoenix, a creature doomed from the start.
There’s also a lot of “over-writing”, with people speaking in paragraphs when only sentences are needed. Simonson’s Fantastic Four issue is very guilty of this; he might have been in Thor mode when he wrote it.
The real fumble of this story is what they do with Scott Summers. He’s first seen having an argument with Madelyne Pryor, a facsimile of Jean whom he married in Uncanny X-Men: From The Ashes. When he learns that Jean is alive, he leaves home and his wife and infant son behind. At the very end, we see Madelyne crying when a commercial for “X-Factor Investigations” comes out. This is not a valid reaction for Cyclops. No matter how much soul-searching he does, I do not buy for a minute that Cyclops, a man who grew up in an orphanage and had just found his father a few years earlier, would ever walk away from his child. I understand that they needed to get the original five X-Men together for X-Factor, but this was a poor way to do it. Cyclops has arguably never recovered from this moment; it’s a cornerstone of his “dickish” persona.
In all, X-Men: Phoenix Rising is essential reading for understanding the Marvel Universe, but not essential reading for pleasure. The dialogue is often clunky and X-Factor #1 just brings the whole thing crashing down. However, it’s worth at least a look for a major retcon done well.