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‘It was literally a fannish game.’ Kurt Busiek explains how he helped resurrect Jean Grey

Plus, Kurt talks about why he never wrote an X-Men series.

To celebrate the release of Giant-Size X-Men: Jean Grey and Emma Frost, AIPT proudly presents JEAN GREY + EMMA FROST WEEK – seven days of original articles and interviews about two X-Women so eXtraordinary, they don’t need codenames!
Astro City. Untold Tales of Spider-Man. Thunderbolts. Avengers. Oh, and a little, game-changing mini-series called Marvels. If you’re a fan of good comics, you likely love one or more of writer Kurt Busiek’s acclaimed runs. And while Busiek’s never written an eXtended X-Men series (more on that later), he had a significant impact on the stories Marvel publishes to this day.

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You see, without Busiek, Jean Grey may never have returned.

As we’re celebrating JEAN GREY + EMMA FROST WEEK here at AIPT, there seemed like no better time to talk to Busiek about this uncanny contribution to X-History, along with the few occasions he had a chance to write Jean and her fellow mutants.

Image Credit: Marvel Comics

AIPT: Based on a letter you had published in Uncanny X-Men around the time of “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” you weren’t a fan of the direction the book had taken. Long before you were a professional writer, when you were just an X-Men fan, how did you react to the death of Jean Grey in Uncanny X-Men #137? And did your opinion of those now-classic stories change as you grew older?

Kurt Busiek: It wasn’t so much the direction the book had taken, but various aspects of the characterization and writing. I was a huge fan of X-Men, both the original team and the “new” crowd, so the things that bugged me bugged me in a way that they wouldn’t have if it was, say Defenders or Champions.

Image Credit: Marvel Comics

And these days, with a few decades of experience as a writer myself, some of the stuff I objected to I look at now and think, “Well, that sort of thing can happen when you’re running late and doing your best to get the book done and out the door.” Looking back on it now, I’ve got more perspective and more distance.

And actually, I didn’t quite get the chance to experience the death of Jean completely from a fan perspective. At the time, I had friends who knew people in the industry, and so we heard through the grapevine about the last-minute reworking of Uncanny X-Men #137 and how it came about and what the repercussions would be, all before the issue came out. In that regard, I read the issue differently from other people–to most readers, who didn’t know it was a last-minute change, it was a dramatic and powerful story. To me, knowing what I knew, it was a stitched-together Frankenstein that no one had wanted or intended.

It’s a classic of comics history now, which makes it harder to remember that it all started because John Byrne added something that wasn’t in the plot, and Jim Shooter decided that there was no other way to deal with it. But that’s how things go sometimes–you deal with what’s in front of you at the moment, and maybe you spin it into magic and maybe it falls apart.

Image Credit: Marvel Comics

Looking back, I admire the craft and talent that went into those issues–and I’ve been influenced by them as a writer in a lot of ways. But I come to them now with a very different perspective from the enthusiastic teenager who grabbed each issue as soon as it hit the stands. I can’t really put myself back in those shoes and wouldn’t much want to, but at the same time I got more excited about the stories then and more upset about the stuff I didn’t like.

Still, it wasn’t specifically the death of Jean that bugged me. There had been stuff annoying teenage Kurt well before that. It was various aspects of the book, not one single story, however dramatic.

AIPT: Your idea for bringing Jean Grey back to life–guilt-free–has been well documented. When you initially came up with the Jamaica Bay idea, was it with the intention of eventually pitching it to Marvel or was it just for fun? The entire scenario seems like the ultimate fan fantasy.

Kurt: It was literally a fannish game. My friends Richard Howell and Carol Kalish had told me about the upcoming events, and since we were all fans of the original team of X-Men, we all didn’t like the idea–particularly since no one had set out to do a story where Jean dies, so it felt like it was happening by accident, not according to anyone’s plan.

Image Credit: Marvel Comics

And at the same time, we’d also heard the rest–we’d all initially reacted with, “Hey, it’s comics, she’ll be back,” only to find out about Jim Shooter saying that Jean could not be brought back to life unless it was done in such a way as to make her not guilty of genocide.

So we made a game out of it. The idea was, we’d come up with ways to bring her back that followed Jim’s rules, and get together the next Saturday night and compare the ideas, argue about them, have some fun with what felt like bad news.

That was it–Richard and Carol came up with an idea that involved putting Jean’s personality, as stored in the Shi’ar holo-empathic crystal, into a new energy-body, and I came up with, well, the one you know.

Image Credit: Marvel Comics

It wasn’t remotely intended as something to be pitched. None of us were in the business yet. We all would be in a couple of years, but we didn’t know that.

Later on, for the fun of it, I started plotting out a sequence of X-Men stories that would have included that material, but I wasn’t doing that with the idea of pitching them either. Still just having fun.

AIPT: There are writers and fans who believe Jean should have remained dead. Why did you think Jean should be reintroduced to the Marvel Universe? In your opinion, what does she offer as a character?

Kurt: Like I said, I didn’t do any of this with the idea of actually bringing Jean back, so I wasn’t trying to make a case for why she should be reintroduced.

Image Credit: Marvel Comics

But as mentioned earlier, I was a big fan of the original five X-Men–I thought they were a fun balance of powers and personalities, of relationships and such. They were an enjoyable ensemble, and I thought it was a shame that that ensembles had been broken because of a mistake.

Why did I like Jean? I liked that she was the “normal” center to the original X-Men–brooding Scott, juvenile Bobby, intellectual Hank, self-absorbed Warren… and Jean, friendly and level-headed. She brought Scott out of his depressions, she joked with Hank and Bobby, she was the girl who was immune to Warren’s charms–it was simple Silver Age stuff, but it was fun. I thought her psionic powers worked well with the others, too.

Image Credit: Marvel Comics

She’s not some essential piece of the Marvel Universe without which it collapses. I just liked her.

AIPT: You wrote a few What If? comics that not only featured Jean and Cyclops in prominent roles (#13 and #23), but also advanced their relationship (in one, they have a family, and in the other they talk marriage). Have you always been a fan of the two characters and their relationship?

Image Credit: Marvel Comics

Kurt: Sure, I’d say so. I started reading X-Men in back issues with #37, and got older and newer issues at the same time, and the awkward, hesitant romance between Scott and Jean that grew into something strong and powerful was one of the ongoing background plots that made me like the characters, along with Hank and Bobby’s friendship and double-dates with Vera and Zelda.

But in those What Ifs, we generally had very little room–it was 28 pages, I think, to explain the original setup for the story, to back up and show the new twist, and then to follow it forward in a story that felt like more than just a single adventure. So it was crowded and we had to shorthand things a lot.

Image Credit: Marvel Comics

Scott and Jean were a couple going into those stories, so moving their relationship along would have taken less space than breaking them up and having them form new relationships. So sure, I liked them as a couple, but doing what we did in those two What Ifs was also just a way to show some development in a simple way that didn’t mess up whatever story we were telling.

AIPT: And on a similar note, you wrote What If? #60, the Wedding Album issue in which you explore the possibilities of Jean falling in love with Angel and Wolverine. As a longtime X-Fan, was it fun to explore these scenarios many fans had debated for so long?

Kurt: That one, I was asked to do by the What If? editor, and it was fun because there, the relationships were the story.

Image Credit: Marvel Comics

Since Jean only had two real rivals for her affections (well, aside from Ted Roberts, who nobody remembered, so we didn’t bother with him), it seemed logical to explore those three options: What if they got married earlier, what if she hooked up with Warren, and what if she hooked up with Logan.

We used to joke about how there were two endings to a What If? story, “everything turns out pretty much the same” or “the world ends.” Anything but the status quo or disaster was hard to make feel satisfying, because it didn’t feel conclusive–if the new resolution wasn’t interesting, the story was dull, and if it was interesting then it felt unfinished, so you wanted to see more of it but weren’t going to, which felt unsatisfying.

I tried to do a few What Ifs with different kinds of endings, but in this case we had such tight story space that there wasn’t room to be complex. And we were celebrating their wedding–it would have seemed churlish for the Watcher to say, “Aw, look at them there getting married. You know, in other timelines it worked out better. Let’s watch.” So in each case, we showed that if they didn’t get married at this point in time, to each other, it would have been a disaster.

Image Credit: Marvel Comics

But it’s always fun to play with X-Men history like that, and to get to write the characters as they were in the earlier days. Even if it meant destroying the world around them.

AIPT: Obviously, you’ve written the X-Men here and there, but you’ve never written a lengthy X-Men run. In your time at Marvel, did the opportunity ever arise to write the X-Men for an extended run or were you always more focused on writing in the Avengers corner of the Marvel Universe?

Kurt: The opportunity never really came up, not for an extended run.

I pitched a couple of projects that never got anywhere–one of them was X-Men: The Secret Years, and a few years after I pitched it, John Byrne did X-Men: The Hidden Years, but I’m sure I wasn’t the first guy to think “Hey, let’s fill that gap between X-Men #66 and Giant-Size X-Men #1–and I was offered a mini-series or two, but it was always a case of “We want to do a Beast mini-series, and the story’s going to be this, and it has to end this way.” And I didn’t take them because I don’t really want to write someone else’s story; the fun of it for me is thinking them up myself.

Image Credit: Marvel Comics

So while X-Men was a book that, as a teenager, I really really wanted to write someday, the reality of it was that for much of the time that I was writing for Marvel it was very much in other hands, or was so editorially controlled that I wouldn’t have had any fun.

As for the future, though, I guess you never know. Stranger things have happened.

AIPT: I think there are a lot of readers out there who’d love to see more of Kurt Busiek’s X-Men. Thanks for taking the time to chat, Kurt!

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