This guest post kindly comes from longtime comic book fan and aspiring writer, Jack Fisher. His favorite series include X-Men, Spider-Man, Saga, Y: The Last Man, Hulk, and Justice League. He owns and operates the website, X-men Supreme, which is the site of his bi-weekly fanfiction series. He also operates the X-men Supreme Official Blog, which regularly reviews comics.
The conflict between Chris Claremont and Jim Shooter with respect to the events and outcome of the Phoenix Saga are well-documented. Claremont made his original plan very clear. He intended Jean Grey to survive, become de-powered, leave the X-men, and start a family with Cyclops. It was Jim Shooter who mandated that Jean face punishment for being responsible for the destruction of 5 billion D’brai. In some ways this made the end of the Phoenix Saga and its aftermath all the more emotional. We can debate for ages which ending would have been better, but it is often the aftermath of this mandate that has triggered a great deal of controversy, some from Chris Claremont himself.
This controversy centres around the character of Madelyne Pryor. After Cyclops’s departure from the X-men following the Phoenix Saga, she conveniently emerged bearing an uncanny resemblance to Jean Grey. Still reeling from his loss, Cyclops was quickly captivated by Madelyne and even thought she was Jean reincarnated (which earned him a punch in the face). Despite this awkward introduction, Madelyne would go onto marry Cyclops and have a child with him that would later become Cable. It was meant to be the happy ending that Chris Claremont originally wanted for Cyclops. Unfortunately, it turned into something much more complicated and would end up having significant ramifications for the X-books for years to come.
It came as another result of an editorial mandate. Jim Shooter wanted Jean Grey back for X-Factor, a new series that would be penned by Louise Simonson. However, he wanted her to be absolved of the crimes committed by the Phoenix. So as a result, the events of the Phoenix Saga were ret-conned so that Jean Grey spent the whole affair in a cocoon in Jamaica Bay while the Phoenix Force created a likeness of Jean Grey that committed those crimes. It was convoluted, but it allowed Shooter and Simonson to bring Jean Grey back. It also brought Cyclops back into the fold. News of Jean’s return led him to seek her out against Madelyne’s wishes. It culminated with Cyclops joining X-Factor while Madelyne and their son disappeared.
This eventually lead to Inferno, which was yet another ret-con. By having Cyclops leave Madelyne, it put her and Cyclops’s character in a difficult position. So her origin was changed. Instead of being a woman that just happened to look like Jean Grey, she became a clone created by Mr. Sinister for the express purpose of falling in love with Cyclops and having his child. This revelation along with many other events turned Madelyne Pryor into the villainous Goblin Queen. She would eventually try to sacrifice her own son while taking on the X-men, including her former husband. The X-men were able to defeat her, leaving Madelyne as one of the most twisted and dramatic characters during that period of the X-books. While Inferno is often highly regarded as a quality story in the history of X-men, the circumstances and changes to Madelyne Pryor’s character have led to some convoluted and sometimes damaging effects throughout the X-books.
Chris Claremont himself was one of the most vocal critics. He created Madelyne to give Cyclops the happy ending that he wanted. That ending as well as the ending to the Phoenix Saga was completely undermined when Jean was brought back. In addition, Claremont and many others would argue that Cyclops leaving his wife did irreversible damage to his character. One could argue the circumstances and merits of this action, but it was certainly a morally questionable act. Claremont would later use this act justify undermining the Cyclops/Jean relationship in favour of a Jean/Wolverine relationship, often to the detriment of the characters as some have argued. It all stemmed from Madelyne and the impact she had on the X-men after the events of the Phoenix Saga. This impact is in many ways the greatest flaw of her character and the direction in which the X-books would take as a result.
The first and most egregious flaw was just how contrived her character was from the beginning. It helps to break it down into a very simple premise. Cyclops just watched the love of his life die before his eyes. He’s so distraught he leaves his friends and teammates behind. Then he just happens to meet a woman who looks exactly like Jean Grey. Anyone who knows the definition of the word ‘contrived’ should be able to figure out what’s wrong with that premise. I get that comics are fantasy and things that don’t usually happen can happen. However, in terms of storytelling this is just asinine. Claremont just pulled this character out of thin air, put her with Cyclops, and essentially forced this happy ending he wanted him to have with Jean. Good storytelling or even mediocre storytelling rarely results from forcing a plot. I get where Claremont is coming from. He wanted this ending and was probably upset that Jim Shooter denied it to him. So he did his best to capture it, even at the expense of being overly contrived.
But that isn’t the only flaw with Madelyne. In some ways the difficulties with her character are paralleled by what has been happening with Hope Summers in the recent X-men comics. Because of Madelyne’s resemblance to Jean Grey, it makes it difficult for her character to develop a sense of uniqueness. No matter what she does, she will be compared or associated with Jean Grey if for no other reason than because she showed up so quickly after Jean died. But making her look exactly like Jean while at first having no apparent link to her is simply too much, even for a comic book.
Another flaw that may or may not be a flaw has to do with her being a clone. For most comics, clones are often seen as a poor plot device. They are often seen as agents of ret-cons and they often are. Clones often complicate story-lines that are often complicated to begin with. For Madelyne Pryor, it was a special case. For her, being a clone actually made more sense for her character than just being some random woman who happened to look like Jean Grey. That’s a lot of happenstance and being a clone actually helped rectify that in a way that was may have been convoluted, but it worked. Her being a clone along with interactions with Mr. Sinister contributed to her becoming the villainous Goblin Queen. She herself became a flaw that the X-men needed to defeat. For her character and the overall scope of the series, it was overly complicated.
The final and most far-reaching flaw has to do with the long term effects of Madelyne’s presence. As previously mentioned, Chris Claremont used Madelyne as an excuse to denigrate Cyclops’s character and undermine his relationship with Jean Grey. He wasn’t completely misguided in doing so. Cyclops’s character was tainted by his marriage to Madelyne. It didn’t just put him on a morally questionable level. It turned him from the dedicated boy scout into an emotionally flawed man who would abandon loved ones. This would play out in later stories such as him sacrificing Nathan into the future or him having a psychic affair with Emma Frost while he was married to Jean Grey. It wasn’t restricted to his character either. Jean Grey herself became a victim of Madelyne’s impact. She became more of an obsession rather than a beloved friend. She became the emotionally confused woman that became a plot device for melodrama. Wolverine also suffered as a character because Claremont’s insistence on forcing him with Jean Grey turned him from a loner into more of an obsessive stalker of sorts. Between the characters and the convoluted plots in which they were involved, Madelyne’s presence did a lot of damage to the books.
So what’s the fix? How could Madelyne Pryor have become viable? Assuming that the ending of the Phoenix Force was unchanged, what could have been done to make her character more compelling without twisting the history of the X-men too much?
There are a number of ways this could be handled. One involves taking the ending Chris Claremont wanted and changing the circumstances. Say Cyclops does leave the X-men and does meet Madelyne Pryor. She can even look like Jean Grey. However, in this fix she wouldn’t be a clone. Instead, she would be an agent from Sinister who had her appearance purposefully altered so that she would look like Jean. Rather than be a victim of brain-washing, she would simply play the part of a con-artist that would get Cyclops to fall in love with her so she can have his baby.
Now this could create a problem for Cyclops. Would he really be so gullible to just fall for someone who is actively conning him? It’s one thing if Madelyne doesn’t know who she is or if Sinister implanted false memories. It’s another if she’s actively lying. This is where the true identity of Madelyne comes in. Rather than being a clone, she could be a daughter of Jason Wynegarde. It wouldn’t be without precedent. Wynegarde has two daughters in the X-books (Martinique and Regan) and Madelyne could be one of them, perhaps one born out of wedlock that Sinister took under his wing. She wouldn’t actually look like Jean in the same way Wynegarde didn’t look like he did during the Phoenix Saga. She would use her psychic skills skills to create this elaborate illusion to Cyclops. Seeing as how he would be so emotionally vulnerable, he could certainly be lured in to the point where she would take advantage of him. And since her father was powerful enough to fool the X-men, she could maintain the facade even while under close scrutiny by his friends and teammates.
This solves a number of problems right off the bat. For one, it makes Madelyne’s appearance far less contrived. If her resemblance to Jean Grey is an elaborate illusion true to her Wynegarde heritage, then it becomes a mystery rather than a forced plot device. It also maintains the theme of Cyclops being vulnerable after Jean’s death, thus leading him to set aside any doubts that Madelyne was too good to be true. It also opens the door to a possibility that could help preserve Cyclops’s character in a way that would maintain his credibility.
Now it’s entirely possible that Cyclops wouldn’t have to marry Madelyne in this fix if it was just an elaborate deception. However, in order to maintain the same elements that were done in the comics, the marriage still happens. That way Chris Claremont could still get his happy ending on some levels, but it would be an elaborate ruse. This would open the door to new stories that would drop hints that maybe Madelyne wasn’t who she appeared to be. Perhaps there could even be scenes where Cyclops manages to pierce the illusion and see the real Madelyne, but she keeps him from finding out too much. This way the readers also know that something is up with this woman so that when the revelation of her identity comes along, it doesn’t come off as a ret-con like the revelation about Madelyne being a clone.
It could go a few steps further. In order to make this relationship to seem less forced, perhaps Madelyne could use another trick that Mastermind used and alter his mind further into falling in love with her while gradually forgetting about Jean Grey. This could further push Cyclops away from the X-men and prompt him into having a kid with Madelyne. Since she’s not the clone of Jean Grey, she could still coordinate with Sinister so that when she becomes pregnant he could use a random sample of Jean’s DNA (which he clearly already had in the comics since it allowed him to make Madelyne in the first place) to make Nathan Summers. This way, the later stories about Nathan can remain intact without having to use clones.
This deception could go further still. After the birth of their son, Madelyne could tighten her hold on Cyclops to the point where she starts drawing him into joining Sinister. It would be a parallel of sorts to how Mastermind drew Jean Grey into joining the Inner Circle. It could make for some difficult conflicts with the X-men, who sense something is wrong but cannot overcome Madelyne’s influence. Then Jean Grey returns and the story takes on a new shift.
Just as in the original, Jean Grey returns after her cocoon is found by the Fantastic Four. As soon as word gets out, it catches Cyclops’s attention. This revelation would be so jarring that it could help undo or at least damage the illusion Madelyne has kept on him for years at this point. And since this scenario has Madelyne working closely with Sinister from the beginning, she would be far more aggressive in trying to keep Cyclops away from Jean Grey. As a result, Cyclops actually has to fight her to break free. In doing so, he finds out that she had been conning him with a psychic illusion. Devastated, he escapes from Madelyne. In the process, he tries to retrieve his son. However, in one last illusion Madelyne manages to trick Cyclops into believing that Nathan was an illusion as well and just a means of keeping him away from the X-men. This would create an interesting conflict for the reader because they wouldn’t know whether Nathan is real or an illusion. Cyclops wouldn’t know either, leading him to escape and meet up with Jean Grey so that the events of X-Factor could unfold.
With this revision, not too many events need to change. Inferno could remain largely intact, but Madelyne doesn’t have to be a clone. She could just be seeking vengeance on Cyclops and Jean Grey for ruining Sinister’s plan. Sinister, having shown a low tolerance for failure in the past, could blame her for her failure and cast her out, leading to more resentment that would result in becoming the Goblin Queen. It also maintains most of the drama between Cyclops and Jean Grey without damaging Cyclops’s credibility. He didn’t just leave his wife and child. They were illusions created by Sinister to control him. At first, he may not tell her about Madelyne because he wouldn’t be sure if it was real or not. As a means of repairing their relationship, she could help him undo the damage done by the deception. It would be fitting since she had to go through something similar with the Hellfire Club. It would also avoid the uncertainty Jean would feel after having absorbed Madelyne in the original Inferno. Instead, she would just have to defeat her as a means of exposing the full extent of her deception, which could end with the revelation that Nathan was not an illusion after all. It creates all sorts of new, more coherent dynamics for Cyclops and Jean without the baggage left from Madelyne being a clone or a wife that Cyclops walked out on.
There are many other ways to make Madelyne Pryor a more viable character. There are just as many ways to handle the aftermath of the Phoenix Saga more effectively. However, this fix allows for the fewest overall changes to the overall continuity. It would have kept with Jim Shooter’s mandates. It would have given Chris Claremont fewer reasons to resent Cyclops. It could have made the whole affair surrounding Madelyne, Cyclops, and Jean Grey much cleaner and less contrived. Madelyne Pryor still has merit as a character, but the circumstances surrounding her creation will ensure that much of that merit will go unrealised.