To her fellow X-Men, the psychic Jean Grey was one of the most beloved mutants to ever pass through Charles Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters. But to some of the foremost galactic empires in the Marvel Universe, Jean Grey was known as the Phoenix, a being of terrifying power. Before she was either an X-Man or an interstellar threat, she was just a teenage girl trying to make sense of a mutant ability she didn't understand. This August, writer Sean McKeever and artist Mike Mayhew take readers back to Jean's formative years in the one-shot "X-Men Origin: Jean Grey." CBR News spoke with both creators as well as their editor Nick Lowe about the project, which features 30 fully painted pages of artwork.
Most of the Marvel's mutants manifest their abilities during adolescence, but an accident caused Jean Grey's powers to appear at age 12, when " X-Men Origin: Jean Grey" begins. "This is about a preteen girl who is damaged by severe trauma and is faced with the difficult tasks of overcoming that trauma, dealing with her newfound powers and blossoming into a young woman," Sean McKeever told CBR News. "We took elements of the origin story from 'Bizarre Adventures,' plus 'Children of the Atom,' some backup material from 'Classic X-Men' and a couple other sources to put together what I feel is a very strong, definitive tale for a character very much deserving of a full-length origin treatment."
McKeever's script may reference X-Men stories from the past, but both he and Mike Mayhew wanted their title character to be someone a contemporary audience could identify with. "Jean's someone with almost infinite power but she's trapped inside this person who's having a hard time getting through the day," said Mike Mayhew. "She's trying to fit in and be a regular teenager, kind of like Spider-Man. I felt that was the thing to play up to have people identify with her. I didn't want her to be some idealized character. This wasn't going to be a pin-up. She's someone a girl could look at and say, 'That's cool.' That was all there in Sean's script. I didn't have to interpret how the character was going to be. I just looked at the story and tried to capture his story beats. We see Jean change and go through a lot of interesting emotional things."
Because "Jean Grey" deals with the title character's early years, her fellow original X-Men -- Cyclops, Beast, Angel, and Iceman -- are all very important supporting characters. "When you see the X-Men, I want you to think of fun," Mayhew remarked. "You know how they used to prank each other and there was physical humor? Each of those characters had almost a silhouette you could recognize. You didn't have to see their costumes you could tell who they were by their outline."
Mayhew found the most interesting character interactions in "X-Men Origin: Jean Grey" to be those between Jean and Professor X. "That's really the core of the book," the artist said. "Sean had written that relationship really well and the chance to show it was something I really latched onto."
"X-Men Origin: Jean Grey" does feature fantastic elements like super powered characters but it's not your typical tale of superhero action. "It's a character piece," editor Nick Lowe told CBR News. "You get a peek inside Jean at a crucial part of her maturation. Plus some awesome action."
"The script had a lot of everyday elements," Mayhew added. "I felt photographing people and having them act everyday and typical connected with the story Sean was trying to tell." Mayhew decided early on that he wanted to use photography to assist him in bringing to life Sean McKeever's script for "Jean Grey." "That's kind of what I had done on 'Vampirella' and I wanted to take that style to the next level and do painted work. Because this was 30 pages, I thought it was a good opportunity, whereas a four-issue painted miniseries could be a nightmare. So that was really my main motivation. "In painting interiors you're going to use photo reference for the lighting and things like that. So I cast each role and I photographed everyone. And than I incorporated that into my art."
One of Mayhew's inspirations for "Jean Grey" was the work of artist Drew Struzan, who has designed posters for the "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" film series. "I wanted [the comic] to be like if Drew Struzan had painted it, but his movie posters are based on pictures that movie studios take and they can spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the film," Mayhew said. "Those photos have a production value [the artist] doesn't create, but what if the artist created that production value and had that sort of realism? That was my goal; to have sort of a fresh image and not just something from a film."
The coloring process for "Jean Grey" proved to be a tough but informative experience for Mayhew. "I normally paint in acrylic and air brush and it just wasn't going to work for panel to panel stuff," he said. "So I had to start using watercolor and that really affected the way I use the color "When you're coloring a book, you want the colors to connect to the scene emotionally and help tell the story, but because I had only colored covers before I never really had to think that way. So that was something I definitely learned while working on this."
McKeever has seen many of Mayhew's painted pages for "Jean Grey" and he's been astonished by everything his collaborator has brought to the book. "What doesn't he bring?" the writer remarked. "The level of professionalism, the attention to detail, the evocative psychic sequences and dead-on 'acting'--he's really something else."
"X-Men Origin: Jean Grey" has been in development since fall 2006, and it was previous X-Men editor Mike Marts that originally tapped McKeever and Mayhew for the assignment. "If memory serves, he had worked with McKeever on 'Mystique' and wanted to get something new going with him," Nick Lowe explained. "Sean's such a great guy and a fantastic writer, so it's a perfect fit. And we were lucky to get Mike Mayhew. He's a brilliant artist. He puts an ungodly amount of thought into every figure in every panel. You can see the love all over the pages."
For Mayhew, "Jean Grey" was both a great way to stretch his storytelling muscles and a rare opportunity to depict one of Marvel's more popular female characters. "I know it's kind of a joke that they're always bringing Jean Grey back and that kind of thing but she's not really around a lot anymore and she was a big character for me," the artist stated. "Growing up in the '80s, I was really into the X-Men especially the John Byrne stuff. So that image of Jean Grey and Cyclops on the moon that was definitely burned into my brain."
While producing a fully painted thirty-page one-shot is a long and difficult task, Mike Mayhew found "X-Men Origin: Jean Grey" to be a highly rewarding assignment. "I was really allowed to do what I envisioned without compromising myself and that was because of Nick Lowe," the artist said. "If I needed more time or wanted to change something, he really supported me. It was such a great opportunity to do this experiment in a smaller format and not have to compromise, that's a rare thing in comics where there's a deadline. This was one of those things where I'll probably never get a chance to do something like this again so I thought, 'Let's go for it and put everything in there!'"
"X-Men Origin: Jean Grey" is a one-shot that looks at the early years of the title character, but it's part of a larger line of miniseries that reexamines the formative years of many of the X-Men. "X-Men Origin: Colossus" hit stores in May and "X-Men Origin: Beast" is scheduled for a September release. "Some of these have been percolating for years and some of them are just now coming together," Lowe explained. "These are just chances for new fans to see the beginnings of favorite X-Characters and older fans to see a new wrinkle or two."
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