Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, and those of us who indulge in the pleasures of pop culture tend to like our romantic fantasies with an edge of latent tragedy.
So on the subject of doomed love, why not take a look at the pairing that comic book writers have spent decades trying to convince us wouldn’t work. From the moment the compact, rough-hewn, cantankerous Canadian mutant Wolverine was introduced to the X-Men by Len Wein and Dave Cockrum in Giant-Size #1 (in all its leprechaun-fighting silliness), he and the telekinetic Jean Grey found themselves in a protracted, broken love triangle. As they struggled with their feelings, X-Men writers (and for a while, that meant Chris Claremont) seemed to be telling readers that the conventional pretty-boy Scott “Cyclops” Summers was forever and always to be Jean’s one-and-only, only to be undone time and time again because of the characters’ natural chemistry.
And yet they would never really bridge that gap and enter into a relationship, at least in “mainstream” continuity.
It’s hard to say why they make such a compelling couple. It’s not just that they look like Fred and Wilma Flintstone (or Peter and Lois Griffin, or even Barney and Miriam Panofsky). But from the first time the characters meet, you see a spark of emotion – something primal and undeniable. There’s fire there, but there’s also something unspoken. Somehow there is a personal connection. And with Jean and Cyclops together in a conventional, “Bye Bye Birdie” sense, it’s also sort of transgressive, and dangerous.
They’re a study in opposites, in a great many ways. There’s a status dynamic at work — Jean an intellectual, a longtime student of X-Men founder Professor Xavier; Wolverine an autodidact (to put it euphemistically). There’s a power dynamic — Jean a world-breaking telekinetic powerhouse, Wolverine essentially an angry guy with sharp claws.
There are also thematic contrasts between the two of them. Wolverine can’t die: besides the sharp claws, his mutant power is to regenerate his wounds within minutes. Jean Grey dies… all the time. In fact, one of her first major plot arcs in the modern era was all about her dying, then coming violently back to life as the cosmically-powerful Phoenix, then dying again after becoming the Dark Phoenix. This cycle has lathered, rinsed and repeated not a few times since – occasionally with Wolverine involved in the dying part.
They’re a couple that speaks to me, and many fans, because — at least in most versions of the comics — they never quite make that connection. And they’re separated by such a gulf. And yet they come, constantly, tantalizingly close to bridging it.
The attraction between the characters is so strong that any time it’s not the “main” Marvel Universe, writers leap at the opportunity to bring them together. In the Ultimate universe, Mark Millar has a much darker version of Wolverine and Jean start a casual relationship before Cyclops and Jean even get together. The connection profoundly changes Wolverine’s perspective for the better, leading him to stay with the X-Men. In the Bryan Singer X-Men movies, Famke Janssen and Hugh Jackman smoulder on the screen, while James Marsden nervously and possessively drapes his arm around “his girl” at every opportunity.
And of course in the “Age of Apocalypse” universe, they’re actually married. Rick Remender recently revisited this alternate world in his “Uncanny X-Force” series, and the sparks between the two fairly leapt off the page.
At the moment, the comics find themselves in a place where we’re dealing with the aftermath of this whole love triangle. Cyclops is now the de facto “leader” of the mutants, in a long-term relationship with Emma Frost, seeming to have finally moved on in a serious, mature way from his one-time marriage to the departed Jean. (The last time she died, it seems to have stuck.) Wolverine, in the meantime, has led the younger members of the X-Men away from Cyclops’ increasingly militarized island state, and founded a new school in the tradition of Xavier’s original academy.
He called it the “Jean Grey School for Higher Learning”. Wolverine, a brawling, swearing, drinking death machine, has somehow evolved into the caring, protective headmaster of a high school. And the name of that school is a big clue as to why.
Why are Wolverine and Jean so compelling an almost-couple? Well, partly it’s that the characters themselves seem so instinctively drawn to each other; not much you can say about that. Partly it’s that it’s in many ways the great unanswered question of the X-Men comics, hypothetical alternate realities aside. But I think, in the end, it’s because they shows how even if you don’t necessarily get the normal, everyday relationship you hope for, a powerful enough connection to another person can change you for the better.