With both Cyclops and Jean Grey returning from the land of the dead recently, fans are already speculating what it might mean for this divorced couple to exist in the same universe as one another for the first time in about a decade and a half. Of course, there is one final piece to the Jean/Scott puzzle, and that is one Emma Frost, who might not have caused the divorce of Jean and Scott, but she certainly escalated it. We don’t know how any of this is going to go, but we do know what leads up to it, and it sure got us to thinking about the long and winding journey that has been the rivalry-turned-uncomfortable-allies of Jean Grey and Emma Frost.
These two first squared off during Jean’s darkest hour and, frankly, it did not go great for our girl Emma. Since then, they’ve been mostly enemies, sometimes reluctant allies, but mostly great verbal sparring partners. So much in the X-Men universe has changed, and it’s hard to know what will happen next, but looking back on where they’ve been might give us some clues as to where they're going.
When we first met Emma Frost, she was a member of the Hellfire Club, a group of superpowered millionaires that met up in a massive mansion in New York decked out in Victorian-era decor on a regular basis for what is never openly stated to be sex parties... but what are definitely sex parties. Oh, and evil. In addition to the sex parties and occasional networking luncheons, they also met up for evil. During this time, the Hellfire Club’s resident illusionist and absolute forever creep Mastermind was attempting to gain control over Jean Grey’s mind and thus harness the power of Phoenix. Emma Frost, another telepath, was helping him out. This initial violation of Jean Grey’s inner world by Emma is important, because not only did it set the tone for their dynamic, but it is also why Jean felt entitled to treat Emma pretty much however she wanted for years to come.
Emma Frost attacked the X-Men, kidnapping and torturing Storm. Soon-to-be fledgling X-Man Kitty Pryde stowed away to help the team, the first act of heroism we see from her as a preteen character. Jean, whose grip on reality had been teetering between her own world and that of Mastermind’s creation, realized that Emma was responsible for trying to control her and for hurting her friends. In typical Jean fashion, she showed up looking great in a green cardigan, said, “Hi, I’m Jean Grey, everything is just fine,” let Kitty collapse in tears on her shoulder, then proceeded to throw down with Emma. This fight was both epic and brief, as there was no chance of Emma Frost defending herself against the raw power of the Phoenix. After this, deep down, Emma would always be afraid of Jean.
Both women underwent massive changes over the next several years. For her part, Emma appeared most prominently as the mentor of the Hellions. In the beginning, she was a comically, inexplicably evil villain, but over time her humanity began slowly to show. When the New Mutants were traumatized and depressed by the Beyonder, their mentor Magneto begged Emma to take them in, knowing that she would be able at least to get them talking again. Though none of the New Mutants trusted Frost (with good reason), and though she herself lightly plotted her eventual victory over Xavier throughout the story, she extended her hand to them in what appeared to be an act genuine altruism. Before, Emma's teachings had seemed like a means to her evil ends, but after this, we saw that Emma did deep down care for these children and wished to save them from experiencing the harshness and cruelty she herself had suffered through. Her cold calculated cruelty of years past was put in the context of being a defense mechanism.
We eventually discover that the Jean Emma had met was in fact not Jean, at all, but rather the Phoenix doing a particularly clever impression of Jean while the real Jean had spent years at the bottom of Jamaica Bay in a protective cocoon. She had awakened, confused, but over time she and Cyclops rekindled their love affair. Eventually, she merged her persona and memories with those of the Phoenix.
In Uncanny X-Men #281-282, Jean and Emma’s paths in life temporarily overlapped once more. Emma was nearly assassinated by an unknown killer, and her students the Hellions were captured. Emma and the rest of the X-Men attempted to save the children from the time-hopping mutant known as Trevor Fitzroy without yet fully realizing the sheer chaotic energy they were up against. Nearly all of the Hellions were killed. The trauma of this would effect Emma for the rest of her life. Jean was very nearly killed, and temporarily took control of Emma’s body to continue fighting the good fight. Though Jean quickly returned to her body, Emma was comatose for quite some time.
This story arc is a bit difficult to parse, but it does show a few important character details, one of which is that even at the brink of death Jean would find a way to keep fighting, and also that her regard for Emma's well-being was not particularly high. Jean had been known for a truly profound level of empathy, but Emma Frost is one of the few for whom her compassion is often suspended. Meanwhile, having seen the monstrous side of Jean, Emma could never forget it, and indeed defined Jean on those terms.
The X-Men discovered a traumatized, suffering Emma Frost amidst the wreckage on Genosha, an island which had been almost completely destroyed via a brutal attack. Emma had been teaching children to control their mutant powers when the bomb that eradicated much of the island had dropped. At that moment, her secondary mutation of turning into living diamond manifested, making her the only survivor. She reluctantly joined the X-Men, recognizing that she could not possibly survive on her own.
Jean and Cyclops were having marital troubles after he was brainwashed by the mutant Apocalypse, and it seemed destined that it was going to end badly. Still, somehow, it went even worse than anyone thought as Emma started pulling him into psychic therapy situations, during which time they would sit on his bed and talk about his trauma. They thus began, at the very least, an emotional affair with one another.
This went straight to heck when Jean walked in on them one day and proceeded to torment Emma for an entire issue. Jean chased Emma through her own mind, destroying her mental protections and violating her inner world. She attacked Emma with images of herself as a child and threw cruel insults at her before casually strolling back out of the room and letting the rest of the X-Men deal with a sobbing, incapacitated Emma Frost. This is where even Jean megafans must admit, that on a bad day, she can be just as heartless as Emma, if not more so.
It Ain’t Over Til It’s Over
While Jean Grey was believed deceased, her teen self was dragged into the present along with the other four original X-Men. Unable to return to their own time, they attempted to function despite being forced to deal with the horror of what awaited them in the future. Jean, in particular, did everything she could to struggle against becoming the Phoenix, even going in front of the Sh’iar court to plead her case. Still, she was tormented by visions of the cosmic entity that had destroyed much of her future self’s life.
To make matters worse, the adult Jean’s ghost appeared to be haunting her. Ghost Jean insisted that Teen Jean would have to retrieve a piece of the Phoenix Force that Emma had hidden deep within her own mind. Rather than politely ask, they collectively chose to take it by entering Emma’s subconscious. Naturally, Emma fought them tooth and nail, but in the end, they all came to an agreement, and Emma actually helped them. This was where Jean and Emma were at their finest because the cruelty of prior interactions was dropped and they allowed themselves to be vulnerable with each other about their problems.
Emma Frost and Jean Grey are brilliant foils for one another, not because of their very brief rivalry over Scott Summers, but because Emma Frost is the only person who wants to acknowledge how mean Jean Grey is. Again and again, Emma is the one who has brought out the dark side of the otherwise infinitely kind and understanding Jean. Meanwhile, for Emma, Jean represents the woman she could never live up to and the woman who beat her in battle, more than once, mercilessly stripping Emma of her hard-earned mental and emotional safeguards and forcing her to confront her own weaknesses. Jean appears to others as a benevolent and almost saint-like person, but the way she treats Emma gives a larger view of how cruel she can be when she decides she doesn’t have to respect someone. While we have always been familiar with Emma’s brand of ruthlessness, genuine cruelty has been rare for her post-1990. Still, people will never forgive and love Emma the way they do Jean, and it is in part Emma’s acute awareness of this fact that shows us the generally brash Emma Frost’s hidden insecurities. Though they are great enemies, they’re at their greatest when they work together, because that indicates that they’ve learned a bit about where the other is coming from and how truly similar they are.
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