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Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Panel Vision - Guide to the X-Men Multiverse

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One of the interesting things about the X-Men franchise at this moment in time is how much it’s ended up eschewing the shared universe format promoted by Marvel.  Instead, X-Men has adopted a sort of multi-continuity approach, in a manner that’s only growing more extreme.  Both Deadpool and the upcoming Logan take place in no other continuity than their own and, so far, it seems the TV show Legion is a unique continuity all its own as well.  

This is actually fairly common for the X-Men comics as the X-Men are major players in the realm of altered timelines and parallel universes.  So far only a couple have filtered into the movies but, given everything we’ve seen, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if things like Mojoworld or Age of X were on the horizon for the X-franchise.  So, if you don’t know what either of those things are here’s your guide to the X-Men multiverse. 

Here’s one of the 2 X-Men universes that’s actually managed to find its way into the film series, mostly because it’s the most famous.  If you skipped 2014’s Days of Future Past, it’s the story of a dark and distant future where the Sentinels, government made mutant hunter robots, have gone crazy and nearly wiped out all mutantkind.  

The Sentinels are opposed by a small band of surviving mutants always on the run from their machine pursuers, but there’s little hope.  In this possible timeline’s introduction, they ended up sending Kitty Pride back in time to avoid the inciting incident that launched Project Wide Awake, a government initiative to expand the Sentinel program to hunt all mutants and mutant sympathizers. 

While Kitty managed to avoid this future in the prime line this future still persisted as a parallel Earth that writers have returned to on several occasions.  It’s one of the cornerstone stories of the X-Men universe, to the point it even managed to find its way into the 1992 animated series.  It also spawned a whole ton of similar dark futures where Sentinels reign which I can’t cover here or we’d be here all damn week.  

This is where a lot of time travel related X characters come from like Bishop, who appeared in the Days of Future Past film, or Nimrod, an ultra-Sentinel with an unfortunate biblical allusion for a name.  Pretty much all of those worlds exist as an echo of this main one, with one exception we’ll get to a little later on. 

This is the other core possible dark future of the X-Men to actually make it to the big screen, albeit in a much-reduced format.  This is the future that’s serving as the basic outline of the upcoming third Wolverine film Logan, a future where most superheroes are gone or corrupted, and Logan is basically the world’s last hero.  

It’s actually a pretty strange comic, premiering in the late 2000s when “exploring Wolverine’s origins” had become an exaggerated joke unto itself (like the one comic where it turned out he had evolved from wolves.)  As such, trying to go for a harsher, grittier future Wolverine setting was a kind of thankless task that catered a little too easily to the worst instincts of author Mark Millar. 

I’m not saying Old Man Logan is a bad comic just an over-hyped one.  There are a lot of books like that, comics that are considered foundational to the modern medium like Dark Knight Returns or Killing Joke that really aren’t as mind blowing as the world would have you believe.  There are some weird and interesting elements involving dinosaurs and a clan of inbred Hulk children, but I’m hard pressed to say that it really hangs together.  

Like a lot of Millar’s work, it’s hard to tell how much of what we’re seeing is serious and how much is him messing with the audience so if you’re looking for a poignant commentary on the curse of immortality I’d wait for the movie. 

Now we’ve moved beyond the scope of the films but I still suspect there’s a sizable amount of people who actually know this world, hopefully because I reviewed these comics last year for X-Men: Apocalypse.  Age of Apocalypse was the last major Marvel event to be published before their bankruptcy in 1996, a massive mega-story that impacted every X-men comic running at the time- which was a lot.  It explored a world in which Professor Xavier gave his life to save Magneto before either man had truly committed to their life’s work. 

Inspired by his friend’s heroic sacrifice, Magneto dedicated himself to fulfilling Xavier’s dream of peaceful co-existence and founded his own X-Men.  Unfortunately, Xavier’s death was a sign to the being Apocalypse, the first and possibly most powerful mutant, enhanced by ancient alien astronauts.  Magneto and his X-Men were unable to stop Apocalypse when he made his move and so North America ended up conquered. 

The main series was set near the end of Apocalypse’s reign, as he was prepared to launch his campaign of purging the weak worldwide.  As I said in my review it’s not a great comic, mainly suffering from a lot of the worst tendencies of the ‘90s like a desire to seem edgy and harsh for its own sake.  Honestly, the costumes and redesign of the X-Men for this universe are probably the best thing to come out of it.  However, I am definitely in the minority on Age of Apocalypse as a lot of X-fans consider it a real high point so if you don’t want to take my word for it you could do worse. 

Much like Age of Apocalypse, chances are if you’ve heard of any of these you’ve probably heard of House of M.  It was a big, early 2000s event comic from Marvel that marked the beginning of the universe takeover by superstar author Brian Michael Bendis.  Bendis cut his teeth in Marvel on the hit series Alias, which would be adapted as Jessica Jones, before helping to found Marvel’s extremely profitable Ultimate Universe. 

After that he was given more or less free reign over the comic universe in the early 2000s as Marvel was trying to re-assert themselves after recovering from bankruptcy.  His pitch was a serious of major shake-ups starting with Secret War, which got rid of Nick Fury and I already reviewed, and culminating in Civil War, which reshaped the entire comic universe and I also already reviewed.  House of M was the middle part of that grand plan. 

In House of M the mutant daughter of Magneto Scarlet Witch is driven insane by her brother Quick Silver and uses her mutant powers to re-write reality.  This new world is a strange hodgepodge, the big heroes have all been given perfect lives to keep them from asking questions while the world overall is one where mutants are the dominant species, not humans. 

Spider-Man is married to Gwen Stacy and is a pro-wrestler, Captain America went to the moon instead of getting frozen in the ice, Dr. Doom is a handsome and unscarred, and Magneto’s mutant nation Genosha is the dominant global superpower.  Marvel released a TON of mini-series exploring the world, most of which are really worth checking out, especially the stuff dealing with street level heroes in House of M: Avengers and the background stuff on mutant dominance in House of M: Civil War. 

Now we’re off the map and trust me- here there be monsters.  So, in 1988 Marvel’s X-Men franchise was juggernauting along at about the height of its popularity.  At the heart of that was a willingness to constantly expand the team and keep the focus on young heroes.  To capitalize on this, Marvel put together an event comic called Inferno, which focused on their latest and youngest X-team the New Mutants.  The story of Inferno is all about Illyana Rasputin, a character you’ll probably learn more about when the New Mutants movie finally hits. 

She’s the sister of Colossus and basically has magic as her mutant superpower.  She can open a portal to the demonic realm of Limbo and enhanced that ability by learning spells and getting a magic sword.  In Inferno, the demons of Limbo decide to use Illyana to form a permanent bridge between Earth and Limbo and invade New York.  There’s also a lot of other stuff with the character Madelyne Pryor, a clone of Jean Grey made by Mr. Sinister, but that’s unimportant here. 

Now Inferno was a pretty popular event comic, to the point it spawned a small follow-up in Marvel’s comic series “What If?”  The What If comics were a series exploring alternate possibilities and in this case, the comic asked What If The X-Men Lost Inferno?  This mainly popped up because an in-joke that was part of the original event was that despite New York transforming into a terrifying Hellscape most New Yorkers carried on with their normal routine unimpacted by the horrors of it all.  The What If comic would’ve been the end of it, but the 2015 series Secret Wars decided to revisit this world, making it part of the X-Men multiverse. 

Speaking of Secret Wars (2015,) you’re going to be hearing me mention it a few more times before we’re over and E is for Extinction is a good example of that.  Back in 2001, Marvel had made a bundle with the X-Men thanks to the blockbuster movie, which is also, incidentally, how they got themselves out of bankruptcy.  

To capitalize on this success, they decided to put DC’s big gun author Grant Morrison onto a new X-Men comic entitled New X-Men.  It’s a strange run full of a lot of weird and grimy ideas like Professor X having a secret evil twin sister or the group the U-Men, who hunt mutants to steal their organs.  If you’ve ever wondered why Jean Grey isn’t in the current comics or why Cyclops and Emma Frost are together now it’s thanks to this comic. 

Even though the original comic didn’t feature any dimension-hopping it became the subject of an alternate reality featured in the 2015 Secret Wars comic, which was all about Marvel’s multiverse.  In this universe, Professor X died fighting his evil sister but his death was actually kind of a good thing.  

Ten years later, humanity and mutants are basically cool with each other and all the original X-Men have grown into middle age and are losing their powers.  There’s a lot in their with the various mutants Morrison introduced during his run and a whole new team of X-Men created by Magneto, which is decently interesting.  This is definitely the most medium of all the Earths I’ve spotlighted so far, not abominable but hardly impressive. 

I’m honestly a little hard pressed to explain what exactly Age of X is.  Most of the entries on this list revolve around one central moment that altered the world and defines their reality but that’s not really the case with Age of X.  There are a few big changes, in particular several key mutants died in this reality before they could truly become heroes such as Beast and Scarlet Witch, but it’s still hard to singularly define this reality. 

Basically it’s a world where human and mutant relations are worse than the main universe but not as bad as Days of Future Past.  In this world, both Xavier and Magneto exist though neither one really leads the mutant population, even though the mutants are very much on the run.  What’s more, the mutants aren’t pursued by Sentinels but rather by human military and superhero forces.  Seriously, in this world the Avengers exist specifically to hunt down mutants. 

As to how this universe exists or why it went so wrong, those two points are actually connected.  See, the world of Age of X was actually created by the character Legion, the psychologically unbalanced son of Professor Xavier.  Legion has a ton of powers and mental disorders and ended up subconsciously using his abilities to rewrite history to make a world where he was sane and would be able to become the heroic savior of mutantkind he, and his father, always wished he could be.  Given that Legion is already dabbing its feet in the parallel universe water and The Flash has been full on bathing in the Multiversal fountain for two seasons now I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we saw Age of X elements show up on the show. 

Man, I sure do talk about Marvel’s bankruptcy a lot don’t I?  Well, even though the company had to declare bankruptcy in 1996 they kept producing comics, it’s just that a lot of the stuff to come out of this era is pretty terrible because it was made on the extreme cheap.  One amazing example of this was 1998’s Mutant X, an amazingly circuitous and bizarre comic mini-series starring Havok, Cyclops’ little brother. 

Basically what happened was that the Havok of the main universe got knocked out real bad and swapped minds with his counterpart from a parallel reality.  In this world, there is no Xavier or Cyclops, though the X-Men still exist and are led by Havok.  In this world, mutants are weird, exaggerated ugly creatures that look like Universal Monsters.  For instance, Beast is some kind of hoofed, fish creature and Angel is a vampire bat person.  The how and why of this change is never expanded upon, if you were curious.

The main crux of this universe is a battle with possibly my favorite dumb concept in all of Marvel- the Goblin Force.  So, remember Inferno?  Well, back in that series, when Madelyne Pryor, the clone of Jean Grey, became possessed by demons she changed her title to the Goblin Queen.  Building off of that dumb name change, Mutant X introduced the idea there was a powerful cosmic force/entity on par with the Phoenix Force known as the Goblin Force and that it possessed a host in the same way.  

It’s stupid and I mean laughably stupid, one of the weirdest and dumbest extrapolations to come out of a bad original idea I think I’ve ever encountered.  Eventually Havok ended up wiping out the Goblin Force throughout all reality so that the dumbness couldn’t spread to other universes and no one has spoken of Mutant X since. 

Taking a double trip in the way-back machine with this entry.  First, let’s go back to Days of Future Past for a second.  As I said, that comic was insanely popular and produced a ton of imitators following in the “robot/human vs. mutant dystopia” vein that aren’t worth commenting on as they’re so underexplored.  Age of X was one exception, X-Tinction Agenda is the other major exception though for a completely different reason.  

The original X-Tinction Agenda was a weird sequel to a sequel, following up the 1990 comic Days of Future Present, which was itself a sequel to Days of Future Past.  So yes, X-Tinction Agenda is a sequel to the sequel to Days of Future Past, definitely get why this universe was deemed worth revisiting.

It’s not even really its own universe so much as it’s a hodgepodge of suggestions and disparate elements.  Days of Future Present included several time traveling characters from a possible future reshaped by the 10 years worth of changes since Days of Future Past.  The central part of that change-up comes from Rachel Summers, daughter of Jean Grey and Cyclops, who was in love with Franklin Richards, son of Mr. Fantastic and Invisible Woman. 

Really, the only reason Marvel came back to this stuff in 2015’s Secret Wars seems to be that the original X-Tinction Agenda was key to the emergence of Genosha as a major part of the X-Men universe.  Basically, if you liked the Genosha plot from the 1992 animated X-Men show where the nation enslaved mutants to help build their infrastructure that’s what this universe is. 

Now we’ve passed, however briefly, from the realm of altered timelines and parallel realities to something more like a bizarre dimension.  The world of Arkon, known as Polemachus, is a barbarian fantasy esc realm of swords and sorcery.  Arkon is the king of this realm and wields thunderbolts as his weapon of choice.  He’s basically a weird, alternate universe Thor in that respect which is why, when he became aware of Storm, he decided he needed her for his wife. 

I’m not really sure I should count Arkon’s world as part of the X-Men specific mythos but it ends up lumped together with them more often than not, and Scarlet Witch was the first person to discover the way to his reality.  What’s more, Arkon actually managed to make it into the 1992 cartoon series, appearing in a couple of episodes acting out his plot to try and get Storm to marry him.  He also appeared in his own Secret Wars mini-series though it didn’t end up focusing on Polemachus but rather Weirdworld, but that’s an entry for a separate list. 

 Much like Arkon, Mojo’s world isn’t even close to a parallel of the main universe continuity but rather a dark and terrifying dimension beyond space and time.  In this reality the whole world is ruled over by Mojo, a tremendously overweight, yellow skinned monster man who keeps his conquered populous subdued with a non-stop series of reality TV.  

Incidentally, if you read this and think “huh, a grotesquely overweight inhuman caricature who rules the world through reality TV, that sounds like America’s President,” you aren’t the first person to make that particular parallel. 

The main reason Mojo ended up an X-Men bad guy is that the people who participate in his Running Man style death game show are mutants themselves.  The big star of the series was Longshot, a mutant whose power was genetically enhanced luck, which admittedly doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  

Later on they introduced the character Shatterstar, who has psychic sword powers that also aren’t terribly well explained.  Shatterstar is actually fairly unique as the one of the few LGBT X-Men, as it was confirmed in 2009 that he was bisexual.  There’s also the character Spiral, a four-armed super samurai chick that acts as Mojo’s enforcer. 

X-MEN ‘92
So, back in 1992, the X-Men were reaching the peak of their profitability and marketability as a franchise.  They came out of nowhere in the mid-'70s to be a big property then spent the entire ‘80s slowly climbing, with the late ‘80s/early ‘90s as the height of their popular success. 

The big, capstone to this era ended up the 1992 animated X-Men series, which is widely considered to be the best Marvel animated production, especially by young X-Men fans who were introduced to the brand through that show.  Even though the show and the X films never co-existed the animated series was really where the franchise became the colossal juggernaut that made the series the second most profitable Marvel franchise after Spider-Man. 

Given that insane popularity and the rising value of ‘90s nostalgia, Marvel decided to officially add the continuity of the 1992 series into the Marvel multiverse.  This started initially as part of the 2015 Secret Wars event, as written by Comics Alliance’s Chris Simms.  The series has kept running since then and proven very popular as an uncomplicated alternative to the main X-Men stuff. 

It’s a fun way to dig into the classic status quo a lot of maturing fans loved at the start, especially for those burnt out on stuff like evil Cyclops or how Jean, Xavier, and Wolverine are all still dead in the comics right now.  No word yet on whether or not it will crossover with X-Men: Evolution, which we all know was the superior TV show. 

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