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Promo art of Cable and Deadpool for Deadpool 2

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The tricky, time-traveling story behind Cable, explained

You’re going to want to sit down for this one

20th Century Fox

Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick knew they wanted Cable, the time-traveling mutant mercenary, to be in Deadpool 2 even while they were making Deadpool. But they also knew his backstory would be a hurdle.

“We ignored [Cable’s backstory],” Reese told Polygon. “Or, not ignored it, but just left it vague and left it a mystery. There are so many questions about his backstory that once you ask one and you get an answer, you want to ask another and another. [...] We just wanted it to be simpler than that. We wanted people to understand that he’s from the future and that he’s back to solve a problem.”

If you’ve ever looked up Cable’s comics history on Wikipedia, you may have staggered out of the room hours later, pale and sweating, your psyche forever changed by the cyclopean geometry you saw within.

It’s true: Explaining exactly how Cable’s backstory came to be is very complicated. But not impossible. And it just might turn out to be important. Reese and Wernick told Polygon that they will be “un-peeling” more of Cable’s story in the upcoming X-Force movie, in which they say Cable will take the lead role.

“We certainly didn’t do anything to negate any of what’s in the comics,” Reese added. “We tried not to. There may be some timing issues, decade issues and stuff, but other than that we tried to leave it open to all of the true backstory.”

The cover of Cable #18, Marvel Comics (2009).
Cable and Hope, in an homage to Aliens from the cover of Cable #18 (2009).
Dave Wilkins/Marvel Comics

Who is Cable?

In his original introduction, Cable is an experienced military commander and a mutant who has been at war for most of his life. He has considerable telepathic and telekinetic abilities, but has to use most of his superpowers constantly to keep himself from dying. A disease called the Techno-Organic virus has already converted a lot of his body (like his left arm and eye) into bionic parts, and would consume more if it could. Fortunately, those bionic parts give him superhuman strength and agility, so that makes up for his mental powers almost always being tapped out.

In his backstory’s most simplified form, Cable is Nathan Christopher Charles Summers, the son of Scott Summers and (again, simplified) Jean Grey of the X-Men. He was sent to the far future as an infant for his own protection, and returned to the present day as an adult mercenary.

But Nathan Summers (first appearance in 1986) and Cable (first appearance in 1990) were not originally intended to be the same character. That connection was inserted in 1993, and once that happened, Cable’s backstory become the product of some of the rockiest retroactive continuity changes in X-Men history — a full bingo card of major editorial disagreements.

Nathan Summers’ birth was tangled in the editorially mandated resurrection of Jean Grey, which went against the wishes of legendary writer Chris Claremont and eventually resulted in one of the biggest X-Men crossover events of all time, Inferno. Years later, the unrelated invention of Cable happened during a time of seismic shift for the X-Men: the early 1990s. That’s precisely the time that Claremont’s epic superhero soap opera was giving way to the artistic and tonal revolution of artists like Jim Lee and, most infamously, Rob Liefeld.

The story of how Cable’s backstory became “he’s Nathan Summers, all grown up,” is arguably more interesting than his backstory itself — and it’s certainly more complex.

Jean Grey, Cyclops and Cable in X-Men ’92 #10, Marvel Comics (2016).
Cable, Jean Grey and Cyclops, reunited in the world of X-Men ’92 #10.
Chad Bowers, Chris Sims, Alti Firmansyah, Cory Hamscher/Marvel Comics

Before you panic

That complexity can be as deep or as shallow as you want it to be, said Chris Sims, the co-writer behind X-Men ’92, a 2015 Marvel Comics series that attempted to distill all X-Men media of the 1990s into a (relatively) coherent, nostalgic treat.

“Because there’s no end to [Cable’s] complexity,” he said. “But there’s also no more complexity to Cable than there is to Spider-Man. It’s just, ‘How much do you want to talk about it?’”

Sims sums up Cable as basically like the Terminator: “He’s this guy from the future who only knows this one the thing, and it’s fighting, it’s war. It’s Apocalypse.”

And for his own comic, named for the year before Cable’s debut? “There is a reason why when [co-writer Chad Bowers and I] did ’92, we gave Cable a new origin,” Sims admitted. “It just did not involve Madelyne Pryor.”

Let’s talk about Madelyne Pryor

We’ve given you the Cable CliffsNotes: the son of Scott Summers and Jean Grey, sent to the future, raised in war, returned to the present. That’s the loose summary.

Let’s get into the nitty-gritty — not just who Cable is, but how his story came to be. We begin in 1980, 10 years before Cable would even be introduced, with one of the greatest X-Men stories ever told.

The cover of Uncanny X-Men #137, Marvel Comics (1980).
Uncanny X-Men #137, the conclusion of The Dark Phoenix Saga.
John Byrne/Marvel Comics

The Dark Phoenix Saga

In September 1980, The Dark Phoenix Saga reached its earth-shaking conclusion: Jean Grey sacrificed her life in order to put an end to the destructive cosmic force known as the Phoenix. We’re very accustomed to superhero deaths being rolled back these days — especially from a character known as ‘the Phoenix’ — but writer Chris Claremont, who had brought the X-Men from an obscure team of also-rans to one of Marvel’s best-selling books, intended it to be permanent.

Indeed, Jean’s death was partially a directive from Marvel: Editor Jim Shooter felt that death was the only way to redeem the character after the Phoenix destroyed a planet full of sentient beings.

A Jean replacement

Three years later, Claremont introduced a character you may not have heard of, but who is vital to understanding Cable’s backstory: the non-mutant character of Madelyne Pryor. Maddy Pryor, who bore a strong (and originally intended to be entirely coincidental) resemblance to Jean Grey, was conceived as a way to give Scott Summers (Cyclops) a happy ending after the death of his first great love, and allow him to retire from the X-Men to start a family. Soon after her intro, Scott and Maddy fell in love and got married, and in 1986’s The Uncanny X-Men #201, their child, Nathan Christopher Charles Summers, was born.

One of Claremont’s goals with the X-Men was to periodically have characters grow up and age out of the student-of-Professor-X-based team, keeping the roster fresh and allowing the X-Men to stay relevant to an ever-changing readership. But this goal often clashed with editorial directives that sought to play to reader nostalgia with recognizable, popular characters in lead roles.

From X-Factor #1, Marvel Comics (1986).
Scott leaves his wife, Madelyne Pryor, in an editorially mandated separation, in X-Factor #1.
Bob Layton, Jackson Guice/Marvel Comics

So, a Jean resurrection

In the same month that Nathan Summers was born, X-Factor began. The series’ purpose was to reunite the original five X-Men from their 1960s debut — no matter how difficult it might be to reconcile that in continuity. It was revealed that the person who had killed all those people and then sacrificed herself in The Dark Phoenix Saga wasn’t Jean at all, but the Phoenix masquerading as Jean. Jean had been safe and hidden all along, and was rescued from a state of hibernation by the Avengers and the Fantastic Four. Now, she was Phoenix-free and ready for X-Factor.

Scott arguably presented more of a problem. He’d gotten married and had just had a baby — but editors wanted him out of retirement and back in costume, and the result sure made him look like a jerk. A month after Jean’s resurrection and Nathan’s birth, Scott returned to the X-Men in X-Factor #1. Shortly afterward, Madelyne disappeared, and Scott simply assumed that she had left him because of his decision and taken their son with her.

She’d actually been attacked and left for dead by bad guys working for the X-Men villain Mister Sinister, who had kidnapped Nathan Christopher. Scott never really followed up on that. Good job, Scott!

Inferno

In February 1989, all the X-Men books came together in a grand culmination of all the knotty problems that Jean’s resurrection and Cyclops’ return had created: Madelyne Pryor had been transformed into the understandably revenge-fueled Goblyn Queen, the antagonist of the Inferno event.

You’re probably wondering why I told you that Nathan Summers is Jean Grey’s kid, when he was actually born to Scott Summers and Madelyne Pryor. Well, in Inferno, it was revealed that the mutant supremacist Mister Sinister (he who had kidnapped baby Nathan years before) believed that the eventual child of Jean and Scott would be the “ultimate mutant.” And Sinister hadn’t let a little thing like Jean being dead at the time stop him from realizing his ambitions.

Sinister revealed to Madelyne Pryor that she looked a lot like Jean Grey because she was a clone of Jean Grey, and that he had created her expressly to fall in love with Cyclops and bear his child. Genetically, Nathan was Jean’s kid too.

At the end of Inferno, Madelyne killed herself in a failed final act of revenge against the people who had created her (Sinister), abandoned her (Scott) and replaced her (Jean). Jean and Scott took baby Nathan into their care, and Jean also psychically received some of Madelyne’s memories of her time with Scott.

But just when you thought everything had resolved...

The wrap-around cover of X-Force #1, featuring (left to right), Cannonball, Shatterstar, Warpath, Domino, Boom Boom, Feral, and Cable, Marvel Comics (1991).
The wrap-around cover of X-Force #1, featuring (left to right), Cannonball, Shatterstar, Warpath, Domino, Boom Boom, Feral and Cable.
Rob Liefeld/Marvel Comics

The ’90s

OK, let’s take a breath. Jean and Scott have custody of baby Nathan Summers, the son of Scott and a clone of Jean Grey. Their relationship is complicated, but they’re co-parenting. We’re in a whole new decade, and the X-Men continuity is about to get very wild.

The early 1990s marked the departure of Chris Claremont from the X-Men, after an unmatched 17-year period of serving as the architect of the overall story of the X-Men — and often directly as the writer of multiple books. The creators who came in after Claremont and longtime collaborators like Louise Simonson were of a new generation. The work of young writers and artists like Jim Lee, Fabian Nicieza and Rob Liefeld would come to define an entire decade of superhero comics — and their careers would be the root of considerable upheaval.

There’s a lot more in there to unpack, but what you should know for our purposes is that it was a moment of a very fast change between two generations of comics creators, each of which had very different ideas of what the best thing about comic book superhero stories was. And it kicked off right from the beginning of the decade.

The cover of The New Mutants #87, Marvel Comics (1990).
The cover of The New Mutants #87.
Rob Liefeld/Marvel Comics

X-Force

In February 1990, Louise Simonson and Rob Liefeld debuted the character of Cable in The New Mutants #86. He was jointly conceived with the encouragement of Marvel editor Bob Harras, who wanted to shake the book up with a new leader in contrast to Professor X. Simonson, the writer on the book, suggested a military leader to contrast with the Professor’s (admittedly superficial) pacifism. Liefeld fleshed out a lot of the concept from there, including coming up with the name.

Both Simonson and Liefeld independently proposed the idea that Cable be a time traveler from the future — but neither of them had any intention of revealing him to be Nathan Summers. In fact, when Liefeld introduced Cable’s arch-nemesis, Stryfe, he began seeding hints so that he could eventually reveal that Cable’s secret origin was that he and Stryfe were the same person, but at different points in their time-traveling life.

And now, the moment you’ve been waiting for

The cover of The Adventures of Cyclops & Phoenix #4, Marvel Comics (1994).
The Adventures of Cyclops & Phoenix #4.
Gene Ha/Marvel Comics

Harras, along with the creators behind X-Factor — the comic in which Jean and Scott were raising baby Nathan — had different ideas. In 1991, Jim Lee and Whilce Portacio’s X-Factor #68 saw Nathan Summers become infected with the Techno-Organic virus. The only way to save his life was for Scott and Jean to turn him over to the time-traveling Askani clan, who took him to the future, where his condition could be stabilized (and where he could become their savior against the future version of the X-Men villain Apocalypse).

Then, close to the end of 1993, in Cable’s first eponymous solo series, Fabian Nicieza and Dwayne Turner confirmed, in canon, that Cable was the grown-up Nathan Summers, returned to the present day. A year later, in The Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix, Scott Lobdell and Gene Ha would underscore his parental relationship further during Jean and Scott’s honeymoon after their long-awaited wedding. In that story, Jean and Scott’s minds were pulled 2,000 years into the future and placed in two new bodies. There, the couple spent 12 years raising Nathan Summers and teaching him to use his mutant powers, before their minds were returned to their original time period and bodies as if no time had passed at all.

So ... that’s a lot

Cable was born to Scott Summers and Madelyne Pryor (a clone of Jean Grey), and was sent to the future to save his life from the Techno-Organic virus and fulfill his destiny as the savior of the Askani clan, where he was raised for 12 years by the re-embodied minds of his mother’s genetic original and his father, the X-Men known as Jean Grey and Cyclops. Then, as an adult, after several decades of military command, he returned to the present day.

There, he became the leader of the mutant black ops group X-Force. He developed a friendly — if antagonistic — partnership with the mutant mercenary Deadpool. And he would eventually go time-hopping into the future again in order to safeguard another mutant baby, Hope. All of those developments are reflected, or just generally included, in Deadpool 2.

“The number of things that have to line up for Cable’s creation as the character that we know today is a lot,” Sims said, in an understatement. “You don’t get Cable coming from the future if people didn’t love Days of Future Past, [a story about visitors from a dystopian future timeline in the present day] which became the touchstone as much as Dark Phoenix in its own way.”

Both Sims and the writers behind Deadpool 2 chose to slim down Cable’s complicated history when given a chance, even though, for Sims, that level of complexity is a draw in and of itself.

“I identify that as kind of the magic of superhero comics, that they go on — that they can’t end,” he said. “They’re not supposed to end, so you just keep adding new twists and turns and doing new things, which makes characters more and more complicated the longer that they’re around. Cable, meanwhile, comes from a time when all of that complication came quickly.”

And perhaps that’s why Cable’s backstory has reached such legendary status in the comics world. It’s not that it’s hard to slim down — he’s the son of Scott Summers and Jean Grey, sent to the future, raised in war, returned to the present. It’s that how that story came to be was almost completely accidental.

Maybe if a butterfly had flapped its wings in 1983, Chris Claremont wouldn’t have decided to make Madelyne Pryor look just like Jean Grey, and the reveal of her being a clone of Jean would never have been possible. Maybe if X-Factor had never been editorially mandated, Scott would have stayed retired and raised Nathan with Maddy. Maybe if Simonson and Liefeld hadn’t both decided Cable would be a time traveler, nobody would have thought to link him with Nathan Summers at all.

Any way you look at it, it’s a story that only could have happened in a long-running interconnected universe like the superhero comic world. Half a dozen artists working over a dozen years, often with completely different goals, created a character who was still compelling enough that people demanded he get his big-screen debut.

That’s the real thing to know about Cable: He’s something that could only happen in comics.