Cyclops, Marvel Girl, The Beast, The Angel and Iceman.
Over 50 years ago, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced us to these five teenagers with amazing powers gifted to them by a quirk of genetics. Dubbed “mutants” by the general public, but molded into the X-Men by their mentor, Professor Charles Xavier, they dedicated their lives to protecting a world that hated and feared them; then, they grew up and grew apart. In the pages of X-Men comics, readers got to see these heroes grow from teenagers to adults and students to teachers. They fell in love and were married. They died and were reborn. Decades after their introduction, each character was significantly different from their original incarnation.
Five years ago, Marvel Comics brought the original five teenage X-Men to the present through time-travel hijinks, and there have been two sets of founding X-Men running around the Marvel Universe ever since. This week’s Extermination #1, by Ed Brisson, Pepe Larraz, Marte Gracia and Joe Sabino. is billed as the end of their story, but as is often the case with X-Men comics, the continuity and the history of the stories that got us to this point can be daunting to say the least. Before you check out Extermination, we’ve put together a crash course on the time-displaced mutants so you know who they are, why they came to the present, how they’ve changed while there, and why it’s such a big deal that they’re going away.
From the ashes
As is the case with superhero comics in general, the arrival of the time-displaced X-Men in the present day was the result of many years of stories crashing into each other like a finely assembled row of dominoes, and quite honestly we could go all the way back to issues of West Coast Avengers from the 1980s to explain how we got here, but we’re not going to. All you need to know to begin with: There was a teenage girl named Hope who was believed to be either the savior of the mutant race, or its ultimate destruction.
When the cosmically powerful Phoenix Force set its sights on Earth, everyone assumed that it was coming to bond with Hope. The X-Men, led by Cyclops, saw this as a sign of their race’s rebirth, while the Avengers saw the Phoenix Force’s return to Earth as a sign of the apocalypse. A war broke out between the two superhero teams, and in the melee, the Phoenix Force was fractured into five pieces that possessed five X-Men, giving them a share of its godlike power.
The so-called Phoenix Five eventually turned on each other in a bid to possess the full power of the Phoenix Force, until Cyclops was the last man standing. Faced by the combined forces of the X-Men and the Avengers, Scott Summers was overtaken by this power and became Dark Phoenix, lashing out at those who would try to stop him. Charles Xavier tried to talk his prize pupil down from the edge, but Cyclops was too far gone and empowered by the Phoenix Force, and killed the man who raised him and taught him to fight for mutant rights. He was ultimately defeated and freed of the Phoenix Force, but Charles Xavier was still dead, and everyone blamed Cyclops for it.
I hope I die before I get old
The death of Charles Xavier at the hands of Scott Summers was the final straw for Hank McCoy aka Beast, who had fallen out with Scott several months prior over the existence of a black ops squad of assassin mutants called X-Force. So, Beast did what everyone would do when one of their closest friends strayed too far from the path: He went back in time and brought the teenage version of the original X-Men to the present in an attempt to scare the young Cyclops straight and prevent his slow slide into amorality. However, that’s not how time travel in the Marvel Universe works. The five teenage X-Men became stuck in the present, in a world that they didn’t recognize and faced with a future they didn’t understand.
Just imagine, for example, you’re in the shoes of the teenage Jean Grey. You’re the only girl in a team of hormonal teenage boys, struggling to understand strange powers that manifested when you saw your best friend killed in a hit-and-run. Next thing you know, you’re in the future, where everyone looks at you like a ghost. You’ve died and been reborn several times, you married the dorky kid with the red glasses and you have several adult children from various alternate futures. It’s a lot to take in.
The longer the time-displaced X-Men remained in the present, the more they were changed by it, making an eventual return to their own time less and less likely. Angel was gifted cosmic wings of fire by a mysterious space artifact known as the Black Vortex; Hank McCoy dabbled in black magic, becoming a very different kind of Beast; Jean unlocked new aspects of her powers; Cyclops reunited with his father and spent time as a space pirate; and Iceman came out as gay, a move that led to his adult self also coming out.
Most recently, the time-displaced X-Men have been operating out of the red light island nation Madripoor under the tutelage of Magneto, a man who was their sworn enemy in their native timeline. In the pages of X-Men Blue, the time-displaced mutants picked up more members stranded from their own time and dimensions, like Jimmy Hudson, the son of Wolverine from the Ultimate Universe, and Bloodstorm, an alternate-universe version of Storm who is a teenage vampire. That’s the status quo heading into this week’s Extermination #1, but there are a few more things about X-Men history and continuity that you should know before heading into it.
Days of Future Now
Judging by the covers for upcoming issues of Extermination, the possible future from Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s classic “Days of Future Past, or rather its follow-up story, “Days of Future Present,” will have a direct impact on how things unfold. All you really need to know is that in most possible futures, things are pretty rubbish for mutants and the X-Men, and in this particular future there’s a cyborg named Ahab who is charged with tracking down, capturing and killing rogue mutants. He does this with the help of his Hounds, brainwashed mutants forced to use their powers to track down and kill their own kind. Rachel Grey — currently a member of the X-Men Gold team under the name Prestige — was once one of Ahab’s Hounds, but managed to escape to the present, where she mostly shook off his influence (though recent run-ins with the mind-controlling villain Mesmero have brought these memories and experiences back to the forefront of Rachel’s mind).
It’s also worth knowing the character Cable. If you saw Deadpool 2, you’ve probably got a good idea, but Cable is the son of Cyclops and Madelyne Pryor — a clone of Jean Grey — who was infected with a techno-organic virus and raised in a different post-apocalyptic future where he became an elite soldier. Recent issues of various X-Men titles have featured backup stories of Cable investigating time anomalies related to the dark future teased in Extermination, and considering that time travel is a big part of the character’s legacy, expect him to play a big role in the miniseries.
X-Men and the events surrounding Extermination may sound confusing and even intimidating, but it’s rare for characters in superhero comics to get a beginning, a middle and an end. If this is the final story of the time-displaced original X-Men, then Marvel has managed the somewhat impressive feat of telling a complete story within the structure of a never-ending superhero universe. The tale was told by dozens of creators over half a decade and across several titles, and the time-displaced mutants always knew that their story would be a finite one. Now it’s on Marvel to give the characters — and their fans — the send-off they deserve.
Kieran Shiach is a Salford, U.K.-based freelance writer and one half of Good Egg Podcasts. He is on Twitter, @KingImpulse. He wishes in the past he tried more things ’cause now he knows being in trouble is a fake idea.