This May, to celebrate the release of X-Men: Days of Future Past, we’re taking a look at some classic and modern X-Men (and X-Men-related) comics. Check back daily for the latest review.
What’s striking about Days of Future Past is how incredibly short it is.
That’s not to suggest that the comic “feels” small or has a shortage of ideas or anything like that. In Days of Future Past, writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne toss out a whole host of ideas that shape and define the entire X-Men mythos. These issues continue to inspire the X-Men comic book line. Without Days of Future Past, there would be no Age of Apocalypse. The franchise’s fiftieth anniversary “event” – Battle of the Atom – is essentially a gigantic tribute to Days of Future Past.
In fact, the influence of this story extends beyond the X-Men as a comic book franchise. “Bad alternate future” may be a trope favoured by the X-Men comics, but it’s a staple of the genre and – arguably – the medium. There’s a reason that the iconic cover to the first issue of this story arc has been emulated so often, or that Alan Moore planned to riff on the story’s central idea for his proposed Twilight of the Superheroes. Days of Future Past is just a great story hook.
However, reading it today, it’s striking how short it is. All of this come from two issues.
It’s worth conceding that Days of Future Past is far from the first story of its kind, with “re-write history” stories dating back to at least Ray Bradbury’s hugely popular The Sound of Thunder, and enjoying a popularity in the fifties and sixties due to the work of authors like Harlan Ellison. However, it does date back to a point before these stories went well and truly mainstream. The story was published years before The Terminator popularised “change your own history” narratives.
It’s a testament to how much Claremont and Byrne owed to science-fiction that the duo could segue so effortlessly from The Dark Phoenix Saga into a high-concept science-fiction action adventure like Days of Future Past. It’s easy to forget how striking the comic would have been when first released – how many young fans were introduced to the idea of using time travel to re-write past mistakes. It’s a deliciously bold piece of science-fiction to work into a two-issue superhero story. Particularly following on from The Dark Phoenix Saga, which was a bold and expansive epic. This has a similar scale, but a lot less space.
Of course, we live in the era of “mega” events like Civil War or Avengers vs. X-Men. It’s routine for “big” story arcs to spin out into their own miniseries and to feature tie-ins and crossovers from a wide range of other books. Even stories confined to single comic books can unfold across years or even longer. This isn’t a bad thing. There is – contrary to what detractors would argue – nothing inherently wrong with decompressed storytelling. A good story is a good story, no matter how many issues it takes to tell. You can ruin a story by stretching it too long, but you can also undermine it by compressing it too tight.
Still, the fact that all of this all stems from two single issues of Uncanny X-Men is remarkable. To be fair, a lot of the baggage associated with Days of Future Past only emerges after these two issues. For example, although Rachel Summers appears in this story as Kitty’s closest friend, Claremont and Byrne never dig too heavily into her back story. They don’t even provide her with a last name. Given her power set, her age and her hair colour, it is quite clear who her mother is meant to be. However, it’s never explicitly stated on panel.
All that back story and baggage came much later, a legacy of Days of Future Past – as Claremont has conceded, it was not something that was planned. Indeed, it seems to have been a happy fluke. Apparently Rachel Summers was a hold-over from the original planned ending to The Dark Phoenix Saga, when Jean Grey would have survived the ordeal and so could have lived on to have a life (and children) with Scott Summers. Her very presence in Days of Future Past feels like a character orphaned between drafts, a loose end never properly tidied away.
This isn’t anything radical from the perspective of Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men. The author had a fantastic knack for introducing off-hand ideas that might eventually pay off later. For example, the (somewhat messy) crossover X-Tinction Agenda had its root in a (rather brilliant) multi-part story told in Uncanny X-Men years earlier. Claremont had a habit of digging interesting concepts from earlier stories and running with them to build future adventures.
And so, despite its short length, Days of Future Past is littered with all manner of great idea for Claremont to explore and devise and refine and rework over the years ahead. Ideas are thrown out here with reckless abandon, allowing the writer to foreshadow or suggest plot developments yet to occur. Despite the fact that Kitty Pryde is only in her early teens, the writer is able to successfully foreshadow a relationship with Piotr Rasputin. (That said, the revelation that he loved her “from the moment [they] first met” does feel just a little bit creepy.)
It’s interesting to wonder whether the decision to put Magneto in a wheelchair and present him as the leader of this alternate future version of the team inspired any of Claremont’s future plans for the character. Claremont re-defined Magneto and turned him from a generically evil super villain into one of the more nuanced characters in mainstream American comic books. Pretty much everything that defines Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender’s versions of the super-terrorist can be traced back to Claremont.
However, at this point in Claremont’s run, Magneto was still a relatively two-dimensional bad guy. He was prone to do things like turning the X-Men into children or running an evil magical mutant circus. While Claremont had vaguely hinted at the idea that Magneto might be a vaguely complex and realistic individual (suggesting that his desire to prove mutantkind’s superiority was rooted in his own failures in his earlier human life), he hadn’t even hinted in the direction that Magneto’s character would eventually develop.
Days of Future Past is really the first point in Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men run where we see a number of iconic Magneto images. The most obvious is the idea that Magneto might one day lead the X-Men. In Days of Future Past, it seems like his role is a sign of how desperate things have become – how grim the situation must be. Almost everybody else is dead, so the X-Men have to make do with a crippled Magneto. The world has changed so drastically that the X-Men have allied themselves with their arch-enemy.
And yet, at the heart of that compromise, there’s an interesting idea. It’s not too hard to imagine Claremont looking at these pages and thinking “… now what if I tried to tell this story?” What if Magneto did attempt to reform? What if the X-Men discovered that he was not the power-mad genocidal villain introduced by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby? It’s an interesting concept, and it’s fascinating to believe that it might have been rooted in the few panels of Days of Future Past where Magneto appears. (And his off-panel “noble death.”)
It’s also worth noting that this is the first time we see Magneto in a concentration camp. It would become a pretty important part of the character’s iconography. Indeed, one of the most vivid images associated with Magneto is the powerhouse opening scene to Bryan Singer’s X-Men, featuring a young Magneto inside a concentration camp. It was so memorable that Matthew Vaughn decided to revisit it for X-Men: First Class. This is the first time Magneto appeared in such a setting, providing a nice bit of foreshadowing (and, perhaps, even inspiration) for future character developments.
The use of the concentration camps is also very effective. Days of Future Past is really the point where Claremont stops dancing around the politics of Uncanny X-Men. If you are going to write a book about a bunch of people “hated and feared”, you need to embrace the political baggage that comes with that idea. The Sentinels aren’t just standard super villains, as they have been in earlier comics. They are a tool of government oppression used to specifically target a particular minority.
Claremont’s run would be the first to properly (as opposed to superficially) engage with the prejudice that the X-Men face on a day-to-day basis. Days of Future Past is really the beginning of this process. Although the time travel plot is just as fantastical as the alien politics from The Dark Phoenix Saga, Days of Future Past feels much more politically potent. Although The Dark Phoenix Saga had some surprisingly powerful things to say about contemporary attitudes towards female sexuality, Days of Future Past is much angrier and much more grounded in contemporary American politics.
The chronology of Days of Future Past is no coincidence. It’s a nice touch that the bleak future occurs in 2013 – fifty years after the X-Men first appeared. However, it’s the dates closer to publication that are most striking. The oppressive alternate reality is a direct result of the elections held in 1984, a year that George Orwell effective associated with totalitarian oppression. Claremont and Byrne were always very keenly influenced by pulp science-fiction. Byrne has even admitted he may have been inspired by the classic Doctor Who story Day of the Daleks in creating Days of Future Past.
However, the dates are also interesting from a real world perspective. The events leading to this bleak future start in the election year of 1980, the year that Ronald Reagan rode a revived conservative sentiment to a decisive victory in the electoral college – a resurgence that some suggest was built in part on a “white backlash against the civil rights movement.” Given the use of the X-Men as civil rights metaphors, it seems like this might have been bubbling on Claremont’s mind while writing Days of Future Past. Although set in October 1980, they were released in January and February 1981, as Reagan was assuming office.
In the context of American politics, it’s interesting that Claremont includes another reference to another election year in his grim alternate future history. Kitty reflects on the oppressive power of “the Mutant Control Act of 1988”, placing it squarely at the end of Reagan’s second term. The choice of years is interesting, even if Reagan is never mentioned by name or even alluded to directly. (Indeed, the President appearing in the final pages of the issue looks rather more like Jimmy Carter than Ronald Reagan.)
Of course, Claremont’s skepticism is not restricted to one man or one election campaign. Days of Future Past is surprisingly cynical about political power in the United States. The Sentinels are explicitly American in production and design, empowered by the American government. Other nations are uncomfortable with the Sentinels planning to expand their influence, perhaps reflecting contemporary uncertainties about American foreign policy. In Days of Future Past, a reckless decision made by the American government ends up almost provoking (an arguably justified) nuclear war.
Discussing the Pentagon, the script notes that “to many people, it is more truly representative — for good or ill — of the reality of America than the White House or Congress just across the Potomic River.” Still, the script doesn’t seem to have too much faith in the other organs of government. “The United States Senate has been described as the greatest deliberative body on Earth,” it tells the reader. “It has seen noble times and shameful ones. It has epitomised the highest ideals of humanity… and the worst realities.”
(There’s also a number of quite wry and cheeky little shout-outs. The fear-mongering “do you know where your children are?” is re-worked in the context of the comic. The anti-mutant candidate runs on the slogan “do you know what your children are?” It’s a rather beautiful piece of political satire that was very much ahead of the curve – pre-dating an era of anti-social behaviour orders or hoodies or other anxieties about younger generations.)
More than that, though, the alternate future lays out the price of racism and oppression quite clearly, offering us a vision of where these attitudes lead if left unchecked. Claremont gets a lot of criticism for his somewhat flamboyant prose style, but he’s quite willing to let John Byrne’s artwork convey the horror of this post-apocalyptic future. It’s a future of oppression and institutionalised hatred.
Mutants aren’t just victimised, they are humiliated and de-humanised. Entering the camp, we’re told that Kitty is subjected to “an exhaustive – and intentionally humiliating — security examination to ensure that she’s carrying no contraband.” On her way in, she is forced to walk past a grave yard of her fallen colleagues. In a wonderful example of Orwellian new speak, the Sentinels call the area an “internment facility” – Wolverine is a lot more honest when he calls it a “concentration camp.”
Although Claremont would get even more political in the years ahead, Days of Future Past is really the point where it seems like Claremont has decided to run with the idea of mutants as a persecuted minority. Days of Future Past takes that to its logical (and harrowing) conclusion – it’s no coincidence that so many of the mutants are burned alive – but it also paves the way for a lot of what is to come. This is very much paving the way for God Loves, Man Kills.
Even outside of the political commentary and powerful story beats, Days of Future Past is just a wonderful example of Claremont doing the kind of things he does very well. For example, it’s a story that is packed with strong female characters. In particular, Claremont focuses on two female characters taking over from two established male characters. Storm is still new to her role as team leader, but Days of Future Past also introduces the character of Mystique, taking control of the Brotherhood after Magneto.
Days of Future Past is full of characters undermining and doubting these female leads. The Blob openly challenges Mystique’s authority, forcing her to assert her control of the group. Similarly, Mystique dismisses Storms ability to lead. Her plan involves disabling Xavier to weaken the X-Men. “With only the woefully inexperienced Storm to lead them, the X-Men will be fatally crippled.” Storm also faces a challenge from Wolverine. (Although, to be fair, his challenge isn’t sexist. He argues – convincingly – that he’d be just as rude and confrontational with Cyclops.)
However, these two female lead characters both ultimately prove themselves. Only the time-travelling intervention of Mitty Pryde stops Mystique from assassinating Robert Kelly – arguably a far more successful terrorist attack than anything Magneto has actually accomplished. Storm is able to keep Wolverine in line and defeat the Brotherhood, even without Professor Xavier to assist. And then, of course, Kitty “Kate” Pryde is also the character who manages to save the day – albeit with some help from Rachel Summers.
(And, in typical Claremontian fashion, there’s also a wonderful amount of foreshadowing of soap opera plotting. While some of the developments spinning from Days of Future Past seem organic rather than planned, the short scene between Mystique and Nightcrawler seems to serve a very particular purpose. “Your skin — your eyes — if this is indeed your true form — meingott, we are so alike!” Nightcrawler exclaims, before Mystique makes reference to knowing the mutant’s mother. It wonderfully foreshadows Claremont’s original plan to have Mystique as Nightcrawler’s father.)
Days of Future Past is a fantastic showcase for the team of Claremont and Byrne, a story that redefined superhero comics and paved the way for decades of plotting. It may only be two issues long, but it’s pretty fantastic.
Filed under: Comics | Tagged: chris clarement, Comics, Days of Future Past, John Byrne, Kitty Pryde, magneto, marvel, marvel comics, time travel, uncanny x-men, wolverine, x-men, x-men: days of future past |