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X-Men: The End – Book One: Dreamers & Demons (Review/Retrospective)

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.

Marvel went through a phase of publishing books based around “The End” of various iconic properties. These comics allowed creators to imagine telling the last possible story for a given character or corner of the Marvel universe. Creators like Garth Ennis or Peter David got to write stand-alone one-shot stories for The Punisher and The Incredible Hulk, respectively. Paul Jenkins wrote a six-issue miniseries Wolverine: The End, while Jim Starlin closed off the entire Marvel Universe with Marvel Universe: The End.

However, given the sprawling and expansive continuity of the X-Men franchise, it stands to reason that any attempt to tell the final X-Men story would have to be a rather epic tale. Writer Chris Claremont wrote Uncanny X-Men for well over a decade, so even asking him to close off his own threads and plot points would take up considerable space. However, X-Men: The End is an absolutely sprawling comic book saga that is spread across three miniseries and eighteen issues.

Blackbird down...

Blackbird down…

In a way, it feels like a touching coda for Claremont’s version of The X-Men. The writer defined the X-Men franchise, introducing many of the plot and character elements that readers would come to take for granted when reading an X-Men story. The End isn’t Claremont’s last X-Men story by any stretch – the writer still works on the franchise quite frequently in a variety of different roles, enjoying short runs and long runs.

However, The End does seem to serve as an epic farewell tour of the world that Claremont helped to build and define. As such, it’s fitting that the miniseries is somewhat clunky and awkward and epic and sprawling and melodramatic and overblown and absurd and unexpected. It is a capstone to Claremont’s gigantic X-Men epic, a closing statement and thoughtful summation to decades of work.

"X" marks the spot...

“X” marks the spot…

What’s immediately striking about The End is that the first book – Dreamers and Demons – doesn’t open on a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Terrible futures are practically a given for the Uncanny X-Men. Ever since Claremont and Byrne published Days of Future Past, there is an unspoken assumption that any future for the X-Men must be grim and dark and nihilistic and horrible. It often seems like erasing one horrible future only serves to bring another into existence. (Indeed, this trope is so pervasive that Brian Michael Bendis built the franchise’s fiftieth anniversary event – Battle of the Atom – around it.)

In contrast, Dreamers and Demons opens in a future where things are not quite terrible for the X-Men. One might have expected Claremont’s closing X-Men story to focus on some of the key themes of his run – the prejudice felt by mutants, the fear and hatred that normal people have for our holds. Instead, Dreamers and Demons unfolds in a future where it seems like things have actively improved. The world is a better place. Mutants are no longer persecuted.

Everything falls apart...

Everything falls apart…

Jubilee is a famous film director. Kurt Wagner is a respected actor, his face on gigantic posters. “I’m not an X-Man anymore, Carol,” he explains. “I’m an actor.” Kitty Pryde is run to become the Mayor of Chicago, and openly uses her powers in the local Irish bar. X-Corp is a multi-national peace-keeping and humanitarian effort. The grounds of the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters are patrolled by re-purposed Sentinels that exist to keep the children safe.

There’s something surprisingly reassuring about this set-up. There’s something quite heart-warming about the idea that our heroes may have succeeded in making the world a better place. After all, the pain and suffering endured by the X-Men is meaningless if they never have any real chance at a happy ending. Claremont seems to realise this, and the most interesting and exciting part of Dreamers and Demons is the fact that it dares to imagine a hopeful future for these iconic characters. (After all, Dreamers and Demons was published only a few months before House of M doomed mutantkind to extinction in mainstream continutiy.)

Howling at the moon...

Howling at the moon…

It is quite telling that Claremont seems to structure Dreamers and Demons as something of a companion piece to Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run. Published several months after Morrison finished his run, Claremont builds quite readily off the details established in those issues. Not only are Scott and Emma still together; they are happily married. Each of the remaining three Stepford Cuckoos have worked to define their own identity. Martha Johansson makes an appearance. Professor Xavier’s X-Corp is an international organisation that is helping the image of mutants around the world.

Even the political turmoil in the Shi’ar Empire is rooted in Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run. We’re told that the current political instability is rooted in the events of Morrison’s work. “The Shi’ar Empire’s been in chaos for years, ever since a monster masquerading as Charles Xavier drove Empress Lilandra insane,” we’re told. Just in case we didn’t get the reference, Nightcrawler clarifies, “Cassandra Nova?”

Burning down the house...

Burning down the house…

As such, Claremont’s version of The End seems to build off Morrison’s take on the iconic X-Men. It’s quite easy to imagine the story flowing directly from the end of Morrison’s New X-Men run into The End with a minimum of fuss. Even Cyclops’ new X-Men costume feels like an organic development from Frank Quitely’s New X-Men design, changing the colour of the X across his chest from yellow to red.

(Indeed, the only point on which Claremont seems to deviate dramatically from Grant Morrisons’ New X-Men is entirely predictable. Dreamers and Demons maintains Claremont’s characterisation and development of Magneto. Far from the genocidal madman of Morrison’s run, the character is portrayed as a friend or ally of Xavier’s. Then again, it’s quite possible that Claremont could have simply been applying the “it was really Sublime” cop-out that Morrison practically wrote into the script, but editorial completely failed to pick up on while attempting to do damage control.)

The road to Hela...

The road to Hela…

That said, The End is very clearly Chris Claremont’s work. It is very much built around his vision of the X-Men. Bishop is defined as “a latecomer to the X-Men”, as if to underscore the idea that Claremont’s work on Uncanny X-Men comprises the majority of the canon. Bishop arrived after that point, so he must logically have come towards the end of the X-Men. It helps that Claremont’s history of the Shi’ar as related in the first issue seems to treat his last Shi’ar story in Uncanny X-Men as something of a turning point for the Empire, a point where things got weird.

There are other familiar Claremont touches. Most obviously, there’s considerable emphasis on the strong female characters. Even when paralysed, Storm is still able to save Wolverine’s life from a Skrull attack. The story’s viewpoint character is a young girl. Claremont seems wryly aware of his own storytelling preferences, and all but acknowledges this in the opening page. “There are a lot of ways to tell this story,” he tells us. “The best starts with a girl.”

A fool's Gambit...

A fool’s Gambit…

Indeed, it seems like a lot of The End is written in a very self-aware style, as Claremont draws attention to the storytelling tropes that he employs. “In classical drama it’s said that a hero is known — and defined — by his or her adversary,” he boasts at the start of the third issue. In the final issue, he reflects on how frequently the Xavier School is destroyed to demonstrate how serious a threat is… before destroying the Xavier School to demonstrate how serious this threat is. Claremont even falls back on the somewhat out-of-fashion thought bubble narration.

This is typically over-cooked Claremont-ian storytelling, but it’s written with the tongue so firmly in its cheek that it is hard to resist. It would seem almost pretentious if it weren’t so brilliantly over-the-top. It’s a style of comic book storytelling that does feel a little outdated and a little old-fashioned, but it’s also endearing and charming. In fact, one can see the influence of Claremont’s writing on current comic books scribes like Brian Michael Bendis and Jason Aaron.

In space, no one can hear you exposit...

In space, no one can hear you exposit…

There are lots of other nice little touches that make it clear that Claremont is writing his own version of the X-Men, rather than trying to reconcile the various versions that exist outside of that. Carol Danvers, a character outside the X-Men mythos that he helped to define, is a supporting player in his epic. The first casualties of the Shi’ar attack are the elements of the X-Men mythos most distant from Claremont’s own work, killed off with little fanfare in the middle of Dreamers and Demons. While the destruction of the Xavier School is a suitable cliffhanger, these characters are killed off in the middle of the first act.

Cable and X-Force and Apocalypse are among the first mutants to perish in this coming conflict, which makes a great deal of sense if one looks at The End as Claremont tidying away his own loose ends. These characters were most associated with the nineties, the period where Claremont drifted away from the X-Men line. (And, given X-Force‘s history as a book driven by artist Rob Liefeld, the characters also represent part of the artist-driven mindset that brought Claremont into conflict with Jim Lee.) In fact, Apocalypse was the centre of X-Cutioner’s Song, the big event launched directly after Claremont’s departure from Marvel.

He's a swell guy...

He’s a swell guy…

It is worth noting that Claremont does treat these characters with respect – he is acutely aware of their history and back story, and makes sure to try to keep them in character throughout the book. At the same time, their deaths are quite quick and seem to exist to de-clutter the board for later on – to make sure that there’s no real question about where any of these character might be when things start to come to a head.

In fact, Apocalypse pops into the fight out of nowhere, with a shock reveal that he was hiding in the body of Cable’s partner, Irene. It’s a twist the comes out of nowhere, and has no real context, except that it gets Apocalypse to a place where he can be taken off the board. “Irene — all this time, you were host for my mortal enemy?!?” Cable demands, in a moment that really should have some emotional weight, but just plays as a way to give Cable some quick closure and get rid of a major X-Men baddie Claremont for whom seems to have little time.

Shades of Grey...

Shades of Grey…

Interestingly, Claremont completely avoids any hint at the Cyclops-Jean-Wolverine triangle that later writers were so fond of playing up. Claremont included that tension in his early issues, but seemed to deem it played out. However, it has become a standard part of the characters in popular culture. Here, when Wolverine discovers that Jean Grey has been resurrected, he doesn’t seem too concerned. “Nothin’ to do with us, ‘ro. Jeannie can take care of herself.”

There are some very strange decisions at the heart of The End. While the focus on the Shi’ar allows Claremont to indulge his enthusiasm for science-fiction – he even gets to throw Frank Herbert’s term “mentat” into the story – it does seem a bit strange to be told that Mister Sinister has somehow “worked his way to the top of the list” of most serious and hardcore X-Men baddies. Given that Mister Sinister never managed to come to fruition in the way that Claremont would have liked, it’s strange to see him featured so heavily here.

"Ha! Take that, Mojo!"

“Ha! Take that, Mojo!”

Similarly, there’s a sense reading the comic that everything is a bit too cluttered. Claremont works hard to integrate just about ever major X-Men character into the narrative, which is a nice idea in theory – but it does make things a little too messy. For example, having the Warskrulls attack the Xavier school in the persona of classic X-Men villains feels a little unnecessary – an excuse to work in popular characters at the cost of confusing and muddling the story. Juggernaut has to spell out his redemption arc in a panel or two, which feels like Claremont is just trying to do too much.

Artist Sean Chen does great work on the book. His work is great, with clear figures and solid action. Claremont’s style is as wordy as ever, and Chen is able to process his dense scripts very well – there are pages packed with panels, but Chen spaces and structures them very well. It’s always clear what is going on. Chen might lack the unique visual identity of some of Claremont’s most iconic collaborators, like John Byrne or John Romita Jr., but that’s perfectly fine in context. Chen’s work is tidy and effective and crisp.

Cyke out!

Cyke out!

The End is a glorious and disjointed mess, but that’s part of the charm. As a writer, Chris Claremont always tired to tell this big sprawling epic stories spread across dozens of characters spanning years of real time. It would be a bit disappointing if his gigantic attempt to bring closure to the franchise didn’t fit that particular mould.

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