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X-Men: The End – Book Two: Heroes and Martyrs (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.

To describe Chris Claremont’s three six-part miniseries that comprise X-Men: The End as “convoluted” is to miss the point. Of course they are convoluted. Claremont is essentially writing a gigantic epilogue to his work on Uncanny X-Men. He is tidying away decades of continuity and offering a sense of closure to his work on these characters and their world. Claremont is an exceptional storyteller when it comes to long-form serialised storytelling.

As a writer, Claremont tends to layer interesting twists on top of interesting twists, with every resolution opening up more avenues for future stories to explore. He has demonstrated an ability to string along plots for decades, revisiting characters and situations years after most readers had forgotten about them. These are the qualities that make his Uncanny X-Men run so deeply fascinating, but they are also the qualities that make him a bit of an awkward fit for a concept like The End, an epic miniseries built around the idea of wrapping up the entire X-Men mythos.

Some things never go into fashion...

Some things never go into fashion…

However, what is so fascinating about X-Men: The End is that all of the elements that Claremont uses are the same elements that he has been playing with since he took over Uncanny X-Men. The story beats have a familiar pattern to them, the themes are familiar, the characters speak as they did in the years that Claremont wrote them. What is fascinating about X-Men: The End is the way that it serves to really set Claremont’s take on the X-Men in stone, treating the elements associated with Claremont as a truly inexorable part of the comic’s mythology.

X-Men: The End is very much a Chris Claremont comic, through-and-through. That’s what makes it feel like such a perfect fit.

A wing and a prayer...

A wing and a prayer…

Any writer who has worked on a particular franchise for so long is going to develop certain familiar routines and patterns – various calling cards and recognisable tricks and techniques. Having written Uncanny X-Men longer than anybody else, it makes sense that Claremont’s narrative style has become something of a standard for the book – his run defined the comic, setting up a lot of the conventions that a lot of his successors find themselves either trying to emulate or consciously subvert.

All of which is a very fancy way of observing that Heroes and Martyrs is very much a Chris Claremont book. There are flashbacks and revelations, exposition about family history, a strong focus on a young female protagonist, some kinky sexual subtext, a Brood subplot that brings the monsters back to their origin as a gigantic homage to the movie Alien and a whole heap of continuity that is explained to the reader, but which draws and the breadth of X-Men history.

Beware the Apocalypse...

Beware the Apocalypse…

In fact, Heroes and Martyrs feels much more nostalgic and reflective than Dreamers and Demons did. It’s populated with references and shout-outs that criss-cross the history of the X-Men franchise, evoking memories of the many different eras of the comic. After the attack on the Xavier Mansion, Scott Summers puts together “the dead board”, a pragmatic piece of work that evokes the iconic cover to Days of Future Past.

There are lotsof other references that give the impression that the team are wandering through their own history. Rogue and Emma’s children find themselves in “the long-abandoned town in the Australian Outback that the X-Men had once used as their headquarters.” Mister Sinister’s creepy orphanage Neverland is located “in the fabled blue area of the moon”, the place where Jean Grey died in The Dark Phoenix Saga.

The brains of the operation...

The brains of the operation…

Heroes and Martyrs is a lot more focused on the past than Dreamers and Demons. The penultimate issue of the six-part series is dedicated to a series of elaborate flashbacks offering the back story of Mister Sinister and Gambit. The fact that he takes this opportunity to revisit them and tie them back up says a lot about Claremont as a storytelling. While his original origin for Sinister was quite different, and while he may not have envisaged Gambit joining the X-Men, Claremont respects the work done on both characters by other creators.

Considering that one of Claremont’s earliest creative decisions at Marvel was an attempt to integrate (and reconcile) two very different depictions of Nick Fury’s childhood, it seems appropriate that The End has the writer trying to stitch together various pieces of continuity and lore into a tapestry that makes some vague sort of sense. The End is very much a Chris Claremont X-Men story, reflecting his techniques and his style and his preferences.

Wolverine is as much a team player as ever...

Wolverine is as much a team player as ever…

Indeed, even though The End is designed to function as the last X-Men story ever told, Claremont still finds time to integrate ideas that set up decades prior into the X-Men canon. The idea of a third Summers brother was introduced by writer Fabien Nicieza in a conversation between Scott Summers and Mister Sinister, with the latter making reference to Summers’ “brothers — plural.” That exchange would dangle over the franchise for a decade, unresolved. Ed Brubaker would offer his own resolution in Deadly Genesis, revealing that there was in fact a third Summers brother, Gabriel Summers.

However, Claremont wrote The End before Brubaker made that revelation. So Claremont decided to integrate Gambit into the Summers family tree. Introduced late in Claremont’s run, Gambit had been one of the most popular suspects for the “third Summers brother”, and Heroes and Martyrs runs with the idea. Discussing Scott Summers with Gambit, Sinister explains, “So you see, my boy, in terms of genetic material, you two are brothers. Half-brothers, anyway.” It’s a nice tipping of the hat, even if it gives an example of how deeply Heroes and Martyrs is wading into continuity and how hard it’s trying to tidy everything up.

Something Sinister...

Something Sinister…

That’s not to suggest that Claremont devotes Heroes and Martyrs exclusively to resolving dangling continuity thread introduced by other writers. He also revisits many of the storytelling techniques that made his run on Uncanny X-Men so unique and so exciting. Aliyah, the central protagonist of The End, is very much a Claremontian heroine. She’s a teenage girl with the weight of the world on her shoulders, like Kitty Pryde, Rogue or Jubilee before here.

And it’s worth noting that, while Scott Summers still runs the school and Nightcrawler is a popular actor, it is the female X-Men who have branched out and assumed positions of authority. Jubilee is a film director. Kitty Pryde is running to become the Mayor of Chicago, arguably pushing Xavier’s dream even further forward. (“Because if being an X-Man means anything, it’s so you — an admitted mutant — can run for office and be judged as a person,” Cyclops observes.) Rachel Summers is her campaign manager.

Pryde of the X-Men...

Pryde of the X-Men…

Aliyah finds herself surrounded by Claremonts stronger females characters. Not only does the consciousness of Carol Danvers drive the Starjammer, but Jean Grey keeps her company on the journey. It’s telling that the only male member of the crew, Nightcrawler, is the one least directly involved with Aliyah’s journey – he spends most of the trip focused on the fate of his daughter, rather than on the bigger picture.

Claremont seems to craft Aliyah’s arc as a take on the archetypal “hero’s journey.” She is introduced as “the rightful heir to the Imperial Throne” of the Shi’ar, even as she wanders through the cosmos on a gigantic ship with a motley crew. Given Claremont’s affection for classic science-fiction, it’s unlikely to be a coincidence that Aliyah feels like something of a female version of Luke Skywalker – the child of a galactic despot looking for adventure forging all manner of unlikely alliances on her journey.

The death of the dream?

The death of the dream?

Claremont’s brief origin for Aliyah also treats as a counterpart to Superman, complete with a dying planet and caregiver who bundles her into a rocket at the last possible minute. Aliyah is framed as perhaps the most archetypal heroic protagonist imaginable, drawing influence from all sorts of iconic pulp characters. Claremont’s decision to make her a non-white girld is a demonstration of the way that the writer tried to champion diversity in comic books. The fact that Aliyah’s ethnicity and gender still feel noteworthy in this discussion indicates how far mainstream comics have yet to go.

Aliyah isn’t the only character with her origins in pulpy science-fiction. Introducing the Brood as a major plot point, Claremont brings the aliens back to their roots as a gigantic homage to the Alien film. Aliyah feels like Ripley, exploring haunted sections of the Starjammer. Even the Slavers’ plans to smuggle the Brood across borders recall Burke’s plot to get the xenomorphs past customs in Aliens. “You’ll need a host to transport her undetected through the dimensional curtainwalls,” the Slaver explains. “As you might imagine folks are a mite touchy about the Brood slippin’ cross-time.”

Where's his head at?

Where’s his head at?

The villains of Heroes and Martyrs are all defined by their rejection or distortion of female sexuality. Mister Sinister goes out of his way to assure readers that he retains certain Victorian attitudes to compliment his fixation on Social Darwinism. “Women are such fundamentally weak vessels, my boy,” he explains to Gambit. “Prisoners of their passions.” His fixation on cloning represents a Frankenstein-esque rejection of the female’s role in reproduction.

Sinister isn’t the only example. As a stand-in for the classic xenomorph, the Brood represent a grotesque reproductive horror. Even the life of a slave is defined in terms that seem overtly sexual, as if it is the ultimate sexual submission. Discussing the experience with Nightcrawler, Jean Grey confesses, “Part of me loves the leather. And the life it represents.” Given the way that Claremont linked Jean Grey’s transformation into Phoenix with repressed female sexuality, the subtext seems quite intentional.

And they say there's never a genocidal supervillain when you need one...

And they say there’s never a genocidal supervillain when you need one…

All these elements reinforce the idea that The End could not have come from any writer other than Chris Claremont. Hitting on these familiar ideas and tropes, The End feels very much like a Christ Claremont story, for better or for worse. It’s big and it’s bold, it’s messy and it’s convoluted, it’s full of exposition and it’s got too much going on, it’s ambitious and it’s epic, it’s overloaded and it’s familiar. It is a wonderfully messy and convoluted attempt to bring closure to Uncanny X-Men.

It may not be perfect, but it’s hard to imagine it any other way.

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