Unlike many comics fans, I never actually read X-Men as a child all those years ago. In fact, I stayed away from most superhero titles, other than the odd cross-over with Superman and Batman when they’d get together in the Fortress of Solitude and cry. (They called those “Annuals”.) It was partially out of bad taste and narrow interests on my part back then, and partially out of the usual intimidation. No matter how much X-Men I read, I always seemed to be 100 issues behind. It’s only now, with the passage of time, the availability of search engines and character histories, etc. that I can finally sit down and read and understand X-Men.
It’s not that surprising that the issues I’m starting with are all from the early 1980s. That seemed to be a particularly rich period in Marvel story history, with Chris Claremont and John Byrne creating epic character-driven story arcs that stand the test of time. The evidence I can think of in support of that hypothesis are the current batch of films, which borrow almost exclusively from this period. And this is the case for the upcoming Days of Future Past, due out this week.
The Days of Future Past story arc in the comics is officially only two issues: #141 and 142, from January and February of 1981. But the trade paperback Marvel currently sells contains #s138-140, from late 1980, the Annual #4 from 1980 and issue #143 from March of 1981. This extra “padding” is by its very presence an acknowledgement that the casual reader wouldn’t be able to make much of Days of Future Past without knowing about the surrounding narrative and the characters. By reading the lead-up to and the denouement from the arc, we get a sense of where this story fits within the larger X-Men world and get some of the most creative and original stories to appear in the line to boot.
In the broad strokes, here’s what me, a first-time reader in 2014, got out of these stories, and I note the themes here because I don’t think the film will have very much of it. First and most importantly: this is a story about Kitty Pryde. It’s her story, right from the start to the end in 143. It’s all about her character’s experience in the Xavier School, and about how the school was able to take a callow 13 1/2 year old girl and turn her into a hero that saves the world. While all the other X-Men characters are present and accounted for, the story hinges on her character, right down to a very specific moment when her control over her power, which she learned at the school over the years, gives her the ability to save the day. Unless all the trailers released so far for the upcoming film have been very cleverly edited, I don’t see Kitty being an important character at all in the film version, which says so much about what Marvel Studios today thinks makes a good, marketable film.
My other “broad stroke” observation about this arc is how much of it feels very much embedded in 1980. The plot of Days of Future Past revolves around foiling a plot to assassinate a Senator Kelly, who is clearly modelled on Robert F. Kennedy. The recent history of political assassinations and cold war geopolitics was quite obviously on Claremont and Byrne’s mind when writing this story. The themes betray a deep belief in the “great man” theory of history, that having one person in a position of power will change the world. If only that could be the right person. It’s a dream that the left and right in the US still has, to some extent. Even though when they get the “right person” in the “right role”, things don’t ever seem to go as they’d hoped. Here in Canada, and issues #139-140 are set in this country, we had our “great man” of history during this period and he even makes an appearance in this comic! (That’s Pierre Trudeau, for those playing the home game.) However odd and quaint Claremont and Byrne’s understanding of Canadian politics and government happen to be (and they’re basically playing the “replace the titles but pretend this is all American” game), it does speak of a different era in which Canada-US relations were more obvious as cold war allies.
The upcoming film, of course, takes place in a world without a cold war. So, there’s two major, omnipresent themes in the original story that won’t be in the film. What the film does appear to be adopting, other than the time-travel conceit, is the “Evil Weapons Manufacturer” storyline featuring Bolivar Trask, which really isn’t that big of a piece of the storyline here. He played important parts in previous story arcs, but here he’s just “the guy who built the sentinels”. It’s much more important that he was ordered to by the government. All the rest is just a question of engineering. But since Peter Dinklage is playing Trask in the new film, something tells me they’ll give him a fairly meaty part.
So, there are my key observations about the comic and the differences I perceive to exist between it and the film. We shall all see how right I am (or wrong) about that. But the original storyline has more than enough to keep the intelligent comics reader occupied for a rich and fulfilling journey.
It doesn’t exactly get off to a rollicking start. Issue #138 is the comics version of that old Monty Python sketch “Summarize Proust”. Ostensibly the funeral of Jean Grey, the issue basically deteriorates into a summary of years of X-Men comics at a breakneck pace, sometimes at a rate of one major story arc per panel! It’s tedious and exhausting for those of us who just want to read a story, rather than hearing summaries of a dozen others. But if you had never heard of X-Men it would serve to “catch up” the reader to the next issue, and I suppose that was the point. But other than a few flashes of grief from Scott Summers, who narrates this extended “previously on” segment, good storytelling, it is not. It does end with Kitty Pryde arriving at the Xavier School for the Gifted, looking every inch the teenager from 1980. The caption reads “The Beginning”, which is apt, considering how important Kitty is to the story arc.
The first issue “proper” is the X-Men King Sized Annual (#4, apparently), a long issue with a vast scope that is interesting in its own right, but seems to have been included here for its ties to Kitty Pryde. The central figure here is Nightcrawler, who is given a mysterious gift for his birthday and winds up having his soul stolen and sent to hell. Yes, “Hell”. That place where all the Milli Vanilli cassettes in the universe keep the fires burning for all eternity. When the mystic arts are needed, there’s only one character to call in the Marvel Universe, Professor Xavier’s old friend Doctor Stephen Strange. Strange conjures up a green-tentacled monster who presently carries Storm off to hell with it. Now down two X-Men, Kitty tries impulsively to reach out to Storm using her phasing power, but Xavier quickly pulls her back, yelling, “Katherine Pryde – return to me at once!”
Her response, that she was trying to help, to act like a “real” X-Man, is probably the key panel in this issue. But you could be forgiven for missing it, since most of the rest deals with a downright psychedelic trip through Dante’s Inferno with Storm, Nightcrawler, Colossus, Wolverine (a secondary character in this version of X-Men) and of course, Doctor Strange. This is bold use of the comics medium, and the enormous vistas of hell with all its Dante-influenced fantasy is grounded by well-drawn and realistic characters with understandable motivations. It’s Marvel storytelling at its highest level, and it deserves recognition for that. But other than the key panel involving Kitty mentioned earlier, and her swooning over Colossus/Peter Rasputin at the end, it doesn’t have a great deal to do with the Days of Future Past arc.
Nor do the next two issues, 139 and 140, which take some of the heroes on a trip to Canada, where Wolverine has “unfinished business” and shape-shifting monsters lurk in the forest. Again, the key plot points for those interested in the Days story arc involve Kitty Pryde, showing her getting her first X-Men uniform, for example, and undergoing training in Xavier’s “Danger Room”. Kitty also gets taken by Storm (or Ororo, her real name) for dancing lessons to help her use her power more effectively. Once again, this is very much a Marvel moment, where characters have to live and breathe in the “real world” in addition to their superhero antics.
The plot of the Canadian adventure is basically a long excuse to get Wolverine into a fight with a ferocious furred beast of the wild, a “Wen-di-go”, who, it turns out, is just a hapless hunter possessed by demonic forces. Canada, to Byrne and Claremont, seems to consist entirely of forest and suburbs, and it’s established that Wolverine is a former secret agent, “paid to kill” as he says by the government. The members of Alpha Flight, the Canadian detachment of X-Men, later meet with the Prime Minister (obviously Trudeau, right down to the rose in his lapel) where they are told that they have limited government support. The idea of going to “see the Prime Minister” in his office (Byrne even draws it in an oval, like the US Presidents’) is fairly ridiculous in Canadian terms. I’m not even sure we have licensed-to-kill secret agents, and CSIS is much more concerned with boring, humdrum surveillance and intelligence gathering tasks. (This is an espionage organization, after all, whose biggest story in recent years dealt with an agent leaving some classified documents on the seat of his car while he attended a Maple Leafs game.) Like so, much else in Canada, we just do it more quietly. It’s cute, and it’s nice to see Trudeau in the comics, but it’s clearly a book written by Americans, for Americans.
It’s in Issue #141 that we finally get to the heart of the matter with Days of Future Past. The cover itself is something of an icon in superhero comics culture, showing the greying Wolverine and, of course, Kitty Pryde, against the image of a list of X-Men who have been “slain” or “apprehended”. The book is bold and original, opening “cold” in “21st century” New York, where a middle-aged “Kate” Pryde steps amongst the rubble of Park Avenue. Wearing a collar that neutralizes her powers, she runs into “Colonel Logan” of the “Canadian Resistance Army” (that name makes me chuckle), who saves her from a gang of street toughs. In this dystopian future, where horses pull abandoned busses, the passage of a single government act has made being a mutant a crime and relegated them to Internment Camps.
That so much could change based on one government policy again betrays the slightly cartoonish politics of X-Men. Even Hitler needed a decade of concerted political effort to rise to power, and years after that to put his final solution in motion. But in this age of Tea Party politics, it seems many still believe that the path from freedom to rubble-strewn death camps is frighteningly short. So, allowing for the paranoid politics, this one-page background summary does explain where our characters find themselves.
In a model straight out of the French Resistance, The Grand Illusion or The Great Escape, the surviving X-Men, which include Storm, Colossus (now married to Kate Pryde) and Magneto, are constructing a device to disrupt the inhibitor collars they wear to suppress their mutations. The idea being that, once they are in full command of their powers, they can effectively fight the Sentinels and take back the world. The other part of the mission is to send Pryde back in time, teleporting literally into the body of her younger self, so she can help the 1980 version of the X-Men foil an assassination plot that sets their future in motion. As Magneto intones, this whole plan may not make their world better, but it could hardly be made worse.
Pryde is in fact sent back, mid-training, into her former self. Though she looks just like the 14-year-old Kitty Pryde, she speaks and acts as if she were a woman from thirty years in the future. The other X-Men, led by Storm, don’t really believe her story until she tells it in such detail, with such emotional impact. There’s a air of tragedy about this Kitty Pryde that’s terribly effective. By transporting back in time, she’s made abundantly aware of the world she lost. And the world she’s working to save. She reacts to his, as any sensitive person would, by breaking down and crying. These are the moments in which the true power of X-Men comes out to play: not the big fight scenes, but the smaller, emotional scenes. (If Zack Snyder is reading, that one was for you, bub.)
Issue #142, where the 1980s X-Men fight their 1980s villains to save Senator “Kelly” and, presumably, the future, and it’s a typical Silver Age extended fight sequence. John Byrne was always great at this sort of thing, and he’s great here, too. The moment where Storm, in the future, uses lightening to take down a giant Sentinel is great, with the robot falling back against a wall with a satisfying “Kong!” While the 1980s X-Men fight their fight, the 21st century X-Men fight theirs, getting the inhibitor collars deactivated and leading a charge to finally defeat the Sentinels. Except things don’t go quite as expected, and Wolverine and Storm are killed. It’s not a particularly permanent death, as it takes place in a possible future that the X-Men are doing everything possible to prevent ever coming to pass.
And of course it’s Kitty Pryde who saves the day, merging 1980 with 2013 (wonder if we’ll have flying cars by then?). As Destiny tries to shoot the Senator with a crossbow, of all weapons, Kitty uses the wisdom and power control she has worked on during the intervening years to “phase” through the villian, distracting her long enough to throw the crossbow bolt out of aim, and the Senator is saved. Claremont’s writing here gets downright poetic, as Kitty is transported instantly back to 2013, her younger self taking over her 1980 body again. As Claremont puts it, “…An abyss opens within Kate Pryde. Reality twists inside-out and suddenly she comes face-to-face with herself as a child: so innocent, so vulnerable, so young. Impulsively, she gives herself a kiss…” Superhero comics just don’t get more poetic than that, even those written by Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman.
The final issue of the series #143, takes place at Christmas and serves as a fun, self-contained story featuring Kitty Pryde. It is Christmas at Xavier mansion, complete with mistletoe that Kitty holds over Peter’s head to steal a kiss. As the other mutants take off to their various commitments, and Wolverine introduces his new Japanese wife to Xavier, Kitty is left alone in the house. Where a N’Garai Demon promptly tries to break in, with only Kitty to protect herself and the headquarters. Literally a cross between Home Alone and Alien (the design of which seems to have greatly influenced the N’Garai), the point of this issue is all in the last panels, which state that Kitty Pryde has been tested, and has passed.
And that’s pretty much the theme of the entire paperback, with all its issues and annuals. What holds all of these stories together is the saga of Kitty Pryde, an ordinary girl with extraordinary abilities, who comes into her own, works on herself and gradually finds love, acceptance and power within a supportive community. It wasn’t the story I was expecting to find in the pages of X-Men, especially since Kitty in the movies is reduced almost to a cameo, despite the fact that she’s played very capably by Ellen Page. Imagine if Fox had the courage to just devote two hours to her story, just as Claremont and Byrne devoted many issues over many months. Now that would make a good movie.