You Humans Love Your Symbolism, Chapter 2:

Visions of the Future and the Past in Powers of X #1

Chapter 2: Prophecy – Visions of the Future and the Past in Powers of X #1 – The Last Dream of Professor X

Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Penciler: R.B. Silva
Inker: R.B. Silva with Adriano Di Benedetto
Color Artist: Marte Gracia
Cover Art: R.B. Silva and Marte Gracia

There exists a whole genre of religious writings called “apocalyptic literature”. Due to the modern use of the word, one might assume that all such writings deal with the end times, doomsday, and the destruction of the world. After all, there is a whole sub-genre of science fiction (including comics) devoted to such “apocalyptic” or “post-apocalyptic” stories. And although these themes and plot elements do appear often in religious apocalyptic literature, the original meaning of the term is broader in scope. “Apocalypse” actually comes from a Greek word meaning “revelation” or “to unveil”. The title of the last book of the Bible, “Revelation,” is in fact the English translation of this ancient Greek word. Apocalyptic literature deals with the revelation of hidden truth, usually through a symbolic dream or vision of another – sometimes spiritual – place and time.

Powers of X as a series can be interpreted as the apocalyptic literature of Hickman’s young X-Men run. The tell-tale characteristics of this genre of religious writings are found throughout the series. Powers of X #1 serves as a set-up chapter, introducing many of the themes and symbols that will later be expounded upon more fully in later issues. At the same time, it also delves deeper into the idea of prophecy in dreams and visions of the future. Accordingly, every scene includes various religious symbols to unpack and decipher.

The introductory page immediately reveals a story that will span different eras of the past and the future in a non-linear tale; a characteristic of almost all apocalyptic literature. Silva’s striking parallel images suggest connections between the different eras; the revelations of one meant to explain or build upon aspects of another, in order to understand the complete truth.

The short captions, also repetitive in form and style, lay down the major theme of each era, most of which are expanded upon in different chapters:

“X0: The X-Men. Year One. The Dream.” The most prominent theme of this chapter: Powers of X #1.
“X1: The X-Men. Year Ten. The World.” With the image of Prof. X in his Cerebro helmet, the X-Men’s new better world (a paradise) was already explored in Chapter 1: House of X #1.
“X2: The X-Men. Year One Hundred. The War.” The subject most commonly associated with the term “apocalyptic” will be the major theme of Chapter 5: Powers of X #3.
“X3: The X-Men. Year One Thousand. Ascension.” While this topic is important to all scenes from this era, it becomes the overarching focus of Chapter 4: Powers of X #2.

These captions also introduce a numerology into Hickman’s X-Men, with great importance given to the number 10, or X in roman numerals; chosen for obvious reasons. As often publicized, the title “Powers of X” is actually pronounced “Powers of Ten”, referring to the year of each era. Numerology – attributing divine or mystical meaning to numbers – has always been an important part of religious prophecies and apocalyptic literature. Judeo-Christian numerology, for example, is an expansive subject. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the book of Revelation, in which nearly every number is some sort of multiple or combination of the most important Judeo-Christian numbers 3 and 4 (and accordingly 7=3+4 and 12=3*4).

The book of Revelation also begins as nearly all apocalyptic literature does: with a framing device. A prophet, in this case known only as John, receives a vision while “in the Spirit”, involving heavenly beings who reveal the truth in symbolic scenes of the past, present, and future, both in spiritual realms and on Earth. (Revelation 1; but see also Ezekiel 1 & Daniel 7 for other examples of the framing device.) The prophecy is in effect a story within the story of the framing device.

The X0 section of this issue includes many images and pieces of dialogue aimed at directing the reader toward the idea of prophecy. Taking place at a fair, the most noticeable booth belongs to a fortune-teller with a crystal ball. When Moira recounts the different exhibits of the fair, her sentence “Past the fortune-teller selling his wares…” receives its own dialogue-bubble. Immediately, there are three panels in the style of tarot cards, with images and descriptive captions coming from the (as yet unknown) X2 era. Prof. X later talks of having “recently had the most wonderful dream. Of a better world and my place in it.” It is assumed he is talking about his famous dream of the peaceful coexistence of humans and mutants. It is then, however, reinterpreted as a prophetic dream, as Moira replies, “Well, here’s the thing, Charles… It’s not a dream if it’s real.”

She then lets Prof. X read her mind, ending the X0 section and starting the other sections of the issue. Knowing the truth of the X2 and X3 eras (revealed in future chapters), one can deduce that Prof. X reading Moira’s mind in the X0 era is the framing device, giving Prof. X these visions of the future. This theory is corroborated in future issues, most notably when Moira appears as narrator in the next chapter (House of X #2) wearing the same outfit she is seen in here, and in Chapter 12 (Powers of X #6) where this X0 scene is repeated panel for panel before, after a section from the X3 era, revealing its aftermath.

But does this framing device also apply to the X1 era? As presented, the X1 era is not a vision of the future, but the telling of the present, existing in the same timeline as the X0 scenes. Why, then, should the X1 section of this issue immediately follow this framing scene from the X0 era? Why would Hickman break the mold of the framing device for this one era? Or is the X1 era also a vision that Xavier sees while reading Moira’s mind? These are questions that remain unanswered, even after this series is over.

In any effect, the X1 section of this issue does begin here, with a continuation of a subplot from the previous chapter, and returning to the themes of paradise already explored (see Chapter 1: House of X #1), but mixing them with the theme of dreams of the future. Magneto calls this mutant paradise “a home of dreamers and true believers,” before asking “Do I dare dream of success?” Unfortunately, the signs that Krakoa may be more akin to a religious cult also reappear, as Prof. X (again in his Cerebro helmet) and Magneto scheme in secret with Mystique; Xavier (the cult leader) ominously stating, “We’re building a better mutant world, Mystique. And everyone who would live in it owes something.”

Prof. X’s reference to a “better mutant world” and Magneto’s talk of “dreams” draw connections to the similar statements made in the X0 section (quoted above) as well as to the first dialogue in the X2 section: “There was a dream. Our dreams are the same. While you slept, the world changed” (this last sentence foreshadowing Chapter 11: House of X #6).

But there are further parallels between the different eras. Most notably, the plot of the X1 section centers around the secret information Mystique and her team stole from a facility. Knowledge that is pivotal to the survival of all mutants. Analogously, the plot of the X2 section is also driven by the theft of secret information by a new team of heroes; information again pivotal to their survival. In fact, the plot of these sections will run parallel to each other throughout the first half of this series. Apocalyptic literature commonly uses parallel narratives, at once emphasizing the sovereignty of God’s plan throughout the past, present, and future (seemingly coincidental occurrences are all actually providential), while at the same time highlighting the universal truths that run throughout all time periods.

Furthermore, the finding and revealing of secret knowledge is at the basis of all apocalyptic literature and is a common component of many religions, unfortunately also of religious cults. For example, the apostle Paul closes the book of Romans by calling his gospel message “the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God…”(Romans 16: 25-26).

Entering the X2 section of this issue, Silva’s art depicts an apocalyptic landscape, torn by a doomsday war; images and themes that have been a staple of X-Men storylines since Chris Claremont’s and John Byrne’s famous “Days of Future Past”.  As mentioned above, this fictional war of Armageddon will be the major topic of Chapter 5: Powers of X #3, where it is more richly explored.

Instead, a different question concerning prophecy takes precedence in this issue: the question of free will vs. predestination, taking shape in the nature vs. nurture debate. If the future is already known, is everything predestined to happen that way? If my nature is created into me, do I have the chance to change? Do I have the free will to go against my nature or am I doomed to a predestined future?

The new characters introduced in the X2 era seem bound by their own nature; they cannot act against it. Interestingly, this lack of free will appears to be attributed to these characters having not been born, but rather bred through genetic engineering or created as artificial intelligence. Cardinal is a pacifist and coward, but also religious with “boundless faith”. Rasputin is a warrior, made to fight. Cylobel is a betrayer, symbolically called “a natural Judas”. Only Cylobel has apparently broken from her pre-programmed nature, finding redemption in devotion to the mutants’ cause, but only by betraying the intents of her creators. Finally, if not quite as obvious, Nimrod the Lesser is a robotic villain bound to the programming of his AI. Twice, he apologizes for actions that he apparently must choose to do. The apologies come off sarcastic, as he doesn’t actually regret the horrors he has or is committing. Still, the implication is that he couldn’t do otherwise, even if he wanted to. This enslavement to his own nature becomes clearer, when compared to Cardinal’s later apology to Rasputin: “I’m sorry. I wish I was made some other way, but I’m not.”

The existence of both predestination and free will creates an apparent contradiction in prophecy and in the belief in an omnipotent God who knows (and controls) all that has and will happen. It shows up in the Bible itself: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29). One may ask: “Do I choose God or does God choose me?” In some instances both the idea of a person having free will and the inevitability of God’s will are presented right next to each other: “…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12-13). Again, one may ask: “Am I doing God’s work or is it God working in me?” Unfortunately, although theories abound, the Bible does not give any definite solution to this paradox, instead presenting both as equally true.

Hickman seems to suggest that the characters of the X2 era have little choice in the decisions they are making; possibly implying that the future vision presented here is also a predestined inevitability. But, as does the Bible, Hickman gives no ultimate answer and instead leaves this question open.

Yet another religious theme introduced in the X2 section of this issue, providing the motif that connects this era to the X3 era, is that of the soul; that which makes a person who they are. Since this subject will be the central focus of Chapter 10: Powers of X #5, it will not be explored too thoroughly here. Still, its introduction in the X2 era is very religious: when Cardinal remarks, “I pray for all living things,” Rasputin retorts, “You’ve forgotten that machines have no soul… and that humans lost theirs a long time ago.”

One question seems to drive Hickman’s exploration of the topic:  What is the soul? Or as Hickman seems to postulate: Is the mind the soul? This idea is first suggested by the horrible death Nimrod has prepared for Cylobel, a “bath” which he describes: “Your bodies – and, more importantly, your minds – will be submerged in femtofluid where you will be suspended and distilled down to nothing by data…”

The idea that the mind and potentially the soul could be turned into data provides the transition to the X3 era. A new character, named the Librarian, sits in front of a decaying Cylobel in her femtofluid tank. He is wearing a helmet that looks all too like the Cerebro from the X1 era. He says, “There’s too much machinery… and not enough soul to save, let alone copy.” The Cerebro-like helmet foreshadows a revelation found in Chapters 9 and 10. The setting is named “The Archive of Nimrod the Greater. The Mutant Library,” and is described by the Librarian as “a collective consciousness of mutantdom – a living database of Homo superior.”  Is Hickman truly suggesting that the mind or soul could be saved as informational data? As stated before, this topic will be more fully explored in Chapter 10: Powers of X #5.

To end this chapter, the creative team fittingly returns to biblical symbolism. Hickman fills the Librarian’s final monologue with phrases like “the great sins of history” and even “hope to God”. In the last panel, Silva draws a naked couple in a lush garden, an obvious play on Adam and Eve. In doing such, he connects the far future prophecy of X3=year one thousand with the long past origins of mankind and the Garden of Eden thematic, so present in the previous chapter, emphasizing the eternal nature of these apocalyptic revelations.

Note: All biblical quotes are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version NIV, Copyright 2011 by Biblica, Inc.

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David L Canham (@BBelafat) grew up in Arizona watching X-Men: the Animated Series and reading mostly X-Men and Spider-Man comics of the 90s. After a Bachelor’s Degree in Physics with Minors in Math and Religious Studies from the University of Arizona, he received a doctorate in Physics from the University of Bonn in Germany. He now teaches Physics and Math at the junior high and high school level in northern Germany, where he lives with his family. He still loves comics; especially the ones that make him ask deep questions.

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