With Marvel’s popular and successful foray into films with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve finally decided to get back into comics. I grew up a big fan of X-Men and other superheroes but haven’t really kept up since the 90s. Thus begins my grand catching-up of the last ten years of Marvel comics, events and stories.
Thanks in large part to trade paperbacks and the digital convenience of Marvel Unlimited I can make relatively quick progress, and I’ll write down my Final Thoughts for each collection here on my blog. Like my gaming Final Thoughts, this will be full of spoilers. You’ve been warned!
Artists: Marc Silvestri (One-Shot), Billy Tan (Uncanny X-Men), Scott Eaton (X-Factor), Humberto Ramos (New X-Men), Chris Bachalo (X-Men)
Issues: Messiah Complex One-Shot, Uncanny X-Men #492-494, X-Factor #25-27, New X-Men #44-46, X-Men #205-207
A baby changes everything. Sometimes a baby can even change an entire race of people. Mutants had become an endangered species since Scarlet Witch whispered those three little words at the end of House of M. With the sudden disappearance of nearly every mutant’s powers on Earth, the X-Men’s entire worldview had been shattered and they spent the next two years trying to find their place all over again.
At the end of 2007, hope finally came in the form of the first mutant to be born since M-Day, a miracle child that everyone from the X-Men to the Marauders to the Purifiers wanted to get their hands on. X-Men: Messiah Complex successfully crossed over with four ongoing X-titles to give my favorite mutants their most exciting, action-packed adventure in years.
Marvel tantalizing seeded in the prologue events to the next big X-Men event in four of their five ongoing X-Men series: Uncanny X-Men, X-Factor, New X-Men, and X-Men (Astonishing X-Men was really its own thing. Also, five X-titles at the time, holy crap). Mini-stories were included at the end of each series called X-Men Endangered Species. Endangered Species followed Beast’s desperate search for a cure through science, magic, and technology and a rotating cast of guest stars including Dr. Strange, Bishop, and even his own alternate Age of Apocalypse persona – Dark Beast. It’s a fun journey and I particularly enjoyed experiencing Beast’s mostly solo quest and inner running dialogue full of questioning and self-doubt.
Messiah Complex’s structure was, as far I’m aware, unprecedented at the time. Instead of creating its own limited event series with a few tie-ins (as House of M and Civil War had done), The writers came together and turned their own series into one massive crossover event. After kicking things off with a one-shot issue, the next chapter was done in Uncanny X-Men, followed by X-Factor, etc, going through the four trades three times for 13 total issues (including the one-shot).
This created some major advantages and disadvantages to normal event structures. The good news is it meant instead of having a bunch of extra superfluous tie-ins, the event itself was the only tie-in, and it had a huge amount of space to breathe and develop. A 13 issue event is absolutely massive, and Messiah Complex takes full advantage of this with multiple concurrent plot threads and an enormous cast including just about all of the X-Men and many of their foes, both old and new. Plus by utilizing four different series, this epic story could be told relatively quickly as each series came out.
The bad news is it created a huge inconsistency in the art style as each of the four series were drawn and inked by different artists. This wouldn’t have been so bad if they had four artists with similar styles, but alas at least one of them uses the manga-anime-chibi style that I absolutely despise in my comics. Billy Tan and Scott Eaton both do fine jobs, but Humberto Ramos’ art is so distractingly bad (to me anyway) that I had to skim through his issues of X-Men that preceded Messiah Complex (hence no Final Thoughts for “Supernovas” or “Blinded by the Light”). Chris Bachalo’s style was an odd combination of the two, leading to an unfortunate situation where I’d either cringe or breathe a sigh of relief depending on which issue came next (the cover art done by David Finch remains fantastic throughout, however).
Art aside, the actual story-telling was an impressive feat, acting as a major climax to the steady build-up of desperation that the X-Men had been going through in the last few years. It all starts with a small town in Alaska coming under a sudden violent attack by both the Purifiers (anti-mutant cult that first cropped up as awesome villains in New X-Men) and the Marauders (Mr. Sinister’s squad of evil mutants with their own mysterious agenda). Cerebra alerts the X-Men to the first new mutant signature since M-Day, and the X-Men quickly discover that instead of the usual teenage manifestation, it was the incredibly rare birth of a mutant baby.
The baby is gone and the X-Men are left with only questions. Cyclops goes into full-on wartime consigliere mode, and there’s a particularly sobering scene where he and Charles Xavier share some tense words about leadership. Cyke is now top dog and still super pissed at Xavier after the events of Deadly Genesis and their sojourn with the Shi’Ar Empire.
He brings in X-Factor and folds in the team from the “adjective-less” X-Men series, which had been pretty much disbanded after Cable’s apparent death, Rogue’s traumatic sacrifice and capture, and Mystique, Lady Mastermind, and Omega Sentinel betraying them and joining Sinister’s team, leaving only Cannonball and Iceman to join back up with the main team. As a side note, it’s annoying how integral the adjective-less X-Men series is to Messiah Complex’s continuity, seeing as how that’s the series that was plagued with the worst art.
In fact, one of Messiah Complex’s biggest problems story-wise is just how heavily integrated into X-Men continuity it is. While this makes it a satisfying payoff to fans and readers that had been keeping up with X-Men for months if not years, it makes it a much harder book to recommend to newcomers as just an awesome X-Men story.
Eventually the narrative takes on multiple fronts as Cyclops and the X-Men formulate a plan to find the mysterious new mutant baby that may be the key to saving the mutant race. After a few issues the X-Men learn that neither the Purifiers nor Marauders have the child, and in fact Cable is alive and on the run with the mutant baby.
Cyclops re-establishes the X-Force team, which hadn’t been seen in years. The team consists of all the best badasses and trackers from all the different teams: Wolverine, Warpath and Hepzibah (from Uncanny), Wolfsbane (from X-Factor), and X-23 (from New X-Men). They also throw in Caliban, a former Morlock and recent addition to the roster from the previous Uncanny X-Men story arc, “The Extremists” (again with the tight adherence to continuity). Caliban’s role is mainly there to die halfway through from a Purifier battle, giving a somewhat disingenuous feeling of grief and danger from a character we didn’t give two craps about.
Rictor of X-Factor infiltrates the Purifiers to find out they don’t have the child, while another group of X-Men lead by Storm attack the Marauders to discover the same thing. Once they learn about Cable’s mysterious involvement, X-Force is sent to track down him down and acquire the baby by any means necessary. While the story is broken up into the four separate books, there’s no hard separation of the characters or events; each chapter flows into the next and involves all the various groups, making all of Messiah Complex required reading for anyone keeping up with those stories.
Probably the most interesting, and sadly the most squandered side story is of Jamie Madrox and Layla Miller of X-Factor journeying into a dystopian future. Using Forge’s new time travel machine, they find the mutant concentration camp that Lucas Bishop first grew up in, and even have his trademark “M” tattooed over their eyes. It’s a fascinating look at a concentration camp for mutants that’s often teased in stories like “Days of Future Past,” but it’s given very little time to develop on top of everything else that’s going on, and ultimately leads to a conclusion that the reader knew ahead of the team anyway – that Bishop has betrayed the X-Men and is hunting Cable and the baby on his own.
I’ve been a big fan of the “future warrior sent to the past” shtick ever since seeing the first two Terminator films at a fairly young age. I especially dug the focus on Cable and Bishop, both from differing alternate timelines and both with personal stakes into seeing this new mutant child either alive or dead. Cable views her as the savior of all mutantkind, and knows that her only chance is to get as far away from those that would use or exploit her, including the X-Men. Bishop believes this is the catalyst from his time that sparked the genocide against mutantkind, and to prevent that he needs to do the unthinkable and kill her.
Bishop catches up with Cable at Forge’s workshop, but he hesitates in pulling the trigger. A second later Gambit and the Marauders teleport in to steal the baby before the X-Men can arrive. They regroup and go after the Marauders, the X-Men joining up with X-Force, and it leads to a final battle royale versus too many mutants to keep up with.
Meanwhile the younger but still equally awesome New X-Men class join the fray, first in an ill-conceived fight with the Purifiers (which results in Hellion’s death). Then Pixie teleports them out of the fire and into the frying pan as they try to escape the wrath of Predator X, a dorky dinosaur-like creature that hunts and feeds on mutants.
Introduced at the end of the “Mercury Falling” arc in New X-Men Vol. 4 (hope you’ve been keeping up!), the creature is an odd wildcard thrown into the story as it hunts and kills some random no-name mutants before it makes its way to the final battle. There’s a nifty scene where Wolverine does the classic badass move of being swallowed by the creature only to claw his way out, but otherwise it’s another giant thing in an already crowded event.
In the end it’s revealed that Mr. Sinister has been Mystique for awhile, and her whole plan with the baby is to use it to restore and heal Rogue, who’s been saddled with a billion alien souls since she defeated the Hecatomb in X-Men: Supernovas. It’s also the reason love-sick Gambit has stuck with the Marauders.
The baby does wake Rogue up (and thankfully doesn’t kill or even injure the baby when Mystique presses her to Rogue’s face), and she’s horrified at the lengths Mystique went to do it. Rogue takes her down then walks away dramatically. Rogue’s been going through an interesting character arc lately as her character has become much more serious, mature, and moody. It’ll be interesting to see where she goes after these events (Gambit, too).
Cable recovers the baby with the help of Professor X, who’s been unceremoniously kicked out of the X-Men at this point. The X-Men (along with X-Factor and New X-Men) are able to defeat the Marauders and Cyclops demands that Cable turn the baby over. He has a change of heart, however, as we see a flashbacks of Cyke saying goodbye to his own son, letting him be taken into the future. It echoes perfectly with what’s happening here, and even more poignant as Cable is Scott’s son.
Ultimately Cyclops lets them go, kickstarting Cable’s own solo series as he spirits the baby away to the future, and I can’t wait to read about their adventures. The X-Force also kicks off its own series with its team of ultimate badasses, and Cyclops uses them as a pretty awesome black ops mutant squad. The biggest change to the status quo, however, is the death of Professor X, as one last-ditch shot from a desperate Bishop catches him right in the head! Major characters never stay dead in comics but increasingly they do stay gone for quite some time (like, several years), as Captain America, Thor, and others can attest to. It seemed like a fitting end to his role for now, as Cyke takes his prominent (and much darker, iron-fisted) place as leader and general of the X-Men.
Messiah Complex is by far the biggest thing to happen to the X-Men since the House of M event in 2005, and easily one of their biggest stories ever told. The action almost never lets up once it gets going, and the various characters and factions lead to a large variety in exciting battles and fight scenes, often overlapping each other in a single issue – my personal favorites being a fantastic one-on-one between X-23 and Lady Deathstrike and a huge battle with sentinels that destroys Xavier’s School.
The story is well-paced and layers in tons of satisfying arcs, provided you’ve been keeping up with the various X-Men series for some time. It’s just a huge shame that the wildly differing artists and styles creates a large disconnect between each chapter and issue. It’s a monumental feat that so much creative talent was able to come together and conceive of such an awesome story as Messiah Complex is one of the greatest crossover achievements in X-Men history.