Monday, May 6, 2019

Days Of Future, Doomed

There seems to be no question that the two-issue "Days Of Future Past" story from 1981 was one of the high points of the Chris Claremont/John Byrne/Terry Austin run on Uncanny X-Men--taking place shortly after Storm had assumed leadership of the team following the departure of Cyclops, and the story playing a major part in helping to pivot the book toward a deeper focus on national anti-mutant sentiment. As something of a footnote, it would also mark the last days of Byrne's and Austin's work on the book, with this being their penultimate story for the title before closing out what would be regarded as a distinguished body of work.

The focal point of what comes to pass in this story is Robert Kelly, a U.S. senator (and presidential candidate) who is holding hearings in Washington on the growing number of super-powered mutants in the world. The general impression of Kelly is that he is a "decent man," with legitimate concerns, though whether that's an accurate assessment is arguable; but it becomes a moot point when the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants arrive to assassinate Kelly in order to send a strong message of intimidation to homo sapiens on behalf of homo superior.

In the events that would take shape as a result of Kelly's death at the hands of mutants, to say that the Brotherhood's act backfires is an understatement, with public opinion taking a sharp turn toward increasing fear and hatred of mutants. Four years later, voters elect into office a rabid anti-mutant President who ramrods through legislation designed to place harsh restrictions on those who identify as mutants; but when the so-called "Mutant Control Act" fails to survive a challenge at the U.S. Supreme Court level, the White House commissions a new line of Sentinels programmed to eliminate the mutant menace. That action leads to another backfire, this time one that would sweep up humans along with the intended victims of the purge. To accomplish their directive, the Sentinels decide to effectively take over the entire North American continent, while eliminating not only mutants but also any non-mutant super-powered individuals who impede their progress.

By 2013, humans on the continent are closely overseen by the Sentinels--the population in survival mode, their cities in a state of disrepair, while gangs roam the "uncontrolled" zones and resistance cells attempt to make some sort of headway against the metal overseers. We have only to look through the eyes of Kate Pryde--a mutant that X-Men readers would of course know as Kitty, aged thirty-three years--to see what human fear and paranoia have wrought.

(While the sight of rows of the dead admittedly make for a stunning visual, why would the Sentinels bother with interring their victims? To say nothing of erecting headstones? Some way of underscoring the point that resistance is futile? Wouldn't the fact that they accomplished their directive and are in complete control have sent that message already?)

Yet as bad as things are, the true crisis arises as the Sentinels prepare to move beyond North America and extend their directive to the rest of the world, prompting the other countries to threaten a full-scale nuclear reprisal in response. And so the crux of this story has Kate becoming part of a plan conceived by the few other surviving X-Men in internment to telepathically exchange her consciousness with that of her younger self in 1980 in order to warn the X-Men of the Brotherhood's plan and avert the assassination attempt, thereby preventing the sequence of events that will culminate in the world's destruction. Meanwhile, Kate's comrades in the future will attempt to cripple the Sentinel operation by targeting their continental nerve center, the Baxter Building, so that the metal titans are unable to initiate their expansion and trigger nuclear armageddon.

Both missions are longshots--and the cover of the climactic issue unfortunately offers foreboding overtones in terms of how it will all end.

But let's hold off on nailing all the coffins shut for the time being, in the hopes that the X-Men, in both time periods, can prevail. And so we join Kate's essence after it has successfully reached the X-Men in the past and convinced them to travel to Washington in order to stop the Brotherhood from completing its mission--and just in time, as the issue's splash page and subsequent panels make it clear that events in both present and future have reached a critical juncture.

This story would see the debut of Mystique in the book, a character with shape-shifting powers whom Claremont brings with him from the cancelled Ms. Marvel title and who now assumes control of the Brotherhood, facilitated by her position in the Pentagon while disguised as the more human Raven Darkholme. Mystique has no idea of the repercussions of her actions against Kelly*, but would likely proceed regardless, intent as she is on giving mutants a more assertive posture in the eyes of the nation.

*So much for having someone with precognitive abilities in your group. Destiny has alerted Mystique to the fact that there is a random element present that could disrupt their plan--one that she realizes is connected to the time stream in some way, but is otherwise unable to focus on.

The battle now on, the X-Men have their hands full with the Brotherhood, with Avalanche literally keeping them off-balance while Pyro's flame manifestations could prove deadly even to Colossus and Wolverine. The X-Men fight well, with Storm as leader following the battle's pace and taking action where and when needed, but it's clear that things could tip in the Brotherhood's favor should the X-Men fail to make inroads toward dealing with them. There also appears to be a difference of opinion in how Wolverine should be deployed, which certainly comes at an inopportune time.

Checking on developments in 2013, we find that those X-Men who have survived the Sentinels' attempt to recapture them are closing in on the Baxter Building. They fight against hopeless odds, as is often their wont--yet they realize they can't afford to stay idle hoping that Kate's gambit will succeed.

While in the past, the battle with the Brotherhood heats up, given the brute power of the Blob and most certainly the ability of Pyro to overwhelm his foes minus the restraint you'd find in someone like the Human Torch.  Yet a battle within the battle is also taking place between Wolverine and Storm, the latter taking issue with her comrade's methods in fatally dealing with those he targets. Now that she bears responsibility for his actions, Storm is clearly no longer willing to let the issue slide, as all of the X-Men--including Cyclops and even Xavier--were willing to do in the past.

Aside from a scene in the 1981 X-Men Annual where, again, an X-Man attempts to raise Wolverine's consciousness about the use of his claws on the living, I don't recall these appeals to Wolverine ever bearing fruit; indeed, when the Marauders strike at a future date (not the future we're talking about here, of course), Storm changes her tune rather quickly on how far she's willing to let Wolverine go in dealing with the threat. In addition, given that Claremont has spent a good deal of time and effort making Wolverine the type of person that he is, it makes little sense for him to tie the character's hands now, given how popular he's become with readers--one of the few heroes at this point in time (the Swordsman would be another example) to buck the system and go into battle with his own rules and following his own code where the use of deadly force remains an option.  Wolverine was unquestionably a commercial success for Marvel as long as he was left alone to be "the best he is at what he does"--and at some point it appears that Claremont eventually found a way to coexist with that approach.

The timing was also questionable for Storm to have pulled Wolverine aside to have this conversation--consequently removing two X-Men from a high-stakes battle when none could be spared, while also sacrificing some of the story's momentum in the process. So if it seems the battle wraps up rather quickly afterward, keep in mind that there are still two other conflicts which still need to play out:  the mission that the X-Men struggle to complete in the future, and the moment of Kelly's assassination in the present. In both cases, time is no doubt running out.

Claremont has let the older, more mature Peter Rasputin thrive in this story--one of the few characters whose passing is felt (and not just on Rachel's end) as tragic, as if the heart of the X-Men had been silenced after enduring hard times and profound personal loss. He stands in contrast to Wolverine, whose healing factor would in later stories have progressed to such a degree that a blast which seared him down to the skeletal level would have meant nothing to him, and, thus, nothing to us.

The X-Men's efforts in the future were doomed, much as they were when the Sentinels began their takeover and their opposition progressively fell to them. But their mission to the past has a more successful outcome, depending on how you look at it. Yes, this "decent" man was saved--but given what he helped to put in motion as a result of the attack against him, the X-Men may have failed on two fronts this day.

Captain America sees disaster befall his own future, because of... Captain America.

Uncanny X-Men #142

Script: Chris Claremont
Pencils: John Byrne
Inks: Terry Austin
Letterer: Tom Orzechowski


Colin Jones said...

If the President appeared in a Marvel story he was always the real-world President of the day so who's that mysterious President hidden in shadow? Uncanny X-Men #142 came out in November 1980, in the final months of Jimmy Carter's presidency but that doesn't seem like Carter. On this occasion Marvel seemed to ditch their normal policy of using the real President.

By the way, I was only able to read the first half of DAYS OF FUTURE PAST because I couldn't find X-Men #142 :(

Anonymous said...

X-Men imports were always difficult to find back then Colin.

Possibly having a specific, named president engaged in some sort of covert activity might have been considered a bit off? Conspiring with villains was more of a Henry Kissinger thing (and people say comics aren't like real life!)

Not sure if an actual president ever appeared as much more than a cameo; not like, say, Jim Callaghan being kidnapped by the Red Skull in Captain Britain.
Actually, now I come to think of it, I don't recall Ronald Reagan appearing in any Marvel comics at all. Not saying it didn't happen, but he didn't seem to have an Earth-616 presence like Gerald Ford.


Tiboldt said...

"Ask... your mother, Margali Szardos. Who would know better than-- she?"

Those pauses - oh Chris, you tease. Did you really have anything specific planned or was this just a dangling plot line to be thought about later?

It's amazing how innocent this two-parter feels now considering the Days of Future Past timeline seems to have been repeatedly revisited, reworked, retconned and just plain messed about with over the years since.

Big Murr said...

It's always been at the whim of the artist/writer when they actually show a president or keep them "off camera". I've never been able to discern a pattern. Ronald Reagan did appear, (as a presidential hopeful) in "Fantastic Four" #178 (when the Frightful Four are holding the F.F. for a billion dollar ransom)

I took Claremont's writing in stride back in the day, but it is increasingly hard to re-read. As you say, that ridiculous debate between Storm and Wolverine sucked the joy right out of a crackling action sequence.

I always stayed on the periphery of, as Tiboldt calls it, the tangled mess of Future Past thru the 80's. I did vastly enjoy when Alan Davis employed the original lineup of Excalibur to tie a big bow around this sordid future of Sentinel dominance. (of course, with the whole concept of alternate timelines, some writer could bring it all back again...) I think I'll go enjoy it again right now!

dbutler16 said...

This was a great story, though I also think that it marks an unfortunate landmark in X-Men history, as it started the ridiculous parade of alternate reality characters through the pages of the X-Men, which was a major cause of me losing interest in the series. Reading this now is almost bittersweet. As good as it is, I also know that it led to some pretty lousy X-Men happenings in the future.

Comicsfan said...

Sean and Colin, to my knowledge, Nixon was the most prolific of presidents in terms of out-in-the-open appearances in the light of day within the pages of Marvel's comics (though he might well have also been featured in DC stories); and as you note, Sean, Ford appeared on occasion. It's not as comprehensive as I wish I'd been on the subject, but you can find both men in a prior post that recalled a few incidences where they were given a fair amount of story space. Bush-43 was also given a cameo as one of the guests at the wedding of T'Challa and Ororo (and not without a bit of controversy).

Tiboldt, I thought either or both Claremont and Roger Stern might have taken the opportunity to settle the matter of Nightcrawler's connection to Mystique in the fourth X-Men annual or in a later Doctor Strange story (consolidated earlier in the PPC, which you've already taken a look at) which featured the last appearances of Margali Szardos (or rather, her facade), but no dice. Didn't Nightcrawler settle the matter directly with Mystique at some point? I don't recall ever reading the follow-up on the seed that Claremont planted here.

Dave S said...

Ronald Reagan appeared in a Captain America issue when Cap was in his black costume. It was a double sized issue, and off the top of my head think it may have been# #344 or #345.

Comicsfan said...

Thanks, Dave--and now that I think about it, we also saw him (or, rather, his back) when he granted the Hulk a pardon. (And over Gen. Ross's emphatic objection, needless to say!)

Matt Beahan said...

Reagan had a brief appearance in X-Men #200, catching a glimpse of Rogue out of the window of Air Force One.

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