Days of Future Past

Longbox Graveyard #142

What if everything you knew was wrong? What if one day, you woke up to a nightmare, and knew with a sickening certainty that it was your life that had been the dream?

X-Men #141

Welcome to Super-Blog Team-Up, where a coterie of comic book bloggers all tackle a similar topic on the same day. This time, we’re looking at alternate realities, and for my subject I’ve chosen the “Days of Future Past” story from Uncanny X-Men #141-142.

Super-Blog Team-Up

Aside from 1961’s “Flash Of Two Worlds,” which established the DC multiverse, it is hard to think of a more famous alternate reality comic story than Days of Future Past, which changed the way we look at comics, and the reverberations of which are still being felt today, most recently in the 2014 blockbuster installment of Fox’s X-Men movie franchise.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

But forget 2014. Let’s go back to the future of 1981, before Diamond Previews or movie trailers or spoilers on the internet might ruin the surprise of what the then far-future world of 2013 held in store for Marvel’s most popular super-team. So celebrated is this story — so often referenced, reprinted, reinterpreted, and imitated — that it is nearly impossible to understand the impact that this cold open had on comics readers who had plucked X-Men #141 off the spinner rack at 7-11.

X-Men 141, Claremont & Byrne

What. The. Hell?

Fans following the series might rightly have feared that they’d missed an issue, but scurrying back to re-read #140 would offer no comfort — the last page of that particular story showed the Blob breaking out of jail, with little indication of an impending dystopian future nightmare, aside from a title slug confirming that, yes, the next issue of X-Men was this very “Days of Future Past.”

X-Men #140, Claremont & Byrne

It was the boldest surprise yet from a comic that changed the industry with some of the boldest stories of the 1970s.

Returning from the limbo of being a reprint book with 1975’s Giant-Size X-Men #1, the X-Men took the comics world by storm. Guided by writer Chris Claremont, and illustrated by Dave Cockrum, the X-Men were a breath of fresh mutant air in the Marvel Universe, honoring the history of what was at the time a relatively obscure, tertiary comics property, while at the same time mapping out a vigorous new mutant universe, full of monsters, aliens, conspiracies, and political intrigue.

I don't own THIS uber-valuable X-Men comic, but I have seventy-odd others from this era

When John Byrne joined the book in issue #108 — in the midst of a superhero space opera that saw the X-Men wrestling with the fate of reality itself — the series kicked into hyperdrive. Though they didn’t always see eye-to-eye, Claremont and Byrne became the Lennon and McCartney of their era, sparking a spectacular creative outburst that brought us the X-Men versus Alpha Flight and the Hellfire Club, some great Magneto stories, an adventure in the Savage Land, and the Death of Jean Grey.

But most memorable of all would be the storyline where everybody dies!

X-Men #142

Claremont and Byrne began their tale in medias res, disorienting their audience with an unexplained time-jump, and gleefully staying several steps ahead of us as they shattered the foundations of Marvel’s carefully-cultivated continuity. Colossus and Kitty Pryde were married? Wolverine was a wanted criminal? Cyclops, Nightcrawler, the Fantastic Four, and more were dead? This was a Marvel world turned upside-down, never moreso than with the masterful reveal that the ragtag band of rebels resisting the rule of the mutant-hunting Sentinels were lead by the X-Men’s arch-enemy, Magneto!

X-Men #141, Claremont & Byrne

Re-reading this story after so many years, there are several things that leap to mind.

Most notably, this was a simple story … or at least as simple as a time-hopping, alternate timeline, end-of-the-world story can be! The premise was established with a few deft strokes: in a grim future ruled by homicidal robots, the world’s last superheroes travel into the past (and our present) to prevent their world from coming to be. You’d expect a lot of narrative and world-building, but pretty much the entire second part of the tale was conventional fisticuffs between the X-Men and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, who were bent on carrying out an assassination that would ultimately lead to an apocalypse. That’s a lot of heavy lifting to do in just an issue or two, and if it all happened a bit fast, requiring some info-dump dialogue …

X-Men 141, Claremont & Byrne

… and if recapping the premise required still a bit more expository musing on behalf of Professor Xavier …

X-Men 142, Claremont & Byrne

… well, those things weren’t too far afield from Chris Claremont’s usual approach, which heeded the directive of Marvel’s Editor-In-Chief, Jim Shooter, who required that every script take into consideration that it might be the very first comic someone might read.

It’s frankly not a bad way to write comics, and if it is a little on-the-nose, this style also has the virtue of brevity. Days of Future Past was a two-issue story, folks! The Bronze Age had some real advantages, I tell you! Were Marvel to tell this tale today, it would be a twelve-issue maxi-series embedded in a sprawling, endless, line-wide crossover event.

But that particular dark future had not yet come to be in 1981 (and pardon me for a moment while I consider my own Days of Future Past, where Longbox Graveyard travels back to 1984 to head off Secret Wars and Crisis On Infinite Earths, before they can unleash an endless series of cumbersome editorial events and reboots on comics fans forevermore). It was a dark future indeed, playing for higher stakes than the usual Marvel monthly — they weren’t kidding when they said that everybody dies …

X-Men 142, Claremont & Byrne

Now, sure, these deaths “didn’t count” … we knew they’d be overturned, somehow. And our heroes do ultimately triumph, averting the end of the world (the implications of which were dispatched with the speed that characterized the rest of this story) …

X-Men 142, Claremont & Byrne

… but the fact is, those deaths really did occur. Our heroes died, in the future — just because that future was erased didn’t make the deaths less wrenching. Because no one really stays dead in comics, the most we can ask of a comic-book death is that it be respectful and emotionally-centered, and Claremont and Byrne give us that in spades, with off-panel deaths that feel more impactful because we are mostly left to imagine how they happened. Chris Claremont was a master of comic book characterization, and watching him kill off such vividly-rendered personalities hit to the gut.

X-Men 141, Claremont & Byrne

There’s plenty more to unpack here, too, like the pervasive presence of the Fantastic Four (which may have reflected John Byrne’s preoccupation — his celebrated writer/artist run on Fantastic Four was in the offing), and the brief hero turn by Magneto, telegraphing an era-to-come in X-Men where villains weren’t villains so much as fallen heroes.

Forty years later, this tale is still worth reading, both for its own sake and because it marked the end of an era. The time was fast approaching when you couldn’t tell who was on the X-Men without a scorecard …

(And here is that scorecard!)

I certainly never cared for X-Men quite so much after the Claremont & Byrne team called it quits, which would happen just two issues later, so I missed much of what came after. Ultimately I think I prefer looking forward to my own future of days past — say the 70s and 80s — where the X-Men all lived in one series, and Claremont and Byrne made everything old seem new again!

And on that alternate-timeline note, let me remind you that the Super-Blog Team-Up crew is today looking at alternate timelines and pocket universes from all around the comic book multiverse. Check ’em out, and tell them Longbox Graveyard sent you!

NEXT WEEK: #142 Kamandi!

About Paul O'Connor

Revelations and retro-reviews from a world where it is always 1978, published once a month or so at www.longboxgraveyard.com!

Posted on January 28, 2015, in Super-Blog Team-Up and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 27 Comments.

  1. Nice write-up. While I’ve always had misgivings about the consequences of “Days of Future Past” in the X-universe, the original story itself was quite masterfully written.
    And yes, I recall when I first read the story all those many years ago, those deaths of our heroes in the future were indeed like punch in the gut. Even now, just looking at the panels you posted reminds me of how moving, and disturbing, that entire sequence is.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I really do think it is the strong emotional center that Byrne and (especially) Claremont brought to the work that makes this story sing.

      If you will indulge me in crossing the geek streams a bit … this is kind of like Doctor Who. From week to week, you never know what you are going to get with Doctor Who. Sometimes it can be patently ridiculous. But it doesn’t matter if the story is about space whales or Robin Hood or whatever, because the emotional center of the story, between the Doctor and his companions, is so well-mapped-out and authentic that everything else just kind of falls into place (in the best cases, at least).

      By working for years to build up a believable emotional core for his X-Men series, Claremont could do what amounts to an in-continuity “What If?” story and have us totally buy-in. No matter where and when Claremont took the book, we knew that Kitty would be Kitty, Peter would be Peter, etc. And so when those characters are threatened or killed, it packs real emotional punch, even though they are not the “real” versions of those characters.

      Claremont built up a lot of storytelling credit with his work on the book — a kind of dramatic “equity,” which he could then “spend” to leverage all of his audience’s built-up suspension of disbelief to take X-Men to places that a lesser writer could not go. Days of Future Past is a prime example of this.

      Thanks for writing!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree with you on many points. I re-read this a couple of years ago, and I, too, was struck by how uncomplicated it was. I was prepared to not like it so much, because I think that this alternate future timeline stuff is one of the things that killed the X-Men in my book. However, this was a great story!

    I also agree with you that if this were done today, it would be a 12 part maxi-series.

    Finally, like you, I prefer my own future of days past of the 70’s and 80’s. Between back issues and reprints, I have the first 300 issues of X-Men, and I’d planned to re-read them all, for the first time in decades. However, I had to stop after #205 – it was just no longer enjoyable. I agree that the quality suffered quite a bit when Byrne left, but I still think it was pretty good (most of the time, anyway) with Cockrum’s return, and then Paul Smith. However, it really turned south for me around #175, and when they introduced Rachel Summers, from this Days of Future Past timeline, and made her a regular member, that was the end of the line for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think the lesson might be that you can invent (X-Men), and reinvent (the new X-Men), and you can shake things up with your reinventions (Days of Future Past), but when you reinvent your reinventions (future characters from alternate timelines driving continuity-heavy storylines) you are in danger of disappearing up your own backside.

      One thing that makes this particular story work is that Claremont sets out the nature and stakes of his future in concrete and easily understood terms. I know very little about X-Men internal continuity, but I could still go back to these stories after decades and pick them right up. Drop me into a 1990s X-Men book and I’d be totally lost.

      More and more I find I value continuity of character, over continuity of plot. I want the characters to be true to their core values, but I really don’t care so much that every element of their several decades of adventures somehow lines up into one coherent, chronological whole. And I think much more is lost than gained by this mania for reboots and retcons … but that is another column!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Oh, yes, I totally agree with you about continuity of character. It drives me crazy when characters act “out of character”. One reason I can’t stand Bendis.

        I also agree with you that I’d be totally lost reading a 90’s X-Men book. I’m so glad I got out when I did. As far as I’m concerned, the X-Men don’t exist after 1984.

        Like

  3. I wonder if any two issue story has ever had such a long lasting impact on the industry that came after? Great post, Paul. It was a pleasure to take a trip down the rabbit hole with you and remember why this comic stood out from the crowd east back when and why it has been lodged in the hearts and minds of X-Men fans ever since.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Excellent write-up. For better or for worse, “Days of Future Past” is one of the most groundbreaking stories in superhero comic books. All these years later, the story still packs an incredible, gut-wrenching impact.

    I agree with everyone else that a key aspect of the story’s effectiveness is the short length. Keeping it to two issues allowed Claremont & Byrne to keep the drama at a heightened pitch. There was no padding or decompression, just two absolutely intense issues. I’ve heard “Days of Future Past” compared to the first Galactus and Silver Surfer story in Fantastic Four by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby, which was also short, clocking in at a mere three issues.

    Here’s a link to my own look back at “Days of Future Past” on my blog:

    https://benjaminherman.wordpress.com/2013/10/19/tomorrow-is-today-x-men-days-of-future-past/

    Liked by 1 person

    • Just read your blog, Ben, and we are on the same wavelength here, but it is sad and disturbing that I didn’t comment on the bigotry and the police state oppression central to this story in my own write-up! It is depressing to realize I could write two thousand words about Day of Future Past and not even touch on these aspects — has the dystopian future become so pedestrian? That on is one me.

      Nice comparison with the Galactus story, too. Both were short tales, and both may well have denoted the high water mark for their respective series.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I think that the “Wanted Poster” cover is THE moment that Wolverine became a badass, although the the fight against the Hellfire Club would qualify as well. I knew who Wolverine was long prior to seeing that cover, and I had even read some comic books of him, but when I saw it, it sent a chill down my spine. All those heroes, gone. But somehow, someway Wolverine remained free. It was inspiring to me, despite what was about to happen. Very rarely does one image capture everything about a character so very well.

        Still my favorite X-Men story of all time. Great work, my friend.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Great to have another Super-Blog Team-Up! I also personally loved these issues and was one of the puzzled X-fans who thought he had missed an issue when he first read that book. Byrne’s art was so awesome during his run that I think it was easy to overlook or forgive Claremont’s verbosity. As Byrne got into the groove of the book I even felt that there was an undercurrent of competition between the script and graphics, as if it could have been more harmonious, evinced greater unity, but for the tension between the creators. However, it’s been a long time since I read those books. You’ve given me a good excuse to pull them out and revisit them and see if that feeling is substantiated.

    As always, your articles are top-notch! Always well-written and backed up with well-selected artwork and unique videos. Just great stuff! I know you’re busy with other creative projects so it’s great to read an article from you. I will definitely check out the other bloggers. Thanks so much!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah, I think there is little dispute that Claremont and Byrne weren’t always on the same page with their storytelling, but they made it work (most of the time). I think I remember reading someplace that Wolverine plays a large role in X-Men mostly because Byrne liked the character — certainly that is a place where we are better off than if Byrne had just drawn what Claremont directed. At the same time, while I admire Byrne’s Fantastic Four (and I plan to review it later this year), that run never had the same snap as his X-Men collaboration. Sometimes what is good for the creators isn’t so good for the audience (and vice-versa, I suppose).

      Thanks for the kind words about my blog, and yes, please do check out the rest of Super-Blog Team-Up!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. What can you say about this X-men arc besides saying that this was the centerpiece to Byrne and Claremont’s run. Outstanding run on this book! Great write up as well Paul! Interesting to see where this storyline fits in when Secret Wars debuts very soon. Marvel would be fools to erase this classic!

    Liked by 1 person

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