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?
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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!
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!
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 …
… and if recapping the premise required still a bit more expository musing on behalf of Professor Xavier …
… 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 …
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) …
… 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.
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!
- Amazing Spider-Talk/Chasing Amazing/Superior Spider-Talk: Spider-Man Reign FOR and AGAINST!
- Between The Pages: A Tale Of Two Cities On The Edge Of Forever
- Bronze Age Babies: Things Are A Little Different Around Here …
- Firestorm Fan: Firestorm in Countdown Arena
- Flodo’s Page: The Ballad of Two Green Lanterns
- In My Not So Humble Opinion: The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong
- The Legion of Super-Bloggers: Star Trek/Legion of Super-Heroes
- The Marvel Super Heroes Podcast: Epic Comics’ Doctor Zero
- Mystery Vlog: Marvel & DC’s Secret Crossover — Avengers #85–86
- Superhero Satellite: Marvel Comics’ Star Comics Line
- The Idol-Head of Diabolu: Martian Manhunter Multiversity
- Ultraverse Network: Black September
- The Unspoken Decade: 5 Batmen, 1 Superman — ZERO HOUR AND Robocop vs. Terminator
NEXT WEEK: #142 Kamandi!
A very special plug this week, for our friends over at Fantastiverse!
As part of the continuing festival that is the Super-Blog Team-Up, Fantastiverse has posted a terrific and very professional video tribute to the titanic 1970s battle between Superman and Spider-Man!
I well remember this signature comics event, and I’m sure I still have my copy of this oversized comic kicking around somewhere … I think it’s time I dug it up and read it again!
And in other Super-Blog Team-Up news, there are rumblings that a new installment will be coming your way sometime early in the new year … watch this space! And for all the past installments of our co-blogging project, check out the Super-Blog Team-Up page!
It’s Super-Blog Team-Up time again — when a ragtag squad of comic book bloggers all tackle the same subject at the same time! This is our fourth go-round (and for links to our first three forays, click here) … and hard as it may be to fathom, it’s taken us this long to address the most obvious Super-Blog Team-Up topic of all — Team-Ups!
Since the Super-Blog Team-Up crew decided to concentrate on bizarre team-ups, I immediately flashed on the strange tale of The Thing teaming up with … himself?
I have an obscure affection for Marvel Two-In-One — a second-tier book Marvel team-up book. Mostly this is down to the book staring one of my favorite Marvel characters — Ben Grimm, also known as the Thing, the soft-hearted rock monster from the Fantastic Four. I’ve previously reviewed the very first issue of Marvel Two-In-One (where Ben battled yet another thing — the Man-Thing), and in a moment of madness I even reviewed the entire one-hundred issue run of Marvel Two-In-One in a single, frantic post. So I suppose it is a kind of comic book kismet that I return to this series, to review not one, but two issues featuring this strangest of team-ups.
That’s right, two issues … because this team-up is a two-part story, albeit one that went fifty issues between installments!
The first tale appeared in 1979’s Marvel Two-In-One #50 — “Remembrance Of Things Past!” with script and art from John Byrne. Back before series were rebooted every dozen issues, even middling books like Marvel Two-In-One might be expected to reach a 50th or even a 100th issue, and publishers usually made a big deal about those landmark anniversary numbers. The half-century issue of Two-In-One was no exception, with one of Marvel’s most talented creators delivering a high concept tale where the Thing of the present traveled back in time to meet his prior self, with predictable results.
Predictable, because John Byrne aspired to little more than the conventional Marvel Comics fist opera here, though it was one with additional dimension thanks to its rumination on the past, and a theme appealing to our inborn desire to change our fates.
The tale began with a familiar Fantastic Four trope as Mr. Fantastic attempted to cure his friend Ben of the cosmic disorder that turned him into an orange rock monster in blue bathing trunks. Reed’s formula worked — but the twist was that it has no effect on Ben’s current form, though it would have worked on Ben immediately following his original transformation. This was a fresh take on why the many attempts by the world’s smartest man fail to cure Ben of his condition, and it also acknowledged that Ben’s appearance had changed over the years, from the lumpy orange monster of Jack Kirby’s original design, to the more craggily-defined superhero he would later become.
a look at some original pencils & inks from Marvel Two-In-One #50
Man-of-action that he was, Ben concluded that time should be no barrier to a man who had a time machine! If Reed’s serum would only work on the Thing he used to be, Ben decided the only course of action was to administer the cure to the original version of himself!
It’s actually not so bad a plan, in the Marvel Comics scheme of things, but of course Ben can never be cured, at least not for long. Franchise requirements would never allow it, and besides, stories where Ben is convinced he’s become human again — only to suffer some cruel or ironic reversal — are as integral to this character as Lucy snatching the football away from Charlie Brown.
So what’s at stake here is not whether or not Ben’s plan will succeed, but rather what kind of gut punch our hero will suffer as our hero has his hopes dashed this time. Byrne kept the story simple: Thing goes back in time; Thing meets Thing; Thing fights Thing; and Thing has his heart broken … but Byrne also managed some nice characterization, particularly in how the contemporary version of the Thing differed from his original incarnation, not only in terms of appearance, but in his attitudes and speech patterns.
Ben was a bit of a hot-head himself, of course, but compared to his original version, he’s a U.N. Envoy. Ben gets credit for at least briefly trying to reason with himself …
… but it’s not long before talking time yielded to Clobberin’ Time!
Ben eventually overpowered his original self, and administered Reed’s cure … which worked! Eager to return to the present, and experience the cure for himself, Ben bolted back to the future before his original version came around.
Ah, but here comes the gut punch.
By traveling to the past, Ben didn’t change the present. Instead, he created an alternate reality. Or something like that.
That Ben so casually accepted his fate was not remarkable. After all, he’d seen this movie before … but more importantly, Ben had come to accept his condition. Long before the X-Men were out and proud of their mutant origins, the Thing had embarked on his own journey of self-actualization, evolving from his Hulk-like origins to the loveable lug who knows its what’s on the inside that counts.
This is a theme more thoroughly explored in the inferior follow-up to this tale, in 1983’s Marvel Two-In-One #100 — “Aftermath,” also scripted by John Byrne, but with pedestrian pencils from series stalwart Ron Wilson.
This was the final issue of Two-In-One, and Byrne elected to ret-con himself, revealing that Ben didn’t exactly create an alternate reality, after all.
That’s some Grade-A mumbo-jumbo, but it worked for me. It’s above my pay grade to try to make sense of the nature of time and space in the Marvel Universe (and whatever the rules may be, the rumor is they will change in a big way come 2015). Ben, too, gave Reed’s revelation little thought, but when he checked up on his old self, Ben was shocked to discover that something had gone very, very wrong.
In this reality, it seems, not having a Thing has led to the end of the world!
It started off innocently enough, with the cured Ben Grimm opening a bar, and the Fantastic Four carrying on after filling out their roster with a certain Web-Head.
No explanation was offered for why the Silver Surfer failed to exist in this reality, but it had grim consequences for humanity …
… and so we learned that this world was the decayed husk of an Earth drained dry by Galactus, where scattered tribes of humans scrambled to survive, a potentially interesting concept rendered sterile by Ron Wilson’s generally uninspired pencils.
Diving back into continuity, Byrne told us that because Ben wasn’t The Thing in this world, he never had a fateful fight with the Human Torch, and the Torch never flew off in a huff, and thus never encountered the amnesiac Sub-Mariner, who never recovered his memories, and so never freed Captain America from captivity, and so in the absence of his arch-enemy, this blighted wasteland was ruled by … the Red Skull (phew!)
The Skull commanded a New York that to 21st-century eyes is sadly more remarkable for having any trace of the World Trade Center at all than it was for having those buildings crowned by a Nazi flag …
… and so Marvel Two-In-One #100 was basically an issue of What If?, Marvel’s imaginary story series dedicated to obscure wouldas and shouldas. And, yes, these are all imaginary stories, but some are more imaginary than others, and I always had a hard time getting on board with these kinds of stories when they so obviously “didn’t count.”
But at least the Red Skull got to chew the scenery a bit, rejecting Ben’s account of alternate worlds …
… before falling prey to his own Dust of Death, when Ben casually blew it back in his face (now why didn’t Captain America ever think of that?). The Skull’s grisly end also confirmed that the Red Skull’s face is actually a mask, beneath which was … a skull.
In this universe.
It’s all a bit bloated (and a double-sized issue, as well), and frankly a disappointment for the concluding issue of Marvel Two-In-One, as the potentially-interesting character study of Ben examining his path-not-taken yields only the usual fisticuffs.
In due time the bad guys were put to route and Ben returned home, leaving his other half behind to begin the work of rebuilding a shattered planet.
Only when he returned to his present did Ben reflect that he might be better off a monster than a man, a realization sadly made muzzy by the fact that trading places with his human self must also land him square in the midst of a post-apocalyptic hell-on-earth.
And so ended Marvel Two-In-One — not with a bang, but a whimper, and a sense of missed opportunity. It’s always dangerous to expect too much of these action-spectacle superhero comics, but I could have done with more characterization as Ben got to know his other self, and less speculation on what a world without Alicia Masters is like. Our hero, after all, is the only thing that really “counts” in this imaginary tale, and the wisdom he takes back from that alternate dimension surely deserved more than a four-panel denouement.
But that’s my own personal obsession — I often wonder what I might tell myself, were I to go into the past and meet my younger self. I always come around to some generality, like telling myself that “it’s all going to work out,” because notwithstanding Reed Richards’ fuzzy understanding of alternate realities, I wouldn’t want my younger version to do anything to change where my life has taken me. Sure, there have been hard times I would have liked to avoid, but I wouldn’t want to do anything that might endanger my meeting my friends or my wife, or having my children … and I sure wouldn’t want to create a future where there’s no Longbox Graveyard! So maybe, like Ben, I shouldn’t think too hard about these things …
… and maybe I should get off my soap box in time for you to enjoy these other fine Super-Blog Team-Up articles about the strangest team-ups of all time!
Super-Hero Satellite: Super Man and The Masters Of the Universe
Longbox Graveyard: Thing Vs. Thing
Superior Spider-Talk: Spider-Man and RazorBack!?
The Daily Rios: New Teen Titans/DNAgents
The Middle Spaces: Super Hegemonic Team-Up! Spider-Man, Daredevil & ‘The Death of Jean DeWolfe
Chasing Amazing: Across the Spider-Verse: A Once in a Timeline Team-Up
Retroist: Doctor Doom/Doctor Strange
Mystery V-Log: The Avengers #1
In My Not So Humble Opinion: Conan The Barbarian And Solomon Kane
The Unspoken Decade: Two Wrongs Making A Right: Punisher Meets Archie
Flodos Page: Green Lantern And The Little Green Men
Between The Pages: World’s Finest Couple — Lois Lane & Bruce Wayne
BronzeAge Babies: When Friends Like These ARE Your Enemies
My Super-Blog Team-Up pals have gone to great efforts to bring you some fun superhero reading, so I hope you’ll check them all out — and tell them Longbox Graveyard sent you! Then please join me back here in a week, when I kick off a month of Halloween at Longbox Graveyard with a review of the best darn Zombie Jughead story you are ever going to read!
NEXT WEEK: #137 Afterlife With Archie