The fact that Warren Ellis has a run on any X-Men title should be enough to merit pause and reflection. That he was then able to craft a science fiction dirge about mortality and creation after the pop sensibilities of Joss Whedon and John Cassaday’s run is a feat unto itself. Reading through the first two arcs of Ellis’ run I was struck by the notion this comic was completely about death. On many levels. The death of a dream, the death of creation, and ultimately, the death that always comes for us and the choice we must make in its face.
The entire run starts with little vignettes in the Ghost Box mini. Ellis sets up this idea that death is coming for the X-Men. It’s coming slowly but surely. From this we learn, the X-Men need to prepare themselves for death. They have to make ready for all of it that Ellis will then throw at them.
The cause of this quest against life is found on another world. A reality, whole life, nearly wiped out from the use of these Ghost Boxes. In trying to discover, in trying to explore, this other world has just about wiped itself out. The Ghost Boxes have leaked enough radiation and residual death to slowly raze the land and wipe clean the slate of humanity once present. The people now only care to set out and take what they need and be damned those who already hold it. Fictional accounts always show what a bastard act it is to invade another planet or reality to farm it for nutrients because the society depleted their own and yet the world still fully endorses it happening between countries.
The X-Men engage in the usual cat and mouse but it is the resolution that grips you by the throat and thrusts your face into the sewers, demanding you see the truth. The Ghost Box opens and an army of death is about to flood forth. To stand idly by, defeated, would be to welcome the reward at the end of the light – the bright hot red light. This cannot stand and so, with the aid of S.W.O.R.D. hard-ass and Beast’s girlfriend Abigail Brand, a laser capable of petawatt levels of destruction is stuck into the portal and fired.
The other world doesn’t stand a chance, buildings and people on the periphery of the destructive path are turned to foam. This world is quickly and brutally dealt with so that our world might live to pollute another day.
It’s this concept of might is right that Ellis uses just as well as Rick Remender currently does in Uncanny X-Force. You have no other choice, or so you believe, but does that make it right? And if so, does that still make it feel right? Cyclops and Beast don’t feel great about it but they assuage any feelings of guilt by passing the buck to Brand. A convenient choice because you know Brand ultimately won’t mind. This is her job, exactly how she sees and knows it, and she won’t waste a moment afterwards worrying about how she just saved the humanity she knows. Never mind the humanity she just wiped out, their actions showed they’d sold their souls for the Ghost Boxes well before her beam of retribution cut a swath through their existence.
It seems it was easy enough to kill in this situation because the enemy was warned. And because they were ultimately faceless – a pack of killers morphed into their ideology and not their individual personalities. It’s easy to kill innocent ants, harder to kill your murderous dog. The X-Men remain aloof of the situation (easy to do under Ellis’ watchful eye) and walk away mostly certain they did the right thing. Never mind if these people were but a sectional group of this other world and the other cultures were peaceful and loving people. The angry minority raised its head and had it lopped off summarily.
One abstract concept of death Ellis presents is that of his Chinese X-Men within this arc. These mutants hid in a section of a Chinese forest, undetectable by others, and no one knew a thing about them. They didn’t really exist until Ellis dreamt them up but he succinctly gives them some history so as to weave them into the tapestry of X-continuity as we know it, even if only on the very edges of this majestic landscape.
Ellis is using his platform to create, to give life, and yet it is a stillbirth because he can’t really make more mutants. The recent Marvel event ‘House of M’ ended with the Scarlet Witch using her powers to reduce the Marvel U mutant population down to 198. Ellis can’t just dream up a slew of new mutants to fight the good fight because those 198 slots are pretty well spoken for. This restriction on the mutant population controls the level of creativity you can apply to this sector of the Marvel U and some might say has also killed it. There is no room to grow, no ability to create on the fly like Stan and Jack always could.
The death of new mutants is real but Ellis uses the power of his mind to work around this by showing these mutants as depowered, thus fitting into the current status quo. He does react on the fly and his creativity breathes a little life into this concept of a new mutant team. He slips them into a past we don’t know of and their retroactive continuity is the new immortality.
Death then comes knocking for the X-Men as a strange foe hunts them down with the lone intent of killing them. A pure and simple death vendetta is affected and this lone avenger is going to use the X-Men’s past to get what he wants. The way he uses dead mutant DNA to create mutant/sentinel hybrid sleeper agents is shocking and terrifically brilliant psychological warfare. He’s using prior deaths, the guilt and uncertainty that comes with any death in comics, and playing it against the X-Men to effect more death.
The cause of this desire is simple, jealousy. The man is a mutant himself, a child spawned from one of the first atoms split over man, the atomic bomb. Radiation caused all sorts of irregularities in this man, extra fingers, skin problems, and possible homicidal tendencies. He hears of mutants in America, brothers to him bonded in deformity, and all he finds are a bunch of pretty people who dress like sexual deviants and mostly act like them, too. For this transgression, they must die.
The masterful juxtaposition comes in the conclusion of this arc as the X-Men have to make a decision about how to neutralise this threat. He’s willing to exert brutal fatal force so wouldn’t they be justified in responding in kind? The previous arc saw them annihilate an entire world but this time they exercise restraint. Beast steps forward as a voice for reason and explains that the X-Men do not kill. That is not what they stand for. I guess we can ignore the conclusion of the previous arc because it was actually Agent Brand who did the killing, and she’s not a member of any X-team, and there really didn’t seem to be any other options. It was self-defence pure and simple. With this old decrepit mutant, he’s been taken down and while he might have a bomb hidden up a sleeve or a sleeper cell waiting to make one last jump to all appearances this goose is cooked. To kill him would be exercising undue force. It’s not protecting our entire existence and it’s not retaliating to a clear and present threat in the moment. It’s reacting with malice and the tolerant X-Men should not do that.
Armor steps up to protect the man in case he does try to take himself out with the entire team, a mutant massacre. He’d end up surviving within her protective shell and still live on an unhappy and futile existence, exactly what he doesn’t want. She is the personification of what the X-Men stand for, the strongest protectors for those who do not always want to be protected.
The threat is diminished and the contest over. Death has been overcome and life will move forward for another day. Yet, there stands Wolverine – the best there is at what he does and you know what he does isn’t very nice. He’s a born killer put onto a prophylactic team for the greater good and while he can curb his inherent nature he cannot always deny it a wry smile. Wolverine knows this man is no longer a threat but he certainly was, and maybe he still could be. Either way, Wolverine punches this old man in the face. Hard. You can’t completely change a killer, you can only temper him. Mildly.
This concept of death within the X-Men, both as a means of complication and resolution, is an intellectually woven path that Ellis treads with integrity and realism. Villains aren’t toothless tigers and mutants can’t assume they will always win with a punch and a pun. Sometimes death comes for us all, you can only avoid it or deal it out and then deal with the aftermath within you. But you cannot ignore it.