The following is a review I wrote for PopMatters on “X-men Gold Annual #2.”
Who doesn’t enjoy a good revenge story? That’s not a rhetorical question. I’m dead serious. Is there anyone out there who isn’t enamored with a story about sweet, bloody revenge? I know the success of movies like “John Wick” and the iconic status of Batman do plenty to answer that question.
The question is still worth asking because the answer says just as much about the appeal of stories about forgiveness. To some extent, it shows that forgiveness isn’t as sexy as revenge. A revenge story can be bloody, action-packed, exciting, and cathartic. Almost every moment in “John Wick” and every issue of the Punisher is like that. It’s not hard to see why that is the basis of so many movies, TV shows, comics, and video games.
That’s not to say that a story about forgiveness can’t have appeal as well. It most certainly can. Forgiveness may not offer the same spectacle as revenge, but it can incur a uniquely powerful emotional impact. There’s a reason why forgiveness has been shown to have therapeutic effects and was the basis of a major religion.
This brings me to a very special comic book entitled “X-men Red Annual #1.” Yes, I am going to tie this powerful human experience to a comic book. No, I’m not going to apologize for it. If you’ve had a chance to read this comic, you’ll understand why.
It’s been a while since I singled out a specific comic that I believe conveys a much larger message, but sometimes a comic comes along at just the right time and strikes just the right emotional chords. This one does all that and so much more, especially for a die-hard X-men fan like me. However, it’s the forgiveness themes I want to focus on here.
Without spoiling too much about the comic itself, which I encourage everyone to go out and buy, it’s important to establish the circumstances that make those themes work here. Those circumstances revolve around Jean Grey, a character who is no stranger to death, resurrection, love triangles, and clones. Even by superhero standards, she deals with a lot of emotional baggage.
Until recently, though, she didn’t have to deal with any, largely because she was dead. From 2004 until earlier this year, Jean was among the numerous superheroes who were “officially dead.” I put that in quotes because “dead” in the world of comics tends to have a pretty loose meaning, well past the point of absurdity. The fact that Jean Grey stayed dead for that long is, in and of itself, pretty remarkable.
However, it was never a matter of if she would return from the dead or even whether Marvel would resort to time travel to replace her. It was only ever a matter of when. Her return was bound to have a huge impact on the X-men and the entire world of Marvel comics. “X-men Red Annual #1” simply built a story around it and it’s a damn good one.
It unfolds mere moments after Jean officially comes back to life again on the final page of “Phoenix Resurrection #5.” That moment, in and of itself, is full of emotions that writer, Tom Taylor, captures beautifully. It provides insights into Jean’s thoughts, feelings, and emotions at that moment. It’s a lot to take in, but in addition to the joy, there’s also a heavy bit of sorrow thrown in.
In a sense, Jean Grey picked a lousy time to come back to life. She’s coming into a world where her mentor, Charles Xavier, is dead. Her best friend and occasional love interest, Wolverine, is also dead, although that’s already changing. Most painful, though, is that her husband, Cyclops, is dead due to the events that unfolded in a series aptly named Death of X.
These are people near and dear to Jean Grey. She’s not the kind of character who just brushes off that kind of loss, hardens her heart, and moves forward. She’s someone who wears her emotions on her sleeve and does it with pride. It’s part of what makes her such a lovable, endearing character. Sure, those passions attract destructive cosmic forces every now and then, but she makes it one of her strengths.
As she reconnects with those who’ve sorely missed her, she has an opportunity to confront the one most responsible for her husband’s death, namely Black Bolt of the Inhuman royal family. While Cyclops’ death was largely an accident, he’s still the one whose decisions ended up killing him and many other innocent mutants. For that, Jean has many reasons to hunt Black Bolt down and make him pay.
Had she gone that route, I don’t think anyone would’ve blamed her. Hell, some within the X-men would’ve gladly fought by her side, including a few who hate her guts. Accident or not, Black Bolt killed her husband by doing what he did. There’s no way around that. She has every possible excuse to channel her inner John Wick.
However, that’s not what happens. Yes, she still assembles a team of X-men to confront Black Bolt and the Inhumans. Yes, she has a very tense exchange with Black Bolt. What she doesn’t do, though, is seek vengeance for her husband’s death. Instead, she seeks forgiveness and that ends up being far more powerful.
Think about the mentality it takes to forgive someone like that. Imagine you knew there was someone responsible for the death of a loved one. Even if it was an accident or unintentional, chances are your first inclination wouldn’t be to forgive them. More than likely, you would rather see them suffer and pay for their crime.
Even if that person ends up going to jail or is held legally liable for your loved one’s death, you’re still going to resent them. They took the life of someone you loved and, assuming you’re not in a world where people regularly come back from the dead, you can never get back what you’ve lost.
That feeling would be even more intense if the person responsible never faces consequences for what they did. In the case of Black Blot, he didn’t face any repercussions for killing Cyclops. He wasn’t charged with murder or even for involuntary manslaughter. In fact, Cyclops becomes vilified for a while.
If anyone would be motivated to pursue retributive justice, it’s Jean Grey. She even has the perfect opportunity to do so when she fights her way towards Black Blot. At one point, she uses her telepathy to show him just how much she loved Cyclops and how much losing him hurt. She even admits she could make him feel some of that pain, if only to let him know why he deserves punishment.
She doesn’t do that, though. She doesn’t attempt to impart her pain onto him. What she ends up doing is much more heartfelt and meaningful. She gives Black Bolt a chance to offer genuine, sincere remorse for his role in Cyclops’ death. He ends up taking that chance. He apologizes for what he did and, more importantly, Jean accepts it.
For a woman confronting a man responsible for her husband’s death, even if she is a comic book character, it’s a pretty powerful moment. It’s one that carries a unique emotional weight that you wouldn’t otherwise get if Jean had just shot him in the head with a 44 magnum. It very much reflects the power of forgiveness.
It’s the kind of heart that is exceedingly rare outside of Superman comics. At a time when we expect our superheroes to be edgy and tough, Jean Grey offers a very different approach in “X-men Red Annual #1.” It’s one that Tom Taylor uses to full effect, reaffirming Jean’s incredible capacity for love and compassion. It’s an approach that feels refreshing in an era of superhero civil wars.
It also reminds us that while vengeance may still be more appealing to our most basic instincts, it’s also incomplete at times. No matter how many criminals the Punisher kills or how many villains that Batman beats up, their loved ones are still dead. The pain continues and so too does the struggle. Forgiveness, on the other hand, offers a way forward.
Jean Grey feels the pain of loss like anyone else. She also has the choice to seek retribution or forgiveness. Forgiveness is, by far, a much harder recourse because it means accepting painful circumstances and even a certain level of injustice. Given how most of us are wired with an innate sense of justice, such acceptance seems untenable.
That’s what makes forgiveness so hard, but that’s also what makes it more impactful. Rather than focus on making Black Bolt pay for her husband’s death, Jean chooses to channel that pain into something positive. The very end of “X-men Red Annual #1” has her acknowledging how much it hurts losing her husband, but it also shows how this pain has inspired her.
Jean Grey is, essentially, doing the most heroic thing a superhero can do and it doesn’t even involve her powers. She decides to forgive the transgression that killed her husband and chooses to use that pain as motivation to make the world around her better. It’s still not as big a spectacle as watching John Wick kill 77 people over a dog, but it’s more dramatic for all the right reasons.
Fans of anything, be it a TV show, a comic book, or extra spicy buffalo wings, like to believe their passion makes them an expert. They believe, either by arrogance or sincere belief, that they understand it better than most people. They may even believe that they can do it better. That’s the entire basis of fan fiction, in as such that fans feel they have something to contribute.
More often than not, those efforts are forgetful at best. I say that as someone who has written his share of fan fiction before he began writing sexy novels. Anyone who has followed my Twitter feed knows that. I’ve never assumed that my work was that good. If it were, then Marvel would’ve paid me to do it so they can make more money. There’s a reason their writers get to do what they do for a living.
That still won’t stop me from making a concerted effort. Since I can’t call myself a successful writer just yet, although I am making progress, I still write with the assumption that it’s average at best. I understand that have a long way to go before I can call my writing objectively good.
That’s why I’m always looking for opportunities to improve. That brings me to this particular opportunity that spun out of my article about fan theories. In case you didn’t read that article, all you need to know is that I’ve become a big fan of them in recent years, especially since they’ve exploded in popularity on sites like Reddit.
Being such a fan, I think the time is right for me to take a shot to see if I can contribute to the phenomenon in some meaningful way. That’s why, channeling the same spirit that inspires fan fiction, I want to add to the overall zeitgeist by creating my own fan theory.
Since fan theories often stem from those who follow something with particular passion, it’s only fitting that this one involves X-men. I’ve made my passion for X-men very apparent on this blog. It’s something I follow closely, often using it as inspiration for various articles on this blog. If any fan is qualified to craft a fan theory, I’m confident I check all the right boxes.
With that in mind, here’s Jack Fisher’s first official fan theory about the X-men. It’s not just mindless speculation. Like the famous no-dinosaurs in Jurassic Park theory, it helps make sense of something that isn’t readily obvious from reading X-men comics Marvel comics in general.
I’m not going to claim it’s secret canon, but I think it adds a new, richer context to X-men as a whole. It all boils down to one simple concept.
Mutants in the Marvel Universe are a direct evolutionary response to the existence of aliens, gods, and magic.
To understand what I mean by this, and why the implications are so serious, I need to point something out that most everyone who passed high school biology probably already knows. The mutation we see in X-men comics is nothing like the mutations we see in the real world.
Sure, there are documented cases where certain genetic mutations confer certain direct benefits, but those mutations never come close to the kinds of powers we see in the X-men. Abilities like shooting lasers from your eyes, summoning hurricanes, or vomiting acid, which I swear is an actual mutant power in the X-men, are physically impossible in our world.
However, in the world of Marvel, the concept of impossible is exceedingly opaque. In that world, it’s possible to devour worlds and create talking raccoons. In that world, gods exist. Magic exists. Advanced aliens exist. Cosmic forces that defy our understanding of reality occur every day, often in the labs of Dr. Doom.
The common existence of such forces doesn’t just make mutation, and all the crazy abilities it conjures, possible within the context of the Marvel Universe. Under this theory, it makes them necessary in that humans must evolve these kinds of abilities in order to survive. Like our universe, evolution is about survival and in a world where giant space gods exist, that requires more than just making better tools.
That’s where the X-gene comes in. According to Marvel’s own wiki on mutant biology, it works in a way similar to how we understand actual genetics in the real world.
This gene leads (via transcription and translation) to an exotic protein. This protein produces chemical signals inducing mutations on other genes, ending up with mutant organisms, variously empowered.
This mechanism is key to this theory because in the real world, there is evidence that a more stressful environment affects how a species mutates. In the Marvel Universe, those stresses aren’t exactly subtle.
In fact, it manifested in a very real way in a recent comic called Marvel Legacy #1. In this comic, it is revealed that powerful forces that include the gods of Asgard, the Phoenix Force, and mystical beings like Agamotto, were present on Earth in 1,000,000 B.C., a time when humans were still evolving from other primates. Their presence, which included a battle with one of those space gods I mentioned, certainly created plenty of stress.
That stress, combined with the thousands of generations that followed, led to the manifestation of the X-gene. It’s basically the human race’s way of adapting to a universe where beings can use magic hammers to trigger thunderstorms on a whim.
However, even without the events of Marvel Legacy #1, there’s another recognized phenomenon in the Marvel Universe that lends credence to this theory. It happened in an event from 2012 called “Avengers vs. X-men,” which is exactly what it sounds like.
In that event, which was a culmination of events that nearly brought mutants to extinction, Tony Stark surmises that there are cosmic forces that will not accept mutants going extinct.
In this case, it’s the Phoenix Force again, which has a tendency to cause big problems in the Marvel universe. Once it sensed mutants were going extinct, it reacted like a rubber band snapping in the other direction. It determined that mutants need to exist. While it doesn’t specifically state why, the fact that someone as smart as Tony Stark came to this conclusion makes it more than mere speculation.
If he’s right, and Tony Stark is usually right in things that don’t involve his love life, then that means this theory has a basis in the biology and physics of the Marvel universe. It means that if mutants vanished from the human populous, then they would be inherently vulnerable to the many powerful forces that threaten it.
In a sense, it’s not just about there being no mutants or X-men to aid the Avengers in a battle against Thanos. It’s about giving the human gene pool the biological tools it needs to survive a universe where beings like Thanos exist. Without it, the human race is the biological equivalent of a dodo bird.
There are a number of other events throughout the history of X-men and the Marvel universe that I could cite, from “X-men: First To Last” to a good chunk of Louis Simonson’s run on “X-Factor.” I won’t get too deep into specifics, but the themes are the same. Humans need to evolve into mutants in order to survive in the Marvel universe.
In the context of this theory, the existence of mutants mutants and their abilities takes on a more defined purpose. The X-gene doesn’t just happen. It’s an evolutionary response to all the craziness that exists within the Marvel universe.
It also raises the stakes for the X-men’s efforts for peace and understanding. Evolution, being an imperfect and messy process in any universe, is bound to cause plenty of tension within a species. The need to coexist doesn’t just pertain to mutants. It applies to both. Without each other, their chances of survival are greatly diminished.
Now, I don’t expect this fan theory to be vindicated or even acknowledged by Marvel in any capacity. Like all fan theories, this is just me interpreting a story and extrapolating a larger theory to add a sense of nuance. It also takes other major events from Marvel’s canon and provides greater connections, which I believe helps any narrative.
It is, and it’s worth belaboring, my first effort at a serious fan theory. I don’t expect it to shake X-men fans or comic fans to their core. I just hope it gets people thinking and discussing. If you think my theory works or think I’m full of crap, I’d love to hear from you. The best part about fan theories is the discussions they inspire. Sure, some of those discussions can get pretty profane, but I’m willing to take that chance.