In part four of our Marvel 2099 retrospective: The X-Men finally make their appearance in the world of Marvel 2099.
Author’s Note: Click on the links below to read the Marvel 2099 retrospective columns:
- Leaving Proof 279 | A Marvel 2099 Retrospective, Part 1: The Past Through Tomorrow
- Leaving Proof 280 | A Marvel 2099 Retrospective, Part 2: On Spider-Man 2099 and Ravage 2099
- Leaving Proof 282 | A Marvel 2099 Retrospective, Part 3: On Doom 2099 and Punisher 2099
- Leaving Proof 288 | A Marvel 2099 Retrospective, Part 4: On X-Men 2099
- Leaving Proof 299 | A Marvel 2099 Retrospective, Part 5: On 2099 Unlimited and Hulk 2099
- Leaving Proof 302 | A Marvel 2099 Retrospective, Part 6: On Ghost Rider 2099
As with all the art I post on this site, the images below are being shared in the spirit of fair use.
The looming threat of a future dystopia where mutants are subject to nothing less than racially-motivated genocide has long been a major theme in Marvel’s X-Men comics, dating back to at least the publication of the Chris Claremont-penned “Days of Future Past” storyline in the pages of Uncanny X-Men #141–142 (January–February 1981).
The idea of an impending mutant holocaust had been suggested earlier by previous writers and by Claremont himself, but “Days of Future Past” established the explicit beginnings of a possible future with direct implications on the franchise’s ongoing continuity and the fates of specific characters. The “future” of “Days of Future Past” was the faraway year of 2013, where the giant android Sentinels, in the course of following their mutant-hunting programming, have killed a number of the X-Men, placed the entire continent of North America under their tyrannical rule, and set in motion plans to take over the rest of the planet.
In subsequent years, Claremont (for better and for worse) repeatedly revisited the ideas and themes he promulgated in “Days of Future Past,” fleshing out the X-Men’s future history, introducing time-traveling characters from the future into the present-day, and laying down the foundation for a bewildering collection of alternate, parallel future realities that nonetheless intrigued fans of Marvel’s mutant superhero soap opera with their high-stakes drama and apocalyptic visions of the near-future.
With the X-Men books’ strong element of future paranoia and their status as among comics’ most profitable properties, it made all sorts of sense for Marvel to create an X-Men presence in the Marvel 2099 imprint which, by as early as the spring of 1993, was already showing early signs of slumping commercially.
There was just one problem: Any X-Men 2099 series might be hamstrung by connections to the increasingly convoluted goings-on in the mainline X-Men comics stable that was overseen at the time by editor Bob Harras. By 1993, the so-called “X-books” were in a state of creative upheaval—long-time X-book scribes Chris Claremont and Louise Simonson had left Marvel several months before after a series of disagreements with editorial; superstar X-book artists Jim Lee, Whilce Portacio, Marc Silvestri, and Rob Liefeld had all left Marvel Comics not long after Claremont and Simonson’s departures to start Image Comics; and X-Factor writer Peter David was growing increasingly frustrated with the editorially-driven, workshopped-to-death approach to plotting that Harras favored.
The solution to this quandary, as hit upon by Marvel 2099 editor Joey Cavalieri (working alongside editor-in-chief Tom DeFalco and executive editor Mark Gruenwald), was to create a new generation of mutants wholly disconnected from the present-day X-Men. It was a risky tack—much of the X-Men franchise’s popularity lay in the complex tapestry of continuity and relationships Claremont wove over his 16 years as its primary architect—but it was perhaps the most pragmatic way for the Marvel 2099 family of titles to benefit from an association with the X-Men brand without compromising the imprint’s remit as a standalone line of science-fiction-tinged titles that could be enjoyed by anyone unfamiliar with the rest of Marvel’s superhero offerings. The editors were banking on the Marvel 2099 spin on the X-Men’s literary premise being enough of a draw to attract and retain fans of the mutant titles, even without the presence of Marvel 2099 counterparts of fan-favorite characters like Wolverine, Cable, and Gambit.
Cavalieri, in an article that appeared in Marvel Age #125 (June 1993), described Marvel 2099’s mutants as “a slave class, born to poor families who couldn’t afford to have their child born without the mutant ‘message’ in its DNA.” While X-Men 2099 would retain the tension of the human-mutant racial divide that helped define the original X-Men books, this was folded into Marvel 2099’s overriding theme of a future North America ruled by amoral and profit-driven business conglomerates. In the world of Marvel 2099, the genetically distinct mutant population is just one of many economically and politically disenfranchised groups that make up North America’s overwhelmingly indigent majority.
Bringing the mutant narrative forward in time had the added benefit of disentangling the so-called “mutant metaphor” from 20th century history and politics. Equating the mutant struggle for equality with the civil rights movement and similar endeavors by minorities to achieve their rightful due—as Claremont and other writers often did—had always been a culturally tenuous proposition at best, insensitive and reductive (if well-meaning) at worst. The introduction in comics of characters like Black Panther, Falcon, Luke Cage, Shang-Chi, Blade, Mantis, Misty Knight, James Rhodes, and the X-Men’s own Storm further subjected to question the continued relevance of the mutant concept as a “one-size-fits-all” stand-in for minorities in the Marvel superhero context: the mutant had become significantly less potent as an allegorical device once characters of actual, visible minority extraction began to take on more prominent roles in the publisher’s titles.
The setting’s temporal distance from the present-day meant that the X-Men 2099 creative team of writer John Francis Moore (American Flagg!, Doom 2099) and artist Ron Lim (Silver Surfer, The Infinity Gauntlet trilogy) had room to deviate from the tired ethnic clichés of 20th century superhero character design. In team founder and spiritual leader Xi’an Chi Xan (a.k.a. Desert Ghost), X-Men 2099 had a Vietnamese superhero whose background did not revolve around the Vietnam War, in contrast to characters like the New Mutants’ Karma and part-time Avenger Mantis. Henri Huang, the speedster known as Meanstreak, wasn’t a stereotypical Asian martial arts specialist or technologist and neither was mutant metamorph Edward Van Beethoven-Osako, the future X-Man who also went by the moniker Metalhead. Psionic team member Shakti “Cerebra” Haddad was one of the first Marvel superheroes of unambiguously South Asian heritage.
X-Men 2099 had a strong debut—the series’ first issue, cover-dated October 1993, was the 25th best-selling comic of the year, according to Diamond Comic Distributors’ direct market preorder data. While not a breakout hit, X-Men 2099 sold well through its second year of publication: in 1994, it moved over three times as many issues in the direct market and through subscription (368,867) as Punisher 2099 (120,615), and it was poised to overtake Spider-Man 2099 as the Marvel 2099 imprint’s flagship title.
That success proved unsustainable. Orders fell off a cliff in 1995, with combined direct market and subscription sales amounting to just 128,316 copies, a reduction of 65 percent from the previous year. After 35 monthly issues and two specials (including one painted by the Hildebrant brothers), X-Men 2099 was canceled in late spring of 1996.
As we’ve repeatedly discussed in previous Marvel 2099 retrospective pieces, the imprint’s decline is intimately tied into the mid-/late-1990s implosion of the American comics industry. This doesn’t mean that quality issues were not a factor in the titles’ sales difficulties, at least in the case of X-Men 2099. While a competently executed comic in its own right, X-Men 2099 did little to differentiate itself from the glut of “me-too” superhero team comics in the 1990s. For all the thoughtfulness that went into the team’s roster make-up, the characters still suffered from a certain bland homogeneity in terms of design execution—characters like Skullfire, Metalhead, Meanstreak, Krystalin, and Bloodhawk could have come from the pages of any superhero team book being published at the time by Marvel, DC Comics, Image Comics, or smaller superhero-centric concerns like Valiant and Malibu’s Ultraverse.
The book’s large cast (by Marvel 2099 standards, anyway), also meant that individual character development was uneven despite Moore’s efforts to routinely spotlight select X-Men with showcase stories, the net effect being that some characters were largely relegated to the status of supporting characters in their own book for extended periods. This situation was further compounded by a frustrating lack of resolution with the title’s ongoing subplots, which may have been due to Moore perhaps attempting to emulate Claremont’s penchant for haphazardly dropping narrative threads only to pick them up in later issues. The comic would never be as satisfying to read as it was during the inaugural three-issue story arc detailing how the X-Men 2099 team came together.
Still, X-Men 2099 is worth tracking down for any fan of the Marvel 2099 imprint and the X-Men titles. If nothing else, it’s an interesting (and mostly successful) experiment in creating an X-Men comic divorced from the interwoven continuity and established characters that were the mutant books’ biggest selling points at the time.