It’s 2013. Do you know where your X-Men are?
Sure, here in the real world, if you want to find the X-Men, just head on over to the local comic book shop, where you’ll find your favorite mutants in numerous ongoing series published by Marvel Comics. But back in the early 1980s, within the fictional world they inhabited, the X-Men had every reason to be fearful of the 21st Century. In the now-classic two part story “Days of Future Past,” readers were given a glimpse of a horrific dystopian future where humanity no longer ruled, and mutant-kind were hunted like animals by soulless mechanical tyrants.
Originally appearing in Uncanny X-Men #141-142, published in late 1980, “Days of Future Past” was co-plotted by Chris Claremont & John Byrne, penciled by Byrne, scripted by Claremont, and inked by Terry Austin, under the editorship of Louise Simonson. This two issue tale showed us the remnants of the X-Men in the year 2013 attempting to alter history. With the aid of the telepath Rachel, the now-adult Kate Pryde’s consciousness is projected back in time into her teenage body. There, she tells the skeptical present-day X-Men of 1980 of the dire future waiting on the horizon.
Kate informs the X-Men that the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants is planning to murder U.S. Senator Robert Kelly, who is advocating for the regulation of mutants. Kate states that the Brotherhood’s actions backfire horribly; rather than causing humanity to stay out of mutant affairs, the assassination results in a virulent wave of anti-mutant hysteria to sweep across the nation. The “Mutant Control Act” is passed in 1984, but is struck down as un-Constitutional by the Supreme Court. This merely further emboldens the paranoid elements of the federal government, and they reactivate the giant anti-mutant Sentinel robots. The Sentinels are given “fatally broad parameters” to deal with mutants and, to humanity’s horror, decide the most logical manner in which to do so is to seize control of the country. Over the next quarter century, nearly all of the superhumans in North America are exterminated by the Sentinels, with the survivors imprisoned in “internment centers.” In 2013, the Sentinels are now preparing to spread out across the globe to fulfill their mandate to eliminate mutants. The rest of the world, much more fearful of being conquered by the Sentinels than they are of the dangers posed by mutants, is prepared to retaliate with a full-scale nuclear strike against the former United States.
The present-day X-Men race to Washington DC, hoping to thwart the assassination attempt on Senator Kelly by the shape-shifting Mystique and her new Mutant Brotherhood. Meanwhile, in 2013, the remnants of the future X-Men escape from the South Bronx Mutant Internment Center. This ragtag band heads into Manhattan and the Baxter Building, which is now the headquarters of the Sentinels, in a desperate attempt to destroy it and avert nuclear holocaust. The X-Men of 1980 narrowly succeed in saving Kelly, and Kate’s consciousness departs back for her own time. Unfortunately in 2013 events take a much worse turn, with the future X-Men being brutally slaughtered by the Sentinels, leaving only Rachel and Kate alive.
Back in the present, the X-Men ponder whether or not, by saving Kelly’s life, they have averted the dark future of mutant genocide. Professor Xavier observes “Only time will tell.” And in an ominous epilogue, Kelly, more convinced than ever that mutants are a danger, is introduced by the President to Henry Peter Gyrich. To safeguard humanity from mutant-kind, Kelly & Gyrich are to put into place the top-secret “Project Wideawake,” and a key aspect of this program will be the reactivation of the Sentinels.
As I did not get into comic books on a semi-regular basis until the mid-1980s, I obviously did not have the opportunity to read “Days of Future Past” when it was first published. I think the first time I ever found out about the events of the story was one summer, when I was at day camp, and a fellow comic book fan had brought along several issues of The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. One of these contained the entry for Rachel Summers aka Phoenix II, the telepath from “Days of Future Past.” Her biography in that issue was, in part, a summation of Claremont & Byrne’s story arc, a description of the nightmarish Sentinel-controlled future. It seriously unnerved me. As a Jew, it really struck a chord. Having grown up learning all about the Holocaust, to read about a fictional scenario where a minority group right here in the United States was rounded up and imprisoned in concentration camps, marked for extermination, was very disturbing.
I finally had the opportunity to read “Days of Future Past” itself in the early 1990s, when Marvel reprinted the story in a one-shot, and then several years later when it was included in Essential X-Men Vol. 2. I found it a very powerful story. Claremont & Byrne definitely crafted an unsettling vision of the future. The artwork by Byrne & Austin was stunning, really driving home the impact of this dark tomorrow. (And I am a HUGE fan of Austin’s inking on pretty much anything. He’s an amazing artist.) The covers for these two issues have become extremely iconic. That image of Wolverine & Kate backed against the wall of wanted posters, drawn by Byrne & Austin, has been the subject of numerous homages over the decades, and #142, which was both penciled & inked by Austin, showcases the gruesome death of Wolverine at the hands of the Sentinels.
It is interesting that “Days of Future Past” was only a two part story. Nowadays, if anything like it was attempted by Marvel (or DC, for that matter) it would probably be a huge event, at least ten chapters long, and cross over with numerous other titles. I really do not think what Claremont & Byrne achieved in those two issues, not to mention within the rest of their groundbreaking run on Uncanny X-Men, could be replicated today. Well, not at the Big Two, at any rate. Perhaps it could be in the arena of independent and creator-owned books?
That “Days of Future Past” reprint special ended with a brief afterword by Simonson, who noted that Claremont & Byrne’s “dual vision, their future history remains. Its seeds are in the past. Its reality flavors the present. And its future is almost upon us.” It has often been observed that the X-Men can serve as metaphors for nearly any minority or group that has faced discrimination: African-Americans, Jews, homosexuals, etc. I think that is true. I also think that the themes of “Days of Future Past” are more relevant than ever. Despite the important strides many minorities have made in gaining recognition under the law, there is still a tremendous amount of bigotry & intolerance in this country.
Politics have become increasingly polarized, allowing the most extreme elements of society a greater voice & influence. In the post September 11th era, there are some who advocate surveillance upon the entire Muslim community as a necessity to insure national security. There are calls to “secure the borders” in order to prevent illegal immigrants from Latin America entering the country to steal jobs from “real Americans.” Many still regard homosexuality as an “abomination” against God, with some even wanting to imprison gays to prevent the further spread of AIDS. To secure votes, unscrupulous politicians pander to the racist elements of their constituents, cementing the belief that President Obama is some sort of foreign-born Muslim Socialist with a sinister agenda. Even in a supposedly progressive city like NYC, we have seen a resurgence of gay-bashing, and many people genuinely believe that if the police do not stop & frisk every single dark-skinned teenage male in sight that crime will skyrocket.
My point is that we must remain ever vigilant in safeguarding our liberties & freedoms. When one group is oppressed, it creates a slippery slope that could lead to others also being denied their rights, until eventually we are all under the heel of oppression. The Sentinels are a potent symbol for intolerance. Via their actions in “Days of Future Past,” we can see that hatred & intolerance is blind, and embracing it can lead to the destruction of all that we were claiming to be protecting in the first place.