Lots of people are enjoying the latest installment of the X-Men film franchise, Days of Future Past. Rotten Tomatoes has it at 92 percent fresh among critics, and 95 percent of RT users have given it their seal of approval.
Most X-Men comics fans are familiar with—and love—the original Days of Future Past storyline that appeared in Uncanny X-Men #141 and #142 in 1980. For the rest of you, I’ll provide the retrospective and a glimpse at some X-history. Spoilers ahead for the comic book; movie spoilers won’t exceed what you see in promotional materials.
The comics storyline came out at the end of the collaboration between writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne. These two are largely responsible for the X-Men becoming such a popular property.
The original run by series creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the 1960s was never anywhere near as successful as Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four. The series went on for 60-some issues with various writers and artists before regressing to a string of reprints of earlier issues. The series succumbed to cancellation, and Professor X, Cyclops, Beast, Iceman, Angel, and Marvel Girl (Jean Grey) spent the early 1970s in a sort of Marvel limbo. Readers might find them in guest appearances, and there was even an attempt to spin Hank McCoy/The Beast off into a solo series piloted in an anthology called Amazing Adventures. (That’s when he became blue and furry for the first time, which he brought on himself, in the spirit of what we see in the movie First Class.) That lasted maybe eight or so issues, but Beast then found a home as a member of The Avengers—where he still was at the time of Days of Future Past.
The X-Men were revived in Giant Size X-Men #1 in 1975 with a mostly new and multi-cultural group—also a more adult group compared to the teenagers of the 1960s series. X-Men resumed with #94 shortly later. Claremont took over full writing duties soon, and Byrne joined him in #108.
Shortly before Days of Future Past, they gave use another classic storyline, The Dark Phoenix Saga, which resulted in the death of Jean Grey. Cyclops quit the team after that, and leadership duties fell to Storm. In fact, DOFP is her first mission as team leader and sets the tone for how she would lead in many, many adventures to come. The rest of the “present-day” team consists of Wolverine, Nightcrawler, Colossus, Angel, and newcomer Kitty Pryde, all under the guidance of Professor X.
Kitty is all of 13 years old and still acclimating to life at Xavier’s. Nightcrawler’s inhuman appearance still unsettles her, and honestly she could be kind of annoying in those early days. (Though she’s since grown up into one of the best X-characters.) She’s never exhibited time-travel powers in the comics, by the way, but we’ll get to that.
Angel is the winged guy we saw in X-Men: The Last Stand, not the young woman we saw in First Class. He was a member of the original X-Men and had just returned, and he’s rather rusty.
Wolverine here is considerably more psychotic than Hugh Jackman’s current portrayal. At one point, he’s ready to impale a bad guy with his claws, and Storm goes out of her way to stop him and issue a stern warning that he will not slay anyone on her watch. It’s a nice little mid-battle moment giving us our first glimpse that Storm has true leadership potential.
The storyline opens in 2013 (yes, this all happened last year, or would have had the X-Men altered the timeline, obviously). The future X-Men are an adult Kate Pryde, Wolverine, Storm, Colossus, a new telepathic character named Rachel, a wheelchair-bound Magneto, and Franklin Richards, son of Reed and Sue Richards of the late Fantastic Four. In this dystopian future, the robotic Sentinels have taken control and have rounded up mutants in camps and fitted them with inhibitor collars to shut off their powers.
The bad times can be traced back to when a mutant assassinated U.S. Senator Kelly, so the X-Men hatch a plan to elude the effects of the inhibitor collar and use Rachel’s mental powers to send Kate/Kitty’s mind back to her 13-year-old body, at a time before she had been trained to shield herself from any mental attacks.
That’s why Kitty was chosen as the time-traveler—she was the novice. In the movie, they need to send someone back to 1973, before Kitty was born, so the writers took liberties with her phasing powers and added “passing people through time” to her usual skill “of passing through solid objects.” Probably better than coming up with some convoluted method of time-travel. And it lets Hugh Jackman be the star.
On a creepy note, in the comic, future Kitty and Colossus are in a relationship. In the present, Kitty is 13 and Colossus is about 19 or so. Ew.
Once “Kate” arrives in Kitty’s younger body, she warns the X-Men of the threat to the senator’s life. They’re skeptical, but they can’t risk not taking it seriously. Professor X, coincidentally, and friend Moira McTaggart are at a congressional hearing where Sen. Kelly is going off about the “mutant menace.”
So the X-Men go to Washington.
Meanwhile, Mystique makes her first appearance in the X-Men comics. She had debuted as a nemesis for Ms. Marvel (a non-mutant super-hero and Avenger who today is experiencing a surge of popularity among comics fans as Captain Marvel).
Mystique has just assembled a new Brotherhood of Evil Mutants (let’s assume the characters are using “evil” ironically) consisting of the Blob, Pyro, Avalanche, and the precognitive Destiny.
At this point, comics Mystique has no personal ties to Charles Xavier or Magneto. She’s a shape-shifter who has wormed her way into the Pentagon as Raven Darkholme. In DOFP, there are hints that she has personal ties to Nightcrawler, and we later learn she’s his biological mother who had abandoned him at birth. Additionally, Mystique is the foster mother of Rogue, who is about a year away from her comics introduction at the time of DOFP. (Rogue debuted in The Avengers as the bad guy who stripped Ms. Marvel of her powers and memories, by the way.)
Also of note, Prof. X and Magneto didn’t even have any personal history at this point in the comics. Their past friendship was retroactively inserted into continuity about 20 issues later.
The bulk of the present-day storyline is the X-Men vs. the Brotherhood in a big brawl in DC. Pretty basic stuff, but fun. It’s mostly notable, again, for Storm’s leadership debut and Mystique’s introduction to the X-Men comics.
The future scenes were more groundbreaking at the time, as we see our favorite characters in a world in which they’ve failed and don’t have much else to lose. And we see them die. Sure, Phoenix’s death was only a handful of issues beforehand, and that was actually our present-day Jean Grey, so that was a huge deal, but this is basically The End of the X-Men—a true “last stand” in a future that seems not terribly far-fetched within the Marvel Universe.
It’s pretty dark at a time when comics were regarded as kids’ stuff (and indeed, most of them were).
DOFP packed a lot of story into two issues. Modern comics would expand this into at least a six-issue storyline, if not an 18-part crossover over six different X-Men titles, with guest appearances by the Avengers and SHIELD.
The writing style is somewhat dated. Claremont tends to be verbose, with characters often saying exactly what they feel.
Still, these comics are great stuff, well worth reading. Usually, they’re collected with other issues to fill out the trade-paperback. The most recent edition I saw started immediately after the Phoenix story and continued to the end of Byrne’s run, I think, something like #138-143, plus maybe an annual thrown in. All fun to read, as is the full Claremont/Byrne run.
If you prefer to read modern X-Men comics, however, the best current series is All-New X-Men, which also has a time-travelling theme, as the original five teenage X-Men are brought to the present to…
Well, it’s complicated, and I’ve said enough for now. Maybe later I’ll go into it.