Mutant X – A Superhero Comic that wants to be scary
By Kyle Ross
“And you may find yourself in a beautiful house
With a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, well
How did I get here?”
– Once in a Lifetime, The Talking Heads, 1980
You remember dying.
But then you wake up. There’s a woman there – one you thought was dead – who tells you she’s your wife. Some of your friends are there, but there is something wrong with each one of them. You can’t remember where you are, or how you got there. Everything they tell you about your life is wrong. A man you know as a hero tries to commit genocide. And then a creepy kid – your kid; the one who’s named after your dead(?) brother – uses his psychic powers to confirm what you thought all along: you don’t belong here.
That’s the first issue of 1998’s Marvel comic Mutant X, and it could have been a fantastic Twilight Zone horror story.
After a time machine explosion in Marvel’s main “616” universe (X-Factor #149), the soul/spirit/ghost of Alex Summers (X-character Havok, Cyclops’s brother) is transported to another world. That world’s Alex has just died in a Sentinel attack and fallen into some water, where 616 Alex’s spirit possesses his body just in time to almost drown. So, after what looks-like a near-death experience, he wakes up on this alternate world where everything is wrong, to him. But to everyone else, he just seems crazy.
Writer Howard Mackie and artist Tom Raney packed the series full of classic horror elements and ideas, but consistently fall short of delivering an actual horror mood, unfortunately.
My summary makes it sound scarier than the actual comic succeeds in being. The plot is explained succinctly, with no questions like “Am I dead? Is this hell?” to be asked. Alex seems to move on to acceptance by the end of the first issue, but then his “son” Scotty unlocks his memories of dying on another world.
He moves on to bargaining in the 2nd issue, seeking out Reed Richards in hopes of finding his way back home. Reed’s tests don’t help him though, instead indicating he may have suffered brain damage and is imagining the whole thing. Okay, good. We’re rolling again.
But not really, because we readers know this not to be true, and Alex is never shown truly doubting his own story. The existential horror of being trapped in an alternate reality where nobody listens to you or believes that this is not how the world should be requires the main character to question their own memories, conviction, and sanity, but Alex never does.
Despite this failing, the series is still filled with enough other horror elements to be suitably thrilling, even though it falls short on truly embracing each of them as well.
Alex’s team is made up of familiar characters, but transformed into scarier versions of themselves in this alternate reality.
Storm becomes “Bloodstorm,” having lost her fight to Dracula and become Queen of the Vampires. On top of her mutant powers to control the weather, she can also transform into mist and a wolf and control creatures like rats and bats. But what does she eat, and where does she disappear to at night?
Iceman is, instead, “Ice-Man” (I assure you, I have already lol’d). After being abducted and used by Loki, he has no control over his powers and can never again return to his human form or touch another person, for fear of freezing them to death. How many times has he done this? Is he terrified of touching another person, or is he becoming a sociopath who can no longer bring himself to care?
Instead of Beast, Hank McCoy is “The Brute,” his experiments on curing himself gone so horribly wrong that he has turned green, grown gills and claws and webbed armpits and cloven feet. He has also lost all of the intelligence that allowed him to do the experiments in the first place, reduced to a child-like intelligence and prone to violent outbursts and berserker rages. Several times, he mentions an incident wherein he wasn’t careful enough with a puppy. What did he do?
Warren Worthington III did not transform from “Angel” to “Archangel” in this reality, but rather became “The Fallen.” Possessed of bat-like wings in place of his feather ones, sharp claws for fingers, and able to breathe fire, he perches at the top of their castle headquarters like a gargoyle, and doesn’t show any compassion or affection for anyone – just as willing to harm a team member or child as he is an enemy. He alludes to serving an unseen master. Is this Apocalypse, or something else?
Lastly, Havok’s wife in this reality is Madelyne Pryor, known to Alex as his brother’s ex-wife, a clone of Jean Grey, who became the Goblin Queen. In this reality, she goes by “Marvel Woman,” and although she mentions having made a deal with demons to save her son, she seems the most well-adjusted member of the group, at first. What did she promise in her deal, and when does the debt come due?
As I said, there are plenty of classic horror elements – vampires and gargoyles and monsters and murderers and demonic possession – but it all sounds scarier than it is. Horror benefits greatly from being personal, and we never get close enough to any of these characters to truly feel afraid of, or for, them, even as the tagline on the first issue cover is “Fear him. Fear for him.”
The 3rd issue plot is perhaps one of the scariest, as the team’s plane crashes in Saskatchewan, and the members of the team disappear one by one as a pack of monsters that roam these woods abduct them. Unfortunately, we don’t get the suspense-building of the one-by-one abductions, and just cut quickly to Havok on his own after the others have been taken, only to discover the “pack” is just feral versions of Wolverine, Sabretooth, and Wild Child. Havok gets them to return his team alive in exchange for helping them find the Weapon X facility, and then Alpha Flight shows up and kicks The Six out of Canada.
Then, from the 4th issue on through the 12th, the plot turns to Maddie’s demonic possession, as she becomes the Goblin Queen. The horror elements used here are great, and mingle well with the superhero plotlines. Artist Cary Nord joins the book, using heavier blacks, more shadows, and just doing a better job of creating a horror atmosphere than Raney was doing.
As the Goblin Queen, Maddie commits a murder and frames Brute. With The Fallen, she uses mind control and intimidation to get Brute to confess and request a death sentence, which is then carried out by the state. And then the Goblin Queen somehow brings him back to life as a servant to her evil will. Again, horrifying…except we don’t see it. Maybe this is a symptom of being a Comics Code approved book. Maybe Mackie just wanted to hint at horror while telling a superhero story. I don’t know, but in the end, that’s what we get.
From small, manipulative forms of evil, the Goblin Queen’s plot grows to taking over New York with Sentinels, then to taking over the US through brainwashing the President. In the end, we discover that Maddie isn’t possessed by a simple demon, but by the “Goblin Force,” an ancient cosmic entity that, in this reality, has consumed the Phoenix and killed Galactus, until it was trapped, only to find its way free by possessing Maddie. And its goal is nothing less than domination of the universe.
World War III is triggered. The X-Men show up. But, in the end, this grand cosmic entity is defeated when Maddie and Alex’s son, Scotty, uses his burgeoning psychic powers to exorcise it, his mother disappearing with it, and everything else seemingly returning to normal.
I love Mutant X. It may be my favorite X-Men related comic. I had never looked at it as a horror comic until Dave brought it up, and, in conclusion, that’s because it isn’t. It is a superhero comic that uses horror elements, but skirts around them. It hints at them and teases them, but never employs them to actually scare the characters or the readers. But it’s still fun, and I still love it.
After issue 12, for the remainder of its 32-issue run, it just becomes an AU superhero comic, introducing alternate versions of the Starjammers, Apocalypse, Xavier, Captain America, and more, following Havok’s adventures with these characters.
Issue 13, written by Benjamin Raab, is the one exception to this. It is a flashback story of Kitty Pryde, equipping herself as a vampire hunter to go after Storm, who at this point is newly turned and still fighting the urge to feed. It is perhaps the best issue of the series and would have stood on its own as a What If? had Marvel chosen to publish it that way instead. If you really want to read an X-comic with a hint of horror, I recommend this one issue above the rest of the Mutant X series, easily.