The Marvel Universe is full of powerful cosmic entities, but none of them are as divisive as the entity known as the Phoenix. The Phoenix Force is so powerful it can destroy entire planets in the blink of an eye, and indeed many worlds and life forms have been obliterated by its might. So many people view the Phoenix as a terrible force for destruction. There are others, however, who see the Phoenix as a symbol of renewal and rebirth, like some members of the Marvel Universe’s mutant population.
When the Phoenix Force makes a beeline toward Earth these two opposing viewpoints are bound to clash, which is precisely the central conflict in the “Avengers Vs. X-Men” miniseries event. Each team’s opposing viewpoints on the Phoenix and its plans for Earth have lead to open warfare between the two squads. Mister Sinister, a longtime X-Men foe, holds yet another point of view regarding the Phoenix Force. In “Uncanny X-Men” #14, on sale June 20, writer Kieron Gillen and artist Dustin Weaver kick off a story that puts the cunning villain in conflict with the titular team and their newly cosmic empowered members, the Phoenix Five. CBR News spoke with Gillen about his plans for the series.
Gillen began this latest volume of “Uncanny X-Men” by establishing Cyclops’ “Extinction Team” of X-Men; a group tasked with saving the world and intimidating humanity to keep them from harassing and harming mutants. Of course that intimidation meant Cyclops’ team ran the risk of humanity calling their bluff and that’s exactly what happened in the first act of “Avengers Vs. X-Men” where the two teams battled over control of the teenage mutant Hope Summer whom they believed to be the Mutant Messiah and next avatar of the Phoenix.
“I always saw my ‘Uncanny’ run as having one eye on ‘AvX’ and examining the questions of power and changing the world for the better. This first act of ‘Avengers Vs. X-Men,’ which came to a close in ‘AvX’ #5, in stores now, is about taking the Avengers, the paragons of society, and the X-Men, a desperate people with a lot to lose, and upending them. The X-Men are now the most powerful individuals on Earth and as we’re about to show, they’re going to go off and use their powers,’ Gillen told CBR News. “If you read the first ‘Uncanny’ arc I ever wrote on my own, the Breakworld arc back in the series’ first volume, that was fundamentally about the X-Men being thrust into a position of power and trying to use their power to make the world a better place. To do the right thing, to not fall into the circle of violence. The threat of the Breakworld appears as a much more personal threat, but the X-Men were the authority figures in that story. They were giving succor to intergalactic refugees. So these stories are very much asking questions like what would happen if you suddenly ruled the world. To paraphrase Public Enemy for a second, ‘It’s ‘Fear of a Mutant Planet,’ if you will.'”
Cyclops’ Extinction Team was populated by nine powerful figures, some of whom had short tempers and a history of villainy, leaving the very real possibility that the team or its members could get out of hand. That’s why Cyclops asked Storm to be part of the Extinction Team. He wanted her to be the team’s voice of reason and pull them back from the brink of any disastrous decisions. Unfortunately the chaotic and rapid nature of the first act of “AvX” meant Storm had to spend most of her time reacting to events rather than debating them.
“The X-Men didn’t know the Avengers were coming to Utopia. They surprised them and, to use a Bruckheimerian idiom, ‘The shit got real,'” Gillen joked. “There was no time to question things it was just, ‘No, you do not get to take people away from this island. Therefore I will have to do this.’ If characters like Storm actually got a second to stop and catch their breaths I’m sure they would have tried to work out a third option to please everyone, but they just never had time. The Avengers came for Hope and things escalated.
“In issue #13 I wanted to create this weird mood where we had Storm, Magneto, and Psylocke, three of the most powerful individuals on Earth, sitting there in a cellar drinking bottled water and they’re all exhausted. They don’t talk about who they’ve beaten. They talk about how they’ve been hurt and how they’ve lost. They’re all exhausted because the last 25 hours of their life have been complete chaos,” Gillen continued. “They haven’t really had a chance to stop and process it all. Now’s the time for conversation, but when there was so much at stake Storm and the others had to follow Scott. For me, the low key-ness of the moment makes the epic superhero conflicts more real.”
Speaking with Scott Summers the next time Storm sees him will be a very different experience, because at the end of “Avengers X-Men” #5 the Phoenix selected Cyclops and four other members of the Extinction team — Emma Frost, Namor, Colossus, and Magik — to be its avatars. When this cosmically powered quintet, dubbed the Phoenix Five, returns to Earth their non god-like team mates will each have their own opinion on what they have become.
“In issue #13 I deliberately put Storm, Magneto, and Psylocke together. They’re almost like our Greek Chorus. They’ll comment about what’s going on. Storm leans one way. Magneto leans another, and Psylocke is conflicted. So they provide interesting commentary and in their own ways they’re all voices of reason,” Gillen explained. “They’re there when the Phoenix Five do what they’re doing and they’re our view point characters in a lot of way. I wanted to try to keep the Phoenix Five at a slight distance because I wanted to convey a sense of the otherworldly and their immense powerful. It’s quite uncanny when you see some of the images of what the Phoenix Five get up to. So Magneto, Storm, and Psylocke end up walking into this room with the Five and they’re all sort of glancing at each other. In a ‘Er… worried now!’ way.
“In issue #15, which comes out after ‘AvX’ #6 hits they’ll come face to face with these changes because all of them are sitting around the table again. So we’re dealing with the distance between one half of the team and the other. One half of the team is basically living gods and the other is basically what they always were,” Gillen continued. “The idea of power corrupting has always been part of this team and that’s very much what my issues are going to be about from now on, especially the Sinister arc coming up.”
Danger, the sentient mechanical member of the Extinction Team, will also be part of the interactions with the Phoenix Five. This is unfortunate for them because in “Uncanny X-Men” #13 readers learned the extraterrestrial, Machiavellian, mechanical life form known as Unit has turned Danger into his thrall. “We had the big reveal in issue #13 that Unit has messed everything up with the Phoenix. He held back useful information that could have made this all end happily and not explode into ‘AvX.’ He kept that in his pocket because that’s Unit. He’s been around for billions of years and his perspective is, ‘Let’s see what happens here.’ Entire worlds could burn and he wouldn’t give a damn,” Gillen told CBR. “In the case of Danger she’s entirely his slave in every way. Unit clearly got himself captured by the X-Men. He arranged a jail break from the S.W.O.R.D. prison on the Peak in a way which no one would know he was behind it. He then picks a fight with the X-Men and he arguably could have taken Danger down, but he chose to play possum and keep his ability to hack machines as advanced as her a secret. He’s the type of guy who always ends up exactly where he wants to be and you have to carefully watch him.
“Of course, this is Danger’s worst nightmare. She was kept in prison for most of her existence as a living ‘Danger Room.’ Now she’s back there,” Gillen continued. “The interesting thing about Danger is that she was in prison even after she earned her freedom. She had just become a jailer. That implies a certain arrogance to Danger. She generally looks down upon these fleshy humans. That’s what I want to explore. I wanted to take Danger on a journey.”
Danger may be under Unit’s control, but the Phoenix doesn’t exercise that strong of a hold on its five avatars. They’re still free to act on their own desires, giving them the power to make their desires for the world a reality, which is a frightening notion when you consider more than half of the Five’s members are former villains.
“As I said, one of the main themes of my book is about power and corruption. Is it a possible, though, with an awareness of power to avoid that corruption?” Gillen remarked. “So Magneto, Storm, Psylocke and even Danger are all eyeing the Phoenix Five warily. Once people see what the X-Men have chosen to make in ‘AvX’ #6 everyone is going to have different responses to it.”
Mister Sinister began preparing his response to the Phoenix Five even before they were selected to become the Phoenix’s avatars. In the opening arc of this new volume of “Uncanny X-Men” the villain announced to the X-Men and the world he had transformed himself into an entire species. Since then he’s been keeping a low profile as he prepares his collective selves for the events to come. That means Sinister has gone underground, literally.
“Issue #14 happens between ‘AvX’ #5 and #6. Part of the reason why I wanted to do the issue is purely practical in that I couldn’t really talk yet about what happens with the Phoenix Five before ‘AvX’ #6 happens, and partially because I wanted to dig deep into Sinister’s world, no pun intended. The basic setup of the issue is the reveal that Sinister went and colonized the Moloid caverns and created his own enormous London beneath the surface. So he’s been building his own civilization,” Gillen explained. “His new London is much more than the model city he made in the heart of San Francisco. This is a sprawling subterranean world which Dustin Weaver has rendered with crazed magnificence. He absolutely understood what I was hoping for. So in issue #14 we go with Sinister and explore his world. Sinister knows that the Phoenix Five are essentially trying to clean up the Earth. That means they’re going to come for him. So in this story Sinister is basically showing us the armory he’s assembled for this conflict and in his own way he’s pretty much saying, ‘Come at me, bro,'” Gillen said with a laugh. “That’s the alternative dialogue to our final page in issue #14.”
When Sinister appeared in the opening arc of the new volume of “Uncanny X-Men” he told Hope Summers about the Phoenix Force and was the first person to do so. The malevolent scientist knows quite a bit about the cosmic entity, and to a villain like Sinister, who operates from a 19th Century point of view, knowledge is ultimate power.
“One of the major themes I’m exploring in my reimagining of Sinister is that he’s a determinist. He’s an egoist who believes if you know enough you can predict the future.” Gillen explained. “The Phoenix is a sheer force of nature, but Sinister believes that civilization is about mastering nature. He believes that man rules the world and can put a harness on anything. There’s a fundamental cold and entitled arrogance to his 19th Century mind. It’s very much the idea of futurism and eugenics, which are fundamentally Victorian values. When I write him as a sexist and racist I’m writing about the 19th Century Victorian mindset and Determinism.”
In “Uncanny X-Men” #14 the revelations about Sinister’s world, point of view, and anti-Phoenix arsenal unfold as part of a story that’s partly inspired by the classic 1864 novel “Notes From the Underground” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. “The narrator of our story is very much based on the underground man narrator of that novel,” Gillen said. “One of the many themes in ‘Notes From the Underground’ is about somebody actually despising this European Western World View, this clinical look at things, specifically Determinism. As a narrator that was incredibly useful to me because that world view that the narrator from ‘Notes From the Underground’ despises is actually Sinister’s world view. There’s also an incredibly silly joke in doing a riff on ‘Notes From the Underground’ in an enormous city beneath the ground. It’s simultaneously demi-high brow and intensely tongue in cheek, which is my approach to a lot of things,” Gillen said with a laugh.
Sinister’s underground city is inspired by 19th Century London, but it does not look like the city actually did during that time period. “There’s this very romanticized idea about science in Britain, that their science was more friendly and pretty with all those lovely cogs and goggles. That’s Steampunk, and about how we tend to see them. But that’s not how the Victorians saw themselves, which is what I’m exploring, warts and all. As a society they believed that they were discovering grand new things about life; that they were pushing the boundaries of what is knowable. They literally saw themselves as futurists and it’s the reason why Dustin really got the designs in the issue,” Gillen stated. “You can see in the issue the characters are all wielding Kirby-esque space tech instead of retro steam punk stuff. One of the many ideas behind Sinister is that this is how the Victorians saw themselves and the future through a modern filter, rather than how we saw them.”
The war between Sinister’s forces and the Phoenix Five begins in “Uncanny X-Men” #15 and there will be several wild cards in the conflict. The non cosmic powered members of the X-Men will have their own questions about the Phoenix Five’s methods and tactics. Not to mention Collossus, who before becoming one of the Phoenix Five served as the Juggernaut, avatar of the demonic being known as Cyttorak. Gillen will address what hold, if any, the demon still has over Colossus now that he’s become the avatar of a second entity in the upcoming storyline.
“This is the second time Cyttorak has had one of his Juggernauts become the avatar of another being. It’s almost like, ‘They keep poaching and headhunting my staff! Get your own avatars!’ Gillen joked. “So many people are wondering if Cyttorak is still possessing Colossus. I’ll explore a bit more of that as well. Hopefully I’ll present an interesting take.”
The presence of beings like Cyttorak and the Phoenix Five means the arc running through “Uncanny X-Men” #14-17, will be Gillen’s grandest yet in terms of scope and scale. “I wanted to show the Phoenix Five going out and having a conflict on their scale and trying to remake the entire world and I really wanted to tie-in to the plot lines we’ve been doing in ‘Uncanny,'” Gillen said. “Daniel Acuna is doing these three issues and he’s phenomenal in a completely different way from Dustin. I think this is one of my favorite arcs, you can never tell those types of things until they’re all done. At the moment though, this arc feels incredibly exciting.
“In terms of characters, ideas, and lunacy I haven’t done anything like it for Marvel,” Gillen continued. “This is me trying to do something as grand and sweeping as the ‘Dark Angel Saga’ in ‘Uncanny X-Force.’ I was very much in love with that story and while we’re a very different book, this is me wanting to approach the story and doing things that would be a splash page in another comic as one panel in a five panel page. This is an army of psychic godheads versus an entire city under the Earth — which is prepared for them and has all the lunatic designs that Mister Sinister can think up.”
The battle against Sinister and his forces concludes in “Uncanny X-Men” #17. Gillen will then follow that story up with three final “AvX” tie-in issues.
“Each ties into the end of the second act and the beginning of the third act of ‘AvX.’ They’re basically three stand-alone issues. They’re quite interesting as well. A lot of plots that we’ve had simmering come to a climax,” the writer said. “There’s always been a good response to my ‘Uncanny’ run but it’s quite exciting to reach the peak of certain plots while we’re dovetailing ‘AvX.’ I’m excited for people to see what we have coming up. When I’m in the pub I’m showing people panels from issues of the Sinister arc. It’s like a ridiculously proud father with baby photos. It’s a lot of fun.”
“Uncanny X-Men” #14 by Kieron Gillen and Dustin Weaver” is on sale June 20.