Recently, the bonds between Marvel Comics' X-Men characters were torn asunder by an ideological schism. One group, led by Wolverine, relocated to New York where they have established a new training school for young mutants. Meanwhile, the other faction, led by Cyclops, remained on Utopia, the manmade island floating in San Francisco Bay that has served as the X-Men's home for the past several years.
Those who have sided with Cyclops' are ultimately concerned with protecting a world that fears and hates them, and in Kieron Gillen and artist Carlos Pacheco's "Uncanny X-Men," #1, a new team has formed to allow them to do just that. This new group, dubbed the "Extinction Team," consists of Cyclops, Emma Frost, Hope, Magneto, Namor, Danger, Magik, Colossus and Storm. Their purpose is two fold: to save humanity from any powerful threat that would attack it, and remind the human masses that if they attempt to assault or oppress mutantkind, the power of the X-Men would be turned against them
By the end of the first issue, the Extinction Team was locked in a battle with longtime X-Men foe Mister Sinister, who launched a surprise attack on a mysterious and powerful alien lifeform known as the Dreaming Celestial, a massive humanoid figure who appeared in the city one day, standing stoic and unmoving ever since. Why has Sinister attacked the Dreaming Celestial? What does he hope to do with it's power? And what sort of catastrophic reactions will happen as the result of Sinister's latest scheme? For the answers to these questions and more, we spoke with Gillen about his plans for "Uncanny X-Men."
In "Uncanny X-Men" #1, Cyclops outlined the primary purpose of the Extinction team; to save mankind from threats that would, quite bluntly, render them extinct. The group went immediately to work trying to stop Mister Sinister from seizing control of the gigantic and massively powerful Dreaming Celestial. For Gillen, it was essentially a way of saying "Uncanny X-Men" is now a book for readers who want Earth-shattering, "Avengers"-style action with a mutant twist.
"Jason Aaron's 'Wolverine & the X-Men' series is essentially about this school and this very intense environment, so the tone must reflect that. Therefore, 'Uncanny' has to be the complete polar opposite. It's this world-spanning book," Gillen told CBR News. "The first arc does take place in San Francisco, but our stories can really take place anywhere. The X-Men will be logging a lot of air miles over the next several months, which makes it especially handy that they have a teleporter around."
Cyclops and his team may busy protecting the entire world, but that doesn't mean he's going to neglect the city where Utopia is located. They aren't the stars of the book, but "Uncanny X-Men" #1 hinted that a portion of the mutants currently living on Utopia serve as members of the X-Men's "street team" -- a group tasked with protecting the citizens of San Francisco from threats like street crime and minor super villain activity.
"The idea behind the street team is that I wanted to reevaluate the idea of what Utopia was. I wanted everybody on the island to have a job. Even if I was only going to do stories about the Extinction team, I wanted everyone to know what every mutant was abstractly doing. These teams came about because of a new structure, and that lead to the 'stealth' team being focused on in Victor Gischler's 'X-Men' series. The organizing was an off-hand suggestion to make the fantasy more real," Gillen explained. "It would be a real shame if no one did a story focusing on the street team characters, but right now, I'm not currently planning on writing one. That doesn't mean it couldn't be done in other books. With 'Generation Hope' and 'New Mutants' and the other X-teams, we have a matrix of all these exciting stories for the Utopia-based X-Men faction. Right now, though, we have more stories than we have room to tell, which is kind of exciting."
Part of the reason Gillen has so much planned for "Uncanny X-Men" is because the unique and tempestuous dynamic of the Extinction Team lends itself to a myriad of different types of stories. The team's line up features former villains as well as several characters who actively don't like each other.
"These are powerful and egocentric characters. One of the main reasons people become "villains" is because they want something and their weakness makes them reach for it. Since several of the team members are recovering villains, that will become quite evident in their first outing," Gillen said. "I wanted an interesting dynamic for this group, and they are trying to be a team. Even so, they're all professionals. Even Hope, who has the least amount of field experience, was trained from birth by Cable, so she's probably one of the most highly trained people in the Marvel Universe, These characters are all aware they have a job to do. They're all quite capable of following orders, but they'll, of course, question them at times, and different characters, like Storm and Namor, will have different reasons for doing so. They'll do the job but make it clear they don't necessarily like to do the job.
"Part of the fun is seeing them all together," Gillen continued. "Namor is actually oddly funny. He says a lot of genuinely surprisingly funny things. And it twists characters. When Hope is the presence of the 'Gen Hope' kids, she's very serious and overly responsible. She's basically very adult. Amongst the X-Men, she's a slightly different creature. She's still a soldier, but she's much more brash and even lighter, as the responsibility is off her. So she and Namor end up getting along quite well together."
Two other team members that will frequently interact with each other are the brother and sister duo of Colossus and Magik. These days, they share more than just a familial bond thanks to Colossus' recent decision to become the new Juggernaut, avatar of the infernal being known as Cyttorak.
"I essentially wanted to put Colossus through the grinder. I think he's a character who could use some growth, and making him the Juggernaut was a great opportunity for that," Gillen remarked. "Now, he's very much a Jekyll and Hyde style character. Basically, he can transform into this stronger form, but when he undergoes that transformation, he becomes morally tarnished. Those dark feelings and thoughts wouldn't have phased somebody like the former Juggernaut, Cain Marko, but Colossus is pretty conflicted and confused. He's trying to keep his moral core and that's problematic. He's going through something similar to what his sister went through, and she's come out the other side. If they were in Possessed People Anonymous, she would be his sponsor. They're tying to keep things on an even keel, here. The question is, can he? Through Colossus, they have access to all this enormous power, but now they have to make sure nothing can go wrong. It's what the whole series reduces down to, in some ways"
Magik and Colossus' codependent relationship may make them feel like outsiders within the Extinction Team, but they can still count on each other. Some of their teammates, like Magneto and Storm, are more isolated and have no real confidants that they can turn to for advice and support.
"Magneto is kind of on the edge of the group, because he is Magneto. They are not going to completely trust him. He knows that he could move towards the center of the group by being diplomatic and putting himself next to Cyclops, but seems to be avoiding it. He is a tactician. He's clearly got his motivations. He also knows this is a team that exists to save the world and make sure they don't attack mutants -- which is something he clearly believes in, entirely. So there's an interesting balancing act there," Gillen stated. "Storm has a much more difficult role to play. She's the moral anchor of the team. Scott told her that if everyone in the room is saying, 'Yep. We should kill everybody,' it's her job to go, 'No! No! No! We are not killing anybody!' One of my favorite pages in the first issue was her and Magneto, where she says how much she hates violence -- and had just blown something enormous up.
"That's the conflict with Storm," Gillen continued. "She's not a pacifist. She's committed acts of enormous violence, but doesn't think doing that is acceptable, let alone good. That makes her perfect for the team. Of all the members, she's probably the most vital in Scott's plan. Without Storm, this probably doesn't work. Scott wouldn't even try to do this if he didn't have Storm."
Storm plays such an essential role on Cyclops' Extinction Team, serving to enforce the concept of defending mutants without harming anyone along the way. Several years ago, Cyclops secretly assembled his own version of the covert mutant kill squad X-Force to hunt down and kill powerful anti-mutant figures. Storm must make sure that the Extinction Team aren't used for a similar purpose.
"Batman dangles people out of windows, but he doesn't drop them. It's all an act,so he's still a hero. The X-Men are essentially doing that to all of humanity. The question is, will they press the button? Scott's thinking is that if humanity hates, fears and respects them, they won't ever have to worry about that. And with Storm on the team, she won't let him press the button," Gillen explained. "So it's a game of high stakes poker. If an opponent calls Cyclops bluff, even once, he's going to do everything he can not to press the red button, because just like during the Cold War, if that button is pressed, no one wins. I think that set up is what separates us from other super team books. Yes, we're doing big adventures with crazy threats -- and emphasis on the word crazy. This is not a dour book in any way, shape or form, but underneath it all, we're examining larger questions, like, what is an acceptable response to the threat of force?"
At the end of "Uncanny X-Men" #1, the Extinction Team's first threat, Mister Sinister, tapped into the power of the Dreaming Celestial, transforming a portion of San Francisco into a strange World's Fair-style venue populated with duplicates of himself clad in a variety of Victorian Era outfits. His reason for doing so is one of the many mysteries surrounding the character.
"I really don't want to say much about Sinister, because in the second issue we're really going to do all that," Gillen said. "I think of all of the big, iconic X-Men villains, he's the trickiest one to describe. We never really got a satisfying answer to the question of what has Sinister been up to all these years, so we're going to answer that question. We're going to reveal what he's been after and the reasons for it. After we show you what he's been up to, we'll establish a new status quo by showing you what he's doing now.
"We really want to elevate Sinister and turn him in a great, weird and interesting character," Gillen continued. "You got some hints of that in the first issue with the enormous Sinister World's Fair cliffhanger. In the next issue, we'll explore that World's Fair and Sinister will tell us what he's been up to all these years. He's a guy who likes monologues, so we're lucky he's charismatic enough to pull it off. He's kept these secrets all these years, and now he's finally got a chance to talk. We're having a lot of fun with that."
Most of what Sinister reveals about himself will come via his dialogue, actions and -- as Gillen puts it - "demonstrations," but there will be one moment that flashes back to a pivotal point in the character's past. "Essentially, it's the bat flying through the window moment. It's his 'I will become the British Class System' moment, if you will," Gillen said with a laugh. "I'm not going to go through his entire history and say here's what Sinister has been doing in each era. It's more the general idea of what he's been up to. There's a couple other ideas, as well, which relate to the examinations he was doing in 'Uncanny X-Men' #544, the final issue of our last volume."
As the X-Men investigate Sinister's construct, they'll discover that their old villain poses a different kind of threat to the city of San Francisco and the world than they initially expected. "The cliffhanger at the end of issue one may lead some people to think this is an invasion-style story, but that's not really the case," Gillen explained. "Sinister has made this area in the middle of San Francisco, but I would not necessarily assume he's turned all the humans in that area into copies of himself. I can see why people may assume that, but it's not the way the story is going. It's much more about Sinister making a new Sinister. Like we saw in that last issue of 'Uncanny,' that's kind of what he's been doing for a while now. There's an idea that he is his own Frankenstein's monster."
Gillen's vision for this first Mister Sinister arc is being brought to life by artist Carlos Pacheco, whom Gillen collaborated with on the Point One issue of the last volume of "Uncanny X-Men." The writer greatly enjoyed working with Pacheco and welcomes the chance to collaborate with him on a longer story.
"It's been a lot of fun. Carlos is a guy who can really draw sexy, large-scale action. I've been apologizing to him in the script for all our crowd scenes. Plus, I created this World's Fair full of Sinisters in Victorian garb. Some of them are riding horses, and artists never like drawing horses," Gillen joked. "He completely nails everything I give him, though, which has been a great joy."
The final page of "Uncanny X-Men" #1 offered up some ominous teasers of things to come, many of which will appear sooner rather than later, including the threat of the giant red Celestial, Arishem the Judge, who can be seen on the cover of "Uncanny X-Men" #3. "Because of what Sinister does to the Dreaming Celestial, there's very much a sense of, 'You just violated my mate.' The cover for issue #3 has Cyclops standing in Arishem's hand. I think that's an iconic representation of the problem of fighting Celestials," Gillen stated. "I wanted to put the X-Men on the world stage and give them a 'Galactus' moment, if you will. This is the X-Men dealing with a situation that one of their foes has created, which has captured the attention of the Celestials. That's fun. The Celestials are one of my favorite Kirby designs. There's something about them that I find incredibly compelling."
The teaser also featured a strange figure with the ability to form his hand into a menacing claw. That figure is a member of the technorganic species known as the Phalanx, which makes an appearance in "Uncanny X-Men" #4.
"It'ss a stand alone issue that's both a prologue and an epilogue to some of the stuff we're doing with Sinister," Gillen said. "It involves him having done some experiments on the Phalanx, with disastrous consequences. It's a very dark take on 'E.T.' called 'Phalanx of One.'"
Another image in the teaser showed Cyclops kneeling before a robotic lifeform that's sure to be familiar to fans of Gillen's work on the "S.W.O.R.D." series from several years ago. "He does look kind of familiar, doesn't he? Okay. Yes, it's U.N.I.T!" Gillen said with a laugh. "He's one of the major problems in our third arc. People kept asking me if I was going to bring U.N.I.T. back. I was hoping to bring him in earlier, but he just didn't fit. It was too awkward. However, 'Uncanny' gives him a chance to really step onto the stage in a confident and compelling fashion.
"Like we saw in 'S.W.O.R.D.,' There's something simultaneously sinister and friendly about him," Gillen continued. "Basically, the plot involves a jail break on The Peak, leading to all these aliens showing up all over on Earth, including U.N.I.T. So the X-Men will be running all over the world trying to deal with all these different alien threats, and all the while, U.N.I.T. is having a pleasant little conversation with a certain somebody."
S.W.O.R.D. and its related characters will be major players in the third arc of "Uncanny X-Men," but they'll play supporting and reoccurring roles throughout Gillen's run on the book. "I can't stay away from them. They deal with the threats I lean to in 'X-Men,' which is quite often science fiction threats coming to Earth. S.W.O.R.D. is a valuable source of information about these perils, and it's logical to have them involved, because of their mandate. Brand is almost like the X-Men's Commissioner Gordon. She's the person who phones the X-Men and says, 'We've got this problem! Help.'
"Of course, I always worry about using S.W.O.R.D. again. I worry that I'm being one of those writers when I drag them back every opportunity I have. My editor Nick Lowe told me, though, 'No. It's okay. If you reach the point where I have to say, 'Kieron, no more S.W.O.R.D., I will," Gillen laughed. "At one point, S.W.O.R.D was going to play a small role in our second arc, too, and Nick said, 'Kieron remember when I said I would tell you when you reached that day? Well, you have.' So thankfully the second arc will be a break from Brand and company."
Gillen's initial plans for "Uncanny X-Men" will resemble a more intense version of what he did on the last volume of "Uncanny X-Men" where there was usually a major arc followed by a done-in-one or spotlight issue. "These first few arcs will feature a complete reinvention of Sinister, who is very much my arch-villain. Taken as a whole, my entire run could really be seen as Sinister versus the X-Men," the writer told us. "The theme isn't just that personal antagonism; it's about what it means to be a species and a mutant. In terms of actual stories, after our first arc there's the stand-alone issue with the Phalanx. Then there's a three-issue arc, with an epilogue issue. So we've got three larger arcs with single issues between them. That's the basic structure, and then we get into something enormous after that."
Gillen promises that every one of his "Uncanny X-Men" stories, whether they're enormous arcs or done-in-one issues, will contain elements that people know and love about the X-Men along with what he loves about super hero action comics in general. "This is me trying to do a certain type of super hero comic, and it's so different from 'Wolverine and the X-Men' and ' Uncanny X-Force.' It's also a book that's entirely got all the good stuff you like about the X-Men, like the soap opera. You can't really do an X-Men book without that element," the writer stated. "People talk about this war between grim and gritty comics full of 'social realism' and this fantastical sort of psychedelic approach to comics. I don't see those approaches as being antagonistic. I'm doing stories about the British Class system in the form of armies of Sinister clones at a World's Fair. That could an element out of a 'Doom Patrol' comic. But in terms of how the combat is presented, this is full-on, kinetic, physical, messy.
"I think Emma Frost losing an arm in our first issue is an extreme example of the forces we're dealing with here," Gillen continued. "Early on, I wanted to make it clear that this is a team where people get hurt, and if they get hurt bad enough, they'll need to recover. If Emma's arm isn't magically healed, she's probably not going to be in the next mission, and maybe not the one after that. The arm coming off could be filed under what people term super hero decadence. I disagree with that term, however, despite what some argue, when you juxtapose something like that with something like the British Class system as the villain and lead to something that's thrilling. I think you can do whatever you want with comics, and I think when rhetoric clouds possibility, you're generally in trouble."