[Funny how Irene especially looks nothing like this in the comic itself! Woo-hoo! Mark Brooks cheesecake!]
“The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”
“The Curious Case of Dr. Essex and Mr. Sinister”
(Notably, Robert Louis Stevenson died a year before Immortal X-Men #8’s primary setting—dundunduuuunnn!)
Credits: Kieron Gillen writes; Michele Bandini* draws; David Curiel colors; Clayton Cowles letters; cover by Mark Brooks.
*Bandini has been killing it on this title with issues #4, 5 and 8. And I for one would love to see him become the main series artist.
As epigraph, the Nietzsche quote* taken out of context clearly speaks to Essex/Sinister’s character; here’s another pithy take on fate from a slightly later European intellectual, Carl Jung, saying something similar but with deeper, wiser insight: “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” Less projection, more wisdom, eh? But these four monsters of super-genius-level id are perhaps beyond fate, indeed; or even though in their inhuman post-humanity, they may not have anything like human minds as we understand them, their fates are still already sealed as mere engines of Thanatos.
*This quote is actually likely one of the countless statements falsely attributed to Nietzsche, even though it sounds Nietzschean enough. It certainly expresses his often gleefully aggressive intellectual energy (justifiably battling against 19th-century German Pietism).
In fact, Jung claimed Nietzsche went mad (which he did!) because the great iconoclast identified too much with his idealized self (Zarathustra, let’s call him)—the impossibly outsized vision of that superman destiny. He also experienced war trauma and picked up a few battlefield diseases, and likely suffered from a type of dementia that induces a series of mini-strokes; still, perhaps Nietzsche’s inflated self-expectations were among the stressors leading to this terminal breakdown. He was definitely too intense for everyday living, not unlike another 19th-century madman, Dr. Nathaniel Essex.
Of course, the Nietzsche “quote” is devastatingly apropos to Sinister’s current scheme: He’s proved himself perfectly capable of brutally perverting Moira’s (“fate’s”) nature to his own ends with his Moira clone farm. But Moira is nothing compared to Destiny—in terms of unshakeable resolve across lifetimes.
The “quote” also happens to be from the classic Mike Carey X-Men Legacy run, from issue #214, where another one of those irritating Charleses (Darwin, Babbage, Xavier) delivered the pompous line to Sinister while cleverly foiling Sinister’s long-seeded scheme to take over Xavier’s body and so live again (Later, Gillen leveled up the diabolical geneticist to a “system,” meaning he was now to be seen as non-localized, not limited to any one body—although Charles’ or Shaw’s would have been quite an acquisition at the time).
Does this epigraph, however, speak to Destiny? After all, she has typically been framed as unable to change the possible outcomes she sees—just move toward the one most preferable to her (and thus mutantkind). But Gillen’s work has been showing us greater nuance here, with the foundation laid by Hickman: Irene sees lifetimes of (alternate) possibilities, fading off into vaguer potentials, seeing great structures of narrative working themselves out differently across different timelines…
Destiny follows her own necessity. Unlike Moira, she does not see her nature as a curse. Indeed, as her gift blossomed, beyond the early trauma of losing her mundane (worldly) sight, she gave herself over to it and so came to dwell in possibility and, further, potentiality. Her lifeline turned myriad, an unwalled garden of endlessly forking paths. This sounds overwhelming to us, but we’ve never had even the hint that Irene regrets who and what she is.
She even got to play the true genius behind England’s greatest detective—hah! (While also having Sherlock Darkhölme all to herself, of course. For clever criminal Irene Adler’s debut under the pen of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, see his 1891 “Scandal in Bohemia.”)
Let’s not forget! This is Mystique’s issue, after all (Sure, it is! Moving on…).
By 1943, Sherlock is, of course, just another popular pulp icon, and Irene has descended into the darkness of the 20th century’s techno-scientistic horrors. So the living stealth weapon Raven is left to her own devices when it comes to finding out what her longtime lady is up to in the bowels of Alamagordo, New Mexico (site of the first nuclear weapons testing two years later, in 1945). Xavier’s father, Dr. Brian Xavier, was established as a resident research scientist way back in 1965’s X-Men #12—at a time when the X gene was thought to be triggered by radioactivity. Well beyond this dated pulp use for the venue, it was inevitable that further X-mythos mysteries would accrue around this unremarkable Silver Age origin.
One noteworthy instance we’ve already mentioned: Mike Carey’s X-Men Legacy plot (above). Such stories spin out of Fabian Nicieza’s 1992 X-Men #12, and most of this material, including the Black Womb, is (with soap-operatic dark delight) a Nicieza production (I think Carey was the first to pick up on it after Nicieza left the franchise in the early 2000s).
For more on the Black Womb Project, see my Sinister piece from our HOX/POX deep dive last year. Note here that in Immortal X-Men #8, there’s no mention in this 1940s venue of anyone named Xavier, Marko, Shaw or Ryking—all characters that Nicieza had involved in Dr. “Milbury’s” experiments. First, Gillen nodding so explicitly to an already overly complex, decades-long subplot still very much unfinished would have been distracting; just the direct acknowledgement of this half-forgotten storyline is great, especially with Gillen’s formal restraint overall, allowing the present story its own space to breathe (wonderfully cinematic, as usual with this top-tier title). Second, though, leaving those names out for now is simply the smart thing given the nature of Marvel’s sliding timescale and the fact that nobody has a clear grip on when or even where exactly Charles is supposed to have been born at this point (for attentive readers, see the oddly confused and confusing X Deaths of Wolverine).
Oops—we’re losing track of Mystique again! This is her story, right? It’s more Destiny’s from Raven’s POV. After all, Raven was indeed off doing her own thing (as seen, for instance, in Jason Aaron’s Wolverine but also Larry Hama’s Sabretooth vol 1) for much of the 20th century—and all that sexy spy and bandit stuff doesn’t have much to contribute to the current Krakoan architecture; they were just fun comics, lol—boohoo, where have my funsies gone? Well, remember Amanda Mueller, the Black Womb? Now, she was a hoot and a half—and all that got started almost a quarter-century ago now, in Nicieza’s Gambit #13 (2000) (Again, see the above CBH link for more on that whackadoo).
Nicieza brings Destiny into the 1940s Black Womb scene in his 2001 X-Men Forever mini, specifically issue #4—where, again, Mystique is quite peripheral. Indeed, Immortal X-Men #8’s 1943 scene is a rehash of the Nicieza flashback (“timejump”) story there.
Jumping further back in time, Immortal takes us to 1895 London, where Destiny and Mystique first meet Essex (whose wife died in the 1850s, in Peter Milligan’s Further Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix, 1996, the mini that provided Sinister his Victorian and Apocalyptic origins). He fully became Sinister in 1859, thanks to Apocalypse’s ministrations—so we’re almost four decades on from that point! The last page shows us that our mad Dr. Jekyll has (d)evolved quite a bit since then. (Note: “Essex Factors” comes from the Milligan title; for more, see again my previous Sinister origin piece. I think “Essex men” is first used here!)
Also, the Ripper serial murders had already ended almost a decade before 1895, so why set this scene then? (This year in London is notorious for the utter humiliation and arrest of poor Oscar Wilde, but that’s not relevant here!) And note that the Milligan mini ended with an 1882 epilogue while Nicieza’s retconning picks up in the abovementioned Gambit #13—with Essex fronting as a doctor in NYC in 1891. Oops? (Notably, Sherlock Holmes “died” in Dec 1893, in “The Final Problem” by Conan Doyle.)
What matters here is that the diamond-browed Sinister is not exactly the original Essex. The former is a brute with Essex’s own self-aggrandizing, amoral genius while the latter is wasting away in madness, yet they do share the same body. Yet it seems likely that his murderer was one of his post-human clones, perhaps the one of diamonds? But then how did they split? It wouldn’t be surprising if Apocalypse’s Celestial tech allowed for that. So, what happened to the original’s corpse—did Mystique and Destiny take it for themselves or leave it in the asylum cell?
Perhaps something else is going on. After all, Essex appearing dead shouldn’t automatically mean we should believe it—this is an (Esse)X-Man comic!
Is it also strange that here in 1895, Irene definitively says mutants and Essex are not on the same side, but back in Immortal #1, she approaches him in 1919 with that very hope. Well, so what? Consistency isn’t exactly a human virtue; no more is it a mutant one! But don’t forget, when this issue opens, 24 years later, in the bowels of the Black Womb project, she says she and “Nathaniel” (at least the Sinister version!) are working together toward a common end.
Again, what matters for now is that Irene in 1895 already foresees the modern Krakoan nation, freighted with imagery out of The Book of Matthew: “You are the light of the world. A city located on a hill can’t be hidden” (Envisioning Krakoa as such is also another clear counterpoint between this mutant paradise and world capitals that have worldly religious significance, especially in this case D.C.).
As to that oddly least famous of irritating Charleses—Babbage—see this Science Fiction Encyclopedia entry for more on the designer of the first theoretical computer (on paper). An excellent what-if steampunk novel detailing the full emergence of Victorian-Age AI is The Difference Engine by cyberpunk grandaddies William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. For more of a focus Ada Lovelace, the poet Lord Byron’s daughter (“illegitimate”) and an icon for the suppressed female scientific genius, see John Crowley’s poetic historical Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land. It’s worth noting that Lovelace and Babbage’s exchanges were entirely intellectual, and she did develop the programming that could have instantiated modern computing over a century earlier than our own historical reality—except she died in her 30s relatively unknown and, more importantly, there was no technology at the time remotely capable of making this a real possibility.
(Note that Babbage’s first computational design was for a so-called Difference Engine, but it was succeeded by his Analytical Engine—which Lovelace improved on, which I believe Babbage—or almost anyone else—was entirely unaware of, an ignorance aided by the unquestioned universal misogyny of the age).
The big excitement this issue is, of course, the splash-page cliffhanger, which carries Duggan’s revelation of the club-browed Doctor Stasis quite a bit further—and more effectively in just one issue, with the promise of ripping right along for the next two issues, in the lead-up to, dun-dun-duuunnn: “Sins of Sinister,” hell yeah.
And guess what?! The OG Essex is long dead, long live Sinister! Long live the Sinister System! Oy vey.
There’s a wonderful sense in this final page of the beginning of something of a (four-in-)one-person Great Game, both dreadful and exhilarating.