The A.X.E.: Judgment Day Reread: Exodus—The Immortal X-Man

This essay, both a review of Immortal X-Men #6* and an excursus on erstwhile C-lister Exodus now reborn under Kieron Gillen’s absolutely brilliant stewardship, is a pendant piece to our “A.X.E.: Judgment Day” reread here at CBH—following the introductory entry and the first deep dive on the event’s early chapters.

*Credits: Kieron Gillen writes; Michele Bandini draws; David Curiel colors; Clayton Cowles letters.

Black Knight: Exodus* credits (1996): Ben Raab writes; Jim Cheung pencils; Andy Lanning inks; Tom Zuiko colors; Richard Starkings letters (*This one-shot discussed extensively below).

So—wow, a whole article on Exodus? That Crusading bigot? Welllll—let’s start by risking minor controversy and say not every soldier on Crusade a thousand years ago was necessarily any one thing. After all, do we judge each person enlisted in the US imperial armed forces as a dyed-in-the-wool imperialist and racist? If we’re going to immediately judge the ancient Grand Duc Bennet du Paris as a racist zealot, we need to think about how we in the modern West view ourselves and those around us: Do we or our enlisted, one and all, need to be subjected to the same blanket judgment? That word, obviously, couldn’t be more apropos here with this most literal of apocalyptic events under discussion. Isn’t much of what Gillen’s done with this event encouraging us to think about how we judge ourselves and others—and humanity, generally?

Of course, you will ask: Are we still talking about a Parisian Grand Duke of the High Middle Ages who certainly didn’t need to go on Crusade for desperate financial reasons or any other personal excuse—except aristocratically self-aggrandizing religious zealotry and pomposity? That would be the assumption; but Exodus’ backstory, such as we have it on page, is almost entirely confined to a very obscure 1996 one-shot, Black Knight: Exodus, by Ben Raab and a young Jim Cheung (right at the start of his career and already doing excellent work—no wonder he became a superstar). For whatever reason, this story bears no hint of the young Bennet du Paris’ specific actions or even motivations, beyond a simplistic piety, in taking part in the Crusades; rather, he’s motivated by the promise of a hidden-treasure quest in the Egyptian desert (geographically, quite far removed from the scope of actual historical Crusaders), and his close bond (“closer than a brother”) with the man who has always seemed to be his one true love, the Black Knight Eobar Garrington, for whom Exodus still holds a hopeless, solitary candle—and for whose mortal fate, centuries ago, he continues to feel intense guilt (as we’ll see in Immortal X-Men #6).

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Anyhow, maybe I’m already preaching to the choir? I’ve heard many current X-fans are big Exodus stans now, which speaks to Gillen’s genius more than anything the character has shown previously—although, clearly, there’s always been the potential; Gillen just tapped into it like no one had before. Previous writers seem to have got stuck with the idea that an ancient, pious Crusader must necessarily just be a real stick in the mud. How self-limiting! Of course, most ’90s comics writers weren’t exactly dynamic storytellers.

However, long-time readers expressed some bafflement with at least one aspect of Exodus’ backstory as presented in Immortal X-Men #5—his brief, mysterious encounter with the Phoenix a thousand years ago, which had never before been mentioned. But, I have a read on that, which makes perfect sense to me. More on that below!

The issue opens with Exodus wondering why he’s lost in a 12th-century flashback (after the 1099 Siege of Jerusalem)—a memory of nearly dying in the desert, his first meeting with another mutant just ahead of him: “I am a half mile short of being reborn. Apocalypse waits for me.” He’s still just Grand Duc du Paris, but his new master, whose name indeed means “revelation” (literally, an “uncovering” or “unveiling”), will inspire the young man to take his own Greco-biblical name, originally referring to a military expedition, solemn procession or death or departure—the last meaning here making it fitting for the Greek translation of the title of the Jewish book of the Torah telling of the Israelites’ flight from Egyptian slavery.

(Of course, one could argue that little is “fitting” in the largely antisemitic Greco-Roman appropriation of Judaism.)

However, present-day Exodus’ voice-over reference to “Apocalypse” as “revelation” isn’t actually referring to En Sabah Nur. No, even for those who don’t know his backstory, Exodus is pointing to something else, the alpha and omega of his post-Christian faith…

Never before seen in Exodus’ backstory, the Phoenix appears before him in the desert, without a host. Fitting, as the mythical firebird was worshiped in ancient Egypt, whose deserts Bennet wandered into searching for the treasure reputed to be hoarded in the mysterious “Eternal Pharaoh’s” “Tower of Power.” He’ll discover that “Pharaoh” is named Apocalypse, as he finds himself in a land called Akkaba (Which, according to Marvel geography, is over 800 miles from Jerusalem, a long way on hoof and foot! Or 600 if you can hop on a boat across the Red Sea).

Hopefully, we see more on this in future Exodus stories, but Gillen is working subtly here: The Phoenix boosted Hope Summers’ powers at the climax of Avengers vs. X-Men (#12), assisting her and Wanda with activating thousands of mutants worldwide (after years of post-M-Day “Decimation”). She was even named “the White Phoenix” there—and earlier, after the Phoenix first entered her at the beginning of the event, Gillen had an alien robot call her another “Phoenix Messiah.” Remember, a decade ago, Gillen was one of the formative writers for Hope (Uncanny X-Men and Generation Hope).

Significantly, while during her early years, from “Messiah Complex” to “Second Coming,” Hope was often depicted with portents of the Phoenix, when Gillen and Bendis started shaping her character around AvX, she was very ambivalent, not infrequently hostile, toward the Phoenix—a clear choice to mark her as having a distinctly skeptical or adversarial attitude toward the cosmic force in contrast to the young Jean Grey possessed by the Phoenix for the first time.

After a look at Exodus’ mutant-centric translation of The Book of Exodus* (hilarious concept), we’re back in the present, shortly after page 9 of Judgment Day #1, where Storm’s about to depart Arakko for Krakoa at Destiny’s call for a council meeting on her dread Eternals vision, minutes before the Uni-Mind attack—which arrives halfway through this issue and causes Exodus to lose himself in his deep-time memories. This mnemonic affliction of his has never really been explored, at least not with this level of attention, and hey, even if you’re not an Exodus fan (surely, rising star Anthony Oliveira isn’t the only keeper of the flame for this sad gay boy^!), this formally perfect issue will make him hard to resist as a quietly heartbroken soldier of the mutant faith, and Hope in particular.

^Or at least for Exodus’ modern-day rehabilitation as Krakoan Crusader on Hope’s leash.

*Exodus 1:12.

Exodus doesn’t have much backstory despite being a thousand years old, or even roundedness, because there have been so few storytellers since his 1993 debut (X-Factor #92, during “Fatal Attractions”) who’ve shown any interest in really delving into who he is, where he’s been and just why he is the way he is. But Gillen and Bandini’s work here is excellent, all 2020s audiences need to know about him, for now—which is only possible in such a short amount of space as he’s had only ~130 appearances.

Black Knight: Exodus—THE Exodus Backstory

Sensibly, then, Gillen draws heavily from the only story featuring a pre-modern Marvel Universe Exodus, still: 1996’s Black Knight: Exodus one-shot by Ben Raab and a Jim Cheung. Black Knight Dane Whitman and fellow Avenger and would-be lover Sersi* were seeking a way back home from another universe but somehow ended up on the Earth-616 of a thousand years ago—nearish Akkaba, the ancient Egyptian town and birthplace of En Sabah Nur (several millennia before, though he’ll show up here, too). However, according to the positively youthful Bennet du Paris, they’re in “the hinterlands of Palestine” (so maybe in the Sinai?).

*Sersi is portrayed here with a degree of wilting sentimentality that you just can’t square her characterization before and after as the immortal cynic down to party away the ages. Gillen’s version is certainly truer to form.

Dane’s consciousness or spirit lands in the Black Knight of that time, Eobar Garrington—who retains control and primary awareness while yet feeling deeply disoriented and unanchored from his reality. Sersi has to spend quite a while getting Dane to emerge as the dominant persona; the trick was her kissing him and thereby “coaxing” Eobar’s soul from his body, which “grants him the eternal peace he fought a lifetime to achieve.” So: euthanasia? His peaceful-looking soul form does express his gratitude. Most importantly, he gave her permission with his brave willingness to sacrifice himself so that his descendant might live*.

(*Early in the issue, Sersi’s thoughts provide context for all this twisty strangeness: “This is the era to which Dane’s persona was once yanked—and mystically submerged beneath that of his ancestor, Eobar Garrington, the second Black Knight. […] Dane spent almost five years inhabiting his progenitor’s body [often at war, on crusade].” Somewhat confusingly, he’s experiencing a sliver of that time all over again (which must mean there are now two of him in Eobar?). Dane originally lost himself to Eobar’s existence right after Marvel’s first crossover, 1973’s “Avengers/Defenders War” (the brief epilogue in Defenders #11). 1982’s Avengers #225-226 sees Dane restored to the present day; now abandoned, Garrington’s corpse appears briefly, as well. As a minor retcon insert, the 1996 one-shot story directly precedes his 1982 return and fits in with ongoing continuity in 1996 as the two Avengers return to their own present. Whatever—this isn’t a Black Knight essay!)

The young Bennet and his best and only bestie Eobar here are surprisingly mercenary in their motivations. They’re on crusade for the booty; or they’re goals might be slightly different, as Bennet’s sense is that the destination will bring them great power (and so, for him, it will!)—and they believe this prize is to be found in little old Akkaba. With Eobar’s temperament increasingly odd (his double persona), Bennet takes the hidden-treasure quest solo, striking out across the Egyptian desert, where he nearly dies, only roused from fatal surrender by a booming voice out of nowhere challenging him “to become one of the strong” if Bennet can but surmount the perilous conditions he’s exposed himself for the sake of his acquisitiveness. Accepting the challenge, the young man is abruptly attacked, and in reaction, his X gene activates for the first time.

Thus begins Apocalypse’s attempt to seduce Bennet to his side as a powerful servant, naming him Exodus.

Looking for Eobar’s bosom buddy, Dane/Eobar and Sersi are captured and brought to Akkaba, where Exodus already appears the man we know today. Yet he thoughtlessly regurgitates the Social Darwinism* of his master, really mostly just enjoying being super-powerful. Yet after being ordered to kill the Black Knight, he refuses, judging Apocalypse nothing other than a “false god.” His erstwhile master (known at the time as the “Eternal Pharaoh”) stole Bennet’s newly activated powers and put his disobedient servant into a coma that would last a millennium—until Magneto found the abandoned temple where he still lay (which was never visualized on-panel until the brief image in Immortal #5).

*Of course, the finer detail that Gillen brings out is that while Apocalypse may be the Adversary (and thus, as core to his nascent mutant religion as Satan is to Christianity), Exodus still must struggle with the fact that Apocalypse’s beliefs are built on lifting up his (mutant) family, when Exodus’ heart is with a human here in the ancient past (though, as he sees it, perhaps the divine moves in mysterious ways, for instance, through an Ebony Blade; oh, you sad, hopeless boy!).

Note that nowhere in Black Knight: Exodus does the Phoenix or anything like it appear, and Exodus appears there in the costume he’s wearing in his 1993 awakening (X-Factor #92). Immortal X-Men #5 depicts him in attire that seems more fitting for the era. But looking back at the 1996 one-shot, it’s fascinating that Exodus’ narration reflects his tendency—now exacerbated by the Uni-Mind attack—to become unanchored in memory, experiencing a deep disorientation not unlike what Dane experienced back during the Crusades, in the body of his ancestor Black Knight. Of course, it’s also what you’d expect from an ancient time-sleeper; as no one’s really explored Exodus’ interiority before*, this new facet feels like the first real foothold future stories might find with the character (While this kind of memory slippage probably occurs to his elders, Apocalypse and Selene, as well, it’s likely not much of an impairment—perhaps because they’re far too seasoned to be psychologically susceptible, or maybe Exodus is more like Steve Rogers, still existentially caught between two eras. Obviously, Logan’s swiss-cheese identity has already really hollowed out this trope on an industrial scale, but a subtler approach could make it interesting again).

*A rare exception here the Mike Carey era mentioned below—and especially his 2007 X-Men Annual (vol 3 #1) with Mark Brooks—which is also just an excellent comic from an underrated run (and a prelude to “Messiah Complex”).

But the biggest difference between Gillen’s medieval Exodus and Ben Raab’s is 1) the sincere piety that’s largely missing from Black Knight: Exodus; that origin story struggled in its sympathy for a character who in 1996 was still very much a villain. And 2) there was no sense there that Bennet and Eobar were anything more than friends (whose basis for friendship Ben Raab wasn’t even interested in fleshing out at all), but the more you look into Exodus’ Marvel history—and it’s even in his majestic poise—it’s obvious that Exodus is naturally one for the purple. And the way Gillen depicts this side of the character is delightfully frank and subtle (Hopefully he finds a modern-day man who’s less of a heel).

One minor-ish retcon significant to the “A.X.E.” plot is Gillen’s reframing of Sersi and Exodus’ psi duel toward the end of Black Knight: Exodus. In a flashback to that in Immortal X-Men #5, we get the sense that the telepathic nature of their battle allowed Exodus to glean a good deal of knowledge about the Eternals.

Once More, from Acolyte to Apostate (and Back Again)

Before Exodus knows Magneto is in fact gone (slain by Uranos), Bennet had long since dismissed him as “not a messiah” (but still a prophet!), a painful, protracted process begun with Xavier’s mindwipe of Erik in 1993’s X-Men #25 (the “Fatal Attractions” climax). The spiraling disarray of the Acolytes’ faith, by and large a consequence of Magneto’s vengeful egoism (as witnessed in the convoluted series of catastrophes following his reawakening: the promise of a mutant-ruled Genosha betrayed and ruined by despotism, lies and civil war*), ultimately faded out with nary a whimper on page after Genosha’s annihilation and Magneto’s apparent death, courtesy of Cassandra Nova**. Magneto’s eventual unhappy reunion with two of his most loyal Acolytes, Frenzy and Exodus, in his desperate search for a means of healing and reviving a brain-damaged Xavier, served as a mutual recognition by all parties that the grandeur of a religion centered on a magnetic demigod was well and truly dead. This drama was the central genius of Mike Carey’s run, when X-Men was retitled as X-Men: Legacy with issue #208—the best X-Men comics between the Morrison and Hickman eras. Exodus officially dissolved the Acolytes and denounced his own mutant name in issue #225, but he continued to struggle with realigning his fundamentally religious temperament with the swift-moving chaos of the present state of mutant affairs, with unimpressive and unflattering results (see issue #261).

*In the late 1990s. **The start of Morrison’s New X-Men in 2001.

Exodus had already suffered from such undistinguished fecklessness during the earlier “Messiah Complex,” which saw the birth of Hope, whom he put his faith in from the start as the new messiah. But now that she’s a young woman, she can have a say in how he views her, or at least how he acts in her name. Not despite but because of this new dynamic, Exodus’ character is now at the threshold of a transformation from sad and rather hopeless C-lister to a grandeur for which he’s always dressed the part, with purplish pomposity; yet in Gillen’s hands, his solemn conviction could prove genuinely inspiring to his fellow mutants.

“I will never kneel as long as she stands.”

The Immortal Knight of X Blazes Forth

Following Jack of Knives’ failed attempt against Hope’s life, thanks to Logan, the council members snap to, fighting their way free from the Uni-Mind’s initial attack. Emma’s nose bleeds, likely from her psi-defense.

Then it’s time to go on offense: Emma, Exodus and Hope (copying Exodus’ psi powers). In his own mind, Exodus realizes his full potential as a warrior by visualizing this super-science, kaiju battle in a manner that makes sense to him as a medieval knight. Even his comrades become, respectively, a jagged diamond shield and the flaming sword of his faith. And that “many-headed beast,” the Uni-Mind? A fearsome dragon. But slaying dragons, as Exodus well knows, is a true knight’s calling.

The data page that follows this depiction of Exodus’ mental battlespace provides a striking contrast that makes both perceptions of the “psychic engagement” that much more powerful. Another impressive design by Tom Muller shows us, abstractly yet dynamically, the Krakoan heroes “breach the surface e-psi-dermis,” a serindipitous neologism delightfully showing off that light-on-his-toes Gillen genius.

Driving deep into the Uni-Mind’s own defenses, in a kind of cosmic battlespace now, Exodus meditates still, even on the brink of defeat, having pushed himself so far, but he’s meditating on his people’s closest brush with extinction—“wiped away by the red witch” (Wanda). But, a masochistic warrior for his faith, he dives deeper, coming to terms with his past (“tempted by a mortal sin,” Apocalypse’s self-serving brutality) and the sublime reformation his faith (renewed in the vision of mutantkind’s collective future as embodied and, in fact, guaranteed by Hope), Exodus’ revealed truth rooted in his own ancient encounter with a revelation that he could not yet parse: “I remembered the fire in the desert.”

Assuring Hope as she’s taken aback by the sudden appearance of the skyscraper-high Hex, Exodus lifts off, still meditating on the coming dawn of a new mutant religion (while giving a respectful though heretical nod to that “Nazarene Mutant”), seeing himself as another Saint Peter, the rock of the messiah’s church and yet “the rock in the hand of Cain,” as well—a rock of zeal, for cutting down and building up, a soldier of faith.

Immortal Faith and Torment—That Beautifully Sad Gay Boy

Is it odd, though, that he doesn’t see himself rather as the rock in the hand of David (as he slew Goliath)? Well, maybe Exodus is reminding us, and himself, that he was once a Crusader driven by the promise of secret plunder—and was then “tempted by the devil” (Apocalypse) to kill the Black Knight Eobar, “the man who was closer than a brother to me.” In other words, Exodus’ remorse lives on, as if he had killed his love and been stained by the mark of Cain.

More on this with the Progenitor’s judgment of Exodus in the next issue…

David Bowen: In his early days, young Davey was accepted *twice* to the Joe Kubert School of Cartooning. Alas, what might have been! Now a finicky freelancing wordsmith and (blessedly) former academic, Prof Bowen hopes to share his lifelong love of comics and sci-fi/fantasy through the lens of deep visual reading and hopefully something of his experience as an enthusiastic teacher of literacy across all media. You can find him confused about social media on Twitter at @VorkosiganCadet (Honoring the inimitable--Lois McMaster Bujold!)
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