Unless some other series winds up pulling off something unexpected, E Is for Extinction is going to wind up my favorite Secret Wars tie-in book. And that’s because the X-Men-in- twilight story has nothing to do with Dr. Doom or any crossover nonsense. It’s all about the right way for old superheroes to die.
(This piece originally ran on 10/1/15. I’m bumping it back up because E Is For Extinction is out in collected form this week.)
Since its first issue, E Is For Extinction has been about what happens when some of the most popular X-Men find themselves past their prime. Beak, Dust, the Cuckoo sisters and the other cooler, edgier characters from a sleek, subversive Grant Morrison/Frank Quitely New X-Men run of more than a decade ago were replacing Cyclops, Wolverine and Emma Frost as the superstar idols of a pop-inflected mutant utopia. Sure, there were evil Magneto shenanigans afoot but the real drama was going to be found in the older X-Men’s midlife crises.
Soon, seemingly every plot device ever used in a high-profile X-Men Story came into play. Power levels returning to normal, alternate-reality versions of characters, unexpected deaths, psychic betrayals and rebirths... each one was lovingly turned out in a wry, pointed homage to X-Men history. As the stakes got higher and higher in each issue, it seemed like Chris Burnham, Ramon Villalobos and their co-conspirators had to be building up to an operatic crescendo.
The climax of E Is For Extinction essentially has the very idea of the X-Men eating itself from within. Many spoilers for the issue follow: The big bad in this week’s issue #4 is Cassandra Nova inside the body of Jean Grey. Nova, who is Professor X’s evil twin sister, has seized control of the Phoenix to destroy everything her brother’s built. (Don’t worry; Xavier’s psionic ghost is inside the body of snotnosed punk telepath Quentin Quire.) As the optic blasts, adamantium claws and cruel putdowns fly, they serve as reminders that there’s always been a high level of dysfunction in X-Men storylines.
Remember, these are the heroes who protect a humanity that hates and fears them. They weren’t like the Fantastic Four, who are a relatively well-adjusted, normal-looking (except for the Thing) celebrity family that faced threats that were mostly external. With the X-Men, the dangers they fended off were just as likely to come from within, so self-loathing was never too far from the surface in Charles Xavier’s homo superior heroes. All of that bubbles over in E Is For Extinction’s last issue: Jean Grey atomizes Scott Summers, Beak and Angel’s children turn on them and diamond-skinned narcissist Emma Frost just gives up on fighting back.
Extinction lives up to its title by annihilating all of its lead X-Men in one giant explosion at the end. Sure, love wins the day but it only happens when Logan and Jean Grey mutually kill each other in a twisted mutual suicide. All the melodrama, angst and old-school bombast that’s preceded it makes it feel like the only ending that makes sense for this story.
You can kind of read this nuclear finale as a darkly cheeky metaphor for what Burnham thinks needs to happen with big-two superhero comics: DC and Marvel need to obliterate their old ways of doing things. But there are still mutants at the end of E Is For Extinction; they’re just not X-Men. They still might save the world that follows all this drama. One imagines that they won’t be as bound to the cycles that spawned them. The not-X-Men children of tomorrow will have the chance to be all-new and all-different.
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