Who says that you can’t rewrite history?
X-Men Grand Design, Second Genesis #1
Writer: Ed Piskor
Artist: Ed Piskor
Cover Artist: Ed Piskor
Colorist: Ex Piskor
What You Need to Know:
This streamlined reimagining of five years of X-Men continuity with a postmodern edge.
What You’ll Find Out:
This reimagining opens with a shot of one of The Hellfire Club’s masked minions stalking through Xavier’s empty mansion. The school has, apparently, been empty for 27 months (this, incidentally, was the time between the cancellation of the first run of X-Men and the relaunch with the new team. It also leaves time, canonically, for Xavier’s aborted first attempt at rescuing his original students) and the Hellfire club has taken advantage of the hiatus by planting motion-activated cameras around the school.
The sudden appearance of the All-New, All-Different X-Men causes some confusion among the leaders of The Inner Circle (Emma Frost, Mastermind, Henry Leland, Donald Pierce, and Sebastian Shaw) but they identify Scott Summers and Charles Xavier and so are willing to continue stalking the school for their own nefarious purposes.
The next page rehashes the capture of the original X-Men by Krakoa, the living island, and in twelve panels (lined up on one page) introduces us to Scott, Xavier, Moira McTaggart, Storm, Nightcrawler, Colossus, Wolverine, Sunfire, and Thunderbird.
The All-New, All-Different X-Men train for a while in the Danger Room before flying to the island and cutting the OG X-Men down from the vines that entangle them. At this point, Jean, still decked out as Marvel Girl, reveals that they were being used as bait to lure more mutants to the island so that Krakoa can feed on their energy. All thirteen X-Men fight the island before Lorna uses her magnetic powers to launch it into space.
Upon their return, the OG X-Men conclude that they are too traumatized to remain with the school, so they leave to take a stab at living on their own. At the same time, Xavier begins having nightmares about a strange alien race.
The next page, Count Nefaria begins his attack on a missile base and Thunderbird dies in his attempt to prevent the villain’s escape.
The X-Men mourn in their separate ways (Scott trains, Storm gardens, Logan hunts, Kurt Wagner prays) and while this is happening, the Hellfire Club begin funneling money into a political group known as ‘The Right’ (that was a wonderful little jab at the GOP, I thought) who have the goal of enslaving ‘useful’ mutants and murdering the rest.
Meanwhile, Havok and Polaris’ studies are interrupted by the appearance of Erik the Red, who enslaves their brains, and (on a far-off world) Emperor D’Ken states that he plans to use them as a means of preventing the Phoenix Force from finding a human host.
Polaris and Havok are sent to attack Xavier (in this reality, D’Ken has identified one of the X-Men as a possible host for the Phoenix) but the mind-controlled mutants have no experience fighting the new team and so Erik the Red withdraws his pawns before they can be subdued.
After this fight, the X-Men withdraw to the city in order to recover. It’s Christmas, now, and Scott is confronting Jean about the ways that her powers seem to have exponentially increased since their return from Krakoa. Before the conversation can go much further, sentinels attack the city, kidnapping Banshee, Wolverine, and Jean. The rest of the X-Men race home, seeking out Xavier in the hopes that he can use Cerebro to locate their missing comrades.
There are a few interesting things to note in these panels. The technology that Piskor incorporates into his scenes comes from a variety of time periods, but it seems to settle around the early-to-mid 90’s, and a lot of the characterization happens in the background of the panels, behind the main action. It’s a way of packing in as much narrative depth as possible into a very limited amount of space, and Piskor’s efforts are successful. Colossus is often depicted as being unsure (his posture cautious, his face baffled) and Kurt doesn’t appear to use his image inducer in this reality, primarily relying on a trenchcoat and fedora to hide him from view. The action is fast-paced, but the inclusion of these little details prevents the book from ever feeling rushed.
Back to the story. Scott’s search for the professor is interrupted by the appearance of an intruder on the grounds outside of the mansion. Kurt teleports outside to collect him and it turns out to be a scientist for ‘the world’s first commercial spaceflight organization’, a man of great importance, who has kept the X-Men off of Nick Fury’s radar. He tells the X-Men that Xavier has been kidnapped by a sentinel and that the trajectory of the robot indicated that it was heading to space. Luckily, due to his work, the scientist happens to have a spare spaceship lying around which the X-Men can use to rescue their friends.
The X-Men fly to a space station (that looks very much like the old MIR station) where Stephen Lang (revealed to be an operative of ‘The Right’) has built his base. The X-Men defeat him easily enough, but not before he could set the station’s self-destruct sequence in motion.
The X-Men fly free just as the station explodes, but not before Lang can fire an explosive which damages the shielding of the cockpit of their shuttle.
Dr. Corbeau cannot pilot them home, so Jean volunteers. She has enough power to shield her friends from the effects of the radiation, but not enough strength to save herself, and the four panels at the bottom of her page, depicting her dying moments, are some of the most terribly beautiful that I have ever seen in an X-Book. The agony, the nobility, of those four panels is exquisite and they are worth the cover price all on their own.
We all know what happens next. We know one version of the story, or one version of the many possible stories which have been written and retconned, again and again, over the decades since the original was written.
In this reality, the Phoenix appears and strikes a deal with Jean, before she can die. The Phoenix trades places with Jean and leaves her body in a cocoon on the bottom of the sea, where it will hopefully recover. In this version of the story, the Phoenix takes over Jean’s life and eventually forgets that it ever was a god.
The X-Men land in Jamaica Bay and the Phoenix (in Jean’s body) flares from the water surrounded by flame before falling back into the water, unconscious and spent.
In space, D’Ken realizes what has happened and he decides to call on Galactus to help him destroy the Phoenix once and for all.
Meanwhile, Phoenix is in the hospital, ‘recovering’ and the rest of the X-Men are sent on vacation to Ireland where they fight Banshee’s cousin, Black Tom. When they return to America, Lilandra appears to beg Xavier for help in defeating her evil brother, D’Ken. Before she can get very far, Galactus’s herald, Firelord, appears and attacks the X-Men while Erik the Red captures Lilandra and returns to his galaxy through a portal he opens on the Grey family’s lawn.
Phoenix reopens the portal and sends her friends through, switching their costumes on the way, and the heroes meet the Shi’ar guard in front of the M’kraan crystal. This crystal is the heart of the universe and if D’Ken manages to shatter it, the world will end. The X-Men fight the emperor’s guard. They are joined by The Starjammers, including Scott’s estranged father, but in the end, the evil emperor manages to shatter the crystal and the universe ends in a bleak, white blink.
Inside of the white, hot room, the Phoenix is confronted by Jean’s childhood friend who tells her that she’s ‘a faker’. The Phoenix has brought the X-Men and the Starjammers into the dead heart of the universe and she draws on their power, telling them, ‘I’m going to need all of your help…you must be warned… it’s going to take us an eternity…and we’ll feel every second…but thankfully…time doesn’t exist yet.’ Together, they remake the universe from scratch.
It takes them seven billion years.
This page is beautifully constructed. Disorder flows into order, colors and details blossom as that order is found.
By the time that they return to earth, they discover that they’ve been gone for ten minutes.
The Phoenix has been substantially drained by remaking the universe. This gives Mesmero all the time he needs to begin messing with her mind.
There’s a wonderful page of the X-Men playing baseball before they are kidnapped by Mesmero and Xavier (who is now courting Lilandra) sends Beast out to bring them home.
Beast discovers that they’ve been captured and that Mesmero is working for Magneto so that the latter can finally claim his revenge.
The X-Men escape from Magneto’s volcanic lair only to be separated by the heavy flow of magma. Beast and Phoenix resurface in Antarctica and are rescued by the Avengers jet. They give Xavier the bad news about the X-Men’s apparent deaths and in his heartbreak, he flees for space.
The other X-Men surface in the Savage Land and make their way to Japan, before returning home.
In a library on Lilandra’s homeworld, Xavier discovers the truth about the nature of The Phoenix. The amnesiac goddess herself is in Scotland, helping Moira McTaggart run tests which will hopefully determine the nature and limits of her powers.
This does not go well.
A surge from Phoenix inadvertently unleashes Proteus, who drains the life from one of Multiple Man’s duplicates, before making his escape.
In space Xavier (dressed in a Star Trek TNG uniform, natch) discovers that Phoenix has remade the universe. He says, ‘It will be impossible for this to end well.’
Back at the mansion, Beast is tying up loose ends when he receives Moira’s distress call. The X-Men enter just in time to fly over to Scotland, but their help isn’t necessary. Phoenix has slaughtered Proteus (despite the Black Queen hallucinations she has begun to experience) and they return to New York where Phoenix tells Scott about the encounters that she’s had with ‘Jason Wyngarde’ and the journeys that she thinks she’s taken back into the past.
Back at the mansion, Cerebro has detected two new high-powered mutants and the X-Men split into two teams in order to attempt to recruit both of them. Storm, Logan, and Colossus head to Chicago to meet Kitty Pryde (they do not know that The Hellfire Club has already been there) and their ice-cream social recruitment session is interrupted by The White Queen’s attack. They are captured, but Kitty escapes to make contact with the other team in NYC.
Scott and Phoenix are in a warehouse grunge club, attempting to locate The Dazzler (she’s performing in her outback-era costume) and she turns down their offer to join the team.
While Scott was talking to Allison, Phoenix was being seduced by Jason Wyngarde, but before Scott can confront them, Kurt interrupts (he’s clad in a trenchcoat and fedora combo, and his appearance disturbs the punks) to tell him that their friends have been captured.
They fly out to Chicago and find carnage. Kitty could only free Logan and he’s murdered almost all of the henchmen. Nevertheless, Phoenix discovers that the mansion has been bugged. They return to the mansion, clear out the bugs, and decide to infiltrate the Hellfire Club. Scott, Phoenix, Ororo, and Piotr enter through the front door. They’re dressed to the nines.
Kurt and Logan sneak in through the sewers, hoping to enter from beneath.
The Hellfire Club’s Inner Circle all know that they’re there, of course, and while ‘Jason’ waltzes off with Phoenix, Emma Frost hijacks Scott, inviting him to shake his tail feathers.
Mastermind leads Phoenix upstairs, and when Scott follows Phoenix blasts him with her TK. Mastermind’s infiltration of her psyche is complete.
Meanwhile, in the basement command center, Leeland and Pierce are watching the party on a series of screens. They are interrupted by the appearance of Nightcrawler and Wolverine who has clawed through the floor. There’s a great little panel which displays the latter’s friendship for a beat before Donald Pierce (his mechanical arm replaced, in panel, for the moment, by an antique Nintendo Power Glove) grabs Kurt by the throat. Logan removes Pierce’s robotic arm, tearing it free with his claws before Leeland uses his mass-increasing powers to send the Canadian crashing through the floor.
Upstairs, Colossus loses a battle against Shaw and the rest of the X-Men (save Logan) are gathered together and fitted with power dampening collars.
While Wolverine goes on a sewer-dampened killing-spree, Scott battles Mastermind on the astral plane, fighting for Phoenix’s heart. Mastermind slaughters him on the Astral plane, but instead of binding Phoenix to him forever this sets her totally free and all hell breaks loose. The X-Men defeat the Hellfire Club, Phoenix destroys Mastermind’s brain, and the shadow side of her personality, the Dark Phoenix, is unleashed.
Dark Phoenix had forgotten her power. She remembers it now.
She consumes a sun and murders billions of lives without a thought.
The Shi’ar Empire, now ruled by Lilandra, concludes that for the sake of the universe, the entity calling itself Jean Grey must be destroyed.
After her cosmic hunger has been slaked, Phoenix returns to Jean Grey’s home. She’s looking for her parents. She finds the X-Men.
Xavier confronts her and manages to bind off most of the Phoenix’s power behind a series of mental circuit breakers. Phoenix, now ‘Jean’, tells Scott that she feels like herself ‘for the first time in years’.
Time passes, it seems, in this version of reality. It’s a nice change from the eternal stasis of the regular series.
Before the group can really be reunited, they are summoned to Lilandra’s starship and the Phoenix is put on trial for her life.
You all know what is coming.
Scott and ‘Jean’ have one last night together. The X-Men fight Lilandra’s champions on the dark side of the moon and they are defeated, one by one.
‘Jean’ can feel the Phoenix side of her nature rising to the surface again.
She says goodbye to Scott.
She lets go.
Scott weeps into the ashes from which nothing can rise.
Back on earth: a funeral. Scott says goodbye to the X-Men, for a time. Lilandra presents Jean’s parents with a crystal which contains the essence of the daughter they lost.
At the bottom of the sea, a cocoon quickens with life.
On the steps of the mansion, Kitty Pryde waits with her suitcases, hoping that someone will come home, soon, to let her in.
One of the hallmarks of great art is that it is a combination of extreme complexity paired with the appearance of absolute effortlessness in its execution. When you go to see a production of Swan Lake, you notice the grace of the dancers, you get swept up in the power, humor, and fun of the narrative; you never see the dancers’ strained muscles or bloody toes. Grand Design is a wild, action-packed, funny, surprisingly emotional masterpiece of a book. You only notice the virtuosic precision of the execution if you know where and how to look.
If you are a fan of the X-Men, chances are that there are a few key narratives, a few special moments, spread out over a handful of issues (possibly over the course of decades) that have resonance for you. This book is composed of a distillation of such moments. Every page is packed with them. And it is wonderful.
If there is a flaw, it is in the cuts that were made to streamline the story. Banshee’s relationship with Moira never happens in this reality. The friendship between Storm and Jean is never developed or shown. Poitr evolves in the background of certain panels (but you see it if you look) and that’s a shame, but the page count is limited and, due to the inclusion of Kitty, it is obvious that Storm and Colossus will gain more depth in the next issue.
Personally, as a person who’s walking around with Nightcrawler tattooed on the arm I use for fencing, I could have done with a little more Kurt, but I have to admit that while Scott, Jean, and Logan got the most screen time in this issue, everyone had at least a few good moments.
The artistry emerges when you examine the panels. Piskor has an enormous inventory of pop-culture facts cluttering his brain and a graffiti-based aesthetic that balances modern energy and fan-based nostalgia in equal measure. If you want to see Charles Xavier decked out like Captain Picard, a bad guy wielding a Nintendo Power Glove, or Nightcrawler dressed like Humphrey Bogart, this is the place to do it. If you want to see the heart of this era of X-Men lore distilled into a fizzy, drinkable, intoxicating draught, you are going to want to pick this issue up.
Final Thought: This is a joyous, intensely fun, exquisitely executed reimagining of five years of X-Men lore condensed into one incredible story. Whether you’re new to the fandom or an old hand, you are going to pick this one up.
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