Peter Milligan & John Paul Leon’s Neo-Gothic X-Men Nightmare
by Travis Hedge Coke
The Further Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix, written by Peter Milligan, drawn by John Paul Leon, and colored by Kevin Somers, is a monster comic, but as Milligan reminds us, monster comes from the Latin, monere, which means, “to warn.” Set in 1859 London, as Gothic Revival architecture gives way to Victorian mores, two married superheroes from the modern era have traveled, half-amnesiac, in time to undo the world as they know it, even if it means dissolving their marriage and their entire relationship.
Dropped naked into the Victorian era, Cyclops and Phoenix, AKA Scott Summers and Jean Grey-Summers, are trying to prevent the world from going toxic, but they are also hoping to prevent their own personal harassment and torture. Torture that includes child abuse, identity theft, emotional manipulation, degradation and assault.
Almost inconsequentially and from the edges, they witness our core tale, of a woman, Rebecca Essex, losing her husband, Dr Nathaniel Essex, to mad science and grief. Dr Essex believes in what will become known, over a hundred years later, as the punctuated equilibrium theory of evolution, and posits from this, the sort of grand mutations that makes superheroes, such as our to X-Men, Scott and Jean.
Essex, eager to break his own sense of morality for a greater good, collects a band of slavers and thieves that will evolve, over time, to mercenaries called the Mauraders, and is taking in, as are they, by grand man named, En Sabah Nur, sometimes known as Apocalypse, an Evangelical and competition-obsessed supervillain, preacher, and dictator.
It is En Sabah Nur’s future dictatorship which Jean and Scott ultimately wish to prevent, however Dr Essex, himself, will cause both Jean and Scott great harm, great trauma in their past and his future. So, too, an organization called the Hellfire Club, a fictive version of the real life English club, is directed here, like a great river, to a course that will lead them to perverting and injuring our two superheroes.
Dr Essex’s nigh-ironic Byronic rage is fueled not by mistaking himself for a good man, but by conviction that he must be monstrous for good of all. There is a broad, theatrical panache to Dr Essex, who will, by the end of this story, have claimed for himself a new name, as described by his abandoned wife as she dies, Sinister. Not even Doctor, but simply, Mr Sinister.
“My God! The freaks! The poor souls I kept incarcerated!” Dr Essex cries out over the human beings he has purchased from the Marauders. The way that Dr Essex speaks of others reveals his awareness of empathy, his awareness of pro forma civility, and his conscious and selfish and classist rejection for the sake of a polluted sense of deficiency.
Milligan and Leon are poetic talents and do not dwell in the prosaic our overly representational, engaging an emotive, layered evocation of their story and its people.
En Sabah Nur, traditionally illustrated as a large, bald, face-decorated man, in the Further Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix, is a giant serpent, a foreign gentleman, a decadent corpse, a clash of organic and mechanical smug antagonism. He is also, a direct an implicit promise to the end of the British Empire, living at her heart and in her heights. There is much of Victor Frankenstein in Dr Essex, much, Dracula, in En Sabah Nur, and plenty of Heathcliff, returned monied, in both.
Our superheroes wear no costumes, but stolen sheets, borrowed scarves, appropriated boots. They arrive in the story and the year, denuded of all, and are dressed out of charity and cultural propriety efficaciously. It is patently and blatantly absurd when a man asks if Jean arrived in “a house of God in a state of shame,” meaning nakedness, as she arrives, “like an angel,” and is, in her goodness, unashamed, having no reason to be.
Even that Jean and Scott work together and in tandem is a contrast to the sexist dichotomy of Industrial Revolution England. Neither the far past nor distant future are paradise for them. Complicated, detrital messes.
The Further Adventures… is colored by Somers increasingly in a range of blues and reds. It grows from complex naturalism to direct, emotive colors and complicated blocks of existence. The colors simplify and simplify into a secondary chiaroscuro from the black and white of the ink and page, not a clashing conflict but an electric synergy melding in making a universe of simple repeated tones that also traditionally make up Dr Essex’s modern day appearance.
The comic draws smoothly from many influences. Various X-Men-related comics provides characters and organizations. Backdating modern-day science in collusion with idiosyncratic Marvel Universe scifi superhero science, presenting a London that is didactically classist, layering the gothic pretense of weather reflecting an individual’s emotional state with the global acuity the Victorian surge in Empire, The Further Adventures… gives us a world that is microcosm and macrocosm of the anxieties, concerns, and loves of not one character but seemingly all women and all men highlighted in the tale.
It is almost impossible not to see Anthony Hopkins has he played in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, anytime Dr Essex is in panel, and yet Essex is not Dr Treves, and indeed, real Dr Treves was not the Dr Treves of the film. Nor is he the Treves-light by Roy Dotrice in a George R R Martin-written episode of the 1980s television drama Beauty and the Beast. These socially oblique mimics and mocks align with Colin Clive’s Frankenstein and of Dr Praetorious of Bride of Frankenstein, and with the contemporary supervillain Mr Sinister. A variety of types, tintypes, traces.
John Paul Leon makes out the world through and framed by porch railings, cages, window lattices, bared tree branches, and the thick hard lines of faces. We often have a terrible sense of place, a truth, maybe, that the world is too thick, too crowded. Even standing in an empty room, a chandelier will loom overhead, a halo or another cage, maybe only a contrived frame.
Cyclops and Phoenix, our superheroes, fail in anything but a return to their time, and the incidental preservation, both of Cyclops’ birth and of their romantic relationship and timeline. At any goal but death, life, and loss, virtually the entire cast of characters fail.
The Further Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix becomes not a cure for the future, not strong guide, but a warning and perhaps a reassurance of futility.
Peter Milligan & John Paul Leon’s Neo-Gothic X-Men Nightmare
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