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Wednesday, February 10, 2021

X-amining The Further Adventures of Cyclops & Phoenix #1-4

"Digging Up the Past" / "Unnatural Selection" / "The Origin of a Species" / "Beginnings"
June 1996 - September 1996

In a Nutshell
The origin of Mister Sinister is revealed as Cyclops & Phoenix are sent to the past to stop Apocalypse! 

Writer: Peter Milligan
Penciler: John Paul Leon
Inker: Klaus Janson (issue #1-2), Shawn Martinbrough (issues #2-4), Tommy Lee Edwards (issue #3)
Letters: Richard Starkings & Comicraft
Colors: Kevin Somers
Enhancements: Malibu's Hues
Editor: Mark Powers
Editor-in-Chief: Bob Harras

Issue #1: In Victorian London, when scientist Nathanial Essex has his theories of evolution dismissed by the Royal Society, he decides to continue his work in private. A chance encounter with a man named Cootie Tremble leads Nathanial to the various freaks and outcasts which Cootie and his gang, the Marauders, have assembled in the sewers beneath the city. Essex presses Cootie and the Marauders (and their captives, as the subjects of his experiments) into his service. Elsewhere, Apocalypse emerges from hibernation, and learning of Essex' work, seeks him out. Meanwhile, Cyclops and Phoenix suddenly appear in London, cast apart from one another and unsure where - or when - they are. 

Issue #2: As Cyclops finds himself attacked by the Marauder's collection of outcasts, Jean is visited by Askani priestess Sanctity, who tells her that Cyclops & Jean have 48 hours to stop the rise of Apocalypse in this time. Meanwhile, Essex shows off his work to Apocalypse, who then accompanies Essex to a meeting with the Hellfire Club. Apocalypse is not impressed by the club, and reveals his true form, telling them they will serve him, or die. Meanwhile, Jean visits Essex' house, encountering his pregnant wife and together, they discover his monstrous experiments; learning Essex is at the Hellfire Club, Jean heads there while Cyclops, convinces the outcasts he is on their side, and they work together to defeat the Marauders. One of the Marauders, Oscar, becomes Cyclops' eyes. The pair go to the Hellfire Club, where Cyclops and Jean are reunited as its members flee in terror from Apocalypse. A fight breaks out as Cyclops & Jean battle a group of Marauders enhanced by Apocalypse & led by Cootie, which ends when an unconscious Jean falls into the river and Apocalypse knocks out Cyclops, giving him to Essex for his experiments and offering him longevity & the chance to continue his work in exchange for his service. He then leaves, as Essex pulls Jean from the river. 

Issue #3: Realizing Essex will one day become Mister Sinister, Jean urges him to reject Apocalypse's offer and retain his humanity. However, his wife, horrified by the sight of his experiments, is near death, and she dies without giving him the forgiveness for which he asks. Meanwhile, Apocalypse leaves the captive Cyclops for the Hellfire Club, where he tells its leaders they will serve him by orchestrating the conditions that will lead to a global war, which, when combined with the plague to be designed & released by Essex, will bring the world to its knees. Elsewhere, Oscar leads Jean to Cyclops, but she too is captured, and both Cyclops & Phoenix bear witness when Essex returns and accepts Apocalypse's offer, becoming Mister Sinister. As the rescued outcasts return to set Jean free, Apocalypse sets out for Buckingham Palace, to kill the king and queen. 

Issue #4: Cyclops attacks the newly-transformed Mister Sinister but pulls back, unwilling to kill him for crimes he hasn't yet committed. As their battle destroys Sinister's lab, Cyclops & Jean escape, while Sinister realizes that Apocalypse has done what he promised and robbed him of his humanity. He does, however, tell Cyclops & Jean about Apocalypse's plans, and then briefly adds them as they foil Apocalypse's attempted assassination of the king and queen. Apocalypse confronts Sinister, who admits he has modified Apocalypse's intended plague to harm only Apocalypse. Pleased with this show of strength, Apocalypse lets Sinister live, but promises him that when he next emerges from hibernation, Sinister will be his slave. Back at the palace, Sanctity appears and returns Cyclops and Jean to their native times, and Cyclops wonders if their mission was as much about ensuring the rise of Sinister as it was the defeat of Apocalypse. Years later, Mister Sinister watches the funeral of Charles Darwin, noting that now Darwin has left the future to him. 

Firsts and Other Notables
Whereas Askani'son functioned as a sequel to The Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix by continuing the story of a young Cable and his fight against Apocalypse in the far future, this series is a sequel to that series by utilizing the basic premise (Scott and Jean are sent traveling through time to fight Apocalypse) but applying it to a new setting (going back to Victorian England instead of the far future). 

In doing so, it presents an origin for Mister Sinister, presenting him as a non-evil (but morally-dubious) scientist obsessed with evolution and a fervent believer that humanity is on the verge of an evolutionary leap named Nathanial Essex, who is married to a woman named Rebecca. The couple has recently lost their young son, but Rebecca is pregnant again as the story begins. Eventually, the future Mister Sinister meets an awakening Apocalypse, who promises him the means to study his theories free of physical and moral restraint in exchange for his service and the creation of a plague to wipe out humanity. When his descent into evil pushes Rebecca away and causes the deaths of her and their unborn child, Nathaniel takes Apocalypse's offer and becomes Mister Sinister, but ultimately holds back on creating his plague, the beginning of the animosity between the two men which will lead to the creation of Cable as the results of Sinister's plan to create a being able to defeat Apocalypse once and for all. 

Cyclops and Phoenix are witnesses to all of this in the course of their mission to stop Apocalypse from ascending in this timeline, and their interactions with Sinister (including Jean's successful efforts to stop Sinister from releasing Apocalypse's plague) prove to be the source of his long-time obsession with their respective families and genetic material. 

Similarly, two otherwise-normal humans, Oscar & Daniel, who get caught up in the conflict between the two time-traveling X-Men and the two super-villains, end the story by emigrating to America, where they adopt the surname "Summers" in honor of Cyclops, with whom they briefly fought alongside. 

Cyclops & Phoenix are sent through time and given their mission by Madame Sanctity, the last surviving member of the Askani sisterhood as of the Askani'son limited series. As that story ended with her largely going insane and offering to train Stryfe, it's unclear when in her personal timeline her actions here fall. 

In as much as this is an origin for Mister Sinister, Apocalypse functions as the main antagonist of the series, emerging from one of his extended hibernation periods in issue #1 and proceeding to execute his plan for world domination, with Cyclops & Jean's (and, to some extent, Sinister's) efforts to stop him forcing him back into hibernation, leading to his later emergence sometime before his first appearance in X-Factor. It's not clear here how long this latest hibernation period was, nor why the usually-Egyptian-set Apocalypse awakened in London (maybe Milligan is making some subtle commentary on Victorian England's propensity for the raiding of Egyptian tombs...). 

Apocalypse provides a brief origin for himself, most of which is later invalidated by the Rise of Apocalypse miniseries (which comes along shortly after this, to the point where it's odd that something as directly contradictory was allowed through here when that series must have been in the works).  

He later briefly allies with the Hellfire Club of the time, whose members include a Shaw and a Braddock, ancestors of Sebastian & Shinobi and Captain Britain/Psylocke. 

Essex takes control of a group of sewer-dwellings hooligans called the Marauders, pressing them into his service, the obvious precursors to the later super-powered Marauders Mister Sinister sends into the Morlock tunnels to wipe out the Morlocks.

Each issue of this series features a wraparound cover (though the cover stock itself is normal and not cardstock or otherwise gimmicky). 

A Work in Progress
The pre-Sinister Essex' home is called the "Milbury House"; Sinister would later use "Milbury" as a frequent alias. 

Essex refers to the genetic quirks that would allow for the creation of mutants as "Essex Factors", a play on the "x-factor" that Xavier will later say is the defining gene that gives mutants their powers and the source of the X-Men's name (as opposed to sheer vanity on Xavier's part). 

Whenever going about in public, Apocalypse adopts a "fancy foreigner" look. 

There's an odd bit at the start of issue #2 in which the third person narration reveals that Sanctity is responsible for sending Cyclops and Jean through time before Sanctity herself reveals that to Jean in the scene that's clearly meant to serve as the reveal. 

Apocalypse refers to Essex as his first "prelate", which was one of the titles given to high ranking members of the mutant upper class in "Age of Apocalypse". 

Apocalypse mentions someone who thought he had power by dint of birth who has served now for thousands of years as Apocalypse's slave, which is a reference to Ozymandias. 

Mister Sinister's name is derived from the last word his wife spoke to him, saying he will forever be nothing but sinister to him. 

Apocalypse plans involve the creation of wars on a worldwide scale, with accompanying images of the two World Wars to come. 

Darwin worries that his theories will be used to justify all manner of terrible actions; I don't know if the real Darwin ever shared those concerns, but this Darwin is not wrong about that, as the concept of social Darwinism will, amongst other things, be used as the justification for the rising tide of Imperialism and the later  European "Scramble for Africa". 

The red diamond shape on Mister Sinister's forehead and chest as said to be brands of Apocalypse here.

Artistic Achievements
Issue #2 contains a couple of especially cool artistic moments, including this neat collage of Essex, his wife, and Jean. 

Later, Cyclops' optic blast is rendered dramatically in a way that almost calls to mind the sunburst flag of Imperial Japan. 

The Awesome and Terrible Power of Cyclops
Cyclops is seemingly somehow able to change the direct of an optic blast after its been fired. 

Austin's Analysis
A spiritual sequel to the titular couple's honeymoon adventure, The Further Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix hits some of the same beats as its predecessor: it features the couple traveling through time to a strange world (albeit to the past instead of the future this time) in order to battle a version of Apocalypse, and showcases an artist with a style unlike the art being featured in the main books at the time. But where the original used for its emotional foundation the familial relationship between Cyclops, Jean, and a young Cable (with the two time traveling adults finding themselves able to actually raise baby Nathan to young adulthood), here it is the descent of Mister Sinister that gives the story its emotional weight. Suffering the loss of his son, the proto-Sinister, a peer of Charles Darwin, is laughed at for his beliefs about the future of evolution (beliefs which readers know to be accurate) and finds himself drawn into a Faustian bargain with  a resurgent Apocalypse. While it's perhaps not as affecting as the family dynamics in the original series, it is nevertheless a searing origin story for the long-inscrutable Sinister, a Miltonian fall from grace that doesn't excuse his later actions but does make him a more relatable character in the process. 

The art from John Paul Leon, while light years away from Gene Ha's lusher, wilder work in the previous series, is nevertheless similarly unique and effective, eminently suitable for the shadowy, grimy world of Victorian Era London which the characters inhabit, able to toggle effortlessly back and forth between simple & expressive and richly-detailed & heavily-shadowed. It's not presented in black and white, but, thanks to the heavy inks & muted color palette throughout, it has a similar effect, with the little punctuations of color (such as Cyclops' optic blasts or Sinister's red diamond "brand") all the more impactful for the way they disrupt the palette of the series. Even when I read this originally as a kid, still warming to Bill Sienkiewicz and his similar style via New Mutants back issues, I loved it, despite it being a far cry from the pseudo-Image art found in so many other books at the time. It's messy and at times imprecise (with characters physical locations relative to one another sometimes getting lost), but the storytelling is clear throughout (the biggest problem is that, sometimes, Peter Milligan is too wordy, and Leon's smaller panels get even more cramped as a ton of dialogue bubbles are layered in). 

All in all, I remember really digging this as a kid, and am pleased it holds up fairly well today. "The origin of Mister Sinister" is a fantastic hook to hang a series on, especially in 1996, but there is thankfully more to it than a quick footnote-esque recitation of his backstory, making the answer more emotionally rich and character-driven than simply "he made a deal with Apocalypse who gave him powers". I remain a sucker for time travel tropes, and I love the closed loop that comes from a time traveling Cyclops creating his own family surname and the tragedy born of the fact that in sidelining Apocalypse's ascension here, Cyclops & Jean also inadvertently spark Sinister's decades-long obsession with them (which in turn leads to the creation of the being destined to stop Apocalypse, and whose existence leads to the circumstances that allow Cyclops and Jean to make this time travel trip in the first place). And the art is effective & engaging for being so different from the dominant style of the time, elevating the story being told while standing out on its own merits as well. Marvel was, in 1996 and into 1997, absolutely flooding the market with X-related books, much of it in the form of extra one-shots and limited series like this, but this remains one of the standouts amidst that deluge of product. 

Next Issue
Next week: Generation X #18, Excalibur #99, and Cable #33! 

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  1. "Essex takes control of a group of sewer-dwellings hooligans called the Marauders, pressing them into his service"

    It's all a bit on-the-nose.

  2. on the point of conflicting apocalypse origins (so close in publication order) it's probably easy to lie in summary, even to himself vs the long form. or maybe the opposite was true for the writers. really only taking up the issue cause i have tiered confidants - who know a bit of the truth or have scribes a bunch of intricate lore that's perhaps true.

  3. I really liked this miniseries:

    1) I loved the art, which still holds great today, unlike the Manga style and the Image style that predominated at the time.
    2) I don’t believe that every super villain needs an origin. You don’t need to know that Apocalypse once had a dad or had to study Algebra. Some characters are better without any background.
    3) Although I liked the story behind Sinister, I don’t understand why he has to be a product of Apocalypse. It lessened him as a character. I come from a time in which both were seen as equally powerful, one opposing the X-Men and other the X-Factor (Simonson era and Claremont/Silvestri era). By making Sinister a direct creation of Apocalypse it actually made him weaker and less meaningful as a villain. No wonder he is now a caricature.
    3) I don’t like time loops. I think it was a mistake to have Cyclops influence the birth of his own family. I tend to dislike ideas that lead to people wondering: “but how could have it existed in the first place if he didn’t exist yet?”
    4) I couldn’t and I still can’t stand the countless miniseries. This story would have been easily shown in the main books during the 80s, with brief appearances by other characters in the present for the sake of moving other plots ahead. Miniseries should be special.
    5) Pity that Cyclopes and Marvel Girl became thar kind of characters that they can no longer have separate adventures. They can’t even be in different teams or stories. You know one will be with the other when they appear. They resolved this issues by taking an extreme and misleading measure, which was killing Jean and turning Cyclops into a terrorist.
    6) I don’t believe that we need to know the origin of everything. Why Sinister wanted to create a clone of Jean Grey? Why did he want a child from hers and Cyclops’ Union? Somethings are better not told. He’s just evil. That’s it. Or better: don’t make the mistake of resurrecting Jean Grey and making Madeline Pryor a clone. It’s dumb.

  4. Yeah, I loved this one at the time and I think it still holds up really well today. Though I agree that Milligan gets way too wordy sometimes. But nonetheless, I remember when Milligan took over writing X-MEN in the mid-00s after Grant Morrison left, I hoped for something along the lines of this series (not necessarily in terms of plot, but more in terms of writing style). Unfortunately, to my recollection, that didn't really happen. I think that was when I finally realized that Marvel iteslf, rather than the various writers on their books, had completely abandoned copious third-person narration.

    The artwork is great and fits the story perfectly too. I remember being especially excited for this after X-MEN '95 and Leon's depiction of Sinister's early 20th century past there. Though in reading this story last night in trade paperback, I looked at Leon's pencil sketches in the back and found them much more attractive than the finished work. I'm not sure if his penciled pages looked different from his character designs, but I feel like the extremely heavy inking here did him a disservice if the pages had originally looked anything like the sketches.

    I agree on the time loop. Much as I'm not a fan of alternate dimension stories, I love time travel stories, and especially time travel stories with loops like this one. My personal favorite bit is something I think you missed mentioning above -- Apocalypse's equipment adapts to Cyclops's optic blasts by creating ruby quartz! I've always thought that was really cool.

    I also must respectfully disagree with Licinio on Sinister's origin. I think tying him in with Apocalypse was a really cool move. He's still an awesome villain on his own, and the idea that he was once Apcalypse's servant but now they hate each other adds an interesting dimension to both. In any case, making him a Victorian-era creation of Apocalypse is, in my own personal opinion, millions of light years better than Chris Claremont's original plan for the character.

    That said, the ret-con that he was an honest-to-goodness doctor in the 19th century makes one wonder why he goes by "Mister" Sinister. He spent all that time in medical school only to dump his title??

    1. He abandons the scientific community that with their small-minded pitiful morals only seek to hold his research back, and thusly has no longer use for their title of respect.

      But he is still a Victorian gentleman, and has to separate himself from the rubble somehow.

    2. Teemu, this seems reasonable to me!

    3. Actually... in #1, Darwin addresses him as Mr. Essex. He does not have the title of doctor. Moreover, Wikipedia seems to suggest neither was Darwin himself a doctor, but a Fellow of the Royal Society, as I assume so was Essex seeing that he was facing the threat of expulsion from the Society in #1.

      Wikipedia on "Doctor" has it that the title of doctor seem to have been all sort of hassle in the 19th century England. I assume Essex is a natural scientist, not a physician or any other kind of medical professional.

      What with all the later era academics, not to talk of pretense doctors like Doctor Doom, underlining them being a doctor (and Xavier going over the top with it), if I was a brilliant scientist from the time before doctors, I too would probably make a point of it in my moniker.

  5. The fun thing about the Hellfire Club... at their introduction during the Dark Phoenix Saga, Sebastian Shaw's stated agenda was to have their scientists study (dissect?) the X-Men, to isolate the "Essex factor" so they could genetically engineer their own mutants and rule the world.

    Kind of looks like this encounter with Nathaniel Essex and Apocalypse was where the idea was gotten (and imported to the American branch) and what led to them recruiting mutants to their Inner Circle.

    ... and, as we know it was Gambit who led the Marauders to the Morlock sewers, and they didn't really need to follow Tommy there, maybe them claiming they had used her to lead them there was just to further taunt and torture her, and maybe them whacking his boyfriend the Hellfire commando Richard Salmon was an actual hit job ordered to them by Mr. Sinister against the Hellfire Club whom he felt were in some way trespassing on his plans.

    1. "... oh, Richard, you were so kind, you saved me when those butchers murdered my friends", Tommy says. Maybe she's not talking of the Marauders after all, but maybe she had been in a group of Morlocks captured by the Hellfire Club for their Essex factor research, and Richard had saved her from sharing her friends' fate and maybe this is why UXM #210 starts in media res with this very odd pairing of a Hellfire commando and a Morlock girl.

    2. Tangentially, this got me thinking. There was another rather egregious use of in medias res opening around this time in UXM #205 "Wounded Wolf", where Lady Deathstrike and her Hellfire commando cyborg associates apparently had hijacked and captured Wolverine while the rest of the X-Men stayed on the West Coast. (Apparently Wolverine had left West Coast for reasons and his editorially mandated appearance in CAPTAIN AMERICA ANNUAL #8, and as WOLVERINE and KITTY PRYDE AND WOLVERINE miniseries show, these appearances were made plausible by his absence in the main book).

      Could it be that the use of Hellfire commando Richard Salmons in #210 is another example of Claremont telegraphing his displeasure at the editorial interference? It's well known he didn't get to use Fury and Mad James Jaspers for the Morlock bloodbath. It's almost like someone had once told Claremont to "pull the Hellfire goons there from anywhere, what does it matter" or something, and then they were there for the editorially mandated Marvel Graphic Novel #4 and whatelse.

      So technically, it was probably particularly the Hellfire goon section of the Reavers who were the stand-ins for the editorial interference.

  6. I loved that series as a teen. Jean and especially Scott have always been among my favs X-men, I really loved the art, which was a bit unusual and gave a more "serious" vibe about the whole plot and of course the name-choosing twist ending blew my brains out. Probably the reason Sinister is my favorite X-Villain (although I recall being totally flabbergasted years earlier by his opening splash page appearance "why does Colossus have a dark cape and a red diamond on his forehead ?")


  7. I absolutely love the art by John Paul Leon (et al.) — great use of black and very nice coloring from Kevin Somers that reminds me of Mark Chiarello and Kevin Nowlan.

    The first half of this was a lot more enjoyable for me than the second. At some point it just gets all modern with action largely replacing atmosphere. One major peeve: Darwin’s book is On the Origin of Species and not, as it’s called in these issues, The Origin of the Species — a common mistake that changes its fundamental meaning.

    I’d like to see a chart mapping out in linear, chronological fashion when Apocalypse, Scott and Jean, and Cable all met one another vis-à-vis their own personal timelines. I’m pretty sure that — with the possible exception of Scott first meeting Nathan Christopher when he was born and Jean meeting the baby not long after — they all encountered one another skipping through the eras such that one party (Scott and Jean being a single unit) had previously met the other but the other had not yet met them. I don’t claim this is any huge insight on my part, mind you.


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