Days of Future Past – the Comic Book that Wrote History

In 1981, comic book writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne told a story in two parts. It saw mutants living in a future year 2013 that was controlled by Sentinels, mutant-killing robots. Next week, the movie based on the comic hits cinemas. Time for a look back at the past.

Uncanny X-Men #141 and #142 have a special place in comic book fans’ hearts. For various reasons. Not only are the two issues jam-packed with story, but they left fans wanting more. It hasn’t aged too well, but it still manages to hold its own and even outdoes comic books of today.

It’s a regular day in Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, the mansion that also doubles as the secret headquarters of the Uncanny X-Men. They are mutants fighting for a world that sees humans and mutants co-exist in peace. To achieve that, they work out a lot. Their training takes place in The Danger Room, a room that tries to harm or kill the mutants in it. They learn how to work as a team, how to fight and how to not panic in crucial moments. During a session for the most experienced members of the X-Men – the clawed Wolverine, the weather-controlling Storm and the metal-skinned Colossus – a young Kitty Pryde bursts in. Kitty is not yet ready for the danger room and the senior X-Men have to do their best to save Kitty’s life.

Meanwhile in 2013, mutants are an endangered species. They’re forced to wear inhibitor collars that make them unable to use their powers and they are forced to live in concentration camps. Many starve or have been killed. Not just X-Men but also the Fantastic Four have perished at the hands of the Sentinels who have gained independence from humans and operate automatically. The Sentinels are huge robots that are nearly invulnerable. But the oppressed mutants have a plan. One of the last surviving telepaths, Rachel Grey, will access the mind of Kate Pryde and send her back into the body of her past self, back when Kate was known as Kitty.

This switch happens in the Danger Room. While all the X-Men are protecting Kitty Pryde from the cruel training sessions. Or rather, right after. When all the danger’s over, Kitty collapses. After some medical checks that confirm that she’s fine, Wolverine notices that she suddenly smells older. And truly, Kitty is now Kate in mind, but not body. She tells the X-Men that they’re about to witness the crucial moment that makes the 1981 the X-Men live in go towards the 2013 that Kate and her people are dying in. They must thwart an assassination attempt on anti-mutant senator Robert Kelly or else they will die.

Meanwhile, in 2013, the few remaining mutants – it has been ages since anyone actually made the distinction between X-Men and Brotherhood of Evil Mutants – prepare for one last assault on the Sentinels. With help from the Canadian Resistance Army, led by Wolverine, they throw everything they’ve got at the Baxter Building, the former headquarters of the Fantastic Four and now the central base of operations of the Sentinels.

Just to explain the basic premise of the story, I need the better part of an A4 page. Claremont and Byrne managed to tell the premise, introduce us to all players both known and unknown, cast them in new roles and bring the story of a conclusion in 45 comic book sized pages. You see, back then, Marvel apparently had a policy of making sure that every reader could pick up any comic book and get the whole picture. There are pages like this one. It explains the origins and powers of all the players involved.

A page from Uncanny X-Men #142

This is how much they talked during battle back in 1981.

 

Of course, this makes the comic book absolutely packed with text. There’s exposition everywhere and it seems clumsy by today’s standards. Today, there are usually no expositional parts or they’re summed up in a really small blurb on a separate page of the comic. Or publishers just expect people to go buy their comic books and then go look up all the parts they don’t understand on the internet.

This obviously doesn’t work that well, because comic books are as convoluted as ever, with people dying left and right, then coming back, retroactive community changes and several versions of the same character in the same room. There’s Dark Beast from an alternate dimension currently around, Scott Summers has recently dragged his younger self to present day and all he has to say for himself is this.

A panel from All-New X-Men

All the exposition you’ll get.

 

What if you haven’t? With the way Claremont and Byrne have done it, we at least know who these people are in the current issue. And to enjoy a singular story, this is enough.
What Days of Future Past also does is that it leaves as many questions unanswered as it does answer. Even after two jam-packed issues of dense storytelling we don’t know if the 2013 Kate Pryde sought to make never happen has come to pass. We don’t know if the conclusion of the story leads to an even worse future for mutantkind. Because Claremont and Byrne had enough space to put an epilogue into their story that introduces new trouble.

The future of the Days of Future Past has been revisited many times. Mainly in the form of Rachel Grey. Apparently, the daughter of Jean Grey and Cyclops from that time. She has since travelled back through time, joined the X-Men, gone to outer space, has gotten the galaxy-destroying Phoenix Force that has previously inhabited her mother and nowadays she’s a teacher at the new Xavier’s School led by Wolverine. Other characters have come to the present, main X-Men storyline and faded back into obscurity.

Probably the most interesting thing about Days of Future Past is that it’s not a particularly awesome story. It is good, but nothing extraordinary. It doesn’t introduce a massive shift in the main timeline’s X-Men’s lives. The only really outstanding part about it is the clever title. Variations have appeared in many comic books.

The legacy lives on, though, not only have there been countless references to one of the most famous covers in X-Men history, if not the entire comic book history. Here’s the original.

The cover of Uncanny X-Men #141

The cover of Uncanny X-Men #141

 

And here are the homages. Well, some of them:

The storyline, although complex and not entirely child-friendly, even made it into the X-Men cartoon of the 1990s, which is widely regarded as the best X-Men show there’s been to date.

They did make some significant alterations to the story, though. They introduce new characters and splice the mutant Bishop’s storyline into it. Bishop originally came from yet another possible future that had a sort of similar premise.

And come next week, we can see the story in yet another incarnation, with different players once again. Bishop is in it. So is Bolivar Trask who had no part in the original story. To get an idea what you’re in for, here’s a trailer.

About Dom

Possessing nigh-encyclopaedic knowledge when it comes to comic books and movies, Dom is one of the co-founders of the Uncanny Book-Club. He also enjoys movies, and going to the cinema.

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