“And nearby in the tunnels, Mutants start to die” is a line towards the end of X-Factor issue 9 as the team are seemingly wrapping up a story that’s led them into the Morlock tunnels just as the screams begin.
That same month over in X-Men 210 a young Morlock girl has spent the issue being pursued by a shadowy team of killers who’ve already murdered her Hellfire club boyfriend (he’s defiant to the end before being dispatched with a bullet to the head). On the final page she’s finally caught and told that they’ve been chasing her so she’d lead them to the Morlocks tunnels. Their leader readies his shotgun to kill her and says.. “Don’t feel sad youngster, cause where you’re going, you’ll soon have lots of company.”
As the tunnel echoes with the killing shot the panel for next issue simply reads “Massacre!”
Holy shit, the X side of the Marvel Universe was about to plunge into one of the first true crossovers in comics The Mutant Massacre. And by God was this story dark. This is the year when Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen were supposedly breaking the mould and showing that the comic medium could be used for more than just kiddie superhero comics. Well anyone who was reading mainstream Marvel at the time could tell you that a lot of those “kiddie” comics were starting to show a hell of a violent edge.
Unlike the commercially driven sagas of today, the Massacre came out of nowhere. We didn’t get the three months of advertising like we now get ensuring that those catchy titles such as “Siege” “Fear Itself” are embedded into our consciousness by the time they arrive. We just opened our comics in November of 1986 and were bludgeoned with the sight of Morlocks being slaughtered in some of the most harrowing scenes not seen since the days of EC horror comics.
The first time we even see the saga’s name is in a handy map that depicts a time line to help readers keep track of the whole crossover, which as well as featuring in the X-Books also spreads to Thor and rather bizarrely Power Pack (which I will get to later).
While the crossover may have come out of nowhere for readers the actual tone and vibe of such a story had been building for some time particularly in Uncanny X-Men. One of the appealing facets for the cult following of The X-Men was their status as outcasts of the Superhero community, in fact X-Men had not really felt much like a Superhero comic for several years.
Anti Mutant hysteria was the driving theme in the X-Men, rare was an issue when you didn’t see angry mobs, protesting against “Muties” and personal attacks were on the rise. In one issue Charles Xavier was beaten unconscious by a gang and in the same issue a group of Morlock children that have wandered onto the surface are shot dead (later credited to Maurader leader Scalphunter).
When the Massacre storyline begins the X-men are still licking their wounds from an epic battle in Central Park with the super sentinel of the future Nimrod. Add to this the Government trying to research anti Mutant weaponry, hints about impending Mutant registration and the nightmare world glimpsed in Days of Future’s Past looked more likely with every instalment of the X-men and they themselves were closing ranks. Magneto had joined the team (further alienating them from the other superhero teams) and with new threats that didn’t differentiate between heroic or villainous mutants an alliance with the Hellfire Club was even been considered. While Mystique’s version of the brotherhood of evil mutants had even sought sanctuary with the goverement acting as their mutant police squad Freedom Force.
Scenes of excessive violence shall be prohibited. Scenes of brutal torture, excessive and unnecessary knife and gunplay, physical agony, gory and gruesome crime shall be eliminated. Says the Comics Code Authority, well it shows what a dinosaur that old edict had become because when the Massacre starts proper in X-Factor 10 and Uncanny X-Men 211 and Scalphunter’s announces “We’re the Marauders, We kill Mutants, who’s next?” the scenes are brutal. Nowhere near the explicit, almost catoon gore we’d one day get in the adult lines such as Vertigo, but we’d rarely witnessed a team this viciousness and inflicting murder on such a scale in Marvel before. All their powers and abilities from crafting assualt rifles, disintegrating harpoons, and riptides many jagged projectiles are geared towards killing in the most savage fashion.
In X-Factor they appear in an effective double spread, killing one Morlock and firing on the rest as they flee in panic. The real horror is reserved for Uncanny where the Marauders first slaughter what appears to be a Morlock family, an unsettling scene especially when you notice one of the victims is a small child at the back of the group.
In the span of five pages Chris Claremont establishes the Marauders as major villains in the X-Men saga and the major threat which will shadow the comic for the next few years. It does it so well that I absolutely hated them in all the right ways, I was itching for Wolverine and Storm to get their hands on these bastards. So well do they fit the Mutant Massacre storyline that it may come as a surprise that they were not the first choice as the perpetrators, Claremont having very different plans for the direction of Uncanny X-Men.
The original idea for the Massacre drew heavily on Alan Moore’s storyline in the British comic Captain Britain where a right wing maniac Sir James Jaspers had become Prime Minister of Britain and used a powerful agent called The Fury to wipe out the superhero population. Claremont’s idea was to have it be the Fury that wiped out the Morlocks after merging himself with Nimrod. Personally I would have much preferred a Nimrod and Fury tag team as opposed to the merging, but anyway.
This would lead to James Jasper being revealed as the orchestrator of the massacre and would become a major X-Men villain, ultimately using his powers to bring about a Days of Future Past world to reality. The seeds were sown with Claremont introducing Jaspers to the Uncanny X-Men in 200 where he has a seat on the panel at Magneto’s trial. However comic politics then intervened.
Alan Moore was at legal loggerheads with Marvel with regard to reprints his British stories appearing in a Dr Who comic without his permission and apparently without royalties. Not wanting to make the situation worse Marvel were not prepared to risk using characters Moore had created especially such little known ones to the American audience (Jaspers was actually created by David Thorpe and Alan Davis, although Moore had developed the character and Claremont’s ideas for him were very reminiscent of what Moore had done with the character).
So it became the Marauders who were created to be the ones to exterminate the Morlocks, in scenes that were unparalleled in Marvel’s mainstream books for their sheer darkness. The tunnels become a harrowing killing ground, littered with torn Morlock bodies, some of them clearly children. In fact that old rule that you don’t kill kids or pets is clearly broken many times. One scene shows Scalphunter standing over a cowering Annalee (an elderly mutant who acts as a surrogate grandmother figure amongst the Morlocks) as she shields a group children. Scalphunter mocks her, bragging that he was responsible for killing the Morlocks kids on the surface before gunning her down, killing her and three of the children she’s defending.
This storyline is vicious and when I followed the separate stories of X-Men and X-Factor in the tunnels (this is one of many non meeting crossovers that Claremont would tease us with) it was with a mixture of unbearable, tension for their safety and an absolute craving for them to dish back at these Marauder fuckers.
The fights have a brutal edge to them, because it’s been establsihed that the marauders are only interested in killing. The mutants take real damage, and are worn down throughout the conflict. Nightcrawler, Shadowcat and Colossus are wounded so badly they won’t be seen again for a longtime. But of course the one who comes out of this scarred he most and will be changed forever is Angel. In a scene that should be iconic for it’s drama, while searching the tunnels for the lost Artie he’s caught alone by Vertigo, Blockbuster and Harpoon and realising he’s outnumbered and his powers pretty much restricted in the tight tunnels he prepares for a last stand that he knows will end in his death. He tells young Artie to pass on a last message to Jean and tries to buy the youngster time to escape.
Angel is beaten badly and he ends up being pinned to the wall with harpoons stabbed through his wings which have already been torn apart by his attackers. In a heartbreaking final moment of torment he realises Artie is mute and won’t be able to pass on his message and slumps as the Marauders begin to close in to torture and kill him.
There is a constant challenge to the hero’s morals. Colossus in particular grows increasingly aggressive, until finally during on battle he kills Riptide by crushing his neck. It’s a striking scene with Colossus a dark silhouette, his body riddled with throwing spikes and still clutching Riptide’s body turning and announcing to Harpoon that he is next. Rogue’s reaction where she comments how he is meant for better things than killing is a poignant moment.
Even X-Factor are pushed to the limits. At one point Cyclops seems to consider killing a wounded Sabretooth, while Jean Grey actually does kill Prism shattering him against a wall.
But the greatest moment comes at the end of the breathtaking issue 211 of Uncanny where Storm orders Wolverine to stay behind in the tunnels as she wants a Marauder prisoner to interrogate. With a chilling close up of her eyes she adds “One Prisoner will be sufficient, the rest are yours!”
“One Prisoner will be sufficient, the rest are yours!”
This moment, giving Wolverine Carte Blanche to kill says everything about the war that the X-Men rage against the Marauders. I got massively excited by this as a kid and I really wished it had been followed through with, I’d have loved it if Claremont had created a few extra Marauders for Wolverine to kill. And another one to be taken prisoner for Storm and Magneto to torture the shit out of for a few pages….I admit it, I got drawn in and became massively invested in it. As it was I had to settle for Wolverine’s first ever battles with Sabretooth (and they’re amongst the most violent one on one fights in Marvel history) and the first hints of a history between the two.
As a crossover Mutant Massacre was pretty revolutionary, as having a storyline that ran concurrently and ran across several titles was pretty new (as opposed to having a main story with tie-ins). The main story passes mainly through the two X titles and into Thor as he’s the one who comes to Angel’s aid when entering the tunnels to help the Piper met that one time he was a frog (yeah, long story).
A single issue of New Mutants is also part of the saga. It deals mainly with the aftermath of the Massacre as they help the relief of the wounded and dying Morlock refugees who have been given sanctuary at the mansion. (The drama opens with a powerful single page that shows Danielle Moonstar seeing massive vision of Death over the mansion).
The most bizarre part of the crossover is the inclusion of Power Pack, a comic that was designed to appeal to a much younger audience than would be considered appropriate for a death and violence storyline like this one. It sits uneasily with the rest of the saga, especially in the fight scenes which threaten to descend into a childish variation of superhero battles.
But even Powerpack is not shy to embrace the horror of the storyline in it’s own way. The Marauders are clearly trying to kill these kids. While the artwork lacks the grimness of the main thrust of the series, there are still some harrowing scenes of the massacre. If you look closely at the Marauders entrance to the comic you see Scalphunter nonchalantly shooting what appears to be a young girl square in the face. I missed it for a long time myself, but it’s disturbing in such a comic aimed at youngsters, especially as she’s posed on her knees, her hands gripped together clearly pleading for her life.
The journey of Powerpack through the tunnels (brought there to rescue their friend Leech) is heartbreaking as they are traumatised by the dead bodies around them, tears runnng down their faces especially when they come across the dead bodies of Annalee and the children she tried to protect.
This is pretty fucked up when you think about this.
The impact of the Mutant Massacre would be felt for many years to come both in story and in the ways crossovers would be approached. At the time we were a long way from the all encompassing web of storylines that the big events would become, but you can see the first steps tentative steps of the crossover where you had to buy several issues of different comics to follow the whole story. It’s not vital to buy all the issues in Mutant Massacre, in fact if you only followed the Uncanny X-Men story there is a spooky sense of mystery as to what else is going on else where, especially when it comes to the lightening that wipes away all trace of the Morlocks as there is a false suspicion that it’s due to a reawakening of Storm’s missing powers (it’s actually Thor giving the Morlocks a viking style send off). However the big crossover of the X-books would become an almost yearly event and it’s roots are laid here in the Massacre.
The implications in story and tone were massive coming out of massacre, particularly with the make up of the Uncanny team. The line-up would come out of the story totally changed, as would the outlook of the X-Men with an even meaner attitude and now seeming to be on a permanent war footing. Even when the Marauders aren’t around their existence shadows the decisions and actions of the team, because there is no real conclusion to the Mutant Massacre and certainly no victory for the good guys beyond the lives they managed to save, it feels more like the beginning of a long conflict.
As a young fan the Massacre set the tone for my favourite period of being a reader of Marvel comics. Sadly history would ultimately prove the payoffs slightly less interesting. The mysterious figure controlling the Marauders would be revealed as Mister Sinister who while initially intriguing as a villain, his general scheming would amount to very little. His motivations for initiating the attack would ultimately retcon the whole theme of the Massacre as the Morlocks would be revealed to be the work of the Dark Beast with Sinister’s attempting to wipe out a rival to his own genetic experiments.
This motivation undoes the initial belief that the massacre was the first atrocity in a widespread war the entire Mutant population was facing. One based on prejudice and hatred towards mutants. It was this belief that would ultimately force the mutant factions to consider banding themselves together to defend themselves from (many offshoots from Massacre would see the families of mutants coming under attack, which would be initially assumed to be connected to the Marauders).
This would be one of my frustrations with the direction of the X books in years to come. That being that the overall theme driving the books would be the hatred and hysteria that was threatening the mutant population. However aside from protests and the odd bottle throwing angry mob, this feared assault from humans would never really materialise on a grand scale. Most major X-sagas would see the threats to mutants coming not humans but from other mutants. It dilutes a lot of the potential in the themes of prejudice that are so lauded upon in the X-Men and the main storylines pretty much become Mutant gang warfare.
Compared to today’s BIG FUCKING MARVEL EVENTS with their five months of ads and flowing over into 10 issues a week with the BIG FUCKING MARVEL EVENT CROSSOVER tag, the Mutant Massacre is a rather small affair. There’s even something quite quaint about the glowing, smiley Mutant Massacre map, taking you by the hand to help you cope with such a “mega” crossover of an exhausting range of five titles. But it did what a true event should do, shaking up the comics with a story that justified such a huge undertaking and coming out of it with implications that made the reader feel they had reason to invest their time in.
It may not have been the biggest crossover, but it sure had the most bite.
Til next time