The Greatest Graphic Novels: Earth X
Marvel Comics has had its fair share of dystopian futures and alternate realities. The Hulk: Future Imperfect, introduced an old, super-intelligent Hulk who was as smart as he was ruthless, even to his time-lost younger self. Heroes Reborn gave us the Avengers, Fantastic Four, and other heroes through a modern (and somewhat flawed) lens with the purpose of giving decades-old heroes a new edge. The X-Men have had rich, fan-adored storylines like Days of Future Past, Age of Apocalypse, and Mutant X, to name just a few. But Earth X is the first story to give Marvel Comics a proper, grand mythology. An intelligent design, an origin and an end, an alpha and omega, a Genesis and a Revelation, all rolled into one incredibly detailed, well-constructed story. One that makes it not only Marvel’s best alternate timeline tale, but one of the Greatest Graphic Novels, ever.
Earth X is a future where the world’s entire populace has been accidentally transformed into mutants by Reed Richards. With half the Fantastic Four dead, Reed Richards donned Dr. Doom’s armor and exiled himself to his once greatest foe’s castle lair. Captain America is a has-been hero, trying to save a world that’s forgotten all about the American Dream. Spider-Man is an overweight and irresponsible nobody. Once known as the superhero everyman, he’s now content to be more of a no-man.
With the entire world a mutant race, the X-Men have nothing to fight for. Scott Summers is the last X-Man holding onto Xavier’s dream. Wolverine, on the other hand, spends his time drinking beer and using Jean Grey as his emotional punching bag. Iron Man, the last human alive, hides in an iron fortress, an agoraphobic hero who employs his android Iron Avengers to do the work of the fallen heroes they’re modeled after.
The premise seems simple. The Inhumans have returned to Earth looking for Reed Richards to aid in finding and saving their lost citizens from a major disaster that may be looming over their home planet. At the same time, Captain America finds himself fighting a new, teenaged Red Skull, whose incredible power and lack of direction make him not only formidable but likely to destroy the entire world.
But it’s not just the idea of yet another “dark dystopia” that makes this great. And not the new ways to twist the lives of our favorite heroes that makes it brilliant. It’s the sheer scale of this narrative, the sheer weight of each discovery that makes readers look at its heroes in such an enlightened way that it’s hard to picture them as anything else afterward.
Earth X takes the spirit of Marvel Comics co-forefather Jack Kirby and uses his affinity for creating mythology to build an entire cosmology from his creations, rooting a “theory of everything” into the backstory of the Celestials, the Deviants, the Eternals, and the Inhumans. It flawlessly links together the origins of man into one large backdrop that truly unites the Marvel universe in a way unlike ever seen before or since. If there was ever a religion to be made from Marvel Comics, Earth X would be its Bible. It’s so reverent of the heroes who embody it while psychologically dissecting each featured hero down to his or her core to shown readers exactly what makes them tick. Warts and all.
Even the way Earth X presents itself is unique to its peers. Each issue, or “Chapter”, starts with our narrators, Uatu and X-51 (Machine Man) discussing the past in written form, no pictures. This is usually swiftly followed by a regular comic format that retells a hero’s origin story and then tells of their fate shortly before the start of Earth X’s frame. With Uatu blinded for the past decade and X-51 relatively insignificant, these Watchers are ironically as out of the loop as the audience is, creating a puzzle that all of us have to decode together.
With Uatu’s arrogant unveiling of the past and X-51 following the exploits of each hero in the present, the story unfolds with just enough suspense and action to keep a great pace. But even the nature of the narration becomes affected by the plot, drawing our Watchers into the development of the story as much as the heroes they watch. Even more, each chapter ends with an appendix, going back to the written-only form (accompanied by concept art). First, this begins as a conversation that is used to simply flesh out the backstory of this world. But later, it evolves into a forum of philosophical debates. Later, towards the end, it evolves again as a place for revelations. Revelations which add layers upon layers of understanding to the overall story, while maintaining the depth and conflict underlying the subplot.
Every aspect of Marvel’s entire history—both in-continuity and its publishing history—gets used as a component to piece together this amazing plot. Every aspect of Marvel’s timeline is incorporated, in small ways and large, with cameos by the most obscure Marvel characters (even trademarked ones that were slyly referenced without causing a lawsuit). This “unified theory” they present not only connects established Marvel canon, but it creates the most reasonable—if incredible—explanations for the nature of superpowered individuals in the Marvel Universe. It explains their motivations, it gives credence to superhero genre conventions, it gives every being in the Marvel Universe a vastly complex spiderweb of relations that unfolds during Earth X like a puzzle. Not unlike a Rubik’s Cube, when you think you have one side figured out one subtle change can warp the cube as a whole in a way you didn’t expect. But eventually Earth X delivers, giving you all the moves necessary to solve the puzzle. It may seem hard as first, but eventually the puzzle will be complete, and you’ll be eager to do it again.
None of this is over-explained or thrown in your face: it’s just presented as fact so effortlessly, and so seamlessly stitched into the story, that you can’t help but accept it as the way the Marvel Universe works. The later revelations on the cause of mutations and superpowers in general, what makes super-powered people so aggressive that they always seem to fight when they meet, and man’s place in the cosmic hierarchy just rings of so much truth that you wonder if every Marvel writer purposely created this tapestry of seemingly disparate ideas, a larger mythos for other writers to discover, exploit, and reveal to the readers. Alex Ross and Jim Krueger seem like conspiracy theorists who stumbled into the greatest vault of secrets and dared to release them to the public for all to see.
So much credit can be given to Alex Ross and Jim Krueger for the story and plot, but credit also has to be given to Polly Watson & Marie Javins as editors, who must have helped to keep the plot cohesive and the canon correct. And where would the story be without the art? Alex Ross provides the cover art and concept art, but its John Paul Leon’s pencils that give the story its visual substance. His dark, moody lines combined with Bill Reinhold’s inks, and the somber, usually tenebrous color work of Matt Hollinsworth, Melissa Edwards, and James Sinclair creates a doom-filled, ominous atmosphere that switches effortlessly from a hazy lens of reminiscence to a dark, emotional, foreboding present.
If it wasn’t clearly evident, Earth X is a true treasure for Marvel fans. But all of this works against it too, in that it may not appeal to non-Marvel comics fans or non-comic book readers. There’s simply too much information that harkens back to Marvel’s past stories, too much that is made to appeal to Marvel’s “true believers.” This approach is far too unfriendly to a newcomer, who would be lost amidst the decades of information loaded into the narrative. But for anyone who truly loves comics, loves heroes, and loves Marvel comics, it is definitely one of Marvel’s Greatest Graphic Novels ever written.
(A special thanks to the Marvel Wiki Database for the images used in this article!)