This post contains spoilers for Extermination #5 and Infinity Wars #6.
Yesterday, I wrote an unusually personal (for me, anyway) reflection on Marvel Comics’ Extermination #5 and the time-displaced Original Five X-Men. I do recommend reading my extended thoughts before checking out the addendum below, but I’ll summarize for those with more pressing matters: Six years ago, Brian Michael Bendis brought the five original X-Men—Cyclops, Jean Grey, Angel, Beast and Iceman—from their teenaged pasts into the present day. What seemed like a finite premise lasted more than half a decade and included massive developments like the younger Iceman being forcibly outed as gay, which in turn outed the older Iceman. While the way the Icemen came out is still controversial, this revelation resulted in two solo adult Iceman series written by Sina Grace, a gay creator, and dozens of issues featuring the younger Iceman enjoying his newfound openness and even finding young love with another super-powered teen.
This week, the final issue of the Extermination mini-series by Ed Brisson and Pepe Larraz hit stands, closing the “time loop” by sending the “O5” back in time and locking away their memories until the present day—a move that required the younger Iceman to willingly go back in the closet throughout his teen and early adult years. It’s a tidy way to preserve the adventures the O5 experienced while also removing any questions about how their memories of the present would affect their life paths. But Iceman’s sacrifice is almost unconscionable to really consider, especially if you’re a queer reader, and fans across the internet expressed their frustration and pain over Marvel’s decision to force the younger Bobby Drake back into the closet.
I stand by my initial assessment that, while I found the move incredibly depressing, I’m too jaded by superhero comics to consider it malicious on behalf of Brisson or Marvel Comics. Marvel, like its chief rival DC Comics, has often faltered when it comes to consistent and positive LGBTQ+ representation, but I am willing to accept that this painful, borderline offensive slight to Bobby Drake was, in their eyes, a necessary evil on the road to cleaning up X-Men continuity. Much of the last year in the X-Men line has focused on restoring older status quos, with the returns of (adult) Jean Grey, Professor X, Multiple Man, Banshee, Wolverine, Psylocke’s white body, Jubilee’s non-vampiric powers, Rogue and Gambit’s relationship, a recognizable New Mutants lineup and, in the very same issue that sent the O5 back in time, (adult) Cyclops. The upcoming Age of X-Man line-wide event is poised to massively, seemingly temporarily shake up the mutant corner of Marvel before some assumed new, new era.
Reading another major Marvel event conclusion out this week, though, cast the decisions of Extermination #5 in a different, less favorable light. Infinity Wars, launched around the release of the massively successful Avengers: Infinity War film, is the finale to writer Gerry Duggan’s tenure with Marvel’s cosmic characters. His initial Guardians of the Galaxy series with Aaron Kuder is easily the best run those heroes have seen since they rose to Marvel Cinematic Universe stardom, and the Infinity Countdown event that preceded Infinity Wars ably continued Duggan’s strengths with the GotG cast, buoyed by excellent art from Kuder and Mike Hawthorne. Infinity Wars, on the other hand, stumbled out of the gate with overly stiff, difficult-to-read artwork from Mike Deodato, Jr. and a plot that includes Gamora using the Infinity Stones to cut the universe’s population in half…by combining every hero and villain with another hero or villain in goofy amalgamations.
Combo characters like Soldier Supreme (Captain America/Doctor Strange), Weapon Hex (X-23/Scarlet Witch), Iron Hammer (Thor/Iron Man) and Ghost Panther (Ghost Rider/Black Panther) received brief, two-issue spin-offs, while additional creations like Ms. Marvel/Kang and Emma Frost/Wolverine populated the main Infinity Wars series for about an issue and a half, ultimately having almost no bearing on the plot once Loki entered the picture. The absurdity of watching a Spider-Man/Moon Knight hybrid swing around NYC undercut any of the cosmic gravitas Infinity Wars might have generated, and even the sacrifice of a longtime Guardian of the Galaxy in issue #6 felt oddly anticlimactic. Yet when it came time for the god-level character Adam Warlock to separate the combined souls of the “Infinity Warps” universe and restore the Marvel U. we know and love, Duggan leapt headfirst into a contrivance that allowed Marvel to keep these unasked-for combo characters around. Warlock, rather than simply splitting the souls, duplicates them, maintaining the Warps universe within the Soul Stone and wiping the amalgamated characters’ memories of a world where one becomes two.
Infinity Wars #6 and Extermination #5 both hit shelves on December 19th, making it impossible not to compare how each issue handled a doppelganger crisis. The Original Five X-Men have been around for six years now, developing their own fans and distinct storylines. The amalgamated characters of Infinity Wars first appeared in…September of 2018. I don’t make a habit of backseat-writing major comic books, but seeing how Duggan and Marvel editorial breezily twisted comic-book logic to keep the door open for more Arachknight stories versus the finality with which the O5 were sent back to their timeline, forced to give up the individuality they’ve achieved in the present, felt like insult added to injury. Why does the Punisher Pack get to live, but Bobby Drake and the rest of the O5 have to give up everything?
It’s not as if X-Men continuity has ever been sacrosanct; as readers pointed out on Twitter in response to Bobby’s fate, Extermination also features a teenage Cable killing and replacing his older self, and ended with Rachel Grey turning into a mind-controlled villain for the third time this year. The massive ‘90s Age of Apocalypse crossover was meant to be a temporary alternate universe, yet has factored into storylines as recently as this October’s Uncanny X-Men launch. Even the brief Age of X crossover from 2011 kept permanent its most popular changes, like the restoration of Chamber’s powers and a soft reboot for Frenzy.
The conversation the two Icemen share before the teenage Bobby Drake gives up his authentic life to restore the timeline suggests that Brisson and Marvel editorial understood that the time-travel decision impacted Iceman more—or at least more painfully—than the other four members of the O5. Yet when Extinction #5 hits stands the very same day as a lesser crossover that still manages to preserve a much newer, more contrived cast of alternate-reality characters, it’s hard not to feel like Marvel got it wrong with Bobby and his peers.
Perhaps there’s another timeline in which the O5 got to live out their newly autonomous lives without shattering the timestream, or at least one in which Bobby retroactively came out as a teen. Allowing young Jean Grey to avoid becoming the Phoenix or Angel to sidestep his Archangel phase would have substantially altered X-history, sure, but Bobby never maintained a lasting relationship with any of the women in his life anyway—couldn’t the character have been allowed the kindness of living openly sooner? Spider-Man’s modern history rests on a literal deal with the devil erasing his marriage and Adam Warlock just casually duplicated the souls of every living being in creation. Even Jimmy Hudson, the symbiote-possessed alternate-reality son of Wolverine, survived Extinction unscathed. And yet Iceman has to stay closeted until his adult years to prevent an extinction-level event. X-Men continuity may be cleaner as a result of Extermination, but they did one queer character pretty damn dirty to get there.