I read a lot, and I read a lot of comics. It probably seems like I read comics more than I do novels, but actually in terms of hours-spent I spend far more time reading novels: it just so happens that I can get through a lot of comic books and graphic novels in the time it would take me to get through even one novel, unsurprisingly. I read almost 800 books in 2014, and am well ahead of schedule to read a book a day as part of my 2015 reading schedule… so when I say that this graphic novel, collecting a 4-issue 1996 miniseries, is possibly the best book I’ve read so far this year: please allow that statement the weight accorded to it.
The story is the spiritual successor to The Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix, in which Cyclops and Jean Grey were brought into the future by the Askani and tasked with raising their young son. In this sequel series, the Askani send them into the past to set events in motion that will allow their bloodline to exist and for the Askani “Chosen One,” Scott’s son Cable, to be eventually born. However unlike the original miniseries, Scott and Jean take slightly more of a backseat to the plot of the events. The main star of this series is Nathanial Essex, otherwise known as Mr. Sinister.
Taking place in the late 1800, the story follows Essex as this brilliant man of science and contemporary to Charles Darwin reels from the death of his son and delves into his work with genetics, trying to crack what he dubs “The Essex Factor” (get it?) that will eventually cause humanity to evolve into a greater species and continue to live and thrive in a way his son could not.
So obsessed is he with his work that he ignores the needs of his sickly and again-pregnant wife, focusing on the death of his first child rather than moving on to welcome the next one. He is a man teetering on the edge of an obsession that drives him to perform insane, immoral tests in his goal to make sense of his son’s death.
It’s this delicate balance of sympathy and revulsion for Essex that make this such a compelling read, on par with “watching men become evil” dramas like Breaking Bad and The Shield. Author Peter Milligan never tries to tell us or make us believe that what Essex does is wrong, but also never allows us to see him as completely villainous: we’re left understanding the motivations and thoughts and feelings of a man who was previously just a scary, cool villain.
Complicating matters is the rise of En Sabah Nur, aka Apocalypse, into a time period during which he will easily take over the planet. He befriends Essex and promises him immortality and power. Essex knows it is a deal with the devil. Without Apocalypse’s interfering, Essex might have eventually snapped out of his funk… but the death of his wife and second child during a failed premature delivery — coupled with her angry final words to him denying him forgiveness — drive him to accept Nur’s offer and take the name of his wife’s final word: Sinister.
In addition to the writing, the art by John Paul Leon cannot be praised enough. It’s moody, atmospheric, Gothic wonderfulness.