The Life & Influences of Emperor Vulcan: Echoes of Ancient Rome
Updated: Aug 9, 2019
If you were reading X-Men comics in 1993, you were likely thrown by Mr. Sinister’s casual reveal of a third Summers brother to a bewildered Cyclops in X-Men Vol.2 #23. Sinister claimed to have misspoken in the moment but the seeds of fan suspicion had been sown. Marvel was known to tease secret family ties in this manner, so speculation ran wild for a good while. Writer Fabian Nicieza had planned to reveal the 90s-tastic Adam X “The X-Treme” as Cyclops and Havok’s brother, but that idea was (mostly) lost to the sands of time and the question of who the third brother could be went unanswered until 2006’s Deadly Genesis (Brubaker, Hairsine, Woods, Silvestri).
Deadly Genesis doesn’t have a stellar reputation among X-Men fans, the Summers brother reveal being just one of several reasons. Some have dubbed it a filler comic owing its existence to the delays suffered in Astonishing X-Men’s release schedule. Others loathe the retcon of the Giant-Size origins and the way this story obliterates Charles Xavier’s integrity while introducing more dead X-Men in the wake of House of M’s M-Day.
Miles Stokes, one-half of the podcast Jay & Miles X-Plain the X-Men, has mentioned on a few occasions his frustration with the retcon and shafting Adam-X in favor of Vulcan. I think this fan disappointment is absolutely warranted. And yet, it may obscure the intention behind this reveal:
What if you were never supposed to like the third Summers brother?
Gabriel Summers’ characterization is interesting in that he lacks compassion despite his proximity to the Summers’ legacy. Vulcan acts like a terrible, narcissistic child with far too much power. A vindictive little monster that would rather chase resentful impulses than use his considerable abilities to benefit others. It’s odd, in a way that feels intentional. Why would Marvel editorial wait twenty-three years to answer the question of who the third brother is with a sadist? I have a theory.
"The more you break down the events which molded Vulcan the more it appears that Ed Brubaker may have been inspired by the life and times of historic Roman tyrants."
Gabriel Summers’ life has a specific tinge of Roman tragedy to it. The more you break down the events which molded Vulcan the more it appears that Ed Brubaker may have been inspired by the life and times of historic Roman tyrants, which would make sense thematically. The Shi’ar Imperium, to which Vulcan was born, is itself a nod to the Roman Empire – constantly swallowing up the territories and cultures of others while forcing assimilation from a bloody throne. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
When Gabriel’s parents, Christopher and Katherine Summers, were abducted by the Shi’ar (amid the same plane crash that orphaned Scott and Alex) he was still in his mother’s womb. Christopher (Corsair) went into slave labor and Katherine became one of the Emperor’s concubines being murdered by D’Ken during her husband’s attempted revolt. It’s all very tragic.
This is where the logic in Vulcan’s origin gets wonky.
Gabriel Summers was taken from his dying mother’s womb by D’Ken and placed in an incubator to age him to that of a teenager – a Shi’ar process generally reserved for slave labor. Why? I dunno. It could have been that Marvel was trying to reconcile Fabian’s Captain Marvel inference that Adam-X was the child of Katherine and D’Ken. Still, to artificially ripen him for slavery seemed like a lot of work for the payoff of Gabriel going back to earth to serve a Shi’ar diplomat. And then I thought about my ancient history classes in high school.
Diocletian (244-311 AD) was born into slavery in the Roman province of Dalmatia. He struggled through immense family trauma through his early life until proving his battle-readiness in the military as a young man. His rise was so meteoric that in 282 AD, he was appointed by Emperor Carus to Commander of the Protectores Domestici. Upon Carus’s death two years later, Diocletian was unanimously chosen as the new Emperor by the army. Emperor Diocletian went from humble slave to emperor in a way that bears some resemblance to Emperor Vulcan’s later ascension in the Rise & Fall of the Shi’ar Empire (Brubaker, Tan, & Henry).
When Gabriel Summers escaped Shi’ar slavery as a “teenager” he was found by Moira MacTaggart having virtually no memories of his life. He claimed his name was Gabriel but this was likely a name he chose himself. As a mutant, he preferred to be known as Kid Vulcan, a name Moira tells Charles Xavier he chose from a book on Roman mythology which looked to have been read “hundreds of times.” I don’t think these names are subtle references.
In the Holy Bible’s Book of Daniel, Gabriel is the revealer, a role Gabriel fulfills in Deadly Genesis. In the Book of Ezekiel, he was an angel sent to destroy Jerusalem, and likewise, Emperor Vulcan sees the beauty of the universe and wants to burn it all down. Finally, the name “Vulcan” comes from the Roman God of flame and smithery, but unlike his Greek counterpart (Hephaestus), this god was known more for fiery destruction. If a home was burning down and lives were ruined, the ancient Romans were pointing the finger at Vulcan, so it’s appropriate that the energy-manipulating Gabriel would identify so much with him.
When Xavier approached Moira MacTaggart about using her young mutant wards to save the X-Men from Krakoa, she was apprehensive. When Xavier appeals to her pupils Petra, Sway, Darwin, and Vulcan for aid, it’s Gabriel who says “Of course we’ll do it.” In Vulcan’s mind, Xavier was asking them to become X-Men, and I’d wager this opportunity appealed to his childish view of heroism and glory, which had mostly been rooted in Roman mythology.
The title “Deadly Genesis” makes it clear how Xavier’s plan played out: half of this young team dies and the other half is assumed dead. When Vulcan is revived in the present due to M-Day (another plot-point that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in context), he is reasonably pissed. The time-lapse had served to rob him of any semblance of “Gabriel’s” humanity. Now an Omega-level mutant, he had the rage of a volcano and the power to cause some serious damage.
Deadly Genesis ends with another great nod to Roman imperial tropes – family drama. Having already murdered Banshee and kidnapped family members, Vulcan has gone full-tilt. He viciously attacks the X-Men before revealing the deception and lies Charles Xavier has been peddling for years. The mind wipes. The knowledge that he was responsible for the apparent death of Kid Vulcan. Hell, he even took Scott Summer’s memory of meeting his little brother away entirely. In the end, it would be Vulcan who rejects Scott and Alex before bolting into space to take revenge on the Shi'ar.
Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antonius (211-217 AD) had the same murderous rage and disdain for family as Vulcan. Marcus’ father, the beloved Emperor Septimius Severus, named him and his younger brother, Geta, co-heirs for the throne. Marcus responded by murdering Geta and cleansing Rome of all of his little brother’s supporters before declaring a brand new age for himself. There is a familiar “burn it all down” thing going on with Vulcan throughout his reign in the Emperor Vulcan mini-series.
If you hated Deadly Genesis, you may not have bothered to read Brubaker’s follow-up arc in Uncanny X-Men: Rise & Fall of the Shi'ar Empire, and that would be a real shame. A nod to Edward Gibbon’s famous The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, this arc of Uncanny X-Men finds a unique balance between space opera and Roman tragedy. It’s a vibe you feel as soon as Gladiator and the Praetorian Guard clash with Vulcan in Shi’ar space.
I think it really works in the context of Vulcan’s life. In ancient Rome, the Praetorian Guard were an elite unit of the Imperial Roman Army whose members served as personal bodyguards to the emperors themselves. Although they were intended to be apolitical servants of the ruling class, the Guard became notable for its role in Roman politics, to the point of overthrowing emperors and proclaiming their successors. The Shi’ar Praetorian Guard would come to fulfill a similar role amid Vulcan’s eventual reign.
Vulcan arrived in Shi’ar space exhausted, but angry. Between the constant murder and long spaceflight, he wasn’t in any shape to fight the Gladiator of the Praetorian Guard and found himself in a Shi’ar prison on the throne world of Chandelar. He also happened to lose his eye in the fight, so you can imagine his pissed-off headspace when he’s isolated in a cell. To his surprise, Vulcan would be freed by a “Secret Order” of Shi’ar plotters who intended to use the mutant to “restore the true empire.”
Empress Lilandra had become complacent since being possessed by Cassandra Nova. She appeared weak to the senate and her closest advisor was leading this Secret Order, not unlike Roman senator Gaius Clapurnius Piso’s conspiracy of 65 AD to plot against the throne of Emperor Nero. In both cases, trusted officials of their empires masterminded entire revolts in the shadows. It would be through the support of this underground order that Vulcan would reconnect with Lilandra’s exiled sister, Deathbird, whom he’d soon become romantically involved with.
Sadist or not, why would Vulcan only find solace in the arms of a much older, cruel woman like Deathbird? I think it comes down to his maturity level. There’s a great moment in Uncanny X-Men #480 where Vulcan appears to have a conversation with a vision of himself as a child. His awareness of his own maturity is apparent by the way “young Gabriel” taunts him:
“You know what yesterday was? Do you, widdle baby? Your birthday... and I figured out how old you really are... Which was a lot more work than you'd think. First you subtract the years you were suspended in a hunk of asteroid... then you deduct the years the Shi'ar aged you... carry the decimal point... and I think you're finally a fifteen-year-old. Though mature-wise, I'm thinking closer to thirteen.”
This statement with the context of Vulcan’s affair with Deathbird gives a distinctly predatorial vibe to the entire relationship. There is a power dynamic that isn’t balanced in the least bit; one that Deathbird uses to manipulate Vulcan into delaying his plan for vengeance and actually restoring Emperor D’Ken from his injuries. Ironically, and perhaps poetically, it would be this act of mercy towards D’Ken which directly led to Vulcan’s marriage to Deathbird and his ascendancy to the Shi’ar throne.
Vulcan kills D’Ken and names himself Emperor before then murdering his space pirate father, Corsair, in cold blood. It’s a twist you could see a million miles away but it kinda works. What’s interesting is that when Vulcan ascends to the throne, he spares Gladiator his typically murderous wrath. Gladiator took Vulcan’s left eye in their last fight, leaving the new Emperor’s face disfigured. So why the mercy?
I have a theory about that too.
Disfigurements from any conflict were born with pride to curry favor among Roman citizens. Scars bolstered your credibility as a man, and in some instances, soldiers would have debts or crimes forgiven by simply presenting the scars they had obtained in valor. Although it’s never explored in Rise & Fall of the Shi’ar Empire, I’d say Vulcan may have been thankful for the visible proof that he survived a fight against the famously powerful head of the Praetorian Guard.
Vulcan lost a lot of focus when he became emperor. The addition of governmental power spanning the great vastness of the Imperium was too much for a little boy like Vulcan. Although the Shi’ar forces were throughout the universe and vast, Emperor Vulcan’s impetuous drive to become a conqueror stretched his war machine thin. Vulcan took new territories for the Imperium, but by ignoring the civil war led by his brother, Havok, and the Starjammers he had over-extended his forces. Havok sees this behavior as the “obsession” Vulcan has with making the older brother acknowledge his superiority, but I don’t agree with Alex Summers (I rarely do). History has observed a similar imperialist approach towards governance with Emperor Maximinus Thrax (235-238 AD).
Maximinus exhausted the Roman empire with war. The constant campaigns and the high wages he’d granted to the soldiers led to higher taxes for his people and regular revolts, some of which were backed by his own senate. Maximinus, like Vulcan, sought glory for his name through conquest rather than the just treatment of his people, and likewise, Vulcan would soon find himself at odds with both the enemies abroad and his citizens at home.
The greatest mistake Emperor Vulcan made was prioritizing the conquest of the Kree over solidifying his power at home. The Shi’ar, still reeling from the death of Empress Lilandra and suffering under the rule of a narcissistic human from Earth turned to the Praetorian Guard’s Gladiator for leadership. Meanwhile, Vulcan overestimated his power next to the new king of the Kree, Black Bolt.
In War of Kings, Vulcan can be seen looking like a piece of beef jerky after surviving a mild conversation with Black Bolt, vainly declaring, “Omega-level! Omega-level! [...] You can’t kill me! I just rebuild myself!” which may or may not be an intentional nod to Emperor Caligula (37-41 AD) whom also claimed to be immortal before being stabbed to death. Emperor Vulcan died a petty and mean little boy. His apparent death underscored how one-note Vulcan had always been as a character.
The intention behind examining Emperor Vulcan’s life isn’t to exonerate his awfulness. His character added little to the greater X-Men lore outside of a brief story of a little boy playing dress-up as a Roman Emperor in outer space. It isn’t as though Gabriel’s character ever really expanded beyond being a vindictive bastard. Throughout his life, Vulcan only used his immense powers for self-interest alone, and as an Omega-level mutant, almost every fight he’s in is a bit less interesting given how uneven the scales are. Ironically, the flimsiness of his character is at the crux of all his conflicts. So, as much as I think we all should appreciate the effort Ed Brubaker and Chris Yost poured into making Vulcan a true Roman tyrant, it’s not like I saw it as a loss when it looked like the Third Summers brother shuffled off the mortal coil.
Imagine my surprise, then, seeing Vulcan in the promotional art for House of X and Powers of X, followed by an appearance on the cover of Hickman’s X-Men #1 with the entire Summers clan (and Logan). Does this mean that Gabriel Summers will finally have a shot at redemption in Hickman’s hands? Will we see a return of his murderous impulses? I can’t say what the future holds for a character with a mythological god-complex but I’d love to live in a world where Vulcan sucked less.
Who knows? Maybe that world is Krakoa.