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"The End" of Claremont's X-Men

Well before the COVID-19 pandemic changed the retail landscape, I had a weekly tradition of checking out the second-hand bookstore with my four-year-old son. Each payday, I’d grab my comics and see what used trades we pick up. Grayson knows from our house that Daddy is a fan of the X-Men. So, we’d sift through the same bargain bin of paperbacks, and each week he’d show me the same three volumes of X-Men for only $12 (Canadian)! His thoughtfulness is one of the best parts of being a dad, but I couldn’t help but frown at his picks. The three books were the three parts of “X-Men: The End,” a miniseries focused on the X-Men’s end days, by Chris Claremont.

Chris Claremont is a legendary writer. It’s likely you’ve heard of his sixteen-year stint on X-Men. It’s on all of the marketing material. To this day, Claremont holds the records for the longest run as a writer on an American comic book series and the most sales of a single issue (X-Men Vol 2, Issue #1). “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” “Days of Future Past,” “God Loves, Man Kills,” and so many other beloved X-Men stories were crafted under his stewardship. I even keep a framed issue of Uncanny X-Men #223, signed by Claremont, hanging in my office. Why then would there be bad vibes from his vision of the X-Men’s future (for a cheap price)?

That’s a bit complicated.

The X-Mansion explodes in a fiery ball of X
RIP X-Mansion

Claremont’s End Times

“The End” exists at the weird nexus of “line-wide event” and “reused pitch.” The series was branded to be a part of a line of Marvel comics focused on possible final outcomes for Marvel characters. I find the branding somewhat misleading. Unlike the one-shots like “Hulk: The End” and limited six-issue minis like “Wolverine: The End,” “X-Men: The End” is a whopping 18-issues, spanning three volumes, allegedly modeled after The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The movies, not the books (this was 2004, after all).

Oh, and there is no actual end for the mutants in this mini.

"X-Men: The End" was written by Claremont and drawn by Sean Chen, with cover art by Gene Ha and Greg Land. The Land covers are exactly what you’d expect. Sean Chen’s penciling does an admirable job though reigning in the overwrought dialogue and narration he has to work with. Where he can, that is. There are some pages with just a single image and a parade of narration boxes. I feel as though Chen was at a disadvantage because he hadn’t previously worked with Claremont and this project didn’t start with him.

The ideas in this mini-series were once pitched to Marvel as a team-up between Claremont and former collaborator John Byrne, with Byrne developing plots and art and Claremont on dialogue. When “X-Men: The Hidden Years” was canned by Marvel, Byrne left the publisher in a huff and the vision was morphed into what we know as “X-Men: The End.”

“X-Men: The End” was released over a two-year period from 2004-2006 and was overshadowed by “Astonishing X-Men” and “House of M.” I found it difficult to find exact sales figures, but the first volume had supposedly shipped about 71,000 copies according to Comichron. Critically, the few websites that covered this series were not terribly favorable because...well, it’s bad. You could easily call it the X-Men’s own “Ultimatum” (the infamous grand conclusion to the Marvel Ultimate universe) and feel justified. Dozens of beloved X-Men die, and in the most needless ways.

Prodigy gets dead.
RIP Prodigy

Claremont claims to follow the old Marvel approach of each issue potentially being a reader’s first issue. He said as much in an interview this past November with Word Balloon (26:07). “I want the story, but I want it quickly because I want to see what happens next in terms of the evolution of their lives and not the chapters of this giant pantheon. I mean, people ask me what is my favorite story and I say,’#97-#279 pg 11.’ because it’s all one story but it’s cut into a lot of different self-contained [sic] pieces that flow.” It’s a wild claim in the face of this mini-series, where you need an unrealistic knowledge base from his Uncanny X-Men, X-Treme X-Men, and Fantastic Four runs to make sense of the plot.

The Beginning of "The End"

There are a ton of nods in "X-Men: The End" to past work. Not all of it is good, per se, but all of it is very Claremont. Kitty is working on her Chicago mayoral election campaign at a bar, X-Force is tracking down terrorists in India, Kurt is a now-famous actor, and Storm is on life support with Logan as her full-time caregiver. Each X-Man has, in some way, moved forward with their lives in some respect since their spandex days, true to Claremont’s original vision.

The Kree, meanwhile, have bankrupted themselves to obtain Jean Grey – The Phoenix – from one of Claremont’s favorite narrative conventions, slavers. This Jean isn’t a clone. She’s the real deal, as evidenced by a nearby sun exploding in the shape of a firebird, notifying the whole goddamn universe of her presence. This event whips up a frenzy throughout the universe, with the Shi’ar looking to annihilate her and the X-Men, and Mister Sinister looking to abduct some kids.

Cable’s X-Force is attacked and decimated by the most unlikely of enemies – Doctor Doom’s generals from the Heroes Reborn universe: the techno-organic Technarx, sorceress Shakti, the amorphous Divinity, and Shitan (think “an evil Storm-alike”). This is a problem because these baddies are mostly not X-Men villains. They are Claremont characters from a pocket universe that doesn’t even exist anymore. It doesn’t make sense that they would now be working for Sinister or that they would want to attack Cable’s team so viciously.

Puffball dies after very little screentime.
RIP Puffball

When Cable’s team has their jet shot down, he rushes to the wreckage only to find that Puffball saved everyone but herself, giving this character a single-panel X-Men appearance – without even showing her face – before death. Moments later, Boom Boom (“Meltdown” here, for some gross reason) is murdered in a frankly disgusting way. Not only is she absorbed, but Divinity makes a point of saying that he is devouring her soul while using her powers against her friends. I want to give these two deaths a specific shout-out because the way Claremont brutalizes women in "X-Men: The End" is not okay at all.

Women hold a weird space in this mini. The protagonist is technically the daughter of Bishop and Deathbird, but she’s a Mary Sue that we never even see use her powers. Jean is the thing that kicks the hornet's nest, but she lacks agency despite being the most powerful being in the universe. Storm is positioned as disabled until the plot needs her to be otherwise. And this is all to say nothing of the shafting Emma and Rogue get. For someone with a reputation for putting strong women at the forefront, Claremont seems to be suffering from amnesia.

The Trouble with Warskrulls

A Warskrull is a suicide bomber bummer
RIP Warskrull

The biggest problems I have with "X-Men: The End" are the antagonists. We later learn that Nova and a villain from Claremont’s X-Treme X-Men were behind the attacks on the X-Men and their school but they didn’t carry them out. No, it was actually green aliens that shapeshift.

Warskrulls are more closely associated with the Fantastic Four or Carol Danvers. Why are they here? If I were being charitable, I’d suggest Claremont was nodding to his time on FF. But, if we are being honest, it’s much more likely he wanted to cram in as many old X-Men antagonists as possible. With the help of Skrulls, he got to dust of Genesis, Stryfe, Yukio, and other villains who would have been better in-person than some nameless green dudes. I’d say at least three-quarters of conflicts in this series are with Skrulls.

When the Warskrulls inevitably destroy the X-Mansion in “X-Men: The End,” it’s admittedly pretty spectacular. It starts with a giant X-laser blasted through the mansion. It’s a big fiery mess and, although it's not clear just how many students have been killed, it’s probably the worst loss of life the X-Men have experienced. All that’s left is a crater when the antimatter fusion reactor at the heart of it explodes and a sunlike fireball lights up the sky. Claremont’s narration compares it to 9/11 in a way that hasn’t aged well.

Line chart showing X-Men casualties
RIP a whole bunch of X-Men

If the intent of “Book Two: Heroes & Martyrs” was to be The Two Towers of the trilogy, it missed the mark. The bulk of the deaths in “The End” take place either in the final issue of the final book or the final issue of the first book, with some of those deaths being confirmed in the first issue of the second. Most of the second book features plots that sound interesting but don’t go anywhere. The POTUS, for instance, tired of the mutant’s handling of localized explosions on US soil, triggers “the Nimrod program.” Does this lead to anything later? No. Do we even see Nimrod? No. It’s just a throwaway line.

RIP this plot thread

Probably the most abrasive of Claremont’s narrative choices is the resolution to the Madelyne Pryor subplot. When we first see her, she’s attacking the X-Mansion with Genesis and Stryfe. So, I assumed she was Warskrull. She’s not – this is the real Maddie. It’s not clear why she is attacking with Warskrulls, but when she gets close to Scott, Maddie just kills his guard (RIP Dust) and assumes the bodyguard’s identity. She later reveals herself as Maddie to Scott in order to make Jean/The Phoenix whole again, saying that the whole reason they didn’t work out was because of her unrequited feelings.

It’s lunacy.

Worse, Cyclops spends a lot of time in Book Two making impassioned speeches to “Dust” about his dead friends. How tragic it is that he has to make leadership calls that lead to death. How he can’t believe the way he treated Maddie in the past. This becomes very problematic in the final volume, when Scott reveals he knew it was Maddie the whole book. Unless Claremont meant for Scott to come across as emotionally manipulative, I think this was a writing oversight.

Cyclops admits he knew Maddie Pryor was Dust all along
RIP our respect for Scott

The other big revelation that Claremont had in the works was Gambit’s reveal as a clone. This was a part of his original vision for the character, which was nerfed because, well, it was gross. As Claremont revealed in the Gambit issue of the Classic Marvel Figurine Collection:

"He was supposed to come in, meet Rogue, Rogue was supposed to fall in love with him, the act of falling in love develops a humanity in him that separates him out from Sinister or rather Sinister's human half. So in a sense, we have a love triangle between a now 60-year old mind in an 11-year-old body, the young Gambit, and Rogue. One's good, one's bad. Originally he was a bad guy pretending to be good but then he would discover that maybe he liked being good more and he was torn one way or the other. Ultimately there would be a conflict between Gambit and his creator, his true self."

At one point in "X-Men: The End," Mister Sinister removes the rhinestone diamond on his head to reveal a somewhat paler Gambit. Sinister had also swished some Cyclops DNA into the mix, making Gambit technically the fourth (now fifth?) Summers Brother. The big "Sinister X Rogue X Gambit" conflict is an anticlimax in "The End" which leads to Rogue’s fridging. Gambit becomes an actual trope (see: Impersonation Gambit) in a plot to infiltrate the Shi’Ar as Sinister that’s foiled almost immediately.

The Big Claremont Ending

Honestly, I had to take a break while reading the third book because each issue hammers you with narration. Walls of text from page one, on. I truly feel for Sean Chen, trying to do artistic gymnastics over all of Claremont’s words. The final issue of “X-Men: The End" has Cassandra Nova pulling herself out of Rachel's head to become the new Phoenix. Jean Grey, as with the classic saga, needs to save the day with some “Tree of Life” approach to tying the universe together. I have read this mini-series five times, and I still have no idea how this conclusion solves anything.

RIP just this whole mini

I guess you could call the ending lazy or half-hearted. I’m sure some fans will like the fact that Claremont leans so brazenly into old motifs, tropes, and his past plots. In fact, it might be unfair to assume anything less of Claremont. The problem, I guess, is that it makes his work stagnant. Maybe he can’t do anything other than what’s expected. That wouldn’t be a problem if this was truly the end of Claremont’s work in this universe.

It wasn't.

“X-Men: The End" isn’t the end of the X-Men. It’s actually the genesis of a branching timeline, designated Earth-41001. His follow-up series, “GeNext” and “GeNext: United,” both make explicit mention of events from “X-Men: The End,” taking place ten years after its events. GeNext also features characters related to characters we know, such as Pavel Rasputin, a carbon copy of his “grandfather,” Colossus. So, this little pocket of the Marvel Universe belongs solely to Chris Claremont and it’s as derivative as you’d expect.

If you hold this up as a final outcome for the X-Men next to Krakoa, the contrast is stark. To one side, there is a lot of Claremontian baggage where the X-Men are miserable and get knocked off by alien strangers. To the other, you have literal green pastures of freedom and overcoming the trauma of death itself. Sure, it may be isolationist and a subversion of Claremont’s vision, but Krakoa is more uplifting than Chris’s bleak vision of the future. “Uplifting” is something Claremont generally doesn’t like to offer, and based on my recent read of the Chris Claremont Anniversary Special, I for one am glad he’s no longer the Head of X.

In memory of all of the beloved X-Men heroes who met their ends at the hands of Warskrulls, Heroes Reborn rejects, and Chris Claremont, I have collaborated with my friend and visual artist Scott Modrzynski to pull together the below poster of the deceased. We previously jammed on a collection of fan-made X-Men Trading Cards which you should check out if you haven’t. May the souls below finally rest in peace (or panel).

Cue "In the Arms of An Angel"

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