Over the past year, I have read hundreds of X-Men comics. It has been a strange journey and even now I’m neither sure why I began this journey nor why I continued it, but it happened, and the weird adventures of Marvel’s mutants are permanently etched into my mind.
There is a great deal of fluff in this extensive archive, even during the much-celebrated Claremont era, and especially during the 90s, which had comics that I can’t even look at because the drawing disgusts me (If you like that artwork, it’s fine, but the artwork coincided with a narrative departure from the civic issues, identity issues and overall science fiction coolness that make X-men interesting to me, so it is hard for me to parse the two). But despite the fluff, there are many rich moments, in terms of storytelling and character building, and in terms of concepts.
One concept that has really stuck with me is the idea of contingency. Contingency is at the heart of genetic mutation and arguably at the heart of the series: the central motif of X-Men is how do people live with abilities that they have no previous understanding of or that can change without notice even when they do understand them (due to secondary mutation, stress, experimentation, fear, the government etc.). I think that the best iteration of this theme came during the Avengers vs X-Men crossover series of 2012.
In that limited series, members of the X-Men and members of the Avengers take sides on the issue of the coming of Phoenix. The Phoenix is a cosmic force that perennially crosses the universe, doing whatever it wants, usually destroying planets and civilizations. The series starts when the two teams learn that it is coming to Earth. The X-Men anticipate the return of the Phoenix because they think it will save mutants, which are on the brink of extinction; the Avengers dread the return of the Phoenix because they think it will destroy the planet.
When the Phoenix arrives, the Avengers intervene and instead of taking one red-headed host, as it usually does, it takes five hosts, all members of the X-Men (and notably all without red hair!). Wielding this newly-acquired omnipotent power, the Phoenix Five do good deeds across the world. But after being persistently opposed by the Avengers, they decide to hunt for the Avengers and other perceived threats.
One of these threats is Mr. Sinister. Mr. Sinister is a mutant, geneticist and longtime enemy of the X-Men. Sinister has a history of horrific experiments on mutants and horrific actions against them, and when the Phoenix Five arrive, he lures them into giving him control of the Phoenix. Things look bleak until the Phoenix simply decides that it itself doesn’t want to be controlled by him, electing to return to the Phoenix Five.
Up until this point in the series and in X-Men history, the Phoenix has just been a plot device. It comes, it shakes things up, somebody dies (usually someone with red hair) and then the world is saved. In all of those previous instances, the Phoenix had a determined function, in the narrative and as an entity. In this story, the Phoenix is completely indeterminate, in form, in function and in potential. It is contingency incarnate.
In his book After Finitude, Quentin Meillassoux has a chapter where he distinguishes between contingency and probability. Probability is the potential for change under constant, established conditions, like a dice roll. Contingency is is the potential for both the variables and the conditions to change, like a dice roll in which the the dice grow another face and become seven-sided and then explode into butterflies. In regular practice we do not expect dice to do such unexpected things because the world seems to work according to fixed, predictable rules, allowing us to make decisions based on what will probably happen. In a contingent world, there are no fixed rules. Anything can happen at anytime. Dice can turn into butterflies and grown men can eject metal claws from their knuckles.
The ultimate point of that chapter of the book is that though we cannot fathom raw contingency because our world is relatively stable, contingency itself is contingent, so we actually do experience this raw contingency, but only because contingently, contingency holds the world together. In other words, the seemingly absurd world in which butterflies are born from dice and men have metal claws is actually the world we live in. We just don’t see these things because the potential for these things is also contingent.
A lot of science fiction, including the X-Men, makes a few things contingent and then watches how these strategic tweaks play out, but my point here is that none of this was fully realized contingency. As anticlimactic as it is in terms of narrative, the Phoenix’s decision to simply not be controlled despite Mr. Sinister winning his battle with the X-Men is an example of raw contingency. Mr. Sinister didn’t plan for it because he couldn’t. There’s no such thing as a contingency plan when you are dealing with actual contingency. That is horrifying.
Unfortunately, the Phoenix does not make any more radically contingent decisions as the Avengers vs X-Men goes on, so this is just a brief glimpse into what radical contingency can look like. Marvel’s What If series toys with this kind of contingency all the time, but none of it is canonical, so the horror of raw contingency is dialed back because it is purely speculative. Still, it happened once and if the right mind makes the effort, perhaps an entire story about the horror of raw contingency could happen someday.
*I wasn’t very thorough with citations in this post, but Uncanny X-Men Volume 2 #15-17 are the comics I summarized and took the screenshots from. The chapter in After Finitude is chapter 4.