An X-Panded Guide to Marvel’s ‘Earth X’ Trilogy
If you heard the conversation with Alex Ross on This Week in Marvel, here’s a deep dive to go with it!
On this week's bonus episode of This Week in Marvel, legendary comics creator Alex Ross stopped by to talk about his latest series MARVELS X and how it ties into the epic EARTH X trilogy of 20 years ago. After listening to the audio episode, check out this deep dive by Ryan "Agent M" Penagos and read the original trilogy on Marvel Unlimited!
Picture it: Marvel of the late ‘90s. Artist Alex Ross has gained great fame and acclaim for painting not just MARVELS for us, but also an incredible alternate reality four-issue story for our distinguished competition about a future overrun with new generations of super-powered heroes and villains. But at the House of Ideas, Alex had bigger ambitions. Alongside co-writer Jim Krueger and artist John Paul Leon, Ross envisioned a sprawling, epic, alternate reality story set years ahead in modern Marvel’s future, but with deep roots to its very beginnings. This is EARTH X!
When we say sprawling, we mean it! The whole kit ‘n’ caboodle is more than 50 issues long, beginning with the Earth X Special Edition published by Marvel and Wizard Magazine in November 1997. It’s an introduction to many of the core characters and includes sketches and descriptions by Alex Ross. The first proper story issue of EARTH X wouldn’t arrive for over a year; EARTH X #0 was released in January 1999. The EARTH X series would span 12 more numbered issues, as well as X and ½ issues, ending in mid-2000. The sequel, UNIVERSE X, was told across 20 issues from July 2000 to September 2001. The final part of the original trilogy, PARADISE X, was 23 issues across the main title, one-shots, and two tie-in limited series from 2001 to 2003.
EARTH X #0 provides a history of the Marvel Universe, with a heavy focus on how the planet Earth, and all the super beings thereupon, were shaped by the Celestials. And issue #0 introduces our POV character, X-51 AKA Aaron Stack AKA Machine Man, the new Watcher. Uatu has been blinded, and he recruits X-51 to be the new Watcher over Earth during a very tumultuous time… even if Aaron doesn’t want the gig. As the story unfolds, we find out why Uatu is blind as well as what role he really plays in everything. EARTH X #1 picks up after a 20-year gap, and things have changed. Everyone on Earth has super powers, seemingly all mutants now. Heroes have fallen, changed, morphed, warped.
Luke Cage is a cop. The Avengers are gone, replaced by robot versions. Captain America is scarred and scared. Black Panther is a Panther-human hybrid. Peter Parker is overweight and washed up with a daughter who’s merged with the Venom symbiote. Even the villains are twisted—Hydra is a nightmarish alien hive-mind creature that’s taken control of She-Hulk, Sharon Carter, Falcon, and more. The U.S. government is functionally gone, and Osborn Industries keeps society afloat. Red Skull is a telepathic boy who conquers minds while riding in the hollowed-out shell of M.O.D.O.K.
Captain America rallies forces to marshal against the Red Skull. While that is going on, the Inhumans return to Earth and Reed Richards looks for reasons and answers to everything, which are delivered by X-51. EARTH X #9 brings the big full revelation of what has happened to Earth, and more importantly, the true purpose of humanity, what Earth is, and how it all fits together. The biggest plot in the series is that the Earth, like many other worlds, is a womb for a Celestial embryo. The population, mutated, is meant to protect the planet from invaders and problems until the Celestial’s birth. The Red Skull, a powerful telepath, is meant to unify all the forces and minds on the planet to protect it. But, ya know, he’s evil and Cap opposes him.
One of my favorite moments toward the end of EARTH X is Red Skull messing with one of his captives, telling her, “I’m God.” In the next panel, Captain America rolls through with his forces, Lockjaw’s teleportation pitchfork in hand, draped in the flag, bald and old and angry, saying, “Then I’m Nietzsche.” It’s the brainiest, kinda dorkiest action hero moment, and it rules.
In issue #X, which is kind of the 14th issue of the run, it’s all-out war with the Celestials returning to Earth, and battling not just Inhumanity, but also Galactus. It’s huge and wild and includes an amazing double-page spread of Namor rallying sea creatures, airships, and everything to battle the Celestials. “I have known vengeance and manipulation all my life. My ancestors cry out for a reckoning from the depths. The sea will be your grave. IMPERIOUS REX!” There’s a full-page splash of Galactus using a weapon against Nezarr the Calculator, and it legit made me sit back in my chair and laugh with joy.
Nearly each issue of EARTH X opens with X-51 and Uatu the Watcher looking back at the history of important Marvel Universe characters—Captain America, the Fantastic Four, Namor, etc. And the end of each issue also features an appendix, providing more info through dialogue between Uatu and X-51 alongside Alex Ross’s character designs and sketches. Over time, the appendices evolved their dialogue based on the story and characters; issue #12 has Steve Rogers talking to someone named James…
Interesting things that came up in EARTH X well before hitting in other places: Carol Danvers calling herself Captain Marvel (appendix to issue #5); a female Thor (not the first time, but still); Ben Grimm and Alicia Masters are married, living on Yancy Street; Black Bolt sets off a Terrigen Bomb, causing latent Inhuman genes to be expressed; Storm and Black Panther rule Wakanda together. There’s more, too—it’s such a fertile series for ideas and possibilities.
EARTH X ends with the saving of Earth from the Celestials, clearing the decks for numerous subplots including the Inhuman Royal family, a new X-Men team, X-51 and Reed Richards, Captain America, and more. But it also sets the seeds for the next part—UNIVERSE X—with the return of Mar-Vell.
EARTH X is about the grand nature of the universe, the part that humanity plays, destiny, defying plans, and more.
UNIVERSE X is a bit longer, with the same issue #0, #1-12, #X structure, but with additional one-shot issues that flesh out some of the side stories—Wakanda’s migration, Captain America’s final adventure, Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and more. The main series was again scripted by Jim Krueger, on a story by Krueger and Alex Ross, but with art by Doug Braithwaite. Instead of X-51 being our main POV character through a conversation with Uatu, it shifts to Nighthawk and Gargoyle, two former Defenders. In this new reality, Nighthawk has magical eyes that can see things across space and time, and Gargoyle chronicles all that’s seen. They open most of each, though things change as the story unfolds. Each issue also had an appendix with Ross’s designs and additional story elements. As for the story…
UNIVERSE X #0 picks up three years after the events of EARTH X #X and everything is so much worse on the planet. The death of the Celestial embryo has messed with the vibranium in the Earth, which has thus messed with the polarity of the planet. The world is dying. Reed Richards and other heroes have tried to save the planet, burn out the Terrigen mists, and reverse humanity’s mutations with massive “human torches” throughout the world, but the torches are under constant attack.
Mar-Vell has returned, reborn as a child to “Him” and “Her,” Adam Warlock and Eve, as a sort of universal savior. He’s on a quest to gather powerful items and is chaperoned through the series by numerous heroes—Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, X-Men, and more. Mar-vell is also, as a glowing energy man, rallying forces in the afterlife to try and kill Death. While all THAT is going on, two other major evil forces are at the ready: the Tong of Creel is a cult that is trying to resurrect the Absorbing Man, and Mephisto is manipulating almost everyone and everything.
The Tong of Creel is really neat. We find out that Absorbing Man killed the Avengers. He went into a rage after his love Titania was put into a coma and then he absorbed Ultron. He became super powerful – and super huge – and knew the Avengers’ weaknesses and murdered them. Only Vision was able to stop him, bringing him down to size with a virus. Absorbing Man was then shattered and his pieces scattered. The cult vies to resurrect him… and it works. Imagine a Celestial-sized bald, shirtless, bad guy thrashing everything.
The Mephisto angle plays heavily into Mar-Vell’s quest, all the side stories, the Nighthawk and Gargoyle threads, and so much more. It’s peeled away slowly and carefully throughout the series in nasty and cool ways. With time travel, diverging realities, belief, and destiny, Mephisto’s path plays extensively into the bigger themes of the book.
If EARTH X was a lot about humanity changing and defying its role, UNIVERSE X went deeper into the nature of reality. It digs into, and shows, the multiverse – or the Omniverse, as they call it throughout the series. We see Days of Future Past, MC2, Killraven, and more.
Loki had also discovered some truths about the origins of the Asgardians in EARTH X, and those elements carry into UNIVERSE X. It ties into mutability of identity and reality, and into defying what Absorbing Man is and could be.
UNIVERSE X ends with Earth saved, the decks cleared again, and the afterlife version of Thanos destroying Death with the Ultimate Nullifier, letting Mar-Vell free to start his plans to build heaven… or Paradise.
While the other series begin with #0 issues, PARADISE X begins with a prelude series, PARADISE X: HERALDS, by Krueger, Ross, and artist Steve Pugh. And it doesn’t even begin in the PARADISE X universe! It opens on the Days of Future Past Earth, moments before Wolverine, Storm, and Colossus are killed by Sentinels. We follow X-51 as he picks up and revives Wolverine on Earth X, adding this older Logan to a team of Omniversal heroes, his Heralds—Hyperion, Bloodstorm, Spider-Girl Mayday Parker, Deathlok, Killraven, and Arno Stark AKA Iron Man 2020.
The series posits that all alternate realities were created by Mephisto in his manipulations of time and diverging paths as seen in UNIVERSE X. And now, X-51 wants to save all other Earths from the Celestial manipulation, so he sends his ragtag heroes to various Earths in hopes of warning their respective Reed Richards’. We see worlds overrun by vampires, ruled by Kulan Gath, and more. This prelude series ends with the Heralds on X-51’s Earth after tricking all the multiversal Watchers into revealing themselves and the Celestial plans to humanity on their own earths.
PARADISE X #0 kicks off the main series by Krueger, Ross, and Braitwaithe, providing a bit of a recap of everything that’s come before, along with details about what’s happened in the year since UNIVERSE X ended, what Paradise is all about, and adding in some bonkers new elements. When Mar-Vell killed Death, that opened the way for him to create Paradise, a heaven for all the souls who can accept death and move on. Mar-Vell used all the items he’d collected on Earth—books of magic, the Cosmic Cube, and more—to build Paradise inside the anti-matter sun of the Negative Zone. This is much to the dismay of Annilihus and Blastaar and others, because it’s not only a violation of their space, it’s also expanding and overtaking the Negative Zone.
Mar-Vell makes Steve Rogers and six other souls—Matt Murdock, Tony Stark, Hank Pym, Victor Von Doom, the Phoenix, and Black Bolt—the angelic defenders of Paradise known as the Avenging Host. But on Earth, with Death gone, no one can actually die. They just languish and suffer with open wounds and maladies. And on the Moon, X-51, Nighthawk, and Uatu are besieged by the Guardians of the Galaxy! The future ones who are also the originals. (Ya follow?)
The story grows from there, as the Guardians travel around, looking for a way to empower humanity in their time to overthrow the brood. The alternate universe Heralds integrate and engage with their new reality—Spider-Girl hangs with Spidey and Venom, old Wolverine learns about his origins, Hyperion punches things yet just wants to die. Normal stuff.
Mephisto emerges as the true big bad of PARADISE X. He manipulates the Asgardians, he unleashes a monstrous new death entity upon the planet, he kills and lies and just mucks nearly everything up for everyone still alive. Opposing Mephisto, whether he knows it or not at each point, are Reed Richards, King Britain, and other heroes. Reed’s journey in PARADISE X is core to the book, from trying to help those who can’t die, to going into Paradise itself and confronting Mar-Vell.
Right, Mar-Vell. The young Mar-Vell in the land of the living became disconnected from the Mar-Vell that created Paradise. It’s revealed that the cosmic Mar-Vell created Paradise, through its expansion, as a way to save everything from the Elders of the Universe who wanted to shove fragmented pieces of reality together and revert things back to an original reality. (The original reality before the current one was said to be perfect, but the Celestials messed it all up.) So Mar-Vell was trying to save people, but it was also hurting and confusing people.
In the realm of the dead, Steve Rogers and Matt Murdock try to help convince the dead to move on and go to Paradise, while also uncovering the secrets of Paradise that make them very wary about the true purpose of it all. The Avenging Host eventually rebelled against Mar-Vell and were destroyed. Mar-Vell gave up his vast cosmic powers, imparting them onto Reed Richards. Reed restored the Avenging Host, developed Paradise further, and ends the series hoping to save his son.
Now, after more than 15 years away from these stories and characters, we’ve returned! MARVELS X, by Alex Ross, Jim Krueger, and artist Well-Bee jumps back into the world of EARTH X—but 20 years before the events of the original series! A prequel looking at the early days of the onset of inhumanity, MARVELS X follows the last human on Earth, a boy named David, and his place in this world gone mad. Follow along with David’s journey in MARVELS X as it releases now, and then dive deep into original EARTH X trilogy on Marvel Unlimited.
And to hear the full conversation with Alex Ross on This Week in Marvel, download the audio episode below:
Stay tuned to Marvel.com for more about MARVELS X!
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