Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Cruel Summer: Mister Sinister

My history with Mister Sinister begins, as so many of my comics-related tales do, with “The X-Cutioner’s Song.” He was the tertiary villain at best, showing up near the beginning to kidnap Cyclops and Jean Grey, then again at the conclusion, getting bamboozled into released the Legacy Virus on the world. He looked kind of like an evil Colossus and didn’t impress me much; in a crossover where Stryfe was at the top of his game and Apocalypse was also running wild, Mister Sinister seemed like an afterthought with a goofy name.

Then I saw the cliffhanger finale to season one of “X-Men: The Animated Series”—and the version of Sinister intended to fly on a cartoon aimed at a Saturday morning audience comprised primarily of children scared the crap out of me and left a lasting impression.

Following the big battle against the Sentinels, Scott Summers and Jean Grey are chilling on a beach when the visual framing of the scene shifts and we’re now viewing them through a camera lens. The perspective flips and we see a silhouetted figure seated upon a creepy throne of tentacles or something; he leans forward to reveal a pasty-faced ghoul with sunken eyes and a grinning mouthful of yellow, fanged teeth. And then the kicker: a fiendish laugh that sent chills through my young soul and had me cringing through the summer months awaiting new episodes.
Mister Sinister as the foreboding, undefeatable, supremely confident overarching villain of season two, voiced spot-on with hollow menace by Christopher Britton, became my template for the character, and also intrigued me as far as looking into his comic book history more in-depth.

Truth be told, at first, I didn’t find much.

Chris Claremont’s original concept for Mister Sinister as he tells it is pretty cool: the idea was that he was a powerful mutant who had been around for some time but his physical development had stopped around age 11, so in order to be taken seriously as a super villain, he created the Sinister vessel modeled after what a kid would find scary then sent him out into the world. Certainly some potential there as a sort of evil Captain Marvel—the Fawcett/DC version—analog, but for whatever reason, it seems like the writer never got to play him that way.

Instead, Sinister gets kind of dropped into the X-Men mythos in the late 80’s seemingly just because the Marauders needed a boss and Inferno needed a mastermind, set up as an ambiguous and foreboding figure surrounded by mystery with vague ties to Cyclops. In his early appearances, Mister Sinister does seem when you look back on it with Claremont’s original intent in mind the embodiment of what a kid would think of as a scary bad guy, but since his creator only got to really tell one story with him and then departed the books a few years later, the payoff never took place. Instead, Claremont’s successors were left with a villain who almost seemed a parody—with good reason, since, again, he’s meant to be a kid’s conception—but without explanation.

That’s the comic book version of Mister Sinister I met, and not that surprisingly I wrote him off as a product of late 80’s/early 90’s excess where everybody was a shadowy mastermind with too many secrets and ill-defined powers; he worked as a boogeyman on Saturday mornings—again, Claremont’s intent used in a way he probably never conceived—but seemed unnecessary in comics.

However, writers like Fabian Nicieza and Scott Lobdell saw something in Mister Sinister—and also good X-Men villains are kind of few and far between—so they kept bringing him back and giving him more and more connections to our heroes, without ever revealing much about the man himself. It was frustrating, but also admittedly tantalizing, as I would get annoyed that we never knew Sinister’s deal, yet of course this made me want to know his secrets more than ever and gasp whenever he appeared suddenly in an X-Men comics; the guy had presence, I have to say that.

In 1996, nearly a decade after his creation, Sinister—writers had largely dropped the “Mister”—had his origin told in the Further Adventures of Cyclops & Phoenix limited series, written by Peter Milligan with art by John Paul Leon and Klaus Janson.

Interestingly enough, I never got around to reading the book and once again got my Sinister fix from “X-Men: The Animated Series,” the penultimate episode of which was “Descent,” adapting Further Adventures for Saturday morning consumption about a year after it came out in print form.

In both Further Adventures and “Descent,” we learn that Nathaniel Essex was a 19th century scientist obsessed with Darwinism and evolution who performed depraved experiments and eventually made a pact with Apocalypse to grant him power and immortality as Mister Sinister in order to continue his work beyond his natural lifetime. In subsequent years, it would be revealed that Sinister’s obsession with the Summers and Grey bloodlines were born out of twin desires to harvest incredible genetic potential while at the same time creating the ultimate failsafe against his former master—at some point he got on Apocalypse’s bad side—in the form of Nathan Christopher Summers, who would become Cable.

Probably not what Claremont had in mind, but finally this guy had motivation, and one with potential at that.

Sinister was the old Golden Age mad scientist who got lost in his work and exploited by crime bosses done up in a new way for a generation who expected more layers to their villains and for a franchise that thrived on shades of grey. That the unshakeable ego and calm of Sinister could be rattled be Essex’s gnawing and uncontrollable thirst for knowledge was a different paradigm for the X-Men antagonist of the day. You couldn’t bully or intimidate Sinister through physical force or emotional blackmail, but dangle the carrot of information in front of his diamond-adorned forehead and he becomes a junkie jonesing for a fix.

One of the very best Sinister stories I ever read was “Sinister’s List” from 2003’s Weapon X #14 by Frank Tieri and the guy who I suppose may well be the definitive Mister Sinister artist, John Paul Leon. Following up on the revelation that Doctor Windsor, the seemingly kindly scientist helping mutants to escape from Weapon X’s Neverland detention center is in fact Sinister, who is only abducting them from the prison to his lab for dissection, we get a flashback to Essex during World War II, where he worked alongside the Nazis, cloning Namor and observing the Invaders while attempting to glean knowledge for his own ends. It’s the perfect snapshot of Sinister as a man lost in his own pursuit of answers, completely unaware of the world around him save for the raw elements it can provide him. A pretty on-the-nose comparison between Sinister and Josef Mengele is drawn, but Tieri is quick to differentiate as well, with Essex musing on the “wastefulness” of the Nazi agenda and clearly not adhering to any sort of doctrine of racial superiority, instead viewing all people regardless of creed as nothing more than specimens for the “greater good” of scientific inquiry; true to his Darwinist roots, Sinister doesn’t care which race ultimately survives, he just wants to observe it all.

That was one of the very last times Mister Sinister was featured prominently before his demise in 2007’s Messiah Complex crossover. Truthfully, I think it’s impressive the character made it that far—20 years exactly—given the disparity between his creator’s intentions and where he ultimately ended up, but you have to be impressed at how he seemed to succeed in spite of those conflicting directions, thriving in several different roles and drawing impressive work out of multiple creators who at the end of the day really just seemed to want to solve the riddle of who he was and why he did what he did.

In the first issue of X-Men Forever 2, a comic written by none other than Chris Claremont, a mysterious boy appears in an orphanage alongside Cyclops’ son, speaking ominously with a familiar silhouette surrounding him, so two decades later, we may finally get to see where—to end on a fairly awful pun—this Sinister road leads.

No comments: