When Your Head Caught Flame: How Bisexual Polyamory Could Save the X-Men

I’m an endlessly picky and particular comic book fan. I have Ideas and Opinions, and that often means I’ll read fewer books. But, I think, it also means I find some absolute gems in the books I do read. In this case, I want to talk about the “Tomorrow Never Learns” story arc in Wolverine and the X-Men vol. 2.

I read TNL for the first time in early 2015, pretty much as soon as the arc went live on Marvel Unlimited, Marvel’s back-issue e-library subscription service. I was pretty new to comics, and this was the penultimate arc of Wolverine and the X-Men, the first comic book series I ever read the full run of. I absolutely loved characters like Quentin “Kid Omega” Quire, Idie “Oya” Okonkwo, and Evan “Genesis” Sabahnur and their classmates, already, but it was this arc that solidified something for me:

Idie, Evan, and Quentin are a tipping point, not just for the X-Men, not just for mutantkind, but for the X-Men comics themselves, and this is intrinsically linked to the fact that they — all three of them — are in love with each other, or will be by the end of the story.

TNL is, essentially, a story about the way mistakes repeat themselves generationally until someone breaks the cycle. In it, Quentin, a powerful psychic destined to play host to the cosmic entity called the Phoenix Force, discovers that, in his future, he destroys the people he loves the most. His older self tells the story like so:

FUTURE!QUENTIN: Oh, that’s right, you don’t know about Evan. Oldest story there is, really…build a boy up. Give him something to fight for. To believe in. And when he begins to doubt you…to question your rules…you treat him like he’s the one who’s broken. He’d finally decided to go his own way, you see — and they just couldn’t allow it. So after all those years of being the black sheep — of having Evan’s every success magnify my failure — I was the only one they could turn to to stop him. And only Idie stood between us.

PRESENT!QUENTIN: And that’s why you killed Apocalypse? Tell me there’s a one-eyed pelican or some other future emoticon that you forgot to add to the end of all that — tell me Evan died for more than just to prop up your wounded widdle ego.

FUTURE!QUENTIN: There’s no killing Apocalypse, Quentin…the line of Celestial Succession ensures that. At his side, Idie became “Death” — Apocalypse’s heir. My hand was forced. Evan could never die without dooming her — but he could still be stopped. Caged by Cerebra. Trapped within his own mind. I sent Evan home to Kansas. His defeat made me a hero. The Phoenix risen from the ashes. I finally belonged. At least I thought I did…until I saw you…and all the things I’d let slip through my hands.

This references the last time present!Quentin and Future!Quentin interacted, during a comics crossover event where many characters from across the timeline wind up interacting. Future!Quentin, looking into his past, is sharply reminded of what he lost. He sat down and then looked across all of time, discovering that someday, in his own future, down the timeline, Evan would someday waken again as Apocalypse.

As a result, Future!Quentin has brought present!Quentin to the future to show him that becoming a hero will take too much away from him, and to show him his own death; Future!Quentin has contrived things so that, by the end of the arc, Future!Idie, Future!Wolverine, and present!Quentin have killed him together.

In Future!Quentin’s own words:

“I did all this! All of it to save them from us! I tried talking to you, Quentin! Tried to warn you of what was ahead! But you just had to make me show you! You will end this cycle! If you won’t — the Phoenix will!”

From “But…” to “the Phoenix will!,” Future!Quentin’s speech bubbles have little flames coming from them, indicating that his words are being affected by the Phoenix Force, who, as a cosmic entity, governs life and rebirth. She — the Phoenix normally possesses women and takes feminine forms — has a history of taking on her hosts’ pain and running with it, turning trauma into violence.

In this case, she takes Quentin’s grief, the sharp reminder of how things used to be, and plays out a the ending of a cycle that we’ve seen before: the “iconic” Wolverine/Phoenix/Cyclops love triangle.

PART ONE: THE TRINITY

Quentin, Idie, and Evan’s story already mirrors the overarching threads of Jean, Logan, and Scott’s. The difference is, though, that Quentin takes Jean’s place in the triangle, with Evan as Scott and Idie as Logan. It’s really very easy to recognize, especially taking into account the major players in the arc: Present!Quentin, Future!Quentin, Future!Idie, Future!Logan, Present!Scott, and Present!Logan. Both present and future Evan spend most of the arc offstage and/or in literal prisons for one reason or another, but their effects on their respective Quentins loom large in the story, anyway.

When Future!Quentin started talking about Evan’s fall from grace, saying that “…when he begins to doubt you…to question your rules…you treat him like he’s the one who’s broken. He’d finally decided to go his own way, you see — and they just couldn’t allow it.” I immediately, immediately thought of Scott and his post-Schism character development.

Daddy’s Home. No, seriously, that was the text for this comic book cover for Cable & the X-Men.

For those not up on their X-Men arcs, back in 2011, the X-Men split into two groups. Logan broke with Scott, because Scott was willing to let teenagers defend the island the X-Men had spent years turning into a mutant refuge. Soon after, Scott was forced to become a Phoenix Vessel, and while so possessed, he and the Phoenix killed Professor X.

I could go into why I think this was both a good writing decision and a morally acceptable choice, but we’re here to talk about my implicitly queer mutant teens, so, moving on:

Nobody handled Scott/the Phoenix killing Charles well. At all. And since Scott was now a pariah in his own community, he decided that going his own way was his only option. Building a more radical arm of mutant liberation, he fought the fights those in Westchester weren’t willing to. Sometimes he was wrong. More often, he was right.

But, of course, they just couldn’t allow it.

Scott’s fall from grace is the cyclical predecessor to Evan’s. Scott, also, briefly merged with Apocalypse in the early 2000s, so there’s another connection there.

As for Idie and Logan, the most obvious connection is that future!Idie and future!Logan kill future!Quentin together, first by impaling him from behind on Logan’s claws, and then with her stabbing him in the chest with the Phoenix Blade.

Logan has either killed or tried to kill Jean both in the comics and the movies — while X-Men: the Last Stand has been retconned out of the XMCU’s main timeline, I think we all remember the Battle of Alcatraz ending with Wolverine declaring that he loves Jean before putting his claws through her chest, right?

In the comics, something similar happened one time when they were passing too close to the sun (I…frankly don’t have context for you here. Just. Roll with me on this one.). He tried to kill her so that she wouldn’t have to suffer a lengthier, more painful death by…being too close to the sun. However, the Phoenix reacted and reattached itself to Jean — essentially the opposite of what happened in the movies and with Quentin in the TNL future.

There was also an incident in Phoenix: Endsong where Jean begged Wolverine to kill her repeatedly while she was possessed, in order to weaken the Dark Phoenix, who was traumatized and hungry for Scott’s power at the time.

Additionally, Logan was also the Horseman of Death during the Apocalypse plotline before the one with Scott merging with Apocalypse. Because comics.

When you take into account the fact that Idie and Logan became very close during the Schism, and and the fact that both of them have long-running angst issues regarding their humanity versus their monstrosity, it makes sense for her to take his role in her version of the triangle.

PART TWO: BUT WHAT ABOUT THE BISEXUALS?

So, we have the trinity. Scott’s story recurs in Evan, Jean’s in Quentin, and Logan in Idie’s.

Now, this is the part where it starts getting queer. In the original generation of the cycle, Scott and Jean marry, with Logan getting both too invested in wanting Jean and then in supporting their marriage, which, to be honest, I could probably write a manifesto about Scott/Jean/Logan as an Ideal Ship too, but that time is not today.

In the new generation, though, Idie and Quentin start dating at the end of the Hellfire Academy arc, though the canonical Twitter accounts (because yes, those exist) for her, Quentin, and Evan imply that Evan also kinda has a crush on her. This never comes up in the title itself, though, and any romantic relationship between Evan and Idie is only potential and implicit in the idea that she stood with Evan rather than Quentin when the time came for their conflict.

So, the love triangle is a little off. But there’s nothing inherently queer about that — until you recognize all of the queer coding and subtext inherent in Quentin Quire himself.

Quentin, let’s be honest, looks like the very model of a Millennial Queer Stereotype. Pink hair, head partially shaved, radical political t-shirts, combat boots — I literally know a ton of queer folks who could do a pretty bang-on Quentin cosplay just with the contents of their closets.

And while anecdotes are not data, at least two people I’ve spoken to about Quentin expressed shock that he wasn’t gay.

There’s also the fact that Quentin is the only male telepath meant to house the entire Phoenix Force; while the rest of the telepaths heavily associated with her are women, Quentin, since his early days, has been among the Phoenix hosts. He appeared in the White Hot Room when he and Jean were dead at the same time; he was massively relevant to Phoenix: Endsong; and while Ink held a portion of her power very briefly for one use, and Scott has been possessed by her, neither of them are ever really supposed to be her Host.

Quentin, during his first death, in the White Hot Room with the White Phoenix

This may have a little bit to do with the gendering of powers in the Silver Age and onward; women were often given superpowers that didn’t involve physicality, or put them in positions where they weren’t likely to be hit by anyone else. As a result, we don’t have a lot of male mutant telepaths, and about half of them are somehow related by vesselhood or blood to the Phoenix/Jean Grey.

Associating a male character like Quentin with a female/largely feminine entity like the Phoenix is a classic method of queer coding — the idea being that straight men are masculine, and gay men are not. This is obviously problematic, but it’s a staple of subtext, so we should recognize it here for the sign that it might well be.

If his relatability/visual coding and attachment to the Phoenix weren’t enough, the TNL arc pushes the subtext even further than just the Gay Haircut et. al. There comes a point in the arc where Quentin is captured by nuns from the future — another cyclical motif in the Phoenix story, with the Clan Askani led by Phoenix vessel Rachel Summers/Grey, and these nuns organized by Future Phoenix!Quentin, it appears — and he, says the following:

As you can see, the “nuns” are both male and female.

I spoke to the author of the arc, Jason Latour, at New York Comic Con last fall, because I saw he was at his table in the artist’s alley, and I had been wondering about the Sexy Phoenix Nuns for literal years by that point, since someone else claimed Latour had said that the nuns being male and female was intentional, and I needed to know for myself.

He confirmed that the Sexy Phoenix Nuns were not just girls on purpose. He didn’t say in so many words that Quentin is bi, but he did say that when you’re a telepath, gender isn’t really much of a thing to be concerned about, since you can see what’s inside them, and fall for that instead. At the time, I only asked the questions to sate my own curiosity, so I don’t have any recording or exact words, but I promise you, this is Claremont-Wants-Kitty-and-Rachel-to-Get-Married kind of canon.

Oh! And, I forgot, Claremont once said that Kitty’s relationship to the Phoenix Force was the same as Logan’s, so. This wouldn’t even be the first queer generation of the Phoenix Cycle.

Latour also confirmed to me that I was correct in my interpretation of future!Quentin’s motivations. Future!Quentin did want to die as a result of having lost Evan and Idie, and he wanted his past self to see it all, so he wouldn’t make the same mistakes.

Love is the motivator. That’s why, when Future!Quentin lays dying, he tries to tell his Idie: “You…of course…it was…was always…about you.”

She doesn’t understand, though, saying, “No, Quentin…you’re wrong…I don’t think it ever was.”

Considering the name of the arc, I’m not surprised.

PART THREE: SAVING THE FUTURE

I’ll be honest: I haven’t been keeping up with the X-Men comics lately. I know some scattered bits and bobs — Charles is probably back from the dead? Jean is definitely back from the dead and has apparently permanently rejected the Phoenix (we’ll see how long that lasts). And apparently, recently, Quentin spent some time as a Phoenix host, being worshipped as a god by the Shi’Ar aliens.

So, you know. Things are weird.

Quentin, chatting it up with the literal personification of potential life in the universe…

But I would like to point out that nothing, so far, has contradicted the future that Quentin saw in TNL. Quentin and Idie have broken up, Evan and Idie spent a year hanging out with the time-displaced X-Men, and now, most of their stories have stalled — making space, of course, for other characters to have their day in the limelight.

I think it’s important, though, to recognize that the “Tomorrow Never Learns” arc allows for a break in the Phoenix Cycle that dovetails nicely with Jean’s rejection of the Phoenix.

If the Phoenix loses interest in Jean and Jean’s bloodline, and Quentin isn’t of that bloodline, he or the (currently living) Stepford Cuckoos are generationally ideal for the role of Phoenix Vessel. We’ve been dealing with an overabundance of Greys and Summerses lately — between two Jeans, Rachel, Scott, and Hope, it might indeed be time for someone else to have a significant go at the Phoenix story.

Additionally, breaking the cycle by allowing a mutant to successfully house the Phoenix without the seeming inevitable tragedy that follows would be a truly new story; something that X-Men comics sorely need in a period of Marvel’s history defined by resurrections, retreads, and crossover events.

I want Quentin, Evan, and Idie to save the X-Men, and to save themselves, also, because they all have been fighting this internal concept of being a monster, of being doomed to tragedy and failure, for most of their histories. Quentin as a Phoenix vessel, Evan as a clone of Apocalypse, and Idie as a devout Catholic — all of them have been seen and found wanting by pivotal groups and figures in their lives.

Taking into account the queer coding, it would be so damn good to see them win.

The X-Men need an unambiguous win. Moreover, they need a story that isn’t about an existential threat.

If Quentin, Evan, and Idie can save each other through the literal power of queer love, they can prove that those at Marvel understand what a major portion of their fanbase need the X-Men for.

As a queer disabled person who got into the X-Men temporarily at seventeen and then for real at twenty, I need the X-Men to prove to me that different isn’t a death sentence. Different can mean powerful. Different can mean gifted.

Different can mean hero.

I haven’t felt that sense of heroic escapism from an X-book in years, aside from the short-lived Iceman book by Sina Grace.

If I could have an X-Men story — a big one, a Phoenix one — where people like me, both literally and allegorically, explicitly got to win, well…

That would mean everything.