In superhero comics death is anything but absolute. Unless someone’s name is Gwen Stacy or Martha Wayne, death’s hold on a character in this fantasy realm is tenuous. In a world full of magic, time travelers, Infinity Gems, and Mephisto, it’s wise to never assume death’s permanence. While that can cause a wide range of issues from a narrative standpoint, it’s especially challenging when it comes to depicting how characters mourn.
The X-men are no stranger to death and all the melodrama it brings. Stories like the Phoenix Saga, Days of Future Past, and the Morlock Massacre are largely structured around the impact of death, often on a large scale. Compared to other superhero teams, the X-men deal with the more personal aspects of death more than others. A big part of their struggle, as mutants, is directly tied to survival in the face of hatred, fear — and conflicts over movie rights. That means the bar for dealing with death is high for the X-men and X-men: The Exterminated #1 is already behind the curve.
Spinning out of the events of Extermination, this story deals with the aftermath of another bloody event that left multiple characters dead. Among that body count was Cable, but his death carries a unique set of complications and not just because he was killed by another time-displaced version of himself. Cable is one of those characters that evokes mixed feelings, among his friends, his closest allies, and his readers. He always seems to defy fate, be it death or a dystopian future. So why worry?
Zac Thompson, Lonnie Nadler, and Neil Edwards attempt to celebrate this defiance through Jean Grey and Hope Summers. In principle, these two are in the best position to honor his legacy. His mother and adopted daughter are among the few characters who regularly brought out the softer side of Cable. For a character who embodies the big gun, big muscle brutishness of ’90s-era superhero comics, that’s something that can unite Hope and Jean in their sentiment over Cable.
However, the story that plays out here only achieves so much in the context of reacting to Cable’s death. The story provides multiple references to defining moments in Cable’s life, including a quip about his questionable tastes in costumes during the late ’90s. It even has moments when the sorrow Jean and Hope is conveyed pretty well. In terms of giving those details the dramatic weight they need for the death of a major character, however, to readers, it may seem mild.
Hope Summers and Jean Grey have strong familial ties to Cable. That canon spans decades of X-men comics. However, there’s no other bond (e.g., experiences) between these two. Some of this is due to logistics. Jean Grey was dead for every major moment in Hope’s life, from her birth in Messiah Complex to her return in Second Coming. They never get a chance to be a family, even though they are canonically part of the same family. The way they carry themselves in X-men: The Exterminated #1 gives the impression that they’re closer than actually can be, given the constraints of continuity in this storyline.
There’s a lot of musing and reflecting between Jean and Hope. They share plenty of memories and feelings about Cable as they visit his many safe houses. They even encounter Deadpool, who mourns Cable’s death in his own way. Granted, that way involves explosives, but it’s perfectly in keeping with Deadpool and the kind of relationship he had with Cable. It helps lighten the mood, but it also highlights what’s missing with Hope and Jean Grey.
These characters clearly care about Cable, but they may as well be strangers who just happen to be fans of the same TV show. But even with Jean’s recent resurrection there aren’t enough links to their respective stories to make their interactions convincingly more meaningful. The ending gives the impression that once they finish mourning, they’ll have nothing to do with one another. In that context, it’s hard to buy into the strength family ties, here.
It also doesn’t help that Hope Summers has a few moments that paint her as an immature brat who easily overreacts and whines whenever she doesn’t get her way. Jean finds herself in the role akin to responsible adoptive grandmother, reminding Hope why Cable did what he did, and how that led to his demise. This scene leads to the most emotional moment in X-men: The Exterminated #1.
The death of a major character like Cable is bound to have a major impact on the X-men moving forward, which will come to play in future X-men comic books. X-men: The Exterminated #1 doesn’t hinder or supplement that narrative. It simply tries to focus on the personal aspect of Cable’s death.