With a name like Mr. Sinister (I tend to refer to him simply as Sinister), it can be pretty hard to take Nathaniel Essex seriously. That would be a big mistake!
Chris Claremont intended Sinister to be the psychic projection of a mutant child who could never age. Yeah, Claremont had some really wacky ideas. But this particular idea was picked up by later writers and turned into something remarkable in my view – into one of the greatest X-villains, a character who’s crucial to the history of the mutant race…
A Sinister Background
If you want to understand Sinister, then you really have to start with The Further Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix. In 1859, the scientist Nathaniel Essex – a contemporary of Charles Darwin – had taken the idea of evolution and run with it. Essex believed that evolution didn’t always work in gradual steps, but that sometimes there were cataclysmic moments of sudden change. He scandalised the Royal Society by welding together corpses into a simulation of such a future human. At Sinister’s behalf, a ragtag group known as his Marauders collect freaks for his study – and stumble upon none other than Apocalypse.
The storyline is haunting, with Essex twisted by the death of his child – a death he had been unable to prevent. The presence of Apocalypse draws Essex on to a dark path, in spite of the best efforts of the time-travelling Cyclops and Phoenix. Ultimately, the death of Essex’s wife Rebecca and their unborn child is what it takes to make Sinister essentially renounce humanity, embracing all that Apocalypse has to offer. And yet, there is a subtle hint that all is not yet lost; Sinister turns against Apocalypse, forcing him into hibernation once again.
As the years passed, Sinister, transformed by Apocalypse’s technology, travelled the globe; he became ever-more obsessed with evolution, intending to be its master rather than its slave. By 1891, Essex had taken the pseudonym Dr. Milbury, and had settled in New York as an obstetrician. It was while in New York that Essex again encountered time-travellers, this time Gambit and the shapeshifter Courier. Sinister absorbed Courier’s abilities, as he seems to have done with many other powers (not least telepathy).
During this same decade, Sinister found himself drawn to the Summers bloodline, one that had fascinated him since the encounter with Cyclops and Phoenix. Specifically, Sinister took in the woman known as Black Womb.
By the early twentieth century, Sinister had become a man with many connections; in Origin II we learn that he has allied with one of the great European powers (hinted at being Germany), and – like the Hellfire Club of the time, who had witnessed Apocalypse’s power in 1859 – had intertwined the concept of evolution with that of the Overman.
By now, Sinister had a band of Marauders who are deeply disturbing.
To Sinister, then, to be an Overman was to cast aside your humanity; there seems little doubt to me that he tempered his own humanity over the years just as he did his own. In 1907, the year after the Hellfire Club released the first Sentinel, Sinister encountered his first mutants – the men who would become Wolverine and Sabretooth. He was badly injured by Wolverine when the two broke into Sinister’s castle.
It is worth pointing out that already Sinister had developed advanced technology of a disturbing type; he was undeniably one of the greatest scientists alive, having practiced his foul experiments since 1859.
Sinister goes under the radar for an unknown amount of time, now – silent through the whole of the Second World War, a fact that has always surprised me. In the first X-Men Forever series (not the Claremont alt-universe series), we learn that Sinister had established a genetic laboratory at the site of what was ostensibly the nuclear research plant Alamagordo. There, he conducted experiments on various children – including Cain Marko and Charles Xavier – and identified hints of their potential. Years later, we learned that Sinister also devised technology there that would save his life, transferring his consciousness into those vessels he had chosen, including none other than Charles Xavier.
All this really makes me wonder what the true story behind Alamagordo was, not least because Irene Adler (Destiny), Mystique and Black Womb are all tied somehow to the site. And at the time Kurt Marko died, he already knew about Charles Xavier’s powers – even before Xavier did.
It’s worth noting, incidentally, that Sinister had once again successfully corrupted a government; Black Womb was at the least government-sponsored. Now, this is actually where it gets really tantalising; that was revealed in X-Men Forever, which also established that the US Government was involved in supporting Black Womb in 1946. Given Sinister’s ties to Germany in Origin II, I suspect he was continuing to practice his science in Nazi Germany (let’s face it, the ideology would be attractive); and that he was one of the scientists picked up by Operation Paperclip. This would be a perfect fit.
Another of Sinister’s projects was the State Home for Foundlings in Nebraska, an orphanage Essex ran (and populated, in the guise of various children). This was one of Sinister’s main laboratories, and no doubt the majority of the children there were at Essex’s choice (perhaps he had even played a role in making them orphans…). When Scott Summers was orphaned, Sinister arranged for him to be taken to his orphanage, where the young mutant was at Sinister’s mercy. It’s no coincidence the optician from the orphanage was able to give Scott ruby quartz glasses, a rather odd idea for any optician to think of – the optician in question was in reality once again Sinister in disguise!
The Modern Mutant Era
In more recent times, Sinister has been one of the most potent and dangerous villains to face the X-Men. His obsession with Cyclops and Jean Grey led to his monitoring their lives to a horrific extent, and after the death of Jean he created her clone Madelyne Pryor. Sinister’s sole focus was upon procuring the resulting child, and he brought tragedy time and again to Cyclops’ life. Ultimately, Sinister was manipulated by the mutant terrorist Stryfe in X-Cutioner’s Song, who claimed to be giving him the future of the Summers genetic code; instead, he was actually giving him the Legacy Virus, which tore through the ranks of the mutant community. The Virus went against everything Sinister believed in, and he strove to cure it.
Sinister’s Marauders have become associated with devastating pain and treachery – they were assembled by Gambit and unleashed against the helpless Morlocks, in the gripping crossover Mutant Massacre. It was ultimately revealed that Sinister had recognised signs of genetic engineering among the Morlocks, and even identified his own technology as being involved. In reality, this was due to the Dark Beast, who had fled the Age of Apocalypse – where he trained under Sinister – and had settled among the Morlocks.
In many ways, though, Sinister is the main villain of the past decade. Perhaps he had enough future knowledge to spot the patterns, or perhaps he simply believed that evolution would find a way; whatever the truth, after the Decimation Sinister recognised that the mutant race would be reborn. He gathered a small army together, and attempted to capture the Messiah Child; however, he was apparently killed by Mystique. In reality, his mental patterns simply began to switch bodies.
In the Kieron Gillen run, Sinister used Celestial technology to attempt to force evolution into his own image. He failed thanks to the X-Men; and, later, Cyclops led the Phoenix Five in a relentless campaign against him. Sinister still slipped through the cracks, though, and it’s worth noting he managed what even the Avengers couldn’t; he almost gained control of the Phoenix Force!
Sinister is still out there, no doubt watching with fascination as the mutant race is born again. He remains dangerously unethical, and the threat he poses cannot be overstated.