There are so many X-Men out there! You can’t walk round your private island paradise anymore without bumping into twenty mutants. But that raises a question which Shelfdust are going to try and answer! Who is the Best Mutant? We’ll be inviting some of the best writers in comics to argue their case!
By Dan Grote
Peter Winston Wisdom was co-created by writer Warren Ellis, who was accused by so many people of predatory conduct, emotional manipulation and grooming that they created a website to share their stories.
Wisdom spent his first few years of comic book time as Ellis’ self-insert, dating a mutant previously presumed to be a teenager. Within five issues, their relationship became sexual. Even if she wasn’t underage, Wisdom was about 10 years Kitty’s senior, creating a dubious X-romance topped only by that time Angel had sky sex with a definitely-teenage Husk over her mother’s head.
And yet, Wisdom is the best mutant, not because of any of the above things, not even because of his powers — an ability to generate “heat knives” from his fingers that he rarely uses — but in spite of all that.
Because Peter Winston Wisdom, with the aid of Britain’s superhero community, eventually moved past his uncomfortable origins and stopped a vampire invasion from the moon.
The thing that made Wisdom a fascinating character in that initial Ellis run was his presentation as the tortured spy with a conscience. His bosses in Black Air were presented as an edgier, darker answer to their forebears in the Weird Happenings Organization, another in a long line of examples of the ’90s rejecting the bright colors and unabashed joy of the ’80s, but also an attempt to inject a bit of The X-Files into the X-Men. They made him do things he wasn’t proud of, like incinerate an entire village in Thailand.
He hated himself and the things he’d done in the name of national security. But if you talk to his friends in the game, they tell stories of Wisdom saving their children and stealing helicopters to get them medical treatment because, according to his ’90s catchphrase, “It needed doing.” He knew how to spy for good, he just didn’t get to do as much of it as he wanted.
This is the stuff Cornell latched onto when he took ownership of the character, first in the 2007 Wisdom MAX miniseries and again in 2008-09’s Captain Britain and MI:13. A decade removed from his creator, Wisdom hadn’t walked away from spycraft. Instead, he made it work for him the only way he ever could: by making it about protecting the people he cares about.
By series end, issue #15, Wisdom secures his place as Britain’s spymaster by pulling a trick involving the skull of Quincy Harker that prevents an armada of moon-based vampires from invading Earth, because, you see, they had not been invited in.
While the big guns like Captain Britain, Blade and (checks notes) Black Knight do their thing, Wisdom sets up a night-time picnic to watch the show with a backpacker he’d picked up a few issues before who had the misfortune of watching her friend be rent in twain by a vampire crashing to Earth.
Admitting an appreciation for Christopher Priest (the novelist, not the comic writer), he tells Tara, his date, that he’s in the middle of performing a magic trick. Before an empty night sky, Wisdom says:
“You see, everyone’s been treating this like it’s a game of chess. But you only play honourable games if you don’t care about the pieces. If lives and nations are at stake — one cheats.”
Then, with a well-placed, “SHA-BOOMMMMMMM!!!” Dracula’s magic space pirate ship lights up the night sky in a fiery explosion. Wisdom barks some spy orders into his watch phone (the fantastic technology of a far-off future) and toasts his date, who looks, naturally, like she’s just had to absorb A Lot.
(It should be noted that for the occasion, artist Leonard Kirk and colorist Brian Reber draw Wisdom in a sharp robin’s-egg-blue turtleneck instead of a three-piece suit. It softens him a bit just as we’re all about to learn what a strategic genius he is.)
“Vampire State,” the final volume of Captain Britain and MI:13, is not a redemption arc for Wisdom. There’s no panel where we see him moping his way through an internal monologue about having to make up for all the bad stuff he did under Black Air or how he misses Kitty or Maureen Raven or some other past love. There are too many other characters moving through their narratives — Brian Braddock’s surprise reunion with Meggan, Spitfire fighting her vampiric nature to resist Dracula, Faiza Hussain coming into her own as the wielder of Excalibur — to waste time on some mopey Morrissey-ish behavior. He’s exactly what he needs to be to thwart a vampire invasion: Competent. Nothing less, nothing more. Exactly what a nation requires of him.
Fifteen-year-old me fell in love with Wisdom as a sarcastic-yet-brooding British parody of Fox Mulder. As an Ellis insert, he worked as intended — he had memorable lines, an admirable code under his flaws and he got the (possibly underage) girl.
Damn-near-30 me got a Wisdom who could still crack wise and wear the hell out of an off-the-rack suit, but who was a leader who’d learned to take everything he hated about the spy game and, instead of walking away, transcend it because “it needed doing.” And the other superheroes, instead of merely tolerating him, respected him for it.
Cornell shared his thoughts on Wisdom with me in a 2018 interview:
“I like his straightforward, wry viewpoint, which cuts across the world of superheroes. He’s also more recognizably British than a lot of British heroes. … It’s him I miss, actually, from that book. He was very much my viewpoint character.”
Wisdom would go on to be further redeemed by writer Tini Howard, who made him a government liaison to the new Captain Britain in the current volume of Excalibur. There, Wisdom is portrayed as a snarky good boy who loves his country very much and isn’t so much down for the whole Krakoa thing save for an eventual holiday you know he’ll never take.
Howard writes a playful flirtation between Wisdom and Betsy Braddock that I’m dying to see play out but likely won’t bear fruit for a while. But I look forward to the day when these two characters — both of whom are very much married to their job — can pause for a moment and allow themselves a little happiness. After all these years, Pete’s certainly earned it.
He is, after all, the best mutant.
Captain Britain & MI:13 #15
Writer: Paul Cornell
Artist: Leonard Kirk
Inker: Jay Leisten
Colourist: Brian Reber
Letterer: Joe Caramagna
Dan Grote is the former editor and publisher of comics news site WMQ Comics and now edits the indie and DC corners of ComicsXF. By day, he’s a newspaper editor, and by night, he’s … also an editor. He also co-hosts the weekly creator-interview podcast WMQ&A with Matthew Lazorwitz. He lives in New Jersey with his wife, two kids and two miniature dachshunds. Find him on Twitter here!
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