Exclusive Interview: “School Of X: The Phoenix Chase” Author Neil Kleid
It’s funny to look back at the first Iron Man movie and think how that character got his own movie when he wasn’t as well-known as Spider-Man or Superman. But every character has to start somewhere. Which is what I was thinking when editing the following email interview with writer Neil Kleid about his new novel School Of X: The Phoenix Chase (paperback, Kindle), an X-Men novel about the mutant Kid Omega. Who? you might ask…for now…
For people unfamiliar with him, who is Kid Omega, and what are his powers?
Kid Omega — also known by his sapien name, Quentin Quire — was a student at the Charles Xavier School who started a riot after daring to question his teachers’ methods for achieving human / mutant coexistence. Specifically, he asked “Why coexist?” and “Was Magneto right?”
Over the years, Kid Omega has gone from rebel to threat to reluctant student and eventually, to hero. An omega level telepath — a mutant whose dominant power registers an undefinable upper limit of that power’s specific classification — Quentin is also a skilled telekinetic and a psionic of the highest order. He’s one of the most powerful telepaths on Earth, and was an avatar of the Phoenix Force (his future self was shown to be the Phoenix’s eventual host), which leads into our story…
And then what adventure do you send him on in School Of X: The Phoenix Chase?
During the School Of X timeline, the X-Men have splintered into two schools: the Jean Grey School For Higher Learning, and the New Charles Xavier Institute. Kid Omega, bouncing between both, has taken it upon himself to introduce a third school: Kid Omega’s Mutants Without Borders. Naturally, his few close friends follow charismatic Quentin’s lead…until those friends are kidnapped off Earth by a squad of mysterious aliens — powerful enough to thwart Kid Omega’s psionic powers — who leave behind a message for a “Summers to deliver a Phoenix Egg” to them in exchange for the kidnapped mutants. Feeling guilty, Quentin swallows his pride and asks Cyclops for help to track down an Egg and then his friends, who could be anywhere in the galaxy. Instead, Cyclops pairs the Kid with his brother, Alex (a.k.a. Havok), who is more familiar with the galactic landscape, having been a Starjammer, and in need of some practice in being both a teacher and leader. Naturally, Kid Omega doesn’t think he needs a teacher — just someone with a spaceship — and both interpersonal conflict and space hijinx ensue during a scavenger hunt across the Marvel cosmic landscape.
The Phoenix Chase is the third book in the School Of X series after Tristan Palmgren’s The Siege Of X-41 and Amanda Bridgeman’s School Of Light [which you can read more about here], and which is itself a spin-off of the Xavier’s Institute series, and especially the short story anthology School Of X, to which you contributed the story “Kid Omega Faces The Music.” How does Phoenix connect to those previous novels and especially your story?
So, I was invited to contribute a story for School Of X by my amazing editor Gwendolyn Nix, and given a list of X-students that were fair game. I landed on Kid Omega because, well…I believe good character growth is motivated by conflict. And, yes: Quentin is irritating, so plenty of character meets conflict there. But if you look at most of The X-Men — especially the younger generation — it’s my opinion that his character arc is one of the more fascinating of the bunch.
He started as a nobody, remember? The great Grant Morrison turned Quentin into first a rebel and then a threat, questioning Charles Xavier’s dream from a millennial’s P.O.V. before social media really took off. A villain? Technically, but never labeled that way. Just…a problem. Then comic relief and now, during Krakoan era, a hero. But it’s those formative years — the journey from handful to hero — in which he fascinated me. That’s what I wanted to explore. Moments in which he had to learn to rely on others.
Plus, I love his voice — I actually wrote the pitch while watching Loki on Disney+, so it has a very trickster, wisecracking, quippy vibe; Loki, but if he were a social media influencer with a chip on his shoulder.
And so, I wrote a short first-person account of Quentin learning about sacrifice and what it means to be selfless instead of selfish, as seen through Magneto’s eyes. It did all right, and was nominated for a 2022 Scribe Award by the Association Of Media Tie-In Writers. But I wanted to spend more time in Kid Omega’s head. And I also wanted to write a story set in Marvel’s cosmic arena…from there, the pieces kind of fell into place.
So, did you start with the idea of writing a story about Kid Omega and The Phoenix Chase is what you came up with, or did you come up with the plot and then realize Kid Omega was the best X-Men to be the main character of it?
I definitely started with Quentin. 15,000 words wasn’t enough; I wanted to explore more after leaving him where I did in the short story, and Gwen agreed there was room to find the right story.
Why did you want to write another story about him, and where then did you get the idea for The Phoenix Chase?
Once I married Kid Omega to a theme that’s been prevalent in a lot of my writing — legacy, or fathers and sons — I knew the story I needed to tell. Gwen and I both wanted to present a space odyssey: leaving the confines of Earth, and exploring an aspect of the Marvel universe that hadn’t been touched upon in the Aconyte novels. And if we were going into space, as a former and future host to the all-powerful Phoenix Force, it was clear that Kid Omega’s path was going to cross the intergalactic parasitical buzzard on his eventual personal horizon.
As luck would have it, the time and place of the story, continuity-wise, is set only a few years after both the deaths of Charles Xavier at the hands of a Phoenix-fueled Scott Summers…and Scott’s father, Corsair, at the hands of Gabriel Summers (a.k.a. Emperor Vulcan). There were so many threads to pull, and if I was going to focus on not only Quentin’s growth as a meant and mutant but also legacy — father and sons, teachers and students — it just made sense to have him both learn the highs and lows of emotional connection from all four of the Summers men — Alex Summers included, the book’s second lead — clearly no strangers to the Phoenix Force, themselves.
With space pirates and an intergalactic war, it sounds like The Phoenix Chase is a sci-fi space opera superhero story. Is that how you’d describe it?
I mean, It’s almost a family road trip movie combined with high-stakes space adventure — Star Wars meets National Lampoon’s Vacation? — but there’s lots of action, plenty of drama and tons of emotional depth.
The key draw for me, aside from writing more X-Men, was getting to play in the Marvel cosmic arena. I’m a big Star Wars fan, and also a Marvel continuity wonk, so being able to insert classic and obscure Marvel aliens, planets, and historical landmarks throughout the book was a lot of fun. There are some fun cameos from characters both instantly recognizable and those who haven’t been seen in a long while. But I’ve done my best to make sure readers both new and old don’t feel lost, and enjoy themselves throughout our little journey across the stars.
Now, The Phoenix Chase is not your first novel. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that you think had a big influence on The Phoenix Chase but not on anything else you’ve written? And no, not counting the X-Men comics.
Yeah, like I said I’m a big fan of ye olde Star Wars, and as such a lot of the novels which include some of the Tales From anthologies — Tales From Mos Eisley Cantina, Tales From Jabba’s Palace, etc. — that really dove into background characters (as do the current Del Rey From A Certain Point Of View anthologies) and really flesh out their character motivations on a smaller scale. I tried to ensure that readers new to X-Men continuity or Marvel cosmic didn’t feel at sea, and understood that every character has a story — known or unknown — and presented them in a way that they didn’t feel like ciphers or scenery.
Other LucasFilm scribes from which I took my lead included Delilah Dawson, Chuck Wendig, James Luceno, and Claudia Gray.
But I will say that the book was mostly influenced by years and years of X-Men continuity plus research, and the various creators who shaped this franchise since 1963.
How about non-literary influences; was The Phoenix Chase influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games? Aside from the Marvel movies and shows, of course.
Star Wars, of course, and though you’re having me discount it, I mentioned Loki above. Both Tom Hiddleston and Owen Wilson’s performances as Loki and Mobius in that show were huge influences on how I presented Quentin and Alex, to be honest.
To be truthful, being a father of four, raising a boy who’s entering high school…that might have been the largest influence on how I told both Quentin and Alex’s stories. Alex is obviously me — learning to be a father, failing as I try — but so is Corsair, and all his trials and triumphs along the way. My kids, not only did they inform some of Kid Omega’s reactions and dialogue, but they also helped me understand Scott, Alex, and Gabriel’s individual points of view as seen through the eyes of a brother, father, or students. Look, I’m not a perfect Dad — no father is, I bet — and I’m always learning ways to get better at it, and sometimes, my kids make the best teachers. And sometimes, they learn something from me, as much as they’re loathe to admit it. And every now and then…each of us ask for help from the other in order to do so. That is what this story’s about. I hope and parents and kids, and teachers and students who read this book see that they aren’t alone.
Now, I’m guessing you think The Phoenix Chase could work as a comic book…
Heck, yes. Gimme a holler, X-Office.
…but do you also think it could work as a Marvel movie or show?
I don’t think it’d work as a Marvel movie or show — not now, at any rate — because it depends a lot on history and continuity build-up that really might take a while to set up. Maybe one day? It’s like, when people tell me that Kraven The Hunter’s first appearance in a Marvel movie should be based on the classic tale “Kraven’s Last Hunt,” in which Kraven, uh, [SPOILER] passes on, I’m like, you have to establish him as a character and build him up a little before you tell that story.
Here too; first, you gotta introduce The X-Men. And it’s coming, I think. But then you need to really build up the Phoenix, and everything to which that entails. And then you have to build up Kid Omega, and all of his ridiculous and glorious baggage. Sure — you could do a skinnier version of this using other characters, but not until some of the baseline is established.
That said, I’d love to see a Kid Omega movie one day, animated in a unique way ala Into The Spider-Verse, that takes him into space. Or maybe just toss it into the revival of the X-Men animated series. That’d be swell.
So, is there anything else people need to know about The Phoenix Chase?
Like I said, tons of Marvel cameos, particularly of the space-faring variety. An X-Men adventure in the mighty Aconyte Books manner, set in the heart of the Brian Michael Bendis run. Lots of fun pop culture references. The book (I think, anyway) is fun and funny, heartfelt, and dramatic. Hopefully readers won’t need to run to the Googles every time they’re introduce a new character or plot device — I’ve tried to do a good job making sure you, dear readers, are brought swiftly up to speed without need of social media or a psionic diary bullet telepathically fired into your skull.
Overall, it’s Quentin Quire, Alex Summers, and The Starjammers hunting down an aspect of the Phoenix Force in order to rescue the only friends Kid Omega believes he has. But during the course of the narrative, Quentin might learn that the most important friends are the ones he makes crossing the glorious majesty of the galaxy…kicking, screaming, whining and complaining the entire way.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Phoenix Chase, what X-Men comic in which Kid Omega appears in would you suggest they check out?
I would highly recommend checking out his initial appearance, “Riot at Xavier’s,” which ran in New X-Men, issues #135-138. Getting that first glimpse of who he is and why he began the road he’s still traveling today really helps inform some of the character work I tried to do in the novel: his relationship with authority; his stance on mutant rights; his friendships, obsessions, and grievances. Sure; later appearances are fantastic and helps follow his moments of growth and change…but you can’t truly appreciate them without starting at the beginning.
Other issues that might help set up the book include: X-Men: Phoenix Endsong (2005); X-Men: Emperor Vulcan (2008); X-Men: Kingbreaker (2008); and X-Men: Schism (2008).