The ongoing X-Men title that started last summer, in the wake of both X of Swords and Hellfire Gala, is doing what many longtime fans of the franchise have been missing—interacting more with the world beyond Krakoa (unsurprising the way the Marvel Universe bills itself as “the world outside your window”). But writer Gerry Duggan is actually giving us much more than just that almost numbingly overstuffed world; he’s making the X-Men intersect with MU mainstays in entirely unexpected ways that on reflection appear entirely inevitable.
So right off, I just have to say that I’m enjoying Gerry Duggan’s X-Men immensely, especially the stellar art that is really making it all pop so vividly, whether we’re talking Pepe Larraz or Javier Pina. Even so, I’ve got a few quibbles, like, most recently: Why, why, why did the Arakki not immediately secure their moons, Phobos and Deimos?
Egos Too Big for Mere Planets?
Unlike our own politically complex and divisive world, they have one polity and are, compared to us, unified—and very aware of their spiteful neighbor Earth, even if they’ve only recently emerged out of millennia on Amenth.
It is totally nuts that they sent one champion, Vornak (in issue #6) to oust Feilong, only for him to get killed right away—and they do nothing about it. Look, Isca the Unbeaten was standing by his side when he took off on his one-way mission that was supposed to be a cakewalk, and there’s no follow-up. This is just completely baffling!
That said, I’m fascinated by this Feilong character—although it’s puzzling no one else has previously tried to replicate the accidental way in which the Fantastic Four received their powers, via cosmic ray bombardment. Feilong’s use of ruby quartz to concentrate and presumably transform the rays in some way opens the door to all kinds of super-science experimentation, but again, how is he the only one who’s tried this when American military types have been obsessed for decades with creating more super-soldiers and Hulks? Feilong makes it seem so easy by comparison! (Like his 18-day trip to Mars, which is also wild, but certainly not as much as the entirety of the island of Arakko doing so in what seemed a matter of minutes back in Planet-Size. )
I could see the merged Feilong Industries/Orchis enterprise trying to put an artificial Dyson-sphere satellite near Planet Arakko, perhaps cloaked somehow, but even then, if the Arakki were serious about security, would this really work? And look, Feilong Industries is a private company, not an official political body. Would Earth’s superheroes do anything about Feilong being forcibly evicted from Phobos? Does anyone think those hardcore Arakki mutants would care what Earth even thinks of them?
Actually, viewed from another angle, why would this mad-science fool settle for Phobos when he could’ve traveled, with his super-tech and given the right timing, less than two months to Ceres, the dwarf planet of the Asteroid Belt? Granted, it could never hope to be terraformed like Mars, but if this guy can just set up Dyson rings* by recycling small moons, why not head out for a mindbogglingly vast ring of raw materials and call that the frontier of humankind—not only quickly one-upping the mutants but also staying out of their direct sights? Hmm. I guess the answer is, Where’s the grandiloquent planetary/species-level drama? For monthly superhero comics, Duggan has given us the obvious (most visually effective) answer.
It also probably helps that Feilong has discovered Nightcrawler’s corpse, from Way of X #5, where Onslaught puppeteered Fabian Cortez into overloading Lost’s gravity powers, killing her and dropping Phobos toward Arakko, forcing Kurt to sacrifice himself as he strained his powers to their limit, with Fabian’s help, teleporting the moon back into orbit. No doubt, Duggan has something diabolical in mind for the X-Men’s new villain—a teleporting space station!
(*A Dyson ring, or sphere, is a theoretical device dreamt up by physicist Freeman Dyson, as a way to imagine how humans might harness the energy of the Sun; arguably, what Feilong’s building should be called something else, since its form and function here seem to be totally different. Oh, well—funny books!)
What’s Urich’s Big Deal Anyway?
Another problem is that Urich has been fixated on the unexplained return of Jumbo Carnation, but then, why hasn’t he shown up in recent years nagging the X-Men about the hard-to-explain resurrections of Cyclops, Jean Grey, Wolverine, hell, even the presumably well-known political figure Graydon Creed? Where was he following Jean’s first apparent return from death? How many other superhumans have died and (from the everyday in-universe perspective) inexplicably returned?
I do like that a writer is finally taking the everyday human perspective—and using widely respected journalist Ben Urich really puts legs on this idea. He’s been instrumental in Daredevil stories, but readers need not feel put out if they don’t recognize him. For those who do, we know he’ll remain a supporting character for many issues to come. (In the current situation, he takes on more of a Phil Sheldon role, from the classic Marvels by Busiek and Ross, than just the snoopy reporter familiar to Spidey and DD readers.)
It’s All a Soapy, Spacy Opera
Overall, Duggan has throughout the Krakoa era given some of my favorite characters some of their best character moments, and he’s playing with some glorious super-science notions, almost pell-mell. Will it all hang together? I’m not sure yet, but it’s a fun rollercoaster (to watch from afar ).
[Just one of those great little unexpected character moments]
What I also love and am fascinated by is the constellation of foes Duggan has been building since issue #1: Cordyceps Jones on Gameworld reacting in spite against the establishment of Planet Arakko; Doctor Stasis clearly doing his own nefarious version of The Island of Dr. Moreau and probably only tangentially allied with Orchis; the mysterious Social Darwinist schemes of the High Evolutionary (thus replacing Apocalypse in potentially unpredictable ways); and the Orchis-friendly Feilong likely also with his own Musk-like agenda that could backfire on his new allies.
In fact, Orchis might quickly find itself eclipsed between the wildly divergent ambitions of Nimrod, Stasis, and Feilong! The drama here has much exciting potential.
The High Evolutionary, the erstwhile Herbert Wyndham (inspired no doubt by John Wyndham, author of some of the great mid-20th century sf classics) is a great pull here, someone who should’ve been involved with X-Men history to a much greater extent than he has, but we can put this oversight down to the fact that he’s more an Avengers-oriented villain (having debuted in 1966 in the midst of Stan/Jack’s classic Thor run, issue #134, and more or less stayed in adjacent lanes ever since, the first notable exception being the event that was really Marvel’s first crossover dud, 1988’s “Evolutionary War,” which did do the service of filling in a good deal of Wyndham’s backstory—courtesy of Mark Gruenwald, unsurprisingly).
That said, Evolutionary’s never been particularly super-villainous, until the infamous Uncanny Avengers arc from Remender, whose infamy lies elsewhere (the Wanda/Pietro retcon), but besides holding Rogue captive, we also see the master of Counter-Earth periodically wiping out millions of his own New Men, starting anew with his biological experiments whenever he’s just a teensy bit frustrated, the ficklest demiurge ever (vol 2 #1-5). But that is certainly the version Duggan is giving us here—along with his (Remender) creation Luminous—while not forgetting the established X franchise side of his biography, that it was Mr. Sinister as Dr. Nathaniel Essex who most heavily influenced Wyndham’s own future research into the diabolical side of genetics, cue cackling laughter of a man too long alone in his lab (see X-Men vol 2 #99.)
Really Drawing Things Out
But now we come to the other problem with X-Men so far: So much of it is still just unrealized potential. Perhaps this has been due to the odd scheduling limbo of a book that barely got started at the tail end of Reign of X and may have become a bit too decompressed as it builds its mysteries—waiting for Destiny of X to actually get going, in March. In other words, this series likely won’t really start to gel until then. Even so, I’ve praised Ben Percy’s novelistic approach in his Krakoa titles, so I’m more game for that method than many comics fans. I love prose fiction as much as comics, and Percy has been proving himself for years now as an excellent novelist. In this regard, Duggan is an unknown quantity. His career at Marvel has been impressive since the beginning, almost exactly a decade ago now, always consistently fun, readable, and above all, humane and warm, without undue sentimentality. His greatest strengths are the character beats; every issue he writes has them in spades. But now, will he be trying a more thematically structured approach to this run? Who knows! I’d like to hope that’s where this series is going. Honestly, though, either way, I’ll be here for it.
Yet as a critic and a consumer, I’ve got to wring these funny books for all their worth! So, let’s look at some of the issues this series is having with pacing. The solicit for issue #5, with a helmed Dr. Nemesis featured so prominently on the cover, promised: “The X-Men’s new nemesis finally makes himself known to them,” which turned out not to be the case, but we did see the result, all too briefly, of him “bringing his creations to bear.” This meant readers could infer where the speechless beastly foes had come from, but our heroes themselves remained clueless. Might the mismatch between preview and actual product be a clue as to original story plans getting decompressed so things don’t really get going here until the rest of the line is caught up, with the start of Destiny of X?
After all, opening with the Homines Verendi-made Reavers instead is a bit odd, though it does allow Polaris her moment to shine—a great character beat! (Though it was obviously questionable what she did with Laura; perhaps this newfound presumptiveness will be part of her new arc? That would be fascinating.)
The first story arc, “Fearless,” was totally inconclusive—it was all table setting. What makes that fine with me is the great character moments, especially for Lorna’s spotlight issue (#5) since she’s rarely gotten her due. She was definitively shown here at her most put-together and self-assured. Synch and particularly Sunfire are gaining depth and power. That leaves Laura a bit behind at this point, but her own spotlight looks to be coming soon.
And hey, I’m still really looking forward to issue #8, judging by the cover. Hopefully, it involves M.O.D.O.K. hurtling Mars/Arakko-wards in some kind of glorious M.O.D.O.K. space chariot.
Maybe there’s the danger here of too much of a good idea? So many of us miss Claremont’s storytelling, where the master architect was really flying by the seat of his pants with a seemingly infinite amount of runway, introducing new characters and threats before the current arc was even close to concluded and circling back to things he’d seeded months, even years, later. But is it possible that too many writers are attempting to do that at the same time in this franchise that’s suffered from an impoverishment of vision over the past 30 years (with the exception of a few brief renaissance periods)? In other words, how many plates can we, even “just” fans, handle spinning in the air (or chainsaws to use Mr. Percy’s image!)?
Now, we’re in the midst of the non-mystery around “Captain Krakoa,” which is sure to wrap up shortly. That means the human world will soon know about Krakoa’s defeat of death. After all, do you really think anyone (fans, creators, editorial, the X-Men themselves) will want to come up with a new identity every time a Krakoan is killed in the public eye? (In any case, Cyclops’ death this issue doesn’t seem all that public; really, a teammate could’ve carried him off, saying he was going for medical treatment—and no one would suspect a thing when he appeared the next day or so around the Treehouse looking hale and hearty. Think how often Spidey gets beaten to a pulp and bounces back; New Yorkers don’t give it a second thought.)
A Rough Year for Our Heroes—Which Is Great, for the Bigger Picture
We already know that this year will be a rough one for the Krakoans, from what various creators have intimated—which makes sense, given that things have been pretty cush so far. (Although why are our heroes already dying so often when they’ve generally avoided it for decades? I could quibble about how this has just become a narrative convenience in this new era, and it will be bound to disappear once resurrection isn’t readily available any longer, but it for me, it so far hasn’t detracted from all the other positives.)
To add to the X-Men’s growing headaches, another is seeded with Emma’s erasure of Ben Urich’s memory of his investigation into Cyclops’ death and resurrection will likely cause only further trouble for Krakoa—which could suggest that someone other than Emma, an adversary perhaps, was responsible. It’s a mystery atop a heaping concatenation of tensions and conflicts that Gerry Duggan is just getting started with. Balancing and even interconnecting them all will be a tough job, but if he pulls it off, this series will certainly end up as his greatest comics-writing achievement yet. I very much hope that it’s a smashing success, whatever the cost to Marvel’s merry mutants! We shall see. So far, he’s more than fulfilled fan expectations by delivering the unexpected (not that every fan remembers that that is the metric for this franchise ).
Recall that in issue #3, the High Evolutionary warned Jean of “the small scale of the next conflict” at a time when the team (and perhaps all of Krakoa itself?) is getting involved in increasingly larger-scale conflicts. That might mean that Feilong will be a bigger headache for Ewing’s X-Men Red while things with Dr. Stasis heat up closer to home. But who knows.
Still Great for What It Is
Basta! I shouldn’t be so worried, and neither should any other serious X fan new or old. But anyone who came (back) to the franchise just to see what Hickman would do, or in the hopes that he would be alpha and omega of a singular run of X-Men comics that could be held up next to the other superhero classics that can be packaged in a single trade or omnibus—those readers were bound to be disappointed, and quickly. He was bound to revolutionize form and content to some extent like he did with Avengers, but even in that earlier work, the story was only partly a metacommentary in the way of the classic runs that fans hold up as moving beyond their original context (like Miller on Daredevil or Batman, where one doesn’t need to read anything else in those respective worlds to get a complete satisfying narrative that also comments on the problematics of superheroes, as with Watchmen). The last time the world of the X-Men could be pared back for a yearslong self-sufficient narrative was twenty years ago, with Morrison. That’s just no longer possible, hasn’t been for a long time.
In other words, I can’t speak to non-X-Men fans who love Hickman, but as an X-Men fan who loves Hickman’s work but not nearly as much as I do the merry mutants themselves, I can say that this era is still the best ever for the franchise since Claremont’s heyday—and very probably verging on better than that formative epoch, precisely because we’re now in the full maturity of the universe Claremont worked so hard to establish.
As always, enjoy the ride, y’all. That’s ultimately what matters here—and appreciating all the brilliant effort and teamwork that go into making these beautiful funny books.
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