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Oct 21

X-23 #1-5: “Two Birthdays and Three Funerals”

Posted on Sunday, October 21, 2018 by Paul in x-axis

Mariko Tamaki and Juann Cabal get a fresh issue #1 for the start of their run, but this is very much a continuation of Tom Taylor’s All-New Wolverine.  The set-up is exactly the same, except for the dropping of the “Wolverine” name in favour of “X-23” – which nobody draws attention to until issue #5, and which Laura pointedly refuses to explain.  So perhaps it’s something we’re coming back to, and they just didn’t want it to overshadow the first arc.  Or perhaps it’s something we’re kicking into the long grass, because we all know the real reason – Wolverine Classic is back – so there’s not much point trying to sell us on an organic story reason.

Visually, the style of the book hasn’t drastically changed either.  Cabal drew much of the “Orphans of X” storyline for All-New Wolverine, and he maintains that style here.  Unfortunately, deadlines seem to catch up with him by the final issue, most of which is handled competently enough by Marcio Fiorito.  But the rest of the book has some great visual flourishes, not just with the usual contrast between Laura and her enthusiastic mini-me Gabby, but also in the way the Stepford Cuckoos’ unity and pose starts to break down when they’re alone and arguing amongst themselves.

There are a couple of real bravura set pieces in here, too – a psychic illusion rendered over a few pages in monochrome red, which really blasts off the page when you’re reading it digitally, or a sequence of Laura chasing down a van only to find she’s got the wrong one. That’s a familiar movie trope that rests on misleading editing, but the final intercut panel of the two different vans is pure comics.

Mariko Tamaki is a Canadian writer best known for her non-superhero work.  She also wrote the recent Jennifer Walters Hulk title, which I wasn’t particularly keen on.  This is much more successful, and a respectable continuation of one of the best recent X-books.  The opening arc benefits in some ways from a re-read, not least because it helps to keep track of which Cuckoo is doing what; on the other hand, that’s an exercise that also winds up foregrounding some problems.

As mentioned in passing above, it’s a Stepford Cuckoos story.  At first glance they don’t seem like obvious contenders for a Laura and Gabby story, but the parallels are entirely obvious once they’re pointed out.  Not only are they another set of cloned sisters, but they’ve been left diminished by the deaths of other clones as well – they lost Sophie and Esme, while Laura and Gabby lost some of the other clones who were created alongside Gabby (Zelda being the one who got named).

More to the point, while Laura and Gabby are wildly different personalities, the telepathic Cuckoos cluster as a group and tend to present themselves to the outside world as a single mind.  It’s been clear from the outset that they’re not – and there have been stories recently showing them starting to develop their own personas, which we’re clearly ignoring for the purpose of this arc.  But for most of their history, the Cuckoos have tended to act spooky and speak in unison.

The plot involves the remaining Cuckoos trying to bring Sophie and Esme back to life by cloning new bodies for them. For reasons never clearly explained, those cloned bodies are unable to handle the Cuckoos’ psychic power levels, and so the Cuckoos (perhaps prompted by Esme) come up with a plan B: mentally hijack a scientist who specialises in transferring minds into cloned bodies, and see if they can get Laura and Gabby’s bodies instead.  Because, presumably, they’ve got healing factors, and should be fine.  Esme then quietly does in Sophie, and tries to get Gabby’s body for herself.  Sophie resurfaces as a voice in Laura’s head, while Mindee also rebels against the others to side with her.

Thematically, this is all quite interesting.  Laura is somewhat comfortable with being a clone, but doesn’t like being reminded of the reasons for which she was created.  Gabby is pretty much at peace with the whole thing and likes the idea of picking a symbolic birthday for herself.  And for Laura, the fact that they’re so unlike one another is a reassuring sign of her own individuality.  But the Cuckoos seem to prize their lack of individuality, acting publicly as a unit and only dropping the mask when they’re among themselves.  Their identity is completely tied up in the group, which is why Phoebe and Celeste are so willing to embrace outright villainy in order to reunite the five; only Mindee recoils at the thought of being cut out of the wider X-Men social circle.  And Esme just wants to dominate the group, exploiting their loyalty to do it.  (Something she can only do with Sophie out of the way.)

But there are plot problems here, not to mention a certain fuzziness in explaining the Cuckoos’ back story which makes the point rather more obscure.  For one thing, how the Cuckoos clone the new bodies in the first place?  The scientist Laura rescues is very clear that she didn’t make the new clones – they were already disintegrating before she arrived – so where did they come from?  For another, why don’t the clones work?  How can the Cuckoos’ powers be an obstacle to cloning, when they were clones to start with?  And perhaps most importantly, how did creating two new clones result in bringing back the dead Sophie and Esme, instead of just resulting in two new clones?  None of this is explained at all, and it’s all pretty fundamental stuff.  It’s not even clear how Sophie’s mind shows up in Laura’s head, unless we’re meant to take it that she’s a ghost.

Then there’s the fact that the plot makes a lot more sense if you have a working knowledge of the original Grant Morrison stories, which are never really explained.  In issue #1, Gabby asks how Sophie and Esme died, but Laura dodges the question and gives a partial answer.  Sophie’s own flashback in issue #4 is similarly impressionistic.  This makes some sense on a character level – Laura probably wouldn’t want to give a straight answer to Gabby’s question, and Sophie would be telling Laura something she already knew – but these are stories from fifteen years ago, and you can’t really assume that the readers know them.

Basically, for this story to fully make sense, you need to know that Sophie was the dominant personality in the original five Cuckoos; that she died more or less heroically when she supercharged her powers using Kick so that she could use Cerebro to stop Quentin Quire; that Esme steered her into doing that, so as to clear the way for Esme to dominate the group for herself; and that Esme went off on her own (rejecting the group) to join the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, where she got herself killed.  Much of that is alluded to here, and if you already know the stories, this is probably an adequate reminder; if you don’t, I’m not convinced that enough is being done to set it up.  And if you do remember it, you might well wonder how gullible the rest of the Cuckoos are to fall for Esme’s schtick again – though I’d say that’s a fair extrapolation from their group obsessiveness.

Still, the problems here are largely ones of omission – stuff being glossed over or left unexplained – and despite those problems, what’s actually here is generally pretty good.  Laura and Gabby’s dynamic remains intact, and the art is excellent.  Plenty to like about this.

Bring on the comments

  1. sagatwarrior says:

    I thought Matt Fraction named “Mindee” Irma to fix Austen’s mistake. The first letters of of the Cuckoos was supposed to spell “SPICE” for the Spice Girls.

  2. Joseph S says:

    While it feels a bit of a regression to undue the character development of the three Cuckoos from the Bendis run, it makes some sense. Beyond the story needs, the Cuckoos appear prominently on the tv show the Gifted, and I’d imagine their portrayal there has informed this take.

  3. Dazzler says:

    Yeah, naming the girls so that the first letters of their names spelled “Spice” was a dumb but harmless joke. Re-naming a character because the name she was given negated the joke is as stupid as it gets.

  4. Taibak says:

    Out of curiosity, is The Gifted airing in the UK? If not, you’re probably not missing much but the Cuckoos are one of the highlights.

    On the other hand, the show is fanatically trying to avoid stepping on the movies’ continuity. To do that, the creators dredged up some seriously obscure characters (Reeva Payge?!), is way too coy about who Polaris’s father and is desperately trying to convince us that sodding Fenris were some of the most powerful mutants in history. If you know the X-Men, it makes for an odd show.

  5. Moo says:

    I still haven’t forgiven Greg Pak for wrecking the Cuckoos.

  6. JCG says:

    Are you referring to Phoenix Warsong?

    As far as I recall Pak just expanded upon what Morrison already established about them being connected to the Weapon X program.

  7. Moo says:

    I don’t recall Morrison connecting the Cuckoos to Weapon Plus. But even if he did, it was Pak who decided that the Cuckoos were clones of Emma, and that’s the part that wrecked them for me. I vastly preferred the idea that they were just naturally bred quintuplets who emulated Emma. In fact, I thought it would have been hilarious if, after Sophie was killed and the Cuckoos blamed Emma, they all dyed their hair red and started emulating Jean just to hurt Emma.

    At any rate, I thought the clone idea sucked, and Warsong was pretty awful.

  8. Paul says:

    Fraction established Mindee’s “real” name as Irma, but that didn’t change the fact that she calls herself Mindee. This story specifically identities her as “Mindee (a.k.a. Irma)”.

  9. Omar Karindu says:

    As with a great many plot points in Morrison’s run, the Cuckoos’ origins were established almost in passing in “Here Comes Tomorrow,” the far-future “epilogue” story. (This is also where “Ernst = Cassandra Nova stuck inside Stuff, the Imperial Guard blob-thing” was established, and evidently ignored or missed by every writer afterwards.)

  10. Moo says:

    Ok, I quickly checked and although Morrison identifies the Cuckoos as “Weapon IV” in this story (this alternate future story), I don’t see him placing their origin in the program (unless I missed something).

    Another writer could’ve interpreted this as a fate that *would* have befallen the Cuckoos (placement into the program) had this future actually come to pass, which it didn’t.

    I mean, Logan wasn’t birthed in the program. So why did the Cuckoos need to be grown there like sea monkeys? Ugh. I hated Warsong,

  11. Omar Karindu says:

    They’re identified as Weapon XIV. Earlier in Morrison’s run, it was said that Weapons XII and up were creations from the World facility, basically bioengineered beings like the “Super-Sentinels” or things like that mind-controlling tree creature that killed Darkstar.

    The Cuckoos being artificial being also plays off of the reference to John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, where the identical blond telepathic hivemind children are the result of some kind of weird alien force bringing about a mass pregnancy.

  12. Omar Karindu says:

    Forgot to add: In Morrison;’s earlier “Weapin Plus” arc, we’re told that Weapon XIII is Fantomex and Weapon XV is Ultimaton. Since both are seen before the alternate future of “Here Comes Tomorrow” and both identified as “World” creations, this also strongly implies that the Cuckoos were created in between Fantomex and Ultimaton as other Super-Sentinel bioengineered beings.

    The “Cuckoos” name could also suggest the strategy of actual cuckoo birds: planting their eggs/young in another bird’s nest. Hence, the Cuckoos might implicitly be sleeper weapons planted among the X-Men to be used against them. (According to Morrison’s run, Fantomex and Ultimaton were smeant to exterminate mutants in secret while posing a cool, toyetic superheroes, but Fantomex developed a will of his own and rebelled. So all the “teen” Weapon series were basically disguised Super-Sentinel beings.)

  13. Moo says:

    Well, none of this is giving me a newfound appreciation for Warsong, Omar. Had Morrison remained on NXM and hade he firmly established that the Cuckoos were a handful of a thousand Emma clones just as Pak did, then I’d have been equally disappointed. Just as I was disappointed by the U-Men– a concept that sounded ten times better in the interviews Morrison gave than what actually saw print.

  14. Terence Stewart says:

    …and I thought the Cuckoos, and their relationship with the White Queen, was the X-Men’s answer to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

  15. Chris V says:

    Stepford Cuckoos was Morrison’s homage to classic sci-fi fiction though.
    The Stepford aspect comes from the Stepford Wives novel.
    While the Cuckoos is a reference to the Midwich Cuckoos of Village of the Damned fame.
    If he had meant a deeper meaning the names, I have some doubts.
    I think he just thought it sounded cool, and the behaviour of the Stepford Cuckoos related to the hive-mind concept.

  16. Chris V says:

    Omar-Sorry, I didn’t see you made a double post, and already clarified about the Wyndham reference.

  17. Omar Karindu says:

    I tend to agree, Moo, that “thousands of clones” is not really as good as “artificial hive mind of five identical Super-Sentinel sleeper cells.”

    I do like the idea of an X-clique; it’s just that in Morrison’s run we really kept getting “outside influence’ versions, whether via Kick/Sublime infections fo the Omega Gang or the Weapon Plus stuff with the Stepford Cuckoos. (Come to think of it, the Stepford part of the name is also an “artificial beings” reference.)

    I do think there’s mileage, at this point, in playing with the idea of the “Weapon Plus creation” Stepford Cuckoos as something that would play well off of Laura, with their tendency to develop divergent personae troubling the group mind and programmed functions in counterpoint to Laura finding her individuality and autonomy.

    It doesn’t sound like we really got that story, though. Let’s hope we don’t get the post-Clone Conspiracy version of Ben Reilly drafted in next.

  18. Moo says:

    “I tend to agree, Moo, that “thousands of clones” is not really as good as “artificial hive mind of five identical Super-Sentinel sleeper cells.”

    I don’t care for either, to be honest. I was aware that Morrison took inspiration from The Stepford Wives and The Midwich Cuckoos, but I agree with Chris in that I doubt Morrison was being that literal.

    And I preferred the idea that the Cuckoos weren’t clones or artificial anythings. Merely a set of quintuplets who one day manifested a joint mutation. To me, that’s interestingly creepy enough without the added sci fi elements.

  19. Brendan says:

    I’m able to suspend my disbelief about laser eyes, bird aliens and whatever a healing factor is supposed to be. But the idea a teacher’s five favourite students look identical to that teacher at their age without her noticing is a step too far. Especially when they’ve met characters like Mr Sinister.

  20. JCG says:

    I think Pak explained in Warsong why no-one thought there was anything suspicious about the Cuckoos, some subliminal telepathic manipulation or something like that.

  21. Moo says:

    Something about psionic blocks that prevented people from even asking the Cuckoos about their history. They’d lose their train of thought if they tried. Lucky bastards. Wish it worked on me.

  22. JCG says:

    lol 🙂

  23. Si says:

    The great unanswered question is of course how Emma could have clones that apparently naturally have her surgically altered nose and dyed hair colour.

  24. Chris V says:

    I didn’t think they were meant to look exactly like Emma during the Morrison run. I thought they were just patterning themselves after Emma, trying to emulate her.
    I always thought they were meant to look very similar to the Midwich Cuckoos from the movie, more than like “little versions of Emma”.

    I think it’s similar to the Madelyne Pryor/Jean Grey thing. Claremont just wanted Madelyne to look very similar to Jean. He never intended that she was an actual clone of Jean. That was a ret-con.
    I thought it was the same with Morrison.

    Also, the Weapon Plus sleeper-agents thing doesn’t really work with one of the Cuckoos deciding to rebel and join Magneto, while the rest remained alongside of the X-Men.
    What would Morrison’s point to that be, if the meant the “Cuckoos” reference to be literal?

  25. Omar Karindu says:

    Wasn’t it strongly implied that Esme Cuckoo helped introduce Kick to the school and was aware of Xorn’s “true identity” as a Kick-addled Magneto the whole time? And Kick was also part of the Quentin Quire/Omega Gang stuff that ruined the school’s “open day” and pushed things closer to a mutant-human conflict. Since Weapon Plus was run by Sublime, and Kick was Sublime, that would perhaps explain the Cuckoos’ intended role in his schemes.

    More generally, “Here Comes Tomorrow” suggests that Sublime’s plans worked in the long run, and that only Phoenix/Jean screwing around with time somehow averted the X-Men’s downward spiral. The Cuckoos, by this line of thought, aren’t there to literally attack and kill the X-Men, just to get Sublime’s influence inside and to otherwise corrupt things to the point of the bad future seen in “Here Comes Tomorrow.”

    Notice the three major things they do: Sophie takes out Quentin Quire, who we later learn was transitioning to a Phoenix host, and we later see that Phoenix is in some sense Sublime’s cosmic- opponent, able to burn it out of hosts and to manipulate time to thwart its eventual dominance. Kick suborns Quire for a while, and when it looks like Quire will survive anyway and starts to transition to a Phoenix state, Sophie sacrifices herself to take him out and Xorn — Magneto on Kick — is there to make sure Quire dies. And Esme is covered above.

    But the other side of Morrison’s run is that the utopianism of the X-Men can still change people, and that not everyone wants to be a genocidal weapon: Fantomex, one of the other Weapon Plus subjects turns against Sublime, for example (though he apparently falls back under his domination and it is hinted that he becomes Sublime’s henchman Appolyon in the “here Comes Tomorrow” future).

    Similarly, Cassandra Nova was placed in a moral education program at the end of “Imperial,” turns into Ernst, and in “Here Comes Tomorrow” is on the side of the X-Men. So having the three remaining Cuckoos join the X-Men’s side also fits this element. Like Fantomex, some of the Cuckoos ended up adopting their false personae. even then, Sublime ultimately “wins” and only the Phoenix changing the timeline can actually stop him.

    Remember, also, Morrison’s run didn’t claim the Cuckoos were literal clones of Emma, just that they were one of the disguised Super-Sentinel personae weapons from a certain phase of Weapon Plus. It’s not clear if the Cuckoos knew they were Weapon Plus creations or not in Morrison’s run.

    None of this is necessarily me defending the quality of all of this — some of it works, and some of it is thematically strained, with undercooked and dashed-off plotting, in retrospect — but rather just me trying to reconstruct the original plotline, before all the retconning.

  26. Omar Karindu says:

    Sorry, forgot: the third thing the Cuckoos do is undermine Emma’s self image by playing to her narcissism, then undermining her cruelly just ahead of the Omega Gang riot. They’re also the ones who tell Jean about the affair between Emma and Scott, which helps Esme’s attempt to frame others for the “murder” of Emma Frost.

    Basically, through them, Xorn/Magneto, and the Omega Gang, Sublime is screwing with the school’s social cohesion in various ways and setting the X-Men up to fall into infighting. Esme, the Cuckoo who uses and deals Kick, stays loyal to the other Sublime pawns at the school, and claims in issue #141 to have influenced Sophie to sacrifice herself and take out Quire.

    The other three ultimately buy into the school’s ideas, and indeed, the future X-Men seen in “HCT” includes several breakaway Weapon Plus subjects: Wolverine, the Cuckoos,. and and Fantomex-less EVA. Sublime can corrupt people, but better ideas still win out. It’s a very “Morrison” theme.

  27. Chris V says:

    Yes, I agree with the idea that “better ideas will win out”, and how that plays greatly in to a major theme in a lot of Morirson’s work.


    I’d say you do a really good job of dissecting the Morrison run there, Omar.
    I am convinced.

    I want to mention that I was never against the idea that the Cuckoos were part of the Weapon Plus program, as Morrison obviously does mention that they were a weapon in “Here Comes Tomorrow”.
    I was arguing against the idea of the “Cuckoos” moniker being literal, or the later ret-con of them being clones of Emma.
    I don’t see that aspect in Morrison’s run.

    However, the idea that they were sleeper agents, fulfilling Sublime’s agenda on an unconscious level does seem to make total sense with what you wrote.

    I sort of envisioned Morrison’s origin idea of the Stepford Cuckoos being closer to the Wyndham book/movie.
    Just with Weapon Plus in place of space aliens.

  28. Thom H. says:

    I agree that’s a great synopsis of Morrison’s New X-Men. In fact, if Sublime’s plans had been brought to the forefront that plainly in the book itself, I would have enjoyed it more.

  29. Omar Karindu says:

    Now, to correct one huge mistake: the Cuckoos reject Emma and reveal the affair after the riot, not before it. Perils of memory.

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