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Dec 20

X-Men Red: The Hate Machine

Posted on Thursday, December 20, 2018 by Paul in x-axis

Hark, listen closely.  Do you hear it?  There – ever so faint.  It’s the plaintive quack of a lame duck.

X-Men Red has spent nearly a year on its opening storyline with Cassandra Nova, about half of that time on an extended gathering-of-the-team sequence.  And by the time the damn thing has even finished, we were already several issues deep into the next relaunch.  Astonishing X-Men had this problem too – and suffered for it – but at least it also had a relatively self-contained redemption arc for Havok.  X-Men Red finds it more of a challenge, because it spends so very long on its team-building, and the whole thing reads like a statement of intent designed to set the direction for a new team.

Then again, there’s another problem here: X-Men Red is one of those stories where outrageous levels of hate spread around the world and it’s all due to a mind-control baddie, and I’ve never liked that story.  Didn’t like it with the Shadow King back in the late eighties, don’t like it now.  All of which is a bit frustrating, because this is written by Tom Taylor, and his All-New Wolverine was one of the highlights of the X-books over the last few years.  He even brings Laura and Gabby into the cast with him.  I had high hopes for this.

This book replaced Jean Grey on the schedule, and our team leader and lynchpin is the revived Jean Grey (the original, not the time traveller).  Scott’s absence creates an opportunity to give her a different role, no longer defined as half of a couple.  X-Men Red plays her as an elder statesman returning to find an even more divided and angry world than she remembers, and determined to find a way of addressing that problem.  Fair enough; the X-Men have always been open to the criticism that their plan to improve human/mutant relations largely boils down to being nice and waiting for things to change, and I’m all for them having a proper plan to take the initiative.

Jean’s big idea is to make a rather vague announcement that the “mutant nation” needs a voice in the United Nations.  This has similar problems to Scott Summers’ good old mutant revolution during the Bendis run: since it doesn’t appear to be a “nation” in any conventional sense, what the heck is it?  A claim that she speaks for mutants worldwide?  (Has she asked them?)  A claim that mutants don’t have to obey national laws?  Just a grandiose label for observer status at the UN?  We’re clearly meant to be very impressed by it, but it’s all terribly hazy.  That said, this is also set up as the grand vision for the series going forward, and the one which Cassandra Nova’s interference is preventing Jean from getting properly off the ground.  So perhaps it would have made more sense if the book had continued – though if anything, it seems to be heading towards a new Utopia in Atlantis, and we’ve done that before.

Cassandra promptly frames Jean for murdering an ambassador, whereupon we go on several issues of recruitment.  Issue #2 introduces the book’s new character, Trinary, an Indian mutant with the power to control machines.  She is annoying The Man by transferring money from rich people’s bank accounts to poor people’s bank accounts – which is a cute idea, but the story seems a bit too pleased with it.  More to the point, I never get much sense of Trinary’s personality beyond that; she feels like a mouthpiece rather than a character.  She literally spends most of the arc just delivering exposition, or telling us how bad social media is.

In fact, a problem more generally is that the lengthy storyline here doesn’t give all that much scope for individual team members to do their own thing, aside from a brief sequence designed to make Nezhno’s powers more viable.

By the end of part 3, we’ve established that the human race is being programmed to hate mutants, which is why things are going the way they are.  And by part 4, we’ve established that it’s nanites (which obviously belong to Cassandra).  But the story pretty much continues with escalations of that concept for months to come, as Cassandra infects world leaders.  It looks great – Mahmud Asrar, drawing the first half of the arc, clearly has fun touring the world.  If you’re going to tour India, Wakanda, Atlantis and so on, you should sell it, and Asrar does.  I like Trinary’s hijacked, rainbow-bedecked Sentinel, too.  In the second half, Carmen Carnero’s work is nicely polished, with a decent sense of scale.  But…

The second half of the storyline feels like padding. The basic set up is all complete by issue #5, yet the story just keeps ploughing on.  And the upshot of it all is really just that Cassandra Nova is using nanites to make people hate mutants.

The story seems to think that it’s about big data and manipulation; issue #4 has a speech pretty much claiming outright that Cassandra’s mind-control nanites are a larger-scale version of Cambridge Analytica.  There’s some worryingly paranoid stuff later in the story, too, which casually claims as fact that all phones are recording us at all times – which is not the plot, but something simply taken as read in order to allow Trinary to recover evidence to exonerate Jean.  The real issue, though, is that the central metaphor is broken, because what Cassandra is doing isn’t manipulation, it’s just literal mind control.

X-Men Red doesn’t have anything much to say about online manipulation or fake news or microtargeting.  It falls into the same trap as the Shadow King plot from back in the day: the plot winds up being that hate is something imposed on people by baddies, rather than having its roots in the fundamental defects of human nature.  And when it comes to why the baddies want people to hate, well, you pretty much just wave your hands and say they’re evil – in this case, Cassandra was “put together wrong” and lacks empathy.  So she’s a psychopath, in other words.  It’s all profoundly unsubtle, but that’s not really the problem.  This is not an age of subtlety, and there’s nothing wrong with a good polemic.  But a model of hate that attributes it primarily to mind control and mental disorder doesn’t do a great job of explaining the world we see around us.  And that’s pretty much the one the story has to offer.

The arc is way too long, and comes off as self-important.  It doesn’t have the depth to carry off its evident aspirations to being a manifesto.  There are glimmers of the charisma from All-New Wolverine, and it certainly looks the part, but it falls short.

Bring on the comments

  1. Ben says:

    Disagree.

    In as much as while I mostly agree with your points, I think it still ended up worth reading.

  2. Chris V says:

    I had a much bigger problem with that Nance woman in X-Men: Gold; where they gave her an origin story where she, too, was raised by uncaring mutant parents, which made her in to a hateful person.
    Yeah, most bigots in the world were not raised by “minority” or gay parents, who abused them, leading to their hate-filled ideology.
    It takes away from any real-world applicability of said metaphor, even once you get past the “mutants aren’t really a good metaphor for persecuted minorities” bit.

    I did like the parts of the story where they were talking about Cassandra Nova’s plot being to target people with existing anti-mutant prejudice on social media with more and more anti-mutant propaganda, increasing the levels of mistrust and hatred against mutants.

    If I remember the Morrison run properly, Cassandra Nova was created as a parasitic entity, without a true corporeal body, in the womb alongside of Charles Xavier.
    Her purpose in life, and driving goal, was to undo any positive aspects of Charles’ life.
    In that sense, a being of pure hatred who wants to continue to divide humans and mutants seems to be a good agenda for someone like Cassandra Nova.
    It’s the intent to defeat Charles’ dream from ever being realized.

    It did go a bit wrong with the execution, probably due to the story-arc lasting for too many issues.
    There are the seeds of an interesting story in there, with definite real-world parallels.

    It’s not that hatred, itself, is the cause of a malevolent villain. A villain is just using that hatred in order to accomplish their own (granted somewhat nebulous) agenda.
    Although, “a parasite” being used as a metaphor for “hatred” isn’t an idea lacking in merit.
    There’s little doubt that hate can be manipulated for certain agendas.

  3. Diana says:

    Honestly, I wasn’t expecting Taylor to fumble this the way he did – Cassandra Nova is such an ominous presence at the start of the series (arguably for the first time since Morrison), this threat that can walk in and out of the mansion at will… and Jean beats her with, essentially, the Power of Love. What drivel.

  4. Moo says:

    I didn’t read this. I saw a few pages of a mob carrying torches and I decided nah.

    Does anyone here actually own a torch? Like, not of the tiki variety. I mean lynch mob torches. Do they have lynch mob supply stores in the US?

  5. Krzysiek Ceran says:

    I’m pretty sure the mob in X-Men Red was carrying tiki torches. At least the mob that Gambit faces. This being an X-Men comic, there may have been multiple mobs, a variety of torches and a selection of pitchforks.

    I still think Red was one of the better x-titles in the last few years, but I may be giving it leeway because I liked that at least it was trying to say something. I think that for quite a long time the x-books were coasting on the ‘we’re about the mutant metaphor’ bit without actually having anything to say or even attempting to.

    Regardless, I don’t think Taylor stuck the landing. There was little tension in the finale – Cassandra has been on the back foot troughout the second half of the arc and didn’t really feel like a threat at the end.

    Still, on the whole… this series had potential. I wish the x-line has been reworked around it, rather then basically ignoring it and launching Uncanny which at the moment is less interesting of the two.

    (Though that’s not a fair comparison, since there’s been twice as many issues of Red; Uncanny might still get there… Even though the Disassembled arc seems to be an overlong prologue to the Age of X-Man event.)

  6. Bill K says:

    I haven’t read the comic and probably won’t, but the mob may very well have been carrying tiki torches. It would make sense as a reference to the events in Charlottesvile, VA last year and the images which did get fairly widely distributed.

  7. Voord 99 says:

    Really great review. One of our host’s best all year, at least for me.

    Re: Chris V’s point about Nance, above. I think that’s the opposite problem. As our host pojnts out, Taylor has a bad idea about how to talk about this sort of thing to begin with, one that avoids wrestling with the complexities as part of its premise, and which would be hard to execute in a way that would make it do what Taylor wants it to.

    (I can sort of see a way to use it as metaphor in something like a Mojoverse context – not the actual Mojoverse, but a context like that, where mind control could be a metaphor for manipulation.)

    Guggenheim, on the other hand, has a good idea about how to do it in terms of his premise. I think there’s a real space for an X-Men story that would be about the intersection of politics and the media and the role of movement conservative organizations in that.

    But Guggenheim executes the idea terribly. As I’ve commented before here, I don’t think he has bothered to pay any attention to the roles that think tanks like the actual Heritage Foundation play in politics. In fact, I have the distinct sense that he doesn’t know more about this topic than that sometimes CNN fills time by having people with phrases like “Heritage Action,” “Cato Institute,” “Center for American Progress” (etc. across the spectrum) on as talking heads.

    What Chris V points out is part of this. It’s bad in the way that he points out, but it’s also bad because Guggenheim seems to think that the only important question is why Nance personally thinks the way she does, and that adequately explains why the Heritage Initiative exists.

  8. Nu-D says:

    @Moo,

    You know, up until a few months ago I would have been right there with you on the “torch wielding mob” is a bad cliche that deserves to die.

    But then we had a (tiki)torch wielding mob in Charlottesville, Virginia that murdered a young woman in the name of white supremacy a few months ago. So it’s not so unrealistic in the modern day after all.

  9. Chris V says:

    Voord:
    Also, it paints hatred as a solely personal issue (I mean, it is something on an individual level), whereby the person with hatred has a deep-seated reason for having these feelings.
    Nance is a “bad person”, but she has logical reasons for her feelings, based in her own personal past trauma.
    I think it’s part of the “villains should be three-dimensional characters” mandate from Marvel Comics.
    Not that I’m saying Guggenheim’s portrayal of Nance was exactly a “three-dimensional” rendering, so much as lazy.
    She hates mutants….she must have a reason…she had a bad childhood.

    What it misses, and I think this story did touch on somewhat, is that most times hatred is blind and irrational.
    It does exist almost, seemingly, as something outside an individual controlling them.
    I don’t think that the idea of Nova being presented as (somewhat of) a “psychopath” is the correct usage.
    However, most times, it is impossible to try to explain away hatred in any simple terms.

    It’s never as easy as saying (going back to Guggenheim once again), “Hey, she was raised by gay parents who abused her, and that’s why she now hates gay people!”.

  10. Moo says:

    @Nu-D

    It’s still cliche though. It’s hard to believe that after all of these years, there’s been no significant evolution in lynch mobbery. You’d think they’d have moved on to glow sticks by now.

  11. wwk5d says:

    Technically, the poor woman wasn’t killed by the tiki wielding racist mob of a-holes, but in a hit-and-run with the car being driven by one of those a-holes during a daytime protest.

  12. Paul says:

    Lydia Nance’s back story doesn’t raise quite the same problems because she’s not being put forward as exemplifying human nature in general. But it does have issues of its own. For one thing, it’s unnecessary – the concept is that she’s a Fox News talking head who’s secretly a supervillain, and that doesn’t particularly cry out for humanising. And second, it’s a cliche, which means that it’s not very effective at humanising her (not to mention the other problems catalogued here https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/FreudianExcuse).

  13. Si says:

    I’ve read the first few issues on Unlimited. I think it’s a terrible story well told. Read it for the moments rather than the whole.

  14. Thom H. says:

    Greater storyline aside, I really enjoyed Taylor’s use of Jean. She had a purpose, and even seemed to have a personality. As a vehicle for rehabilitating (or at least re-establishing) a character, I think X-Men: Red was a success.

  15. Voord 99 says:

    That’s the thing that will eventually get me to catch up with XM:R. I’m quite curious about whether it makes its case successfully for me that adult Jean was worth resurrecting.

    I’m a sceptic, but you never know. I was dubious about teen Jean’s solo title, but Hopeless convinced me of its value by the end well enough that I positively resented eliminating teen Jean to make room for adult Jean.

  16. Ben says:

    Thom H.

    Yeah, I agree.

    I actually like Jean now, where as before she was just kind of a generic blank.

    Even Morrison really only wrote her as “Cyclops’ Wife.”

  17. Nu-D says:

    The torches may have been cliches in Charlottesville, But in X-Men Red the torches are topical, not cliche.

  18. Mo Walker says:

    I definitely like Jean in the role of elder statesperson. Glad this role is conintinuing in Uncanny X-Men. I wonder how much of the storyline did Tom Taylor write before the X-Office editorial switch occurred?

    Surprised no one has mentioned Rachel being manipulated by Cassandra Nova. Editorial clearly did not have a problem with Rachel being psychically controlled/manipulated by 3 different villains in multiple titles during 2018. Rachel cannot seem to catch a break when Jean (especially the older one) is around.

    I was purchasing the title until the Uncanny relaunch was announced. It was certainly more enjoyable than Gold, but I was frustrated with the lack of story progression. I plan on getting the issues once they are discount back issue bins.

  19. Moo says:

    My last comment wasn’t meant to be taken seriously, Nu-D.

  20. Thom H. says:

    @Ben: I agree about Morrison’s take on Jean. He flirted with making her the next mutant visionary, heir to Xavier’s legacy. But once his run devolved into “nothing ever changes,” she lost that spark.

    @Mo: I think it’s fair to say that a core part of Rachel’s character at this point is “perpetual victim,” especially in regard to mind control. Which is too bad.

  21. Richard Larson says:

    Even worse. 30 years ago, Rachel’s issue was to escape being a hound for Ahab. Now here we are and her next appearance will be….trying to escape being a hound for Ahab. I know comics often have to deal with the illusion of change in characters,but yeesh!

  22. Voord 99 says:

    I really do think that Rachel suffers from having been shunted to the side in Excalibur for so many years. In effect, her origin story remains the only thing that “really” ever happened to her. See the way in which her years as the Phoenix host can always safely be ignored in Phoenix stories, even when they should obviously be relevant.

    So, yes, you inevitably come back to Ahab, again. Because although quite a lot has theoretically happened to Rachel on actual comic book pages, the only thing that has ever really happened to Rachel is growing up in the DOFP alt-future. There’s probably a story in there somewhere about the eternal recurrence of trauma.

  23. Taibak says:

    I’m still waiting to find out what happened to Rachel in the Mojoverse.

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