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Oct 28

X of Swords: Stasis annotations

Posted on Wednesday, October 28, 2020 by Paul in Annotations

As always, this post contains spoilers, and page numbers go by the digital edition.

“X of Swords, Chapter 11”
by Jonathan Hickman, Tini Howard, Pepe Larraz, Mahmud Asrar & Marte Gracia

COVER / PAGE 1: The ten champions of Arakko, some of them actually carrying their swords.

PAGE 2: Epigraph from Saturnyne. One of the big unanswered questions in this storyline is what exactly Saturnyne is trying to achieve by all this. In Chapter 1, the implication seemed to be that Saturnyne was faced with the prospect of a full scale war between the forces of Arakko and Krakoa, and offered a more symbolic mystical contest as a less destructive alternative. But it’s become increasingly clear that she has her own agenda.

For some reason, the small print on this page reads “Amenth sings.”

PAGE 3: Credits.

PAGE 4: Recap page. Despite what it says here, the Krakoans had not gathered all of their swords when we last saw them, at least not on panel. The last two swords are Grasscutter and Godkiller, which simply show up in this story in the possession of Gorgon. That’s not where they were left off when they were last seen, so there seems to be an untold bit of plot here – though of course there’s plenty of time to come back to it. Gorgon’s role is particularly odd as he seems to be wielding both swords on his own. We have seen Gorgon carrying two swords as his standard weapons before in the Krakoa era – see X-Men #4, for example – so it’s possible that he obtained the two swords independently long before “X of Swords”.

PAGE 5: Saturnyne’s emissary delivers her invitation to the Crooked Market.

The Crooked Market. This page begins a tour of some of the various realms of Otherworld which have been mentioned repeatedly throughout “X of Swords” but, in most cases, haven’t been seen on panel. The Crooked Market’s data page is in Wolverine #6. Basically, it’s a world of dodgy profiteers. As mentioned in earlier chapters, the ruler – seen in the throne here – is Jim Jaspers, originally a 1980s Captain Britain villain. He’s wearing his signature checked suit.

PAGE 6: Saturnyne’s emissary visits Sevalith and Infuri.

Sevalith. According to Marauders #13, this is basically a vampire world – however, it was listed as one of the “fair” realms, rather than the “foul”. The aesthetic is surprisingly modernist and sci-fi, though the lighting is about what you’d expect.

Infuri. The data page is in X-Force #13. As anticipated, this is a world run by Furies, the hero-killers from the same Captain Britain period.

PAGE 7: Saturnyne’s emissary visits the Floating Kingdom and the Holy Republic.

All basically as foreshadowed in Excalibur #9 and X-Factor #4 – the Floating Kingdom is a drifty anarchist utopia (presented upside down), while the Holy Republic of Fae is a grinding religious dictatorship. The rulers here are Roma and Merlyn, who used to be involved in the appointment of Captain Britains, and we still haven’t really found out how they wound up in this subordinate role to Saturnyne. Perhaps it’s tied up with the circumstances of their split.

The five kingdoms which we don’t get to see are Avalon (which has appeared repeatedly in Excalibur), Hothive (which has never appeared on panel, though we see its queen shortly), Mercator (presented as a mystery location that won’t let people in), Dryador (conquered by the Horsemen in chapter 1) and Blightspoke (said to be dangerously unstable).

PAGE 8: Saturnyne chairs the Avalon parliament meeting.

As we’ll see shortly, they’re voting on a proposal to restore free movement between the realms.

“Your votes – which of course, are in opposition to one another…” “X of Swords” has consistently presented Roma and Merlyn as opposed on virtually anything, which isn’t how they’ve been written in the past.

Vesperidae. We’ve heard her name before, but this is the first time we’ve actually seen her.

Ryl. We’ve seen Saturnyne’s aide before, in X of Swords: Creation.

Jamie Braddock is still wearing Mr Sinister’s cape, which he acquired in Hellions #5.

Mercator. Marauders #13 explained that Mercator had undergone some sort of coup, and that the mysterious new regime were not allowing people in. This is the first we’ve seen of the new regime.

PAGE 9: The motion fails, and an argument breaks out.

“The nays have it.” We know that Blightspoke, Avalon and the Floating Kingdom voted yes, Mercator abstained, and Hothive and the Holy Republic voted no. That leaves Infuri, Sevalith, Dryador and the Crooked Market. Assuming no further abstentions, at least three of them must have voted no. (You’d have thought the Crooked Market, as traders, would vote yes.)

Gia Whitechapel. This is her first appearance, but she was previously mentioned in Cable #5. Blightspoke is meant to be a dumping ground for things from failed realities, and two of her rather strange group are wearing plague doctor masks. The bear guy is just strange.

We’re told that Gia is new here, which implies that either Blightspoke has only just graduated to recognition in this realm, or that she’s only just become its representative. In Cable #5, the regent of Blightspoke was said to be “unknown”, with Gia identified simply as its “Sheriff”.

“The brazen assumption of Dryador’s seat…” The Horsemen Pestilence and Famine are present as the acting regents of Dryador, having conquered the place in X of Swords: Creation.

PAGE 10: The Horsemen explain their status.

Basically, the Horsemen claim that they have simply annexed Dryador into Arakko, and appear on behalf of Arakko “which in turn belongs to Amenth”.

Note that Saturnyne describes it as a contest between Arakko and Avalon. That’s not what she said in Creation. (“In three days’ time, I will summon your champions of Arakko here to duel the champions of Otherworld.”)

PAGE 11: The champions of Avalon gather for their ritual.

Clockwise, that’s Gorgon, Apocalypse, Cable, Magik, Cypher, Captain Avalon (Brian Braddock, as of Excalibur #13), Captain Britain (Betsy Braddock), Wolverine and Storm. Note that’s nine champions, despite the ten circles on the ground; Gorgon represents two of the swords. The final panel seems to be deliberately framed to obscure this.

PAGE 12: The champions of Arakko see their opponents in reflection.

More of these characters later. Most of them are standing one-for-one with a Krakoan character, though Gordon is spread between two. There’s no very obvious significance to the pairings, but in case it matters later…

  • Storm is paired with Bel the Blood Moon.
  • Wolverine is paired with War.
  • Cypher is paired with the White Sword.
  • Magik is paired with Isca the Unbeaten
  • Captain Britain is paired with Solem.
  • Captain Avalon is paired with Death.
  • Apocalypse with Pogg Ur-Pogg
  • Gorgon is paired with both Annihilation and Redroot.
  • Cable is paired with Summoner.

PAGE 13: Data page, of sorts – more of an introduction to the “gathering of the team” flashbacks for the villain side that follow. The small print reads “This blade – for Okkara, for Arakako – The one land.”

PAGE 14: Another data page, this time with the prophecies that were given to the Arakko side (the equivalent of the clues delivered by Polaris in X-Factor #4).

  • The first one is obviously War, given the flaming sword and the play on “all’s fair in love and war”.
  • Number 2 is presumably Death, since it mentions… well, death.
  • Number 3 is probably Summoner, given the white bit and the emphasis on lying. (The white alone could equally cover the White Sword.)
  • Number 4 is probably Annihilation, a persona which occupies a mask that consumes the wearer.
  • Number 5 is presumably Solem, who appeared more interested in entertaining himself than in anything else.
  • Number 6 is probably Bei the Blood Moon (given the stuff about “temptress” and the fact that she’s carrying a sword called Seducer).
  • Number 7 is obviously Pogg Ur-Pogg.
  • Number 8 is the White Sword, the healer.
  • Number 9 is obviously Isca the Unbeaten (“sure victory”)
  • Number 10 is presumably Redroot.

PAGES 15-17: The Horsemen and Annihilation begin their recruitment drive.

Pestilence is delivering the prophecies and creating the circle, much as Polaris did for Krakoa in in X-Factor #4.

“Alluvium, Seducer, the Black Bone”. The swords of Redroot, Bei and Death respectively.

PAGES 18-19: Summoner recruits Redroot.

Redroot makes her first proper appearance here. She appears to be serving the same translator role for Arakko that Cypher performs for Krakoa, and she’s even sitting in the same place. The establishing shot suggests that poor Arakko is clinging on as some kind of oasis of greenery in this wasteland.

Redroot (speaking for Arakko) is not at all interested in fighting for its own sake, and seems more concerned about reunifying the two separated islands.

Arakko’s dialogue is just gibberish.

PAGE 20: War and Pestilence recruit Pogg Ur-Pogg.

First time we’ve seen Pogg Ur-Pogg, who is some sort of mercenary dinosaur creature. His sword is shaped similarly to Apocalypse’s.

PAGE 21: Summoner recruits Bei the Blood Moon.

First time we’ve seen Bei, who seems to sign up for this simply because it’s a battle.

PAGES 22-23: Death and Famine recruit the White Sword.

The White Sword evidently regards himself as having spent centuries fighting for the unified Okkara. To him, the Horsemen have betrayed his cause by simply embracing the demonic world of Amenth. Evidently they have to offer him a pretty massive favour to get him on board.

The White Sword is described here as the “White Sword of the Ivory Spire”, presumably referring to his base.

PAGE 24: War and Pestilence recruit Isca.

Isca accepts without explanation. It’s possible that she has no choice in the matter, since we’ve been told that her power to “never be beaten” is to be taken literally – it doesn’t simply allow her to achieve whatever she sets out to do, but rather works in part by compelling her to follow a winning course even if it’s on the “wrong” side.

PAGES 25-26: Death retrieves the Black Bone of Amduat.

A sacred relic belonging to a death cult, whom he slaughters to get to it (violating a peace treaty). Death offers a presumably sarcastic explanation that as death cultists, they ought to be happy about this.

PAGE 27: Data page summarising the blades of Arakko.

  • Aside from his demon-summoning powers (which are the result of magical training), Summoner’s actual mutant power is invulnerability.
  • Solem’s adamantium skin was mentioned when he appeared in Wolverine, but it’s describe here as his mutant power. How that works when adamantium is a man-made alloy – who knows. (As for the “how does it bend” question, Solem said in Wolverine that it was a bit like chainmail – that is, it’s made up of lots of tiny bits of adamantium, which makes some sense.)
  • The White Sword’s power is “healing”, which explains how he keeps reviving his poor beleaguered 100 every day.
  • Redroot isn’t a translator, but has plant-talking powers. Unlike the other mutants in this group, she’s not a mutant from Arakko, but a “pure-blood mutant reclaimed from Amenth”. It’s perhaps interesting that the one non-Arakko character in the group seems to be the nicest.
  • Bei’s mutant power is unhelpfully identified as “The Doom Note”.
  • Pogg Ur-Pogg has no powers, but then being a giant dinosaur thing, he doesn’t really need them.

PAGES 28-30: The Krakoan team arrive in Otherworld and discuss how long to keep playing the game..

“I’m hardly welcome here.” Captain Britain was made very unwelcome in the last Excalibur.

PAGES 31-33: The Krakoans receive tarot cards from Saturnyne.

We’ll come back to this when we get to the data page. Apocalypse takes one look at his card – we’ll see later that it’s the Lovers, and shows him and Genesis – and decides he no longer wants to play along.

PAGE 34: Saturnyne casts a spell of some sort.

This seems like it’s going to be important later, since it gets half a page.

PAGES 35-39: Apocalypse confronts Saturnyne, and is reunited with Genesis.

“You defeated Morgan Le Fay in battle – which I considered a lucky favour.” That’s not exactly what happened in Excalibur #6. Apocalypse talked Morgan into having the battle resolved by a fight between Betsy and Brian (who was enslaved by Morgan at the time). At any rate, Saturnyne was warring with Morgan at the time, so it’s unsurprising that she would welcome Morgan’s removal.

“[T]his barely realised theory of magic you claim to have been studying for centuries…” Saturnyne is openly doubting Apocalypse’s claim in Excalibur that he’s been really interested in magic for centuries, and it’s definitely not just something that’s been retconned in now.

PAGE 41: Data page. As in X of Swords: Creation, Tarot has had a vision of the same cards we just saw, and offers her explanation. Her comments on the normal meanings of the cards are conventional.

  • The Nine of Swords. Given to Captain Britain, with an image of her lying prone with nine swords stuck into her. However, the normal image on a Nine of Swords card is an image of someone sleeping or recently awoken, with the nine swords mounted above them to represent the anxieties hanging over them. The enthusiastically-impaled corpse shown on Betsy’s card is more typical of the titular Ten of Swords.
  • The Two of Cups. Given to Cypher, with an image of him talking to a woman in silhouette – possibly his opposite number Redroot. This one is a version of the typical Two of Cups card, which shows a man and a woman staring into each other’s eyes.
  • A hidden card. Tarot’s version has two reverse sides. Gorgon received the equivalent card and threw it away calling it “Ridiculous”, but we don’t know for sure what was on both sides of his one.
  • The Knight of Pentacles. Captain Avalon, shown riding a griffon and looking generally heroic. The standard version shows a knight on horseback.
  • The Page of Wands. Magik, who looked powerful on her card.
  • The Fool. Cable, who was shown standing on some kind of machinery, perhaps the SWORD space station. The standard version of the card shows the Fool posed in a similarly carefree way on the edge of a cliff.
  • Strength. Wolverine, who was shown wrestling with Summoner (and apparently losing). He wasn’t happy about that. The regular card design shows a woman standing over a lion; by implication Wolverine is the animal here.
  • Death. Storm, shown riding a horse and leading a rather grim looking army. The version of the Death card in the well-known Rider-Waite tarot deck shows the Grim Reaper in armour riding a pale horse and carrying a flag which seems to be identical to the one Storm carries here (zoom in and you can see the “XIII” in the top left corner of the flag).
  • The Lovers. Apocalypse, shown with Genesis, but with an angel of death overhead. This is based specifically on the Rider-Waite version of the Lovers (earlier versions showed three people, a couple receiving a blessing from a cleric). In the Rider-Waite version, the card shows Adam and Eve and the background figure is angelic.

PAGE 42. Trailers. The Krakoan reads NEXT: TRUTH.

Bring on the comments

  1. K says:

    Creation, stasis, and destruction as titles are basically taken from the Hindu trinity, right?

    I want to read deeper significance into it, but I have a feeling it’s just because the usual “Alpha” and “Omega” doesn’t lend itself easily to a middle part.

  2. Daibhid C says:

    @K: I almost immediately thought X of Swords: Mu, but that might be confusing in a series featuring mysterious lost islands.

  3. Chris V says:

    X of Swords: Atlantis, Mu, Lemuria

  4. Dave says:

    I took that image of the pairings to be showing who’s fighting who, but apparently not. There are promotional images that show Magik vs Pogg, for one.

  5. madisonhatter says:

    Reading this reminds me of when the teacher puts on a movie that you’re not particularly interested in but there’s nothing else to do and you can’t exactly ignore it.

  6. Si says:

    Are there really three uninterrupted pages of a *parliament session*?

  7. The Other Michael says:

    What might be important:
    The realm of Mercator is apparently ruled by a “Mr. Mercator” who remains mysterious even as he refuses to let anyone in.

    One of the few missing Omega level mutants is Mister M… aka Absalom Mercator (last seen turning into butterflies and vanishing back in The 198 #5). As has been brought up here before, there’s almost no way that this isn’t all connected in some fashion.

    Either Mister M. was brought back post-Krakoa, or somehow wound up in Otherworld after his death/transformation.

  8. Allan M says:

    Per Marvel Twitter, the confirmed matchups so far are Cable vs. Bei, Magik vs. Pogg Ur-Pogg, and Captain Britain vs. Isca. Obviously Wolverine vs. Solem and Apocalypse vs. Annihilation are happening.

    Also note that Summoner’s power is listed as invulnerability, but he told Rockslide in X-Men #12 that his eyes are vulnerable. I don’t think it’s coincidental that this issue sets up a fight between him and a man who has claws which can pop out at roughly the same distance as between someone’s eyes.

  9. Chris V says:

    Mister M couldn’t have been brought back post-Krakoa.
    In the Incoming preview comic, Sinister said that Mister M was one of only three DNA samples from mutants he didn’t have yet.
    He said that no one knew what happened to Mister M, so he had no way to collect that DNA.

    For whatever reason, it seems like Hickman decided that Mister M ended up in Otherworld after evolving in to something greater and has created his own realm.
    I guess it’s continuing the video game trend.
    If you can beat all the villains in the game, then you can unlock one of the final two Omega-level mutants!

  10. Krzysiek Ceran says:

    I don’t get Pogg Ur-Pogg’s speech pattern. Is he supposed to be rhyming like Etrigan? The charmed/harmed from his last panel reads like that, but are the previous two, let’s charitably call them couplets, supposed to rhyme as well? “So” & “hot” and, um, “more” & “more”…

    I don’t get it.

  11. Ben says:

    This continues to be a lot of fantasy names of people and places with very little sense of location or character to me.

    And I have a pretty enormous tolerance and love for fantasy gobbledegook.

    Like did we need twenty (mostly new) swords and ten entirely new villains?

    Wouldn’t five vs five been a lot tighter and given everything much more room to breath?

    Did we need four new Horseman but only two of them actually being in the tournament?

    Did we need all this Otherworld stuff when we could have had a much cleaner Arokka vs Krakoa and just left Otherworld to Excalibur?

  12. Dave says:

    Oh, mentioning how Arakko is now attached to Otherworld stuff has just reminded me of something I’d wondered about – how’s the splitting/sinking of the island supposed to have gone? It disappeared through some magic portal, and…just reappeared exactly where Amenth connected to Dryador/Otherworld? Or did it pass through Avalon, where Earth connects to Otherworld, then across the central part of OW and then all through Dryador? I suppose it’s got to be the former, as you have to be in Britain to get directly from Earth into Avalon.

    People noticed online that when Saturnyne’s viewing the Krakoan champions, Magneto is there – evidence of some plot changes.

  13. Taibak says:

    In addition to everything else, I’m questioning the plot logic here. If Arakko is really a problem, why doesn’t she just destroy its reality? It’s certainly within her capabilities. And if she really needs ten champions to represent Avalon and defeat ten super beings, why bother with the X-Men at all when she has a whole bunch of Furies right next door?

  14. Krzysiek Ceran says:

    Otherworld politics? Until Saturnyne’s goals become clear it’s diffucult to guess at their logic or lack thereof.

  15. Joseph S. says:

    Dinosaur!?! Sir, Pogg Ur-Pogg is a giant /crocodile/.

  16. Joseph S. says:

    Granted, this amounts to more or less the same thing, but nonetheless, the Internets have been abuzz about this crocodile for some time now.

  17. Evilgus says:

    Look, I’m going to say it – I’m just really enjoying this.

    Sure it’s a big fantasy romp, and yes it’ll probably feel overstretched by the end, but I like the world building, the art, and the general portentousness (death will have implications…).

    It puts me in mind of things like the Asgard stories, and I’m cool with the Otherworld focus. It’s not “my” fun Otherworld (if it’s not Alan Davis, it’s not my Otherworld!) but wow, Larraz and Asrar are good.

  18. Adam says:

    I was about to say the same about Ur-Pogg. And I like that he’s more crocodilian; it chimes with the Egyptian motif of Genesis and the Horsemen (tho’ apparently this is incidental).

    Still basically enjoying all of this.

  19. Joseph S. says:

    I, too, am enjoying this. It wouldn’t work without weekly installments, but as it is it doesn’t feel too decompressed IMO. The character focused issues were actually pretty good. But effectively Creation to Stasis was an exercise in putting the pieces in place, so getting those deep character moments (something that critics have pointed to as a weakness of in the House of Hickman) was a smart move.

    That said, the Cerebro Sword: a clever feign, an indication of a change of plans, or a plot point yet to be realized?

    For my money, I fully expected a mystery tenth bearer to appear. Note the very deliberate angles which prevent a clear view of the swordbearers. Gorgon, with two swords, gets a faceless card. Not sure if another will bear one of those swords or if a tenth bearer will appear with the Cerebro Sword.

    Betsy’s card being the 9 of Swords with the iconography of the 10 must be significant. Does anyone know if this card has any links to the common depictions of Saint Sebastian?

  20. Chris V says:

    It really doesn’t make sense that Gorgon would hold two of the swords, and so Krakoa goes in to battle at a disadvantage. That seems odd.
    Why wouldn’t Gorgon give a sword to a tenth person?
    If Magneto is being shown though, maybe the Cerebro Sword will be the true tenth sword.

    I wonder if an artist messed up the iconography on Betsy’s card?
    It shows nine swords on Betsy’s card, even though the depiction is off of the ten of swords.
    The cards are similar.

    The nine of swords fits Betsy, because one interpretation is that the person feels a lack of self-worth.
    This could fit with Betsy’s feelings of inadequacy as the new Captain Britain.
    The ten of swords is usually associated with defeat and betrayal.
    Both cards are pretty negative.
    When I heard this crossover was being called “X of Swords”, I immediately thought someone major is going to betray Krakoa.
    I’m not sure what a nine of swords card, but with the ten of swords picture could mean.

    Also, Saint Sebastian is usually portrayed being pierced by arrows, not swords.

  21. K says:

    Since the Cerebro Sword is still somehow functional as Cerebro (according to some data page or other)…

    Maybe bringing in the Cerebro Sword is how they’re going to still manage to pull the resurrection card for someone who dies this event. Maybe if you die in Otherworld but get backed up from Otherworld then it still works?

  22. Joseph S. says:

    Yes I realize Saint Sebastian is depicted with arrows. Nonetheless. The iconography on the Ten doesn’t normally call to mind the Saint, but the depiction on the nine card did, for me.

  23. David says:

    Over in X-force, the Cerebro Sword was stolen and then given to the leader of XENO by Mikhail Rasputin. I find it unlikely that XoS will be touching on the XENO plot, so that makes me think the Cerebro Sword won’t be turning up in this crossover. It still could, of course.

  24. CJ says:

    For what it’s worth, “Vesperidae” is a family of beetles with long antennae.

  25. JCG says:

    Am I missing the significance of the so called Cerebro sword?

    Far as I know it’s just a broken Cerebro unit that Magneto for some reason reshaped into a sword.

  26. Chris V says:

    Not really. It’s just a sword that was introduced as a plot point shortly before a major event called X of Swords.

    Warlock is being used as a sword, so I don’t see that every sword used in the contest needs to be a mystical or ancient relic.
    So, why not the Cerebro Sword for a tenth champion of Krakoa?

  27. Allan M says:

    The X-Force issue where the Cerebro Sword is stolen and handed over to XENO was billed as “Path to X of Swords” when the only other apparent link to the crossover is Wolverine and Jean alluding to the events of the crossover.

    The silhouetted mystery 10th Krakoan champion from X of Swords: Creation conveniently looks a lot like Magneto (complete with little crest on the top of his helmet), who conveniently made a special sword a few issues ago, and the story where it’s stolen is a crossover tie-in. It’s either setup or it’s Hickman/Howard/Percy playing head games.

  28. Josie says:

    I am not reading this crossover, and I’m barely even reading the summaries. My eyes just glaze over with all this Otherworld tripe and names of characters I neither know nor have interest in. I’m not disappointed in how many people claim to be enjoying it versus the reverse – it seems to be a very small minority, and, you know, not everything has to be for everyone, so that’s fine – but I’m kind of disappointed how many people are still reading it despite such apathy.

  29. Luis Dantas says:

    These are interesting days. Somehow people talk very often about comics that they do not enjoy.

    Part of it may be the marketing itself, but at this point it is a whole consolidated stance, whatever the reasons may be.

  30. Adam says:

    @Luis: ‘Tis ever been thus. In fact I used to be such a hater.

    It stems from personal problems, straight-up.

  31. JCG says:

    “So, why not the Cerebro Sword for a tenth champion of Krakoa?”

    Don’t seem like it would work that well as a sword in a duel using mainly magical and otherwise special swords? I would not want to get stuck with it at least!

    Warlock as a sword works, he brings a lot to the table, as opposed to a piece of inert metal. Does Magneto have a good reputation as a swordsmaker?

  32. Chris V says:

    He’s Magneto. If the sword is metal, he’ll just cheat. He.’lol use his powers to rip his opponent’s sword from their hand. Magneto wins.

  33. Josie says:

    Hate reading is deranged, but in some small way, it makes some sense that they’d stick with a series because hate reading requires commitment.

    But apathy? Like the first 11 issues bored you, so you’re still going to read the next 11 issues? I don’t get that at all.

  34. Chris V says:

    Most people have save lists with their comic stores or order series they collect.
    It seems like it would be a great deal of work to cancel the titles they are buying for two months and then add those titles back to their buying lists immediately after.
    It’s probably easier just to stick it out through the crossover.

    It’s an insane amount of comics for one story, but it’s spread over a lot of titles too. So, it’s only going to
    last for about two months.
    That’s not a huge commitment for a story that bores them, if they are buying those titles on a monthly basis anyway.

  35. Ben says:

    It’s not like there’s a lot else to do in America this year.

  36. The Other Michael says:

    I pre-order my comics through my LCS, so by the time I know if I like or hate something, I’m probably two months’ worth of issues into it… so even if I decide to drop something, there’s that slight delay.

    I’m sure my LCS would let me refuse something and refund or exchange it for me–I bring them homemade goodies–but it’s still a potential hassle.

  37. andrew brown says:

    I haven’t read an x-men comic in a few years, and honestly, none of this sounds like an x-men comic. It might be good, but does it have anything at all to do with the core concepts? It sounds like a sci-fi fantasy comic with x-men shoehorned in

  38. joshua corum says:

    Not to rush you, Paul, but I can’t wait for your next entry on the X-Men. I tried but couldn’t get through half the book before giving up. Not a single X-Men was actually in the book (Apocalypse notwithstanding since this [A] is as out-of-character as the rest of the cast has been) and the story was similar to listening to a stranger relate their favorite DnD campaign.

    This crossover is an interminable slog 🙁

  39. Alan L says:

    @andrew brown, you nailed it for me. What Hickman has failed to do so far on a macro level is that he’s failed to integrate the actual X-men into his conceptual framework in any but the most superficial ways. Some of us complain on and on about the lack of character individuation and development in these issues; this is I think the idea we’re really circling around. This whole Hickman-era concept doesn’t fit the X-men. Even as it re-invents the X-men from the ground up, the actual X-men are barely to be found in these stories––including the earlier ones, which are allegedly about them a little more than this crossover has become. What we have to read instead is a completely separate comic universe, which is, the more I think about it, swiftly rejecting the X-men like a transplanted organ. Having a crossover in which the X-men fight sword duels in a D&D–style tournament, and dragging it out to this absurd length, just brings that rejection further to the fore.

  40. Thom H. says:

    I completely agree that X of Swords misses the point of the X-Men, but I don’t think you can say the same thing about HoXPoX. It’s a race to the evolutionary finish between humans and mutants. That’s certainly got to have something to do with the core themes of the X-Men.

    Humans out-evolve mutants, then keep them in a zoo, then allow them to die as post-humans are assumed into the celestial uber-consciousness. It’s dispassionate in its execution, and it leans on the sci-fi part of the concept a little more than usual, but the “hated and feared” elements aren’t hard to find.

    Which is why I wish we could get back to the story HoXPoX set up. I’ve never been a big fan of D&D, and X of Swords is not changing my mind about that.

  41. Krzysiek Ceran says:

    I’m not that fond of D&D myself, but having played a lot of it, I find the comparison a stretch. There’s no small band (‘party’) of aggressive and dangerous maniacs, wildly veering off what was supposed to be their quest…

    You know what? Let me amend that.

    Hellions is totally D&D. The rest of XoS, not so much.

  42. Rybread says:

    Yeah, I’m not sure where all this D&D comparison stuff is coming from. As someone who has played many D&D campaigns on and off for the better part of two decades, none of my sessions ever remotely resembled anything in these comics. Certainly we never had any magic sword tournaments. I think what you guys mean to say is that these issues are bringing in a lot of fantasy tropes that have little to nothing to do with the X-Men, which is true. But these tropes also don’t have much to do with D&D outside of sometimes some characters will use swords.

    Honestly, intentionally or not, it comes across as if you have the mindset that “D&D is for loooosers” and “the only people who could ever like these comics are the same type of dweebs who would play D&D”.

  43. Chris V says:

    Now, now. Let’s not argue about if D&D players or comic readers are the bigger nerds. We’re all near the top of the list…so, we’re all winners!

    I never played D&D because you needed friends for that.
    Instead, this reminds me of a Final Fantasy game.
    I thought that the first three Nintendo-versions of FF were awesome to play. It’s not as fun to read a glorified player’s manual disguised as a fictional work.

    I think that’s the point. This was probably a lot more fun for Hickman and Howard to brainstorm than to get through twenty-two issues of this story-line.

  44. Alan L says:

    So quests for magic swords and tourneys, with knights feasting before battles never figured in any of your D&D campaigns? I’m the one who most frequently references D&D when describing Hickman’s narratives, so I’d better explain more fully what I mean by it. I’m afraid this will take some space.

    I used to read the prewritten campaigns for AD&D and Forgotten Realms––I had the books, and I seldom had people interested in playing the games with me. So I read these campaigns, and when I tried them out with my less–than–enthusiastic friends, the campaigns I set up so carefully came apart immediately, because my friends simply refused to honor the drama the story was setting up. I would set up a wounded character on the road in front of my friends’ party, who would provide the key to advancing into the story of the campaign, if the characters would only try and save the injured guy on the road. He would…give them a hint where to go, maybe, or he would explain how his village was overrun with bandits; something that might compel my friends’ characters to leap into adventure for greed, for valor, for whatever. But my friends would usually go and make a roll to see how far they could throw the wounded man, or they’d test their most damaging spells on him, not listening to a word he tried to say to steer them. As the DM, I’d roll with the punches. Maybe they find a map on the guy’s corpse that leads to a treasure? Lo and behold, the idiots burn the body rather than search it. Nothing I did would kick-start the story, because the players weren’t having it. It was funnier for them to subvert the attempt to build a narrative than it was to play along. I know this isn’t the way you’re supposed to play D&D. I promise I’m coming to a point here.

    The Dungeon Master in D&D isn’t the only author of the campaign; the DM might devise or at least recount the story proper, but the players have to participate in order to develop the narrative. Specifically, the players have to provide the character motivation that makes the story engrossing. Without the players providing that, the campaign might still go on, but the narrative that is playing out is just not solvent. And it isn’t engrossing. Because the action isn’t motivated by characters making decisions based on their individualized outlooks. Instead, it’s a rogue Dungeon Master throwing orcs and goblins and dragons at the characters, having them just pop out of wherever to attack the party. Without the players providing characterization that motivates the plot, the story becomes a series of unconnected events. However, when the players attempt to harmonize with the DM, recognizing when the DM is trying to engage them and engaging directly, a plot with some character motivation can unfold, and the campaign becomes more than just a bunch of orc fights; it becomes a kind of semi-fluent narrative.

    But that kind of fluency is pretty rare. Most D&D games build to battles, discovery of riches, etc. Few DMs are great at putting together a complex and engrossing story with so many moving parts; few players are able to deliver motivated character actions that play well into an evolving story. And no D&D campaign is as engrossing when recounted, as, say, a well-written novel or graphic novel. This is in part because the narrative aspect of a gaming campaign is not the primary goal of the experience. There are all these level of intercessory social interactivity that makes a D&D campaign not just a story, but also a game, and the narrative serves a subservient purpose within that matrix; the narrative needs to change in response to the people putting characters into it, and the players with their characters need to bend a little in order to make the story come across. Whereas in a novel, or a graphic novel, the narrative and its qualities are paramount. It’s why we’re reading in the first place; to focus on a good story.

    But what Hickman does as a writer frequently hews uncomfortably close to being a dungeon master, and when the tropes of the genre burst full-form out of the X-men narrative, it is a jarring reminder of the insubstantiality of lots of Hickman’s narrative structures and conceits. What Hickman does that most resembles a Dungeon Master is that he generally eschews individualized character in his stories. The X-men that participate in this X of Swords crossover, for instance, have been selected almost at random. They are not chosen because they work well together, or because they represent particular subgroups of X-men, or because they represent the books currently in the line (there are no Hellions in the tournament, for instance). They could be swapped around, or exchanged with other characters, and there would be no significant alteration of the narrative of X of Swords so far. Beyond this crossover, this is something Hickman does in many regular issues, and that he does in HoXPoX as well (many people here commented at the time on why Monet and Husk end up on the death mission to the Master Mold––we still have no explanation for Hickman’s character choices here). Likewise, Hickman does not develop his characters on the page, making their presence seem more necessary to the events taking place. Like a Dungeon Master, Hickman relies upon the reader to fill in the character development (and in our discussion of the latest Marauders issue, someone has done just that, giving a very credible character development for Wolverine across the line since HoXPoX––but a development that simply hadn’t been articulated within the story thus far). as a Dungeon Writer Master Plotter, Hickman provides plot and eschews character almost completely. Thus the individual X-men don’t do much of anything in these stories, besides stand around waiting for their combat turn––the swordsmen in the current crossover stood for issue upon issue on the their figure stands, waiting for other characters to get their swords. What were they doing while they waited? Who cares? I mean, I care, but I’m just a reader, not the Dungeon Master.

    Further, Hickman constructs a lot of his stories in ways that mimic RPGs. He creates “zones,” where you might find a particular kind of monster or interaction. Often these spaces are just generalized, because Hickman likes to invite other authors to jump in with their own writing in that space. Secret Wars was full of these “zones;” Hickman even provided a literal map of them, and he had dozens of other writers crafting mostly bland and uninspired stories within these spaces––the author’s own “campaign,” if you will. These are bland campaigns because, like in a video game RPG, if you come upon the zone without a story motivation for being there, you are essentially treading water, alienated from the narrative until you can link up with it again. Like when you descend into a dungeon in a video game RPG, the narrative above ground has to stop in its tracks until you emerge again. Needless to say, this doesn’t work in a medium where continuous narrative is the driving concern, the thing the readers are scrutinizing for all of the entertainment they can find in the process of reading. In X of Swords Hickman has provided similar zones––the various kingdoms of Otherworld. We’ve had these described to us in the broadest of terms; probably these will be used as combat “zones” in the part of X of Swords where the duels are supposed to happen. Similar to the Secret Wars zones, these are spaces given a broadly generalized description; we’ve met characters from some of these places, but there is only the simplest form of any specificity in what is contained therein. These characters from their respective “zones” haven’t had any impact on the story so far; they fill out the background of the dinner in Marauders, but the X-men and the Horsemen don’t interact with them at all. Their specialty zones have appeared only in single panels, for the most part, and we have not in our narrative yet found an organic-seeming reason to get to any of these realms. They are placeholders, to be utilized in case of…in case of…something. I don’t know. How are they going to be effectively utilized? What would make having to read about them seem a worthwhile part of this narrative? The entries in the data pages here also resemble a lot of material I remember from the AD&D books––generalized descriptions of places without any sense of their potential narrative purpose––Dungeon Master, make of them what you will. The problem is, the current Dungeon Master––Hickman, or maybe Tini Howard––has so far not elected to make much use of them. In a DM’s preparation for a campaign that could be called research. In a narrative fiction it really has to be called a distraction to fill us so full of extraneous material while our actual narrative stands perfectly still.

    RPGs with fantasy elements are also unfailingly full of characters whose purpose is to deliver a key piece of advice, or a story, or a magical item to characters. These keymasters, seers, ghosts of legendary warriors, etc., are united in a particular way; they are disposable figures, whose participation in the story is generally limited to delivering their one main payoff––after which, they drop away into the background, or disappear entirely. Hickman has a long history of dropping these kinds of characters into his work, often with names like “the seeker,” “the keymaster,” and all that jazz. In Hickman’s work, you can usually recognize these figures because Hickman gives them a bloviating monologue at some point, full of suggestions of other, presumably better stories they’ve partaken of that make them into exceptionally important figures in the story going on right now; to one extent or another this virus infects virtually all characters Hickman creates, but the one that sticks out so roundly to me so far in X-men is “Summoner.” This is a character so vague he isn’t even wearing clothes. His main personality trait, from what we’re told so far, is that he lies, but as people have pointed out already, he hardly seems to. Hickman is so uninvested in making this character a thing that we can practically feel his hollowness on the page. He comes from nowhere worth investigating. He relates to people as all Hickman’s magical NPCs do; he speaks in a stilted, formal way, tells endless stories about other stuff that happened before the story began (most of which doesn’t really mean that much to our current story, though Hickman really seems to think it has serious impact we should pay attention to)and he clearly has no life to him outside of delivering the isle of Arakko to Krakoa and delivering the X-men to the Horsemen. Once this story is over, and Hickman is finally gone, Summoner will not be sticking around. There are a bunch of these characters I see so far, who are just like the similar characters from Secret Wars––almost all of which are long gone. This is a useful kind of character for a DM trying to jumpstart a campaign, but for an ongoing narrative, where focus is important, they are a flashy, albeit ultimately empty distraction.

    So on top of all of this, we have X of Swords, where not only do Hickman’s DM-like writer’s tropes continue to be leveraged in awkward ways, but Hickman has also managed to leverage story cliches out of D&D as well. “Magic swords” are at the top of that list for me, but there’s also a questing party being recruited for a magic user’s grand tournament, there’s a realm that is literally just a “market,” there’s prophecies and mead-hall scenes and a truce between kingdoms and war parties and somewhere in there, I swear, there are supposed to be some X-men, doing nominally X-men-like things. Look, compare this to the 2-part X-men: Asgardian Wars story from the 80s, and I think you’ll see what I mean. That briefer story is an actual narrative. It balances plot and character development, bringing character motivations to the fore in order to move plot forward. People don’t form “parties” and go on “quests.” Rather, they are taxed with individual problems and they work together to try and work them all out. Everyone is tested, everyone faces character challenges and changes during the events of the story. It’s a tight story, that actually spans a huge amount of Asgard’s fictional real estate. That real estate is important, not just to the individual characters and the landscapes which test them, but characters from all those spaces are brought together in the finale of the story, cinching all the narrative strands together in a tight little bow. By comparison, this X of Swords story, and the general Hickman direction for the X-men, has proven slack, without the concentration that generally provides narrative engagement for a reader. Another way to say it is that the story is all world-building, and no substance to fill those worlds with. But I think my D&D comparison is more apt, because Hickman’s writing style reflects so many narrative conceits and narrative weaknesses of the D&D format. To be fair, it isn’t meant to have the sustained narrative concentration of a book; and I think an author ought to be very careful what narrative attributes they choose to ape from RPGs. They are, after all, made with a very different purpose in mind.

  45. Krzysiek Ceran says:

    Just to make sure, when you say D&D do you mean specifically the various Dungeons & Dragons games or tabletop RPGs in general?

  46. Alan L says:

    I suppose I’m using them interchangeably. I also played the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles RPG as a kid, and the TSR Marvel Universe one. But I think D&D is probably were I have the most background, and it’s what I’m referencing most. But I am conflating tabletop RPGS here. The ones I’ve played have all been written in a similar way.

  47. Krzysiek Ceran says:

    Thanks for the clarification. Let me just say that while D&D is the most popular RPG and there are many, many other games in that general dungeon-crawling vein, they don’t encompass the whole of the hobby. There are games that deemphasize combat (or get rid of it completely), instead focusing on social interactions, cooperative story-telling and creative problem-solving. (Also, I’m sorry you played with people who weren’t invested in the game – I imagine this must have been a lousy experience).

    But putting all of that aside, I still don’t think X of Swords is particularly like a D&D session or campaign.

    Sure, the data pages on realms and swords are written like (lazy) sourcebook entries, and the generic fantasy story with magic realms and magic swords and flimsy characters spouting lore is pretty game-like.

    But like you said, the GM isn’t the only author of a roleplaying story. The players make their characters the main heroes of every adventure – unless the GM is solely interested in their own story, in which case the player characters become uwilling witnesses to another hero’s story, which usually isn’t fun for anyone involved. In both cases, however, there’s a group of 3 to 6 main characters at the center of most if not every scene.

    This is why X of Swords doesn’t read like a D&D campaign to me – you couldn’t run it as a game this way, with 10 main-ish characters, each of which (well, most of whom) goes off on their own side-quest one by one while everyone else politely waits for their turn.

    I mean, you could run it as a string of game sessions, where each time the GM sits down with only one player, until they bring them all together midway through the campaign – but that would be some pretty experimental GM-ing, not typical D&D fare.

    Oh, and one more thing:
    ‘And no D&D campaign is as engrossing when recounted, as, say, a well-written novel or graphic novel.’

    The popularity of the Critical Role actual plays suggests it can be pretty engrossing.

    Now, I don’t follow CR – again, I’m not fond of D&D, I only play it when my friends don’t want to run anything else, which is most of the time; I run other games myself. But my favourite actual play podcast, Friends at the Table, manages to spin very engrossing, high-concept stories – fantasy, sci-fi and even something not unlike magical realism – that I’d easily put among well-written novels I also enjoyed. Maybe not top-tier, best in the genre titles, but ‘well-written’ – definitely.
    Though again, and this might be my bias speaking, Friends at the Table manage to do that in part by never playing D&D and using games that focus on other aspects of roleplaying instead.

  48. Alan L says:

    Hm. I think I have to tackle several of your points here, but I have to say that my purpose was never to make a 1-to-1 comparison between the X of Swords storyline and an RPG campaign. Rather, I was suggesting that, as a writer, Hickman borrows many narrative strategies from the world of Role–Playing Games, and that most of the narrative strategies he takes from RPGs don’t work within the more concentrated narrative format of a comic book.

    And the ultimate point was this, which I really hope does not get lost here––I am not disparaging role-playing games when I suggest that their qualities as a narrative are substantially different from those of a comic book. Their purposes as narratives are totally different, for one thing. When I compare Hickman’s writing conceits to the narrative strategy of a D&D campaign, it’s not meant to besmirch the literary quality of D&D campaigns, but instead to suggest that A) an RPG narrative approach, based on including a variety of players in shaping the story, doesn’t make for ideal storytelling in a more concentrated form, like a comic or novel, where the reader is a singular figure with no expectation of participation and less patience for a slacking sense of narrative dynamism, and B) that when Hickman utilizes this approach he seems to borrow from RPGs––especially from Dungeons & Dragons, which is why I bring it up so much––he is sacrificing a lot of the concentrated power of narrative fiction. The reference is to point out Hickman’s authorial mis-judgement, not to insult Hickman by insulting role-playing games.

    In fact, I’ve immensely enjoyed my own RPG experiences––not so much for the games, which because of their dissimilarity to the narrative fiction I like didn’t end up holding much interest for me––but because they were a chance to spend some time with my somewhat anarchic friends. Seeing them undermine the game I set up was funny, every time. But it taught me a good deal about how RPG narratives were constructed, and what needed to happen in order for them to move forward towards their sometimes preplanned ends. I’m aware of the range of RPGs out there, and I’ve played ones in the past that did fascinate me––most especially an early Electronic Arts game for the Apple IIGS called “Stuart Smith’s Adventure Construction Set,” which had complicated combat and navigation systems which were almost completely opaque to the player, and which had very little narrative ordering of events. That experience was really formative as a child, because friends and I would endeavor to construct our own narratives to explain what we thought was happening in the game. We created personalities for the characters (you could control multiple player characters in different areas of the game, taking turns) and played each one to conform as much as we could to the personality we’d set dreamed up. When characters interacted, we found ways of inventing narrative to explain their interactions. That was a great experience in narrative construction, but it was one very similar to other RPG campaign experiences, in this way; I couldn’t tell you what made the story we invented seem so intense and funny and special. You just had to be there at the time, taking part in the atmosphere and trying to figure out what to make of the experience we shared together. Whereas, if you’re reading a novel, or a comic, these are narratives you can pick up at any time, irregardless of social context, and get the same charged experience, or one relatively similar to that of most other readers. To that extent, writing for a large, anonymous group of readers has to deliver more intensely on its plot and character elements than does an RPG. I don’t hate role-playing games, and I am not intending to belittle them––although I can see how my reference to them may have sounded defamatory without the appropriate context. But I don’t think that RPG narratives match the concentration of comic or prose narratives; I don’t think they provide the same level of dynamism. I think that the players contribute a lot of what makes an RPG a successful social experience. But reading a book or comic isn’t primarily a social experience. It needs to activate your mind and occupy it to the same degree that all the players in your RPG campaign do, or moreso. Preferably moreso.

    Part of what I mean by talking about the DM’s role vs. the players’ roles is to show how the authorial process is divided in RPGs into A) Plot design, undertaken by the DM, and B) Character writing, undertaken by the players. And this, I realize, is a complex and somewhat opaque point: as a writer, Hickman time and again replicates this fracture of the authorial duties, seen in role-playing games, to the detriment of his stories. He leaves the job of character development to others, and focuses entirely on the plot. What I’m suggesting is that he expects us, the readers, to fill in the character development he doesn’t write. He wants us to draw on our memories of previous stories including these characters to inform their background positions (a hint he wants us to do this is in the way he has suggested that the characters might wear any of their previous costumes at any time in his story––whichever previous version of the character you read and enjoyed, you can imagine them that way, and sometimes see them that way in his story…sort of; as with most Hickman literary conceits, he runs out of gas on this one once he puts a few characters back in older costumes––Jean Grey, for instance, only seems to wear her Neal Adams costume, and never, for instance, her Jim Lee costume, or the Frank Quitely one). Then he wants us to imagine the character motivations that he doesn’t write and apply them into his scenes. Again, the discussion thread for Marauders #14 covers in detail how this works. Basically, the reader is making up all the justifications for why the character acts this way or that way, or why their actions seem out of character, or why their actions seem just generally unmotivated. Hickman relies upon this strategy, because his narratives don’t usually follow characters; instead, he follows an overarching plot, which almost any given character can be poured into and it works––theoretically, at least––the same way.

    Except that this method of writing hardly works at all in a conventional narrative sense. No well-written novel is exclusively plot or exclusively character. What makes a strong narrative is the intertwining of the two approaches, and a talented writer gives space in the plot for character development, and in turn makes the character development tie in to the plot in a necessary way. When these two narrative strategies are linked in this way, the result is a certain kind of narrative speed and compression that makes good prose feel necessary, and even supercharged with interest, or frisson. It’s important for me to underline here that this is the special element of narrative fiction that role-playing games are almost entirely unable to replicate, due to their different structure and purpose––but it is the basic condition of successful prose writing. When a Dungeon Master breaks apart the plot and character development, handling plot themselves and letting the players handle character development, that is natural for an RPG’s narrative structure, but when Hickman does it in a fiction he is making a huge mistake, because he is detaching plot from character, and in doing so, he makes both fiction strategies mostly inert, and robs the narrative of its frisson, its effect.

    Lots of readers won’t notice this right away––some readers are more responsive to plot than character, and vice-versa. Until very recently I’ve been unable to even articulate what I thought was so wrong with these new X-books, and Hickman’s writing in general, but I think the problems boil down to this deliberate schism in Hickman’s writing, between plot and character. It creates a situation in which any character can be substituted for any other in any given story situation––because none of the characters have any individualized impact on the story.

    An example of this in X of Swords: Creation is when Havok accepts the terms of the duels Saturnyne proposes. Since reading this issue the question of “why Havok?” has been bouncing around my mind. Why Havok, indeed? What about Havok’s character at this particular point in time meant he was the most likely X-man to accept the terms of the duel? Don’t bother to guess; I know the answer. The answer is: nothing. Havok has almost no character development so far during the Hickman-era X-men. He has only appeared in backgrounds in other books besides Hellions, and in Hellions his big character development so far is that he feels somewhat out-of-place amongst his presumably more psychotic teammates. Suffice to say that this direction for his character does not figure in the X of Swords: Creation issue. In the battle against the hordes of Arrako, Havok never loses his composure, never goes off the deep end, and never reflects on his actions vis-a-vis his feelings about the Hellions squad. Nothing about the Hellions adventures leads Havok to accept the terms of Saturnyne’s duels. Now, in the scene where Havok accepts the terms of the duel––committing Krakoa’s fate to the outcome of these contests, let’s not forget––he is standing next to Polaris. Polaris is his ex-girlfriend of so many years (of course, the plot in Hellions involves Havok trying to get back together with the Goblyn Queen, so make of that what you will)…does Havok’s acceptance of the duel hinge upon Polaris’ presence? Well, no, not really. He doesn’t glance in her direction before or after accepting the duels. He hasn’t spoken to her in the issue about anything personal. In fact, we just don’t know what Havok’s motivation is, beyond this simple conceit: he’s a hero, he’s an X-man, and Krakoa is threatened. Oh, and this, also: Hickman needs someone from the X-men side to accept the terms of the duel. So it ended up being Havok. Didn’t you all thrill and squee to see Havok and Polaris fighting side by side, like in the old comics you loved? I for one hoped for something between them; some acknowledgement of who they are to each other now, for instance. But the point is, there’s nothing like that, and no specific, personal reason why Havok accepts the terms of the duels. Does that break everything from HoX/PoX until now? No, but it is a crack in a foundation that is starting to show many, many such cracks. And this is not even the only scene in that issue alone where characters seem to be present purely for the convenience of the plot, and not because it was important to their character development or motivations. All of Hickman’s writing works like this. All of it.

    By comparison, there’s the scene at the climax of the Dark Phoenix Saga where the X-men and Phoenix are prisoners of the Shi’ar Imperial Guard, and Professor X proposes that rather than Empress Lilandra executing Phoenix right after a show trial, that they instead decide the issue in trial by combat. This decision, which advances the plot by committing the X-men to a big showdown with the Imperial Guard, is made specifically by Professor X––and it can only be made by him, because as the only member of the X-men who has spent time amongst the Shi’ar, he’s the one who is aware that a Shi’ar trial by combat, once proposed, cannot be avoided, not even by the Empress. We also understand the stakes for Professor X, emotionally. He is going against the will of his beloved Empress, and defending the life of his treasured student, Jean Grey…and in doing so, he is risking the lives of all his valued X-men. The stakes are huge when Professor X makes his decision to offer the challenge; they’re huge because we know what those stakes mean to Professor X specifically. What’s more, all this figures in the text of the scene; Professor X contemplates the stakes in his own mind, we see the shock on the faces of the X-men, and their eventual determination to stand for their friend even in the face of death, and we also see Lilandra thinking of how the Professor knew his challenge would be one she couldn’t refuse. We also get a sense of how Lilandra’s heart is torn between her duty as ruler and protector of the Shi’ar and her love for the Prof, who stands now to lose his precious students because of Lilandra’s duty. Will he ever forgive her?

    All this in the space of a few pages, and we get EVERYTHING; we see what will happen next, we see why it happens, and we understand everyone’s motivation leading up to this point and leading away from it. As readers we do some work, for sure. We read in a lot of the X-men’s thoughts about the matter––though we get individual scenes with them reflecting on their own thoughts and feelings shortly afterwards. But in spite of reading some material into the scene, most of it is provided on the page, so that the reader can be sure it is textual, and real.

    This is what Hickman is missing, and this is why, though people are usually dazzled by his concepts at first, and excited by the ambition of his plots when he starts one of these big stories, many end up bitter and jaded readers by the end of the endeavor––assuming they stay with the narrative that long. Because eventually the plot, however innovative, reveals itself to be hollow. It is a plot for anyone to climb into and run around in. Anyone can be the stars, because whoever stars in the story will have precious little specific character development, and that character development won’t end up being necessary to the story. Any hero representing Krakoa can accept the terms of Saturnyne’s proposal. The fact that it is Havok does not increase our involvement in the story, nor does it up the stakes of the drama. Havok was once again a walk-on part. Witness that he plays no special role in the rest of the series, and no other character is shown reacting to Havok’s decision to commit the fate of the island nation to this wonky contest. And this detached approach to plot and character is a similar approach to that of a game master, who has to craft a plot into which any given set of characters the players create can be poured. That’s fine construction for a role playing game, where we don’t expect a level of tight, interconnected plot and character construction. Because we’re not hearing a story recounted to us in an RPG; we’re playing a game, and creating what story there is to be had. But in narrative prose––in comics––in novels––this is a terrible long-term strategy. It makes the story impersonal, and ultimately artificial. It makes for a lack of engaging specifics in the story, and it makes for a general coldness of the characters which leaves them ultimately feeling alien and unknown, unmotivated and uninvolved in the massive plot as it creaks along. And along the way many tripwires are set off in many readers’ minds as we creak along, because the connection between plot and character isn’t there to reinforce our engagement. My little “why Havok?” encounter is just one example of this happening. It happens all over the place when Hickman plots these enormously ambitious line-or-office-wide stories. Eventually the larger affair comes to a less-than-substantial conclusion, but who will be reading when that conclusion arrives? The rebooting and reconfiguring of all Marvel’s books for Secret Wars resulted in a lot of long-time readers dropping off the train and not returning. It turned out to be a great place to jump-off, because what was happening to the characters we were so invested in? Many of those comics, like Runaways, offered a mostly new cast of which fans wouldn’t necessarily connect or relate. It is hard to sustain the kind of ambition Hickman projects even when you are a very skilled writer––for all his writerly acumen, Chris Claremont lost many readers over the years, taking the X-men through multiple subgenres with an often-transforming team roster––and of course he ultimately gained other readers, because he still applied his ability to weave plot and character together even when the X-men were hardly the characters you formerly recognized them to be. But if you’re a bad writer––and I’m saying I think Hickman is a bad writer, actually one of the worst from the perspective of writing the moment, writing the scene, writing the issue, and hardly better at constructing a plot (because character motivation is never the necessary part of his plot development that it ought to be)––your ambition stands to amount to more of an unsatisfying narrative than a robust one. That’s not because his narrative is exactly like an RPG campaign, but because his story borrows narrative strategies from an RPG campaign––the wrong narrative strategies. Ones that work in an RPG, and not in a prose narrative. And I think that, in these and other Hickman issues, you can see that grand ambition start to sour.

  49. Krzysiek Ceran says:

    Look, I honestly agree with your analysis of Hickman’s writing. The only thing I’m disputing is the RPG connection. But we clearly have different views on roleplaying games.

    For example: ‘And this detached approach to plot and character is a similar approach to that of a game master, who has to craft a plot into which any given set of characters the players create can be poured.’ – This isn’t how I prepare and run games; the preparation of plot and character creation go hand-in-hand; I offer the players insight into what the game will be about, so they can create characters that will fit within the broad strokes of the world and the particular story, and then I take the characters’ details into account when working out the details of the plot, to make it more personal for the players.

    Are there GMs who work out a one-size-fits-all story and hammer in whatever characters they are later provided by the player? Probably. But it’s not the only way to play. I don’t even think it’s the generally agreed upon or most popular way, though I don’t have anything to back that up other than a vague ‘people whose writing on RPGs I read don’t do that / the actual plays I listen to aren’t that’.

    Anwyay, as I said – I agree with your analysis of Hickman, and the rest is quibbling over an analogy.

  50. Alan L says:

    You sound like a skilled and dedicated GM, who puts a lot of craft into making the game involving. I imagine Hickman is more of a standard-grade DM, who made some cool monsters and did some hefty world-building, and then didn’t really care about the rest. Honestly, none of my varied experiences with RPGs, which include playing with more serious groups outside of my group of friends, and watching games played in other social settings, and hearing them played on various podcasts, were carried out in the way you describe. Certainly I wouldn’t want to publish the results of any of those games I’ve encountered or participated in as, say, a novel, or a long-form comic-book epic. Because in that format the story, as it is in the campaign, would not be very satisfying. Not that the concepts contained in the campaign are inherently unliterary; but the entire thing would have to be overhauled to make the writing flow in an organic-seeming way. And certain goals of the RPG format would have to be substantially reassessed for the literary form. And in Hickman’s case I think he’s taken what he likes about the tabletop gaming approach to narrative and is focusing on those ideas as the values by which he measures his literary success. Whereas, he should be measuring his literary success against writing that is composed with a similar intent in mind––other comic books, or, perhaps if he is as ambitious as he often presents himself to be, novels. World-building and plotting aren’t enough to make a good comic; they’re only about halfway there. But that is the point at which Hickman frequently stops, and abandons his creation to the mercies of other writers, and readers. Because his literary values are measured more by the game than by the work of other writers in his genre.

    I understand you think my analogy is limited, but I think Hickman is limited within it, too. He’s not a very good comic writer; I can’t imagine that his RPG campaigns are written any better.

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