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Jul 27

X-Men #16-21

Posted on Tuesday, July 27, 2021 by Paul in x-axis

It’s past time I started on another batch of reviews, which I was planning to start as soon as the Hellfire Gala finished, but, well, close enough.

X-MEN vol 5 #16-21
by Jonathan Hickman, Phil Noto, Brett Booth, Mahmud Asrar, Francesco Mobili & various others

These six issues complete volume 5 of X-Men, which promptly gets relaunched for a new season under Gerry Duggan. So, in a sense, these issues complete Jonathan Hickman’s X-Men run.

Except of course they don’t, because Hickman remains the moving force behind the X-books as a whole. And that’s going to be an odd thing to have lurking in the background behind Duggan’s run, though I suppose no more than in the days when we had heavier input at the editorial level. Still: the point here is that volume 5 of X-Men is going to read very strangely if you try to take it as a thing in its own right. It only really makes sense when understood as part of the wider picture of the Krakoa-era X-Men books.

There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s how the book is intended to be read. In some ways it’s a throwback to the time when the X-books were marketed much more heavily around their contribution to wider continuity, but this time round there’s more of a sense of it being driven by a creative agenda (even if it’s one that was no doubt developed with an eye to supporting a line of books). Still, Hickman’s X-Men is a strange, fractured thing – it doesn’t feature an X-Men team, or even a regular cast, but instead offers a selection of short stories that don’t directly connect to one another, instead feeding in various ways into the big picture. There isn’t even a regular artist, so much as a common talent pool.

What do we have here, then? Issue #16 shows Arakko returning to Earth after the end of “X of Swords”, and failing to reunite with Krakoa as expected. Phil Noto’s art makes it both grand and low key. He can handle the interaction of the islands, and a scene consisting of several pages of talking heads, and make them look gorgeous. The plot significance here (with hindsight) is that because the islands won’t reunite, Magneto quickly sets about booting the Arakkans off to Mars, which from a certain perspective might be seen as an exercise in getting rid of the larger mutant nation before it can make too much trouble. What’s conspicuously missing is the actual inhabitants of either island. Only one Arakkan shows up; Krakoa is represented by the Quiet Council and the Summers family. It’s all a bit bloodless, and something of a story of ideas rather than people.

Issue #17, “Empty Nest”, is disconnected from everything around it – a 90s throwback issue in which the X-Men rescue Shi’ar Empress Xandra from a downtrodden rebel. It’s the most conventional issue of this bunch, perhaps because it’s so detached from the Krakoan set-up; it’s a story that could have been done, more or less, a quarter century ago. Brett Booth doesn’t exactly reflect the way the X-Men looked in the 90s – he was an artist of the early Image era, heavily influenced by Jim Lee, while the X-Men comics of the same period were being drawn by Andy Kubert and John Romita Jr. Booth’s not the greatest at leading the eye around the page, and drawing attention to the right beats, either. But he does give this a sense of being a more traditional X-Men story.

Issues #18-19 are the final two parts of Hickman’s Children of the Vault trilogy. The first part appeared back in issue #5. The whole point of this storyline is that Synch, Darwin and Laura/Wolverine have been stuck inside the Children’s time bubble for a notable length of time from the X-Men’s point of view, and therefore for an inordinate amount of time subjectively. These two issues – a rare two-parter in Hickman’s run – explore the idea that they’ve been stuck in there for centuries, kept alive by their powers. Synch and Laura both get killed in escaping; Synch is resurrected with his memories of the experience intact, Laura without remembering any of it.

This is a story that plays both to Hickman’s strengths and his weaknesses. He excels at coming up with grand concepts that feel like they push things too far, and then selling them in a way that makes them work. There are potential problems with all this – is Synch really going to be a functional character after this sort of experience? – but then that’s something to be followed up in Duggan’s X-Men. The jury is still out on whether it works as set-up. What Hickman does very well here is to get across the sense of scale.

Trickier is the relationship between Synch and Laura, which is where the emotional hook lies. While the story is pulling back to such a grand scale, it doesn’t really find space for the sort of details that make a relationship live. Mahmud Asrar does his best on that account, and fleshes it out somewhat with the body language and the way the characters interact, but it still feels like a case of telling, not showing. Then again, perhaps that’s partly intentional. By the end of this story Synch is talking as if he no longer thinks of himself as human in any sense – he talks about pretending to be human as a child  – and perhaps the experience does leave him difficult to relate to. Maybe some distancing works here. I’m not sure yet.

Issue #20 is Mystique trying to destroy Nimrod in order to get Destiny resurrected, and instead only accelerating Nimrod’s development. In fact, this story continues a theme in Hickman’s run of Orchis and Nimrod being something of a self-fulfilling prophecy; as in House of X, the X-Men’s own efforts to change history turn out to be the very actions which accelerate Orchis in the first place. Previously there’s been some scope to argue that the X-Men merely accelerated things that would have happened anyway, but this time round it’s rather clearer that the X-Men have made matters worse at a crucial time. If they’d left well alone, Nimrod would just have been a scientist resurrected in a robot body, instead of a lethal anti-mutant AI.

The strongest emotional angle in Hickman’s run belongs to Mystique, who is being strung along by Professor X and Magneto with promises of resurrecting her wife Destiny. We know they (supposedly) can’t do this because Moira won’t permit precogs on the island. Our sympathies here lie entirely by Mystique, who’s being cruelly exploited for reasons that are still not fully clear to us. Why was it necessary to get Mystique on side at all, for example? Presumably that’s going to be explained at some point – perhaps in Inferno – because it’s an obvious question that needs addressed. At any rate, Mystique is the element of Hickman’s run that really lands on an emotional level.

That’s four stories with no direct connection between them. Not in plot terms, at least. Thematically, the link seems to be mirrors of Krakoa. Arakko is (obviously) a Krakoa made dark through centuries of warfare – that’s the entire concept, and one that Noto gets across very effectively by presenting Krakoa as spring and Arakko as autumn. The Children of the Vault are another parallel for Krakoa, with their isolated community, their belief in their destiny to supplant humanity, and their newly-introduced practice of resurrecting their dead in new and improved form. They’re the post-human Krakoa.

Orchis have repeatedly been presented as parallels to Krakoa, with the groups locked in mutually reinforcing destructiveness. That’s all the more glaring here, where the whole story involves Alia Gregor trying to resurrect her late husband Erasmus Mendel in the robot body that will become Nimrod. Her story (and her failure) blatantly mirrors Mystique; the attempt to introduce resurrection blatantly mirrors Krakoa in general. And while the Shi’ar are… less obviously part of this theme, but that issue does see the X-Men siding with the empire against the very sort of oppressed underclass that they would fancy themselves to be on earth. Sure, they’re dealing specifically with a revolutionary who’s kidnapped the queen, but it’s not like the X-Men have ever been rushing to denounce Shi’ar imperialism so long as it’s convenient to them. (And let’s not forget that the resurrection system depends on Shi’ar technology.)

So our unifying theme here seems to be that Hickman keeps drawing parallels between Krakoa and all sorts of other groups or locations that seem, on the whole, pretty bleak. And of course we have Destiny warning Mystique that Krakoa may look like a utopia, but it has to be destroyed. In parallel with that, we have the X-Men re-emerging in issue #21 as a separate power base, independent of the villain-heavy Quiet Council, and not even based on Krakoa. There’s a striking contrast between Synch’s speech in issue #19 about how he isn’t human at all, and Cyclops’ statement of principles in issue #21, which are a reversion to playing up how everyone is the same at heart. Scott’s embrace of Krakoa seems a little bit more equivocal about the culture than some of the more triumphalist stories, and the direction of books like New Mutants and Way of X also makes me wonder how long Krakoa lasts before we get to the disillusionment phase. It’s hardly a direction that ought to be surprising – they kill people in ceremonial combat, for god’s sake. Besides, “the heroes already created utopia before the story began, the end” is hardly going to be the overreaching plot of the Hickman run.

Issue #21, the Gala issue, is… a bit of a mess. It’s an artist jam issue, which means it’s visually inconsistent; not much really happens in it beyond the reveal of the new X-Men team, which had been spoiled in adverts anyway. It’s not helped by the unwise celebrity guest appearances, who are a distraction at best – but mostly it feels like a book that needs to reveal the new team and have Scott make his state-of-the-nation speech, and then finds it still has half the pages left to fill. It leads in to Planet-Sized X-Men #1, of course, but that’s a Gerry Duggan comic. As an ending for Hickman’s X-Men run, issue #21 is a curious choice; the turning point of restarting the X-Men underwhelms because the core decision was taken issues previously, and it promptly gets overshadowed by the terraforming of Mars later in the crossover.

That final issue is a weak ending to Hickman’s run, then. But these issues as a whole continue to build intriguingly towards his big picture.

Bring on the comments

  1. Chris V says:

    I would have to assume that the reveal which is coming is that Krakoa was never meant to be a mutant utopia.
    Krakoa is a step in a larger agenda.

    Moira and Xavier can’t possibly be so idiotic and blind.
    They are arrogant and self-deluded, yes, but there must be a wider agenda being pursued.

    I feel that “Inferno” is going to mark the end of Krakoa as an island-nation.
    The ads all state this is the “culmination of Hickman’s vision for Krakoa”, but it doesn’t mark the end of Hickman’s work on the X-line.

  2. Chris V says:

    Also, Moira is in a race against time to accomplish her goals. She realizes that the longer she waits, the closer humanity will come to evolving itself in to post-humanity.
    Post-humanity is inevitable.

    Orchis was organized before Krakoa.
    They were awaiting a “doomsday scenario” for humanity, which is when the mutant population reaches an “extinction level”.
    They came online earlier due to the establishment of Krakoa, but they were waiting.
    Eventually, mutant births would outpace human births. It was that time Orchis was awaiting.

    Had Moira put off the establishment of Krakoa, Orchis still would have become active, and they would have been even further ahead than mutants.
    So, there was nothing self-fulfilling about that incident.

  3. Diana says:

    @Chris V: Not least of which because Krakoa was already part of one of Moira’s failed incarnations – doing it again can’t possibly be the grand climactic fix she came up with

  4. Col_Fury says:

    Yes, Krakoa was part of one of Moira’s previous lives, but so was teaming up with Apocalypse, and teaming up with Magneto, and delaying Sentinels by killing the Trasks, etc.

    IN this life, she’s doing all of that at the same time. That’s the difference, right?

  5. Chris V says:

    Well, she learned from those different lives.

    She learned that using violence and declaring war, like she did with Apocalypse and Magneto, just hastens the rise of post-humanity.
    She learned that trying to stop the creation of the Sentinels is a waste of time, because machines evolve too.

    She is doing certain things differently. She has the resurrection protocols, instead of relying on Sinister to clone a mutant army. She has the Krakoan drugs, to tempt humanity to accept Krakoa. She “broke the rules” which said that mutants could not all coexist (Magneto and Apocalypse both killed a lot of other mutants before attempting to conquer humanity).
    So, yes, there are differences.

    There is still the larger question of her end goals. She wants mutants to be immortal.
    She is using the Krakoan drugs to buy mutants time, but she can’t expect that mutants are going to be able to tenuously rule the planet forever.
    Maybe Moira had more grand plans during life nine also, but it was ruined by Nimrod.

  6. Si says:

    The inevitable future stuff would be more poignant if maybe right now there wasn’t a plot in Captain Marvel about a completely different future, a subplot in Hulk about another future, one in Fantastic Four about a future where Thing murders Mr Fantastic, a recent extended storyline set at the end of time in Thor, etc., and those are just the ones that I know about and that overlap the Krakoa era. Multiple possible futures are a well-worn standard in Marvel, it’s a bit hard to hang so much on inevitability.

    For that matter, does Cable and Stryfe’s future mesh with this stuff? I don’t recall any post-humans there but I could be wrong.

  7. Chris V says:

    Nope. Cable and Stryfe’s future definitely does not mesh with the Krakoa-era.
    I was surprised they brought it in with the current direction.
    I thought Hickman’s X-line was taking place with the idea that there is only one possible future for the Marvel Universe.
    I thought they would quietly sweep Cable’s future under the rug.
    Cable comes from a future where Apocalypse wins and technological development has been stunted.
    Cable went back in time to stop that future.

    Like I keep saying, Hickman’s direction is a great science fiction novel hampered by being stuck in a shared universe.

  8. Loz says:

    At the end of HoX/PoX I would have put money on Hickman’s plan being to somehow raise the mutants up to fight the godlike AIs of the black-hole dwelling Phalanx. After several years of dickering around and seemingly letting Tini Howard’s ‘Excalibur’ define the general sweep of things I doubt there will be any such storyline. I suspect we’ll just get ‘Schism II’. Someone, maybe Nightcrawler, will get disillusioned, take a group of mutants back and restart the School for the fifth or sixth time, then after about a year or so of our time a handy cataclysm will wipe out Krakoa so everyone else has to come back to Westchester too.

  9. Si says:

    Nah, I can’t see this ending quietly. I think there will be a big event finale that involves as much of the Marvel line as current sales justify. If it’s a whole-of-Marvel thing, it will involve a single near-omnipotent archvillain and their many, more puncheable minions with the world in their collective fist. If it’s just an X-bookend title there will be no minions and only about four characters will do anything important.

    It will be unsatisfying and leave many questions unanswered.

    It probably won’t return things to anything like the former status quo, but future writers will reverse or ignore most of it anyway.

  10. Claus says:

    This has probably been mentioned before, but I just realized (belatedly) that Alia Gregor and Erasmus Mendel are obviously meant to recall Gregor Mendel, the founder of genetics, and probably Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles (and a noted scientist in his own right). Does anyone have an idea how Alia fits into the pattern?

  11. Skippy says:

    Chris V: “[Moira] can’t expect that mutants are going to be able to tenuously rule the planet forever.”

    I suspect that the climax of the Hickman era will be a reckoning with the reality of that statement. To paraphrase another book, everything ends. From what we’ve seen of Moira, she does seem obsessed with keeping mutants around literally forever; but if the unspeakable truth that “mutants always lose” comes with a footnote of “after 1000 years”, I think the X-men would probably not be too worried.

  12. Thom H. says:

    Alia is probably a play on “allele,” meaning different versions of the same gene.

    I really do hope there’s an end in sight to the Krakoa era. I read an article recently about how the writers of the X-books plan on doing a Hellfire Gala every year, complete with vote for X-Men membership, and it made me tired. If we’re not going to explore the mysteries and contradictions in more depth than we have, then at least let it end with a bang.

  13. Chris V says:

    Skippy-The grand finale to Hickman’s vision for the X-Men: Moira learns the lessons of Stoicism.

  14. Chris V says:

    Thom-I took time to find the article.
    Either the creators are playing with fans, to not let on that the Krakoa-era is finite…or Marvel must have plans to continue Krakoa beyond Hickman.

    Maybe my initial speculation, that Moira is really the villain and she’ll be defeated leading to a non-creepy Krakoa becoming the new status quo, might end up being correct after all.
    Which, I would find quite disappointing at this point.

  15. Thom H. says:

    Chris V: Yes, it all reads like a marketing ploy, doesn’t it? “The Hellfire Gala was so much fun to write!” and all that.

    Defeating Moira and staying on Krakoa would be weird. I see how it could happen, but it would feel so anticlimactic.

  16. Diana says:

    I’m calling it: things go wrong on Krakoa, Moira realizes her observer effect is what keeps tipping the dominoes the wrong way, she resets one last time and then kills herself as a child before her mutant powers manifest. Just as Destiny told her. And then “life 11” will be the usual status quo again

  17. Chris V says:

    It would undo a chunk of recent Marvel Comics continuity though.
    The current Marvel cosmic status quo revolves around the Krakoa-era.

    Marvel didn’t even allow them to undo Nazi Cap, even though they had the easiest out of using the Cosmic Cube.
    Instead, Nazi Cap sits in a prison cell, waiting for one day when a writer using very poor judgment decides to bring back Nazi Cap.

  18. Krzysiek Ceran says:

    Selene killed him in Coates’s run.

  19. @Si “For that matter, does Cable and Stryfe’s future mesh with this stuff? I don’t recall any post-humans there but I could be wrong.”

    We don’t know Cable and Stryfe’s future any more. IIRC, the Twelve storyline reset the timeline (bolstered by X-Force killing the baby Apocalypse) meaning the future we know about from The Adventures of Cyclops & Phoenix isn’t going to happen. Rachel didn’t become Mother Askani and returned to the regular timeline.

    It looks like we’ve just seen the new origin of Stryfe – he created himself.

  20. […] Paul O’Brien reviews the grand plan of Jonathan Hickman, Phil Noto, Brett Booth, Mahmud Asrar, Francesco Mobili, et al’s X-Men #16-21. […]

  21. JCG says:

    “Nah, I can’t see this ending quietly. I think there will be a big event finale that involves as much of the Marvel line as current sales justify. If it’s a whole-of-Marvel thing, it will involve a single near-omnipotent archvillain and their many, more puncheable minions with the world in their collective fist. If it’s just an X-bookend title there will be no minions and only about four characters will do anything important.

    It will be unsatisfying and leave many questions unanswered.

    It probably won’t return things to anything like the former status quo, but future writers will reverse or ignore most of it anyway.”

    Sounds about right to me. Especially the last part.

  22. Thom H. says:

    I agree about the inevitable reset of the X-Men after Hickman leaves. What’s weird is: reset to what? There hasn’t been a stable status quo for the books in quite a while.

    Even when they return to the school, it’s always with a twist these days: Wolverine’s running it, Storm’s running it, it’s in Central Park, it’s in Limbo.

    How strange would it be to see Professor X as the headmaster of his own school in Westchester again?

  23. Chris V says:

    After mindwiping the memories of every human and mutant on Earth.
    “Well, Krakoa was a very bad idea. We’ll never mention it again.” The End

    Cyclops:“Professor, why is there a race of ancient warrior mutants living on Mars?”
    Professor X:“Ut-oh!”
    Jean Grey:“Xavier, you’ve got some explaining to do.”

    Maybe there’ll be a text page epilogue at the end. “Then, the Phalanx arrived and devoured all the life on Mars. They ignored Earth, so everything was fine.”

  24. Krzysiek Ceran says:

    The last time Xavier was running the school was… back in Morrison’s run, wasn’t it? So it’s been 17 years since Chuck was the headmaster? That’s going to be one hell of a reset button if it comes to that.

    I don’t miss him as headmaster, not one bit. I’ve always liked when the X-Men outgrow him and leave him behind – which they’ve already done multiple times…

    Honestly, his prominence on Krakoa is one of the things that bothered me at the start of this era – especially since it had nothing to do with what was going on in the books in the years prior. Everybody was convinced he was still dead the last time we saw them pre-Krakoa.

    I still don’t like it, but I guess I’ve become used to it now.

  25. Chris V says:

    Everyone except Psylocke.

    The last time we saw Xavier, he had been resurrected as X.
    He hinted at what was to come when he said, “I have a new dream now.”
    Hickman said that was th first hint of Krakoa.

    The X-Men knew he was alive at that point, but he erased his being alive from their memories.
    He used that time when everyone, except Psylocke, thought he was dead in order to organize and consolidate his resources.

    It makes sense that Xavier would be so prominent on Krakoa, because he is a charismatic leader for mutants.
    Magneto is the other charismatic leader who can invoke loyalty in mutant followers.
    Except, Magneto is written as being too driven by his own ideology. He doesn’t have the calm, manipulative personality of Xavier.

    Hickman mentions that in Moira’s life four and nine, all the mutant leaders (except Apocalypse in life nine) had been killed. That left a major void in Moira’s plans.

    I like this interpretation of Xavier. He is a very disturbing person.
    I agree about Xavier as the headmaster though. The X-amen outgrew him during the Claremont years, and Claremont writing Xavier out of the books in issue #200 was a very important change in direction.

    The only plot I’d like to see Xavier used in the pre-Krakoa manner would be the Morrison direction, where the academy really is a school.

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