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Aug 31

Children of the Atom #1-6

Posted on Tuesday, August 31, 2021 by Paul in x-axis

#1-2 by Vita Ayala, Bernard Chang & Marcelo Maiolo

#3-6 by Vita Ayala, Paco Medina & David Curiel

Here’s another one, then, for the list of recent X-books that read like they’ve been guillotined. Children of the Atom had long pre-release delays as well, perhaps pandemic-related. And after all that, it runs for six issues, five of which are spotlights on the individual team members. It’s not a gathering of the team arc as such – they’re already together right from issue #1 – but it’s a careful focus on each team member in turn, all very clearly intended to set up characters and relationships for the future.

Now, it’s certainly possible that we’ll come back to these characters. Carmen in particular seems like a natural fit for New Mutants. And it looks like some sort of revamp is  coming after Inferno, so who knows, maybe the Children resurface then. That could explain some of the very obviously dangling plots, such as how they stumbled into a spaceship and found their equipment, or how one of their friends got super powers from being treated by Arthur Nagan of the Headmen, or… well, anything at all to do with poor Gabe, who never really gets around to do anything in these six issues, aside from getting introduced in issue #2.

But then there’s the sudden rush in issue #6 to tie up the romance angle that had been established with Gabe, Buddy and Carmen in earlier issues. That feels like something you only do if you have no choice but to cut to the chase.

So was it a mistake to go with one character per issue, and to leave all those plot threads unanswered? I don’t think so. The core story of this book was always about the Children posing as mutants, eventually getting exposed, and what happens after that. If you’re ending here, then that’s the story to focus on. It doesn’t really matter how they stumbled onto the alien technology that they use to simulate powers. And Children of the Atom is fundamentally a character-driven series; it needs to make the Children feel like fully developed characters instead of just five variations on the same gimmick.

On that level, it works very well. They are all fully realised characters, and the book clearly has a lot of sympathy for them all, even if it doesn’t much care for some of their central choices. Ayala’s choice, evidently, was to try to sell me on the characters by taking the time early on to round them out. And that succeeds. I’d have liked to spend more time with them.

Despite the change of artist three issues in, it’s a good looking book too. The style change from Chang to Medina isn’t too noticeable, and both of them do a solid storytelling job with some quite busy pages. Thought seems to have been given to how everyone’s home ought to look, and there’s plenty of nice little choices in the detail. But at the same time, it’s classic, clean-looking bright superhero art, which is precisely what this book needs. The whole point is that the Children want to look like proper superheroes, and they need to carry it off well enough to fool the casual audience. Character design has to walk a fine line here between making them obvious homages to the characters they idolise, and not making them too obviously ridiculous. They undercut themselves enough by choosing intentionally awful codenames like Cyclops-Lass; on some level, they need to look cool for the gimmick to work.

The central premise, though. The metaphor. How well does it work?

A standard reading of this book seems to be that it’s about cultural appropriation. I’m not sure it exactly maps on to that. That’s no bad thing, mind you. The X-Men’s central metaphor of mutants representing an all-purpose oppressed and marginalised group has always been somewhat broken through the very fact that many mutants really do have wildly dangerous powers that a lot of them can’t control. And that’s fine. It muddies the waters, and if you do it right, that makes it more interesting.

Still… if the book is concerned about cultural appropriation, then it’s looking at the most extreme form of it. When the Children learn their lesson and put out their corrective statement in the last issue, what they drop is the active pretence of being mutants – perhaps not something they’ve publicly said in quite those terms, but something they deliberately allowed people to believe, and certainly the way they presented themselves to other mutants who were inviting them to go to Krakoa.

What they don’t drop, if the data page in issue #6 is anything to go by, is anything else about their act. They’re still the Children of the Atom; they’re still using the same codenames; they’re still wearing X-Men-inspired costumes, complete with X-logos. If that counts as learning their lesson, then we’re not concerned here about the simple copying of cultural elements and the grey line with inspiration. We’re talking about outright pretending to be a member of a group for which you don’t meet the membership criteria. This seems to be Storm’s focus in issue #5, when she characterises them as “children, and it is in your nature to explore identities other than your own to learn more about yourself.”

So, in real world terms, is the closest analogy somebody pretending to be gay because they love gay culture and they think it makes them more interesting? I suspect that’s probably what the book had in mind, but the stuff with them repeatedly trying to get through the Krakoan gates complicates matter.

In most X-books the gates serve as transport to help move the plot along. In Children of the Atom the focus is on Krakoa as a literal gatekeeper, policing access to Krakoa and membership of its community. With the exception of Carmen, and even then only once her powers emerge, the Children are not allowed in. They already know this before issue #1. But again and again they keep trying to get through.

What exactly are they meant to be thinking here? That question’s particularly pointed in the case of Buddy – pretty much everyone else can be seen as being dragged along in her wake, and in their case the answer to why they keep trying the gates may be, to a large extent, “to humour Buddy”. But Buddy seems absolutely serious about it. What does she think is going to happen?

For all of her apparent obsession with mutant trivia, it’s clear that there are major gaps in her knowledge. Still, she must know that ordinary humans can’t generally use the gates – that’s surely common knowledge, since many of them are in high profile locations. It takes her until issue #4 to come up with the theory that it might be something to do with DNA, and that stealing Cole’s clothes might fool the gates. Before that… does she think that the gates might be reputation based? That there’s some sort of database that might get updated if the Children become widely recognised? Is she just obsessive and unwilling to stop trying because she has no better ideas? Does she think it’s something to do with her state of mind and how she identifies? Does she believe that on some level she is a mutant, and that there must be some sort of glitch which will sort itself out in the end?

Let’s be fair to Buddy – if she thinks it’s possible to somehow become a mutant, or at least be recognised as one, then she’s not wrong. It is possible for a human to turn themselves into a mutant. Mr Sinister did it, and he’s on the Quiet Council now. It’s certainly possible for a non-mutant to look like a mutant for extended periods, and to believe themselves to be a mutant. Wanda and Pietro did it. It’s possible for a human to have mutant DNA spliced into them. Cole does it in this series. And if you want to push the idea more broadly, and claim that being part of mutant culture isn’t about DNA so much as a shared experience, the Marvel Universe is littered with characters who aren’t strictly mutants but who got powers in similarly arbitrary fashion at broadly the same time in their lives. Kamala Khan, say.

It feels like there’s a lot of untapped material in there. The obvious plot direction was for Buddy to sign up for the same treatment Cole went through, at which point she presumably discovers that the Headmen are behind it and either sacrifices her chance or goes for it anyway. Either would work, but having her actually become a mutant seems like it would have had potential.

The other analogy here, which shouldn’t be overlooked, is that the Children of the Atom are the fans. An odd tension of the Krakoan era is that the fans are invited to identify with the mutants, while the mutants spend much of their time loudly disdaining the human world. Which, of course, is where the fans reside. Books like Children of the Atom foreground the fact that the fans don’t qualify for admission, and again, it’s an interesting tension. So too is the promised set up where one of the group, and only one, makes it onto Krakoa the normal way. That feels like something that could have played out happily for years.

The book’s biggest problems are plot-related. It’s essential to the premise that the Children of the Atom fool some people, and that they believe they’re fooling other people. So sure, by all means have them confuse Hell’s Belles or the U-Men, all of whom have every reason to fall for it. But it was a mistake to have the X-Men themselves fall for it – and there was no real need to have scenes from the X-Men’s point of view that made that point clear. Right from the off, the Children of the Atom are a group of teenagers in knock-on X-Men costumes, who quite coincidentally have the powers to go with their costumes, and who don’t show up on Cerebro. It just defies belief that, faced with these facts, the X-Men wonder why Cerebro isn’t detecting the kids – instead of jumping to the utterly obvious conclusion that they aren’t mutants. If you want the X-Men to be surprised by the reveal, then they really needed to have less information to start with.

And the reveal doesn’t get the reaction you’d expect. Krakoa has serious cultural issues with people pretending to be mutants. The Scarlet Witch is Krakoa’s greatest cultural hate figure, and the favoured term of abuse for her is “the pretender”. Maybe it’s another element that had to be truncated. But at the very least, there should have been a lot of Krakoan opinion that was seriously, seriously unimpressed with the Children of the Atom.

Still, I liked this series a lot. Yes, it’s always tempting to credit a truncated series with all the interesting stories it never actually got around to telling, and that might or might not have worked. But there were so many stories that could have been done with these characters, and hopefully they don’t completely drop off the radar.

Bring on the comments

  1. Si says:

    I suspect that this series would resonate very differently to somebody in their early 20s, maybe even a teenager, than it does to the average age group of Marvel comic readers. It shares a lot of coming-of-age tropes as seen in indie teen and young-adult movies.

  2. Ben Johnston says:

    Excellent analysis. Re: Buddy, I think the idea there is that she identifies with/admires mutant culture so deeply that she genuinely does think that she must be a mutant. Sort of a combination of wishful thinking and obsession.

    That could have been made clearer on the page, but I’m not sure she’s fully aware of what’s going on in her own head, to be honest. (One of the few false notes of the last issue is that she sees the light so quickly.)

    I like the idea that she would have sought out Arthur Nagan in the second arc, probably while bitter that Carmen got to go to Krakoa and she didn’t. And yeah, the Krakoa reaction would be very interesting (and will hopefully come up in New Mutants).

    @Si — I agree, this series seemed to share a lot of tropes (and stylistic sensibilities in general) with modern YA fiction and TV… The Hate U Give, for example, or 13 Reasons Why.

  3. Aaron Elijah Thall says:

    Far as the Scarlet Witch goes, I think the majority of the hate directed at her is because of M-Day, not the misbelief she was a mutant. The latter’s just an excuse to hide their real reason.

    Of course then there’s poor Franklin Richards. He’d formed a ton of bonds on Krakoa, and the second it’s discovered his powers were making him one, instead of the other way around, Krakoa dropped him like a hot potato and never thought twice about it.

    I think the writers are trying to make Krakoa unlikable to the rest of the world on purpose, because it’s the only reason why they’d do that to Wanda, Pietro, and Franklin after literally decades of stories and connections. Krakoa’s “no one but mutants” thing is repeatedly a sore spot in the stories. Look at Deadpool! Look how much he’s done for them and they STILL tell him to eff off. Franklin was a CHILD that had no idea his powers were altering his physiology to give him an X-Gene. Add in things like Wolfsbane’s son and you have the mutants becoming the very thing they always fought against: ignorant racists.

  4. Luis Dantas says:

    I don’t particularly mind the X-books making nationalists out of the mutants. My attachment to them was severed way back in the 1980s, what with all the virtual worship of Wolverine and Cable. That ship has sailed for good.

    But the way I see it, nationalism is the decisive factor. It will be interesting to see Scott eventually deal with the dismay. I knew I would not be rooting for Krakoa the second I realized it was a nationalistic community. Giving free reign, high political powers and impunity to the likes of Magneto, Sinister, Apocalypse and Exodus is just underlining it.

    Krakoa is destined to fail badly, precisely because it is a society based on national chauvinism.

  5. Miriam says:

    “So, in real world terms, is the closest analogy somebody pretending to be gay because they love gay culture and they think it makes them more interesting? I suspect that’s probably what the book had in mind, but the stuff with them repeatedly trying to get through the Krakoan gates complicates matter.”

    You mean the actual accusation levied routinely at bi/pan/ace people in the LGBTQIA+ community, especially that last one? Given that this book is firmly on the side of the people who care more about weeding out “fakers” than actually doing anything decent (i.e. the Krakoans, I can’t consider them X-Men anymore cuz the X-Men were heroic), this analogy is both accurate and an example of why I’ve given up on the books until there’s a thorough creative stable clean-out. I don’t need to spend money to be subjected to casual aphobia.

    Ben – the comparison to 13RW is apt, since these are doing what that show did – thinking that they’re saying something IMPORTANT when they’re just being increasingly sensationalist & exploitative (see: putting true crime shit into X-Factor cuz Williams wanted to get some sexualized dead gay men in before it was canned). Both also have an audience that cannot fathom why people aren’t applauding these “daring” works.

    Aaron – I wish that I could believe that we’re supposed to see the Krakoans as unlikable, but between so many of the books being like “look how much better things are for the mutants now that they’re no longer interacting with those other people” and so much of the audience accepting Krakoa’s nonsense at face value, be it cuz it’s using obscure favorites or it’s playing to their desires for inclusive media regardless of quality, I no longer think that’s the case. The other shoe should have dropped long, LONG ago, but I doubt it will until Hickman moves on or gets a TV deal.

  6. Aro says:

    I’ve not read all of this series, so I could be off the mark here, but it seems that another broad metaphor that the book is playing with is trans identities. Buddy’s somewhat androgynous appearance feels like an indication of that. I can’t help but see the character of Cyclops-Lass in light of an interview that Jay Edidn gave last year about a Cyclops he and written where he talks about how Scott’s character resonated with him as a trans writer.

    The interview is here:

    Vita Alaya is also trans, as well as non-binary, and would surely have been aware of the trans parallels in this story. I’ve only read one issue of the book, so I won’t try to comment any further on what that means, or how well it works as a metaphor for trans identities, but I do think it’s interesting that in the comic Krakoa is essentially a metaphor for biological essentially (no X-gene = not mutant), while Storm and the other X-Men are much more gracious to the Children and accept them according to the way they present themselves.

    The tension of course, is that the plot of the X-Men books often hinges on the biological essentialism of an unbridgeable distinction between mutants and humans, especially on Krakoa. However, a queer perspective tends to question that binary divide, and that seems to be driving some of what Alaya is getting at here.

    I wonder if the Children of the Atom initially had a fairly different trajectory, given that the Krakoa status quo seems to have not been intended to last as long as it has. Hickman recently discussed how he pitched three “acts” for the X-Men, and the other writers preferred to stay in Act 1. Is it possible that when issue #1 was originally solicited, back in April 2020, that the first arc of the story meant to climax alongside the end of Krakoa?

    There’s an interesting parallel here with X-Factor — COTA #1 was supposed to debut a week before X-Factor #1. COVID means that X-Factor’s debut was delayed until July. What we ultimately got was three ‘normal’ issues of the Sophia/Mojo plot, before the X of Swords crossover in Issue #4. Hickman and others have talked about how X of Swords was significantly expanded during the pandemic delays, so that was clearly not part of the original X-Factor pitch. Issue #5 is a bit of a hangout issue that addresses the fallout of X of Swords, and then there’s the Siren/Morrigan plot in #6-9, and the Hellfire Gala crossover in #10.

    If the Krakoa era was meant to end around the end of 2020, it seems plausible that the original X-Factor pitch was for six issues: the mojoverse plot and the morrigan plot. It would have been interesting to have the ‘death goddess’ story running alongside whatever changes would have been coming to the resurrection protocols.

    That obviously changed when the decision was made to stay in Krakoa longer, and we know that Williams pitched was became Trial of Magneto as something like X-Factor #15, so plans have continued to evolve.

    However, the problems that X-Factor has had and the nearly year-long delay with COTA seems to suggest that the direction of the line shifted substantially from when they were first pitched.

  7. Aro says:

    Miriam — I’ve come to think the initially the intended storyline of Krakoa was meant to be that the island gave mutants everything they wanted, but in a way that turned out to be corrupt, and the X-Men would eventually have to re-emerge fight what would become a villainous mutant island. Kind of like a take on Giant-Sized X-Men #1. There are too many indicators in the setup that it’s meant to go bad — half the quiet council is villains, and the island itself is a villain! Hickman has also indicated the Moira is meant to be seen as a villain, not a secret ally of the X-Men, so this being part of her plan also suggests that there will be problems. The frisson between the sense of the foreboding and the ‘gifts of paradise’ that Krakoa bestows I think gives the books an interesting narrative tension.

    Hickman and others have indicated that this status quo was only supposed to last for twelve months or so. I don’t think it was meant to have been too dissimilar from the Age of X-Man event, where the books all share a unifying world for a limited time.

    However, it seems that the critical reception of Krakoa, and the writers’ and editors’ fondness for the setup, and the challenges of COVID-19 led to Krakoa being kept as the status quo for longer than intended.

  8. Zoomy says:

    I really liked Children of the Atom (and I’m 44, so maybe I’m just young at heart) and it’s sad to see it get axed when there were obviously more stories to be told with the setup.

    Which is why I’m glad Krakoa has gone on for as long as it has – it makes a very nice change from every story being “setting up a new status quo” and then never doing anything with it. I’d like to see Krakoa and resurrection being a permanent part of the whole X-Men setup going forwards…

  9. Thom H. says:

    I agree that turning the X-Men into an exclusionary nation creates some great narrative tension. We like these characters, after all, and they’ve long been the poster children for inclusivity. They’ll welcome pretty much anyone into their ranks, X-gene or not. Danger, for example, has been accepted by the team, and I’m pretty sure she/they don’t have DNA at all.

    We know that the current writers want the status quo of Krakoa/resurrection/etc. to continue. But that doesn’t mean the books can’t undergo a shift in perspective. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Inferno helps the X-Men see the error of their ways and resolves some of their exclusionary tendencies even if they remain on Krakoa for the foreseeable future.

  10. Paul says:

    I certainly agree that Buddy is open to being read as a trans metaphor. Indeed, I think it’s a very natural reading of the character. However, if Vita Ayala saw the character that way, I think it’s almost inconceivable that the story would have Storm show up in issue #5 to tell the team that they are “children, and it is in your nature to explore identities other than your own to learn more about yourself”. Still less would Buddy’s moment of growth and realisation in issue #6 be “You were right, Carmen. It was wrong to take on an identity that wasn’t mine.” I don’t think for a moment that Vita Ayala believes that trans teenagers are experimenting and “wrong”.

    Having said that, I think it’s only knowledge of the author that leads me to reject that reading. If it wasn’t so obvious that Ayala couldn’t possibly intend that reading, I suspect these final issues would have been highly controversial.

  11. Luis Dantas says:

    Buddy feels very non-binary to me, personally.

  12. Paul says:

    All characters consistently refer to Buddy as female and she expressly identifies as female in her codename. As presented, she identifies as female albeit with androgynous tastes. I suppose it’s possible that if the series had run longer then she was meant to identify as non-binary somewhere down the line as part of a self-actualisation arc.

  13. Chris V says:

    Aro-Where did you see that Hickman intended Moira to be seen as a villain?
    This was never presented as being the case on the page and I have never read Hickman state this to be a fact.

    The original plan was that the initial launch of titles would be canceled after around twelve months to pave the way for the launch of a second wave of titles.
    This was changed by Marvel editorial when the sales on the initial wave of books were stronger than anticipated.
    There was never anything said about Krakoa only being meant to last for around twelve months.

    I believe Hickman’s original intent was that Krakoa was always meant to be read as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.
    The idea that Krakoa was a mutant utopia was never supposed to be Moira’s actual goal for Krakoa.

    I think the original intent was that Krakoa would eventually fall, most likely at the end of Hickman’s second act (which was supposed to be “Inferno”), leading to a different direction for the third act.
    That those plans have now been dropped with Hickman finishing his plans early.

  14. Thom H. says:

    Creating a mutant utopia while planning for its ultimate failure may not be full-on villain behavior, but it’s at least duplicitous and cruel.

    Also, Moira didn’t start down her path of teaming up with and advocating for other mutants until after she was punished by Mystique and Destiny for trying to eradicate mutants herself. If any of that part of Moira’s experience remains part of her motivations, then she’s definitely not great.

  15. Chris V says:

    I don’t think she was planning for its failure, but that it was to serve a greater purpose in her long-term plans.

    I think the fact that Krakoa was going to fall is more in line with Moira’s idea that “mutants always lose” and narrative storytelling.
    There’s not a lot of places to go with “everything is going great for mutants and Krakoa is the most powerful nation on the planet” in the Marvel Universe.
    Adding tension by having Krakoa falling apart and leaving the reader to wonder if life ten is going to end up the same as life nine is pretty conventional.
    Mutants grow complacent and self-satisfied in act two, feeling they are on top. They take a fall at the end of act two. Act three involves mutants fighting against the odds to create a future for themselves.

    I am expecting that “Inferno” is going to reveal that Xavier and Magneto have become true believers in Krakoa and that they went against Moira’s plans, leading to Moira being the one that is going to betray Krakoa rather than Mystique.

  16. Miriam says:

    I agree with what Chris V said – that Krakoa was supposed to be a means, but somewhere along the line, it was decided to make it the end instead. And THAT more than anything has led to a potentially interesting experiment with the X-Men concept becoming a betrayal of that concept by turning them into an isolated militia group with diverse set dressing. And sadly, that set dressing is what people latched onto the hardest, despite it (a) being handled poorly regardless of whoever is writing it & (b) being what the non-Hickman writers have decided to emphasize at the expense of whatever point he originally intended.

    I don’t want the books that taught me not to be a bigoted jerk like my paranoid religious relatives to have the heroes act almost exactly like them & lauded for it. Or for people within “my” community (although being a nonbinary ace, my presence is eternally debated at best, hence the quotes) to decide that it’s okay if they do the exact same things & reflect that in their fiction/reading.

  17. Si says:

    I suspect that making Franklin Richards not a mutant was less about in-story plots and more about clearly isolating the mutant books from the rest. The only mutant I can think of who is in something other than an X-book right now is Molly Hayes, and they’ve already dropped heavy hints that actually she got her powers from her mad scientist grandma. Maybe you could stretch real hard and include Storm in Black Panther (if she’s still being used).

    Which is a shame in my opinion, X-Men characters always seem to be more interesting outside of their own setting.

  18. Chris V says:

    There isn’t a Black Panther book at the moment. The character is between series.
    I think the new series is starting in September.

  19. Si says:

    Ah. I’ve been reading Black Panther on Unlimited, the final issue of Intergalactic Empire of Wakanda only just came up. Which I was very surprised to find I enjoyed a lot. But yeah, Storm was a supporting character in that. She was barely in it, but when she was she kicked arse in a way she rarely does in X-Men or Marauders.

  20. Andrew says:

    I’ve not yet read this book so I cannot speak to its qualities but addressing Miriam’s point, as someone who is Ace, it’s absolutely infuriating to have your sexuality questioned, both in and out of the LGBTQIA+.

    Gatekeeping and over whether you’re queer enough (or even queer at all) is super exclusionary.

  21. Uncanny X-Ben says:

    I liked this and wanted to see it continue.

    But even accepting the fact that it was obviously cancelled early, it has big pacing problems.

    In six issues they basically only beat up the Hell’s Belles, and that was issue one.

    Then it’s introductions and immediate wrap up.

    I don’t think I could really recommend anyone read the trade.

  22. Taibak says:

    Paul: There’s no reason why Storm’s speech can’t work with Buddy being trans. It would just mean the gender she was assigned at birth is the fake identity.

  23. Taibak says:

    To be clear: that assumes the series was intended to run a lot longer than it did.

  24. Dave says:

    What’s also lacking from the MU now after the Franklin retcon is any prominent non-X characters having a mutant child.

  25. wwk5d says:

    This series had some interesting ideas, meh execution. I appreciate building a team of diversity checklist bingo, but at the end, I can’t say I really cared one way or the other about any of the characters here. So I’m not too sorry to see this series go away. Hopefully if Carmen does show up in New Mutants, she’ll have some decent development there.

    Personally, would could argue that their cultural appropriation was an equivalent of appearing in blackface.

  26. Mike Loughlin says:

    I liked this series overall, and would have liked to see it continue as a super-powered exploration of teenagers (LGBTQIA+ or otherwise) finding their own identities. I’d have liked to see more interactions with humans, mutants, and non-mutant superhumans, especially in regards to levels of acceptance.

    On the other hand, I’m a cis white guy in his 40s, so I have some remove from the material. I appreciate hearing from perspectives different than my own- thanks Miriam, on this thread- and realize that what’s entertaining to me might be painful or offensive to others. Maybe this comic wouldn’t have stuck the landing? Regardless, I also liked the characters and can see myself reading more about them in the future.

  27. Leo says:

    I did like this book, I was sad to see it go. However, I do understand that it had a lot of things working against it. It had all new characters, a title that marginally ties it to the x-books but the characters were non mutants so I doubt they would make any significant difference in the line and of course a lot of competition. Also, issues 2-5 were so insignificant that one could only read the first and last issues without missing anything.

    On the other hand it did have an interesting premise that could move in surprising directions, great art (even if it didn’t convey the story very well) and lots of room for character growth.

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