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May 17

Devil’s Reign: X-Men

Posted on Tuesday, May 17, 2022 by Paul in x-axis

DEVIL’S REIGN: X-MEN #1-3
Writer: Gerry Duggan
Artist: Phil Noto
Letterer: Cory Petit
Editor: Jordan White

Three issues, huh? There’s a trade paperback of this listed on Amazon for August, with a page count of 112 – I can only assume they’re pairing it with something to be announced. Anyway, I skipped over this when it came out, since it’s not a core X-book. It’s closer than many, though.

Publishing it in X-Men might have been a stretch, since it’s an Emma Frost story, and she’s not in the cast of that book. But it’s by Gerry Duggan and Phil Noto, an established Krakoan creative team. And it picks up on a subplot from Duggan’s Marauders run about Emma having some sort of back story with Wilson Fisk, running missions for him in exchange for him helping Lourdes Chantel to start a new life away from Sebastian Shaw.

Does this have anything much to do with Devil’s Reign? Well, somewhat. If I’m being honest, I can’t get very worked up about Devil’s Reign as a concept. Wilson Fisk runs New York with an iron fist and turns against the superheroes. Some of us are old enough to remember Dark Reign, which was admittedly over a decade ago, but the name brings it to mind. Or then there was that time HYDRA took over the United States for a bit (and then everyone pretended it never happened). And as a premise, Devil’s Reign is… that, but in local government.

I mean, yes, sure, it’s New York local government. Maybe that’s a bigger thing? It kind of makes sense as a power base for the Kingpin, in the context of Daredevil. But I can’t quite get my head around the fact that it’s a story about evil local government. Maybe it’s an American thing. Maybe it just conjures up the wrong associations for me. Not Aunt May’s bin collection, you fiend.

Still, it means Fisk is interacting with wider Marvel characters right now, and that’s as good a place as any to pick up the Marauders plot thread. If we’re being honest, though, there’s really only two issues of this series that actually deal with that story. Issue #1 is all set-up. There’s an opening flashback of 7 pages or so that establishes the basic point: back in the 80s (continuity-wise), Emma was working for the Kingpin at the same time as Elektra. Emma messes with your mind, Elektra kills you.

The rest of issue #1 is… kind of redundant, if we’re being honest. Fisk sends the Thunderbolts to shut down the X-Men. There’s an argument, and the Thunderbolts are thwarted when Emma has the Treehouse classed as an embassy, making it outside his jurisdiction. Fisk is angry and wants revenge, so he reaches for his old files on Emma. And sure, that’s fine, but you don’t need ten-plus pages to set that up, because it’s the basic premise of the crossover. He doesn’t like heroes, he taunts them using his files. One of the good things about crossovers is you can set this stuff up in shorthand!

So with that we get to the plot. In the issue #1 flashback, Elektra was spotted by a little girl when at work. So she asks Emma to wipe the girl’s memory before she tells anyone and has to be eliminated. But it’s too late for that, since her parents are already off talking to the police, so Emma and Elektra decide to get the girl out of town. That involves psychically hauling in Spider-Man to fend off the conventional Kingpin thugs.

Spider-Man is in his black costume, by the way, which doesn’t fit at all with the period when Elektra was working for the Kingpin. Duggan seems not to have twigged to the fact that Elektra as the Kingpin’s chief assassin is a very narrow sliver of continuity from early 1982 – he hires her for the first time at the start of Daredevil #178, and Bullseye kills her three issues later. Spider-Man doesn’t get the black costume for another two years. But whatever.

Fisk has photos of Emma getting the girl out of town, so Emma needs to produce the girl in order to show that she’s still alive after all. The girl is in England, so we get to do the bit from Excalibur where mutants aren’t welcome any more, and Union Jack tries to arrest her. The police are really there to add a bit of gratuitous obstruction to what’s otherwise a very simple plot – Emma finds the girl with no particular difficulty, and she shows up to prove Emma innocent. Emma does a bit of threatening to end the story.

This is very much less than the sum of its parts. To be fair, it may be intended partly to set up the girl, Isabelle Donovan, for future use – she’s given an otherwise pointless bit of back story in which Elektra shows up to train her in martial arts in her new life, before disappearing too (presumably because she’s dead). It more or less answers the question of what Emma was doing for Fisk (though the answer is simply what was always implied). But it’s about an issue and a half’s worth of plot padded out with half an issue of the Thunderbolts and some essentially random altercations with the English authorities.

That said, some of the parts are really good. It’s got art by Phil Noto, after all, and he brings a charming amused detachment to Emma. I’m not so sure about his Spider-Man – what Noto does best is the subtleties of facial expression that really bring his characters to life, while his web-swinging is a bit static, so black costume Spider-Man really doesn’t play to his strengths. But Emma is the centrepiece of this story and he makes her convincing. Sequences of her swanning her way blithely through crowds of policeman that are beneath her notice also work delightfully. Honestly, I’d happily read three Phil Noto issues of Emma doing her taxes.

Duggan toys with some interesting ideas about how Emma sees herself at this period in her life, too. The elephant in the room is that this story takes place back when she’s the White Queen of the Hellfire Club, and at this point she ought to be an outright villain. As I’ve mentioned, Duggan seems frankly a bit confused about when exactly this is meant to be happening, but if it’s 1982 then Emma is coming fresh from Uncanny X-Men vol 1 #151-152, the story where she body-swaps with Storm. Mind you, that’s the last time she’s really quite so unequivocally villainous; after that, you’re into Hellions mentor Emma, who’s a bit more rounded. And a lot of this story is about Emma blithely justifying her actions to herself and swanning through life largely unaffected by what she’s doing, though with a residual moral compass that kicks in when faced with the truly helpless.

In Emma’s mind, anyone who gets sent to her is being spared a visit from Elektra, or someone equally lethal. So she’s providing a non-lethal option and making the world a better place, in a way. Elektra sees it very differently: Emma leaves a trail of ruined lives behind her, while at least her own approach is quick and painless. Duggan clearly likes the idea that Emma is a serene untouchable in her own mind, who can pull it off most of the time in the real world, but there’s a definite sense that he’s on Elektra’s side in that argument – at least for some of Emma’s victims, since she plainly didn’t ruin the lives of some of the superheroes who cameo. But Emma plainly stops paying attention to Isabelle once she’s out of sight, while Elektra is the one who keeps showing up. Emma’s rationalisation is to keep Isabelle away from her, and maybe she’s right, but there’s no sense that she really regrets leaving Isabelle and her new family to get on with it. She can justify it to herself, but that’s a different thing.

Spider-Man’s role in the plot is technically unnecessary, but what he provides is a passing visit from a character who’s unequivocally heroic. He’s here so that a cynical Emma can read his mind looking for something to offer him as a reward, only to be presented with someone genuinely decent. That’s a nice little moment, and Duggan doesn’t labour the point about it putting Emma’s own self-justification into context.

But all that being said, it’s still a slight and padded plot that would really have been better off as an annual. There are good ideas here, and some beautiful art, but it doesn’t feel fully formed.

Bring on the comments

  1. JD says:

    According to some solicits I could find, the TPB is to be padded out with DEVIL’S REIGN: WINTER SOLDIER, which has some passing thematic resonance if you squint.

  2. Krzysiek Ceran says:

    I read Winter Soldier on Unlimited. It has even less plot than this (even taking into account it’s only one issue), but the art is surprisingly striking.

  3. Si says:

    This has the same theme as a lot of Krakoa stuff, especially when Emma Frost is involved, that I find tedious. Humans (or Sebastian Shaw, or whoever) get angry and prepare to do something nasty, but those clever mutants are two steps ahead! This makes the humans even angrier and they throw restraint by the wayside, but no, the mutants easily outwit them again! The end.

    Compare this to DaCosta’s New Avengers. He was always the wily trickster too, but where he had jetpacks and adamantium coffins and champagne bots that are secretly neural stun bombs, Frost has legal document 27b-6. It’s just not terribly interesting.

    The only time the mutants ever seem to struggle in any way is when they take on the Orchis space station. And then it’s just them getting easily blown up, and respawning on Krakoa with no lessons learned.

  4. MasterMahan says:

    @Si: And this case, it’s not even Emma being smart so much as her opponents being incredibly dumb. Ordinary cops aren’t a threat to Emma Frost anyway, but in this case most of the police… just decided to not wear their anti-telepathy gear. Because they apparently don’t believe telepathy exists. Which is a hell of a thing in a world where *everyone* heard a voice in their head announcing Krakoa.

  5. Michael says:

    This series shows Emma to be very adept at controlling minds in the flashbacks. Which raises the question of why she needed to go to the Kingpin for a stipend and fake ID for Lourdes in the first place. Couldn’t she have just mind controlled people into providing Lourdes with a stipend and fake iD?
    The real problem with this series is how it tries to whitewash Emma’s past. Emma didn’t become well rounded immediately after Uncnany 152. In New Mutants 14-17, she threatened Kitty’s family. And the Firestar limited series featured Emma’s most evil actions- she killed Angelica’s horse and tricked Angelica into thinking she did it, had a goon shoot at Angel’s father to force Angel to use her powers to nearly kill the goon, caused the death of a guard that befriended Angel, tried to manipulate Angel into a suicide mission against Selene, zapped the Hellions with her powers when they screwed up a training exercise and tried to tamper with Thunderbird’s mind to keep him from rethinking his grudge against Xavier. Emma should be a monster at this point! But she’s treated as an anti-villain. Emma even claims that she never abused a child and no one contradicts her. (Emma killing Firestar’s horse is alluded to but a new reader would have no idea what happened.) There’s no attempt to reconcile Emma’s sympathy toward the girl and her cruelty toward Firestar.

  6. Michael says:

    What’s annoying is that the Kingpin could have easily exposed the REAL crimes Emma committed instead of framing her for a fake crime. If it was revealed that Emma killed three men in front of a thirteen-and-a-half year old Kitty, would Kitty lie for Emma? If it was revealed that Emma abused Firestar and killed her bodyguard, would Angel tell the press what Emma did? How would the X-Men have handled these situations? But Duggan doesn’t want to grapple with the fact that Emma did some unforgivavble things.

  7. Luis Dantas says:

    To be fair, that is not a new thing. Claremont kept excusing Emma for no clear reason through the judgement of his characters.

    In Emma’s case it began with Moira deciding that if Charles would not mentor the New Mutants Emma would be an acceptable second choice. As would Magneto.

    It just came out of nowhere back in the day, and it is an odd judgement call even today.

  8. Si says:

    I’m pretty sure there was a story where Emma said she was on drugs (cocaine?) in her Hellfire days, which screwed up her moral perception. This might actually be a fan’s headcanon or something that I misremember, but it does sound like something Grant Morrison would write. And it suits the character.

    I don’t know, has anyone else heard of this?

  9. Uncanny X-Ben says:

    This was perfectly okay.

    The stuff with Spider-Man was very sweet.

    Emma mind controlling a bunch of cops into dangerous or embarrassing situations is the kind of bizarre thing that’s supposed to come across as badass comeuppance but just makes her look dumb.

    From my memory, they were trying to arrest her because she was understandably wanted for murdering a child.

    Are people not going to be even more terrified of mutants after that?

  10. Michael says:

    @Luis- I never saw that as Moira excusing Emma. I saw that as Moira choosing the least-fit guardian she could think of to convince Charles to teach the New Mutants. Claremont usually portrayed Emma as a monster during his first run.
    @Si- it was Morrsion but I never was sure how seriously he expected us to take Emma’s claim.

  11. Si says:

    In the mid to late 80s Claremont tended to write White Queen as her standing there, skull in one raised hand, bloody riding crop in the other, declaiming “Yes … Yes! I will nurture these misbegotten wretches and forge them into balanced – nay, HAPPY young adults capable of forging their own way in the world! MUHAHAHAHA!”

    It was kind of confusing, like she was trying to be a monster but accidentally getting all maternal?

  12. Josie says:

    “It was kind of confusing, like she was trying to be a monster but accidentally getting all maternal?”

    Given the relative subtlety of characterization in the ’80s, this was progressive and nuanced . . . probably . . .

  13. Sam says:

    When people are talking about Claremont writing Emma Frost as sympathetic, what stories are you talking about? The most sympathetic I can recall him writing her was in New Mutants where she backed Magneto in defending Karma from an angry Sebastian Shaw. Even when she helped the New Mutants get over being killed by the Beyonder, it was as part of her plot to put them under her influence.

    It was in the 90s when she started thinking that all she did was for the children. I want to say Lobdell wrote the first instance of it, but I could be wrong.

  14. Mike Loughlin says:

    I liked this series, even with some of the plot holes. If I were the editor, I would have put in a word balloon about the Kingpin’s anti-telepathy tech installed in his earpiece that I just made up. I would have had the anti-telepathy tech employed by the police be manufactured by Frost industries with a shutdown code known only to Emma instead of entirely absent.

    Anyway, I thought Emma’s resourcefulness and (current) characterization were well-executed. The set-pieces worked, the Spider-Man appearance was entertaining and touching, and the art was beautiful.

    In terms of continuity, I’m a “broad strokes” guy. The black costume thing didn’t bother me, and I even have a dumb No Prize explanation in my head as to why it might be possible. As for Emma, the Grant Morrison line about her being coked-up most of the time is one of my favorite retcons ever. I don’t need to try to reconcile her various characterizations, I can just go with the story.

  15. Joseph S. says:

    I enjoyed this as well. Sure, it’s light on plot and could have been an annual, but the pacing allowed for a bit more suspense. Would Elektra murder a witness even if they were a child? It certainly seems that way after issue one. There’s some nice character moments hear, and I especially liked the deployments of Emma’s power. It’s often been said that her telepathy is not as strong as Xavier or Jean’s, and this series demonstrates how adept she is at using her power in clever ways.

  16. Nu-D says:

    If we’re being honest, though, there’s really only two issues of this series that actually deal with that story. Issue #1 is all set-up. …

    The rest of issue #1 is… kind of redundant, if we’re being honest.

    If I’m being honest, it’s kind of redundant honestly.

  17. Thom H. says:

    I think of Claremont’s Emma as Bad Mommy (compared to Claremont’s Storm as Good Mommy).

    Emma may have thought she had good intentions for her pupils, but the way she treated them was always coercive and manipulative. So, pretty abusive.

    It fits with the origin story we eventually got for her (abusive parents, drug use), and maybe all of that was perverting her natural maternal/protective instincts. But she doesn’t get that shading until after Claremont, I think.

  18. Joseph S. says:

    Yeah, agreed with Thom. I mean, Emma killed Fire star’s pony… She becomes much more sympathetic after they bring her back post Hellions murder coma, especially in Gen X, which is where most of the heavy lifting happens IIRC. Though Morrison and Whedon certainly helped solidify that take. (Luckily the post AvX villainy didn’t stick).

  19. Sam says:

    I’ve regarded the Firestar series as an oddity. It’s written by DeFalco, and his work on the X-books barely qualifies as scarce (looks like he co-wrote an issue of Uncanny with Claremont and there’s some Wolverine stuff). I’m also not sure whether it was more aimed at those who watched the cartoon or Marvel’s regular audience. In the case of the former, something over the top like blowing up a horse would fit better.

    As for Emma Frost, I really do think that she was intended by Claremont to be his second attempt at “what would an evil Professor X be like?” The first being Amahl Farouk.

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