[cover: Kael Ngu]
Krakoa’s pirates of the high seas have set their sights for the stars!
Personally, I love space opera, but even if you’re not into this swift-moving, action-packed take on the genre (really the opposite of Duggan’s rather sedate jaunt between Earth and Arakko toward the end of his run), the Marauders are still wholly committed to their original mission of rescuing mutants, and the series will return to Earth’s treacherous seas before you know it.
In fact, I’m betting that Marauders by wunderkind Steve Orlando and revelation Eleonora Carlini will be the Krakoan thrill ride among all the titles. Orlando’s love of classic ’90s action flicks is well known, and rising star Carlini couldn’t be a more perfect fit with her fiercely kinetic figure work, dynamic layouts, and indelibly unique character expressions. Of course, Matt Milla’s vibrant colors accentuate the dynamism and lend greater depth and solidity to the linework, for which Carlini has an immaculate sense of balance between negative space and detail, letting Milla do the rest (though I’d still love to get some b-&-w prints!).
Back in January, we got a taste of things to come with the Marauders Annual, which was really a prologue or issue #0 for the new volume, as it introduced the new crew, reintroduced an obscure ’90s villain who is certainly continuing his schemes offstage, and basically acted as a passing of the baton between volumes. What we hadn’t seen yet was the Eleonora Carlini’s stunning artwork and the already spoiled surprise of Cassandra Nova stepping aboard (an exciting prospect though I truly miss being fully surprised—alas). Still, so much tantalizing mystery remains, and there are further surprises in Marauders #1 but—while intriguing—nowhere near the same caliber.
Yet a fair amount can be further teased here, so let’s first return to the catalyst for this first arc—a piece of finely crafted mysterium out of deep time.
The annual left off with Emma delivering to Kate “a mysterium puzzle box, gifted with great mystique.” That last word was highly suggestive, but if Raven was involved, it would merely have been as a courier*. Truly puzzling is that this bizarre gift is two billion years old and made of mysterium, a cosmic material that debuted in Ewing’s S.W.O.R.D. #1, when the S.W.O.R.D. Teleport Team traveled to the no man’s realm of the White Hot Room, somehow existing simultaneously in a Nexus of All Realities (the M’kraan Crystal), and outside the cosmos. Not only does this Jeweled Heart of the Multiverse (as 2018’s Exiles #1 dubbed it) contain the innumerable gateways to parallel universes; it’s the nursery, home, and afterlife of the Phoenix, as well. The White Hot Room is first seen in Jean’s own afterlife sojourn in Classic X-Men #8’s retcon story inserted between her death and rebirth (in X-Men #100 and 101, 1976). But now, the White Hot Room is more than an out-universe retreat for the Phoenix and its hosts—per the S.W.O.R.D. revelation, it’s also something of a high-energy particle factory when the Six show up to create this “mutant miracle metal^”. So, the Marauders mystery is how a piece of this only recently created substance showed up out of deep time with Pryde’s name inscribed on it and a map of Krakoa locked inside with a note, The first blood spilled, that she recognizes as her own handwriting.
*But maybe there’s a Destiny connection here? After all, this is one of the starting points for the new era, Destiny of X!
^Risque, with her gravitonic field powers, “condenses it from primal Kirbons, cosmic particles that exist both outside our cosmos … and at the heart of it … the Above-place. The White Hot Room,” in the words of Doctor Doom, S.W.O.R.D. #7.
In interviews, Steve has said the answer to these spacetime mysteries won’t jive with our linear assumptions, so I’m guessing, hoping, this won’t be a predictable time-travel story either.
On the map, we can clearly see the faint outline of a few islands off the coast of Krakoa, which are not found on previous maps of the island—not even in the most recently published one, in Immortal X-Men #1! But that will be only the first piece of the puzzle that starts to fall into place as prepare to set sail…
This issue’s title clearly echoes the 1990 crossover event, “X-Tinction Agenda,” centered on Genosha, which was then an allegory for apartheid (South Africa). Of course, there’s also the famous short arc that introduced Cassandra Nova—“E Is for Extinction” (New X-Men #114-116). But I think there’s something more substantive at play, maybe! Per Cassandra’s revelation (oh! Shall there indeed be mythic resonance?), mutants from the deep past (the previously unheard-of first generation) are in need of rescuing, and since the team must venture into hostile Shi’ar territory to do so … perhaps there is some crime against sentients that the Shi’ar have been hiding and is still ongoing? (Surely not too surprising for a galaxy-wide empire?)
And Cassandra already has a connection to the Shi’ar, much to their everlasting horror: In Xavier’s body, she wreaked havoc across their imperium in New X-Men #122-126, driving Majestrix Lilandra insane (obviously, killing 16 million mutants on Genosha* in issues #114-116 was just the first dish of petty revenge against her “twin” brother Xavier, who only thought he had killed this corporeal evil spirit in the womb; issue #121). But now, it turns out that while sowing chaos and destruction across the Shi’ar Empire, she discovered “the first generation” of mutants as prisoners of the Shi’ar! This intriguing retcon possibility might involve her just glancing across this secret while pursuing general murder and mayhem or possibly some greater interest in mutantkind than mere genocide. Whatever the case, it will be especially refreshing as so many writers post-Morrison haven’t known how to follow up on their run (which is unfortunately common for Morrison’s work; few creators can hope to match their chutzpah. Still, Hickman has done so, and I believe Orlando might well be ready for it too 😊).
[New X-Men #124: Igor Kordey, Hi-Fi Design; Cassandra sure seems pretty straightforward here!]
*And yes, Kate’s father, though not a mutant, was on Genosha when Cassandra destroyed it, as revealed well after the fact in X-Men Unlimited #36—an odd choice from latter-day Claremont.
The Exquisite Sadist
After a quick three-page mutant rescue op* (a sign of the pace of this action-packed book!), the team returns to Krakoa, where Kate finds herself venturing across the Krakoan archipelago that “even Krakoa didn’t know about” because, she concludes, “Someone made it forget a part of its own body.” Typically, that’s meant a subsurface No-Place (like Moira’s previous quarters), but this area is hiding in plain sight.
Apparently, Kate doesn’t know the culprit is Xavier—until she stumbles on Cassandra, who tells her while continuing her seemingly obsessive hobby of digging up Krakoa’s organs (which is a new thing here too): “Guilt [over torturing the mutant whose body we live upon]? I’ve become enamored with the concept.” Besides clearly breaking Krakoan law—why isn’t this mummudrai in the Pit?! 😉—she’s telling us that she is, in no uncertain terms, almost wholly unreformed.
This, despite the fact that the last time we saw Cassandra, at the end of Tom Taylor’s 2018 X-Men: Red, Jean had defeated the villain by forcibly reprogramming Cassandra’s mind to feel empathy (via reprogrammed nano-Sentinels)—in classic Jean fashion! Perhaps there would have been more to this story had HOX/POX not been on the horizon (an understandable tradeoff), but we didn’t see how this would affect the erstwhile parasite of mass destruction further.
While Taylor achieved a satisfactory resolution for this implacable nemesis, it was essentially a do-over of the far more deft and original fate that Morrison had devised for the mummudrai (astral parasite), which was to be tricked into a shapeshifting biocomputer (a Shi’ar Superguardian named Stuff, a real cutey) and therein undergo an endless reeducation simulation—until she had truly learned to be (an empathic) human. Morrison’s intention, revealed only indirectly in their run, was for Ernst, who debuted later in New X-Men #135, to be the reformed Cassandra in Stuff’s once more shapeshifted form. Ernst’s flat affect was belied by her deep friendship with Martha Johansson. Again, later writers bounced off the Morrisonian challenge. Right off, subsequent writer Chuck Austen was almost insultingly uninterested in Morrison’s work. And despite the brief, awkward and uncertain attempt from Joss Whedon in revisiting Cassandra’s fate, we still don’t know what happened between her strange immurement (better than the Pit!) and her reappearance almost sixteen years later in Taylor’s X-Men: Red.
Regardless, Taylor certainly didn’t imply that Cassandra’s introduction to empathy would lead to novel ways for her to enjoy sadism, which she seems to have never felt deeply about one or way another; after all, Cassandra started out an astral entity whose function was feeding off negative emotion and attacking the self to which it was bonded as the self/anti-self pair came into existence. In other words, functional sadism isn’t the same as joyful sadism! Until now, she seemed an inhuman creature who took mild sociopathic pleasure in fulfilling its role.
In fact, in X-Men: Red #11, Jean told Cassandra, “There was an integral piece of you missing […] Empathy”—which is odd, because you would think a mummudrai could not have integrity as such, could not be what it is if it could experience this emotion. But such pedantic splitting of hairs should never keep our favorite redheaded telepath from doing her best to make the world be better! (However, let’s be glad she’s no longer wearing that red and blue costume, except when she checks in on her—dirty little secret? Because now it’s clear this is more than just Xavier’s doing, right? How many No-Places are there, then, hiding away potential world-enders—and who’s keeping score of who’s got who tucked away?)
On Cecilia’s defense of Cassandra, I’m unconvinced—just as I think Sinister is allowed on Krakoa because Xavier and Magneto want one of their worst nemeses as close as possible, not because he’s a mutant! And we’ve seen nonmutants genetically mimic mutants*, but more importantly, it’s not clear that anything Cassandra has ever done isn’t purely a function of her existence as an astral parasite. At a stretch, we could say she’s a mutant mummudrai because unlike most others she was managed to corporealize (and presumably will perpetually retain that ability!), all due to Charles’ extraordinary genetic potential. Nevertheless, I’ll be fascinated to see how Steve develops her; hopefully, she stays delightfully wicked.
(*Most recently, Gwenpool works as a mutant because Leah Williams pulled off that story so well, and that’s all that really counts!)
Not only is it a mystery what happened between New X-Men or X-Men: Red and now, but how the heck do billions of years fit into that?! There’s never been anything about Cassandra to suggest time travel. But apparently, unlike anyone else living, she knows of a generation of mutants much older than Selene—although we don’t yet know for certain the age of the box is a direct indication of when they first lived.
But hey, if this takes back from Aaron’s Avengers the true deep past of mutant history, well, that’s genius! (A longtime Avengers fan until the rudderless years post-Hickman, I don’t think a franchise so removed from X-Men lore should be carelessly mucking about in mutant history, especially when it doesn’t build on the mythos that it’s taking from; it just feels opportunistic.)
*The crew rescues Fever Pitch from a military unit connected to the now-dead Agent Gyrich, an NSC hack who worked for both Alpha Flight and Orchis before Brand murdered him at the end of S.W.O.R.D. Fever Pitch’s body of organic flame isn’t dissimilar to Chamber’s (which is appropriate given his 1999 debut in Generation X #50 where Dark Beast ordered the flaming Gene Nation terrorist to capture Chamber and his best friend Skin), and he’s appeared in only two extended arcs, in Joe Casey’s Uncanny run (where Fever Pitch is brainwashed by Lady (Martinique) Wyngarde into joining Banshee’s fascist X-Corps cops, issues #401-406) and the paired miniseries X-Men: The 198 and Civil War: X-Men (where he was living as a post-M-Day survivor in a mutant refugee camp outside Xavier’s mansion). The antimutant Sapien League captured him a few years later and turned him into a living bomb that killed hundreds of innocent people, himself included (2009’s X-Force #13), in the mountain resort Jackson Hole, WY—where Marauders #1 opens. Apparently, he’s been trying to reincorporate his dissipated plasma substance ever since, and now he’s about to succeed, with help from the Marauders. Another Orlando deep pull!
Notice how, without any expository dialogue, Bishop absorbs Fever Pitch’s barely controlled organic fire, and Psylocke merely refers to her psychic knife thrown into his maelstrom as “grounding.” This is awesome! Readers don’t need infodumping that just over-defines a character’s powerset, which historically has just written both characters and creators into restrictive corners. Bishop and Psylocke’s powers are generally known; new readers will pick that knowledge up as they go along (or look it up if they want); so, we can all enjoy the story without unnecessary clutter on the page—especially when these Carlini pages are so damn gorgeous 😊
Apparently, Eleonora wanted to add in some character moments that weren’t initially in the script, and while we don’t know which ones, this open dynamic between the creators sounds great: Steve seems driven to plow full steam ahead, and Eleonora’s visual style is made for it, but she definitely has a visual flair with quick changes of expression that she clearly delights in. Allowing brief asides here and there to let her shine with this skill is obviously a win-win.
Whatever the dynamic, each Marauder gets their moment to shine, including Cassandra. The single page of Tempo and Psylocke fighting a simulation program on the previously mentioned but never before seen Danger Island is a kinetic delight. The contrast between Aurora happily leaving the Boneyard and Akihiro working out his recent violent trauma courtesy of Somnus’ oneiromancy is simple but striking. And there’s an easy bonhomie between all three that’s inspiring, whereas other creators might’ve gone for cheap drama.
But obviously, Cassandra steals the show!
[Cassandra welcomes Psylocke’s psychic knife]
And here’s another obscure Orlando reference: Gregor Smerdyakov, pulled from 2004’s District X, wherein he gradually evolved into a sentient tree, per his X gene activation, and bearing a “boost fruit” activating or enhancing mutant powers. He was unscathed by M Day, but has never even been mentioned outside of a David Hine story, until now! (Some longtime fan somewhere is ecstatic? 😉)
The Kin Crimson
Cue the classic prog rock? Who knows! Most of us today are a bit young to be diehard for King Crimson, but revisiting In the Court of the Crimson King as I write this feels quite serendipitous—from the pell-mell, hard-rockin’ momentum of “21st Century Schizoid Man” to the spacy but regal bombast of the title song, this legendary record jibes with much of the joyful edginess of Orlando and Carlini’s space-action hit.
And at the cliffhanger close, the intro of the heretofore secret Shi’ar sect of the Kin Crimson feels pure glam as much as prog—so cue Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream” next! (Seriously, Steve, where’s your playlist like Kieron’s? 😉)
We last saw Imperial Guard seer Delphos and her more prominent compatriot Oracle in the Secret X-Men one-shot earlier this year—picking up on Oracle’s betrayal of painfully young Majestrix Xandra as seen in Hickman’s New Mutants #7.
But whereas Oracle has been around since 1977’s X-Men #107, which first introduced the Imperial Guard, and was forced to serve the usurping Emperor Vulcan (Gabriel Summers), like fellow guardsmen (as seen in the 2007/2009 minis X-Men: Emperor Vulcan and X-Men: Kingbreaker), Delphos is rather obscure; before Secret X-Men, she had only appeared in 2000’s Inhumans #3-4 by Rafael Marin and Jose Ladronn. So, really, that obscurity makes her an ideal candidate for being a sleeper agent for this fascinating retcon of an ancient Shi’ar sect that views its authority as superseding the Imperial Majestrix or Majestor* (and in fact preceding the Empire’s existence, “when the Shi’ar were little more than galactic raiders,” in the words of the utterly transformed Delphos the Red).
Which means the threat of the Marauders and their time-displaced mysterium artifact is more of a threat than mad Emperor Vulcan ever was? Lol. Maybe! But hey, it’s not Steve’s fault he wasn’t the architect of those late 2000s cosmic events. Seriously, though, for readers who’ve seen the Empire suffer such havoc as Vulcan’s violent and destabilizing usurpation, Cassandra Nova’s destruction of the Imperial Fleet (while piloting the body of Lilandra’s consort, Charles Xavier), the long-term (perceived) threat of the Phoenix, Galactus, and Knull each at separate times almost making a meal of the Empire’s homeworld of Chandilar (also attacked by at least two Annihilation Waves), the Kree-Shi’ar War, and who knows what else—now, whatever Kate and her crew bring with them must be rather serious indeed.
[New X-Men #126: Frank Quitely, Tim Townsend, Brian Haberlin]
The point is that I hope this new high drama is backed up by the highest of stakes for both the Empire and mutantkind.
*Already, Oracle had been working against Xandra’s close advisor and mentor Deathbird, largely because the deceased Majestrix Lilandra’s sister had made numerous attempts in the past to overthrow Lilandra; most recently, she had married Vulcan before his usurpation, at the behest of D’Ken, the older brother of both women and the previous emperor—recently returned to consciousness and then abruptly murdered by the mad Summers brother (see Ed Brubaker’s Uncanny run, “Rise and Fall of the Shi’ar Empire,” which kicked off Realm of Kings). But it appears Oracle’s previously obscure partner, Delphos of Kin Crimson, is the one who really has plans to overrule Xandra (whatever her superficial reassurance to the Majestrix) and potentially overturn the imperial order itself in pursuit of her antimutant mission.
And note the evolving motif of someone we thought we knew imparting devastating past revelations to another who was previously relatively comfortable in a position of authority or predictable status quo—Moira revealing her all her lives to Charles, then Magneto; much more recently, Destiny to Mr. Sinister, with entertainingly perverse effect (Immortal X-Men #1); and now, Delphos the Red to Xandra.
Despite a sense of guilt over what she’s about to bring upon her “friends,” mutantkind itself, Xandra caves to Delphos almost immediately upon being shocked and awed by the disturbingly transformed seer’s revelation out of “ancient history.” (And recall, the X-Men, above all Storm, have recently saved Xandra twice, in Hickman’s X-Men #17* and Ewing’s S.W.O.R.D. #9, with the majestrix promising, the first time, any favor to her mutant friends in return; more recently still, she was sort of saved by Beto’s impromptu team in Secret X-Men). But the young woman is clearly in the deep end with something that feels not only ancient but more regressively imperialistic—ethnocentric, even, tribal—and worst of all, xenophobic, fascistic—given Delphos’ talk of being a “Shepherd of Shi’ar History” and her militaristic transformation.
(*This issue has been perhaps the most explicit a Marvel writer has been with questioning the benevolence of the Shi’ar Empire. The Stygian mutiny, which Delphos mentions dismissively in Marauders #1, was sparked on a colony world (the Stygians’ homeworld), by the empire’s disastrous financial policies, but while Jean—sort of as a mouthpiece for Hickman—sees this as an inevitable problem of empire, it’s odd that Storm specifically is put in the position of not just rescuing a child (who happens to be empress), which is good, but restoring the imperial political order—which is…eh? Now, Xandra doesn’t condemn the upstart Urr to death but rather appoints him the diplomat from Stygia, as punishment. However, I’m not sure that someone whose legitimate but intensely violent populist grievances haven’t even yet been addressed would make the best ambassador, if the point of that position is to use long-term soft-power relationships to resolve deeply entrenched geopolitical issues and conflicts. Both the majestrix and longtime readers have been hoodwinked—for decades in the case of fans—into a cozy, superficial view of galactic imperialism.)
Eric the Red—Unleashed!
Certainly, classic Bronze Age deep cut Eric the Red fits in with all that! Maybe?
[X-Men #97 art: Dave Cockrum, Sam Grainger, Don Warfield]
Marauders #1 is a very fun opening issue, and I loved every panel—but for longtime readers, the last page might push it all too much toward Saturday morning cartoon vibes, which is absolutely fine with me. But Eric the Red? When was that guy exciting? Wasn’t he a fumble from the jump? (And yes, there are still unanswered questions surrounding his first appearance if you really need every loose thread tied up regardless of the fact that the creators clearly just didn’t know what they were doing yet: But why did Lorna recognize this previously unknown villain? How has he taken on the same S&M getup and silly name that Cyclops had when Cyke infiltrated Mesmero’s “Mutant City”? Who cares! But then again, maybe now, fellow nerd, the truth shall be revealed! After all, Shakari is now spelling his name with “k”—ooh!)
The first Shi’ar to appear in comics, X-Men #97, the oddly named Eric the Red always felt like he was meant to be someone else—at least as a double agent inside S.H.I.E.L.D. or the US armed forces, spying or who knows what at Emperor D’Ken’s behest. But we never see him in any other guise than the future-retro leather-and-steel kink that actually feels just a bit more family-friendly on the closing page of Marauders #1. As far as we know, his strength, hypnosis, and blastin’ powers come from his techno-barbarian armor, so maybe he’s gotten an upgrade? He certainly has a more high-tech feel to his new design, which is cool, and sensible—along with spikes and more sweeping horns matched by a flowing crimson cape.
The rest of Claremont’s arc for this minor character, X-Men #103-107, within the larger classic narrative of the initial “Phoenix Saga” (not the subsequent “Dark” epic), sees him recruiting Black Tom (in his debut) and Juggernaut and returning Magneto to adulthood, while Lilandra in issue #107 clarifies to the X-Men (and, at last, the readers!) what this chump’s whole deal is—as her older brother Emperor D’Ken’s “agent on Earth. Davan Shakari. The man you know as Eric the Red”:
[Cockrum, Dan Green, Andy Yanchus]
Much later, in Brubaker’s Deadly Genesis, it was revealed that Gabriel Summers as a young child was sent back to Earth (after his grisly birth as an infant captive in Shi’ar space) to become Shakari’s house slave, but he wasn’t around when Vulcan wreaked his vengeance on the empire. Where has he been?
Very briefly, he resurfaced in Nicieza’s Captain Marvel #2-3 (1995) leading an insurrectionary militia with the goal of placing yet another slaved (this time mind-controlled) orphan, Adam-X, on the imperial throne, with the rationale being that as a partial clone of D’Ken, his prerogative superseded Lilandra’s. It all ended rather quickly, with the fascist upstart only seemingly dead along with his defeated Crystal Claws squad.
(Nicieza’s recent retcon in X-Men Legends #1-2 follows this up with Eric the Red’s return, the reveal that Adam’s clonal mother was Katherine Summers, and Lilandra ordering Oracle to wipe everyone’s memories of Adam so that he could live happily ever after as an Iowa farm boy.)
More than just a Bronze Age goon, Shakari is depicted here as a militant fanatic of a martial empire. This is the Eric the Red we should expect to see leading the no doubt even more fanatical Kin Crimson.
(Now arguably, this sect is redundant when we already had the ancient Shi’ar Fraternity of Raptors from War of Kings, but besides the fact that Gerry Duggan killed off the last of these lamewads in Wolverine: Infinity Watch (2019), I argue this is Orlando righteously taking back a concept prior writers fumbled, as in the case of Aaron and his dumbed-down, Phoenix-possessed Jean Grey-lite from 1,000,000BCE, or as here, with whatever that “Akira Yoshida” thought he was doing back in 2009 😉.)