X-Men #2-4 by Hickman & Leinil Francis Yu!
What was with this series? It seemed almost every issue tackled a nearly wholly unrelated story setup, related only by way of Krakoa.
I don’t quite believe that, but it is a very common criticism of Hickman’s X-Men, whose hallowed name inevitably set up fan expectations of what the franchise’s flagship title is supposed to look and feel like. Unsurprisingly, Hickman upset what was expected—how X-Men-like after all!
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to critique here. And yet there’s still much more to praise.
A Defense of X-Men volume 5’s Anthology Format
The remits of the other ongoing series are relatively narrow, each keyed in on a handful of familiar players. Hickman’s X-Men was closest to giving us a survey of disparate but naturally coexisting aspects of a nation, especially of this fantastical variety.
However, imagine Krakoa goes down in flames tomorrow. While that would be a terrible tragedy, think of how few stories we’ve gotten from the early days of the nation. It’s still easy to imagine and yearn for a series or string of miniseries that would focus on further venues, themes, and characters exploring what it’s like to be a Krakoan. And even if or when this broad status quo is no longer with us, there are still tales to be told about the six-month gap before HOX/POX as well as what some of our favorite mutants were up to when they weren’t spotlighted in any of the titles. Even those who’ve been consistently in the spotlight have had adventures we haven’t seen—like the Marauders and, no doubt, X-Force. Probably Excalibur in Otherworld too.
So besides the fact that Hickman’s X-Men at its best spotlighted unique aspects of Krakoan culture and politics as well as characters who otherwise weren’t a focus elsewhere, its range of perspectives, presented in short form, gave a sense that there was always so many more stories still be told. And that’s wonderful.
A monthly title can never give us all we want all at once. Part of the magic, though, of waiting a month between issues/chapters is that our imagination does so much of the joyful work of guessing what’s next, which leads us to imagine stories and moments and possibilities that we may never get to see on the page. But that’s largely okay—because we as readers know there’s so much more to these worlds that we get only brief glimpses of*.
(*In fact, a really good miniseries can do what even a fine ongoing cannot: Give us just enough of a taste to spark our imaginations, rather than giving us what we’ve been conditioned to expect twelve months a year.)
Of course, that’s also part of the reason why comic books will continue to be considered “kids’ stuff.” Not because the content is immature. No, anyone fitfully approaching middle age can relate: Responsibilities stack up, colonizing more of our headspace—so what were once open fields of imaginative play are occupied by immediate reality. Our ability to imagine what’s next in these fictional worlds atrophies. Much of the joy of sticking with our handful of favorite monthly titles is in keeping our imaginations supple and buoyant and sharing these imaginings—our hopes and concerns for these make-believe characters who nevertheless represent some aspect of ourselves—with our friends.
So I like to imagine that, as much as I did largely enjoy Hickman’s X-Men, if I were a kid again, I would’ve enjoyed it much more. Every month, I’d have had a new and different treasure of story to wonder about—perhaps reading Claremont’s Uncanny for the first time or near enough that I could’ve had the pleasure of discovering the resonance between the old and the new while immersing myself in the sheer novelty of Krakoa.
Still, the obvious unusualness of Hickman’s X-Men, in that it felt like a series of one-shots or duologies with little immediate contiguity, did feel as though unplanned—as if the master designer Hickman had ended up flying by the seat of his pants. Well, that shouldn’t be a surprise; that’s simply the nature of Big 2 comics: Almost everything ends up being last minute due to the reality of the medium and its production.
So, before we dive into these three wildly disparate issues, let’s take a very brief look behind the curtain of our favorite office in Big 2 comics. At the end of August, after Hickman’s announcement that he’ll be leaving the X-office for the interim, AIPT grabbed him for a short interview for their X-Men Mondays. There, he briefly gave us some insight on what X-Men was initially supposed to look like, giving us a clue of why it ended up with the format it did.
This isn’t to say we’ll ever know exactly how or when those initial expectations got canned and the series started to shape up into the X-Men vol 5 that we got—but it does offer us something for our imaginations. For the sake of what clarity we were given on the title’s evolution, I’ll quote Hickman in full here:
A big thing that I really regret not getting to try was how we wanted to execute the launch of the entire X-Line. My initial idea was to use the X-Men title as a springboard for the other books. So, X-Men #1 would have been about the Hellfire Trading Company and then we would have launched Marauders two weeks later. Then two weeks after Marauders #1, and because of the complications introduced in that story, X-Men #2 would have been about the need for a mutant CIA, and then we would have launched X-Force #1 two weeks after that… And on and on for the entire line.
The thinking behind this was, sure, number one issues are already really, really tricky, and this would be a cool cheat code for that, but these new titles had even heavier lifting to do than normal because they were introducing concepts, characters, and themes, against a backdrop that unfamiliarized familiar titles.
Those plans changed for a lot of very good reasons — including bandwidth and time — but it’s definitely an experiment that we need to do at some point because I think it might be a super-effective way to launch an entire line in a really streamlined manner.
Now isn’t that a fascinating notion for conjuring future possibilities?
Whatever happened along the way to getting Hickman’s X-Men as it is, we now know that it was never meant to be a team book, a title with a focus on only a handful of characters. It was always going to be something of an anthology series.
Was it perfect? Of course not—perfection doesn’t exist anyway. But what we did get is still really good.
That is, it’s largely really good, though some issues hold up better than others on a second read. A few are all-time classics. But I’ll argue that every single issue provides a wealth of story possibilities, most of them still waiting to be (more fully) explored…
I. X-Men #2: “Summoner”
Out of the first half of Hickman’s X-Men, this issue had the earliest payoff (in X of Swords) and the fullest to date—which is wild. But at the time it was written, never mind the publication date, the X-office didn’t know this new Krakoa era would be such a popular success. Extending the trajectory of the original plans has no doubt left earlier plot threads suspended for much longer than was initially anticipated. However, with X-Men #2 we don’t quite have that problem—although there’s still much as yet unexplored here…
This chapter debuts the High Summoner of Arakko—who, alas, won’t make it out of X of Swords! We also get a fleeting cameo from his mother, the shadow-shrouded War, one of Apocalypse’s children lost to Arakko being swallowed up by the breach opened by the Twilight Sword wielded by a rapacious elder god, Annihilation.
This dread being first appears in a flashback in X-Men #12. Beyond the fact that this entity may simply be a manifestation of the spirit of its home dimension Amenth, little is known. But that realm—or world, named Amenth—is where Arakko ended up, with the mutants stranded on that abducted island fighting endlessly against Annihilation’s forces to keep them from invading Earth. These mutant warriors literally stood in the breach. Remember that it was the Twilight Sword of Annihilation that sundered Okkara in two in the first place. This history is fully related in issue #13. These issues are the prelude to X of Swords.
There, we also learn that before the Summoner was sent to Earth, the Arakki, despairing of their doom, opened a way into Otherworld to seek aid, but Genesis (Apocalypse’s wife) was taken over by Annihilation, enthralling her and all her people to Annihilation’s forces. And so they stepped into Otherworldly Dryador (a newly revealed kingdom) as a conquering army.
So, here the Summoner is the one Arakki currently on the new island we see in this issue, not the whole of Arakko itself, just a fragment*—a volcano at its heart, the Arak Maw. They’ve both just appeared on Earth and are headed toward Krakoa like a vast ship of Otherworldly wilderness.
While the Summoner first appears here in the Maw, the future site of the External Gate created by Apocalypse to get into the Otherworld (without going through Avalon, as with his first gate in Excalibur #1), we don’t know how exactly the Otherworld Arakki sent him and the Arak Coral to Earth. It’s revealed that Arakki sages sent them through the anciently sealed interdimensional breach, whatever that looks like.
*On the map page, this fragment is called Arak Coral. If you remember a similar map back in HOX/POX with the bottom portion of Krakoa appearing as a ghostly outline—that same mysterious silhouette is here identified as this piece of Arakko. However, it’s not like it was submerged below the ocean surface yet attached to the rest of Krakoa; that earlier representation is perhaps misleading. As Scott says, it appears suddenly 100 miles off the coast of Krakoa.
After X of Swords, in X-Men #16—which echoes and inverts the events of issue #2—Scott calls it Arak Point, “a small, dormant piece of Arakko.” There, the External Gate inverts, sending all of Arakko to Earth, showing it to be much more impressive than the rough wilderness of the Coral fragment.
While the strange pale creatures inside the Maw might be the Summoner’s “elemental” horde—or something—the rest of the Coral is populated by whatever wildlife has evolved on Otherworld Arakko. (Maybe those giant freaky tentacles swaying out of the caldera are the elementals?) Like the Arakki themselves, perhaps this wilderness is more fearsome than Earth’s own. Sure looks like it!
As part of his powers, the Summoner can summon and control demonic monsters and lesser gods (like “Hool-go-Dir. The vanquished god.”); they’re terrifying but with endearingly Cthulhu-inspired monikers. These three here would be his “three major daemons,” which I suppose is quite impressive in-universe, assuming these entities are all drawn at once from disparate realms and puppeteered. That’s not someone you’d ever want to tangle with. These figures, then, are not to be identified as Arakki themselves.
I’d love to see a noir Western-style miniseries set on Arakki Mars, with one of the High Summoners playing the part of a “high plains drifter” or “mysterious stranger” rolling into a small, dusty mining town. Just give this guy a killer hat! (He’d look pretentious in a bowler; sexy as hell in a black Stetson.)
In any case, he’s a natural singer, too. That’s apparently what Arakki just sounds like.
But I don’t think he’s saying that to him English sounds like “grunting”—right? Aren’t the Summers speaking Krakoan? Well, either way, I’m sure being products of the workaday Earth-616, they’re nowhere near as beautiful as the language of a warrior-priest culture in exile in a hell dimension.
Because as the Summoner says, his people know pain. They’ve indeed fought the hell through it and reshaped it into things of beauty and refinement. We’ll really see this in every Arakki character design. With how little exposure they’ve gotten even up to now, I’m excited for more Arakki than focusing on classic Bronze Age characters—with the exception Storm, who having deservedly leveled up into becoming Queen of Mars and Sol System itself I’m including as an honorable Arakki.
Still, the obligatory fight is resolved by way of communication in Krakoan, buttressing my argument that they’re not speaking in English here!
Seeing the islands’ union here, buttressed with metaphors both carnal and Platonic, readers might erroneously perceive the Arakki side here as whole. Certainly, the Summoner doesn’t clarify that there’s much more to come.
But while none of the ramifications of this still huge addition to Krakoa are explored in issue #2 (and confusingly, the proportions between the above image and the map page do not at all scale with each other), there is much tantalizing mystery here, largely in the person of the Summoner rather than Arak Coral, which just seems like a big forest with strange wildlife. By the end, we find out who he is in relation to Apocalypse, which only opens up fascinating questions about the rest of Apocalypse’s extended family.
And we learn that Arakko itself is about to fall—although this will turn out to be a lie. For the Arakki have already fallen under Annihilation’s sway, and the Summoner knows this. After all, his grandmother Genesis has been taken over by the parasite Annihilation.
And we also get the most—and only(?)—humanized depiction of Apocalypse to this point. It’s a moment as startling as it is beautiful and tragic.
II. X-Men #3: “Hordeculture”
This issue debuts several senior citizens as Hordeculture, and I was there for it. Ageism be damned, surely we should have more elderly heroes and villains, and it’s wonderful that these ladies aren’t metahumans, merely geniuses armored with advanced weaponry and almost steampunk-style armor and exoskeletons.
And for one issue, I don’t mind at all that they take down a swathe of adolescent mutants and a few powerful Krakoan leaders. It was especially nice to see Shaw get beat down by those he’s bigoted against—given his thorough misogyny.
The problem to me is that nothing much at all has come of these ladies’ impressively ambitious plans, which we get the outline of in the last few pages, by far the most interesting thing about this issue:
These gruff, not-quite-no-nonsense ladies fittingly show up in the X-Men: Empyre mini, but beyond playing some nasty tricks on the X-Men, they’re a distant second fiddle to the Cotati invasion.
More recently, the newly created antagonist of the Curse of the Man-Thing one-shots turns out to be Augusta’s grandniece, whose methods are deemed beyond the pale of even the misanthropic Hordeculture. But again, there’s not much payoff there regarding these golden girls, and they come off as less threatening than the more fearsome (grandniece) Harrower.
Basically, their creator and the rest of the X-office have gone with them as science-fictional comic relief, but they obviously have real teeth—it’d be cool to see them do something with real consequences, especially given their misanthropic, eco-terrorist philosophy.
III. X-Men #3: “Global Economics”
In the new Krakoa era, this issue certainly stands out as a sausage-in-suits fest—with a side of Davos steak. Clearly, Hickman has always been more comfortable writing male characters who are largely the vehicles for his big ideas. And while he certainly writes women as equally rational and capable of the same or greater conceptual thought, in dialogue-centric scenes he tends to position them as checks on runaway male ego, offering by their very presence a higher standard for sensible thinking, emotional integrity, and overall mental health (although I can’t imagine Moira in her tenth life is doing great in the last two departments, and maybe not even the first at this point!).
So for the most part there’s no check on the butting egos of “Global Economics,” which I think is the point at least in part. But we get plenty of great character moments from these striking leading men who really, except for Apocalypse and Gorgon, have no idea what they’re doing—which sounds crazy, right?
We also get here our first look at Gorgon and Cyclops acting as two of the Great Captains of Krakoa (and just think how wildly out of place Magik would be here!). This is also possibly Gorgon’s wordiest role, while his death in X of Swords is really his only other spotlight so far. (His brief showing in Way of X is just sad—but poignant.)
Here, he and Apocalypse unwittingly vie for top spot as biggest, most dreaded bad-ass.
But, strikingly, this is really much more Magneto’s show than Xavier’s.
Davos, anyone …? Okay, I’m sure some of you know, about how the richest people in the world gather every year to sacrifice babies to Mammon and Beelzebub? No?
Oh, sorry, maybe that’s the Trilateral Commission!
Seriously, though, everyone should know about Davos. It’s sure not like the old days when us peasants knew our overlords by sight and full name—well, actually, the serf and servant ancestors were usually discouraged from looking too closely at the pores and pimples of the great lords and ladies of yore, bashfully and wretchedly bowing and scraping before their horse and carriage in the mud and muck.
These days, the world’s Owner class gathers in swanky and comforting Davos, Switzerland, which I can’t be dissuaded smells like fresh coffee and cocoa always. It seems more fantasyland than reality, yet it’s where billionaires fly from all over the world in their private jets, thoughtlessly guzzling up more of our resources on this planet in a few hours than the average schmuck will in a lifetime of thankless drudgery.
Oh geez, can you guess where my political sympathies lie?
Into the rarefied but cozy airs of Davos in January, a few thousand of the world’s wealthiest gather yearly to decide bread-and-butter global economic policies—i.e., sweet deals for the wealthy—in secret. It’s really real; look it up. While the membership largely pays for the whole setup, anyone on the federal payroll attending will have security and probably most of their travel costs paid for by—schmucks like you and me, our taxes working for the leisure class while they look for more freebies and kickbacks at high altitude and seated before grand vistas as if their lives were a brochure we should all envy from afar.
So, when this lady is talking about seeking “deeper relationships” with people from other countries, she’s largely talking about the kind of high-powered business relations that are all but completely closed to you and me (you know, the precariat). They’re basically a large-scale, mendaciously transparent, and intellectually and spiritually brain-dead Illuminati trying to steer late-stage capitalism through the freefall of the 21st century, where, who knows, maybe mass democracy is already in the tar pits. They would certainly know before the rest of us.
Frankly, I’d want to hide from this creepy MIB—Reilly Marshall, of House of X #1 ignominy (remember: he entered the Jerusalem Habitat armed, possibly for his own protection—begging the question, why—whereas here in X-Men #4, he’s come with a small army primed for assassination. And he really thought he’d slay Apocalypse with some dinky toy guns?????).
By the way, that small army of telepathically shielded goons? Probably all expenses paid by the US citizens of Earth-616.
Anyway, Apocalypse doesn’t seem too concerned; he lets it all hang out, why not? That’s great because surely I wouldn’t like to share a hidey-hole with the Big A.
But hanging out with Mags in an Aldous Huxley reading group on an island paradise sounds fun. I’m sure you know you know this great early 20th-century British writer from such classics as Brave New World—clearly a Hickman favorite—and the slightly less influential but more interesting The Doors of Perception, Huxley’s a short journal of his experience on mescaline, its language much inspired by the prophetic poet William Blake. His last novel, however, Island (1962), I sadly have little familiarity with—but Mags’ speech certainly makes me want to rectify that.
But why can’t we have Huxley be a mutant? Surely, there’ve been plenty of mutants in the past passing as ordinary humans? Why not Beethoven? (Well, he was a genius but also a real a-hole, so maybe not.)
Anyway, Huxley’s Island: Visit the link; Huxley’s conception of this alternative utopia is summed up nicely in this Wikipedia article’s opening quotation from one of his earlier writings.
It’s the closest thing in literature to an ideological map for Krakoa—much inspired by the anti-Marxist anarcho-communist and Russian renaissance man and people’s hero, Peter Kropotkin (truly fascinating).
Don’t be a Reilly Marshall and not give a damn about history! Maybe we should have more history teachers like Big A. Okay, so I’d consider taking his seminar, in the auditorium, last row, seat nearest the door.
Historians of prehistory may have to revisit their theories on the Late Bronze Age collapse, although while Apocalypse may’ve been the metallurgist of the ancient Near East’s doom, it’s interesting to note that this mini-apocalypse was at least partly an instance of non-manmade climate change.
This was likely due to volcanic eruptions—in Iceland. Or was it … Okkara??? At the moment of its rupture courtesy of the Twilight Sword of Annihilation. Pure conjecture!
Moving to the conclusion of this deceptively straightforward chapter, we have a delightful double denouement, as Erik attacks his steak with gusto and elegance, articulately and subtly trashing all present humans—our global Owner class—while Gorgon chops through his own evening repast with grim joy.
Now, this is Erik blending a kind of nationalistic capitalism with Huxley’s Island ideals—which I’m not sure will really hold up. The latter ideal is already unlikely enough. Propping it up with big-pharma-style capital … This is where I’m wondering if Magneto is actually thinking things through.
What do you think, fellow fan?
I do like that Gorgon’s version of enlightenment is sparing the lives of despicable humans so that they feel more pain, prolonging the misery he gifts them in the art of studious violence. He’s thinking things through in a way that has Krakoa’s sketchily laid-out ethics accommodate the status quo ante of his beliefs.
At the last, Erik outs Marshall’s botched attempt at a mutant massacre. It doesn’t seem like the American will get in trouble for it though! (And hopefully, he doesn’t get fired, since his failures are now reassuring.)
Once they know they’re in safe waters at last Xavier, surprisingly, doffs Cerebro. Yu’s linework characteristically tightens everyone’s features, and it was startlingly to see Xavier’s naked face initially—looking like his expression was being pulled by some invisible crazy wires (like Jamie Braddock of yore!). But it’s his brief compassionate speech that’s really unsettling. I mean, do you really believe he’s never stopped believing in you, fellow flatscan? Do those iced chips of blue express love and compassion?
Might there be just a hint that there’s a shadow lurking behind his sleek, tight veneer, mouthing words that once defined Xavier’s life and soul? Is there an unseen (or barely seen) darkness trying out the shape and sound of the dead debris of a shattered dream? Is this more a veiled threat than wistful nostalgia?
These days, I think we’re all familiar with how veiled threats get a pass when clothed in the seemingly innocuous shades of nostalgia for “better” yesterdays. Xavier, or the shadow going by that name, is learning how to be a 21st-century statesman—in an age when the youth would prefer their patriarchs respectably buried and kindly forgotten.
I suspect this will be the last greying sausage-fest of the Krakoa era. It was at least a final feast of some ideas better left in Davos; if only Mystique would set her sights on that metaphorical island of patriarchs.
NEXT: Otherworld Politics—Excalibur #1-6