All Set-Up and… A Fun Side Romp in Someone Else’s Big Event–
With Hickman having once again upped the cosmic ante for Krakoa in 2020’s X-Men #8-11, hopefully readers won’t have to wait for his eventual return to the X line for the resolution to these alien mysteries—more to the point, let’s see these story elements get some development in 2022. The world’s looking at you, Mr. Ewing!! Aliens, aliens, so many aliens, oh my!!!
To quickly cover the main happenings of X-Men #8-11 and Empyre: X-Men, let’s do the listicle format, (before briefly diving deeper with the cosmic players we haven’t yet delved into):
Brood infesting countless space whales, piloting them through interstellar space the way a pathogenic fungus commandeers and reproduces inside an insect’s brain—virulently spreading the infection, reproducing across the local colony (funny, though, that we’re talking ravening insects as the pathogen here!)…
[Uncanny X-Men #161, 1982: Chris Claremont; Dave Cockrum; Bob Wiacek; Glynis Wein; Tom Orzechowski]
A hungover Vulcan suffering from nightmares of his unremembered nondeath inside the Fault, a rift blasted through the fabric of space-time when the Inhuman King Black Bolt detonated a fearsome bomb during his titanic battle with the renegade Summers brother to break Vulcan’s Shi’ar invasion of the Kree…
(This was the climax of 2009’s War of the Kings. It was revealed in the following Realm of Kings event that the blast had torn an opening into the so-called Cancerverse, where superheroes had defeated Death itself, and Thanos Imperative, which closed out Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s cosmic pentalogy that had started with the 2007 classic, Annihilation, further developed this Lovecraftian nightmare world. Also noteworthy: The Inhumans held rulership of the Kree Empire only briefly during this time; presumably, this was the start of Marvel’s big push to set them up to be a bigger deal back on Earth itself. But ultimately, the Inhumans’ moments of glory have always been painfully brief—except during the mid-2010s (2013-2017) when the publisher tried subbing them in for mutants, GASP!!! That was painful in a different way, guaranteeing the Inhumans would end up with as little love among fans as they had in-universe. It’s funny looking back, though, to see this time as a temporarily successful posthuman replacement of mutantkind.)
Shi’ar intelligence reporting that erstwhile Imperial Guard leader Gladiator, now Emperor Kallark (following Lilandra’s death at the hands of an elite warrior loyal to the usurper Vulcan; War of Kings #4), has “signaled his desire to surrender the imperial throne to Xandra Neramani, the genetic offspring of Lilandra Neramani and Charles Xavier” (who hatched from an egg, as seen in the 2018-2019 12-issue maxi Mr. and Mrs. X by Kelly Thompson and Jan Bazaldua, a delightful honeymoon romp from earthly tropics to Shi’ar deep space)…
[Mr. and Mrs. X #3; Frank D’Armata colors]
Broo slurping an ick snack (forgetting that he’s juicing apparently!) and abruptly becoming interstellar king of a matriarchal species that’s never had one…
Krakoa inadvertently stealing (in Hickman’s New Mutants early arc) a weapon of mass galactic destruction jerry-rigged by the Kree millennia ago…
Vulcan remembering, at last, his interdimensional abduction and horrifically impossible vivisection—a classic alien abduction story, to be sure, in which the victim returns home unknowingly transformed and reprogrammed for nefarious ends, an affable sleeper agent from some deeply strange and baleful star*…
Gabriel Summers—affable? Perhaps it is merely the joy of his inner pyro. Unheimlich, indeed…
(*While these freaky aliens are likely from a different dimension, rather than merely a region of space adjacent to any known sector, it’s very clear they are not from the Cancerverse; these are elegant horrors combining elements of Lovecraftian terror and imperious alien couture out of classic space opera. Or, they might be that reality’s high lords, the Oz-like priests safely behind its festering tentacular curtains?)
Exodus singing the praises of the great god-mutant Magneto venturing into battle in defense of the nation…
Sentient alien trees battling Genoshan zombies battling Krakoans battling the mad-genius Golden Girls**…
(**Yeah, this entry only belongs here because of timing and very tangential thematic connection, but really, Empyre: X-Men is otherwise out of place here as an exercise in pure bathos, though it was a sheer delight for the lockdown 2020 popcorn crowd yearning for that big-screen summer blockbuster.)
I. King Broo (X-Men #8-9)
First off, it’s great to see the adorable Broo, a mutant of the Brood, truly one of a kind for being sociable like a terrestrial simian rather than in the chitin-plated vein of an alien space bug. There would be more Broos out there if not for the standard Brood ethos of slaying in infancy any spawn who show one iota of friendliness or even compassion. Also unique, he was hatched on S.W.O.R.D.’s secondary orbital station (pre-Krakoa) called Pandora’s Box, a more secure research facility than the Peak. (See Astonishing X-Men vol 3 #38-42, written by Christos Gage, 2011; disappointingly, this arc is the Box’s only appearance.) Annihilation, Marvel Cosmic’s 2007 comeback event (an all-time classic), saw the Annihilation Wave of Annihilus’ Negative Zone hordes destroy countless worlds, including the Brood’s homeworld*; at the time, then, of Broo’s birth, the “Sleazoid” bugs were few in number, or sufficiently so that his queen mother spared him due to how few of their species were left, apparently. It seems like they’ve bounced back since! So, this is quite a character trajectory for our new mutant royalty, from Ugly Duckling to Accidental King. What’s not clear is whether Hickman has retconned here the long-held perception post-Annihilation that the Brood were nearly extinction, or they’ve simply reproduced more than sufficiently in the past decade.
*Per Hickman’s retcon in this story, “Sleazeworld” can no longer be considered the Brood homeworld.
What’s important here is that following his debut, Broo became a mainstay of the Jean Grey School throughout Jason Aaron’s Wolverine and the X-Men and the title’s second volume, 2011-2015, but has since then retreated increasingly into the background, despite being a beloved character, alongside Oya (Idie Okonkwo), fellow classmate and one of Hope Summers’ “Five Lights,” the first new mutants appearing post-M-Day (see Uncanny #528-529 and the Generation Hope maxi, 2010-2011). She, too, has sadly faded from view, since 2017—further indication that Marvel has failed its promising young characters of color, and arguably at the worst time after years of painfully slow and insufficient progress. Let’s hope for better now!
Oh, sorry! Not to get your hopes up in this particular instance—but Idie has only appeared once since this, in New Mutants #18, way in the background with the other forgotten X teens.
Fun fact: Broo has always been taken with Idie, so much so that upon meeting her, he proposed in marriage (Wolverine and the X-Men #2).
A. The Egg Gets Cracked At Last—It’s Broo’s Delicious Snack
Anyway, who, what, are the Brood? The basics of the Brood’s internal hierarchy (a queen or Great Mother on every planet but one Empress overall; billions of Warriors-Prime) and their intergalactic spread have been well-established since their debut Claremont space opera epic (Uncanny X-Men #155-157, 161-166, New Mutants #1-3, and Uncanny #167 to be exact). They’re obviously modeled after the Xenomorphs designed by H. R. Giger for the Alien franchise; the concept of Brood reproduction is only slightly unique: Hosts’ bodies become that of the newborn Brood instead of merely being burst apart by a hatchling. However, after their next arc, Uncanny #232-234, they’ve never since felt nearly so threatening.
Beyond Claremont, with overall interest in the Brood rather weak and their ultimate nature and origins left quite vague, Hickman is quite free here to radically reimagine them in a way that feels both exciting and inevitable. In fact, these issues made me excited for the possibility of a resurgence of Marvel Cosmic, which has floundered since Abnett and Lanning’s departure with the end of Thanos Imperative in January 2011. It’s been ten years now! This excitement was sadly temporary, though, or blue-balled with the long wait, along with some unsatisfying buildup (Slott and Ewing’s Empyre).
(2022 will be the big year—presumably! This is assuming Al Ewing will be helming the upcoming X-Men Red.)
Since their comics debut, the Brood have been known to colonize and hollow out the insides of Acanti, majestic space “whales” who can get up to 1000 miles in length! Happily, there’s a lot of room in space. And since sound doesn’t travel in a vacuum, it’s lucky they communicate via telepathy. Also, they can travel faster-than-light (FTL)—mysteriously. They are the Brood’s opposite number in so many ways, symbolic of both innocence and wisdom, like actual whales on earth.
Unlike the Brood, the Acanti are native to the mainline 616 universe, one of its earliest lifeforms eons ago. So the Brood’s predation is relatively recent in Acanti history, with the Brood having arrived only recently from another reality, probably around the time the Kree discovered and weaponized them (per the retcon in these X-Men issues). Allegedly, the Brood first encountered the defenseless whales in the Shi’ar Galaxy (per their backstory as of Uncanny #166); the range of either species beyond the handful of galaxies at play in Marvel Cosmic is unknown.
1996’s X-Men vs. the Brood is relevant for introducing the internal Brood hierarchy, topped by Empress Brood, who was, in 2019, said to be dead—in a Punisher Annual, randomly enough.
In the Brood’s debut storyline, they were allied with Deathbird in attempting to depose her sister Lilandra in favor of her—madness, obviously. Among the many wild things that occur in this epic, like Xavier’s death by Brood, the Brood also experiment on a captive Carol Danvers, interested in her human/Kree makeup—which triggers her surprise transformation into Binary. She really saves the day here, but traumatized by recent events on Earth, and maybe her whole unfulfilled life there, she turns down X-Men membership and chooses to fly the spaceways in the company of the Starjammers.
This run of comics is undoubtedly still the gold standard for X-Men in space! (See New Mutants #1-3 and Uncanny #167 for the wholly nuts Brood-infested Xavier drama—and the wild resolution, with implications for Moira X and the Resurrection Protocols.)
Broo himself has on occasion regressed or threatened to despite his best, most conscientious efforts (Wolverine and the X-Men vol 1; a major trigger is his passion for Idie).
Here, however, Broo admirably maintains his cool upon the revelation of the King Egg’s dire presence—and the ensuing alien invasion via falling space whale corpses. (After all, the Brood don’t want anyone messing with that WMD emergency switch…)
The Krakoan defense is rousing and beautifully drawn. It was especially nice to see Great Captains Cyclops and Magik fighting alongside each other.
In issue #9, the Krakoans take the fight, and the King Egg, to Shi’ar space where Majestor Kallark (Gladiator) has just defeated an interloping Kree Accuser, his jettisoned body hurtling by happenstance into the vast maw of a zombified, Brood-piloted Acanti pursuing the terminally damaged Krakoan craft, which smashes into the space station where the Starjammers had been held captive by the Kree. Spectacularly, everyone, including undead whales, slams into the planetoid below, where the Brood swarm their enemies like never before.
After all, the Brood do not want anyone consuming that King Egg and thus turning all the Great Mothers “into that which [they’ve] lorded over for thousands of years: a drone.”
Fortunately for our heroes, Broo takes a snack break—surprising everyone.
B. Kubark Again!
What a delight to see Gladiator’s son, Kubark, again! And how sweet that father and son are spending quality time together a-hunting in deep space.
Fittingly, since his debut in the much-loved title’s first issue, Kubark was another mainstay of Wolverine and the X-Men from Jason Aaron, at least through the first volume’s front half. Personally, though, I’m not a fan of what the damage he did there to Kitty Pryde. Still, when Daddy G dropped punk-ass son Kid Gladiator at the Jean Grey School for coursework in becoming both more civilized and properly warriorlike, Aaron knew he had another fun character. Unfortunately, outside his creator’s 2017 Thor/Shi’ar miniepic (see Mighty Thor vol3 #15-18), the Strontian strong boy has rarely been seen since.
(Gladiator’s own debut, along with the Shi’ar Imperial Guard, was in X-Men #107, 1977.)
C. The Kree Imperial Players
The Kree Accuser in these issues is not Ronan, who was the only known Accuser from his debut in Fantastic Four #65 (1967) until Captain America #399 (1992) when the Accuser Corps was introduced, writer Mark Gruenwald clearly inspired by Judge Dredd for this light white-bread parody. In any case, Ronan’s cruel demise was published over a year before the issues under review, in Donny Cates oddity Death of the Inhumans (2018). (The preceding Inhumans saga involving the OG Accuser’s misadventures, Royals by Al Ewing, Javier Rodriguez, and Kevin Libranda, was also odd—but in a wonderful way, instead!)
We also see the Kree Supreme Intelligence, “an undead fascist hive-mind,” in the words of King Hulkling (in The Last Annihilation: Wiccan & Hulkling one-shot by Anthony Oliveira and Jan Bazaldua). And that’s pretty much what it is: the Supremor is the amalgamation (or “Supremorization”) of the Kree’s great minds, which, it’s safe to say in this case, are wholly analogous to ancient dead white men ripped out of context and served up on a creepy, blubbering platter.
[Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe #8, 1991]
It’s a very fashy culture, always has been!
II. Something’s Rotten… Vulcan Dreams & Exodus Praise (X-Men #10 & 11, the Empyre tie-ins)
Truly, the presence of the Cotati here is merely a minor plot device necessitated by Marvel demand that major ongoing titles tie into the big twice-yearly event (S.W.O.R.D. will be the next title to suffer for this, much more greatly, as its first three issues were King in Black tie-ins ☹).
What matters here is that the horrific probing of the Cotati unlocks Vulcan’s memories, at least in part. But actually, we don’t know what he does remember now, and the fact that now he’s hiding what he remembers is much more disturbing than him being uncharacteristically and thus disconcertingly jovial and carefree.
Beyond Vulcan’s spectacular explosiveness, there’s not a whole lot to this issue—though it is cool to see previously dead fellow trainees Petra and Sway back, as well.
Next issue is also light on content, the bane of the tie-in story, but it is cool to see Exodus doing his thing, somewhat. It’s clear a subplot centered on him was shuffled off due to the chaos caused by the pandemic.
III. Empyre: X-Men
[Mike McKone and Chris O’Halloran cover]
This mini is mostly an opportunity to bring bucketloads of established X-Men together for an adventure chockfull of zingers and quippy character moments that spark off familiar relationships/feuds (Madrox and Monet) and unusual pairings (Magik and Monet; Angel and Monet). And that makes this side romp unique in an era when readers have been following titles with a relatively tight focus on a small roster of characters in each title. We’re talking small by X-Men standards! And these surprisingly brisk 100+ pages certainly don’t go small on the cast—but given the inverse ratio between cast size and narrative focus, this picaresque is pretty light on substance.
Still, it does kick off on an initially serious note—which quickly turns out to be kind of a sick joke very much at the expense of the most maligned female character in the 21st-century X-verse, the Scarlet Witch. The fact that she spends months working on a plan, which she surely would’ve understood as ill-conceived anyway, to make good on all the bad she caused way back on M-Day only to have it backfire into sheer bathos, allowing for the cartoonish fun of millions of Genoshan undead battling against sentient alien plants, with the Krakoans and the delightful grumps of Hordeculture—definitely the comic highlight of the mini—caught in the grinder. On closer examination, is it in bad taste to turn the largest graveyard in Marvel’s history into an arena for grotesque battle-royale slapstick? Well, maybe this is simply a reminder that these are, ultimately, just funny books.
Issue #1 gives us a fragmentary, off-kilter teaser for Tini Howard’s recently canceled X-Corp, which had some intriguing ideas on offer but never really popped off. The awkward intro here was maybe forewarning on that front.
And yet! And yet—Tini and co. have given us here more characterization and individual voice from Warren in, let’s say, at least a quarter-century? And yet—Monet is really popping off here, too. X-Corp, again, had great ideas and strong possibilities from this quirky but natural pairing of two mutant millionaires—and yet, it never quite delivered. Something in the presentation of their remit in Empyre: X-Men #1 foretold that fumbling. There was an undeniable stiltedness in all the corporate talk that just didn’t work, especially for this medium and this particular genre.
Again, the deepest characterization in this mini is seen with Warren—that is, before the Hordeculture bedazzle him into the ditzy himbo version of Angel that truly is the bulk of his appearances historically.
And the climax was a super-brief but effective reminder of who Magik is or can be. Also, Black Tom enjoys a cleverly thought-out field excursion to assist in the battle against the alien veg.
What works least in this mini, however, is Wanda’s role, especially since the next Wanda/Krakoa story has been such a stunning flop (Trial of Magneto). Fifteen years ago, this character was made to do something completely out of character, but even before then, her agency and prominence had been fading from view (after a brief apotheosis, without insanity as immediate consequence, during the Busiek/Perez Avengers run; George Perez is a big Scarlet Witch stan, probably her only real champion at Marvel—unsurprisingly! Excuse this brief digression on one of the greats in the industry, as a kind human being too).
Perhaps Wanda fares better in the currently ongoing Steve Orlando-helmed Darkhold mini-event—whose synchronicity with Trial of Magneto is doubtless just another piece of the collateral damage in publishing since the start of the pandemic.
X-Men #8-11: Hickman, Leinil Francis Yu, Mahmud Asrar, Sunny Gho, Rain Beredo, Clayton Cowles, Jordan D. White, Annalise Bissa
Empyre: X-Men: Hickman, Tini Howard, Gerry Duggan, Benjamin Percy, Leah Williams, Vita Ayala, Zeb Wells, Ed Brisson (literally all the current X writers), Lucas Werneck, Matteo Buffagni, Andrea Broccardo, Jorge Molina, Adriano Di Benedetto, Nolan Woodard, Rachelle Rosenberg, Cowles, White, Bissa
NEXT: The Coming of Cosmar… New Mutants #9-12