[covers by Ryan Stegman, JP Mayer and Frank Martin Jr.]
Horror novelist Victor LaValle’s 5-issue Sabretooth miniseries continues to be a surprisingly deep meditation on the ruthlessness of the carceral state and character study of not just the title character but the five mutants who are his fellow inmates, four of whom have been generally overlooked (like Nekra) or not well served (Oya); Third Eye, on the other hand, is a fascinating LaValle creation, whose backstory starts to clarify with just a few evocative details in issue #4. I say the quality of this story is surprising, given Sabretooth’s nature as a two-dimensional psycho killer whose history of racialized sexual predation Marvel of course doesn’t really want to deal with. That he is now simply to be depicted as a stone-cold murderer from a childhood of trauma and nothing more problematic, author LaValle is doing top-shelf work that speaks to the modern moment, but in a way that won’t become dated – as it’s only our contemporary culture that’s finally waking up to the crimes of its forebears and the continued structural brutalities the mainstream has largely been blind to or just willfully denied.
This is not your crusty uncle’s ’90s Sabretooth title that’s just about cheap shocks and sex that puts women in the shadow of Marvel’s creepiest yet bizarrely widely beloved sexual predator.
Artist Leonard Kirk continues to be a perfect fit for the series with his crisp lines and character moments evoked by his all-too-rare talent for realistic and subtle facial expressions. The usual art for a book titled Sabretooth has largely been the opposite, more suitable to grimdark or Liefeld-knockoff hyper-violence. Colorist Rain Beredo really makes the artwork pop, and inker Craig Yeung joins the series for issue #4.
If there’s any flaw in this series, it’s that with this story, the way in which the supporting cast here was disappeared is unforgivable; Xavier already sucks, but he is again put in the position of villain even while what we’ll see in other titles is that he’s still just sucky, not a brutalist paranoiac or sociopath (whichever it is, in this situation, it comes to the same atrocious consequences).
Another problem is that we saw the entire Council agree without exception to Sabretooth’s sentencing and then watched him pulled into the Pit – and however they felt about it, presumably keeping mum about it. But in LaValle’s Sabretooth, we don’t know anything about how the others were sentenced, and all we have is Xavier appearing as representative of Krakoa’s secretive government and Doug/Krakoa as reluctant jailers. Did Kate Pryde vote to disappear three people of color and see their friends, like Bling, search tirelessly for their corpses, knowing all the while that they were wasting their time? Did Storm see Bling’s anxiety as she went out in the patrol boat searching for what she believed would be the remains of her comrades so that she could bring back gory proof of their death as prerequisite for their resurrection? What of Magneto, also now people’s hero on Arakko, Storm’s comrade against Brand’s cynical imperialist mentality? Nightcrawler? Emma? Was all this after Jean left? Has anyone told Hope, who’s supposed to be another popular hero?
Again, all these white people (with one exception in Storm) disappeared three black people, two women and one man, the latter guilty of no more than exposing the reality of what “make more mutants” has meant for all those abandoned babies we briefly saw in one issue of Way of X – which many readers have been telling others not to worry about; that was just a one-time misstep because clearly that’s not something these funnybooks can handle dealing with. Whoops! (See the data page below. Who will ever forget these discarded infants now, described as “a pile of old shoes”?)
This also begs the searing question of: IS ABORTION ILLEGAL ON KRAKOA? IS IT ACCESSIBLE? AND SHOULD WE THINK OF NIGHTCRAWLER AS NO DIFFERENT FROM THE LIKES OF SAMUEL ALITO?
There’s also the problem that Sabretooth remains a sexual predator who targets the most vulnerable women (poor, nonwhite and/or sex workers), however much present-day Marvel and fans want to airbrush this away. And his name is selling this book whose content is as “radical” as a Marvel comic is like to get – which is to say not that much compared to countless other works of art with less money/corporate backing behind them, whether from this year, last century or even centuries before that.
Bottom line: On its own merits, this is an excellent, heavy-hitting miniseries; in the context of the franchise that it’s fully a part of, it doesn’t work without making all these people we’re supposed to root for otherwise more reprehensible by far than the typical villain precisely because what they’re guilty of is exactly the same as what those who prop up our own real-world carceral state have been doing every single day for generations. Especially when we finally get, in issue #4, Third Eye’s descriptions of his and the others’ “crimes,” there’s just no denying that LaValle’s narrative here completely breaks the viability of the Council and everyone on it, including beloved heroes like Nightcrawler (who’s a cop now anyway in Spurrier’s book?).
Yet the book spends much more time, naturally I suppose, given its title, on Sabretooth terrorizing the others, which is a little weirdly handled if you think about it: We see him killing Melter repeatedly (in fantasy or however you want to label it), but there aren’t depictions of similar violence toward the nonwhite characters, because obviously, Marvel doesn’t want to go there. Still, we know that he has been abusing in one form or another, for what might as well be an eternity in this weird sensory dep realm where only thoughts are real, though there’s no indication that what’s experienced in the trap of Sabretooth’s mental hellscape isn’t as painful as actual bodily harm would be, at least before they regenerate/heal after each bout of bloodletting and evisceration.
What we mostly see is simply Creed’s psychological abuse of his fellow inmates, which is more visually palatable, I guess.
There’s even suggestion in issue #4 that Creed leers at Nekra and Oya like the sexual predator he is – and yet we only have this indication through Oya’s warning to him, not a visual depiction of the leering, certainly nothing like what we find in comics of old. It’s kind of a weird balancing act. What are we supposed to glean from this, that this is an attempt at being more tasteful or that this is from a company now owned by Disney and for whom every single thing could be critiqued on social media?
But where, again, is the depiction of the folks responsible for all this? What of Storm’s views on incarceration? Kurt and Kate’s? I don’t care about Creed; we all know he’s trash. He isn’t the burning question here!
And lastly, its apparent radicalism is only radical in the context of an industry that has historically been completely hopeless when it comes to addressing anything serious about society, and if you want to point out the extremely rare exceptions, you’ll only prove the point.
The best thing about this series to me are the quiet character moments and that very much includes friendships that we don’t ever get to see: Among people of color, without white people present (Nekra-Oya-Bling) and between “minor” mutants with no major players present (Blob-Skin-Madison; Mole-Third Eye). And Third Eye, with his interesting powers and mysterious backstory, is a great addition to the X-verse.
The prison narrative is still fascinating and delivered poignantly with impressive economy in the storytelling, excellent synergy between LaValle and Kirk – but once again, it completely shatters whatever integrity Xavier had left, while turning to other books where the heroes are Kate, Kurt and Storm, even Magneto, we’re left with this corrosive cloud of doubt: When do we put these characters on trial for their gross violations of what most readers would agree are basic human rights?
Sabretooth #3 – “Whisper Campaign”
With none in the Pit knowing how they’re able to project their minds topside, bodying forth as likenesses of themselves composed of whatever’s part of Krakoa’s body, Creed sends his fellow inmates up on a “whisper campaign” to recruit Scrambler, Vertigo and Prism, his erstwhile Marauders teammates (we’re talking Sinister’s kill squad as most notoriously seen in “The Mutant Massacre”). Instead, Nekra, Oya, Madison and Third Eye go looking for their own friends, but deviously, it turns out this was Creed’s plan all along (part of his supposed cunning) to more effectively destabilize Krakoa: Don’t rely on violent individuals no one likes; much more effective to work at radicalizing the average citizen (Right-wing America has been doing this for decades and has only gotten more successful at it – the cleverness in this, of course, is from the top-down purely sociopathic, which fits Sabretooth’s MO too).
Melter, however, stays behind, even as he appears harmless – until it’s too late for Creed; allowing the youth, very gradually, to get too close in the dark of the Pit, while Creed’s awareness is all focused inward, perhaps because of the months alone. In fact, that could be why the new inmates fell into the constructs of his mind, which had simply overrun the place, somehow, swelling out of bounds and overwhelming the unprepared. Lost in his own degenerate and ineffectual fantasies of gory revenge, he’s tried to make his captives pawns, never realizing his bloated palimpsest of horror-scapes was blinding him to the external physical surroundings to which he’d once been so instinctively attuned.
By the end of the next issue, the one inmate whose “crime” we still don’t have a grasp on is Melter’s, telling us he’s the real mystery here. He professes reverence for Xavier, and while Third Eye correctly surmises that Melter is “desperate for a leader,” he quickly realizes that the object of that desperation isn’t Creed, after all (Interesting that the lonely white kid reveres his jailer).
Sabretooth #4 – “There and Back Again”
Melter’s surprise attack on Sabretooth somehow leads not to everyone’s physical death but the snuffing out of their consciousnesses – as revealed at the opening of issue #4, where Third Eye has rescued them through his astral powers, which are also a revelation here. The new inmates return to Creed’s psyche, for an eerie supper and evening by the fireplace in the Creed family home; there appears to be a growing bond among them, while Melter has been mysteriously transformed, but Creed of course remains stuck inside himself, his trauma. Meanwhile, word of these missing Krakoans has spread throughout the island; Mole has recruited Magma to the cause—there are rumblings above. Doug and Krakoa, neither of whom ever seemed that keen on turning Krakoa’s body into a prison (Respect this Land, right?), suddenly, quietly decide the gig is up: The prisoners are free, starting with Sabretooth’s claws clawing up through the soil, beneath the glowering barky face of the island’s arboreal avatar in the Quiet Council’s Grove.
We also have clear indication that the close of this issue brings us to the present moment in-universe, contemporary with the other Destiny of X titles. (That begs the question, though: Where are Nanny and Orphan-Maker?!)
Most startling, however, is the data page before this final scene—Third Eye telling us all the lame reasons those in charge had for imprisoning him, Nekra, Oya, Madison and Melter.
I think it’s pretty clear this single page is the most damning portrait of Xavier and the Council by far, because it too closely resembles our own real-world injustices in a way the secrets around Moira couldn’t. The question is how much this portrayal of a deeply corrupt Krakoan oligarchy will actually resonate with readers and the other titles. If this were not part of a shared universe, these people at the top would be worthy only of ruthless condemnation and immediate and permanent removal from power. However, that’s very unlikely given the nature of this franchise. So it begs the question of how much the X line can handle deeply cutting analogies with our own woefully corrupt and unjust reality.
When we look at the reasons Xavier and/or the Council had for jailing these five and that the Krakoan public has no idea where they are, “damning” isn’t a strong enough descriptor. Far more than any other Krakoa title, this book completely breaks whatever integrity Xavier’s character still had, and I have no idea how we’re now supposed to feel about previously rock-solid heroes like Kate Pryde, Storm and Nightcrawler.
Sabretooth is the most politically bold X book, maybe the boldest as such among any Big 2 title currently, and yet I fear its impact in-universe won’t have the reach or longevity that this damning narrative deserves because the decades-old IP it’s working with will not carry this stain – like water off a duck’s back.
Invoking real-world warriors for justice
To start, each issue of this mini has started with an epigraph from a major American historical figure known for fighting for people’s rights in a deeply repressive and systematically brutalist society built on ownership of black folk and women by white men.
Issue #3’s epigraph is from Thomas Paine, whose life is summed up as concisely as possible here through Nekra’s nod to Paine’s formative influence on her own thinking. And this actually makes a lot of sense for anyone who’s looked at the otherwise very cringey early appearances of Nekra, specifically 1974’s Daredevil #110 by Steve Gerber—where we see her backstory as a train-hopping runaway still portrayed her, albeit super briefly, as having the wherewithal to educate herself by burgling schools for books. The implication could easily be read as: She’d been hounded for being a mutant and, let’s say, disturbing white expectations of blackness* at such a young age that with her sharp, self-disciplined mind she radicalized early on. And really, this is how her story needs to be read because otherwise, we have to go on believing that Mandrill, her abusive boyfriend who controls women’s minds through pheromones, must have reshaped her mind to the point that her radicalism—portrayed in the ’70s as almost mindless eeveel! and then wholly depoliticized in the ’80s—is simply an impenetrable layering of indoctrination, beneath which there is only a broken child. No thank you! (*See my piece on her background for all the problems of representation for this character until now.)
And issue #4’s epigraph is from Ida B. Wells, a pioneering civil rights activist at the turn of the 20th century in the US, a co-founder of the NAACP in 1909, a school teacher and an investigative journalist—this last role certainly speaks to the quotation. But where do we find something like the light of truth in the story? (And, wow, I’d really like to magically know what all these quoted historical figures think of ending up in Sabretooth!) The brightest light between this issue and last was Melter, but the more apt connection is what we’ll see in the finale, as the prisoners emerge into the light of day and there’s no more denying the reality that Krakoa’s body has been colonized by a carceral state and citizens have been unjustly disappeared.
Again, these serious allusions, while important in understanding our real-world history and current society and social identities, perhaps put too much weight and stress on material that cannot shoulder that burden—and it’s not at all that comics shouldn’t be political, but the way has to be prepared for it to work, and having anything titled Sabretooth as the vessel for that messaging, well, your mileage will inevitably vary. For myself, I absolutely loathe Sabretooth and do not care about his story, and LaValle’s narrative doesn’t change that; it’s just too bad that we can’t have a series about the other characters here, with more of their stories in lieu of Sabretooth’s crap. But that wouldn’t really sell, now would it?
And I’m sorry, but that fundamentally undermines the effort at political integrity in this book. But sure, we’re constantly likewise undermined by most things in our daily, undemocratic and consumerist lives. That still leaves us with a title whose lasting impact will be limited by all the obvious limitations of the industry.
Moving forward, will part of Xavier’s legacy prominently include his role as self-appointed judge and jailer with a paranoid streak indistinguishable from sociopathic manipulation? That would be bold, but unlikely.
Still, for what it is, this book is hella fun and full of great character moments from all the supporting players.
The Truth That Shines Through
Particularly the character moments from Third Eye, Skin and Mole strike home in a way that really transcends the particularities of the overall narrative. Oya and Nekra, even Bling, share in that as well, but the story doesn’t focus in on their interiority nearly as much as it does the aforementioned male characters – for whom it’s still quite unusual, especially in a Marvel comic, that these soulful depictions are so quiet and bittersweet.
In issue #3, we get a few great character moments: Oya and Nekra, their avatars made of, respectively, sand and stone, seek out Bling—we definitely need to see more friendships developed among people of color, without the need for white characters to be present at all. All three had patrolled the coastal waters to protect Krakoa from pirates and small-m marauders, and while it’s not explicit if this was an assignment or something they did on their own steam, I’m inclined to the latter. But apparently the two captive women killed in defense of the island. Bling’s reaction to seeing them confirms that no one knows what happened to these missing mutants; she thought her friends were dead and had been spending her days searching for their corpses.
Again, Xavier and whoever else on the Council secretly disappeared these two women of color and apparently have been able to go on about their own business, encountering or reading the thoughts of Krakoan citizens who are deeply anxious about their missing friends and whom they govern undemocratically.
Will we actually get to see Bling kick Xavier’s ass? If that happens, this is the best Krakoa title hands down – but I’m not holding my breath.
When Madison sends forth his consciousness, his avatar is composed of glittering microplastics – which is probably still the funniest moment in the book. That it’s so fitting for the loner technophile in love with Danger (for which “crime” see the data page) adds poignancy to the humor. And what an unexpected moment of connection, with Skin of all people – who should really have his own miniseries written by LaValle! Seriously, has any other X writer captured this character so soulfully, in just a few brief lines?
That Skin goes on, briefly suggested in this issue and more fully in issue #4, to develop a bond with Blob is even more fascinating – and the brevity of this single page adds to the poignancy of the moment.
The Brotherhood reborn?! Well, “a,” not “the.” This is some nice resonance with Storm and Magneto’s team over in X-Men: Red – although again, how would these guys feel about their friends’ jailers now living it up with the political class on Arakko??? Blob probably doesn’t know about this new Brotherhood iteration; he’s thinking of the bad old days of mutant gangsterism. But maybe he’s recasting the notion in a vision of friendship rather than the pure self-interest we find in the villains of the early days of X-Men by Lee and Kirby.
Best of all is Third Eye developing a bond with Mole – which I really hope we get to see in other books. Because “all mutants matter on Krakoa,” right? We all would surely like to see that sentiment realized on the page elsewhere, too – not just in a miniseries titled Sabretooth.