[cover by Russell Dauterman and Matthew Wilson]
The literally biggest X-Men book of the year so far has arrived! And it’s…mostly decent.
X-Men series writer Gerry Duggan is juggling a lot of material here, and while it doesn’t entirely gel, he’s probably done the best that could be done given the demands of this special yearly issue, a kind of annual for the whole X line, sort of.
Reading Immortal X-Men #4 by Kieron Gillen and Lucas Werneck, which dropped same day, right after the Gala issue, I immediately noticed the different angle each story took on Emma. Duggan is focused on her public performance and persona, with the eyes of the world, and its non-mutant superheroes on her, while Gillen’s take is all about her interiority—and it’s masterfully done, a more strongly feminist depiction than has been typical for her character. Certainly, Duggan’s work with her in his Marauders run was excellent, but especially compared to Immortal X-Men, it didn’t run deep into her actual thinking and hidden emotions.
We’ll get back to this in an Immortal X-Men #4 review, but the contrast simply highlights what I find so much more exciting about Gillen’s current work. Of course, given the nature of the Gala’s mini-event status, it’s perhaps inevitable that with the double-sized issue’s superabundance of characters from across the MU, there’s a dearth of sharp character moments—ones made memorable by the deep focus given to a character or simply expert timing, to make us laugh or even entirely rethink a person or situation (Hellions excelled at both kinds of revelatory moment, and Gillen and Ewing also excel here, each in their own way).
[bye-bye, old fogies]
Surprising character moments seamlessly integrated into a narrative with clear structure, vision and motivations is what I come to comics for, along with beautiful art and fantastical sense of wonder. Unfortunately, for this reader anyway, the Hellfire Gala one-shot doesn’t meet any of these criteria—except of course for the stunning work of Russell Dauterman, who draws a mere five pages; we have the excellent CF Villa and Kris Anka for about the same page count each, and the rest is drawn by Matteo Lolli, who was the main artist on Duggan’s Marauders. Lolli’s style is flat, cartoonish and static, with lots of same-face and undynamic figurework; it never pops, leaving readers all too aware that this is a two-dimensional medium.
A Different Gala This Year
[X-Men Gala MC – bold pick, no comment!]
As this year’s Gala is primarily relevant to Duggan’s X-Men, it’s really almost an annual for that title, spinning out from issues #11-12, which dropped a few bombshells that are only beginning to be dealt with in this one-shot and the newest issue of Immortal X-Men, each of course in their own way. The Gala story begins to deal with the international fallout of Ben Urich’s news article announcing the existence of Krakoan “immortality” (which obviously isn’t an actual guarantee of the resurrection protocols—but tell that to Earth’s billions) while also giving us the first on-page meeting between Moira (who appears fully human, albeit with her techno-organic prosthetic mysteriously gifted her by Cypher, but is in fact a killer bot now, Cameron Hodge-style*) and her new Orchis partners Feilong and Doctor Stasis (maybe the “original” Nathaniel Essex, who nevertheless is still a posthuman transformed by Apocalypse almost 200 years ago).
*And perhaps, as the Cerebro podcast has speculated, this Moira is not the “original” version (again, whatever that means) but a consciousness uploaded to a weaponized cybernetics system that is unable to change—a static copy of Moira’s mind, presumably in toto, with all her lifetimes of memories, yet for all that a mere snapshot of a moment of her rage and feelings of entrapment and betrayal, stuck in a vicious loop. Perhaps there’s a Moira X hibernating in a cocoon beneath Jamaica Bay 😉 or something analogous (see below for possible theories involving a techno-organic arm).
This is all quite different from the inaugural Gala last year, where the centerpiece was Planet-Size X-Men, where Duggan and X-Men artist Pepe Larraz pulled off the stunning surprise, both in-universe and out, of sending the entire Arakkii population off to Mars, renamed by mutantkind as Arakko.
The two other big moments from the first Gala were Hickman’s X-Men #21, which closed out his run by introducing the new yearly X-Men team, and Ewing’s S.W.O.R.D. #6, wherein that team’s mystery treasure retrieved in the first issue from beyond the veils of reality (the White Hot Room) is fully revealed (mysterium), along with Brand’s cosmic plans for this new currency.
Granted, the original Gala should’ve been just a few issues, much closer in page count to this year’s. Overall, there was unnecessary bloat for the sake of showing off one-off couture designs, a distraction from pushing forward the story for each individual title, for the most part (the best issue quality-wise was definitely Hellions #7, by a long shot, its comedy and pathos having nothing to do with the Gala’s own concerns). But following up the above-mentioned issues will continue to be a very tough act to follow each year.
So, it’s better that this year’s Gala is confined to one oversized issue rather than a dozen regular issues—definitely for the best considering how jacked the publication schedule is currently.*
But the comparison is still inevitable: Arakko’s settlement of Mars laid the groundwork for X-Men: Red, and the Council shakeup and X-Men election led directly to X-Men #1 (which promised much more than issue #13 can now), while there was hot speculation about Hickman’s next move (soon revealed to be Inferno). What are the hottest expectations spinning out of this year’s Gala?
The big secret (Krakoan resurrection) was already out, so the Gala issue spends most its space amping up various reactions from across the Marvel Universe—or really, just the big boys (Stark, Cap, Reed) and Clea, which, sure, okay, a brief chuckle, maybe? This isn’t going to affect the return of Stephen Strange. Everyone’s reactive, hostile, paranoid; no real surprise, though Cap’s depiction here plays at a cynicism that would feel out of character in any non-X title.
*The little moments of whiplash are there if you’re reading these ongoing titles as they appear. It’s odd seeing not just Illyana, who’s currently trapped in Limbo with Dani, Xi’an and Rahne (where are they now?) but also the Marauders, the same week the Kate is killed in that title, in the Shi’ar galaxy, before the team is shunted off to the distant past. Obviously, the Gala must occur after these major plots.
This isn’t a criticism of any one of these three separate issues out this week, and after all, maybe it is simply one of those shared-universe things in a time of disrupted supply chains. Even so, it’s still a little deflating to the other ongoing storylines. Hey, there’s Illyana’s Soulsword, looking good, not shattered at all; oh, and Maddie must be Limbo Queen now, yeah? Yep, the toys have been swiftly put back in the box, just in time for Illyana to join in for the splash page of the new X-Men team, neat as you please (At the very least though, we should’ve gotten to see Xi’an in some hot new couture to make up for whatever she was wearing last year).
If you followed the vote this year, you already know Firestar won out over Monet, to say nothing of others who would surely have been far more likely picks if Krakoans themselves were voting. I mean, maybe they too watched Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends as kids, but would they really want a cartoon character representing Krakoa? 😉 And don’t even get me started on how strained Emma’s rationalization is here (whether or not you killed the child’s damn horse doesn’t make her X-Men material).
But surely, Duggan et al knew Firestar would win? Naturally, Stark takes her aside and tells the ex-Avenger to be his nark.
The rest of the new team? An odd bunch!
Even more than the last one, though, it will be tough to argue that it will go down among the classic teams of the franchise. After all, they won’t even be around long enough to make a bigger impact than the Year One team that is already receding in memory, before its odds and ends ever really gelled into something truly impressive.
And Forge is up to something nasty with Xavier.
(Or maybe it will save the nation. But it could still be pretty nasty, with these two involved…)
The Gala’s Revelations: More imminent secrets behind the scenes
- An Orchis-Eternals Axis?
In terms of completely new development, the big push forward this issue is: Moira possessing Mary Jane, which is a choice (entirely to do with Zeb Wells being on Amazing Spider-Man), to get into the Gala and—maliciously reveal herself to her son, Proteus. This provided the issue’s biggest moment of suspense—which petered out pretty quickly (oh, dear—unintentional pun!): Proteus’ reaction is surprisingly contained, as he notes of himself, a reflection of his off-panel character growth among the Five, and with MJ fleeing the scene through a Krakoan gate (something to do with Moira’s robo collar?), MJ’s story will be continued in Amazing Spider-Man #9; cue Logan and Spidey exit.
ASM #9 is advertised as a Hellfire Gala tie-in issue, but it’s release date is September 14…!
My favorite moment in this entire issue is the least consequential for Krakoa. It’s when Logan stops Spidey from heedlessly running after MJ, not knowing she’s possessed:
Logan’s terse warning will be cryptic to readers unfamiliar with the classic 1987 Christopher Priest one-shot, Spider-Man vs. Wolverine, where a terminally ill friend of Logan tricks Spidey into killing her, which was the first time he had ever killed anyone (depending on how you come down on what happened with Gwen). Seriously, though, this is still a controversial issue, but it arguably lended some tragic realism to Peter Parker as someone who, while in action, would be truly dangerous to be around (as with any of these superheroes or Hulks and what have you). But this lethal collateral damage has happened only once for the character, and alluding to it here, with MJ’s life at stake, is poignant.
Yeah, that’s my favorite moment this issue, as the pickings are otherwise real slim.
As was heavily foreshadowed in Free Comic Book Day 2022: Judgment Day, robo-Moira has kidnapped Krakoan Medicines spokeswoman Mary Jane Watson. FCBD’s ghoulish cliffhanger sparked much Twittering over whether she’d be wearing MJ’s skin à la Banshee’s (in X Deaths) to get into the Gala. But that was obviously never going to happen with a non-mutant heartthrob like MJ. So, it had to involve possessing her mind in some way—and that’s what happens: Moira’s lops off her own arm to make of it a fashionable if Lovecraftian necklace around MJ’s throat, turning her into Moira’s “meat puppet” (Moira’s own words), with her consciousness intact but buried deep, helpless in her own body.
But wait! Is this Moira’s prosthesis? Of course not. But you thought it for a second, right? Remember in Inferno Doug mysteriously gifted Moira a techno-organic prosthesis made of Warlock’s substance. But then, in X Deaths, she chopped it off in a paranoid fury. This might be a clever clue Duggan is dropping here, and savvy readers will either be rewarded by seeing one of several potential theories all pointing to a similar end proven right, or there’s no real hint here, and it’s meaningless (Is this a backhanded compliment?).
In other words, maybe the “real” Moira who will get to enjoy her eleventh life after all is being stored in that now severed prosthesis, which was either blown up in a motel in X Deaths #2 or the T-O Wolverine retrieved it from the wreckage. I forget which (and am not going back to look!).
At the close of the Gala issue Moira’s robot arm is back, meaning this last scene, occurring early the next day per the caption, takes place after ASM #9, although we won’t know what the heck happened for two months!
Of course, here at issue’s end, the mystery of Moira’s arm is easy to pass over as readers wonder how the heck she got in contact with the Eternals, specifically Druig and Jack of Knives (respectively, the new Prime Eternal and an exciting Gillen creation, both from his Eternals run).
Judgment Day Aside
Unfortunately, the upcoming event that I was initially excited for is increasingly feeling like it’s just forced.
Why is Moira meeting with the most Machiavellian of Eternals? Duh. Because there’s a big event involving mutants and Eternals! Okay, but…why is that happening again? Because Druig’s in charge of his people now and suddenly needs a new direction for them, to reconfirm their Celestial-programmed mission of eliminating “excess deviation.” Why is the usually endlessly subtle snake-charmer suddenly interested in straightforward genocide? Because Gillen was writing Marvel’s best series of 2021, but it was canceled, and since he’s in the X office, he can at least continue the more interesting narrative threads from that title while helming a summer blockbuster that pushes all the right buttons for sales: mutants fighting for their lives against genocidal maniacs; squeezing any remaining audience interest from the recent Eternals movie; and shoeing in another top-selling property, the Avengers, which will resonate with fans of 2012’s AvX (recalling the Avengers’ attitude there toward mutantkind, which went from diffident to hostile).
Is any of this what Gillen would have chosen to focus on if Eternals hadn’t been canceled? Who knows; but a lot of the obvious selling points don’t feel like his style. Again, the setup for the conflict so far unfortunately feels quite forced. Moira meeting with Druig and Jack in the Gala one-shot to tell them that they should target the Resurrection Five if they want to shatter Krakoa just seems like a contrivance to have these two otherwise wholly disconnected parties meet.
And, c’mon, isn’t robo-Moira the epitome of excess deviation?! 😉
- No More Secrets in the Family
The other secrets traded behind the scenes this issue are between Moira and her son on the one hand, and Emma and Scott on the other.
- Nightmare Mum
Continuing with Moira first, her son—to whom, however justified or not (given his dangerous powers) she had always been his jailer (Uncanny #104) and then nearly his killer (#126-128)—has just arrived at the Gala alongside his fellow Five, after they were expressly forbidden by their guardian Magik (she apparently changed her mind, against Council orders)—and Mother, in the “meat puppet” guise of MJ, takes him aside out on a terrace and quickly reveals herself through the knowing venom of her words.
Despite Moira’s shortcomings as a mother, this is certainly the first time she’s spoken in this way to Kevin. Further confirmation that this isn’t the real Moira?! Oh, I can see it now: The true heroine returns, and soon enough, after the emotional embraces, her son asks her if she really despised him so much. Of course, she’ll acknowledge how hard it was, that everything’s always been so difficult, but these negative feelings were merely passing frustrations, not a lasting judgment on her dear child.
Maybe I’d be less cynical if the few possible outcomes weren’t so predictable in tired Marvel/Big 2 fashion. Please prove me wrong, Gerry!!!
Kevin is right, though: The old him would have lashed out violently at his mother’s shocking spite, which means reality would’ve started to get perilously slippery for everyone in the vicinity. Didn’t happen, though! For the young man has indeed matured—because, duh, he’s part of the Five, and they’re like family, yeah? That’s what Hope says. And it must be so, since how else have they been functioning at a critical unit for four years now? Haven’t you been impressed by how far Proteus has come?
Oh, damn, there I go again, being cynical. This scene must be the most Proteus has spoken in four years. And sure, it’s all starting to make sense—we just had to assume until now that he had matured, or that something weird had happened to him, like Xavier mind-control, say. And maybe that’s still true. It’s impossible to guess since we’ve barely spent any time with these characters (except Hope, recently).
Anyway, Moira/MJ runs off, followed by Spidey and Wolvie. Later, she assures her Eternals allies(?) that she’s sown the seeds of Krakoa’s destruction. So, who knows—maybe Proteus will crack yet, and reality will run like psychedelic lava. Whatever’s happening here, nothing in this story has sold it to this reader.
- Slow Dance Nightmares
As to Emma and Scott, they trade their recent secret discoveries, telepathically, while enjoying a slow dance. Scott’s reveal that Stasis is Essex is followed by Emma’s splash-page infodump on everything about Moira X. Both are pretty shattered, I guess, but they keep their cool. This issue isn’t really about any of this, though, so we move on quickly. Immortal X-Men #4, a wonderful piece of high comic art, follows up on the mystery of Sinister and Stasis, only to explode expectations at the last minute.
Oh, and Synch is aging rapidly, a process triggered whenever he syncs with other mutants at a distance—despite being an omega. He wants Dr. Reyes to keep it a secret, though. Again, this is another tease, there and gone in two pages. There’s so much else going on here, it’s hard to say much else except it’s mildly disconcerting. After all, how many looming disasters can we feel really anxious about at once?
Synch, Forge and Firestar now have their own dark secrets that we’ll see unfold in the coming months, probably well after Judgment Day has come and gone.
But let’s hope it all ends with Stark and Xavier duking it out atop the wreckage, mano y mano, shirtless but helmed in their respective tin hats. I’d pay eight bucks for that.