[cover by Russell Dauterman and Matthew Wilson]
Despite the horrendous torment Magneto is subjected to on this issue’s typically beautiful Dauterman cover, Mags actually has a much more sublime showing in the Circle Perilous; Tarn never even had a chance—fortunately for everyone. But A+ for misdirection!
And A+ for content! X-Men: Red remains the top Krakoa title alongside Immortal X-Men, which is maybe unfortunate in showing how lacking the other titles are right now, except for New Mutants and Sabretooth, which are both doing deep work on the periphery of the overall Krakoan narrative (a good place to be when there’s at least two core books carrying this unwieldy era forward).
Perceptive readers will be quick to realize that this issue’s title, “Loss,” refers most concretely to the Seat of Loss, which has Tarn occupied for who knows how long, on Arakko’s Great Ring. It forms a triumvirate with the Seats of Victory and Stalemate and, also according to S.W.O.R.D. #8, its occupant is “consulted in dark times of humiliation and pain, when the world has fallen.”
In other words, it’s absolutely ideal for the Fisher King’s new glum buddy, Max.
Notably, then, different representatives holding the same seat could have very disparate interpretations of what it represents to Arakko. For instance, Tarn probably just wanted to continually remind everyone that they were all losers for being under his vile thumb (or head tentacles or general sliminess) for so very long. Magneto, on the other, feels his own losses and is coming to recognize the way others live with tragedy and will, hopefully, help forge greater Arakkii/Krakoan solidarity.
With Magneto taking the place of the “Enemy of Arakko”—as Tarn is billed on the data page/poster announcing his match with Vulcan—the Great Circle should be a slightly less deadly workplace—but also surely more constructive and efficient as a governing body?
Admittedly, the end of Magneto’s retirement is almost violently abrupt—but I think Ewing handles this masterfully given constraints. It couldn’t last much longer, and this issue we get a clear, devastating reason for his depression, and it hits home even harder for taking up so little page space; Ewing’s storytelling here is honed to an economy of effect, flourishing within the medium’s tight limits.
Series artist Stefano Caselli (who also drew most of Ewing’s S.W.O.R.D.) continues to deliver the drama and wonder; these two are perfect match for a Marvel thriller (the Al Ewing/Javier Rodriguez partnership is just as revelatory). And Federico Blee continues his masterful coloring work, this time with assistance from Fernando Sifuentes, a new colorist at Marvel.
Note also that the poster, an awesome Tom Muller and Jay Bowen design, has two corner motifs, which seem to perversely echo Krakoa’s laws: Instead of “Murder No Man,” the Arakkii have “Destroy Enemies” and “Defend the Land” is a sad echo of the sacralizing and peaceable Krakoan phrasing. Ororo and Magneto have their work cut out.
Cable was at the top of the queue, duh
As Cable is resurrected, his life flashes before his eyes—nice inversion!—beginning with Nathan as a baby held by his birth mother Maddie Pryor, then as a teen (recently familiar as Kid Cable), as Old Man Cable and as the guy who died last issue—though somehow he remembers being a corpse?
Thunderbird is waiting in the wings, as it were, wearing the new costume introduced in his Giant-Size issue last month; it’s a much better look. And he’s here to discuss a kind of mutiny, secretly, while appearing publicly like he just wants to throw down with Old Man Cable, whom he still has problems, childishly—for turning his younger brother into a child soldier. The childish part of this being that he wants to beat up whoever may have in a roundabout way done him wrong in the abstract, while he was dead for a very long time. Speculating, I would guess this vindictiveness is something hard and certain to cling to when all else must be so uncertain, unreal and alienating, if you think about really being in his situation; the anger is real but misdirected, as ever. Since returning to life, James hasn’t openly acknowledged what John surely must have told him, that the young adolescent John’s decision to join Emma’s Hellions back in the day was a vow of revenge against Xavier for his brother’s death, meaning Thunderbird’s own willful fatalism is to blame, though, really, at this point, he simply needs to talk to someone because this is all ancient history to everyone else.
And Manifold is there, too, making clear that all three do not trust Brand and are ready to discuss and plan a take-down. I knew this would happen but thought maybe Cable would have his own angle—which hey, probably he still does ! But it’s the swiftness with which this trio has come together to move the plot along toward a confrontation that feels like it needs much longer to simmer before popping off.
In fact, it feels like Marvel has overall been adopting a policy of greater story compression. Of course, it used to be much worse, but there was a gradual push toward decompression over the years, which probably went too far in some cases. The sense that there’s a contraction now, though, isn’t good when it starts to be a debilitating constraint rather than a creative one. That’s a sure way to lose longtime readers who expect satisfying character and plot development.
To be clear, though, Ewing continues doing some of the very best storytelling at Marvel. And here, it’s neat to find out that Thunderbird’s aggressiveness with Cable in the first issue was staged—not the emotions, but the actual confrontation, to put Brand off the scent.
So, we also see here that Cable at least made contingency plans in case he got killed working for Brand—which he probably suspected would happen. But whatever the case, Hope would naturally be his confidante when it comes to resurrection requests.
For someone who thinks she’s so clever with her scheming to encourage autocracy in others so that she can wield the real power behind the throne, Brand is pretty damn transparent to her would-be pawns (except Vulcan, who’s special). Is she aware of the irony of receiving Storm, whom she tried to make “queen,” in what could be called Brand’s own throne room?
Delightfully, she’s absolutely confident her supposed puppet Vulcan will trounce Tarn in the Circle Perilous. I thought it was pretty obvious he wouldn’t, and not just because the cover suggests the issue’s drama is elsewhere. Vulcan’s fate here, though, will accelerate whatever inevitable meltdown those frightful aliens planned for him so long ago now; it’s been a long time coming, so let’s bring it on—but, woo, it’s almost strange that the moment is upon us. It better hit hard. There will be fireworks, and screams, so much screaming, before his candle is spent.
Though, in a more decompressed narrative, it might be fun to see him start dying and coming back a bunch so that each time, there are just a few cracks in his hollow, nihilistic fury—until the one that shatters the shell, looses the insanity-inducing monsters from beyond the stars and sends this sad Omega off to space again, where he can collapse under his own limitless rage and become a sedate black hole, finally resting in peace.
Why send Vulcan after Tarn? Brand knows the Arakki hate their erstwhile jailer and tormentor; anyone who killed him in a challenge would be an instant people’s hero. We’ll see that the Brotherhood has ideas about someone who would make a more convincing man of the people.
Meanwhile, Mentallo has tried probing Vulcan’s mind without the violently unstable Omega knowing. Mentallo’s report to Brand doesn’t exactly contain anything new to us as readers, but this probe is the start of the Krakoans themselves uncovering what’s going on with Vulcan, which Mentallo sees as analogous to discovering that a tunnel into a mountain is just an illusion: The exterior Vulcan projects an image of depth and reality when in fact it’s just a plastered-on veneer; “the real Vulcan is inside the mountain.” And Mentallo is talented enough as a telepath to know that when that mountain comes down, he could very well “crack the planet open like an egg. Or maybe he’d blow up the sun.”
Mentallo’s memo is colorfully written and shows off his surprising competence. However, judging by Brand’s eagerness to see Vulcan slay Tarn and take his seat on the Great Ring, it’s clear that Abigail is paying no heed to her underling’s attempt at a recall notice on her brand-new broken toy.
But maybe Mentallo’s report delights Brand, knowing that her toy could cause even more damage. Chaos for everyone but her is clearly Brand’s goal; she’ll even bandy about the inflammatory notion that Vulcan is “Shi’ar royalty” just to jam her spanner deeper in the works. It’s a classic autocratic maneuver we in the US are actually so familiar with we very seldom notice it: Sow so much disorder that the people beg for law and order, more cops, more laws, more jail cells to combat the locus of fear and paranoia that those in power created in the first place, and which they continue to relentlessly exacerbate.
Abigail Brand would fit right in with America’s police state.
Arakko’s Carbonari—the Brotherhood
Looking in on Storm’s sort of secret X-Men, or Brotherhood, at Magneto’s Autumn Palace, we find Roberto pushing his old erstwhile headmaster—a role Mags no doubt still feels deeply conflicted about—into challenging Tarn, given that we’ve already seen that Storm is (correctly) convinced of Vulcan’s defeat.
The thing is, as Magneto points out, Brand doesn’t just want Vulcan taking a seat on the Great Ring; she wants a second Krakoan there to sow more discord at the top, glaring cultural differences exacerbated into perilous political rifts, stymieing progress—while Brand’s own interstellar agenda is well underway.
Magneto then gets a highly effective nine-panel treatment, delivering a surprisingly moving speech sparked by him recognizing elements of Xavier in Storm’s political calculus (“You remind me of Charles”)—which causes him to quietly spiral back through decades of trauma: He, too, had wanted to make a difference with Krakoa but recently found his hopes dashed not merely by the Quiet Council’s cynical Machiavellianism—his whole adult life he had quietly wondered whether his first child, Anya, would have become a mutant, had she lived past childhood (she died in a burning building, her father unable to rescue her as he was attacked by corrupt and vicious cops; Classic X-Men #12). So, when his adoptive daughter Wanda created the Waiting Room for gathering the souls of mutants who died before the advent of the Cerebro backups, his hopes were kindled. However, as we find out here, he must have quickly discovered that his daughter was never going to arrive; she had not been born with an X gene, after all.
And so, we finally have the full reason for Magneto’s self-imposed exile from Krakoa, which of course makes much more sense now, especially given the depth of his depression—which Quiet Council politics, no matter how disheartening and frustrating, shouldn’t have been able to trigger, without some tragedy that he’s kept to himself. Thus, in the headmaster’s own words, “For me, our very heaven is a hell.”
But Magneto is wrong in believing Roberto doesn’t know him at all. His erstwhile student in fact knows what he’s doing whenever he pointedly calls Mags “Headmaster,” for he was able to take on that role precisely because he was seeking to retire from the field—ultimately, it didn’t last that long (though longer, much more, than Magneto’s brief Arakki “retirement”).
Vulcan, Tarn and Magneto – in the Circle Perilous
First off, it’s a delight to see the return of – Khora of the Burning Heart! The young Arakkii warrior debuted in S.W.O.R.D. #5, appeared in another couple issues and also Ewing’s Cable: Reloaded, but otherwise hasn’t really been utilized. Hopefully, even though she’s just in the Circle’s audience here, we can take this is a sign that she’ll be joining Storm’s Brotherhood…
As for an audience member watching from the comfort of her command room, Abigail seems initially to be genuinely rooting for her Vulcan puppet/cat’s-paw. And yet when Tarn brutally slaughters him, she really just seems poker-faced; it’s impossible to tell what she’s thinking. But it is odd that she didn’t send Vulcan to the fight with a weapon, as his seasoned opponent points out. So, did she simply want to create chaos?
Yet even if that’s the case, it’s hard to see how she gains here. Magneto is emphatically not on her side, and her unstable puppet is sure to return more volatile, which she won’t be able to ignore then.
Certainly, removing Tarn is a win for X-Men: Red, since Ewing made clear in the debut issue that it’s time for the Great Ring to look to the future, not the vile past. And remember, the Arakkii do not have access to the Krakoan resurrection process.
The Humiliating Paradox of the Unbeaten
But what exactly happens right beforehand? Roberto gambles his life away, that’s clear. First, though, Isca the Unbeaten asserts that Magneto will lose to Tarn, and so Roberto’s bet, which is stated as a challenge, forces her to bet the opposite—thereby assuring Magneto’s victory.
Even though I’d quibble that she doesn’t actually take the chance to accept Roberto’s bet before reacting with immediate murder (thus undermining the logic that she had to switch the sides, the way she once did, switching from allegiance to the Arakkii to Tarn the Uncaring a thousand years ago in Amenth—after all, those warring factions were already caught up in a war).
Except! The logic as such does work out, after all: At the beginning of the scene, Roberto seeks out Isca, and their entire interaction, which really is dangerously sexy, is a duel from the moment they meet.
*The dry wit of their banter is what makes their interaction so sexy, and the implicit conflict spices it up even more, making the conversation much more potentially devastating than it is mildly seductive. Now, would the fact that Isca has so publicly murdered a Krakoan put Roberto off the game he started here? Given his love of flirting with peril (most recently, Deathbird), I’d say no.
However, Isca is devastated by Roberto’s gamesmanship (manipulation as ambiguously fair play here) because through “mere” words, he’s commandeered her power, which in turn decides her actions. That is, after all, how it works for her: She did not choose to abandon Arakko for Tarn a thousand years ago; it was her power, responding to circumstances, that made her do it.
Yet this also begs the question: For centuries now, no one tried to beat the Unbeaten in this way? And further, it seems like someone would have already challenged her with a bet that would have forced her much more directly to win by losing—the self-destructive paradox of an enemy saying, “I bet on you, Isca.” Surely, the Arakkii had a millennium to figure this one out. Here, though, she simply loses (which after all is what “losing without losing” really amounts to), while Roberto has won by losing (with the advantage of resurrection, as well).
Regardless, Isca couldn’t handle the cognitive dissonance of Roberto doing that which should be impossible according to her legend, at least—as it seems the limits to her power had never been tested. This is the part that’s hard to credit, but Roberto’s challenge didn’t start with the bet—it started when he first talked to her, and she didn’t quite realize it, or at least wasn’t expecting him to make it explicit so quickly.
Now, the next question is: Did the Unbeaten actually have a thing going on with the Uncaring? Initially, this might seem surprising, but seriously, even if her power made her switch to his side a thousand years ago, surely she long ago developed Stockholm syndrome with the chief warden of the Abyssal Prisons. Moreover, though, they both position themselves as self-interested and amoral, and are basically immortal, barring tricky mishaps. (Also note that upon losing, each says the same thing: “not like this!”)
That the combatants in the Circle barely hear this ultimately murderous exchange is a bit of grim humor. Still, my bet is that Magneto would have won even without Roberto’s sneaky play. Perhaps someday soonish we’ll get the chance to find out, in a rematch.
For now, will Storm or Magneto make any moves against Isca next issue? Whatever happens, Ewing will surprise us even as he always makes the unexpected appear devastatingly inevitable. Will Tarn return? Certainly someday. And will Rockslide be waiting when Roberto emerges from his gooey egg? Next issue’s cover apparently makes a strong case for it!