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X-Men by Jonathan Hickman vol. 1

May 30, 2020

The first volume of the flagship series of the “Dawn of X” era has arrived.  As written by “House of X/Powers of X” mastermind Jonathan Hickman, it’s not unreasonable to expect that the stories being told within this series will be driving the line as a whole.  So the expectation is that we’d be getting the biggest, most exciting -- really, the most superheroic -- stories of the whole line.


That’s not what Hickman has delivered with this volume.

The six issues collected here don’t tell one entire story the way that most first volumes of Marvel series do these days.  Vol. 1 of “X-Men” is made up of six self-contained stories that have stronger ties to other titles in the line than they do to each other.  Some of them are also kind of weird in a way that you wouldn’t expect from a flagship title.  It’s as if Hickman realized that everyone would likely be buying this title because it was the flagship and decided to use it as a vehicle for some of the ideas he had that wouldn’t likely be taken seriously if they weren’t coming from him, the Head of X.


Which is why we have an issue where Sebastian Shaw gets beaten up by a group of octogenarians.  But we’ll get to that in due course.


The first issue, “Pax Krakoa,” expectedly feels the most like it’s following up on what the writer was doing in his inaugural miniseries.  There’s a team made up of Cyclops, Storm, Magneto and Polaris taking out an Orchis base and freeing the mutants inside, only to find that one of them is actually a Child of the Vault.  More on her in a bit too.  Afterwards, back on Krakoa, everyone cheers the team’s return and the Summers clan sits down for a family dinner to reflect on things.  As they’re doing this, Orchis is licking its wounds and we find out that they’ve got plans to get even with mutants.


If you read and liked “HOXPOX” then you’ll likely to be pleased by how this issue plays out.  From there, the ties get thinner as the stories get weirder.  Issue two, “Summoner,” is a Summers family affair as Cyclops, Rachel, and Cable head out to investigate an island that’s on a collision course with Krakoa.  The individual leading it there not only has great powers of their own, but direct ties to one of Krakoa’s leaders.  “Hordeculture” is the issue where Shaw gets what’s coming to him by a group of old ladies with an interest in horticulture, the ability to hack Krakoa’s travel gates, and an interest in either reducing all life on Earth to a sustainable level or just completely wiping it out.  They haven’t come to a decision yet.


Things actually get a bit more mundane, but much more interesting in “Global Economics” has Professor X, Magneto, and Apocalypse travelling to the World Economic Forum in Davos to let the rest of the world know what’s up.  Then we come back to the Children of the Vault in “Into the Vault” as our protagonists have to figure out how to deal with a sentient city capable of accelerating time to create post-humans with a predisposition to wiping out mutants.  Then the volume is wrapped up with “The Oracle” as we find out exactly what Mystique has contributed to Krakoa, why she’s contributing it, and what shape future contributions are likely to take.


All of these stories have one major factor in common:  They all feel like setup for future stories that Hickman will get to in due time.  Some of them more than others as “Hordeculture” and “Into the Vault” might as well be cliffhangers for the stories that they’re designed to lead into.  Still, each story does add some new wrinkle to life on Krakoa and they’ve all got lively writing that feeds into generally great art.  The thing is that your mileage for these stories will likely depend on how much you’ve bought into Hickman having a plan for his run on this series.  After his work on “Secret Warriors,” “Fantastic Four,” and “Avengers” I’m as close to certainty as I can be in that regard.


I do wish that more of the stories in this volume were like “Global Economics.”  Even if it’s mainly an issue full of talking heads, as three of Krakoa’s leaders lay out their plans to a diverse group of world leaders, it’s still thrilling stuff.  Hickman’s skill with dialogue here really shines as the members of this dinner party verbally joust amongst each other, with the humans trying their best to get one over on the mutants.  It’s no spoiler to say that they don’t, because the real thrill is in reading Magneto’s, “We learned it by watching you,” speech and recognizing the dawning horror in his addressees.  Or seeing Xavier’s face for the first time in the present day as he acknowledges that there is still some part of him that won’t give up on humans.  Or even the quick bit where one of the human leaders asks Apocalypse about how he should be addressed.  Words have power, and the way they’re deployed during dinner here are so commanding that they continue through the action scenes as Cyclops and the Gorgon take out the strike teams that one leader has employed to kill the mutants here.  This may all be about setting up future tensions with humanity, but it feels complete in a way that the other issues in this volume don’t.


While we’re on the subject of this volume’s flaws, let’s talk about the Gorgon’s presence here.  Introduced as a born villain in the Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.’s “Wolverine:  Enemy of the State” he was brought back by Hickman for his “Secret Warriors” run.  Where he continued his villainous ways.  Here, he’s one of the security captains on Krakoa.  The Gorgon is so good at his job that he’s always meant to accompany a leader whenever they venture off the island for an event like this.  This… is a pretty radical personality change from someone who has unrepentantly accumulated a lot of blood on his hands over the years.


He’s not the only character to undergo a radical personality change in these pages:  Gabriel “Vulcan” Summers reappears here, cheerfully acting as the family grillmaster.  This is after the last time we saw him leading the Shi’Ar Empire into a war against the Inhumans to satisfy his lust for battle, and disappearing into a rift in space after going toe-to-toe with Black Bolt.  We’ve also got this new version of Cable who’s now a gun-and-armament-crazed goofball after super-seriously taking out his old self in the pages of “Extermination.”


While Hickman has a solid grasp on most of the cast, these represent the most glaring exceptions.  They’re also distracting because I don’t think it should’ve required too much explanation for their current states of mind.  Hickman does try to do that with the Gorgon on one page, but it’s going to take more than that to really square his new mindset after he brainwashed Wolverine and Northstar into being assassins for the Hand.  I know I said I had faith in the direction for this series, but I wonder how many of these mis-characterizations I’m going to have to accept by the time his run is over.


Then there’s this bit at the final issue which will likely rub some people the wrong way.  Not me, though.  It’s where Xavier and Magneto are laying down the law to Mystique about what she wants from them and how much she’ll have to do to get it.  If you’ve read “HOXPOX” then you know they’re just stringing her along, and Xavier’s statement that they’ll deliver what she wants “...when you have earned it,” comes off as incredibly condescending.  Mystique fans will rightly be pissed of by her treatment here, while others will likely see some justification in the actions she’s likely to take.


I fall into neither camp.  As mean as Xavier and Magneto’s treatment of her is here, I’m still on their side.  In fact, the real tragedy here is that the two of them are likely going to misjudge how long they can string Mystique along before she turns on them BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT SHE DOES!  Just about every major story she’s been a part of can be described in part by the phrase “...and then she betrayed the X-Men.”  After so much betrayal over the years, I’m actually enjoying seeing her under someone’s thumb like this.  Still, I hope Xavier and Magneto are aware of all this and are waiting for her sudden but inevitable betrayal.  Which they can use to dump her in the same pit that Sabretooth wound up in.


(...after which they’ll team up, claw their way out, and then burn Krakoa to the ground.  Just speculating here.)


Four of the issues in this volume were illustrated by Lenil Yu, representing his third team-up with Hickman after the “Infinity” and “Infinite Avengers” arcs on the writer’s “Avengers” run.  Yu’s art has taken on a more stripped-down approach over the past few years.  Where it used to appear big and bold, it now has a more intimate look to it.  He’s still more than capable of delivering quality superhero action sequences, as seen by the assault on the Orchis base in the first issue, and he nails Magneto’s confidence and the other heads of states’ tension in the fourth.  Even better in that same issue is that he puts Apocalypse in a business suit and makes it work.  Apocalypse.  In a business suit.  It’s an utterly ridiculous idea, yet Yu has it coming off like it was meant to be.


Rounding out the volume are contributions from R.B. Silva and Matteo Buffagni.  I thought Silva’s work in “HOXPOX” was some of the best work he’s done yet, and I’d hoped that he and fellow artist Pepe Larraz, would get similarly high profile work afterwards.  What I’m saying is that while it’s nice to see him here, he’s better than just delivering a random issue and the Sinister-centric teaser from “Incoming.”  Buffagni, on the other hand, is fine.  His work gets the job done, even if in redrawing specific scenes from “HOXPOX” you realize how much better Larraz did the first time around.


(This particular) “X-Men” vol. 1 is one of the strangest first-volume superhero comics I’ve read in a while.  While it does lay out a direction for the series and sets up stories to tell down the road, it does so in a way that feels less authoritative than I was expecting.  Oh there’s confidence in the writing and the art, and that helps to sell the volume’s weirdest digressions.  Looking at you “Hordeculture.”  In some way, it’s actually reassuring that Hickman decided to do something different with the stories that make up this volume.  “HOXPOX” was a clear statement that things were going to be different for the “X-Men” and the stories here ultimately back it up.  Even if I’m more hyped about the team attending other dinners around the world and exchanging tense words with their hosts than I am about everything else here.

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