Saturday, November 28, 2020

X-Men X-Overs Addendum: X of Swords

X of Swords wrapped up this week, and it was good enough to necessitate a revision of our list of the ten best X-Men crossovers. Fortunately, making space for it is as easy as bumping the Muir Island Saga off the ten-spot.

So now our list looks like:

10. Fatal Attractions
9. The Mutant Massacre
8. X-Tinction Agenda
7. Utopia
6. Messiah War
5. Inferno
4. X of Swords
3. Second Coming
2. The X-Cutioner's Song
1. Messiah Complex

Not that my opinion matters much (and not that X-Men comics are terribly important), but let's call this a tentative ranking. The other stories on this list have all been around for a decade at least and three decades at most, while X of Swords just wrapped up a few days ago. For all I know, it might age as well as John Greycrow's old codename. If anyone is interested in the reason for X of Swords' placement between Inferno and Second Coming, I'll say this: I struggled for a few minutes to decide whether X of Swords or Inferno deserved the four-spot. X of Swords earns most of its points for originality and for its explosive finale, but on the whole it tends to meander, and any story that makes Inferno seem focused by comparison is a story with a pacing problem. In the end, the penalty Inferno incurred by containing the limited series that introduced Wiz Kid allowed X of Swords to pull ahead. However, the points deducted from X of Swords for being a backdoor pilot for a new serial featuring Wiz Kid's comeback prevented it from even contending with Second Coming.

#4: X of Swords (2020)
Titles involved: Cable, Excalibur, Hellions, Marauders, New Mutants, Wolverine, X-Factor, X-Force, X-Men

In brief: Banished to a nether dimension thousands of years ago, Apocalypse's kids are still alive, and they're pissed off. Saturnyne holds a tournament to determine whether she'll allow them to cross the dimensions and bring their hellish, unstoppable army to Earth.

The long story: First of all: just for the record, the title is pronounced "ten of swords"—as in the tarot card. Second, X of Swords is really a long story, clocking in at twenty-two chapters across nine different X-books (and three one-shots). 

X of Swords may also have the distinction of being our list's most lore-dense story—and given that we're talking about X-Men comics, that's really saying something. To have any idea what the hell is going on, you'll need to read Tini Howard's Excalibur series pretty much from the beginning, and several issues of Jonathan Hickman's X-Men in advance. Even then, there's a lot of stuff that will seem awfully foreign unless you're at least a little familiar with Captain Britain and his mythos.

House of X/Powers of X, the inaugural miniseries of the X-Men's grand relaunch, was hard sci-fi with superhero comics characteristics. X of Swords, its first major crossover, is high fantasy with superhero comics characteristics. Sorcery and goddesses aren't exactly out of place in an X-Men story, and it's a testament to Chris Claremont's virtuosic handling of his original thirteen-year run that the franchise he built is eminently capable of commingling genres. But X of Swords is, to the best of my knowledge, the first time an X-event of this scale went all-in on a magic-and-prophecy plot centering on a character introduced in a Captain Britain story by Alan Davis (Saturnyne).  

So: thousands of years ago, during the swords-and-sorcery days, Apocalypse and his wife Genesis presided over a mutant nation on the living island of Okarra. During an invasion of Earth by the hellish forces of the realm of Amenth and its god Annihilation, Okkara was violently split in two, becoming Krakoa and Arakko. The final outcome of the conflict was the extirpation of the demons, but at the cost of sending Arakko into Amenth and using it as a dimensional stopcock to prevent more demons from leaking out. Genesis, the original Four Horsemen, and the descendants of the Okkaran mutants exiled with them fought for millennia to protect Arakko and its people against an entire world of evil, and to prevent the hordes of Annihilation from regaining their foothold on Earth.

At some point over the centuries, Arakko learned to stop worrying and love the demons. Apocalypse's grandson Summoner slips across to Earth, where he lies to his grandpa about Arakko being on the verge of its final defeat. With not a little effort, sacrifice, and subterfuge, Apocalypse constructs a portal to the dimensional nexus Otherworld, from which Arakko and Amenth can be accessed. When he takes a party into Otherworld, he meets an army of demons led by his long-lost children. Having tricked their father into opening a door back to Earth, his corrupted progeny intend to conquer it.

Saturnyne, absolute ruler of Otherworld, can do without a ravaging horde marching across her territory, and puts her foot down. Using some eldritch omnidemnsional legalese, Arakko's representatives petition Saturnyne to hold a contest of arms to decide their right of conquest, and Saturnyne conscripts the visiting Krakoans to participate as Otherworld's representatives. The Krakoans and Arakkiis are given three day to unravel the prophecies specifying who must compete and which weapons they'll wield, and then the tournament to decide the fate of the realms will begin.

Competing for Krakoa: Apocalypse, Cable, Captain Avalon (formerly known as Captain Britain), Captain Britain (formerly known as Psylocke), Cypher, Gorgon, Magik, Storm, and Wolverine.

Competing for Arakko: Annihilation, Death, Pestilence, War, Bei, Isca, Pogg Ur-Pogg, Redroot, Solem, Summoner, and the White Sword. (Not that these names will mean anything to someone who hasn't already read X of Swords, but there they are.)

Man: this all sounds like the premise for a Mortal Kombat film reboot, doesn't it? As familiar as the premise might be in its outlines, this is a novel format for an X-Men story. Virtually every other crossover we've looked at starts with a sudden crisis, the X-Men calling all hands on deck, and a series of rapidly evolving events marked by violence and mayhem. X of Swords starts with a bang, and then...slows to a crawl. The tournament doesn't start for three days, and there's no time jump.

So we hop from book to book for a while and watch how the X-Men prepare for what's coming. Wolverine, Storm, and Apocalypse have to go out and retrieve the swords they've been told to bring. Magik tries to train Cypher in swordsmanship so he doesn't get his ass killed for a second time. Sinister prepares his Hellions for an obviously doomed mission to sneak into Otherworld and monkey-wrench the tournament. Betsy Braddock, Brian Braddock, and Saturnyne bicker about Captain Britain stuff. Kid Cable goes to outer space with Cyclops and Jean Grey to visit a giant Chekhov's gun space station.

In the meantime, Professor Xavier and the Five discover that dying in Otherworld messes up the Krakoan resurrection process. If someone gets killed in the tournament, that version of them is gone for good. The introduction of mutant resurrections in House of X/Powers of X was a smart in-universe way of acknowledging and embracing the fact that comic book characters who die on the page can't be expected to stay that way for long. The Otherworld anomaly reraises the stakes by stipulating a jarring redesign as the penalty for failure in the tournament.²

Even before the contest begins, it's clear that our heroes are miserably outclassed. Most of Arakko's champions are ageless supermutants who've continuously warred with demons since the time the pyramids were new; whereas three of Krakoa's champions are adolescents, one of whom is best known for being the New Mutant with the wussy power who got killed off because drawing him bored the book's illustrators.³ Krakoa's got a guy with adamantium bones and a woman who can open warp portals; Arakko's got a guy with adamantium skin, and another guy who can reduce people to ash just by making eye contact. Betsy Braddock's mutant power is telepathy and telekinesis; Isca's mutant power is literally being incapable of losing at anything. Krakoa's trump card is Apocalypse, one of the Marvel Universe's most infamous jobbers. Arakko's trump card is someone whom Apocalypse freely admits is his better.

Fortunately for Krakoa, it seems the champions of both sides brought their swords to a Nerf fight. The tournament, whose events are dictated by Saturnyne herself (or by her tarot cards, if we believe her), ends up being a series of pissing contests in which actual combat occurs less often than foot races, eating competitions, arm-wrestling matches, and spelling bees (really). Krakoa loses at most of these anyway, possibly due to Saturnyne actively sabotaging them, and possibly because its champions are an inferior breed from an inferior world.

It might be moot, however. Cyclops and Jean hatch a plan to crash the tournament with a massive X-team and blitz the Arakkiis before they can win, while Annihilation and the Horsemen are definitely going to set their demon hordes loose on Otherworld and Earth, regardless of the competition's result. There was no chance this thing wasn't going to end with the rules getting tossed and an all-out war erupting between Krakoa and Arakko. 

X of Swords has a few problems. Putting aside the non-sequitur of the swords themselves (after so much is made of gathering them, most of them end up being unimportant), there's the issue of how rushed the tournament's events come across after the protracted prelude.⁴ We follow Wolverine for two whole issues of X-Force and Wolverine as he tracks down the Murasama blade, and then half of the contest itself plays out as a montage across as many issues of those same books. But X of Sword's ungainly pacing is more an editorial fault than a failing of co-plotters Hickman and Howard.

As you may know, COVID-19 froze the comics industry for about four months earlier this year. During the downtime, somebody decided that X of Swords should be "blown up" from a regular-sized crossover (which usually runs six to twelve issues) to a twenty-two-chapter gargantua. The usual sources aren't clear on how much the main event was actually expanded, but it's obvious that issues intended to be lead-ins and tie-ins were wedged in as chapters. Storm's visit to Wakanada to retrieve the vibranium blade Skybreaker is an exciting X of Swords-related story, but it does much more to advance Storm's arc in the context of the Marauders book than it contributes to X of Swords itself. This goes doubly for the issue of Excalibur where the Braddock family squabbles with Saturnyne before the tournament begins, and triply for the two "chapters" in Hellions, which, while wholly worth reading as a part of that book's ongoing story, have little to no bearing on anything else that happens in X of Swords.

Again, this was a mess made by the books' editors, not the creative teams. If X of Swords came out as a trade paperback and left out some of the pace-retarding tie-in episodes, the problem would vanish. However, with X of Swords published the way it was—and with fans reading it that way, week by week, for two months—it's hard to ignore.⁵ By the time the story began kicking into high gear (and getting really good), a lot of readers were already fatigued. Which is a shame because on the whole, and discounting the editorial missteps, X of Swords is par for the course in what's been the best year for X-Men comics in almost a decade.

Favorite moments: Doug Ramsey, the Krakoan whom nobody expected to make it out of this thing alive, not only returns home in one piece, but brings his wife with him. Yes—the scrawny omnilingual New Mutant whose only luck with ladies up until now has consisted of getting sleep-raped by a robot is now a married man. Instead of telling him to meet his Arakkii opponent on the field of battle, Saturnyne's tarot cards ordained matrimony for Doug Ramsey and Bei, the Blood Moon.

There's a very peculiar catch to this pairing. The amazonian Bei's mutant power is her voice, à la Banshee and Siryn, but it's active all the time, and not just when she screams. Moreover, Bei can't produce speech, even when she's modulating her power so that she can vocalize without producing concussive shockwaves. Some elusive psychic property of her voice allows her to be understood, no matter who's listening and what languages they recognize.

But: since Bei doesn't actually use language to communicate, she's pretty much the only person in existence whom the omnilingual Doug can't understand. Luckily for him, she thinks he's got a cute face.

Doug still seems a little apprehensive about the whole thing—and why shouldn't he be? This is a man who had Magik and Mirage among his childhood friends, and Bei is still by far the most intense woman he's ever known. (Her wedding vows, none of which Doug could understand as she spoke them, included the promise to love him "with the force of the wave that crashes the shore." Even in romance, Bei means business.) It remains to be seen how Bei will adjust to married life and peacetime, but the more important question might be how well Doug's wife gets along with his selfsoulfriend Warlock.

Also, as someone who appreciates a good deep cut, I must give a tip of my hat to Hickman and/or Howard's choice of characters to speak Saturnyne's ten-of-swords prophecy to their respective contingents:

The speaker on the left is Pestilence, daughter of Apocalypse, and one of his original Four Horsemen. The speaker on the right is Polaris, Magneto's daughter, and very briefly a Horseman of Apocalypse who went by the appellation "Pestilence." Hah. (I suppose Death on the Arakkii side and Archangel on the Krakoan side would have been too obvious.)

Most important development: It's too early to say which of X of Swords' ramifications will have the greatest impact in the long run, but it's hard to imagine any being more significant than how the event has left Apocalypse changed, both retroactively and (possibly) going forward.

One of the biggest surprises of Hickman's soft reboot of the X-Men line was its soft reboot of Apocalypse, its de facto Big Bad. When Apocalypse first arrives on Krakoa in House of X/Powers of X, he congratulates Professor Xavier and Magneto on what they've accomplished, tells them he couldn't be prouder of them, and pledges forthwith his loyalty to Krakoa and obedience to its laws. In the pages of Howard's Exacalibur, En Sabah Nur's moral axis plainly shifts from Chaotic Evil/Monoblack to Lawful Evil/Orzhov.⁶ He's still a schemer with a tyrant's disposition who cares nothing for Homo sapiens and has no qualms about piling up as many bodies as it takes to get what he wants, but now he's a team player. He's a citizen and leader of the nation-state Krakoa, and he intends to do good by its people—even though he's still covertly playing his own game.

One of the most intriguing moments in House of X/Powers of X appeared in a couple of panels during the celebration after the resurrection of the team that died in space destroying Mother Mold. Everyone's mingling, dancing, and drinking, the fliers are twirling above the treetops, fireworks light up the night—and Apocalypse sits by himself in the shadows. Okay, sure—we know that En Sabah Nur does not party. No shock there. But when we get a close look at him, we find that he isn't sneering at the frivolity of the festivities, or cracking a diabolical grin as he calculates his next move. He looks...sad?

House of X

During the lead-up to X of Swords, we learn why Apocalypse is so glum: he's back on Krakoa for the first time in millennia, and the memories of his old life on Okarra and his lost family are coming back hard.

Apocalypse's backstory, which was already ridiculously complicated, is given another layer, and for once it actually improves him as a character. So now we know that Apocalypse once lived on Okarra before Amenth's invasion of Earth, when it was riven in twain to become Krakoa and Arakko. We've been told that Apocalypse sent his children into Amenth along with Arakko to stop the breach and protect the seal. We're probably guessing that he stayed behind because he had some megalomaniacal plan for the Earth that he didn't want to jeopardize by going into the netherworld to fend off demons for an eternity.

But that's not what actually happened.

During X of Swords, we flash back to Apocalypse's final days with his family and meet his wife Genesis. It doesn't take long for us to figure out which of them wears the pants in the relationship. Apocalypse defers to his wife, and neither has any illusions about which of them is more powerful. It's Genesis who makes the call to send Arakko into Amenth, and it's Genesis who tells Apocalypse that he can't come with her—because he isn't strong enough. (This is why Krakoa never stood a chance in Saturnyne's tournament: Arakko is a nation of mutants so generally powerful that Apocalypse himself was considered a below-average specimen in terms of his capabilities.)⁷

She leaves her husband with an instruction: judge the world. Winnow out the weak. See that only the fit remain and thrive. Someday, Arakko will fall, and Amenth with come for the Earth again. Genesis entrusts her husband with the task of ensuring the world will be ready for that day when it finally arrives.

The revelation that the "survival of the fittest" program that has defined Apocalypse since his first appearance in Louise Simonson's X-Factor was a job assigned to him by his wife is a weapons-grade retcon, yes—but it's a damned good one, as far as retcons go. And unlike many of the other post hoc additions to his backstory that helped downgrade Apocalypse to a B-grade villain for about two decades (I can't decide whether the "host bodies" thing or the "Cable created Apocalypse!" thing was worse, and they're both so stupid), none of it compromises the Apocalypse we've come to know. Accepting the burden to judge the world is totally compatible with his upraising by a proto-Darwinist Egyptian nomad, his being made the Celestials' "caretaker" of Earth, and his motivation to seize control for the sake of sowing discord and conflict. And it doesn't not make sense that this is the first time he's ever mentioned his wife, kids, and a demonic invasion in the distant future. En Sabah Nur was given his mission like ten thousand years ago. A normal person in the real world might embark on a project for some definite reason, and as the work and its ramifications take on a life of their own, the original impetus fades farther from view. After thousands and thousands of years, it's understandable that Apocalypse has his mind on more recent events and immediate matters than his absent spouse—though he hasn't ever forgotten her.

For all its focus on Captain Britain esoterica, Saturnyne, and enchanted blades, X of Swords is really an Apocalypse story, and it's the one that fanboys of Old Blue Lips never knew they wanted. For the first time, Apocalypse is humanized. He's not one jot less of the self-styled Darwinian god-pharaoh we knew before, but now we get to see him as a self-styled Darwinian god-pharaoh who misses his family. Maybe nothing more shocking occurs in the pages of X of Swords than the moment where Apocalypse, standing beside his reluctant surrogate son Archangel, sees his children for the first time in millennia and sheds a tear. (Then again, it's also pretty damn surprising that an Apocalypse story doesn't end with him throwing the fight during the climax by slipping on some banana peel of a plot contrivance.)

One last note: these additions to Apocalypse's backstory imply that every time he's conscripted a new batch of Horsemen, he's been secretly mourning and honoring the memory of his family by dressing up his henchmen and naming them after his kids. It adds a new layer of (retroactive) context to his weird paternalistic affection for Archangel, that's for sure.

I hope we'll get to see this version of Apocalypse again someday.

That's that. We'll be returning to our regularly scheduled programming shortly. I owe the universe one more mini-essay about some facet of the Critique of Pure Reason, after which I will eagerly find something to write about about that isn't Kant or X-Men comics.

1. Evan Sabahnur (Apocalypse's child-aged clone, AKA Genesis) seems to have been quietly ushered out of continuity as of Dawn of X. I seem to recall him croaking in Age of X-Man, but I'm not clear whether dying in Nate Grey's alternate reality meant dying in real life, and Age of X-Man isn't an arc I have any desire to reread.

2. The most awful, brilliant, and deliciously evil outcome of the crossover would have been Wolverine getting killed off and resurrected as the embarrassing "noseless savage" version of the character from the mid-nineties. I'd probably have no choice but to bump Messiah Complex down a position in the list and award the #1 spot to X of Swords.

3. The scope of Cypher's mutant power has been dialed back/retconned from his reappearance in New Mutants volume 3, where Zeb Wells scaled up Doug's omnilinguism to the point where he could perfectly read people's body language, à la Cassandra Cain. I suppose the return of weakling-with-moxy Doug makes the character a bit more lovable, but I did get a kick out of seeing the least powerful New Mutant growing up to be a god-moder.

4. Side note: I'm a little puzzled as to why Warlock didn't say or do anything during the tournament, even though he was there with Cypher the whole time. As an inveterate geek who overthinks crap like this, my submission for a no-prize in comic book plot hole explanation is that Doug feels obligated to obey the letter of the tournament rules (which means Warlock has to be a sword and not an active participant), and that Warlock is afraid of introducing the transmode virus to Amenth (since he knows firsthand that techno-organicized demons can be even worse than the typical breed).

5. Not that anyone asked, but if I were in charge of recompiling X of Swords for a trade paperback collection, I'd allow X-Factor #4, X-Men #13, and possibly New Mutants #13 and Cable #5 to stay where they are. Excalibur #13, Marauders #13, Wolverine #6, and Hellions #5 and #6 would go to those books' collected editions, while X-Force #13 would follow Wolverine #6 to the Wolverine trade. Everything else after the X of Swords: Stasis one-shot stays. (Again, not that anyone asked.)

6. If you have to ask, don't. Pat yourself on the back for having fewer brainworms than me.

7. X of Swords allows a lot of Apocalypse's backstory to be glossed over, including how he got the power boost that made him who he is today. Sedulous Apocalypse fanboy that I am, I wish some of it was at least mentioned when Apocalypse meets his wife as an opponent, but I can't ask for that while criticizing the story's pacing at the same time.

Genesis: You're stronger than I remember, husband.

Apocalypse: Well, wife, since you last saw me, I merged with the technology of a Celestial Ship. You see, a time-traveling mutant from the future prophesied to become my nemesis tried to murder me before my rise to power, and by inadvertently allowing his blood—which contained the techno-organic virus with which I myself infected him when he was a child (eight hundred years in the future)—to mix with my own while I lay dead inside the Ship, he gave me what I required to regenerate my body, gain full access to the Ship's functions, and master the—

Genesis: Forget I said anything.

1 comment:

  1. You know I wonder if the " real" Cable will come back only to find out that Apocalypse, the man that made his life hell for a LONG,long time is now happy back with his real family...he will either take it well or Hyper Viper Beam everyone in his range of vision to death...guess this is why they had the younger Cable be around instead lol.

    I do suppose it will be rather impossible for Apocalypse to be seen as a villain again without them pulling a " Xorn" or some recon of that level when a writer wants to make him the bad guy again, time will tell...hell I'm half expecting everything to just be reset in time like how Hickmen's Avengers run ended so Steve and Tony did not have to address the awkward issue of brutally beating each other to death lol. Well, we will see.

    I did enjoy the arc...just wish they focused more on sword duels then gags for so long...doh.