Reading Powers of X #4

I think the best way to sum up this issue is that the first two thirds are fun and intriguing, and the last third has to do a lot of work to remind readers about the stakes of the One Thousand Year time period.  We get in the opening scene with Sinister a lot of camp; Hickman adores making Sinister an over the top, larger than life character with lots of ambition and swagger, and it’s all terribly fun until you stop to remind yourself that Sinister is a manipulator, and it would probably be best to assume every move he makes on his island is some kind of misdirection.  Does Sinister enjoy being a chaotic mishmash of infighting clones loosely ordered into some kind of feudal hierarchy?  Yes, absolutely.  Is he also screwing around with Xavier and Magneto?  Almost certainly.

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I know this is a callback to Marvel’s old corner boxes, but heads without necks creep me out. (Cover by R B Silva & Marte Gracia)

It’s fair, especially in a series of this length, for creators to take a breath from driving hard on plot (which was pretty much what the middle third of the series did) to engage in some character work.  The endless jokes about Magneto’s cape help establish what version of Sinister we’re looking at here, but they’re also silly fun following a lot of character deaths.  My feeling with this whole scene is that it feels like an interlude that offers very little in the way of pertinent information to the reader.  We already know Sinister is involved in the Krakoa project somehow because he was recruited in the Moira-Apocalypse timeline.  The interesting question that arises from there is how, knowing what Sinister intends to do with Krakoa, Xavier figures he can contain and subvert the inevitable betrayal.  The Sinister gossip pages suggest that whatever safety measures have been put in place, Sinister’s already figured out a way around them, because of course he has.

The middle section’s a nice little character sketch showing us more of this version of Doug Ramsey, who it’s becoming more and more clear is a lynchpin in the whole Krakoa plan.  We still don’t have any explanation about how he got his Technarch arm, but we do see it doing what Technarchy does: spread the techno-organic virus.  What I’m curious about at this point is whether Doug is aware of what he’s doing or if his arm has a mind of its own; either way could lead to some fun story beats, all of which have major potential to totally undermine the new mutant paradigm of purely organic technology.  We also see that months before everything went online on Krakoa and Xavier started wearing the Cerebro helmet he was playing at colonialism like a certain evil twin with a pith helmet that conveniently covers his forehead.  The associations of that costume appearing in a remote tropical locale are not good ones; the Krakoa project is ostensibly about stopping the evolution of the Sentinels, but now, who knows?  Other interesting bits in this sequence include the tease of Apocalypse’s original Four Horsemen who were apparently sealed in an alternate dimension or something to stand guard over Krakoa’s evil… twin.

Arakko’s going to end up being a Mummudrai, isn’t it?  And it’s connected to Krakoa via the black seeds?  Fun times.

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I never thought I’d find myself thinking about Doug Ramsey as an analogue to Larry Trask, but here we are. (Artwork by R B Silva, colors by Marte Gracia, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The issue’s last third is the most disorienting primarily because we haven’t revisited the Year One Thousand time period in about a month of real time, and the last thing we saw was the Phalanx descending to absorb the ascended humans’ society into their cloud.  It was all very harrowing.  This issue shows us that there’s a little bit more to what happened before that whole cloud of darkness thing.  My big complaint with this scene is that it involves a lot of talking heads among characters that we haven’t really spent any time with yet.  The Librarian, our perspective character from previous visits to this era, is just a silent observer here while a couple of other blue people talk in circles around their plan to persuade the Phalanx to incorporate organic life into their assimilation schema.  It all sort of makes sense as an extension of the thematic arc of the series revolving around the tension between synthetic and organic life and the acceleration towards grey goo, but the whole sequence left me mostly indifferent to what was happening.  There’s certainly potential for that plot line to pick back up and become interesting, but right now it feels like this weird appendix to the superhero stuff going on in the present day timeline.

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Reading House of X #4

I think the weirdest part of reading X-Men comics is that I have a relatively low emotional investment in them at this point in my life.  One of the major trends I’ve seen in the aspects of the fan community that I frequent is a sort of universal assumption that part of belonging to X-Men fandom is professing extreme affinity to at least one, if not more, specific characters as the reason you are here.  I engage in this element of fandom mildly in the form of a general preference to see stories about a few characters from New Mutants (I show my affection by spending time analyzing characters; both Illyana Rasputin and David Haller have gotten significant numbers of words out of me over the years), but compacting nearly fifty years’ worth of comics into accelerated reading over the course of a decade has left me with a relatively sanguine attitude about ongoing serialized comics in general and the X-Men in particular.  It’s great to read good stories about characters I love, but that’s just not always going to happen, and different writers will take different tacks when they get their turns to play in this shared universe.  Sometimes there will be narrative beats that we don’t like, but it doesn’t invalidate the ones that we do, and the status quo tends to be robust enough that changes to characters’ core concepts happen at a glacial pace.

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Everyone on this cover dies. Now you don’t have to read the issue. (Cover by Pepe Larraz & Marte Gracia)

All this preamble is to say that I try not to react angrily to stories, especially ones where it’s painfully obvious that extreme misdirection is going on and things will turn out likely very different from how they look in the moment.  Given that, I find myself grappling with some mixed emotions about Hickman’s House of X #4.  The big thing that I find myself puzzling over is the absurd death count of the issue.  It’s not surprising that everyone on the team dies on the suicide mission (that’s why they call them suicide missions); it’s surprising that in a franchise like X-Men, where death is never permanent, particularly for the headliners of the core team, Hickman went to such lengths to give the male heroes (apart from Warren) these big, dramatic character moments coupled with their deaths while the women were mostly just, well, there.  We can argue all day about whether Jean Grey’s weird characterization in this series is due to authorial dissonance or pointing towards something more complicated about what’s going on within the larger narrative, but the fact remains that Hickman has made the choice in this series to reintroduce Jean to the core team with all the trappings of her timid Silver Age characterization and then put her in a position of helplessness as the rest of her team violently dies before she gets snuffed out in a tin can floating through space.  The rest of the female members of the away team don’t fare any better (except for Monet, which still seems like an odd way to express affection for a character) with Paige Guthrie, an esoteric enough character that her inclusion on the team should have pointed towards some intricate plot involving her specific powers, dying off panel, and Mystique, a shape shifter, doing absolutely no shape shifting.  The sheer imbalance in styles of death between these characters and the men feels uncomfortable in ways that are actually pretty easy to identify.

The grand purpose of all this character death (little, if any, of which will likely stick beyond the end of the HoXPoX series) is to up the narrative stakes with the possibility that the Mother Mold has been brought online and precipitated something potentially worse to take form (nanites are a nasty thing, and very narratively convenient when your big bad is a homicidal AI) and also to give Charles Xavier his veritable Blue Screen of Death moment, which will undoubtedly lead to some catastrophic things in the future.  Before this issue I was thinking there was a strong possibility that we were looking at a team of cloned X-Men, but given the way it ends I’m now more inclined to think that we’re pushing towards the abuse of some of the reality warping mutants that were highlighted back in House of X #1.  Given the series’s obsession with echoing and remixing X-Men history, I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re moving towards a rehash of House of M with Xavier acting in place of Wanda Maximoff.

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In the unlikely event anyone reads this but hasn’t yet read the essential HoXPoXToX for the week, it can be found here.

*In the even more unlikely event that you want to read more of my thoughts about Illyana and David, here are a few more posts that center those specific characters.

Illyana

David

Reading House of X #3

When Xavier says to Cyclops before an obvious suicide mission, “You’re not going to die.  I won’t allow it,” I had some weird feelings.  We’re halfway through the macro series at this point, and every appearance of Scott and Xavier have felt off in various ways.  Scott was weirdly antagonistic about Franklin Richards in House of X #1, he seemed almost slavishly devoted to Xavier and Magneto’s plans in Powers of X #2, and here in this issue he’s expressing some major misgivings that the premier mutant power couple assuage with assurances that he’s not going to die.  Xavier, meanwhile has been… well, Xavier.

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Things are going to get bad. (Cover by Pepe Larraz & Marte Gracia)

In this scene Erik follows up Xavier’s bombast with a rhetorical flourish that points towards the memorialization that great heroes of worthy causes enjoy after they die.  It’s a very metaphysical appeal, suggesting that Scott’s death on this mission will ensure the continued survival of the Krakoa project, and so he’ll live on as a treasured memory.  This stuff tracks with Erik’s revolutionary bent and the general need in dire circumstances to give the people making the greatest sacrifice some kind of incentive they can hang on to through impending doom.  What feels off, as usual, is Xavier.  That god complex that we’ve seen on display since the first issue when he was playing Messiah in the Garden with his Krakoa pod babies is in full effect here; there’s a significant distance between making assertions of what must happen as a form of encouragement and declaring what will or will not happen as though one controls the fate of everyone involved.  Xavier seems to be speaking literally when he says emphatically “I won’t allow it.”

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Because they’re clones! (Artwork by Pepe Larraz, colors by Marte Gracia, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The matter of how he can achieve that end is up in the air, but my preferred hypothesis is that we’re looking at a variation on the Marauders, Sinister’s pet team of cloned supervillains that he deploys indiscriminately with the assurance that he can just decant a new set whenever the old ones get killed.  It’s not been revisited since House of X #1, but Krakoa has a place where mutants emerge from pods fully grown, and at least two of those mutants appeared to be Scott and Jean.  I think the team that’s being sent to destroy Mother Mold is composed of copies of the original mutants, probably with implanted memories so they don’t realize they’re clones.  It would explain pretty neatly the personality discrepancies we’ve seen up to this point, particularly with Scott and Jean, but also in the small glimpses of the others.  Kurt’s almost flirty with Mystique before he jumps to the Orchis Forge, which is, well, not how Kurt would interact with Mystique even under the best circumstances.  Logan has been shown joyfully playing with children despite lots of evidence that he doesn’t enjoy being around kids.  Paige Guthrie, Husk, is on this team and seems to have reverted to all the markers of a period in her life when she was at her most vulnerable.  These characters are acting in ways that are strange beyond the normal realignment of character voice that happens when a new writer takes over an extant series, and I think it’s because they’re clones that have been grown from Krakoa.

Aside from that relatively wild speculation, I think this issue’s most interesting narrative development comes from the time spent with Karima Shapandar and Dr. Erasmus aboard the Orchis Forge.  Their conversations depict an organization that doesn’t recognize its own bigotry towards mutants; aside from the faceless goons who wander the space station’s hallways, Erasmus and her team are obviously the “civilian scientists” that Jean mentions when the team is discussing the mission’s acceptable losses.  Hydra remnants excepted, most of Orchis’s members don’t see themselves as acting in a way that’s morally unjustified (which is a distinct attitude from being indifferent to moral justification).  It complicates the conflict in ways that are sort of uncomfortable because they highlight how ideological and systemic struggles eat up individuals whose isolated actions feel inconsequential.  It opens up an ongoing debate about the culpability of a cause’s rank-and-file in comparison to their leaders, asking us to consider where we draw the line in terms of overall impact.  How much do we need to care about the human stories that sit in the middle of these conflicts?

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Logan always coming in with the simplified bottom line. (Artwork by Pepe Larraz, colors by Marte Gracia, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Update: The essential HoXPoXToX for this issue is up now, so definitely go there to learn about stuff that Hickman is probably trying to make us think about.

Reading Powers of X #2

The thing that occurred to me today while I was thinking more about this issue was how the series’s structure slows the plot down significantly.  While we can totally expect that the events of the four time periods are interconnected and will continue to have major thematic resonance with one another, in pure terms of story things are developing extraordinarily slowly.  You can make an exception for the Year Ten period because that’s clearly a direct continuation of events happening in House of X, but the future time stuff all feels like it’s proceeding at a snail’s pace.

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If you are like me and expect at least half of the characters on a cover to appear inside the issue, you will be disappointed to know that only twenty percent of these characters are present this week. (Cover by R B Silva & Marte Gracia)

In this issue, we learn that Apocalypse is leading the mutants of Year One Hundred, which isn’t really that surprising given Moira’s ambition to gather all the mutant leaders together under a single secret banner.  The team’s members, based on things they say, all appear to be Chimeras like Rasputin and Cardinal with the exception of Krakoa, who appears to have merged with Doug Ramsey’s body if not his consciousness, and Xorn, who might be one of the original Xorns because I don’t know what the rules are for someone with a star for a head.  Apocalypse is entirely himself because you just don’t go around making clones of Apocalypse (except when you do; I will be thrilled if this guy turns out to be Evan Sabah Nur, although I suspect that is not the case).  The mission that ended in the first Powers with Cylobel and Percival’s death was successful; the X-Men now have an index pointing them towards where to find the actual information they need (it’s in Salem Center, because of course it is).  There will be a suicide mission; most of these characters will probably die.  In the far future, the rulers of Earth have succeeded in attracting the attention of a Phalanx, which Hickman has repurposed from an alien techno-organic hive mind that occasionally tries to assimilate Earth to be the highest class of galactic intelligence and something that the Librarian apparently wants to talk to so that (wait for it) it can be persuaded to assimilate Earth.

If each time period had its own series running, we probably have enough story beats to reach a decent end for their respective first issues.  That’s probably a relatively mundane observation in comparison to some of the other much more interesting things to consider on a thematic level, but it’s there.  While I suspect the Year One Hundred plot will receive space to breathe more going forward, I continue to be suspicious of the end point of Year One Thousand; besides acting as a coda that relentlessly beats the drum of inevitable machine supremacy, I don’t know where it can go as a story or what impact it can have on earlier events without some capitulation to time loop nonsense.  But that’s neither here nor there; let’s talk themes.

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It gets touched on in each time period, but Apocalypse hits the idea most strongly in this monologue; information is a dangerous thing, and both too much and too little of it will lead to ruin. Also, there’s a sarcophagus in the background which clearly contains someone meant to survive into the far future. I’m not speculating about who it is, you are. (Artwork by R B Silva, inks by R B Silva & Adriano di Benedetto, colors by Marte Gracia, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Each scene in this issue turns on someone accepting information that has the potential to completely derail their lives but which is also vital to survival.  While Magneto gets the psychic Cliff’s Notes on Moira’s whole deal and has to decide if he’s going to alter his entire five year plan, Cyclops gets briefed on the existence of the Mother Mold (seen from space back in House of X #1) and asked to plan a mission to disable it (he readily agrees because Cyclops).  Both are familiar characters taking new information and running with it in the most pragmatic way possible; Scott and Erik are idealists who never shy away from the reality of facts when it’s time to act.  Erik embraces new information wholeheartedly despite the sheer volume of data that Moira offers carrying the potential to be massively disorienting; his resolve to see Moira’s plan to fruition echoes and inverts Apocalypse’s meditation on the choice paralysis that afflicts people who know too much.  Scott will need specifics for planning, but he accepts his mission before he fully comprehends what he’s going to walk into.  We don’t yet know if he’ll be “the foolish [jumping] boldly into the gaping maw of a hungry enemy.”

Meanwhile in the far future, the Librarian’s deal with the Phalanx serves as mirror of Charles and Moira’s offer to Magneto at the beginning of the issue.  The reflection comes in the agency of the Librarian; where Erik accepts Moira’s offer of knowledge with wariness, the Librarian and the society they represent have striven long and hard to catch the attention of some enlightened machines in the hopes of joining their collective.  Set aside the obvious pessimism of a future where AI decides to eliminate organic intelligence due to its inefficiency as a medium for computational power and consider what this future society’s goals appear to be.  Earth has apparently reached a point of internal equilibrium where humanity as we know it lives in a preserve and these blue skinned ascended humans that may or may not be descended from mutants feel they’ve reached the peak of their own civilization.  The only way to survive on a galactic scale in this future is to impress one of the massive machine intelligences that wander around the universe looking for new resources to expand their own brain power and, once the impression has been made, to get the machines to assimilate a civilization into itself.  The scale of survival has expanded so far beyond individuals and subspecies at this point.  If all that Earth is and was will continue in Year One Thousand, it has to adapt to the new rules and offer up its own information to the machine gods.

Update: The latest HoX PoX ToX is live at Xavier Files, so here’s a link to that very good discussion of stuff that is probably relevant to thinking about this series.

Reading House of X #1

There are a lot of comics that I am still trying to catch up on, but after literal months of being bombarded with hype for the X-Men relaunch that Jonathan Hickman is headlining through Twitter, I finally caved and decided to see what the big deal is.  In the run up to the full line launch at the end of September, the entire series has been reduced to two biweekly miniseries, both written by Hickman.  I’m going to devote some space here on the blog to reading and parsing this stuff as it comes out, which is a pretty different mode of thinking and writing about comics than what I’m used to.  Everything I’ve done commentary on in the past has been tempered either by extreme familiarity–they were books I’d read multiple times–or planning a delay between the initial read and actually putting my thoughts down in an ordered way; you only get to do gut reactions to a story once, and it’s not at all uncommon for the gut reaction to fail to consider some things that are more apparent on a re-read.  I just don’t do writing in that mode here, but I can try to shorten my lead-time a little bit.  It’s summer, after all, and for at least the first half of the event, I can crank out thoughts on a pretty short time frame.  If you want to see my totally unfiltered first impressions of each issue, then you can check my Twitter feed (conveniently located on this very page!) where I’m typically posting around seven to eight a.m. PDT during the summer.

Okay, that’s enough housekeeping; let’s get on with the main event.

There is a core premise embedded in the X-Men universe which has its foundation in a reality of social justice work in our world: people who have marginalized identities often must do extra work to be seen as not only equal to people who belong to the dominant cultural group, but also to be seen as non-threatening participants in our society.  Patriarchy, white supremacy, cisheteronormativity, and all the other kyriarchical structures that favor a very narrow class of people rely on conditioning that class to remain mostly unaware of its own privileges until a threat is perceived and the fight or flight response is activated.  We see this play out in the vicious responses that white people have towards the increased prominence of people of color, the covert shifting into overt threats that men make towards women’s bodies for appearing in male-dominated spaces, the often violent reactions straight people have towards queer people who dare to be proud of their identities.  It’s akin to an autoimmune response on a societal level, and people like me are the often unwitting antibodies.  We don’t mean to be hostile, but the reality is that we are, and it unfairly falls on marginalized people to soothe our anxieties so they can go about carving out millimeters of extra space for themselves in the landscape that we thoughtlessly dominate.  As clumsily as it was done in the series’s beginning, the X-Men have always been a representation of people who do that unfair labor, all framed within the context of superheroes where colorful outfits and punching stand in for taxing conversations and thankless organization efforts.

The beginning of House of X takes that core premise and totally ejects it.  From the first page we’re thrust into a world where Charles Xavier, having somehow re-entered the good graces of all the various factions within the mutant community, sets a plan in motion designed to upend human hegemony on Earth and usher in an era where mutants rule.  Being who he is, Xavier has covered his plan with a patina of beneficence, but his apparent partner in this endeavor, Magneto, makes it clear as the ambassador of the new mutant nation that humans don’t have a real choice about their role in Xavier’s plan.  Where we see Xavier off playing messiah in his garden, Magneto is laying down the law: mutant supremacy begins today.

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Tell me what you really mean, Erik. (Artwork by Pepe Larraz, colors by Marte Gracia, letters by Clayton Cowles)

My first read of the issue focused on two specific things: how unsettling Xavier is and how much the implicit threat of Krakoa’s existence is backed by his lieutenants.  Long time readers of the X-books know that Charles Xavier is a complicated figure whose motivations are always suspect.  He’s the master of self-deception so that whatever he does will be justified in his own mind regardless of its larger implications.  His own students have seen the results of this behavior often enough that they should know better than to take his promises at face value.  He’s good for ideals, but bad for pragmatic execution.  Consequently, I have no problem thinking that it’s pretty creepy that he’s suddenly the face of the mutant rights movement; honestly, I think that Magneto’s casual aggression towards the assembled ambassadors visiting Krakoa is much less jarring–he’s always been the strong arm of the X-Men when he aligns with them, and he doesn’t hide what he wants.

The buy in from other X-Men in this issue strikes me as significantly more jarring.  Jean’s brief appearance introducing Krakoa’s central island to a new mutant kid feels like a massive step backwards in character growth.  She literally tears up at Xavier declaring “Welcome home” in this beatific moment that just chills me; it doesn’t jive with the Jean that appeared most recently in the X-Men Red series.  That Jean was a mutant integrationist, someone committed to doing hard diplomatic work so that humans could understand and welcome mutants.  I don’t buy that she’d just be okay with Xavier’s new approach of scaring humanity into submission, especially after waging an extended campaign against his evil twin who was all about fomenting that fear into uncontrolled violent rage.  Clearly there’s a lot of context missing from this first issue, but for now color me skeptical about that character dynamic.

The character who does ring more true to me is Cyclops.  Scott Summers has been through a lot of phases in his tenure as an X-Man, and his evolution from awkward teacher’s pet to movement leader to revolutionary all makes sense.  I haven’t yet read the Matthew Rosenberg run yet to see what’s been going on with him immediately prior to House of X, but I can see Scott jumping headfirst into an opportunity to assuage his guilt over accidentally killing Xavier and to back away from being a public face for a while.  Scott’s a competent leader, but he’s always more comfortable when he has permission to defer to someone else up the chain of command.  Given all that, his confrontation with the Fantastic Four is an incredibly uncomfortable scene for me.  So many parts of it make total sense: the pleasantries and greetings between long-time colleagues who haven’t seen each other in a while, Scott’s total commitment to the party line, his frank honesty about the frustrations he’s felt for years as a second-class citizen even among fellow superheroes are all just ineffably right character beats.  Despite all that, elements of the exchange unsettle me in ways that make me suspect something isn’t right here.  On one level I fully understand the relief that all of the mutant characters in House of X are feeling that they can safely revel in their power for perhaps the first time ever.  On another, I’m seriously unsettled that Scott Summers, who lost his own infant son through superhero shenanigans, would even imply that he’d be part of stealing Franklin Richards from his family.  I know Franklin’s a genius kid and he has agency, but Scott’s parting words don’t feel like a casual invitation for his colleagues’ kid to get to know a community he can rightfully claim membership in.

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What are you doing, Scott? (Artwork by Pepe Larraz, colors by Marte Gracia, letters by Clayton Cowles)

It’s pretty played out to suggest that characters acting in ways we don’t expect or dislike are probably being mind controlled, and despite the fact that we’re discussing a series that centers the world’s most powerful telepath who also now always wears a helmet giving his powers planetary range, I don’t want to immediately jump to that conclusion.  There’s time for character motivations to become more clear and the oddness of this first issue to sort itself into a more cohesive narrative whole.  I am going to pointedly remind us all that the first two pages of this series feature Xavier hatching mutants out of Krakoa pods, the first two of which are heavily implied to be Scott and Jean.

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Congratulations on hatching from your cocoons, children. There is absolutely nothing you need to fear after gestating in the core of a sentient plant creature that I have totally bent to my will. (Artwork by Pepe Larraz, colors by Marte Gracia)

To wrap up thoughts here, I do need to include the caveat that most of my reactions to this issue are certainly based in that autoimmune response I discussed earlier.  One thing Hickman does super effectively here is push all the buttons for existential dread that people who recognize potential threats to their own power feel.  I am naturally suspicious of Xavier partly because I read him as ruthlessly self-interested without having any awareness of this aspect of his personality, but I also sympathize with the anxiety the ambassadors express at being shown how the status quo has shifted in such a way that they are totally at the mercy of the mutants’ good will.  They’re experiencing the fever dream of all hegemonic beneficiaries: “If the people beneath me ever got more power, would they treat me the way I treat them?”  Converse to my own reactions, I’ve seen folks on Twitter reveling in the fantasy of a marginalized people claiming their own power and finally being able to tell oppressors that their power is broken.  This whole event is genuinely joyous for the mutants who have aligned themselves with Xavier, and most of them are likely acting in good faith.  They just want space to live in peace.

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Shut up, Doug. (Artwork by Pepe Larraz, colors by Marte Gracia, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Whether that actually what can happen is still up in the air.  We don’t know how Krakoa will operate as a nation (even if it’s clear that humanity’s autoimmune response is going to inevitably stir up trouble with a Sentinel factory in space).  The optimist wants to say, “It will be fine; people who experience oppression know its pain and wouldn’t inflict that on others.”  The cynic says that Charles Xavier is at the head of this entire project, and he is not a trustworthy man.

Learning Sketchbook 12: Pencils Change Everything

For a long time I’ve understood the basic concept of doing a drawing in stages where you begin drafting the basic composition and shapes with a tool that leaves a light mark then use the draft as a guide for detailing with a darker marking instrument.  Since I’m only using pencils, this means that I typically sketch things out with a harder graphite (like a 4H) then switch over to something significantly softer (typically a 2B), but a consistent problem I’ve found is that softer graphite tends to dull extremely fast, which becomes a problem on the scale that I’m drawing when I want to produce finer detail.

After reading a bit more about the way graphite works (there is no shortage of treatises on the qualities of various tools and media in books about drawing, as I have learned) I decided that I would try doing details on a couple sketches with harder graphite; the original intent was to give myself some room for error while I worked out how to pose my figures before hanging clothes on them (clothing is fun to do, but I definitely still need to see where the limbs and muscles are first).  Somewhere in there I just started using the harder pencil for stronger lines, and I was pleased enough with the result that I’ve kept at it.

Along the way with that, I also finally started thinking about how to do some proper shading to give my drawings a better sense of volume.  It’s minor stuff for now (I find that I kind of obsess over light sources, so I’m trying to keep things simple), but the difference in quality’s been noticeable to me.  I feel like there’s depth that was missing before, and I’ve found a technique for shading that just doesn’t look as sloppy as what I saw in some of my stuff from a few months ago.  I will say that my faces continue to be very weird, and I think it has something to do with how I measure proportions versus how much space I think specific features are supposed to take up.  Basically, I think that I’m consistently drawing eyes and noses significantly smaller than they should be, and then when I try to adjust I find that the whole face either looks stretched in weird places or the outline of the head is far too big.  Anyway, here are some recent sketches I’ve done at various stages of completion.

On a completely separate note, I’m having a lot of fun learning how different photo filters on my phone help make pictures of my drawings easier to see on a screen.  Those light pencils sure do a great job of not showing up in the final draft, but it’s a real pain getting them to be visible on in-process stuff.  For this picture, I was really pleased with the pose because I attempted it after doing a lot of practice drawing from reference photos, and it was really satisfying to put together a figure with a dynamic pose.

My earlier comments about weird faces are apparent here, but if you set that aside, the hair’s working, the arm has decent proportions with the foreshortening, and the other character details are pretty good.  I had a pretty rough time with the positioning of the hands on the handle of the sword, so that’s a thing that could be better (I spent a lot of time thinking about the way I used to hold a golf club when I went golfing as a teen).  It’s also obvious here that I switched over from the sketchy lines I use in a lot of my older stuff.  The effect looks much more polished.

And here’s the finished version with the shading added.  There’s definitely some messiness around the head with guide lines for the sword that didn’t fully erase when I was doing clean up, but I like it.  The character’s Illyana Rasputin from the X-Men in a variation on her ’80s look.  And because I was on an X-Men kick, here’s another one that I did in the last week.

Nightcrawler is a fun character because he’s agile enough that you can justify drawing him in a lot of fun poses.  Here I wanted to play around with his love of old movies; he’s more of an adventure guy, but I figured he’d have a soft spot in his heart for classic Hollywood musicals.  You can faintly see in this image the outlines of the figure’s muscles that I sketched before putting the clothes on.  Like I said, clothes are fun, but I don’t trust myself to make them look right if I’m not hanging them on a model first.

really like how this one turned out after the shading was done.  It helps that the lighting of the photo enhances the overall effect of Kurt frolicking under a street light.  While I was working on this one I kept thinking about how cool it would be to include some more details in the background, but then I got on this whole perspective kick and decided that determining a vanishing point after the fact would be murder, so that was right out.  It did mean, however, that I immediately started thinking about working perspective into my next piece, which is still in progress at this point.  The early drafting stage is below.

The best thing I can say about doing perspective is that it’s a lot of fun to see three dimensional space just sort of appear on the page as you put in the guide lines for objects.  The worst thing is that I spent about a day stressing over all of that before I pulled out a stiff ruler with a good perpendicular angle instead of trying to use scrap paper to line stuff up.  You can see here that the figure is still naked as I hadn’t begun to do the dressing yet (this is another piece of fanart, but it’s for a character with a pretty specific look to their outfit, so I wanted to get some references before I jumped into that).

Now that I’m on summer break, I’m looking forward to spending a bit more time on drawing.  It’s a nice alternative to staring at screen, and it works out some different brain muscles from writing, which is especially nice.  Also, I’m planning on attending my first life drawing session next week, which should be a lot of fun.

Character Overview: Idie Okonkwo

A few months back I did a pretty in depth analysis (found here, here, here, and here)of the 1984 Storm and Illyana: Magik miniseries that Marvel used to explain the origins of Illyana Rasputin as a teenage mutant sorceress.  It was a pretty fun project because Illyana’s one of my favorite characters from the X-Men franchise and she serves as an excellent nexus point for exploring how trauma and cultural touchstones contemporary with their creation inform the development of characters and influence how they can be read.  Even better, Illyana is part of a long tradition of X-Men characters who come into their own in the aftermath of extensive trauma that’s centered around the intersection of their real world marginalizations with the manifestation of their powers in the context of particularly insular and controlling communities.  Within that tradition is a particular subset of characters whose origins put them in direct conflict with their faith community of origin; Illyana doesn’t precisely fit into this mold (she hails from a farm collective in Soviet Russia, so she presumably would have been raised atheist) although she acts in tension with broad American Protestant sensibilities as someone who feels thoroughly ambivalent about her connections with magic and a literal hell dimension.  Other significant characters who do fall into this subset include Kurt Wagner (although his devout Catholicism wasn’t fully developed until later, it complements his origin story as a Bavarian circus acrobat who was saved from a mob of superstitious villagers by Professor Xavier); Rahne Sinclair; and, most recently, Idie Okonkwo.  There are likely other examples that I’m forgetting, but these three come most readily to mind because a core facet of each of their characters is the rejection by their faith community of origin because their powers are viewed as demonic manifestations.  Of these three, the one that I’m most keenly interested in at the moment is Idie.

What I find fascinating about Idie is that she carries several additional markers of marginalization beyond the ones associated with Kurt and Rahne.  Although these two characters have powers that partially present as traditionally monstrous physical features (Kurt’s blue fur, tridactyl hands and feet, and prehensile tail; and Rahne’s ability to shape shift into various mixtures of a human and lupine form) they also are able to assert white eurocentric racial privilege (Kurt may or may not use an image inducer to hide his fur, but he’s never mistaken as anything other than a white German).  Idie originates from a small village in Nigeria where the manifestation of her powers is particularly volatile, causing everyone to flee and a local militia to trap her in her village’s church until she’s rescued by Ororo Munroe and Hope Summers.  On top of the dimensions of mutant identity, fundamentalist faith background, and female gender expression, Idie as a character also contends with the legacy of colonialism in Africa and racism at large.  The sheer number of intersections makes her a fascinating character to explore, but one additional feature that enhances her interest is her relative newness as a character.  The other characters discussed here have publication histories extending back at least to the ’80s, but Idie was created in 2010.  She’s appeared in less than a decade’s worth of stories, but the number of transitions and developments she’s gone through in that time are comparable to other, much more storied characters.

We meet Idie in the middle of her praying for help. (From Uncanny X-Men #528, written by Matt Fraction, pencils by Whilce Portacio, inks by Ed Tadeo, colors by Brian Reber, letters by Joe Caramagna)

From the beginning, Idie’s identity is steeped in her religious upbringing; she takes refuge in her village’s church when her powers manifest where she prays for help from Mary and her patron saint.  Immediately coupled with this core aspect of Idie’s identity is the concept that she’s also been abandoned by it; neither God nor Idie’s community will be sending her help.  Later in the issue when Ororo and Hope arrive, Hope makes a point of trying to disassociate their assistance with any sort of supernatural aid, which makes sense for Hope but likely carries some deep implications for Idie and her faith (especially considering that Hope’s connection with Idie and the rest of the Five Lights during the “Second Coming” era of X-Men was particularly strong with messianic and apostolic overtones; but that’s best explored elsewhere).  Carrying forward from this introduction, Idie develops some severe self loathing with regard to her powers.

Well then. (From Wolverine & The X-Men #1, written by Jason Aaron, pencils & colors by Chris Bachalo, inks by Jaime Mendoza, letters by Rob Steen)

By the time we reach the first issue of Wolverine & The X-Men, Idie has acclimated to life in America, but her opinion regarding herself and her classmates hasn’t improved.  While Logan and Kitty Pryde are busy trying to persuade representatives of the state board of education that their school meets all the requirements for accreditation, Idie explains matter-of-factly to the visitors that all the students at the Jean Grey School are monsters, herself included.  Idie goes on to be a regular character in this series, and her subplot revolves extensively around her exploring various aspects of her identity in some normal and not-so-normal teenage ways (she begins dating Quentin Quire and also gets involved with a pseudo-Christian cult that wants to help her with her spiritual journey “to peace and damnation”).  It’s this series where Idie develops much of the personality that makes her so endearing; in the aftermath of the cult episode (if I remember correctly, they’re connected with the Purifiers, a religious anti-mutant hate group who are frequent antagonists of the X-Men) Idie starts to explore an identity that isn’t bound so closely with her faith community.  In a lot of ways she reflects the experience of people who have been shunned by communities that they didn’t want to exit in the first place.  The resilience and rebuilding of identity that’s not centered solely on a faith resonates.

In the most recent series where Idie’s appeared (that I’ve read; I admit I’m not totally up to date on X-Men books these days), she’s arrived at an equilibrium with regard to her past and her present circumstances.  In All-New X-Men Volume 2, Idie has joined the time displaced young versions of the original five X-Men, Laura Kinney, and Evan Sabah Nur to go road trip around the country doing superhero stuff instead of being bogged down in all the turmoil between the Inhumans and mutants since the release of the Terrigen cloud.  This is an Idie who’s become more comfortable with herself, although she still carries some of the weight of her past (as if it could go any other way).  We see her embracing her fun side much more, developing a strong friendship with young Bobby Drake and helping him meet guys as he begins to explore his sexuality after coming out as gay.  Besides helping her friends though, Idie gets to have her own personal adventures, as relayed in a story about her from All-New X-Men Annual #1: she goes on a date with a boy she meets in a town where the X-Men have stopped to relax, and in the course of their date discovers that he’s a mutant who’s been infected by the Terrigen.  Idie gets to shine as someone with significant confidence and self control as she defends her date from bullies and call in Ororo to help rescue someone else whose powers have gone haywire.  The whole story’s a nice capstone on Idie’s arc since her first appearance.

Idie reflects on her date after everything’s been settled. (From All-New X-Men Annual #1, written by Sina Grace, artwork by Cory Smith, colors by Andres Mossa, letters by Cory Petit)