Today, Patrick and Drew are discussing All-New X-Men 4, originally released December 19th, 2012.
Patrick: Time travel narratives end up appealing to our vague understandings of chaos theory and the butterfly effect (thanks Jurassic Park, for introducing those into our media-vocabulary). But usually that assumes a time-lapse: events unfold differently throughout time and our future is changed to match the changing past. All-New X-Men shows these same ripples, but throughout the present, as the emotional impact of Beast’s time-travel project effects everyone in turn. Instead of seeing a cause, and then skipping 25 years later to see the effect, we’re subjected to the slow, real pace of cause and effect. It makes for a much smarter, much more sincere time travel story. Oh and there are X-Men in it too.
Issue 4 begins with the confrontation that future-Hank had intended with his time travel extravaganza: Cyclops vs. Cyclops. I tried this once in Street Fighter vs. X-Men — the result was non-spectacular. Luckily comic book narratives are more powerful than fighting game narratives, so the encounter leaves both Scott Summerses shaken and with renewed purpose. Old, Evil Scott (thanks for that nickname, Angel) retreats back to his hideout at the Weapon X lab, and pisses off all of his compatriots, eventually coming to the conclusion that Hank McCoy is behind all of this — and presumably needs to pay. Young, optimistic Scott has a little bit harder time as his team all reacts to the reality of their situation differently: Angel wants to get out, thinking no good can come from this nonsense; Hank wants to heal the future version of himself; and Scott’s mostly worried about Jean’s new-found telepathy powers. Eventually, the young X-men decide to follow Hank’s lead and they return to the school to treat old, dying Beast. Speaking of dying, just as young-Hank gets to old-Hank’s hospital bed, something terrible happens.
Most of this story happens within the heads of these characters. But that is still a surprisingly active and tactile place for the X-Men characters. This issue makes this explicit in the first three pages (which are the only pages that include voice-over, by the way). Old, Evil Scott (hereinafter OE Scott) takes in the improbability of what he’s seeing (past versions of himself and his friends) and quickly ticks off the various ways this could be a trick. He lists all known telepaths and telekinetic characters, including — pointedly — Charles, but also lists shapeshifters. While he eventually comes to the conclusion that what he is seeing his real, the fact that there is such a high likelihood that anything in their lives is unreal is totally fascinating.
But it gets so much more intense when you stop to consider — as OE Scott does in this issue — what it means that there are so many forces in his world that would be motivated to stage a psychological attack of this size against Cyclops. Right? This is a world where creatures routinely control elemental forces like the weather or magnetic fields, and Beast’s weapon of choice ends up being forced introspection. What Beast doesn’t totally count on is that this weapon is imprecise: notably sending both versions of Cyclops into a tail-spin of self-doubt. This twin-regret is so elegantly illustrated my Stuart Immonen’s staging of two consecutive scenes, each beginning the same way but with different versions of the character.
But Beast’s Gambit (not to be confuse with Gambit’s Beast, which I’m guessing would be some kind of Cajun monster) isn’t only freaking out Cyclopses, just about everyone is running around in full-on crisis mode. Turns out, none of the old X-Men were ready to see Jean Grey again and none of the young X-men were ready to see Jean in this telepathic peril. The result is that this time traveling story about mutant liberation has a heart anchored by one of the quintessential couples in the world of comic books: Scott Summers and Jean Grey. Whatever else happened (or will happen, depending on the perspective), it is the strength of this individual relationship that will shape the events going forward. It’s a thought so sweet and sentimental, it’s a damn good thing there are multiple Icemans, a steely Wolverine and an eye-laser-on-eye-laser explosion in this issue (just to balance out the subtext with TEXT).
All that stuff around the edges of this relationship are so exciting that — I have to say — I’m not super invested in OE Scott’s mission to recruit new mutants. With two different generations of X-Men, plus the Evil Cyclops crew running around, I’m having a hell of a time keeping everyone straight already. Even when Immonen takes very deliberate steps to distinguish different versions of the characters — like smooth Iceman vs. jagged Iceman — I forget which one is which between issues. I’m guessing that more seasoned X-Men fans won’t have this complaint, but I did find myself saying “wait… so that’s one’s… wait…” from time to time. And the best way to exacerbate that is to introduce some new mutants, who aren’t exactly whiny… but they’re not far off.
What do you think, Drew? Maybe you dig the new mutants and all this Jean Grey shit is old hat. Or maybe you’re like OE Scott and you still half suspect the ghost of Charles Xavier to pop out and fix everything.
Drew: I definitely find myself relating to OE Scott, but mostly because he and Emma are the only ones to question why Hank would bring the old X-Men to the present. Ostensibly, we know why he wanted to bring young Scott Summers — to confront OE Scott in the present — but it’s not totally clear how the mechanics of that are supposed to work. Is Hank being the Ghost of Christmas Past, reminding OE Scott of something from his youth, or is he being the Ghost of Christmas Future, giving young Scott a glimpse into a fate he still has the power to avoid? Hank has suggested the former, but without a better understanding of the mechanics of the time-travel in play here (will present-day Bobby need to fill in for Marvin Berry on “Earth Angel” in order to make sure young Scott and Jean get together?), we can’t rule out the latter. Given that none of the present-day folks seem to remember this happening gives us some clue, but it also seems possible that Emma Frost or Jean Grey could memory wipe the team after they return to their own present.
I’ll presume that Hank was aiming for the Christmas Past effect, which is kind of gut-wrenching to think about. All of our lives end up going somewhere differently than we originally hoped for a variety of reasons. Why we end up on a different path is a very complicated mix of wisdom, compromise, failure, success, and personal growth, which makes explaining it to someone (especially someone who has yet to learn all of those things) can be incredibly frustrating. I’m not sure I could explain to six-year-old me why I’ve given up on becoming Batman, but at least that’s a decision I can live with. Imagine you had killed somebody you loved — how could you possibly explain the choices that led to that? Emma’s right: maybe this is all about punishment.
But it cuts both ways. If this was just about punishment, how could he subject young Scott — one of his best friends — to the torture of seeing what he has become? He must have hopes that this plan will work, but the consequences on young Scott’s life will no doubt be profound (which again, begs the question about the mechanics of this — if young Scott dies, will OE Scott cease to exist?).
Leaving aside what Hank was hoping would happen when he brought the Scotts together, why did he bring along the rest of the X-Men? He acknowledged that this was a risky move, so why make it riskier by bringing back any more people than he needed to? I suspect there’s a part of Hank’s plan that he hasn’t yet shared. Indeed, it’s not just seeing himself that gives Scott pause. Perhaps Scott’s innate leadership makes him more sensitive to letting down others than he is about letting himself down, a notion Immonen illustrates beautifully here:
It would have been easy to trot out the old “two adjacent panels of two characters make one face” trick for this showdown, but Immonen cleverly avoids cliche while suggesting that ALL of these characters are on OE Scott’s mind. Intriguingly, Magneto is among the faces, suggesting that Scott is still acutely aware of the circumstances and choices that brought him to this moment. Yes, the original X-Men are part of that, but so is Magneto.
I’m less drawn to the stuff outside of Scott’s head, but I’m finding Jean’s story to be full of potential (perhaps partially because much of it also takes place in Scott’s head). The notion of a person gaining faculties beyond their preparation for them has always interested me (ever since I learned to play loud on the trumpet long before I learned how to play well). These kind of unearned power stories often end badly, but it’s rare that the danger this causes is to the person wielding the power. We don’t get much about this here, but Bendis gives us enough of a taste to pique my interest.
This series continues to be a blast, but this issue demonstrates that it’s not just about the fun. It uses time travel as a means of character study, a novel idea that somehow feels inevitable. Finding heavier themes and subtler storytelling techniques in a title this fun is always a treat, the kind that we’re always looking for around here. And, as Patrick pointed out, there are X-Men in it too.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?