Drew: Writers love exploring different vantage points on the same scene. In fact, they loved it so much, they named it: the Roshomon Effect, for the film that made the conceit famous. Its mix of repetition and change is a potent one, so its use often comes off as gimmicky, but when pulled off well, it can add immense insight into a character’s subjective experience of the world. In Uncanny X-Men 4, Brian Michael Bendis reexamines Cyclops’ pitch from All-New X-Men 10, giving us a rare glimpse into Emma Frost’s mind.
The issue opens as Scott begins his explanation, but this scene largely plays out in the background, as Emma and the Stepford Sisters have a telepathic catch-up. The girls quickly realize Emma is powerless, and have a little fun before digging just a little too deep into her mind for anyone’s comfort. Meanwhile, the new recruits at the New Xavier School are exploring their new home. They pick out their new rooms, but are a little overwhelmed when they accidentally turn on the Danger Room. The adults return to set things right, but Scott has to lay down the law: this isn’t a game. This puts some of the kids on edge, but no time for worries — we’ve got even newer recruits to introduce! It turns out Warren had volunteered, along with the Stepford Sisters, to join the New Xavier School. Also, something is going wrong with Illyana.
The business with the Stepford girls is interesting. Their mean-girls dynamic, teenage flakiness, and telepathic abilities make them a terrifying force — especially if you’re going to try to act as a surrogate parent. Normal teenage girls abuse what power they have to get their way, but that’s nothing compared to what these girls can do. Emma’s trust and persistence eventually pays off — the girls know that she cares — but not before they go too far. Like most teenagers, the girls aren’t great at anticipating consequences, and don’t realize how dangerous poking around in someone’s mind can be until they see something they wish they hadn’t.
And that something? Scott and Emma battling over the Phoenix Force, in front of a background that looks strikingly like what happens to Illyana later in the issue.
We knew there was some connection to Illyana’s newfound strength and the Phoenix Force, but the similarity of these two panels suggests that the Phoenix Force might be alive and well within her. I don’t know enough about either the Phoenix Force or the events of A vs. X to really comment on what this might mean, other than that the New Xavier School may be even less stable than Scott had hoped.
Speaking of the New Xavier School, we get to spend some much needed one-on-one time with the newbies. Bendis all but acknowledges how unfamiliar they are by introducing them with handy stats cards — a service he doesn’t provide for any of the other characters. He quickly establishes Tempus as the fast learner, Triage as the dick, and Goldballs as, well, Goldballs, but the character I’m most intrigued by is Benjamin Deeds, the as-yet uncodenamed shapeshifter. He does little to distinguish himself during the exploration of the compound (“level-headed” is the strongest characterization I really get there), but demonstrates a wealth of possibilities when alone with Tempus.
The scene is mostly just the two agreeing with each other, but as it progresses, Benjamin slowly takes the form of Tempus. It’s a not-so-subtle visual clue that he’s empathizing with her, but it’s effective. He’s not just agreeing with her, he’s literally seeing the world through her eyes. I’m most intrigued by the implication that his ability might be a kind of total empathy, that his change might not just be physical, but mental, as well. The effect here is that Tempus’ calmness helps talk Benjamin down from panic, and results in a connection between these two. That connection helps add depth to both of these characters, who were thus far hadn’t quite achieved two dimensions. Meaningful interactions are the best ways to explore these characters, and this scene, combined with the Emma/Stepford Sisters stuff suggests that this title is headed in the right direction.
Patrick, I was a little slow to be won over by this title, but the last couple of issues have started to bring me around. My biggest problem is that I just don’t know these characters, but it looks like Bendis intends to address that quickly. I neglected to mention the cognitive dissonance between the grimness of anticipating some kind of mutant holocaust and the generally lighthearted humor of this series, so I guess I’ll set you up with the most salient example of that — there’s an app for the Danger Room?
Patrick: Hey, if I can set my DVR with my iPhone, I should also be able to control my holographic training room with it too. Though… it is a little odd that Magneto can’t do that remotely — that’s one of the key features of the iPhone: you can use it anywhere. Also, as long as we’re chasing logic around in little circles, wouldn’t Magneto’s magnetic fields fuck up a smart phone pretty severely? And he’s got gloves on – that touch screen isn’t going to register those inputs! I love that in an era where we actually have voice recognition software, that these characters don’t use it to control what is essentially a holo-deck, which (if memory serves me) was entirely voice activated.
I think this issue suffers a little from splitting its focus. There are three relationships being explored here — Emma and the Stepfords; the New Mutants; Magick and the Phoenix Force. And the latter two relationships are so mysterious at this point that the most anyone can articulate about them is “I don’t know” or “I’m fine.” We are still learning about these characters, which is fine because they’re still learning about each other. Their confusion is appropriately frustrating, and I’m tempted to just chalk that up as a virtue of the issue, but I also believe that we could have spent more time with the New Mutants and maybe a little less time dicking around with the Phoenix Force. I love the idea that Ben is kind of an uber-empath, who takes on the shape and mental state of the people he’s around. But there’s just one satisfying moment with him and really nothing else.
The Stepford’s little psychic pow-wow with Emma Frost is pretty cool though. I love the way it’s visually represented — first as Emma alone on a clean white page, and then later with black and white drawings of the big X-Men confrontation scene playing out behind them. When I say black and white, I mean it: there are no grays and no textures, giving the world that Emma and Stepfords are observing a distinctly artificial look. It’s maybe my favorite thing that Chris Bachalo has done for this series.
This stark, black-on-white style feels like a throw-back — like reading a newspaper comic strip. But I love the way the sisters are so focused on the legacy of Jean Grey during this conversation. They’re looking back, through the fabled career of one of the most powerful X-Men ever, and all they can see are her flaws. They’re disappointed because “she hasn’t become the woman everyone remembers yet.” That’s a weird concept to wrap your head around — we never know what someone’s future legacy is going to be. However, that is frequently something we experience of serialized fiction — I can’t tell you how many TV and comic series I’ve picked up because I heard they get good… eventually. There’s always that wrenching disappointment when early entries don’t totally wow you. That’s what the Stepfords are dealing with, only they’re losing faith in one of the more blatant hero-figures they could look up to. Which just leaves them with Emma Frost — no matter how damaged she is.
Hey, I don’t know anything about the Phoenix Force beyond what I recall from the Phoenix Saga as it appeared on the 90s X-Men cartoon (and also from its appearance in X-3 and Marvel vs. Capcom 3). Illyana and Scott are both shown having strong reactions to the Phoenix in this issue, and I’m starting to feel like I don’t have quite the respect I need for that power to be as threatening as Bendis implies. I mean, if it’s back (or still around, or whatever), that should be a game changer, right? It feels tacked on to the end of this issue. I’m willing to believe that I just haven’t experienced it enough to be properly afraid, but I’ll put the question out there: is the Phoenix, as a concept, an emotionally weighty force, or a narrative nuisance? X-Men fans, don’t fail me now. [Follow-up question: At this stage in the game, is A vs. X worth a read?]
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?