X-Men 1

Alternating Currents: X-Men 1, Drew and Spencer

Today, Drew and Spencer are discussing X-Men 1, originally released May 29th, 2013.

Drew: Anticipation is often the enemy of objectivity. Not that I can ever claim to be all that objective, but it can be difficult to evaluate a work on its own merits when expectations have been allowed to brew for as long as they have for X-Men 1. Since the announcement of this title, the all-female cast has been cited for everything from pandering to its female audience to serving as a rare bastion of female role models in comicdom. But, are any of those things what writer Brian Wood and penciller Olivier Coipel actually set out to do? Does that matter? Art shouldn’t have to answer for what people turn it into sight-unseen, but its difficult to talk about this series without some reaction to the expectations it was released into. Hopefully, I’ll be able to tie it back to the series itself.

The issue begins with the details of a family feud between bacteria some billion years ago. One stayed on Earth and thrived, the other was cast out into space…and has maybe just returned. We find Jubilee a few weeks later in Bulgaria with a baby in tow. She’s headed back to the Jean Grey school, but is worried that she’s being followed by a mysterious stranger. He pursues her all the way to the Metro North line, but is foiled by their impeccable security (just kidding, he opts for a private helicopter once he realizes where Jubilee is going). Kitty Pryde, Storm, and Rogue decide to do some good ol’ train extraction, just in case this stranger has followed Jubilee onto the train. It’s a happy little reunion on the train…until the baby somehow switches the train over to the southbound tracks, making a collision imminent. Rogue manages to avert disaster, and the team heads back to the school to help Jubilee settle in. While they were out, the mysterious stranger arrived at the school, revealed himself to be John Sublime, one of the bacteria the issue opened with. He’s worried that his sister, Arkea — who apparently takes over machines the same way he takes over bodies — has returned. Also, maybe Jubilee’s baby has something to do with this. Sure enough, the baby’s presence allows Arkea to take over an omega sentinel’s body.

It’s an issue with plenty of event, but very little explanation — actually, a pretty ideal first issue. I’m more intrigued than anything, but there was still a good dose of action to leaven all the mystery. That said, there were a few points where events unfolded just a little too conveniently. For example: everything the baby touches instantly malfunctions, and while it happens twice this issue it apparently had never come up before. I guess it’s lucky that Jubilee didn’t let him come near a single electronic anything on the plane, even though she had absolutely no qualms about it on the train. Also, Sublime figures out where Jubilee is headed by hitting redial on a pay phone. Never mind that Jubilee is using a pay phone in 2013 (she just flew in from Europe, so I guess it’s possible she didn’t have her phone with her) — do pay phones even have redial buttons? A quick search suggests no — at least, not the ones at Grand Central Station. I’m also not entirely clear how Rogue stops the train. Sure, she detaches the engine, but the rest of the train should have enough momentum to carry it the half-mile further to collision. Further, it doesn’t explain how the other train managed to stop so quickly.

Okay, if it seems like I’m nitpicking, it’s because I’m trying to avoid the elephant in the room — the all female cast. Wait, let’s back up: why is a cast of six female characters considered the elephant in the room? Honestly, you shake up a bag of all of the possible X-Men characters and pull out six, you’re bound to get an all-female cast eventually, and it’s not like this cast is by any means made up of random second-stringers — these are A-list X-Men. All that is to say, I’m not convinced the choice of cast was meant as the transgressive feminist statement fans have turned it into. In fact, I think the issue suffers if we emphasize gender to that degree.

There are certain X-Men characters that fans just can’t get enough of. I get that the core cast of this title can only be so big — which will always come at the cost of someone’s favorite character — but, like, I don’t think there’s a title out there that people don’t think would be improved by a Wolverine cameo. If this cast is about gender, suddenly thinking it can be “improved” with the presence of a male character becomes icky — even though fans just want to see Wolverine in fucking everything. Also, you know, he’s an important character in the X-Men universe, so his name is going to come up. Again, though, it becomes icky if we emphasize his gender.

Daddy Wolverine-bucks

Not only is Wood more-or-less admitting that we also want to see Wolverine write that check, but a gendered read Wolverine into this weird paternal problem-solver, which effectively robs the rest of the cast of their agency. (And this says nothing of the infantilization of the entire cast, which is also problematic. When Kitty discovers Jubilee on the train, she exclaims “OMG.” Never mind whether we’re meant to read that as “Oh my god” or if she actually said “OMG,” but that sure as fuck doesn’t sound like something a grown ass woman would say. She’s the headmistress of a prestigious boarding school, not a 13-year-old Belieber.)

Ultimately, I think this issue fails as a feminist comic, but I maintain that it was never meant to be one in the first place. Under it’s own merits, it’s mostly too early to get a solid read on it. I’m intrigued by this first arc, and it seems clear that Wood is as interested in the schoolyard as he is in the battlefield, so I’m definitely on board for more. How about you, Spencer? Has this title earned a return visit for you? Also, do you think you can explain Rachel Grey to me? I have no idea what her deal is.

Spencer: Ouch, Drew. Trying to describe the past of any X-Man—but particularly one of the Summers/Grey clan—could take years, so Cliff’s Notes version: Rachel Grey is the daughter of Scott Summers and Jean Grey from an alternate timeline. She’s an extraordinarily powerful telepath and telekinetic, which begs the question of why Psylocke is the one reading Sublime’s mind and why Rachel isn’t included in the crew of Omega Level Telepaths ready to take Sublime down. It almost implies that she might be weakened or depowered, but if she is, Wikipedia sure doesn’t mention it.

Also, she and Naruto were apparently separated at birth:

Like two peas in a really brightly colored pod

Anyway Drew, I find it funny that you brought up anticipation, because I had the same problem. How long has it been since this book was first announced, anyway? I’m not sure just what I was expecting from this book, but after all that time, it’s a little hard to live up to expectations no matter what they are. After pushing those aside and reading the issue through a few times, though, I’ve decided that I really like the book. It has its issues, of course: X-Men continuity can be impenetrable no matter how new reader-friendly the issue is, and occasionally dialogue or events are a little unclear. Drew, you actually already highlighted my three main problems with the issue: Kitty’s “OMG”s, Rogue’s mystery train rescue, and the fact that the baby didn’t short out the plane. So, instead of continuing to harp on its problems, I’m going to focus on what I liked about the issue: the camaraderie.

As Jubilee and her unnamed baby (henceforth known as Jubibaby) head for the X-Men, the omniscient narrator tells us of how the X-Men took Jubilee in when she was an orphan, gave her a home, and became her family. Its funny, because when I think of the X-Men, family isn’t the first word that comes to mind. They’re teachers, soldiers, occasionally even revolutionaries, but I guess when you live together and fight together, you become a family whether you want to or not.

When Jubilee meets with the other X-Men on the train, it feels like a million real-life family occasions I’ve lived through personally. They haven’t seen each other in a while, but they pick up right where they left off; Rogue and Kitty coo over Jubibaby while Storm plays the stern parent, and they marvel over the fact that little Jubilee is all grown up with a baby of her own. There’s affection and a familiarity between these characters that’s heartwarming and often missing in team books. It also helps show us how the X-Men operate as a family, instead of just telling us that they do and leaving it at that. Jubilee is the prodigal daughter, returning home with a baby in tow but being welcomed with open arms; remove the superpowers and I’m pretty sure this could be a Hallmark Movie of the Week.

It also helps establish Jubilee as a more adult character. I’m not sure everything that’s been done with her in recent years (last I heard she had become a vampire?), but I’m sure most of us mainly remember Jubilee as the bratty little mallrat from the 90’s X-Men animated series. Now she’s come full circle, returning home with a baby of her own and new adult responsibilities and worries. It’s a feeling that’s probably familiar to a lot of readers.

I’m also a fan of Oliver Coipel’s artwork. First of all, Jubibaby is adorable. The characters’ faces are expressive, and I love what he does with their hair, be it Jubilee’s scruffy locks, Rogue’s hair blowing dynamically in the wind, or Storm’s sweet, sweet Mohawk.

Maybe it's Maybelline

I was also impressed by the action sequences. While I still don’t know how derailing three of the train’s cars prevented a head-on collision, Coipel’s rendition of the scene is dynamic and easy-to-follow, and it was fun to see Rogue topple the train by combining strength with leverage, instead of going with a straight-up Superman-level feat of strength.

If there is one weakness to Coipel’s work, though, it’s definitely his interpretation of Storm’s costume:

It's a good thing you can control the wind, that's all I'm saying

Seriously, how does that stay up?

As for the all-female X-Men roster, I don’t necessarily think that Wood has a message beyond “Hey look how awesome the ladies of the X-Men are!” In fact, I love that the fact that the entire roster is comprised of women is never mentioned within the story itself. X-Men has always been a title that connected with female readers and featured a greater than average number of female characters—many of them powerful, iconic ones at that—and the specific ladies featured in this issue all have positions at the Jean Grey School and are all friends of Jubilee, so there’s nothing strange at all about them being together on this specific mission (and I bet if you mentioned it to any of these X-Men you’d end up with Rogue’s boot upside your head).

I haven’t heard anybody else mention it, but despite the (sadly) still rare emphasis on female characters, I’m actually much more impressed by this roster’s diversity. Out of six lead X-Men, three of them (Storm, Psylocke and Jubilee) are women of color; 50% of the team isn’t white, and in the world of comics, that’s truly impressive.

Anyway, despite whatever flaws this book has, I’m definitely coming back next month. I love the camaraderie between the cast, I’m intrigued by Jubibaby and Arkea, and honestly, I really want to find out why Mercury attacked Bling. Yes, a one-page, nearly throw-away altercation between two students I’ve never seen before interested me enough that I want to come back to see if it’s ever addressed again, and I’m taking that as a sign that Brian Wood is a writer worth sticking around for. So I’m going to do just that.

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?


29 comments on “X-Men 1

  1. So we’ve got these two ancient beings – twins: one male, one female – that are always at conflict with each other. I don’t totally love that the female entity has revenge “coded into her DNA.” Are these two characters supposed to be representative of Men and Women? I can’t tell if they’re supposed to be the prototypical male and the prototypical female or if their relationship should be treated as solely THEIR relationship. Anyone have any kind of reaction to the genders of these bacteria-creatures?

    • Honestly, the gender stuff here really bothered me. I honestly don’t think I would have even noticed that all of the leads are women (like I said, they’re all justifiably top-tier X-Men), but because everyone made a big deal about it, it suddenly became a gender issue. Read that way, there’s a TON of problematic stuff (was anyone else bothered that all of the women were oblivious to the dangers of this baby, while the ONLY male character knows what’s up?), including the suggestion that men are these benevolent protectors while women are malevolent destroyers. More than anything, I was pissed at the hypocrisy that would be necessary to justify this cast if it was a gender thing — whatever would make a single-gendered team good must equally make a mixed-gendered team better. Given that the X-Men have always been a mix-gendered group, this is more of a step backwards than anything. I really don’t think Wood intended for this title to be read through such a gender studies lens, and I don’t see the benefit of reading it that way.

        • I find the gendering of the ancient bacteria monsters strange all on my own. It seems like a very specific and purposeful move (bacteria don’t have gender) – and the concept of women having Revenge CODED INTO THEIR DNA bothers me. I don’t think that’s at all effected by hype or expectation.

        • It’s not women, it’s A woman.

          Maybe Wood wanted a female antagonist to go up against the female team. Maybe he’s working within the constraints of existing characters’ genders; I honestly don’t know enough about the X-Men universe to know.

          I’m not saying these gender issues don’t exist for the reasons you cite, I’m saying there are also reasons that make sense within the story as we know it so far that can explain them.

    • Well revenge isn’t coded into her DNA because she’s a woman–revenge is coded into her DNA because she was betrayed. Had she won their battle and betrayed her brother, revenge would have been coded into his male DNA anyway.

      And like you said, it’s weird that bacteria have DNA anyway, even ancient alien ones, so I have a hard time taking it seriously.

      Regardless, it’s one woman with revenge coded in her DNA, not all of them, and I don’t think we’ve been given enough information yet to believe that she’s meant to stand in for ALL women, metaphorically or otherwise.

      • Exactly. And it might be weird that we’ve got gendered bacteria, but we are dealing with ancient, sentient bacteria with the ability to possess machines, so I don’t think realism is what Wood was going for with this point.

        • Well, right, but if they bacteria wouldn’t normally be gendered, doesn’t it mean something that they are? And so specifically called FEMALE and MALE. If we’re not meant to read into gender dynamics from the relationship between characters that we’re introduced to as MALE and FEMALE, maybe I don’t understand how metaphors work.

        • And, granted, this is just the beginning of whatever’s going to happen with them. So maybe I should just cool off and wait to see how that relationship develops.

          Also, I think I was in a Johnathan Hickman’s The Avengers mindset while reading this, because I definitely read them as, like, the First Male and First Female (and therefore a literal model for all male/female interactions), but upon rereading it, I can see that they’re just a very old race of… something.

  2. Drew, you say this book fails as a feminist comic, but that it also didn’t set out to be one. I think that Wood using only women for his team without setting out to make a “feminst” comic is what makes it feminist; he isn’t treating women as some separate entity, he’s just treating them as characters. To me, it seems that showing a group of women can be a strong, capable team just like a group of men can, without intentionally trumpeting the distinction between the genders is very feminist.

    Also, I didn’t see Wolverine as a patriarchal problem-solver, here to take care of the ladies. Isn’t he in charge of the school? Regardless the genders of everyone involved, doesn’t he currently have the role of “the one who cuts the checks when we bust some shit up?”

    • I have to agree that making an all-female team and not telling a different story because of it does make this a more effective piece of feminist literature than if they teamed up to fight patriarchy or something dumb like that. It’s the Wonder Woman thing – right? We find her to be a more effective feminist role model when she’s just fighting gods and living her life than when she stands up for women.

      However, the point kind of remains that the X-men have always had diversity as their defining feature, and removing the gender-element might make this a little-less X-men-y.

      • If the X-Men have always been a diverse group, then what difference does it make? All men, all women, or a healthy mix, we know this is a diverse corner of the Marvel universe that gives equal shrift to all its characters regardless gender, color, orientation, etc.

        Looking outside the X-Men world to comic books as a whole, I have to say…I kinda like having a mostly female team book to read. With so much of comic book world treating women poorly (and so many comic book fans as well), a good book that just happens to feature an all-women team is like a nice little treat.

        • But what about gathering a variety of perspectives? That’s the actually utility of diversity of characters in fiction: not to fulfill some arbitrary checklist, but to actually have different voices on the team. I think having an all female team runs a lot of the same risks that having an all male team. I won’t say that I’m not interested in reading either (because I’m totally reading this and Fearless Defenders and I enjoy both), the idea of something having value specifically because there are only women in it just strikes me as false.

        • Look, there is some value to be had in something that is only female, specifically because it’s not something I experience a lot in comic books. I understand the importance of diversity, but it is nice to occasionally read something that is just women, especially here where Wood isn’t making a huge deal out of it. I love Fearless Defenders as well as you do, but the one thing that I’m not totally crazy for is that it is specifically and very pointedly a “no boys allowed” team. As far as we see here in this one issue, this book isn’t, it just happens to be only women. It’s natural, organic, and a breath of fresh air.

          Now, is the value I find in an all-female team the be-all, end-all for me? Absolutely not. If this book turns into some sort of “women are best, rah-rah-rah” sort of situation, it would no longer fall into the category of “good” and I would no longer be interested.

        • But I think we wouldn’t even question how problematic it would be if X-Men suddenly went from being a healthy mix to suddenly being only men. How would we justify the exclusion of any female characters?

          I get that there’s some difference, given that women are underrepresented in comics at large, but the solution is to fix the other comics, not to over-represent them in a title that has always had a diverse cast. Like, we’re sacrificing diversity ostensibly in the name of diversity. Two wrongs and all that.

        • Well, it’s not like there aren’t a dozen other X-Men books with mixed gender teams.

          Look, let’s say Wood does want to specifically tell a story from a female only X-Men perspective. You see it as sacrificing diversity, but let’s look at the big picture. Of all the team books out there, how many offer a women-only perspective? Not a lot. Adding a women-only team adds diversity, in my opinion.

    • In my mind, it fails to be a feminist comic because it fails to respect its female characters. They’re majorly infantilized, both in look and attitude, and I maintain that drawing attention to Wolverine’s power and their ignorance of the baby’s abilities only exacerbate that infantilization. This would probably only bother me a bit if it were a mixed-gendered cast, but it’s particularly upsetting given the expectations of empowerment created by the all female cast. Like, we’ve read plenty of titles that are more respectful of their female characters. Granted, we’ve also read plenty that are less respectful of their female characters, but the baggage of the all female cast here bothers me more than usual.

      Am I just being too sensitive here?

      • You might be a tad too sensitive?

        I honestly think the Wolverine line was just a joke with some unintentional negative implications.

        I do agree with you that Kitty Pryde was infantilized in this issue, but how were the other X-Men? They all seemed powerful and competent and in charge to me.

        And how were they supposed to know something was up with Jubibaby? They don’t know about the Omega Sentinel yet, so as far as they know, the train they were on just malfunctioned, and there was a much more logical explanation to it than the baby: the mysterious figure following Jubilee.

        Jubilee wants to have the baby looked over by the X-Men doctor, so it would explain why they didn’t do any immediate tests on the thing, and the team’s two telepaths, Rachel and Psylocke, are busy interrogating Sublime, so it’s not like they missed something about the baby.

        And we’re still not sure what Arkea has to do with Jubibaby–she possesses electronic devices, not organics, so how was she hitching a ride on the baby? Could the X-Men have detected anything off with the baby even if they had tested it?

        Knowing what we know as the audience, of course they should have never let the baby in the doors, but considering what the X-Men knew, I think they handled everything about as well as they could.

        • I keep coming up against this with dramatic irony — sure, we know that characters couldn’t possibly know what we know, but it’s not like there was a narrator explaining it to us. Instead, Wood and Coipel just directed our attention to something that was ostensibly observable to anyone who was looking. Sure, we have faith in our storytellers that they’re showing us important stuff, but I think this falls into the kind of dramatic irony where it’s just frustrating that we know more than the characters. This is obviously a symptom of a bigger issue I have with dramatic irony, but I think it’s suspicious that the “knowing” falls along gender lines (especially when I, as the reader, am also a man).

        • Yeah, I can see that. This kind of dramatic irony can get really frustrating. I think it depends on how obvious the clues are that the characters are missing, and on how long the charade lasts.

          In the case of the X-Men, I think the clues that Jubibaby is dangerous were pretty subtle, especially if you didn’t already have an inkling that something was off with the kid. And the irony only lasted one issue; by the end of the issue where the conflict was introduced, Arkea has already shown herself and thanks to Sublime the X-Men already know that the baby was somehow hosting her. So considering the subtlety of the clues and the extremely short duration of the information being hidden (less than one issue), I don’t have any trouble swallowing or enduring it, but I can understand why it might bother someone.

  3. So I almost forgot about this, but:

    I was doing a lot of Wiki-binging on the various characters featured in this issue after realizing that I only have a cursory knowledge of many of them, and I stumbled across some pretty insane stuff about Psylocke (actually, I stumbled across some pretty insane stuff for all of them, but Psylocke is the I want to talk about):

    So apparently Psylocke was introduced as the white, English sister of Captain Britain. A few decades later, after her psychic powers had evolved and transformed a few times, she somehow had her psyche split and was reborn in a Japanese body, a body that conveniently allowed her to become a master martial artist without putting any effort into training.

    I haven’t actually read any of these stories, and I’m happy to have Psylocke as a woman of color, but I dunno guys: I find this more problematic than anything in this issue.

    • Uh, I think that’s based on the astute observation that all Asian people are good at martial arts. Seems fine to me.

      No, but that is horrible. Was she tapping into some kind of ancestral memories or something? Or did the Wiki not go into enough depth to explore WHY she had those ninja skillz?

      • The impression I got was muscle memory, but I’m really not sure how that would work. It’s hard to comprehend what’s being said on Wiki sometimes; too much reading on there causes fuzziness in my brain.

        Regardless, it pretty much implied that they made her Asian just to give her martial arts skills (or thought that she should have martial arts skills just cause she’s Asian; either way, it’s pretty messed up).

    • Wow. Comics are a messed up place, friends.

      Hey, it never occurred to me before, but Jubilee’s ability to destroy electronics might be an unfortunate Chinese stereotype. GO COMICS.

      • But hey, that could explain why she didn’t notice her baby was fucking with electronics; she either avoided them as much as she could so she wouldn’t mess with them, or just didn’t even notice stuff shorting out because she’s so used to it.

        That could even by why she picked up the baby in the first place; she just figured he was like her.

  4. Pingback: X-Men 3 | Retcon Punch

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