Today, Shelby and guest Charles Cress are discussing All-New X-Men 14, originally released July 17th, 2013.
Shelby: The “fake-out” is a pretty effective way to garner suspense, especially in serialized story-telling. It’s one thing to make the audience believe something, and then later in the story reveal something totally different, but when you’ve got a month between installments, that reveal is a lot more powerful. It gives the illusion more time to set in the reader’s mind as the reality of the story. Just as serialized media can increase the rewards of the fake-out for the reader, so also does it increase the risk of reader disappointment. It’s up to the author to make an anti-climactic “just kidding!” reveal meaningful enough for the character to keep the reader from feeling unfairly tricked. Considering he’s using fake-out reveals that literally involve illusions and tricks of the mind, Brian Michael Bendis has got himself a long row to hoe with this one.
Dark Phoenix is back, and she is pissed. Except, not really: just as Logan is mid-leap to kill Jean before things get out of hand, she reveals it was a psychic illusion. She thought she was projecting it into the minds of the bad guys only. Everyone fights for a while, and the good guys eventually win. Sabretooth and Silver Samurai get away; Mystique and Lady Mastermind are captured. The Avengers show up to deliver a half-hearted scolding, and Mystique escapes because that’s what she does.
For how little actually happens, plot-wise, this issue, it feels awfully scattered and messy to me. It’s not surprising, considering how much of the issue is taken up with the Jean/Lady Mastermind Battle of Tricking Each Other. The whole fight occurs in fits and starts as every little “gotcha! it was an illusion!” reveal interrupts the flow of the narrative.
Despite the jerky rhythm of the story, there’s a lot to like this issue. Stuart Immonen’s pencils are superb. I love the way his characters break out of their respective panels and stretch across the page. It’s especially appropriate in a fight scene; it visually represents the chaos of the battle as well as makes the action seem more dynamic. Immonen is also doing a lot interesting things with our perspective of space and distance with this particular trick.
Look at how Sabretooth is falling out of his panel and stretching across the bottom half of the spread. It really does come off as an optical illusion of three dimensions, like he has broken the fourth wall and is interacting with us in our space instead of in the two-dimensional comic book space. It’s a great way to visually support Bendis’ commentary on what is real and what is illusion in the Jean vs. Lady Mastermind fight.
That was really what caught my attention this issue. During the fight, Jean tell Mastermind that while she creates mere illusions, Jean is in her head, altering her reality. Lady Mastermind thinks of something that would throw her enemies for a psychological loop and creates it; she’s operating on a solely external basis, relying on context clues and the environment for her illusions. They’re effective, but ultimately superficial. Jean is dealing with realities; she knows your actual fears, weaknesses, everything you hate about yourself. She works from within your own mind, using your own personal reality against you. It makes her a much more dangerous foe, which is why Mastermind was so keen to try to beat a hasty retreat when the fight was over. The best part is, Jean knows exactly how powerful and dangerous she is, and will be. That’s what made the Dark Phoenix psych-out much more than a cheap trick in my eyes. Jean needed to become something that would truly terrify the bad guys. She didn’t make herself look like just some random monster, she made herself look like the monster she will become.
Jean, like Scott, has to confront the terrible future that awaits her. That fear her friends felt when they thought she was the Dark Phoenix was well-earned; the people closest to her so fear the monster she becomes, they would rather kill her than let it happen. Bendis has crafted Jean into a character who is both lonely and vulnerable, and terrifyingly powerful. On top of all that, she’s just a kid, trying to figure out how to shoulder this new, immense responsibility. It’s a very volatile situation; I didn’t realize how volatile until this very issue. We’ve been worried about Old Scott and Young Scott, Angel’s defection, Mystique’s plans, the general continuity of the timeline with this extended time traveling: Jean’s been the secret powder keg all along, and I really hope she’s the one to blow this title wide open.
With that, I’m going to turn things over to our guest writer Charles. What did you think about the Dark Phoenix psych-out? Was it meaningful enough to the story to keep you satisfied, or did it just come off as a cheap trick? Do you think we’re as worried about Jean as we should be? How adorable was that scene between Thor and Bobby?
Charles: Subterfuge is probably based around the root word “subtle”, or at least if it isn’t, it should be. Being hidden isn’t the only qualification for an effective ruse; it also requires a degree of misdirection. After all, it wouldn’t be that secret if we knew what was happening, right? Shelby, I think we both were waiting for the subtle part of subterfuge, but got left hanging low like the many fruit All-New X-Men #14 bears.
Somewhere during the third or so “Haha, that was in my mind, fool!” I was trying to consider whether Bendis actually wanted us to believe the constructs Jean and Lady Mastermind were creating, or wanted us to understand they were false, but enjoy the mental chess. Were we supposed to be shocked at every twist, or studying the combatants’ techniques and mental states based on their illusions? Arguments for both dot the text, but I’m frankly more inclined to agree with the former concept (if we explore the latter, and I think it’s worthy of analysis simply because the economy of detail in comics dictates everything mean something inherently, Jean maybe knows too much about her future, and an emotionally unstable girl could take that knowledge in wildly different directions). We were definitely supposed to buy these rouses (evidence of which can be illustrated quite literally by the panels never once showing either mentalist conjuring the images until the farce has been exposed by respective team members), and more so, they are performed gleefully with little irony, which makes it a particularly confusing read. That’s not to say this concept can’t be fun. There exists a relationship in narratives that inevitably ties (if done right) the feeling of the audience to that of the central characters. The illusions allow for some very exciting storytelling that can quickly jump start emotions in the reader. We (presumably) didn’t know they were illusions, and neither did the protagonists. While that is a nice device to put us in their shoes, it requires not just a willing suspension of disbelief, but a reason for suspending your disbelief, which ANXM #14 was short on. It did, however, work on more than one level; I disliked how it worked within the four walls, but loved the meta implications.
Bendis was cleverly playing with the cyclical nature of X-Men stories and dancing on Chris Claremont tropes like a festive bard, and that’s where this hit a chord for me. Mr. Bendis is nothing if not a student of Marvel history, and he knows the fire he’s playing with. The bulk of the latter half of this entire ANXM arc is a direct reference to Uncanny X-Men volume 1, circa issue #129 and up (aka, the beginning of the “Dark Phoenix Saga”). The allusions are many, from Lady Mastermind manipulating Jean to the appearance of the Phoenix to Wolverine facing maybe the only nightmare he still can’t shake. Bendis understands that X-Men stories go in circles like a Cheerio (Phoenix, Hellfire Club, Age of Apocalypse) and I am okay with playing fast and loose with Phoenix fever, but the payoff, even though it wasn’t an actual Phoenix appearance, paled in comparison to not just the original, but even most comics on the market.
Our big reveal last issue was all but confirmed with nary a wink or looming shadow: Mystique is doing this solely to buy an island. That’s it. That’s all. The capers, the internal tension between heist mates over the true purpose, all for naught. This was to buy an island. Her page with Wolverine discussing this really soured the rest of the issue.I was more shocked that Bendis wasn’t playing a game with us this time and I can’t help but look back through this issue in search of some kind of clue. A world where saving money to buy an island is a five issue story arc is well…just not that entertaining. As it stands, as it’s presented, I feel let down. Not only were we robbed of a true Phoenix showing (whether not you feel cheated by this is directly proportionate to how often you believed it when old Marvel comics said “Not a dream! Not an imaginary story! Someone dies!”), but the climax was as pedestrian as an evil plot gets. Again, you have question intention here, and if this is some sort of Kansas City Shuffle, he didn’t use the medium to its apex to deliver that message. We can only see what Bendis and co. decide to show us, and without some suitable foreshadowing evident, any further developments will come off as tacked on deus ex machina. Bear in mind though, this entire arc may have been a long way to a short drive establishing Jean’s shaky grip on everything. Which, while it will (hopefully) bear fruit in five more issues, doesn’t help readers now.
Comics are, however, mostly visual, and Shelby, we are simpatico in our love for Immonen’s incredible pencils. His style is one I haven’t seen anywhere in the world of comics, and as per usual, he uses each issue as a giant sombrero on which to rest his considerable talent (and nachos). His style can only be described as kinetic, a constantly rattling water glass echoing the vibrato of excitement throughout the story. No other artist on the planet has reminded me of “King” Jack Kirby more than Mr. Immonen. He breathes life into his pages as if inflatable objects. And really, interpretation is why we even have different comic book artists in the first place.
Look at something like page 14. Here we have the (unreal) Uncanny Avengers descending onto our surprised protagonists. A page like this probably has a script describing in vague terms how the team appears at the top and our heroes look on confused while Lady Mastermind makes an escape. However, when interpreted through a storyteller on the level of Immonen, it seems to speak in an almost secret language.
Observe the larger top panel: not only does this exist at this size to fit in the entirety of both teams, but its size speaks to the chronology. The five panels below all stretch to the same width, but are a third of the height. Reading it, it translates an unspoken understanding that the top event was more than a split second image; it was long enough that the length allowed Lady Mastermind time to escape. It’s almost an anti-comic page, wherein the panels aren’t in order as much as they’re arranged like puzzle pieces to give us a full picture. Choices like these define what makes good comic art.
But, I’d be remiss if we moved beyond the art and didn’t discuss the colors of Marte Garcia. This issue in particular, while being a weak issue to show off variances in his palette (a bottle episode, in a grey warehouse…great), gives the talented artist a spotlight for how well he uses the colors he has. The series as a whole has an unmistakable sense of doom lingering over it largely because of the mix of greys, dark reds, browns, and blacks used to fill in the background. Standard comics run on white pages; ANXM runs on pages reminiscent of an autumn night. They have this amazing gradient color shift from top the bottom that the team seems to employ for special circumstances. The page above fades from a pitch black to a grey struggling for light at the bottom, while on the next spread the backgrounds take on a mono-hued washy black. This is what people mean when they say comics are a visual medium. This is subtly.
All-New X-Men #14 is quintessential Bendis: some laughs, cuteness beyond the likes of which comics about time traveling angst-y teens will ever see again. The issue at hand had some nice character moments, especially the growing connection between the current instructors and the past class of mutants. And oh my god, you’re right Shelby, that snowball Bobby threw at Thor was like watching puppies wrestle! Comic storytelling relies on choices. The art in this book continues to make daring, bold choices in presentation while the undeniably talented Mr. Bendis goes back to the magic bag ‘o tricks once too many times and pulls out a very confused bunny rabbit. This book is readable, and the concept is far too interesting not to explore, but I question the non-visual plotting.
Charles Cress is a essayist and comic book writer from Ypsilanti, Michigan. His debut comic book, Endless, will be self-published (for now) and due to be out next month. You can follow him and the latest updates on how and when you can purchase his comic book on Twitter at @CharlesCressand @Endless_Comic respectively. He loves parenthesis.
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