Today, Patrick and Michael are discussing Death of X 4, originally released November 23rd, 2015.
Patrick: At the risk of making a statement that’s been made a million times already: 2016 has been a hell of a year for high-profile deaths. Calling them “celebrity deaths” would be underselling it — figures like Muhammad Ali, Fidel Castro and Prince virtually changed the fabric of reality simply by existing in it. But for all their earth-shifting influence, their deaths were all quiet, ultimately meaningless affairs. These revolutionaries did not die they way they lived, which is to say, their deaths made no specific statement. Bucking the trend, was David Bowie, who had released an eerie, melancholy record in the final weeks of his life. Bowie knew that his life was performance – it was challenging and honest – and that his death should be the same. In Death of X 4 Jeff Lemire and Charles Soule close the book on the life of Scott Summers, insisting that he die the way he lived, a revolutionary, even if that’s a performance he was never putting on.
I don’t usually like to start at the end of these things, but this issue practically demands that we address the twist off-the-bat. Cyclops did die fighting against the Terrigen mist, but not in the heroic manner set forth in the first 16 pages of this issue. He died quietly and ignobly in his secret lab, scarred and weakened from Terrigen poisoning. But that’s not a useful death, and Emma Frost recognizes this and hatched a plan to perpetuate the idea that Scott was alive just long enough to see him die in active service of the mutant cause.
That’s one of those masterful X-Menian twists that works precisely because we should have been able to guess what was going on all along. This issue alone is peppered with hints that Frost is using all of her psychic powers to project an image of Scott Summers into existence. At one point, the Cuckoos are tasked with distracting the Inhuman Royals with their psychic abilities, and Celeste actually says:
“How can we stall them? Medusa, Black Bolt, and Triton all have psychic defenses. Mrs. Frost could probably get past them, but we can’t.”
Soule and Lemire are simultaneously raising the question “hey why wouldn’t Emma just do that herself?” and pointing out that she is uniquely qualified to plant images in the Royals’ heads in the first place. Artists Aaron Kuder and Javier Garrón get to play along, increasing the visual signs of Emma’s distress as “Scott” puts himself in more danger. When Black Bolt is finally blasted away by the word of Black Bolt, Kuder and Garrón give us inserts with close-up reactions of everyone on-the-scene – Emma’s panel is a little bit bigger and the trifecta of blood, sweat and tears are streaming down her face.
She’s not upset, she’s giving it all she’s got. This makes Emma Frost the quintessential “woman behind the man,” she’s just so good at it that she’s able to carry it on past the man’s death.
There’s also a beautiful little bit of storytelling earlier in the issue that forecasts this twist. Or… if not forecasting, it justifies why Cyclops’ legacy in particular is so important. After being knocked out of the sky, Alchemy needs a pick-me-up speech to get back in the air to might for mutantkind. By this point, Emma has been acting as the groups’ leader, even if no one was aware of that, so she steps up bully him back into the air. In the light of the final-page-reveal, this exchange means everything.
Cyclops proceeds to get through to Alchemy with compassion and understanding, and whether that’s just what Emma thinks Scott would do, or his influence rubbing off on her, it’s an important reminder that Old Scott need not be defined by the “Evil” monicker young Angel gave him back in All-New X-Men 4.
Also, I love the detail of Scott’s eyes being cut off in that second panel. We’ll see this again, when he’s about to be destroyed by Black Bolt. All of the most meaningful turns for “Scott” in this issue are predicated by obscuring the top half of his face. That’s doesn’t just call into question the man’s identity, but the source of his powers (i.e., his eyes). My point is: I should have seen the end coming.
But I didn’t, because I’m dumb and Soule and Lemire are not. Michael! Are you as big a dummy as I am? Also, how did you feel about most of the action taking place in the nondescript Spanish countryside? I usually grumble about that sort of Dragon Ball Z-esque convenience, but there really were too many large personalities at play to have to consider the physical space they were in. Lastly, Scott’s tombstone reads “Teacher – Warrior – Hero. Mutant. He Fought For Us.” That echoes the language “Scott” uses in his final confrontation with Medusa and Black Bolt. His (and by extension, Emma’s) account is a little bit different: “I’ve been a student. A warrior. A teacher. A revolutionary, a… killer.” Both “Student” and “Killer” cast him in different lights than the pithy epitaph on the tombstone – less streamlined and perhaps harder to understand. Emma condensed Scott’s legacy into something impossible not to rally behind, making her the savior of the X-men.
Michael: I love the Cyclops/celebrity death comparison Patrick, spot on. I’d say that Cyclops is more of a Michael Jackson than a David Bowie: he was talented and had a good heart but in his later years he strayed from the path a bit and made some questionable decisions. I can’t say that I love what became of Cyclops in the years since Schism and AvX: having Scott Summers out-Magneto Magneto himself. Then again I’m not sure if there’s a version of Cyclops that I would in fact champion. I like Cyclops – or rather the concept of Cyclops – but he’s always been a bit of a drag, right? Oddly enough with the surprise reveal at the end of Death of X 4, Emma Frost might actually agree with that sentiment.
There are basically two kinds of narrative twists/surprises: good M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, maybe Signs) and bad M. Night Shyamalan (basically everything else.) Bad narrative twists typically are those stories that base their entire plot on one big reveal, and don’t do any other due diligence. Truly great narrative twists force you to rethink everything you’ve witnessed before that reveal. You have to reexamine what’s come before from a completely different perspective, as if you were a time traveling comic book reader. I think that Charles Soule and Jeff Lemire have given us such a twist in Death of X 4: an issue that is defined by a twist that feels like it truly fits retroactively.
Every action that “Scott” makes in Death of X 4 is an insight into the character and mind of Emma Frost – it’s pretty cool that we can look into the mind of a telepath in this way. Everything that Emma or Scott says or does can be reinterpreted through what is her own self-image or what she’d like to project her self-image as. Emma Frost is a character who knows she’s damaged but at least tries to do the right thing. The Emma/Scott relationship was fraught with trouble, mistrust and power moves; they both knew they weren’t perfect but they still loved one another in their strange way. It makes sense then that the Cyclops Emma presents is a platonic version of Scott Summers: an embodiment of everything he was and everything he became. The Cyclops who “died” at the hands of Black Bolt was like a living obituary for Scott Summers.
To repeat: Scott Summers and Emma Frost had an imperfect, often depressing love; but love all the same. As Cyclops stands before Black Bolt, ready to face his end he spouts off all of the lives he lived. He mentions his victories, failures and losing “the only person he’s ever cared about.” Anyone who knows the very basics of Scott Summers will know that he is referring to Jean Grey. But remember, it’s Emma who’s actually saying all of this, not Scott. Though she’s probably right, it’s a sad notion that Emma knows that Scott will always put Jean at the #1 spot. That’s a crazy level of self-awareness right there.
Emma fools the world into thinking that Scott Summers died a defiant revolutionary when really he just died. It’s the contrast of fiction vs. reality and fantasies we might have about our own mortality. Emma wants mutants to buy into that fantasy that Xavier sold: that everyone can make a difference and become more than what they are. Sometimes the ugly, depressing truth is that some people might not make that difference – we die ignoble deaths, gasping for air.
Death of X 4 was one of the few comic book deaths I’ve read that felt real to me – not real in the sense that it will stick, but that it has weight to it. Cyclops’ death is like going to a funeral for that one uncle of yours who might’ve been nice when he was young was mostly an asshole at the end. It’s a complicated feeling trying to process the loss of a (fictional) person who I think I used to like but turned into a crazy zealot. As the “man” himself said “I’m not even a person anymore.” I might not agree with whatever Scott Summers turned into, I think I’m on board with Emma’s little stage show. I think most of us like the idea of Scott Summers than we do the actual character.
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My only insight into this is not really thinking that Prince had anywhere near the same cultural or social relevance that Ali or Castro did.
And, I guess, that I’m glad that I’ve dropped the X-Men from my reading list. I just am not interested in this battle or these characters at all any more.
But really, more interested in viewpoints that include Prince as a cultural icon. I was a product of the ’80s (I watched MTV in Prince’s heyday), and he was popular, but not to me or my peers more than Madonna or Huey Lewis. And I”m not even sure Huey Lewis is alive still (I bet he is, and if he’s not, that backroom rock and roll will live on).
Prince was definitely a huge deal. I think especially among African Americans, musicians and anyone doing any gender-bending. Obviously, the other two examples are huge historical figures with ambitions on changing the world, Prince sorta did it as a consequence of being himself. Plus, hey, I wanted a third example.
I’ve always liked Prince but was sort of caught off guard by how many people close to me were ROCKED by his death.