by Drew Baumgartner
This article containers SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk.
Comics have always reflected our real-world fears — from inner-city crime or nuclear panic — by heightening them to exaggerated extremes. Except, I’d argue, when it comes to the X-Men’s persecution. Sure, the X-Men’s superpowers would qualify as an “exaggerated extreme” of the types of differences that normally mark a minority class, but it’s straight-up not possible for writers to come up with more exaggerated ways societies persecute their minorities. From apartheid to lynchings to genocides, there’s nothing the X-Men have faced that real-world minorities haven’t already suffered, grounding even their most fanciful stories in sober reality. It’s a fact that Tom Taylor and Mahmud Asrar have leaned into from the start of X-Men Red, lending the series a “ripped from the headlines” approach that is truly unique in superhero comics.
For issue 4, the topic is how easily elections can be manipulated by fear and bias on social media. It’s a fact we’re still coming to grips with as a society, so Trinary’s summary feels extremely topical.
She goes on to suggest that the nanites they discovered in Ororo’s brain are a suped-up version of that, but it’s almost not necessary — we all have firsthand experience of how potent and toxic that kind of manipulation can be, even without any sci-fi augmentation. But Taylor and Asrar put an even finer point on it, showing Cassandra Nova implanting those nanites in world leaders — though again, we’re already quite familiar with how our leaders can be manipulated by media that confirms their biases.
Pitting a superhero team against such real-world forces as hate and bigotry is daunting, but has been the X-Men M.O. from the very start. Taylor and Asrar are daring here, for sure, but the tradition of the X-Men more or less demands it. Moreover, they’re handling themselves remarkably well. In between all of that commentary, we’re treated to character moments that are by turns touching and silly. Taylor has a solid handle on all the characters here, but his head-start with Laura and Gabby allows them to steal every scene they’re in.
There was no way I was not going to feature this moment in a write-up.
The effect is a feeling of very real characters dealing with very real problems. I have no idea what the solutions will be (and the pessimist in me doesn’t have much hope), but the struggle will obviously be cathartic. That’s worth sticking around for, at the very least.
The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?
It is kind of funny having one of those “character alludes to real world story obliquely to explain villain”, but instead of being a minor story involving some small nation people usually ignore, it is the biggest story in the world, and America and the UK are the hacked nations.
But danb, does specificity help. I praised Deadpool 2 for its use of specific oppression, and the choice to make Cassandra Nova’s oppression come from something that is actually happening. The threat of Cambridge Analytica on minority groups is a real danger. And such a specific and real threat is so much more powerful than the generic feeling of oppression.
Though my only problem is how it affects mutants. In real life, Cambridge Analytica’s work would not have that result. While it is hard to say what Cambridge Analytica did, as there is a very real possibility their work was given to Russia as part of the collusion, it is quite clear that there was no equivalent to making mutants hate themselves to the point where Storm could do what she did. What actually happened was Russia tried to either demotivate them by pushing movement like BernieOrBust or trick them into acting in ways that would heighten division and make it easier to recruit racist white people. What Cassandra Nova’s sentinels should be doing to mutants is heightening their real greivances until they turn in Magnetos, justifying anti – Mutant bigotry. Not only is this more like the headlines, it fits how Trinary describes the tech and, more importantly, roots Cassandra Nova’s manipulations in character. Instead of Cassandra Nova having an army of mind controlled slaves, she’s unlocking people’s worst natures. Storm and Forge’s mind control would be a chanve to see what these characters biases are and show even the dark side of good people.
Mutant mind control aside, though, this really makes Casaandra Nova a great villain for this book. Not only is the specificity such a powerful tool, this sort of evil is the perfect counter to Jean’s mission. She is the perfect villain for the book’s unique approach to superheroism.
But it is a shame that we lose the clothing for the ugly costumes. The clothing was such a great thematic choice, fitting the firm footing in global geopolitics. Especially with the well chosen clothing choices. Costumes are disappointing after the great use of clothes
I think the parallels work a lot better if we understand that there’s not a 1:1 correlation between individual mutants and individual citizens, but that the self-loathing/self-destruction does have a strong parallel to how entire countries have reacted to these attacks. It’s not that individuals were made to hate themselves, but that the population was divided against itself, so the country as a whole was made to hate itself (and ultimately harm itself). It’s a little more abstract, for sure, but I think it works really well here.
I agree the metaphor works on that level, but my problem is that the whole reason why specificity is so powerful is that it can work on multiple levels. It can tell that story, and a more specific story that works on a more personal level that makes the overall story strong on both a character and emotional level.
The metaphor certainly works for the way that such techniques are used to make nations self destruct and harm themselves, but it would work on that level if it also worked on the personal level. Either way, this self destruction caused by manipulation of our worst elements. But one that also looks at the way indicidual groups personally are affected works better. The humans are handled perfectly, turning in hateful rioters. But the mutants could be done in so many different ways. Maybe their apathy or their despair are manipulated, so they don’t fight back. Or maybe their anger, so they fight back in ways that have bad political optics (Storm being manipulated into a Magneto figure is a great idea).
I love the specificity of this issue (I feel the rush to finish this before friends turned up to go to Solo made it a bit hard to tell. I regret not putting quotes makes around ‘justifying’ as well). But if it was more specific, it could take the metaphor into even deeper places that worked on more levels. Ultimately, this is a good metaphor that could so easily be better by not taking a one size fits all approach to the nanosentinels and instead having them affect different groups in different way. The more granular, the better