by Patrick Ehlers
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
One of the frustrating things about our currently social and political landscape is that the generation pulling our country to the right was once a force for radical social change. When the baby boomers where hippies, they believed in equality and rejected conformity and corporatization. They championed peace, both as an antidote to war and on its own merit. We can argue about the efficacy of that countercultural movement all we want, but the point is that they were idealistic once. Somewhere over the last 50 years, peace and love turned into opportunism and xenophobia. To this point, the original X-Men have been spared this curmudgeonly fate. Introduced as avatars of otherneess in 1963, Jean Grey, Hank McCoy, Warren Worthington and Bobby Drake have such a long way to fall. Matthew Rosenberg and Travel Foreman’s Astonishing X-Men Annual 1 shows this corrupting influence in action, slowly radicalizing the most level headed, unimpeachable voices for equality in the marvel universe.
It’s a truly heartbreaking ride.
Rosenberg and Foreman start off by reminding us just how far our heroes have come. Beast approaches the host of the Grand Salon barefoot, wearing khakis and a white v-neck, confident that he can skirt the dress code with his bona fides. Of course, he can, but he shouldn’t have to. The beginning of his argument — “I’m fury and it’d make me unbearably hot to wear what you’re asking me to wear” — should be enough. All Beast is doing is asking the host to recognize his humanity. When that’s not enough, Beast charges in with his exceptionalism, as though that should make a difference in how he’s treated. It works. Beast’s status overrules his bigness, his blueness, and his mutantness.
That’s already a hint that Beast has been subtly corrupted by the passage of time. While he sure sounds like he’s representing all of mutant kind, and sticking it to this small minded maître d’, he’s mostly just acting the part to get access to the restaurant. He’s getting his, without actually changing the underlying behaviors or structures that would have kept someone like him out of the Grand Salon in the first place.
It’s in that frame of mind that Beast reunites with the surviving (and re-surviving) founding members of the X-Men, including Charles Xavier. Err… it’s sort of Xavier’s consciousness living inside Phantomex’s body… dude goes by “X” and all but refuses to explain how and why he’s back, despite numerous questions from his old team. Brilliantly, the “how” and “why” of it matters so much less than that it’s happening. The emotional impact of the reunion is huge, and Foreman helps draw a straight line from the past to the present.
Immediately after the page turn, Hank pulls the words right out of my head and accuses X of “weaponizing nostalgia”. Interestingly, it’s not really like Foreman taps into those same warm feelings the characters must be feeling. Foreman has just enough stringy grit to his character design that his renderings of fresh-faced X-Men feel less like nostalgic remembrances, and more like grim foreshadowing. Rosenberg’s dialogue for Jean in this panel is simple and letterer Clayton Cowles puts the word hated in bold. This isn’t good nostalgia, or even innocent nostalgia. This is something else.
In the adventure that follows, The X-Men have to actually decide whether or not they want to investigate why a whole town appears to be brainwashed. And it’s not just any town. X takes them to Lago, a small town where the inhabitants famously mobbed and killed a young mutant girl. The Twilight Zone-y twist is that everyone is treating them extremely well. Bobby and Warren and Jean all more or less go with the flow because they’re happy to be in a town where no one gives them shit for being mutants. Again, we’re seeing hints of that “fuck you, I got mine” mentality from characters who should be our crusaders for peace and equality.
As the action ramps up, X reveals that the extraterrestrial intelligence Lucifer has enslaved the town of Lago, The X-Men have to make a choice: kill Lucifer or find another solution. Warren gives himself over to the Archangel and decapitates Lucifer, severing his psychic connection and instantly killing everyone in Lago. It’s a horrifying outcome, and Rosenberg and Foreman don’t let us forget the price of victory in Lago, littering the panels with the corpses of ostensibly innocent people.
“You don’t get to pretend nothing is wrong forever.” X is warping the politics of the X-Men right alongside their morality. He’s speaking in some pretty scary absolutes, sounding less like a force for equality and more like cold survivalist.
X clears their memories and lets the X-Men replay their reunion just the next day, this time without him. But the psychic scars of the choices they made in Lago remain.
This last panel makes me so incredibly sad. Warren still feels the blood of an entire town on his hands, he still made himself vulnerable to the darker impulses of the Archangel. And Jean’s dialogue again clues us in to the real fucking darkness of the scene: “we’ve earned that.” Ouch. This could very well be the foundational work for collective four-way heel-turn, and I just don’t know that my heart is ready for it.
The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?