It’s been a hard time for the X-Men. Mutants have struggled ever since “House of M” and even the restoration of the species has not solved their woes. Meanwhile Marvel copyright politics have seen them fall from the company’s killer app to a subline that’s consistently struggled and been sabotaged. For me, X-Men: Red has been the first main X-book since the “Schism” era to really recapture that sense of adventure and wonder that made the franchise Marvel’s number one for almost forty years.
Tom Taylor has been playing with some interesting and topical themes in his “Hate Machine” arc. That doesn’t slow down with what seems to be the big finale. Reminding us that the Sentinels’ chief innovation was not their weaponry but their ability to locate mutants, Taylor sets up a seismic set-piece for our heroes to find their way out of. It’s a rather clever bit of chaos, it’s a heist that takes full advantage of Gambit and Honey Badger but, when things go wrong, a clever quirk of Trinary’s power and some actual respect for how serious a gunshot can be pulls the rest of the team into a desperate rescue mission. This is the kind of mission the X-Men were made for and how to set up high stakes even without involving Magneto, the Juggernaut, or Mr. Sinister.
Unfortunately, for all the incredible set up, the issue feels kind of rushed. Both the aerial caper and an underwater brawl fly by. To be honest I’m thrilled that a comic went through its fights to get to the resolution too quickly rather than dragging them on forever, but I think we could have easily seen this issue split in two to accommodate some more character moments and make each set-piece feel more meaningful.
As exciting as these ideas are, it’s the ending of this book that really stands out. The X-Men as a concept are not quite in vogue these days. A team of marginalized heroes who use their incredible powers to protect their own from a bigoted society and to protect that bigoted society from their own when resistance becomes terrorism. It’s a dangerous middle ground between active social justice and championing the status quo and, as society has come around to the realization that the arc of history only bends towards justice when we bend it that way, the disconnect between Xavier’s dream and his original intention for the X-Men has become more and more noticeable.
So, with this issue, X-Men: Red reaffirms its commitment to that original goal and does so in a way that seeks to make clear that it’s not afraid to upend that status quo. Jean’s proclamation makes good on her promise to “weaponize the truth”, a potent boast from a telepath, and mixes classic heroism with just enough disdain to sell the idea that Taylor has for this series. Even as a cynical part of my brain tells me I’ve seen this before and the idea will matter less than the execution, something primal and young in my soul perks up: ‘these are the X-Men!’
Of course, it could fall short. It could fall into those centrist traps that ensnare so many trying to balance peace and justice. The writer is certainly coming from a place of privilege (at least to all appearances), and there is that creeping effort to set the parameters of each threat in the margins of the book, that can result in moralities that only work with spherical trolley cars in a vacuum. But Taylor is certainly not shy about being a liberal and Jean’s powers and proactive mindset ensure that the potential is more than there.
Perhaps what’s most interesting about it is precisely that uncertainty. Obviously Jean needs prove her credentials to no one, but one has to wonder how Kitty and her team feel about Jean making declarations on behalf of the X-Men. Is that intentional? Is there a danger in Jean’s restlessness for change? Is that the same status quo mindset I’ve railed against? The possibilities are truly vast and deep and Taylor’s track record says that if Marvel editorial lets him really go wild here, we could very well see them borne out.
This issue also really reminds how incredible Trinary’s powers are. They’re ridiculously far-reaching and, so far, don’t seem to have any rules beyond ‘she can make any piece of technology do anything it could conceivably do.’ I’m interested to see how she develops, because her failing powers this issue make for some of the best moments, while her successes illustrate how she can be actually dangerous to the tension of the book.
There’s also one moment where Nightcrawler teleports through the floor, which upsets the pedant in me, but can be explained in several ways if you don’t just want to be grumpy for its own sake.
The art is strong, if hardly singular. Carmen Carnero offers a handsome sampling of the modern Marvel house style. It’s a familiar aesthetic that seems to reach out for the twenty-first century superhero story, full of reinventions, grounded over gritty atmosphere, and big event books. Luckily, Carnero seems to be aiming for this book to feel like an event.
This book is filled to the brim with big action and Carnero delivers page after page of forceful layouts and cinematic splendor. The shadows are rather heavy at times for my taste, but it’s precisely that tension and weight that Carnero seems to be going for. If so, she succeeds. The motion and impact of each panel help to sell the stakes of this book and help put a little awe back into the familiar aesthetic.
Best of all, it’s not limited to the action. The momentum and purpose of small character moments comes through clearly as well. Not to mention that Carnero draws a stunning Nightcrawler.
Unfortunately the pacing of the book is hurt by the sheer scope of the images. The script already felt a bit harried but throwing in the kind of widescreen thrills that this issue features proves a double-edged sword, giving the book some grandeur but making it feel like an even quicker read.
Carnero finds an able supporter in Rain Beredo. Beredo’s anchors the book around a handful of stunning colors. Pretty much anything to do with Nightcrawler, Trinary, or Teen Abomination has a vivid and iconic shade to it. That said, the colors share many of the problems I mentioned about the art. How much each contributed is impossible to say, but you can feel both artists being pulled towards that unoriginal house style and, given their strongest moments, one can’t help but feel that they both had something more interesting to offer.
Regardless of what could have been, the combination of Carnero’s inks and Beredo’s colors often push the book towards something grounded when the issue’s best moments are about how beautiful it is to soar. The simplicity of Carnero’s pencils is lost at times, while at others the crucial blast of color puts life into the lines. Beredo shines in his best moments but the general vibe of the comics feels a bit too dreary.
The first arc of X-Men: Red comes to an end that is almost perfect on paper, but is plagued by numerous minor awkwardnesses. The pacing and lack of wonder in much of the coloring feel like the biggest problems, nudging this book a little closer to the generic mainstream and farther from the rebirth of hopeful comics heroism that it sought to be. There are rounded edges that could have benefitted from some more bite and depth. Nevertheless Taylor and co. deliver big action and classic heart that tap a relatable core: that tiredness of settling, the desire be big damn heroes again. The art amplifies everything, the good and the bad, but its best moments are stunning and the impact is undeniable. It’s not perfect, but if you’re not at least kind of excited for this series after X-Men: Red #7, you haven’t been paying attention.
X-Men: Red #7 is currently available in comic shops from Marvel Comics.