Like Blue and Gold before it, X-Men: Red comes to an end this week, a single, complete, eleven-issue story. Tom Taylor brought us to the brink of war last issue and now we get to see Jean and Cassandra Nova unleashed.
From the name to the execution, X-Men: Red has always been Jean Grey’s show, but, even in the final issue, Taylor puts the entire team on display. Perhaps especially is the more accurate word, as Jean steps back and becomes a symbol more than an active participant. In some ways that’s not surprising, Taylor is trying to redefine what a superhero series does.
Superheroes have long functioned, in their best and wisest forms, as allegories. Gandhi famously cited Krishna’s call to just war in the Bhagavad-Gita as the basis of his pacifist philosophy, calling it “an allegory in which the battlefield is the soul and [the hero], man’s higher impulses struggling against evil.” But, even if superheroes have aspired to this ideal, they largely remain stories about people in tight pants punching each other. Taylor probes that concept, reframing this final clash as something more akin to a disaster sequence.
This is what allows Taylor to give each member of the team – and several others besides – their moment in the sun. It’s not a battle, it’s an operation. It’s Jean’s plan and just by being there and making sure that its carried out effectively and humanely is enough. She doesn’t need to do the questionable Cyclops-inspired leadership schtick that comics have so uniformly adopted. Things like this really help to back up Jean’s, and Taylor’s, quest to find a new way, rather than making them feel like a gimmick.
And because of this the characters shine. Gambit has his Han Solo charm cranked up, barely managing half the things he tries this issue but pulling off that effortless heroism/selfishness thing that he does so well without being overbearing. Gentle doesn’t get much that will necessarily last beyond this issue, but he receives a genuine moment of heroism, emphasis on the genuine. And, of course, Honey Badger gets a couple last chances to steal the show, bringing Nightcrawler along for the ride. We even get a memorable Iron Man and Namor moment and some sweet, if occasionally excessive, scenes with Thor, of all people.
It’s really cool how effortlessly Taylor connects Jean and Cassandra and how he justifies Jean’s dedication to her ideals with more than her essential kindness and purity.
Unfortunately, there’s not a huge amount for Storm to do now that she’s reminded us that she could kill everyone on the island with a thought and, though much hyped, Trinary never really escapes her role as a plot device. It’s a shame too, as Trinary had a wonderful introduction, but, before long it just seemed like it was time to stop trying to make fetch happen and it started to become apparent that Trinary wasn’t contributing nearly as much as a character as she was as a way to handwave inconvenient technological impossibilities.
Still, when you’ve got a main cast of nine and you’re co-featuring the Avengers, having a couple of characters who don’t get a spotlight is more than forgivable, especially when you’re also wrapping up a series, making a comment on what heroism means in the modern day, and delivering great comedic and emotional beats.
In fact, Taylor’s balance of the necessary elements of a final battle is so finely tuned as to make it an easy contender for the issue’s greatest accomplishment. The only real weakness to the plotting or pacing is the feeling that the issue doesn’t necessarily reach too far.
Though this complaint is somewhat addressed by the struggle to reframe the superhero concept, there isn’t as much of a feeling of long lasting impact in story or out as I, at least, would like. It’s not clear what awaits us on the other side of “Age of X-Man”, but, as written, it feels like X-Men: Red #11 puts the toys away very neatly. More significant is a slightly weak symbolic payoff to the events that have occurred. Jean finally gets to lay out her vision for the world, but its largely the same one she held at the series’ start. This issue becomes reactive precisely because of that ‘disaster movie’ vibe and it is hard to feel victorious when we’ve just reset to the point we thought we were at when the series started. It feels like this is a better metaphorical beginning than a literal ending. But that’s comics and, though the book doesn’t have the time to conclude its story in an exceptionally satisfying manner and explain the ethical distinction between its vision and the unrealistic, ‘be nicer to nazis’ approach, it fights and scraps for the right to say ‘it worked this once and it could work again’. If we want it to.
Though this series has cycled through artists fairly quickly after losing Mahmud Asrar, it’s never failed for its visuals and that remains the case. Roge Antonio brings a flatter, simpler style than Carmen Carnero before him and one that, on first glance could feel like less of a blockbuster look. However, it won’t take much time with this issue to see through that bias. Though less focused upon detail can be crunched down and there are occasional panels that feel comparatively lifeless, the best of the issue is evocative and forceful, with the vast majority of the book leaning towards this latter category.
Antonio really shines in his portrayals of Jean Grey and Captain America, two characters appropriately in tune with the hopeful ethos of the story. Antonio’s button-nosed Jean comes alive just for the little ways that he makes her look small or cute, differentiating her from the often generic look that the character has been saddled with. What’s more, Antonio manages to do this without detracting from Jean’s sense of agency and competence. She maintains utter humanity and empathy as the hero of this story requires, even as she feels natural giving orders to the likes of the Avengers. Likewise, Cap presents a harsher take on the same minute and human expressivity.
Aaaaall the way on the other side of that coin is Cassandra Nova, who Antonio draws as a twisted, crag-faced being of unflinching practicality. He knows exactly how to draw weakness and strength out of her steely gaze and where to highlight the odd mundanity of her slacks and dress shirt to tap something unsettling and primal. And, of course, when she finally breaks down in favor of some rather big emotions, there’s the same clarity there too.
Throw in some crackling energy clashes, dramatic hero shots, and at least one harshly shadowed dramatic page and you’ve got an impressive range on display. And, despite it all, the book’s visuals come together exceedingly naturally.
Antonio proves a perfect fit for this story, giving the book a perfect balance between Silver and Bronze Age perfection, gritty modern intensity, and the bouncy, slice-of-life understanding of the empathy and force of character that these heroes (particularly the women and girls) bring to this fight. Were that not enough, the pacing of his layouts is excellent as well. His use of panels to punctuate his pages is spot on and each panel has a cinematic certainty and purpose. The use of negative space in the gutters is surprisingly effective and seems to help give Antonio a little extra control over his scenes.
This high praise does not erase the presence of a couple of repeated flaws that I mentioned earlier. However, while the amount of fanfare in number of words may suggest a visually more spectacular issue than X-Men: Red #11 actually is, I write so much about the positives of the art because that’s what makes me feel the strongest, not the admitted minor flaws but the moments of storytelling that say ‘these are the X-Men’.
Some of that acclaim certainly belongs to Rain Beredo. Where I complained in a review of a previous issue that Beredo felt as though he was being torn between a stunningly vibrant palette and a more subdued and traditional one, here he really gets to cut loose. Cassandra Nova makes excellent use of stoney grays and beiges, but, as her opposition, the X-Men and their allies are all gorgeous, vibrant shades that really bring out the comic book joy of the story without feeling excessive or out of place. The vivid, simple glow of Jean’s costume works just as well as the deep, reflective hue on the copied Magneto helmets and it all comes together wonderfully.
X-Men: Red feels like it was just getting started and that highlights the best and the worst parts of this issue. Philosophically, the series never had time to get into the shades of grey that could have made it something uniquely powerful, but its decision to balance its political stance and the primacy of its narrative leaves us with a fantastic final clash, worthy of any of the Marvel Studios productions and likely exceeding the vast majority of them. The characters are richly written and true to what we’ve always loved about them and the attempt to find a new way to be a hero keeps things fresh. The issue doesn’t try to reach for what Marvel has traditionally associated with event-level visuals, but instead does what Roge Antonio and Rain Beredo do best, resulting in a potent and evocative look that makes it even sadder that this is the end of the line for now.
With issue #11, X-Men: Red gets a satisfying and delightful conclusion that brings real character, new ideas, and impressive balance to the classic comic final clash. It lags just a bit for not being able to offer more, but I’m not sure if that’s a complaint or a compliment. Regardless, X-Men: Red ends on a high note, having told a well constructed story and brought something new yet fundamentally ‘X-Men’ to the stands.
X-Men: Red #11 is currently available in comic shops from Marvel Comics.