We’ve been covering the new era of X-Men on Shelfdust over the last few months, but on a time-delay from the actual issues being released. With the start of a new 22-part crossover story called “X Of Swords”, though, we thought… well, what a great chance to really screw up our own internal timeline, eh? And so we’ve gone Swords-A-Go-Go, and we’ll see if we can get through all 22 issues together. If nothing else, at least we’ll try to make some good… points.
Several characters go through some massive changes in X-Factor #4, which is only our second chapter of X Of Swords. So far this event crossover has proven to be incredibly dense, even though the central narrative is a simple one: the X-Men need to go fight an invader. Whilst that central narrative essentially gets left to one side for this issue – thank god, to be honest, or this whole thing would implode from stress – writer Leah Williams nevertheless packs in a staggering amount of character detail into these pages.
We’ve all known for a long time that Polaris is one of the best X-Men characters, and she gets the spotlight here. You can see why a writer like Williams – who enjoys finding a mess and spreading it round gleefully – would be, uh, attracted to her: she’s a force of nature who has repeatedly lost confidence in herself. Although she’s always pushing forwards on the outside, Williams uses thought captions to explain to the reader how unsure of herself the character is on the inside. And here she’s put through a tremendous amount of stress – yet it makes her such a propulsive, engaging character. When you force a magnetic charge into a denser space, you tend to give off a more powerful magnetic energy, after all. Physics!
After being part of Apocalypse’s hastily-defeated team on Otherworld, Polaris carries a latent psychic message in her head, which nobody realises until she’s dragged in front of the Quiet Council and yelled at by her father. She’s literally holding the exploded remains of Rockslide in her hands at the time, cradling it like a comfort blanket, and when the psychic message is forced out of her she drops him – smashing him on the ground. When she wakes up, that’s her first thought – and she runs off crying at what’s happened to her younger teammate.
It’s unsettling in and of itself, but Rockslide’s appearances through the issue are deeply worrying to look at as well. Having died in Otherworld, “The Five” aren’t able to resurrect him – but they don’t realise that until after they’ve tried, and we’re then repeatedly told that something has gone very wrong with Santos. Whatever comes out of that egg is *not* the Santos that readers knew before, but the creepiest part is that we don’t get any real insight into what exactly has happened. Rockslide himself is pretty silent (and he keeps his head cocked at an eerie angle once he resurrects, an unnerving artistic choice from Carlos Gomez which really pays off) and there’s no demonstration of what he is now. All we’re told is that he’s “new” and “different”.
That’s just enough to get readers worried about the other X-Men, who are all about to head off into Otherworld to fight a battle. We’ve had a year of seeing the X-Men resurrect through any problems that come their way, and now the writers have brought us the first real problem. If they die on Otherworld, they come back wrong. Immediately the stakes are back! Up until now the X-Books have pushed a message of a singularity – clearly seen in HoXPoX, but also in books like Marauders, Excalibur and New Mutants in particular. Now there’s an individual capacity for loss brought back into the books, which gives the characters a sense of individuality once more.
You can see it throughout this issue. Proteus gets a Scottish accent, and “The Five” start making choices of their own accord, which we’ve not seen before. This issue gives them possibly more lines than they’ve had in the rest of the year, and during those pages we see that each of them has retained their unique personality and traits – and as a group they make the decision to destroy all the other eggs on Krakoa, which prompts fury from Xavier when he wakes up. The first chapter of this crossover saw Apocalypse and Krakoa both defy the Quiet Council, and in this issue both Xavier and Magneto get pushed past their usual reserve. Both of them yell at other characters at some point in the issue, which sneakily moves them into the antagonist role which is otherwise vacated here.
That’s pushed even further when both Polaris and The Five – the recipients of both verbal attacks – are put in front of the Quiet Council to explain what’s happened. Emma Frost, sacred protector of The Children, is obviously the one who objects to what’s going on, and the lack of empathy being displayed by their two leaders. There may be an army on the way, but the real villain here is Magneto and Xavier’s slavish devotion to protecting this one timeline Moira has told them they need to adhere to. They go on to take out their frustrations on a heavily wounded Apocalypse, telling him that he has failed and he’s failed because he didn’t follow the requirements of the Council. As Apocalypse gets berated from his death-bed, the issue breaks in and out of a sequence where Lorna takes the shattered remains of Rockslide and builds them into a summoning circle for the coming swordfight.
We’re seeing Apocalypse suffer an open and clearly-stated attack from Xavier and Magneto, but at the same time we see Lorna experiencing a similar attack brought on by those same three men. Hers is a mental break, enhanced by the repelling forces of positivity and negativity in her life. Whilst the mutant “elders” go around attacking and blaming each other, she literally shoulders the burden and carries Rockslide’s broken body across Krakoa to build the next step forward. It’s a really effective sequence (despite the muddied colouring from Israel Silva, which has none of Marte Gracia’s spark) and it sets up the crossover for whatever comes next. Krakoa is angry, the “heroes” on the Quiet Council are at each others’ throats, and dissent and discord are singing across the island in various little ways. It’s a story which is really dense in character, and that’s so much more interesting than a crossover which is dense in cog-whirring, plate-spinning narrative.
It doesn’t hurt that the issue ends with Magik showing up: finally, somebody who knows what they’re doing.
Writer: Leah Williams
Artist: Carlos Gomez
Colourist: Israel Silva
Letterer: Joe Caramagna
Designer: Tom Muller
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