By Rebecca Gault
In early 2002, Marvel embarked on their ‘Nuff Said endeavour, a brief event to highlight the artists working on some of the biggest flagship titles of the time. In this event, issues were written entirely without dialogue to tell stories exclusively through the art. Some of these issues were more well-received than others, but New X-Men #121 was one of the most successful issues to come out of the endeavour.
Set in the midst of the Cassandra Nova arc, New X-Men #121 focuses on Jean Grey and Emma Frost as they launch a psychic rescue mission for Charles Xavier, whose mind is imprisoned in Cassandra Nova’s comatose body. Growing up reading X-Men comics, I have always had a love for the women in this franchise, and this issue foregrounds two of the most powerful and iconic women in the series. It’s an issue that illustrates a very distinct feminine experience, despite the creative team behind it being a nonbinary writer and a male artist and, thus, having no women at the helm – something that perhaps would have offered it further strength.
It is no coincidence that the women highlighted here are telepaths. Uniquely suited to the psychic journey through the hostile environment of Xavier and Nova’s entwined minds, their abilities become the driving force behind this rescue. It’s not something we see often, for a multitude of well-documented reasons. In her book The Great Women Superheroes, Trina Robbins reflects on how female superheroes at Marvel in the earliest days were all given powers that were non-combative in the physical sense.
Jean, certainly in her early publication history, was a key example of this; her telekinesis and, later, her telepathy enabled her to stand at the side of a battle and take part with little more physicality than an occasional wave of her hand. This allowed the female characters to theoretically be part of the action while never compromising the demure physicality that their gender demands of them. It’s highlighted even in her manner of dress; a green mini dress floating around her thighs that she is unafraid to wear because her abilities do not demand physicality from her.
If telepathy is an ability aimed to defang the physical competence of these characters, then Emma Frost complicates this notion on account of the very present way she engages with her own physicality. Emma utilises her sexuality as a weapon – a lure for those she cares to manipulate. Meanwhile, in current canon, she is also capable of becoming diamond; and therefore, literally untouchable. Physicality is Emma’s weapon, shielded by her mind.
And so, we have two of the finest telepaths on Earth-616, both women occupying very different spheres, embarking on this dangerous mission.
Quitely’s artwork here is responsible for so much of the heavy lifting throughout the issue. His Jean is decked out in form-fitting black wear, echoing her stint as the Black Queen of the Hellfire Club while still illustrating the ways in which she has taken her own strength. Emma bares more skin in a classic white ensemble, creating a powerful contrast between the two and yet neither of them seem less powerful for it. The form-fitting nature of both costumes could stray into objectification in the hands of different artists but, here, there is agency in the way both these women conduct themselves – doubly so when you consider they are the ones who venture into this dangerous situation while the men are left to wait outside. This is no place for laser eyes or metal claws. In fact, this is the sort of battleground that Jean and Emma’s once ‘feminine coded’ powers are most intuitively suited to.
The progression through Xavier’s mind is a treacherous one. From the outset, both Jean and Emma are attacked by the psychic defences in place, designed to keep them out of Xavier’s mind and away from the truth at the heart of it all. Jean and Emma communicate in silence here. There is no need for conventional spoken language in this mental landscape, even as it is constructed to keep them divorced from one another.
There is a sense of power in their silence, however; a grim resolve that carries this issue on its back which is mirrored in Jean and Emma’s determination to launch this psychic rescue. Emma becomes a first line of defence, diamond used in a protective sense not only for her own benefit but to cover Jean as Jean blazes across the near untraversable moat that has been constructed around the very centre of Xavier’s mind. In contrast to Jean’s fierce progression across the moat, Emma gets tangled up in one of the traps laid there. She is, therefore, sidelined from the rest of the issue. Despite both women being significantly more empowered in this issue, it is nice to see that Emma is still fallible due to previously established character traits. It’s a good beat to note; empowering female characters does not mean negating character flaws.
Jean penetrates the defences in an almost aggressive attack and, as a result, is taken into the moment of Xavier’s conception. Irreversibly linked to this idea of procreation, the gender politics of the issue snap into focus here. It’s a simplistic way to illustrate power and one that has become necessarily complicated over the years, but it is nonetheless effective here – Jean is given a space in which to exert her own power and is therefore able to weaponize an ability that was previously given to her as a way to keep women out of traditional comics warfare. The battleground here is designed for their psychic strength and, in becoming a penetrative, attacking force, Jean especially is able to take control of the situation and therefore of their narrative. Jean becoming the penetrative aggressor is a sign of her ability to take control in this sphere.
It’s an empowering moment and doubly so when their speech only returns when they are confronted with Cyclops and Wolverine; both of whom had been excluded from the psychic battle raging on. They are put into the position that women often were in early comics warfare; left on the sidelines with little to do but wait until the bulk of the fighting is done. They are placed in a reactive position, only able to re-engage with the narrative being told when Jean breaks the silence. They are permitted to react to spoken words. Jean and Emma have been bonded in their silence, a bond that they do not, and cannot, share with Wolverine and Cyclops; certainly not to the same extent.
It’s certainly interesting to see these women take control of the silence and realise that they are, in fact, the ones who are best suited to fighting within such constraints. New X-Men #121 is an issue which is keenly aware of the history of these characters and to the politics around them. It’s certainly the most effective use of silence used within a comic book issue that I can recall and it creates a dynamic, engaging tale – one that only works so well because of this engagement with their histories.
New X-Men #121 “Silence: Psychic Rescue in Progress”
Written by Grant Morrison
Drawn by Frank Quitely
Coloured by Hi-Fi
Lettered by Richard Starkings
Rebecca Gault is a writer and academic who publishes regular reviews with ComicsBookcase. They can be found on Twitter here!
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