The real world is a scary, mystifying place. The internet more so. You can click off of this review right now and find entire sites dedicated to anti-vaccination movements, barely hiding their fear-mongering and hatred for people with autism. Just a tab over, the word that Tumblr has banned sexual content but not white supremacy blogs. Deepfakes, the internet alt-right, “SJWs,” “NPCs”, more. How do you combat that, when the enemy is behind a screen, behind a seemingly endless army of avatars?
Writer Tom Taylor (All New Wolverine, Injustice) has some ideas. Some very good ones. Accompanied by artists Carmen Carnero (issues #6-8) and Roge Antonio (#9-11) he uses X-Men: Red‘s second volume to bring them to life staggeringly well.
What’s it about? Marvel’s preview reads:
The adventures of the newly resurrected Jean Grey and her handpicked team continue! One of the X-Men’s greatest foes has come calling on Namor’s undersea kingdom of Atlantis, and they’re determined to bring about its end! Jean Grey and the Red team find themselves out of their element and under the sea as they must repel a devastating attack! Plus: The world grows more hostile toward mutants every day, and one of the X-Men’s fiercest foes is working behind the scenes to keep it that way! But Jean has had enough of the hateful world she was reborn into, and it’s time for her to confront the one responsible head-on.
Some big set pieces! Namor! The return of Jean Grey! Devastating attacks! Naturally, that’s all here (this is X-Men, after all). But the key to the entire thing, really, is “the hateful world”. Readers might be concerned that the idea of the X-Men versus the hateful world has been done before, and it has (this is X-Men, after all). But the nuance with which Taylor delivers the narrative — the core concept of this story elevates it beyond the bog standard ‘us and them’ mutant story with resonance and immediacy.
You see, this is a story about the internet. It’s just using the X-Men as a convenient wallpaper for its conversation. You may have picked up on that during the first volume of this series — it hits a fever pitch as Cassandra Nova, the villain of the story, employs the timeliest weapon of all the X-Men’s enemies: an A.I.-made deepfake of Jean Grey saying she hates humanity. It’s nothing like I’ve ever seen in an X-Men comic, and it changes everything about the stakes. It changes the ways that our intrepid heroes have to reply. It makes Jean, the motherly and immensely powerful, often overstepping heroine of the story, cloaked in new armor, employ a tactic of no harm, of diplomacy, of “weaponizing the truth.” It brings the rest of the Red team together, literally holding hands (Storm, Gambit, Wolverine, Honey Badger, more) to put their powers together to bring that truth to the forefront of the world, to people’s minds — to shine a light in the eyes of their biases and say “this is not the way our discourse has to be”. These people-first set pieces end up being infinitely more compelling than the big action pieces in the end, the heart of a story full of heartfelt moments.
It’s a violent superhero story about the revocation of violence. Taylor brings this together perfectly, making the issue so apparently bigger than the X-Men, so obviously parallel to our life, but also leaving room for character growth and plotting that works well within the scaffolding of Marvel’s world. It’s heavy and dark but balanced. Cut perfectly by Honey Badger constantly badgering Jean to name their underwater based Searebro to declination until official title cuts declare the base “SEAREBRO”.
Carnero and Antonio meet this call perfectly. For the crazy highs and lows that this narrative calls for: turned Sentinels with rainbows painted on their chests, men holding radioactive chambers closed with their bare arms, heroes holding hands — they have answers. It doesn’t always hit the mark, and sometimes Jean’s face in particular is very inconsistent, but for the most part it’s singularly focused on the things it needs to convey at any given time. Especially with a great number of team shots throughout — one with Jean saying “The X-Men will fight for you” being particularly good.
All said and done, X-Men Red‘s second volume is an important one. Its conclusion feels truncated, and maybe slightly idealistic as characters throw around “truth” like it’s a tangible thing, but it also rings relevant and emotionally immediate. It’s a response to the modern threats that face both us and our mutant brothers and sisters. It’s a considered effort that says “this isn’t the way,” and it’s all the better for it.
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