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There is always a dark side to utopia. There is always a place hidden from the rest of the world where those who do not fit in are kept segregated from the rest of society. The Age of X-Man is no different, with the Danger Room existing as a prison and rehabilitation/re-education center for those of the world who find themselves in violation of its laws. More than that, the public has no knowledge of the Danger Room or any of its inhabitants – all memories of the Danger Room or people sent there are erased from the rest of the world. Immediately spinning out of the events of the Age of X-Man Alpha, Vita Ayala and Germán Peralta’s Prisoner X follows the story of Bishop, a former X-Man, sent to a prison he never knew existed.
Right from the beginning, this series frames itself using the prison structure of the United States. The visual of a black man, who we have seen as a hero time and time again, escorted in chains by a group of faceless guards to a cell is striking imagery. There’s also an intense feeling of isolation and ostracism, as Bishop is shunned by the rest of the inmates for having been an X-Man in the past. The initial story hooks are all very entertaining as well, translating the fairly common prison drama tropes of shows like Prison Break and Orange is the New Black into X-Men. These pastiches could feel forced, but Ayala brings a level of fun and earnestness to the book that keeps it fresh and interesting.
The prison setting and genre tropes assigned to the cast allow Ayala to explore characters in new ways and take them in wildly different directions. This is most notable with their portrayal of Beast, who takes on all the traits of the “big man” in a prison. Hank McCoy, normally an intellectual, joyous person, seems to be the prison bully. But Ayala uses this facade to dig into Hank’s character – he is taking the role expected of him in order to protect others. There is an excellent scene where Beast talks about this rage within him that he normally channels into something productive, but is now almost entirely external. Ayala uses this setting to dig into many of other characters in the book as well, including Dani Moonstar, Polaris, and Honey Badger.
The story is incredibly compelling from beginning to end, as it follows Lucas Bishop as he’s accosted by memories of what the readers know is the real world, but to him is just a dream world. There is sinister laughter that seemingly only Bishop can hear, and he is randomly confronted by someone who he doesn’t recognize, but is a spitting image of his sister Shard. As the story continues, more and more inmates are roped into the intrigue, and the laughing man pulling the strings becomes more and more tangible until he finally appears. Unfortunately, there are a few flaws to this story as well. The book as a whole is hampered by its 5-issue limit, as Ayala is not able to properly establish the prison status quo and upend it within the page count, eventually resorting to a time skip towards the end that feels fairly abrupt. In addition the ending of the volume is a teaser for the Age of X-Man Omega, which is frustrating because the story doesn’t come to a satisfying conclusion. These problems aren’t nearly enough to negate the enjoyment of this volume, however, and it is still an engaging experience.
Germán Peralta does the linework for this series, with Matt Horak assisting on the final issue and Mike Spicer on colors. Everyone involved does an excellent job bringing Ayala’s scripts to life, as the oppressive prison environment is visually juxtaposed with characters’ flashbacks to their real, original lives. The final issue especially pops, as the prisoners’ fight with the real antagonist of the series thrusts them into a cosmic landscape that is wholly visually different from everything in the series prior yet fits perfectly within. Joe Sabino’s letters also add tremendously to the experience, with the laughter in the background ever present and visible without drawing attention away from the rest of the story. The book is visually cohesive from start to finish, providing an excellent reading experience.
Prisoner X is a fantastic story on its own and one of the strongest parts of the Age of X-Man. While it struggles with its reliance on the Alpha and Omega issues to provide proper context and closure for its story, it is still an enjoyable read on its own with gorgeous art. Ayala uses the alternate universe and setting to dig into the focal characters of the series in new ways, and as a whole the book is well worth the read for any X-Fan.
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