Four weeks in to Heroes Reborn, it is about time we get a close look at how mutants are faring in a world without the Avengers.
If you have read any of the alternate universe stories that inform writer Steve Orlando and artist Bernard Chang’s one-shot, you probably know the answer. Avengers or not, mutants will always be hated and feared.
The Avengers have often had a testy relationship with mutantkind, but the Squadron Supreme is an absolute nightmare. Orlando establishes Magneto and his team as the vanguard of a fading mutant resistance, which lost hope after the Squadron killed Charles Xavier in what became known as the “Mutant Massacre.”
If you are someone who enjoys nods to X-Men history, you will have your hands full (and probably, quite a few tabs open on your browser) while reading this issue. Orlando cycles through references from Age of Apocalypse, Grant Morrison’s New X-Men, and even Magneto’s early fights with Captain America.
The “mutant force,” originally an incarnation of Magneto’s mutant brotherhood that first appeared in a 1977 Captain America annual, is re-appropriated here with a host of beloved and lesser-known characters.
Magneto is the star, as Orlando hones in on his plan to resurrect Xavier, but Emma Frost all but steals the show. I love the way Orlando writes her—all quips, threats, and sage advice. I could read 30 more pages of Emma trading barbs with Power Princess of the Squadron.
To pull off a story like this, which has to introduce a new status quo and resolve it within the same issue, Orlando must choose the right cast. Emma is an obvious addition. Jubilee, Frenzy, and Rogue each bring a much different energy and Orlando wisely gives them at least one standout moment.
His best move was to incorporate some true backbenchers, including characters with ties to Magneto’s first mutant force and others who I genuinely forgot were mutants. (Sorry, Sabra!)
Most Heroes Reborn stories have played with the idea of the Squadron as a Justice League pastiche by riffing on other DC concepts in a creative way. The best tie-in to do this — Heroes Reborn: Hyperion and the Imperial Guard — used the Starjammers to tell a story in the vein of a Legion of Super-Heroes comic.
Your mileage may vary on this approach, but I love it. Comics crossovers should be big, stupid fun. What better fun is there than lightly poking at the Distinguished Competition?
Orlando and Chang’s story is the first to give much page-time to Power Princess, a Wonder Woman stand-in who played an important role in the Squadron’s defining fight with Xavier.
So many lines of dialogue just leap off the page when Power Princess clashes with Magneto’s team. “Be gone, popgun,” Power Princess tells Jubilee at one point, which is the exact kind of savagery I would expect from an evil Wonder Woman.
Chang’s art is more than serviceable and some standout pages, specifically one showing the inside of Magneto’s mind, elevate the issue.
My only qualm was with the way he portrayed a scene in Utopia Isle, the Squadron analogue for Themyscira. An attack from a bunch of black skeleton-like creatures is not entirely coherent and, in some panels, the skeletons look like amorphous black blobs.
As a piece of storytelling, the comic is limited by the nature of being a one-off, but Orlando successfully weaves a lot of X-Men history into a story that resonates precisely because it plays with the idea of mutant resistance in a universe full of apathetic (or openly hostile) other heroes.
The Squadron may be a warped Justice League, but their role in Heroes Reborn is not dissimilar from the Avengers. One of the uncomfortable aspects of the X-Men’s existence in the Marvel Universe is the reality that mutants are only harassed and targeted by human governments because of some level of complicity from the Avengers.
I love when stories lean into that incongruence—why exactly are mutants hated and feared, but Spider-Man isn’t? Why have the Avengers not stepped up to defend mutants? It is all part of an interesting comics history that clearly interests Orlando and informs his treatment of characters like Magneto and Frenzy.
The fact that he is able to work those themes into a story with a more militaristic, less moral facsimile of the Justice League is even better. The Avengers didn’t stop a genocide of mutants in Genosha during Morrison’s run and, in Orlando’s story, the Squadron members are themselves responsible for a massacre of mutants.
The twist ending is a clear homage to Morrison’s run and it mostly works. I would have preferred a story more tightly focused on mutantkind’s relationship to the Squadron, but it is hard not to enjoy Orlando’s expert build-up to the twist. Like I said, comics crossovers should be fun. And this ending, however predictable, is a lot of fun.
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