Powers of X #4
VC’s Clayton Cowles (letterer), Marte Gracia (colors), Jonathan Hickman (writer), Tom Muller (design), R.B. Silva (artist)
September 11, 2019
I have been told many, many times since I started reading comics that nobody else cares about Doug Ramsey. Author Louise Simonson made the choice to kill Cypher in The New Mutants #60 because he wasn’t interesting enough in the eyes of fans writing in to the book’s letter column, or artists who despaired in the face of his largely invisible mutation. Since his resurrection in 2009’s Necrosha crossover event, Cypher has been relegated largely to the role of benchwarmer, kept to the sidelines as a translator or analyst, in stories that rewarded action over thought. With fewer than two-hundred appearances, Cypher is, at best, a minor character within the X-Men, which has left him pushed to the edges of the franchise. With Powers of X #4, all that changes.
Much has been said about House of X and Powers of X in terms of the complex plotting, gorgeous art, evocative colors, and staggering scope of the books so far. But in addition to the technical strengths of House of X and Powers of X, one of the most rewarding elements of the two interwoven series is the attention to the layered, convoluted, and continuous history of the X-Men, and the corner of the Marvel Universe(s) that they have made their own.
Hickman has mined the past to pull ideas from over fifty years of X-Men stories together in new ways, and, while the story does feature classic X-Men characters such as Professor X, Magneto, Cyclops, Jean Grey, and Wolverine in substantial roles, House of X and Powers of X make room for a wider, more eclectic cast to shine as well. Bringing characters like Cypher who are traditionally not blockbuster names—including Omega Sentinel, Sage, Trinary, Husk, and Destiny—into the forefront feels exciting. The scope of this story is wider than your average X-Men comic, and to tell a story this vast, an expansive cast needs to come to the forefront.
By calling upon the depths of the ever growing roster of X-Men, their allies, and their foes, the idea of Krakoa as a mutant nation is underlined. No longer are we locked into a cast of characters that feels like it owes a debt to the ’90s animated series. Instead, the future of the X-Men line comes from characters who have been written to the margins: too minor, too “boring,” or too long gone to be topical, until now. Cypher becomes a power player in the world of mutant politics for the first time in his publishing history because he brings an ability to the table no X-Man A-lister can replicate. And in this issue, the origins of Krakoa as a mutant nation and Krakoan as a mutant language are made clear because of Doug Ramsey.
References in this issue to John Proudstar (the original Thunderbird), and to Black Tom Cassidy and Trinary as part of Krakoa’s network—plus a nod to Cassandra Nova in Xavier’s wardrobe as he presents Cypher with Krakoa, and Cypher’s jaded reference to islands where mutants go to die—reinforce the idea that this isn’t just a story about Xavier and his chosen elite. This is a story where no stone is guaranteed to stay unturned, and the full scope of X-Men history and lore is on display. Highlighting minor characters opens up the stories the franchise is able to tell, and Powers of X #4 demonstrates just how effective allowing the wide variety of X-Men members is at building up a story that feels relevant to every X-Man story that came before.
This issue does not immediately pick up the plot threads left at the end of Powers of X #3 or House of X #4. Instead, it begins to fill in the blanks that have been left in the narrative so far. In scenes between Xavier, Magneto, and Mister Sinister, between Xavier and Cypher, and with the Librarian, a fuller picture of the house that Xavier built begins to form. Ideas that were introduced in the first issue of House of X and not seen since are touched upon. With the introduction of Bar Sinister to the story, a new type of data page appears in the form of “The Red Diamond,” Bar Sinister’s gossip column labeled as “lies” within the page formatting. This issue preserves the momentum of the House of X #4 cliffhanger, while filling in the blanks still left in the story, so that a path forward from that tragedy begins to take shape.
This issue’s power comes in large part from the art. R. B. Silva’s art and Marte Gracia’s colors are gorgeous and lively. Particularly in this issue, Gracia’s colors do a clever, effective job at delineating time periods as the story jumps through time, and the pinks of Bar Sinister, the golds and greens of Cypher meeting Krakoa, and the burnt and bloody reds and oranges of Apocalypse’s distant past all feel distinct. As Silva’s fantastic landscapes and environments astonish, Gracia deftly grounds each part of the narrative within the time period it occupies.
Despite the issue’s other varied strengths, one element stood out uncomfortably: the opening scene with Mister Sinister. Hickman writes Sinister—who is not only a villain classically opposed to the X-Men and guilty of all sorts of general villainy, but also a eugenicist who worked with Nazi Germany, and who, through the guise of an orphanage, abused children (including Scott Summers)—in a manner reminiscent of classically gay-coded Disney villains. To code a villain like this as gay is troubling, regardless of how closely it may align with past, equally distasteful, characterizations of Sinister.
As Hickman revitalizes so many traditionally sidelined characters in this run, it is underwhelming to see him cling to Sinister’s past gay-coding, particularly in light of his body of work for Marvel, which features a nearly absolute absence of LGBT characters and stories. The one recent exception, Destiny and Mystique in House of X #2, alludes to their romantic relationship in gestures such as a touch to a shoulder, but there is nothing to suggest to readers not already familiar with the characters that the relationship between the two women is anything more than that of co-conspirators and friends. This is not a flat-out dismissal of writing villains as LGBT, but rather recognizing that there is a trend of using gay-coding as a media shorthand to demonstrate a character is othered from certain social norms, and this association of gayness with malicious otherness reinforces harmful stereotypes of LGBT people.
Nonetheless, there is such rich detail work in both the art and writing this issue that touching on every moment that caught my attention would turn this review into more of a list of references. Suffice it to say that this issue feels rich and dense on every page, and already rewards multiple readings. As the events of House of X and Powers of X continue to unfold, the way I read each past issue changes, almost like a Krakoan flower unfurling and revealing hidden depths. With no doubt, the mysteries introduced and alluded to within this issue read one way today, but will read differently when these twin series draw to a close. For now, it’s enough to say that with Powers of X #4, we realize that Krakoa has been Cypher’s world all along, and we, along with the rest of mutantkind, are simply living in it.