“Some forgotten place. Some forsaken time.”
Quick! To what are the opening words of the X-Men Free Comic Book Day special referring:
A.) The dying star where, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, a Minotaur and a fish woman performed an arcane ritual to appease the Omniversal Majestrix Saturnyne…
B.) My home office, today.
X-Men: Free Comic Book Day
VC’s Clayton Cowles (letterer), Marte Gracia (colorist), Jonathan Hickman (writer), Tini Howard (writer), Pepe Larraz (artist), Tom Muller (design)
July 15, 2020
And with that, like a writhing Eldritch abomination plucked from the farthest corner of the universe to fulfill some strange mystical purpose, we’re back!
It’s exciting to finally read the X-Men FCBD special, but there’s a bitter, metallic taste to that word, finally. It’s a reminder, however small, of how the pandemic disrupted everyday life—and the precarious existence of the direct market. Free Comic Book Day didn’t happen this year, but I do think about that alternate timeline where I was able to hold this issue in my hands, grinning with every page turn and packed shoulder-to-shoulder with other fans in the store. Like the best teaser trailers, this would have been great to see with a crowd.
And this comic is a teaser: a 10-page taste of the upcoming X of Swords event courtesy of writers Jonathan Hickman and Tini Howard, and artist Pepe Larraz. As a promotional tool, this is a fascinatingly bizarre book. This is an X-Men comic where no X-Men physically appear; it stars the semi-obscure Excalibur supporting character Opal Luna Saturnyne; it opens with that aforementioned summoning scene, introducing brand new characters Floating Fish Lady and her Minotaur companion Quo, who speaks entirely in a fantasy language. If the gist of Free Comic Book Day is to attract new readers (or at least net the old ones who fell off the X-Men boat before it sailed to Krakoa), this is a risk.
Or maybe it’s not a risk, but a dare. Because regardless of how enigmatic this story is, it is a gorgeous comic book that dares you to not be enthralled with every page as it unfolds. X of Swords has us at the point of its blade, and the creators know it.
The story is gossamer-light. A quartet of Summoners (don’t remember Summoners? A refresher from X-Men #2: “A Summoner of Arakko can bridge the chasm between the lost island of Arakko and the land beyond the wild borders of Otherworld”) draw out a “spaghetti worm” (as per Pepe Larraz’s Instagram) to power a seeing glass for the Omniversal Majestrix Saturnyne. Saturnyne then sits to examine the Tarot, with each card displaying a spectacularly ominous vision of the future for the X-Men. As Saturnyne says, “One always expects a sunset hours after a dawn.”
The Tarot has been an intriguing motif for the X-Men under Jonathan Hickman’s pen. In Powers of X #1, R.B. Silva drew new characters Rasputin and Cardinal as members of the Major Arcana, and with cards such as Judgment and X of Swords appearing in this issue, I’d love to see it continue until Marvel has no choice but to release an official X-Men-themed set. For anyone unfamiliar with Tarot cards, Saturnyne’s descriptions convey the general concepts, though the images that accompany them are striking. Four of Wands, for example, signifies “the labors of a community—a family,” but the family depicted is Apocalypse’s Four Horsemen, and their labors are fiery, body-rending violence.
For me, the use of the Tarot here (as opposed to, say, Tarot: Witch of the Black Rose) brings on a funny feeling of coming full circle. As a somewhat sheltered Catholic school kid, I was actually introduced to Tarot cards via comics, specifically CLAMP’s apocalyptic fantasy manga X (hmmm…), which included a striking illustration of a character representing one of the Major Arcana in every volume. Considering that X features two factions of superpowered psychics and mystics fighting for the future of the planet with some big honking swords, the spiritual thread connecting these stories doesn’t feel so thin.
It’s tempting to try to analyze each page of the X-Men FCBD one-shot like a YouTuber picking apart every frame of a movie trailer, but I’d just be shooting (stabbing?) in the dark, and with scant plot details available anyway, treating the book like a riddle to be solved instead of a story to be absorbed feels like a mistake. Pepe Larraz, returning to the X-Men after House of X, has drawn some truly beautiful fantasy artwork for this comic. The worst FCBD books read like cheap commercials; rest assured that this prologue is no quickie cash-in. Every panel is exquisite.
Larraz is a gifted character designer. His figures are immediately eye-catching and original; even for brand-new faces like the Summoners, we can already read an entire graphic novel’s worth of story into Quo’s broken horn or the way his finned companion floats in the air as if it were water. Even Staurnyne’s silent handmaidens look like Sailor Moon princesses, glowing with green-white light courtesy of Marte Gracia. The cards are dramatic splashes of action and intrigue, revealing surprising faces while foreshadowing betrayal. The art here is Egyptian Art Deco by way of Jack Kirby, and together with Hickman and Howard’s script, sets an impressive stage for X of Swords. The wait is, finally, over.
Oh, and there’s also a preview of the upcoming Dark Ages comic where *checks notes* Iron Man crashes into an airplane and sheers his leg clean off. Goodnight, everybody!