“He has fire within him…”
VC’s Clayton Cowles (letterer), Sunny Gho (colorist), Jonathan Hickman (writer), Tom Muller (design), Leinil Francis Yu (artist)
July 29, 2020
Slow burn. Talk about Jonathan Hickman long enough, you’ll hear those words. Cerebral and methodical, his comic books are shaped by a complex vision, building steadily to a finale with striking impact. This long, winding road to the fireworks factory can be frustrating for superhero fans used to the instant gratification of Captain America punching Baron Zemo in a flurry of red and blue stars, but if the final destination is something like Secret Wars, you’re grateful for the trip.
Hickman’s X-Men run with Leinil Francis Yu has been a slow burn. Of the ten issues published so far, most have been stand-alone adventures setting up future reckonings: Orchis, the Summoners of Arakko, the Children of the Vault, Hordeculture, Mystique, the Crucible. Though the gargantuan, 24-part X of Swords event promises to be a revelatory spectacle, how all of these pieces fit together remains to be seen. And on top of that, the COVID-19 pandemic delaying Marvel comics for months has made the slow burn feel like dying embers.
So, it’s kind of funny that X-Men #10, Hickman and Yu’s tie-in to the ongoing Empyre event, is basically about Cyclops’ fucked-up baby brother throwing a house party on the moon, getting drunk with his friends, and then fighting with the new neighbors on their lawn.
But it’s much more than that, of course. This is my long way of getting around to talking about Gabriel Summers, who is himself one big slow burn.
X-Men #10 begins with Gabriel floating alone in the Fault, the rip in space and time that swallowed him in War of Kings. There, he’s discovered by interdimensional aliens who have the power to take the Omega-level mutant apart molecule-by-molecule and put him back together again, “fixing” the fatal flaw inside him and sending the “reborn” Vulcan back into the universe. This explains the Vulcan we met all the way back in X-Men #1, seemingly cured of all that pesky patricidal megalomania. Except, the fatal flaw the aliens found was the goodness in Gabriel’s heart, not the evil; his normality is just a shell, with a monstrous fire lurking inside. And unfortunately for the Cotati, the aliens terraforming the Blue Area of the Moon near Summer House, nothing tears through dry grass like fire…
That Vulcan is a ticking time bomb isn’t a surprise. X-Men fans are well-acquainted with betrayal, brainwashing, and backstabbing (remember when “Who is the X-Traitor?” took over half the ’90s?), at this point. The surprise is that the bomb doesn’t want to explode.
The glimpses of Gabriel’s current life sprinkled throughout X-Men have been hilarious because (flower-shaped moon house aside) they’re so goddamn normal. Behold Emperor Vulcan, the power-mad intergalactic despot, passed out on the couch from too many Four Lokos. And what’s strangely touching is that this is the life Gabriel should have had, if he wasn’t born into slavery or left for dead on Krakoa. His friends Petra and Sway are alive, mixing margaritas at their crash pad and playfully calling him “Emperor.” His family accepts him, with Scott leaving behind a heartfelt note as he takes his partners and kids on vacation to Chandilore. Vulcan knows what he’s capable of, and what the aliens want from him, but he wants to be better. He wants to be someone new. Recognizing the Cotati’s plans for invasion and destruction, he warns them, “Once you start down that road…Have you considered what that makes you?”
Of course, the Cotati fail to heed that warning and go up in flames faster than Gabriel Byrne in Hereditary. But this time, Vulcan isn’t floating alone in the void. When he falls, his friends are there to help him up, walk him home, and pass him a margarita. Sway and Petra’s compassion is no less life-saving because it’s so casual, and characters who were created to be cannon fodder in Deadly Genesis are now delightful foils to the brooding Vulcan. The best line of the issue goes to Sway: “Say goodbye to the boring mutants, say hello to the trash bags.”
This is another artistically strong issue from Yu, who once again shines when embracing the pulpy, tentacled weirdness of the concepts here, rather than the human drama. Vulcan walking alone on the blue surface of the moon, in full “I am tired of this Earth, these people” mode, says more about his wounded psyche than a grimace or a scream. One splash page, featuring Vulcan’s solitary walk to the Cotati habitat with the Earth suspended above like a god’s eye, feels descended from a ‘70s sci-fi paperback cover, or one of Dave Cockrum’s space-faring classics. We also see Cyclops in a Speedo, as promised in X-Men #7, so don’t say Hickman’s foreshadowing never pays off!
In my previous review, I noted that “family is key,” and X-Men #10 confirms it. There is healing and redemptive power in a family, however you choose to define it; for Gabriel, it’s both his birth family (Cyclops) and his found one (Sway, Petra). It takes a good villain to become a great X-Man, as some of the franchise’s best characters–Magneto, Emma Frost, Rogue, and the most popular X-Man of all time, Wolverine–were killers or criminals before the bonds they made within the X-Men helped them become their best selves. As Vulcan admits, “I could break this moon in half if I wanted. I…I don’t want to be this way.” Putting aside the question of whether Vulcan should be redeemed (and I’m sure what’s left of the Shi’ar Empire has an opinion on that), the will to change is there. The fact that this new age of community, where your reborn self can be instantly accepted, is only possible through the original source of Gabriel’s trauma—Krakoa–is a peculiar wrinkle.
Catastrophe lurks on the horizon, as Vulcan’s actions have snared the attention of the larger Cotati forces. X-Men #10 is a tight character study amid the galaxy-spanning turmoil of Empyre, a small spark in the big blaze.