Marvels Snapshots: X-Men is part of a wave of “eight standalone, double-sized issues showcasing Marvel’s most beloved characters from the Golden Age to today,” telling the tale of how and when Scott Summers was set on the path to becoming the master strategist and leader of the Mutant Revolution that we know and love.
Marvels Snapshots: X-Men
Kurt Busiek (curator), Jay Edidin (writer), Chris O’Halloran (colorist), Tom Orzechowski (letterer), Tom Reilly (artist), Alex Ross (cover artist)
September 16, 2020
Warning: This review contains spoilers.
Marvels Snapshots: X-Men is really only about one of our favorite heavily politicized spandex-wearing friends, Scott Summers. It’s specifically a highly nuanced origin story about Scott Summers, before the visor, before the codename, before the throuple. It follows the experiences, both traumatic and aspirational, that lead Scott to develop into the eventual leader of the X-Men. It’s a story about trauma and the reclamation of one’s own agency, as Scott grapples with the incredibly traumatic circumstances of his orphanhood and of the manifestation of his mutation.
I could probably write a 4,000+ word essay on this issue. That’s how much fertile soil this issue has for readers, especially if you are (like I am) a card-carrying Cyclops apologist. Nearly every behavior and quirk that we associate with Scott Summers has very clear roots in this story. In a lot of ways, we learn that he has always been too-old for his age; he has always been far too hard on himself, he has always expected too much of himself. So much of the characterization of Scott in this one-shot sets a clear path to the Scott we know today and this story seamlessly meshes with the man that Scott Summers will become. That probably feels obvious to say about an origin story, but I’d argue it’s a far more complex task than you’d think. Scott Summers has been running around trying to save the day for almost 58 years. That’s 58 years spent developing his personality, his attitudes, and his history while changing hands from one creative team to the next. For writer Jay Edidin to step in and use a single story to contextualize and set the stage for the next 60 years of Scott’s development, is a herculean feat. And yet, this story is a master stroke.
I never once felt like I was watching something being “set up,” nor was this a vignette ride of continuity bullet points. Marvels Snapshots: X-Men is one of the most organic, thoughtful, nuanced, and articulate origin stories that I’ve ever read. It feels effortless in every sense of the word. Tom Reilly’s art even achieves a period piece-like feel, capturing an intangible, almost indescribable essence of the Silver Age of comics, and yet it never feels wholly nostalgic or dated. It feels entirely contemporary and yet I could believe it if somebody told me that these are lost pages of some early issues of X-Men comics.
So much of this story for me became about Scott defining the boundaries and landmarks of his heroism, from very early on in the issue. I keep coming back to the scene with the bullies and the paper-rocket. Scott (ever the avatar of neurodiversity) is walking past two children playing with a paper-rocket that they’ve built, and as he passes Scott corrects them on having called astronauts, “space guys.” Again, “it’s good to be precise about these things.” Scott sees nothing disruptive or rude about his correction, these are just the unbiased facts he’s presenting. This sets up a pathway of characterization that has lead many neurodiverse readers to identify so heavily with Scott, who often (to his detriment) neglects social “principles” in the service of upholding what is “correct” or “accurate.” And in turn, those kids lash out, insulting Scott, who excuses himself from yet another failed social interaction.
Here comes the ethos of the X-Men (pre-Krakoa), of Xavier’s dream, played out in a schoolyard brawl. When a few bullies come up and take the paper rocket from the children, even smashing it, Scott Summers intervenes. While the scale is smaller, and this is entirely removed from mutant politics, Scott Summers, even in his adolescence, comes to the defense of those who hate and fear him. It doesn’t matter that they just insulted him, nor does it matter that they’ll probably continue to do so well after this scene. What’s being done to them is cruel, it’s wrong and Scott can do something about it.
Scott does a lot of studying outside of this conflict with his bullies. The flash point emergence of the Fantastic Four, among other supers, becomes a proof of concept almost for Scott. They represent the things he craves; certainly, they represent a family, but they also represent purpose. The Fantastic Four are framed very cleverly by Edidin and Reilly through the repetition of imagery and mantra “four people climb into a cockpit.” Scott sees an obvious connection hidden amidst the chaos, he sees purpose in an accident, he sees a situation where victims of some terrible accident reclaim their agency.
I was happy when Edidin subverted my expectations, that Scott’s lessons would play out in his conflicts with the bullies throughout the issue. In a way, they still did, just with the delightfully unanticipated result. When Scott is attacked by the bullies again, Scott sees this opportunity to play through what he thinks he’s learning from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. He doesn’t start the fight, but he’s certainly not running from it. It struck me that it was the sheer presence of an obsession with Art of War that got Scott into a fight he couldn’t win, leading him to lose control of his power specifically. It became a talisman of his aspirations to regains control, and yet it lead to what may seem like the exact opposite. Scott’s determination to be prepared certainly is an asset, but it also becomes a major risk for him. It reminds me of what a critic in art school once told me about studying, and practicing too much: “if you’re always preparing, you’re never prepared.” Scott (and I) are also learning about trust, in ourselves. Not a word of Sun Tzu impacts Scott’s decision to use his power at the end of the story. He doesn’t save those people for any other reason than that he can do something about it.
It was also really interesting to read this story, where Reed Richards and Iron Man frame the story as a sort of role model. With stories such as Astonishing X-Men, Avengers vs. X-Men, Bendis’ Uncanny X-Men, and 2020’s X-Men/Fantastic Four framing these relationships, I felt a sense of meta-textual irony throughout. For Scott, these figures are a manifestation of the very heroic idealism that we’ll see several versions Scott of either at odds with or directly in conflict with in some cases. I can’t know for sure if this was intentional or not, but it certainly enhanced my read to frame this story with the awareness of just how turbulent the road ahead with be between Scott and his “heroes”.
I struggle to find elements of the issue that I didn’t enjoy or that felt lacking. If I’m being objective I can acknowledge that while I think this story will win over a lot of folks who’ve been on the fence about Scott or who’ve struggled to access the character, this isn’t an action-heavy issue. In a lot of ways, the pacing, the wonderful art, and the tone of the story felt very unique from the semiotics of superhero comics. This issue really felt more like an indie graphic novel that just happened to be set in the Marvel Universe. This felt like a refreshing take on the superhero genre and on the character.
I’ll say that personally, I greatly prefer the Reilly variant cover than the Alex Ross cover. Ross’s work is good, it’s stunning, but I’ve gotten to a point where the dazzle of the “hyper-realist cover art” doesn’t excite me, and I think the cover promises a tone and a style of action that this comic just isn’t going to give. Reilly’s variant ties beautifully into the actual plot of the story, it plays on the expectations of readers to see the Fantastic Four and other Avengers looming over Scott. It’s an intelligent cover that really plays on what we know about mutant politics and Scott’s complex and tense relationships with all of those figures in the future. It felt like a nuanced cover that enhanced my experience of the story, both by reframing it and establishing certain expectations that could then be either subverted or satisfied. That’s what I think a cover ought to be. Ross’ cover is just beautiful, and as somebody who’s been through a lot of art school, I’m pretty tired of gimmick hyper-realism. If Ross’ cover had given me more, I might not be so sour on it, but I really feel like Edidin and Reilly’s work deserved a cover that aspired to more than what it delivered.