X-Men #12 begins with a game, continues with a story, and ends with a promise. But aren’t all stories a kind of game? Summoner, the grandson of Apocalypse, sets the tone immediately: “We’ve learned so much about one another. What we love, what we hate…the things we believe…but now we come to the sharp end of it.” A sword point, perhaps?
VC’s Clayton Cowles (letterer), Sunny Gho (colorist), Jonathan Hickman (writer), Tom Muller (design). Leinil Francis Yu (artist)
September 16, 2020
Summoner is both gamemaster and storyteller. Jonathan Hickman and Leinil Francis Yu set the stage for X of Swords by telling us the story of Arakko, Krakoa’s other half, lost long ago to the fallen world of Amenth. Or maybe this is just a story of Arakko—even if Summoner, seated before Apocalypse, is telling the truth as he knows it, there are enough ellipses in that telling to make us wonder what’s missing. He keeps us dangling. So, we play along.
This issue is the secret history of mutantkind. We glimpsed the beginning of that history in Powers of X #4, as Krakoa relayed it to Cypher: eons ago, mutants ruled the island of Okkara, until the Twilight Sword cleaved it in two, ushering in a war that ended with Arakko on one side of an interdimensional chasm, and Apocalypse and Krakoa on the other. In Amenth, the mutants of Arakko built a glorious civilization, but after centuries of battles and betrayals, they’re on the verge of annihilation. As seen in Excalibur #12, Apocalypse has constructed the External Gate to bring the two worlds together, but once they cross that line, what will the mutants find? And what will come back with them?
X-Men #12 is a tricky thing. It leaves behind the familiar shores of Krakoa and plunges the reader into the depths of a new world populated by entirely new characters. It develops new lore, new settings, and new stakes, giving us the best idea yet of what X of Swords will actually be about…but as for recognizable X-Men characters, here are Loa and…Unus the Untouchable? If not executed well, this could have felt like complete self-indulgence on the creators’ parts, like a D&D game you can watch but can’t join. But X-Men #12 succeeds splendidly at its core mission: introducing really bitchin’ lookin’ characters for the X-Men to fight.The White Sword. Isca the Unbeaten. Annihilation, the god of Amenth. Hell, those are just the characters’ names and I’m dying to see Wolverine, Storm, and Magik wreck this crew with some giant effing swords. This issue begins to fill in the shades of these intriguing blanks first glimpsed in promotional materials. Take Isca the Unbeaten, whose mutant power is that she can never lose. Already, an ingenious hook for a new character; that her power also makes her a traitor (because the opposing army was going to win, and, naturally, she can’t lose) is a fascinating nuance. Now, what happens if Isca the Unbeaten meets Unus the Untouchable? A sentence I never thought I’d type, but a fight I absolutely want to see.
Drawing us further into the saga of Arakko is its relationship to Krakoa, as both a cautionary tale and a perverted reflection. The similarities are direct and clear: as Summoner describes the “special kind of ignorance” of “living in the only safe place in a world of violence” Yu draws a gathering positioned like Krakoa’s Quiet Council. The reader is introduced to Apocalypse’s better half: his wife Genesis, a towering figure in her own right. The White Sword is a hellish counterpart to Nightcrawler. A blue-skinned mutant living in a white spire, whose “religion” is an endless cycle of mutant deaths and rebirths, The White Sword is a slayer instead of a saint, delighting in bloodshed and betrayal. (As for his “one hundred champions” who are reborn only to die in battle, again and again, I’m reminded of how Zeb Wells rang surprising pathos out of Sinister’s original Marauders—cloned only to kill and be killed—in the excellent Hellions.) And in the frightening gold mask of Annihilation, the god who seemingly strikes Genesis down in battle, who is looking back at us but the unchanging face of Destiny?
Leinil Francis Yu is in command of his art in X-Men #12. Apocalypse and Summoner, separated by generations and dimensions, are remarkable in their differences; Apocalypse’s craggy, lined visage looks old as stone, while Summoner’s milk-white softness suggests someone who is (comparatively, at least) very new. Arakko is an eerie underworld, though one of the most effective scenes is the most understated. Genesis finds the traitor, Isca the Unbeaten, standing alone in front of a massive wall. The two women regard each other, and while not even the narrator knows what they say to each other, the betrayal still feels bloodier than a battle scene.
And, oh, Apocalypse. One of the pleasures of reading Dawn of X is seeing how Jonathan Hickman and Tini Howard have made Apocalypse—schticky supervillain and symbol of big, bloated, blue-lipped nineties excess—into a compelling presence. Throughout X-Men and Excalibur, he’s been at turns manipulative and merciful, cruel and captivating. Summoner’s trust in his grandfather feels woefully naïve (“Return quickly.” “So that you might save any survivors? Rescue any enslaved?” “That…and have my long-awaited revenge.”) but his Machiavellian surface is hiding strange new depths that I hope we’ll still be exploring when X of Swords is over. Any kind of “Oh, wow, Apocalypse is evil” resolution feels like it would be too pat, too simple. However, future covers show Summoner as one of the Swordbearers of Arakko battling the X-Men, suggesting more betrayal and revenge…or, at least, another level of the game.
The cards are on the table now. X of Swords is about to begin.