And here we are. Like the mutants taking their first steps through the External Gate, we’ve entered the mysterious world of X of Swords. The first chapter of the long-awaited, 22-part event, X of Swords: Creation #1 is an earthshaking beginning. True to its title, the comic is shining and sharp, and it vibrates with the energy of its creative team—Jonathan Hickman, Tini Howard, Pepe Larraz, Marte Gracia, Clayton Cowles, and Tom Muller—operating perfectly in sync.
X of Swords: Creation #1
VC’s Clayton Cowles (letterer), Marte Gracia (colorist), Jonathan Hickman (writer), Tini Howard (writer), Pepe Larraz (artist), Tom Muller (design)
September 23, 2020
Consider the prologue. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (they earn the full designation, being, literally, Apocalypse’s children) are storming the last stronghold in the Otherworld kingdom of Dryador. We meet the Cursed King of Dryador, and his squires; they are an aquatic people, blue-skinned and bubble-helmeted, ruling a land kingdom—we can surmise that once they conquered the original people of Dryador, as the Horsemen conquer them now. The Cursed King tells us how he earned that name as his squire is sent away on a giant pterodactyl (!) to deliver an urgent message—but the squire is cut down by Pestilence’s blighted arrow. There’s a novel’s worth of story here about war and kingship and the finite nature of things, but through an exquisite combination of words and art, it’s told in four pages. And we haven’t even seen the X-Men yet.
The X-Men are reluctant players in the great game being assembled around them. Summoner returns from his mission with an injured Banshee and warns of the impending fall of the Starlight Citadel. Though Apocalypse is reprimanded by the Quiet Council for the creation of the External Gate, he has an important ally in Krakoa himself, who insists that the Gate must stay open because he, too, wants to be reunited with the fallen land of Arakko. A threat to the Starlight Citadel is a threat to all known realities, and a special team is assembled to accompany Apocalypse into Otherworld. Meanwhile, Cable and Rachel Summers read Banshee’s mind and discover that Summoner has laid a trap for the X-Men. Apocalypse is betrayed by those he never expected to see again, and Arakko’s siege on Krakoa seems inevitable. Omniversal Majestrix Opal Luna Saturyne, looking down on the carnage from atop the Starlight Citadel, finally intervenes and lays down the rules for a new game that will decide the fate of the world. What future has Saturnyne seen in the cards?
At 66 pages, X of Swords: Creation #1 is a big chthonic beast, like the one Summoner rides through the External Gate. Some of these pages are familiar; I was concerned when I realized the X-Men Free Comic Book Day issue was an excerpt from Creation, though here we have new narration from Saturnyne and some slight changes to the cards themselves. (Hopefully, we won’t have to wait for an X of Swords oral history ten years from now to find out why Glob Herman was spared Rockslide’s fate.)
But that chapter is more rewarding as part of the whole, and the creators use the expanded page count wisely. Tini Howard’s affection for the tarot shines through, and among the data pages is an explainer on the featured cards’ significance as “told” to us by the resurrected Hellion known as Tarot. It’s an inclusive approach, and the comic’s use of the cards and their imagery doesn’t feel like empty symbolism or a pretentious reach for the esoteric. I wonder how many clues are already there on the page, waiting for us to discover them.
The comic creates an arena not just for the action a superhero event like this requires, but the characters who drive it. There is thoughtful characterization here. Look at how Polaris and Havok talk like people who have known and cared about each other for a long time. “I wonder,” Polaris begins, hand perched on her hip, “How many more times are we going to step blindly through some door and upend our lives?” Or the subtle intimacy of Jean Grey and Cyclops in the Summer House kitchen together, Jean’s mask and gloves off, both drinking from X-branded coffee mugs when their son rushes in to find them. An important pause before the action, like a deep breath taken before a shout.
Creation #1 even takes the time to explore the different reasons why this particular group of X-Men has come together to enter Otherworld. Some are noble (Siryn), others are funny (Penance), but they all make sense. Tell me, how far did you get in this book before you realized Wolverine doesn’t appear, like, at all? That used to be completely unthinkable, right? But this is the right cast for this first chapter; the battle map will expand over 21 more issues, and for now, nothing feels forced.
Coming back to the Four Horsemen: the plot pivots on their betrayal of Apocalypse, the father who brought hope with him into hell. We’re not really surprised to see Summoner stick a knife in the old man’s back; promotional materials have already revealed his true allegiance. (But how perfectly Larraz illustrates the moment Summoner’s sweetness turns to poison!) Nor can we argue that he doesn’t deserve it; a confrontation with his former Horseman Archangel is a reminder of the damage inflicted by Apocalypse’s clear-eyed fanaticism. (But just looking at the magnificent, sweeping arc of Archangel’s body—the body Apocalypse remade–provides a scary counterpoint.) Instead, the shock of the scene comes from seeing the titan fall. The double-cross humbles Apocalypse and makes him vulnerable in a way the books have never shown before. “Our sins find us out,” as Archangel warned.
The first crossover event of the Dawn of X era features the return of one of the artists who ushered it in, House of X’s Pepe Larraz. And it is an epic return. I’ve already described some of the visual delights he brings to this issue—the delicacy of Jean Grey and her coffee mug, the power of Archangel in flight–but nearly every page has some small or striking marvel. His Egyptian-influenced character designs for the Four Horsemen deserve special notice for the way they project raw, otherworldly power. I’m in awe of Pestilence, who has the appearance of a female mummy wearing a belt of human skulls, with the lower half of her face growing from an enormous red orb. What a fantastic design, and what a fantastic book. X of Swords: Creation #1 sets the stage for an extraordinary experience.
We took our first step through the External Gate. Now to take the next one. And the one after that…