Nothing stays dead on Krakoa. Not mutants, certainly. And not the past, either, as Apocalypse has so painfully learned. You can bury it in the heart of a pyramid or lock it away in a golden box, but the past always comes back, no matter what you do. So, open the box. Put on the mask.
Mahmud Asrar (artist), VC’s Clayton Cowles (letterer), Sunny Gho (colorist), Jonathan Hickman (writer), Tom Muller (design)
October 21, 2020
X-Men #13 by Jonathan Hickman and Mahmud Asrar begins with a grim narration that turns the miracle of Krakoa inside out, calling the island “an open grave…where the dead are resurrected…and the dying have nothing to fear.” Asrar’s previous X-Men issue was a rip-roaring space adventure, but here the characters have fallen to earth. After the Five suspended the Resurrection Protocols, the Healing Gardens have become a somber and sepulchral place, with the bandaged Banshee laid out on a green slab. Asrar skillfully etches the heavy-browed pain on Banshee’s face before he turns away from us; the triumphant shouts welcoming the resurrected have been replaced by Apocalypse’s dying screams.
Ten issues into this crossover event and Apocalypse is still writhing where we left him, barely hanging on by his blue fingernails after his children’s attempted patricide in X of Swords: Creation. It’s striking to see a pillar of strength like Apocalypse reduced to this putrid state, but it leads to a sequence that displays a different kind of strength, one born out of community rather than brute, crushing force. Polaris and Magneto hold Apocalypse down while Hope amplifies Healer’s powers—mutants working together to save one of their own. Scenes like this are a defining element of the Dawn of X era and Hickman writes them well. As the tournament draws near, I’m reminded of one of my favorite lines from Morrison and Quitely’s New X-Men, when Jean and Beast prepared for a different battle: “[She] has no concept of cooperation, Hank. That’s how we’ll beat her.”
As he heals, Apocalypse gives what can only be called a lifebed confession. He unveils a family tragedy of Biblical proportions—his wife, after all, is named nothing less than Genesis. His recollection of the fall of Okkara is probably more reliable than Summoner’s embellished version of events, though it still aches with violence and turmoil. But more surprising than all the battles and bloodshed and betrayals is the kiss. We learn that the fateful separation between Apocalypse and his wife and children was their own decision—and Apocalypse was left behind because he was not “strong enough.” Apocalypse can only kiss his wife goodbye and watch as she walks away from his world forever.
X-Men #13 may prove to be as revolutionary for Apocalypse as House of X #2 was for Moira MacTaggert. Though this issue is not the spectacular stunner HoX #2 is, it is powerful in the way it completely rearranges the foundation of a character we thought we knew very well. It enriches them and challenges us to perceive old stories in a new way. (At the very least, it will be interesting to re-read “Fall of the Mutants” with the knowledge that Apocalypse was making his Four Horsemen in the image of his lost family.) A much more conventional story would have positioned Apocalypse as the backstabber throwing his family into hell to save himself; that would be the convenient explanation for his children’s hatred and why they’ve joined their former enemies. Luckily, this is not shaping up to be a conventional story.
It’s a pleasure to have Mahmud Asrar back on X-Men, carrying us through the remainder of X of Swords. His artwork suits the book’s many tonal shifts, from dramatic to romantic to horrifying. Sunny Gho’s moody colors amplify the ambiance, turning the green lushness of Krakoa into something fetid and earthen, even rotten. One standout sequence is the reveal of the Golden Helm of Amneth, a mask possessed by a primordial force that in turn possesses whoever wears it. Speaking before Genesis and Apocalypse, the helm possesses an unfortunate lesser demon, whose body disintegrates to bone and ash even as the helm speaks through him. It’s a hellish coupling of words and art, as Hickman’s demons sound like they wandered out of Sandman’s “Season of Mists” arc. They add some much-needed verbal spice to the action, as the champions of Arakko are still a group of (very well-designed!) ciphers.
Genesis leaves Apocalypse with an important mission: “Judge them.” This is the true root of Apocalypse’s “survival of the fittest” ethos—while Genesis and the Horsemen fight the dark forces of Arakko to buy him time, Apocalypse must prepare our world for the coming war by culling the weak from the herd, so only the fittest warriors remain. This paints Apocalypse as more of a doomed prophet than a megalomaniac, and Hickman tilts the frame masterfully so that we can see this new angle. (Incidentally, the fact that he was once married to someone with earth powers just sent the odds of an eventual Apocalypse/Rictor hookup through the roof.)
This also seems to be the key to understanding why Arakko fell. This idea of judgment—that you’re either strong or weak, fit or unfit–leads only to separation and division. Because he’s not “strong enough,” Apocalypse loses his family forever. But what good is the strength of someone like Isca the Unbeaten, if her mutant power to “never lose” means she betrays her sister Genesis?
Krakoa, however, was founded on the principle of uniting all mutants. The X-Men could have let Apocalypse die since he isn’t “strong enough” to survive Pestilence’s arrow, but even with the power of resurrection available to them, they still save his life. The X-Men understand cooperation. That’s how they’ll beat Arakko.