I’ve been thinking a lot about pacing. Understanding pacing is critical to the telling of a good story; you have to understand intrinsically where to seed a twist, when to add a reveal. It’s the work of practice and care, and it’s been a topic of note since this event began; I’ve read a lot of commentary here and there specifically about how uneven the pace has felt so far in X of Swords. I think it’s a valid complaint, to be sure! It’s not as though comic book events haven’t struggled with it in the past, and if any franchise has had some legendary issues with it, it’s certainly X-Men. So yes, it’s valid. It’s also wrong.
Wolverine #7 and X-Force #14
VC’s Joe Caramagna (Letters), Joshua Cassara (Art), Gerry Duggan (Writing), Guru-eFX (Colors), Tom Muller (Design), Benjamin Percy (Writing)
The thing is, it’s hard to judge the pacing of an event until it’s over. As of this writing, and as of the conclusion of this week’s issues, we still have a week left in the event, a week to find out what exactly Saturnyne’s game is here, if indeed we’re meant to find that out. It also means that we have a week to see what will become of Arakko, and its denizens. In short, while I understand the cause for concern, we don’t yet know why things are paced the way they are, whether there’s a reason. As someone who has been been covering Excalibur in-depth since issue number one, I’m inclined to believe that there is one.
I was lucky in that I got to review X-Force and Wolverine together last time around, and I’m luckier still that I get to do it again, both because I love saving myself work, and because these two issues have a lot to say about the subject of pace. Two reasons! How fitting. Duality was a big part of Excalibur leading up to this event, and so here it’s interesting that I get to cover two sets of matched pairs. As above, so below.
The last issues of these two titles sent Wolverine to Hell again; his second trip (I am becoming insufferable even to myself here). While they did include a few scenes outside the primary narrative of his quest for the Muramasa, it was largely a cohesive, continuous tale; he and Solem meet, clash a bit, take each other’s measure, and each walk away with a blade of their own. As is fitting, thematically, in a trip to the underworld, Wolverine comes out of the deal a bit upside-down; he owes Solem a favor in exchange for his blade. By contrast, this issue of Wolverine features Illyana first. Illyana is the Queen of Limbo, of course, and thus top of the pecking order; Limbo is another form of underworld, and so duality again shines; from the world beneath last issue to the world above this one; the top (Illyana) of the bottom (Limbo) in the top (start) of the issue, standing in the sunlight of an upside-down world, once again flipping perspective…well, on its head.
You’ll think I’m trying to be cute here, and to an extent, I am. However, this kind of logic abounds in the realms of the Fae; the world is topsy-turvy, and both duality and formality have power. When dealing with faerie creatures and magic, play is deadly serious, and the most solemn decisions are often made with frivolity. After all, witness Saturnyne’s engineering; a contest that’s both a war and a game, to decide the fate of two worlds.
These dual meanings abound, and it’s significant, I think that Magik, someone who should be versed in such things, is twice taken for a ride by her own hubris. In the first of her (two!) duels with Pogg Ur-Pogg, Saturnyne confiscates their blades, declaring a contest of arms. “Arms” is traditionally another term for weapons, and Magik, being bound to her blade, is never truly disarmed, so this is a point she could have pressed. In the second, Saturnyne’s wording is similar, but distinct; rather than a contest of arms, she tells the pair that they must fight unarmed. It’s here that the trick and the joke are both laid bare; Pogg Ur-Pogg has…many arms, and he uses one of them immediately to snatch Magik up and swallow her whole. Magik, for her part, begins the fight without her sword and with her arms folded; indeed she does not actually use them until after she bursts from inside of Pogg’s belly, revealing that the large, many-armed crocodile was, in fact, a small little goblin man. She points out that “pogg” in Arakii means “sword,” and so divested of his arms, Magik finishes the fight on fair ground, with a single punch. In the spirit of duality, the second fight reveals the first; Pogg won the first match with his weapon, his “sword” which was a six-armed suit, a literal coat of arms. Because of that literality, he was allowed to keep it for that fight; however, when Saturnyne decreed that the next fight would be unarmed, Magik simply complied with the terms of the fight, and thus prevailed.
Of course, I said she was taken in by hubris twice. Later in the same issue, confident as ever, Magik faces a riddle; one that she knows the answer to easily. When she gets cutesy with it, however, she spells the answer with a K, giving her name instead of the usual “magic.” It is again a joke; an expert sorceress loses a battle of spelling, and she does so through a bit of formality; not only is the explicit spelling of the word incorrect, but she has changed the meaning by referring to herself, and while she is Magik, she is not magic, in all of its totality. These distinctions matter in Otherworld, and her recklessness betrays her.
But where was I? Cleverness in story is not pacing, in itself, though Percy and Duggan deserve credit for that. The general understanding of comics pacing is that like most things in a story, it has to feel earned, usually through character investment; if a reader doesn’t care about the characters, they will be interminably bored by slower, introspective moments, and breakneck action scenes will feel like a brick wall to smack one’s head against. This is compounded if pacing does not adhere to set expectations; if it is slow when it should be fast, if it is funny when it should be somber, it leaves the reader feeling off balance and disconnected from the story.
But remember, too, that location is character. It informs the plot, the tone, the themes; an environment can react to the characters within it and come to its own form of life. When the city feels dark and oppressive in a noir story, like its own sinister, hungry creature, that’s environment as character. When a dry, dusty desert town rolls a tumbleweed in front of a visitor on horseback, that is too. Consequently, when a loose collection of mythological lands that obey a kind of Alice In Wonderland logic are united under an even more capricious fairy tale witch queen and play host to a a war that is a game, one can only expect those lands to buck and heave under the indignity of it, to move in fits and starts as events unfold. As the environment does, so does the story.
I’ve sung Cassara’s praises for the duration of my reviewing X-Force, and I’ll continue to do so here; over the course of these two issues he gets wild with the boundaries of form in a way that he arguably has not since the book began; Wolverine fighting in Blightspoke presented a visceral level of body horror that was at once unique and reminded me of some of those early issues; Domino’s scarring, Wolverine’s own grisly takedown of enemies while missing half of his legs, bearing the smile of a demon. Here though, Cassara flexes his muscle in other ways as well; some of his expressions in simple conversation here are so exaggerated as to be cartoonish. It’s the sort of thing that might be off-putting in most circumstances, but again, this is Otherworld; things are topsy-turvy. Duality abounds.
I posit that the pacing of X of Swords is intentional, and I submit these issues as my evidence. Otherworld, the world of the Fae, is a place of contradiction, of both whimsy and utter seriousness. If the pacing in the last few issues seemed anticlimactic after eleven issues of build-up, well, the only promise made was that swords would be had, not that they would be crossed. Instead we are invited in to play, and as soon as we think we know the game, we find that it is, in fact, not a game at all. Welcome to Otherworld, X-Men. Hope you survive the experience.