“What are we going to do with thirteen X-Men?” – Angel, Giant-Size X-Men #1
VC’s Clayton Cowles (letterer), Jonathan Hickman (writer), Tom Muller (design), Phil Noto (artist)
December 30, 2020
X-Men #16 stitches the wounds left by X of Swords, tying up loose ends—but has too much blood already been spilled? Healing bodies is an easier task than healing nations, even more so if they happen to be sentient mutant islands separated for thousands of years. This is an exposition-heavy issue from Jonathan Hickman and guest artist Phil Noto; they pause to let the characters (and the readers) catch their breath before leading the X-Men in a clear new direction.
More than previous issues, X-Men #16 could be divided into chapters, starting with a prologue featuring Cyclops, Cable, and Rachel Summers that harkens back to their family adventure in X-Men #2. In that issue, they witnessed the budding union of Krakoa and the Arakko Point, bringing new meaning to that old line about “the birds and the bees.” Following the events of X of Swords, Arrako and its mutant population have fully returned to Earth, but the two islands are repelled by the other. Hope for reunification seems to have died on the vine.
This leads to Cypher acting as an intermediary between the two islands, which are fully Groot-ed out in the form of walking, mountain-sized trees. While Cypher’s role here seems obvious, given that he’s Krakoa’s translator, it also serves a deeper purpose, as his marriage to Arakkii mutant Bei the Blood Moon is a symbol of unity between the two nations. Unfortunately, like high school sweethearts reconnecting years later on Facebook, they’ve realized that after centuries apart, they have both fundamentally changed. (Arakko sells essential oils now, it’s very weird.) They don’t even speak the same language anymore.
It’s a delight to see Phil Noto illustrating this epilogue to X of Swords after his fantastic work on Cable and Excalibur during the event. There’s a deliberate delicacy to his art that’s well-suited to the story, especially when it shifts to Cypher speaking before the Quiet Council. Breaking the Council meeting down into a nine-panel grid, Noto tightens his focus on the characters, enlivening a literal “talking head” sequence. Doug’s smile as he says, “I’ve got a wife now,” Emma indifferently examining her manicure (she’s wearing gloves), Kurt’s enthusiastic joy…Noto’s emphasis on these people and the emotional, physical realness of them make the last panel of the scene even more significant, as we feel Apocalypse’s absence. But that’s one mutant life traded for millions of others, and the reality of mutantkind’s sudden population explosion sinks in. Emma echoes Angel’s long-ago question: “What are we going to do with all of them?”
Speaking of “them,” the mutants of Arakko, Isca the Unbeaten takes a stab at her new life on Earth, hunting down a demon from Amenth. Sporting her shiny new gold look, Isca is one of the more interesting new faces to come out of X of Swords because of her power. What does it truly mean to be “unbeaten”? We’ve seen that it comes with physical transformations, but what is the psychological effect on Isca when “never losing” requires her to switch sides and betray loved ones? Does her turning in X of Swords explain why she is the Arakkii mutant to listen to Xavier and Magneto when they come bearing a gateway flower, like new neighbors with a freshly baked apple pie? (And I do so love whenever Magneto chides Charles for being a hopeless romantic; Hickman’s banter for them here is great.)
Isca’s conversation with Xavier and Magneto reveals a surprisingly complex dynamic; she ridicules their “dreams” and “flowers,” but the governments of Arakko and Krakoa have evolved into an eerily similar configuration. Not only does the Great Ring of Arakko mirror the Quiet Council in its shape and divisions, but it also has three alleged “Night” seats that suggest a greater power guiding Arakko from the shadows, reminiscent of Moira X. This raises vital questions about power: if Arakko is a land of swords, who are the sword wielders? As chances of true reunification with Arakko become more distant, the power vacuum in Krakoa’s Quiet Council is all the more conspicuous, but Magneto and Xavier offer the empty seats to Cyclops and Marvel Girl.Ah, but Scott and Jean have their own ideas about power. (Between this and Excalibur #14, Phil Noto is the master of perfectly-timed scenes of Scott and Jean just looking at each other.) With the rallying cry of “To me, my X-Men!” from X of Swords: Destruction still ringing in their ears, the two turn down the Council to reform the X-Men. Krakoa needs the X-Men because unlike the shadowy unelected government that plans to rule for thousands of years, the X-Men will fight on behalf of mutants instead of deciding what’s best for them. And this time? The people can vote.
X-Men #16 concludes with an electric moment that makes me all the more excited for the Reign of X era. Not only is it an invigorating statement of purpose for the book (and a natural development for Jean, given her uneasy role in X-Force), it raises ridiculously fun possibilities. When Peepers and Whiz Kid are sharing a book with Cable and Magneto, the toy box is open and the sky is the limit.
So, who are you voting for?