“From this point forward, you cannot depend on time to function in any manner resembling normal. It waxes and wanes, like temporal tides.”
Mahmud Asrar (artist), VC’s Clayton Cowles (letterer), Sunny Gho (colorist), Jonathan Hickman (writer), Tom Muller (design)
February 24, 2021
So says Synch over the image of a damaged Sentinel–a mutant murder machine alone in a forest, slumped forward like a broken doll. The beginning of X-Men #18 is a reminder of the relentless passage of time, the resilience of nature over man-made obsolescence. Titled “Inside the Vault,” this issue by Jonathan Hickman and Mahmud Asrar could also reasonably be called “The Persistence of Memory.” When Synch tells us that “This, however, is the past,” he isn’t just assuming the role of the story’s narrator; he’s also triggering the reader’s memory of cliffhanger published over a year ago.
We last saw Synch, Darwin, and Wolverine (Laura Kinney) when they entered the Vault in X-Men #5, published in January 2020. A lot has happened since then! (She wrote, wearing the bedraggled black turtleneck of a 1950s beat poet and staring at the Christmas decorations still out in March.) In my review of that issue, I mentioned that it felt like “the first part of a two-part story” and wondered how long it would take to reopen the Vault with so many other plots percolating on the page. Throw in the months that the entire X-Line was on hold due to the pandemic, and the answer turned out to be: well, a really long-ass time, Bob!
While the comic uses the temporally-unstable Vault as a vehicle to explore questions of time, memory, and nostalgia, there is something–well, “disappointing” is too harsh a word, maybe deflating–about the issue now that it’s finally here. To be clear, X-Men #18 is an enjoyable, well-made comic. There are stand-out moments, like the way Asrar draws Synch’s “pretty good” smile or a phrase like “a little kiss of creation” that jimmies its way into my brain and sticks around.
But anticipation can be an enemy. What would Wolverine, Synch, and Darwin find in the Vault? How would they change after the passage of—in Vault time—hundreds of years? And what the hell would happen when they got out? Something big had to be brewing if they were keeping a character as popular as Laura Kinney off the page for a year, right? It’s a bit head-spinning to be sent back to “Day One”; it feels like something slipped away from us just as we caught it, a video game crashing right before we meet the final boss.
That’s just one way of looking at X-Men #18, however. Another is that Hickman and Asrar have captured the feeling of the past year in a surprisingly organic way. Our heroes are, after all, in lockdown, cut off from the rest of the world. Asrar draws the inside of the Vault as a diamond-hard, eerily underpopulated city, stirring memories of the dystopian vacancies of the early pandemic months. “We all counted the days,” Synch continues. “Every single one of them.”
Synch’s memory reports are striking in the feelings they describe: they can only trust their memories of what happened while they were locked away, while recognizing that memories can be untrustworthy. Time moves differently now: living in quarantine without the usual rituals that mark the passage of time, the seasons turn to sludge, and what happened five months ago might as well have happened five days ago. How can it be March again when March never stopped?
(Oh yes, and Darwin ends up in a literal bubble.)
As the admitted “redundancy” of the trio, Synch makes an endearing narrator, particularly in his interactions with his prickly new teammate, Wolverine. (Oh, Laura, how I’ve missed you.) Mahmud Asrar’s art resonates with intensely muscular energy; the standout image is Wolverine descending on Serafina, claws first—a perfect apex predator. It’s a slash-and-burn fight, the Children of the Atom versus the Children of the Vault, and the Darwin-Wolverine-Synch team brings the theme of the Krakoa era into focus: mutants are stronger together. And in more ways than one: a data page passes on Cecelia Reyes’s observation that The Five’s combined synergies during the resurrection process can amplify a mutant’s power to new levels. This power surge can be beautiful or terrifying, depending on which side you’re on—especially if the FORCE protocols give the X-Men a license to kill.
Though it’s sad to see that our heroes haven’t made it out of lockdown yet—we have at least one more issue to go—it’s still nice to catch up with three of the most resilient X-Men after a wild and chaotic year. After all, it’s amazing what people can adapt to.