The City inside the Vault is, at its core, a paradox. As the name suggests, its very existence is an enigma: simultaneously infinite and claustrophobic, it appears post-apocalyptically empty but hides a deadly enemy around every corner. The “genesis tomb” of the Children of the Vault, superpowered post-humans genetically designed for world domination, the City is Krakoa’s evil twin, or possibly its negative image. It is a cold, inorganic, unhospitable place to spend a few thousand years—the perfect backdrop for a love story.
Mahmud Asrar (artist), VC’s Clayton Cowles (letterer), Sonny Gho (colorist), Jonathan Hickman (writer), Tom Muller (design)
March 31, 2021
This review contains spoilers for X-Men #19.
X-Men #19 picks up immediately after the previous issue’s explosive cliffhanger, with the half-vaporized X-Men literally picking themselves up from the rubble of the blast. With this issue, Jonathan Hickman and Mahmud Asrar complete the three-part “Vault” saga that began over a year ago in X-Men #5. It’s a structurally brilliant finale, ultra-compressed and airtight, and punctuated with data pages detailing what happened to Synch, Wolverine, and Darwin during their entrapment in the time-warped tomb. If X-Men #18 was a spark, then X-Men #19 is the whole damn fireworks factory.
“This is the past,” Synch tells us as we look over the image of the cybernetic cityscape, Sin City by way of Syd Mead. This disorienting collision of time and space—days of future, passed—sets the tone for what follows as the X-Men hurry to learn everything they can about the Children of the Vault. Synch, Darwin, and Wolverine form a perfect triad of synchronized survivability, but the accelerated passage of time inside the Vault and the ever-evolving nature of the Children are threats they can’t outrun. Centuries pass, battles are fought, grizzled future looks are rocked. The team shatters (is there a more ominous sentence than “Wolverine fights alone”?) and reforms before they make one final escape attempt. But to quote the old horror movie poster, “Who will survive and what will be left of them?”
This storyline has been a major comeback for Synch, a character who died twenty years ago in a series that is mostly out of print (insert “Generation X Epic Collection: Back to School Coming This June!” ad copy here). Hickman does excellent work in not only reintroducing Synch to the X-books but driving the character forward; even as the years change him and he adapts to his strange surroundings, he remains a compelling narrator. He recognizes the City as a dark reflection of Krakoa, comparing the Crèche where Children are artificially grown to island’s cradle of rebirth, Arbor Magna. (The Child Diamante, the “living repository of Vault history” who sports an enlarged, bubbled head, even resembles Xavier wearing Cerebro—a nice touch from Mahmud Asrar.)
We see the subtle changes in Everett as his synching with Wolverine’s healing factor extends his lifespan. He recounts an important story from his childhood with an emotional distance that might as well be an emotional chasm. There is something heartbreaking in that, but it is also a fascinating insight into how, having lived far beyond a normal human lifespan, he has also evolved beyond human thinking. To be clear, Synch’s removal from humanity (aka us flatscans) does not mean that he’s lost his humanity. The adamantium thread holding the story together is the love that develops between Synch and Wolverine.
Compressing the entirety of a centuries-spanning relationship into twenty-seven pages is a daunting task; wisely, the creative team doesn’t try to do it. If we can’t read the novel, the excerpts are enough. Some Laura Kinney fans may be disappointed that we only have Synch’s retelling of their relationship or that she doesn’t speak until the final few pages, and that’s fair. For me, it worked. If it feels like Laura (Cue Synch: “I don’t remember exactly when I started calling her that instead of Wolverine, but I do remember the day she no longer seemed to mind”) keeps us at arm-and-two-bone-claws length away, well, that seems fitting. Poor Darwin, on the other hand (pun not intended), only displays a few gnarly new adaptations courtesy of Asrar before he’s captured and MacGuffin’d.
In a standout scene, Synch frees Wolverine from her long imprisonment. The gray cell walls breaking apart like Tetris blocks, they see each other as if for the first time. Wolverine touches Synch’s face in a moment of tenderness beautifully depicted by Asrar; you can feel the centuries melt away with a single caress. That caress is mirrored much later, an echo reverberating through time before they make a fateful decision. Human words, Everett decides, are not enough to encompass what they’ve been through and what they’ve meant to each other.
I warned about spoilers, so here we go. As the narration suggests, Everett is the sole survivor; shot down after he escapes the Vault, he’s the only member of the team to be resurrected with his memories of the mission intact. From one point of view, this is an incomparable tragedy. Wolverine’s love for Everett is lost to time inside the Vault, and Everett, who died the first time at a heartbreakingly young age, is now older than everyone he knows by centuries. Everett should, by any human measurement, be devastated. Then why does X-Men #19 end with his smile?
As Jonathan Hickman’s X-Men heads toward its finale (with Gerry Duggan inheriting the post-Hellfire Gala relaunch and Hickman moving on to a classified X-project), it continues to push the idea of mutation forward—beyond death, beyond time, beyond forever. “Most people have no idea what forever means,” according to Synch. “But I do…and so did she.” Mahmud Asrar’s final X-Men page recalls a moment from issue #18; the circle has closed, and Synch and Wolverine will have to begin again, if they want to, on Krakoa. It’s a warm, organic, hospitable place to spend a few thousand years—the perfect backdrop for a love story.