In many ways, X-Force #20 feels like the real start of the Hellfire Gala despite being the second issue of the story.
VC’s Joe Caramagna (Letterer), Joshua Cassara (Artist), Guru-eFX (Color Artist), Tom Muller (Design), Benjamin Percy (Writer)
June 2nd, 2021
Look, I’ve been…hard on the line, lately, and not without cause. It’s felt for months now like story was being artificially strung along and given extended climaxes in order to fill space until this event could actually begin. It’s not that I don’t find the events of those stories interesting in their own right, it’s just that…well, with X-Force specifically, there’s been a literal/figurative Sword of Damocles hanging over the story for a year.
I am generally not an overly patient person, but I can usually put that aside with an understanding of story pacing. It takes time for events to build, after all! But it’s been frustrating to see points where those events could have built, in these last few issues, and didn’t. Still, that’s less an issue with the inherent promise of a comic and more an issue of my expectations. This is something the line’s played with before, of course—X of Swords held the implicit promise of everyone having sword fights, and some folks certainly did, but that wasn’t really the point (get it, Cori, sword, point…heh). The swords were the keys to the tournament, not necessarily always the weapons used to fight it. Here in X-Force, though, that idea has gotten a little murkier over the last few months.
See, the trouble with the creative team absolutely killing it during the first year of this book is that now my expectations are incredibly high. I feel like that’s an important thing to state; when I’m dinging this book on one thing or another, keep in mind just how highly I regard it. If the things that I’m knocking sound overblown, or if I sound more annoyed, it’s because I am otherwise invested enough to enjoy the story being told here deeply, and thus my frustration, when it appears, is all the more acute. So. That expectation set, shall we actually dive in?
When I speak about this issue feeling like the real start, it has to do with the framing. Marauders is technically the real first issue, and appropriately begins with guests arriving at the party, but if you’ve ever worked a public function, you know; the guests showing up is like halfway through your shift. Thus the framing mechanism used here in X-Force feels more proper because the team is being used as security for the event; their story begins before the party itself. That’s important because they use that time effectively; setting up the logistics of security, patrolling, etcetera. These are important details, and while I can understand why they might be set aside narratively in favor of the more audience-facing drama of the Avengers arriving, they still make a stronger start to the event than that scene from Marauders, because they give readers the impression of the shape of things. Thus; expectations are managed.
Once the gala is underway, the events of the issue become somewhat more…thorny (get it, Cori, plants, thorny…heh). Beast gets up to some telefloronic nonsense with Terra Verde again, and Emma Frost isn’t pleased it’s all going down at her party. This leads to an exchange between her and Sage, and that’s the meat of what I really want to get into here. See, there’s a panel that, free of context, can be read a certain way. It’s a valid read, but also, again, free of context. The panel depicts Emma leaning in toward Sage, uncomfortably close even, with her hand beneath Sage’s chin, lifting it slightly. It’s extremely easy to read the panel in a homoerotic context, and the structure of the issue, which should make the actual context clearer, actually obfuscates it.
See, there are a couple of major plot threads. The first is the Beast one, but there’s also a bit with Domino and Wolverine dealing with an attempted party-crashing by Deadpool. Side-note: This is a good use of him as a character; he is obnoxious but not allowed to generally disrupt an already chaotic event, and simultaneously he occupies Logan and his magic “I can identify everything wrong” nose, thus allowing the A-plot to proceed.
The trouble here is the way the comic frames these. Emma first learns of Beast’s shenanigans on page 12. With a couple of pages of story, she heads off to deal with it on page 14. Page 15 is a data page, and then there are three pages of Wolverine and Deadpool, leaving Emma’s appearance at Sage’s workstation an end-of-page stinger on page 19. From there it’s another two pages of action with Deadpool, meaning that the bulk of Emma and Sage’s conversation doesn’t take place until pages 22 and 23.
Now, the technique of breaking up scenes to interrupt one another is an old one, and proven effective; especially when detailing chaotic events happening near-simultaneously. However, the effect here is that Emma’s incredibly threatening aura on page 19 is lost by the time she’s actually Girlbossing Sage on page 22. Thus, the effect of her leaning in on page 23 has lost a lot of its intended impact, leaving room for the more sapphic interpretation.
The thing is, though, context is what determines the weight of this scene. Not just the context of Emma’s imperious nature, but the context of her history with Sage in the Inner Circle of the Hellfire Club. Emma leaning in to Sage does carry a vague, sexualized threat, but it’s not because Emma is coming on to Sage, it’s because they are both characters who explicitly ruled an underground secret society housed in a club of debauchery. Emma is weaponized femininity incarnate, and she is using that here against someone who has seen in the past exactly what she can do with it. Add to that the physical menace of her diamond form and the status she wields currently as a Krakoan head of industry, and the intimidation effect should be overwhelming—except the issue’s pacing and structure interrupt the flow of it and dull its impact. Instead, the panel comes off as something akin to queer-baiting, but isn’t that, really. Meanwhile, earlier in the issue Domino, who has before performed actual romantic gestures toward Sage, is all but screaming “please go on a date with me.”
Of course, there’s also a greater context than that of the story. Zoe and I have both written about the issue of queer representation in comics; specifically the representation of queer women. It was a thing that was woefully underserved in 2019 at the start of Dawn of X, and it hasn’t really improved much at all here in 2021. It creates a quandary; while what appears to be a slow burn of a romance between Domino and Sage is a great read, that combined with the flashier Sage and Emma scene in this issue and the additional lack of any ongoing textual queerness between women in the overall line, only serves to highlight that ongoing failing. During the first week of Pride, no less.
It’s not that we expect these books to drop everything and cater to us (although on a more contrarian day, I might say it’s exactly that), it’s that…well. Lesbians exist and have existed. So have lesbian couples. They have lives, relationships. They raise children! They have entirely normal lives. So no one is saying we need to see queer femme superheroes stripping down!
All we’re saying is we’d like to see the kind of intimate domesticity that straight couples have been enjoying for decades.