REVIEW: X-Men #21 – Party Like It’s 2099

x-men #21

“It’s an interesting thing. An ending.”

X-Men #21

VC’s Clayton Cowles (letterer), Russell Dauterman (artist), Nick Dragotta (artist), Sunny Gho (colorist), Jonathan Hickman (writer), Frank Martin (colorist), Tom Muller (design), Sara Pichelli (artist), Lucas Werneck (artist), Matthew Wilson (colorist), Nolan Woodard (colorist)
Marvel Comics
June 9, 2021

x-men

Vision. The first image in Jonathan Hickman’s X-Men #1 is the face of Charles Xavier, as seen through Scott Summers’ eyes. Drawn by Leinil Francis Yu and colored by Sunny Gho, Xavier is stern but paternal and completely shrouded in red. The scene is a flashback, with young Scott trying on his ruby quartz shades for the first time – literally looking at the professor through rose-colored glasses. “Open your eyes,” Xavier says, and a crucial part of Xavier’s dream, his vision, is realized in that medical lab when he enables a teenage boy to open his eyes without fear and embrace his mutant power.

The final panels of X-Men #21, the conclusion of Hickman’s run, reveal the immensity of Xavier’s vision—showing not one man shaded in red, but mutants on the red planet Mars, now the first mutant homeworld.

Emma Frost promised fireworks, and X-Men #21 has the energy of a showstopping finale, lighting up the sky with A-list artists, celebrity cameos, a superhero election, and the reveal of a terraformed Mars. The resulting comic is big and bright and almost too much, but that, like Marvel Girl’s floating solid gold X headpiece, is by design. X-Men #21 intends to overwhelm us with opulence and ambition, and it mostly succeeds (there is one thing I definitely hated, but more on that later). The X-Men are at a critical point in the Krakoan era, and this is no time to play it safe.

Effectively divided into chapters illustrated by different artists, the issue begins with Professor X and Magneto approaching Namor. As King of Atlantis, Namor is the most powerful mutant still unaligned with Krakoa, and two members of the Quiet Council courting an alliance with him is an intriguing follow-up to events in Powers of X and Giant-Size X-Men: Magneto. Xavier and Magneto may look like kings in matching white and gold fashions — but Namor pointedly reminds them that they are not, and their mutant island is minuscule compared to his dominion over the seas. Nick Dragotta’s Namor is spiky, puffed-up, and poisonous as a pufferfish, and Frank Martin strikes an ominous note in his coloring. Under the reddish glow of the sunset, the scene simultaneously suggests an end of an era and foreshadows Krakoa’s imminent claiming of Mars — a show of power that will surpass Namor’s kingship.

Russell Dauterman draws the most hotly-anticipated sequence of the issue, the X-Men election. While Marvel has already heavily promoted the results, the election itself was a bit of a mystery; despite being announced in X-Men #16, there hasn’t been any preparations or active campaigning since then. The election is elegant in its simplicity: Jean Grey telepathically joins the minds of every mutant present, allowing them to choose the best representatives for their nation from among those who wish to be an X-Man. It is a powerful show of synergy, and fittingly enough, Sersi of The Eternals (who knows something about uni-minds and great parties) is the only one in the crowd of befuddled superheroes who recognizes the joyful expression of mutant pride.

x-men #21

That pride is spectacularly visualized by Dauterman, the X-line artist who perhaps best understands that, like its inspiration, the Met Gala, the Hellfire Gala is more than a typical red-carpet event. It is a showcase for provocative displays of creativity, an exhibition of influence on an international – now cosmic – scale. Dauterman’s art has a daring playfulness, not only in his renditions of his personally-designed X-Men fashions (I say again: Marvel Girl’s floating solid gold X headpiece) but with the characters themselves. Look at the romantic airiness of Cyclops holding Jean’s hand as she levitates beside him, or the touched smile on Lorna’s face when she hears her name, or Laura being caught by surprise as she skewers some shrimp on her claws at the buffet. With his work on Giant-Size X-Men and various variant covers, Russell Dauterman has been one of my favorite artists of the Krakoan era, and his pages are a delight.

As the night approaches its spectacular finale, Lucas Werneck illustrates an important moment with Cyclops, the unofficial main character of Hickman’s X-Men run. Werneck’s art has a smooth, appealing softness that fits the mood of this stage of the Gala, but his section is burdened with the most glaring celebrity cameos of the issue. Real-world faces have drifted through the Gala in other books, but here they are especially jarring – it is hard not to want to move Patton Oswalt out of the way for a better glimpse of Storm, Marvel Girl, and Rogue.

And, look, I know nothing about what goes into arranging celebrity likenesses in comic books, and I’m sure it seemed like a fun idea to include Marvel-friendly comedians and podcast guys (and, uh, Eminem). But holy hell, this is the Hellfire Gala! No Rihanna? Not a single Kardashian, Jenner, or reasonable facsimile thereof? (I’m not kidding, if we’re serious about who Emma Frost would invite to the Gala – the most influential and media-savvy people in the world – they would be there.)

This is the long way of getting to the page that, if it were a sound, it would be monster truck tires screeching on asphalt. You know the one. Kevin Feige shows up to ask Cyclops about his life story. This was a moment designed to be over-analyzed and churned into clickbait – “Oh my god, the president of Marvel Studios is talking to the X-Men! X-Men in the MCU when???” But it’s silly, and it sucks. Trust me, I have exhausted my vocabulary trying to find better words to describe this.

I hate this distracting cameo because the story Cyclops tells him, about how even though he no longer deifies the man, he believes in Xavier’s dream and is a dreamer himself, is quite good! It strikes a more intimate, personal note than the grand display Sara Pichelli’s Emma Frost performs a few pages later. Moreover, it cuts to the essence of Hickman’s X-Men, encapsulating Scott’s journey from the scared teenage boy glimpsed in the first issue to the steadfast mutant leader who has found an expanded family on Krakoa. He’s ready to bring the X-Men back to the world.

And as the X-Men face a new beginning, Jonathan Hickman’s X-Men ends. I know, I know, but I always get emotional at the end of a party! I’ve covered (almost) every issue of X-Men since October 2019; this series will always be incredibly important to me as a reader and a writer. A work of immense depth and imagination illustrated by the talents of Leinil Francis Yu, Mahmud Asrar, and Phil Noto (to name only a few), this series has been a much-needed evolution of a superhero book’s form and function. (Imagine an X-Men book where the “X-Men” don’t form until halfway through the final issue!)

Hickman will return with the Inferno miniseries this fall, and who knows where we’ll go after that. He’s the Architect of X, but the X-line is more than one man’s singular vision, and I’m excited to see what Gerry Duggan and Pepe Larraz unleash in July’s X-Men #1. To everyone who has read or shared these reviews, thank you for joining me on Krakoa.

See you on Mars!

Kayleigh Hearn

Kayleigh Hearn

Still waiting for her Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters acceptance letter. Bylines also at Deadshirt, Ms-En-Scene, The MNT, PanelxPanel, and Talk Film Society.
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