REVIEW: X-Men #4 – Treehouse of Horror

In the grand tradition of The Halloween That Almost Wasn’t and KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park, behold…the X-Men Halloween Special!

X-Men #4

Erick Arciniega (colorist), VC’s Clayton Cowles (letterer), Gerry Duggan (writer), Tom Muller (design), Javier Pina (artist)
Marvel Comics
October 13, 2021

x-men #4

Well, sort of. In X-Men #4, writer Gerry Duggan and guest artist Javier Pina hit the pause button on the ongoing Gameworld storyline to revel in seasonal shenanigans. It’s the night before Halloween (or “Devil’s Night,” as the captions remind us), and the X-Men are sound asleep when their dreams are invaded by Nightmare, a demon who draws his power from the psychic energy of his victims.

Halloween is a cultural cauldron that mixes colorful costumes and shape-shifting identities with cathartic rituals about death and rebirth. It makes a rich setting for a modern-day X-Men story, but be sure to look at the face behind the pointy yellow mask because Halloween is also rooted in the fears of our unconscious minds. No superheroes generate more psychic angst than the X-Men, which Nightmare uses to his advantage — Cyclops and Marvel Girl alone could power the entire Dream Dimension with their nightmares.

Like most holiday specials, X-Men #4 is a pleasant diversion – it even has a special guest star in the form of longtime Dr. Strange foe Nightmare, whose lines I read in the voice of Paul Lynde to get the mood just right. The story’s focus on dreams and nightmares lets Pina play outside of the boundaries of the waking world, to great effect: panel borders dissolve into rows of skulls; Marvel Girl’s astral form channels Attack of the 50 Foot Woman to put the would-be Freddy Krueger in his pathetic place. Pina’s artwork has a confident fluidity, contrasting the vulnerable heroes tossing and turning in bed with their hellish dreams. (One remarkable panel: Cyclops envisions his corpse propped up in a coffin on the lawn in front of the treehouse, like a cheap Halloween decoration.)

x-men #4

My enduring criticism of Gerry Duggan’s storytelling is that it is frustratingly slight. As fun as it is, the main story fizzles away too quickly, especially with two epilogues (Feilong in space, Ben Urich tracking down mutant graves) attached. X-Men #4 is also, essentially, a two-character show. Synch, Polaris, and Rogue are absent, and Sunfire, the least developed X-Man, is unfortunately confined to a single panel. Of the three X-Men left, Scott’s dreams are the least revelatory. We already know he fears failing as a father, husband, and mutant leader. (Even Nightmare dismisses him as “a bit of a bore.”) We also know that Laura is afraid of looking into Synch’s mind and rediscovering the love they lost in the Vault, though Nightmare draws a connection to Logan by noting that missing pasts are part of the Wolverine legacy.

Enter Marvel Girl, who pulls Nightmare out of Laura’s mind by the collar as if they’re in a Tom and Jerry cartoon. X-Men #4 is a showcase for Jean Grey, who single-handedly (single-mindedly?) exiles an eldritch demon from the earthly plane while the rest of her team sleeps. Duggan knows that Jean is benevolently terrifying even without the Phoenix Force; flickering underneath her kind and compassionate nature is a temper that could destroy worlds. For a woman who has lived many lives, we see many faces. During a dream about Jean and Emma at X-Mansion, Duggan jabs a pointy stick at the hornet’s nest of fans who have been carrying a two-year grudge against Marvel Girl’s costume. And, in what I hope will be a continuing element of the series, we see Jean’s psychic speech at the Hellfire Gala and learn why she wants to be an X-Man.

For Jean Grey fans such as myself, X-Men #4 is more treat than trick, though more plot-oriented fans may dismiss it as filler. Like the best Halloween specials, it is spooky and diverting but ultimately reassuring as the night passes and the world rights itself. Still, whether the X-Men are living in a Westchester mansion or a giant treehouse rooted in the heart of New York City – home is where the horror is.

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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