Writer: Al Ewing
Artists: Stefano Caselli and Federico Blee
Marvel Comics. June, 2022
At the outset: an apology. This critique mentions the names of characters and various backstories which a new reader looking for some objective narrative will not follow. In that sense, our critique entirely resembles the object of its scrutiny – it is not a friendly jump-on point.
In the current, very extended storyline of the adventures of the mutant superhero team, the X-Men, Mars is no longer a desolate wasteland of iron oxide and hydrogen peroxide dust devils, but instead has been terraformed. Further, it has been renamed Arrakko – not Barsoom, regrettably. But the place could be Barsoom. Filled with arcane monsters and imperious adventurers, Arrakko is no longer the Red Planet. The new team of X-Men being put together by mainstays Storm and Magneto and second tier characters Cable, Brand, Proudstar, and Sunspot are nonetheless housed in this new title, alluding to the planet’s former hues, X-Men: Red. (We wonder whether Sunspot’s solar radiation-absorbing powers are diminished by reason of Mars being further away from the sun.)
It is trite to say that Mars has long been a source of fascination for writers of fiction, as well as the sole target for terraforming within our Solar System for futurists. Mr Ewing’s Mars is like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars of his Mars Trilogy (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars_trilogy ): pioneering but with factional and ethnic tensions imported from the Old World. This means however that the reader needs to be across world-building of a different kind to terraforming: keeping on top of the names of the seats of power, the rivalries and jealousies, and significance of actions within that broader context. When, in this issue, a pensive and tired Magneto finds a secluded, small continent and carves out a metal castle for himself, are we looking at the establishment of a rival empire? When Vulcan picks a fight with an alien Shi’ar emissary in Sunspot’s bar, spouting about his lost dynastic legacy, only to be psychokinetically zorched in the carotid by Cable and captured for unknown tasks, does this mean Vulcan’s claim is extinguished or does the raging monologue foreshadow a rekindling of those ambitions?
And when the weather-controlling mutant Storm casts aside her “crown” and destroys her throne (an act of rebellion much more akin to the historical characterisation of Storm than the zealot we have seen in recent years), what actions are set in play within the hierarchy? Even with the now standard infographic milestone markers, it is a hard story to enter into fresh. First issues are usually resets, and this first issue of X-Men: Red is certainly not that.
The art is top-notch and a little nostalgic for long-time readers of the X-men’s adventures. The broad vistas, the teragenic inhabitants of Sunspot’s bar, and the facial expressions of the players are all rendered with mastery by Stefano Caselli and Federico Blee.
We particularly like the appearance of Magneto: reminiscent of Jim Lee’s lonely king in the Savage Land from Uncanny X-Men #274 (1991), but without the absurdly tight spandex. Cable’s depiction also reminds us of Jim Lee’s work. Mr Ewing’s dialogue for both Cable and Brand ring true, taking us back again to Chris Claremont’s introduction of the character in the 1990s: Cable here is as a no-nonsense divisional colonel, and it works extremely well with Abigail Brand’s overt practicality. They are both soldiers and get on with the delivery of solutions. Happily, Mr Ewing has subtracted the edgelord from Cable. There is no gritted teeth and hyperbole here.
None of that takes away from the bald fact that is all a bit bewildering. The state of play has the tension of the Diadochi or the Game of Thrones, but the meandering insularity and mystification of American baseball statistics.
Superhero comics rely upon the suspension of belief, but with parameters. Superman may rescue people from burning buildings, but the character will not ever be depicted assisting Ukraine repel the Russian invasion. The X-Men titles have taken suspension of belief and run miles with it. How does the rest of the Marvel continuity deal with a terraformed Mars? Until the recent promotion of the crossover event X-Men vs Avengers vs Eternals: Judgment Day, it seemed that the X-Men were in their own continuity bubble. What will the eventual, inevitable reset look like? We wonder when Kulan Gath might show up.