REVIEW: X of Swords #1-5 is Hickman at his Most Hickman-est
I’m an unabashed fan of Jonathan Hickman’s work in comics. His work, both at Marvel Comics and as an indie creator, has always left me entertained, confused and made me walk away thinking deeply and often coming back to reread issues on multiple occasions. I was thrilled to find out that not only would Hickman be writing X-Men books but also that he was going to be “Head of X”, meaning that he’d be overseeing the entire X-line and that we were about to go on a long journey with one of the best longform narrators in comics.
One of the things Hickman has proven very adept at doing during his tenure with Marvel Comics is subtly reworking and expanding the mythology around some of the publisher’s most popular and well-established characters and he certainly didn’t hold back in doing that when he launched this X-line with dual titles House of X and Powers of X, establishing an incredible series of events and placing Moira McTaggert right in the middle of the very convoluted history (and future) of the X-Men. HoX and PoX launched the first two waves of X-books, all of which have landed more punches than they’ve missed for me, which have been building up to the Hickman’s first big X-event: X of Swords. The line-wide event has just kicked off and I’ve caught up on the first 5 issues of the 22-issue event. Is X of Swords off to a strong start? I have some thoughts!
The first title, X of Swords: Creation, came out swinging and set up perhaps Hickman’s most ambitious and far-reaching work at Marvel to this point. Hickman has spent a good deal of time in Dawn of X rewriting the history of Krakoa, reestablishing the importance of Otherworld and continuing to add to the already impressive personal history of one of Marvel’s most fascinating characters, Apocalypse. Hickman has always been a master world builder and his efforts during Dawn of X might well top any of his work at Marvel to this point. As usual for me, I’ve had to work through multiple rereads of multiple issues to try to get a handle on the disparate threads that are now weaving together in X of Swords but after finishing the first 5 issues of the event, I feel it is safe to say it was time well spent and that we might be in the opening act not only of one of Hickman’s best but also one of Marvel Comics best event-style arcs ever.
Obviously this isn’t just Hickman at work here, though the narrative is certainly his concoction, and the group of writers who have been working to set up the chess board for this event have done a great job of telling their own stories while staying aligned with Hickman’s vision. Specific to this review, the works of Gerry Duggan (Cable and Maruauders), Benjamin Percy (X-Force and Wolverine), Leah Williams (X-Factor) and though her book wasn’t one of the first five issues of the event, Tini Howard (Excalibur). Of the group, Howard’s exquisite Excalibur book has laid much of the foundation for the first 5 parts of the event, bringing Otherworld to the forefront of not just the line of X-books but potentially the entire Marvel Universe. The amount of planning that had to have gone into this is staggering and, I imagine, on par with the 2007-08 Messiah Complex event under the direction of Christopher Yost, yet the team has made it work incredibly well.
What Worked Well:
Pretty much everything. The biggest payoff comes in the form of the latest chapter of the history of Apocalypse. We’ve seen bits and pieces of his past brought to light over the past several months, but the opening salvo of X of Swords clarifies what has to be one of the most shocking retcons in recent memory and something that has been a looming mystery since we were teased with this Sinister Secret all the way back in Powers of X #2:
“For years, this fittest-of-all mutant has routinely surrounded himself with a particular-numbered entourage. These hangers-on stick around for a while until they are eventually replaced with newer, more exciting members. What most people don’t know is that if the original members returned, these pretenders would be dropped so fast their heads would spin.”
As we learned from Krakoa itself (via Cypher), Krokoa is half of a whole with its other half, Arrako, having been separated in an ancient war when the Twilight Sword opened a rift in reality allowing an army of demons to pour through. Here Apocalypse and his original horsemen made a stand against the horde, saving Earth but at the cost of Arrako and the Horsemen being lost in another dimension that Apocalypse was unable to access until now. All of Apocalype’s machinations to this point have been about him finding a way to access Otherworld and then finding his way back to Arrako and now we know why: the original Four Horsemen are the children of Apocalypse, his true heirs and his actions cost him the life of their mother and doomed them to an eternal battle. Once reunited, it isn’t long before Apocalypse is betrayed by his children and the Summoner of Arrako forcing the X-Men to rush to his side and setting in motion the ambitious “contest of champions” that will pit 10 X-Men against 10 Swordbearers of Arrako with the fate of not just mutantkind but mankind at stake! For the first time in a long time, Apocalypse isn’t the one in charge of the game board, finding himself and his nation bending to the will of Saturnyne, the ruler of Otherworld. It’s here where it hit me that this event seems to truly be written for hardcore fans of the X-Men who have poured not only through the Dawn of X books but also the 6 decades worth of stories that came before. Seeing a character like Saturnyne become a major power player by establishing a tournament, the repercussions of which will almost certainly be felt throughout the larger Marvel universe, seems incredibly satisfying as someone who has been a fan of X-books since the early 80s.
I loved the verses recited by Polaris that hint at who the X-Men’s Swordbearers will be and much of what we saw in the first 5 issues (and will see for the next several more, I assume) is the individual journeys of those Swordbearers as they work to acquire their blades and find their way to the circle of Santo (I made that up). While some of the X-Men Swordbearers were predictable before the start (Magik and Wolverine were in the “oh yeah for sure” category for me) and another became obvious in his solo book (Cable), others were more of a surprise and, of course, we get to meet some new and memorable characters on the other side of the contest, such as Solem who has already become an incredibly intriguing character. Through the first five issues, Marauders #13 and the connected narrative of Wolverine #6 and X-Force #13 detail the events of two characters, Storm and Wolverine, in pursuit of the blades they’ll need to join the contest. Both characters are forced to confront their pasts (Strom must infiltrate Wakanda and Wolverine must go back to Hell) in order to acquire their blades. Storm’s tale was especially enjoyable as it allowed readers to revisit her past both as Queen of Wakanda and as a master thief while finding a way to add to the already well-developed history of Wakanda by introducing the Skybreaker blade. If these two stories are the template for what we can expect over the next several weeks as the other key figures gather their swords, we’re in for a treat. These stories are a great reminder of a constant theme in this review: it’s not JUST the mutant nation of Krakoa at risk here.
And finally it’s the emergence of a true threat to the mutants that gives this event the promise of true stakes which then makes it worth reading. Since Hickman established the mutant resurrection protocols with the HoX/PoX relaunch, death has simply become an obstacle to mutantkind and one that is easily overcome. The death of Santo in Otherworld, however, changed the rules of the game as it was revealed that dying in Otherworld, the Nexus of all Realities, means that resurrection is a crap shoot as the “new” Santo was an amalgamation of all Santos (that’s some serious Hickman-ness). So while these brave heroes prepare this tournament, their lives are now truly on the line as they fight for everything they just established.
The first 5 issues are truly Hickman at his most Hickman-est: weaving together multiple threads of complex world building, revealing secret histories of characters and places we thought we knew and quickly establishing that pretty much everything we thought we knew was wrong. It also goes ties back to one of his constant Marvel mantra: everything dies.
What Didn’t Work Well:
It’s hard to give something a fair review when you don’t have anything negative to say. To me this is the type of event story telling I love. It’s complex, layered, requires a lot of prior knowledge and sets up many potential new arcs even as it deals with ones that have been ongoing for some time. By nature then it includes a lot of moving parts and a ton of characters and could, for those reasons, be really off-putting to someone who hasn’t been keeping up. So it probably isn’t the ideal jumping on point if you’re looking to dig into X-books but more of a gift to the hardcore X-fans.
A well-crafted start to an event that promises big things, X of Swords #1-5 are worth the money and effort you’ve invested so far but might not be for everyone, especially if you’re not up to date on Dawn of X.