Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Custom Kitchen Deliveries 07 – Immoral X-Men #2

This issue is the dead centre of the event and provides the twist of explicitly laying out what’s going on here: the four three Essex clones are racing against one another to reach Dominion. Kieron Gillen is even kind enough to give us a one-page synopsis of that plot, complete with a breakdown of what each clone is working with to reach this goal. It makes plain that the goal was to defeat the machines and, now, the goal is to defeat one another. We knew this already and, now, we know this for certain; so, where does that leave us heading into the back half of Sins of Sinister?

Hope narrating this issue is a convenient way to provide context for the +100 timeframe and where mutantkind has gotten in the 90 years since Emma Frost put Sinister under her boot, while also giving a secondary ‘race’ between the Quiet Council members to be the last one standing. Hope, the war-mongering messiah is the first to fall, mostly because she’s more useful dead than alive. If this timelime follows the pattern that we’ve seen previously in Immortal X-Men, then Exodus is the likely last member standing as the focal point of the mutant religion. While not all mutants appear to rally around the faith, it’s interesting to see that there is a distinct portion of mutantkind that’s entered well into the realm that Mother Righteous seeks to exploit. However, as we saw in Nightcrawlers #2, her efforts to exploit belief do struggle with genuine faith. I guess what that means is that Exodus and his followers could be a liability for Righteous to prey upon or a key to overcoming her. If they play a role in that regard at all, to be honest...

The three scenes involving Sinister intrigue me the most about this issue. By having Hope narrate, Sinister is put at a distance to an extent. The only indication of what he’s been up to during the 90 years since Immoral X-Men #1 is the brief bit of hearsay in Nightcrawlers #1 about him being almost a godlike figure within the mutant empire, actually showing up to witness his latest weapon in person. While that description from Wagnerine seemed plausible in the gleeful callousness of Sinister, it also read as heavily filtered through the Nightkin’s relationship with Righteous. The Nightkin would naturally think that Sinister occupies a similar place for the expanding mutant empire as Righteous does for them, when it’s very much the opposite. In the scenes that he appears in here, Sinister is much more the remorseful scientist who has seen his experiment escape his control and run amok, and, now, is looking for any way to put things right.

Or, that’s how he appears in scenes one and three with Rasputin. To Gillen and Andrea di Vito’s credit, you want to believe that Sinister’s confession of guilt to Rasputin at the end of the issue is genuine. Both writer and artist sell the hell out of it. In the two bookend scenes, Sinister is contrite and kind and... tired. He seems worn down by the past century of watching mutants expand and slaughter their way across the galaxy. But, he’s just selling his own self-serving story, creating his own religion of sorts for Rasputin and the crew of the Marauder to believe in as he seeks to regain his lab and the Moira clones inside, so he can undo all of this – and do it again, only properly. The middle scene with Mother Righteous makes it plain that Sinister has not changed in any way except learning to be a better actor.

His tone in that scene is Sinister-as-we-know-him with sardonic wit and a solipsistic streak a universe long. His insistence that he’s the real Nathaniel Essex, for one thing. His chiding Righteous for aping his style. Or, his final words to himself after she leaves: “This does change everything. I can use this... but I need my Moiras to really use it. And I need them before the council crushes me. Oh, Nathaniel. What did you do to deserve this?” Aside from our knowledge of Sinister, these words both undercut and set up that final scene with Rasputin. Sinister is self-aware enough to know what it is he did that resulted in the current status quo. That’s what makes his unburdening to his Chimera captain work to well: he’s not lying about most of it. He did destroy Krakoa. He corrupted it with his strain of solipsism and that created a chain of events that destroyed Krakoa, Earth, and a good chunk of the universe so far. He genuinely wants to undo that damage and restore Krakoa to the paradise-in-the-making that it was when he managed to kill Hope, Xavier, Frost, and Exodus to finally get his genes to stick. He tells Rasputin everything he did to deserve this and does it in a way that makes her believe in his cause. It’s interesting how little he has to lie in the process. The only lie is the guilt.

Another element that stood out was that Sinister’s approach to Rasputin follows that of Righteous and the Nightkin. He frees her from the Sinister gene and, then, gives her something to believe in, which is his self-serving cause. Is this a signal to the similarities between the Essexes that they can’t help but follow the same paths, or did he take this idea from the book she left him? As he thanked her (her method of gaining influence), will this put her in a position of power over not just him but Rasputin and the crew as well? And I’m reminded of something that I mostly overlooked in Nightcrawlers #1: Orbis Stellaris thanked Righteous as well... I admire the way that repetitions and reoccurring behaviours are central to this event. Much like I mentioned above with Exodus, it’s hard to tell if the overlapping of methods is an advantage or disadvantage. Is it being co-opted or is that, after a certain amount of progress, it’s not a matter of the distinct paths, it’s a merging of methods towards Dominion? Or, perhaps, it’s not so easy to separate out the different approaches when it’s the same person trying them all out. Is it truly a race to the top when the participants are all the same person?

Next: Storm & The Brotherhood of Mutants #2.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Custom Kitchen Deliveries 06 – Nightcrawlers #2

We jump ahead 90 years to the +100 time period. If you’ll recall, in Powers of X, this was the period of Moira’s ninth life – it was a world where the Earth was ruled by machines, humans clung to scraps and lived in servitude, and mutants were exiles, living under the hospitality of the Shi’ar or the small group on Asteroid K. Immediately, I noticed how much of this status quo played with those ideas.

Mutants no longer live on Earth, but not because they were driven away. No, they live off-world because the Earth was too small and limited for their collective vision. (Sinister)

The Earth is ruled by aliens that attempted an invasion, but found themselves a little late to the party. (Orbis Stellaris)

The true exiles are the Nightking and devotees of the Spark, freed from Sinister’s control, and roaming space on a single ship, the Narthex. (Mother Righteous)

With Doctor Stasis and the possible homo novissima eliminated, things shift and reform, but the basic shape is the same. Mutants head for the stars, mutants find exile in the stars, and mutants are denied Earth. The reformation around the other three Essexes is interesting as, despite not appearing here, Orbis Stellaris remains the most likely opposition to Sinister. Even if Sinister as we know him isn’t at the forefront of mutantkind’s movements and decisions, it’s still Sinister. Mutantkind heads to the stars to crush all that exists in their way, absorbing what they can, killing what’s left. Nightcrawlers #2 suggests a big clash between the two powerful forces of Sinister and Orbis Stellaris without even mentioning the latter, while Mother Righteous remains off to the side, hoping to be the spoiler.

But, perhaps, I am getting ahead of myself. What is it about X-Men comics that encourages speculation and seeing little webs and developing theories?

Despite all of those details sprinkled in throughout the issue, creating a lovely backdrop, Nightcrawlers #2 isn’t really about all of that necessarily. It’s actually a pretty small and personal story for Wagnerine. One of loss. Loss of her faith, of her lover, of her child... and her loss may be a loss for Mother Righteous as well. Sorry, it led right back there almost immediately, didn’t it? That’s the way this event is structured. The small pieces point to the big ones. They suck you in with those personal stories that exist against this large backdrop and that’s what matters. The journey of Wagnerine throughout this issue provides an emotional grounding for the grandscale movement of the Essexes. All of this is the three of them operating on a massive scale as I already indicated. So large that someone like Orbis Stellaris exists through mere allusion and assumption.

The Wagnerine story is one of repetition, in a sense. And revelation. When discussing Immoral X-Men #1, I argued that the addition of Sinister to the Quiet Council added solipsism to each of them. This selfish view that only they are real. That only they matter. In this issue, we see that the same mindset afflicts Mother Righteous and how what separates her from Sinister (and almost certainly the other two) is methodology, nothing more. Instead of genetics, she uses concepts like gratitude and faith to spread herself, all in service of herself. But, like Sinister pushed too far by putting himself in mutants, losing control of the experiment, Mother Righteous’s use of the Spark ultimately puts the Nightkin beyond her control. While she may have put parts of herself – or, rather, her influence, in them all through their gratitude and faith, she also accomplished this task by piggybacking off a concept outside of herself and her control. The rescue of Nightcrawler, his attempt to stop Righteous, and her subsequent killing of him is such a central moment, revealing for all of her followers what she truly is – an Essex by any other name...

This issue is about emphasising that connection. Beyond her simmering self-serving actions to date, that side of her is laid bare at the end of the issue. Wagnerine lays it plain after she escape death: “They know she bears a rod as well as a lamp. That her Spark is a cold fire, not a warming glow. As of today? They doubt.” Righteous losing control of their faith is like Sinister losing control of mutantkind after his genetic manipulation. The addition of the pink tethers and glowing balls to Righteous’s outfit recall’s Sinister’s cape and its high strands. Even the way that the Nightkin all wear headbands showcasing Righteous’s heart symbol over their natural diamonds acts a visual play upon the Sinisters of mutantdom. Her efforts to gather various mystical and magical items is like Sinister’s obsessive collection of genetic material. While we’ve only ever had a suggestion of what a mystically-focused ‘Sinister’ means, this issue is almost a practical walkthrough, pointing to as many elements of Sinister familiar to readers.

(I will discuss his art in the larger context of the entire +100 comics, but I want to call out how overjoyed I was to see Andrea Di Vito drawing another Ragnarok for Asgard. In a comic all about various X-Men elements, that callback to the “Ragnarok” Thor arc that he drew is, by far, my favourite reference.)

While Sinister spread solipsism, Righteous mistakenly spread the Spark. She may be positioning herself as the spoiler between Sinister and Orbis Stellaris, but the Spark so far has been the only effective weapon against Sinister’s spread. The Nightking seem freed from Sinister’s influence by that residue of the Spark within Nightcrawler’s genetic code somehow – like, somehow, the soul transcends pure genetic material. Sinister’s obsession with genetics and mutation isn’t genuine. He’s not really interested in new life or new ways of being. He’s obsessed with bending those things to his will for the propagation of himself. Righteous views the Spark similarly and I’m really wondering if, by the +1000 period, she will find himself playing second fiddle to the Spark and its devotees like Sinister finds himself under the thumb of the Quiet Council. Oh, he holds an important position and role as their chief genetic weaponeer... but that makes him a servant. Will Righteous become a mystical servant for the faithful? Something that they pour their faith and gratitude into and, then, use for their purposes? If this is an inevitable point in the schemes of an Essex... what of Orbis Stellaris and the Progenitors?

Next: Immoral X-Men #2.

Tuesday, March 07, 2023

Custom Kitchen Deliveries 05 – Sins of Sinister +10

Powers of S

Okay, so the thing about Sins of Sinister is that it’s Age of Apocalypse for Powers of X. Not House of X/Powers of X, I would argue – specifically Powers of X. It’s more straight forward in its linear storytelling and, unless there’s a rug pull late in the game, it doesn’t play with parallel timelines the same way. What we can assume currently is that Sins of Sinister operates on a single timeline (one that will presumably be reset/wiped out at the end to return us to X0). That loose framework is... simplistic when compared to Powers of X, a series that juggled four different time periods across three different timelines.

(At this point, I’m going to presume that you’ve either read Powers of X or don’t care if I explain certain elements in depth. If neither of those things are true, I would advise closing the tab, and doing something else with your time.)

When Powers of X begins, the first issue shows us four different time periods:

X0 – ‘year zero’ where Moira approaches Charles.

X1 – +10 years, the founding of Krakoa. Over the course of the series, that ranges from months before the official founding to a short period after.

X2 – +100 years, as the last remnants of Krakoa fight against Nimrod and the machines’ rule of Earth.

X3 – +1000 years, as the eventual result of human/machine evolution (homo novissima) seeks to ascend to be part of a Phalanx

We assume that these are all the same timelines. By the end of the series, we know that X0 and X1 seem to be part of Moira’s tenth life, while X1 is her ninth life and X3 is her sixth. In her sixth life, she learned the true purpose of the machine enemies of mutantkind and subsequent lives attempted to both stop the rise of the machines, while ensuring the survival of mutantkind. Her ninth life, she finally gained knowledge of the specific moment when Nimrod came online and her tenth life (the Marvel universe as we know it) shows the (failed) efforts to prevent Nimrod from becoming active. Stop Nimrod, save the mutants. But, they failed and Moira was eventually exposed and she was stripped of her mutant abilities and she went from basic human to machine pretty quickly. Meanwhile, Mr. Sinister cloned Moira and began using her mutant ability to optimise the timeline for his goals.

Take that big chart from Powers of X #3 outlining all (but one) of Moira’s lives and you can slot Sins of Sinister right at the very bottom, except this is life... 27? 28? Something like that. It doesn’t appear that Kieron Gillen, Al Ewing, and Si Spurrier are pulling the same trick as Hickman with different timelines. When the +100 time period begins in Nightcrawlers #2, it will be a jump from these +10 issues within the same timeline. So, as I said, simpler.

Yet, Sins of Sinister isn’t simple. Where exactly this story is going is anyone’s guess. There have been two key moments that made for rather extensive changes from the timelines we saw in Powers of X: the destruction of Orchis (specifically Nimrod) in Sins of Sinister #1 and the death of Dr. Stasis in Nightcrawlers #1. These two events together mark a huge departure from the timelines of Powers of X where the main goal was setting up the threat of machine life as the true competing interest on Earth. It was never about homo sapiens – it was always homo novissima. In a world where Sinister had ‘corrupted’ the mutants of Krakoa, they were able to completely neutralise the main threat of Moira’s various lives. The big threat that Hickman set up is shunted aside here. In its place, lie two other potential threats to Sinister/mutants: Orbis Stellaris and his interest in alien evolution; and Mother Righteous and her interest in mystic evolution. (I use the word evolution incorrectly and loosely. I haven’t settled upon a better term for the interest of the four Essexes.) By the beginning of Immoral X-Men #1, mutants have conquered Earth, essentially. The idea that humanity – sapiens or novissima – is a threat has passed. Instead, they begin looking outward. Interestingly, despite closing off the central plot of Powers of X, the three writers do play off several elements outlined in the series, specifically Mr. Sinister’s progression of experimenting with Chimera mutants. That they didn’t go heavy-handed into deviating 100% from elements of Powers of X demonstrates the playful aspects of this story.

The time periods is another way that Sins of Sinister plays off Powers of X. In Hickman’s series, the “+10” time period was the present day X-Men comics, while the “year zero” was the past. Here, “year zero” is the present day, while +10 is the future. This story is dealing entirely in hypotheticals. We know – we know – that it will eventually reset to the present day and be undone somehow. I think it was X-line editor Jordan White who said that this wasn’t an alternate reality story and, while that’s technically true, it’s an alternate future. A future timeline that will be wiped away and knowledge gained as a result... but for what purpose? The main thing that we see here is the template for mutant domination and the defeat of the machines. It is mostly through means that the current Quiet Council would not sanction, but is something that could be useful. It honestly wouldn’t surprise me if Sins of Sinister: Dominion #1 features a play off the famous scene from Powers of X that was used in the promos of Xavier reading Moira’s mind and being surprised at what he finds, except with Xavier (helmet on) and Sinister. He gets another vision of a now-aborted timeline, a picture of what could be to come, and that sets up the next stage of Krakoa.

We shall see.

The Rejection(?) of Hickman

Oh, it began as something of a joke. The idea that Mr. Sinister is a metafictional stand-in for Jonathan Hickman, forced to see his dramatic change escape his direct control and be helpless as his influence spreads in ways unanticipated. But, as Sins of Sinister progressed, I realised that it wasn’t quite that simple, though that reading doesn’t seem wrong, exactly. It also relates to what I wrote above about the defeat of Nimrod/Orchis and the death of Dr. Stasis – the progression beyond both Sinister and Stasis is a purposeful rejection of Hickman’s plans, albeit one that’s not necessarily permanent. This is a possible timeline, one almost certainly doomed to be erased and, with it, so is the destruction of the machines. The defeat of homo novissima will be undone. But, for the moment, this is a story that plays with the idea of Hickman’s influence over the X-line and seeks to move past it, while also embracing it. When you go back and read Powers of X, a lot of space is dedicated to the types of society on a universal level. A lot of space. That’s the area that this story looks like it will be exploring, though from a different perspective. Again, Nightcrawlers #1 is the essential comic in this regard with a text page that gives a brief explanation of the highest form of society, Dominion (big neon flashing sign pointing at the final part of Sins of Sinister) – and Orbis Stellaris’s Worldfarm. There are two key parts that I wish to highlight, out of order:

“Typically, Dominions comprise 10 or more unified artificial intelligences at the TITAN level (each being a Type 0 civilization on the Kardashev scale). Other routes to Dominion status are theoretically possible – albeit highly eccentric – hinging in most cases upon the utilisation of incomparably advanced circuits of power, probability and processing.”

As the domination of artificial intelligence (evolution) on Earth has been seemingly cut off, what remains are the other routes. The word ‘circuit’ jumps out as that is the term used to describe mutant powers used in concert with one another. Though, the final three Ps in that short paragraph seem to describe the specific means of Sinister, Mother Righteous, and Orbis Stellaris. While they seem to be in competition, this could allude to collusion.

But, more than hinting at the possible way we may see Dominion at the end of this story, there is this sentence that possibly points beyond Sins of Sinister and the longterm ramifications (bold and italics taken from the comic):

Irrespective of how or when a Dominion formed, having done so it has always existed, and will always exist.

If Dominion is reached, will it transcend the resetting of the timeline? Does it already exist?

I find it really interesting that, while Sins of Sinister seems to be a rejection of Hickman, it merely closes off the storytelling path that he already explored and showed us in Powers of X. If you’ve read that, you’ve seen the machines win, basically, and homo novissima on the cusp of ascension into a Phalanx. Sins of Sinister looks like it may offer an alternative path to Dominion. Possibly a circuit of Sinisters...

The Visual Cohesion of Paco Medina and Jay David Ramos

The goal, I believe, with having a single artist draw each time period is visual unity. To both the credit and detriment of artist Paco Medina (and colourist Jay David Ramos), I don’t think that goal was achieved. In an obvious way, it doesn’t work because, after the first two issues of this time period were done exclusively by Medina and Ramos (per the credits), the third (Immoral X-Men #1) featured Walden Wong and Victory Olazba on inks, while Chris Sotomayor did some colouring as well. The unified front of Medina as line artist and Ramos as colour artist was not maintained across all three books, immediately giving that third book a different look from the first two in some ways.

Except, my completely amateurish eye can’t necessarily spot those various differences. In part because I don’t have the ability. In part, because the previous two issues didn’t actually look much like one another either. I actually think that’s to Medina and Ramos’s credit, because they adapt fantastically to the different scripting styles of Ewing and Spurrier. Storm & the Brotherhood of Mutants #1 is written in a brisk action adventure style, roughly adhering to a three-tier page structure. Nightcrawlers #1 is denser, based off a four-tier page structure with more dialogue and, despite covering a larger timeframe, it a bit slower and more methodical. Immoral X-Men is the hybrid issue, alternating between three- and four-tier layouts depending on the scene and need to speed up/slow down.

An interesting effect is that, you would think that the three-tier layouts would lend themselves to more detailed renderings. With more space, it would give Medina a chance to get really intricate and detailed; while the more cramped four-tier layouts would necessitate simpler line work to communicate information in limited space. That’s what makes sense in my logical brain... yet, I find the opposite true in these issues. The more space Medina has, the simpler his line work seems to be. If he’s meant to convey speed and action, part of that comes down to less ornate line work so readers don’t stop to linger over all of the small details. And, on the slower, more cramped pages, the detail increases to slow the reader down a little.

I think the visual cohesion of each timeline will stand out more as we get each trio of issues, as well. Right now, the only point of comparison in this story is to Lucas Werneck on the first issue of the story. I’m curious to see how the visual evolve over the next two months.

The Event Without the Event

A point of comparison that came up several times over the first four issues of Sins of Sinister is Judgment Day. I saw a few purposeful callbacks/comparisons (or what I read as purposeful, to be frank). But, Sins of Sinister is a different sort of event. Part Age of Apocalypse, part linewide crossover that tells a single story through different monthly titles with no central standalone event title, it doesn’t work in the same was as an event like Judgment Day. What I keep coming back to, though, is that it doesn’t work like linewide crossovers either. This doesn’t read like X-Cutioner’s Song or Maximum Carnage or even, I don’t know, The Black Vortex. While the story progresses through these three issues, there isn’t really a linear progression. They are very much trying to both advance the larger story and tell their own specific stories unique to their respective titles.

In essence, they read more like tie-ins to a traditional event and we’re missing the standalone series to tell the true throughline story. The beginning Sins of Sinister one-shot kind of functioned as the first issue of the event in that respect. We just don’t get Sins of Sinister #2-4, though Sins of Sinister Dominion #1 may turn out to be like Sins of Sinister #5. Though it feels like there is that event series-sized gap here, it’s hard to know what would fill it exactly.

Much like the visual cohesion of each time period, the next period will provide insight into the specific structure of this story as an event/crossover.

Next: Nightcrawlers #2.