The following is a review I wrote for PopMatters for X-Men Red #11.
The most relevant stories are often the ones that ask the most difficult questions. The nature of those questions vary among places, people, cultures, and whatever happens to be pissing off a significant chunk of the population. Regardless of the circumstances, those questions are important and sometimes they come from unexpected places.
I wasn’t expecting such questions when I picked up “Uncanny X-men #1,” the latest relaunch in the most iconic X-men brand of all time. I was just glad to see Uncanny X-men return to prominence after an extended absence dating back to 2016. This first issue was over-sized and priced at $7.99, which is a lot for a single comic. I still feel like I got my money’s worth.
In addition to telling a great story that brought many prominent X-men characters to the forefront, “Uncanny X-men #1” did something unique in terms of how it established a conflict. For once, it didn’t involve killer robots, preventing a genocide, mutant terrorist, or alien space gods. Instead, it asked one profound question.
What if there was a way to preventing people from becoming mutants in the first place?
That may sound like a question that has come up in other X-men stories, but that’s only partially correct. This isn’t about curing mutants, a story that Joss Whedon brilliantly told during his run on Astonishing X-men and that “ X-men: The Last Stand” botched horribly. This is about inoculating children the same way we do for polio.
Specifically, a lab develops a vaccine that prevents the X-gene from expressing. Technically, they would still be mutants in that they would still have this gene. It just wouldn’t express itself. It would be akin to turning off the gene responsible for cystic fibrosis or sickle-cell anemia. It essentially treats mutation the same way we would treat any other genetic-based disease.
Naturally, the X-men and many other mutants don’t like this idea and not just because it’s akin to treating homosexuality as a mental illness. It reeks too much of genocide, something they’ve faced on more than one occasion. It would’ve been easy for “Uncanny X-men #1” to present it in that way, but that’s not how it plays out.
The all-star creative team of Ed Brisson, Kelly Thompson, Matthew Rosenberg, and Mahmud Asrar frame the issue in a very different way. Instead of some anti-mutant racist like Graydon Creed or William Stryker calling for mutant extermination, we get Senator Ashton Allen. He’s as generic a politician as can be in a superhero comic, but what he says and how he says is revealing.
Amidst a crowd of humans, mutants, and X-men, he talks about this mutant vaccine as a tool to alleviate suffering. He doesn’t rant about the dangers of evil mutants like Magneto or Apocalypse. He talks only about mutant children developing powers that could be dangerous to themselves or others. In that context, a vaccine might actually help them.
When you consider the mutant powers of characters like Rogue and Cyclops, who have mutant abilities that do real damage when uncontrolled, it seems entirely reasonable to make this vaccine available. Senator Allen never says anything about forcing it on kids or on mutants that already exist. He only ever emphasizes making it an option for concerned parents.
That’s distressing for the X-men because they don’t need to be omega-level psychics to imagine the implications. They can easily envision a concerned parent who doesn’t want their child to deal with the possibility that they may shoot lasers out of their eye one day. Any parent who cares for their child will want to mitigate the chances of them enduring such hardships.
In a world populated by mutant-hunting robots, parents already have plenty of incentive to use this vaccine. Given the damage that mutant-led conflicts often incur, the government has just as much incentive to make that vaccine available to everyone, free of charge and tax deductible. Governments less concerned with things like human rights could force it on children and that has some real-world parallels.
For mutants and the X-men, though, that means a permanent loss of their identity. Considering how mutants act as a metaphor for other oppressed minorities, this has implications for the real world, as well. I would even argue that the question will become increasingly relevant in the coming decades.
To appreciate just how relevant it could be, you need only look up the heartbreaking stories of parents who have disowned their children because they’re gay or transgender. In tragic some cases, people are driven to suicide. Even for those who aren’t parents, anything that might avert this kind of hardship is worth considering.
Given the complex causes of homosexuality, as well as the many factors behind transsexuality, it’s unlikely that there could ever be a vaccine to prevent it. The same can be said for conditions like Dwarfism. It’s not just genes, hormones, or radioactive spider bites that shape an individual’s persona. It’s a complex confluence of many things.
However, we are getting very close to a point where it’s possible to design children at the genetic level. Thanks to tools like CRISPR, it might even be possible one day to cut out entire traits from the human genome. That could, in theory, eradicate both cystic fibrosis and Dwarfism. More than a few people have expressed concern about that possibility.
Homosexuality and transsexuality are a bit different since there is no one gene or hormone that causes it, but most contemporary research suggests that genetics do play at least some role. Using similar technology, it might be possible for parents in the future to minimize or eliminate the chances of their children being homosexual or transsexual.
I imagine many in the LGBT community feel the same way about those efforts that the X-men felt about Senator Allen’s efforts in “Uncanny X-men #1.” Even if it only extends to giving parents this option for children and provides strict protections for those already born with these traits, it still treats who and what they are as a disease.
It’s dehumanizing and demeaning. More than one X-men in “Uncanny X-men #1” makes that abundantly clear. They don’t see being a mutant as a disease any more than homosexuality, transsexuality, or dwarfism. The fact that there’s now a way to prevent this makes for an existential crisis with some pretty heavy implications for the real and fictional world.
In the world of Marvel comics, a world without mutants has its own set of issues, the least of which would be the loss of a top-selling comic series. In the real world, though, the stakes are even higher. What would we, as a society, do if we suddenly had the tools to prevent homosexuality, transsexuality, and dwarfism in children before they’re even born?
I’ll even ask a more controversial question that’s sure to draw plenty of ire. What if those same tools could be used to modify the skin color, facial features, and overall appearance of our children? We already understand how genetics affects our appearance to some extent. What happens when we’re able to determine that for someone before they’re ever born?
These are objectively distressing questions. I’m glad “Uncanny X-men #1” dared to ask them. I doubt they’ll get debated or resolved completely in the proceeding issues, mostly because such resolutions are impossible in superhero comics. It still presents the X-men with a unique issue to confront and one that we will likely have to confront in the real world.
As is often the case with difficult questions, the answers are likely to anger some and distress many. Most people genuinely and sincerely want what’s best for their children. In the world of Marvel Comics, that could mean preventing them from gaining the kind of superpowers that makes them targets for Sentinels. In the real world, that could mean removing an entire class of people from the gene pool.
In issues like this, there are no heroes or villains. There are just difficult choices that we must make before someone else makes them for us.
What makes a character cute?
That’s a not an empty question. It’s one that movie studios, TV networks, toy makers, and novelists attempt to answer every day. I’m not just talking about the ones affiliated with Disney, either. While the House of Mouse is legendary for crafting a winning formula for the creation of all things cute and lovable, it’s worth breaking down the components.
Understanding them isn’t just important for creating likable characters. It can be pretty damn lucrative too. Just look at the merchandise sales for “Frozen.” Cute, adorable characters sell. They sell a lot. Plenty has been written about the cuteness of characters created by Disney, Fox, and a multitude of Japanese anime. However, I’d like to single out one particularly adorable character.
As it just so happens, this character is from the world of superhero comics. Specifically, she’s from the X-men comics. If you’ve followed this website for any length of time, this shouldn’t surprise you in the slightest. I promise this isn’t just another love letter to the X-men like the many I’ve crafted before. This is an exploration of a character who forged a unique path to cuteness.
Her name is Gabrielle “Gabby” Kinney, also known as Honey Badger. You probably haven’t heard of her because, in the context of Marvel’s vast history, she’s very new. She has only been around for about three years. In that time, though, she’s done plenty to make her mark on the world.
Think of the cutest characters you’ve ever known. Whether it’s a talking animal, a princess, or a boy band, take a moment to contemplate all the traits that make them cute. From their looks, their personality, their story, and everything in between, think about qualities that make them so adorable.
Without hesitation, I can say Gabby has all those qualities, as well as a few you didn’t know could be so adorable in the first place.
That may sound like a bold claim, but it’s true. After reading every issue of All-New Wolverine, I genuinely believe that she has raised the bar for cuteness for any character, both within superhero comics and in the real world. To appreciate why her story is so remarkable, it’s necessary to know some key details about her backstory.
On paper, she doesn’t come off as the kind of character who can be overly cute. She’s a clone of Laura “X-23” Kinney, who herself is a partial clone of Wolverine. Given the number of clone-based character in comics, including a few who are notably infamous, she doesn’t have a lot going for her at first.
That changes quickly after she’s introduced. She’s actually one of three clones from Laura, but she ends up being the one who makes the greatest impression and not just because she doesn’t go evil, which tends to happen a lot with clones in comics.
From the beginning, Gabby sets herself apart as being the more upbeat, bubbly clone of the bunch. She’s not overly angry or vindictive. She isn’t even that bothered by the fact that she’s a clone. It helps that she’s just a kid, but it also helps that this has never been hidden from her. She knows what she is and doesn’t whine about it. That, alone, makes her more mature than the majority of adult heroes, even the non-clone ones.
She even has a sense of humor about it. She doesn’t take herself too seriously. She doesn’t get too uptight in tense situations, either. That even includes dangerous situations that involve dragons, zombie animals, and alien parasitic bugs. Gabby sees the world through a rose-colored lens, regardless of how ugly it is, and this is the key to what makes her so adorable.
Whether she’s helping Laura battle Sentinels or caring for a pet wolverine, Gabby always finds a reason to smile. She’ll always look for the lighter side of a complicated situation and help others see it. That sort of thing is becoming increasingly precious in today’s overly-cynical world, but it’s especially powerful in the world of superhero comics.
The very premise of any world involving superheroes requires that the world contain the kinds of chaos that can’t be contained with extra police and stiffer fines. In Gabby’s case, she inhabits a world full of evil organizations like Hydra, shape-shifting aliens like the Skrulls, and actual devil-like creatures that go out of their way to ruin marriages between iconic characters.
The fact that Gabby can lighten the mood under those circumstances helps amplify her lovability. Make no mistake. She is disturbingly lovable. I say that as someone who was extremely sick of clone character at the time All-New Wolverine debuted in June 2015. However, the writer of All-New Wolverine, Tom Taylor, went the extra mile with Gabby.
It’s not just in the light-hearted jokes that she makes. It’s not just the fact that she’s a cute kid full of youthful innocence, despite having been cloned in a lab by assholes who wanted to make her a living weapon. Any character can just say goofy things and ignore the horrible crap going on around them. Where Gabby really shines is how she affects those around her.
From the moment she meets Laura to her first hilarious team-up with Deadpool, Gabby has a positive influence on pretty much everyone she meets. She doesn’t get scared or overwhelmed by any given situation, even those involving parasitic aliens. She never lets these situations destroy her child-like innocence.
That, in and of itself, sets her apart in a major way. In so many other stories involving cute characters, their innocence is treated like fine china. It’s easy to crack, easy to taint, and irreparable when damaged. More often than not, a big part of a plot surrounding cute characters is how they become corrupted.
Tom Taylor basically turns that narrative upside down. Rather than build the story around how Gabby loses her innocence, he essentially surrounds her innocence in an adamantium shell that’s every bit as unbreakable as Wolverine’s claws.
This is critical to what makes Gabby uniquely cute, but it’s also important to the presence she brings to the X-men comics and the larger Marvel universe. Instead of having everyone try to protect her innocence, she basically has to shove her cuteness in their face and remind them that she doesn’t need protecting. In fact, they need her more than she needs them.
She gives them a reason to laugh and smile after Hydra has taken over the United States. She gives them a reason to feel good after the Red Skull comes back to life yet again to bring old-fashioned fascism to the world. She goes out of her way to be a positive presence on everyone she encounters. However, it’s her impact on Laura where her cuteness becomes genuinely endearing.
To appreciate why that matters, it’s worth recalling just how dark and brutal Laura’s story has been thus far. That story has closely followed that of her predecessor, Logan. She was born in a lab, subject to dehumanizing treatment, and turned into a living weapon. Unlike Gabby, she didn’t escape it until she’d committed soul-scarring atrocities, one of which included the death of her mother.
Since her introduction in the memorable, yet underrated “X-men Evolution” cartoon of the early 2000s, Laura has personified a worst-case-scenario for a cloned character. Her life, her story, and her personality are driven by loss, anger, and sorrow. Then, Gabby comes along and suddenly, there’s a light in her life.
Gabby is like a breath of fresh air to someone who has only been breathing smog for all their life. She’s like a hot shower after spending 4 hours shoveling snow in a blizzard. She provides an overdue balance to long-suffering characters like Laura that it’s more than just refreshing. It’s cathartic.
Gabby helps give Laura and her story something that benefits them both. She creates an outlet from the endless string of tragedies that plague the Marvel universe and the real world. She dares Laura and those following her story to not let all that ugliness destroy all that is good and pure. A cloud of darkness doesn’t have to cover the entire sky. There’s always room for a ray of light.
Gabby is that ray of light. Cute, adorable characters tend to shine brighter than most. That’s what gives them such a powerful presence. Whether it’s in a Disney movie or a superhero comic, they illuminate the darkness and make the characters around them do more than just lament. The fact that Gabby does all of this and cares for a pet Wolverine makes her a special kind of cute.
Who doesn’t enjoy a good revenge story? That’s not a rhetorical question. I’m dead serious. Is there anyone out there who isn’t enamored with a story about sweet, bloody revenge? I know the success of movies like “John Wick” and the iconic status of Batman do plenty to answer that question.
The question is still worth asking because the answer says just as much about the appeal of stories about forgiveness. To some extent, it shows that forgiveness isn’t as sexy as revenge. A revenge story can be bloody, action-packed, exciting, and cathartic. Almost every moment in “John Wick” and every issue of the Punisher is like that. It’s not hard to see why that is the basis of so many movies, TV shows, comics, and video games.
That’s not to say that a story about forgiveness can’t have appeal as well. It most certainly can. Forgiveness may not offer the same spectacle as revenge, but it can incur a uniquely powerful emotional impact. There’s a reason why forgiveness has been shown to have therapeutic effects and was the basis of a major religion.
This brings me to a very special comic book entitled “X-men Red Annual #1.” Yes, I am going to tie this powerful human experience to a comic book. No, I’m not going to apologize for it. If you’ve had a chance to read this comic, you’ll understand why.
It’s been a while since I singled out a specific comic that I believe conveys a much larger message, but sometimes a comic comes along at just the right time and strikes just the right emotional chords. This one does all that and so much more, especially for a die-hard X-men fan like me. However, it’s the forgiveness themes I want to focus on here.
Without spoiling too much about the comic itself, which I encourage everyone to go out and buy, it’s important to establish the circumstances that make those themes work here. Those circumstances revolve around Jean Grey, a character who is no stranger to death, resurrection, love triangles, and clones. Even by superhero standards, she deals with a lot of emotional baggage.
Until recently, though, she didn’t have to deal with any, largely because she was dead. From 2004 until earlier this year, Jean was among the numerous superheroes who were “officially dead.” I put that in quotes because “dead” in the world of comics tends to have a pretty loose meaning, well past the point of absurdity. The fact that Jean Grey stayed dead for that long is, in and of itself, pretty remarkable.
However, it was never a matter of if she would return from the dead or even whether Marvel would resort to time travel to replace her. It was only ever a matter of when. Her return was bound to have a huge impact on the X-men and the entire world of Marvel comics. “X-men Red Annual #1” simply built a story around it and it’s a damn good one.
It unfolds mere moments after Jean officially comes back to life again on the final page of “Phoenix Resurrection #5.” That moment, in and of itself, is full of emotions that writer, Tom Taylor, captures beautifully. It provides insights into Jean’s thoughts, feelings, and emotions at that moment. It’s a lot to take in, but in addition to the joy, there’s also a heavy bit of sorrow thrown in.
In a sense, Jean Grey picked a lousy time to come back to life. She’s coming into a world where her mentor, Charles Xavier, is dead. Her best friend and occasional love interest, Wolverine, is also dead, although that’s already changing. Most painful, though, is that her husband, Cyclops, is dead due to the events that unfolded in a series aptly named Death of X.
These are people near and dear to Jean Grey. She’s not the kind of character who just brushes off that kind of loss, hardens her heart, and moves forward. She’s someone who wears her emotions on her sleeve and does it with pride. It’s part of what makes her such a lovable, endearing character. Sure, those passions attract destructive cosmic forces every now and then, but she makes it one of her strengths.
As she reconnects with those who’ve sorely missed her, she has an opportunity to confront the one most responsible for her husband’s death, namely Black Bolt of the Inhuman royal family. While Cyclops’ death was largely an accident, he’s still the one whose decisions ended up killing him and many other innocent mutants. For that, Jean has many reasons to hunt Black Bolt down and make him pay.
Had she gone that route, I don’t think anyone would’ve blamed her. Hell, some within the X-men would’ve gladly fought by her side, including a few who hate her guts. Accident or not, Black Bolt killed her husband by doing what he did. There’s no way around that. She has every possible excuse to channel her inner John Wick.
However, that’s not what happens. Yes, she still assembles a team of X-men to confront Black Bolt and the Inhumans. Yes, she has a very tense exchange with Black Bolt. What she doesn’t do, though, is seek vengeance for her husband’s death. Instead, she seeks forgiveness and that ends up being far more powerful.
Think about the mentality it takes to forgive someone like that. Imagine you knew there was someone responsible for the death of a loved one. Even if it was an accident or unintentional, chances are your first inclination wouldn’t be to forgive them. More than likely, you would rather see them suffer and pay for their crime.
Even if that person ends up going to jail or is held legally liable for your loved one’s death, you’re still going to resent them. They took the life of someone you loved and, assuming you’re not in a world where people regularly come back from the dead, you can never get back what you’ve lost.
That feeling would be even more intense if the person responsible never faces consequences for what they did. In the case of Black Blot, he didn’t face any repercussions for killing Cyclops. He wasn’t charged with murder or even for involuntary manslaughter. In fact, Cyclops becomes vilified for a while.
If anyone would be motivated to pursue retributive justice, it’s Jean Grey. She even has the perfect opportunity to do so when she fights her way towards Black Blot. At one point, she uses her telepathy to show him just how much she loved Cyclops and how much losing him hurt. She even admits she could make him feel some of that pain, if only to let him know why he deserves punishment.
She doesn’t do that, though. She doesn’t attempt to impart her pain onto him. What she ends up doing is much more heartfelt and meaningful. She gives Black Bolt a chance to offer genuine, sincere remorse for his role in Cyclops’ death. He ends up taking that chance. He apologizes for what he did and, more importantly, Jean accepts it.
For a woman confronting a man responsible for her husband’s death, even if she is a comic book character, it’s a pretty powerful moment. It’s one that carries a unique emotional weight that you wouldn’t otherwise get if Jean had just shot him in the head with a 44 magnum. It very much reflects the power of forgiveness.
It’s the kind of heart that is exceedingly rare outside of Superman comics. At a time when we expect our superheroes to be edgy and tough, Jean Grey offers a very different approach in “X-men Red Annual #1.” It’s one that Tom Taylor uses to full effect, reaffirming Jean’s incredible capacity for love and compassion. It’s an approach that feels refreshing in an era of superhero civil wars.
It also reminds us that while vengeance may still be more appealing to our most basic instincts, it’s also incomplete at times. No matter how many criminals the Punisher kills or how many villains that Batman beats up, their loved ones are still dead. The pain continues and so too does the struggle. Forgiveness, on the other hand, offers a way forward.
Jean Grey feels the pain of loss like anyone else. She also has the choice to seek retribution or forgiveness. Forgiveness is, by far, a much harder recourse because it means accepting painful circumstances and even a certain level of injustice. Given how most of us are wired with an innate sense of justice, such acceptance seems untenable.
That’s what makes forgiveness so hard, but that’s also what makes it more impactful. Rather than focus on making Black Bolt pay for her husband’s death, Jean chooses to channel that pain into something positive. The very end of “X-men Red Annual #1” has her acknowledging how much it hurts losing her husband, but it also shows how this pain has inspired her.
Jean Grey is, essentially, doing the most heroic thing a superhero can do and it doesn’t even involve her powers. She decides to forgive the transgression that killed her husband and chooses to use that pain as motivation to make the world around her better. It’s still not as big a spectacle as watching John Wick kill 77 people over a dog, but it’s more dramatic for all the right reasons.