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2020’s best epic was the X-Men’s struggle to build a better world

2020’s best epic was the X-Men’s struggle to build a better world


In honor of the best superheroes for hard times

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Image: Marvel

For the first time in what feels like ages, the entertainment I looked forward to most was a handful of monthly comic books about the X-Men. Week after week this fall — a time absolutely lousy with great books, movies, TV, and video games — what I really wanted most was to pour over words and pictures about Marvel Comics’ deep roster of mutants, and a story about them unlike any I’ve seen before. 

It can’t be understated how bold and interesting X-Men comics are right now. Following a soft reboot in the twin 2019 miniseries written by Jonathan Hickman with art by R.B. Silva and Pepe Larraz, House of X and Powers of X (the best place to start reading), the mutants of the Marvel Universe have banded together to form the mutant nation of Krakoa. They have decided they are tired waiting for humanity at large to accept their existence and will instead build a place for themselves, whether or not humanity at large likes it.

“Did you honestly think that we were going to sit around forever and just take it?”

These mutants — former heroes of the X-Men superhero team and their former adversaries alike — have banded together on the terrain of a living island (also named Krakoa) to begin the messy business of building a nation. There is a new language, new rituals, new creeds — the building blocks of a culture are being made in real time. The results have been among the best comics of the year, full of political intrigue, love stories unfolding across millennia, and yeah, even a whole series (Maruaders by Gerry Duggan and a lineup of killer artists) about pirates. 

This messy, complicated new status quo is comics at its best, rich with possibility and things to daydream about. It even made a 22-part crossover — the absolute worst stunt that modern superhero comics love to pull — utterly compelling. X of Swords, as this crossover was called, swept this newfound nation into a magical struggle in an unknown world, as the X-Men were forced into a tournament where they had to fight challengers with swords. This was the premise that was supposed to fuel twenty-two whole comic books, and they absolutely did it, subverting every expectation about what a story like that could entail along the way.

Most of the fun of these comics comes from seeing how the wider world reacts to Krakoa’s existence, and some of the conflicts are wild. In one early X-Men story, Krakoa is invaded by an elderly trio of radical super-botanists named Hordeculture (seriously). In X-Men #4 — one of the first and very best comics released in 2020 — the leaders of Krakoa go to Davos and dress down the economic leaders of the world over dinner. In the more action-oriented X-Force, Krakoa is threatened by international black ops squads sent by people who see Krakoa as a ticking time bomb.

For this moment, they just feel like stories made for anyone curious enough to read them

But mostly, in a year full of news that was a nonstop assault for anyone but a few — mostly white, mostly wealthy — X-Men comics were a joy, simply because they’re a story about characters who, by definition (every big X-Men story must note how they are hated and feared), are always losing and finally showed them refusing to play the same broken game. 

“The world has told me that I was less when I knew that I was more,” Cyclops says, early on in House of X. “Did you honestly think that we were going to sit around forever and just take it?”

Part of what makes the X-Men endure is that there’s a certain malleability to the mutant metaphor. For years, fans and writers have compared the X-Men to the struggle for Civil Rights; more recently, the metaphor has been embraced as an exploration of queerness. No matter how you read them, if you’re from some kind of marginalized group, it’s easy to identify with the seemingly futile struggle of having to advocate for yourself and others in spaces hostile to you, spaces you should belong in if it weren’t for systemic injustices that have shut you out. I have tired of the fight for diversity in spaces that are only interested in the optics of diversity. There is something cathartic and beautiful in a story where Cyclops — the face of the X-Men for just about all 60 years of their existence — says we’re all done taking it. He’s found an answer he believes in, and he’s going to do the work to make it real. 

It also helps that, currently, the X-Men are a comics-only concern. Sure, they’re still owned by Disney and since The New Mutants came out this year, their previous film franchise is not even that far in the rearview. But they’re also not yet a slide on some presentation about the next four years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, at least for a little while. They’re not a reminder of their owner’s stranglehold on the wider entertainment industry. For this moment, they just feel like stories made for anyone curious enough to read them. Stories for people trying to find an answer that they believe in, to build a world they want to make real.