(Re)Read Hickman’s X-Men: Fleeting Glimpses & Fragmented Machinations – Marauders #7-9; Giant-Size Magneto

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Stefano Caselli on pencils and inks for Marauders #7-8—what a treat! Especially after the inconsistencies of issue #6, the most critical of the series so far. I only wish he was the title’s main artist, but he was runner-up at least and has drawn other X titles, most recently Inferno #2.

Related:

Hickman X-Men Reading Order

Krakin’ Krakoa!

More in this series!

Story-wise, however, the three issues under discussion feel inconsistent and like Duggan has been pantsing it (flying by the seat of his pants), threaded together by the mystery of Kate’s death (and failed resurrections) and, in the background, Homines Verendi badness. But the villains as presented don’t lend much urgency or even compelling momentum, at least for me. Shaw is certain to get his just deserts, and the likelihood of Fenris being a significant part of the plot always seemed unlikely—those two are simply too radioactive to get a spotlight. And indeed they never went anywhere in this book, except to say Shaw’s Black Knights provide a point of contrast with Callisto as Emma’s White Knight. But then even everyone’s favorite Morlock doesn’t get much from this book herself, except for issues #7 and #17, which is perhaps the title’s best issue under Duggan’s pen here.

Note that these issues likely take place before the (supposedly) Storm-centric Giant-Size one-shots* (which hadn’t yet been released), perhaps even prior to X-Men #5, where she was infected (off-panel, it appears) with the Children of the Vault-borne virus. However, in Marauders #8, Emma mentions in passing Magneto’s “secret island”—in reference to the then unpublished Giant-Size X-Men: Magneto.

In issue #9, we have the first official mention of HellfireGala.com, which at the time was a blank page, reflecting Jumbo and Emma’s ideas for the event at this early moment.

Since this is the closest we have to a prelude to Giant-Size X-Men: Magneto, which had to wait quite a while for the Hellfire Gala follow-up, we’ll go ahead and cover that oversized one-shot here. For all its length, it lacks the density of many a regular Dawn of X issue—like the other one-shots.

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(*Also, last time I forgot to acknowledge that the Giant-Size one-shots were initially supposed to be annuals, likely numbering more than five, but first marketing concerns and then editorial intervened, and thereafter everything snowballed into an imperfect compromise solution. All that acknowledged, does that excuse their faults as individual chapters in a larger story? Of course not—though how the sausage does or doesn’t get made can certainly create further reader interest!)

I. “From Emma, With Love”

(riffing off the 1963 Bond adventure From Russia, With Love? But if there’s pastiche or homage here, I’m not sure where it is)

A. Opening Data Page on the Atrocious Homines Verendi

Using ordinary people as pawns in geopolitical jockeying is nothing new, but it’s a nice touch of realism for a Big 2 comic like Marauders to point to a realistically thought-out scenario for which there are unfortunately plenty of real-world analogues (like, for example, the way the Belarussian state is currently manipulating Kurdish Iraqi migrants to easily travel to Belarus and then escorting them to the Polish border simply to manufacture a crisis to make the EU look bad—this is utterly evil and sadistic but sadly real). Here, with Marauders #7, it’s Homines Verendi (the erstwhile Hellfire kids, the disgustingly rich brats who were staple villains of the Jason Aaron era of post-Schism X-Men) planning to switch out a boatload of drugs from Krakoa with poison, just to make the new mutant nation look bad. Wealthy elites desperate to maintain the status quo of their elite status and power will do anything to make other people look bad just to deflect attention from their own corruption and score brownie points with other powerful sociopaths.

But Captain Kate Pryde sure won’t let that slide!

Or—she wouldn’t … if she were alive ☹

B. Callisto & Jumbo Are Back

One’s still depowered, fifteen years from M-Day; the other’s back from the dead after seventeen.

The first scene here actually takes place during the tragic events of Marauders #6.

Plenty of hilarious Emma moments, though, this time with Callisto as dryly obstinate jousting partner, with Jumbo Carnation in attendance—a surprising but satisfyingly inevitable return to life for this literal one-off but not so obscure* deep background figure from the Morrison era, New X-Men #134 to be exact, in which he died from a Kick overdose; this issue was the prelude to the classic “Riot at Xavier’s” arc, where he was also mentioned a few times as a high-profile fatality due to Kick, the aerosol form of a sentient bacterium named John Sublime, which sought world domination in self-declared competition with mutantkind.

Thankfully, Jumbo is done with all that nonsense and can now be in the spotlight next to Queen Emma.

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Emma’s repartee is delightfully dry.

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(The following speaks to Emma and Kate’s central conflict with Shaw throughout most this series.)

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And Callisto’s quick and dirty transformation of Jumbo’s couture is equally delightful.

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In return, Callisto gifts Jumbo one of her knives, though we don’t even really know what his powers are.

(*While a more recent issue of Marauders suggested Jumbo can be something of a brawler when necessary, I have to say I’m much more interested in actually seeing him visit the House of Carnation, a drag house established in memory of the deceased fashion designer in a brief anthology story in War of the Realms: War Scrolls #2 by Anthony Oliveira and Nick Robles and published a year before Marauders #7. Recently, it was reported in Duggan’s X-Men #1 that he did visit, causing something of a stir since he’d been believed dead for so long.)

Of course, knowing Callisto’s backstory adds to this scene’s richness—and this is certainly the best scene in this three-issue clutch. Gerry Duggan has Jumbo, who’s never met Callisto before, draw the connection between his passion for fashion and Callisto’s obscure past. Whatever Callisto’s pre-Callisto name, Duggan is the one who confirms Callisto as having been a fashion model before manifesting her mutancy and fleeing underground. It’s also rather thoughtful that mutantkind’s iconic designer refrains from identifying Callisto by her original, long since disavowed identity.

However, I’m assuming that Duggan isn’t having Jumbo refer here to Callisto’s brief time as a supermodel against her will after fellow Morlock Masque abducted and transformed her physically into her old human self (an unusual turnabout for him)—and had the young outcast Bliss sap her will with a kiss. Thus followed a period in which this very un-Callisto Callisto found herself, oddly, in a relationship with Colossus, who was, himself, amnesiac at the time. (See Uncanny X-Men #259-264.) But really who knows how far her sudden modeling career went in this period (until she was transformed back two years later) or which of her pasts she least enjoys looking back on.

At least Callisto takes Jumbo’s praise of her pre-Morlock identity in stride, adjusting his gift appropriately to fit the woman she’s been for most of her life now—and gifting him a souvenir of that post-runway life.

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[Uncanny #170 cover by Paul Smith and Bob Wiacek, 1983; this was her full debut after a first glimpse of the previous issue]

After debuting in Uncanny X-Men #169 (1983), Callisto appeared another half dozen times over two years before any kind of backstory for her was suggested, very briefly, in issue #191, in which Dani Moonstar telepathically projects into Callisto’s mind’s eye an image of herself as a refined beauty, a memory that then served only as a nightmare of the past and a present that only might’ve been.

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[art by John Romita, Jr., Dan Green, and Glynis Wein, née Oliver]

Over another 30 appearances and five years later, in Uncanny #259-260, there’s further suggestion of Callisto’s glamorous human past, which might’ve been cut short by a sexual assault, itself perhaps triggering her mutant awakening, as an act of self-defense. These possibilities are merely ambiguously suggested, visually.

In any case, she’s an excellent choice as Emma’s White Knight*, given Callisto’s mutant powers: superhuman senses embodied in a natural-born hunter, tracker, and street- and tunnel-fighting warrior. Unerring knife thrower and tactical genius Callisto met her match quite early on in the person of Storm—back in Uncanny #170 (pictured above), and perhaps my single favorite issue of Duggan’s Marauders is issue #17, a fierce loving rematch between the two warrior leaders.

But Callisto has been depowered since M-Day. Only in the later above-mentioned Marauders issue does her status quo finally change. Still, unlike the time Masque reshaped her, Wanda’s curse apparently didn’t take away Callisto’s fighting abilities, just her superhuman senses, it seems. Really, she didn’t change greatly compared to other affected mutants.

(*Notably, this is the first time we’ve ever heard of the Hellfire Club having a Knight title of any kind.)

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It was in Uncanny #170 that Storm dueled with Callisto for leadership of the Morlocks—mutant outcasts living in the sewers of New York (which we’ll get into below)—in order to free Kitty from their clutches. (Storm had even been lethally infected by the Morlock Plague to even the odds; interestingly, very recently Al Ewing in S.W.O.R.D. had a similarly ailing Storm duel endlessly, like a goddess, on Arakko.)

The pair reunite, as seen above, on Island M (the Bermuda Triangle), our first post-HOX/POX view of Magneto’s secret island base back in 1981, starting with Uncanny #147. Now, it’s a Marauders landing, clandestine as well—though the CIA’s X-Desk is aware of their use of it. (It’s nice to see Pyro acknowledge what a queen Storm is.) Of course, courtesy of Yellowjacket in Pyro’s bloodstream, Verendi is capturing all of this—and so they plan to sabotage Bishop’s return to Madripoor as he searches for Kate.

C. Feckless Verendi Games & Bishop’s Long Comeback

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Of course, it all goes south for Manuel this issue and for Yellowjacket in two issues; the latter subplot perhaps wraps up too quickly with no consequences.

However, we next pick up another subplot with the first post-HOX/POX appearance of Natalia Vollock, the Russian ambassador, who’s here trading Russia’s power-dampening armor from the first Marauders arc in exchange for Verendi’s closely guarded intel.

But this subplot is dropped after issue #10, which sees the destruction of that armor en route to Madripoor. It’s that issue’s centerpiece, but the power-dampener and Verendi/Russia intrigue end there.

Bishop gets a dope scene taking the fight back to Madripoor, kicking ass and then disguising himself as security to get aboard an armored Verendi-chartered salvage ship bound for international waters—to salvage a Verendi ship, the one aboard which Kate died, as we’ll discover next issue.

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This is Bishop time—not enough of it yet—the beginning of his redemption from a mass murderer, which, frankly, we should just discount as an alien aberration that took him over, leaving Bishop entirely unaware. Why? Because it was purely a character assassination courtesy of editorial during Messiah Complex. And everything about it was completely out of character; somebody must’ve thought it would be funny if he was the reason the X-Men died in the murky past of his alternate-future home era—becoming the nightmare he’d long been hunting, time-traveling backward in search of the X-Men’s killer (see his early appearances)—though at one point, the traitor he whose identity he was determined to uncover was allegedly revealed to be Onslaught—yikes! So, yeah, that’s right: DWAI (don’t worry about it).

D. The Morlocks Living It Up in a Southwest Retirement Community

In the meantime, what an absolute comic surprise to see Callisto tracking down her fellow Morlock Masque to a golf course in Rio Verde, Arizona, a small wealthy Scottsdale suburb and one of the whitest in the US. And everyone knows how welcoming Southwest retirement communities are to outsiders, right? 😉

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But wait, isn’t this the guy I was bad-mouthing earlier?

While his grey pallor looks pretty deathly here, this is actually the best the Morlock known only as Masque has ever looked! Well, actually, there was the time where he briefly took on the body of Marilyn Monroe, back in Claremont’s X-Treme X-Men #38-39—which involved him claiming ownership of Storm. So, yeah, pretty bad dude here.

A misunderstood villain? His mutant powers lend themselves to horrific temptations: Reshaping flesh at will with a touch of his hands. He’s very much tended toward torturing and maiming even though he’s equally capable of shaping a body, particularly faces, into works of beauty. However, on-panel he’s often restored his victims to their original appearance. Only with the abovementioned X-Treme X-Men arc was he able to change his own shape with his powers, and though his Marilyn look was brief, he now looks quite different from how he first appeared in Uncanny #170. Apparently, his ability to reshape himself was a mutation triggered by Shatterstar running him through with a sword in 1992’s X-Force #9, which had only apparently killed him, though he didn’t resurface for another 12 years, with Claremont’s X-Treme X-Men #38.

At the very least, the fact that Callisto can remain chummy with him now must have some backstory we just haven’t seen yet—and I can’t imagine Duggan didn’t realize the complicated contrast he’s making here between Emma and Shaw on the one hand and Callisto and Masque on the other; the focal point of this comparison implicitly comes to the fore when Callisto confuses Emma’s feminist declaration for a judgment of speciesism. And then we find that the Morlocks are living in luxury among humans, not on Krakoa, and someone as despicable as Masque has a chance that Shaw never will, at making peace and amends and maybe even at being happy enough. Masque, who has a clear history of sadistic abuse and violent mania, gets a redemption arc, albeit in the background. But I think we’re to understand him as a Morlock, someone who was thoroughly shaped by being cast out of the human community, a reality all their people will always share with one another. It’s Shaw, though, who fits the classic pattern of a well-heeled cis-het abuser, and it’s his time that’s over. Plus, he really is more of a bastard.

Still, reading Masque’s early appearances, in which he surely traumatizes a kidnapped Kitty, is as horrifying as it is fun because it’s so camp—terrifying her with gruesome transformations of her face while foisting her into a (thankfully aborted) marriage ceremony with fellow hapless Morlock Caliban. Meanwhile, Shaw just straight up kills her. They both read awful in different ways, and Masque is too..

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