O. The Querent

Dawn of X was the first phase within the new Krakoan era established by the House of X / Powers of X event. It launched a host of new ongoing books at the beginning including Marauders, Excalibur, X-Force, New Mutants, and a new X-Men series along with more that would come later like Wolverine, Cable, Hellions, and X-Factor. Each book dealt with a number of different angles building the new world, new rules, new ways of doing things, until they came together for the first line wide crossover, X of Swords.

1. The Fool’s Journey

X of Swords is a strange magical beast with many heads. (Please see below for the full creative team.) It’s an extension of the era’s push into magic and the world-building of Otherworld. It’s an expansion on the lore and personal history of Apocalypse. And it’s a fantasy adventure involving prophecy, the tarot, swashbuckling, betrayal, and an incredibly absurd tournament.

It also represents a capsule of both the micro and macro approaches to storytelling that were inherent across the line. While there is some linear flow from chapter to chapter, each segment is given its own voice and purpose by the various creative teams. With spotlights given to characters’ continued journeys, exploration of different realms, and more.

To say that the Krakoan era of Marvel’s mutants was ambitious is an understatement. It was a sea change. With the new ideas and new status quo, it also introduced a more cohesive way of reading the stories, writers sharing ideas, plots running across titles. Something in New Mutants might finish in X-Men. Or the shockwave of Xavier’s assassination being felt across everything out of X-Force. Normally with many of my recommendations, I try to spotlight things you can just jump into a start reading. That’s not really the case with X of Swords.

Even with the inclusion of X-Men #12 as a prelude in the collection, you’re missing a number of “Path to…” stories beforehand. You’ll definitely be better informed through reading them, but the one thing that I think is integral to the enjoyment of the event is reading through Excalibur. All of the Krakoan era volume. It’s a kind of fragmented gestalt storytelling, even more than comics’ old school episodic serialized format.

2. Ten of Swords
Do I look like a player of games?”

From the beginning with House of X / Powers of X, things were not always as they seemed. An event would occur that made us think one thing, then we’d see a greater context and the meaning would change. Things would cycle. Words would have more than one meaning. Like X of Swords itself. It can be the letter, but it’s also again used as the Roman numeral. Ten of Swords.

We get the introduction to the mutants of Arakko, the sister island split off from Krakoa ages ago, and a reading of the tarot from Saturnyne at the beginning of the crossover. Establishing the conflict, building out Otherworld, and setting up the namesake of the crossover.

The first half of the event is largely concerned with the acquiring of the ten swords for Krakoa (eagle-eyed folks will realize that there are eleven for Arakko. And that the prophecy is being told to two people who are or have been the Horseman Pestilence). The thought and detail that goes into the mythology of the swords are fascinating.

As is the reorganization of Otherworld with new and changed rulers. The world-building overall is quite impressive. While some of it continues in Excalibur, it feels like a missed opportunity that Marvel didn’t do even more with the new landscape developed here.

3. The Hanged Man
Our sins find us out, Apocalypse.”

One of the things that I found most interesting about the Krakoan era was the inclusion of villains. That Krakoa was for all mutants. Not just characters that straddled an anti-hero structure or gone through a redemption arc. That is, not just people like Magneto, Mystique, Deadpool, Emma Frost, and the like. But actual villains. I mean, Krakoa itself was an antagonist, but there were folks like Emplate, Sinister, Exodus, and Selene showing up. And major baddie, Apocalypse.

Of all the villains, outside of maybe Mr. Sinister, Apocalypse was one of the most used during the early part of the Krakoan era. And developed in an intriguing way. He wasn’t trying to kill all of them. Wasn’t regularly testing them through combat and strife. Really wasn’t manipulating them, though you could decidedly say that he wasn’t always forthright with what he was doing. But he was an integral part of Excalibur and a force for the good of all mutants. It was…weird. But welcome. A very different approach to the character.

X of Swords was like catnip to Apocalypse fans. Certainly this one. As a new mythology was built that expanded on his history, gave him a family, and tied him further to the early days of mutantdom. The division of Okkara, the harsh landscape of Amenth, ancient wars, and old demons. It was fascinating. Along with the humanization through loss and sacrifice.

4. Ace of Wands

There are a lot of moving parts in any crossover, especially one that has 22 individual chapters. Not counting any prefatory material. Or the Handbook even. Yes, X of Swords had a supplemental Handbook with character biography. It was nice to see that brought back for the crossover. Sometimes that can make things feel disjointed, with numerous different cooks adding their ingredients and way of doing things. That never feels the case in X of Swords. Though there are a wide array of voices, the story is structured in a way that each shines as its own part of the whole.

Overall, the artwork through the crossover is stunning. Not a weak link to be found. It’s anchored by House of X artist Pepe Larraz handling much of the bookends, with Mahmud Asrar, Carmen Carnero, Stefano Caselli, and RB Silva also contributing a similar style throughout the series. But I’d say that there’s never an attempt to make everything look the same or have one style dominate. They’re joined by artists as diverse in style as Rod Reis, Leinil Francis Yu, Joshua Cassara, and Phil Noto. As well as Carlos Gomez, Viktor Bogdanovic, and Matteo Lolli each carving out their own segments through the story to fit the changing chapters.

I love Marte Gracia’s colour work over Larraz’s line art, though here too there’s a veritable army of great talent. Sunny Gho, Israel Silva, Matthew Wilson, Edgar Delgado, David Curiel, Nolan Woodard, Guru-eFX, and Rachelle Rosenberg imbue the pages with more beauty.

x of swords

With it all held together by the lettering work from Clayton Cowles, Joe Caramagna, Cory Petit, Ariana Maher, Travis Lanham, and Joe Sabino continuing the mixed case style developed first with HoX/PoX. And the design work from Tom Muller. Including those text pages that help define the overall look and feel for this era.

5. Adjustment
Resurrection services are offline until further notice.”

The second half of the crossover largely deals with the tournament itself, pitting the Krakoan swordbearers against the Arakkii.

Obviously since Krakoa had broken the mystery of resurrection, death would have meant little in the competition. So the writers changed the rules and put stakes back in the game. The resurrection protocols don’t work properly if you die in Otherworld. Since it’s a nexus of realities and possibilities, you die in Otherworld, you don’t come back “right” in the 616. It made things count again in battes to the death set out in the tournament.

Granted, the story is much more clever than just being simple battles. Things get weird. We get visions of a possible future where Arakko wins. And a whole lot of Annihilation.

6. The Veil of the Abyss
All right. We’re not doing that, then.”

x of swords

Amongst the quest for swords, world-building, and mutant on mutant tournaments, there’s a kind of side quest that goes on in Hellions #5 & 6 (Chapters 6 and 18 respectively). Zeb Wells, Carmen Carnero, David Curiel, and Ariana Maher send Sinister and his merry band of mutant misfits through to Otherworld for a bit of chicanery, trying to traverse to Arakko and steal their swords before the tournament can begin. At least, that’s the plan.

It’s funny because this sort of quest would have been perfect for a fantasy story. Especially one building up the new and reinterpreted lands of Otherworld. But it nearly skips that entirely. The first part is the group setting out. The second part jumps through all of the trials and defeats, Havok losing an eye even, to the end game at Arakko. It’s kind of hilarious.

There’s also something I found interesting here that I’m not sure is intentional. Magic, particularly hermetic magick, is big on correspondences. That there can be transitive properties or shared ideas between things, often discerned through practices like gematria (assigning a number to a word). While not one-to-one (some of the realms could be considered Qliphotic, while Blightspoke is practically the false sephirah of Da’ath), Otherworld can kind of be interpreted through the Hermetic Qabalah interpretation of the Tree of Life. Especially as tarot was already explicitly brought in to the story.

The Hellions are trying to basically storm the higher levels of the tree and steal wisdom. That almost never works out when people try the mystical version (depending on which tradition you happen to be following). The preparation, the cleansing, the death of the ego, and many other steps aren’t taken. And the results are disastrous.

X. The Future

There was a lot of promise in the early days of the Krakoan era. A bumpy road, to be sure, especially as we got hit with the pandemic and lockdowns that threatened to derail everything in real life, but there was really something special. A font of potential that seemed endless. I know that there was frustration with how some things played out, with threads that were dropped, with creators leaving, with how it all ended, but the magic that was breathed into the world is still glorious.

X of Swords is a masterful work that I feel captures the joy and limitless possibility of the early Krakoan era. A fantastic otherworldly adventure that adds an incredible amount of lore, depth, and story possibilities to the world as a whole. Outside of House of X / Powers of X itself, the crossover may well be the largest single expansion of new characters and new worlds at the time. With a story that also managed to upend expectations in a variety of ways.

X of Swords

Classic Comic Compendium: X OF SWORDS

X-Men: X of Swords
Writers: Jonathan Hickman, Tini Howard, Leah Williams, Benjamin Percy, Vita Ayala, Zeb Wells, Ed Brisson, & Gerry Duggan
Artists: Leinil Francis Yu, Pepe Larraz, Carlos Gomez, Viktor Bogdanovic, Matteo Lolli, Carmen Carnero, Rod Reis, Phil Noto, RB Silva, Mahmud Asrar, Stefano Caselli, & Joshua Cassara
Colourists: Sunny Gho, Marte Gracia, Israel Silva, Matthew Wilson, Edgar Delgado, David Curiel, Nolan Woodard, Guru-eFX, & Rachelle Rosenberg
Letterers: VC’s Clayton Cowles, Joe Caramagna, Cory Petit, Ariana Maher, Travis Lanham, & Joe Sabino
Design: Tom Muller
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Release Date: March 3 2021 (collection) | September 16 – November 25 2020 (original issues)

Read past entries in the Classic Comic Compendium!

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