Comics

Bringing Up the X-Baby: X-Men (2013) #1

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X-Men (2013) #1

Dear Readers, a confession: I’ve read a lot of comic books in my life, but only a very small percentage of them were X-Men titles. Still, I’ve been enthusiastic about the new all-female X-Men team since its announcement. A flagship title celebrating its female characters by focusing the spotlight on them? Huzzah, it’s the era of the female superhero! Huzzah, women depicted as not only individually interesting and complex, but collectively strong as well! Huzzah, the main cast includes two women of color!

WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW THIS POINT.

Even more encouraging, the book is simply X-Men. Not X-Men Divas or X-Men Gals or some other marginally troubling title that makes sure everyone knows this is a book! about! women!, just in case some hapless comic shop frequenter feels cheated out of his Cyclops or Wolverine. The women are allowed to bear the title of X-Men, no qualifiers needed, and to me that is very exciting. Still, as a long time comic book reader, I was afraid to let my hopes rise too high. Many times I’ve been excited about a female-led book, only to be given characterization that amounted to “cleavage” or some truly offensive costume choices. Equally annoying, women are often simply characterized as “strong”, a potentially problematic connotation Sophia McDougall recently addressed. So it was with anticipation and trepidation that I opened X-Men, and I admit that with every page turn I waited for the heaving bosoms, catty squabbling over a boyfriend, or bland, nondescript “strength”.

I am happy to report that X-Men #1 avoided all of these, though not without a small eyebrow raise or two along the way. The story itself is fast-paced and action-filled, providing twenty pages of superhero excitement while remaining light and fun. From the first sentence author Brian Wood ties relationships and world threats together and never loses that connection. A familial relationship gone sour could end the world, yet a familial relationship — in this case, the families you create — could save it. It’s an interesting idea, and one to which most readers can probably relate.

Olivier Coipel’s art is, as always, dynamic and fluid. The characters look distinctive, though their faces could be more unique. Additionally, sometimes the action is a little tight for Coipel’s style: several tiny boxes of trains derailing and Kitty phasing lose some punch when so small and placed on an already busy page. Laura Martin’s colors are also a little dull at times. Kudos must also be given to Coipel for avoiding the hyper-sexualization that so often accompanies female superheroes. The women are consistently posed in stances fitting for characters that have fought battles, lost friends, and celebrated victories. Yes, Psylocke sits on the cover with legs splayed, a sword poised between her thighs — but is she sexualized or daring anyone who draws too near? I personally found myself thinking the latter. I was not disappointed in the primarily female cast.

The team members, consisting of Storm, Kitty Pryde, Jubilee, Psylocke, Rogue, and whatever name Rachel Summers/Grey is using at the moment, are physically and emotionally complex. Furthermore, they are all smart and capable, but in unique, distinct ways. Initially I was afraid we’d get six women all strong in the same way, as many authors seem unable to imagine that female characters are different from each other, yet all equally courageous. Thankfully, instead each woman has strengths and limitations, as well as individual, developed personalities that reflect past characterizations. It was also great to see Storm, a woman of color, taking an active leadership role on the team.

Perhaps most impressively, the fact these are women teaming up and kicking butt has yet to be addressed within the story itself. There are no faux-slogans of empowerment, carefully crafted by men who think they know what female readers want to hear. There is no specific attention within the story brought to the “novelty” of their gender because it does not matter. They’re six women, but above all they’re six heroes.

Classic X-Men nemesis Sublime is notably the only major male cast member so far. He serves mainly to bring the threat to the team, and his presence and mission provide a good foil for the leads. Though I raise an eyebrow at Wood’s choice to make the first villain in an all-female book also a woman, Sublime’s sister Areka could prove to be a formidable foe. And yes, okay, I do wonder how a sentient bacterium that infects and controls technology can also infect and control humans. But let’s face it, if I wasn’t willing to stretch my imagination for a superhero book I wouldn’t have subjected myself to this genre for so many years.

However, despite all these strides, Wood wastes no time playing the age-old trope of women and maternity.

Jubilee find maturity through a random baby.

Jubilee finds maturity through a random baby.

The reader is told that before the story begins Jubilee, the once bubble-gum popping teenage “mall rat” member of the X-Men, rescued and started caring for a baby boy. Now, this isn’t done badly: the baby serves an important plot role, at least initially. What concerns me is how conspicuous it is to place a baby and the attached trope of “sassy sometimes flighty lady developing maternal feelings” immediately in a book about women.

The problem isn’t that some women don’t embrace maternity; it is that it’s not a universal feeling and yet it’s often treated as a universal story element by male authors writing about women. Women and the babies they develop affection for are constantly used, typically as a shorthand for female maturity. Need to make a female character learn a lesson quickly? Need a career woman to settle down and realize what’s “important” in life? Need a story about a woman but don’t have time to give it much thought? Give her a baby. Suddenly she blossoms into a caring individual who wipes snotty noses and lifts cars off children because deep down she really just wanted a little baby to rock to sleep. It’s almost as ubiquitous as the admittedly far more frustrating tropes of sexual assault and spurned love.

That being said, I’m interested in where Wood will take Jubliee-and-Baby. If the first issue is any indication I don’t doubt that it will be fun. But I do find it beyond frustrating that once again, despite the strides this title makes, we must sit through Yet Another Woman and Baby Story. Was there no other way to accomplish what Wood set out to do? Is “baby” the only way to both return Jubilee to the X-Men fold and unleash an appropriate world-ending threat worthy of the team’s attention?

Still, the first issue of X-Men is a good read. While I admit to side-eyeing the baby plot, I can’t wait to see where it ends up. Above all, I am genuinely happy that Wood and Coipel offer a celebration of complex women and female friendships.

Writer, knitter, firebrand. Likes superheroes, cats, and changing the world.

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